Haloed Bane

Gartery Lives


1

“You hold me tight”, I say to the True Knights at either side of me, hoping maybe reverse psychology will work on them. Little chance of that, but it’s worth a shot, eh.

I’ve noticed they’re not carrying any weapons. Else they’d be stardust by now. Translation: somebody’s done her homework.

Looks to be a partless facility made of iron-stella-two alloy, so not a spaceship. Or it could be a ship, but then it’d have to be a huge one, with this place floating inside. First scenario would be better, so might as well assume the second's the right one.

After several rather dark hallways, we hit a honeycomb chamber. Door opens. The first thing I notice inside is the woman sitting at the opposite side in a tabardless blue and white vazebuki. All-Incudean intelligence (save me Mother Taus)... And that face looks familiar.

”Do you know why you’re here” she asks.

Bigshot lady, not Highborn though. Name is something like Dirgian, Dorfion?

”It’s Durgaun.”

Upper-grade mind-fucker, then. Lovely. You tell me what I know, m’am.

”The tongue lies on the mind’s behalf,” answers the lady. “The mind tricks on whose behalf though? That’s still up for debate. It’s much easier for me to detect the truth from your mouth and your mind than from the latter alone. Here, this should get you talking.”

The spymistress pulls up a console and spins it in my direction. It explodes into dozens of screens, many with sound, all around me, even behind me. All the same, really: me killing, me robbing, me stealing. It's a mess.

I try to look at it all and busy myself that way, and surprise, surprise, the knights let me move this way and that, and then suddenly they let go of me and literally walk out the door.

I catch an odd scene near the floor to my left. ”Pardon,” I say, “but I don’t think I’ve ever been there.”

”Where?” Durgaun stands up and walks to where I am. I could squeeze the life out of her. I could try. I choose not to. Without a firearm I’m fair to middling when it comes to the life and death stuff.

”Oh, that one” she says. “The Blind Gas Planet. 8814. A steam convoy is ambushed on the way to port, the entire crew is murdered, cargo vanishes. Video shows two Inculae and two Naxe at the scene.

”Naxe?! Wasn’t me. I don’t play well with aliens.”

”You speak the truth. I’m informed it was your sister. But BCMH marked you for it anyway.”

”Great” I say. Family, the gift that keeps on giving.

”But you’ve been to Revelation.” Durgaun points to another visual, up ahead. I just hope she doesn’t slice my neck as I look. But at this point what choice do I have?

”Yeah, I know the place,” I tell her, as I obediently expose my gullet.

”You were a solacer for Antion Fleet. Trained to put battlefield casualties out of their misery.”

”Yeah, well, this life’s hell so...them off the battlefield are probably just as miserable, I reckon.”

”I see." Durgaun looks around. "That explains the trail of bodies, then.”

Nice chat, this.

”I worked Antion too, but a century before your service.”

”You look great, m’am.”

”Those were fine days, when I didn’t have to deal with scum like you.”

”Hey now.”

Durgaun walks over to her seat, shaped out of the back wall. The whole damn building is partless. She says: “Let’s get down to business.”

”Business?” Interesting. “Business, huh. What’s the deal?”

”Complete and total exoneration from all marks.”

I think I need to sit down. But where? “I’m all ears.”

”Gartery Sechangleil.”

”Gartery... You mean Six Hands? The tycoon?”

”Yes, the one and only.”

”The fucking president of Solid Red Trading?!”

Durgaun nods. “We suspect she’s behind the current rebellion. Help us end her.”

Unbelievable. You know what, I’ll sit on the floor, why not? It looks squeaky clean anyways. Plus, it gives me time to think. Does she literally know everything I’m thinking or does she just get the highlights? I wish I had studied this ability stuff harder.

I say: “And here I thought the birds on Ikrilath were behind that. Well, I see two problems here.”

”Do tell.”

Wait, that name. Durgaun. That’s Councilor Durgaun. Huh. What is she doing in a uniform? The view could be so much better right now. Ugh. Really not my day today.

