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Jeena slowed the hopper as they reached the edge of the Bacchian Field.
"I see it."
At the other end of the field, the shimmering white walls of Uruk rose twenty feet above the plain. Heavily damaged during the war, they had been repaired and restored to their previous glory immediately after, yet now the western half was gone, only a gaping breach surrounded by rubble remaining.
"No," she said, turning the craft around. "The Afridi have nothing that could destroy that wall. It's the Coalition. We have to get back to Pyros. We need to warn--"
An explosion in the rear of the hopper broke off her words. The ship listed and began to tumble to the ground.
"We're hit! We're going down!" she yelled as she fought to control the fall.
They hit the ground hard, Samson striking the windshield with his head. A trail of blood ran from above his right eye. Jeena had been thrown clear on impact, and lay in the deep grass on her back, her body throbbing and her vision blurred.
"I ordered the hopper disabled, lieutenant, not destroyed," said a voice. Indistinct shadows appeared against the sky above her.
"I'm sorry, sir. She was fleeing." One of the shadows grew larger. Jeena could feel breath on her face. "She's still alive. More stunned than anything, I believe."
"Good. It wouldn't do to disappoint the viceroy this early in the mission. Stand her up."
Strong arms gripped Jeena, and she cried in pain as they lifted her to her feet. The blurred form before her began to clear until she found herself staring at a man's face, clean-shaven and topped by a military haircut. On the left side of his skull the skin wasgone, replaced by a shiny metal plate.
"I am Major Wallman, of the Coalition Empire. You are the Regent of Uruk, Jeena Garza." It was not a question.
Jeena tried to clear her head. "I ... We are a sovereign nation..."
"The planet Ararat is property of the Coalition Empire by treaty. It and all that inhabit it belong to the empire, wholly and completely. No government is permitted or recognized other that authorized by the empire." He spoke harshly and mechanically, as if reciting a well-rehearsed and oft-practiced speech. "The viceroy requires to speak with you. Take her away," he ordered.
They were dragging her toward a waiting military lift when a soldier shouted from the wrecked hopper, "Major, there's something else in here. An animal of some sort. Looks like a kind of lion."
Major Wallman approached the wreckage carefully, peering in as Samson tried vainly to dislodge himself from the machine.
"Excellent. Our new provincial governor gave orders to look for such animals. This one appears injured but don't take any chances, they are supposed to be dangerous. Stun it first, then bind it and bring it along as well."
Samson heard the order and fought more furiously to escape from the hopper. There was a sharp report and a sudden pain in his left shoulder. He thought he heard Jeena scream as darkness enveloped him.
Jeena was led in chains into her own office. She was marched before her desk and stood facing the back of her chair, which was rocking slowly.
She had seen Coalition soldiers everywhere, and no sign of the Babylonian military or civilian population. There was little damage to the city itself, she had noted with some relief. She hoped it meant there were few casualties as well. She had no idea what had happened to Samson. She had been restrained in the rear cockpit of the transport, and if he was also aboard, she had not seen him.
"Babylonians have a flare for the dramatic, do they not?" asked a voice from the far side of the chair. "I have seldom seen such theater in the design of public buildings." The seat swiveled around and the speaker stood. "I am Viceroy Lundlo, the emperor's liaison for this sector."
Jeena choked back a cry. The left side of the Viceroy's face was gone, and in its place was a hideous mask of gleaming metal, fused in a jagged line to the normal skin of the right. At the place where skin and metal met, a thin watery discharge oozed.
A mechanized left eye stared blankly out at her, occasionally moving independently of the right. The nose was also artificial, long and narrow, with two slits in the front. Only the mouth was still intact as entirely living tissue, but attached to the underlying structure in such a way as to give him a permanent ghastly sneer.
The face of the viceroy was a study in terror.
"Ah, I see by your expression you have never beheld biosynth technology before. Impressive, isn't it?" He turned his head from side to side, proudly displaying his mutilated features. "Unfortunately, there are still functions of the human body we are unable to duplicate, and so some flesh must be retained." He spoke the word flesh with obvious distaste. Taking a kerchief from under his sleeve, he absently dabbed at the oozing tissue. "The appearance is startling at first, but you will soon grow used to it. Biosynthesis is the next great step in human evolution, and as a citizen of the empire, it will soon be your privilege to enjoy its benefits."
"I'd rather keep what I have," Jeena replied evenly. She fought to push back her fear and revulsion. The face before her was more than inhuman, it was an abomination. Better it were completely artificial than this hellish fusion of man and machine.
Her shimhatu training allowed her to sense the nature of people, and her skin crawled in response to him. Whatever else had been done to him in fashioning this unnatural union, it had stripped him of more than skin. As Jeena stood before his grinning countenance, she knew that Viceroy Lundlo was mad.
He laughed without humor. "A typically provincial reaction. I would have expected more from a Union star pilot. Oh, yes, Captain Garza, we know who you are. We've always had the greatest admiration for the Star Corp. Tough, intelligent and adaptable--the cream of the Union military. You crashed here, what, just over ten years ago? And in that short time, you managed to set yourself up as head of government for the southern aspect of this planet, and to wield significant power over the rest. Quite impressive."
"I'm glad you think so. How is it you know so much about me? Surely, the Coalition doesn't keep such records on every Union officer."
She was stalling for time while desperately looking for a way of escape. Pyros had to be warned, if it wasn't already too late, and the tigras scattered. Samson was right--if revealing their existence to the rest of mankind offered hope for their survival then that information solely in the hands of the Coalition just as certainly signaled their end, at least as a separate and evolving species.
"You are correct, of course. In point of fact, the empire was unaware of your existence until a few standard months ago. Our knowledge comes by way of our new provincial governor. He seems to have taken a great interest in you."
