Gentle Reminders Serialisation Chapter 29
Legacy Universe: Gentle Reminders (Book One in The Rosewell Sequence)
Gentle Reminders is being serialised right here on SFBook with a new chapter published each week.
Previously in Gentle Reminders:
Maur Rosewell has uncovered the secret of the Legacy, and undergone transformation into a powerful being thanks to its technology. Inhabited by its power, struggling with the change, Maur and Beta Crew are forced to fight on and pursue The Gentle Reminder in hope of ending the threat of the Free Man Nation.
You can visit the Legacy Universe website for more information.
By the time that they had retraced their steps back to their entryway, the Nation troops, and their leader, had already retreated up to the surface. Climbing equipment was left behind, ropes and automated winches that Beta Crew could use to ascend back up into the orchard.
The Nation had a head-start though, Kerra having refused to leave the Legacy’s chamber until Maur had reassured her three times over that he was prone neither to spontaneous combustion, nor to turn on them. The latter had been demanded as he moved to pick up his weapon from the pile of seized equipment left by the Nation.
He could still hear the whispers of the Legacy in his mind, mumblings about the area that he was in, or the information he read on signs as he passed them by. None of it was particularly useful, but it gave him an incredible awareness of the world around him. Maur had up until now failed to consider the diameter and load-bearing capacity of the ventilation pipes running the length of the walls. Still, with that information he had already deduced a number of ways to use them to his tactical advantage were it necessary.
“We need to get up there,” Kerra said, moving towards one of the ropes, her touch sending the winch equipment down to her. “She might have retreated, but that doesn’t mean that the Nation will stop firing on Annie’s position. The best option available to them is to halt us from giving chase.”
“Correct,” Charles agreed, he too moving up to the climbing equipment. “Captain, this is Charles, we are returning to your location to provide support. We are done here.”
The silence that came in return was ominous, Champion offering no reply. Each of them was acutely aware that this did not bode well.
Lined up side-by-side the members of Beta Crew clamped the winches onto their armour and began to rise up off the ground. The equipment felt slow to Maur, although they were moving upwards at about a fifth of the speed of the fall that had brought them down to this place.
Flows of information kept coming to him, not necessarily being spoken but just implanted into his mind. It felt as though another consciousness was operating within his own. The rope was capable of holding fifteen tonnes without fraying, it was lined with a metallic compound that Maur did not recognise the name of, but of more interest was the fact that he could climb the rope faster than the winch could carry him.
Without being fully aware of why, Maur took this information as a prompt for action, and unclipped the winch from his armour. Falling for just a moment, the rest of Beta Crew whipped past him. Instinctively he grappled the rope and began sending one hand over the other.
Within seconds he had built up considerable momentum and was now more throwing himself than simply clambering up. He caught up and then overtook the rest of them without ever feeling out of breath of under any physical strain. Grin spreading widely, he let out a laugh of joy, the sensation of incredible strength ruining the last shreds of self-doubt imposed by their capture.
He breached the hole far quicker than the others, giving an almighty tug to send himself over the ragged crest. The sight in front of him was not unexpected, he had been warned of it long before he reached the surface. In landing a ship here The Gentle Reminder had set fire to the orchard, burning herself and her crew a target area that ruined the perfect circle of the clearing. Maur assessed the fire for a moment, watching the plants writhe and move in an orchestra of suffering. The whole forest was alive, shifting and moving to try and escape from the raging blaze.
The heat was unbearable, and despite his new-found power it still itched away at Maur’s skin. As Kerra and the others reached the surface though, it became clear that their suffering would be far greater. Maur outstretched hands to each of them, even managing to heave Charles’ weight out of the opening and onto firm ground.
“We... we...” Kerra tried to speak, hacking at the billowing black smoke around her, “we don’t have any... breathing equipment...”
His friends were struggling to remain focused in the cloud, covering their mouths and desperately looking around for safe haven. None was offered, but further insight was given to Maur. He pulled Kerra toward him first, her bright hair still visible to him through the carbon heavy fog.
“Follow me!” he shouted. “Keep tight behind and link together, I can get us out of here.”
