The Goddess Deception, Pt. 2

Issue #143 - Science-Fantasy Month 2

Concluded from Pt. 1, in Issue #142

Chapter 5

Here There Be Dragons

The cellar was easy enough to find. A heavy trap door was set in the floorboards, secured with a formidable lock. Plio wanted to burn it open with breaching compound. I just reached down with the arm that still functioned and ripped the door off its hinges. Plio led the way down, our Nullifiers drawn. Foley and Caines lurched in electrified docility between us, as I didn’t want them left unattended.

The trap door opened into what appeared to be an air-lock that inclined downward through an envelope of rubber and treated linen—the containment medium which held the pressurized helium. It was as if we were passing between the walls of an inflated balloon. I could feel the ionizing current as we stepped through, ghostly fingers brushing past the clockworks in my mechanical augmentations.

“Niista’s Blood,” Plio whispered once we’d cleared the pass-through.

The cellar was full of weapons.

Illegal weapons, a good many of them Umbran in origin. Not only Immolators, but drums of exotic chemistries and the delivery mechanisms required to deploy them. But what disturbed me all the more were the arms of unmistakably human manufacture: Shatter Guns and Gravitic Machine Pistols; Gatling Torches and Phase Mortars; Infinity-Beam Projectors and Time Siphons; Infrasound Dissonators and Zero-Wave Disruptors. Enough to take on an entire column of Royal assault vehicles and perhaps even win. An Analytical Engine sat at the foot of the stairs, a heavy clanking model decades old but clearly in good repair. A banker’s safe was built into its base.

Plio stepped off the last plank. “Three guesses as to where the late Axel Creevy’s heat-ray came from.”

“Unless there are other caches like this hidden elsewhere. It’s a big moon.”

Boilers and a steam-reaction turbine were tapped into a water source in an adjoining chamber; presumably the power supply for the bank of giant electrodes that ionized the helium, which, in turn, generated the glamour. Copper pipes and tubing buttressed the walls.

Plio crossed alongside me. I smelled metamorphic tissue in the process of healing, sickly sweet.

“How are you holding up, brother?”

He grimaced and rubbed his backside. “Caines’s buckshot is shifting. It gives entirely new context to having lead in my ass.”

I nodded at the Analytical Engine. It was a common relay-and-switch device, with sliding control levers, memory stores, a mill, and a printer. Ranks of studded drums would rotate loudly behind thick panels of glass when the machine was in operation. Safely ensconced underground, though, no one topside would ever hear it.

“See if you can find any of your almighty patterns in this mess. Start with the boy.”

I turned about the room, not touching anything, calculating the destructive power of everything that surrounded us. Military scopes of the type that enabled soldiers to see out of trenches during the First and Second Umbran Wars were mounted in each corner and provided an unobstructed view of the farmland above. The room was a goddamned arsenal.

Thankfully the Engine and its strongbox were protected by a simple recognition hermetic. Without his usual flourish, Plio plunged his liquid fingertips into Foley’s face and shaped himself into Foley’s perfect likeness. (Perfect if you disregarded the crimson flesh and beaded black lock-dreads. For all his amazing Symb’ral abilities, he could not change color or mimic human hair.) I found the appropriate levers and switches in the adjacent chamber and fed power to the machine.

Drums whirred and spun, and Plio’s new face was bathed in a halo of Engine-rendered photographic light.

Success. With a deep internal thunk and clicking of gears, the safe opened like a puzzle box and presented us with multiple decks of numbered punch cards.

“Hello, Deputy Foley,” said the Engine. “I’m fine, how are you?”

Plio shut off the speaker-horn in a much more civilized manner than I had aboard the Cloudshaker and was soon feeding the punch cards into the machine with the aplomb of a riverboat gambler dealing a hand of faro. In no time, the secrets they contained were being printed onto rolls of blank musty paper.

“There’s a horde of information in these decks,” he said in Foley’s voice, reading each new paragraph of text. “Logistics, armament stores, railroad and airyard schedules, entries regarding Gamhanrhide’s political structure, even agriculture and communications.”

Hello. “Kavita was investigating communications.”

Plio nodded. “There’s been extensive tampering in every one of the orb’s principal support functions.”

“Wouldn’t anyone notice that in everyday telemetry?”

“Most assuredly. But the disruption patterns are very subtle. Likely they’d be interpreted as variances within an acceptable degree of tolerance, not the acts of sabotage I believe them to be. And yes, specifically a variance within the ansible network, as that is where the greatest amount of anomalous information can be observed.”

“And if the Royal Makers couldn’t diagnose the problem remotely from Albion....”

“They would send journeymen to investigate.” He shut off the Engine, and its mechanical clatter gave way to the cellar’s much quieter background hum. “Persons like Kavita Patel.”

Persons exactly like Kavita Patel.

I depowered the obfuscators that locked our prisoners in mindless stupefaction and slammed Foley against the wall, pinning him there with my good hand pressed to his throat.

I looked at Caines. “Talk to me, Pop, or I squeeze the deputy’s neck into mush.”

