65

King Ascendant Grant Vario raised the mask to his face and activated it. The hairs on his arm lifted as the ion barrier activated around him, effecting a blue glow. He nodded to the Dragon Councillor, and they exited the transport onto the grounds of Eldea Hospital, accompanied by a security escort.

The quarantine guards opened the door for them. Inside, the halls were filled with people reacting to their symptoms, rubbing their faces and blinking. Back when the sickness appeared on the planet Hirylien, there had been no knowledgeable measures. By the time they recognized the epidemic, the majority of the planet had been infected. The symptoms had been difficult to distinguish until they were too serious for recovery. This time, they’d recognized it almost immediately.

From the room she shared with her father and two other patients, Chrysanthe watched the hallway. The retinue walked past, and she saw the second dragon she’d ever seen in her life. Arkuda’s scaly form gleamed next to the King Ascendant’s grave face, and they passed in a quick moment before she could mention it. She wasn’t sure if her sight had already gotten fuzzy, like they told her it would, or if they were really glowing. She turned her head and succumbed to drowsiness, closing her eyes on the sight of her sleeping father.

They met with the head of the hospital, who debriefed them on the patient population. Those furthest along were beginning to lose their eyesight to nerve degeneration. Vario took this in, but refrained comment.

They passed through layers of security till Arkuda and the King Ascendant were outside Sturlusson’s room. The guard coded them in.

65

Inside, the quarantine prisoner sat shirtless in the bedside chair. Hospital equipment had all been moved to the corner. At the sight of visitors, he rose to his feet. “I am honored. The King Ascendant, and his dragon.” Arkuda gazed at him in silence.

Vario faced him squarely, hands behind his back. “You declined treatment, even though you tested positive for HA235.”

“Yes.”

“So is this, then, your farewell note to the Imperium?”

Framed by his dark hair, a smile crossed his face. “No.” He locked gaze on the King Ascendant as he sat down again.

Arkuda eyed Raev Sturlusson sidelong. Over the man’s collection of tattoos, he glimpsed disruption patterns. Residue of communication with others. The dragon studied him intently.

Vario clasped his hands tightly. “We have reports now of cases on Ionos and Lurin. How many more outbreaks are we to expect?”

“How many more do you need in order to put an end to them?” Arkuda watched his surrounding disruption evaporate.

The King Ascendant drew himself up. “We are now enacting the same quarantines that we did on your home planet. You were lucky to have survived.”

“I really was.” The communicative traces reappeared as Sturlusson joined together different faces of his fingers. He looked at them through half-closed eyes. Arkuda stirred the air toward the prisoner with his breath, observing the patterns react.

King Ascendant Vario made a prompt and wordless exit. Sturlusson angled his hand sign to the dragon Councillor, who curled his lip before exiting in turn.

55

Cross-legged, he perched on a rippling plane of light in a room of vibrating azure walls. His hands were raised, contacting midair frequency terminals. Words and lines of light under tattoos and scars glowed in synch with the programs around him.

He’d been expecting the call that he tapped to project before him. A woman’s face displayed in 3D monochrome, the covert connection offering but a weak signal. He examined her hair in grayscale.

“Where is Leanders?”

She made a face. “Busy. Otherwise occupied. We’re switching to plan b.”

“So be it. How’s that going?”

“They’re doing their job perfectly, which is to say badly.”

“Excellent.” He drew a long breath. “You know what you’re doing from here.”

She nodded. “We’ll both be out of communique for some time, is that right?”

“Excepting anything through the media.” He tilted the camera downward, but the view was blocked by a shipboard control unit. “It’ll happen in stages, and you’ll be in a position to watch it all and keep up.”

“If anyone can do it, it’s me.” She kissed her fingertips and waved to him. “See you on the other side, boss.” Another call alert flashed as her image disappeared.

He took the incoming signal, which was a sending-throughport. From a spark wobbling at chest level entered five gently glowing wire frame avatars. He dispersed his frequency terminals and stood to greet them.

“You’re all here, so I take it our trials have been thorougly successful.”

The last wire frame to emerge nodded her head. “We’ve reached certainty rates on all auric testflesh programs. The mechanical side is functioning at 92%.”

“That will do. And you’re all willing to do this yourselves?”

“We are. It will work similarly on us, if not entirely the same. Our end of the signal is strong, only we five need carry the connection.”

“Then we’re ready.” Sturlusson stood and stretched. One figure handed him a green sphere. It gloved his hand in light, which spread to cover his body with a framenet like those around him. “Bring me through.”

The six of them joined hands in a horseshoe, and the murmuring hum arose. The two open ends touched the sending-throughport. The body frames, Sturlusson included, together folded rapidly into the spark, which winked out behind them.

He was released by the electric net on the other side, standing before the five who had sent their avatars. He opened his arms and bowed, lifting his eyes to speak with them from there. “That you five accept this responsibility, when it’s not even your cause-”

One raised his hand. “Our aims have become intertwined. Signalman.”

