A Jagged Spar

Summary: After a long and brutal uprising, the New Federacy replaced the totalitarian Hegemony. An uneasy peace reigns as the remnants of the old regime are hunted down. On the galactic rim, a force of religious fanatics arises from the ashes of the last war.

Book I: The Ardent Tide

A Day at the Beach

Los Linji ran along the walls of the compound, the pounding surf drowned out by the revving of her weapon. The peltast carbine blasted a pellet of superheated incendite alloy through the golden faceplate of the nearest swarmtrooper. Gravity tugged her to the ground, but her heavy boots already found placement on the clavicle of the second-nearest swarmtrooper. She planted two rounds in his head, and he promptly feel dead.

Los felt her weapon shift towards the last hostile with automatic alacrity. The third swarmtrooper jerked like an overloaded android, their black and gold armor spasming uncontrollably. As she pressed the trigger, the bug-eyed helmet flew into the air, followed by a torrent of buzzing machines.

"Redbands, focus fire on the swarm!" she shouted with well-rehearsed celerity.

"Major, secure the objective," came Sledge's reply. "We've got this."

Behind her, Vicks and Sledge poured fire from their X90 peltast carbines as the slayer swarm erupted from the hollow armor. Shattered robotic parts struck the rear walls like rain droplets on a metal roof. Los recalled the first time she'd encountered that trick, Hegemony soldiers using utility bot swarms to fill gaps in their ranks. Without regular maintenance, they'd get erratic when their ad hoc AI was isolated from conventional comrades. It was unsurprising the Hegemonic holdouts didn't fix it.

Los kicked opened the wooden doors before her, the last obstacle before the objective. The dreaded Hegemony spymaster, a man known only as the Posologist, holed up at the beach resort on Aroha. She entered the front door, beholding a bartender synth manning an empty cantina. Above it was a stuffed and mounted Arohan squamous pythonomorph. The front desk was flanked by two armed synths holding peltast carbines, but the slump in their stance indicated they were powered down.

Following her gut instinct, Los searched the door between them. She checked her corners as she entered, wary of an ambush from the rear. She forced herself to focus, with the distant waves fading indistinguishably into the firefight behind her. She saw consoles, cubicles, monitors, and a food fabricator that looked sticky from frequent use. Seeing no immediate threats, she scanned the office for signs of life.

Los saw a human signature on her scan, a heartbeat appearing on the augmented reality display. Slowly and deliberately rounding a cubicle wall, she leveled her carbine at the source. A single man slept in a desk, a lanky fellow with long brown hair and tanned skin. He snored with his head on the desk, despite the alert readouts on the consoles before him. He was dressed in a gray unbuttoned Hegemony bureaucrat's coat, blissfully unaware of the chaos outside. Something about him caused her to keep her distance. If the Posologist was even as half as cunning as intelligence suggested, it could be a ruse to catch her off her guard.

"Hands up!" Los said, ordering the man at gunpoint. "Wake up and hands up!"

Slowly but surely, the man opened his green eyes. He looked at her, looked around confusedly, and looked at the weapon pointed at him. "S-sure!"

"Are you armed?" Los asked.

The man leapt up and out of his chair, his hands springing up in shock. For a moment, something shifted beneath his coat. Los took cover behind a cubicle wall, hesitating to finish off the man who was likely her objective. A heavy object tumbled to the floor, a massive hand-cannon of a pistol: a Thunder's Judgment combustion revolver, an ancient weapon practical only to big game hunters or abject poseurs. She cautiously pulled the handgun towards herself by tugging the lanyard with her boot, but another object fell from the man's coat. It took her a moment to identify it as a half-eaten sandwich.

"Sorry, forgot about those," the man said in a voice that sounded too sincere.

In the time the words left his mouth, Los rammed him against the wall and restrained his wrists for the flexicuffs. "Are you the Posologist?"

"I guess," the man replied, half-questioning her. "What's going on?"

"Taking you into custody for the New Federacy's Fugitive Tribunal," Los said. "You're coming with me."

Los took the pistol with her, a trophy for the Redbands. She looked at the man's desk, seeing a nametag reading "Doctor Pendross Thale, Ministry of Internal Security." She confirmed this was the man he was looking for. Also on the desk were various medical supplies, medicinal herbs, and a translucent plastic container of sage-tea. She recalled the stories of the Posologist, a feared Hegemonic master of truth serums, poisons, and other questionable substances. Curiously, his console indicated his alarms were all muted.

"Ow!" Pendross shouted.

"Stow it. Where's the main server?"

Pendross pointed to a sliding metal door across the room. There was a small ident pad beside it, a standard Hegemonic security measure. Thinking quickly, Los snatched the ident card from the desk. She waved it in front of the pad, hoping it would open. With any luck, the Hegemony holdouts had not yet purged the system. The door opened, revealing spires of holodrives beyond.

"Objective secure, Redbands," she reported over the tactical communicator. "Sitrep."

