War-Dancer (Tales of the Commonwealth Book 4) (2 page)





Somewhere nearly four-hundred kilometres off the canyons to the south of the Black Rose slavers’ bastion on Titania, the air screamed with the arrival of two air-skiffs. Dropped from low orbit into the thin atmosphere, each of the freefalling craft was packed with unsavoury war-dancers and bioroid gunmen wearing polymesh void-suits and battle gorgets. They held-on to their lives on straps bolted to the floor of the skiffs, as the open-topped skimmers plummeted down towards the frozen surface of the second-largest moon of Uranus.


Metres before reaching the raggedy frozen terrain, the streamlined vessels finally slowed to a hover thanks to their repulsor keels, but those of the passengers that had never done a low orbit drop rushed to press the med-dispensers in their suits, so to avoid barfing their breakfast into their void-helmets and respirators. After a moment’s allowance for the passengers to recompose themselves, the pair of skiffs speeded madly toward the direction of the stronghold. In the low gravity thin air of Titania, their hotwired mag-engines hurled the skimmers at insane velocities, and the scythe-like stabiliser fins sparkled under the azure glow of Uranus like a stream of light.


As agreed, the lead skimmer carried Thorn and his party, while Razor and his raiders followed hard upon them in their own skiff. In less than an hour, the two modified craft negotiated the distance of some four-hundred kilometres, approaching the coordinates wherein they were to put into action Thorn’s stratagem. The magnetic propulsion drives of the skiffs ran silently enough not to rouse the undesired attention of the Black Rose’s automated lookouts, their energy signatures invisible as compared to the magnetosphere of Uranus. With but a hum and a sonic boom, they flashed over the frozen landscape.


Then, quite abruptly, the skimmers slowed enough for Thorn and Zanzibar to jump off, and then the two vehicles yawed and changed course, so to make for an inconspicuous spot in the terrain. Thorn and his companion wanted to scout the bulwarks and watchtowers of the stronghold before they committed to the raid, and the best way of doing that without detection was to proceed on foot, carefully avoiding to do so by leaps and bounds.


Hiding behind a stubby terraforming reclamation plant that stood about ten kilometres away from the tattered bastion, Razor was restless with anticipation. His prodigal blood burned with hate within envious veins. As a pure-blood bioroid, he felt he deserved to be directing the assault instead of following another, most of all a freed transhuman slave. He actively rejected the way Fu’Ryah had demoded him – which he regarded as a humiliation – and he would prove her wrong by his deeds on the coming raid. Truth be told, Razor was a capable filibuster, and if the sum of his spite could be made into some type of airborne toxin, every Black Rose thug in the region would have perished that morning.


Nearer the Black Rose compound, the first-mate and the quartermaster made their way up a cliff overlooking the gorge wherein the stronghold was lodged. They modulated the hypermatrix visors on their helmets to magnify the view, so to spot the guards and the watchmen about the compound. Sure enough, a squadron of N-3 robots was about and restlessly pursing their job.


The AI software running the robust Newton-3 chassis carried out the patrol with both precision and proficiency, and the individual units acted in cohesion to patrol the grounds. As they did their rounds, the robots knuckle-marched on their twin clawed arms and pivoted on their one clawed foot to change direction, scanning the grounds about the bastion with mathematical precision.


Besides the robots there were flesh-and-blood watchmen at the perimeter watchtowers, manning pintle-mounted Martian heavy-lasers two-by-two. Thorn thought that they looked lazy and distracted – a notion with which Zanzibar agreed – but the laser-guns could pose a threat to the skimmers nonetheless…


The two sly bioroids stayed a while to verify whether there was any out of the ordinary activity going on, but they could detect none. Nor could they see any cargo being readied for a delivery, meaning the Black Rose didn’t expect any customers on that day. Satisfied with their assessment, they started on their way back to where the rest of the raiding party was hiding.


Across the distance from Thorn and Zanzibar, time went by monotonously. As daybreak beckoned behind the mountain range to the east, the eager midshipman and his pack of raiders stirred restlessly. The first rays of sunlight glittered on the ice crystal formations all about them, and the shadow of the terraforming plant began to point towards the Black Rose stronghold.


Sensing the time was near, the pirates under Razor used their void-suits’ inbuilt medication dispensers to release a cocktail of psychotropic elixirs into their bloodstream, letting the mixture spread through their bodies. This was a custom among some of the buccaneers of the Blood Bond, and they called the mix ‘
liquid courage
’. The preparation made by the Scimitar’s medic had a veiled side effect which made the freebooters shake uncontrollably for a minute, but once the tremor subsided they were frenzied with the desire for carnage and infused by irreducible boldness.


All the same, Razor himself did not need the drug, for he was already intoxicated with hate and resentment that he directed to the freed-slaves that dared take command of their pirate ship. Anxious to prove himself and supported by his most immediate mutinous circle, Razor jumped the clock and piloted his skiff toward the watchtower, followed closely by Thorn’s skimmer. Heralding their attack with nothing but a sonic boom, they negotiated ten kilometres in what seemed like ten seconds.


