PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 30 of 44 )

: Summon the Guard
PART 2 OF 2

 


Meiwan Archipelago, Maywan
1400 Hours, 09 Feb 2681 (2681.040)

In high orbit, like winking fireflies, a half-dozen transports lay in wait, each of them with the symbol of the Homeguard emblazoned on their worn, battle-scarred hulls, and next to it, a larger logo, that of a rampant stallion's head. The super-heavy freighters, each of which was capable of carrying thousands of tons of cargo, patiently waited for the signal to deliver their goods.

Underneath some transports, clinging to their underbellies like metallic remoras, were flights of starfighters, each bearing the corporate symbol. Some were also emblazoned with the rampant palomino and vine-encrusted rapier of House Lai, telling the casual observer that those were piloted by Laifen Highlanders, highly trained pilots that had been requested for this important mission. The other transports cradled dropships that looked standard, but had been heavily modified. Their hulls had been reinforced with additional sheets of armor, and their shock nullifiers had been upgraded to military standards. Meant to drop in a barely controlled fall from high orbit, using thrusters to deliver ground troops, each of the dropships contained fifty men. The sleek shuttles bore the burning blade and black stallion of House Tan. Out of the some half dozen Tan dropships, fully half of those harbored Loyalist Marines, while the rest carried Homeguard regulars, especially trained for orbital assaults. Unlike mercenaries, it was not greed that drove them, but simple, pure hatred, born from centuries of loathing, envy and simmering vengeance. They would not give up until their last foes had surrendered. Inside, strapped in heavy restraints, and in combat drop positions, the gathered Loyalists and Homeguard troopers, as well as Highlanders in special HALO gliders for their role in the assault looked like demons about to be let loose from hell, their facial features, and the jagged edges of their personal armor and weapons all bathed in the red light of combat lighting.

The eerie pale green light of Meiwan gave the small fleet in orbit a surreal glow. Far away, death blossoms appeared on the planetary horizon, the only indicator that the battle had been joined by the leading elements of the Corp's air wing, whose task was to distract Porhen's aerospace assets, thus keeping them from interfering with Tanfen's landing operation.

When the signal was given, the small flotilla reacted. In an eerie, silent dance, in a unified maneuver, the fighters detached themselves from the transports. Releasing their docking clamps, each gently rolled away, using maneuvering thrusters to get clear from their hosts before firing up their main engines. Like missiles, each streaked ahead to form up into their own formations, well ahead of the transports. Fighter after fighter streaked down into the turgid atmosphere of the planet, their bright aftertrails like shooting stars, cutting through the turgid air like razors. Of those fighters, almost three quarters were modified to be ground support fighters, with the Thunderbolts and Intruders carrying fuel-air-explosive warheads. All of them vectored in on a specific airpath, previously cleared by fellow TSF of Porhen air interdiction. That was the easy part.

Like ruthless hornets, fighter after fighter bore in on the island. Speeding low, below radar at NOTE level, their high performance engines, engines meant to traverse the harshness of space, produced a terrible roar, much like that of angry dragons. Their gun-metal gray hulls seemed to reflect the crimson and gray sky they cut through. Reverse images of the grim sky played over the transparisteel cockpits, as if highlighting their human pilots. Astride their metallic steeds, each fighter pilot proudly bore a symbol of his or her affiliation, almost like the banners wielded by knights. Entire squadrons formed into loose combat formations, the energy shields that protected them from the ravages of flight glowing when they moved through the atmosphere. They came closer to their targets, and curt orders were being issued.

As the fighters closed in on the island, the dark gray sky was suddenly lit up, as if by the wrath of some dark, ancient gods who had been awakened from their slumber by the airborne intruders. It was as if those deities were lashing out with spears of lightning, intent on swatting down the puny intruders that had dared to come too close. Flak defenses opened up, delivering bursts of laser fire, multiple rounds from stormfire guns, and missiles. The tracers and laser beams probed the sky like grasping hands, reaching out for their prey. Within seconds, several fighters took a pounding, and some of those went down, their shield generators overloaded by the terrible fury of the air defenses.

