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Artifice: Episode Three Excerpt
“Well, at least we weren’t in the middle of anything this time,” John groaned, sitting up and trying to rub the weariness out of his eyes. “Except for actually sleeping, that is. You’re not expecting any more messengers with reports, are you?”
“No, and I’m not even sure what this could be about,” Venarya replied, “The dispatch earlier tonight had said that the siege of the Nebar Cluster had been broken, and that the Kierdan fleet was now in full retreat back across the ocean.”
“Hopefully they didn’t decide to turn back around and try a second time. What time is it, anyway?”
“About four hours to dawn,” Venarya replied, donning her robe. “Also, I think you’d best start changing while I go see who’s at the door. Unexpected news usually isn’t good news.”
“Hi there, Administrator Venarya. I’m really sorry to have to bother you again two nights in a row like this,” Kitam apologized, “but Admiral Ancor just pulled into the harbour, and boy did he have a panicked look on his face. He met with Fleet Admiral Krane, then sailed right back out again. Now, Fleet Admiral Krane is requesting that you, John, Intendant Yazril, and Director Rinard head over at once. He’s still on board Director Rinard’s Flagship, the Midnight Dawn. I volunteered to go get you two. I figured you’d rather be pulled out of bed by a friendly face.”
“Thanks, Kitam,” Venarya said, smiling reassuringly at the talkative Ranger. “I do appreciate the sentiment, if not the circumstances. Give me a few minutes to change, and I’ll go grab John as well.”
“I’m not sure what’s going on, but it can’t be good,” Kitam was chatting away as she escorted them. “I saw old Blarki before Admiral Ancor arrived. He was telling me about the other fishermen and himself seeing some strange flares in the sky. The last time that happened the Kierdans showed up, and now everyone near the fishing docks are all worked up. Poor old Blarki. He was trying to lodge a complaint with the city watch as well. He said some rascal had burnt his nets somehow. This is while they were still underwater, mind you. He said that what was left of the top part of his nets were all slick with some kind of gunky oil, plus there were a few floating patches of it nearby too. He says he thinks the Kierdans might have done it, but I don’t see how or why. He wouldn’t even tell me the exact location. Claims it’s some sort of trade secret or something, but he did say that he was a little more than half a dozen miles west of the Cluster. Still too close to the Kierdans if you ask me, but I guess he’s got a reputation to maintain.”
“I see,” John said, remembering Kitam mentioning the fisherman earlier.
Struggling to wake his mind up to engage Kitam in conversation, he was saved by Venarya saying, “Was Krane told about that? The burnt nets, I mean.”
“Yep,” Kitam replied. “I was there when Captain Stelson was talking to him earlier. I couldn’t hear everything, but Fleet Admiral Krane didn’t look too worried about it. More annoyed than anything, I’d say. I’m guessing that whatever caused it left with the Kierdans. Either way, poor old Blarki. I mean, he’s got the best fish around…”
As the Ranger continued to chat, John whispered to Venarya, “Didn’t that report earlier tonight mention something about us shooting flaming, oil-filled boats at the Kierdans?”
“Yes,” Venarya whispered back. “I think you’d better not mention that part to her.”
“Agreed,” he replied. Raising his voice, he interrupted Kitam, “So, now old Blarki’s got no fish to sell today?”
“Exactly!” Kitam replied. “And I don’t know how long it’ll take for him to get new nets. I guess I’ll have to settle for young Blarki’s fish for now. I mean, it’s not bad fish, but it’s just not the same. I do feel bad for old Blarki though-”
“Maybe you can see about getting them reconciled?” John quickly suggested. “This may just be a blessing in disguise for them.”
“How true! I never thought of it that way. I mean I could-”
“John. Venarya,” Krane nodded in greeting. “Sorry about the hour. Thanks for making it here on such short notice.”
“No need to apologize, Admiral,” Venarya said, as they entered the Captain’s cabin on the Midnight Dawn.
John looked around the room and saw that, save for a bearded man sitting at the table, they were the first ones to arrive. Unlike Rheus, however, the stranger’s neatly trimmed beard didn’t look like he just forgot that it existed a few decades ago.
“We’re just waiting for Intendant Yazril and the good Director to arrive,” Krane said. “In the meantime, I’ll make the introductions. This is, er, Captain Cordova. He’s in command of those ships that came to our aid and helped chase away those Kierdans.”
