Rewriting The Fall of Reason

I sometimes re-write chunks of work, because it sucks.

Most of the time I do this once the first draft is finished, but on starting the finale in the Tyche’s Fallen trilogy (Tyche’s Crusade), I figured it was not what it needed to be. Because I like self-flagellation, I present you with both takes on The Fall of Reason. Neither of these are edited. This is horrible, horrible first-draft stuff (so bad, I threw one version out). But no writing is wasted! You get to join in the suffering with me.


The Hard Fail Version

“Ash is a nice shade of gray.” Nate pressed his face to the air car’s window, staring down at the streets of San Francisco as they scudded by. The city was still on life support. While buildings no longer burned, shipping new ash into the atmosphere, there was plenty shored up in all the nooks and crannies.

Grace snorted. “You get hit on the head on Viukde?” She slouched on her chair. The black harness straps did their level best to hold her upright, and she combated that with what Nate felt was an appropriate zero-fucks quotient by loosening them. It’d earned her a sigh through gritted teeth from Sergeant Wakelin, a woman who appeared constructed from basalt and salt. Not tall, but solid. Not friendly, but unstoppable.

“Not that I remember.” Nate leaned back, taking in the Sergeant and her team of four Emperor’s Black. Wakelin’s redeeming feature wasn’t her sparkling wit or ribald humor. It was an impeccable service record. Hell, the woman’s first name was Allyson, like someone said she could only have one ‘i’ in hers and saved it for the surname.

The air car’s interior had bench seats facing each other. It was a large machine, capable of holding sixteen people. Nate figured if he and Grace couldn’t fix this, they’d need many, many more people than a single car would hold. Wakelin, unused to compromise, brought four of her best, rather than the four or five hundred Nate expected she’d want.

Nate suspected he knew what they were best at. It was all part of the surprise.

Seats were arrayed in rows, facing each other. Wakelin sat on the bench facing Nate. Grace sat beside to her, the pair bookended by two of the Emperor’s Black. Nate lounged on his chair, similarly supported by Black to his left and right.

The problem is, you’re not sure if they’re Emperor’s Black. You’re not sure of much anymore.

Nate shook it off. No sense in borrowing trouble before it arrived in a flurry in about fifteen minutes. His future-sense banged his head like a toy drum, but in an annoying and non-specific way. It wasn’t much good for winning lottery tickets, or knowing when the tap water would run hot so you didn’t have to test it with your finger. It excelled at vague premonitions of danger, coupled with locations with mental labels like the place you’ll probably die.

Seth Cleaver’s place was one such place. It’s where they headed. Kohl suggested he take care of it, but Nate put the big man off. I’ve need of you elsewhere, he’d said, and Kohl hadn’t much liked that, but he also hadn’t been sober, so his arguments were plaintive, like those of a child.

Cleaver housed himself within the Church of the Undying Dawn’s Chapel. The Chapel was so large, Nate expected you could see it from orbit. It had the kind of ostentatious layout normally reserved for structures like the Empire’s Winter Palace. It lurked on the skyline ahead, magnificent white-washed stone walls suggesting Cleaver, or his architect at least, didn’t much care for the materials shortage most of Earth suffered. It was newly minted, standing as an edifice to support his believers.

“On landing approach,” offered Wakelin, like those three words were good Empire coin she didn’t want to spend. Clipped, precise, give from lips that moved maybe three millimeters total.

Nate nodded. “Thank you, Sergeant. What are you like at the Black’s Christmas parties?”

“I don’t do parties.”

“As I thought.” Nate avoided Grace’s expression, which would have been something like don’t poke the bear, especially the one protecting us. To distract himself, he eyed the view again. Trees grew this far out from the main center of destruction. Scraggly things, like promising life might stand a chance of going on. The air car flew over small structures that were on the Church’s grounds, but not part of the Chapel proper.

They settled on the crust, a cloud of dust and ash billowing around them. The doors hinged upward, elegant wings allowing them exit. Wakelin had the look of someone about to say something like stay here, so Nate unclipped his harness and slipped free before she could nursemaid him. He left her disapproval behind him, stretching in the not-quite-warm-enough sunlight that struggled with the ever-present haze above. The Guild said they’d get it squared away. Nothing their terraforming tech couldn’t handle. Hell, they’d fixed once before. Good things take time.

Not a soul turned up to greet them. Nate hadn’t expected any. Not yet, at any rate. That’d come later. He adjusted his holster belt, checked the hang of his sword in the scabbard on his back, and set off toward the Chapel.

Problem with assholes like Cleaver is, they want you to really work for it. The Chapel sat atop a rise of steps. There were, according to Guild records, two hundred steps to climb. They started twenty meters wide, narrowing a shade at the top where an inconveniently-placed garden waited. Without the garden, they’d have landed up there. As it was, Nate had two hundred steps in his future.

Grace walked past him, bounding up the steps like a mountain goat. Nate watched her lithe form with a moment of appreciation. She wore black, sword jouncing against her back. No armor, dark leather that looked like the kind of statement this situation demanded. It was more impressive than Nate’s attire. It’s not that he didn’t wear leather — he just didn’t wear it as well, what with his jacket hanging open at the front. He gave a mental sigh, then settled himself into the business of climbing. His golden leg didn’t snag his steps as much these days, but it wasn’t like the one he’d been born with. He put some effort into the climb, catching up with Grace. They were both overtaken by the Emperor’s Black who sped past, all with eyes front, faces focused. They reminded Nate of dogs who’d spotted something that looked possibly tasty yet still alive, and were intent on solving that problem.