They obeyed, arms hooked into each others leading up to the join between Maur and Kerra. He moved forward to a wall of dense burning foliage, the orchard’s few gaps closing as it writhed and burned.
Pushing a hand out in front of him, Maur made contact with the forest and he could feel the terrible burning, but only for a moment. The forest gave way, carving a path into itself, vines and branches snapping apart up toward the sky.
He pushed forward, his friends heads ducked down behind him.
The smoke was even more dense away from the clearing, and he felt as though he was having to drag each one of them through it. Kerra’s grip began to loosen.
“Keep it together! We are almost to the edge,” he said.
The burst of light that met him as the heavy, shivering wall of burning wood gave way prompted Beta Crew to shunt themselves forward into the clean area. In disarray they each crawled forward into fresh air and took deep, lung-filling breaths. Maur moved between each of them, offering a hand to pull them up.
“Maur,” said Yazram, “I do not know how you did that, but I’m glad that I’m not dead.”
“Were you cutting through the wood?” Thom questioned, spitting foul tasting saliva onto the ground. “I couldn’t see ahead, no way your cutter could have made such a clean path....”
“We have no time for this conversation,” Charles said, concerned and well aware that the answer lay within the Legacy. “Look to the battlefield.”
Bursts of energy were still soaring through the air from both sides, and away from the cacophony of the fire they could still hear the raucous din of gunfire. Annie was visible from here, and her clean white hull was scarred with dark circles left by fresh explosive impact. Scanning the horizon brought further sights of destruction, several of the farm buildings crumbling.
“We need to move up,” said Maur, translating strategy being fed to him by the Legacy. “Kerra was right, their retreat was only partial and from the looks of the fire moving away from Annie, Champion is struggling to hold. They’ve moved back to the second line of cover.”
With nods of agreement Beta Crew began to jog back towards the main farm, rifles in hand and their minds clearing free of the smoky side-effects. The noise of the fight got louder as they moved closer, echoes of screams and fearsome roars cutting through the later afternoon sun.
They were within proximity of the Jump Cannon, now able to see their crewmates firing round after round into the relentless Nation horde. Annie’s opponent had entrenched itself across the breadth of the battlefield, forming a front from which artillery fire was being brought down from behind, the personnel carriers now transformed into automated cannons.
Maur’s mind filled itself with statistical assessments of the scene in front of him. It did not sound good, probability of the Jump Cannon crew being completely overwhelmed within the next ten minutes sitting at thirty-percent, the likelihood jumping to seventy-five-percent after twenty.
He heard an explosive round fire, heard it cut through the air. Maur’s brain screamed, and his body immediately twisted around toward the artillery with muscles tensing. In the same moment he could see the round up close, but also its real proximity to him. A screed of warning told him his armour could not sustain this direct hit, that it would more likely fracture into the people around him, that his team would be wiped out if it made contact.
Skin burning his armour blasted away from his body, the parts carried away from him by a familiar red light. Bare except for his under-skin, Maur leapt into the sky, directly into the path of the round but twenty feet above and ahead.
His simultaneous views of the round conjoined. The round bleeped a proximity alert and readied detonation. Red bordered squares in his skin burnt through his under-skin. Alien, perfect and autonomous they formed in patches across his body, and he contorted in the air against the blast. Hardened, glowing flesh reflecting deadly fire and shrapnel, Maur embraced the full force of the blast with his fist, flaring with invincible geometry, forcing it through the hull of the round.
Falling back to the ground, his enhanced vision allowed him to scan his body, the burning red-rimmed square still undulating on his skin like pistons. Nimbly he landed, ready to move into the next threat without need to pause.
While startled by this incredible feat, Beta Crew were in no position to stop and stare. Drawing their rifles, they pulled into cover, filling in the gaps that had been left by by the wounded. Looking down her sights, still full of deadly hate, Kerra fired three rounds, all of which connected with the chests of oncoming soldiers. Another pair of shots fired, another man expelled his last breath.
Charles was the only member of the team not to offer immediate assistance to the front-line battle, instead moving to the back of Annie and heading into the hangar. Champion had established a war office inside, Dr. Beat ably assisting men and women back into the fight as the temporary Puran staff ferried supplies back and forth from the deeper parts of the ship.