“Nice to meet you,” John said.
“You too, John,” Cordova grinned. “I’ve heard good things about you from Krane here.”
“Thanks, I hope I can live up to the legends,” John joked.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet our saviour,” Venarya smiled. “Though, I have to admit, you remind me of someone I used to know.”
“You don’t say, Lady Venarya?” the bearded man grinned in return.
“Indeed,” Venarya replied, her eyes narrowing but her face still keeping a faint look of amusement. “But, you couldn’t be him, as I distinctly remember attending his funeral. Don’t you agree, Admiral Petrarca?”
What in the world was going on now? His mind still foggy from lack of sleep, John kept silent.
“So much for your paper-thin disguise,” Krane murmured.
“John,” Venarya began, simultaneous notes of amusement and annoyance in her voice, “allow me to properly introduce you to Fleet Admiral Petrarca, Krane’s predecessor. He’s also supposed to be quite dead.”
“Pleasure to meet you, John,” the bearded man grinned. “I’ve heard good things about you from Krane here.”
“Funny, Petrarca,” Venarya said with a weary shake of her head. “Start explaining. Now.”
“Wow,” Petrarca laughed. “You used to be such a nice lady back in the old days. The truth of the matter is that I’m helping out with that little side project the old man has going on near the Tekavo Freehold.”
“That much I figured,” Venarya replied. “Now, before I arrange a real one for you, explain the fake death, Petrarca.”
“Not my idea, Venarya, I swear,” Petrarca laughed, his hands in the air. “The old man concocted this whole scheme, as you probably already suspect. It was part of one of his mad gambits, but that’s a long story for another less-stressed time. Just bask in relief at the fact that I’m still alive.”
“For now,” Venarya muttered. Shaking her head, she continued, “Fine, then. I’ll get the full story from you later. I’m assuming that Yazril and Rinard don’t know about you either?”
“Correct,” Petrarca confirmed. “Though, I did, for want of a better word, leave before Yazril first arrived here, and Rinard only briefly met me a couple of times in meetings with then-Director Daressi. I doubt he’d recognize me after this long.
“Even so, I’m not planning on keeping them in the dark,” he assured her with a grin. “I asked Krane to perform that little charade just in case you showed up first. I guess I’m sort of glad you remember me.”
“Thanks,” she said, her eyes speaking volumes, though Petrarca’s grin didn’t falter. “And, speaking of Daressi, I’m assuming her retirement involved heading up your little operation?”
“Correct again,” Petrarca said. “Like I said, it’s a long story, but I promise to get you up to speed as soon as this current crisis is over.”
“Wait a second,” Director Rinard said, a lack of sleep compounding his confusion. “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?”
“You want to check my pulse to make sure?” Petrarca asked, chuckling.
“What? No, I mean, um…” Rinard trailed off.
“We know what you mean,” Venarya said, throwing a semi-chiding look at Petrarca. “We can deal with his resurrection later. But, from what I understand, we’ve got another issue to deal with.”
“From what Admiral Ancor’s told me so far, issue might be a little bit of an understatement,” Krane sighed.
“How so?” Intendant Yazril queried. “Kierd again?”
“Not exactly,” Rinard began, “At least, it doesn’t appear to look that way-”
“It’s probably best I recount the story Ancor reported, then we can try to draw conclusions and theories,” Krane interrupted, “Here’s what he told me.”
“I swear, sir!” the flustered Captain blurted out. “It blasted Otelen’s ship clear out of the water from a mile away!”
Admiral Ancor had encountered Captain Gepaco’s ship making haste back to the Cluster. Together with Captain Otelen, his ship had been sent to scout the area to the south. Gepaco now stood on the deck of the Cat’s Eye, while Ancor tried to extract any usable intelligence from the panicked officer.
“What exactly was it?” Admiral Ancor asked, trying to calm his subordinate.
“I have absolutely no idea, sir. It was still too dark to get a good look at it,” Gepaco said, regaining some composure. “Whatever it was, it was the size of a mountain, though!”
“Larger than one of our Juggernauts?” Ancor asked, his tone indicating a waning supply of patience.
“That wasn’t an exaggeration, sir! A Juggernaut might as well have been a flea compared to whatever that thing was.”
If true, then that was more than a little disturbing to hear, Ancor thought.