But Caines was lost. He struggled to shake away the effects of the obfuscator, squinting bleary-eyed at the contents of his cellar as if he’d expected to find nothing more unusual than cans of fruit jam.

Foley choked. “He doesn’t know anything.”

“This is me not caring.”

“He doesn’t, I swear!”

I called over my shoulder. “Agent Plio Ah, increase the voltage in the old man’s restraints. Melt his damned brain if you have to.”

Foley thrashed in panic. “You bastards!”

Caines fell back as Plio feigned to reach for the shackle control.

“This is about liberty, Caul!”

“Liberty my ironclad ass.” I dropped the boy, hard, my fingers leaving angry red marks in his skin. “Alright, Deputy. From the beginning.”

Foley staggered to his feet, rubbing life back into his bruised flesh. He seemed to be searching for the right words. “Think of all the Aspects in the Aetherial Deep,” he finally said. “Each one a reflection of Great Albion, dating back to the beginning of Time. Each one a World in its own right. But that’s not enough for you, is it? Harvest Home is just one more in a list, one more World for your Machines to control. Well this is the only World my people have got and you can’t have it.”

“I want to know about these weapons, Hollis.”

“Submission to the Crown is crushing us, Agent Caul, day by day. Don’t delude yourself. We’re no better than slaves to the Instrumentality.”

What little blood I possessed began to boil. “Don’t speak to me of slavery, boy. If you want a history lesson, I will surely give you one.”

He just shook his head. “You’re in so deep you can’t even see it.”

“The weapons, Hollis! What the Hell are you doing with these weapons?”

“Jaxoor’s Sum and Substance, Romulus,” said Plio. “They’re trying to secede.”

“What...?”

He shifted back to his customary features and raised the pages and punch cards as if the secrets they revealed could easily be discerned by one and all. “That’s what Albion saw in the telemetry. The support functions have been commandeered to run independently once Gamhanrhide is cut off from the other Aspects.”

“Secede?” I spun back to Deputy Foley, the ache behind my facial plates matching the electrick throb that pulsed in my shoulder. He said nothing. “Drop that back into low, brother.”

Plio nodded. “Someone has gained control of key positions in Gamhanrhide’s infrastructure. The patterns indicate that all ties to the Instrumentality will be severed once their political base is secure. The nodes will converge in just a few weeks time. Romulus, that’s what caused the buckler event two nights ago. They’re trying to shut off the governors. They want to seal the buckler field from the inside.”

Sainted Mothers of Wells and Verne.

“We just want to go our own way,” said Foley.

“Are you lot insane? Nobody knows what will happen if a bauble is sealed from the inside. Even the eggheads on Gant don’t know.”

Plio took offense. “The entanglements of the present reality are unraveled from the Pattern-That-Is, and are rewoven into the Pattern-That-Will-Be.”

“I rest my case. Nobody knows. Gods of Time and Engines, Hollis, don’t sacrifice everything you hold dear for a misguided ideal.”

“No one has to get hurt if you just listen to reason!”

“One hundred and twenty-six people are dead already! More, had we not stopped that melee in Dun Aenghus. That’s reasonable to you?”

“Dun Aenghus?” Linus Caines spat from his corner. It was the first coherent thing he’d said since the obfuscator had been turned off. “Shitfire, man, ain’t nothin’ come outta Dun Aenghus but bonewits and bastards.”

“Why do you say that, Pop?”

“Bollocks, ain’t you listening? They want my land!”

Foley’s voice tightened. “Linus, please, that’s not true. Earthers stand together. You taught me that.”

“It is true, dammit. Look at what they done to Francher MacAwley. And Cecil Herne less’n a fortnight afore that.”

“This is your fault, Caul!” Foley said. “Bursting in on our lives as if you’ve got the right. This is our home. I lost sight of that once, turned my back on it when Gilbert died. But then the Lady found me, said that in service to the Goddess I could help folks like Linus in ways I’d never imagined.”

“By duping him. Using him as a façade to hide this bloody insanity because he wasn’t a threat to anybody.”

“A dozen gaping holes in my abdomen notwithstanding,” Plio said.

“It’s not like that!” Desperation rang in the boy’s voice. He was apt to try something stupid at any moment. “I’ve seen your Instrumentality, Caul. I know what it’s like, all cogs and ratchets and steel, while the lot of you bow down to a queen who’s little more than an old woman’s brain floating about in a pickle jar.”

“And I’ve got torsion springs where my heart used to be. Deal with it.”

Just then the perimeter alarms began to clang.

“Ah,” Plio said. “And when you thought our time together couldn’t be any more special.”

The arsenal’s observation scopes terminated in lenses that provided magnification in each of the cardinal directions. The indistinct blurs of six vehicles had crossed his property line, paralleling the road that led down the valley to Myddleham-on-Tyne.

“Blast. Hit the ansible beacon, Plio. Get reinforcements here as fast as you can.”

“Any possibility they’re ours?”

“Johanna would’ve contacted us. It seems that we’ve been followed after all.”

