Leaving the tunnels but staying below ground, the team came out into the true underground city. A trail of footprints was left behind them, clearly visible in the thick white dust that covered the roadways they followed. Empty buildings towered above them; streets forked off, blocked by a variety of vehicles. And everywhere they stepped, a plume of dust rose up into the air. Every now and again a large, sparkling pillar appeared, holding up the roof to the cavernous underground chamber. Windows stared out at them like empty eyes, and the detritus of lives long gone was scattered around them. This place, Lucia thought, is spooky and ever-so-slightly terrifying.
Far in the distance, she spotted a curved white metallic wall, and if she squinted her eyes she could pick out large black letters painted on the surface. N ... w ... H ... v ... n. It was a solid hour before they reached the wall itself, and then all five stood in awe, necks craned, taking in the massive metal sheet that towered over them.
Her eyes scanning the wall, she saw a small doorway. Strange. Then, further along, there was a rusty ladder seeming to lead nowhere. Odd. It took her a moment to put all of these things together and form a thought that made them all make sense. And even then, she didn't put it into words. Instead, she spoke softly to Kabi.
“There's something different here,” she said. “Something that doesn't make sense. The vibes are, well, different.”
Kabi grinned and nodded in approval. “Very observant,” he said. “This, my dear, is the real New Heaven. It is the spaceship that originally brought us to Archeonis. After crash landing on the surface of the planet, it was buried deep underground, and the city was built around it. The New Heaven proved to be an excellent administrative centre for the city. And, of course, at the beginning, all power sources and medical supplies were on board the ship. It only made sense to do things this way.”
“Which is why the whole city came to be known as New Heaven,” Lucia said, understanding.
“Indeed,” Kabi said. “Come, let us enter.”
He led the group a short way down the length of the metal spaceship hull until he found a stairway that led to a hatch. Agilely climbing up, he beckoned for the others to follow. As the rusty stairway creaked under their combined weight, Kabi turned the large locks on the hatch and opened it just as the last man reached the top. A flood of fresh air rushed out to embrace them. Stepping inside, Lucia found herself in a long white corridor, bright and clean, in strong contrast to the city outside.
“Automatons keep the ship clean and operational at all times,” Kabi said, noting her surprise.
The man seemed to know exactly where he was going. So as he walked briskly down the corridor, they followed him, ignoring the rounded plastic doors on either side of them. Kabi reached an elevator and, pressing a button, took them all down a level. They stepped into a large chamber filled with containers full of things that they couldn't identify. A small, round automaton buzzed over, cleaning up the dust of their footsteps and seemingly chiding them for being so messy. And still Kabi walked.
As they exited the large chamber and entered yet another long corridor, this one decorated with pictures of places Lucia was certain weren't found on Archeonis, Kabi checked his chronos and called a break. There were still six hours until the launch of the spaceship; they could afford a rest. Ulsa'hi and his men went to examine the pictures they'd seen, and Kabi sat on the floor, lighting a Sigar and smoking contentedly.
“I don't understand,” Lucia said, coming to sit beside him. “This whole place looks like it was once a thriving city. Why was it abandoned?”
“It wasn't abandoned,” said Kabi, blowing out a plume of smoke. “It was emptied.”
“Meaning what?” She watched his smoke dissipate into the air.
“The leader of New Heaven at the time was known as Professor Calen Mandrake,” Kabi explained, still smoking. “He was the one who brought us to this planet. But humans are humans, wherever they're planted; and after a few happy years, factions began to evolve and conflicts began.” He sighed, shaking his head at the foolishness of men. “So Calen threw everyone off the island. Only he and the Archangels remained, continuing their research. And after the Professor died, the Archangels remained alone, until they were betrayed and then annihilated.”
Lucia had to remind herself that he was talking about his own siblings. “And what of the factions?”
“The twelve major factions went on to colonise the remaining islands and to form each of the twelve kingdoms of Archeonis.”
