|"Sanguinary Skies - Ch. 1"
Chapter Two: Deltus
Nelson, Gray, and Roland stood over the wounded Deschain, who lay in an infirmary bed naked from the waist up. He was a brutish man, his rock-like muscular body covered in many scars and grotesque tattoos that betrayed the simplistic look of his face.
“What the hell…” he uttered as he returned to the conscious world. He rubbed his eyes and looked up through blurred vision at the captain. The sergeant sat upright and shook his head groggily.
“My name is Captain Nelson,” the seasoned officer said laconically, arms locked behind his back. “The Xenoids wiped out your entire garrison, but we found you before you bled out. Give the Medfix a couple days and you’ll be back in action.”
“Wait, what? I—” the sergeant started, then froze as the shock sunk in. “Everyone?”
“Yes,” Nelson said coldly. Deschain felt a very slight pang of sorrow for his fallen comrades, but, for the most part, felt triumphant for having survived in their place. At the same time, he felt slightly relieved that the annoying Private Jenkins suffered a bloody demise.
After a moment of silence, Gray finally intruded from Nelson’s left. “Tell us what happened, John,” he said, his voice caring and sympathetic.
“Bastards landed in a human pirate ship and waited for the sun to go down, then assaulted us head-on. We kept them at bay for a few minutes, then this other ship came down—”
“Our marine squad,” Nelson interrupted.
“They were yours?” Deschain chuckled, somewhat surprised. “By God, the Xenoids wiped the dirt with your squad.”
Nelson felt his finger twitch as rage flooded his body, but he suppressed it. Not until he’s better.
“I was knocked out by one of those things just as your squad flew off. Next thing I know, I’m on a ship with some naval officers getting in my face.”
"That's an interesting way to thank us," Nelson growled, his voice low and stern.
The ship’s doctor approached the three men; “Captain, the sergeant really needs to rest. You should talk to him later after he’s gotten some sleep.”
Nelson nodded slightly to the doctor. He glared at Deschain momentarily, and without another word, walked off towards the command center with his retinue at his sides.
Captain Nelson sat in the skipper’s chair, tapping at his console. Thomas Williams approached him and saluted.
“Sir, the Union’s forwarded a new lead,” the yeoman said. “Apparently, information from Xenoid technology retrieved on Epsilon 7 points us to Deltus Primus as their homeworld.”
“Deltus Primus,” Nelson thought aloud.
“It’s in the outskirts of Dead Man’s Traverse,” Thomas said. “It explains why we usually see them out there. We've been given orders to travel there and sabotage their breeding grounds.”
Nelson looked Thomas in the eyes, unspeaking. “This is from the IU?” he asked, an obvious tone of suspicion to his voice.
“Yes, sir,” the younger man replied obediently.
Nelson’s pointer finger tapped the arm of his chair distractedly. Just as he was about to speak again, another officer intruded.
“Captain,” Kieran Gray said with a salute, “I received the lead this morning. I’ve done a check and it’s genuine. We should go, sir – take the fight to their planet and end it now.”
Nelson’s judging eyes pierced through his commander. He sat in thoughtful silence, turning the situation over in his head.
“Plot a course,” the captain said reluctantly, vainly attempting to mask his suspicion. “We’ll head out tomorrow. The crew needs another day to recover.”
A voice deep in the darkest corner of his mind was screaming at him. The same single word rang through his mind over and over, despite the verification of his commander.
He couldn’t even explain why. It just was.
Lieutenant Inspector Roland von Trotha sat up in his bunk, alone in the officers' quarters. He was scrolling through top secret IU databases on his personal data assistant, reading through several articles.
He opened up a page with the words Darkened Stars in bold at the top. The article detailed an Earth-based terrorist organization; an anti-establishment group that primarily targets the Interstellar Union’s activities in space. Much of their background and structure is unknown; everything the Union knows about them is from their attacks and assassinations. Apparently, their name refers to the three stars of the IU – symbolic to their so-called ‘great downfall.’
Roland tapped a button on his PDA and the screen went black. He set it aside and lay back in his bunk, staring at the low ceiling blankly. Just a day's rest before the Yorkshire would take a relay to Dead Man’s Traverse. Roland closed his eyes, fully awake, and contemplated in impatient wait.
