Chapter 68 Stick and Mask – Book One Finale (part 1)

Xihuatli, the Salamaster, sat on the edge of a mountain near the peak. His reptilian legs dangled over the three thousand meter abyss into churning waters below. In the far north, between the Brother and Sister continents, Xihuatli waited patiently for the world stage to conclude with its preambling arrangements. As a last favor to Talis Ranis, Xihuatli agreed to give the new generation of Specters a chance to hone their skills and increase their power with Talis’ own sage guidance.

Little in the world was novel to the Salamaster, he kept his hope reserved for the existing Aspects, that they would provide adequate challenge. Boredom proved to be the deadliest threat to Xihuatli, a very real existential problem to the immortal Fable. The slightest possibility that a Specter could emerge stronger than Talis would be well worth the wait.

The world rarely disappointed, not after all the killing he did in its name, staining sod and soil with the blood of the vanquished. 

Speakers of the old tongue, the language used by the first Specters tens of thousands of years ago, understood the nature of the planet. The first Specters were a small tribe of humans, so the legend goes, that conquered the world, which at the time was a single massive continent. They awakened the power of the Aspect and their language was encoded with the history and beliefs of that first group of Savants. Xihuatli remained one of the few existing beings able to speak and understand that ancient tongue. 

Xihuatli knew the old tongue’s word for the planet. Mwawth they named it, meaning war-god. They held that the planet itself was a god of war and battle pleased the spinning rock. Favor was granted to those who could obtain glory in battle, this is the origin and source of the Aspect they believed. 

Mwawth desired war, so Xihuatli waited for war.

*****

Creeper sat down at the coffee table, shuffling through a stack of papers. Contracts had been arriving in droves and so he sifted through the variety of requested missions and their payout.

“We got two more contracts today, I tossed them on top.” Snuff called out from the lounge room, the television blaring loudly. “Big targets, didn’t pay attention to the names though.”

“I see.” Creeper responded tonelessly. The contracts were anonymous of course and only certain couriers knew how to deliver them to the trio of assassins in their hideout. 

Creeper organized them by category; eliminate, capture, espionage, sabotage. Kill contracts were the norm for the Headless but the recent political instability and threat of war left cities and their aristocrats desperate to pay for the most reliable group to do even the most mundane of jobs. Creeper knew this sort of turbulence left allies wary of each other and betrayal became a form of currency buyable with cash.

Everyone has a price, the constant of humanity. 

“I say we just kill them all.” Bodysnatcher input, in between his teeth filing routine. 

“Not every contract is a kill order.” Creeper replied, lacking emotion.

“We can kill them anyways, simpler that way.” Bodysnatcher pressed.

“No one would hire us if we didn’t do the jobs right!” Snuff shouted, more attentive to the tv program then the actual conversation but still passionate about joining the conversation.

Creeper read through each contract carefully. Paid attention to the wording, the type of order, the reward, the job itself. By dissecting the contract, Creeper deduced who sent the contract and sometimes why. Not every contract was actually anonymous but that just narrowed down the ones that weren’t. Knowing what people wanted done illegally was the most honest illustration of motive and political clout. It gave him an edge in comprehending the dynamic of cities and their ruling governments. 

Giving an assassin an edge, while the entire purpose of someone in that line of work, is invariably thought of as foolish.

Bodysnatcher shrugged. “It’s cloak and dagger. Don’t hire killers to grab groceries and expect anything but eyes and tongues in the bag.” 

“What we do is not cloak and dagger. That is a term to describe specific types of operations and an ideological policy performed by governments and agencies.” Creeper corrected, voice flat as always. “What we do is stick and mask, independent assassins without identities.”

“Then let’s do all the kill missions!” Compromised Bodysnatcher.

“No.” Creeper decided. “We’re not doing any of these.”

“Then why are you organizing them?” Snuff asked, still fixated on the tv screen.

“I’m cataloguing the information hidden in the contracts.” Explained Creeper. “We’re going to sit back and let the tension rise. War is near and dire situations will call for higher compensation. Wealthy aristocrats will pay more if it comes down to their life or their money. Taking on so many jobs like this makes us look cheap. We aren’t common hitmen.”

“See, now that’s why you’re the brains of our group. But you know, we are the Headless.” Snuff said dryly, chuckling to himself.

“You got something specific planned, don’t you Creeper?” Bodysnatcher guessed while rubbing his potbelly with his overly long arms.

Bodysnatcher was about to ask what that plan was but Snuff cut him off. 

“No point, Creeper never tells.”

Bodysnatcher just yawned and started sleeping, done with the conversation. Snuff was hardly involved mentally and with no distractions, stayed watching his shows.

Creeper continued to sift through the contracts when he stumbled upon one particular order for a contract that caught his attention.

Kill, target: Eberon

“That name sounds vaguely familiar.” Creeper said to himself.

It was familiar, Creeper killed the man a decade ago.

