Read Warden: A Novel Online

Authors: Gregg Vann

Warden: A Novel (30 page)

“Waiting around was definitely the right call, Barent. We saw how S’to and Renik were acting toward each other earlier. Things could have easily gone bad during the passage through the canyon.”

Tana shot a glance at the soldiers following behind them again, as if confirming to herself that the truce still held. Then she jerked a finger in their direction, even though Barent couldn’t see the gesture.

“Just think,” she said, “a few days ago, those two armies were doing everything they could to kill each other.”

“It’s amazing what the promise of reward and the threat of retribution can accomplish,” Barent replied. “At this point, I think we can trust them enough to travel the rest of the way on their own. I’ll get out and give them explicit directions to the hideout, and warn them about what to expect along the way. I’m also going to let them know
why
we’re going ahead—about the weapons, and the Wardens.”

“Sounds good,” Tana said. “I’ll wait in here where it’s nice and warm.”

Barent chuckled. “I never doubted it for a second.”

It didn’t take long to explain everything to S’to and Renik, or for them to grasp his instructions about how to find the hideout. They both supported Barent’s plan to acquire more troops and weapons, without reservation. And with his keen ability to read people, Barent was surprised to detect a hint of respect developing between the two men.

They were still extremely wary of each another—a lifetime of bloody conflict left them little choice—but experiencing the rough passage down to the crater floor together seemed to have tempered some of the long-ingrained distrust. It was a good sign, and Barent was beginning to feel much better about things as he hopped back into the snowcraft and closed the canopy.

“Everything’s set,” he announced, and then Barent took off quickly, speeding across the landscape.

“In a hurry?” Tana asked him.

“As a matter of fact, I am. I’m in a hurry to get this all over with. Ever since I woke up, it seems like I’ve either been fighting or running. I look forward to a day where I can just relax and live a normal life.”

“Me too,” Tana said. “I just hope we live long enough to see that day.”

“Agreed.”

They fell silent for the rest of the journey—the quiet, peaceful ride eventually lulling Tana to sleep. When she woke up again, Barent was already nosing the snowcraft into its rocky alcove at the hideout. They both hopped out and stretched away the stiffness that had set in during the trip, and then Barent pushed the metal door open and they went inside.

“Everything is just as we left it,” he said.

“Were you expecting visitors?”

“Not really. But I still find it hard to believe that no one ever leaves the city.”

“Like I said before, Barent, why would we? There is nothing out he—” Tana grinned. “Well, we
thought
there was nothing out here.”

“I do understand…somewhat,” Barent replied. “We thought the
Olin
was lost as well. But no desire for exploration—at all—for more than five hundred years?
That
is much harder for me to comprehend.”

Barent looked over at Tana and she saw the incredulity in his eyes. It was coupled with an unmistakable sadness.

“What about scientific expeditions?” he said. “Or conducting research into the environment and ecology of Torvus, so you could improve the quality of life here. The initial probe scans weren’t cursory, but they certainly weren’t exhaustive either. And why haven’t you searched out more resources to exploit, so the city—the
colony
—could continue to grow?”

Barent’s bewilderment grew more akin to exasperation.

“With the advances you’ve made in technology over the last few centuries, Le’sant could have even launched satellites by now, like those the
Olin
carried—to monitor the planet’s weather, and to extend your communication capabilities. Then you’d be able to travel all over the planet, avoiding the dangerous storms, and still maintaining contact with the city. Hell, in five hundred years, you could have even sent a probe back to Earth to find out what happened to it. To discover why no other ships ever came to Torvus.” Barent lowered his voice and looked away. “This colony has just stagnated…for centuries.”

He stomped the snow off his boots and strolled over to the pile of crates, throwing one of them open. “You’ve all lost so much while I slept. And the sad part is, I don’t even think you realize it.”

“This is the only way we’ve ever known,” Tana replied.

Her tone wasn’t defensive, but she wanted Barent to understand.

