PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 51 of 62 )
The Nemesis Gambit
"What can I say about her? That she is one of the most beautiful women to have ever lived? That she fought her way from the anonymous legions of TPRO to become one of the most respected, the most feared of women to be in charge of TISD? That she has absolute dominion over one of the galaxy's finest intelligence agencies? That she can, without flinching send a thousand men to their deaths if it would benefit the Families and the Corporation? That she could slay you in cold blood without a thought if it would further the goals of the Families? That she has more blood on her hands than Tolwyn would ever have in his brilliant career? That she is nothing more than a merciless broker of lives and secrets? Then you do not know her enough. There is much more to her than that. Much more.
"I saw her once, in a moment of terrifying
vulnerability. You have never seen her sob in the night, seen her wring her
hands at the decisions she must give out daily. The moments when she is racked
by the guilt, the dead faces of the hundreds of dozens of young men and women
she flings at the Families' rivals in the hidden conflict that only those who
bear witness to a Corporate patron know. Yet, at dawn, she is Sue Yen Ng Lai
again. The Ice Queen. The Queen of Tarots. The most merciful of the merciless."
- Keiko Gan "Personal Journal"
Chief of TISD Office
Tanfen Corporate Tower
will not be taking any calls, Miss Ching,” she
said as she thumbed off the intercom.
She uttered to the air around her. “Seal doors. Activate white noise generators”. At her voice, the doors snapped shut even as the dull hum told her that white noise generators were activated. She snapped her fingers and the curtains closed in, swathing the room in darkness even as the windows slowly began vibrating at a high frequency the means to throw off laser and audio taps. Sue pressed another button again that scanned her room. Her console gave a beep of confirmation. No bugs.
In the darkness, the woman went to her desk. She didn't need the light to navigate her way. Her elegant fingers touched the expansive desk that was hers even as she sat back in the high backed chair that was the symbol of her office.
She leaned back, and turned on her desk lamp, throwing the high vaulted room into golden shadows and etching her features in sharp relief.
The cost today was almost incalculable. She should have realized that there was a traitor within. Her vigilance against enemies from without blinded her to those within. For that, six of her agents that infiltrated the crowd as bystanders were even now lying in a secure ward in Laifen General with their spinal cords severed or drooling vegetables because of Tseng’s work. Taken down to give the assassins a clear shot at the Patriarch. The problem was compounded that the head of the conspiracy was a Family member. TISD was able to guard against outside threats to a degree of efficiency, but not from within the Families themselves. That had to change.
The purge of traitors cost her dozens of cells along with one of her most promising agents. Even more, the conspiracy reached even into the Families. It bore all the signs of a Porhen coup, but yet, something gnawed at her instincts. Something was not right.
She had killed before. Many, many times. Blood drenched her hands, in her dreams. Never to be wiped off.
But Empress… the cost.
Tonight, a possibly innocent woman and her three children would never see their husband return. In the eyes of the Families, he was a traitor, a betrayer. There was only one punishment for that. She had left dozens, maybe more widows or widowers or orphans, but this time, she knew the man’s widow and children. And she was the one that pulled the trigger.
A small mirror on her table reflected her features back at her.
Sue looked into the mirror.
She knew she was beautiful, a prize that would lead empires to war, and men to ruin. Dozens of men vied for her hand, hundreds more would willingly lay down their lives for her. She had more potent power at her hands than nation states. Her knowledge of the dark things that lurked in humanity's soul gave her an edge few could have.
Her gaze then took in a small sigil, crafted in hardwood, given to her by an old friend, years past, with the Chinese sigils of her name carved into it. Perhaps it was an indicator of things to come, or what had passed. Or even more so, a grim irony of what she had become. In Chinese, her name meant Innocent Lily.
Innocent? Her? The Queen of Tarots? Division Chief of Tanfen Internal Security, one of the galaxy's most extensive and subversive intelligence agencies with reach into the deepest parts of the governments and the shadows-innocent? She gave a bitter smile. Her beautifully manicured hands had more blood on her hands than the bloodiest warlords Earth had in its history.
