He had always hated opera. Tonight was no exception.
Darren Hawke, one of an ever-dwindling number of Homo sapiens left on Earth, gazed around at the tittering crowds and forced himself to keep a pleasantly neutral expression on his face as he offered sweetmeats to the milling guests. House Garuda had spared no expense in the catering; wines from vineyards that no longer existed, handed off to chortling, self-congratulating butchers. The urge to swing his silver platter into someone’s face was becoming almost uncontrollable. If he had a gun…
…well, he’d be dead before he could even fire it. If he was lucky, he’d be able to draw it. So it was probably for the best. Besides, he hadn’t lived this long by giving in to his sense of righteous indignation no matter how viscerally satisfying that it might be.
Dressed in his fine server’s outfit with the icon of the Atlas Theater on his left breast, Darren swayed through the crowd, dodging the oblivious or uncaring partygoers and the other staff as they threaded their own way through press of bodies. Most of other servers were familiars, but like him a handful were sapiens. None of them were trustworthy; the former for obvious reasons and the latter for a slew of others. Chief among them the pat on the head for turning in a spy.
The doors had only just opened, but the lounge was filling quickly. Lord Garuda often had the performances start early to make sure those who tried be ‘fashionably late’ suffered the indignity of arriving to an empty hall, their fellow partygoers already having taken the best seats in the theater.
A murmur of excitement ran through the crowd and Darren looked up. Right on time, he thought, a knot twisting in his stomach. He’d known who tonight’s festivities were for but his heart still skipped a beat as he recognized its gliding stride into the mezzanine lounge even before the majordomo spoke up. All the invictus had the same smooth gait, but this one was different, as if distilled to its perfect, predatory essence.
“Introducing Lady Alexandra Irine Savoy, House Vipress.”
She was dressed in a simple, yet elegant green dress that gleamed like water under the room’s lights. It matched her eyes, her emerald gaze darting warily across every face as she smiled shakily at the other partygoers. Her golden hair was bound in a single long braid that hung almost to her waist, a silver clasp stylized like a snake’s head fastened to the end. Her hands twitched, as if she were uncomfortable and had to stop herself from playing with her outfit. There was a smattering of muted applause and Savoy tilted her head in acknowledgment, murmuring thanks under her breath before making a beeline for the bar.
Watching her navigate the crowd and avoid each glad-handing aristocrat was like watching an anaconda glide through water. Hawke forced himself not to stare. There was no ‘House Vipress’. At least, there hadn’t been until a few months ago, when they’d cracked Savoy’s cryo tube and let her out. Darren could still see a faint network of as-yet unhealed scars that ran across the invictus’s skin like cracks through marble stone. Even an invictus could only heal so fast from such damage.
Savoy was an enigma, an object of fascination to the other sapiens and familiars here, but he knew more about her than most. She was one of the deadliest creatures on the planet, one of the primogenitors’ gene-bred killers, a product of an earlier time. From the war, the only war that mattered. Her presence here was the surest proof there was that God existed and was a sick son of a bitch. Shot, stabbed, burned and crushed beneath tons of rubble, somehow she’d clung to life long enough to be interred in a cryo tube, her wounds so grave that reviving her would have killed her.
The murdering bitch had spent ninety years in stasis, turned into a fetish for the rest of the Hegemony to worship. Her injuries had been so severe, even with modern medical science, some people hadn’t believed she’d survive outside of stasis.
She had, of course. Her survival had been taken as a sign – further proof of the invictus’s right to rule – and the Great Houses had elevated the resurrected Savoy to nobility, granting her lands and a title. Garuda had fallen all over themselves to invite Lady Savoy to this encore performance of their famous opera, eager to make the acquaintance of such a noted hero.
Play your part, Darren reminded himself. Play your part. He hadn’t spent months living this false identity just to betray himself now. That was all he needed; to get distracted and make a slip-up. In this company, that would be fatal. His tray was empty of hors d’oeuvres and the small comm in his ear pinged; they needed more staff to serve wine. Slipping into the kitchen, Hawke traded his empty tray for one with several crystal glasses and an unopened bottle from the south of France. There would be no more of this vintage, not with its creators dead and the lands its grapes had grown on burnt to nothing. From what Darren had heard, Lady Halkein had been saving it for a special occasion, such as greeting the ‘Hero of Johannesburg’’
Hawke smiled politely as the partygoers accepted the glasses, making jokes about the providence of the wine and complimenting their Garuda hosts. Few even acknowledged his presence.