Deafening blasts echoed through the long, narrow hallway. Kieran Gray stood on one end, the barrel of his pistol pointing downrange from behind a small counter covered in empty brass shells.
The commander rapidly unloaded magazine after magazine into a target on the opposite wall; the officer felt only mildly challenged by the maximum distance of the Yorkshire's firing range. With one bright blue eye staring down the sights of his 10mm pistol, round after round rang out and struck the paper victim with deadly precision.
The stench of gunpowder was strong now. During practice, Kieran used archaic twenty-first century ammunition (as opposed to modern powderless rounds that allowed combat outside Earth) solely out of love for its sweet aroma. The fourth empty magazine fell from Commander Gray's pistol, clattering against the steel table alongside the previous three.
Gray had found new ways to challenge himself on the firing range with his weapon of choice; rapid fire self-tests. He would fill four ten-round magazines and expend them all downrange as fast and accurately as possible.
The commander clicked a small button on the table, and his target slid swiftly towards him. As it made its journey back up his aisle, Gray pondered over his timing.
The punctured paper finished its journey, stopping and settling just before Gray's steel table. The commander gazed over it with satisfaction.
The center of the target was completely ruined. No shot had strayed far from the bullseye.
Hours and hours of free time paid off, he thought as he yanked the target from the track and set it in a pile of nearly-identical sheets of paper. He locked a fresh one in and sent it back downrange.
Sons of bitches will never see us coming, Gray smirked as he pondered over the Deltus Primus mission and pushed fresh bullets into his four empty magazines.
After the attack on Epsilon 7, the Xenoids had the attention of the Sceptres. The commander knew it wouldn't be long before their homeworld was in humanity's crosshairs.
Half an hour until lights out. Nelson sat impatiently at the skipper’s chair, his body and mind exhausted. They would head out the next day to fight the Xenoids on their world and he wanted rest, but he respected IU protocols.
Then again, he suspected he wasn’t fighting Xenoids. Someone else would be waiting for him. He already knew it.
“Captain?” Thomas saluted, breaking Nelson from his thoughts.
“Yes, Williams?” Nelson responded groggily.
“You never explained what a Sceptre is.”
The captain looked at the yeoman for a second, who stood in patient silence. “A Sceptre is an elite IU operative who takes high profile missions to carry out through whatever means they deem necessary,” Nelson explained. "They answer directly to the admiralty, and are a crucial resource used only when absolutely essential. In theory."
"So they're something of the admiralty's right hand?"
The captain pondered over the analogy for a moment. "More or less their dirty underhand," he replied candidly.
Thomas was silent for a brief moment. “What’s first and second class?” he asked.
“A first class Sceptre has their full status and can take assignments, and second class is a candidate. After a series of intense physical tests, they need to complete three missions under a first class before being reviewed by the admirals and possibly earning their full status.” He paused for a moment. “Gray is my apprentice, you could say. Fighting the Xenoids is his second mission as a Sceptre candidate.”
The yeoman looked rather overwhelmed by the information. “Sceptres can do anything they want?”
“Just about – as long as it gets the job done and doesn’t cause unnecessary damage to the Union or humanity. But remember, power always comes with responsibility; for a Sceptre, treason is punishable by death.”
“I see,” Thomas said. Nelson was amused by the hint of timidity that shone in his voice. “Also, why are you in the Union’s military if you hate politics so much?”
Nelson shot the yeoman a rather vexed look. “I wanted to help strengthen human interests in space, but I didn't want to deal with politics, so I joined the navy. Military men and bureaucrats are very different these days.”
Thomas nodded. “I know what you mean.”
“Sign me out, Williams,” Nelson declared, standing from his chair and stretching – the aloof officer seemed to be avoiding further questions. “I’m going to my quarters.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Thomas replied with a salute. They each knew it would be a long day tomorrow.
Four hours past lights out, the Yorkshire was empty and silent – only the occasional night patrolman roamed the steel halls.
Roland von Trotha stood by the window of a hallway, gazing into the vastness of the infinite black universe. Normally, his parted, jaw-length blonde hair was tied in a small ponytail below his officer’s hat, but at that moment, it flowed freely down his bony head. His hands were locked in front of him and his dark eyes were fixated dead forward.
