Of the Shadows - A Short Story

Updated: Jan 25


[This is “Chief” Laèrtes Kamkàlion's second short story and probably the one which reveals the most about him and his personality. In fact, the artwork above should give you an idea...]


“Chief are you receiving me, over.” crackles of static and blarts of inference. I’m hearing this but it doesn’t make sense to me, although something tells me it should. Ears are ringing and head hurts. It’s enough of an effort trying to figure out where I am and whether I’m dead or not.

“Chief? Nikos here, we got out. Chief? Respond.” I tried to move something; an arm, a leg, maybe even a finger but everything hurt, and I could see nothing. Was I blind? The fact that I was feeling pain and could feel my breath coming in sharp hikes convinced me that I was alive but for how much longer? The spasmodic pattern of my breathing meant my body was either starting to panic, or the air here was running out, or both. The great “Chief” Laèrtes Kamkàlion may well be about to die.... again! More psyber-mimetik parts to adorn my beautiful face, perhaps? Oh, the unbridled joy!


“N...” I coughed rather impressively and fought to clear what I assumed to be - hoped to be - dust from my dry and ragged throat. I spat a clod of something out and was glad for the lack of light as I did so. Running a gummy tongue around my mouth, I tried to steady my breathing and winced as I felt the jagged edges of broken ribs. It took a further moment of near panic as I took a few experimental deep breaths, steeling myself for the pain, and listening for the wet whistling that would indicate a pierced lung. Nothing but the whining of a snivelling mýràt choì who can’t find the teat. Pull yourself together, Laèrtes!


“Niko, you harmen kuna, you’re alive!” My voice sounded weak and scratchy, even to me, but the whine was gone from it, I was sure. Good. Niko clearly heard something in it, though, because there was a not insignificant amount of concern in his tone.

“You ok, Chief?” He asked, making me want to strangle him the first chance I got. He paused for the reply he was not going to get to that question. I could hear the smirk in his voice as he continued. “Yes, Chief; me Demos, Chelio, Kadio, and Murtag are at point gamma.”

Oh, that was bad, that means the entire mission has been a skatagam of the highest order. “Any word from Nestor's or Inaris’ groups?”

“Affirmative. Nestor is en-route to point omicron and Inaris is, like yourself, trying to figure out where she is.”

Yak! Nestor had either lost half of his group or had wounded with him and Inaris likely experienced similar circumstances to mine. I took as deep a breath as I dared and tried to think clearly. “Do you have a fix on my location?”

“More or less but -” serious hesitation from the normally unshakeable Nikos, the big, rough ex-epibatoi and Erebus-hardened harak like me, only bigger and meaner. “There’s a lot of debris between ye and me, Chief.” I could hear him swallowing, his loyalty to me and the cause was beyond question, his distress at uttering these words was a clear demonstration of that. “Inaris is thirty-nine stadia to your nàpiso under the old Flake Farm they was trying to hit.”

Trying...his choice of words shook me; this whole operation had gone babàloufà faster than figs through an excited choì. Nestor and I had planned this to perfection; in quick, grab data, weapons, and an important prisoner Home Office on Sèlene needed to interrogate and get out before the Pans even realised, we were helping them. But The Choir had been waiting for us and the floor, the ruins of which were so gently cradling my busted up body, had been rigged to blow. That meant only one thing, we had a clek in the cote; someone had ratted us out and that person had better be among the dead already because, if they were not, I was going to find them and make sure they wished they were.

“Let me try and take inventory and see if I can’t orient myself, sergeantI took a ragged breath and cursed quietly to myself before continuing. “Keep as many eyes peeled as Argus can spare.” This was private code and I heard him suppress a gasp at the implication.

“Understood. Niko out.”


Reaching around myself, I found that, aside from the broken ribs, I had twisted an ankle and dislocated a couple of fingers on, thankfully, my left hand. My left foot, the one with the twisted ankle, was under some broken bits of stone but, after several careful minutes of wriggling, pausing every few seconds to listen for the dreaded sound of slithering masonry, I pulled it free and inspected it by touch. My wrist comm-cuff was undamaged, after groping around for a bit, I located the key for the shoulder lamps of my sotithorax. That was stupid. I berated myself as stars exploded before eyes that felt like shards of broken glass had been pushed into them. I closed my eyes and counted down with the closest thing to calm I could find. Opening them again, cursing loudly in all the languages I knew, I played the lamps over the place I had awoken in. It was a mess of tumbled masonry and stone, dust and little pools of water but I could move around and, I was sure, find a way out. Someone dropped the whole koinotýsia on top of me! They blew the whole building just to make sure!


