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Chapter Two



He brewed tea for them, the last packs in the tin. He stayed awake on the couch, a guard dog on watch as family slept. Earplugs out, ambient vibrations tricked shapes into his eyes, wriggling worms in his peripheral. New job. Workshop. Get back on feet. Tell her.

Them. How’d they sneak up on us? The black crate called to him, the one next to his jumpsuits, beneath Molly’s hanging clothes; the case he hadn’t opened in twenty years. It begged him to unleash what lay within.

Bare your true skin. Bare your true teeth.

He ignored the temptation, refused to disturb his family. Hours passed.

The alarm clock in the master bedroom went off just before sunrise.

In the packed elevator, people openly wondered how High Command’d failed to foresee the attack. They worried about the monthly skirmishes by Capital City getting worse. Someone gave it “10 years” before the horde breached. Panicked, they talked about their doomsday plans. White noise to distract from the gravity of it all.

Some said they had relatives who’d help them off-world. Others claimed they’d seek out the Brides for protection. Most would just pray. Conner didn’t speak up. They grated on his nerves, but he couldn’t blame them. They were scared. So was he. If the Pack couldn’t hold the fiends, nowhere in the Empire stood a chance. From here to beyond Alder’s Green, nobody was safe. Damn did he feel like yelling with all his heart’s heated venom. But he held his tongue.

With Wolves by their sides, Rangers carry on! Onwards! Clear the way!

He’d carry on. He had to.

He disembarked at 405 and made way for the A-D border. He walked up Six and got onto Battered Hen. Someone toasted a nutromate brick in a burning coolant drum. Flames licked skewered rats like tiny rotisserie chickens, rodent grease catching alight. Everyone about gave him the stink-eye. Some disappeared into the nearest doorway, hares fleeing from a fox. Conner’d always stuck out like a sore thumb. Here he was a gangrenous limb ready for the surgeon saw.

He entered the fourth housing complex down the way, and climbed up to the top, third floor. He knocked at the second apartment on his right. A rusted chain kept the door from fully opening.

A young Dagger peered up at him, her half-hidden face ten years older than it should’ve been. Touches of gray accented her long, disheveled black hair. The one exposed eye had a bag under it. Her thin lips revealed nothing of her mood. A green pupil suggested contempt. Swallowing his unease, Conner handed her thirty rooks. She glanced at the cash without taking it, and returned her gaze.

“Finally caught up to me. Don’t work the mines anymore. Won’t have me.”

Her nasally *sigh* was a snake’s hiss. He usually gave 85 every month.

He peaked inside. Milton Dagger sat on his cushioned seat, his youngest son on the couch by his side. As the boy tailored a pair of pants, his left foot continually pumped air into the filtration system hooked into his father’s chest. Milton wavered on unconsciousness, his eyes fluttering, mouth agape with a string of drool trailing down his chin. The two gnarled halves of his chest, the result of an errant elbow-strike to the sternum, rose and fell with each of his boy’s steps.

Conner returned his attention to the girl. She hadn’t taken the money.

“Ain’t saying it’ll be this way. When I can, I’ll be back with the rest.”

A viper’s strike, she snatched the purse-daggers and closed the door in his face.

Penance paid in part, he moved on, praying to the San-sirai to one day grant these Daggers peace.

On his way to the Workshop, he watched the recovery and maintenance corps. Along with the few autonomous units still around, they repaired the damage from last night. Lighting fixtures’d dropped from the ceiling, cracked the pavement. A few structures’d shifted from their foundation, threatening to collapse and take down neighboring buildings; crooked, cavity-riddled teeth bunched together. The corps sloughed away, vita-cigs keeping them awake. Discernible even through the Bastion’s general reek, the smoke brought Conner a touch of nostalgia.

At the Workshop, the discourse proved more somber and reflective, respectful. Not surprising. Veterans such as he ran and frequented the place, Miss Shrew herself an old warrior’s widow. Over by the registers, a sleep-deprived Dorothy Pie opened cargo crates with a crowbar. Shrew tended to her little soldier’s shrine, adding a new photo. Conner made way for the Temp-Emp board, nodding to them as he passed.

“That poor thing,” remarked Dorothy, her light Pertwood accent bordering on New-Earthic. “Gave his life to buy us time. Who was he?”

“Wrench,” Shrew replied. She lit a funerary candle beneath the new martyr. “Sor Warren Wrench of Lorandale.”