Not long until they would touch down on Deltus Primus. Not long until the trap would be unleashed. Roland would make sure he was there when it happened. He would make sure the captain was in his sight at just the right moment.
And he would fulfill his duty.
The Yorkshire’s dropship sped down from orbit, piercing Deltus Primus’s bright blue sky. Captain Nelson stood in the center of the hold, his officers and squadmates sitting in the built-in fold-up chairs to his sides. His body was covered in advanced-looking gray battle armor, the silver eagle denoting his rank fused onto his left breastplate in place of the standard IU logo.
“We don’t know much about this planet,” Nelson briefed through his helmet radio, “but remember; our mission is to destroy the Xenoid breeding grounds. We’ll be infiltrating and planting charges. Be ready.”
"These are the coordinates," Taylor remarked to his copilot. The two were gazing about the planet bemusedly from behind the ship's windshield. "How odd. I goddamn hope Nelson knows what he's doing."
The dropship touched down and the doors slid open. The captain was the first one on the ground, followed by his two officers and the six remaining marines.
The Yorkshire’s shore party landed in an arid desert not any hotter than those on Earth. The vast horizon of red sand littered with small alien bushes was empty in all directions as far as the eye could see.
As the dropship flew off, the team stood in place, observant and bemused. Nelson looked about, but there was no sign of any life.
“Williams,” Nelson said urgently into his radio. “I think we—”
The captain’s words were cut short when large panels burst from the desert ground all around them in mists of sand. Each one revealed a hidden foxhole occupied by an armed man in black battle armor with sanguine shoulder plating. At lightning speed, a dozen black figures ascended from the ground in a large horseshoe around the squad and unleashed a storm of gunfire upon them.
With reflexes like bullets, the shore party simultaneously fell to their stomachs, firing in all directions at the attackers. The assailants dropped again. Nelson could hear what sounded like frantic running between each foxhole.
“Tunnels,” the captain spat into his radio, peering around from behind a small, bizarre green bush. “Marines, move up and clear them out. We’ll cover you and hit them from behind.”
“Aye,” Aston replied and signaled for Kelly and his four marines to follow him down a foxhole. The squad rose at once and hurried down into the subsurface trench.
Nelson got to his feet and held his overbearing revolver at the ready as gunfire sounded from the tunnels. It was at that moment, as he turned around to bark a flanking order, when everything fell into place.
A gunshot erupted between Lieutenant von Trotha and Commander Gray as the two wrestled against each other. Roland, dressed in dark gray battle armor, fell to the ground clutching his stomach, and Gray stood triumphantly with his pistol in his hands.
“Bastard!” Roland spat in agonizing pain, his body partially submerged in the desert sand. A trickle of blood was running down the side of his torso and into the dry ground. “I swear, you will die!”
The commander’s face split into a mocking grin as he lined his sights on Roland’s helmeted skull. Just as Gray squeezed the trigger, he was tackled hard and taken to the ground, sending his bullet astray. Captain Nelson unleashed a flurry of blows onto the commander.
“You set us up!” he hissed, launching fist after fist into Gray, who tried in vain to put up a defense. “You set us all up!” The captain battered his victim’s helmet, the visor cracking open and starting to cave in – to his dismay, the planet’s air was breathable.
Without warning, Gray’s fist came to life and struck Nelson hard in the throat. The captain choked and faltered, and Gray booted him off – Nelson stumbled and only barely caught himself from falling on his back.
With a single swift motion, the commander whipped his body upright and landed on his feet, then lifted his helmet from his shoulders and tossed it aside, revealing a head of short auburn hair. His light blue eyes gleamed in the pounding sunlight as a single drop of sweat trickled down his forehead.
“You don’t understand, Arterius,” Gray taunted, his fists hovering bloodthirstily in front of him. “Humanity is a cancer – it is the reason why Earth is nothing but filth and pollution. We will quickly contaminate the entire galaxy if we spread – the Interstellar Union needs to be destroyed before it is too late.”
“You son of a bitch,” Nelson growled. “You’re betraying everything you – we – have worked for!”