“Sergeant,” he called after Wakelin.

She stopped, turning. “Sire?”

“We don’t want to wholesale murder people,” he reminded her. “The whole point of not arriving in a Navy dropship was to send the right message.”

“I understand, Sire.” She spun, heading to the top.

“You sure about them?” Grace cast him a sideways glance.

“Yep.” Nate wished he wasn’t, but that’s how the future-sense worked. “Let’s get this over with.”

They made the garden area. It was well-tended, rows of low hedgerows providing a faux maze to the sides, a straight path toward the Chapel’s massive doors ahead. Those doors looked like they’d withstand a strike from a crustbuster. At twenty meters high, they looked down on the Empire team like a disapproving tutor. The Emperor’s Black waited outside, eyes out, watching for threats. Unlike him and Grace, they wore armor, the wings of the Empire’s falcon spread on the top left of the breastplate.

At least their weapons are hanging on their slings, not in their hands. Nate strolled on up, slowing his pace as they reached the door.

Wakelin jerked her head at the door. “No obvious way in.”

“Sure there is.” Nate shored up next to the door. “Ready to see a magic trick?” Wakelin’s eyes narrowed, but she held her peace. Nate raised his hand, rapping his knuckles against the door. He used his golden hand, metal on metal, ringing the massive doors like a gong.

After a brief pause, the doors groaned open. They parted wide enough three people would walk abreast through the gap. Nate sauntered through, Grace on his heels. The interior of the Chapel was huge. The Guild had building interiors this wide and open, but not many civilians built like this.

There wasn’t much in the way of god-hailing equipment about. It looked like a rich person’s abode. Carpet so plush it looked like it needed a mow. Paintings hung on walls. He pointed to one. “Is that a Van Gogh?”

Grace walked to the painting, tilting her head. “Might be.”

“Sire.” Wakelin cleared her throat. “This way.”

Of course you know the way. Nate smiled. “Aye, Sergeant. Just taking in the hospitality.” He did a slow turn. “Where is everyone?”

Wakelin’s expression gave nothing away. It was as rigid as the David lookalike standing on a plinth behind her. From the look of it, that might be the actual David. It felt bizarre in the extreme to be in the den of the evil overlord himself, a man who by all accounts had roaches running his brain, and find he still held an appreciation for art. “Perhaps they’re at Mass, sire.”

“Eh.” Be honest. He’s got a better eye for this than you. Nate charted a course toward the end of the massive entrance room. More stairs, although mercifully a smaller flight, ending at a smaller door, this one of a size a human might manage without breaking a sweat. “Perhaps they’re having their brains harvested.” He parsed that through his head a time or two, trying it on for size and finding it wanting. “By that, I mean by the Ezeroc.”

“As you say, Sire.” Wakelin head for the doors, her robust frame looking at odds with the opulent interior.

Nate missed the men and women Kohl recruited to the Black. They at least sported a sense of humor to postpone the gallows feeling of doing a job that involved death more often than not. Nate followed Wakelin to the doors, the sergeant shouldering them wide.

Beyond was a room with a throne. It looked like the designed liked baroque styles, a tall back rising well above the natural level a human might need for good lumbar support. On the throne sat Seth Cleaver. He looked like he could stand in a hurricane and call the weather mild; his shoulders were wider than Kohl’s, and fervor burned in his eyes like a searchlight. A Ceasar cut kept brown hair squared away. He didn’t smile, but Nate imagined straight pearly whites that could chew ceramicrete to powder. “Nathan Chevell.” His voice was a melody to behold. Angels would weep to speak like that.

“No.” Nate wandered inside, checking out the corners. No guards. No clergy, or whatever they had in stock here. “It’s Emperor Chevell.”

“My apologies.” Cleaver smoothed a silk shirt, then stood. He was a titan, no mistake, grazing the lofty heights of two meters. “What can the Church do for the Empire?”

Nate watched Grace move to the side, her eyes missing nothing. She raised an eyebrow. “For a start, you could actually be here. This whole sending thing,” she waved her hand at Cleaver, “is pretty last week.”

“Earth isn’t good for me right now.” Cleaver cleared his throat.

“For your kind, hey?” Nate offered a smile, showing more teeth than strictly necessary.

Cleaver shrugged. “You’re going to kill me without trial. Your only viable opponent in the election.” He shrugged.

“Not sure that was a part of my plan,” admitted Nate. “I came to end the Ezeroc threat to our home.”

“You’ve nothing to fear from me.” Cleaver paced in front of the throne, like he needed to burn off a little of his brooding demeanor. “They’re a cancer.”

Grace laughed. “You are Ezeroc. You might be able to hide it from those without our gifts, but…” She shook her head. “You will not lead humanity into the darkness.”

Cleaver looked astonished. As a person who’d inflicted more than his fair share of surprise on people, Nate figured the look for genuine. “I’m but a simple pastor.”

