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[Age of Mouldwarp]    

Quagmire
The moment the Ardor left Trevigall orbit Myrmidon dispatched his most loyal minion to track the Quadian Five down and eliminate them.  Thatís whatís generally believed.  The Vanadi dissenters, as Lord Phan suspected, werenít going to back down very easily, and the scary part was that Myrmidon himself was only a vice-monitor.  The Ardor was headed for the world Mollwan, the second largest in the Vanadi sector, to conference with the factionís leaders themselves, and Myrmidonís task was to ensure they didnít make it.  He couldnít achieve this goal with something so crass as an explosion placed aboard the Ardor for two reasons: one, the Quadian Five were resourceful enough to discover the devise and disable it, and two, he was still a gentleman, despite indications to the contrary.  He saw the Quadian for what it was, a noble effort to unite the void in harmony that would eventually corrupt and thusly cause more harm than good.  All that talk about elemental chaos was simply a front.

     The minionís ship was typical in Vanadi design in that it was star-shaped, but constructed of an artificial organic substance that allowed its crimson hull to pulse about as it manipulated the Pasear Field.  It appeared not unlike a squid in your oceans as it propelled across space, gaining on the Ardor with every push forward.  It was just large enough to contain one person, but Towar was able to run the ship well enough on her own.

     Onboard the Ardor, Trey the Conqueror was admitting defeat.  "Our wits failed us.  Myrmidon was prepared to refute our proposition at every turn.  We reached an agreement, an understanding, but it was a hollow accord.  This does not bode well."

     "Cheer up," Haxed suggested, seated in his familiar position at the pentagonal table in the conference room.  "Myrmidon was never the focus of this mission to begin with.  The Vanadi would call him luohígyin."  Humans would loosely translate that as small potatoes, by the way.  "There are brighter stars ahead."

     Across from him Umecit growled, "Never underestimate an opponent, no matter his station or power.  The more they need prove themselves the more ambitious they are."

     "But the bigger picture remains," Trey stated.  "The Quadian needed Myrmidonís support if it was to bring anything of real weight to the table with the Obdurate.  We have nothing."

     "We have time," Lord Phan interjected.  "That is all we can be sure of.  That is all we need."

     "Time is exactly what our Quadian needs," Trey said.  The coalition between the four races was in fact built on time.  The Tikanni gave the Omoxians two centuries worth of it, and the Omoxians more than proved valuable an acquaintance, a mass of wisdom and cunning, virtues the Tikanni thought highly of.  They proved also that other races were more than just curiosities, but a mindset all their own that had as much right as any to roam the stars and prosper, so the two spent an additional two centuries improving their mutual stock, in which time they encountered the Vitell and my own Vanadi.  In fifty years, all in Treyís lifetime, the four races learned to cooperate, forging a coalition of collaboration they hoped would benefit all inhabitants of the void.  The whole point of the Ardorís mission was to enact these means on a charterís scale.
     As the five discussed their state of affairs Towarís ship grew nearer and nearer, until at last it was upon the Ardor, latching itself onto the larger vessel with a suction-like magnetic pulse.  Rejon, who was often the first to notice things, whispered, "Myrmidonís redress is here," just before the ships joined.

     "It appears Myrmidon was a little less civil than we gave him credit for.  But they didnít come in firing so letís assume that the gloves are still on.  Letís go meet our guest," Trey entreated.  Towarís ship had locked onto the dorsal pylon, and the Quadian Five was there to greet her, palms open, when the door hissed open.  Lord Phan, it should be noted, actually was wearing gloves, a white ribbed pair that extended slightly past his wrists, meeting his frilled frock in the accustomed Tikanni high fashion.
     Towar, an average height Vanadi female dressed in a sheer olive cloak, in striking contrast to her crimson pelt, that concealed her entire body, strode out, unarmed and presenting the Vanadi greeting, saying in a calm voice, "Honored ambassadors, I come to serve you."

     "Welcome aboard the Ardor," Trey greeted hesitantly but in his usual commanding manner.  "Although it canít be said we were expecting you, Iím sure we can make the proper accommodations."

