How we think the fight will go
How Paul S. Kemp, creator of Erevis Cale, thinks the match will go:
A retrieval mission. That’s what the brass called it.
A dimensional vortex. That’s what the eggheads in Strategic Studies called it.
Lover’s Leap. That’s what the MI grunts called it, after some ancient Terran legend about a cliff from which people jumped to their deaths, hand in hand.
I didn’t much care for that last, but Mobile Infantry troopers had a peculiar sense of humor.
I’d seen images of the rift in the command briefings—a twenty klick slit in the universe that breathed clouds of shadow into space. Probes showed breathable air on the other side, the hint of a landmass, but invariably the probes lasted only a short time before going silent.
Same with the squad that had gone through two weeks ago.
Command had asked for volunteers. I’d stepped up, of course, and so had five of my men. Warm or cold, our fellow troopers were coming back. MI left none behind, not ever.
Besides, the energy readings on the other side of the rift…even the eggheads couldn’t make sense of them. There was something in the air on the other side, something dangerous, something WeapDev could use against the bugs, if it could be harnessed.
So we’d jump, wearing modified armor and riding modified tubes through vacuum, and plant on our feet on a new dimension. WeapDev wanted information. Fair enough. I wanted the missing troopers. I planned to take what readings I could, as fast as I could, but once I found the lost squad, I’d fire up the enhanced homing beacon and summon the automated dropship to take us home.
All of us. That was the plan.
I lay in the darkness of my tube, listening to sound of my heartbeat, my rapid breathing. After forty-six jumps, I still sweated like a rook before a drop.
Captain Pinero’s voice sounded through my comm. As always, her relaxed tone seeped into me, lent me a sense of calm.
“Ten seconds, Lieutenant Rico.”
“Roger that, Captain.”
A lurch then stillness, as my tube shuffled into position. Another lurch, stillness. The heartbeat of a launch sequence. My heart beat in time with the motion, Lurch, a pause, then rapid acceleration as Guy Fawkes spit me and my squad into space, the tubes like metal bullets shot into the mouth of the unknown.
The captain’s voice sent me into the mystery.
“Good hunting, Lieutenant Rico. See you soon. Bring everyone home.”
“I plan on it, Captain.”
In my mind’s eye I pictured the tear, a hole in the universe, pictured my modified tube knifing through the vacuum straight for it. I braced for…
For whatever was coming.
Cale had once watched a moon crumble in Faerun’s sky, its pieces falling to earth in fulgent lines. He was reminded of that as he watched the metal lozenges streak through the planar rift and cut glowing paths through the tenebrous sky of the Shadowfell.
These men with their armor; these men with their apparatuses.
He knew why they’d come.
They’d come to find their lost fellows. And they’d come to conquer.
They’d do neither.
He drew the darkness about him and went to work.
The screams started before we touched down, broken sounds delivered between the spit of static. At first I mistook them as interference.
“Martinez, was that you? Sound off, trooper!”
More static, interspersed with curses and a prolonged, pained scream.
I cursed, check my descent vector.
“By rank! Sound off, now!”
Shouts and curses bubbled up from the ocean of static.
What was wrong with my comm? Why all the static. Douglas’s voice broke through.
“The eyes, lieu—”
Another shout, a curse, a scream.
“What is going on? Douglas, report!”
Static, uniform and profound, the white noise of growing apprehension. My bios showed my heart racing, my breath coming too fast. I steadied myself, checked my elevation. Almost down.
I hit hard, too hard. Something was wrong with my tube. I popped it, bounced out, and looked around.
A deep darkness, a fog of shadows. No moon, the starlight faint and diffident. Even I/R barely cut through the swirl. Shadows hung thick in the air, a slow churn of black fog.
Where in the Hell had we put down?
Crumbling stone mausoleums and crypts dotted the terrain around me, thousands of them, stretching for several klicks in all directions.
We’d landed in a graveyard, on the surface of a world that looked to have last seen the light of a sun long, long ago.
The architecture of the tombs was odd, the construction methods low-tech, but before I could examine them more closely, a series of suit alarms pinged. Odd readings floated across my HUD. I was losing power. I cursed.
A sudden burst of static in my comm sounded like gunshots, startling me. I steadied my voice.