*****

He’d better, or I’ll leave his twisted gaid down there, oath or no oath.

The heavy chud-chud-chud of the engines was a music he was long used to. It was a reassuring and almost homely sound after all this time, it meant he was doing something, something good and worthwhile, not sitting on his gaid on Sèlene while The Union babbed a toùl on Alexander’s memory. His epibatoi armour of Royal and Gold was a second skin and a mark of great pride. He’d reformed The Regiment and trained them to a man and woman because he knew it had to be done. He worked with those Nippers down there too because, as much as he hated their methods - and most of their members, to be honest - they did the job that needed to be done, underhand and distasteful as it might be. He cradled his helmet and looked into the sapphire eye-lenses as any other man might into the eyes of his beloved. Well, The Falcons are my only love, I suppose, he smiled.

“Sergeant!” It was one of the Stymphalion’s two pilots up front, the irritation in his voice making it clear that he’d been trying to raise Gwydion over his helmet fòno for at least a little bit now. Although the man’s elafint helmet’s faceplate and breathing hoses were absolutely expressionless, he imaged he could see disapproval there. I’m slipping, he thought, working with all these gàrleché Nippers is making me jumpy.

“What is it, Bryn?” His singsong Cymry accent stronger than usual, he noted.

Bryn, the pilot, whose similar accent was much distorted by his helmet and fòno equipment, turned back to his instruments and nodded at something he saw there. “Two of the Nipper Teams are in Extraction Positions. One has wounded, another carrying two dead.”

Gwydion felt a bite of acid in the back of his throat and grimaced. “And the other two?”

“The choir-cote, èxonaspiti, and koinotýsia were all rigged with explosives,” he began, tapping keys with a metallic clacking noise. “Those two teams got clear. The other two...” He detached a screen from his console and handed it back to Gwydion, who leaned forward on his jump seat to receive it. “One team is intact and right here, right under the old Varkò-Séamus Tube station. The other team...” He did something else with his controls and the map on the screen rotated and zoomed. “One surviver, here, still under the koinotýsia but on the move now.” The icon grew directional and velocity labels.

“Moving fast,” Gwydion mused. It had to be him. “Signal a wing of Harpies to overfly the two EP’s and have Stymphalions ready to go on my say-so.” he ordered after a moment’s thought. “We hold station and monitor those left underground. At that pace, he’ll link up with them inside of an hour.” He’d better, or I’ll leave his twisted gaid down there, oath or no oath.


****

Though we were originally of Hellès ancestry, thanks to our Founders and their Ark that had, in their abiding and misguided wisdom, decided to colonise Erebus-Nýx aion ago, our culture and beliefs had obviously diverged from those of our former compatriots on Gaia over the years. The brutal necessities of survival on the hell-blasted kunàloufà of a cursèd world left indelible marks on a man, on his very soul, I am sure. It made some of us into what I believe the toùgud of Gaia liked to call a bit of a býlýk, perhaps even a harak of some description. Ergo, they do not like us very much and consider us a shade untrustworthy, a little lacking in empathy towards our fellow Man. Oddly enough, the Office of Naval Intelligence considered these traits to be fine and desirable. In fact, a very large percentage of current NIO recruits were Erebusian natives. Working with Gaians and even Sèlenians was always going to be a bit of a problem. Gaians, especially, have that weird sense of honour and righteousness that’d allowed first The Council and then The Union to walk all over them. If they’d had just a bit of that Erebusian diamond in them, The Union wouldn’t even have tried to start one war, let alone two. We’d have bled them dry of both soldiers and supporters faster than they could fart.