“You're saying that Archangels actually exist?” asked Ulsa'Hi, who had overheard part of their conversation. He'd thought the figures mythical, but with Kabi around he was willing to believe pretty much anything at this point. He'd seen enough to make him question all he knew already.
“They existed,” said Kabi, sadly. “Only two remain. The Supreme Emperor and myself.”
Maicee paced around the medical bay. He had his tingling feeling of danger again and was almost sure that the away team were walking into a trap. If only he could be there, maybe he could warn them. Ausanne looked up from the blood samples that Falorni had asked her to organise.
“Can't keep still?” she asked, smiling.
“I just wish ...”
“I know,” Ausanne said. “You wish you were with them. But, Maicee, you can barely stand for an hour without feeling lightheaded. And ...”
She didn't finish her sentence, but Maicee saw her fists clenching and knew that the princess too wished she were in the heart of the action. And he strongly suspected that the only reason she wasn't was in order to stay here and care for him. He grinned at her. He was truly grateful.
“Beyond this hatch there is a plain, which is three miles from the launch site,” Kabi said, turning to the rest of the group. “Once outside of this door, we will split into two groups. Ulsa'hi, you and your men will proceed to the research lab that's marked on your map and try to recover as much data as possible. Lucia and I will go towards the spaceship itself and attempt to sabotage it. Any questions?”
To a man, they shook their heads. Then Ulsa'hi coughed. He'd had his differences with Kabi, but the man had more than proven himself as far as he was concerned. He offered his hand.
“All the best,” he said.
“Godspeed,” said Kabi, shaking the proffered hand.
He opened the hatch, letting the warm, humid air of the flat plain rush into the ship. Then, one by one, they left New Heaven and went their separate ways.
Ulsa'hi sniffed the air. They'd reached the research lab faster than anticipated, but now he was sure there was something amiss. The laboratory itself was dark with no sign of movement from within. And unless his nose was lying to him, there was death in there. He inhaled once more. There was a definite metallic hint to the air.
They circled the perimeter of the fence until they found a gate standing wide open. And then, in single file, hands on weapons, they approached the entrance to the facility. The door was ajar, and again Ulsa'hi smelled the odour of rotting meat and copper that signalled death. With quick hand motions, he told his men to wait whilst he entered the lab alone.
Crouching, his bolt blaster in his hand, he slipped around the door and found himself in a room that had once been some kind of reception area. Furniture was strewn around, but more worrying were the streaks of blood on the walls and floors and the burnt, blackened stains left by energy bolts. Still, there were no bodies. He signalled for his men to enter. This place was empty. He could feel it.
Stepping over upturned chairs and blood stains, he went to a glass door on the opposite wall, peering through the glass but seeing nothing other than flashing lights from the machinery inside. Standing to one side, he pushed on the door, and as he did so a body rolled out to meet him. It had obviously been propped up against the other side of the door, and from the white coat it looked to be a scientist of some kind. And from the maggots writhing in the cold flesh, it had been dead for a while.
Ulsa'hi called his men over. “We're too late for whatever happened here. Split up and search the place. Retrieve as much data as you can.”
Going back to the glass door he'd opened, he took a deep breath, then pushed inside. He counted three, no, four more bodies, all in the same state of decay as the first. Shaking his head to get the image of maggots out of his mind, he concentrated on what he had to do. But he soon found that most of the computers in the lab had been destroyed, making any data irretrievable. It was only then that he took a closer look at the flashing lights he'd seen from outside. And his heart froze.
“Out! Out! Out!” he shouted, as loudly as possible. “Bomb!”
They barely escaped the building before a fireball exploded inside, knocking them off their feet.
“Major, are you all right?” one of the men asked.
Ulsa'hi carefully picked himself up. He was injured but mobile. “I'm fine,” he rasped.
Then, looking up at the burning research lab, he realised that it was a beacon for the enemy. He had to withdraw his men.