Raev lowered his bow even further. “And for that the living and the dead for whom I stand are deeply grateful to the Vedani.”

They nodded to him, some smiling. “The vector group is ready in the next chamber when you are.”

“This has been a work of long years, friends. I walk lighter knowing the blood of my father and home shall have its vindication.” The five parted to let him pass, and he strode forward to open the door.

In the adjoining hall stood twenty people in two facing rows. Upon his entrance, they took a knee and planted their fists on the floor, eyes glowing. They rose and all stood before each other, the five Vedani behind Sturlusson.

“You last remnants of Hirylien. All the years I searched for you, that we searched for each other, precipitated this moment. You know the truth now as I discovered it, and we are bringing it to them. So that finally, the rage burning in our hearts for our lost families and futures can be shown as the grave injustice being perpetrated on all peoples of the Imperium. We are their warriors. This is our first step.”

55 sketch

“For all you’ve suffered, you have agreed to suffer more to bring, if not ultimately justice, then some retribution. To put an end to one of their great poisons. You all have what you need to survive the time of onslaught, and let us draw each other through this fire to the other side victorious.” All twenty dropped a knee and knuckle pounded the floor. Sturlusson did the same, bringing down both fists at once. The pounding subsided.

“Remember, this is only the beginning.” A smile stretched wide on his face, growing into a full grin. He turned to the five behind him standing respectfully in salute. He gestured toward one, her Vedani hair silver against blue-white skin. She nodded slightly, and all five murmured subtonally, making microgestures.

A door on one side of the hall opened, and in came a cart bearing capped tubes and dosers with three doctors. It stopped at one end of the double line, and the doctors started inoculating them with the brassy serum. Raev Sturlusson and the Vedani joined them at the far end.

Through the door followed a rack carrying necessity packs for twenty-one Hirylienites, and behind that a rolling freezer billowing cool air. The entire vector group had been injected, and a pack was set behind each of them. The chest freezer took the place of the med cart, and from it came racks of flasks to distribute. Each flask was a secure carrycase for a smaller set of tubes, filled with liquids and some powders.

Sturlusson paced between the two lines. “Familiarize yourselves with these. This carries our mission, as well as your individual salvation and assurance. Be able to use them as needed, without thinking, under any duress you may encounter. Put it where you can immediately access it. These will save much more than just yourselves.” He zippered his into a pocket. “Assemble things and get in groups.”

54

“So, how goes the hunt for our elusive rabbit?”

General Alisandre snorted as he keyed his remote data to the small projection table. A display opened of a feral-looking man with long, straight dark hair. His grin mocked them as it rotated around, facing every corner of the room. “General Iparia, Sturlusson is no rabbit.”

54

“No, he is lower. I honor him with the title of rabbit, because when we capture him, I will dine well.” Alisandre looked at the senior General’s slender face, set in stone. He knew of the death of Iparia’s sister on the day Sturlusson collapsed the Freshwater Consulate. The man hadn’t been connected to the incident till days later, when they found his signature in the rubble: the trisected triangle with a crosscut on each arm, stamped on a phronium coin.

General Iparia was now the strongest proponent of the intergalactic effort to apprehend the man whose mysterious agenda had wreaked destruction and chaos in nearly every federet.

It had been a long hunt. General Alisandre followed it as the news crossed his desk. Agency squads for intergalactic criminals fell in his jurisdiction as the capital planet General, and Sturlusson was already on the enemy roster when Claymore took the post.

Raev Sturlusson was known for maneuvers that crippled operations, and he didn’t shy from taking lives. He announced himself often. They were still tracking the full extent of his network. This one man had made so many enemies, caused so many personal vendettas, that it was only a matter of time.

“We have word of two separate cells, one in the Vertris Federet, concentrated on Lurin-”

“-of course,” muttered General Iparia.

“-and one in the Libran Federet, focused on planet Ionos.”

“I assume General Ionos knows about this?”

“Yes, but it concerns him little. This group hasn’t directly acted on any of his planets, and the forces to pursue it are mine.”

“Then he is practically harboring them.”

“Hardly. He’s put every resource at my disposal and opened every pathway I’ve requested. He knows it can’t be long before they make a point of their presence, but you can’t blame him for being currently preoccupied here.” They both turned their heads briefly to the blank wall in the direction of the Photuris Vortex.

“Even so. The magnitude of Sturlusson’s crimes makes him a top priority.”

“That, he is. We’re very close now.”

Alisandre watched Iparia’s jaw work for a moment before he spoke. “I depart for Freshwater shortly. I intend to supply aid for Ionos. Another Alpha base here at the Vortex, and I think a team or two to help take care of the vermin problem on his home planet.”

“No doubt he will appreciate those offers. If you wish to send special ops, please have them report to my mission chief, Commander Georg Hertez.”

Iparia nodded and went to the door. He paused before it to salute. “I would like every update, General Alisandre.”

Returning the salute, he sighed inwardly. “General Iparia. You will have it.”