I’d been lucky. The collapse of what I now realised to have been the whole building, had dumped me into the old underground rail transit system natives of Alexandria-upon-Tamesis or Lùndùn knew as The Tube. I was walking in what I hoped was the right direction to what I estimated to be the location of Inaris and what was left of her team. My route would follow tunnels that went directly under the River Tamesis and I hoped that the long-disused tunnels hadn’t sprung any leaks. The only problem is that the heavy stone and depth made fòno reception patchy at best, I wasn’t going to be able to check whether I was in going the right direction or not, trusting entirely in that sense of subterranean direction Erebusians seemed to be born with. Hunting small tunnelling Bastar-Skolex worms for food or avoiding the fully-grown adults in the dark, it was the only sense you had that would keep you alive. I hope that it worked for me now, in these artificial tunnels of Gaia.


I tried to call up the maps of the city I had memorised back on base with that ugly Cymry gaidapàtz of an epibatoi sergeant. I remember how he’d acted like he was in the presence of an infectious disease around us, terrified that we’d corrupt his bablòuf honour or something yet knowing he needed our specialist knowledge and expertise. Him and his sùkgyì ‘soldiers’- be they the toy-soldier Panastàs of Gaia or the Selenar Empyraen remnant - called us Nippers and worse behind our backs thinking we didn’t hear them. I was used to it; deksàk of pulling one ungrateful geàd or another out of the fire only for them to want me gone the instant they were ‘safe’ again. Little did they realise that safe was not a condition for those of us who believed in Alexander and the Empyraeum to enjoy anymore, not until he come back, and maybe not even then. Thanks to these olstìth fools on Gaia, and their inattentive Selenar cousins, we had enemies all over the galàksia it would take near an aion entire to clean up, even after our Hegèmon returned.


I started at Elafint-Kastròs; twenty stadia that way is the river, then to Varkò-Séamus and the choir-cote (Skotia-Clòs) they’re under. I checked my comm-cuff for local time and ran the calculations in my head.... thirty-five minutes, all going well...IF the tunnels were secure and whole AND the explosions that’d nearly killed us all hadn’t caused additional damage to the ancient wayfares I now traversed. One good thing is that if my fòno is patchy, then those Union kunàloufà can’t track me down here.


****


It wasn’t just their manner or their curiously pale skin that bothered him, it wasn’t even those weird, shiny eyes that gave then unparalleled natural night vision; it was something he just couldn’t put his finger on. Something that deeply troubled him about these Erebusian Nippers he was working with. They were cold and aloof but, from his limited experience in that field, that was normal behaviour for natives of Erebus-Nýx as far as Gwydion was aware. No, that wasn’t it, there was something...something dead in those strange eyes, something missing. Something he considered to be human-standard that wasn't there.


As he'd asked, the Stymphalion drop-ship he sat in was holding station - executing tight circles of a limited patrol pattern - over Pàrc-Blingà keeping a watchful eye on the screen Bryn had given him for trouble. Bryn was doing the same thing as the first pilot - Edwyn he was called - kept their flight pattern steady. Gwydion noted the position of their escort, a pair of the new Harpy-Fury class fighters, executing intersecting ouroboros shapes through the sky a few hundred poùs above them. The clicks he could hear from Bryn's station meant they were in constant communication over a closed fòno channel. Trusting his pilots, Gwydion used the loaned screen to review the ground below them; broken buildings and a pàrc long gone to seed. He could see the smoke from the old choir-cote from here. Back in the day, Skotia-Clòs had been a beautiful building, before those Keeper scum had corrupted it.


It was a shame to see it and the surrounding terraces reduced to rubble, but he was glad that house of horrors was buried deep. Too many good men and women had disappeared into the deep basement cells never to be seen again. Many times too many.


You're tired, Gwyn, and those rhyfedd haram of the NIO are getting to you. He thought ruefully. You're getting old too, his thoughts dared not add aloud. Who's going to look after these kids when you're gone? They definitely refused to voice


Better me than someone like that mawlygad freak of a Nipper.


****


I can't remember how many times I thanked the eyes the Founders had gifted to my people, gene-tek and natural selection made the close to total blackness of these tunnels only slightly dim to my sight, some details sparse requiring me to burn lap battery, but I kept that to a minimum. I know the way my eyes tended to glow a bit in low light unsettled people and had used that to good effect to break a few prisoners over the years. Dressed dark, stood in a deep shadow so they could only see the eyes, not uttering a single word, just watching, makes a man think and re-evaluate.