"Target down," Sledge's stentorian voice replied. "You got the Posologist?"

"Affirmative," Los said. "Securing the server room."

Los raised her weapon with one hand, and she pressed Pendross forward with the other. The computer banks were cubic arrays of black and gold crystals, holographic drives capable of storing obscene amounts of data. At the rear left corner of the room was a holo-monitor that glowed softly. A string of text flashed on the monitor, which was too small to read at a distance. A small opening beneath the machine was opened, as if something had been recently removed.

"You're going to help us access this when the intel team arrives," Los said, jerking her captive towards the console. "Unless you already removed it."

Pendross squinted at the monitor, looking close at it. "Someone just removed a compressed backup drive," he said. "And they used credentials I've never seen before."

Los used the biometric scanner on her visor as she replayed Pendross' words. He was honest, or a damn good liar. He seemed oddly apathetic about his fate, unlike the fanaticism of some Hegemony holdouts, or utterly defeated dejection of deserters. Her further judgment was interrupted by movement in the corner of her eye, causing her to jerk her carbine around.

A tall, old man with dark skin stepped out of a dark corner, as if he was an extension of the shadows cast by the server towers. He had a shaved head, a thin gray goatee, and a black jacketed suit. A slight purple glow emanated from by his side, which seemed to reflect from the buttons on his coat. Bright brown eyes fell upon her, and he folded his white gloved hands behind his back.

"No need to point that at me, Major," he said, holding up a holo-drive in his right hand. "I am not your enemy."

"That's the backup drive," Pendross noted. "But I've never seen him. I swear!"

Her visor confirmed the veracity of the Posologist's appeal. The man placed the drive into his pocket and raised his hands, as though pantomiming surrender. "By order of the New Federacy, I command you to turn over that drive," she said, gesturing with her carbine's muzzle.

"I can do something better," the man said cryptically. He pressed a button on an unseen device on his wrist. Los' communicator sprung to life.

"Captain, we just got a massive data transfer from an unknown source," came Vicks' surprised voice. "It's archives from the Ministry of Internal Security. I can't confirm, but it looks legit."

"I will be happy to hand it over once we are off world," the man said. "I am Jurando Eid Gezworen, and I hereby submit to your custody as commander of the Redbands."

"How did you-?"

Jurado grinned, gesturing to the red rings around her cyan and white armor's forearms. "The Insurgency's best special operations team, defectors from the Hegemony's Ministry of Irregular Warfare."

"Yeah, you guys add a new red band for every kill, right?" Pendross asked. "Totally hardcore."

Los wanted to correct them, that her unit only added new bands for successful missions. However, that misconception might come in handy for interrogation later. She bit her tongue, although she hated to use such subterfuge. It reminded her uncomfortably of her old life, the dirty dealings and infiltrations of the Ministry of Irregular Warfare. The wail of white noise on her communicator brought her back to the present.

"Captain, Hegemony dropships inbound. Unknown signatures," Sledge said. "They're trying to jam-"

The sentence cut off as abruptly as an exclamation point, like a Lograngian snapper yanking an unsuspecting swimmer to their doom. A second later, and explosion rattled the building.

"The Hegemony left equipment on Rim worlds when they collapsed," Jurado said grimly, tapping the backup drive. "I suspect someone unpleasant may have found it, and this is key to finding out who."

"C-can we get out of here?" Pendross asked.

"Allow me," Jurando said, raising his hand towards the nearby wall. Jurando outstretched his left hand as though leaning on a cane. The wispy glow on his waist drifted to the ground like a falling meteor. An object flashed between the floor and his left palm, a narrow cylinder of seemingly pure darkness. It nonetheless glowed with the dim blue light of a distant star.

A dumbstruck Pendross leaned closer. "Holy Mothership! That's a gravstaff! I thought those were legends."

Jurando said nothing. He pointed the gravstaff at the nearby wall, as though it was a pen. Los saw a ring of indigo energy emit from the tip of the staff, and strike the wall. The flash of light caused her to flinch, even with her visor's environmental filter. When her vision recovered, she saw daylight from the other side. Whatever he'd done, the shockwave created a perfectly circular hole in the wall, and the one beyond it.

A shocked Los felt Pendross step out of her loosened grasp. However, he did not run or struggle. He simply joined her in staring as Jurando walked through the hole he'd made. On the way out, he ran his gloved fingers across the edge of the hole, revealing the perfectly smooth circle he'd cut. He tapped it with a hint of pride flashing in a brief smile. He beckoned them to follow.

Beyond the second hole was a landing pad sheltered by a concrete berm, one Los missed in her earlier orbital surveillance. Nestled beneath it was a ship she presumed was Jurando's. The primary body of the ship was a gunmetal gray sphere, with a wedge-like protrusion on the starboard side. In the rear was a trio of conical thrusters. Along the side was the name Cackling Pulsar, scribed beneath a mounted turret.

With no response from her squadmates or Command, Los followed Jurando and a still-restrained Pendross onto the boarding ramp.