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Chapter 14: The Sisters of Arachne

Anak was accompanied by several of her kind. They were all different in feature, age and size, as people tend to be, but the same in basic form and color. We were led over catwalks and down a stairway. I bore Ari on my back, which the younger spider-folk found amusing for some reason. I’m not empathic or sensitive in any fashion, but I could feel a distinct lack of hostility.

As we continued we saw more and more of the Sisters, with their helper-creatures, all moving along with us, no doubt to the same destination. I began to appreciate the unique grace with which they moved through the Machine, rarely using their arms, occasionally leaping or using their threads. As unnatural as the Machine was, it was clearly their true environment. It would take only a little effort to imagine it as a great forest.

We saw that some carried infants; the younglings wrapping their legs about their mothers’ waists while they suckled. Slightly older children clung to their parents’ abdomens.

“You know, love,” I whispered in Ari’s ear. “I could grow to like these people much more than I like the Rii.”

“I know what you mean.” Her tail-fin quivered slightly. “I wish phobias were easier to fight.

“Ironic, isn’t it?” She then whispered. “The Sisters are the epitome of what they despise, but the Rii would be doomed without them.”

Eventually, we came to the intersection of two of the larger avenues, which formed a kind of square or plaza. There must have been hundreds of the spider-folk gathered there. Ari was almost overwhelmed; she shook as she clung to me.

“Are you alright? I can do the speaking if you’d like.”

“No, I’ll be fine, really.”

When we reached the middle of the square, I gently lowered Ari to the pavement. She then sat down and composed herself. The thing that I found most disturbing was the near silence. There was no murmuring, no crowd noise, just the swishing of many bodies moving.

Anak continued to a small raised area and sat next to a very old spiderling. The elder woman’s hair was long and white; the fur on her legs and abdomen was also white. Her legs were folded awkwardly around her thorax.

Ariadne of Spindrift, the Sisters of Arachne are gathered to hear you and your mate explain your presence in the World-Heart. It was Anak.

Ari closed her eyes, lifted her head and began speaking. At first, her voice wavered, but she soon settled and even opened her eyes. She related the story of her mission on Rii. She did so plainly and truthfully as though reporting to the Emperor himself. Our future, of course, depended on her honesty. She ended with our discovery of the Machine, the World-heart as Anak called it.

“We did not know that such a thing even existed,” stated Ari. “We thought the water system here depended on gravity and runoff from the mountains.

“Now that we have found this facility,” she continued. “I’m certain that our government will want to study it. I’m also certain that we will not interfere with its functioning. This colony, Rii, is part of our empire. We do not wish harm to its people.”

Anak, the fish-woman tells the truth as she knows it to be, however, she has some small doubt about her government’s wisdom. She has a nagging fear that they may be too impatient.

This must be Khiel. I thought to myself. I guessed that she would be the old woman/spider.

“That is true, Anak.” said Ari. “We are all human here and aware of human failings. But remember, it is not our empire that controls Rii today, but the Free Worlds Alliance. Khiel can tell you that I speak the absolute truth when I say that the Alliance will respect neither you nor the Rii.”

The old woman nodded. Indeed, that is so.

“If my mate and I can make it somehow to one of our worlds, I am more than certain that the Empire will fight to regain Rii before the World-Heart is discovered and abused by those who would misuse it.”

It is already too late. Anak stated calmly.

Ari couldn’t suppress a gasp. “How can that be?”

I received a message from one of our scouts, only moments ago that a group of armed men are following the path you took to the World-Heart.

Ari bowed her head. “I…I…” she began but couldn’t continue.

“They must really want to make sure we’re dead,” I muttered.

“Anak, are we at fault? If so I…” Ari tried to find words to express her dismay.

Do not be concerned. You were not followed. Also, we are not defenseless. They will be dealt with.

“You must eliminate them quickly then; before they can see and report anything,” said Ari as she recovered her composure.

Would that include the woman who is with child?

“With child?” said Ari.

“Wait a minute!” I said. “How many are in that group?”

One of the younger Sisters passed a tablet, much like the ones we use, to Anak. Nine armored men, one unarmored man and a pregnant woman. She read.