“I know,” he said. “And it’s not
your
fault, Tana. But the Collective…”

He opened up another of the crates and pulled out a plasma rifle. Then Barent detached the power unit from it and held it out to Tana. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “If you begin charging up these weapons, I’ll start a fire for us.”

“You’re on,” she replied. “But make it a
big
fire, Barent. It’s freezing in here.”

* * *

Twenty kilometers away, the Collective’s communication platform stopped abruptly, struggling to maintain its position in the growing wind. Inside the complex machine a data trigger activated, sending a reset code flooding throughout its programing. Everything in the platform was reset to its original parameters, except for a small set of instructions and a secured memory partition.

And then the machine drifted back into motion.

Heading toward Le’sant.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE
Reunion

“No,” Tana stated firmly. “I am not letting you go off by yourself.”

“You have to stay here and continue switching out the power units on the plasma rifles,” Barent countered. “They each have to be primed and cycled through the chargers before our forces arrive. We’ll need every gun we can get our hands on for the coming fight. You know that, Tana.”

“And what if something happens to you, Barent? Have you thought about that? This war would be over before it even began. This army you’ve cobbled together would fall apart as soon as they found out. Hell, as much they hate each other, they’d probably forget all about the Collective and just start fighting among themselves.”

Barent chuckled. “I’ll be fine, Tana. I’m a big boy; I can take care of myself.”

“You haven’t been
by yourself
since you first woke up,” Tana replied in a biting tone. She hadn’t meant for her voice to sound so harsh, but this was serious, and he needed to treat it as such. “Besides, Barent, you don’t even know the city. You don’t know your way around Le’sant at all.”

“You are absolutely right,” he agreed. “About everything. And having you by my side has been extremely helpful. But the old breakdown facility is
outside
the city walls, and there won’t be any Collective forces searching for me there. Le’sant has expanded so much over the years that the yards almost border the Outland now, but they still remain outside the city proper. And that facility hasn’t moved in the last five hundred years, Tana. I know exactly where it is. I won’t get lost, or be captured.”

Her expression softened, even if Tana’s disapproval hadn’t. But despite her strong opposition to Barent’s plan, she understood that the weapons had to be ready for the attack force when it arrived. She also knew that Barent needed to meet with the Wardens to finish consolidating his forces, and to devise a strategy for the assault on Le’sant—especially now that everything was finally coming together, and it was nearly time to strike. Tana wasn’t the least bit happy about it, but she shrugged, signaling her defeat. She switched out the next series of power units and then wandered over closer to the fire, soaking up the heat as Barent began changing his clothes for the meeting.

He grabbed a packaged outfit from one of the storage crates and removed the pair of black pants from it, pulling them on. Then he slid the thin shirt included with them down over his head. Barent put the standard issue turtleneck on next, and then began fastening a new set of padded armor over the top of everything. By the time he finished pulling his boots back on and re-fastening his holsters, Barent looked just like any other guard ready to start his shift—albeit five hundred years too late.

He threw a full-length hooded black cloak over his shoulders and snapped the clasp together at the neck. Then Barent pulled his sleeves down tight, smoothing out the fabric where it had bunched up in a few places. He looked everything over once, and then readjusted his holster until he was satisfied.

Although the hybrid fur coat he’d taken from the Olin was far more effective against the cold, Barent had no choice but to leave it behind at the hideout. The people of Le’sant—the Wardens, in particular—expected him to look and act a certain way. Barent knew that meeting those expectations would be critical in getting their support, and understood that if he showed up looking like a fur-covered madman from the wasteland, it might be difficult to gain their acceptance.

“How do I look?” he asked Tana.

“You look like a very large hard-ass that people shouldn’t mess with,” she replied. Then Tana frowned. “But I still don’t think you should go there alone, Barent. It’s just too dangerous.”

He walked over and placed his hands around her waist, drawing her in close. “Everything will be fine, Tana. I promise you. And I won’t be alone, I’m meeting with the Wardens.”

