Authors: Gregg Vann
Minister Golen looked away and his gaze drifted toward the window again. He noticed the ceremonial flag of the Wardens flying high above the tomb, depicting two hands clasped together in friendship against a backdrop of the Citadel. One wore the glove of a colonial guard, tattered and bloody, while a broken shackle dangled from the wrist of the second, representing a freed prisoner. The image was steeped in history and symbolism, but as the flag flapped lazily in the light breeze Golen believed it existed solely to mock him.
“The Wardens,” he hissed. “They received this information before we did.”
“I’ll locate Major Kline immediately,” Malves said.
“It had to be them, General. Find out what Kline knows and then kill him. Kill everyone involved…anyone who might possibly know that Barent is alive.”
Golen slammed his fist down hard on the desk and some of the papers resting on it slid to the floor. Those earlier problems that had seemed so pressing were now easily ignored—eclipsed by a genuine threat to Golen’s power, and to that of the Collective as well.
“Find the Great Betrayer, General Malves. And find him quickly, or it will be the end of us all.”
“I will,” Malves replied decisively. He spun around to leave, but then stopped his march toward the door and turned back. “Minister, did you mean kill
who knows about this?”
Golen realized who he was referring to and frowned. “Yes, General. Everyone.”
He would miss Jacob, but what could be done?
Malves nodded his understanding and left the room.
Golen leaned forward and cupped his face in his hands, vigorously rubbing his eyes. He knew the people worshipped the very memory of Sergeant Barent, and his presence in the city would create chaos. But more importantly, Golen understood what it meant for the Collective to have him alive.
Like every minister before him, Golen had read the founding documents—the public ones
the secret ones. The Collective was directly responsible for Barent’s death, or attempted murder, as it now appeared. And the fact he was still alive meant that Barent probably knew it. He would want revenge, and with the entire population of Le’sant on his side, he would get it.
Golen thought to himself.
It’s almost beyond comprehension.
He knew it to be true, of course. The evidence didn’t lie. But Golen simply couldn’t bring himself to believe it.
The Great Betrayer.
The hero of the Pardon War.
The tunnel beneath the tomb was nearly pitch black and oppressively hot, but as their pupils dilated fully—working hard to collect what little illumination there was in the confined space—Barent and Tana were able to see well enough to keep pressing forward, albeit slowly. Fortunately, there was only the one narrow passageway leading down through the rock, making it impossible to get lost.
The same geothermal energy sources that provided Le’sant with unlimited power—the main reason the ship had landed on this spot in the first place—also made burrowing beneath the surface here problematic. Tana knew it must have been very difficult to arrange for this tunnel to be dug out during construction of the tomb, and probably even harder to keep it a secret. The dangerous nature of the work involved would have only added to the problem. Even now, five hundred years later, the best equipment couldn’t detect
pressure point and underground cavity. And if you accidentally punctured one of those chambers—filled with hot gases under immense pressure—you would boil to death in your mining suit before you even realized what killed you.
“Corporal Ennis must have been well-connected to get this done,” Tana said. “And extremely devoted to you.”
“Not just me,” Barent replied. “We were all devoted to each other, thief.” Then he paused, looking back over his shoulder to correct himself. “Forgive me,
Before she had a chance to reply, Barent turned around again and continued his trek through the tunnel. “I’m afraid that old habits die hard,” he explained. “I often referred to the prisoners based on their crimes, even as I fought right alongside them during the war. But I no longer considered them criminals.”
Barent ducked his head to avoid a low section of ceiling and then slowed his pace. “It’s odd…referring to those times as the distant past. For me it was only yesterday, and I mean that quite literally.”
“I can’t even imagine,” Tana said.
“No,” he replied. “You really can’t.”
She detected a shift in Barent’s voice—his tone becoming much harsher. “But despite what I chose to call them,” he continued, “a prisoner did his or her time and that was the end of it. They paid for the crimes they committed as justice demanded, and were then allowed to rejoin society. Did that punishment make them better people, or stop them from committing more crimes in the future? Who knows? But by our own laws they’d earned a chance to prove that it did. We had no right to take that opportunity away from them, and certainly not to deny freedom to their innocent children—just because of who their parents were.”
Barent came to an abrupt halt and spun around to face her, and even in the dim, almost nonexistent light, Tana saw the anger on his face.
“We’d become the very thing that condemned those poor bastards to forced labor in the first place…
Barent took a deep breath in through his nose and Tana got the impression he was trying to calm himself. When he spoke again, some of the sharp edge was gone from Barent’s voice, but not all of it.
“The prisoners on the
slept through the entire lifespans of everyone they knew back on Earth,” he said, “just for the chance to bust their asses building another world—one they’d never get to live on themselves. That was the shitty deal they took, and even when things went wrong—horribly wrong—the convicts fulfilled their end of the bargain. We’re the ones who broke the agreement, not them.”
Tana’s heart was racing as Barent turned back around to continue leading them through the roughly hewn passageway.
Well, he’s every bit as intense as the histories portrayed him to be. That’s for damn sure.
Tana sensed the tunnel beginning to slope back up toward the surface as they moved forward, and then saw Barent hold up a closed fist before coming to an abrupt halt.
Tana stumbled right into him.
“Sorry,” she said.
“It’s not your fault,” Barent replied. “I can’t expect you to know military hand signals from five centuries ago.”
know next time.”
Barent nodded. “There’s a faint white outline up ahead. Take a look.”
He leaned off to one side so Tana could see the tiny thread of light as well, and she noted that it was in the perfect shape of a circle. Whatever it was, Tana knew it had to be man-made.
“It looks like a hatch,” she guessed. “Or maybe a door of some kind.”
“A hatch, most likely,” Barent said. “The tunnel ends right at it, so we have no choice but to go through.”