“Update Kabi,” he croaked. “We're getting out of here now.”
A long, wired fence stretched out as far as they could see. Through small gaps, Lucia could make out a wide stretch of concrete.
“It's used for the launch,” Kabi explained.
He took a step back and surveyed the fence. He could see an open gate just a short distance away with no signs of any guard. He pointed it out to Lucia, who nodded.
“It seems like they're inviting us inside,” she said.
“And that makes me think that they've got a surprise waiting for us,” agreed Kabi.
“Well then, it would be rude not to accept their invitation.” Lucia grinned.
“But I don't think we'll be going in through the front door,” Kabi said.
He lifted a hand to the fence, the area he touched morphing immediately into sand and scattering with the wind. Hand on her blaster, Lucia went through first. Still nothing happened. It wasn't until they were three quarters of the way across the concrete poured over the plain that anything occurred, and then the ground beneath their feet began to tremble.
“Run!” shouted Kabi, already in flight. “The ground is opening!”
They both managed to make it to the building at the far end of the concrete before the ground fully opened. Huffing and trying to control her breathing, Lucia turned and saw that a large, circular door had slid open, taking the concrete with it. Down the immense hole she could see the outline of a ship. A spaceship. And judging by its profile, the ship was easily ten times the size of a dreadnought. Her heart stopped beating for a second.
A loud explosion sounded, and in synch, Kabi and Lucia turned to see a fireball on the horizon.
“The lab,” said Lucia.
Kabi nodded. He was sorry for Ulsa'hi and his men, but there was nothing he could do for them. He pulled at Lucia's arm, directing her towards the building. And then his com beeped.
“Ulsa'hi injured. Lab destroyed. No data retrievable. It was a trap. We're withdrawing to the Freedom.”
Kabi looked at Lucia, who shook her head.
“No, I'm not going with them,” she said.
Shrugging, Kabi spoke into the com: “Message received. Godspeed.” He looked again at Lucia. “This will be dangerous. It was only fate that saved Ulsa'hi and his men. They should have died in that explosion.”
“I love danger,” said Lucia, her green eyes burning. “Now let's go.”
Kabi examined her one more time, still wondering why she loved danger so much. Maybe it was the adrenaline. He shrugged and walked off into the building, Lucia following him.
Cautiously they walked through the seemingly empty building, echoing corridors stretching out in all directions. But they knew this place couldn't possibly be empty. They just hadn't found the right doorway yet. Finally, Kabi held out a hand to stop Lucia from turning a corner and peeked his head around. Just as he'd sensed, there were two guards there, standing watch over a door. Lucia glanced too, then nodded once at Kabi, who rolled his eyes but allowed her to continue.
Reaching down, she slid two daggers out of her belt, one in each hand. She closed her eyes, remembering where each guard stood. Then she took a deep breath, stepped around the corner, and threw both knives simultaneously. Both daggers hit their targets, but Lucia had already concealed herself back with Kabi, just in case. After waiting a few seconds to ensure that no one came running to a silent alarm, they approached the guards. Kabi patted the more senior-looking man down until he found a security pass, then standing back, scanned the pass over the door.
Nothing. Again. Lucia sighed in frustration. The constant anxiety was getting to her. She wanted to fight now, to get it over with. But the door opened onto another empty corridor. Dammit. Kabi just smiled and pointed. There was an elevator at the end of the hallway. Lucia raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Here's the plan,” Kabi whispered.
“They are coming, My Lord.”
Lord Camuse looked up to see the elevator indicator turn red.
“Positions,” he said calmly.
Twenty of his finest men, Black Knights to the core, surrounded the elevator door, blasters trained on the exit. Camuse stood behind them, smirking. He couldn't wait to see Kabi's face as those last few seconds of life drained from him.
The lift stopped, the men held their blasters higher, everyone stopped breathing for a moment, but ... nothing. Camuse frowned. He tapped the shoulder of the soldier closest to him and pointed at the still-closed door. The man strode forwards, hitting the button that should open the elevator. Then all hell broke loose.