By sheer happenstance, he found himself close to the bar.
“You,” the directive was brusque and sharp. Hawke turned. Savoy was looking at him; she beckoned him to come over.
Holding back the gorge in his throat, he followed her command. “My lady?” he queried. There were already three empty glasses in front of her, and fourth half-drunk in her left hand, but she seemed unaffected by her alcohol intake. Her gaze was steady, a predator’s evaluation and despite his experience among the invictus, Darren felt a chill run down his spine. If you didn’t count the years she’d spent in cryo, she was younger than he was, but she was one of the ‘primagen’ breeds. All invictus were bred with certain improvements, but Savoy was different, even from the others here tonight. Her function hadn’t been to rule. She’d been bred to hunt, to kill – to destroy.
She reached out and snatched the unopened bottle off Darren’s tray with her free hand, setting it onto the countertop in front of her. She was still watching him. “You’ll do,” she said at last. “I have a private box. When the show starts, join me there. 309.”
He bowed. “My lady honours me.” Experience had dampened the flush of instinctive revulsion; un-marked sapiens and familiars were to be available to any invictus at any time. For anything.
She laughed. The sound was short, guttural and ugly. She drained the rest of her drink in a single gulp, setting the empty glass down on the bar. “Of course I do,” she said, standing and making her way through the crowd, the bottle of irreplaceable French wine still held tightly in her hand.
The other wait staff were in awe of Darren’s luck – to be picked by Lady Savoy, the Hero of Johannesburg! The familiars were wide-eyed, a few of them brushing their fingers along his coat to share in his fortune. The other sapiens chortled and muttered under their breath, giving Hawke more than one clap on the back or sarcastically wishing him luck for his ensuing liaison, disappointed that it hadn’t been them that had caught the Vipress’s eye.
This wouldn’t be the first time that Darren had had to… entertain an invictus. In any other circumstance, he would have been flattered by the attention… except for what Savoy was. Two weeks ago, Lord Sammael Halkein had beaten one of the sapiens girls to death because she had dared tell him ‘no’. There was no choice. When one of the masters asked, you obeyed. That was the world that Savoy and her creators had made. Ninety years of slavery, ninety years of Home sapiens dwindling in number. The invictus made jokes about him and his kind, talking about ‘evolution’ and ‘destiny’. He’d learned to live with it. To hide his true feelings and be their willing serf while he learned everything he could about them, passing anything of interest along to others.
The invictus believed they’d won the war. That was all right. Humanity – actual, pure humanity – was on the precipice of extinction, but they hadn’t been pushed over yet. They still fought and he was a part of that fight.
Their day was coming; Darren just hoped it would be soon.
309 was one of the nicer private boxes in the theater. Though Savoy apparently didn’t realize it, she had a lot of political capital and every House, great or small, was falling over themselves to try and impress her. Garuda had merely gotten there first.
Darren rang the chime, the door promptly opening. One of the theater’s familiars. Darren recognized her; Verona. She had strawberry-blonde hair, bright blue eyes and skin with just a touch of duskiness. She was one of the theater’s comfort girls; her jacket was open in a V that ran down to her waist, gathered by a silk belt and only the double-sided adhesive on the inside of her outfit kept her from spilling out of her top with every movement. She only briefly met his eyes before standing aside. “Mistress Savoy is waiting for you,” she said softly, gesturing into the suite. The invictus was inside, seated on one of the luxurious chairs facing the balcony.
Hawke nodded and stepped into the room, approaching the bitch. He kept his expression the appropriate mixture of tension, excitement, apprehension and anticipation – the way any man facing a liaison with an invictus might appear.
Savoy didn’t even look up. She was sprawled over her chair, resting her head against the splayed fingers of her right hand. “Sit,” she ordered. The bottle of wine she’d appropriated sat in a bucket of ice to her right, still unopened.
