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This is the first in a series of stories written by Arinn Dembo describing various bits of backstory in the SotS universe. It is followed by the Incident at Avalon, Escape From Avalon--Part One, Escape From Avalon--Part Two, Rendezvous at Ke'Vanthu, The Council of Chozanti, The Battle of the Jade Mirror--Part One and then The Battle of the Jade Mirror--Part Two. The original post and discussion can be found on the Kerberos Forum.

These chapters and more are contained within a novella released as part of the Category:Collectors Edition.




"It’s safe now, sir. You can take off your helmet."

Cai nodded silently and opened the keypad on the back of his left hand, entering the code. The recycler within his suit wheezed slowly to a halt; within a few seconds the helmet hissed and rose a quarter inch from his shoulders, breaking its seal with a sound like a wet kiss. He removed it and tucked it under his arm, his face expressionless. As always, there was a brief catch in his chest as he released the last of the canned air in his lungs, and a tiny squirming knot of panic before he could bring himself to breathe in the planetary atmosphere; he could never fully trust a new environment.

The rest of the team was already working in the quire of the cathedral. Three beamlamps had been arranged on the floor, pointing upward into the high arches above. The rood still hung from the ceiling, creaking in the wind that blew in through the shattered windows.

Looking up at the body, nailed to the elaborately carved cross in obscene imitation of a former crucifixion – at last he breathed in. It was cold on Ko’Grappa, but there was no masking the smell of death. The pale stone floor was black with blood.

"Cut him down," Cai Rui said quietly.

The ensign beside him shifted, looking uncomfortable. "Your forensic people told us we shouldn’t touch–"

"Cut him down." The voice, still soft and mild, cut through all objections like a cold scalpel. "That is my order."

"Yes sir." The boy turned away, triggering his radio and murmuring for back–up; it would take three men and a ladder to bring down the holy cross. Carved from Tarkasian ironwood and embossed with gold, the rood alone would weigh over 400 pounds in this gravity — and the man who had died there would easily weigh another 200.

Several feet away, Thatcher looked up and saw that he had arrived; she motioned him closer, indicating with a circular gesture that he should walk around the blood rather than through it. He picked his way cautiously through the overturned pews and squatted beside her. Another victim here, Tarka rather than human, but wearing the same robe as the crucified deacon above.

"I do not understand," he said simply. "Do you?"

"Starting to." She looked him in the eye, and he could see the strain of the past three days. "You’re not going to like it."

He shrugged. "That is a given. Tell me what you know."

"We checked the records. It really is a Roman Catholic Cathedral, apparently. Bishop’s seat for the whole planet, in fact. There were over 30,000 Tarkasian converts here — Christianity was a big hit with the Crocs."

Despite himself, he almost smiled. "That in itself is interesting. It would appear the Holy See has been busy – making peace where others make war. One wonders what else they have got up to, when the high command was not looking." He shook his head. "Continue. Was this a persecution? Did the Tarka wipe out one of their own colonies?"

Her eyes were solemn. "I don’t think so. Whatever did this, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Tarka." She reached down with one gloved hand; the fingers of the Tarka victim were still clenched, thick sharp nails dark with blood. With a pair of tweezers, she plucked a shred of gore from under one of the cold claws and held it up to the light; a patch of skin sprouting dozens of pale brown hairs. "Tarkas don’t have fur."

"Indeed. Neither do Hivers, to my knowledge."

"No sir."

"So…we are dealing with something new." He tilted his head, looking down at the Tarka on the floor. "Interesting. I believe this faith teaches non–violence. And yet…this one fought back."

Thatcher tilted her head to indicate the rest of the robed figures on the cathedral floor. "All five of them did. Definitely didn’t surrender peacefully. Maybe they weren’t as ‘converted’ as all that."

Cai Rui shook his head. "I wouldn’t be too certain." He stood up, taking a few steps into the rubble, and bent to pick something up; when he turned back toward her, he held a long staff of gilt wood in his hand. The upper portion had once been carved into some kind of semi-circular shape; now it was a shattered mess, and clotted with gore. He held it out to her. "This is a crosier – a symbol of spiritual authority. No one would have dared to touch it but the bishop himself."

"Wow." She held the staff up to the light. "I should get this to the lab. These marks almost look like teeth – solid bar of ironwood, and I’d swear it’s bitten half–way through."

"Indeed." He closed his eyes briefly, driving unbidden images from his mind. "It would appear that the holy father struck a few blows of his own, before the end. I think this was not the occasion for a quiet martyrdom."

She shrugged acquiescence. "I guess not."

"Have any other remains been found?"

"No." She lowered her eyes, and her voice dropped as well. "There aren’t a lot of remains in general, sir. We’re pretty sure the majority of the colonists weren’t killed. Just…taken."

His eyes narrowed. "All of them?"

"We haven’t searched any of the other sites on foot. But even this was a city of over a million, as near as I can tell, and…it’s completely empty." She shivered. "We’ve been looking, believe me. We haven’t found a single survivor. It’s…truly uncanny."

"How many humans were here – do we know?"

"Not many. Just the missionaries, according to the records. And a group of monks who were studying the Tarka language. Apparently they wanted to make some kind of translation of the Bible in Croc."

"What about this human bishop? Any sign of him?"

"Taken, probably. Kind of hard to tell. There was a good deal of killing, but…" Thatcher hesitated, glancing up at him before she finished. "We’ve lost most of the evidence, sir. Local scavengers have been at the bodies. A lot of blood here and there, some extremities and bone splinters – but not a lot else."