“We just want to be left alone!” Foley cried. “We don’t want to hurt anyone!”

“Prove it, then. Show me the girl, Hollis. Show me Kavita Patel.”

His face fell. “That was an accident.”

“Not good enough.”

“It was! None of this shit would have happened had she not gone snooping behind Linus’s back.”

“Still not good enough!”

“She was here! Linus chased her away, just as he said. But she came back.”

“Romulus, there’s not time,” Plio said. I waved him off and let Foley continue.

“The ansible propagator is hidden under a thicket at the edge of Linus’s property. I rigged the access on the chance we were overrun by troops from Albion. Your girl came back and set it off when she forced her way inside. Thaumic grenade. Ravaged every nerve in her body.”

I didn’t say a word.

“She was still alive when I found her,” he continued. “She kept whispering ‘cold’. I could barely make it out.”

“Hibernal refrigeration. She wanted to be frozen.”

Foley shook his head. “She’d been alone too long. All I could do was sit with her, listen whilst she talked of stars and wildflowers. Someone named Nadia. She was so brave, sir. So brave.”

His words tore through my gut. “Of course she was brave, you sad bastard. She was Corps.”

Plio interrupted again. “Romulus, you’ve got to look at this now.”

Four of the six vehicles had pulled away from the road and were tracing a wide arc that would encircle Linus’s farm. And now a seventh—a trio of them, all airborne—was approaching steadily from the dirigible mooring field.

I drew the Persuader and dilated its variable bore to maximum. “Any chance we can clear out in time?”

“None.”

“Then we do this the hard way.” I swept my gun before the rebels’ cache of weapons. “It’s not as if we’ll run out of ammunition anytime soon.”

“No!” said Foley. “You can’t do this!”

The boy made his move, flying headlong into a rack of Infrasound Dissonators. Plio stabbed his shackle control. I realized what was happening, too late.

“Plio, don’t!”

Foley hit a Dissonator with his bound wrists as power surged through the restraints. Electrick recoil disabled the weapon’s safety hermetics. The Dissonator fired—awful, painful sound that drilled straight to the auditory nerves. The dead-switch in my implants triggered and my hearing shut down to zero.

Lenses and glass panels shattered. Foley held tight to the weapon despite the pain. If its infrasonic-beam hit any of his munitions crates, we’d vaporize in a fiery instant.

I dove forward, spun through the cascading wall of noise and kicked the gun from Foley’s hands. Plio hit him from below. The Dissonator shut off and clattered to the floor.

Silence.

Foley lay in a moaning heap, blood trickling from his ears. I wiped away a face-full of perspiration and cycled my hearing back up to normal.

“I’m going to get the gyrodyne, brother. We may need it soon enough.”

Plio nodded. “No heroics, Romulus. You’re hurt.”

“So are you.”

Chapter 6

Fire Time

I leapt through the cellar air-lock and into the barn in long mechanized bounds, out the foldbox transition and into sunlight. The fresh Gamhanid air was glorious, but I had no time to enjoy it.

Around the farmhouse to the gyrodyne parked in front. Our rebels were almost on top of me. Flivvers and heavily loaded traction engines rumbled in from five different directions, two along the road and four crashing through Linus’s fields; flocks of flying lizards and ankle-biters bolting from the brush in their wake. The airships from Myddleham touched down in the brambles beyond the fields. Three of them, the thrusters on their flanks venting gouts of white steam. A posse of armed men jumped from each of the granary bays.

And there I stood, facing them alone.

For all of Great Albion’s vaunted might, its forces were spread too thin across an empire too vast. Umbrans, Necroticans, Beyonders and Unbelievers, Neverlanders and Pirate Kings, the Red Queen, or the Antithesis; these and many more presented a real and ongoing danger to Her Eternal Majesty’s possessions. The promise of spoils offered by every unprotected Aspect drew them in like metal shavings to a magnet. Statistically, Umbra or any of the other powers would have continued to strike unabated unless something was done to stop them.

The buckler fields did just that, but at substantial risk. The aetheric forces that created the fields ensconced each World in a globe of elemental energies. Governors operated along the ley lines of each Aspect and, not unlike steam-pressure building to the point of failure within a boiler, so too did the governors possess “safety valves” to keep the elemental forces in check.

But if the safety valves were disabled, if aetheric pressure was allowed to build without limit, the buckler field would become impenetrable not only to enemy raiders and projectiles but to everything, including our own vessels. If said pressure builds to catastrophic failure, theory suggests that anything trapped inside the energy globe would be consumed in a detonation that could rival that which begat the Heavens.

The people of Harvest Home might live, free and peacefully isolated within their own sovereign Universe. They might die. They might die horrifically, or any of the infinite variables in between.

Nobody gambled with those kinds of odds on my watch. Even if the poxy bastards were trying to kill me.

I fired up the Speedtwin, then cursed my stupidity for trying to operate a flying machine with only one functional hand. Gunshots erupted behind me as I caromed across the yard, rotors screaming, iron rounds tearing through the hull and rear canopy in a shower of jagged glass.