“Jen!” Ari exclaimed. “And Justin with Windridge’s squad! These aren’t enemies! It’s the party we were separated from. The one I spoke of!”

That is good news. Thought Anak to us. Never-the-less they cannot be allowed to enter the facility armed.

“We will have to meet them and convince them to lay down their weapons,” said Ari.

“That might not be easy,” I replied quietly.

You must be quick or we will be compelled to stop them. This time it was Khiel.

We will carry you there, come! Thought Anak.

Ari blanched. “You go, Dri.” She added discretely. “I don’t think I could bear it, them carrying me.”

I stepped forward. “I’m ready, milady Anak. What do you want me to do?”

I ended up a passenger in a sling, almost a sack, made of webs and carried by two of the sisters. It was a wild ride that reminded me why I don’t like roller coasters, and why I’m not a fighter pilot.

Only a few minutes later, I watched the hatch leading to the corridor where our friends were open and saw them step out to be enthralled at their first sight of the World Heart.

This was going to be very tricky. I knew that I had to be careful. When they first spotted me, there was a soft whirring sound as nine men in suits of power armor brought their weapons to bear. After but an instant, however, the tension dropped.

“Lieutenant Morgan! Where the hell did you come from?” It was Justin Chang looking the worse for wear but not as done in as the young woman who leaned on his arm.

“I’d like to ask you folks the same thing!” I replied, smiling.

Windridge raised his visor, revealing a grin, and stepped forward.

I raised both hands. “Hold a moment, Sergeant; I have to tell you something that’s going to be difficult to believe. Please bear with me. I’m going to try to explain the situation as quickly and thoroughly as I can. But first, for our safety, all of you have to lay down your arms.”

Windridge’s grin faded. “You know the regs lieutenant,” he said. “This is a combat zone. We can’t do that.”

“You’re not in a combat zone here. We’re among friends and allies.”

“Who do you mean? The Rii?”

By this time, we could all hear, through the sound of the machine, the rustle of the Sisters getting into position. We all, consciously or unconsciously scanned our surroundings, but could not catch even a glimpse of them.

“No, not Rii.” Give me more time, Anak! I was thinking mostly to myself, but I was also hoping she could read me. “We’re running out of time, Sergeant. You’re just going to have to trust me!”

“I’d like to, but where’s the Ambassador? Is she with you? She should be the one giving that order.”

“She’s here. She sent me.” Perhaps it would have been better if I’d lied; denied that she was near. The sounds of movement faded behind the background noise. Things were going to start happening!

“I’m going to need some confirmation.”

Damn! There’s not time to fetch Ari!

“I can confirm that Sergeant.” It was Ari’s voice! I turned to see her head pop up from behind a metal crate. “Please stand down.” She calmly pulled herself up on to the crate and sat.

Windridge slowly lowered his rifle and placed it on the ground. The other marines followed suit.

I’m sorry, Dri. I nearly let my fear ruin everything!

That’s alright, I should have known better as well. At least it’s all working out, so far.

As we finally got to greet one another, I could see that the armor worn by the marines bore pockmarks and scars. As I took Windridge’s hand, I asked quietly, “Who did we lose?”

“Kelly. It was when we were trying to get the young lady here out of the palace,” he nodded toward Jen, who was being helped to a seat next to Ari. “It was just bad luck. It’ll all be in my report.” The weariness in the sergeant’s voice was palpable.

Try as I might, I couldn’t visualize Kelly’s face. It was difficult to keep track of who was who when they all were hidden behind masks of ceramic and carbon-fiber. It made me wish that at some time I had done as Ari had and made an effort to look at and remember each of them.

“Well,” said Windridge. “What now? Who are these new allies you spoke of?”

“They are the descendants of human chimaera left here twenty-five centuries ago to guard and maintain this facility,” said Ari. “Try not to be too shocked at their appearance. You should be meeting them soon.”

“You say they guard this ‘facility’,” Justin waved at the massive structures. “What the hell is it, if you don’t mind telling me?”

“It controls all the flow of water on Rii,” I replied. “Also, we strongly suspect that it’s powered by antimatter.”

“Really?!” said Justin.