“Sor Wrench? But didn’t he survive the last time, twenty years ago?”

“Aye. But it’s always a gamble to sit on that damned throne. Last heard, it has a eighty percent mortality rate. Poor boy’s brains were fried out his skull. Can’t even begin to imagine that kind of pain.”

A heavy heart weighed Conner down, and he turned to the shrine. He recognized a few faces, but couldn’t attach a name to most. He always suspected Warren would end up sitting on a throne, could’ve even been the first knight-kin Emperor. But never would Conner’ve imagined Warren’s final post being the Seat of Sacrifice, the very suicide machine Warren’d designed and created back during the Retreat.

The Empire’d lost one of its brightest beacons of hope last night.

It’d been near sixty years since Conner last thought of him.

Turning away from the dead, Conner looked over the posts on the board. He didn’t see much of interest. Everything required gear he couldn’t afford to rent. The Porter Wanted card caught his eye. He unpinned it from the cork, and presented it to Shrew. She was happy to give him the job, treating him like a nephew in need of help, though in truth he was her senior by over a hundred and eighty years; super-humanity supplicating to baseline, the meek giving purpose to the mighty, as it should be. With the first batch of parcels slung over his back and braced, he headed out.

He traversed the causeways, enclaves, and halls, adding his own unclean footfalls to the grime canvasing the marble floors. He ran his fingers along the bolts and plaster holding the Bastion together. Beneath the burden of a billion souls, uncounted cracks formed in a hundred thousand pillars. Stenciled graffiti stained his fingertips black, each splotch of ink-and-oil an advert for some bar or brothel. He kept away from the hologlass cubes, the unblinking gaze of Missing Persons’ ghosts regarding him. He navigated the labyrinthine hovels and shops, as they forged a rampart three kilometers wide all around the rattling elevator.

The people were a school of alabaster fish, raggedy clothes like dragged seaweed, he a particularly ancient and terrible specimen.

Melancholia a predatory smog smothering his brain the whole time, he wondered if these darker days were punishment for his species’ misdeeds. The el’Arad swamp campaign, the water poisoning of Hol’s Range to starve out the trolls, the “elegant and efficient” mitochondraphage, the Alder’s Green scouring, all during his lifetime. Countless more crimes preceded him. The slave’s crushed skull proved a poignant capstone to his rumination.

He made it back to the Workshop some time after noon, and an hour later finished a second round of deliveries. In all he earned fifty rooks in cash upfront, plus an extra 23 in tips. Checking the board again, someone’d just put in for a new locksmith’s apprentice, requesting that all applicants bring their own tools. It wasn’t high earning, but it was steady pay. Taking the note, he was about to ask Shrew if she knew where to buy a cheap locksmith’s kit, when Lucky the resident gear-doc barged in.

“Guys, something’s happened!” he barked, voice a stab of panic.

Last night’s terror re-materialized. Everyone froze in-step. Conner’s stomach twisted into a knot. So far from home, he had no idea where his family’d be at this time of day.

Shrew stepped out from behind the counter, hobbling towards Lucky with her cane. “’nother ‘fang attack?”

Lucky strained to keep calm, fighting down the dread creeping up like vomit. “No, ain’t no emergency, but something’s come up, might change things. That’s what they’re saying, saying to close up shop, j-just for the next four hours. We gotta wait for High Command instructions, get to a t.c. for a broadcast, an all-pointer.”

Motioning to Dorothy to secure the registers, Shrew apologized to the patrons while closing up. None gainsaid her. Conner rushed out with them, eager to catch the rider. A nervous mob packed the elevator. The line to get in stretched out over a block by the time it ascended. 15 grueling minutes of wait, and the carriage returned and got packed once more. The whole thing lurched under the weight. Conner worried it’d finally met its match and would collapse. But it kept its schedule, rising to the top.

People boarded off at various levels in search of taverns, barbershops, anywhere with a working telecom. Conner stayed aboard, trying to reach home in time. To his surprise, the elevator’s small t.c.s blinked to life, and he and the remaining others turned to them in uncanny unison. Everyone held their breath. If he’d had a beating heart, Conner swore he would’ve heard it throbbing in his ears. He heard it crystal clear in his fellow riders, the chaotic thrum of gunfire.

*lub-dub* became *thump-thump*, evolving into *boom*boom*boom*boom*.

Old battle senses kicked in hard.

Stand ground. No. Run. 