“You’re an agent of the enemy, and I’ll put you to the blade,” hissed Grace. She tapped her head with two fingers. “I remember what you did to me. To us.” She swept her arm in a savage arc, indicating all of humanity. “I know what you put in me.”

“Thing is,” Nate injected himself into the conversation like he’d never left, “records say you were on Viukde. Head of the Mission, some say. Left with a powerful wind in your sails, and made your presence known to the faithful.” He spread his hands. “I’ve no quarrel with any of that. But we do know you had no inkling of esper powers before returning, and here you are, sending like Kazuo himself.”

“I’ve been blessed.” Cleaver smiled like a shark.

“Sire.” One of the Black, a slickly-handsome man named Luitger Kent, hurried forward from his position by the door. “They’re coming.”

“Who?” Nate blinked.

“Everyone, I think.”

Nate sighed, then gave Cleaver a glance. “We’ll find you.”

“I hope so.” The pastor smiled. “I’ll be ready, Emperor.” He gave a small bow. “Empress.” Then he snapped out of existence like he’d never been.

Nate hurried to the door, peaking through. Outside, the massive antechamber filled with hundreds of people. Nate didn’t detect any of the sibilant mind-hissing of the Ezeroc. Just a whole bunch of humans with anger/steadfast like a cloak over their collective shoulders. Great. You’re in a room with no exits, and a mob waits before the only way out. “Fingers off triggers, people.”

Kent nodded, holding position at Nate’s elbow. “This’d be the time for form a band, Sire. We’ve got a rent-a-crowd good to go. Look like the pre-show warmed ‘em up some.”

Nate laughed. “I can’t play.”

“Sure you can, Sire.” Kent’s fingers hovered near the grip of this sidearm, but he didn’t touch it. He called over his shoulder. “What’s the play, skipper?”

Wakelin strode through the door, taking in the scene. “It’s time.”

Here it comes. Nate took in Kent’s I’m-a-little-confused look, and the fixed certainty of his three comrades. “Sergeant, you don’t need to do this.”

“Do what?” She raised an eyebrow.

“That’s the damn problem. I don’t know!” Nate took a couple steps toward the crowd, which hushed. “You’re going to do something that’s probably misguided and almost certainly stupid. You saw what happened in there. You saw what Cleaver’s capable of. Now’s where I nedd you to side with us.”

“The throne?” Her flat tone said it had about as much appeal as a cup of cold sick.

“Humanity,” urged Nate. He knew if she could make the call, it’d be the right one. She had to come here, see what was at stake, and side with Earth. Left to fester, she’d be a cancer within the Black. He knew that much. It’s what stopped Grace from cutting her down, and what kept Nate’s blaster in its holster.

Kent, not sure what was going on but positive it wasn’t good, rushed Wakelin. Nate wanted to pull him back, because she needed to make her own call. Wakelin held all their fates in her heart. Kent hadn’t drawn on his Sergeant, but if he had it may have forestalled doom.

Wakelin spun from his charge like a matador, Kent shooting past. Grace’s hand froze on her sword’s hilt, eyes darting to Nate. He saw the fear there. Not for her, but for him, and all they held dear. She couldn’t see the future like he could, but she trusted he could. It felt like time held still for them, the moment holding like dew on the verge of falling from a flower petal.

Nate saw Wakelin draw her blaster. He knew he shouldn’t stop her. The future-sense said she must make her own choice. Her choice would show thousands, nay millions, what was possible. He’d take a shot for that. Blue-white fire could take his life so fast he’d feel no pain. The weapon cleared its holster. The barrel found Nate. He saw the eyes of the woman behind it. Hard, but not certain. Used to killing, but not like this.

He nodded. It’s okay.

She spun like a tossed coin, firing blue-white fire into the crowd. The fzzzt-crack of plasma tore bodies apart. Flesh boiled under skin. Meat burst into flame. Grace screamed, “NO!” her steel hissing from its scabbard. Still she held herself frozen, uncertainty holding her frame rigid.

Wakelin paused her shooting. “Now they’ll know. The Pastor greeted the Emperor peacefully, but was met with fire.” She seemed about to say something more profound, but it turned into a cough as she arched her back.

Kent’s face appeared over her shoulder as a length of steel emerged from her chest. “Traitor!”

Blood bubbled from Wakelin’s lips. Her eyes, usually free of emotion, shone as she looked at the roof of the Chapel. Nate couldn’t see anything there, but her face was fixed on some middle distant object only she could see, right to the point where she fell from Kent’s steel to die on the plush carpet.

One of the other Emperor’s Black ran at Kent, perhaps confused as to who the real enemy was. They tousled in a flash of steel. Nate spared a glance for the crowd below as the people gathered themselves. Groans and cries rose over the clash of blades.

He turned to Grace. “Where’s Pieritz?”

“Who’s Pieritz?” She wasn’t really paying attention to him, her eyes on the crowd below. He knew what she saw: a mass of murdered people, smoke rising in eddies teased by air cyclers, and people gathering themselves for murder or flight, as was their fancy.

“I’m Pieritz.” The remaining Black officer stood in the doorway, blaster held at the ready. Grace spun, but Nate sighed. In his view, Pieritz’s stance was overly cocky, like he’d rehearsed this in the mirror a handful of times before trying it on for real. The weapon was trained on Grace, which Nate counted hurtful and sensible in equal measure. She was far more threatening than he was, but it’d be nice just once to not be written off.