“Captain,” Charles said, moving up and resting a heavy hand onto his superior’s shoulder, “what’s the situation?”
“Charles? God, we assumed the worse. A craft was seen leaving the orchard, a Nation ship, we thought you must have been killed.”
“No, fortunately,” he replied. “Although there is quite the story to tell. You said a ship left the orchard, did it retreat fully?”
“Yes, it returned to their main ship taking a number of the other personnel carriers with it. That reduced the amount of artillery fire that the turrets have had to deflect, but we’re still struggling. We have too many wounded, three dead, this can not be sustained.”
“They mean to cripple us Captain, so that we can not give chase to the main ship. We encountered a woman, her place within the hierarchy must be senior,” Charles explained, struggling to leave out the most incredible parts of the last hour’s events in favour of efficient briefing. “She retreated after Maur reclaimed the power they spoke of.”
“It was a weapon?”
“Yes,” Charles replied, still in awe of Maur’s incredible manoeuvre just outside. “That much has become clear.”
“Then I’m glad we claimed it Charles, very glad! Can it be used to force them back?”
It already was, Maur was coupling the extensive training received from the sim suites with his new-found superpower. His body capable of deflecting laser and projectile rounds, the hard patches of perfect squares instantly forming whenever impact was imminent, gave his combat style a freshly ruthless edge. One by one he was cutting through the banks of cover, efficiently moving between them and displaying strength and aggression.
One would fall following a barge of his shoulder, sending the debris-based cover colliding into the bodies of the Nation followers. Their cheap armour had been no protection against the Jump Cannon's well equipped force.
Another group of faithful men and women would meet their maker as Maur vaulted their defence, firing rounds down upon them. As the Nation forces saw him cut this terrifying gorge they made the first movements of retreat. Unlike Ulalo Nuragi before them, they were unaware of what the Legacy had turned Maur into, and she had left them there like mindless, ogling cattle ready for slaughter.
As deadly and ruthless as his attack was, he felt no thirst for blood or vengeance. Maur was simply carrying out a strategy that would disable his opponents as quickly as possible, just as Charles had taught him to. Shifting, changing, his skin rearranged and hardened itself to meet the challenge of the foe ahead of him. He stood still, rounds bounce off him, glinting sparks into the sky.
With the majority of the carriers off the ground, hastily retreating to the Cathode Ray, he made his way back to the Jump Cannon. Instinct forced his head to duck as a series of detonations occurred. The equipment and bodies left behind by the retreating force were vaporised almost entirely, with only a few indifferent scraps left as inadequate evidence of the Nation's former presence. Maur recognised the shape and colour of the explosions from his demolitions training; expensive bombs that used the same technology as the tele-sutures to fold over and destroy the incriminating materials. He thought it a smart move by the Nation, and proof that they were not yet powerful enough on Earth to cover up such a large display of force through blackmail or political pressure.
There was no rejoicing among its crew, many witnesses moving back as Maur approached, the rest dropping weapons to the ground before cradling their tired limbs and skulls.
He joined Beta Crew within the bowels of the Jump Cannon, each of them looked at him with a different concern. Kerra’s opinion was most pressing to him. He was surprised that some of them outside had seemed scared, that they had cowered away from him. Maur was terrified she might feel the same. Despite the power etching itself across his skin, he felt exactly the same inside. More than that, with the Nation threat repelled from his family’s home, he felt relief for the first time in weeks.
“Where’s my mom?” Maur asked, picking a human question in the face of his feeling alien. “Is she OK?”
“I’m fine Maur,” she said, walking up the ramp behind him and placing warm hands on his arms. “I had rather a lot of fun actually. I took up a flanking position, seemed to help hold them back.”
“I’m not sure that this battle could be considered in any way fun.” Champion uttered, Marc 14 resting a hand on his back. “We’ve lost three, and far more than that are injured. Maur, what’s going on with your skin?”
Addressing the elephant in the room made the room all the more tense. Scanning his body, Maur noticed just how much of his under-skin fabric was now missing. Underneath, the glowing borders of the geometry patterned across his skin continued to flicker in anticipation. The murmuring information in his brain continued to feed him details of his surroundings, giving him more knowledge of Annie than he could ever have wanted to possess. He looked towards his friends, his adopted family, and tried to assemble comforting words in his mind.
