The Iron Oath

Summary: How far do you go when you know you are falling? Are you as at fault as those that enabled you?

A Lost Hope

Your first visitation is after an intense martial arts practice, a good workout after a bad day at work. After hitting the bags, you hit the showers. The way back to your house, however, is when you see it. The café is easy to miss, a hole-in-the-wall place called Joseph and Son. You see the lights on, and you find your gait slowing as you walk by. You find yourself wondering who else is up this late, especially on a weeknight.

Your curiosity gets the better of you, and you walk in. A melodic bell chimes as you walk in, You take a seat at a small wooden table, with a menu of snacks and beverages atop it. You start looking it over, when you see someone approaching. He steps out from behind the counter, a man with tan skin and a lackadaisical grin on his bearded face. You read the name "Joshua" from his nametag.

"First one's on the house," he says, setting down a glass of iced peach tea on the table. "What brings you here?"

"Just finished up a martial arts class." you reply, cautiously accepting the drink.

"Must've been a good class," he says. "You look about ready to crash."

"You can say that," you say. "Long day at work."

"Oh?" he asks. "What kind of work, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Cybersecurity contractor," you reply.

Joshua waves his hand over his head. "Yeah, that's above my paygrade. I'm just content working at the family business here."

"Yeah, you been here for a while? Never seen this place before."

"Heh. My stepdad always says our place is hidden in plain sight."

"Shame," you say, finishing your peach tea. "But I've got to go for now. Early workday tomorrow."

Joshua waves at you. "Well, don't let me stop you," he says. "Hope to see you again."

You walk out, a handful of questions dancing inside you. As you leave the café, it's not the street you stepped in from. Instead, you find yourself striding a steel corridor burnt bulkheads and emergency lights. An unfamiliar heaviness weights down on your body, as though you've donned a weight vest before exercise. You try breathing, but your lungs do not respond. Your body moves with a not-quite-normal gait, as you feel your legs slide atop metal prosthetics. Your vision is covered with a forest of colorful geometries, a heads-up display like that of a pilot. You hear shouting, and you turn to see someone emerge from a hallway.

You cannot tell if it is a man, a woman, or even human. As far as you can tell, it is a figure in an armored spacesuit, clutching a gun in hand. You've never seen the weapon before, but you immediately dismiss it as a threat. The muzzle moves towards you, but reflexes move you in a way your inner martial artist recognizes. A short-staff like weapon, made of silver, almost flowing matter, manifests in your hands. Your would-be assailant pulls the trigger, but your weapon moves first. The tip of the staff strikes the gunner's shoulder, and immediately, they explode into a quivering mess of blood and gristle. It lingers for a moment in midair, and you recognize the reduced gravity.

You continue down the corridor, holding your gravity staff in hand. You've never seen this weapon before, but you immediately know it changes its density and momentum, simulating a small-scale relativistic impact on a target. A squad of gunmen take cover in various hallways in front of you, as a young man flees into an escape pod. The gunmen open fire, and a stream of lasers and physical slugs fills the corridor. You do not fear, for you know this vessel more than they do.

You know the craft's dispersion fields, originally developed to disperse cosmic radiation and debris impacts, work inside standard ships as well as without. You can see the laser beams due to your augmented vision beyond the typical human spectrum, and the strength of the fields means they are less of a concern to you than a cheap flashlight. Velocity from the slug-throwers, accelerating kinetic bullets with gravitational fields, is similarly hampered by the craft's own infrastructure. They are as much of a concern to you as pebbles hurled into the path of a stampede.

You do not need to carve your way through the desperate holdouts. You steadily advance towards each, allowing the ship's dispersion fields to do most of the work for you. One lunges at you with a knife, not realizing you can generate your own fields. That is among the least of your tricks, but you dare not demonstrate more than you have to. The cameras mounted on the defenders' helmets undoubtedly are sending back information on your combat capabilities. The lives of a dozen unprepared militia troopers are a price their masters are willing to pay for raw tactical intelligence. You do not wish to short-charge them.

Your grav-staff moves like a macabre artist's brush, painting the walls, ceiling, and floor a deep sanguine. You momentarily feel a pang of conscious, as you hear their terrified screams. They did not know what they got themselves into, but you are all-too aware. With each step you take, you feel the humanity you left behind long ago. You wanted to make the universe a better place, not unlike them. The difference is that you took the Iron Oath. As you carve your way through the flailing, pitiable fools, you cease when you reach the escape pod. You just might have a use for them.

The last of your adversaries waits inside, fumbling with the onboard electronics. You see the young man trying to hack the pod's emergency signal array. You seal the pod's door, and you launch the craft into space. You see no camera on him, but you cannot be sure. You reveal another of your tricks, a generating a jammer field to fry any electronics, save those in your life support and the pod's guidance systems. The young man screams as you close in, futilely raising his hands above his head. There is something vaguely familiar about his face, but you cannot place it. Now, isolated from the rest of the universe, you put the final touches on your plan.

It is not the delirious technician that transmits the data. The militia's mission failed, but they were not intended to succeed. Their masters, as you hypothesize, sent them to be martyrs. They were not anticipating the militia to actually acquire the target data cache. The terrified technician does not resist when you override the communications array. If anything, he seems curious, or at least, perplexed by your course of action. He does not know, of course, you may share his end-goals.

"Victory requires sacrifice," you say in a voice that is not your own.

The technician understands you with no further words. Here, you are isolated from the rest of the universe. The escape pod is a blind spot for the superiors of both your commanders' eyes. Nevertheless, they will retrieve it, and they will debrief you. Better, you realize, that the data breach seems like his own last, desperate action. He realizes the part he must play, and he lowers his head beneath your grav-staff. You raise it, feeling the pull of conscience stronger now than just a few minutes before. You involuntarily look away as the weapon strikes true.

You awake the following day to your alarm, as though nothing happened. You complete your morning routine, but there is something bothering you. As much as you wish to dismiss that peculiar dream of space wars and subterfuge, something lingers in the back of your mind. You walk past the café where you meet Joshua, and you see there was no such establishment. You are about ready to dismiss the entire event as delusion, when you remember something: The face of the technician in the dream. Both Joshua and the technician had the same face.

Somewhere, you know you will see it again.