She leaned forward, keying open a small safe in her desk. Passing her palmprint over the sensor caused it to hiss open, revealing its contents. It did not contain corporate secrets, nor anything a chief of TISD would possibly have in such an armored chest. All it had, was a small piece of paper, brown with age, and stained with blood, and tears.
Like she had done, many times before, she took it out gently, and read its contents again. Yet, in the dualism of a pictographic language, her name had another meaning- 'Loneliness Eternal'.
Once more, tears came to her eyes. In the highest confines of the Corporate Tower, sealed behind locks both physical, and not, from within and from without, the Ice Queen wept. And wept and wept. She cried like a little girl lost. Like someone that had lost everything, and had nothing left to live for. Then, something hard, like ice, that had turned the palace of her heart into a fortress seemed to give a silent nod. There was something left to live for. Power. All consuming power. Intoxicating power, like the finest ambrosia. That was the only thing left that salved the ruin of what was left of her heart. Yes, power. In all its forms. She thrilled in the very ability to scry into the most intimate parts of anyone's psyche, of having such hidden knowledge brought before her like treasures from the ocean depths for her to gaze upon, and use. The power to twist people and bring them down to their knees. To humble men, turn them into her willing slaves, ready to lay down their lives for her very whims. Yes, that was the power she wielded now. That would do.
She wiped the tears from her eyes, and once more wore her mask as the Ice Queen, cruel, cold, calm and implacable.
Sue carefully and gently folded the paper and placed it back in it’s armored chest, sealing it behind locks physical and not.
As she left her office, it seemed there was no trace of her passing, except three small teardrops on the table. But in the hyper-efficient regulated temperature of the Corporate Tower, the three teardrops turned into beads of ice, before disappearing, as if they never existed.
Hall of Perpetual Serenity
Office of the Sergeant at Arms of PKS
The Palace of Celestial Dawn
There was little furniture in the vaulting gothic heights of the room. Sparse and minimalist, a massive table, and chair dominated one end of the room. Nothing else was there. No trophies, no pictures or mementos, nothing. The stained glass windows that reached high up into the dark ceiling, spilling in light from the murk outside gave the place a look of quiet awe. And this was only the waiting room.
Alouetta van Housen paused before the massive door leading into the hall, both distressed and angered at the same time. News of the massacre was spread all over the news and practically every major newsfeed channel throughout the Union, Andorra, and Confed. It was inconceivable. Destroying the Tanfenners were one thing, killing innocents was another. This was an insane plan, by any comparison available. It was obviously not hatched by the Porhen Sekuritat Cadre her division, but by the PKS -- the Porhen Korporat Sekuritat, the noble Families of Porhen’s intelligence arm and arch-rival to TISD. She had cursed at the senseless violence and audacity of the attempt. Granted it was a coup to nearly take out the Patriarch of Tan, but the loss of innocent lives in the attempt? And from the clips she had received privately from a contact in AGN, one of the PKS agents had deliberately shot at the crowd, seeking to cause panic.
This had to stop. It must.
An aide, with an impressive collection of chicken guts that seemed fake to Alouetta informed her in a snide voice. “The Sergeant will see you now.” She simply nodded. She did not need to waste time, or oxygen dealing with a simpering lackey such as this aide.
The massive double doors leading into the hall opened. She strode in, her footfalls echoing like hollow chimes before she reached the massive table, and the figure that sat behind it. She saluted. “Sergeant of the Watch.”
The man turned his chair around, and faced her. His skin was dark and tanned, with eastern highlights. Hints of gray lined his face, which seemed to be perpetually in a look that seemed to imply extreme delight at inflicting pain upon others. “I know the reason you have come, Alouetta.”
She nodded. “Ja. I wish to speak to you…”
He gave an exuberant smile, all the more terrifying for what he was smiling for. “Regarding our attempted assassination of the hated Patriarch of Tan and President of Tanfen? A wonderful masterstroke, my dear.”
He paused, and steepled his fingers, then gazed at Alouetta with narrowed eyes, seeming to take time to view her. Alouetta stood at attention, though she felt uncomfortable with his roving eyes gazing at her from top to bottom. She could see his eyes lingering on her form, before he continued.