“Who was that? Tomio? If anyone can hear me, sound off.”
Interference hissed in my comm. Garbled words stabbed through the noise, voices drowning in the static.
“Martinez,” I said. “Report. Tomio? Douglas?”
Nothing. Their comms were down. Had to be.
“Davison, sound off.”
More static. A broken phrase that might have been a response. A shout, then a scream. There was fear in it and I liked it not at all.
“If you can hear me, assemble at….”
I glanced at the onboard comp. My coordinates were scrambled, changing even as I watched.
I cursed. The mission was a washout. I could see that plainly. It was the only thing I could see plainly.
I needed to get my men, whoever was left, and get out. I planted the pickup beacon in the soft earth, signaled for immediate evac, and activated it.
It, too, was scrambled.
A sound cut short my stream of curses, a sound that made my molars ache, a collective moan that sounded like old stones grating against one another deep underground. I stood, looked around, and for a moment could not make sense of what I was seeing.
Things of darkness oozed out of the crypts and rose into the air, impossible things, hundreds of them. Vaguely humanoid in shape, they looked composed of the darkness, living shadows, their bodies voids but for their glowing red eyes. They keened as they flew toward me, and the sound raised the hairs on my neck.
Instinct and training took over. I lit my burner and sprayed flame in an arc around me, coating the shadows and the crypts in flame.
The shadows moaned, keened louder, portions of them boiling away to merge with the darkness of the air. Their eyes flared and more came on. I jumped as far as my armor would take me, surveying the terrain at the apex of my leap, trying to make sense of what I’d seen. I saw a crumbling stone wall in the distance, taller buildings looming out of the shadows behind it.
A town. A landmark.
Green lighting lit up the sky, veining the black. Thunder rumbled. The dimensional rift was visible far above me, a glowing ochre wound in the sky.
I hit the ground in a crouch, still in the graveyard. Shadow things poured of the tombs nearby, their eyes baleful red embers. I loosed another blast of flame. More keening; more moans.
“Anyone who can hear me, there is a town at….” I checked my instruments again, found them fouled. “There’s a town near the LZ. Gather there. And shoot anything that moves.”
Not reply but static.
I jumped again, heading for the town, leapfrogging graves and burning my way through a sky filled with red eyes and shadowy forms. None had touched me or my armor yet and I intended to keep things that way. I had no idea what their touch might do. I had no idea how something insubstantial could exist. It was like I’d landed in a horror movie, surrounded by ghosts.
I jumped and jumped, closing on the town. While I was airborne, I kept my eyes peeled for any of my squad mates, for someone human. I saw one below, prone. I adjusted my jump, and landed near him. It was Martinez. I ran to his side, calling his name.
No movement. I looked through his helmet glass and quickly looked away. Inside his armor, he was broken, his skull caved in, his face a gory paste. I could only imagine how the rest of him looked.
How could a man get pulped inside his armor? The suit was damaged some but still mostly intact. It certainly didn’t show enough damage to account for what had happened to Martinez’s body. A voice from behind made my heart hammer against my ribs.
“I can’t let you leave.”
I turned, my burner raised, and found myself staring into the face of a man. Or something that looked mostly like a man. He stood almost two meters tall, and the darkness in the air clung to him, swirled around him in languid pennons. His deep set eyes glowed yellow, stared emotionlessly out of his angled face. A black sword—a sword!—hung from a scabbard at his side.
I kept my burner aimed straight at him. “You’ve got nothing to say about whether I leave. Who are you? Where are my men?”
Moans from behind him, that ache in my bones. The shadows were coming, coming in their thousands.
Another round of lightning sliced the sky. The flash lasted only an instant, but in that instant he moved next to me.
How had he moved so quickly?
“That hole in the sky,” he said, nodding up at the gash. “It’s a planar rift, a whole in the multiverse, moving from world to world, dimension to dimension. I’m trying to close it, but it’s…proving difficult.”
“Just don’t move,” I said, stepping closer and keeping my weapons on him.
The shadows about him deepened, swirled, as if in agitation.
“I’ve seen what can come through gates like these,” he said. “You and your men in your suits…you’re trivial by comparison.”