A chill went through him. "But you have not found…any sign that the bishop was killed."

"No." She looked up at the hanging rood. "Those are the only human remains so far. Haven’t really found any enemy dead, either, although believe me – I was hoping. Just a few tufts of fur. The local rats really make short work of anything that’s just lying around, though – they’ll eat anything that resembles food or garbage." She shuddered. "Nasty things. Like weasels."

"I see." He sighed. "Nothing else, then."

"I wouldn’t say that. There’s plenty of paperwork in the back – just no bodies." She pointed toward the sanctuary, the communion table still draped with embroidered linen. "Behind that big altar we found more doors. There’s some kind of personal chapel and office in there. That’s where we found the records for the mission – those were in English. And there’s some kind of personal diary in Latin. I figured you would want to see it, Commander."

He nodded. "Thank you. I will have a look." There was a sound behind him, in the nave. "I have asked the scouts to cut down the cross," he said. "You will assist them, please."

She nodded. "Sure. We need to examine the guy anyway. I was just putting it off until we had a chance to look at the evidence on the ground…."

"Of course." He turned away, cutting her off. "Thank you."

He paused for a moment, giving her time to look away. By now the scouts would have found a ladder in the empty city. They would cut Marcus down and remove him from the rood, but Cai would not watch – it would be impossible to hide his emotions if he was present.

For now he strode back toward the presbytery, looking for Augustine’s diary. Perhaps there at last there would be some clue, some hint as to what happened here – something he could take back to the SolForce high command, and forward secretly to his superiors within the Church, to explain how all their years of work and faith had come to naught.

Because at this moment — he had nothing. For seventy–two hours his best team had been searching the winding streets and empty houses of Kolakaad, searching for survivors of this attack…anyone who might tell him who had come here, or why, or even how. No enemy force should have been able to approach this planet without ample warning; Ko’Grappa was equipped with the latest sensor equipment from the capital. They should have never been caught so unprepared.

And the mystery only grew more perplexing, the more closely it was examined. A ground assault on a city of this size had somehow swept every living thing from its streets – which was simply inconceivable. Over the years he had visited the sites of every colonial tragedy imaginable: plague, fire, famine, orbital bombardments and assault shuttle runs that killed thousands. But even when domes and bunkers were torn apart, when every man, woman and child was ordered to abandon an installation, there would always be a few left behind, hiding in the cracks and crevices. Only when a whole world was reduced to smoldering, airless hell could you kill everyone. In every other case, no matter how dire — life had a way of clinging to the edges.

And yet…they were gone. All gone. Not a single soul could be found. Males, females, children – snatched up as if by the hand of God Himself, by an enemy from whom none could hide.

The presbytery was silent. Cai ignored the written records on the table, and the little journal written in Latin; these were left for outsiders to find — Augustine would never have revealed sensitive information there. Instead he went to the image of the Madonna in the corner, bending to whisper into her left ear: "Ego sum nuntius Dei. Ostendete mihi solam veritatem."

The hidden panel slowly lowered, and he quickly cycled through the last ten entries, looking for the final day.

The old man stood by the window. "They’re coming," he said – Cai winced at the quaver of fear in his voice. "I have a few seconds of power. I won’t describe them – I will try to kill one before we are taken. They may leave behind their dead. I do have time to give you this. Captured before the attack. I think you will know what to do." A sudden image flickered over the screen – it was the last of the entry.

"Redite," Cai said. The screen flickered; once again the bishop stood by the window. The entry played again; "I think you will know what to do," Augustine said.

"Algete," Cai commanded. The fleeting image froze, and he studied it quickly. Judging by HUD details, combat footage captured by a Tarkasian orbital defense platform.

Slowly he edged forward through the one split-second of crude footage – the shape of the enemy ship, the incoming fire, the flash and the ragged dissolution to snow as the camera was destroyed.

"Damn it," he muttered. "We have all seen this before. Why, Eminence? Why would you waste your last moments with this?"

"Iterum," he told the machine. Dutifully it replayed the message. Cai’s heart quickened – there in the upper right, what was that?

He bent close to the monitor, touching the dot with his fingertip. "Maximus," he said softly. The screen obliged, switching to maximum enlargement – and suddenly a second ship leaped out of the darkness.

For a moment, his eyes burned with tears. "I am sorry I doubted you, old man. You were right. I know what to do."

"Date mihi testimonium," he said. The statue of the virgin spread her arms, revealing a red crystal heart. He plucked out the drive and the lectern slowly folded back into a seamless pillar.

Within a few weeks, his report and the single image recovered from Ko’Grappa had been filtered through the chain of command. Cai Rui smiled with amusement when the memo was left on his desktop, outgoing to all SolForce vessels:

"Message begins. Intelligence reports from Deep Scan fleets suggest that Slaver ships have increased operations beyond random hits on colony worlds. Activity at various unexplored worlds indicates an attempt to set up fueling depots at key points throughout the galaxy. In addition to the familiar cruiser and planetary attack shuttle, a new refueling–class vessel has also been spotted. SolForce personnel are to be on the look–out for these ships — they are to be regarded as dangerous. SolForce Command has issued a fire–on–sight order for all Slaver ships, in order to protect all Earth and Allied Colonists from harm. Any intelligence gathering is to be through observation or post–combat."

"End message."


Next Story: Incident at Avalon

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