“But that is not what you are obviously here for, my dear. You question the Sergeant of the Watchs’ methods?” He referred to himself in the third person.
“You sent ten agents to their deaths at possibly the most difficult target that Tanfen and the Families have. It was suicide. You sent them to their deaths.”
The Sergeant leaned back, and lighted a cigar, causing coils of stinking smoke to rise in the air. “Possibly. Allow me to give an exposition of what you may be thinking. You presume that I think they were expendable”
He took a puff, and then casually put it an ashtray. “Those ‘agents,’ as you put it were simply rabble; agitators, disaffected proletariats given stolen Tanfen arms from a firebase your forces”, he indicated Alouetta with the glass of whisky in his other hand,” so helpfully captured months ago. The rabble were already hating Tanfen’s corporate policies, and simply needed a push by a provocateur. A simple suggestion that the President of Tanfen was a worthy target, a little leak of his public appearance schedule” and he then took the cigar back into his mouth puffing vigorously and then pointing at the report on his table, ”and you have the results here. I assume my extrapolation of your thoughts is on track?”
Alouetta clenched her fists. Bastard. “Dozens of innocents wounded when your clods shot at the crowd? This isn’t a blood feud, this is a massacre! You did not even complete the mission!”
Her eyes narrowed in disgust. “You sent your ‘rabble’ on a terror mission?”
He gave a sneer, ”Don’t give me that look my dear. You have enough Tanfen blood on your hands to fill oceans. What are a few more bystanders? You should know that the Lord President is more pleased by my results than your counter-assault campaign on their TSF assets. You should see the negative media reaction. Even know, our media agencies are already turning it into a public relations debacle that TPRO will have a nightmare to fix. Even as we speak, we are distributing footage of it in two hundred different languages in every critical world in the three Governments.”
He gave a cynical nod. “But ah, mein fraulein, here comes the most amusing part. You should hardly thank me for what I did not do. Those agents are not ours, though they bear the marks and signs.”
“They were not?!?”
“I did not authorize such an operation, though it would have provided an innumerable benefit to our Cause. I am a scourge of the Families, not a butcher.” He gave a sneer, “I am not so crude, my dear, ” and then leaned forward, “and none of my underlings would dare to undertake something like this without my approval, the price of disobeying orders is rather fatal here.”
“In either case, as of 0830 Hours, a team of ‘TISD’ operatives attempted to assault the House Leader of van Housen, but were all killed by PKS and PSC troops who found them assembling before the assassination attempt. I state ‘TISD,’ because one of the operatives that were killed carried a TISD lapel pin. Something they would never do -- the real ones. Someone, or something is seeking to lay blame at the door of both Tanfen and Porhen that we annihilate each other.”
Allouetta stood back in shock.
“We must inform them! Let them know… someone or something is sending us down this path!”
“Even now, the Families gird on the armaments of final war. You know them. They will use every and any means - including material from their prior projects for the Belasarius Group -- in the Blood War now.”
The sinister man activated a control on his desk, activating a holographic display. It showed the dark side of the Laifen shipyards - open only to TASC ships. The feed was grainy and the time stamp indicated it was a day old, but what it showed was chilling. Where Tanfen had once fought in the Blood Feud in the bounds of financial cost and the ties of honour, it now discarded them like chaff.
Tanfen Warhawk fighters, fresh off the production lines and still in steel gray with only a crudely emblazoned TASC logo on their sides, were being latched on by the dozen to converted super-freighters. Recently put into production to replace the aging Marauder fighter, the Warhawk was a fearsomely gunned atmospheric fighter with limited low to high orbit capability. That would be more than enough. Each one of them bore an icy cold thermal signature underneath. Anti-matter warheads.
The Sergeant of the Watch prompted her to continue watching. The recon probe accelerated and zoomed in for a flyby for one of the fighters.
What she saw made her shudder.
Emblazoned on the warhead was the Greek Sigma.
Strontium loaded anti-matter warheads. The probe faded into static as orbital emplacements took it out in a blaze of laser fire.
There were over three dozen Warhawk fighters at last count. Possibly more. More than enough to turn Charybdis to a blazing irradiated ruin.