*****

Daedal declared vassalage. Officially a puppet city for the imperialist Garghent. The rest of the Sister continent held their breath in anticipation for Garghent’s next move. The cities neighboring Garghent had the most to worry about. The Coalition of the Sister failed at great cost, many were reluctant to try again. Lasting alliances between cities was not common, natural distrust and exploiting opportunities as they came meant temporary collaborations were the norm. When one city threw that balance out and threatened every other city, however, the normal rules no longer applied. 

The first move was Garghent’s to make but Janiform Gemma, the mysterious man behind the curtains, kept his end goal secret and in recent months rarely left his personal estate. The shadow government, led by the previous Janiform Amenais along with many high ranking Gentleman and Generals from the merchant and military factions respectively organized the military and political ventures.

One reason Garghent was such a powerhouse was its steel manufacturing, thanks to the extensive mountain range and generations of tycoons and monopolies on the best steel in the continent. Good steel provided sturdy infrastructure, limitless ammunition and weapons, testing facilities, transportation, housing, and a valuable trade commodity. The elite schools prepared the youth for war and their savant schools created Aspects, the most valuable of all commodities. During the Siege of Garghent, the metropolis increased its standing army, proved its military might, and gave experience to its new Specters. Most notable of which was the Class of the Savant, and one such graduated student turned soldier was staring into a ceiling filled with virtual galaxies.

“Captain Hales, the item you requested is available in the research complex.” A middle aged uniform reported.

“Thank you.” Hales dismissed the aide and gathered her gear, helmet, and sidearm, all the standard issue equipment a Specter and captain were required to carry at all times. She wore an all black military garb, a new design reserved for special forces personnel. The cloth-armor hybrid offered resistance to fire, water, pressure, electricity and other common elements, made specifically to combat enemy Aspects. A complimentary bullet proof vest could be taken into battle for those that preferred heavier armor. Many of the changes and improvements came from the new General of the Research division, Uana Elis, a Class of the Savant student who rose to the very top of the military through her own genius and family connections. Her innovative mind and her wealth allowed her to personally fund many projects for the military. Hiring a wide variety of the best scientists and engineers from different fields, including a science fiction author for creative ideas. Uana was radically evolving the technology of Garghent and today it was Hale’s turn for a benefit from ingenuity and extravagant wealth.

Hales clicked off the projector in the middle of her room, the virtual planetarium deactivated and the astronomy map disappeared. 

Ever since the city found the new Talis Ranis writings, the cave where Hales met him in the desert steppe, important information about the Aspect circulated in high ranking Specters. Hales was one of those and the message suggested full immersion into the subject of one’s power. Hales frequented observatories, deepened her knowledge of astronomy and started to read the latest issues of science and astrology magazines. Anything space related found its way to Hales’ quarters, as she lived on base for the winter. 

Hales believed in Talis’ method of Aspect attunement and focused her daydreams to be about her power and other fantasies related to space. One such daydream had sparked an idea that she represented to Uana who agreed to fund the project. After months of work and thousands of hours of labor, it was ready. 

Hales walked the two kilometers to the Research complex and thought of her classmates. None had risen as far as Uana in rank but each made a name for themselves in their own right. 

Magun, the Tank Aspect, learned to sustain a steady rate of fire with artillery shots and trained his Aspect to cover his whole body like an exoskeleton.

Dartan figured out how to make cheat codes with his Aspect, as he called them. Rule allowed him to write in the air and change laws and apply effects to various objects and forces. Apparently these cheat codes gave him the ability to have prewritten formulas that made the scale of his power or change easier to alter. Hales didn’t understand his rambling explanation when he told her and she didn’t understand it now when she was reflecting on it. 

Jillian and Hido still partnered with Uana. Xander, Bregan, Meanu, Genjam, Jid, Emilo, and Dartan were assigned to a similar role as Hales, elite soldiers capable of special operations.

Veron and Talayia worked in the Espionage division. Talayia as an assassin and Veron as a spy. Even Benhan served as a personal assistant to the reclusive Janiform Gemma.

Yillo was in Hales’ own squad, angry as ever. Abajem and Hijo did whatever grotesque missions the Odd division assigned to them. 

Antho hadn’t been heard from or seen since he joined the vigilantes. Lo, Aulus and Winnow were probably somewhere high in the atmosphere waiting for a force deadly enough to warrant an orbital invasion.

All in all, the Class of the Savant experienced great success, both in developing their Aspects and proving themselves in whatever combat or noncombat scenario that confronted them. Garghent proudly brandished the Class of the Savant along with Master Klyle, the Twelve Generals and a host of other Specters both seasoned and freshly awakened. 

Hales entered the research facility to see a neatly groomed scientist standing near a table with three circular objects. He was the lead developer of the project. “Ah, captain Hales, I was just explaining to General Uana here how the production went for your Dyson spheres.”

“Great!” Hales exclaimed, unable to hide her excitement. She saluted to Uana out of formality and felt how the room slowly dropped in temperature. 

Hales grabbed one of the spheres and was surprised how light it was. It fit in her fist comfortably but turned out smaller than she had anticipated. 

“Each Dyson sphere costs ten million dollars to make and keep in mind these are just prototypes. We went with three smaller ones as the larger designs ran into a host of problems we could most easily remedy by reducing size.”

