Estimated time of arrival: 4m 50s…
Gustav’s first experience with a Tunnel-drive had cost him a month.
Calculated correctly, the Tunnel allowed for near-instantaneous travel between seemingly disparate positions in space. However, a single misstep in conversion, one quanta of imprecision, any intrusion of human fallibility upon the divine ordainments of the equations governing the Drive, and the alchemy of traversing artificial space could stretch a momentary jaunt into an odyssey of delirium and starvation. He reflected on the cost of his error as he linked himself deeper into the car’s processes. Even with his LLC-empowered brain, a measure of manual command was sometimes faster than digitally subverting the Exceeder’s systems.
Estimated time of arrival: 4m 49s…
He enabled the Exceeder’s “super-sport mode” configuration, sinking the chassis of the car nearly flush with the ground. Secondary power cells conjured polarized energy shielding for the windows, windshield, and undercarriage. The shields were intended to deflect debris and absorb shock at high speeds, but would just as well serve as makeshift combat defenses. He spent another few seconds overriding its safety parameters to allow him to open the sunroof and disable the collision avoidance. He winced inwardly as he saw Azef’s boots in the rearview mirror, standing on the back seat. He told himself some muddy seats were worth their survival. It was all relative. He grit his teeth at the scrape of metal on the roof as Azef firmly planted the bipod of his light machine gun, mag-mounted the deployable phasic barrier. He cast his personal HUD onto the digital display of the windshield and activated its targeting subroutines, struggling to keep up as more portals opened all around them.
Target acquired (54): Varelsi “Skulk” …
Target acquired (23): Varelsi “Scout” …
Target acquired (9): Varelsi “Scaven” …
He disabled the targeting and leaned out the window, “Captain,
Estimated time of arrival: 4m 36s
“What do you think? Annihilize these jokers and defend the ansible!”
Gustav floored the accelerator, doing his best to ignore the timer widget pinned in the bottom-right corner of the windshield:
Estimated time of arrival: 4m 29s…
He had all the time in the world.
Maven watched the car pounce forward to plow into a swathe of the Varelsi. Sporadic bursts of machine gun fire left a stream of glittering casings raining off the roof and onto the ground, like a fairy-tale path of crumbs, or a blood-trail of a wounded animal. She adjusted the flow of one of her breathing tanks, nearly sealing it, and opened the valve of the other tank entirely.
Five minutes…I can take five minutes, I think. In…
She took a deep breath, feeling the acrid cocktail of stimulants urge the hammering of her heart.
She checked the breathing hose and strap once more as she advanced on a Varelsi scout.
She felt a well of anger writhing in her gut, her eyes taut and piercing.
She charged and impaled the scout onto the pneumatic driver, lifting it overhead before pinning it to the ground. With a guttural roar of bloodlust, she rammed a mechanized heel onto its head as she pushed forward into fray. A scaven leapt at her from a light post and was snatched out of midair, somehow reminding Maven of Orendi. While it hung suspended by the crushing hydraulic vice grip of the exosuit’s manipulator arm, the words of the Chaos Witch echoed in her mind, “four arms!”. As the creature squirmed and flailed helplessly, Maven emptied the flare gun of the spent casing, chambered a new flare, and fired directly into its mouth. Once more, her thoughts drifted to Orendi’s teachings, “the trick is knowing how to shoot fire”. She dismissed these final remnants of conscious thought with a scream, tossed the mutilated carcass into another group of Varelsi, its shrieks ceasing suddenly as it evaporated. Oblivious to the thin trickle of blood at her nose, she hove the rig onward in a berserk frenzy.
Estimated time of arrival: 4m 1s…
The shadows whipped about feverishly, flung by the hovercar’s headlights and the mining rig’s flood lamp, the occasional flash from the muzzle of Azef’s gun, the zip of a tracer round or ember of crackling void-energy splashing on shielding. Everywhere Gustav looked, the air on the ground was thick with the pestilential blur of the Varelsi’s violet sublimation mingling with blots of pastel green, kicked by the hundreds of scurrying, shambling wraiths.
As he drove, he dug deeper into the Exceeder’s core systems. Complicating the process was the fact that he still had to steer amid the constant impacts of enemies shuddering against the frame. He slid through the collision avoidance protocols to access the LADAR array; once unhooked from the safety features, he adjusted the pedestrian filters to prioritize his crewmates, granting him continuously tracked imaging and a positional minimap.
Estimated time of arrival: 3m 22s…
This excursion was growing expensive, but it was worth it.
He took a breath of real-time, then submerged himself again in the mesmeric vapors of the digital console. He unloaded the fuel-cell limiters and overcharged the shields—this would render the cells uselessly ridden with dendritic growth within minutes of the car’s next boot sequence, but that didn’t matter now. After a brief conversation with the auto-chauffeur subroutine, and an explanation of how to apply the traveling salesman problem to combat scenarios, the car could assess, target, ram, and strafe prioritized Varelsi squads with peak efficiency. He adjusted the seat. Struggling for inspiration, he turned to the AI for help.
“Computer,” he swiped a “data corrupted” notification off the center of the console, “did I miss anything of significant strategic value in the available features?”
A small cup whirred from an armrest-mounted dispenser into a gimbaled cupholder.
The synthetic voice responded after a brief pause, “The wind that rises in the daytime lasts long, but the night breeze soon falls.”