A high-ranking Ranger in full Battlehide greeted them, his chest a wide triangle of dark green luster emblazoned with medals. He cradled his three-horned helmet in the crook of his left arm, the helm’s ghastly snarl the portrait of Primeval fury. The regalia was to inspire hope. His pale, worry-furrowed face bore the thin-lipped start of a sob.

“Attention Citizens.”

Sor Freddie Friendly. Normally, it would’ve been Mannheim who spoke during emergencies. Friendly was the Core of Thirty-Five’s chief astrophysicist. Why him? Oh gods, why?

Rattled, Friendly cleared his throat. “At 0700 hours this morning, we picked up a transmission from an old deep-space satellite on the fringes of Imperial reach. An unidentified object, which we currently believe to be an asteroid, is on its way to meet with our solar system.”

Conner paced back and forth. His eyes never left the nearest screen. He knew about the Bloodfangs, he could fully grasp that subject. But deep-space, and why it should affect New Earth, he couldn’t begin to understand, to theorize. The knot in his belly tightened. He hated the quiet uncertainty, the mounting apprehension. He felt like throwing up.

“At first, we assumed it was an error. A misfiring of the satellite’s deteriorating sensors. But a few minutes later we received confirmation from intel gathered through intercepting the horde’s radio chatter. Something very large is moving past the K-15 satellite arrays, and is moving at incredible speed towards us. The object hasn’t yet made it past the Morgan Belt, but will make the run in little less than a month. Which means the asteroid will be within Grand Hyperborea proper in less than a year.

“After deciphering the data that came with the transmission, at 0900 hours we came to a consensus on the asteroid’s chemical makeup.”

He remained onscreen for an awkward few seconds, when a digital-render in 3D spectrometric profile replaced him. Never one for “rock science,” Conner’d always been better at applying evolutionary theory, at biology, ecology. He barely understood geological readings, damn elf-writing as he called it. But he tensed up at what he saw; the legible bits of chemical symbol, his knowledge of Bloodfang reproduction...


“As you can see, the interior of the asteroid is a singularly enormous deposit of precious metals. Gold, silver, copper, and other exotic elements.”

Everything went numb. Mild vertigo un-moored Conner from his spot. His knees buckled, the onset of a fainting spell. On the periphery, he registered a gasp from the woman standing next to him, and the incoherent ramblings of the man in front. His vision narrowed.

“San-sirai,” he thought aloud, “they’ll reach it first.”

“Judging by the size, we estimate that, should the Bloodfangs get their hands on it, they’ll be capable of increasing their numbers by approximately 1,321%. At current reproduction rates, once the asteroid enters the system, we’ll have little less than three weeks before they have the numbers to commit a full-scale invasion. Factor in the five months of travel from the Ring, we have little more than a year and a half before what we predict to be a protracted, two-pronged assault.”

The woman let out an ugly croak, the sound a corpse would make if it could still moan and feel sorry for itself. The man in front, dumbfounded to slack-jawed silence, swayed and had to grab the protective grille to keep standing. Lightheaded, Conner kept his fists white-knuckle clenched. His blood squirmed, trying to convince him to take flight. Run. This was a fight it wanted no part in. He felt like he was about to have the shits.

The render blinked away, and Friendly returned.

“High Command is now deliberating. We’re looking at all of the options on the table, and we’ll come up with a counter-measure. Until then, keep faith. Despair is the greater demon that’ll eat you alive before death sinks its tee-”

Friendly bit his tongue. A full-body cringe shot through Conner’s being.

“Sta-Stay alert, for further instructions.”

The t.c.s faded back to opaque black, onyx pearls studding the rider’s red iron. Message delivered, High Command abandoned the Bastion to endure the quiet terror. Conner spent the last hour of the ride contemplating his next move. He barely noticed when he reached his floor. A minute later, the doors slid shut, and the rider continued ascending upwards, up towards the Senate Hall at the tower’s peak.

He pressed his palm to the biometric scanner and the door opened, the security system recognizing him. He hoped the others inside would be as welcoming. Bracing for a testy encounter, he strode into the auditorium.