"Yes. It is the way of the empire to place local rule of a world under a loyal magistrate native to the planet. We find that, by knowing the local customs, they are more able to fully integrate the population into the empire."
You mean they know where people would hide, and where they would gather in secret, Jeena thought bitterly. But who was this governor? Who on Ararat had they found to work with them this quickly?
"You wish to meet Ararat's new governor, yes?" he asked, guessing her thoughts. With a flick of his hand he motioned to a guard, and the balcony doors opened.
He was dressed not in the standard blue military uniform of the Coalition, but in long violet robes that flowed behind him as he strode into the room. His red hair was perhaps longer and dirtier, and his sardonic smile revealed teeth more yellow than before, but his face was unmistakable.
"Esau!" Jeena gasped.
"You remember me. How nice," he replied cheerfully. "I worried after so long you might have forgotten. I, of course, have never forgotten you, or of our last meeting."
Jeena had used Esau as a hostage to rescue Samson from New Jerusalem, knowing Jacob would not risk the life of his son. His lips were set in a smile, but in his eyes she saw blind hatred, still smoldering, even after so many years.
"Esau," she whispered, trying keep her words from the viceroy, who had returned to his seat behind the desk. "Esau, these people are not your friends. You don't know what you're doing."
"Not my friends?" he asked mockingly. "You mean the way you were?" He wagged his finger in front of her face. "As I remember it, you were going to kill me once."
"You tried to rape me!" she rasped through gritted teeth.
He leaned close to her ear. "Nothing you wouldn't have enjoyed, I'm sure."
She lunged for him but was held back by the guards at her sides. Esau laughed loudly.
"And you are wrong, as usual. The empire is more than generous to those who serve it, is that not so, Lord Viceroy?"
"Most assuredly, Lord Governor. As you yourself have seen."
"Yes," Esau repeated, "most generous. I would have been K'laq after my father, and leader of the Rosh-dan, but for your interference. Instead, I was banished from my own city and forced to live like a nomad in the desert." He lifted his right arm from beneath his robes, staring into the reflecting metal. "I lost the original to a kroll's venom while sleeping in the open. My men had to tie me down to cut it off." He flexed the mechanical fingers, opening and closing his fist. "Remarkable, isn't it? An empire scouting mission found me half-dead, and in return for my humble assistance, their physicians restored me to wholeness."
"You underestimate your own value, Lord Governor Esau," the viceroy asserted. "You have already save us much work, and with your continued help, I expect to see Ararat a productive member of the empire in record time."
"You may depend on it, Excellency," Esau replied, bowing low.
"I do. Now, then, Captain Garza, you see that the new order has already come upon you. Do not take it so hard. It is the inevitability of life that the strong should overcome the weak. It may please your pride to know that we struck at Uruk first because we felt it to be the only militarily significant city on the planet. During the next few days, we will be consolidating our control over the rest of Babylon, as well as those population centers to the north and west. Your people will learn to live under our rule, Captain, and even to see the wisdom in it, as have others."
Jeena fought back the urge to tell him what she thought of his wisdom. "What have you done with the people?"
"Do not worry. We came upon the city unawares. Few were killed. For now, the rest are under armed detainment. Routine questioning of all military and civilian leaders will begin tomorrow. Following that, the easing of martial law will depend entirely on the cooperation the new government receives." He waved vaguely at Esau. "Such matters are under the jurisdiction of the provincial governor."
Had she been thinking more clearly, or had she not been so worried about Samson, Jeena never would have asked her next question.
She licked her dry lips. "Thank you for explaining this all to me. If I could ask one more question. I was transporting an injured animal to Uruk when my hopper was shot down. What has happened to him?"
Esau shot her a keen look, his eyes glinting. The viceroy leaned back in his chair, his expression puzzled. "You have just lost your city, your planet to a new ruler, yet you ask concerning an animal? What is this creature to you?"
"Nothing," she answered quickly. "I was just wondering..."
Esau moved to the viceroy's side, whispering urgently in his ear. When he finished, the viceroy regarded Jeena curiously for a moment before replying.
"I don't believe you," he said simply.
"It is true, Excellency, I swear it," Esau insisted.
Jeena felt her throat tighten. What have I done? How could I have forgotten that Esau was in the temple of the Rosh-dan when they captured Samson. He heard him speak!
The viceroy stood and paced before Jeena. A slight clicking emanated from behind the metal skull. "It so happens, Governor Esau, that I had intended to give you this animal before I left, knowing your interest in them. I think perhaps now it should be examined more closely." He motioned to a guard. "Have the beast brought here at once."
"Viceroy, there's really no need," Jeena protested. "I was just concerned for his well-being. As I said, he was injured."
"Yes, so you have said." The lips curled back into a gruesome smile. "I cannot imagine that what Governor Esau informs me is true, and yet I must admit I find the possibility most fascinating. Tell me about this animal."
"There is nothing to tell. Whatever Esau has told you, it is just a wild animal."
"Yet you take great care in it, even bringing it in your own hopper. That seems a most dangerous thing to do with a wild animal," he said, patting his face again.
"It was sedated, Viceroy," Jeena answered carefully. "Hoppers are our only means of transportation on Ararat. I had no choice."
The viceroy nodded. "Yes, I see. Very logical. And yet ... you still have not told me what you were doing with him. Does the Regent of Uruk often avail herself to transport sick animals?"
"They are an endangered species. We are trying to ensure their survival. I just happened to be returning to Uruk when the veterinarians needed a vehicle."
"You lie poorly for a leader of people, Captain. Your answers only raise more questions. I will be interested to see this beast for myself."
There was a loud rap on the door, and the guards opened them, admitting a team of four soldiers pushing a wheeled cage. Inside the cage lay Samson, looking groggy but awake, his right eye swollen almost shut.