     "My ship suits me well enough," she replied in return.  "Allow me to introduce myself.  I am Towar, daughter of Schanmar and Towa.  I serve Myrmidon, who seeks to make amends for the treatment he gave you on Trevigall."

     "Forgive my saying, but Myrmidon didnít seem quite so helpful in person," Umecit quipped.

     "He is under a great deal of pressure from the Obdurate," Towar clarified.  "He couldnít have helped you even if heíd intended to."

     "Intended to?" Trey wondered aloud.
     "In a manner of speaking," Towar said.
     "The shadows arenít meant for the innocent," Phan mused.  "We are anxious to hear your story."

     "Myrmidon indeed sent me, but not for the purpose I have set for myself.  I intend to help you in your quest."

     "Then what did he send you for?" Haxed inquired.

     "To kill you," Towar stated.  "But that would not have been in his best interests.  That is why I altered my mission.  Iíve come to deliver you a warning."  It is said that in every culture the pillars of wisdom can often be found in the female population.  The Vanadi are no different.  They will often have to tear and scratch and claw for the opportunity, but they will never overtly operate in this way.  They are much too demure, and cunning.

     At Phanís prodding, Trey accepted this story and brought Towar to the Measures room.  There she informed them of a plot to ensnare them at the port world of Stringfellow, in whose direction the Ardor was headed on its way to Mollwan.  "The trick is that Stringfellow is also home to an influential family among the Obdurate, one that could secure you Myrmidonís allegiance.  He could end up on your side despite himself," Towar said.

     "Thatís a definite snag," Haxed noted.  "But why would Myrmidon allow such an oversight?"

     "Because the Obdurate is far from a perfect organization, despite what it would lead you to believe," Towar said.  The Obdurate was a collection of Vanadi nobles who had worn out their political welcome.  Barons such as Myrmidon found their clout reduced in society to the extent that if they were ever to achieve anything of significance in the future, it would have to be amongst themselves.  They found themselves on a quagmire, diluted ground that yielded under their feet, so they built up their own foundation and took control of the outer worlds, forlorn, forgotten, but still a force to be reckoned with.  They created a reputation for themselves by championing lost causes, such as the one Trey symbolized as the most powerful threat theyíd encountered.
     "Perfection isnít the question here, itís the problem," Trey said.  "Myrmidon seemed bent on an idea of imperfection that negated any possible remedy, thereby sealing himself into a cocoon of aggression.  Speaking of cocoons, youíll understand if I am interested in touring your ship?"

     "By all means, carry one out if you wish," Towar said.  Umecit and Haxed gave each other a quick glance, and Trey delivered one of his own to them.  Without a word the Vanadi and Vitell exited tranquilly from the groupís presence, and Towar gave the briefest of sighs in response.  She added, "Let us hope that we donít seal ourselves into such a cocoon."

     "Thatís up to you," Trey stated.  "I appreciate your forthrightness, but youíll understand if I still donít entirely trust you."

     "Trust, however, can be balanced by a show of faith.  We are unarmed.  Wonít you be so kind," Lord Phan asked in a hushed tone.

     "Your eyes are sharp, Tikanni," Towar hissed back.  "Not many others would notice an opaque firearm.  But I assure you it is ornamental in nature."

     "What sort of person dresses in the morning with a veiled weapon as an amulet," Phan wondered aloud.

     "Perhaps one who has seen firearms do far worse than hang as a brooch," Towar countered.  Vanadi, like yourselves, have an especially violent past, worse than your own.  There have been conflicts the likes you couldnít imagine, where entire populations have been wiped out over simple disagreements.  How would you react to a simple editorial against a rulerís policies concerning historic preservation?  Regent Palimin ordered a hundred thousand executions.  But that was long ago, in a far less democratic time.  Though the Obdurate was out of favor, it was tolerated as a legitimate political entity as long as it stayed within the conduct of civility.  War became less and less a means of conversation as the Vanadi spread throughout its sector.  None of which is to say that things were so rosy under the surface.

     Inside Towarís ship, Umecit and Haxed found nothing but star charts and data modules, plus a few containers they assumed were for victuals.  Aside from the navigation apparatus in the center of the craft, there wasnít anything else, and certainly nothing that appeared  incriminating.  Haxed looked satisfied.  Umecit didnít.