“Hull canopy has been breached,” the vehicle said.

“Oh, don’t start....”

I landed in the barn, Plio slamming the doors shut behind me. Caines and Foley were stashed behind thick rolls of hay.

I wasn’t out of the vehicle more than a moment when a dozen rounds ripped through the barn walls, their trajectories veering wildly as the transition boundary into the foldbox was crossed. Plio and I dove. Linus yelped, pulling Foley down with him.

“Caul? Romulus Caul!” said an amplified voice outside. I knew that voice. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had belonged to Executive Chief Constable Neville Carmody, or even Archbishop Thackerley for that matter. But no.

It was Dun Aenghus Chief Constable Marsallay Brome.

“Lady! Lady Brome!” shouted Foley. He staggered to the door. “We’re here, ma’am! We’re here!”

“Get down, you young fool,” said Linus. He threw himself at the boy and pulled Foley down behind an old buckboard.

Plio drew a coil of razor wire from the field pack, looped it through Foley’s shackles, and locked him to the wagon.

I moved alongside the barn doors, the Persuader in my good hand fully loaded, and pushed them open.

“We’re rather busy at the moment, Marsie,” I called. “Why don’t you be a lamb and come back tomorrow.”

“You’ve got spirit, Romulus,” she answered. “I like that. I imagine you’ve bested that sprout of a lad Hollis Foley by now. A lot of book-smarts but not too wise in the truths of the World.”

“Don’t mock him, Marsallay. He’s a believer.”

“He is a believer. An honored one at that. His sacrifice will be remembered in the Blessing of the Fields.”

“Wonderful. I come looking for one lost Maker and end up with a pagan fertility cult instead.”

“What?” said Foley. “What’s she saying out there?”

“You’ve just been declared expendable, Deputy,” Plio said. “It appears that Mr. Caines isn’t the only one who’s been used.”

“No, that’s not possible.” Foley pulled against the razor wire. “Lady! Lady Brome....”

“You and I both want what’s best for the people in our care,” Brome continued. “I recognize that in you, Romulus Caul. I wish we had met under different circumstances. I surely do. It could have been glorious.”

I actually believed her sincerity, ironic though it was. I pushed the door open a little farther. “Yeah, let me get back to you on that.”

“I doubt you’ll have the time, luv. Have a look at this.”

A bar of pyromantic light ripped through the wall and incinerated everything in its path, arcing golden-white fire that blinded the eye. The heat-ray tore upward along the left side of the doors. Straw burst into flame. A second beam chewed down the right, a third lancing across the top.

Blackened wood fell inward; I jumped out of the way as it crashed to the floor.

“By our Mother, they’re trying to kill us...” said Foley, his voice trailing away.

“Plio, how many are out there?”

He studied his divining-assay, taking too long to focus his eyes. Heaven knew how much circulatory fluid he’d lost.

“Forty-one; plus another two dozen from the granary transports, a good many of them taurgs. And Umbrans, Romulus. The Proletariat is here in body as well as spirit.”

“Outstanding.”

“You’re the weaponsmith. Any strategically brilliant recommendations?”

“Shoot ‘em.”

“Acceptable. Forget what I said about the Gaze of Doom.”

“It’s beautiful when we think alike. Follow my lead, brother.”

My head was ready to explode, but I passed on any more pain medicants. I twisted my annunciator and stepped through the smoldering hole where the doors had been. Flame licked at the planks, hinges dripping molten slag. I unbuckled my weapons harness and let it drop to the ground, hands open and empty.

An armored dirigible flying a standard that proclaimed the New Earth Alliance was parked on the road in front of Linus’s cottage, some forty yards from my position. Chief Brome and eight others crouched in safety between the airship and their vehicles.

Flanked on either side were Umbran drones in full battle regalia: plates of chitinous armor to protect their invertebrate bodies; solid hoods flaring up and back to shield their eyes and aural membranes; the tips of their branched tentacles sheathed in blackened steel. Each sat upon a sedan chair rendered from the same scabby material as were their machines and devices, but instead of transport by living porters, the chairs were mounted atop five motorized legs.

The faceless mob from Dun Aenghus wasn’t quite so faceless now, accompanied by men and women I recognized from Kells and Ogham’s Wood. Among them was a cadre of indentured taurgs. All were armed, half of them toting the Immolator long rifles that had just been demonstrated on the barn with impressive effect. Every one was pointed at me.

“Looks as if you’re keeping some strange bedfellows, Marsie,” I said. “The Not-So-Loyal Opposition, if you know what I mean.”

“Think what you like, Romulus. The Proletariat of Umbra-Nine supports our independence—something that your Instrumentality does not.” Brome’s shirt sleeves were rolled up, perspiration glistening on arms that hefted a railgun even larger than Linus’s. And on the inside of her wrist, the same triple-moon tattoo I’d seen on Axel Creevy.

“The Umbrans want every Aspect in the Deep for themselves, is more likely,” I countered. “We’ve beaten them back twice now. They’ll look for any advantage to strike again and you’ve just handed them one with tea and biscuits! Give it up, Marsie. The Corps will never let this happen.”