An element of Thunderbolts took hits to their underbellies that penetrated the shields, drawing wails and shrieks from the on board systems as their pilots were informed of the terrible danger. Both fighters suffered internal damage, but their pilots were seasoned enough to compensate for it, managing to keep their craft in the air. Drawn to them like moths to light, more beams of light converged on them, skewering the fighters, dooming them while ridiculing their pilots' valiant efforts. Beams and rounds tore into them, opening fist-sized holes, yet the ships miraculously stayed airborne, almost as if some unknown entity had decided that it was not their fate to succumb to enemy fire. Then, all of a sudden, both craft took hits to their cockpits, turning them into expanding clouds of fiery debris. Both Thunderbolts tipped over and went into a final dive, trailing smoke and fire as they headed for their watery graves. More fighters fell, but the survivors pressed on, determined to carry out their orders, no matter what the cost might be.

A fighter shuddered like a wounded animal under a series of impacts, then blew apart in mid-air in a spectacular explosion, showering its wingmate with hull fragments that sent ripples of energy through its wingmates' shields. Yet the flight bore on, dodging enemy fire and scrambled interceptors with dogged determination.

After what appeared to be an eternity, a few fighters managed to reach the Red Area, the zone where each warhead was bound to inflict maximum damage. Tanfen Intelligence officers had pinpointed the enemy's shore batteries, which would doom any naval assault as the first target. The defensive lines and emplacements, were secondary targets, and would be next.

Dozens of fuel-air-explosive warheads were released, screaming down onto their targets with a singular shriek reminding the defenders of the stories they had been told as little children. For a scant millisecond, the Porhen positions seemed tranquil, until it erupted into a blazing firestorm that sent unarmored men shrieking before being incinerated alive like human torches and armored vehicles melting or tossed about like toys in a careless giant's kick. Hardened armored positions, and gun turrets seemed to resist the godlike onslaught for scant seconds, before permacrete and armor were flayed away by the heat, to incinerate the contents within and twist their barrels into grotesque shapes. The shore positions themselves shook and shuddered under the massive bombardment, until ammunition cooked off, mercifully killing those still writhing in agony from the blazing hellfire released by the enemy.

Citizen Mannheimer glanced out of his foxhole, which he was sharing with another survivor of the massive airstrike that had smashed their company's defense grid. He turned around and stared at what had been once a powerful entrenched position. The smoke curling up from a pair of massive neutron cannon, which had only moments ago constituted a powerful part of the air-defense grid, bit in his eyes, making them water, but he kept staring, hoping despite better knowledge that there might be some survivors. He reached for his binoculars when movement attracted his attention, but what had looked like a waving hand from a distance turned out to be a piece of burned cloth that was hanging down from the ripped barrel of one of the neutron guns. He turned his binoculars to the right and focused on something lying at the base of the power generator that had been feeding the guns, then quickly averted his gaze, bile rising in his throat when the realization struck him what had happened to the unfortunate crew.

Mannheimer coughed when the smoke wafting from the burning generators reached him, but he was inwardly grateful, as it shielded him from the ghastly smell of burning flesh. He startled when somebody pulled at his right ankle, only then reminded of the presence of the other soldier. "What's up?" he yelled, tapping the right side of his helmet, a flash of irritation kindling in him. The damned receiver had fritzed out on him. Again.

"I've made contact with our guys," the machine gunner shouted, his eyes bloodshot. "Have you seen anything?"

Mannheimer shook his head, knowing that his comrade wanted to know about survivors. "Not in this sector." He shuddered briefly. His ears were still ringing with the fury that had been unleashed by the bombers, mostly Thunderbolts who had come in low, disgorging missiles and bombs, firing their heavy guns at triple-A batteries. He tapped the right side of his head once more, than shrugged, deciding that it might even be a boon, for it might spare him the screams of the dying and the wounded.

A low roar over his head reached him. He did not pick it up at first, but telltale vibrations shook loose some pebbles, which fell into the foxhole and landed on his feet, jarring him from his pensive mood. He looked up, quickly scanning the sky in apprehension of a new wave of fighter-bombers. There were a few craft, but those were apparently in retreat, their mission accomplished. He shook his fist at them, cursing under his breath. The battle was far from being over, but that they had been forced to suffer the initial assault without air support had resulted in much higher losses than High Command had apparently anticipated. The remains of the defending force would now have to deal with Tanfen ground troops.

His gaze came to rest on the smoking wreck of a Tanfen Thunderbolt, which had crashed half a klick from his position. The sight brought a smile to his sweat-streaked face, but it was short-lived when he realized that the T-bolt had landed on top of an AAA-tank, the fighter's pilot taking out the vehicle in a suicidal maneuver. Still, that was one Tanfenner who would never again bother him.

