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Traveller of Both
Time and Space: Episode 8
It took the three Fire Warriors accompanying Shas’el Varkoo less than a tenth of a second to raise, aim, and fire one shot each from their pulse rifles. It took Chandramatie Bahl even less time to summon and unleash her psychic powers to smite the Tau. Their shots went wild, missing their targets as they—and Shas’el Varkoo—crumpled to the deck, bones shattering, organs bursting under a silent, invisible shockwave.
Immediately, a klaxon blared. “The Tau keep every inch of this ship under constant surveillance,” Chandramatie Bahl said. “In moments, they will undertake countermeasures. Your armor and gear is there, Raja,” she said, pointing to a panel on the wall. “Our Tech repaired them.”
Raja Shamshir Talatra stepped over a dying Fire Warrior and plucked the energy-rod weapon from Varkoo’s shattered hands. “I owe you a tap on the head with this,” Shamshir growled.
“Animal-raping savage…” the alien commander gasped.
“I need him alive, Raja,” Chandramatie Bahl said. “At least for another few moments. Please don your armor. We are in grave danger.”
“Don’t die on me yet,” Shamshir Talatra told him. He threw the rod across the room, where it clattered on the floor and came to rest near the Tau physician Shamshir Talatra had killed upon reviving. Chandramatie Bahl sat cross-legged on the floor next to Varkoo. As Shamshir Talatra opened the compartment and began putting on his brown and mustard-colored armor, she closed her eyes and began to levitate off the deck.
“What are—” Shamshir Talatra began.
“Be silent, Raja!” she hissed. “I implore you,” she added.
He clamped on his armor, plugging in the neural interfaces and testing each piece. Techmarine Chitra had done his work well. Even the Iron Halo device registered as fully operational. He hefted the Ebon Blade, symbol of his office, and moved to guard the door.
“Do not concern yourself with that, Raja,” Chandramatie Bahl said, as she lowered herself to the deck. “There is no fear of the Tau storming this room. Such a tactic is antithetical to them.”
She clamped on her helmet. I’ve established a psychic link between us, Raja, so that we may communicate without the Tau overhearing. With some difficulty, I’ve extracted the layout of most of this ship from the Shas’el’s mind. There is an escape pod not far from here. I have also gleaned some of the Tau’s measures they are likely to use against us.
“In moments, you two will be dead,” Varkoo gasped. “That thought…comforts me.”
Raja Shamshir drew back the Ebon Blade. Suddenly, he recalled the vision?—dream?—he had had of Varman Kumar speaking with him. You will, very soon, have a choice that may have substantial effect on you, your Chapter, and millions of lives…when it does occur, I’m counting on you to make the wrong decision….you must make the wrong choice.
Raja, we must move quickly, Chandramatie Bahl told him. If you would slay Varkoo, do so now, please.
Sparing Varkoo certainly seemed to be the wrong decision—perhaps this was the one that Varman Kumar had meant? If the incident with him had even happened?
“Kill me if you want to. It won’t change anything,” Varkoo snarled.
Shamshir Talatra turned to Chandramatie Bahl. “How do we open the door?”
“Like so,” she said, bending over Varkoo and swatting aside his feeble attempts to stop her. She reached under his robes and pulled out a small, flat disk. The Tau have locked down this section, hoping to contain us. The doors are controlled by cognition engines. There is an override code, available only to Tau officers, that changes randomly. She stood, opened a control panel next to the door, and pressed the disk against the panel. This device receives the latest code from the cognition engines.
The door opened to a cacophony of high-pitched squeals, screeches, whoops, and whines, accompanied by rapidly-flickering strobe lights of white, yellow, and red. Raja Shamshir Talatra felt an instant of nausea before his helmet’s autosenses dampened the noise and light.
An interesting countermeasure to boarding parties—and guests who are no longer welcome, Chandramatie Bahl told him.
Cute, Shamshir Talatra thought. He sprinted down the corridor in the direction of the lifepod, Chandramatie Bahl following him. Strobes flashed and speakers howled and screeched and gibbered. Raja Shamshir found himself becoming annoyed.
I sense the emotional effect the sensory assault is having on you, Raja, Chandramatie Bahl told him. I feel it, too, to a lesser extent. Repeating a mantra may help you overcome it.
Four gun drones rounded the corner ahead of them and opened fire. Shamshir Talatra and Chandramatie Bahl advanced, returning fire with their bolt pistols, downing two drones. The survivors retreated, still firing.
The strobe lights and sirens snapped off as white mist poured from the ceiling vents. An electronic display automatically flashed across the inside of Shamshir Talatra’s left eyelens, telling him that the mist was a mixture of eight known toxins and six unknown compounds. Probably none of those six are perfume, he thought.
The compounds are of various molecular sizes, Chandramatie Bahl pointed out. No doubt, the Tau are testing our suits’ defenses, seeing how sophisticated our filtration systems are.
Clever little bastards, Shamshir Talatra thought, sprinting again. More gun drones, from ahead and behind. This time, Shamshir Talatra didn’t slow down to shoot back: he charged, the Ebon Blade effortlessly slicing through the whirring robots.
Raja, wait for me! Chandramatie Bahl called. He spared a glance back. The drones behind them were following at a distance, and she was firing her bolt pistol at them as she backpedaled. The something slammed into Shamshir Talatra’s helmet, nearly knocking him over. Another drone, this one latched on to his helm like some sort of Tyranid. He yanked it off, smashed it against the deck, stomped on it.
