Demons Of The Past 02: Revolution – Chapter 20
Morno came straight in, as I’d expected; his style was to hammer fast and hard, typical of the Ternam Ralyeh, and his technique was a unique combination of jai-ye and zairaka. Taelin used a lot of the latter – Lukh was an expert in it – but jai-ye was almost exclusive to the Dragon Strikers; it meant “wing-claw” and was a style focused on swift, multi-level punching and kicking, a highly aggressive combat style meant to maim and kill.
But I was in Mind Center, the calm that lies at the core of every mind if only the thinker can realize it, can see the nexus of self from which every thought emanates, through which every feeling passes, into which all fears must travel and be absorbed and transformed into peace. I saw Morno through the Water Vision, and the flow of motion was as clear as the inevitability of a waterfall.
A very fast waterfall, and I moved aside only barely in time, though still with a controlled and exact motion. I let the Vision guide me as I observed. I had to understand his patterns and his capabilities, and that meant surviving long enough to figure out his weaknesses.
The crowd was roaring now, mostly encouragement for their commander, but I thought I heard a tremendous deep bass roar that could only have come from one throat, in a language I didn’t speak but knew had to be for me. I dodged and parried quick, stabbing punches and hammering kicks, turning them with as little effort as I could manage. That hurt still, and I realized that Morno was even stronger and faster than he’d been the last time we met. He hadn’t spent the last few years just commanding; he was in top form, longevity treatments keeping his reflexes at their peak while experience made him better at using those reflexes.
“You’re better than you were, Varan,” Morno conceded, pausing in his attack, regaining his energy, circling and observing me in his own way. “You even got that Tor gaze down right. But the old ‘Eternal Stare’ isn’t scaring me.”
“It’s not meant to scare anyone,” I said quietly, almost impossible for him to hear over the noise from the crowd as we circled. “That’s only a distraction from what it actually does.”
“And just what does it do, then?” he asked with a faint, sarcastic smile.
My kick took him straight in the chest, right through the gap between his blocking arms that showed up just as he shifted blocking patterns. But even as I drew my foot back, one hand clamped on my ankle, and he used the momentum of my kick along with his own strength to drag me down and try to throw me. Instead I bent, flipped around my own leg to relieve the pressure of the throw, and twisted from his grip in midair, coming down on both hands to deliver a backwards blindkick that I felt slam into a blocking arm with enough force to knock it back into Morno’s chest. I used the reaction from the impact to do a roll-and-twist, skidding to a halt just barely inside the heptagram, coming up facing Morno as he rolled to his feet on the opposite side.
This is definitely not the old Morno, I thought reluctantly. He’s more controlled, smarter, and tougher. We were circling each other again, the roar of the crowd now almost deafening as it echoed from the armored walls of the bay, and his movements were textbook-perfect zairaka, flowing calm rippling motions meant to baffle the eye and mislead the attacker, while his face showed pure-crystal concentration. This isn’t the same man who lost his temper when two stupid cadets in training brawled through his dinner, who got such a ratchet-lock on the offense that he followed me for two weeks so he could catch me away from Helkoth.
Another flurry of blows and blocks, both of us getting stung, neither getting anything decisive. I looked around briefly at the crowd around us, taking in the whole scene in Mind Center, perceiving the patterns and expressions and movements and sounds as a single gestalt of actuality. I couldn’t actually grasp it all in my mind at once, not the way one has to comprehend and grasp the entirety of one’s hand in Hand Center, but I could gain an impression of the overall nature of the setting and what I saw there … hurt, in a way. These people were not cheering against me – not entirely. They were genuinely cheering their commander, worried for his safety against a desperate and dangerous renegade. I knew that kind of esprit de corps doesn’t form around a bully and a vengeful, self-involved tzil like the man that almost beat me to unconsciousness.