Darren did so. The entire front of the room was taken up by a wall of privacy glass, allowing the occupants to look out while preventing anyone else from seeing in. Aside from himself and Verona, Savoy was alone. He hadn’t expected that. Oh, he’d been sure what she wanted from him, but there were none of the other nobles here to fawn over the Vipress, trying to curry favour with the Hegemony’s greatest hero, nor a milling host of fawning serfs to tend to her whims.
The theater lights had dimmed and on the stage, a tall man with the sigil of Garuda on his jacket breast was talking, but Darren couldn’t hear a thing. That was all right – he’d heard enough of Geoffrey Halkein’s self-primping speeches to know that he was thanking his guests for their attendance, taking about high human culture, and simpering in the general direction of the night’s VIP.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Savoy said. “I turned the sound off. If I had to listen to another syllable from that pompous windbag, I’d have to kill him.”
Hawke blinked, caught off-guard by the young woman’s comment. He had no idea how to respond. Behind him, he could see that Verona was as surprised as he was. Should he laugh? Was he supposed to? Would Savoy take offence at a human finding the death of one of her people humorous? Fortunately, she saved him from having to answer.
Her hand swept out, a recently-depleted wine glass aimed in the general direction of the booth’s small bar. “This is empty.”
Verona hurried to fill it. Savoy took a drink, letting out a small sigh. “Do you know what they called this piece of shit? The Triumph of Will.” She shook her head. “You’d think one of the people involved in the production would have opened a history book at some point in their lives. Or maybe they did. Maybe the title is supposed to be some kind of commentary that works on a deep metatextual level.” The invictus snorted. “Or not. ‘There is no history that matters but us’,” she quoted from Jang-Li’s The Rise of High Human Culture. “Hmm,” she looked down. “My glass is empty again.”
The play began. Darren had never seen the whole thing – he was a server, after all. He had, however heard departing audience members gushing about how ‘inspirational’ it was, how masterfully scored and acted, how perfect every scene was, how it was such a fitting tribute to the end of the war and the hard-won peace. It was a vanity piece, there to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of humanity’s – true, actual humanity – fall.
The story began with a scene of the Primogenitors, of their vision and foresight. Darren had seen enough others like it not to have to worry about reacting, but deep inside all he could feel was hate. Five billion dead because of the ‘Primogenitors’. Five billion dead and Homo sapiens a dwindling memory. If given the chance, he would kill each and every one of those men and women. Even if they were children. Even if he had to kill their parents, their grand-parents… he would do it. Them and everyone like them, who even so much as looked at the human genome and said ‘what if’?
He looked over to his hostess. She was in the same position she’d been when he arrived, bored and utterly devoid of the superior, self-congratulatory smirk that so many of the other guests had as they listened to the tale of the Primogenitors’ vision. He… hadn’t expected that. He’d thought she’d be all puffed up. Personally invited by one of the larger noble houses, the guest of honour in a play that in no small part celebrated her own actions. Instead… she seemed to be doing her level best to defy the abilities of her enhanced liver. He’d spent his entire life around invictus and nothing Savoy was doing matched what he knew of them.
“More, please,” she asked Verona as she emptied her third glass.
The war began. There was a lot more pomp and circumstance to it here than there had been in the real world. Small, poverty-stricken nations came under the primogenitors’ sway first. The first steps were tepid and slow as they tested their product lines. Small brushfire wars ended with shocking finality. Richer nations began to take notice. In the play, these men and women were lauded for their foresight but they had been short-sighted, seeing only what the primogenitors’ creations could do for them, funneling money into their coffers and reaping the rewards. Mercenary bands devastated their competition. Black-ops squads swept through the most hostile of encounters with ease.
The ‘war gardens’ bloomed and, like a cancer, the primogenitors and their political allies began to worm their way through the structure of the nations that funded them, each step small and sure… but each one adding up to the inevitable. Bribery, blackmail, back-scratching… even murder and assassination. By the time anyone realized the full scope of their plan, it was too late. The war wasn’t just nation against nation, but nations fighting against themselves as primogenitor-loyal factions turned on their opposition. Africa fell. Asia. Vast swathes of Europe, South America and North America were in primogenitor hands, but they held on – barely. They held on and counter-attacked. The International Coalition to enforce the Treaty of Madrid was formed.