     "An efficient ship, almost too efficient," Umecit stated.  "She has to be hiding something."

     "Perhaps she has a full stock of paranoia," Haxed joked, before returning a more serious response: "Whatever it may be, I donít trust her.  Too cooperative."

     "Such efficiency usually breeds room for surprises," Umecit continued, all but ignoring Haxedís remarks.  "I want to check those rations to start with, and the contents of her databases."

     "Youíll find nothing," Towar stated at Treyís insistence.  "Stringfellow is a large planet.  Some would say chaotic.  Donít search for the DuíLon contact.  Let him find you."

     "Which leaves plenty of time for this ambush you claim is waiting for us to occur," Trey protested.
     "Thatís why you--" Towar began before Phan cut her off.

     "Become an opaque firearm."  He clasped his gloved hands behind himself as he said this, emphasizing his point.  With Tikanni, it was always important to take in the whole picture to understand what was being expressed.  Body movement was rarely wasted.

     "Is that what you are in Myrmidonís camp," Trey inquired, "a hidden factor?"

     "Only hidden in the sense that it is exactly what Myrmidon wishes of me," Towar explained.  "He truly believes that elemental chaos tripe he fed you.  Itís gotten him into this situation; one he fully understood was possible.  One he made sure was more than a possibility when he elected me to be his aide.  Thatís how I earned his trust to begin with, by compromising it withÖa show of faith.  Many of them."

     "Forgive me for saying, but that doesnít sound like a very stable relationship," Trey said.  "What it sounds like is bad business."

     "The Omoxi are known for playing it safe," Towar remarked.

     "ĎPlaying it safeí is a commendable imperative when you face the unknown," Phan stated.  This was, of course, the opposite of the Tikanni mindset, which is exactly what they often told outsiders to through them off.  That was the Tikanni way, to remain aloof even in the face of prolonged exposure.  Some would say that this was an advantage, especially the Tikanni themselves, but in the long run obscurity always costs more than it gains.  They would learn this, embrace it, relish in it.  But Iím getting ahead of myself.

     "The Omoxi believe that stability is the goal for which to strive," Trey said.  "To know the present and understand the past is to comprehend what the future has to offer.  One cannot do this with warring elements in the way.  The topography needs to be smooth."

     "I find that diversity is more interesting," Towar said coyly.

     "Iím not speaking of diversity.  Diversity is an integral weave in the fabric," Trey explained.  "What the Omoxi do not abide is ambiguity."

     "Vanadi strive on ambiguity," Towar drawled.

     "NowÖthat is strange," Umecit noted over his shoulder.  He was crouched against the bulkhead of Towarís ship, using a scanning devise to aid his and Haxedís inspection.
     "What is it?  Tell me youíve found something.  Anything," Haxed implored.  Patience was not a virtue for us in those times.  Weíve improved, however.

     "I canít be sure," Umecit noted.  "Itís a low-scale rhythm, registering faintly on the frequency chart.  It could mean any number of things.  She could have anything from a sponger infestation to a secret stash of sprockets."

     "The shipís too small for sprockets, no matter how she-- Run a spectral analysis on the phase bands," an agitated Haxed suddenly explained.

     "Okay, but what good--" Umecit began.

     "She is hiding something.  The question now is what," Haxed stated, now looking even more concerned from his perch in the navigation apparatus, where he had been studying flight logs.

     "Whatever it is, itís big," Umecit said.  "On the ember band her ship lights up like an Omoxian at midnight."

     "Dequaros íven nopre jacvalum," Haxed stated.

     "What is it?" Umecit asked, himself now looking anxious.

     "Brace yourself," Haxed warned.

     "You have some explaining to do," Trey informed Towar.  "Such as, why have you been lying to us all this time?"

     "I concur," Phan added.  "When do the troops arrive?"
     "Iím sorry it had to be this way," Towar replied before an explosion rocked the cabin.  The Hesslans are a race of aliens forever splintered by first contact with the Tikanni.  In the period following discovery of the Pasear Field and before a truce was reached with the Omoxians, the Tikanni ran ramshackle through the void, visiting a dozen worlds with little interest in how they impacted the indigenous peoples.  One of the most disastrous encounters was on the planet known sneeringly by its own people as Inwrought, inhabited by the relentlessly bellicose Hesslans.  Capturing as a prize an intact Tikanni vessel, the Hesslans obtained the Pasear Drive for themselves thusly, and proceeded to scour throughout known space in splintered tribes.  It was with a handful of Hesslan-Vaegans that Towar chose to work.