“Holy Christ!” The sergeant was pointing, wide eyed with surprise, down the main corridor. The other newcomers, including the troopers, were equally stupefied. Walking up the middle of the corridor toward us was Anak. Jen yelped and buried her face in Justin’s shoulder.

I smiled. “This is Lady Anak; she speaks for the Sisters of Arachne, our friends and allies.”

Recovering quickly, Sergeant Windridge bowed. “Milady, I must confess that your appearance startled me.”

“No shit!” muttered Shiro.

Anak smiled. “We seem to have that effect on main line humans.”

After Anak’s introduction, we followed her back toward the center of the huge cavern. I carried Ari. Yuri carried Jen, who was just about spent. Anak led us to a small open area that had just been set aside as a bivouac for all of us. Anak had wisely decided to limit the new arrivals’ exposure to her kindred. Only a couple came to us bearing water and food which, combined with the meager supplies brought by the marines, was being cooked on one of the tiny folding camp stoves they carried. After we had a chance to settle in, the troopers removed their armor. It was for the first time in days. Windridge and Chang then began filling Ari and me in on what had happened after they had left her in the water tunnel below the palace.

“At first things went rapidly and smoothly,” said Windridge. “We even managed to surprise and disarm part of the Keeper’s Guard. Some of them plainly were expecting to welcome Free Worlder troops and even thought we were them. I suppose they hadn’t got the purple versus yellow thing down yet.

“The first shots weren’t fired ‘til after we took the Queen here out of the women’s quarters. That’s when we lost Kelly. First shot went clean through his armor.” The sergeant sighed and shook his head. “He was dead before he hit the floor.”

”We tried to recover his body, but the fire was too hot,” said Galt. “Leaving him was hard…hard to do.”

“Did you encounter any of Edgar’s men?” asked Ari.

“Not so much as a glimpse of yellow armor while we were in the palace.”

“Edgar spoke as if it were his men that killed Kelly and drove you away,” she added.

Windridge snorted contemptuously.

“When we reentered the water tunnel,” Justin continued, while Jen clung to him and silently wept. “You and the boat were gone. We knew something had happened to you.”

Ari made a face. “It did, I’ll tell you about it when you’re done.”

“We slogged back the way we had come and met with a bunch of armed Rii coming the other way,” Continued Justin. “They were headed for the palace to liberate the Keeper and his consort here. We narrowly avoided a tragedy, but they recognized Jen’s voice and already knew about the presence of Imperial Marines; thanks to Lieutenant Morgan.”

“How many were there?” I asked. “How were they armed?”

“Well over a hundred,” Windridge responded. “Most had Mk III’s, a few had muzzle loaders.”

“What happened then?” I was happy to hear that my efforts had borne some fruit, but was worried for these inexperienced guerrillas.

“They were determined to rescue their Keeper,” said Windridge.

“Parthans’ men took him away from me!” said a tearful Jen. “He told me ‘not to worry’ and patted my cheek, but I knew that they were leading him away to death!”

Ari gave me a sad look and shook her head. She’s probably right.

“Just before that, he said that he’d been a fool to trust Edgar and that Parthans had betrayed us.” She groaned while Justin patted her on the shoulder and tried to comfort her.

“We decided to join them,” Windridge looked over to me. “We thought that you and the Ambassador were likely taken and, perhaps, prisoners in the palace.”

“You were half right,” I said. “We had been taken by then but were being held elsewhere.”

“As it was, we never made it back to the palace. We ran into Edgar’s regulars; company strength at least. The Rii resistance accounted themselves well, but were no match. We had to fall back. The Rii commander, a man by the name of Drogar, told us to get Jen to safety while his men distracted the enemy. Last I heard, they were still leading the Pirates on a merry chase.”

“I hope so,” I said. “It would be easy to get cornered and trapped down there.” I felt some pride for the little army I helped create, but I was also concerned for how many may have been hurt or killed.

“Smugglers like that old rogue, Drogar, know the tunnels better than they know their children’s faces,” Justin grinned. “He won’t get caught. What I do worry about is Edgar getting frustrated and using something nasty, like gas.”

“That could poison the water!” Ari was indignant. “Kill hundreds even thousands!” Her fin trembled with her anger. “He wouldn’t dare!”

