Shas'vre Kerala coughed herself awake; blood in her nasal passage was trying to drip into her lungs. Her head pounded, her ears rang, and a sharp digging sensation in her wrists and arms told her she was bound. For a second, she panicked, afraid the photon grenade had blinded her, but after a moment she realized she was being held in a dark room.
After another moment, Kerala's eyes started to adjust to her surroundings. From the looks of things, she was being held in the cargo hold of a Manta, empty of any materiel. Propped up against the wall was a figure of some sort.
"Mont'yr, Ra'kles, is that you?"
"Commander," Ui'Mont'yr said, "are you alright?"
"I'm fine," Kerala whispered back. "Some cuts, I'll live. You?"
"My head is throbbing from that damn photon grenade, but I'm pulling through it. Ra'kles, though..."
It took a moment for Kerala to realize Ra'kles was laying beside Ui'Mont'yr. "Commander," Ra'kles choked out, a wet rattling noise following them.
"Don't speak," Mont'yr chided. "As best I can tell, he's got some sort of puncture wound in his chest." Her eyes adjusting further, Kerala saw Ra'kles was laying in a large pool of blue blood. It didn't look good.
"Do you still have your wrist device?" Kerala asked. The real question was obvious: Can we still activate your back-up plan?
"No, they left all the armor but
"Same here. Bloodfire
," Mont'yr spat. "My arms are tied, at the wrists and higher up. I guess I'll kick at them when they show up."
In a fit of wheezes, Ra'kles pulled himself up on one elbow. "I think... they left me for dead. They only... tied my wrists, and didn't search me that well." In a fit of cursing, the old fio pushed himself up, stepped through his cuffs, and then collapsed on his face. After a moment, he rolled over, and reached into his boot for a small, crafted knife. "One of the kroot... gave me this. Told me I'd know when to use it. ha. Mont'yr, you're closer... I'm going to try... to fray your bonds. Maybe you can surprise them."
Ra'kles didn't have long. Within moments of beginning, the massive rear hatch of the Manta began to open, and a tumultuous noise began to flood in.
It was the sound of a thousand screaming voices.
Brothers, the Swiftfire
has been secured - the dissenters killed or captured. Here behind me, are the ringleaders of the resistance themselves!"
Amidst more screaming, a mixed group of bulky fio and shas - some sporting the red-and-orange of Cadre Tash're, but others, disturbingly, wearing the grey of Kerala's own security forces - lifted the three tau to their legs. It was only till they had drug Kerala outside that she was able to figure out what was going on.
They were in the Swiftfire
's largest hangar bay. The ship's compliment of Barracudas and Mantas were against the walls, leaving a wide opening for a massive crowed of screaming tau. It looked like it was predominantly made up of the colonists from Ur'kam IV, though a sprinkling of the Swiftfire
's kor crew was represented.
Standing behind the Manta and in the middle of the crowd was a large, hastily erected platform, upon which stood the speaker - Shas'el Tash're himself. Kerala and her friends were being dragged up to see him. With a start, she realized the two kroot that had accompanied Ra'kles were dead at Tash're's feet, their necks cut.
"Brothers!" Tash're was screaming. "Here are the tau that took so many of our cadre from us! How shall we punish them???"
A scream, louder than all previous, drowned out the rest of Tash're's words.
bastard, you'd think he was a por vidhost," Mont'yr yelled over the din, at no one in particular.
Beside Kerala, Ra'kles had collapsed to one knee, breathing hard. His guards yanked him back up, but he took the moment to lean in toward Kerala, resting his body on her for support.
"Old friend," he whispered, "I don't think I have long. Just give me the sign."
Ra'kles was immediately jerked back, but Kerala had got the message. She gave Ra'kles an imperceptible nod.
With a hand wave, Tash're quieted most of the mob. "I know, I know, brothers. For all they've taken from us, I would love nothing more than to see them bleed out at my feet, like these savages here." Tash're kicked one of the lifeless kroot bodies for effect, and a howl went up. "But remember the words of the True Ethereal" - at this, a hushed silence fell over the congregation - "remember how he spoke to us, at our Fio'taun, and spoke of the greater good, and of the inclusion of all."
Kerala shivered, suddenly very, very afraid.