The amphitheater no longer resembled a garden. It now resembled an ogre’s cave. A thick shell of metal plating rested atop the chamber, the glass dome ceiling beneath several meters of reinforced steel. Dust was thick everywhere, and spiders made colonies in the elevated booths. Ornamental glass torches were affixed to the walls, having the semblance of glowing orchids in the gloom. Joining them, an arrangement of cruder lighting fixtures provided more illumination around the central dais. Around the podium there gathered 58 men in full Battlehide without helms. Conner knew everyone there, though most were wholly estranged from him. He’d counted very few as friends to begin with. He hadn’t seen any of them in over two decades.

They didn’t notice as he approached.

“What else can we do?”

Sor Magnus Mannheim of Luthoran slouched in his position at the center, weary face creased with age.

“We must begin pwepawations fow evacuation,” suggested Sor Roger Riseborough of Pertwood. “We’ve got to coowdinate our effots on wesurrecting one of the ancestwal genewation-ships. Suwely one of them is big enough to allow the wemainder of New Eawth to escape. We can even scavenge the fuel wods from the othews.”

“Ain’t a matter of living space or fuel,” countered Sor Moran Myers of New Earth, second-in-command, General of Agri-Ops. “We’ve little in ways of food production. Lack pseudo-rations for the whole citizenry. We’d run out of supplies barely a year in the deep. We’d need to retrofit part of the ship for hydroponics. At least a year of careful planning, three to execute.”

“Can we dig deeper into the earth?” asked the General of Telecommunications, Sor Teddy Tandem of Q.L.C.-RR36. “Go totally underground, cut off the surface?”

“Those things won’t stop til we’re all dead, and you lot know it.”

Conner’s terse remark surprised everyone. Mannheim barely recognized him.

“Clay? Heavens man, what’s happened to you? We’ve not seen you in ages. You look so haggard, naked without your ‘hide.”

“Been working.” Mannheim didn’t press any further; the two’d constantly butted heads, even during peace times.

“Have you come to rejoin our, less-than-merry band of fools?”

“Maybe. First, I needa know what’s being done about the asteroid.”

“What do you mean?” asked Sor Michael “Red” Miller of S.E.V.-J45, as he stroked his long, black beard with a gnarled hand of cloned flesh.

Conner kept his attention on Mannheim.

“What I mean is, how’re we gonna make sure that rock doesn’t fall into the horde’s war chest?”

Mannheim and most of the senior members turned back to the dais, their disdain evident. A few of the elders showed interest, along with many of the greener Generals and Officers, men who’d seen less combat than Conner. But they kept quiet, uncertain about this savage-looking man with his brash demeanor. Conner hadn’t bothered to make himself the least bit presentable, his hair untidy, and the bruised eye just now starting to heal.

“Clay,” Mannheim responded, not even bothering to look him in the eye, “the asteroid is too far out. The ‘fangs rule that stretch of space. It’d be suicide to even try and take it.”

“Then let it be a suicide mission.”

They were taken aback. Clearly, thought Conner, they’d forgotten how much they used to venerate self-sacrifice for the sake of others.

“We’ve barely enough operatives to keep watch over the lower reaches, let alone buffer our command of the Pack. I had to prep Wrench myself this morning. For all we know, we’re the last surviving ‘kin in the system. Doubtful any more of us’ve survived.”

“A small team could make the distance in time, I’m sure of it. We can beat them to it, smash it to pieces before it reaches Alder’s. Jettison the metal into the vacuum, make it impossible for them to coordinate a salvage-op.”

“Smash it to pieces? The amount of energy to blow up a thing that size would be astronomical, deadly to handle. You’d wipe out an entire fleet let alone a small team should the charges go off on accident.”

“We’ve got to do something. Even if it’s just me, I’ll go.”

“Clay,” Mannheim hissed, “don’t be a fool. We’re playing the weaker hand. We act according to the cards dealt. We’ve standing orders to hold the line, to hold this tower. It’s all we can do.”

“Give me Crimson. I’ll do it alone.”

“You. Will. Not. Take a single Wolf. We’ve suffered enough losses.”

“Give me Crimson.” His blood crept into his limbs, coursed through his chest and belly. But it offered no encouragements for violence. It simply lent power. Mannheim didn’t take well to his willfulness.

With a startling burst, the High Commander wheeled about and pulled up to his face, grabbing him by the shoulders. His superhuman grip, wrapped in Battlehide, shocked Conner’s blood into retreat.

“Now listen here you stupid son-of-a-bitch,” Mannheim huffed, “I know you want revenge for Annette. Truly, I’m sorry for what happened that day.”

“This ain’t about Annette.” He strained to keep his voice from cracking. His eyes teared up. “This is about protecting what we got left.”