The approach of the wing of air-skiffs was of such swiftness as to make it improbable that anyone could detect their arrival before they were upon their target. The instant they reached the fort, gunners Wrath and Rager disgorged the destructive power of their fusion-cannons, whilst gunmen delivered a slapdash salvo of laser-fire. As the plasma bursts exploded against the stronghold’s defences, the hotwired fusion pistols and looted carbines of the buccaneers stung indiscriminately at odd marks on the bulwarks, and a few automatons fell from positions about the compound.


From a distance, Thorn and Zanzibar cursed as they observed the Black Rose sentinels responding with flickering laser-beams from their heavy-lasers and rifles, but the fast skimmers were not easy targets. They zoomed by the stronghold at such high speed that the defenders could not train their sights on them.


The skimmers were by no means military vessels, though they were fairly sturdy. Nevertheless, they had been modified by the crew of the Scimitar to afford ludicrous speeds, and to deliver a fair amount of ruin. For one thing, the antique fusion guns that had been fitted at the prow of the skiffs were light and effective even against armoured transports, let alone makeshift fortifications.


Razor laughed madly at their absolute superiority and apparent invulnerability. He felt that the Black Rose was ill equipped to deal with their attack craft. The midshipman was decided to perform his mission of terror with artistic flair, so to gain the respect of everyone in the Scimitar’s crew. However, he had to first quench his craving for destruction and butchery.


Unexpectedly, as Razor manoeuvred for a new fly-by attack, one of his pirates suddenly dropped from the skimmer as if shot dead. Crazed by the effects of the elixir that burned within their veins, the other raiders gave no importance to the fact. Razor, on the other hand, free from the numbing effects of Leech’s preparation, promptly concluded there was something out of place. Under complaints from his crew, he intuitively zigzagged with the skiff in evasive manoeuvres, as if looking for a chance to evaluate the scenario again.


Seeing that the two skiffs had begun the ruse without them, Zanzibar and Thorn cursed and rushed by low-gravity leaps and bounds to join the fray. They made for one of the watchtowers, so to disable the Martian multi-lasers before they managed to train their torrential salvos on one of the air-skiffs. A handful of N-3 automatons detected their approach and fired upon them, but the two pirates elected to ignore them, randomly skipping and dodging from one side to the other, so to confound the AIs’ targeting parameters.


Then, with a prodigious leap afforded by the low gravity, the two of them arrived suddenly upon the platform, catching the Black Rose watchmen unawares. The ferocity of Thorn’s plasma-pike attack was beyond whatever violence the Black Rose gunners had ever experienced. They succumbed to the raw power of the first-mate’s assault without ever even drawing their pistols and combat knives. Their dark-green void-suits were ripped apart like wet paper by the indomitable Thorn, as was the bioroid flesh beneath them. The horror and brutality of the scene was such that other Black Rose slavers mustering near the entrance to their mines fell back in utter panic.


Thereupon did they find themselves assailed by a cluster of N-3 robots. From their single ruby eyes, they spat out a coordinated salvo upon both Thorn and Zanzibar, pinning them down inside the watchtower. As the N-3 automatons knuckle-marched ominously toward the bunkered pair of pirates, a plasma burst preceded the quick-pass of Thorn’s skiff, whereupon the N-3’s shifted their attention to the new threat. With not a moment to lose, Zanzibar took over the multi-laser gun, and finished-off the squad of sentinel bots with a coruscating ruby burst. “You go get’em, Thorn!” grunted Zanzibar. “I’ll use this baby to even the odds with the other watchtowers.”


In the meantime, while the gunmen in Razor’s skiff blasted away indiscriminately at targets on the ground, Razor circled around the compound’s main tower, with Rager firing the prow-mounted gun again and again against the main turrets mounted on the bastion. Blasts of fire and smoke breeched the armoured turrets, sending shrapnel and debris in every direction. “Your way is clear, Captain Fu’Ryah. You may come when ready,” he declared over-hastily, but his signal didn’t go through, so that he had to fire a signal flare instead.


Onboard the Scimitar, Fu’Ryah was restless in the cargo bay, where the bulk of her Blood Bond scallywags was assembled for the assault. As soon as she received news from the bridge that a signal flare had been detected, she ordered Hannibal to break cover and reposition the cruiser to disgorge them into the fray. In half a minute’s time, the black cutter had reached synchronous orbit over the agreed insertion point, from where they could visualise the battle below.


Ha’Iva, who was manning one of the ship’s gun-consoles in Razor’s absence, promptly confirmed to her captain that the lure had worked and that the slavers defending the secret bastion were in complete disarray. “The Black Rose seems to have laid hands on some serious Legion equipment,” she uttered as she saw the flickering of the pintle-mounted multi-laser guns.


“She’s right cousin,” confirmed Ha’Vok, who manned another of their ship’s cannons. “You best tell the pilot to circle and approach from the southwest, so to use the cover of the smoke.”


Shih confirmed their assessment and further attested that the fort was broadcasting a strong jamming signal that blocked a wide bandwidth of communications channels. They could no-longer listen into the chatter of Thorn’s party. Shih even tried to raise Thorn and Razor on the coded channel, but she got only static.


Taken together, these indications were a clear sign that something was out of place. Yet, to Fu’Ryah, who was a brilliant war-dancer, but who had very little experience in military engagements, the signs meant very little. As it was, she concluded that Thorn had not called-in because of the Black Rose’s jamming signal, and that he had shot-off the flare instead. She called the bridge again and ordered the Scimitar to take position in low orbit that they could launch their raid.

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