Darren listened to the music as the chorus sang, their tone swaying between exuberance and mourning as the tides of war that had flowed back and forth over years of conflict were distilled down into a single opera, the melodies growing softer and sadder as the Coalition forces pushed the Primogenitors to the brink of defeat. Several people in the audience were crying. Then, with a dramatic bugle cry, the tempo began to rise as the first of the invictus entered the stage. Suddenly, it was the Coalition that was losing, the actors portraying their soldiers cringing fearfully back from the tall, proud invictus who laid a score of them low with every slow, theatrical sweep of his hands. The allied nations were losing ground now, more invictus entering the scene and aiding their fellow, until they had overwhelming numbers on their side. I guess it’s better to remember crushing the enemy with strength of arms than using bio-terror attacks to kill his people, destroy his food and sicken his forces...
Nations crumbled one after the other, small holdouts here and there still resisting the inexorable advance of the invictus but each of them succumbing in turn. There was almost nothing left to fight over at this point, nothing to gain except survival. Neither the Coalition nor the Hegemony would – could – allow the other to exist.
Tragedy struck: marshalling the last of their forces, the Coalition armies slammed into Africa. They’d developed a bio-weapon of their own, one that selectively targeted invictus-breed humans and the primogenitors’ soldiers. Their industry in ruins, they needed the dispersal systems the Primogenitors had used to poison so many of their cities. The Hegemony had always been paranoid of that trick being used on them and had shuffled their weapons from site to site, but the Coalition forces discovered their location. Johannesburg.
Even today, the invictus still didn’t know how the Coalition forces did it, but before the primogenitors could react, all the world’s armies – what was left of them – descended upon Africa. It was the largest mobilization in humanity’s history and the most hard-won victory imaginable as sapiens and invictus clashed through the streets of Johannesburg. The streets ran red, but the super-men were finally overwhelmed by the sheer, brutal force of numbers, drowned in the bodies the world had thrown at them. Two hundred thousand dead over two weeks of the most savage fighting imaginable, but Africa had fallen. Their factories burned. Their cloning facilities burned. Their research sites burned. The Coalition left nothing – nothing – in its wake, nothing but what they needed as their armies drove the invictus across Africa, back to a bare handful of scattered cities. The Hegemony’s advances elsewhere ended abruptly as they struggled to respond to this catastrophe.
The war gardens of Johannesburg were in Coalition hands and their scientists worked feverishly to refine and prepare the bio-weapon.
The Hegemony’s first attack had been utterly unlike their strategy to date; panicked and rushed as they realized what the Coalition was doing. What they could do. Desperate to stop them, three thousand invictus attacked in a joint aerial and amphibious assault, but the defenders were dug-in and ready. It was a slaughter, the most one-sided victory the Coalition had had in the entire war. Entire swathes of the city were destroyed as Coalition forces brought down crushing artillery strikes to kill a single invictus, armoured columns grinding super-men and women beneath their treads, burning paratroopers and drop troops crashing to earth as Coalition reinforcements caught the invaders between their lines and the prepared defences.
The scattered survivors fled – for the first time in the entire war, an invictus force hadn’t just been defeated, it hadn’t just been routed… it had been broken. A mournful dirge came from the choir as actors in imitation armour fell to the stage, Coalition soldiers in leering kabuki masks stepping over them and ‘executing’ the wounded.
The scene changed and a single, injured invictus limped across an urban wasteland. Savoy’s glass froze halfway to her lips as she watched ‘herself’. Refusing to surrender, ‘she’ killed human after human, fighting her way into the captured fortress-laboratory, gunning down scientists and soldiers one after the other, an exuberant hymn to the glory of the Hegemony on her lips. Watching all this, Darren’s mouth thinned imperceptibly as the imminent death of his species was exulted to such a degree. He turned to look at Savoy and froze.
The young woman’s hand was shaking, the wine spilling over the edge of her goblet, her eyes wide and staring at the actors on stage, watching ‘her’ noble last stand as she wiped out the Coalition leadership, shutting down the base’s defences and communications, calling in the air strike that had destroyed the facility and led to the destruction of the Coalition’s last standing army. ‘She’ turned to face the human troops that burst onto the scene, the last verse of her song one of sacrifice, honour for the Hegemony and the destiny of the invictus race.