“You can fool yourself, but you can’t fool me. There is some small truth in what you’re saying, I’ll grant ya that. But beneath it all, I can hear the revenge-lust, the sad notes of it. Congratulations, Clay. You’ve just been taken out of the pool for the Chair. Can’t trust you with all that power, even if it kills ya. Next it’ll be the reserve list, so you’d better start thinking about what’ll happen to that wife and kid of yours should you find yourself getting booted.

“The lower reaches ain’t a place to raise a child.”

He loosened his grip, breathing returned to normal.

“Stay away from the Pack. Now go, or I’ll have you arrested for insubordination, for conspiring to steal military equipment.

“You’re no longer active, but you’re still a citizen. You’re bound to our laws. I expect you to set an example, to follow the law to the letter. I will have you put away if you bring this up again.”

Mannheim returned to the others. Conner pulled away, cutting a lonely figure.

He went into the closet and pulled the crate out, bringing it up onto the bed. He clicked the locks open, lifted the lid.

His Battlehide’s metallic sheen glistened in the bedside lamp’s dim light, a shade and shimmer of blue like loosened knight’s blood. It’d earned its true-name Blood Phantom on the battlefield. The limbs and torso felt cool to the touch, and a deeper resonance animated it from within. A tech marvel thousands of years in the making, the power-armor was like a second skin for Conner and his kind. It needed no external power source, relying solely on knight-kin anatomy.

He touched the twin scars on his face, the mark of his Proud lineage. For so long he’d felt self-conscious about his inhuman nature. He’d neglected all his heirlooms, this suit of armor especially. He wondered if it would even still fit him. He’d gotten out of shape.

He took it out, placed it aside. Beneath he found his medic-axe. The only weapon he hadn’t relinquished upon retiring from patrol. He never used it against civilians. But he’d gotten close. He looked it over; as polished and razor-sharp as the day it’d been forged over two hundred years ago. The grooves along its head were ready to unleash cauterizing plasma. His first blade-master, Old Man Kilroy’d told him it was his birthright to wield it, that Eran had seen fit to give him an axe-man’s swing. 156 years dead, and Conner still recalled his pearls of mad wisdom.

He took up the axe. Its weight comforted him. Natural. Nurturing.

Something in the case caught his eye.

There, tucked away in the corner, he saw the small, chainless locket, the lump of tarnished gold he’d swore to never look upon again. He placed the axe down by the armor. He picked the locket up. No bigger than a sizeable pebble, a lifetime of joy and sorrow was squeezed within. It felt heavy and dead.

Trembling, he clicked it open, too weak to resist. She looked up to him, her warm smile an invitation to join her, to drown in the past. Regret and want, his blood flared for a second, only to retire. A sputtering flame in his belly too weak to stay lit. A mourner’s gasp, he hoped to summon a small ghost of her.

“Oh, Annette.”

“You’re thinking of leaving, aren’t you?”

Conner turned about face with a start, snapping the locket shut, banishing the apparition. From the doorway, Molly’s teary eyes met his, flints of pewter in snow darkening to a red suggesting bloodshed. Shame, swift and torrid, descended on him like a owl, talons pinning him down, snuffing out the world in smothering feathers.


She broke her gaze away first, the first tears rolling down her face. She barely held back a croak of despair, catching the sob in her throat like a bullet.

“You’re gonna throw yourself out there? Please Con, don’t tell me that’s it.”

“Molly, I didn’t mean to hurt you. Please, I’m sorry.”

Her eyes darted back, a counter, two more bolts of heated lead striking two more wounds.

“Hurt me? Conner, you’re going to get yourself killed!”

He turned away. He looked into the emptied case, for fear of looking back at the locket, to the wraith that beguiled him.

“Ain’t too big a sacrifice. If someone’s gonna die, might as well be me. If I’m to go out, might as well make myself useful.”

“Conner, don’t say such things! You’re not disposable, not to me, not to Gabby.”

The weight of the last two days anchored him onto fate’s inescapable course. He’d strayed from the path of harmony. Mannheim’s threats were resolute, his will incontrovertible. The ghosts of his past’d not been exorcised, even after a lifetime. He wasn’t indispensable. He could only drag his family down with him. Humanity’s time was running out, but his was running out faster.

Tell her.