“I...” Nothing came for a moment. “ We need to go after them, we need to honour the dead and finish this. She’ll only come back again, stronger probably.”
There was a pleading edge to his voice, and he was being overly gesticulative to try and reaffirm his humanity within their eyes. It seemed to work, all but Thom returning to the tactical information displayed on the panel in the centre of their huddle. The crew were pulling back into the hangar now, the few men and women still fully able to support their own weight filing in past him. To their cabins, to their friends, to the medical bay to check on others.
“We’re receiving reports that government forces have mobilised and will be here within the next fifteen,” Champion said, flicking information back and forth. “That doesn’t give us enough time to put Annie back into the air. She was already in bad shape, and this hasn’t helped. That leaves the scouts, which are no use in a dog fight...”
“...and the EBAC-150s, which are excellent in a dog fight. The best!” Kerra interrupted with a jolt of excitement. “Me and Charles could pilot them, the scans of their ship don’t show anything with the same speed.”
“No, but they have numbers on their side,” Charles added. “Good, I have never enjoyed easy fights.”
“You’ll be able to get them into the sky within minutes, and they haven’t sustained any damage. You like the odds?” Champion asked.
“They are good enough,” said Kerra. “We can’t let her escape, she'll just keep hunting us, she'll want retribution. Fuck it, I want retribution.”
Aboard the Cathode Ray Ulalo was angrily pacing back and forth across her command deck, distaste at the orders she was receiving noticeable as she thrashed against anything that dared be in her vicinity.
The Thirteen, without her accord, had sent immediate demands that she give adequate time for the complete remnants of her army to return to the ship. She had not made them aware, of course, that Maur had made first contact with the Legacy, that he had taken its power permanently away from the Free Man Nation’s reach. To the best of their knowledge, the location had been properly secured, the Legacy was safely aboard, the Jump Cannon neutralised with only a few stragglers to be picked up by law enforcement. The retreat had not been a retreat at all, instead just the expected retraction of troops following a successful mission. There was no reason for the Cathode Ray to evacuate with any particular haste, she and her crew had nothing to fear.
Ulalo knew this to be in absolute opposite to the position that she found herself. She had seen Maur’s deadly aggression with her own eyes, through the camera lenses of the personnel carriers she had sought to abandon on Earth’s surface. The shame of failing the Nation, the humiliation of surrender and retreat, the haunting thought of having to explain herself to The Constant Admonition. All of these things acted like thousands of years of crashing waves against her stone-like warrior’s spirit. It was eroding rapidly.
“Have the carriers all returned to the hangar?” Ulalo questioned her assistant. “Are we prepared to move to near-quantum?”
“No,” the assistant said without the usual formality, less intimidated by this terrible woman, watching her tantrum like a child. “There are still a few to return.”
“Damn it! Damn it! Broadcast this warning; I will execute any follower who is not aboard this ship and at their post within the next fifteen minutes. We must be ready to leave Earth’s orbit!”
“I do not think that is the correct strategy,” said one of the command deck crew, turning from his panel. “We’ve tracked two EBAC-150s preparing to launch away from the Jump Cannon’s position. We need to turn our forces around as soon as possible, we need to send out the combat ships and meet them head on. They'll hit us before we can get the carriers aboard.”
Ulalo screamed openly into the air, hands raised up the ceiling before fists were slammed down onto the most nearby panel. Preparing to broadcast to her crew, the command deck was void of flowers and trees, empty of statistical information, her options entirely run out.
“The most capable pilots who remain will re-suit and take control of the combat craft that they are most familiar with immediate affect. If the most capable pilots are still aboard personnel carriers your assigned combat craft will be taken by the next most able member of staff. We are being approached by two EBAC-150s, but they will be no match for our numbers! Do not fail me! Do not fail the Nation!”
Like I have, she thought, do not fail it like I have.
* * * * *
Come back next week for Chapter Thirty of Gentle Reminders (Book One in The Rosewell Sequence)