The distraction almost cost me the duel; my focus on Mind Center wavered, and I didn’t realize that Morno was more than alert enough to see the shift in expression. He was there before I could react, catching my instinctive block, spinning me around, hammering an elbow down – almost onto my neck, my own movement barely sufficient to shift it into a crushing blow to my upper shoulder that numbed my right arm almost instantly. He continued the whirlwind attack as I tried to tumble, a spin-stomp and drop that almost caught me dead-on. I had no choice but to tumble farther, expelling pain and distractions, trying to regain the Center before he finished me – or I put myself out of the ‘gram.
I stopped suddenly and did a spinning handstand low-sweep kick that I’d taken from an exhibition dancer I met once, and the unexpected move took Morno’s legs out from under him even as my still half-numb arm screamed protest. He rolled, of course, but that gave me just enough time to rise to my feet and finish the meditative run at the speed of thought: Fast Center, pausing, a single breath of calm; White Vision, emptiness, within a winter storm; Heart Center, pulsing, life’s unending beat; Red Vision, crimson, constant flow of living heat; Hand Center, reaching, strength of thinking skill; Clear Vision, outward, skies so dark and still; Deep Center, focusing, rising from within; Wind Vision, swiftness, tempest’s howling din; High Center, waiting, viewing from on high; Water Vision, rushing flow, the ocean’s living eye; and Mind Center, holding, truth within your thoughts.
We faced each other again, and within the watching fortress of the Mind Center I felt a flare of anger and selfish disappointment. Why can’t I have a victory here that I won’t regret? I now knew – just by the chagrined half-smile on his face, the expression of a fighter who’s realized that his opponent is fully his equal – that Commodore Veshdar Morno wasn’t someone I wanted beaten, he was someone I wanted on my side. But for the sake of the Empire itself, I had to beat him – and probably destroy his career in the bargain. Or one day he, or his closest friends and relatives, would be a screaming mindvoice behind a human shell, or worse.
“Morno,” I said.
He watched me as I began a slow, swaying advance, the movement of waves and wind. “What?”
He blinked, as I knew he would, and in that moment I leapt up and over, kicking for the back of his head. He dodged, but I’d thrown him off, and my backflip off the landing put me precisely in position to block his escape.
He didn’t bother trying to continue evasion, took a shot to the side of his head that I thought would drop him and just shook it off as though he’d been struck with a snowball, slammed a backfist into my face and tried to get an armlock when I punched back. Arms and hands turned and grasped, released and returned, as both of us sought some advantage. A knee detonated agony through my gut but I fought off the nausea and reflexive buckling, flung myself backward with a sha-yaida twining grip on his elbow that forced him with me; he used the momentum to twist around, spin us, land with stunning impact atop me, driving the air from my lungs in a shrieking gasp that brought me teetering to the brink of consciousness, red haze threatening to erase all visions.
But I held the Center, barely held it, and through – past the red mist, beyond my own range of sight I could still see, the twin hammerblow coming to finish me, and the open strike that it permitted. My arms felt like frozen blocks but the Red Vision shattered coldness, the Hand Center showed them reaching, curling, hardening, and both of my hands drove up with lighting speed into his solar plexus. Morno grunted in agony and I jack-knifed, reversing our positions, even as he tried to do the same; we tumbled faster across the deck and suddenly I sprawled flat and kicked upward; Morno flew off of me with a stunned curse as he realized, a split-second too late, that I was at the very edge of the heptagram. He crashed down less than half a meter from the line and lay still for a moment.
“Hurrakast! It is done,” Killaren’tian called out.
The crew of Kukanaro surged forward, and I came back on guard, feeling the pain of bruises, strains, maybe worse trying to keep me down, but I had to ignore them all; Morno could always change his mind – or just pretend to be injured enough so he couldn’t stop it, and in the latter case he might even manage to get away with it and not have Killaren’tian dare break off relations.
But even as a ring of guards leveled weapons at me – and I saw a similar mob surrounding the raised platform where Guvthor, Sooovickalassa, and The Eönwyl stood – Veshdar Morno got to his feet, shaking off the people trying to help him. “What in Atlantaea’s Name are you all DOING?“ he bellowed, but I could barely make it out in the uproar; only those nearest him reacted.
