Read Warden: A Novel Online

Authors: Gregg Vann

Warden: A Novel (5 page)

And if I’d been born rich I wouldn’t be here trying to get myself killed right now,
Tana mused.

Down below, she watched as a pair of mechanical sentry bots circled the entrance to the tomb. The machines were flying in opposite directions around the small building, approximately one meter off the ground, continually scanning for intruders or anything else even remotely untoward. In many ways, they reminded Tana of her own defgun, only larger. But these bots were
much
more advanced…and powerful. Tana knew that military-grade models like those carried enough firepower to wipe out
groups
of people at a time. They would barely even notice killing a lone thief.

Though she couldn’t see any of the other security measures, Tana was certain they were there. At the very least, there would be motion and pressure sensors seeded throughout the grounds. And once—if—you got past those, who knew how many coded locksets secured the door leading into the tomb. The only thing working in Tana’s favor was the unsecured exterior foyer the architects included when they designed the building—a place to store weapons and other unnecessary accouterments before entering the tomb proper. If Tana could just make it inside there, she’d have plenty of time to work on the door locks without being spotted by the sentry bots.

But first, she had to
get
there.

Tana observed the scene patiently from her perch for more than two hours, studying the movements of both man and machine, looking for something she could exploit. And then, just when the night sky became its darkest, she spotted it. One of the bots was beginning to drift a little closer to the ground. It was moving slower as well, interrupting the carefully choreographed patrol pattern.

It must be suffering from a reduced power output, for some reason. Maybe…

Tana reached into her backpack and withdrew a directed energy sapper-lance, and then she pointed the device at the bot, tracking the machine’s movements. Ordinarily, lances were used to drain power from proximity-alerted security systems from a safe distance, and they weren’t considered strong enough to disable a shield-hardened sentry bot. But this unit was having power issues already, and Tana was curious to see if the bot’s energy grid had degraded enough for the lance to shut it down. As the machine emerged from behind the building, Tana pulled the trigger. The sentry slid to a halt after just a few meters and sank to the ground. Then the other bot flew right by it, continuing on its route.

It worked! Now…let’s see what happens.

A few moments later, Tana saw a door open up at the base of the tower directly across from her. The shadow of a lone figure stretched out from the brightly lit entryway, extending into the courtyard.

“Shut it down,” she heard the man call out, and then Tana watched as the other sentry bot stopped moving—slowly drifting down to the ground to join the first. The Collective soldier stepped out of the tower and closed the door behind him.

Tana noticed that he had a small satchel thrown over his shoulder, and was carrying a round device in one hand. As he drew closer to the tomb’s entrance the soldier stretched his arm out straight, and used the little disk to deactivate the building’s security array. Then he cautiously approached the structure and Tana saw the guards in every tower direct their attention toward him—watching as he strode up to the two sentry bots and knelt down beside them.

Tana saw the man pull some tools out of the satchel and start scanning the malfunctioning bot, and then the soldier—technician, more likely—pulled open a square access hatch in the metal housing and began checking the machine’s internal systems. The tower guards eventually lost interest as the man continued on with his work—instead focusing their attention back out toward the city. Tana seized the opportunity to lean out and rappel down to the base of the tower, and then she crouched down low in its shadow.

When the technician shut off the building’s security systems, some of the interior courtyard’s lighting had gone out as well—leaving a deep shadow branching out from the base of the tower where Tana was kneeling. The darkened pathway extended almost all the way to the perimeter of the building’s ground defenses, and Tana used it to slowly creep out into the courtyard, continually scanning the towers for any interest from the guards. Eventually, she got close enough to hear the technician speaking to himself.

“I told them two weeks ago that this fucking power cell needed to be replaced,” he was saying. “It would have been a hell of a lot easier to do this in the maintenance bay.”

Tana watched as the tech finished switching out the power cell, and then he shut the bot’s access hatch and ran a diagnostic.

“Excellent,” the Collective technician remarked to himself, seemingly pleased with his work.

He stood up again and brushed himself off, and then began walking back toward the guard tower. Just before he reached the limit of the perimeter defenses, Tana glanced up to make sure none of the guards were looking, and then she darted across the grounds and inside the tomb’s foyer. As she spun back around, dreading the possibility that she’d been spotted, Tana saw the technician extend the handheld device and reactivate the security array. The lights went back on first, erasing the shadows she’d used to sneak inside, and then a few seconds later the bots rose up off the ground and resumed their patrols. Tana ducked a little further back into the doorway as the sentries flew by, and then she let out her breath and got to work.

She’d been right about the door leading down into the tomb—there were multiple locking systems in place. But it was nothing Tana couldn’t handle. Her mother may have been a cruel and sadistic woman, but she’d taught her daughter well. And Tana had kept that education going long after she’d freed herself from her mother’s control.

She pulled out a set of tools from her backpack and got started, bypassing each of the lockouts in a sequence designed to keep the breaches from setting off any alarms. After she defeated the last of them, Tana put everything away again and pushed the door in slowly—expecting to find more defenses. She carefully checked out the interior floor, walls, and ceiling, but Tana found nothing. Confident that it was safe, she stepped inside the tomb and pulled the door closed quietly behind her.

An overhead lighting strip activated as Tana began descending the wide set of steps directly ahead of her, illuminating her path as she moved further underground. On both sides of the stairwell she saw ornate carvings cut into the faux-stone walls—emblazoned with brightly colored highlights to give the scenic displays a greater sense of depth. Tana recognized the scenes as events from the Pardon War—showing Sergeant Barent arming the prisoners, and then leading them in various battles against his fellow guards and the colonists.

When she reached the bottom step, Tana paused to examine the last two carvings. One depicted Sergeant Barent succumbing to his injuries on the last night of fighting—on the eve of his final victory. And the other portrayed the storming of the Citadel, when Barent’s troops used his name as a rallying cry to overrun the guards and finally put an end to the war.