As soon as the doors slid open a fraction, Camuse's men began to fire, not waiting to see what was inside, just blindly shooting. Smoke billowed around the chamber, obscuring everything until the last blaster, drained of energy, stopped firing. And then the men waited with bated breath until the smoke cleared and they could see the carnage that they'd created.
But all they saw was the mutilated and barely recognisable body of a guard they all knew. Nothing else. The men turned questioningly towards Camuse. Then one Knight groaned, lifted a hand to his neck, and collapsed, a quivering knife sticking out of his throat.
“Come out, KabiOnn,” roared Camuse.
Two more soldiers fell, daggers protruding from their backs. The lights flickered. The men were well-trained soldiers, but none could see where the weapons were coming from. Lucia smiled in grim satisfaction. It had been Kabi's idea to use the dead guard as a shield and the blaster smoke to conceal their movements. Dangerous, but it had worked.
“This is a cheap trick, KabiOnn,” warned Camuse.
He took a half-step forward and felt a rush of air, then turned to see three shards of crystal sticking out of the very place he'd been standing. The lights flickered again, and looking up, Camuse suddenly saw what was going to happen. But it wasn't going to happen to him. He had a promise to keep to the Supreme Emperor. Whirling around, his cloak spinning wide, he ran.
There was a loud crack, then silence, then a crash as the ceiling above the soldiers gave way. Kabi had quite simply turned the support pillars into sand. Very effective, he thought, satisfied. The Black Knights crushed, he stepped out of the shadows at almost exactly the same time as Lucia.
“He's gone,” said the captain. “That way.”
She pointed towards an open side door.
“Ah, the next level of his trap,” said Kabi, thoughtfully. “Shall we find out what he has in store for us?” He grinned, and Lucia grinned back.
Realising he was at a distinct disadvantage forced Camuse to run. But he wasn't running away. No, he had a plan. And this trap was certain to kill KabiOnn. He smiled even as he ran. His right leg was stiff, the joint unable to bend properly, but it didn't slow him down, at least not by much. The wound was the final reminder of a long-ago defeat, one that today he was going to avenge. Yes, he thought, as he spotted the boarding ladder to his ship, KabiOnn is going to pay today for that defeat. And Camuse was going to face the Emperor with pride this time, not that greasy, abject shame that had eaten him away after his defeat.
He climbed the ladder to the spaceship's hatch as quickly as he could, thanking the Gods that he'd taken stimulant pills before the battle to energise him. Reaching the hatch, he looked back and saw Kabi entering the launch pad, followed by a red-haired woman. Was it she, he wondered, who had created the wall of ice that had killed his son? But with no time to contemplate the matter, he disappeared inside the ship.
Lucia gasped involuntarily. The ship was even more awe-inspiring up close, and her mouth dropped open. Kabi ran ahead of her, the two of them getting closer and closer. The name New Dawn was painted onto the hull, and Lucia didn't realise until she was close to the metal-bodied monster what was amiss with the situation. The name was newly painted. There were signs of other letters below them. Gods. It was an old pirate trick and one she knew well.
“Kabi, this isn't the ship we're looking for,” she yelled.
And she knew in her heart that it wasn't. This was a trick, a trap. This was a ship, not the ship. But Kabi just kept running.
“It matters not,” he told her, coming to a stop at the bottom of the ladder. “What matters is to catch Camuse. And then we shall have all the information we need.”
Roughly, he pushed her back from the ladder, and she stumbled.
“This is a trap!” he told her. “Go back, now!”
Still reeling from being shoved, she almost tripped over her own feet. Before she could reach up again to grasp a rung, she saw Kabi push through the hatch and bang it closed. She heard the hiss of the air lock, the groan of metal as he locked the door, and she knew it was too late. She screamed his name, uselessly, and pounded on the metal hull. But it was futile.