"We've got reinforcements coming in, Friedrich."

Mannheimer breathed a sigh of relief and glanced down into the foxhole. "ETA?"

"Two minutes."

Mannheimer almost yelled with delight at the prospect, but his glee died an agonized death when he spotted the line of hovercraft that was racing towards their position. The attack force consisted of at least twenty tanks, low-slung, lethal designs whose rounded armor plates gave them the air of gigantic insects, an image which was underlined by their gun turrets, which were moving constantly in search of prey, like twitching antennae. Mannheimer lifted his field glasses and gazed at them, hoping despite better knowledge that they might fly the colors of Porhen. No such luck, he told himself darkly after having gotten a good look at their turrets. They all proudly bore the symbol of Tanfen.

The Porhen Soldier gritted his teeth as he lowered his binoculars to stare down into the foxhole at the man he was sharing the cover with. "Tell whoever you have managed to contact that they have dispatched their vanguard. I can see twenty hovercraft from here - they look like armored tanks." He sighed inwardly. Mannheimer slowly reached down, without taking his eyes off the approaching tanks, caught hold of his heavy assault rifle, brought it into position and trained it on the leading vehicle. It was more a gesture of defiance than anything else, as the tanks were not nearly in range.

Something caught his eye, and he turned his head fractionally, smiling tightly when the first craft suddenly broke away and started going through fancy maneuvers, its shields glowing brightly under the murderous barrage of energy beams that were lashing out at the Tanfenners. The high rate of fire indicated that it was a neutron minigun, which in turn meant that at least one of the concealed gun emplacements was still intact. Its target managed to get away, but another of the black tanks could not evade quickly enough. Its turret was blown away when the vehicle's ammunition cooked off, and Mannheimer cheered inwardly when the other tanks hastily scattered.

We are still dangerous, he told them silently, then added for the benefit of his companion, "Those bastards are gonna learn that we are not that easily finished. Set up your machine gun, they're going to deploy their troops soon."

"Was nützt es uns?" his comrade asked morosely. "Wir sind erledigt." He gestured sweepingly, indicating the pock-marked landscape around them, which was littered with the remains of the Second Platoon of Second Battalion's Command Company.

Mannheimer, who had not been raised with German as his first language, but had been forced to pick it up in school (which was why he was still being razzed about his accent at times) snarled at the other man. "It might do us lots of good, you asshole, 'cause if Command gets its act together, we'll not be done for. Now do as I've told you!" He shook his head, flinching slightly when a grenade exploded in the vicinity of their position.

He was not a coward, had indeed proven his valor in several small raids against pirates, but this was no operation against poorly armed and motivated marauders. They were about to meet the best Tanfen had to offer, and while that was still better than having to fight the armed forces of any of the factions, it was definitely worse than having to spar with scum. Mannheimer bit back an angry curse when his comrades' attempts to contact whoever he had talked to before were met with stony silence.

"Whiskey Station, this is Outpost Sierra Delta," Karl said quietly, his voice as calm as if he was discussing the weather, even though the hand holding the mike was shaking badly. "We have approximately twenty hostile hovercraft inbound. Repeat, two-zero hovercraft closing in on us. Request support. Over." He waited for a few moments, then shook his head. "Nothing. Seems that the relay station fritzed out on us -- or maybe the bloody Tanfenners have bagged one of our communications satellites."

"Keep trying," Mannheimer ordered, his fear forgotten when he caught sight of four vehicles which were rumbling into position. The low-slung tracked vehicles were boxy, with sloped forward armor and a turret that housed a trio of Stormfire cannons. The "Rhinos," as he had taken to calling them, stopped not far away from his position, their triple-barreled turrets swinging around until they had the approaching hovertanks in their sights.

Mannheimer flinched when tracers shot away from the Porhen vehicles, clapping his hands over the sides of his helmet when the angry whine of Stormfires disgorging hundreds of rounds reached him. White tracers lanced out at the enemy tanks, and three exploded, turned into balls of fire by the furious assault.

It would not make much of a difference, but at least it heartened him, for now they were no longer defenseless. Mannheimer grinned, his green eyes glittering with joy when the Enemy returned fire ineffectually, their lighter weapons incapable of penetrating the heavier tanks' shields at the extreme range at which they were fighting. That would change soon, of course. His good mood was disrupted when his radio started blaring.

"This is Captain Schmidt from Second Battalion. Any survivors of First Battalion are to report in."