“I’m going to test them out as soon as you explain how to use them.” Hales said, still fiddling with the metallic shell.

“Don’t break it.” Warned Uana. She was, after all, paying out of pocket for the research and development. 

“Yillo and Talayia are training with me today, want to come?” Hales offered.

“I’ve got matters to attend to.” Uana strode out of the room and the chill left with her. Hales wasn’t surprised by the decline. She was never close with Uana and the Gale Aspect was one of the Twelve Generals, free time wasn’t in the job description. 

The scientist cleared his throat to draw Hales’ attention from the brink of reverie. “Built in gyro balancing allows them to stay upright with your sun. You can open one by pressing this in.” The scientist demonstrated with a different sphere. In the middle of the sphere was a clamp that pressure released two halves of the sphere. They remained connected on one side. “Put the sphere around a star and just close it like so. Keep the suns a bit smaller and you won’t risk burning yourself or damaging the sphere.”

“These are impressive. How’d you make them so lightweight?” 

“State of the art material synthesis. A special alloy composed of ultra-light particles of fire and melt resistant metal and mineral particles. By separating the molecules on the individual level from their natural clusters we can greatly reduce weight, empty space, generate special conductivity and much more. These monoatomic elements, as they are called, can be pressed together to form any desired shape. Like I said its state of the art.”

“You’ll have to explain how that works to me one day. Where did the idea come from?” Hales asked again, infatuated by the science of it. She genuinely wanted to know the ins and outs of the Dyson spheres, both for curiosity and combat purposes. 

“Oddly enough, volcanoes naturally produce monoatomic elements so science knew its existence but had difficulty applying it to something practical. Your project request offered us a unique opportunity to solve a solution to a question proposed by astronomers and General Uana provided the funds.”

“So you think these Dyson spheres will advance the possibility for their use in actual suns?” 

“Who knows? They certainly won’t set science back but the resource issue and ability to reach a star are problems hundreds, if not thousands of years away. Unfortunately.” Added the scientist. “Still,” he continued. “Your training will give us valuable data for them as a weapon.”

“So how does it work?”

“Yes, so once you’ve placed it over a sun the grills on the bottom will serve as the Sphere’s engine. Normally in space the lack of gravity can sustain a floating Dyson sphere but here on a planet we had to come up with an engine so it could pull its own weight. We decided to use one of your suns as fuel, rather than a battery that you’d have to keep track of.”

“Makes sense.” Hales remarked, impressed by the numerous innovations to her original idea.

“Because the exhaust is engineered to produce the amount of fuel to keep afloat the sphere in equilibrium to its weight, the sphere won’t affect your sun’s orbit or rotation. It’s a seamless addition. Now, here’s where the weapon part of it comes into play.” The scientist rolled the sphere in his hand to a narrow barrel protruding from the top half. “This is your shot. The energy of the sun is going to be projected out from here in a laser.”

“It’s a gamma ray?” Hales guessed.

“Not technically, the conditions are different for a real gamma ray, think of this more like a plasma beam. The sun will reach an unstable condition and be drawn into the barrel like a straw, only to be forcefully ejected by its own combustion. The trigger is automatic with this prototype so place it only when you’re ready to shoot. You’ll have to take into account the rotation of your suns. The timing should be between ten and fifty seconds, but your testing will confirm it for sure.”

Hales rubbed her chin, processing the information and thinking of questions. “What causes the trigger for the sun?”

“On paper, it should be the monoatomic metals lining the interior. Because their arrangement is as individual atoms, heat and energy will bounce randomly from molecule to molecule. Some heat might escape and cause certain areas of the Dyson sphere to be warm while other parts will feel normal. The point is the chaos, enough of the heat will be bounced back into the sun and cause instability, provoking the sun into combustion. All that energy trapped in such a tight space is going to want to escape, the barrel here is the outlet.”

“That’s incredibly efficient, to use the material as the shell and the catalyst.”

“The wonders of chemistry.” Agreed the scientist.

Hales had heard enough, she wanted to test them. “I’m training now, thanks for the rundown!” Hales took the three Dyson spheres and clipped them to her belt. They hung on her waist without adding too much mass, they were larger than a grenade but still not too bulky.

“Come right back for a stress check!” Called the scientist after Hales rushed out. 

When Hales reached the training room she saw Yillo and Talayia already inside.

She entered the room and called her Aspect.

“Solar.”

The cleverest Specter got a new toy. 

*****

Elsewhere in the world, Specters continued to prepare for the war they felt coming. Some vowed neutrality, other’s joined forces with lifelong rivals. Independent Specters allied themselves to cities, either as paid mercenaries or mutual agreements for the best chances of survival. A thread held at bay the river threatening to crash the dam in.

Still new Specters were awakening constantly, powers that could alter the course of a war. Nothing was decided on the world stage, save for the guaranteed violence. Human greed decreed that brother must slay brother, it was the way of things, the will of the planet. The most enlightened of Specters meditated on this deeply.

But still among the crowd of enlightened warriors were the especially depraved, nothing to lose and nothing inside, these ones, they went south to join Deo and his undead legion.