The others, they don't like cowards. If they saw this....
| In his battle-worn, Holy-Terran pilot's jacket and solid-steel welder's goggles, Brannon looked out-of-place amid the cold, unmarked industrial buildings. Dust rose from his heavy footfalls and he scanned the emerald sky for signs of his old employer. Stomping along behind him, came an Eradis robot--seven feet of chrome and murder--at the head of a cloud of tan dust from the unpaved alleyway. A soldier in a shiny gray uniform led the mechanical devil-knight past Brannon. The bored eyes of the Indur soldier passed over Brannon.
Brannon reflected that, despite being Indur enemy number one, and dressing the part, he had been mistaken for one of his own fans. He looked over the pair once again, and turned away.
A woman ran up behind them, her costume a mirror of Brannon's own. Save for the laser burns on her scalp, her head shone bald as Brannon's. Her silver glasses hugged her cheeks like his goggles. Her black jacket displayed the same brassy flourishes. When Brannon squinted at her, captions appeared in the video feed. The name 'Talesh' flashed beneath her, and 'human.' No other comment: her glasses had no technical enhancements, no video or blinding attack lights; a weapon pulse would burn through her jacket more easily than flesh. The costume served no purpose other than to show her support for Brannon, or rather, the Brannon she imagined. A thousand men dressed like her, along with perhaps two hundred women, as if this might curb the rages of the Indur, who ruled the planet. The surviving Brannonites, despite their mood, posed little threat to anybody. Brannon watched.
Her quick, noble stride belied a thready heartbeat and bony build—normal for a woman born of war. Seeing a shadow of his beloved, long-dead Emperor in Talesh, Brannon smiled and nodded.
Talesh raced toward Varkon, the Indur soldier. She stopped in the shadow of the Eradis bot and jabbed the shoulder of Varkon's uniform. "I got your number, you pig-faced lout!"
Varkon turned, slack-jawed. The massive cannon whirred to life, adding a scent of hot electronics to the dry spice of the Larrikesh atmosphere. It could crush a person under its weight or blast a battleship from the sky, yet its nozzle hovered inches above the young woman's skull.
Her fists shook as she screamed in Varkon's face. "Oh, got all these weapons, you think you're so tough you can just up and kill anything you want! Not so tough are you, now!"
Don't you understand, I didn't damage their weapons—they can still kill on command! Brannon had forced the robots to wait for the order to kill, but he had never envisioned Talesh trying to out-scream an Eradis. Whether she aimed at an outburst or demonstration, her wounds already stained him. He bit his lips and considered.
She spat on Varkon. Her arms and legs shook with the thunder of three hundred years of terror. "Do you people understand what you've done? Burned homes, murdered families. Even lizards don't do that!"
It wasn't them, you fool! The robots had been beyond control. Too late, Brannon worried he should have set the robots to kill the soldiers. Now the time came to help Talesh. "Brannon! Stop it, will you?"
She never looked away from Varkon. "You're not even a man, are you? Just a boy. You want to kill me, don't you? Like the animal you think I am, the monster you want to be. So do it!"
She thinks I've stopped them altogether. Brannon searched his mind for a purpose behind Talesh's outburst, some reason for this risk. His mind sifted through the textbooks, the known history of protest--everything an amateur had ever thought of--and got a pain in his stomach for the effort. He pointed to the Eradis's cannon. "Don't you understand? This isn't safe. She can still kill you."
In fact, Varkon's hand rested on his gun as he pulled his head back and sideways. "I don't know, lady."
"Oh, now I am a 'lady?' I thought I was an obsolete, not worth owning."
With the coming of smart, cheerful machines, the slaves became a burden, and then vermin.. With those old devices already abandoned, Talesh's people, 'the obsolete,' represent the ruins of an older age, a caste of people with neither the rights nor even a parasitic master to keep them together.
"We're not all like that." The soldier's squint, jutting jaw, and pinched lips protested her accusation.
She stared at him.
"Everybody dreamed of changing things. The guy who stopped these bots was going to be the real Lar.. Should have known our new king would be some engineer from the home world." He indicated Brannon.