     Haxed and Umecit had been overtaken immediately when the phase-shifted cargo hold emerged and let forth its contents, a menacing blend of flesh and weaponry of the most destructive kind.  Towar took hold of her "opaque firearm" and pointed it at Trey, though a genuinely pained expression gripped her face.  Lord Phan had disappeared as soon as the explosion had begun, but Rejon held his ground.  Phan had not abandoned them, but rather had gone to lock down the rest of the Ardor.  He was far from a coward.
     In the artillery concave Phan searched for the defense regulator.  Amidst the elegant curves of the weaponry, he fit in nicely, appearing more at home than the deceptively awkward-looking Umecit ever managed to.  Despite appearances, Phan didnít feel at home here.  He despised Omoxi design, dismissing it as too uniformly simplistic.  Within moments, he spotted the regulator; a triangular panel nestled between two venting ports, hidden in plain sight.  He reached in his garments and found the plotter sachet each of the Quadian Five possessed, all plotters safe-guarded by a genetic tag.

     But something was in the shadows.  An obsidian-colored Hesslan-Vaegan (all Hesslans were, actually) stepped out, his left arm extended with a disruptor pointed at Phanís head.  "Donít move," the mercenary hissed.

     Phan offered no resistance.  He placed his arms in the air, his back facing the Hesslan-Vaegan.  But the glove on his right hand started to glow.  An amber hue emerged soon, and the mercenary started to waver.  The glow became a point, then a longer point, before finally emerging as a full blade.  Phan calmly lowered his arm until the blade met the mercenaryís disruptor.  "Care to guess again?" he commented, a bemused smile cracking.  "Your weapon, get it out of my face.  Now."

     The mercenary did as told.  Phan turned slowly, keeping the blade in the mercenaryís direction.  "What is your name?"

     "Kais Felrek," the mercenary replied with a suddenly defiant attitude.  "And yours?"

     "You may call me Branljn," Phan stated.  Taking into account Felrekís continued awe of his blade, he added, "Itís called a psiglaive.  Iím surprised you havenít heard of it."

     "Iíve never seen one in person, is more the stumbling block," Kais replied.  "Rumors are one thing.  Legends another.  But thisÖ"

     "Pray that this is as close as you ever get to one," Phan said.

     "I have no intention of dying a foolís death," Kais stated.

     "Youíre living a foolís life," Phan said.  "Why not?"

     "A fool is someone who doesnít know what heís getting himself into," Kais said, adding, "such as locking down oneís ship after accounting for all contingents.  Or have I distracted you?"

     "You may have distracted me, but it is only that," Phan said.  "A distraction."

     "Is it?"

     "I offer you this one chance to escape with your life.  I suggest you take it."
               * * *
     Itís not that such a tactic was unexpected, or even unprecedented, in intergalactic affairs.  It was more about disappointment than disparity.  Towar had let them down.  Behind all of the noble ideals and moral temperament lay a bitter taste, an echo of impudence that scratched and clawed and tore at all Trey had seen in her.  At the moment of stagger, the Omoxian engineer felt it all unravel before him, and his luminosity brightened sharply, a punishing symbol of the coldness that was entering his heart.  This fueled a bitter resolve to drive the Hesslans back, and thus it was ensured that the ambush would fail.  When it was at an end, things stood a little differently.

     "What do you know of the Andiron Ewer?" Rejon asked Towar, who was near death.  Umecit had revived quickly, helping Trey to overcome their attackers.  Though surprised, Trey hardly missed a beat.  He drove his inner wrist claws into the first Vaegan that emerged, killing him instantly.  The second got past him, but Rejon caught him in his own deadly embrace.  The rest, about a half-dozen, fought better, fiercer, perhaps at the sight of their fallen comrades.  The skirmish had been less than either side had anticipated, but enough.  The Vaegans had the advantage of disruptors, which they exploited to the fullest, though might was never a good substitute for skill in battle.  Towar, who remained neutral for most of the fight, had placed herself in the way of a blast meant for Trey, sacrificing herself.  Redeeming herself, perhaps.