If Tanfen and Porhen continued this course, there was only one outcome for both. Absolute and total annihilation. No need for the Nephilim for that.
Alouetta thumped the table. “We have to stop them! Can’t the uitlander Tanfenners see reason? It was not us?!? Can’t we persuade the President and the Noble Houses?”
“My hands are tied in this matter Frau Alouetta, as is the Lord President. The Noble Houses believe they are actually TISD agents, regardless of my explanations.” He leaned forward, steepling his hands. “A majority of the Board have ordered the mobilization of reserves in the Cadre.”
“You will soon receive a directive,” he looked at his chrono, ”in approximately two days detailing the Cadre and the Legions to mobilize. After that will be a meeting with the Legates of the Noble Houses and then, our Centurions and Bravos. And the order will be -- ”
She finished his sentence, "War to the knife. The knife to the hilt.”
“There may be a way, Lady Alouetta,” he gave a terse gesture at his desk. Sprawled about it were several folders in hardcopy. She took note of their boldly typefaced words. Autopsy reports. Ballistics tests. “I have suspicions of a sort that I cannot conduct myself, but now, they are perhaps unnecessary since we will go to war.”
The Sergeant of the Watch stood up, “If you will excuse me, I need to go for a walk. My old bones need a bit of fresh air. Make yourself at home, Alouetta.” His staggering clip clop gait out the cavernous hall was the only sound for minutes other than Alouetta's harsh breathing. The massive door closed with a gentle thump.
She sat down to read. The autopsy reports gave suspicious means of death for the Cadre unit that was killed by a TSF squad on Gemini Prime. The event that sparked off the city wide skirmish. Added to that was the ballistics tests of what killed members of the Cadre unit, and the TSF squad. Even more were optical ROMS folded into a corner of the dossier. Conversations, laser taps, transcripts detailing his suspicions. All in the scrawl of the Sergeant of the Watch. He was nothing if not a through man.
Most jarring of all was an elegantly handwritten note in Chinese. The paper smelled faintly of lilies and fine parchment. It listed coordinates , a time and place as well as her name - Alouetta van Housen. The script was traditional, superbly written and coldly precise. Each stroke in its correct place and angle. Added to it was a statement - you only and none other.
Even more chilling was the name written below. She know who it was. Knew her by many other names. The Ice Queen. The Queen of Tarots.
The Innocent Lily.
Sue Yen Ng Lai.
Alouetta stood up. She called up her Centurion. “Aleks, summon my frigate and prepare for immediate departure. Let my handmaiden and secretary know that I have pressing business and that I will return to Charybdis in two days.”
There was but one chance to stop this. She had to take this chance.
On a hill overlooking the office of the Sergeant of the Watch, the owner of that office gave a grim smile. He did this not for love of Tanfen. Or honor. But because he loved his House, and all that Porhen had worked to build. Centuries of all he and his House had worked for all to become fodder for filth that aimed to use both corporations to destabilize humanity. No… that was unacceptable.
Alouetta was the only one most likely to see reason unclouded by hatred.
His hands were tied. He hope he had done enough.
It had to be.
Neutral zone between Tanfen and Porhen territories
The world was deserted and abandoned. It had minimal atmosphere, unsuitable to maintain life. It was cold and frozen for a decade at a time before being turned into a baking charnel house by the system sun for each spin of its planetary cycles. It also had no exploitable material whatsoever. The world was so insignificant that it deserved nothing more than a footnote in astrological charts. No ships travelled here, unless they had a damned good reason to.
It just so happened that someone did. Two figures stood within the only geographical feature of note on the entire world. A ring of gigantic menhirs carved from some unidentifiable material. It provided some shelter from the howling winds that wracked the planet. "Lady van Housen, is it wise to call off our frigate?" asked her bodyguard as he looked around at the empty vastness around him and his superior. Around them stood massive stone monuments, menhirs from some forgotten civilization whose bones they probably ground beneath their feet. Some of the monuments resembled faces that half leered and half wept. Others were scrawled with weird glyphs and runes that defied comprehension.