“Where are they?” I asked. “My men? Another group came here not long ago. Where are they?”
“Gone,” he said. He looked almost sad. Shadows spun around him, blurred the edges of him. He looked made of them, connected to them.
“You mean dead? Did you kill them? Did you kill my men? Answer.”
He paced, as if at war with himself. The darkness swallowed him with each step and he moved in and out of my vision.
“Your presence here worsens the rift,” he said. “The hole’s feeding on itself. The more the worlds crossover, the stronger it grows. Soon it’ll eat everything.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You don’t need to. But I can’t let it get any worse. And that means you can’t remain here.” He stopped pacing and looked up at me and his eyes…he had the same dead eyes of a sniper I once knew, a guy who’d killed dozens of sentient beings and thought it about no more than he thought about what he’d have for chow that night. I had no doubt that the man standing before me had killed many people.
And that realization was enough for me. I lit up my burner and flamed him, but he was no longer there. He’d taken a half step and the darkness had swallowed him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, now behind me. His words were hollow things, empty of emotion.
I whirled, still flaming, and caught only a glimpse of him before the darkness swallowed him again. I crouched to jump, to get clear, but before I could, the shadows deepened around me.
My suit went crazy, alarms singing, power failing. My incinerator sputtered.
I caught a flash of his yellow eyes for a moment before the darkness around me thickened and we…moved, jumped hundreds of feet into the air without crossing the intervening space. The rapid ascent made me dizzy, put my stomach in my throat. Bile crept up my throat but I locked it down, tried to redirect power.
I understood his plan right away. Desperate, I lit up my incinerator, sprayed sputtering flame all around, but the shadows swallowed it as fast as I could fire. I might as well have had a cigarette lighter. I was shrouded in darkness, his darkness. I knew it was his. He was the darkness.
Once more the shadows around me deepened, a tangible thing, a cocoon of black. And once again we blinked in and out of existence and rose higher into the dark sky. I couldn’t see the earth below me and considered myself lucky for it. We had to be a thousand meters up.
“This is impossible!” I said, and sprayed flame again, a futile gesture. My bios showed the rapidity of my heartbeat, my breathing, the rise in my blood pressure. My suit was failing.
Another lurching sensation, another jump up into the dark void. Another.
“This whole world is impossible!” I shouted, thinking of the shadowy creatures, thinking of this dark man with his dark sword.
“Maybe,” said the man, his deep voice as dark and unforgiving as the air. “But it’s mine. This world is mine. Goodbye.”
The darkness around me thinned and he was gone—and I was falling.
I was five-thousand meters up, plummeting earthward. I hit terminal velocity in seconds.
I would’ve laughed but the speed of my fall summoned scream instead. My final jump was no jump at all, but a five-thousand meter fall out of dark sky. I flashed on Martinez’s body, broken inside his armor.
How could a man be pulped inside his suit?
I had my answer.
The suit that had saved my hide on dozens of worlds, through hundreds of firefights, would be my coffin.
Hell with it. I couldn’t think of a better way to go.
Cale stood over the broken form of the fallen soldier. He regretted the man’s death, regretted all their deaths, but there was nothing for it. He needed to close the rift or it would consume the entire Shadowfell, consume every world in which it appeared. He wondered if it was Shar’s work. It stank of the schemes of the nihilistic Goddess of Night.
Lightning lined the sky. Thunder rumbled and a light rain fell. Thousands of unliving shadows gathered around him, his congregation, the dead of Elgrin Fau, their red eyes fixed on him, on the fallen man.
He looked up into the dark sky, at the glowing rift that split the fabric of the multiverse and coughed out the detritus of realms and worlds Cale could scarcely imagine.
More would be coming, he knew.
“We kill anything that comes through,” he said to the shadows, and they moaned in answer. “Prepare yourselves.”
Predicted Winner: Erevis Cale
NOTE: THIS MATCH ENDS ON THURSDAY, MARCH 8th, 2012, AT 5 PM, EST
Erevis Cale is a character from the Erevis Cale trilogy by Paul S. Kemp; Juan “Johnny” Rico is a character from Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein.
Erevis Cale image courtesy of Raymond Swanland and Wizards of the Coast. Juan “Johnny” Rico image courtesy of Berkley Books
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