Gray smiled eerily. “That’s where you’re wrong,” he chuckled, shaking his head condescendingly. “I’ve been a member of Darkened Stars for ten years; an agent within the Union.”
Nelson’s face was disfigured with rage. “So is your assignment to destroy the Yorkshire, or just to kill me?”
Gray’s face twisted into a sick grin. “I’m assassinating you and taking command of the Yorkshire. I’m going to assist the Xenoids in the initiation of their plan by personally leading them directly to Earth.”
The dynamite in Nelson’s stomach suddenly exploded. He marched defiantly forward and sent a fist into the commander’s midsection, who retaliated with a direct punch to the face, filling the captain’s visor with an intricate cobweb of cracks. Nelson stumbled backwards dazedly and pressed a button on the side of his helmet, retracting the broken visor. A sudden arid heat wave swept over his exposed face.
“You just don’t understand, Nelson,” Gray said, his stupid grin intact and sweat streaming down his face. “I am doing what is right. Humanity has a problem, and you are their hero – their solution. I am the antithesis. You seek to better humanity, and I seek salvation through destruction. I will be an ambassador to the Xenoids – the only one spared in the glorious new humanless age.”
“No!” Nelson snarled as he threw another quick punch at Gray, then received a counterattack across the lip. The captain grappled the traitor and attempted to wrestle him to the sand, each man’s strength refusing to falter. “You can’t do this! The Xenoids are using you! I won’t let you ruin everything we’ve sacrificed for!”
Gray thrust himself against his attacker and slammed his forehead into the captain’s exposed face, knocking him off balance and shattering the cartilage in his nose. Nelson clenched his gushing nostril and stood his ground against the commander, quickly pulling his lopsided helmet from his head and dropping it to the sand. His light brown, sweat-soaked hair was hardly longer than a centimeter, and a stream of crimson fell down his mouth and dripped from his chin.
“Now I am become Death,” Gray growled, pulling a long, serrated combat knife from his steel boot. He grinned in a sickening way the captain had never seen in his relatively short time knowing the commander, and his eyes were aflame with murder. “The destroyer of worlds!”
He leaped at Nelson and swung a wide arc. The captain jumped back, and the blade missed his throat by an inch. Gray launched forward a second time, thrusting his deadly steel at Nelson’s stomach.
The captain jumped to the right, dodging Gray’s stab. He ducked down and threw a punch between the commander’s legs, driving a solid fist upward into the man’s armored crotch and dazing him momentarily.
Gray staggered backwards, and just as Nelson stood again, the commander pounced and swung at full speed, his blade flying in another lethal arc. Nelson leaped back, but this time the blade’s tip raked across his chest and left a long, bleeding cut through his thick armor.
“Die, you son of a whore!” Nelson snarled as he threw himself at Gray. He swept his left elbow across the commander’s jaw, following it with a solid right fist that knocked a bloody tooth from his victim's skull.
Out of nowhere, Gray let out a bloodcurdling howl as his eyeballs erupted in a bright cyan glow; “I am become Death!” an inhuman voice screamed through him, sending the captain backing away frightfully. It seemed as though the commander was no longer in control of his body as an unearthly force let itself loose from within him. “THE DESTROYER OF WORLDS!”
He marched forward dauntlessly and unleashed an inhuman flurry of swings with his knife, the blade dancing faster than Nelson could comprehend. The captain could only barely keep out of the commander’s storm of swings – he moved quickly backwards, faltering as the heel of his armored boot sunk into the sand. His legs buckled and he fell hard on his rear, one hand propping himself up from behind. The captain could do nothing but stare helplessly into Gray’s unearthly eyes as the blade diced the air in front of him in a wild blur, the sharpened steel hungering for Nelson’s flesh.
It was time for honor to go out the window. The captain wrapped his fingers around his revolver’s handle. He would only have time for one shot, and it would have to count; if it didn't, his mission would end in a gruesome critical failure.
The large machine of silver steel whipped forward and fired in a frantic blast. The armored plate covering Gray's chest just below his throat burst in a quick spray of crimson, punching a gushing hole straight through his torso – but the inhuman commander was unfazed. He was grinning and closing the distance in a slow, purposeful stride.
Nelson had failed. For the first time, his face deformed with hopeless despair and disbelieving gloom.