His superior did not reply save for turning her head ever so slightly. He pressed on, "We have no cover, no backup should things... take a turn for the worse." All he had was a vibro machete, a stiletto, a brace of throwing knives and an Imperator. He was trained by the very best of van Housen, and what he packed was substantial, but it was of little use in taking out a fully armored soldier, much less a platoon of them, or a starfighter.
It was bad odds should their blood foe decide to turn up with a flight of Thunderbolts, or a TSF platoon. All it took was for some ambitious Family brat to get ahead of himself and take out the Master of Arms in one simple fell swoop. Porhen Industries military command would be crippled.
The woman noted her bodyguard's concern.
"It should be safe, Aleks,"
the raven haired woman said even as she scanned the skies. "She swore on the
honor of her Family. Among the bastards, that is tantamount to signing in
blood." A dishonored Family member could not bear progeny, nor could they
own property. He or she would be considered a pariah. Strong words they
were. But not strong enough for her.
It was a calculated gamble but she was not stupid. That was why she left her signet ring in trust with her House to unlock her personal files along with detailed notes and a verigraph detailing her successor. Should she die here, the Sekuritat would live on. Statistically speaking though, she was well past her time in this position. She had already outlived the third assassination attempt on her by the Tanfenners.
The skirmishing on Gemini Prime, the bloody war occurring in the streets of a hundred human worlds as agents from both sides murdered each other with garrotte, knife and fist. The open battles on Meiwan, and the loss of several sector bases, not just for Tanfen, but for Porhen Industries too. It wasn't just a set of coincidences. It was worse. Someone, something, wanted to lead them both to genocidal war. And they were doing a damned good job at it.
Aleks gave a growl of discontent but kept his tongue. His commlink chimed. "Your Grace, our recon sat has noted a shuttle going for reentry maneuvers on the far side of the planet. They are angling for approach it seems," he consulted a small screen, "about a klick north of our position." The woman gave a nod.
The woman that came out of the shuttle fit the description of the Division Chief of TISD to a tee. She was beautiful, with an almost carefree smile on her face, if not for her ice cold eyes. Her raven locks, almost as dark as hers flowed to her shoulders as she approached the ring of menhirs. Her bodyguard was taller than her, almost a giant even. The giant bore no weapon but a shock lance in a ready carry position. She noted no other weapons on the man. He probably didn't need much else at this range. An armored vest, with a sky gray beret completed his uniform. A Lai Highlander. The bastards were known to be cooler than liquid nitrogen and had damned near unshakeable morale, as well as being fearsome crack shots. It was an open secret that the Noble Houses paid a handsome bounty should any warrior of the House present a reg blade or shock lance sans previous owner. Sue Yen approached her until she was exactly a meter away and stopped before her.
Her eyes regarded her, drinking in every aspect of her being -- her body language, her clothes and noted it down for later perusal. Alouetta felt distinctly uncomfortable under her piercing gaze. She seemed to be able to gaze right into the depths of her soul, and the secret longing she carried within her heart beneath the guise of a warrior.
"Lady Sue Yen Ng Lai," she acknowledge her.
"Lady Alouetta van Housen," she uttered, acknowledging her opposite.
They both maintained their distance, a meter apart. Both their bodyguards were on guard, their hackles raised, fingers forcefully relaxed though their body language gave a clear implication as to the price of treachery.
"You have evidence to show that our Blood Feud is not what it seems, Lady van Housen?" prompted Sue.
"Milady, Tanfen and Porhen are in grievous error. It seems that we have both been goaded to war."
"And what proof do you have, Lady van Housen?"
Alouetta slowly and carefully held out a folder that contained dossiers and a data disc. Sue Yen's bodyguard watched her like a visually augmented hawk.
Alouetta placed it on the ground and stepped back exactly a meter, no more.
"We uncovered evidence of a plot. There was an attempted assassination of our Lord President approximately 24 hours ago. The attackers were traced back to Laifen and they bore Tanfen sourced Archers."
"We would not have been so foolish as to do that, Lady van Housen," she said as she strode forward.
"Lady Yen!" the Highlander guard warned. As befitted his instincts, he suspected a bomb within the documents.