It was only as she stepped back that she felt the weight of something in her breast pocket. Puzzled, she wiped her tears from her face and fumbled until she found what was causing the weight. Her fingers grasped something, and she pulled out a small amulet filled with sand. Kabi must have secreted it there as he’d pushed her away. And looking at it, she knew what she had to do. She wiped her face one more time, clutched the amulet in her hand, and backtracked.
Kabi could clearly hear the electronic voice of the ship begin the countdown sequence as he approached the New Dawn's cockpit. Fine, the ship wasn't the New Dawn, but that's what the painted sign had said. He sighed. Why did everything have to be so complicated? He rolled his shoulders and stretched, then, as casually as he could, and walked onto the bridge, where he immediately saw Camuse sitting in the pilot's chair.
“I think, dear KabiOnn,” said Camuse, idly, “that this would be a good place to end our little feud.”
Kabi pretended to think for a moment, then nodded. “Agreed,” he said.
He raised his hands, and once more the huge, double-edged crystal sword sprang to life. Camuse smiled and, standing, reached to claim a spear from a rack on the wall.
“Now or never,” Kabi said, giving Camuse an evil grin.
Camuse once again thanked his lucky stars that the stimulant was still running through his veins, letting his old, tired bones and muscles perform like those of a young buck. He circled Kabi carefully, looking for his opening, then pounced.
The two men fought ferociously, glittering shards of crystal flying through the air as Kabi blocked hit after hit. Kabi gritted his teeth, finding the place of focus as fast as he could, concentrating only on defending himself. Then he was pulled away from the power as the ship rocked.
“Only forty-five seconds to take-off,” pointed out the ship's computer in a droning voice.
“Looks like we don't have much time, Lord Camuse,” said Kabi, playing for seconds as he desperately tried to reach his place of focus again.
Camuse laughed. “Then die!”
He thrust forward, and as soon as he moved, Kabi knew that he'd been caught off guard. He twisted his sword, but with no power and little concentration, he knew that his time had come. Camuse's spear drew closer, moving almost in slow motion, and Kabi grinned, determined to meet death with a smile.
Then the ship rocked again.
Camuse's delicate footwork had left him in an awkward position, balancing on his toes. As the ship jerked, he was pushed forwards by momentum, and Kabi's blade was in just the right position. Camuse screamed in agony as he was impaled on the massive crystal sword. But he was dead before he reached the hilt.
The ship began to shake violently, causing Kabi to drop his weapon. He had little time now. Systems began coming online, electronics flickering and beeping. And then the main display system hissed and blinked, and a familiar face appeared.
“Scorpio. So good to see you again.”
Kabi swore vehemently.
“Now, now, Scorpio,” said the Supreme Emperor, smiling gently. “There's no need for that kind of language. You forced me to do this, after all.” He sighed, a false look of wistfulness on his face. “I shall miss you,” he said. “Goodbye, Scorpio, my brother-in-arms.”
And with that, the ship gave one last violent judder and began to ascend, its thrusters burning into life, pushing up out of the massive hole in the ground.
“Farewell,” whispered Kabi to those he loved best.
The Freedom had sailed to the closest bay possible to the launch site. The others had all returned; only Kabi remained on the island. Those standing on the open deck heard the roar of the ship’s launching before they saw it. Then the smooth, sleek shape of the craft slid out of the launch bay and began to rise into the deep blue of the sky. Following it with their eyes, they watched the spaceship fly closer and closer to the sun. And all were watching as it erupted into a fireball.
Maicee felt the tears spill down his face and collapsed to his knees, his head in his hands. He knelt, shivering, unable to believe that his uncle was gone. The others bowed their heads in recognition of the price they had paid. The mission was almost over. It had been a success. But KabiOnn had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Gulping in a deep breath and ignoring her tears, Lucia gave the order.
“Set sail for Britannia.”
And the Freedom slowly turned away from New Heaven and pointed itself towards the open sea.