“And it was equipped with weapons similar to our defense platforms?” Ancor prodded.
“Well, not quite, sir,” Gepaco said, a look of mild consternation on his face. “It was more like a solid beam of light, not individual spheres like on our weapons. I’ve never seen anything like it before!”
“You’re sure you weren’t just looking at a spotlight, right?”
“If it was, that spotlight was pretty damned destructive… er, sir.”
“I see…” Ancor trailed off, ignoring Gepaco’s momentary lapse in discipline as he considered his course of action.
“There is one more thing, sir,” Gepaco added a little meekly.
Ancor simply raised an eyebrow.
“I’m not exactly sure if they’re headed for the Cluster,” Gepaco explained, mild confusion starting to work its way back into his expression. “Whatever that thing is, it’s almost due south of our position. But, it seems to be bearing slightly northwest. Mind you, we didn’t stick around to get a good look at its wake before heading back. However, the only place of any note in that direction is-”
“What the hell is that thing?” Ancor murmured.
After unsuccessfully trying to get more pertinent information from Gepaco, Ancor had dispatched him back to the Cluster with instructions to have them alert Fleet Admiral Krane to the state of affairs. They were also to send another scout fleet to assess the situation, should Ancor fail.
Now, Ancor had no idea what he was looking at. The small amount of light put out by the Dark Sister highlighted a dark-coloured structure, which resembled nothing more than a titanic four sided pyramid. Each side had to have been at least a mile and a half long. The peak of the pyramid appeared to have been truncated by about a third, culminating in a large platform at the top.
Still, its peak loomed almost a mile above sea level. Ancor wasn’t sure as to the purpose of the platform, but he could make out four large cylinders mounted to the corners. Did Gepaco get his story garbled, and were those actually spotlights? They certainly looked like no weapon he could recognize. Still, he couldn’t chance risking his ships. Best to maintain a safe distance for now.
There was no crew of any kind visible anywhere, and it had made no hostile motions toward them. In fact, Ancor idly wondered if the thing was simply adrift.
However, he had opted to keep his fleet at a distance of almost two miles, just to make sure they didn’t share Otelen’s fate.
“No response to any of our signals, sir,” his first officer Yalic reported. “It’s as if no one’s home.”
“I expected as much,” Ancor replied. “Keep trying, though.”
Compounding everything was the fact that the bizarre floating behemoth seemed to be made entirely of stone. Despite the low light, their spyglasses had observed deformations, chips, and markings all seemingly consistent with stonework.
I’ll have to try to get a better look at it in the morning, if I can, Krane thought. How in blazes did they get rocks to float, though?
“Sir?” he heard Yalic say.
“Yes, Lieutenant? Did you get a response from them?”
“No, sir. It’s something else,” Yalic began. “I could be mistaken on this, and it very well could be a trick of the light, but…”
“I could swear that thing’s hovering just slightly above the water, sir.”
That certainly put a new spin on things.
Putting the spyglass back to his eye, Ancor strained his vision to try to get a clearer look. However, hampered by the large distance, the low light and the voluminous ocean swells, he couldn’t tell for certain. The outer rim of the pyramid’s base did appear to lie just above the water at times, but he couldn’t tell if there was a hull recessed in the underside.
Getting an idea, he moved his spyglass to examine the sea behind the pyramid. Very little wake. As slow moving as the thing was, if a craft that size was cutting its way through the water, then it should be generating a much larger wake than that. Theoretically, at least.
“I believe you might be correct, Lieutenant. Send some ships to try to confirm, without getting too close.”
If that thing was floating, then this was even stranger than those Kierdan weapons, thought Ancor. Hovering modes of transportation already existed, but only worked over solid ground. Any attempt to get something to fly over water always ended in spectacular failure.
Assuming that this was another piece of Kierdan technology, then that was extremely alarming turn of events. Though, he pondered, why didn’t they deploy this thing in the first place? The attack on the Cluster must have been some sort of diversion to allow for this thing to make its way to Iathera unhindered. If so, then that would hint that the pyramid was not as formidable as Gepaco’s initial report might have led them to believe.
“Done, sir,” Yalic reported, drawing Ancor out of his reverie. “Two ships are encircling the pyramid to try to get a better look.”
“Good,” Ancor replied, his spyglass still focused on the gigantic structure. “I’m thinking we try a little experiment.”