But then Morno touched his collar and activated the entire shipwide address system.
“WHAT IN ATLANTAEA’S NAME ARE YOU ALL DOING?!”
The sound temporarily deafened everyone in Kukanaro’s landing bay; it shook the deck, vibrated the landing craft spaced around the walls, practically jarred my teeth loose from my jaw. Everything came to a sudden halt.
“Is there a single one of you that wants to tell me I am not still in command of my own Demon-damned ship? Anyone?” This was merely almost deafening, and still there was no movement anywhere in the bay. Morno waited for several seconds before continuing. Not a sound except the breathing of several thousand people, waiting, disturbed that tense pause.
“Now that we have that little issue settled, I am not going to explain the situation again. If you’re on my ship, you are not stupid, and I by the EMPEROR had better not have to explain anything to any of you twice. Most of you get the hell back to your posts, now. Harag, take your second and third Sevens and get The Eönwyl’s ship in position for launch. First Seven stay here with me.”
I could see Harag was almost purple from restraining his – admittedly perfectly understandable – sentiments. But he said nothing, merely saluted and then turned to roar out orders to his men. Morno turned to the Black Sergeant of the first Sevensquad. “Sergeant, you keep those dampers synchronized and on our … guests until they depart. Coordinate with Inclusions so that their ship stays blanketed.”
I glanced at him. “You think I’m going to try something now?”
He actually cracked a smile. “No, I don’t. But I’m making sinking sure that there isn’t anyone, anywhere, who can claim you ever had a chance to do a Towers-damned thing to me or any of my men. That way even an inquiry board can’t claim I was mind-twisted into doing any part of this.”
I nodded. “I’d do the same. It’s the right move. Good luck, Veshdar.”
“You’ll need a lot more than that.” He gave me a meaningful look. It wasn’t a friendly look… but it was a warning glance, with respect in it, that I’d never expected from him. And I think – maybe – he saw something similar in my own eyes.
I turned to Killaren’tian and gave her a circle-and-bow as low as I could. “The Lady’s grace was upon me, and your courtesy has saved me. Now I ask that you do the same for the man who has risked his command and honor for us.”
“Kullurri venn’shi. It shall be done. The Commodore fought well and with great honor.”
The sound of a pair of running feet reached me and I turned to see The Eönwyl sprinting towards me. For a moment I thought she was going to embrace me, and I found myself stepping forward in a way that confused me; but she abruptly stopped only a meter away and grasped my hands. “That… was well-done,” she said, but her face was surprisingly flushed for such a short run, and it sounded like she wanted to say more. “Are … you all right?”
“I’m fine.” I realized I was still holding her hands; they were strong and warm and I didn’t immediately let go, until Vick and Guvthor reached us.
“Well-fought, well fought indeed!” Guvthor gave me what was probably meant to be a congratulatory pat and nearly smashed me to the deck, grinning with a predatory glee that made him look for a moment more savage than Vick had yet managed. The huge Thovian looked to Morno. “And you as well. An excellent duel, and my sympathies as to the difficulties this will place you in.”
I could see The Eönwyl being brought into launch position even as Morno answered. “Fewer difficulties than you’re going to be having. Get aboard your ship and go, before any more of my crew have second thoughts. If they do things right they might be able to avoid accusations of mutiny and maybe even end up with a commendation. I’m just lucky most of them are used to me.”
“Not luck. I know a good commander when I see one,” I said, not without some effort. “You were right, Morno. I was an intolerably insufferable tzil.”
He grimaced. “Yeah, you were. But… well, we Strikers get taught how much better we are than you Navy weaklings. Maybe they shouldn’t do that so much. Now get out!”
I gave another quick circle to Killaren’tian, who called out a blessing in Ptial as we reached The Eönwyl.
Our equipment was brought to us by Red Sergeant Harag himself – who still looked almost ready to explode. I decided that it was wise to confine myself to a grave “thank you” and say nothing else. The Eönwyl triggered her ship’s loading ramp even as she got the control rig back and was heading for it while still putting everything else back on. I followed closely, with Guvthor and Vick right behind.
