A TRAITOR’S TALE
Previously: Wintertide on Summerfair
Themesong: The Blazing Saddles Theme from Blazing Saddles
Time is a bitch. It grinds all things down, even hope if you’re not careful about it. I’d been in the Verse for 17 years now, and my hope reserves were very small indeed. I was the Mayoress of a grand estate, a widow these past 3 and a half years, and left most of the day to day operations to Mistress Reynolds (as Inara was calling herself these days.) Zoe and Wash lived in town and Kaylee was foreman of the factory I’d built to turn out microformers, a personal habitat maintenance machine that would and could, depending on the model, do everything from lawn maintenance all the way up to automated farming. My home’s gardens were maintained by 6 of them and were a showpiece of luxury and design… though I also had a landscaper on staff… River was quite good at that.
Her brother was the chief of medicine at our local hospital, Malcolm was the Sheriff, and my little town was becoming more and more a city with each passing year. And yet, for all the hope of the future my people had, I… had none. Adventures had come and gone, come and gone, and yet the fifth and final key fragment had eluded me.
I’d almost had it in year 12, but it had vanished from an archeological dig on Namira, moon of the dwarf planet Ra Amiran in the White Star System… as had all the dig’s workers and professors… and the entire “alien” ruin had scrubbed from the face of creation by a KIW. The pictures I’d received showed Magi influence in the architecture… but even the contact who’d supplied me with the shots had ended up being run down in the street by an out of control horse and buggy less than a fortnight later.
Rumors of it had floated around for a couple of years, and I’d tracked them assiduously, but always fruitlessly. And then… the rumors stopped. Nothing. A cold trail for growing fury. So I’d begun planning for the long term, trying to make my people as safe as I could and just… waiting for the inevitable. I had no idea what would happen if I reached the end of my road here without finding the last fragment, but I figured that, worse come to worst, I could bargain the pieces I had for a hail mary… or a trip home at least. It wasn’t something I was at all thrilled with and my anger and frustration very never completely absent from my thoughts, though I tried not to let it show in the way I treated my people, allies, and friends.
I’ll never know, I suspect, if Mensarius (either through his own power or through the grudging assistance of the Banker) knocked something loose or not, but 17 years to the day we entered the Verse, a flash of data hit the cortex… an Alliance Blacksite just… pinged onto net, appearing with all its particulars… location, security, contents… everything. It was a prize worth taking and… on the list of contents was “Puzzle Cube, White, Glows softly, apparently unsolvable, recovered from alien archeological site on Namira.”
The reason I suspect manipulation was that I just so happened to be dining with Gaius on Highgate, 6th planet of the Blue Star system… and the black site was on the 6th moon of Blue Star’s 4th planet, the Gas Giant Fury… ominously named “Iscariot”. Iscariot wasn’t a populous place, only being home to about 24,000 people, and they were spread out across a number of small, isolated towns. The top secret vault was located 56 kilometers from the smallest of those, a tiny town known as “Ridge Rock”, inside a small rainforest valley with walls too steep to allow the moisture to do more than cycle endlessly.
According to the data dump, not only could we not land in the valley due to heavy cloud cover and the lack of a landing site that wasn’t ringed by anti-air defenses… but the entire valley was ringed by anti-air autocannons to prevent adventurous skydivers. The only way in was, apparently, a small rocky defile that had been used in the construction process some 10 years back.
Of course, I suspected a trap. I’m no idiot and this was too good a windfall to be accidental, but it was, ultimately, too good to pass up.
“This feels bizarre,” Velma commented as we lifted from Highgate. “Like something from another lifetime, like… one last ride for death or glory.”
“That’s because we’ve been undercover for so long,” Ryoga pointed out. “17 years of being… law abiding normals. It… It’s been a vacation, but not the best of one.”
Gaius nodded “A working vacation.”
Yoiko cracked her back and grumbled. “I feel old. I mean… hell… I am old. I’m almost 40!” Gaius rolled his eyes at her, and she just shrugged “I know, I know, you’ve been older, but I really haven’t. Aches and pains are just things old people complain about.
“Or martial artists.” Ryoga added.
“Naw. You have them, you just don’t complain about them. Pain is transitory to you weirdos.”