"This is Outpost Sierra Delta, Position Charlie Five," he declared, taking his left hand from the rifle's stock to press it against his receiver. "We read you loud and clear, Captain." His heart skipped a beat with joy when he could hear other units chiming in, reinforcing his hopes that his company had not been wiped out completely. He smiled despite himself. "We have picked up over twenty enemy hovercraft, sir - four of those have been destroyed. We could sure use a hand here, but we should be able to handle'em, provided that we get some more support."

"That's a negative, Charlie Five," Schmidt replied coldly. "The remains of First Company are to retreat to our sector. Do you copy?"

Mannheimer frowned, and his expression darkened further when he noticed that two more Rhinos had appeared. Porhen's forces were apparently far from being finished, and the attackers would have to cover lots of ground. Why retreat now, with the defenses slowly coming back online? It would be easier to hold them here, at least for a while, thus buying their comrades back at the HQ time to rebuild their defenses. He grinned weakly when another soldier voiced what he had been thinking.

"Why bug out now? We could delay them a bit longer, sir."

"'Cause at least two platoons of Tanfen Highlanders have jumped out of gliders," the captain snapped. "That hovercraft attack was a diversionary attack. Move out, now!"

Mannheimer craned his neck, stifling a cry of surprise when what at first looked like demons came swooping down on the beach. He blinked when sweat ran into his eyes, and lifted his rifle when he realized that he was seeing paratroopers, all of whom were engaging targets, even though they hadn't even landed yet. At least a handful were carrying rocket launchers, and they immediately put them to good use, lobbing missiles at the Rhinos, whose low-slung turrets complicated any attempts to track the incoming troopers.

Citizen Mannheimer squeezed off a few shots, missing with every single one. He cursed under his breath, then gestured for his comrade to disassemble their machine gun. "Time to go, Karl. Let's move it." He grinned, more for the benefit of his comrade than out of amusement. "How much do you wanna bet that we'll get out of this in one piece?"

"Ich wuerde nicht meinen Arsch darauf verwetten," Karl grumbled, his expression sour.

"I wouldn't bet my ass on it, either, but it's looking better than before, so shut up and get your butt in gear." He scrambled out of the foxhole, greatly impeded in his progress by his weapon, which he was determined not to discard. A shadow fell on him, and he turned around with speed enhanced by the jolt of fear-induced adrenaline. Something big was whistling through the air, yet its impact was strangely muffled. He finished his turn and started.

A Tanfener had landed ten feet behind him, her glider even now splitting itself as she released her harness. Unlike Tanfen's ordinary corporate soldiers, which were really nothing more than guards, not real soldiers, this trooper was clad in cloud-gray body armor with a matching helmet. He immediately noticed the hilt-like device that was lurking over her shoulder. Mannheimer recognized it from one of the various briefings he had been given on Tanfen's assets. It was not a communications antennae, but a weapon. Only very few Tanfen troopers were entitled to wearing such a thing. They were the elite of the elite, which meant that this one was a Highlander, a member of Tanfen's Honour Guard.

The paratrooper bent her knees to absorb the impact of the landing, raising her weapon even while pressing the button that released the glider, slapping the button on her chest that would release her from the glider's embrace.

Mannheimer momentarily paralyzed by the sight of his enemy. In a moment of utter, detached clarity, he noticed that she was pretty by anybody's standards, and he dimly thought that he might have asked her out if he had met her under different circumstances. However, the look of ferocity in her eyes was enough to jolt him back into reality. This was an enemy. It was him, or her. He gulped, his gaze riveted to her visor, which was painted to resemble the visage of a ferocious being that had to have originated in hell. This moment was all she needed.

Before Friedrich Mannheimer could do anything, the Tanfenner brought her submachine gun around and cut loose with a short burst of fire, which caught Mannheimer's comrade in the head. Karl, who had managed to crawl out of the foxhole, the machine gun slung over his back, was flung backwards by the bullets, and his head disintegrated.

Mannheimer staggered backwards when he was spattered by blood and pieces of soft matter, stunning him for the fraction of a second, which was ample time for a soldier as well trained as she was. He recoiled when bullets smashed into his rifle, overloading the capacitor. Sparks shot out of the barrel, and he dropped the ruined weapon, flinging himself away from the gun to avoid another burst, this one closer to the target. He hit dirt, rolled round on his belly, and watched with morbid fascination as she walked towards him, at a leisurely pace, behaving as if this was not a killing zone, but rather a walk in a park. The dark muzzle of her SMG swung around, its single dark eye boring into his. It seemed to grow in size, until it filled the entire world.