     "The Straits of Perdition," she managed in his lap.
     "Where?  Where are the Straits?" Rejon pleaded softly as the life drained from Towarís eyes.

     "Tell TreyÖTell Trey that I fought for him," she stammered before collapsing into the embrace of night.  Rejon surveyed the conference room, where the skirmish had unfolded.  Haxed sat against the bulkhead, his head bandaged.  Umecit was preparing the Hesslan-Vaegan corpses for burial in space.  Trey rested against the table, glowing less intensely but still brilliantly.  Phan was at the entrance of the corridor to the concave, looking uncomfortable.  Towarís ship had departed, Kais aboard it, before anyone realized what had happened.  Rejon sighed.  The room was quiet for what seemed a very long time.

     "The fruits of Myrmidonís philosophy," Trey observed at last.  "But he hasnít won, not by a long shot.  Not yet."

     "One cannot win what one was not a part of," Phan noted.

     "You still believe that Towar was working independently?" Trey asked halfheartedly.

     "Of course," Phan said, as if it was an obvious conclusion.

     "Under Myrmidonís orders or not," Umecit added, "sheís emphasized the point that Myrmidon himself cannot be trusted."

     "Regardless of his credibility, Myrmidon is still an important factor in our quest," Trey observed reluctantly.

     "She had a change of heart, that is all," Haxed remarked.  "She was and always had been Myrmidonís puppet."

     "A puppet who got tangled in its strings," Umecit said.

     "But she proved one thing," Trey began.  "Myrmidon is vulnerable.  Heís built it into his philosophy and that is precisely what we will use to bring the Obdurate under control.  DuíLon Predda is waiting for us on Stringfellow.  But is the ambush waiting for us as Towar suggested?"

     "I have a better question: What happened to her ship?" Umecit asked, drawing the othersí attention to the pylon transom, which had been covered by Towarís ship before and now offered its recurrent view of the stars.

     "It is reasonable to assume that in the skirmish the ship was somehow jettisoned," Phan offered, covering his tracks.

     "One of the Vaegans did fire more than a few shots in my direction, which could have affected the stability of the shipís hold on the pylon," Haxed added, unintentionally collaborating with Phanís deception.  Kais Felrek had taken a rift generator from the concave, which had concealed his dash through the conference at the moment of Towarís sacrifice.  He had almost paused then, but managed to draw himself away and board the Vanadi transport, drifting away at Towarís last breaths.
     "Following our course to Mollwan is our only option," Phan said.  "We can handle whatever may await us there."

     "I suppose that even if she wasnít being entirely truthful with us, Towar may have been sincere about the ambush," Umecit said.

     "Ambush or not, then, weíre proceeding to Stringfellow," Trey decided.

     "Myrmidon has proven unreliable.  Why continue to pursue him?" Phan interjected.

     "Because we have a better chance at Mollwan with his support than without," Haxed stated.  "That means going to Stringfellow."

     "That means a risk we donít need," Phan said.

     "Risks are part of the game," Trey said.  "The Quadian was built on the greatest risk of all: Can you trust your neighbor as you would trust your family?  I choose to believe that you can."

     Phan stopped himself from saying, That is a foolish choose.  "Towar took a risk, played off of your own game, and it destroyed her."

     "If nothing else, Towar proved the opposite," Trey claimed.  "She beat the odds, besting Myrmidon at his own game.  I believe that this is what awaits us at Stringfellow."
     "Iíll see if I canít contact this DuíLon Predda before we reach the planet," Haxed offered.

     "Donít bother.  If thereís one thing Towar made abundantly clear, itís that nothing will be easy from this point onward," Trey concluded.  He was, of course, right.  The five sent each of the Hesslan-Vaegans into space as per Hesslan custom.  For Towar they reserved a special honor, an Omoxian shroud ritual which culminated in sacred cremation.  They were determined to do things right, and do right to all they came upon along the way.  A strong foundation of virtue on which to build.

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