The wine goblet shattered against the privacy glass, a scream tearing from Savoy’s throat, something angry and raw. Darren flinched, digging himself into his seat. Even Verona hesitated before simpering forward to clean up the mess. Savoy was on her feet, her chest heaving, her features flushed red, setting off the vein-like network of scar tissue that ran across her skin. Her hands flexed, fingers hooked into claws. She seemed frozen that way for a long moment, until the shards of glass and spilled wine had been cleared away and the familiar had retreated. Then, with an even louder roar of fury, she picked up her chair and hurled it into the window. Privacy glass was rated to withstand dedicated armour-piercing weaponry; the chair gave way. The window didn’t. If anyone outside the box even noticed, all they heard was a muted thump.
Hawke stayed very still and very quiet. Savoy was trembling with rage. He’d never seen an invictus like this.
“That…” Savoy hissed through her teeth. “That never happened.”
Darren had no idea what to say next. He’d spent years among invictus as a servant and never, not once, had his wits failed him as surely as they had now. His mouth was suddenly dry and a quick glance at Verona confirmed that he wasn’t the only one at a loss; the familiar was shaking, her mouth agape. She had never seen one of her masters like this either.
Taking a risk with his life, Darren forced himself to speak. “I… thought you were the Hero of Johannesburg.”
Savoy’s head snapped around, as if realizing that he was still there. For an instant, Darren thought that she was going to kill him, but the savagery of her expression wasn’t directed at him. The young woman let out a long breath, running a hand through her hair as she calmed herself down. “‘The Hero of Johannesburg’,” she quipped. “Of course I am. I ended the war, didn’t I? I stopped our people from being destroyed.” Her lip curled back in a sneer. “I brought about this age of High Human Culture, didn’t I?” She jabbed a finger at the stage below, where ‘her’ body was being recovered from the wreckage of the laboratory. “Ninety years pass and this is how it’s remembered. This. This… this… spectacle.” Her shoulders slumped. “This is what I meant to them.”
He was pushing his luck, but Darren couldn’t leave the question unasked. “What… did happen, my lady?”
The invictus looked at him again with the same predatory evaluation he’d seen earlier in the evening. For an instant, Hawke thought he’d pushed too far, but Savoy turned away with a shrug.
“I fell,” she said after a moment. “I was in a drop pod and I was hit by anti-aircraft fire. Guidance systems were destroyed and it veered off course. I ejected… but I hit the ground hard. I landed in the slums outside the city. I went through several of those shanties. My arms and legs were broken, half buried in debris… I was bleeding to death” she barked a laugh. “One of the locals found me. A bushman who’d been driven into the slums because of what we were doing to his lands. I don’t even know how he’d ended up there, where he’d lived before… God knows how far he’d come. He’d seen me fall from the sky and thought I was a sapiens soldier, maybe one of the paratroopers the Coalition counter-attack dropped on our aerial teams.”
She slumped into an unoccupied chair. “He ran and told someone, who made the same mistake he did – they thought that I was sapiens. We never went into the slums – these people had only seen us in full armour. For all they knew, we were slavering monsters under all that gear. They had no reason to think I was an invictus. So they did what any decent human being does when they find someone in pain.” Her gaze lifted and there was a haunted look in her eyes. “They tried to help.”
A dozen men sweated and strained to clear the rubble from the wounded soldier. It didn’t seem possible that she could still be alive; her face was a mask of blood, but every time they shifted the pile, she moaned softly. Overhead, the night sky was ablaze as the Invaders threw themselves against the defences of the Coalition army, an orange glow filling the southern horizon as Johannesburg burned, the crash of weaponry louder than the worst thunderstorm. “Faster, faster!” Baruti urged the men as a blazing airplane – he’d couldn’t tell from which side – roared overhead, to slam into the ground far too close for comfort.
There. The rubble shifted, the men cursing and swearing as they struggled to hold it clear with shaking limbs. Baruti reached in, grabbing the woman’s outstretched hand. “I have you!” he shouted. The soldier screamed as he pulled on her broken arm, flailing with the other as she tried to claw herself out of the rubble. “Help me!” Baruti roared at the rest of his fellows as, together, they pulled the woman out into the burning night. She collapsed in his arms, so heavy that he was half-pinned beneath her.