Kent and his opponent continued their clash. Kent didn’t look like he was going to be the winner in this once, so Nate needed to wrap this up. “Here’s how it is, Pieritz.” He paced away from Grace, getting some distance, trying to draw the man’s eyes away from his wife. “There’s a world of confusion circulating right now. No one’s sure who’s flying Empire colors, and who’s a traitor.” Another few steps took him a generous five meters from Grace. “What I can tell you, clear as crystal, sharp as steel, is that if you don’t stop threatening my wife I will cut you down.”

“I’ve got a blaster.” Pieritz tried for a sneer, but it wouldn’t stick. “And you haven’t drawn your sword.”

Nate nodded. “You’d think that’d be a disadvantage, but I get why. You’re new on the team. Drop the weapon, or die. Last chance.”

Pieritz looked about to answer, uncertainty playing havoc with his eyebrows. Kent crowed victory from Nate’s right, closer to Grace’s position, as his sword took his opponent’s head from shoulders. Grace tensed, hand flung out, a mind shield shimmering like steel bubble made of crystal about her, another around Nate. She was protecting them from Pieritz, and it saved them.

Kent’s opponent’s body exploded. One minute, a headless Black officer swayed like a reed in the wind, then a blast tore him apart. Armor plates flew. Kent was reduced to stray carbon, Pieritz sharing the same fate. Wakelin’s fallen body was torched. Priceless artwork on the walls blazed a final glory as cleansing flame scoured the Chapel. The crowd below was engulfed as a wave made of fire rolled over the top of them, a cascading breaker that pushed them to the floor, then to nothing.

The noise was held at bay by Grace’s shield. The silver protection shimmered, turned pink, then an angry red, failing as she fell. Nate rushed to her side, catching her before she could fall face-first on the carpet. The air smelled of burnt wool and charred meat. It smells of war. It smells of hate. Nate looked about for survivors or threats, he wasn’t sure which.

Cleaver must have put explosives inside that officer. He was willing to kill hundreds of his own to make a point. Grace’s eyelids fluttered, blood streaming freely from her nose. Nate hefted her over his shoulders in a fireman’s carry. It wasn’t the time or place to be delicate. They had to get out.

He keyed his comm. “El?”

“Holy shit, Cap. What’d you do?” The Helm’s voice came with a crackle of static, hazed by countermeasures more than distance. “I mean, of course, it’s wonderful to hear you’re alive. The Tyche says there’s trouble where you are. It’s like she knows you.”

“Cleaver,” wheezed Nate. “It didn’t work out.”

“But you had to try.”

“I had to try,” he agreed. “Things aren’t going to plan. The Pastor’s killed his followers to make a kind of sick point.” Nate ran down the steps, slowing as he hit the area where Cleaver’s people had stood. There wasn’t much left. He dragged a ragged breath, coughing soot, and trying not to think about what it was made from. Nate stepped carefully as he could, smoke blinding him.

“How’s Grace?” The slightest hint of worry tinged El’s voice. If Nate hadn’t known her so well, he’d had missed it.

“Overexerted herself a little.” Nate adjusted his load. “We could use an extraction.”

“Hmm.” El sniffed. “One savior of the day, coming right up.” The comm clicked off.

Nate made the massive front doors, finding them still open either from when he entered or Cleaver’s people had. Outside, even the weak hazed daylight felt like a benediction. He breathed a little easier once in the garden outside.

Then he stopped breathing easier, because there were like fifty people between him and the air car. They had the look of true believers. Glassy-eyed stares, shuffling gaits, stern faces, the whole shtick. They stood in the clear path between Nate and what they figured for his escape route. “Hey,” he offered.

“You’ve killed the faithful,” said a woman in her early forties, face weathered by toil outside. “You must atone.”

“You say that like I’ve nothing else to atone for.” Nate dredged up a smile, plastered it on, and turned up the amps on it. “Right?”

“There’s no Emperor’s Black to save you.” A man to Nate’s left drew closer, one steady step after the other. He looked the kind you’d see keeping a bar. A face that should be jolly, over a belly well-used to sampling house wares. “Only the Church.”

“Can’t say as I’m a believer.” Nate crouched, unloading Grace to the grass. He stood, drawing his black blade and giving it a couple swings to remind himself of how it felt. “I figure you’re wanting to get a little cam footage,” he stabbed his blade at the black eye of a cam mounted on the side of the Chapel, “of the Emperor murdering innocents and eating babies. To go right along with the coverage you’ve got of me and mine heading inside, killing all who stood against us.” He squinted. The wannabe-innkeeper exchanged a glance with his weathered companion. “Wasn’t me. I didn’t turn on your people.”

“There was fire,” offered the woman.

“And for that, there’ll be an accounting.” Nate held his sword low. A promise of things to come, but not an overt threat.

“No. You must pay now.” The should-be-jolly man took another step forward.