Gray stood over his victim and lifted his blade in the air, wasting no time in bringing it down in an earth-shattering plummet. Just as the glimmering steel began its lethal descent, there was an echoing gunblast and Kieran's auburn scalp popped. Blindsided, he staggered to the left, a small chunk of his cranium blown clean off as he nearly tripped over Nelson's leg.
The commander straightened his spine of steel and turned to face Roland, who stood slouched with a small shotgun in his hands. Sweat poured down the lieutenant’s face under his naked head, his helmet lying in the sand where he fell. His blonde hair was still pulled into a small, neat ponytail, and his face was twisted with berserk fury and burning agony.
Gray’s glowing eyes amplified and grew more furious, and the traitor flipped the knife in his hand and hurled it forward with frightening speed. At that moment, Roland squeezed the trigger again.
The lieutenant fell to the ground in a spray of blood as Gray’s knife pierced his right breast. A larger second chunk of Gray’s head was blown away – now only half of his cranium was in place, glowing eyes at the pinnacle – and blood gushed in a fountain over his body. The possessed commander stumbled and fell on his back, the cyan in his eyes flickering and beginning to die. Nelson approached the squirming body and quickly emptied a large .44 round into what was left of the wretched thing’s head, extinguishing its life simultaneously with the light blue glow.
“Traitorous bastard,” Nelson growled, spitting on the betrayer’s corpse.
Panting and sweating, the captain jogged to the injured lieutenant. He was on the ground, knife’s hilt sticking from his chest, but still breathing. His battle armor kept the blade from piercing deep into his torso and puncturing his lung.
“Williams,” Nelson said into the emergency radio on his wrist. “Gray betrayed us and Roland’s been injured. We need a pickup, now.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Thomas replied, his voice sounding somewhat timid.
Then it was dead silent. The gunfire had stopped. Nelson felt the heat pound at his sweating head. He desperately hoped the battle was over.
Lieutenant Aston dropped from the surface and charged through the underground tunnel, spraying shotgun blasts at the assailant soldiers. Each attacker that appeared was quickly dispatched.
Near the end of the curved tunnel, as the lieutenant turned a corner, there was a blur of black and red, an acute pain in his face, and then darkness.
A dark-skinned man battered Aston quickly with the butt of his rifle, shattering his visor and sending him to the floor in a cloud of red. This man looked different from the others – while most of them had simple black breastplates, his had a large, upside-down blood red star painted on the front. His armor was crude and beaten, and seemed to have bloodstains of past victims sprinkled over his chipping paint.
Darkened Stars, Kelly thought to herself amidst the fury of seeing her longtime partner taken down. She fired a quick burst at the dark-skinned man, who leaped back around the corner.
In a moment of overpowering fury, Kelly put her rifle over her shoulder and yanked two knives from sheathes on her hips, then sprinted around the corner. One marine – Corporal Henderson – cried out desperately at the sergeant in a vain attempt to restrain her.
As Thorne swung around the corner, she spotted the dark-skinned man standing cowardly behind another regular. Kelly charged forward as the second man fired his pistol.
The bullet glided an inch from the sergeant’s body. Kelly dove forward and plunged each of her blades into the man’s shoulders, taking him quickly to the ground.
As Kelly and the soldier fell to the tunnel floor, Aston had risen again, pistol forward. His face was sliced up and embedded with jagged shards of broken glass and blood leaked from his helmet. The dark-skinned man glared tauntingly at the healed stubs on the lieutenant’s hand before firing each of his dual snub-nose revolvers.
Just as Aston pulled his trigger, two wounds exploded on his chest and he fell backwards, slamming against the sand wall and sending his shot astray. His staggering arm lifted weakly, the barrel of his pistol trembling as the muzzle exploded a second time.
The bullet passed the dark-skinned man’s head by a full foot. Grinning, the assailant pulled each trigger again.
At that moment, Kelly rose and leaped forward, swinging both of her blood-drenched blades horizontally. Each of her knives slashed through the man’s coarse black beard and split his throat wide open.
The sergeant had inadvertently thrown herself in front of his right pistol.