He turned back. She wiped away tears, tried composing herself. She bared her teeth, the flash of a cornered big cat’s fangs. She wouldn’t back down, not til she’d defeated her husband, talked sense into him, kept him from killing himself.

Tell her.

“Molly…” —his lips quivered— “I killed people yesterday.”

Her jaw dropped, a fat tear to mark it.

He fell onto the bed, his breath ragged. All too human.

Molly sat by his side, keeping quiet, waiting for more. She leaned onto him, resting her head on his shoulder. Still trusts me.

After a moment, Conner found his words.

“I killed two slaves down in the mines. They attacked first, but that don’t excuse it. It just… came natural. They fired me. I returned the jackhammer, sold it back. I was working today on getting a new job, when, when the broadcast came on.”

The corners of his lips pulled back, a pained, inhuman grimace.

“But Moll, San-sirai, I felt good. It felt so good. That’s the worst part of it.”

“Con, it’s alright. You have a condition, a thing that forced you to do it.”

“It told me to kill you and Gabby.”

Aghast, Molly forced herself to stay by his side. Conner’s blood endowed a meagerly high, the tiniest orgasm like a smoothed beach pebble against an oncoming tide of self-loathing.

“It… I, I wanted to spare you two from what happened to-”

He couldn’t finish. He looked down at the locket still in his hand. Together, the two of them kept silent for a ponderous beat.

She found her courage. “I know you worry about me and Gabby. You worry that what happened to Annette will happen to us.”

He clenched the locket, hoping to crush it.

“What kind of man am I, that I can’t even pick just one woman to love? A man that would make his wife cry, think of harming his child… I’m irredeemable… I’m dirt.”

“You love her still with all your heart, just as much as you love us right now. Don’t kick yourself over it, soldier. Love isn’t something you give, you give affection. You experience love. We can work through this, babe.”

He squeezed the pendant harder, shaking. Her hand cradled his fist, and his grip loosened. This brilliant woman was the bedrock of his world. He knew he needed to do whatever he must to protect her, and all they’d brought into this world. Despite all the doubt, despite all the fear, he knew he needed to do this one thing. He’d give his life for love.

“They say we only have a year and a half to prepare before this thing hits us. If that asteroid is destroyed, it’ll buy us, you and the rest ten more years.

“I can’t sit back, not while Command does nothing.”

“But why does it have to be you? You’ve done enough, just spend what time you have left with us.”

“I can’t. When I see that window, I don’t just see cracked plastic. I see this whole thing breaking apart at the seams. I see this world, this tower dying, and I see you two perishing in flames. Ten years might pass like seconds, but it’s a lifetime, Eran it’s a lifetime. I want you and Gabrielle to have as full lives as possible. All the beautiful things you’re rediscovering, they mean a lot to me. Despite all the horror, I want her to inherit them. I want her to know that we created wonder, that it’s worthwhile to be alive and to grow. And I want you to be there by her side.

“I won’t, I can’t let that window break. You two deserve so much more, but all I can give is just a little more time.”

She pulled her hand away. They looked into each others’ eyes.

Fighting back a frown, she nodded, wiping her nose.

With heavy step he got up, and pulled a duffle bag from the closet. He stuffed his Battlehide and medic-axe into it. The zipper fly sealing felt final like a body bag. He headed for the door, stopping at its threshold.

“Where’s Gabby?”

“Asleep in her room. Knocked out as soon as we got in.”

He looked to the ink-weave on his right hand, the stitched dermal-ribbons in the shape of Gabrielle’s newborn baby footprints. He thought of waking her up, to say his goodbyes. He thought better of it. He would’ve tricked himself into staying.“When she wakes, tell her I always loved her.”

“I will. But Con, how will you find Crimson? How will you escape?”

He measured the duffle’s weight slung over his shoulder.

“I know someone who might help. Maybe I’ll share a drink with him tonight.”

The Gimping Wolf’s front door burst open, and the mountainous shape of a grizzled man lumbered out. Wrapped in his wide, muscular arms, he held the near-unconscious bodies of two young drunks. One of them sported a gash across his nasal bridge, the meat and cartilage barely still connected. His compatriot coughed up blood.

“Now get ya filthy carcasses outta here!” barked the giant in a thick Pertwood accent, tossing the two onto the unpaved road of Minus15A. “And don’t ya ever come back, or I’ll do ya one worse!”

With a surly swagger, he returned to the dank tavern. He slammed the door with such force, the flimsy sheet of metal warped a bit. Conner was discouraged.