“I wish we had some idea about what was on the other side,” Tana said warily.
“As do I,” Barent agreed. “But there’s only one way to find out. Wait here while I try to open it.”
“I’m not some helpless waif,” Tana protested.
“I never said you were,” Barent replied. “I just want you to stay back and cover me while I check it out.”
He stepped forward to examine the hatch, searching for markings or other clues about what lay beyond it. As he did so, Barent addressed Tana in a calm and level voice.
“You know, I’ve always been pretty good at judging people. And during my time among the prisoners, I got even better at it. Some of them appeared harmless, but were actually brutal and sadistic killers, and the grizzled, scar-faced hard-assess doing their best to intimidate everyone were often weak in a fight—frequently ending up dead. When I look at you, Tana, I can tell that you’ve killed before. I
you’re dangerous. But even beyond my intuition, common sense says you’d have to be pretty damn good if the Wardens chose you to infiltrate a heavily guarded compound and set me free. So you can relax,
, I know just how proficient you are.”
And then Sergeant Barent turned around and gave her a wry smirk.
“But just remember, I’m still in charge.”
Tana readied a response, but realized it wasn’t necessary. It seemed that Sergeant Barent really did understand her, or at the very least, acknowledged her capabilities. And the
jab had come out as a good-natured tease, not an insult. But as to whether or not he should be the one in charge…
Well, he certainly has more experience than I do. That’s for damn sure.
Barent turned his attention back to the hatch, leaning in close as he attempted to peer through the sliver of light surrounding it. But it was no use; he couldn’t see anything beyond it. He eventually gave up and placed his ear against the metal, listening closely for a few moments in hopes of gleaning clues from noises on the other side. When that proved fruitless as well, Barent decided there was nothing left to do but just go ahead and push it open, and hope they didn’t find any enemies waiting there to ambush them.
The hatch resisted Barent’s first attempt, but then he found a tiny release latch on the bottom and depressed it. He heard a muffled pop as it cracked partially open, and then the light framing the outer edges started to grow brighter—almost incandescent in brilliance. Barent froze as a strong wind rushed into the tunnel, slicing through the gap he’d created with a shrill and deafening howl. He observed a blurred flash of motion on the other side of the hatch—filling his view—and then the noise and light rapidly subsided. Barent threw the hatch the rest of the way open and found himself in Le’sant’s underground subway system, watching as the tail end of the train that just flew by disappeared into the dark tunnel ahead.
The transportation system had actually been part of the ship’s original design—the large corridors crisscrossing the immense vessel meant to serve as public transportation routes when the city’s population grew large enough to warrant them. Barent remembered some of the early planning sessions where that eventuality had been discussed, but he was still shocked to actually see it all in place and functioning.
He listened intently for anything else coming through the tunnel and then they both stepped out, crouching on a small ledge that ran parallel to the magnetic tracks. Tana closed the hatch behind them and they hopped down, jogging off in the direction the train had followed.
“How far does this subway extend?” Barent said.
“It’s only here in the Central District…the Citadel as you knew it. It would be nice to just hop on and take it all the way to the rendezvous point, but the subway is far too public. We’ll be better off on the street, where we can move around unobserved.”
“How well do you know your way around the city?” Barent asked her.
“Extremely well. And I can consult Le’sant’s datanet for alternate routes if we run into anything blocking our path. The Wardens shut down my access when they first picked me up, but they restored it right before I left for the tomb.”
“Wouldn’t using the datanet give away our location?”
“Maybe… Yes…probably. But it would only show them where I am. And they aren’t looking for
“Not yet,” Barent replied.
“Hmmm… You may have a point. Maybe I
“I think that’s a better plan,” Barent agreed. “I would rather be lost and free than know exactly where I’m being imprisoned.”
Tana wasn’t accustomed to hiding her actions from the military, but if…
they discovered Barent was gone, they would no doubt search the entire datanet for clues to his disappearance. Tana didn’t have permission to be in the Central District, and unless you lived here, you had to be invited in to get past the checkpoints. Well, legally, anyway. So if Tana went on the datanet now, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out that she was in the wrong place at the right time—and might somehow be involved in Barent’s disappearance.
This isn’t a normal job,
she reminded herself.
This… This is a whole new level. I’ll need to be even more cautious than usual.
Tana knew the police had limited resources, and couldn’t waste manpower searching for clues to individual crimes across the whole of the datanet. But she was going up against the Collective military this time, and there would be no limits.
They spotted a lighted station platform up ahead and approached it cautiously, finding it deserted. Tana guessed that if anyone had been there, they’d probably boarded the train that blew past them while they were hiding in the escape tunnel. Before she could protest, Barent grabbed her around the waist with both hands, lifting Tana up and sitting her down on the platform. As she scrambled to her feet he clasped onto the edge next to her tightly, and then Barent pulled himself up as well.
“Lead the way,” he directed, falling in behind Tana as she moved up the wide stairway leading to the street above.
When Tana saw the station name on an overhead sign, she blurted out, “Oh shit.”
“What is it?” Barent asked her.
“This is the main stop for the government buildings,” Tana explained. “The very heart of the Collective.”
“Then I suggest we move a little faster,” Barent replied.
They ran the rest of the way to the top and then bolted from the station, ducking into the shadows as a couple strolled past them and disappeared down the stairway. From their hiding place they could see the Tomb of the Great Betrayer directly across the street, and Barent took a long look at the tall walls and impressive guard towers, realizing instantly that that was where he’d been confined for the last five hundred years. But he still felt compelled to confirm it.
“Yes,” Tana answered.
“You got past
fortification to free me? My respect for you is growing.”
Tana smiled. “Good. Now let’s— Wait, something’s happening.”