“Ahem, well for starters, she’s going to see me coming. She’s got all of Solid Red to see me coming. And besides, people say she’s an actual witch.”

”Not to worry, we’ve been conducting experlavations on her for some time. She’ll see as far as her poor eyes reach, and no more. The minions are also taken care of.”

Experlewhat? Uhm. “Second then, I’m not usually privy to my customer’s motivations. Just where to aim at. All of this sharing throws me off, you know. In my trade, you can’t afford to be thrown off even one fan.”

The door opens, Durgaun looks past me, nods, and then gives me a decent answer: “I’m appealing to your patriotism as well as your instinct of self-preservation. You were the finest solacer in the sector, were you not?”

”Supersector, in my professional opinion, m’am.”

”Most marksmen lose their touch once they ascend to the third trinity, but you’ve had plenty of practice since your dismissal. And Gartery happens to be a third grader. Luck has smiled on you and given you a shot to put the entire commonwealth out of its misery.”

2

The bullet whizzed single-mindedly toward its target, only to take a detour at the very end and graze Duchess Chamboin of Akash’s shoulder, then (presumably) disintegrate into a noxious cloud upon hitting the stage floor. The performance of Ransain against the Good Knights was thrown into darkness as all power failed the facility, and later on many regretted missing the end of the show, despite the golden opportunity for gossip the incident had brought them. Dozens of security personnel rushed the area: Police Leaguers, Chamboin Ladies, folk from several other noble houses, and three or four exotic vassals from Gartery’s own retinue, creatures that had gone unnoticed by most till then.

Bobo cringed from her vantage point in one of the eyecubes hovering above the stage. She pitied the would-be assassin, who as soon as the backup system came on was mobbed by a group of eager leaguers none of whom was worthy of loading her thingun. The cube tried to retreat -safety measures activated- but Bobo overrode it and stayed put. The next day it would dawn on her -though she was unable to obtain confirmation due to obvious reasons- that the cube had actually fallen by more than a few fans before kicking back into life.

She was sure they had picked the right person for the job. That bullet was spot on, but Gartery had spelled it out of the way. Didn’t she trust Councilor Durgaun? The plan was to take a hit to the chest, not avoid it. The gas inside the projectile wasn’t lethal, and it wasn’t like the one and only Gartery Sechangleil would go and die from a single bullet to the chest, no matter how well placed it was or what substance it harbored. Then the Council could move in and arrest the anti-vassal elements in the nation for taking their love for country too far and attempting to remove the most productive alien in all of Incudea. At that point, other forces could be mobilized for whatever purpose the Council had in mind. Bobo didn’t know about that part and didn’t much care.

It was a solid plan, but now it was just shambles. Haughty Chamboin would scream to all six corners of the universe that the attempt had been on her life. She would have a pretty good case to make too. The assassin was an ex-solacer, and these people didn’t miss. The one bleeding right now was Chamboin, not Sechangleil. Soon enough there would be Highborn howling for a new crusade against Lowborn crime, against perfid Hulgoin, or even demagogic Naxis. A palaver, in short.

There was no doubt as to Gartery’s personal courage. The trade mistress hadn’t deflected the bullet involuntarily from some survival instinct or sheer cowardice. Either she wanted to piss off Durgaun, or she had good reason to doubt the Councilor’s sincerity. Bobo mused that if she acted immediately, she could probably get a good read on the hole on the stage, obtain a sample and analyze the payload. But even in thought it was an extremely dangerous road to go on. Gaun -Councilor Archbaroness Durgaun- had to be trusted, period.

She looked again and noticed Gartery was already gone. The assassin was in the process of being taken away. Bobo debated whether she should return to Silver immediately or attempt to assess the assassin’s state of mind before going. They knew she’d be caught, since Durgaun had made sure extra guards were posted at the one exit which “according to the plan” would lead to the perfect escape route. The Third Voice had jurisdiction here (they were above the Fork, these aliens not being capable of reaching the third grade) and she was a friend. Far better to get the assassin in custody than to allow her to escape somewhere and tell her story, or get caught by some shielders, or even worse, some of Gartery’s enforcers. At least on that front things were running as expected but...