"Oh, yeah. Talk big and tough 'bout killing these things now. Right." Her rage spent, she kicked dust at him and whined at her feet. "We know you blame us for scaring the royals away."
He shook his head, slow and subtle. "You want me to shoot? The others don't like cowards. They see this...."
Brannon grabbed Talesh by the shoulder. "Stop right there, Brannon."
She turned and punched Brannon in the nose.
The Eradis bot activated her cann on, but never pulled the trigger.
She existed only to exterminate. These machines, straight from the garbage of Brannon's own Holy Terran Empire, cut a swath through the history and soul of this poor woman's world. As the cannon whirred and blood ran down his lip, Brannon focused his attention on the young woman.
"How dare you! You got a soft spot for these monsters?" Talesh pushed Brannon back against the cement wall behind him, then leaned forward and scoffed. "Wait, you're the real Brannon? Isn't this why you did it?—so we can show them what for."
Unarmed and noncombatant, Talesh—like all the obsolete—walked her world alone, protected only by the whims of the Indur: men like this weary soldier. Brannon grabbed Talesh's arm and pulled her farther away, addressing the soldier. "Do you know why this woman still lives? Not because of me, or the bot. Not because there's anything wrong with you."
"That's goodness; that's honor; that's what leadership means."
Varkon scratched under his nose while Talesh squirmed in Brannon's grip.
"The Indur stood for something once, and I can see it standing before me. You're a leader."
Talesh shook Brannon off. "Don't tell me you see something good in—in this, this—" Tears welled up in her eyes.
"Don't you?" Brannon eyed him. "The man let you spit on him. He didn't have to do that."
She sobbed and hit Brannon in the shoulders with her forearms. "Don't you get it? I never slept a night in my life. The dumbots would kill me before I woke." She kicked at the bot and resumed smacking Brannon.
Brannon swatted away the dust she kicked up, then grabbed her wrists, glancing up at the skies.
"You think it's easy for us?" The soldier pulled at the collar of his dull, silver-gray uniform, and shook his head at the Eradis. His tired voice growled, low. "Looking over our shoulders, for that angry soldier or greedy boss. At least, if you obeyed the laws—"
Brannon tried not to think of what would happen to them when his old boss arrived. "Things have only begun to change." Brannon shook her and glared at the man.
Talesh kicked him as Varkon stared at them.
"You're going to face a new enemy, and soon. It had better be together, as friends."
Her hands quaked; she did not react to Brannon tugging them, and her tear-flooded eyes stared down. "Don't care. It's finally over. I can go now." She grabbed Varkon's pistol and backed away.
Varkon groaned and looked away.
She pointed it first at Varkon, then flashed it toward Brannon before returning to the soldier..
"You've got your reason. Give the order! You hear me? Give the damned order."
The sight of Talesh brandishing the gun made Brannon's wrist itch, as the Holy Terran machines inside him whirred and buzzed..
"I'll do it!"
"Please?" Brannon put up his hands, barely wondering why Varkon did not seem confused. "Nobody has to get hurt today."
Varkon watched. The readout confirmed, his heart rate held rock steady.
"What's wrong with you—don't you even want to live?" She pointed the gun at her chin. "If you won't do it, I will."
Could Brannon have been that wrong about this thug? He shuddered. "No, Brannon, please. Not like that. Talesh?" Brannon grabbed his pills: liperium d, so potent the Empire banished anybody who took an extra dose, would give her the strength she needed. His own dosage running thin, he considered taking one himself. An agent always needed a little extra willpower.
Varkon glared and fingered a button on his holster. "I should let you do it, you know. You deserve some peace."
Her shoulders softened; her hands steadied.
The soldier grabbed the pistol by the barrel and pulled it from her. "Knew I'd be glad I invested in that trigger lock." The man's weapon knew Talesh had no right to fire it. He put it back, blinking back a tear, then put his hand on her shoulder.
"You two have a lot to talk about." Brannon stepped back.
"Let me get you something decent to eat. Can I do that, Brannon?"