“Is she dead?” Lesendi asked. “Is she dead?”
Baruti shook his head. He could hear the soft thumping of her heart, the shallow gasps of her breath. “She lives!” she shouted, gesturing to the rusted stretcher a pair of the men had produced from somewhere. “Quickly, we must get her to the hospital!”
Standing abruptly, Savoy went to the bar and poured herself another drink. “There was a field hospital nearby. A handful of real doctors, mostly nurses and volunteers with first aid training. They might have known better, but my saviours told them I was a Coalition paratrooper. There wasn’t enough of my armour to tell them otherwise and I was torn to pieces, not enough left of my features to really tell that I wasn’t sapiens. I was a soldier – that meant I moved to the head of the line. Bones set, bandages wrapped, antibiotics. They did all that for me instead of the wounded civilians that they were tending. They couldn’t do more, but they told Coalition Command that they had an injured soldier who needed immediate attention. An evac shuttle picked me up, carried me right into the heart of their base.” The invictus gestured to herself. Like all of her kind, she was tall. Not bulky, but there was definition to her muscles, a lethal sinuousness to her form. “I’m a big girl, but that’s not enough. I was bandaged up. They believed what the hospital told them. The bloodwork would show what I was, but they were too busy trying to save my life. They managed to stabilize me – they thought I’d die. A sapiens would have died. That should have been their first clue.” Savoy emptied the glass in a single gulp and poured herself another. There was a distinct unsteadiness to her posture now. She’d ‘only’ consumed enough alcohol to send a normal human to the hospital.
“It wasn’t. They had so much going on, so many other wounded that they were just grateful that their triage teams could move on to the next patient. So I lay there, drifting in and out of consciousness. My bones were knitting, my body repairing itself. A ‘wolf in the fold’. In the aftermath of our failed assault, the base commander was touring the infirmary. General… Richardson, I think. An American. He was a good man.” The young woman swirled the contents of her glass. “That’s what killed him.”
Over a thousand dead, more than twice that wounded. That was the butcher’s bill from the Hegemony’s failed attack. It was the best kill ratio that any army had ever achieved against invictus-grade troopers. In fact, it was nothing short of miraculous. His men were already calling it the greatest victory in the war. The same men he’d thrown into a meat grinder to take Johannesburg in the first place. Twenty-three thousand dead in the first day of that hell. There were buildings filled with nothing but sheet-covered corpses, the remains of brave men and women who’d hurled themselves at an army of super-humans. They’d won, though. They’d pushed the damn ‘primogenitors’ off their little hill and all the way back to Cairo, smashing and burning every last bit of Hegemon tech in their path. If the Hegemony took this continent back, it would be useless to them.
General Joshua Richardson stepped off the elevator, the smell of blood and death hitting him like a physical thing. The cries of the wounded filled the hallways of the medical ward, overflowing into nearby sections. Overworked doctors, nurses and corpsmen struggled to save lives. Men and women in red-soaked bandages lay slumped where they’d fallen, waiting treatment or recovering from it. Arms and legs ended in stumps, blinded eyes were covered over, stitches held intestines in.
This, thought Richardson. This is my ‘great victory’. I wonder if the newscasts will show this part? He passed through the crowds of injured, whispering praise and thanks here and there. It was so very little, but it was all he could do. He knelt beside a dead pilot, his head cradled in a woman’s lap. She was an artillery officer. One of her eyes was gone, a bandage over the empty, weeping socket. She looked up at his approach and lifted a trembling hand up in an unsteady salute. “We held, sir,” she whispered. “We held.”
The general returned the salute. “You did, soldier. You fought,” he raised his voice. “You all fought like the gods themselves. I couldn’t be prouder. Not one step back.”
He felt like choking on his own words. Part of him quailed at the cost his people had already paid, but part of him knew that it would nothing if the ‘Hegemony’ won this war. Their vision of humanity was not one he would suffer to exist and he would do everything in his power to prevent that… even if it meant killing tens of thousands more of his soldiers.
