Written by Tim Bancroft and originally published as a serial, City of Exile takes place following the chaos that engulfed the Chryseis system and prior to the events in The Dronescourge Returns.
Batu Delhren and his band of exiled Freeborn have been captured by Ghar aboard a huge, ancient starliner the Ghar are reusing, The City of Triumph Over Humanity, once T.O.R. 563. The Ghar, however, appear to be squabbling amongst themselves. They have been taken to the brig, but Batu’s Shamasai Drone allows them spy on events that were no doubt meant to be private. Part 3 can be found here.
Batu glared at the cell hatch as it clanged shut behind them. “I think that came as a surprise to Shaltok.”
“And his troopers refusing to arrest Shaltok came as a surprise to Dramak,” observed Baray. She settled on the floor at the far end of the cell and looked round at the featureless walls, the single convenience. “Nice old brigs. I wonder if the rest of the crew is behind the other hatches we passed.”
“Probably. We walked a long way.” Batu examined the bottom of his boots. “This is a wreck, but it’s clean. Did you notice the old transmat plates we passed? I wonder why they don’t use them.”
“Would you risk an unmaintained transmat?”
“Good point.” Batu looked thoughtful for a moment. “Baray, the vard needs to know about this Dramak-Shaltok thing. Pointless political wrangling within the Ghar Empire is intel worth knowing.” Batu tried the hatch: it was locked. “Interesting that Shaltok demanded to see written orders, too.”
“Dramak had quite a smirk on his face. I guess he and Shaltok had history.”
Batu slid down the wall and wrapped his cloak around him. “I thought we were getting on quite well with that Shaltok fellow, too.” He rested his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. “I could really do with a nice bottle of Telerwine. Perhaps the ‘16 — no, the ‘17.”
Baray grunted. “Ask Dirag.” She rested her head on her knees.
“He’s rather a long way— Oh, mitespit.”
“What?” asked Baray. Her eyes snapped open.
“The Shamasai drone’s just started talking to me.”
“What’s it saying?”
“Well, not exactly talking, just making searching noises. Like a Shadin threkey looking for its owner.”
“If it were my threkey, I’d put it down.” Baray shuddered. “I don’t like threkey. Needy little creatures.”
“But they’re cute. And all the rage at court.”
“That’s the point. Fluffy fur, big ears, big eyes, clingy…” Baray rolled her eyes. “Not my scene.” The cell light went out and the air fell still. “I hope that’s your drone.”
Batu switched to his shard implant. “MyShard? What’s going on?”
It was not MyShard’s voice that answered. “Location of primary host established. Preferential route bypassed in deference to associated biologic stated tactical options. Contact estimated in 47…46…45…”
“The drone’s on its way. And MyShard’s been taken over by the Shamasai Shard. Again.”
Baray sat up. “Good. How soon?” The light flickered back on and the air moved again. “Was that the drone, too?”
“MyShard: was that life support and lighting outage you?”
“Negative. Power supply interruption cause unknown. Recommend analysis to ensure survival of biologic allies.”
“Whilst you’re chatting, Batu, do you think you could ask it to bring up some surveillance footage on our shard implants?”
“What am I…?” Batu bit back his retort. “Sure. And, no, that power flicker wasn’t the Shamasai Shard.”— “MyShard, can you plug us into the comm and surveillance circuits so we can see what’s happening around the ship?”
“Local security surveillance breach prerequisite for stealth infiltration.”
A panel beside Baray pinged as it bent inwards. She jumped to her feet, hurried to the same end of the cell as Batu. A hole appeared, then widened rapidly, the cerametal at the edges turning to dust and cascading outwards. A cilia-covered tentacle appeared, then another and the hole widened. Batu’s nano drone pulled itself through, bouncing into the air on its suspensor bed. “Infiltration complete,” announced the drone out loud. “Establishing surveillance link.”
Words scrolled across Batu’s lens implant.
Connection established with local surveillance network. Please state required person or area.
“Shaltok and Dramak,” snapped Batu. An image appeared of the hangar: Dramak was waving his arms from the assault troopers to Shaltok; Shaltok was standing firm, his four battle trooper bodyguard levelling their scourers at Dramak’s guard. “Are you seeing this, Baray?”
“Yes. I could do with sound. Can we retransmit this to the crew?”
“Surveillance image routed on encrypted circuits,” said the drone. “Integration with local surveillance circuitry inadequate, under enhancement.”
Baray looked at Batu; he shrugged. “I think it means ‘Yes, soon’ and it’s working out more functionality.”
“I’m so pleased you can control it.”
Batu gave Baray a hurt look. “It got us this far, didn’t it?” The image wavered, then sound came over their binaural implants.
“Arrest the Outcast Shaltok!” screamed Dramak. He stood at a hangar bay entrance.
Shaltok spoke calmly to his own troopers. “You are under no obligation to obey my own orders if you believe Dramak is telling the truth. However, I see no written or recorded orders.”
“That’s awkward,” said Batu.
“Hush. This is important.”
“I have no written orders!” Dramak was shouting. “They come direct from Karg, on a tape on my bridge. Surrender yourself!” He stamped a foot in anger. “Let me connect to my bridge!”