The Tyche blasted over the top of them, the roar of her drives a thunder that made Nate’s heart soar, probably almost as much as it damaged his hearing. She’d come in supersonic, effectively noiseless. The ship banked, cutting speed. Cleaver’s followers did about what Nate might have in their shoes: they ducked and covered. The Tyche shed more speed, coming around for a landing approach. Her nose tipped toward the sky as she descended, Endless fields holding her from the deck.

The skids lowered, the ship settling on the beautifully maintained garden. The cargo ramp lowered. Chad strolled out, Saveria on his heels. He gave Nate a nod. “Sire.”

“Chad.”

“Empress all right?” Chad fingered the pommel of his blade, eyeing the people around the ship.

“She’s been better.” Nate bent, picking Grace up with care. Cleaver’s followers milled about in a general state of confusion. They might have been willing to rush Nate, maybe even die against his steel, but he’d bet taking on a starship — even a small one — wasn’t in their mission briefing.

Saveria strode toward him, movements precise and beautiful. Just like Algernon. She pivoted as she reached him, falling into step. “Is now a good time?”

“No.” Nate clanked up the cargo bay ramp. It lifted, Chad manning the controls. The airlock sealed behind the spymaster. Nate keyed his comm. “El? We’re aboard, but not strapped in. Easy take-off. Nothing showy.”

“Boring as open mic night, got it.” The ship rumbled in sour agreement, the deck shaking beneath them as the Tyche lifted free from gravity’s clutches. Nate stumbled but kept his feet despite his payload. He needed to get Grace to the medbay.

“So,” said Chad, sidling ahead and leaning against the ladder. “How about now?”

Nate glanced at him, then Saveria. “What is it with you two?”

“Spymaster,” Chad jerked his thumb at his chest, then nodded to Saveria, “and protege.”

“Couple assholes, more like.”

Saveria nodded. “It’s a part of the JD, sire.”

“Not you too.” Nate closed his eyes for a moment, listening to the sounds of his ship as she made modest speed across San Francisco. He opened ‘em a moment later. “Okay. Do it.”

“I told you so,” said Saveria.

“Technically, I told you so first.” Chad examined his nails.

“You did no such thing,” she retorted. “I said—”

“Later,” said Nate. “We’ve got bigger issues.”

“Aye.” Chad eyed the Empress. “There’ll be an accounting, I promise.”


The Current Masterwork

In ten minutes, you’ll face the most powerful enemy since forever. Chin up.

Nate held onto his acceleration couch’s straps like they’d save him from drowning in the feelings around him. The dropship was full of anxiety/ready and fear/focus, the feelings rattling against him like pebbles thrown against glass. Those emotions came from the men and women around him. Many he didn’t know, and knew he’d never get a chance to, on account of them dying below. A few he’d seen about the halls of the Mercenary, and one or two he’d shared a drink with.

The dropship wasn’t built for carrying cargo other than brave souls. Forty Marines shared the trip with the Emperor and Empress. Another six dropships shared their immediate approach vector. Across Earth, the Navy deployed similar ships against Church outposts on the basis that you really couldn’t be too careful. Their forces were spread thin, but Nate’s future-sense said it wouldn’t matter. The real battle would be here, in San Francisco, in just under ten minutes.

Grace sat in a couch beside him, her face calm, relaxed even. He wished he had her calm, her certainty that all would be well.

GRACE I don’t think all will be okay, I think it’ll be better with you

NATE I prefer it when you lie to me

The dropship wasn’t like his Tyche. Where his heavy lifter was comfortable, a home, a place to rest your feet after a wearying day of surfing the stars, this spacecraft was all business. There wasn’t even a whiskey dispenser.

They’d launched from Navy ships in geosynchronous orbit above San Francisco. Their target was the Church of the Undying Dawn’s main Chapel, and more specifically, Pastor Seth Cleaver. Intel said he was inside, just waiting to be shucked like an oyster from its shell.

“Hard contact.” The clipped voice came over the ship-wide comm, and belonged to Dennis Boat, an apt name for a Helm. The dropship weaved, leaving Nate’s stomach back aways. He could imagine hands on sticks, steely eyes watching the ground, countermeasures turned to eleven as they headed for the dirt.

It wasn’t a big deal, really. If the ground assault team hadn’t taken out the air defenses, the trip would’ve been cut short already. And seriously, what kind of church has AA cannons? If there was ever confirmation that Cleaver was the enemy, that was it.

A holo set in the middle of the dropship bloomed to life. It updated with RADAR and LIDAR maps of the terrain, highlighting gun emplacements, the Church’s Chapel, likely numbers of ground forces, and their fellow Marine transports. A dropship’s beacon winked out, the craft torn from the sky by weapons from below. Nate closed his eyes, thinking back to a time where he’d been protecting an Emperor, not play-acting as one. They’d been torn from the sky, and it’d cost him an arm and a leg.

Grace’s hand found his arm, her touch light but steady. “It’ll be different this time.”

“Hah. You’re only saying that because you weren’t there. This will be the same.” Nate cranked a grin out of spare parts. “Or, it’ll be different. We could die.”

She laughed. “I think we should talk with Cleaver about who should do the dying.” She shifted on her acceleration couch. Nate had to admit, even sitting down she drew the eye. She didn’t wear armor, leastways not the type the Marines wore. Her black synthetic clothing was form-fitting. The quartermaster said it’d turn the kiss of steel, maybe even take a kinetic round or two, but he couldn’t guarantee it against blaster fire. Grace had nodded, saying, I don’t plan on getting hit anyway.