“We have the right to try! Dammit, Romulus, these people look to me. Can you understand that? I speak for the Mother Herself, in all Her incarnations.”

“All dead, Marsie, slain by the Gods of Time and Engines. Peddle your tales of woe somewhere else.”

“Open your eyes, you wind-up fool. She’s all around us—in the cycle of the seasons, in the earth and the grain; in the air we breathe and the water we drink. She was taken from us once, when your precious Instrumentality let the fields of Albion die, buried in rust.”

“That will not happen again,” I said. “Not here, not on any of the other Aspects.”

“It’s already begun! On Albion, and Worlds too many to count. You’ve choked their skies with soot from your chimneys, and corrupted their seas with poison from your mines. All to placate the Great Machines. I won’t let it spread any farther. I can’t take the chance. I won’t.”

“And to ensure that, you’re willing to sacrifice the very people you claim to serve. Morality doesn’t enter into this at all, does it.”

“Truth is beyond morality. This is a good death, luv. It’s the culmination of the Great Rite. The Harvest King is sacrificed to feed His people, His seed spilled upon the fields to ensure the fertility of His Lady.”

“You knew Axel Creevy had that heat-ray. That’s why you were at the bar. To confiscate the dratted thing before anyone else saw it.”

“And then you fell out of the bloody sky, looking for a woman who never should have been here at all. Axel was a zealot, yes. He was also a liability.”

“So you expiated him with a dragon?”

“The Goddess intervenes in mysterious ways. Ours is not to question.”

“Is your Goddess intervening now?”

“You tell me, luv.” She leveled the railgun at my chest, the weapon’s electrick whine building in volume and pitch. “The New Earth will endure.”

I whispered into my annunciator. “Look sharp, Plio. It’s show time.”

Ready.”

“Let me give you an honest piece of advice, priestess,” I said. “Never stand next to anything that’s flammable when you’re playing with energy weapons. It can really bugger your day.”

I triggered my ocular cannons.

Twin beams of aetheric fury lanced from my eyes. They pierced the airship’s hydrogen bags, and the World exploded. Flame and twisted metal rocketed outward, the stench of burning flesh roiling up into the crowded sky.

The blast threw me down, the gash in my forehead ripping open again, mad electricks screaming in my shoulder. Blue beams flashed from inside the barn, strobing a scant three feet above me in deadly parallel streams. The luminiferous rays screened my passage as I crawled one-handed back inside, momentarily blind.

The Gaze of Doom was a single-use option. The beams that channeled raw aetheric force through my optics were so intense, they burned out their own apertures and couldn’t be manifested a second time. My variable lenses had vaporized.

Artificial vision slowly swung back into alignment as I met Plio. He knelt in shadow between the gyrodyne and Linus’s wagon, a steaming Remington Peacemaker in each hand.

“Nine down, fifty-four to go,” he said.

I grabbed a mobile Edison-field projector from his field pack and activated it beneath the hole in the barn wall. A mechanized whoosh, and the breach was sealed by a shimmering barrier of gray-on-gray. The field was impenetrable, but it consumed power like nobody’s business. The wardstone in its core would be depleted in no more than fifteen minutes.

Plio tossed me one of the Peacemakers. The Edison-field was opaque, but I could hear men and women shouting from every direction. All were trying to identify which charred mass had been the High Priestess Marsallay Brome.

It was no less frantic inside. The fire lit by the heat-rays was spreading.

“Now would be a good time to hear this plan of yours.” Plio checked the gauges on his Emancipator. “I’m starting to lose hold of my solidity. You don’t look so presentable yourself.”

Correct on both counts. I felt like Hell, and Plio with his ruined chest looked like an awakened cadaver. I picked up another Edison projector.

“We duplicate the buckler event,” I said, “only this time in reverse. Foley’s got Tesla-bombs in the cellar. We’ll ride out the blast behind this.” I dropped the Edison into his hands. “Its wardstone hasn’t got enough power, so you’ll have to couple the projector directly into the turbine downstairs.”

He stared. “Tell me you’re not serious.”

I keyed his ansible beacon to repeat our location on all military bands, tagging it with Captain Marsh’s personal command encryption. That’d get her attention.

“Orda’s Eyes, you are serious.”

“Kavita is dead, brother. We have to stop these lunatics before they kill again.”

“By obliterating us all in the process?”

“Plio, there’s no time for this! I’ll happily step aside if you’ve got a better idea. Otherwise shut up and do it.”

“As you command, Major Caul.” The edge to his voice could have split diamonds.

“Brother, please.”

For an instant I saw the exotic in him glare back at me, his yellow Symb’ral eyes harsh and unreadable. Then the trusted officer and friend I knew him to be returned. He shook his head.

“My crèche-mother told me there would be days like this.” He took the Edison and disappeared down the cellar stairs.

I helped Linus to his feet; unlocked his shackles and tossed them aside, then picked up the Goliathon 8-gauge.