“Computer, I have no idea what that means.”
He stared as a small nozzle appeared from a concealed socket and deftly poured a stream of aromatic tea into the cup.
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. Will there be anything else, user one?”
Gustav sipped the tea thoughtfully, savoring the moment. It was very good.
He resisted the urge to look at the timer.
Shayne waded into the thicket of dark, grasping claws and gleaming blaster fire. The hordes of Varelsi infantry crumbled before Aurox’s rending claws, the rake of Shayne’s blade. But for every one they cut down, two more shambled in its place, plodding without end from the swathe of portals surrounding the hill.
Gustav’s voice was calm on the radio, “Captain, scaven alpha on your six.”
She pressed a button on her belt, dematerializing Aurox and activating her cloak. She circled behind the alpha quickly—even though it couldn’t see her, its creeping veins of void-energy lashed all around, sapping her shield. With another press of the button, Aurox rematerialized with an explosive burst, dazing the Varelsi as steel and stone tore into its starry flesh. The alpha attempted to bound to safety, but a gesture from Shayne sent Aurox swiftly locking it in place. Before Shayne could finish it off, a corridor of black fire enveloped it and the surrounding scouts. In its wake, a series of concentric sigils hung in the air a second longer, then vanished.
Shayne’s voice was slightly fuzzed by static on the comms, “Aww, guys, we’re using teamwork!”
Orendi shouted into her own communicator, “And fire! And bullets! AND FIRE!”
Gustav took another sip of tea as he opened the Exceeder’s equalizer to lower the levels of any audio coming from Orendi’s communicator frequency.
Estimated time of arrival: 45s…
Not much longer now…
He gave a quick callout to Maven to let her know of where she might find another group of enemies to rampage through when a rush of interference scrambled the HUD. Azef clambered down, crouched on top of the seat like a wild animal as he pulled out his flask. A small pile of spent casings glimmered in the crevices of the leather.
Gustav looked at him through the rearview mirror as the car continued its automated maneuvering.
“What is it?”
Azef gave a hollow smile. “Conservator.”
Gustav’s eyes widened. He flipped open the comms channel.
“Captain, Varelsi conservator inbound! Orders?”
Shayne’s voice was barely audible through the distorted feed, “Regroup on the ansible!”
The conservator floated from the portal slowly, deliberately, knowing Shayne and the others were surrounded. The crushing tide of Varelsi was simply too much for their small crew. As it approached, Gustav opened the doors to the hovercar.
“If Aurox rides on the outside and we ditch the powersuit, we might be able to run for it.”
Shayne nodded, “Sounds good, let’s move!”
Maven flung open her cockpit, took one step, then collapsed.
The others shoved her limp body into the car as the encroaching Varelsi prepared to attack.
A deafening explosion threw a spray of dirt into the air as an approaching skulk disintegrated. Where it had stood, a twisted heap of metal and circuitry sizzled.
“What the heck was that?”
Two more thunderous impacts kicked waves of spores and rubble into the air.
“Gods alive, the sky is falling—it’s the satellites! Button up!”
Azef pulled his gun through the sunroof as it slid closed.
The conservator battered away a squad of infantry as it lunged for the Exceeder, then abruptly halted in its tracks. Its expressionless face looked down, as if confused, and snapped upright as a bolt of blue lightning speared through the back of its neck and into the crushed earth below. As the satellites continued raining havoc upon the mass of Varelsi, the lightning bolt stood rooted firmly in place, frozen somehow, grotesquely pinning the conservator in place. Shayne looked in fascination at the trail of the bolt leading into the sky. It only hung there a moment, spores lazily clinging to its ionic path.
Gustav stared at the blinking timer.
Estimated time of arrival: 0s…
“At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman.” The car’s voice pitched low as it powered down, shuddering to the ground with a soft crunch.
The shaft of light disappeared, leaving arcing sprites of electricity dancing between incinerating motes of dust, spores, and flecks of voidflesh. The sparks grew more and more numerous, leaving a pair of boot-print scorch marks in the dirt. A crude, glowing silhouette of a man formed as a keening siren droned from miles above. The blazing electric shade ambled towards the car as three more rifts of light descended upon Varelsi, momentarily illuminating the sky above.
Shayne peered up through the windshield. “Doom…light?”
Azef’s eyes were fixed on the specter. “The Blue Baron…”
The hovercar suddenly powered back on, the doors flinging open of their own accord as hoarse laughter and static played through the speakers.
Gustav stumbled out of the car in horror. “T-t-terror the Ring…the Sssaint of Black…”
The dancing lights resolved with a blinding flash into a solid form: he was tall, slim, and softly glowed from within through jagged seams in his vest and eyes. At the base of his neck, three luminous tendrils of energy tethered him to the other electric ghosts trailing behind. He seemed to dissolve into a vaporous projection, then reappeared seated in the car by Maven. His pale, cracked hand rested just above her, then hissed as electricity coursed from an implanted node into her chest.
Her back bent violently as she spasmed, then coughed weakly, “Captain Dredge…”
His lip curled as he spoke, “A lifetime, Maven, not a half. No one cheats me of what’s owed. Not the Last Light, not the Void, and certainly not the likes of you.”
He teleported to stand in front of the three men who’d descended with him, standing unnaturally still like soft statues.
“Now get up. There’s work to be done yet.”