“Hurrying – why? Mind change you believe Morno will?” Vick asked tersely.
“No, he won’t,” I answered, quickening my pace as The Eönwyl started jogging up the ramp. “And he’ll probably keep Kukanaro under control.”
“Ahh,” Guvthor said in the tone of someone who has suddenly discovered a windwailer outside his door. “His agreement does not extend to the other vessels in his force.”
“Right,” I nodded, and ran to catch up with The Eönwyl, only Tor discipline keeping me moving; the pain would catch me, and soon. “And any fighters out on patrol probably were deliberately NOT informed – so they won’t be in on it either.”
As I entered the corridor to the control room I saw Vick sprinting towards engineering; Guvthor, unable to enter the rest of the ship, went to strap himself down.
The Eönwyl was already in her seat when I entered, and I felt the ship quiver. “Hold on, will you?”
“That,” she said tensely as I threw myself into my seat and started locking down the restraints, “isn’t my doing. They’re opening the bay without waiting for us. Probably hoping that we won’t be ready before we drop out into line of fire.”
The screen showed the bay was already close to a quarter open; when it reached a little more than half, The Eönwyl would plummet down through the generated gravity field until it was far from the hull of Kukanaro.
I snapped the last anchor shut as the doors neared one-third. “Strapped in! Give me full sensor feed.”
The Eönwyl dropped into the void, scant moments after we’d entered her; but her eponymous captain was already acting, kicking DD-engines to full acceleration – and nearly blowing our own field generators. “Torline’s Swords, we’re still in their DD field! You can’t –”
“We need the speed.”
She was right; the Marjaav was already on an intercept course and the blockade generator ship was trying to maneuver ahead of us to prevent a successful Conversion.
But now that we were out of Kukanaro, my psionics were back in full strength, shoving the pain aside, locking down a cracked collarbone, shoring up torn and bruised muscles and starting their healing. Energy flooded back into me and I focused on the job at hand. “Picking up seven… no, nine fighters. They’re on a spreading pattern, Eye formation, opening about point four with optimum spread vector.” Three in a triangle on top, three on the bottom, one on each side and one – the “pupil” of the eye – up the dead center, with the pattern open like a mouth to catch us.
Red lights faded as we swiftly left Kukanaro’s vicinity. “Can you balance us?”
“What’s your TC conversion speed, realspace measure?”
She looked at me for a moment. “Military grade – point zero four five.”
“Then we won’t get to a point where you need me to balance. Head straight for the Marjaav.”
She saw what I meant. “Sasham… you had better be very good at this. Transferring Conversion control to your console.”
The Eönwyl spun, drove directly towards the most heavily armed adversary, the Marjaav patrol vessel named Ghandenar. I was watching the D-scanners. Kukanaro‘s dimensional interference extended outwards for thousands of kilometers; Ghandenar’s, almost as far. The blockade ship… in normal space it would have a monstrous reach.
But no ship wants to have fields interact, so the Marjaav would avoid getting too near Kukanaro. Just far enough to prevent interference. Which meant that there would be a narrow, narrow band between them where…
It was rushing at us with fearful speed, and I saw two skip-missiles launched even as I keyed in the activation timing. Alarms screamed through The Eönwyl as the two missiles – full size capital ship penetrators, enough to blow straight through even The Eönwyl’s defenses – streaked towards us.
But The Eönwyl didn’t slow her ship, or change her course. She remained deadly still at her post, watching the vectors counting down.
A glint on the viewscreen! The missiles were visible! We didn’t have –
And the blaze of Conversion enfolded us with a screaming jolt.
For a moment, we both remained frozen, staring at the screen, which showed the final image; a gray circle filling nearly half the screen, a dead-on cross-section of an Imperial skip-missile which at standard magnification must have been no more than fifty kilometers away.
We had made the jump… with perhaps one-thousandth of a second to spare.