The whine of a machine gun dispelled his fear, and Mannheimer dropped back on his intense training, glad that he had served in the Andorran military before his discharge. At least he would stand a fighting chance against this enemy. His right hand closed on his sidearm, but he flinched when his probing fingers encountered nothing. Friedrich Mannheimer raged silently at himself, even though he knew that it was not his fault. The weapon must have been dislodged when the shockwave from the exploding tank had hit him, and now, he was defenseless.

For a moment, his heart seemed to be in the clutch of an icy, vice-like hand, but it did not leave him incapacitated. He reached out with both hands, raking through the blood-drenched sand in search of something he could use as a weapon. His eyes met those of his attacker, and he noticed with odd detachment that she was smiling. It was not a pleasant smile. Her eyes told him that he was at her mercy, and that he would not survive their encounter.

Mannheimer almost yelped when his right hand touched something soft and spongy. He held her gaze steadily, refusing to give her the joy of seeing him squirm, hoping that his gesture of defiance would distract her long enough. His cracked lips parted in a fleeting smile as he tried to mask both his fear and his intentions from her. The packed sand crunched under her boots as she came closer, moving forward with the purpose of a machine trained to do one thing: to fight and to kill. Mannheimer prayed that she would get closer before opening fire, allowing his fear to show on his face when he realized that she was taking delight in what she thought were his attempts to plead for his life. All the while, his right hand was running down the length of the corpse he had found, reaching for something he could use against her.

He jolted when his right hand touched cold metal. A handgun. He snatched it from the lifeless hand that had been touching it, as if its owner had tried to caress his or her trusted companion for one last time before death had blotted out everything. Mannheimer rolled around, bringing the pistol up in a single, fluid motion while thanking his creator that it was a big gun, a powerful sidearm nicknamed "hand cannon" by those who favored its heavy punch.

Friedrich squeezed off three rounds in quick succession, wondering for a moment where the ululating cry that was almost drowning out the roar of the handgun had come from, before realizing that he was screaming at the top of his lungs. The soldier barely had the time to notice that all three rounds had hit his target. Since he was firing from a prone position, the heavy slugs pierced her thighs and her abdomen.

Her cold eyes widened with shock and pain, but she held on to her weapon and fired. However, her rounds arced into the sky, as the impact of the heavy bullets had spun her around, away from him, and the recoil of her weapon was enough to unbalance her. He pumped round after round into her, amazed that she would not die. The Tanfen Highlander went down hard, her heels drumming on the sand before death finally claimed her.

A moment of eerie silence followed, which soon was pierced by heavy weapons fire and the screams of those who had hit. He dropped the empty weapon and exhaled, then drew breath sharply, coughing when smoke caught in his throat.

He did not dare to touch the enemy soldier, somehow convinced that she would rise from the grave to exact her revenge on him. So detached. So cold. So dedicated. He had met people like her before, but those had been elite soldiers, people who had opted to serve a state. After a few seconds, he decided that he would need another weapon. The SMG of the dead Tanfenner was the only one in sight, so he crawled forward and snatched the strap of her SMG, then tore it from her lifeless hands. For a moment, joy filled his heart, for he had killed a Highlander, a highly trained enemy. However, his elation died down after a few moments. What exactly had he accomplished? He had dispatched a single enemy soldier, and while this one had been very well trained, her death would hardly have a large impact on the plans of Tanfen.

That thought reminded him that he was still on a battlefield. He looked around, then paled at the sight of a burning Rhino, which had apparently been blown apart by consistent rocket fire from the Tanfenner. The sight of the scattered bodies around the tank did nothing to console him, for he realized that Porhen was losing the battle for this part of the beach.

He cast a last glance at the patch where his gunner had died, then decided that it was high time to bug out and get to the rally point. Mannheimer flinched when tracers flew over his head. He fell on his knees and returned fire, dread gripping his heart once more upon spotting the skirmish line of Highlanders. They had spotted him, and it was evident that they would not stop until every single Porhen defender had either surrendered or been killed.

Friedrich Mannheimer fired a few more bursts at them, then scrambled to his feet and started retreating towards HQ.

 

The Corporate Tower
Level 999, The Penthouse
About the same time...