The Darkened Stars officer fell in a sea of blood and Kelly staggered backwards, then hit the ground. Lying on the sand, arms around her bleeding stomach and ruddy knives fallen at her sides, she shot a worried glance back at the lieutenant. He sat motionless against the wall, slumped forward and gushing blood from a hole between his eyes.
Kelly howled in miserable indignation.
“Sergeant!” Henderson cried as he ran towards the fallen woman. “We were attacked from behind just as you ran off! I tried to stop you!”
He kneeled by Thorne as Private Mikhailov came around the corner, stopping at the lieutenant.
“He’s dead,” the man said in a saddened Russian accent. “Bullet to the skull. Nguyen and Ellis were killed, too.”
Kelly was on the ground, writhing and crying miserably. They were the first tears of her entire career, and they were completely unrelated to her physical wound.
“Captain,” Henderson said into his radio. “We’ve got to get out of here! Lieutenant Aston's down, and Thorne's been wounded.”
“Bastard!” Nelson's voice cried angrily through the radio (an unseen boot had simultaneously battered Gray's demolished cranium). "The dropship's on the way. We're getting out of here, Corporal!"
Then the radio went silent again.
Roland von Trotha sat up in his infirmary bed, rotating his bandaged shoulder in its socket. It was still sore, but he could fight again. It had been almost a full day since the ambush on the desert world; even with advanced medicine healing grievous wounds in several days’ time, Roland was a quick healer by modern standards.
“I need an explanation,” Captain Nelson growled sternly. There was a nasty fresh scar on the now-jagged bridge of his nose – the cut across his chest was raw, but recovering as well. “Three good marines – including my lieutenant – died down there. Tell me everything.”
The serpentine German looked at Nelson with a laughing smile, his long, blonde hair flowing freely. He had expected something more along the lines of thank you for saving my life.
“My name is Colonel Roland von Trotha of the 1st Interstellar Marines, Sceptre first class,” he explained. “My mission was to protect you and investigate Commander Gray for conspiracy to commit treason.”
Rage was burning in Nelson’s emerald eyes. “Why did I not know of this?”
“We didn’t have any evidence against him, only suspicion. Since he was an IU agent – a Sceptre, at that – the situation was much more delicate. I didn't tell you because—” Roland paused for a moment. Very briefly, a pang of regret shone in the German's dark eyes. "Because I knew you would take Kieran's word over mine."
Nelson’s face was twisted with hostile anger. “So what about that bogus lead?”
“Darkened Stars sent it to Gray, and he gave it to Williams," von Trotha replied. "My theory is that it was an emergency measure to remove us after the Xenoids drew our attention. Gray was going to use his full Sceptre status to freely leave Union Space and direct the Xenoid fleet personally, but he had to act prematurely when he realized we were already on our way to their homeworld. I must admit, I’m surprised you knew he was the traitor, and not me.”
Nelson smirked awkwardly, as though he was not used to it – which he wasn’t. “I knew it was fake the moment Williams told me about it. I’ve been to Deltus Primus eight years ago – it’s completely barren and lifeless. No way the Xenoids could live there. But Gray – he just insisted it was real.” The captain paused for a moment. “I couldn’t just shoot him down there. If I was wrong, it would mean a trip through the airlock for me.”
“True,” Roland nodded. “The bastard was trying to kill you. That’s been his plan this entire mission – maybe even his entire apprenticeship. We had to expose him and take him down before we land on the Xenoid homeworld. Traveling there with him would only end in catastrophe.”
Nelson looked into the man’s dark eyes, then conceded. “Yeah, that's true," he sighed. "I presume Gray has been feeding me misinformation. What can you tell me about the Xenoids?”
"He has," Roland said as he stood from the bed and covered his slender body with a gray shirt. “In truth, the admirals know where they're from; Separith, deep in the largely-uncharted Dead Man’s Traverse. They’re commanded telepathically by their general, the Overlord – IU scientists theorize the Overlord’s presence causes the cyan eye glow.”
Nelson looked confused. “How did it take over Gray?”
“We think the Overlord can directly control anything that bows to its will. We need to go to Separith and destroy it – that should deactivate the entire Xenoid army at once.”
“Sounds dangerous,” Nelson said, then paused for a moment. “I’m ready. The crew should be, too.”
"Sanguinary Skies - Ch. 3"