“But how do you even know it
was
the Wardens you spoke with, Barent? They were using a Collective communications platform, after all.”

“So why even tell me that? If it was the Collective, they would have done everything in their power to hide any hint of involvement. And they would have known that telling me about a purge of the Wardens would only heighten my concerns about security, making me even more wary—so that doesn’t make any sense either. No, it was definitely the Wardens, Tana. If it had been the Collective, they would have tried to find out where I was so they could kill me
outside
the city. Somewhere they could make me disappear without a trace, and the people be none the wiser.”

“Well, the breakdown yards sound like a damn good place to do just that,” Tana pointed out.

“And I’ll approach the facility with that in mind, and make sure it’s not a trap first, before going in. But you have to trust me, Tana. It really was the Wardens I spoke with, I’m sure of it.”

“All right,” she said reluctantly. “I guess it is best that we split up, for now.” Then Tana looked up at him and grinned. “I’ve just grown kind of used to having you around, Barent.”

He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead. Then Barent released Tana’s waist to hold her face in his hands. “Believe me, Tana. If I didn’t think it was absolutely necessary, I’d never leave you behind. I like having you around as well.”

Her grin disappeared just as abruptly as it had arisen, and Tana’s expression turned serious. “Just remember, Barent: if you let anything happen to yourself, I will absolutely kill you.”

He noted the stern look on her face and Barent fought back a laugh, trying hard to keep his voice sincere. “That seems rather redundant,” he replied. “But I’ll try to remember.”

“Good,” Tana said, “then I’ll keep working on these rifles. I’ll try to have them all ready to go by the time you get back.”

“Perfect. And after I get the latest intelligence about the Collective from the Wardens, I’ll bring a few of them back here to help me coordinate the attack.”

Barent looked around the hideout, revisiting ancient memories from the last time he’d used the location to plan a war. There were Wardens at his side then, too.

It’ll be just like the old days,
he thought.

“S’to and Renik have been riding all night,” Barent continued. “So unless the caravan gets held up for some reason, they should arrive sometime this afternoon; they’ll be able to participate in the planning as well. Once we know what weapons and personnel the Wardens have to offer, we’ll have a much better idea of how and where to launch the attack.”

“It’s hard to believe that we’re actually going to do this,” Tana said.

“Believe it. Almost everything is in place now…as best we can manage, anyway. But a lot still hinges on how many Wardens remain active, and what they bring to the table.”

“Then go find out,” Tana said.

Barent kissed her again, and then he grabbed one of the plasma rifles before heading toward the door. He paused as his fingers touched the handle, turning his head slightly to look back at Tana. “I know what I said before, but if for any reason I
don’t
come back…”

“Baren—”


If
. Lie to them, Tana. Tell S’to and Renik that I’m waiting for them inside the city…gathering up more forces. You said it yourself, if they think something’s happened to me, they won’t go through with it.”

“You’ll be back,” Tana said confidently.

“You’re right,” Barent replied. “I will.”

Then he pulled the door open and stepped out into the cold.

* * *

As he approached the old breakdown yards Barent gazed out intently over the icy terrain, searching for any signs of Le’sant’s police or military forces. But after a thorough examination of the area he felt convinced it was safe—just a barren and lifeless relic from an earlier time in the city’s history. To an untrained observer, it would probably seem as if no one had been there for ages, but Barent’s keen eyes saw an altogether different picture. The door handles on several of the squat buildings bore less snow than other nearby flat surfaces, and Barent even saw a glint of light flashing off the exposed metal of one of them.

The doors had been used…and recently.

Barent piloted the snowcraft up to the building he remembered housed the factory’s access shafts and hopped out, jerkily pulling aside one of the two large metal doors to peer inside the structure. To his surprise, he didn’t find anyone waiting to greet him—or in ambush. In fact, Barent didn’t see anyone at all. So he scanned out over the open yards behind him one last time—peering far off into the distance—and then returned to the snowcraft and drove it inside the building.

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