Nate, never one to turn away a good ace up the sleeve, wore similar clothing underneath sensible armor. The Empire’s falcon rode golden wings on his chest plate. It chafed some, but was light enough so’s not to be bothersome. Gold winked at him from where his gloves didn’t quite meet shirt, his metal arm reminding him that not all stories had happy endings.

“Rapid disembark in thirty seconds.” The Helm’s voice was tense over the comm. Nate figured Dennis could learn a thing or two about calm under fire from El. Despite his tension the man was doing an admirable job of getting them to the deck without the dropship exploding.

The dropship’s engine roar changed in pitch, climbing to a whine. The attitude of the deck shifted as the Helm brought the nose up, scrubbing airspeed through friction and use of Endless fields. Well before Nate thought thirty seconds had time to amble past, the dropship’s wide doors opened, a ramp shooting out. Marines were already boots on metal, running for the dirt outside.

Nate released his clasps, raising an eyebrow as Grace shot past and out. How is it you’re the only one still in here? Might be getting old. He clanked across the deck, making the daylight outside. It was weak and grainy, struggling with the clouds or ever-present ash in the atmosphere.

Boat had the courtesy to point the dropship’s ramp toward the Chapel. The building was huge, making the Winter Palace look like an exercise in modesty. It rose against the skyline, basalt and marble winking their contrast in the light. A massive double door waited beyond a faux hedge maze. The doors stood maybe twenty meters tall, large enough not even Kohl could persuade them open.

About the what Nate figured as once-serene gardens, hundreds of civilians fought the Empire forces. They used blasters as readily as weapons of opportunities. He saw a woman swing at a Marine with a rake, beside a man trying his level best to skewer a sergeant with the broken haft of a similar gardening tool.

Four other dropships sat to the left and right, their disgorged Marines making progress across manicured lawns. The blue-white flash of plasma fire spat across the space. Debris from a mortar explosion showered Nate with dirt, and debris nicked his face. He touched blood. You and your ideals. You could have left this to others.

“You could have left this to me!” Chad jogged past, offering a mocking half-bow and flourish as he went. The spymaster held a rapier at the ready, sidearm in his other hand.

Saveria followed in his wake. “You really should have. This leading from the front business will get you killed.”

“I was just … stop reading my mind!” Nate drew his blaster, wondering what he meant to do with it. Shooting civilians, especially misguided ones, didn’t sit well with him, so he also drew his black blade. The sword felt heavy with intent in his right hand, golden fingers of his left gripping his sidearm in readiness.

CHAD Wasn’t reading your mind, you’re predictable

SAVERIA Also, we told you so

Nate broke into a ragged run. He wasn’t doing much leading from the front waiting by the dropship. He tried to spy Grace in the melee, but the smoke was too thick, not to mention the visual noise of hundreds of people throwing themselves against the cheese grater of the Empire Navy.

The good news, if there was some in this sordid mess, was there wouldn’t be Ezeroc here. No roaches boiling up from the dirt. No flying insects with stingers, ready to inject larvae into a person. The nanotech plague worked for humanity now. Algernon bought that with Saveria’s life.

A pair of frenzy-eyed churchgoers ran at Nate. One held a shovel, the other a blaster. The plasma weapon looked to be Navy standard issue, suggesting at least one of the pair knew how to kill Marines. Shovel-wielder was a short, stocky man who looked like he’d be more at home as a bartender. The woman holding the plasma carbine had the nervous disposition of a bomb maker. She steadied herself, pointing the weapon in Nate’s general direction and pulling the trigger.

Future-sense tapped Nate on the shoulder. Step to the left three paces. Pause. Right two paces.

Nate danced across the grass, plasma chewing the space he’d occupied. The woman did a double-take, then glanced at her weapon as if it were to blame. Shovel-wielded reached Nate, taking a wild swing. Nate’s sword caught the shovel on the blade, slicing through steel and sending it spinning away. He followed through by slugging the man across the jaw with butt of his sidearm, dropping the should-be-an-innkeeper to the dirt in a pile of unrealized potential.

He ran at the woman, blade low. Dodge right. Stop. Duck. Plasma scorched the air. Nate felt the death heat of it, the scent of ozone everywhere. He swung his sword, cutting the carbine through the barrel. The weapon sparked, the cartridge detonating in a bright flash. The woman screamed, tucking her burnt hands under her arms.

Nate offered her a nod, then hurried on. Ahead, he caught the gleam of steel as poetry, Grace’s sword moving as a visible extension of her will. She ducked and weaved. Unable to see the future like him, she had to rely on skill. Nate was honest enough to admit he’d rather be lucky than skilled, but Grace had the knack of making skill look desirable.

He joined her in a moment of calm. Smoke chased leaves across the grass, an eddy of wind tousling Grace’s hair. The double doors of the Chapel remained closed. He pointed with his sword. “We need to get in there.”

She nodded. “It’s lucky we brought a bottle opener. Sergeant!” Grace turned to a stocky woman who looked manufactured from granite and salt. “We need that door open.”