“I’m sick of this,” he growled. He plowed into another swarm of drones, crushing them with his fists, hacking with his sword, trampling them as they fell.
Raja! Chandramatie Bahl called. Too late. Two metal panels slammed down, boxing in Raja Shamshir alone. Sparkling yellow foam gushed from sprinklers in the floor and ceiling. The foam expanded, nearly filling the corridor. In seconds, it was at his waist. He waded through it, slamming the Ebon Blade against the panel separating him from Chandramatie Bahl. The sword clanged off.
“Fornicating thing!” he roared, swinging wildly but doing no damage. The foam darkened and congealed. Another swing, another clang against the unyielding door. The foam was a dull tan goo, still rising, albeit more slowly: it was at his shoulders now. He tried to step back for another swing and found he could not move his legs.
What in hell? he wondered. He tried to lift his arms and felt the servomotors in his suit shudder as they tried to obey. He managed to keep the sword free of the muck but could only tap feebly on the panel.
This feth has me stuck, he thought. Red electronic script scrolled across his left eyelens as armor sensors went off. The foam, up to his neck now, was compressing inward. Already, it was exerting as much force as a Vinyamghali Aliphant smashing a melon under its feet. A normal, unarmored man would have been crushed already, his bones and flesh pulverized. Raja Shamshir Talatra tried to move, but was now totally immobilized.
I’m going to die, he thought. Those little sodomites are going to kill me with their stupid gimmick.
The readings became more urgent. The foam had stopped rising but the pressure was increasing exponentially. His armor was holding off pressure equal to that encountered at the bottom of an abyssal ocean trench. The cognition engine in his suit dryly informed him that if the pressure continued its rate of increase, his armor would suffer a “catastrophic failure” in 40.7 seconds.
Chandramatie Bahl, are you there? he thought. It occurred to him that he had not heard her psychic “voice” since the corridor had sealed off. Did the Tau have a psionic-dampening device in this portion of the ship? Or—more simply—had the gun drones killed her? 32 seconds left. Chandramatie Bahl, help me!
Suddenly, the panel slid upwards and she was there, the “key” she had taken from Varkoo in her hand, dozens of destroyed gun drones scattered in the corridor behind her. She easily slashed through the congealed foam with her sword, then grabbed his arm and pulled. He tumbled out of the goo as if it were no thicker than water.
“That feth almost killed me, squashed me,” he said, as the pressure sensor in his armor reported normal readings.
She flicked a blob of foam off the end of her blade. “An ingenious defense: impossible for the target to overcome, harmless to the ship itself, and easy to clean up—provided you don’t get caught in it yourself. Had we not been separated, we would have both fallen into this trap.”
“You mean, had I not lost my temper and rushed ahead without you,” Shamshir Talatra said.
“I do not judge the actions of my superiors,” she replied. Regardless, she told him, re-establishing her psychic rapport, we need to reach the escape pod.
Together, they cut their way through
the rest of the foam.
The meditation chamber of Ethereal Aun Elsy’eir Kor was a small, well-lit oval, apparently featureless save for a woven mat on which the Tau leader knelt. From this unassuming place, the Ethereal guided the thousands entrusted to him.
“Infirmary,” he said, and the air around him shimmered as a holographic projection of the inside of the infirmary appeared. Two medical technicians were attending to the inert Shas’el Varkoo. They ceased their work and bowed to the Ethereal.
“Revive him,” the Ethereal ordered. In moments, a stimulant roused Varkoo, who struggled to gain his feet.
“Lie still,” the Ethereal commanded. “As is my habit, I provide my officers with my general intent and allow them the opportunity to apply their training and experience to intelligently, efficiently produce satisfactory results. Twice recently, Varkoo, I have provided you with such opportunities, and in both times—on the planet’s surface and in dealing with Raja Shamshir Talatra—you have delivered undesirable results. In light of your accomplishments, you are relieved of all obligations to your caste and to the Greater Good.”
“I—I understand, Ethereal,” the wounded Tau replied.
“Continue your work, physicians,” the Ethereal said, as the image of the infirmary dissipated. “Bridge,” he said, and waited a few moments for an image of that part of the ship to appear around him. “Report,” he told the officer that bowed before him.
“As you may see on this monitor, Ethereal, the two Marines have thus far overcome our interior defenses. We believe, with high confidence, that they have somehow learned of the location of the nearest lifecraft and are moving toward it with intent to escape. I am prepared to deploy the craft remotely before they arrive so as to prevent this.”
“Take no further action to hinder them, Shas’el Dhl’su,” the Ethereal replied. “I have devised another, more satisfactory resolution to that situation. Do you have the location of the Marines on the planet’s surface?”
“And their fleet?”
“Deployed as you see on the other monitor opposite, Ethereal,” Shas’el Dhl’su indicated.
“Varkoo and Shamshir Talatra have set into motion events that cannot be stopped or undone, only mitigated. Unfortunately, their poor decisions and lack of leadership affects more than just them.”
Shas’el Dhl’su pondered the Ethereal’s words for a moment, then said, “Our attack will begin at once, with simultaneous strikes against the Marine fleet and all ground forces.”
“You are a valuable asset to the
Greater Good,” Ethereal Aun Elsy’eir Kor replied. “Notify me when it is
Posted June 2005
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