“The Goddess brigade is going to shoot the works, Pop, and they’re willing to sacrifice the arsenal to do it. I hope to Heaven you hate those rebel bastards as much as you say you do.”

I handed him the railgun. A leap of faith? What the Hell, we were dead men anyway.

He looked at me, then checked to see if the gun was charged. It was. “I already fired on you twice, son. How do you know I won’t try again?”

“I don’t.”

Something twinkled in his eye. He took the gun. I knelt and gathered our field gear.

Shouts and the characteristic belches of taurgs in the grip of battle-frenzy rose outside. An incendiary charge ignited the barn’s eastern wall, followed by another from the south. That was it, then.

The New Earth Alliance had sentenced us to death.

Linus ran to the nearest door and swung it open, railgun up. Two of the contingent from Dun Aenghus were running in, too close, no more than twenty-five yards away.

“Highwaymen!” The rebels flew backward in the railgun’s blast, all gore and shredded pulp from the necks up. “This is my home, damn you! I’ll see you in Hell afore I let you take it!”

Return shots echoed from the wheat field. Hollis Foley cried out, unable to do a thing.

A side door swung open. Two men and a Gamhanid rushed in through the transition, a woman close behind. The taurg was Deputy g’Gompta from Glencolumbkille. We fired simultaneously. I picked off the first two rebels, but g’Gompta shot the Peacemaker from my hand before I could re-aim.

“Step away from the fire, Regulator,” he said, his keg-sized sidearm pointing at my face. “I prefer meat that’s raw.”

Another shot cracked. Blood and vivid blue scales sprayed from g’Gompta’s chest. He spun, and the woman behind him fired again.

“Stick a sock in it, Kuhl.” She stood there panting for breath, then whipped off her hat and cloak.

It was Constable Eliza Gilhooley.

“Mother have mercy, I hated that toady son of a bitch,” she said, wiping perspiration from her eyes.

I retrieved the Remington and pulled her inside the door, ready to crush the gun in her hand if need be. “Turning your coat, young lady?”

“We’ve been watching Brome for more than a month now. I think the Archbishop is up to his todger in this as well. Chief Carmody didn’t know who to trust.”

“You trust me?”

“I like your sensibilities.”

Damnation, girl, I thought. Yours aren’t so bad either.

More gunfire popped alongside the scream of sound-cannons. Then realization hit me. “You were the voice in Dun Aenghus. The one who ansibled into my head.”

Eliza reloaded her sidearm with impressive speed. “I could only send the one burst before you pan-fried all communications with those fancy rounds. You’ve been on your own since then.”

Big surprise there. “You do know you’ve walked into a deathtrap.”

“Not that I reckon.” Her eyes sparkled in the firelight. “You’re the Hero of New Philadelphia.”

The flames rose faster now, lapping at the rafters, ready to drop down through the slate tiles and into the loft. Linus’s thunderbacks were panicking, slamming the stalls with their mighty hooves, the galumphers and Foley’s lizard Dejah along with them.

“We have to get the animals out of here,” Eliza said.

“No. Just keep them away from the walls.”

“What—”

“Do it, girl.”

“Caul, you bastard!” Foley cried. “Let me go!”

Something caught his eye. I couldn’t discern what it was from my position and didn’t have time to focus telescopically. He pulled the razor wire taught and slid out on the barn floor, reaching desperately through dirt and straw.

Alarms should have been sounding in Myddleham by now, but help wouldn’t arrive in time. I met Plio as he climbed the cellar stairs and almost stepped on the Edison-field projector he’d set there. Cloth-insulated cables were spliced into the exposed wardstone in its core, coiling down into the secret room beneath us.

He’d stripped off his ruined shirt and waistcoat to accommodate a second pair of arms that sprouted beneath the first. Each carried a heavy crate retrieved from the rebels’ stash, and a grenade launcher was slung over one of his four shoulders. His movement was sluggish, labored.

“Where’ve you been?” he huffed. He set the crates down and absorbed the new arms back into his torso.

“Sorry,” I said. “Rallying the troops.”

I grabbed the launcher, a sawed-off monster of a contraption reinforced with magnetick accelerators that could hurl a projectile to Hell and back. The first crate held the launcher’s power supply and feeder cables. The other crate held the bombs.

Tesla-bombs, configured for use with the grenade launcher. Just looking at them made the biological half of my brain ache.

Plio connected the launcher’s power couplings to the battery core. I snapped open the breechblock, fumbling one-handed; slid a bomb inside and locked down the impellor coils. Calculating the trajectory arc was simple. There wasn’t any. A clean ninety degrees off the horizon, straight up. I snapped the breech closed.

Done.

Timbers groaned above us. This was going to be too damned close. A two-inch Tesla had an annihilation radius of three hundred yards, plus or minus.

I set this one to blow at one-twelve.

Gilhooley threw blankets over the animals’ eyes and pulled them away from the burning walls. Plio saw her for the first time.

“She’s the cavalry,” I said.

“Of course she is. I can barely contain my glee.”

