They couldn’t have piloted the skiff without Anne. The Jovians had semaphore towers set up across the globe and had even erected the relay towers in the ocean. Designed to detect the instruments employed in most transports, traversing Earth unobserved was a nigh-impossible feat. Anne, however, compensated for those instruments: without them, she accurately read speed, altitude and everything else as easily as she made the large aircraft gracefully dance across the clouds.
Of course, the skiff employed more than Anne’s android mind to avoid detection. The hull itself was designed to refract light, making it invisible to the naked eye. The Jovian royal family could see beyond that and well into the infrared spectrum. Some could even simply detect ferrous metals. To that end, Isaac Newton had spent years in finding ways to fool even their abilities.
It was times like these he truly missed Falkenburg: had Sol Invictus not slain him in 2094, his supernatural ship would have easily helped them skirt the Jovians’ watchful eye.
The shuttle began to descend. Coming in over the ocean, their speed reduced. Anne disengaged the landing gear and masterfully set their skiff down on the Las Cruces shoreline where a crawler awaited them. Looking out the window, Ginian smiled at the sight of its driver.
Once upon a time, Jason Lamperouge had been a human. Then, one day, he discovered he was something a little more than human: he was a Neo-Sapien, whose ability granted him a form of hyper-intellect. It was this ability that allowed him to understand the intrinsic components that went into channeling arcana—the force laymen merely called magic.
The magic his essence was most strongly attuned to was necromancy—the magic of life and death. Bridging the worlds of science and the supernatural, Jason long ago found a way to prevent his body from aging. For the last century, the man had done little more than make the occasional repair to his vessel, bonding machines to his flesh with the aid of primal forces beyond the reckoning of mere mortals.
Jason Lamperouge was not immortal but he was close to it.
Of course, he kept similar company: Demeter, Isaac Newton, Yukimura Sanada, Jack Dawkins and Dag Schenkenberg had all seen ages come and go. In their years, they had gathered troves of wisdom—insight they now employed as the Illuminati. Old age and their ongoing conflict with the Jovian Empire had left so many of them deathly serious but Jason tried to cling to the last vestiges of his humanity.
Ginian could always count on Jason to greet him with a smile and a joke. “What’s the sad part of three Jovians dying in a Stream explosion?” Jason asked as the Newton family stepped off their ship.
“I’ve no idea,” their father said dryly.
“Streams seat four,” Jason said smugly.
Ginian smiled; his father was all business. “Anne,” he intoned, turning to the dark-haired girl Ginian considered his elder sister, “please unload the Sentries.”
“It wouldn’t kill you to smile, Isaac,” Jason said. “Seriously: you’re immortal. Nothing will kill you—least of all smiling.”
“What have we to smile about?” Isaac asked. “The Jovian Empire’s conquered and enslaved the Dregs; Sol Invictus has installed himself as the leader of a pantheon the Star Children worship. Maybe it’s that there’s an estimated thirteen-thousand, seven hundred people left on Earth?” Behind him, a platform descended from the ship’s underbelly, carrying a platoon of people of varied age, gender and ethnicity. “Forgive me, but I see nothing to smile about there.”
“You have two beautiful, intelligent children.” Jason grinned at Ginian. “Aren’t you proud of them? Don’t they bring a smile to your face?”
Isaac threw up his hands in defeat. “Have the Vindicators arrived yet?”
“They weren’t there when I left,” Jason said.
Isaac breathed in deeply through his nostrils. “Well, that’s a good thing. As soon as that pile of rubble they call a skiff drops down, the semaphores will tell the Jovians right where we are. I’d rather not get there to find those idiots have brought a battle to our front step.” He looked back to Anne, guiding the waves of Sentries onto the crawler Jason had brought.
The man waited, however impatiently, while his earlier creation herded the newest models onto the crawler. Once their cargo had been loaded aboard, Jason commanded the machine to hover a few feet off the ground. Riding the planet’s magnetic field, the crawler lived up to its name and began to crawl across the sands.
“You know,” Jason intoned, thirty minutes into their journey, “you could have taken your children and returned to New Sapporo.” When Isaac said nothing, Jason continued: “You’re right, Isaac: when the Vindicators come, Hope is going to turn into a blood bath.”
“There is something I need to tell Aphelion—something I couldn’t risk being intercepted.”
“I could have passed it along for you,” Jason said.
Isaac shook his head. “I can’t risk it being intercepted, Jason.”
His tone said enough to still Jason’s tongue: this message was one Isaac did not trust anyone with—even other members of the Illuminati…
The remaining hour of their trip passed in relative silence. Ginian breathed a sigh of relief when the hamlet of Hope appeared in the distance.
The crawler entered through a tunnel dug under the city and came to a halt in a cavernous chamber filled with technicians feverishly tending to their assignments. The gull wing doors of the crawler’s segments opened and Anne began to usher the Sentries out and ready them for the Vindicators’ arrival.
“ETA on the Vindicators?” Isaac immediately asked one of the technicians.
“Ten minutes, if that.”
Ginian watched as his father impatiently bided his time until the Ragtime—the Vindicators’ skiff—arrived. Sure enough, Umbra’s voice was soon broadcasting across the chamber, announcing their incoming. Jason barked orders to open the doors and let sunlight rain down from the ceiling as the retractable ceiling was rescinded.
Ginian’s eyes remained on the sky and the small glint visible in the ocean of azure. Soon enough, the skiff grew and grew until the stellar cruiser came perfectly into view.
The Ragtime was a modified orbiter based on the designs of the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Designed by Jason Lamperouge and built by Nicodemus Loder in 2099, it was made to be more than an interplanetary transport for the Vindicators: it was intended to serve as their base of operations and home.