“Can we not talk about aging? This may be our last chance to get out of here before we… what’s the term? Forced retirement?” Gaius wrinkled his forehead, trying to think of the military lingo.
“Age Out.” Velma supplied.
“Ah. Yes. Before we Age Out. I doubt we’ll be doing any treasure hunting once we get into our 70s.”
Even though I’d been barely paying attention to the conversation, running through the details of landing zone and security setups, I flinched at the idea of being 70… in a human body.
Petra commented over the comms. “Personally, If we’re going to faint, I’d rather go down in the heat of a tourney than slide into the cold of final evolution.” Trust Pokemon to see death as one last unpredictable evolution.
“If I see that happening Rocky, I’ll try mashing B as fast as I can.”
“Good to know boss. Burn in 10. 9. 8…”
Bao’s ship may have been the fanciest, and Zane’s the best for smuggling, but none of them could beat Gaius’s for speed. High Speed transport was his bread and butter and few ships in the verse were faster than Invictus. As it was, we were the second ship to arrive and three more were closing in fast, but they were at least 4 hours back. More worrying was the ship already on the surface. It was a three man alliance pursuit craft, or had been, but this one was painted non-standard black and had no visible markings. It was locked down tight, but from all the signs it had been there for no more than 12 hours.
Fortunately for us, they’d been forced to go into town to get horses. Invictus had 3 high speed loader craft, each capable of bringing two riders. We’d have to leave them at the edge of the pass, but we could make up serious ground on the way.
“Kohina. Petra, Gaius. YOu stay here, protect the ship, be ready to get out in a hurry if it comes down to that. Velma, you ride with Metra on point. Hibiki’s you’re on droge. Caine, with me.”
“This feels wrong,” Gaius said.
“We should be riding horses too. Feels like cheating to ride hover speeders to the edge of the mountains.”
“Fine. Next time we’re trapped without powers we can ride horses.”
“Well, excuse me, princess.”
‘You’re not Link.”
Good horses are a wonderful thing, and we actually did have a couple in the warehouse. But the mortal horse, Sorrow, belonged to Joy and it seemed wrong to use her Chala without her around. The Nameless Horses only showed up when Joy and Ahab were around… and Fliagor was an Elven Horse and would be out of place even if I could bring him out, which seemed unlikely.
Regardless, within the hour we’d reached the edge of the mountains and begun the several mile long hike through the maintenance pass. We parked the hovercars next to the grazing steeds of our predecessors… who numbered 8 if the horses were any indication (some of whom had to be natives)… or had. We found the first one dead on a rockfall about a two kilometers in… and a second, also a native (if the leather pants were any indication), and also very dead, shot in the back only about 400 meters further in.
Thankfully, our way forward was pretty smooth, what with these idiots disabling the various security measures… usually with grenades or other percussive maintenance methods, and we’d made up at least 5 hours by the time we reached the edge of the jungle. The valley was only about 30 kilometers long and about 11 wide, and was choked with humidity and dense vegitation. Again, all we had to do was follow the path in. It was all too easy, though I was beginning to suspect our rivals were using the locals as slave labor and felt bad about profiting from their deaths… as we’d found the last three of them by the time we reached the far wall and the cave system the vault was, supposedly, located deep within. Each of them had suffered a mischief and would not be spending any of their promised reward.
This is not to say we’d emerged without a scratch either. Yoiko had been stung by several nasty wasps and Velma had been bitten by a snake… but our med station inside the warehouse still worked and they were back to fighting trim in minutes.
The cave mouth was mostly covered by lianas, but a path through had been hacked with machetes and That’s where we found the remaining trio… laying in wait. They opened fire as Caine stepped through the gap, his local armor doing little to stop the laser weaponry from punching through him. He went down hard, gasping in agony and cursing like a heretic about how Uriel’s curse had left him soft against pain.
The siblings shared a glance at each other, both of them having caught several blasts as well and looking pretty bad… and (as one) lobbed a pair of concussion grenades into the cave, followed by a smoke grenade and a sonic grenade a heartbeat later. The booms shook the trees behind us and the lainas were blasted to ruins by the shockwave. I tossed out a hover drone with heat scan to peer inside the cave, but all was stone cold or rapidly fading to it, besides the large warm slab of a metal vault door. They must be inside, using it to shield themselves.