“Aye.” The sergeant, a woman who wore the name Hudnall like a combat boot, clicked her comm, bawling orders. Nate caught ordinance and of course there’s no hurry, it’s only the Empress. “Your Highness, might be a good time to take cover.”

Grace nodded, but didn’t move. A Marine jogged up, a long tubular weapon in hand. He offered Grace a quick smile, shy like he was in the presence of his idol, but shut it down because he was a Marine, for heaven’s sake. “One bottle opener, as requested.”

Sergeant Hudnall glared. “You’re not getting paid overtime, Coles!”

Coles, clearly no stranger to high-tension situations, gave a curt nod, dropped to one knee, and raised his launcher. Sighting down the barrel, he paused for a two-count, then pulled the trigger.

A contrail of brilliant fire shot from the weapon to the doors. They exploded in a shower of wood fragments and steel reinforcing. Nate ducked his head, arm up to shield himself, but nothing hit him. The steel crystal glimmer of Grace’s mind shield held before them, a bubble of safety protecting both them and the two Marines. When the debris settled from raining death and fury to there’s a lot of smoke, Nate nodded his thanks to Coles. “Nice work, Marine.”

“My pleasure to kill the sworn enemies of the throne, Sire.” Coles winked at Hudnall, who swore, then darted back into the fray.

Hudnall watched him go, then turned her regard on Nate. “Anything else, Sire?”

“One thing. Very important.” Nate leaned close. “Try not to die. Or let anyone else die.”

Her hard face softened for a tiny moment. “It’d be my pleasure, Sire.”

Nate gave another nod, then headed toward the breached door. Grace loped at his side. “You always do that. Make them feel like they’re the most valuable person in the world.”

They arrived at the door. Flames still licked the wood, smoke trickling toward the sky outside and the vaulted ceiling inside. “They’re laying down their lives for us. That’s a thing I can’t look past.”

“I wasn’t criticizing. I was…” She trailed off, eyes wide as she took in the Chapel’s interior. “Thankful. How is it that the Church has a Van Gogh?”

Nate stepped inside the Chapel. Or, Chapel anteroom, because despite this chamber being as large as a stadium, something Guild Engineers would be proud to construct, it sported many doors leading to locales unknown. Around the interior lay countless objets d’art. The Van Gogh looked real to Nate’s gutter-thief eye. A statue of David copy stood in a shaft of light from above. He squinted. You know, that may be the real David. What’s an Ezeroc-infested person want with artwork?

It caused a niggle of doubt. The Ezeroc didn’t like art. They liked food, and saw humanity as a movable feast. If Cleaver had this much art here, he either had a very good interior decorator, was into the collection as a means of wealth preservation, or…

Or, he’s not Ezeroc.

Nate shook his head. Saveria called the man a new kind of Queen. Chad, once he woke, agreed with her. They called Seth Cleaver a threat to humanity, not just the throne. He shrugged off his nagging thoughts, focusing on the mission ahead. Intel said Seth Cleaver called this place home. People saw him here, walking about, breathing the air, and passing benedictions or whatever it was he did with his time.

Five meters inside, feet padding down carpeted steps so plush they needed a mow, Nate felt the stirring of unease. His future-sense cast about, finding no targets, but still sending fingers of cold fear up his back. Ten meters in, even Grace felt it, slowing to a halt, blade raised, head on a swivel. “What is that?”

“Future-sense,” offered Nate. “Or, good ol’ fashioned human dread. Here we are, in the den of a spider.”

“Not that.” She shook her head. “That.”

Nate cocked his head, listening. After a moment, he felt it. So faint you might think you’d missed it, a whisper right on the edge of hearing. It sounded like the hissing of sibilant Ezeroc speech, except…

Except there aren’t any Ezeroc on Earth. Not anymore.

He broke into a run. Grace kept pace beside him. A shout behind him brought him up short. “Sire!” Nate turned, taking in Hudnall and a clutch of Marines. “We still storming the gates?”

Nate shook his head. “Hold here, Sergeant. What’s ahead isn’t for you.”

She hefted her rifle. “Nothing a little plasma won’t cure.”

They’re so willing to throw their lives away for you. This is why the vote’s important. They need to choose. “Hold here, Sergeant. No one comes through that door.”

Hudnall searched his face, then gave a tight nod before turning to her Marines. “You heard the Emperor. Secure this position. I want clean lines of fire. I want it fast. And you, Coles, will secure that expression in the black depths of your heart before you get entrenching duty!”

Nate turned, heading down the massive room. The sense of space was eerie. It felt as if they walked inside a cavern, a stone vault constructed above, not below the Earth.

“This feels like an Ezeroc burrow,” offered Grace.

“I wish you wouldn’t say what I’m thinking,” said Nate. “It’s not helping my calm.”

“I was just saying, because—”

“Still not helping.” Nate looked about, trying to find targets. There wasn’t anyone in here. No guards. Not a single member of the faithful. Certainly no priests, or whatever the Church stocked in their stead. His sense of unease grew, rising to a crescendo as he felt the sill waters of his mind ripple as someone — or something — nearby gathered their will. A powerful esper was at work here.

Grace made no comment, her lips pressed into a line. She would have felt it before him, stronger, and keener to her core. Her sword glinted from the lighting high above, but her black suit gave nothing back to the enemy’s fortress.