Here, they saved me from either killing or inflicting further injury on myself. I flexed my left hand, still a bit tender and stiff from the three fingers I'd popped back into their sockets. I hoped it wouldn't come down to a knife fight at any point soon because my grip was gammed up and would be for a week. I reached back to my holstered custom uranos pistol and checked its indicators. Half charged...again. Yak it, Laèrtes, what's wrong with you? I fumbled open one of my belt pouches with the half-numb fingers of my left hand and decided to take a quick sit down. I needed to get my head together and think straight. I had no liquid water, having forgotten to bring it with me during my unexpected trip down here but I needed rest and quickly.


Unclipping my belt as I parked the loùf on a sizeable chunk of concrete, I ran through what I had left. A couple of nerò-dràs caps which I forced down dry and a handful of syth-prot chunks too. I waited for the empty hydration from the downed caps to sooth my throat before popping a synth-prot chunk into my mouth and chewing slowly. It had the texture of dried meat but didn't get stuck between your teeth like the real stuff does. Still, not the stuff to eat with a dry mouth. As I chewed, I unclipped my comm-cuff and turned on its little torch to give my eyes a rest. Under the greenish glow, I surveyed my distressingly meagre supplies.


I had a couple of fusion cells that looked good and a single Alpha-6 sized power pack; all my ammo and kit had been in the pack I had lost at some point before losing consciousness. With a grim smile, I flipped over my uranos and switched one each of fusion cell and power pack over, returning the old ones to a pouch to use in case of emergency. The indicators went all green. Good. I was sure I'd need to overpowered punch of this pistol at least once in the near future. I expected these tunnels to be crawling with Keepers and the fact that they weren't bothered me. I know those choì weren't anything close to a decent soldier but even rank amateurs like them wouldn't assume I was dead, not with what their superiors'd do to them if my continued good health were discovered. That meant trap and, though some dead general had said "knowing the location of the trap is the first step in evading it", that was not reassuring because I had to walk right into it to get my people out of it!


I knew them as well as I knew myself, if not better, because one day my life might depend on that knowledge.

I know Inaris. Yes, I'd trained her and trained with her, over and over, just like I had with every member of our unit. I knew them as well as I knew myself, if not better, because one day my life might depend on that knowledge. Maybe it did now because I knew the reason she wasn't moving; her zone was hot. Too hot for her to risk leaving in a hurry with the dead or wounded she must have with her. Like me, she'd leave no-one behind, even if they're dead, if it can be helped. So she'd holed them up to assess the situation and await possible support, meaning me.


My group would be the closest to her and that made it, by default, her support. But I had become separated from my squad and incapable of locating their bodies, which were probably under a talent or few of rubble. I'd marked the spot for later because if I had to leave a mate behind, I was going to leave nothing but ash. The epibatoi sergeant should know enough to not argue with that order (I technically outrank him, but he'd also gotten quite above himself lately) and, well, if his sùkgyì little morals got in the way...the order would be obeyed, one way or another. Nobody takes one of us, alive or dead.


Nikos, Nestor, and Iranis knew that. They'd stayed hidden on the Bhuèlfère after the Ghorkai had ghosted every one of their mates, including me, so they thought. So, they'd sleived around on that ship of death til the big green haraks got lazy. Then Nestor had rigged the reactor to blow while Inaris and Niko jipped a shuttle and espyed off to the same station I'd ended up on. None of them questioned my continued good health because we were that tight; we knew and understood each other.


That's why she was silent and that's why she was static. She'd wait the requisite two hours before trying a breakout. I'd better get some fèadh up my geàd. Holstering my uranos and checking my knife, I buckled my belt up nice and popped another synth-prot chunk in my mouth before snapping my comm-cuff back on. Killing the light, I let my eyes adjust before checking the dimmed display. Her signal was in range now, but she wasn't under the choir-cote. Màniom-Màvdui the flashing icon said, Mavman...same distance pretty much but what in Hades were they doing there? Tau, her emergency extraction point was at Croes-Golosgi which was between and above those points.


She was off the map and off schedule and I didn't know why but I was glad of one thing, these Tube stations were defensible and right in our element. Any Union soldiers would need low-light gear and we would not.