Tana admired the works of art for a moment, realizing how lucky she was because so few people had ever seen them, and then she rounded the corner and found herself in a medium-sized room.

Her eyes were immediately drawn to the glass display boxes lining the walls, each containing some artifact tied directly to the Great Betrayer. She spotted his plasma rifle in one of them, and there were books and clothing in others. One box mounted at eye-level even held Sergeant Barent’s badge, and his ID card from Earth. And even more than the guards outside, or the majesty of the tomb itself, the ID card convinced Tana this was all actually happening—because it contained a photograph of him.

She was really here.

He
…was really here.

Tana looked over at the large pedestal in the middle of the room—knowing that Barent’s coffin, and her objectives, were waiting inside the finely decorated sarcophagus resting on top of it. So after briefly examining the contents of each wall display, Tana slowly approached the final resting place of Le’sant’s greatest hero.

She was astonished to find electronic locks on the sarcophagus itself, and withdrew the tools needed to bypass them. And as Tana leaned in closer she was even more stunned when she saw the designs. The locks were centuries old, possibly dating back to the time of the First Ones. But Tana realized that she shouldn’t be so surprised. Those were tumultuous times. Of course they secured his body.

She easily disarmed the ancient devices and triggered the release latch, and as the heavy lid of the sarcophagus swung up, the coffin inside it opened as well. Tana reflexively stepped back off the base of the pedestal—uneasy about looking at Barent’s body. She’d seen death before…far too many times, but
this
was different. She understood that she had no choice, though, and Tana steeled herself for the task. She approached the coffin again, struggling against a mountain of trepidation.

I’ll just grab the pistols and get the hell out of here,
she thought, working to calm her nerves.

But Tana was right to be troubled.

As she stepped up onto the base again a blast of light flashed out from the coffin—blinding Tana, and causing her to stagger backward. She tripped on the edge of the pedestal and started to fall, but something latched onto her arm like a vise. Tana blinked rapidly, trying to clear her vision, and then through watery eyes she saw the pale hand that had kept her from going down. She gazed beyond it in disbelief, trailing up the thickly muscled arm as a large figure sat up in the coffin.

And then Tana Neng looked into the very surprised eyes of Sergeant Barent.

CHAPTER SIX
The First Ones

The Final Testament of Kenta Maris

The Vade Mecum: Chapter 507. Verses 130-269

 

As the chief historian for the Collective, it has been my life’s work to maintain the truth of history. I don’t care much for political schemes, or the self-serving machinations that cloud history for the benefit of those in power. The revisions currently being made to the
Treatises of the Great Betrayer
are an affront to history, and therefore, an affront to me. So I will use my final testament to relate the truth of what happened in our past—even the Collective can’t invade the sanctity of the Vade Mecum. Well, at least not yet, anyway. The doctors tell me that I only have two or three days left—at the most—and I no longer fear reprisal for my words. So this is the story of the founding of Le’sant, and how the Pardon War came to pass.

The real story.

Two ships set out for Torvus, but only one of them survived the journey. The good news, if there was any to be had, was that the majority of the people were in cryogenic suspension on board the ship that
did
make it to the planet, the
Le’sant
. The bad news was that the bulk of the livestock and organic material needed to set up a sustainable colony were lost along with the second ship.

The
Le’sant’s
vast cargo holds had been packed with construction equipment and building materials—and every type of technology imaginable. It also carried with it a small collection of engineers, and the initial colonists needed to direct the construction of the settlement. But the majority of the great ship’s passenger berths were occupied by colonial workers—prisoners who had agreed to spend the bulk of their sentences in cryo-sleep instead of prison. The convicts had been drawn by the promise of freedom if they labored for ten years to help establish the new colony. After which, they would be allowed to return to Earth on a second set of inbound vessels—the ones bringing the actual colonists. Those ships were scheduled to arrive a decade later, to populate the new city once construction was complete.

The
Le’sant
, and her sister ship, the
Olin
, were massive vessels—constructed to serve as city cores. They’d been designed to make the long interstellar journey only once, and equipped for a single landing—right next to each other in a sheltered crater on the surface of Torvus. Then the great ships were to open up like gigantic flowers, unfolding into a linked micro-city, complete with ready-made buildings.

At the direction of the colonists, and under the watchful eyes of the guards brought along to keep order, it was the prisoners’ job to extend the city further and further out over the course of a decade—expanding it with the tons of superfluous material that had formed the exterior starship shells, as well as the host of building supplies they’d brought along with them.

The
Le’sant
was also provided with smelting and fabrication equipment, so the workers could convert the raw materials readily available on the planet into whatever else they needed—giving them a virtually unlimited supply of resources. And their task was a simple one—marshal all of these assets to create a suitable habitat for the inbound colonists. To have a livable city, replete with all of the modern amenities, ready and waiting for them when they arrived.

The prisoners’ participation in the project was governed by the Voluntary Sentence Conversion Scheme. The VSCS had worked out quite well for other colonies, and had gone a long way toward calming things down back on Earth. Many of the convicts were political prisoners, and their respective governments were happy to see them gone. The more prominent among them even faced death if they remained behind, so it gave them an added incentive to enroll in the program.

Since many colonists were reluctant to venture out into space until a new world had some form of civilization extant, the prisoners proved useful in elevating the initial living conditions, and bringing the nascent colonies up to a standard more attractive to potential émigrés. Of course, once the new cities were complete, the convicts were rotated back to Earth as the more
respectable
citizens arrived for resettlement, and they never got a chance to enjoy any of the worlds that they built. But the VSCS had worked out well for everyone concerned…as long as things went as planned.

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