In lieu of the nose and main gear, a trio of nozzles identical to the main engine began to protrude from the skiff’s underbelly, kicking on to allow them to land vertically inside the chamber. Once it had cleared the ceiling, Gideon watched in awe as twelve spider-like legs began to unfurl the ship’s sides. Those legs flexed until they fought solid ground to stand on.
Soon, the thrusters died down and a moment later, the middle of the ship began to descend. The Vindicators, six super-powered beings devoted to defending Dregs from the Jovians, rode a levitating platform down to the chamber’s floor.
Pauldron stood out from the rest: eight feet tall and almost as broad, the behemoth was a figure forged from rock who wore odd pieces of machinery embedded in his massive form. In front of him was Pother: the raven-haired beauty was at least a head shorter than any of her teammates. She wore a tactical vest and split skirt over a fishnet bodysuit while the man beside her wore gun-grey coveralls and sandals. Grey streaked Umbra’s thinning black hair, convincing many that the seasoned veteran was the oldest member of the band’s roster.
Beside them stood Legacy, the product of several Neo-Sapien dynasties marrying into each other. A black streak was slashed through the barefoot woman’s short, blonde hair, curling down to frame the left side of her face. She wore a slate cloak and muffler over her dingy white T-shirt and loose breaches—a stark contrast to what their leader wore…
Echelon’s athletic frame was stuffed into a simple, black armored jumpsuit. An azure sash was tied around his right arm—the only thing he had left to remember his bride by…
Lastly, Ginian’s eyes fell on Aphelion, a tall man who wore a white tunic trimmed with blood red cords. On his chest was a golden sun—one that matched the bronze mask he wore over his face. Though the mask concealed his face, it was not a full helmet: long, crimson hair hung down the man’s back.
Ginian gazed upon the staff Aphelion had with wonder: Ruyi Jingo Bang was an artifact imbued with arcane properties. As he understood it, so long as Aphelion held the staff, he could force it to take any size he desired.
“I love what you’ve done with your cave,” Pauldron exclaimed. His gravelly voice reverberated across the chamber. “It’s so cozy! It's like Martha Stewart meets Osama bin Laden!”
Umbra sighed as the platform rested on the chamber floor. “We may not have much time,” he said. Almost immediately, Isaac led Aphelion away. “The Jovians likely detected our arrival and will be at this location soon…”
“We can’t wait for them to come scalp more Dregs,” Jason intoned. “Your ship should be able to carry at least one hundred Sentries, making deposits on Ceres-”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” exclaimed Pother. “Two questions: what the hell are you smoking and why aren’t you sharing? That is the dumbest plan I ever heard!”
“Pother,” Echelon said warningly. The young woman seemed not to notice.
“Do you have any idea what one hundred Sentries looks like?” She gestured towards the robotic congregation. “They look like that! You really think we can just dock in the Jovian Empire, drop off that many people, and not raise any suspicions?”
“Pother!” Echelon thundered. The man silenced her with a glare before turning back to Jason with the typical apathetic expression he wore. “We’ll do it,” he intoned. “Pother? Go help Umbra and Legacy load them up…”
As Pother stomped off, grumbling all the way, Jason bowed his head in thanks to the Vindicators’ leader. “As I was saying, we’d like to see this force divided amongst the major colonies: Ceres, Europa, Callisto, Ganymede, Enceladus…”
“Avoiding the throne world,” Echelon said. “Why play it safe when you’re risking so much by summoning us here?”
“Isaac’s got something planned. What he has planned? I have no idea. Vegas odds are on him filling Aphelion in on it now…”
Echelon grimaced. “He ought to be filling me in: I’m the leader of the Vindicators—not Aphelion. And given how little we know about Aphelion?” The man sighed mournfully. “I… I need to talk to you, Jason. I could use your advice. You’re supposed to be one of the smartest men alive, right? Nothing gets by you?
“I’ve seen under the mask.” Ginian was perplexed by the look of alarm that flashed on Jason’s face; it said that he had seen what Echelon had. “I’ve seen Aphelion’s face and I…”
“Have you told the others?”
Echelon shrugged. “I don’t have enough information. I didn’t want to start a riot… If they knew, they’d-”
“And now you know why Aphelion wears that mask.”
“I need to know, Jason: can I trust him?”
Jason paused to consider his answer. “I do,” he said, as if that should be enough.
Before Echelon could determine if that was enough for him, a beam of light struck one of the Ragtime’s legs. There was an explosion and the ship shuddered as it lost part of its balance. “They’re here!” Jason shouted.
“Not they!” Legacy shouted. “He! He’s here! It’s just one of them!”
Ginian could almost feel those around him tense as they all imagined the same thing. “Sol Invictus?” Echelon asked.
The sentient Sentry peered through the smoke and dust and took in the sight of a man clad in a linothorax. Emblazoned on his chest was a golden sunburst. A dry wind tumbled through the opening in the roof and whipped at his long, black hair and the purple cloak he wore.
He was not Sol Invictus but one of his children—one of the Jovian Pantheon. His name was Conclave and he was known across the galaxy for his temper as he was his recklessness.
“I suppose I should be thanking you,” Conclave said, chuckling softly. “The feast my father will throw in my honor will last for weeks once I’ve brought him the heads of the Illuminati.” Conclave opened his hand and aimed his palm towards Jason. “Jason Lamperouge,” he intoned haughtily, “slain by a god is a death more fitting that a rat cowering underground deserves!”
To Be Continued... wrote:The Vindicators II.