Shaltok folded his arms and kept them well clear of his lugger pistol. “No. I must see that tape and verify its contents myself on my own equipment.”
“Tell your bodyguard to stand down!” Dramak whirled to scream at his assault troopers. “Kill him for his impudence!” They looked at each other, then at the four battle troopers, but did not raise their weapons.
“I have already given the relevant order, Dramak. If my troopers believed you, they would already have arrested me.” Shaltok stared at the assault troopers. “You may be new recruits, replacements for this vessel, but you know me and my reputation. If you believe Commander Dramak, then do as he says.”
The troopers lowered their claws and stepped back. Dramak screamed at them, his voice shrill. “Traitors!” He beat on the legs of one of the troopers: it swivelled its sensor head to watch him. “You will be Outcast for this!”
Shaltok stepped forward, grabbed hold of Dramak and whirled him round. “Compose yourself!” Dramak reached forward to claw at Shaltok’s eyes but Shaltok dodged easily, stepped sideways and chopped at Dramak’s slender neck. The Commander crumpled to the deck. “I am of a soldier brood, Dramak, not a fleet brood.” He knelt beside Dramak and held him down. “What lies did you tell Karg?”
Dramak shook his head and spat at Shaltok. “The truth. I told him you took this ship for yourself from under my command, that you obviously intended challenging him.”
“But I am not High Commander brood,” said Shaltok, puzzlement obvious in his alto voice. “I may be captain of this vessel, but that is through my own devices. I am no threat to Karg.”
“He knows otherwise!”
Alarms rang out, startling those in the images as well as Baray and Batu. The image continued, the commtech running forward to address Shaltok. Batu focused on what was said but could only hear Shaltok’s response.
“Dramak, go to your ship. A Ghar warship has entered the system.”
“Then you will be arrested and I will take command!”
Shaltok slapped Dramak. The Ghar Commander looked horrified more than shocked. “You are wasting time. The attacker is under Rebel colours. It will pick off your transport on the surface with ease. This is a combat situation – any legal issues must be suspended. Until we settle this under a formally constituted court, you have no choice but to obey a superior.” Shaltok paused, glanced aside at his battle troopers, then stared steadily at Dramak. “And pending confirmation of your demands I am still your superior.”
Dramak visibly ground his teeth, then stepped backwards. He drew himself up to his full height. “This is not ended, Outcast.” He turned and ran out the entrance, beckoning his assault troopers to follow him.
Shaltok turned to the commtech. “Who is it?” he barked, trotted back to his battlesuit.
“He says he is High Commander Foornyn 2-41-6, in the service of Fartok.”
Shaltok nodded. “I knew Foornyn. A good commander in this sector before he defected. Details?”
“He just asks that you surrender.”
Batu broke the contact and turned to Baray. “That’s fortunate.”
Baray looked grim. “Not as much as you think. The Rebels may be out to take over the Ghar Empire, but they are as brutal with captives as any Ghar. What if this new commander doesn’t want to convert our frigate?”
“Oh,” said Batu. “I didn’t think of that. I guess we’d better get moving.” He nodded to the drone. “Get us out of here, please.”
The drone hovered up to the door and extruded a trio of tentacles. One reached up to the glowlight fixture and the light dimmed as if the drone were drawing power. The other two pseudopods probed at the heavy hatch as if looking for weaknesses, then both stabbed into the metal near the hinges. For a few moments, nothing happened, then the metal around the pseudopods turned to a fine dust and cascaded to the floor. The hole widened, the material turning to a texture and consistency of caked mud. The drone withdrew its tentacles and backed off just as the brig’s manually operated door fell outward with a loud clang.
“That will draw attention,” said Baray as she cautiously poked her head round the door frame. “All clear. Just the prison corridor.”
The drone followed her out; Batu carefully picked his way behind the drone. “Where are we going?”
“To find the crew.”
The drone was already heading off down the corridor. “Primary and biologic defender will follow,” it said. “Guards have been neutralized.”
“What does that mean?” asked Batu. There was no reply. He followed Baray past prison cells like their own to the central guard post they had passed earlier. Baray stopped at the guard post, then abruptly turned away and put a hand out to steady herself. She’s never reacted like that, before. “What’s up?” Batu ran forward to check what made her react so badly.
It was a large, central chamber, lifts to one side and corridors leading off in every direction to cells corridors similar to the one they had come from. Around the chamber was a jumble of red detritus mixed with Shamasai-coloured sand.
Then the scene shifted and Batu turned away to retch.
The Ghar guards had been sliced apart by myriads of cuts, each precise as if made by a razor-edged blade. Heads lolled on the floor, separated from their bodies. A dust-coloured growth covered a single assault trooper’s armour, the front of which was split open and the Ghar inside dissected as he tried to crawl out. Blood covered every control surface, the floor, the walls, and the consoles; limbs lay where they had been thrown by the violent attack; entrails from slit stomachs spilt out onto the deck: it was impossible to count how many Ghar there had been.
The drone hovered in the middle of the guard post and spoke just two words. “Threats minimized.”
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