Just a few days more, he told himself. Just a few more days and then every invictus on the planet would be dead. That was all they needed. To buy that time.
He entered the intensive care wards, each bed taken by a gravely injured soldier. Most wouldn’t survive the night. Richardson carefully threaded his way through them, stepping aside for the gurneys that wheeled more dead out and more wounded in. The general stopped at each bed whose occupant was conscious, offering a few words to each soldier. A handshake here, a pat on the shoulder there. It felt so very empty to him, but if it offered even a moment’s comfort to these men and women, then he would do it. The general paused beside one such bed, a tall young woman there. Half her face was bandaged, obscuring her features. Her other eye twitched open. There was no name on her chart, but it indicated she was one of the reserve’s drop troops. He put a hand on her shoulder. “At ease, soldier.”
Her good eye focused on his epaulettes. “General…?”
“That’s right. General Richardson. You’re with the 112th, right? Under General Tashiko?”
“Right…” she said softly. “The 112th.” She looked around. “Is this…?”
“Kenfentse Biological Facility,” he said with a smile. “We’re inside. We held. You pushed ‘em back. Victor’s on the run now.”
She nodded. “On the run…”
“I slit his throat,” Savoy said. “I’d stolen a scalpel from one of the trays and before he even knew he was in danger, he was dead.” She shook her head. “No one knew what was happening, but I was up and moving before they did. I killed the rest of his party and took their weapons. I cut my way to the elevators and got into the main facility.” She laughed. “I was almost dead, but it didn’t matter. I was inside, an invictus on the loose. Tight corridors, short hallways – no place to bring up heavy weapons. I killed and I kept killing.” She looked directly at Darren as she spoke. “And then I ended the war.”
“This is Lieutenant Alexandra Irine Savoy calling Hegemony Command. Respond. My authorization code is Three-Nine-Seven-Echo-Nine-Four-Bravo-Sierra. Respond.” She could barely stand, her knees shaking as she braced herself against the blood-smeared console. The bodies of dead Coalition officers littered the control room, muffled shouts and angry pounding coming from the door behind her as reinforcements tried to batter their way inside. “Respond, please.” Please, please hear me!
“This is Command. State your situation.”
“I’ve taken control of the Kenfenste Biological Facility, but I cannot hold this position. I’ve shut down long-range communications and early-warning systems, but it’s only a matter of time before they re-route those functions. I can’t guarantee a window for any length of time. Requesting immediate missile strike on my coordinates.”
“Negative, Savoy. Facility is strategic value-”
“Forget the strategic value!” the young woman screamed. There was a hiss and glow from behind her. They were burning through the door. She only had moments left. “You need to hit this place now. They’re further along than we thought. They’ve got the weapon here. I say again: they have the weapon here. If you don’t take it out, they’ll launch before you can counter-attack. Do you copy, Control? If you don’t hit this place now, they will deploy their weapon.”
A pause. “We copy, Savoy. Instructions have been passed. Can you get to safe ground?”
The door was almost down now. “I’ll try,” she said. “Just bring this place down.” She pulled the headset off and hobbled towards the entrance, clutching a pistol in each hand. The molten, battered door came smashing down and Coalition forces poured into the room. Alexandra raised the guns. “I want to live,” she whispered just before her world ended in the crash of weapons fire.
“I survived, obviously,” Savoy said, taking a sip from her glass. Her voice was slurred. Invictus physiology had its limits and several hours of nonstop drinking appeared to be Savoy’s. “The command bunker was so far underground that it was spared the worst of the damage. Follow-up teams found me in the wreckage.” She nodded towards the window. “It wasn’t this bullshit.” She laughed. “I became the Hero of Johannesburg because some dumb bastards saved my life. Because they didn’t know what I was. No heroic charge through the gates. No single battle against the base commander. He was a good man who cared about the soldiers in his army and he died because of it. The doctors who’d patched me up, the field hospital – even the bushman and the people in the slum. They all died because they saved my life.”
She gulped down the rest of her wine, setting it back down on the bar, slumping back into the chair. “And that’s what they’ve done to me.” she gestured vaguely towards the stage. “Turned me into a flag-waving zealot. ‘For the glory of the Hegemony and the supremacy of the race!’ Right.” She leaned towards Darren. “Do you know why I fought?”