Sue nodded and waved him back. She knelt, lifting the dossier. At this range, any anti-personnel explosive device would have killed Alouetta, too. A trade slightly in favor of Porhen, her life for Alouetta's, but a loss that Porhen could not bear with their Sekuritat in chaos with the Nephilim invasion.
"Aye, so it would be. What is more is that I received one, or rather several autopsy reports from a recovery team on Gemini Prime. The Sergeant of the Guard... noted that the conflict sparked from a mutually patrolled border between our enclaves. We recovered several of your dead from a TSF patrol, as we recovered ours. Your troops and ours were not killed by standard TSF or Cadre weaponry." Alouetta paused. Sue paged through the documents rapidly, the appended autopsy reports were written in Indo-German, but it was not much of a problem. Also appended were several post mission reports regarding the attempted assassination along with hard copy pictures of the event. Without an analysis by a TISD forensic team, it could be clever fakes, but it certainly looked authentic to her, for now. The weapons used, and the clothing of the dead depicted in the pictures were up to date, and showed no distinct details that would have painted a flaw.
Sue Yen nodded for her to continue.
"Ballistics tests indicated the shots came from a high vantage point, and used a round that was manufactured by our Concordat and your manufacturing arm...but the batch numbers and metallurgy reports indicate that the rounds were out of production almost a decade ago. The casing type was abandoned due to an unacceptable number of manufacturing defects."
Sue drank in the facts as she repieced a constantly shifting puzzle in her mind. Alouetta was correct in her analysis so far. The rounds were of a type that were abandoned since the Corp was not able to refine the process enough to ensure a statistically low enough number of manufacturing defects, as did Porhen Industries (since they stole it in the first place anyway). What rounds remained were from old stocks that would not be replenished once exhausted. The batch numbers indicated that it was from a set of munitions stolen in-transit from a TSF merchantman several years ago. The farthest TISD was able to trace it was that the White Hand, a pirate group, received it, but never used it. And now it returned to haunt them.
The plot bore a statistical probability of truth. "Whom do you suspect?" she asked, though she had a good idea who started this. When this meeting was concluded, there would be a bloodbath on hand. The Families would make sure of that. And knowing the reputation of the Noble Houses, there was no rock, no nebula too far they could hide in from their vengeance. Combine both together… and it was a thought no one would relish.
"Something we are familiar with. The Church of Man."
Sue took this in impassively. The religious fundamentalist vermin were all for an apocalypse to take man back to a golden age. A golden age that was little better than the stone age for the mad men. Their recent efforts at causing an apocalypse failed, what with them attempting to aid a Kilrathi-inspired holocaust, and now it seems, they were attempting to initiate this with the appearance of the Nephilim. It bore a grain of truth. Only an artifice such as religion could make a loyal man turn traitor. Money was possible, but unlikely seeing the people that the Corp had in its service.
"Assuming your information is correct milady, what do you propose?" ventured Sue.
"I propose an immediate ceasefire. All our forces will stand down for now until the duration of this crisis is over and we clear both our houses of the vermin."
"If you do, I will ask the TSF and TASC to pull back." It seemed to be a fair deal for now. The fact that the current Blood War reduced productivity, and caused a major shift of budget from TISD towards the TSF caused her no small of inconvenience. As was the fact that the Blood War had cost her almost all of her illegals in Andorra, as well as a steady toll, in the Union and the Confederation. Training, creating legends and reestablishing her Humint network would take time. Fortunately, the Porhenners were just as worse off with a recent bloody purge as both known and suspected illegals in the Union were dealt with permanently. But all that for later. Now was the time to deal with other… matters.
"I, Alouetta van Housen, of the Noble House van Housen, and as acting Master of Arms of the Porhen Sekuritat Cadre do declare an immediate ceasefire for all Porhen units in all theatres."
Sue nodded, satisfied. "Bellamy and Hon will respond as such."
Alouetta nodded. "And now, we both our House and Family will wash our hands."
"We shall, Lady Alouetta, we shall."
As one, both turned, and left the circle, leaving the howling winds to their millennia long work once more.