“Pop!” I called. “Front and center! Plio, go unlock the deputy.”

Only then was it apparent what Foley had done.

He’d retrieved Linus’s shackles, the pair I’d tossed aside. He sat hunched over the heavy bands, their casings jimmied open, flipping toggles and switches in the exposed electricks with the pin of his badge.

“Hollis!”

A sharp metallic click. The lock to his own restraints snapped open. He untangled himself from the razor wire, grabbed Plio’s unattended Emancipator, and ran before I could stop him.

Rebel fire had Linus trapped under the loft, pinning him there between two widening rifts in the wall. Foley shouted and knocked him out of the way. He rose to one knee and raked the fields with the luminiferous carbine again and again, tears streaming down his dirty face.

More railgun blasts, whines from heat-rays and Gatling Torches, chunks of the rafters vaporizing above our heads. Caines staggered in, turning to pump iron rounds through gaps in the spreading flames.

“Plio, take over,” I said. “Hollis! With me!”

Foley appeared a moment later, racing around the wheels of Caines’s buckboard, Emancipator in hand.

“They’ve got more Immolators out there! Agent Caul, what do we do?” Foley saw the open case of Tesla-bombs and skidded to a stop. “Oh, shit.”

Gilhooley appeared behind him, pressing her gun to his back, but she didn’t fire. If Foley was going to act against us, he’d have done so by now.

Then I heard it, a deep and distant bellow that only I could detect.

“Into the cellar, people,” I said, the steady tone of my words edged with as much urgency as I dared without inciting panic. “Drop everything. Hurry.”

“Dammit, son!” said Caines, hacking smoke and black soot. “I ain’t clearin’ off now.”

“We’re saving your life, Pop! Do it!”

The bellow returned, loudly now, the sound and the thing that created it, straight out of any rational being’s nightmare.

“Romulus—”

The silhouettes rose with purpose beyond the flames and above the valley’s opposite ridge—one at first, then followed closely by two more in regimented formation. War-Machines.

Umbran War-Machines.

“Sweet Mother Earth...” Eliza said.

The machines lurched forward with great herculean strides down the hilly slope and onto Linus’s fields, the land rumbling with each step. Most of the rebels pulled back and established themselves in new positions, though a great many dropped their weapons in abject terror and fled altogether.

I shouted above the clamor. “Kind of hard to hide one of those monsters in that secret lair of yours, eh, Deputy?”

“I didn’t know! I swear Agent Caul, I didn’t know.”

As so many of Mankind’s automatons had been constructed to mimic the human form, so too did Umbra’s conveyances bear a singular resemblance to its own native physiology: the pivoting hood-like head, writhing tentacles, the five towering legs. Mortars of various weights were slung within the leviathans’ coiled appendages, as was an Immolator cannon (one for each) of truly disquieting proportions.

The lead War-Machine fired one of its mortars, twice, in loud concussive pulses of smoke and chemical flame. Two drums came whining in and popped open when they hit the ground next to barn; one in front, the second along the western wall.

Immediately upon exposure to the damp soil and light, vines of crimson-strangler grew and spread, entwining the barn walls, snapping boards in their coils.

“The cellar, now!”

The barn’s nearest wall ripped open in the grip and weight of the Umbran vines. Bullets streaked through the debris, vectoring wildly. Four rounds struck me sidelong and shredded my garments, then two more, ricocheting off my armored mass.

One of them nailed Caines.

He spun and fell, the railgun thrown from his hands.

“Linus!” screamed Foley.

Gilhooley dove and crawled to Caines’s aid.

I hugged the dirt floor, Peacemaker drawn, bright azure bursts flashing through gaps in the thickening vines. I couldn’t see worth shit because of the blood flowing into my eyes. X-ray alchemics would have been nice.

Another drum crashed through the wall and fell into the animal stalls, releasing its payload of crimson-strangler. The vines quickly engulfed the stalls from the inside, twining up support columns and over bales of hay.

Plio lurched forward, trying to get to Foley. “Deputy! Get down!”

But the boy held his position, backlit by the flames, red fire lancing from the Emancipator in his bleeding hands.

“It isn’t every day a man finds out he’s been living a lie,” he shouted. “Don’t worry, sir! Do what you have to while you still can.” He stepped up the firepower, determination burning in his eyes like windows into the great lamp of the Sun.

“Hollis, get down!” Eliza yelled. “What are you doing?”

“Don’t argue with him!” I told her. “Plio, move!”

Between us, Foley and I cleared a path through the mass of stranglers to the trap door. Plio leapt, stretching out of the way as the beam from a Gatling Torch tore through the space where his chest had been. He hit the floor rolling into a red-and-black ball and dove head first into the hole.

“I’m sorry about the girl, Agent Caul,” Foley said over the roaring weapons. “I swear I am.”

I squeezed off two final bursts and grabbed the grenade launcher with my good hand.

“Plio! Let’s go, brother!”

The War-Machines ceased their forward movement and fired their Immolator cannons in unison. The barn roof blew off its rafters.