Sor Owen Oldcastle never stopped drinking.

Conner’d never considered him a close friend, and Owen kept to himself even in those days before the Retreat. In fact, the W.A.R.’d always considered him a black sheep. A youth spent indulging in petty vices, he caused no end of troubles wherever stationed. His natural temperament, he enjoyed grosser games over honing his martial prowess, although his natural strength made up for the lack of discipline. Still, people knew him for a coward. Even during his lengthy service, he rarely engaged in true combat. When he did fight, it was under explicit orders that he’d be punished with detention or worse should he ignore commands. Even then, he kept to the back lines, claiming “I’ll be the reserve, that ought ta surprise the buggers!” Records attested that his Great Cleaver only ever crushed weakened dregs after the major fighting had finished.

It came as no surprise to Conner then that Owen ended up in a place like The Gimping Wolf, the Titan holed up in a tiny, dirty bar, one of many in the Minus levels’ impoverished, multi-storey ghetto. “The mountain that hides amongst mice,” as his fellow Rangers often derided behind his back. Conner found the description more apt than ever. He suspected Owen to be the very coward he needed to find not only his Silver Wolf steed, but a way out of the tower.

Conner took the plunge into the seedy tavern.

The air reeked of sick. The grimy floor beneath his feet stuck to the bottoms of his work boots, a sticking noise with each step. Over in the corner, a lout manhandled a woman counting her purse-daggers. Amongst the dozens of wooden tables, a motley gathering of sad, broken men and women whispered between themselves. The loneliest ones stared off into the middle distance, nursing dirty glasses of dark yellow grog. Slow suicide. 

No music filled the air, but instead the jollier patrons gave the place any sense of life. A sign hung above the countertop at the back, written in white chalk. The high ceiling lamps barely afforded enough light. “End of the World Special - Try our NEW Asteroid Martini.”

As he walked across the room, a prickly sensation at the back of his neck. Someone was watching him. He glanced back. A blond Bride sat by the front door. He hadn’t noticed her. Her left breast was exposed, and twin streams of black mascara ran down her cheeks, matching his surgical scars. He knew the “witch” wouldn’t harm him, not so long as he didn’t offend her, or give her reason to cut him down.

She was monstrous, but not unreasonable. 

She brandished a sharp, curved dagger near the naked breast, red still wet on its edge. She sported the most wicked grin of black teeth Conner’d ever seen on a human face. Adding to her macabre display, from under the table she brought up a severed hand, a trophy from some baseline human who’d crossed her. It looked fresh. The stump still glistened. She stuck out her blackened tongue, flicking it. Pensively, he nodded to her.

Owen sat at the countertop, looking to the right.

He was defensive and imposing, a bulwark. The W.A.R. had him measured at 251 centimeters tall, two and a half heads over Conner. Pure muscle and fat forged into furious human form, he was just shy of four hundred kilos. His hair was shorn down to faint stubble, but his beard made up for it. It jutted down, radiating into a rounded square propping his chin. The twin scars cleaved down his face like two canyons cutting through a dried lake bed, disappearing into a wiry, brunette forest. His clammy, pallid skin was flushed with a subtle blue, his knight’s blood mostly diffused throughout his body. A hundred years of bar fights had placated the parasite, made it comfortable. It had returned the favor a hundredfold. His arms looked as if hewed from marble columns, his legs like tree trunks, his gut a lodestone the size and shape of a weathered boulder.


But Conner needed his help.

He planted down into the empty stool to Owen’s left, the duffle nestled between them. Owen turned to him. His plasmashot eyes glanced down from the shadow of his brow, two gems of hazel axinite set in yellowed pearls. A wry, repulsive grin of teeth a deeper yellow broke through the beard. A deep, rumbling laugh escaped his chest.

“Well, you must be on hard times to be down here with us.”

“Hello, Owen.”

“Conner Clay, as I live and breathe.”

“You spend all your days here?”

“Seeing how I should. I’m the hired muscle that keeps the riffraff out.”

“And the Brides let you stay? Thought they despised us Sorai with a passion.”

“Oh, they do, they’ve told me as such. But I keep the peace. Why get their hands dirty, when a man such as I can be paid in drink and soup to do it for them.”

Owen waved down the diminutive barkeep.

“Another Royce rose, Jasper. And a bowl, I’m famished again.”