The man sat comfortably in his favorite chair, gazing at the window, a small glass of water in his hand. He made a point out of staying away from alcohol, especially before addressing people at a large function. It showed, and the loss of face from looking like a drunkard would have been irreparable. He was not an ordinary man. His words, even his whims changed the entire courses of economies. He was not a politician. Far from that. He was the president of one of the ten largest mega-corporations throughout human space. He was president of Tanfen Corporation, and Patriarch of the Family Tan. His very image, was to be impeccable, and beyond stain or suspicion in any degree. His very whim could move or ruin people and entire worlds.

Though he loved scotch, he avoided it for now. His gaze took in the entire vista from his penthouse suite. Below him, and the worlds beyond the heavens where Tanfen laid its hand was literally his and the other Families' personal empire. Exquisitely written and calligraphed poems by Chinese master artists from Terra lined the walls with their flowing, mysterious script. Rare wood furniture from Kiev and Berlina filled the room, large enough to house nearly a hundred standing people, but empty, save for him, and someone else. In keeping with his Family, a wall was lined with trophies, blades, guns and weapons from ancient history or captured on the field of battle. To be a Tan was to be adept at war with words and blades. Most in the Family normally excelled in one. He was adept with both.

The man looked contemplatively into a mirror, smiling slightly. He was pleased with his looks, and he had reason to be. His aquiline nose, combined with high-set cheekbones and a philosopher’s forehead, lent him an air of sophistication. A widow’s peak crowned his head, the hair ash-gray in color and streaked with white at the temples. Wrinkles lined his tanned skin, though his well-shaped body belied his age. His eyes had seen many years, and were now a dull brownish black; twin orbs that saw many things, absorbed them, and then reassessed them, but gave nothing out in return. They had witnessed some seventy plus planetary cycles of the Blood Feud, and of the continuous growth of his Family's wealth and influence. It was tradition, and the core of the Family belief to create and maintain a Legacy that was to be passed on to his children, and their children's children, and to crush utterly the hated Noble Houses of Porhen Industries.

He had seen much, including much he did not want to see and know. In the back of his mind, he gave a bitter thought of regret at how his own immediate Family had turned out and of his lack of a male heir. The only son he had left, if he had a son now, which he had denied ever since disowning the boy, would not have wanted the job. The rest of his children, daughters all, could not be expected to lead the Family.

Patriarchship of Family Tan would have to go to one of his brothers or Cousins Major. That was untenable. He knew Kian had appeared briefly on New Maynah, to visit his sister, but he did not want to see him. Why he left so suddenly, and on Keiko's personal corvette was something he did not want to know either, though the reports filtered in, neatly vetted by Sue, or her Alpha agents and appearing on his personal data terminal regularly.

"Do you realize the risk at this time, My Lord Tan?" the person behind him asked. She stood shorter than him, but only by a few inches. She was almost as old, too. Her green eyes had mirth and concern in them, though they were lined with crow's feet. Though gray-lined her hair, a large shock of it was still a coppery dark green. A native of the copper rich mining world of Verious; whose very air, food and water held traces of copper, her hair seemed tinted, but was otherwise a natural genetic manifestation.

In her youth, it would have been popular for such a wildly divergent hair color. As she grew older, rising in the ranks, it tended to make others disrespect her, to her detriment, and theirs. She had come with the passing of age that not all such problems could be solved with a blade. It was no concern to her now though. She was now known by many names, among them, Blade-Master and Mistress of the Crying Blade. Most important of all, she was Grandmaster and Lord Commander of the Loyalist Marines of the Family Tan after the previous holder fell in glorious battle against the Family's mortal enemies.

She wore little of the rank and trappings of her title. Her position would have called for a platinum tiara, emblazoned with the Family symbol and the Loyalist coat of arms, a crossed sword and Archer, chained with an ancient wet navy anchor, with a chain all around it and under the sword and Archer, the rampant stallion of the Family Tan. She did not, keeping the accursedly heavy thing in Fortress Home, but instead wore a simple barrette to hold her long hair in place, making it swish about behind her like a horses' tail.

The woman's armor was a concession to both practicality and ceremony. The shoulder plates were of beaten steel and done in rich metal work, but her breast plate was tri-Kevlar. As Grandmaster, she was articulate with every possible sort of bladed weapon in man's arsenal, and the position came with a massive regressive claymore, a weapon better suited to a massive mle than a close in fight. Instead, she wore a finely worked regressive bastard sword, or hand and a half sword, equally suited to one handed or two handed use in close and medium range melee, this one honed to a curved edge and balanced for slashing as well as having a keened edge for stabbing.