"Imagine, brothers, these dissenters - imagine their strength added to our own!"
"By the deserts, no
," Mont'yr gasped. "There's no way in-"
El'Tash're laughed. "That's what everyone here thought, until I showed them the True Path, the Path of the One True Ethereal. You'll see, soon enough." Turning back to the mob, he lifted his hands. "Help me, brothers, help me call the True Ethereal! Add your voice to my own!"
The entire hangar bay was filled with a wailing summons.
And then, out of the darkness, loomed a figure of nightmarish proportions, grotesque and evil.
The didactic implants buried deep in Kerala's skull informed her immediately of what it was.
--- --- ---
In a sudden moment of clarity, everything made a twisted sort of sense to Kerala.
Cadre Tash're, and the colonists on Ur'kam IV, must have encountered, and then been contaminated by, a genestealer infestation. Then, they asked for reassignment. They probably inducted the kor'el early on, "convincing" him of the unviability of Ur'kam IV. And once onboard started working their way through the crew, Shas'ui Kova included.
The one hitch in their plan was the kroot kindred that also happened to be onboard. Like Ra'kles had said in the autopsy room, some shapers - and definitely shaman - had psychic potential. They must have sensed something was wrong, and tried to act. It didn't help that Kerala's team had so obviously been infected, killing the shaper while under arrest.
And then, to keep things quiet, they had Kova killed, and the assassin kill himself.
Then they locked Kerala out of the loop, started a fight with the kroot, got most of the uninfected crew killed in an arranged mutiny, and inducted the survivors.
This really had
been one of the worst days ever.
--- --- ---
"Now," Kerala breather. "Now, Aun-damn it, now."
Ra'kles, in a final, fatal moment of glory, surprised his guards by charging up and forward, toward the standing figure of El'Tash're. The massive fio barreled into the shas'el, tumbling them both to the ground.
In the same moment, Ui'Mont'yr broke her frayed bonds and pulled from her armor the kroot knife Ra'kles had left for her. In one swift movement, she stepped behind the guard in front of her and slit his throat. Then, without even pulling it off of his shoulder, she lifted the dying tau's carbine and opened fire on the genestealer.
For her part, Kerala swung around and kicked out, tripping one of the guards. His framed tangled up several of the others, and they all rolled off of the platform.
All hell broke loose in the hangar bay. The genestealer took several pulse rounds to the chest but, giving no care for the well-being of its followers, it immediately turned and began carving a swatch through the mob, trying to escape without further harm. The mob descended into uncoordinated action: some ran to cover the retreating genestealer, others tried to clamber up the platform and save El'Tash're, others simply ran for the nearest exits.
The last remaining guard on the platform, a member of Tash're's cadre, fell to one knee and took aim at Ra'kles. Kerala saw and started to move, a moment too late. The fio'vre shook from the shock of the shot and started to topple off - but not before his hands found purchase on Tash're's skull and twisted. The fio'vre and shas'el fell together, dead.
Ui'Mont'yr turned and gunned down the last remaining guard. Then she threw a wrist computer she had taken from one of the dead tau to Kerala. "Fall back to the Manta behind us. Maybe we can seal ourselves in there."
Kerala nodded, fingering into the wrist computer an override code, then programming it to contact the DX-4 drone that had, with its kles'tak charge, made it to the engine room.
A low rumble shook the entire ship, and then all hell really did break loose on the ship.
The por shook his head. "You heard the whole thing. Her story hasn't changed."
A kor spoke up. "My crews have been combing the wreckage. We've yet to recover the ships main databanks, but the genetic material we've found has been... peculiar."
A shorter female shas tutted, displeased. "She readily admits to plunging herself and her ship back into the Mont'au. Nothing, nothing at all, excuses that. Lock her away forever, for all I care."
From the back of the room, a smaller figure, stooped with age, cleared his throat. Immediately, the tau present had turned to listen. "O'Shaserra, you would too readily sacrifice a warrior of remarkable strength and endurance. I admit, she is otherwise unproven. But our coming phase of expansion needs every able body we have. On my word, I declare that Shas'vre Tash'var Kerala has passed her Third Trial By Fire. Have her and the other survivor placed in command of a cadre mustering for the planned annexation of Fi'rios."
The arrayed figures bowed. "By your command, Aun'o."