A large tankard of cloudy, blood-red drink was presented to him, along with a mammoth bowl of carrot and celery soup. Offerings to appease a behemoth.

“If you’ll pardon me Sor Clay, I shall dine as we speak. Course, that’s what you came here for, right? Why else would you leave that lovely, little nest.”

Owen downed the drink halfway, and gingerly spooned the soup into his great mouth. The spoon looked tiny in his fat fingers, almost like a sliver of silver.

“So, the new missus kick you out?”

“Not exactly. Saw myself out.”

Owen side-eyed him.

“Loyal Conner growing weary of a common woman? Now I have seen everything. Then again, becoming increasingly aged as we Proud children tend to, I’m not surprised you grew tired of her company. Don’t have that problem, not with so many lovely female rats down here to entertain me, ha, one for every hour of the day.”

“I didn’t leave her, but I am leaving. Plan on getting out, escaping.”

“Escape the Bastion? Madness.”

“Maybe, but I’m guessing you’ve thought it out yourself.”

Owen stopped mid-spoonful. Shooting Conner an untrusting glance, he slowly rested the spoon down into the soup, and pushed the bowl and tankard away. Clasping his hands together, he turned his full attention to him.

“Now, what do you mean by that?”

“Owen, you’re no hero. You’re downright a coward, fit only to fight drunks. Always have, and always will be that kind of man I guess. If anyone were to know of a way out, some way to escape should some great and awful catastrophe befall this last speck of civilization, you of all people would know how to save your own skin. You may be a coward, may be a brute, but you ain’t a fool.”

Owen stayed quiet for a moment, before speaking up.

“I may know of a way to… liberate a few Silver Wolves. Even got it down to finding Roaring Harlot, mayhaps find your Crimson too, if given time to set certain and necessary calibrations. But once they’re out, that’s it. Command and their dogs’ll know right away. Don’t know how far they’d track you down, but I imagine you’d need to flee beyond New Earth.”

“That’s fine. I’m heading into deep space.”

Owen straightened.


“I plan on destroying the asteroid.”

This surprised Owen. He looked around, making certain no one eavesdropped. He hunched as low as his frame would allow, a wolf scanning for something more predatory. Conner doubted High Command had eyes and ears this far down. If they did, the Brides of Reprisal would’ve made short work of them. Male Rangers were the witches’ favorite prey.

Owen returned his attention, keeping his voice down. “What madness’re you on about?”

“The asteroid that appeared. I plan on making sure the Bloodfangs don’t get it.”


Conner hadn’t planned it out yet, only knowing for certain it had to be done. He had a crude idea in mind.

“I wouldn’t be able to find the explosives. The mining gear to plant a charge is too complicated for one person to handle. But I think I can crash an orbital into it, a Q.L.C. even, smash it to pieces. Sledgehammer to stone.”

“I doubt you’d find any colony willing to sacrifice itself. Even if you convinced them to escape beforehand, it’s a gamble you’d hit it on the mark. If the autopilot is off by just a few fractions of a degree, at those speeds it could overshoot by hundreds, thousands of kilometers.”

“I ain’t gonna leave it on autopilot, Owen. I don’t think I’ll be coming back.”

Aghast, Owen pulled away.

“You plan on piloting it? A suicide run?”

A sigh of resignation escaped, Conner not breaking his gaze away; he wanted Owen to know he was serious. “Yeah… I’ve thought about it, thought that part through. It’s the only way to make sure.”

“Conner, you’re noble to a fault. No need to throw your life away over something that’s not in your control, in anyone’s control.”

“But I gotta do something.”

“Why not just take you and the missus and escape now? Forget this whole asteroid business, I can find you a way out, outside of taking a Wolf.”

“No. You know there’s no safe place out there. Bastion’s the safest place there is left. We’re just sitting here, waiting to be done in for good.”

“But from what they’re saying, even if you destroy the damned thing, it’d just be a few more years. Not even a generation, just a decade, maybe less for all we know. Just a little extra time.”

“But it’s precious time. I want my daughter to grow up.”

Owen didn’t respond. The silence grew deep between them, an opened grave on a grave cloudy day. Even the fleeting chatter seemed mute, distant. Owen looked away, contemplating on his great, big hands. After a moment, he drank the rest of his Royce rose, and slurped down the remaining soup in two gulps. Wiping his lips and whiskers, he turned back to look Conner in the eye.

He put out his hand. Conner accepted it.

Chapter Two: Text
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