Like her brethren, an Archer rode her right hip. Hers' however was custom made, crafted by the Family's Master Armourer in the Family Armories, embellished and blessed with Chinese sigils crafted into the metal itself for protection of its user as well as being calibrated and machined to her own exact specifications. It was as much a work of art and death dealing instrument as her reg blade was.

"There are too many people to watch out for. Even TISD cannot vet and control the entire crowd. Having you meet them up close, and giving out charity is too dangerous, especially in light of the recent escalation in the Blood Feud. Your safety is at..." she continued.

"My safety is adequate, Lady Branford. To not go, or to give the annual charities to the needy via intermediaries undermines the very idea of the function in the first place, which is to show the sincerity, humility and honor of even my position. It will take place, with no proxies, two days hence."

Branford stood closer to him and gave a wry smile. "Milord, if I may be so blunt, it's either your pride, or your life. The charity ceremony is public knowledge - any number of Porhen scum could be in the crowd and TISD has not the resources now to vet the crowd."

The man remained impassive. Branford shrugged her shoulders, adjusting her armor into a more comfortable position. "I've read TISD's reports of the Dark Ones, and of Porhen taking advantage of the situation. This is a case of unnecessary risk - we do not have the resources to deal with so many threats at once. They could have a whole cell of assassins in the crowd without TISD ever knowing, at the rate we are being taxed."

She walked up beside him, and joined him in gazing at the window. The sun was beginning to set, bathing the city in the crimson and carmine glow of dusk. Like mythical Babylon, the massive starscrapers, dwarfed below the Babel - like height of the Corporate Tower and stretching over the urban vista into the distance seemed like fragile towers of glass, each reflecting, like a treasure chest of jewels and rubies the glory of the setting sun.

As always, transports and shuttles flitted to and fro like fireflies from orbit and from the ground. Like little pin pricks of light, and liquid rivulets of gold, the streets of Laifen far below were awash with lights and shades of golden yellow as vehicles went to and fro about their business, with the ever present glow of street lighting. Billboards; neon kaleidoscopes in the night flashed the Corp's wares from on high.

Laifen was one of the jewels in the Union's crown. It was warm and full of life. Yet, sometimes, it felt empty and hollow. As if the lights, the glitter and the money hid nothing but a soul emptying nothingness. Like glass paint and baubles. But that feeling faded. Laifen, and its sister city, New Maynah fulfilled their primary function -- the facilitation of trade and as housing for offworld and Corporate staff.

She turned to face him, without lowering her gaze.

The man shook his head and gazed back. "You know our ways, old friend. Pride leads the way."

Branford shook her head. She was brought up in the ways of the Family, and though she did not believe it completely, she understood and loved the Family and its ways. She understood the compelling pull of tradition and the weight of duty, and honor. This was one such thing. Family Tan was not stupid, far from it. But it seemed all of its members were born with a death wish, and the urge to do the "right thing" even if it killed them. For pride, for honor. She had lost count of the entries into the Book of Vengeance of fallen Cousins Major and Cousins Minor as well as her own fellow Marine brethren because they wanted to fall in glorious battle against the Blood Foe, the hated Houses of Porhen, even if the odds were ridiculously against them. Though a Loyalist or Tan noble would most probably go down fighting like a berserk demon from the depths of hell and take down a good chunk of the Foe, and most likely one of their House Nobles with them, it seemed wasteful. Nevertheless, she had a duty as Grandmaster to uphold the noble name of the Family and protect its members.

"All too well milord." She gave a wry and worried smile. "I know it to be foolishness to dissuade you from your course of action, but I beseech you, let me double the Honour Guards at the ceremony."

The man turned to gaze into her eyes, thinking of refusing for showing such a sign of weakness to the populace, before he saw the look of true concern and loyalty in her copper green eyes. Those eyes, too, had seen much, most of it when they fought together, many years ago in the bloody feuds that heralded the years before he came to power. Such loyalty to the Family cannot be bought, only earned. "I know you err on the side of caution -- proceed, then." He gave a nod.

Branford gave a nod. "Aye, your will be done, Lord Commander," she genuflected before she made a call on her cell phone, ordering her lesser brethren to double the guard. If the bastard Porhenners were to strike, she would be sure to give them a bloody taste of what crossing a Loyalist Marine meant.

 

FIN