"I..." She choked, looked down, then nodded. "Call me Talesh."
"Name's Varkon." The soldier led her by the shoulder, toward a shaded end of the alley. "What was that about? You gonna try that again?"
She sat down, shrugged, and squinted at Brannon, eyebrows tense. "Probably."
With Talesh handled, Brannon had more pressing matters. He didn't dare look into the sky to see if the Armada had arrived. Assuming Talesh meant for him to leave, Brannon stepped back, put up his hands. "Ah, s'okay. I have business."
"No, Brannon, wait. Where is she?" Talesh shaded her eyes..
The ragged edges of Talesh's costume, the odd tattoos on her neck, the tilt of her head reminded him of Scarlett and how he had betrayed her. He had good reason to lock Scarlett in the ship, to get away from her and her power over him. She was safe, but he couldn't explain to Talesh, or even to himself, why he had done that to his friend. First, he had to find out whether she had filled his mind with lies—or if it had been the empire. Brannon's nerves exploded, ready to flee, lose himself in one of the big, blocky buildings. He scanned the alleyway and shook his head at the walls without doors, the wire-barred windows before facing his accuser.
"My Scarlett's gone. A dumbot purge. You were there. He saw you, I think—moments before."
Scarlett had followed him since she arrived, so usually, brannonites traveled in pairs, one of them dressed as Scarlett instead. Realizing she cared nothing for his own sins, Brannon slowed his breathing.
Talesh continued. "We know why you're here. Not all of us, just a few."
She let that sink in. "You're not the first rogue, Terran agent cutting a swath of destruction through the wild black."
Disinformation. He had been so very careful to preserve lives. He nodded.
"You don't see it, do you? Being the good guy?" She shook her head. "Doesn't make you a good guy. If you had been, not one of Scarlett's sisters would ever have chosen you."
Varkon rubbed his nose. "What?"
"The red-haired mindwitch. Scarlett, right? This one calls herself 'Scarlett.'" Talesh laughed, and pointed to Brannon. "Just like him, I guess. Drawn to the stink of evil. When I saw you'd finally come, I thought this world done for. The day we'd been waiting for, since before things went bad."
Varkon coughed his laugh. "You thought we were done for. The Indur."
Talesh shrugged, not arguing. "Then I saw Scarlett choose him. Nothing scarier than hope in the face of apocalypse." She pulled out a box and bit down on it. Smoke came out of her nose, and a hint of burned rubber. Her lips blushed a shade before she huffed and tossed the empty box.
"Not sure what I'm hearing." Brannon scratched at the implant on his wrist as it strained to smooth out his hormones. He had blocked it from functioning, and it bothered him whenever he got excited.
"I'm a monster, Brannon. They say you should have stopped the Zahiti making weapons, but I would turned their weapons against them, just like you did. Every last one of them would have died, not just a few."
Lies! Brannon couldn't soften his glare, hard as he tried. He had destroyed their weapons, at least, as far as he remembered. The bots did stop making weapons, but only for a few days. When the war machine resumed, massive carnage began. Their bombs turned on them, destroying schools and hospitals. Brannon wanted to scream, to block out the news vids Talesh sent into his mind—was Talesh psychic?—but contented himself with adjusting his goggles. He knew the deaths had been faked, of course; the empire had far worse in mind for its victims. He gripped the bottle of pills.
"That is, until you saved the dumbots." Talesh's lips quivered.
Varkon's eyes opened at that.
"Can't give them a soul, give them a friend. That boy-Scarlett was mine. Without him, I'm a terrorist from a doomsday cult. I have to go."
Varkon coughed and scratched behind his ear. "You know, more than one person has a good head on his shoulders."
Talesh stared through the wall, into the distance, as if—like Scarlett—she were talking to the Stars. Praying. "I don't know, Varkon. I just ... don't know."
Varkon reached out his hand to Talesh. "That's a start. Don't sound like a terrorist at all."
Talesh sighed and took his hand, let him help her up. "I could wait till after you feed me."
He pulled her to her feet and slapped her on the back. "That's thinking like a soldier. Plenty of time to die tomorrow."