****


Time was running out and he saw no movement. The air support and extraction he'd sent to the other two teams had picked them up and were en-route to Annwfyn Base. That was good. Neither he, the flight crew of this Stymphalion, nor either Harpy-Fury pilot detected any movement on or near the surface. None. That was bad. Not that he was worried about the Nippers, they could appear out of nowhere when it suited them, but the Keepers didn't do sneaky, they were all for being seen and feared. Not a single Keeper surface or air force was visible which was unusual and, in Gwydion's world, unusual often means death. It meant more traps like the ones that'd demolished the three objectives or maybe something worse.


I'm not sending my people underground into a slaughter. He shuddered as he had that thought. Nippers though they were, those men and women were servants of The Empyraeum just like him. As things currently were, The Empyraeum was an idea, a living and breathing one but, technically, it did not currently exist. Not without its Hegèmon. They were fighting for that idea, preparing the way for Alexander's return and though, in his heart he hated the Nippers' methods, in his head he knew they were necessary. He was no idiot, not the naive fool that "Chief" Nipper, the ugly, half psybered, old cach of a dùr-gaid thought him to be. He knew that one of the many reasons they'd lost the war was because their enemies dared things they did not. He knew it was ruthless, calculated viciousness that'd beaten them. They'd outclassed Apateon's army in numbers and technology but their expecting honour from a man who had none had hamstrung them. They'd walked willingly into his trap.


They needed people that could think like the enemy and anticipate him, counter his plans and break them. They needed people that could stop him dead before he even moved. They needed those that'd take the brutally necessary action he couldn't stomach doing, he knew that,but it didn't mean that he liked it.


The Empyraeum was an idea and an ideal, that was true, but it was that ideal, that code they made it special, better than The Union and if that ideal were betrayed...victory at the cost of that Standard would be no victory at all. The Union would simply be replaced with another oppressor and humanity deserved better than that.


Even if Alexander does not return in my lifetime, we need to show humanity better. We need them to see they can expect and deserve better.


****



I watched her manner change, she was excited about something, her discovery was clearly a big one.

No visible movement, no lights, and no sound.


It was likely that was good because my people would make none of the above. That meant the only bodies down here were the ones I wanted to be here. Still, you don't live as long as I have by assuming. Very carefully, I loosened both knife and pistol in their sheaths and hunkered down at a good corner, one with plenty of visibility.


See, this is something all the telòrastri shows and reftìkofòs dramas always get wrong; the hero arrives at the trap about to be sprung and flattens himself against the nearest wall with his gun out and cocked. He then plays it around a bit before grothing his loùf back to wall and squinting a bit. No! You do what you can to break up your profile like I was doing now. You oklàz your geàd down low and look for something to blend in with, like that big buffer-stop, the things to stop the train in an emergency, like I was doing now. I can see but anyone looking will have trouble separating my silhouette from that of the buffer-stop, right?


Also, if I shoot from here, a cach soldier will shoot at head or, better yet, chest height and miss me. Course once I've fired the shot, I will no longer be in the place you're aiming at. Oh, and don't forget about reflections; when there's not much light, a small glint from something like, say, the muzzle of my uranos or a sight really stands out.


So, long lecture completed, I balance my weight to avoid involuntary movement and wait. Nothing. I wait five more minutes, so my eyes and ears can get used to the background sights, sounds, and smells. I let my senses do their job; ears listen, eyes just wander where they will, skin in back prickle...there!


It would look like nothing to anyone else, but someone had placed a discarded drink can, probably older than me, right on top of something that had held no can before.


I stood and held up empty hands.


"Brosto had a bead on you five minutes ago, you old dog." Inaris unfolded herself from the shadows and approached me. "Glad to see you're still breathing."

"Wheezing!" Brosto stood up, appearing as if by magic from the rubble the drink can sat on, sniper rifle in hand, sight capped. "I could see your eye-shine from halfway down the tunnel. You were like a Kristofèis Bear in a lighted room."

Now that's embarrassing! No ordinary human would be likely to spot eye-shine with so many background distractions, they'd think it was an animal, but what was that I said about assumptions? I smiled with the requisite degree of shame and acknowledgement then caught Inaris' eye, my questions clear.

"Gosio and Madox are dead, Chief " she said. "Limnos is back there, behind Brosto. He's in a bad way, boss."

"Yak," I met each of them with our customary grasp on the right shoulder. "I see no hostiles here. What's keeping you static?"