I wasn’t so sure, but I hoped she was right.

“Eventually, we got lost and ended up in an isolated tunnel with no wells,” continued Windridge.

“It was a red tunnel!” said Jen.

“Fortunately, it had very little water in it, so when it took a sudden, steep downward turn, we were able to climb down it with little trouble. We came out in a deep shaft with water on the bottom. Curious thing,” Windridge scratched his ear and smirked. “We found two dead coldhounds floating in it. You wouldn’t happen to have had anything to do with that would you, sir?”

“Who, me?” I poked Ari on the shoulder. “That would be her ladyship here. Seems her family hunts beasties like that with harpoons just for fun.”

“What?” She was still fuming at the idea of Edgar poisoning the water. “Don’t complain, dear, I left one for you, didn’t I?

“Besides, whale-snakes are over fifty meters long; not the same kind of beastie at all.” She added smugly.

My jaw dropped.

“Ha!” Laughed Ulric. “I thought the ice-dragons back home on New Narvik were big! You’ll have to go hunting with my clan someday, milady. I’m sure we could rig up a sled for you. Only you’ll have to take me to Syrenka first!”

Ari’s eyes lit up. “Dragon hunting on the snow! You have my word private!”

Am I included in these expeditions? I was getting a little jealous. I never cared much for hunting, and anyway, the largest game on Caledon are the giant Irish Elk resurrected through cloning in the 22nd Century and brought there with the original colonists. They are big but not monstrous.

Certainly, my sweet! I hope you don’t object to my bloodthirsty pastimes.

Not at all! It’s something I can bring up when you have complaints about any of my hobbies.

“Well, there was only one way out of there that we could reach, which must have been the same route you and the Ambassador took. So that brings us to the present.” Concluded Windridge.

Ari and I in turn told our story; after which the skitter stew was ready. This time I did partake. After eating we managed to take a much needed rest; lulled to sleep by the beating of the World Heart. We didn’t even set a guard.

I was awakened by a soft tap on my shoulder. It was Anak, crouching next to me.

I hope that I did not startle you over much.

No, I’m fine. I have very little revulsion toward spiders and by that time was rapidly getting used to the Sisters’ appearance. I looked around. I was the only one of our party who was awake. What’s up?

I remember that you and the mersister spoke of trying to communicate with your government. We have been keeping watch over the comings and goings of ships since then.

I sat up. This could be very important. Yes?

One of our scouts saw a ship land this morning and recorded its image. She took a tablet from a pouch slung over her shoulder and handed it to me. It was very old and worn smooth, but fully functional and very similar to the ones we still use. On it was the image of a small ship, sleek and arrow-head shaped. It was a courier-packet! Painted on its side was the insignia of the Free Worlds Alliance as well as King Edgar’s monogram.

Since the loss of sub-space radio technology, courier-packets are the fastest means of communication between star systems. They literally weave a web-like network that holds all interstellar-empires, even small ones such as Edgar’s together. They carry everything from orders and vital news to high-priority cargoes and important passengers. They are also almost the only jump-capable ships small and light enough to make ground-landings. It was, of course inevitable that such a vessel would show up here, but one arriving at this particular moment seemed especially fortunate.

I looked up at Anak and grinned. “This is very good news, milady! Why, in fact, I could kiss you!”

All four of her multi-faceted eyes widened and she recoiled slightly. Your mate might object.

“She may wish to kiss you too when she sees this.” I leaned over Ari and lightly pressed her lips with mine. “Wake up love; we’re in for a busy day.”

She groaned slightly and stretched, her tailfin twitched and flipped. “Just a few more minutes, please?”

“Just take a peek at this!” I stuck the tablet under her nose.

She opened one eye, then the other, and sat up abruptly. “What’s this?”

“Why, a ship, my dear.”

“I can see that, but…” Her mouth dropped open. “A courier! Here?”

Within a few minutes, everyone was up. Jen squeaked and hid her face, but no one else seemed bothered by the presence of the Sister; not even Ari.

“We’ll have to come up with a plan and act quickly,” said Sergeant Windridge as he and his men began strapping their armor on. “These vessels don’t sit idle for very long.”

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