The Duchess let out a yell. “A fine act that bastard decided to interrupt!”

The Ladies were tending to Chamboin and doing her best to assuage her, but she kept berating the attacker for several more minutes. It really was a shame.

A fine act, echoed Bobo, and then the words clicked something within. She finally saw it: Durgaun’s plan, and something personally far more crucial, Durgaun’s Darkion-far distance from herself. The ground trembled beneath her feet and the ceiling was no more. A rush of nostalgia swept over her as she left Ginaras, Halaron and Isis behind.

3

That cold rush, a heavy containment field. No use fighting it. Even if I can squirm my way free there’s just too many leaguers rushing in to try an escape. Might as well retreat into my own brain and figure out what in Halaron just happened.

Gartery’s no ordinary critter, of course she’s going to have a hematoneural shield around her. But this gun the dirty paws are grabbing from me should have sliced right through that. Reverse-engineered Echoblaster sight, best piece I’ve ever had in my hands. Literally saw the timed gaps cycling through with my own two eyes. I took the shot right as rain. What the hell just happened?

No, I’m not talking to any of you so just let me be. Scum.

Panic. Did I panic and pull the trigger a moment too soon, too late?

No, no second-guessing, enough of that. I have the record, I have all the records. A couple of brawls kept me away from Front Army, and I still gave them a run for their money when I ran into them later on, as a rival, then an enemy. I didn’t fail, I did my job. Somebody else screwed up. I was cold as ice when I took that shot. Right?

4

The news rocked the universe. Billions of Solid Red Life Insurance customers tried to cancel their policies, the story being that rumored necromancer Gartery bound her health to each and every single one of her customers, a side-effect being that if she was harmed, they would suffer the consequences sixfold. Panic upon panic descended on Incudean society, abetted by a physical shock that reverberated in outward ondulators as far as Pin and Sei an impressive 113 Darkion miles away. An earthquake buried a couple of Pinnacle Works factories. Several asteroids were thrown into new, potentially dangerous paths. Paracomm and metacomm in Kuspain went quiet, as did a great number of people’s houses and shops. Still, it was the right price to pay to measure Mistress Sechangleil’s aural flare. It wasn’t a happy moment to have to go through in the midst of a nascent rebellion, but Durgaun was satisfied. The needful was done.

The planet Kuspain

5

The raconteur at the center of the performance felt a pang of hunger, losing hope as time passed that the Inculae would take much stock in any of his answers, making the whole interrogation a waste of time, especially since he had not even seen -the metacomm visual made a one-way trip, from his first trinity to their third- what the spectators had: the great milady hit in the shoulder by some projectile. And if it was up to him he would have wanted to obey the milady -audio did travel two ways, he needed it to feel his audience- and finish the tale, but they hadn’t let him, and his conscience was clear in that he didn’t feel that he had tried to do this to score points with the high society Inculae but because he shared in their assessment -speaking from a professional point of view solely- that it was a good yarn, this of the hero of the Inculae learning that the leaders of Incudea were fooling the population all along with their Good Knights who were really the evil ones, and how she battled them even out in space, out there beyond Chuch Vuth -the Almost Everything- which is what his people called this their planet, despite the long back-and-forth that erupted once the Bane took over because they didn’t feel that his people had a good understanding of what a planet was but really, even if you do go out into space, doesn’t where you’re from remain Almost Everything, by Eryam it does do, and so this is Almost Everything, meaning that where the Others may be is Almost Nothing and he thanked the gods that the Inculae didn’t force his people to travel out into the dark void against their will, and thanked them also for their good stories in need of a good teller by which he could even make them cry, though some of them thought it was a crime to let his people tell these tales (did they not enjoy a good tear?) but then why did they let that dreadful red-eyed Inculoid witch have so much power not being one of their own was beyond his ken, not in any way, shape or form his Almost Everything, but in fact the opposite, his Almost Nothing, and Almost Nothing is really practically Nothing in the end, so he thought better of worrying about it.

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