The two of them shared a look but said nothing for a long moment. Something was clearly going on and, I admit to my shame, thoughts of our clek did surface at that moment but I dismissed them. One of the dead, maybe, because they were new, but not these two, they'd saved my skin too many times to doubt them.


So Inaris told me what'd happened.


They got into the choir-cote without too much trouble and had the prisoner's cell-door in sight when kàos erupted all around them, armed Keepers by the dozen, too many to fight. They had no choice but to flee down the stairs and hope to either find or make an exit. Turns out someone else did that for them. The choir-cote was demolished as completely as my koinotýsia had been. A hole opened in the floor and dumped them into what turned out to be The Tube, killing Madox instantly and breaking Limnos' right leg and back.


They'd inventoried the best they could only to spot movement coming at them down the tunnel. Keepers with heavy rifles mounting lamps. They'd killed as many as they could before Gosio took a shot to the head and went down. The injured Lemnos told the remaining two how to set the charges he carried in his satchel as he laid down the best covering fire he could manage in his diminished capacity. They brought the whole tunnel down on those Keepers' heads and espied out there, dragging first the dead, then the injured Lemnos behind them.


"I put the three of them together, then left Brosto on overwatch while I scouted. Found the only way in now was the one you just used, Chief." Inaris told me, her tone clipped and professional. "Also found something, something you have to see."


I watched her manner change, she was excited about something, her discovery was clearly a big one. Inaris was usually cooler than ice and much sharper than it, nothing ruffled her, that's what made her a good sergeant. Time was against us but the decision was not a hard one to make.

"Brosto, eyes open wide, usual signal if you see anything, even if it's a rat." Brosto was already settling into a good hide and he answered me with a raised thumb and index finger. "Come on Inaris, let's see what's got you so worked up."


****


Now he was nervous. They were pushing their luck, and everyone knew it, they'd been lucky to meet no resistance so far but that luck was going to run out very quickly. Up here, in the air, they were especially vulnerable, and fuel was going to be a problem before long.


"Bryn, status?"

"Nothing sarge." The co-pilot answered. "Nothing good or bad in sight."

"Fòno?"

"Just the escort, sarge."


Yak! He knew they should leave and do it soon. The Nippers' pre-mission brief had specified a two-hour maximum window in the event of disaster, only if possible, thirty minutes if not. The skies were clear and the ground as empty as a sinner's Christofèis cup and they were still twenty-three minutes shy of the two-hour mark. He doubted anyone, especially not a group carrying dead or wounded, could get to the surface that fast so he could leave right now.


Only he couldn't, he'd given his word.


14:05 now, you've got until 14:30 maximum, Nipper, and then we're gone. He told the increasing stale air of the cabin, 14:30 and we're gone.


****


She yakked your hard work with the Ghorkai, gammed the deal up. How'd you know she didn't overhear and decide you were the clek?

"This'd better be good." I told Inaris with no small amount of exhausted menace.

"Oh Chief, this is better'n good!" Was that a laugh, an actual, genuine, heartfelt laugh of positive emotion in her voice?


I just nodded and followed her lead, pivoting back every couple of cubits to keep our six covered. I have to admit, I was powerfully intrigued. There were dead fish that were more emotionally expressive than Inaris on an average day, so to see her practically dancing like a teenager was both surprising and somewhat indecent. I felt like I was doing something wrong here, like that knock to the head had sent me màchamukha.


I used the time it took me to figure out what it was to adjust and fit the Shine-Shades Inaris had given me to replace the ones I'd lost in my little fall earlier. What are Shine-Shades you ask? They're like the sunglasses Gaians like to use; contoured matte wooden frame with adjustable fabric band to fit them tight to your face with no gaps, they curve to fit your contours and we normally shape them ourselves to ensure they're completely snug Inside the frame is a closely woven mesh of fabric with lots of gaps or holes creating a convex surface resembling a fly's eye. They're designed to scatter our eye-shine in the dark without compromising our vision too much. We had to be careful because we were following narrow passageways here, ideal ambush territory. No mistakes, no lapses, no assumptions. No lights.


She is not the clek. She is not the clek. I repeated it like a mantra as I fought to keep hands away from knife and gun. She yakked your hard work with the Ghorkai, gammed the deal up. How&#