He shook his head, not trusting himself to speak. This… what he was hearing… it was impossible. It was a trick. She was playing with him, some sick game. It had to be. It had to be. Invictus didn’t act like this!
“Because I wanted to live. That’s all. I wanted to live.” Alexandra sagged back into the chair. Sensing the invictus’s mood and completely lost as to what the woman wanted, Verona fell back on tried-and-true methods. The familiar came over, kneeling next to the invictus and resting her head on Savoy’s shoulder. Savoy stroked her fingers through the familiar’s hair, without even seeming to realize that she was doing it. Homo familiarus were more ‘compatible’ with invictus. Bred to respond positively and to be pleasing to Homo invictus, they hadn’t been introduced until about forty years ago, when Savoy was still in medical cryostasis.
“How well do you know your history?” Savoy asked Hawke.
He shook his head. “Only what I learned in school, my lady.”
“Hmm,” Savoy mused. “Have you heard of child soldiers? The more brutal African militias used them. They would be addicted to drugs, given guns and told to fight.” She closed her eyes. “My first memory is of a primogenitor pulling the mask off my face. We don’t usually recall things that far back, but I remember being cold and afraid and this… face leaning into my vision. I gagged as the feeding tube came up out of my throat. I tasted my own blood as the breathing lines came out of my nose, raw skin bleeding and dripped down my throat. The first words I heard were ‘Female three-zero-zero-eight decanted successfully’.”
Savoy’s voice was rough, close to a growl. “I was a child – less than a child – and my destiny had already been written. I was taught, trained and toned. I was given a gun and told to fight.” Her fingernails raked along Verona’s scalp and the familiar winced. Alexandra took a slow breath, calming herself again and resumed her more gentle touches.
“And I fought. I fought because I had to. I wasn’t given a choice. I wasn’t a volunteer like the forerunner lines were. I was created from two gene-compatible donors, engineered from the ground up to fight the primogenitors’ war. I fought,” she repeated, “and I wanted to. To survive. It was my only choice. The Coalition had already passed legislation that genetic engineering was punishable by death. They’d already made the Jacobs Decree, that all genetically-modified humans were to be destroyed. That was why I fought. For my life, for my brothers and sisters. The primogenitors were… not these idols,” she gestured vaguely in the direction of the stage. “They were men and women. Most of them were dead by this point in the war and those that had survived had only become more extreme. I heard their speeches about how we would reshape the face of humanity, about our destiny and that we were chosen to inherit the earth. Others smiled and nodded to those words, but I still remembered the way I’d been brought into the world and the voice that welcomed me to it. There wasn’t any beauty in that. No sense of destiny and awe. Only a man noting that another weapon was ready.
“That was why I fought. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want my people to die. We didn’t deserve genocide. No more than you did. No one should die just for the crime of existing. Not invictus or sapiens. No one. But if I had to make that choice again, between my race and yours… I’d choose mine. The Coalition promised to kill every one of us. I know why they did, but I couldn’t let that happen.” Savoy closed her eyes. “Does that answer your question?”
“Yes,” gulped Darren. “Yes, lady.”
“Good. Please don’t tell anyone else.” She didn’t even give him a threatening look, but Darren still knew that if he so much whispered this story to another person, Savoy would kill him.
“No,” she said, running her fingers down along Verona’s cheek. “No, I don’t imagine you will.” She sighed. “I’m drunk, I’m tired and I don’t want to watch the rest of this farce. You should go.” As Darren stood, Verona climbed up into the chair, easing herself into Savoy’s arms like a cat settling next to her owner, eager for more attention. Alexandra gestured to the bottle of wine. “Take that. No one here deserves to drink it.”
Darren did so, the cold of the chilled bottle a balm against his sweating palms. He was halfway to the door when Savoy spoke again. “Darren?”
Hawke froze. He’d never told her his name. “My lady?”
“Give my regards to the Coalition.”
Darren’s mouth opened, half expecting Savoy’s hand to be around his throat in the next instant, but she never moved from where she lay, still stroking her familiar’s hair. He clicked his mouth shut and hurried from the room.