“Let’s see if we can’t get them to give us an impromptu weapons demonstration,” Ancor explained. “Prep a dozen of our longboats for an unmanned one-way trip. Stuff them with enough flares so that they’re visible enough, then point them at that thing, turn on their engines, and let them go.”
“Excellent plan, sir,” Yalic complimented him. “I’m on it.”
As Yalic hurried away to coordinate the refitting of the longboats, Ancor could only wonder at the motives of their unknown enemy. Krane’s theory was looking more and more correct. It was obvious that Kierd wasn’t the true culprit behind that last attack. There was no way they could have stockpiled the resources to wage a war on their homeland, while still being able to mount such an expedition against the Cluster. No, someone was else was definitely pulling the strings here.
It was also obvious that this gigantic floating pyramid was somehow connected to whoever that was. It would have to be the height of coincidence for this thing to appear directly after the Kierdans left. And why was it apparently headed to Iathera? They had to figure out the enemy’s goals, and soon.
“Longboats are prepped, aimed, and ready to go, sir,” Yalic reported, interrupting his train of thought.
“Perfect. Have the crew keep an eye on what happens, in case they notice something we miss,” instructed Ancor. “Launch the longboats when ready.”
Ancor watched as the crews started the engines on the longboats, set the throttles, then hopped back aboard the adjacent ships. Unless the crew in that floating pyramid was totally blind, they should have no trouble spotting the mass of ignited flares in each boat.
As the longboats sped toward their target, Ancor could see no movement from anywhere on the pyramid. However, just before he decided that nothing was going to happen, he saw the silhouettes of several humanoid shapes scampering about the top of the pyramid and racing toward the cylindrical objects in the corners.
“I see them, Yalic,” Ancor said. “Looks like they’re manning their weapons. Did you get a good look at them?”
“No, sir,” Yalic admitted. “Just dark shapes.”
“Not a problem. We can try this again closer to dawn,” Ancor said. “At least we now know that that thing is crewed, and not just drifting.”
Looking for the longboats, Ancor saw that they were still about a mile and a half out. Turning his gaze back toward the pyramid, he observed a red glow beginning to emanate from one side of each of the cylinders.
At just over a mile out, Ancor could see the red glow moving slightly as the cylinders began moving, seemingly positioning themselves for a clear shot.
As the longboats drew closer, the red glow intensified, and a low humming noise was heard coming from the pyramid.
As the seconds progressed, so did the volume of the noise.
“Some kind of warning, you think, sir?” Yalic asked.
“Possible, but it seems too subtle for that,” Ancor said. “Probably a part of that supposed weapons system.”
His theory was proven a few seconds later.
Almost as one, the two cylinders erupted into life and long beams of red light shot out, each striking one of the longboats and instantly destroying them. The beams deactivated after about three seconds of destruction, though the cylinders still had that red glow.
“Wow,” Ancor heard Yalic say.
About fifteen seconds later, a second volley shot out, destroying two more longboats. The process repeated itself four more times until all the longboats were sunk.
“Keep an eye focused on the top of that pyramid, everyone,” Yalic called out. “Let’s see if we can get a look at who or what’s crewing that thing.”
After about two minutes of dead silence, Yalic said, “Doesn’t look like they’re going to unman those weapons anytime soon, sir.”
“Agreed,” Ancor said. “We’ve got what we need, for now. Tell the fleet that I’m heading back. Have them give that thing a wide berth, and see if they can track its destination.”
“Yes, sir. Also, the two ships we sent to examine the pyramid are reporting back. They say that they can’t be certain if that thing is actually floating. They’ll try again shortly when it starts to lighten.”
“Very well. If they find anything, have them dispatch a ship immediately to Iathera and report in. Also, instruct the fleet to observe that thing and collect as much information as they can, then have them dispatch another ship back to the Cluster with a report in half an hour, regardless of what they find or don’t find. Let’s see if the NCI or our researchers can make head or tails out of this.”
It was a longshot, but the Nebar Cluster Intelligence might just have information on this monstrosity.
“Also, send two ships to see if there’s anything salvageable from the wreckage of Otelen’s ship, or anything at all that can give us any clues as to that weapon. I got the distinct impression that Gepaco didn’t stick around long enough to examine the debris. Tell our ships that we’ll be back as soon as I give a report to Fleet Admiral Krane.”