“Where is everyone?” Nate turned a slow circle as they approached a shallow stairway leading up a level. It was perhaps ten meters wide, the carpet still plush, looking new. It probably was; San Francisco was still in ruins, but Cleaver managed to find materials and people to build himself a shiny new house.

“At Mass.” Grace shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not familiar with this religion.”

“I’m glad you didn’t say, ‘preparing a trap.’ Because that’s what I was thinking.” Nate swung his sword, getting the feel of it right in his mind.

“I didn’t say that because you’d get anxious again.”

Anxious?!

“Or fretful.” She sniffed, then pointed to the doors atop of the stairs. “Whatever it is, it’s in there.”

Nate nodded. No more putting this off. He jogged to the steps, swearing a little at the excessive use of vertical space as he climbed, then shouldered the doors open. They didn’t even have the decency to creak, sliding open on hinges so smooth the Guild would no doubt wonder how they worked.

Inside was a smaller room, but no less plush. At the far end was a throne, showing exactly what Seth Cleaver planned for the future. The man creates his own church to rule, but has designs on all humanity. It looked like the designed liked baroque styles, a tall back rising well above the natural level a human might need for good lumbar support. On the throne sat Cleaver himself.

He looked like he could stand in a hurricane and call the weather mild; his shoulders were wider than Kohl’s, and fervor burned in his eyes like a searchlight. A Caesar cut kept brown hair squared away. He didn’t smile, but Nate imagined straight pearly whites that could chew ceramicrete to powder. “Nathan Chevell.” His voice was a melody to behold. Angels would weep to speak like that.

“No.” Naturally, he’s a sending. The power we’ve felt, it’s him projecting himself into this space. But he’s so clear, so visible. Could Grace send so clearly? Nate wandered inside, checking out the corners. No guards, and no clergy. “It’s Emperor Chevell. For a while longer, at least.”

“My apologies.” Cleaver smoothed a silk shirt, then stood. He was a titan, no mistake, grazing the lofty heights of two meters. “What can the Church do for the Empire?”

Nate watched Grace move to the side, her eyes missing nothing. She raised an eyebrow. “The Church? Nothing. We’ve no quarrel with people who want to believe in something bigger than themselves.”

“What she means is, you’re scum, and we’re going to put you to the blade.” Nate hefted his sword for emphasis, then shrugged, almost apologetic. “You know how it is.”

“You wasted all these people to come here.” Cleaver smiled, like a post-cream cat. “Yours and mine both. Mine went willing into the light, Emperor. Did yours?”

“Where are you, exactly?” Nate sheathed his blade, then looked at his blaster. Probably won’t be needed that either. He holstered it. “I feel like this is anticlimactic. After Viukde, I expected a brief round of fisticuffs, then one of us bleeding our last on the dusty ground. I wanted to meet you, Pastor, and see what kind of creature figured to make me into a corpse.”

“Earth isn’t good for me right now.” Cleaver cleared his throat, the sound apologetic.

“For your kind, hey?” Nate offered a smile, showing more teeth than strictly necessary.

Cleaver shrugged. “You’re going to kill me without trial. Isn’t it odd that you seek to end your only viable opponent in the election?”

“Not sure that was a part of my plan,” admitted Nate. “I came to end the Ezeroc threat to our home.”

“You’ve nothing to fear from me.” Cleaver paced in front of the throne, like he needed to burn off a little of his brooding demeanor. “They’re a cancer.”

Grace laughed. “You are Ezeroc. You might be able to hide it from those without our gifts, but…” She shook her head. “You will not lead humanity into the darkness.”

Cleaver looked astonished. As a person who’d inflicted more than his fair share of surprise on people, Nate figured the look for genuine. “I’m but a simple pastor.”

“You’re an agent of the enemy,” hissed Grace. She tapped her head with two fingers. “I remember what you did to me. To us.” She swept her arm in a savage arc, indicating all of humanity. “I know what you put in me. I’ll release you, Seth Cleaver.”

“Thing is,” Nate injected himself into the conversation like he’d never left, “records say you were on Viukde. Head of a Mission, before leaving with a powerful wind in your sails. Middling at sermons and such before, yet now you have this.” Nate looked around at the room, and by inference, the Chapel.

“I’ve been blessed.” Cleaver smiled like a shark.

“Fair enough.” Nate turned to Grace. “Do you know where he is?”

She closed her eyes for a moment, then shook her head. “He’s not close, and he’s not blood. But I think from the strength of his sending, he’s in-system.”

Cleaver nodded. “I’m not hiding, Empress. We’ll meet when the time’s right.” He snapped out like a candle on the wind, vanishing without even a puff of smoke.

Nate turned toward the doors, feeling weary. It never ends. “Best we find out where he’s gone.”

Grace nodded, then pointed to a cam above the throne. “Why do you suppose the good pastor has surveillance in his sanctum?”

“I can think of several bad reasons, and no good ones.” Nate sighed. “He wasn’t on Earth because the nanobot swarm still holds the line. He looked human, but maybe it’s only skin deep. Would the nanites kill him?”

Grace looked away. “Algernon might know.”

“Time we go ask him.” Nate strode for the door. “While we’re about it, let’s get Kohl sober. I think I’ve got a job for him.”