“You can’t get out. THis is the only exit.” I shouted as Velma dragged Caine back into the warehouse while the siblings limped inside as well. It was just me and Meetra now.
“Yeah, well you can’t get in, whore.” I knew that voice. It was the voice of Kapashin Gol, the asshole who’d nearly killed Meetra a decade earlier, an unethical, morally bankrupt mercenary and treasure seeker. We’d tussled at least a dozen times over the last 17 years, though we’d never really talked. He seemed to have the worst habit of screwing me out of various prizes. Well, not this time.
“Gol… I’m only here for one thing. You can have the rest. Just toss out the puzzle cube and We’ll let you leave.”
“No chance bitch. This is payback.”
“Payback? For what? You’ve snaked prize after prize from my grasp… more than I’ve managed to do to you.”
“For my Mother, you piece of shit Browncoat Traitor.”
“Pretty sure I have no fucking clue what you’re on about, mate.”
“She was captain of one of the Alliance Destroyers you sicced those Reavers on.”
“Oh. Well, then she had it coming. Not going to appologize for that. Alliance caused the Reavers, it was their responsibility to clean them up.”
“Not in a god cursed Ambush!”
“Without that Ambush, the Alliance would have gone on pretending the Reavers didn’t exist for another damned decade at least. Killing colonies and raping and eating their way across the Verse. Someone had to do something. I did. But that’s not why you’re here. You want revenge, fine. I don’t care. I’m getting into that vault if I have to pack this cave with nukes and blow the whole mountain to smitherines. I’m not fucking around here.”
“Can’t do that! The cube’ll be toast if you do.”
“Cube wouldn’t even be scratched. You’ve got twenty seconds to decide.”
“Gol. I have been looking for that cube for 17 god damned years. I’ve lost friends and family and loved ones. You’ve got 15 god damned seconds to get out of my way or I’ll show you just how little patience I’ve got left. Ecology, fallout, repercussions be damned. I’m getting that cube, today.”
“You promise we can have the contents of the vault if we hand over the cube?”
“Yes! Gods curse your eyes.”
“Well, we got a problem then.”
“What’s that?” I ground my teeth.
“Cube’s locked in a deadlock. Can’t be opened unless someone goes in and presses a button. Can’t get them out as long as the cube’s not put back in. Pretty sure the box is a death trap and I’m not sending one of mine inside… and sure as shit not betting you’ll come in and volunteer.”
I grimaced… then looked to Meetra and sighed “You owe me your life. I’m calling in the debt. I don’t know as this will kill you. Don’t know what will happen if you die here. But if we’re ever going to get out of this…” I felt like scum. Sacrificing someone for a chance at victory… but if anyone would understand, it would be Meetra Surik, “Hero” of the Mandalorian War.
She looked to me, then nodded “It had to end this way, didn’t it?” I considered, then nodded. “Have faith. Maybe it’ll all turn out okay. She vanished into the cave and I commented “Gol! She’s not your hostage. You’re mine. I don’t care if any of you survive at this point. I want that cube.”
It was cold… colder than I’d ever been and I had to sell it with every ounce of my being… A task I found all too easy. I felt a crack of something inside me… a tiny trace of… something alien… but it faded without anything happening and a minute later, the cube came bouncing out of the cave entrance. I bent down to scoop it up, brushing some of the dirt off it and was only mildly surprised when The Operative and 50 Alliance commandos stepped out of the foliage as if they’d been waiting there the entire time.
The Operative nodded to me as I nodded to him. “We knew you’d come for it. Knew you’d be able to explain it.” I considered.
“You could have asked, Bart”
“Sheriff round these parts. Never mind. Go on.”
“We couldn’t trust you. You knew too much.”
“I do. You’re right. I’ve had motives beyond your knowledge from day one. You want to see what’s inside? See what the big secret is?”
He nodded slowly. “I do. Those in power had to resort to… extreme methods to convince me… but the evidence is compelling. You’re not human. You’re something alien. No one knows as much as you do… has contacts like you… is as good at so many things.”
I held out the cube. “Take it.”
“It’s not open yet.”
“You don’t want me opening it. I’ll tell you how to open it. Safer that way.”