A sickening groan rumbled above us as the roof deck fell. Burning wood and red-hot chunks of slate crashed down one by one. Floorboards buckled and snapped.

“Plio!”

“NOW!” he shouted.

This is for Kavita, you shitheaded bastards.

I raised the launcher straight up and fired.

The Edison-field snapped into place, drowning out three final gunshots, three rocketing pieces of high-density death.

Hollis Foley shouted and leapt between me and the breach in the wall.

The Tesla-bomb hurtled upward at nine hundred and ninety yards per second.

Three bullets hit Foley square in the chest.

Eliza covered Linus with her body and shielded his eyes.

The air above us shimmered gray-on-gray.

The bomb soared upward as the Edison-field solidified into an impenetrable dome.

Up through the collapsing foldbox into the clear Gamhanid sky.

Foley crashed into me, blood spraying behind him.

One hundred and twelve yards above the ravaged countryside, the Tesla-bomb detonated.

Whitehole.

The fury of Creation flashed through the zero-point in the heart of the device. The farmhouse and everything around it burned in one incandescent stroke. Metals boiled away. Rebel flesh and machinery vanished in the blast of unchecked aetheric might.

The shock wave slammed downward like a divine hammer smiting the sins of the World. The ground dropped out beneath us and rebounded back again, throwing us so hard we sailed off the floor.

Something smashed into the back of my head, and infinite darkness, the Deep between Worlds, swallowed me whole....

Chapter 7

The End of Things, the Beginning of Others

We shut off the Edison-field once the temperature outside had cooled to a tolerable level. The barn was gone, as were Linus’s cottage and fields. Molten ribs of steel marked where the grain transports had been, and misshapen skeletons were all that remained of the War-Machines. Hot ash smoldered for hundreds of yards in every direction.

Government aerocraft and an ambulance were waiting for us, some parked upon the gray gouge that was the road to Myddleham, others circling about in tight orbits overhead. Johanna and the Victory’s physicians were present coordinating the mop-up with Executive Chief Carmody, though, as expected, Johanna was more than mildly annoyed that I still remembered her private command code.

Kavita Patel’s body was easily found once the glamour was no longer operational. It was taken back to Whitehall for autopsy and closure with the grieving family.

Royal Marines from Albion stormed onto Gamhanrhide en masse and rooted out the remaining New Earth cells. There were actually very few. The Goddess rebellion turned out to be a fanatic but small percentage of the orb’s population. And true to form, the Umbrans had vanished without a trace, which came as a surprise to no one.

The real surprise came from Great Albion with the arrests of Parliament’s third- and fourth-ranking delegates representing the Earther Brethren, who were in fact the first- and second-ranking masterminds who’d conspired with Umbra-Nine.

Linus Caines was admitted to hospital in Glencolumbkille, more from emotional trauma than the gunshot that had clipped his shoulder blade. The doctors determined that he’d been drugged repeatedly to forget any rebel goings-on he might have witnessed on or about his property. He wept over the loss of his beloved home, then vowed to build another once he’d recovered.

Hollis Foley held on for twelve days. The bullets that were meant for me hit high in his chest, bounced off the collar bone and grazed his heart. Unlike mine, his body would not accept mechanical replacements. Even medical thaumaturges from Morcades were unable to intercede in any lasting capacity. He died this morning.

Everything has gone back to normal, although “normal” in the Aspects is a highly subjective conceit.

And Special Agent Plio Plio Ah is still plucking buckshot from his metamorphic ass.

Myself, I’ve a lot of thinking to do.

It’s easy to footnote Kavita’s death as simply a cruel act of fate. But the chain of events that came to pass after she’d died led to the prevention of even more death on a horrific scale, untold thousands who would have been lost if the Goddess movement had gone to war. All because she’d stopped to pick a handful of flowers. Is that a sacrifice she would have made willingly? Damned if I know.

I’d told Foley not to sacrifice himself for an ideal. But what does that say about the generations of men and women, human and not, who’d lifted the Instrumentality up into the Heavens and set out to conquer the whole of Creation?

Perhaps Linus Caines is such a man. Never in my life have I cared for anything as much as he treasured his home. And to protect it he was more than willing to die, an ideal shared body and soul by a believer named Hollis Foley, Junior.

Earthers.

I still can’t fathom it. Hell, maybe I’m the exotic and Plio the true human. Then again, having a clockwork soul is better than wondering whether or not you’ve got a soul at all. I think I’ll get my immunities shored up again, for good this time, and spend the rest of my leave on Gamhanrhide—wyverns notwithstanding. There’s an old man I need to see about rebuilding a farmhouse.

They say home is a spiritual place. They may be right, at that.


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Dean Wells is author of the ongoing post-steampunk series "The Clockwork Millennials." His short fiction has appeared in Ideomancer, 10Flash Quarterly, Eldritch Tales, ShadowKeep Magazine, and The Nocturnal Lyric, as well as multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. He's also written for the performing arts in various capacities. Dean is an active member of SFWA. Visit him online at www.dean-wells.com

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