He thought about that, then stepped forward, extending a hand to take the cube from my hand. I didn’t hold my breath, didn’t twitch, didn’t even blink too hard. He was expecting something to happen the moment he touched it. He was seconds too late. The moment he was within a circle 3 meters from me, the ground opened up beneath my feet… and then his, and we were inside the warehouse, the sound of gunfire cutting off as the ground sealed back up above / behind us. The punch Caine leveled at The Operative sent him spinning into a rack of gold bars and he could only blink as a dozen robomaids pinned him down. I didn’t spare him another glance.
“MENSARIUS!” I bellowed as I stood under the portal. “I’ve got your gods be fucked key! All of it this time!”
“Ah… Very good. Send it through.”
“Not a fucking chance in hell.”
“That wasn’t our deal.”
“You can’t be trusted to honor our deal.”
“Then we’re at an impasse.”
“No, we’re not. You release the Banker and I’ll hand over the key.”
“You can’t be trusted to honor that agreement. Nor can your banker.”
“Then we’re at an impasse.”
“Very well. I’ll send you a crate. Load the Key Fragments into the crate and lock it. Once I witness this action, I will release the Banker, then you can send the crate up to me.”
“What’s special about this crate?”
“Once it is sealed, it can only be opened by me.”
I considered. I’d seen no evidence he could call items sent through back to his side. If he could, he could probably take the fragments. “Alright. Send the crate.”
It arrived much as Mensarius’s VMoDoom had, but less destructively, being lowered on a rope like a cargo crate from a ship. It was a metallic box, big enough for the statue, and had a button clearly marked “SEAL”.
I loaded the statue and the knife and the rose and the cube, then considered the final piece, the one I’d never seen… then I grabbed the dufflebag from my Infamous jump, from long long ago, and zipped the thing into it.
“What are you doing?” Mensarius asked, annoyed.
“This is a CP backed container. Every part of it is bound by the Banker’s essence.” I tossed it into the crate. “I just wanted to make sure they didn’t decide to fuse into a single object on me.”
“Good. Fine. Whatever.” He sounded… frustrated. “Now close the crate and seal it.”
I closed it, and was about to press the button, then shook my head again “Naw.”
“Naw? NAW?! WHAT THE HELLFIRE DO YOU MEAN NAW!?”
“I think this is a positive action thing. If I do this… it’s allowing you to dictate something about me. It’s letting you inside me just a little. No. Send a space rock or something to lock it. I am not touching that button.” And then I summoned up chains to bind the crate to the warehouse floor. “Need me to get you a really long stick?”
His growl of frustrated anger was perfect. I had no idea if it was any such thing, but annoying Mensarius was definately worth it. A brick fell from the void and would have hit the button but I smacked it away with a broom handle.
“Now you’re just being a brat.”
“Total accident. Go on, do it again. I won’t stop it this time.” Of course I did.
“This is counter productive! You’re just wasting time now!”
“Awww… am I annoying the Quantum Entity? Poor Quantum Entity! Try a third time. I can’t possibly be-” He tried at that moment, but I swatted it away again. “This childish.” I finished as if I hadn’t been interrupted.
Bricks of non-antimatter… which had to be extremely taxing for Mensarius to make if his growing howls of rage were any indication… rained from the hole in my roof for the next three minutes. I finally missed one around the 120 mark and the crate clicked closed.
A moment later, the VMoDestiny pinged on and the Banker’s voice said, somewhat annoyed “Took you long enough. Fine… take your stupid key.” I released the chains and allowed the rope to retract the crate through the hole in the roof.
“I can’t believe you let yourself be… detained.” I accused.
“Call it a staff meeting. I can’t believe you took advantage like that! And you handed over the key without even knowing what it did!”
“No I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did! I saw you do it!”
“Mensarius can’t read my mind like you can.”
“So that means he couldn’t see inside my head and had to be using actual senses.”
I chuckled, pulling the haversack out of my pocket. “I put the last item inside the dufflebag to see if he could see through the bag itself. I figured it might block his senses. What he didn’t realize was the haversack was inside it already and I simply shrunk that into this subspace ring as I pulled my hand back out.”
“Oh… you… wicked… wicked creature.”
“Yeah, well… you’re welcome. Now give me back my friends and GET US THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!”
Next: World 51 Resumed