The Archetype Crucible

fiction by Christopher T. Shields

2108 AD: the world was slowly recovering from the ravages placed upon it by the fury of the Last War. For the last decade and a half the world had slowly climbed up out of the hole it had spent over fifty years digging for itself. Civilization existed in pockets, ruled by the Artifints. It was a new world order, an unexpected one consisting of the rise of new small nations and powerful city-states governed by massive computers and the surviving artificial intelligences, some of which were the remains of wartime military and government infrastructures which had taken up the reigns of social order when the human governments that created them had collapsed into chaos.

For the last ten years now, the local area had been plagued with raiders and bandits, fast roving gangs of outlaws, heavily armed and highly mobile with salvaged military assets. Most of the gangs were composed of ex-military soldiers, deserters, and common criminals thrown together out of a desire to survive and prosper. The latter had escaped and found freedom when the domestic criminal justice systems and local authority levels had broken down. Towns and cities became fortresses, trade routes were traveled by armed caravans, in turn protected by guards and hired mercenary groups. Now the remaining vestments of civilization that were left were constantly preyed upon by outlaws. The bandit chieftains and their gangs raided the towns and cities, razed the villages and ambushed the convoys at will. The shipping routes were even beset by a new generation of pirates and hijackers. The criminals lived in the ruins that dotted the landscape, scavenging what they could from the past. Smashed or hastily abandoned military bases, old naval ports, tactical staging areas, and the long forgotten heavily fortified urban security centers became their makeshift bases of operations from which they roamed at will and struck with impunity far and wide through the shattered territories and the newly formed nations.

Not every band of ex-military personnel had chosen to the life of the raider, some chose to sell their services as convoy and caravan guards to the wealthy merchants and trade companies, some sold their skills as mercenaries for hire, and some chose to act as bounty hunters, tracking down the troublesome outlaws and eliminating them, always for a price. The new armies of the new political powers were often formed from the remains of the old armies of the old political powers. Veterans who survived the Last War and the Fall found ample employment opportunities in the world that followed. The local market had once been good, but the competition was well armed and bandits were not above forming temporary alliances to deal with a particularly strong band of vigilantes, often decimating their ranks even further when the spoils of war to be divided were hotly contested over.

Bandit and outlaw gangs were picking the area southwest of the Line clean to support their greed. The outlaw gangs were traditionally nomadic, they moved when the area was played out, roaming to fresher pickings. Campaigns of conquest, driven by lust, were common place tales among the bands of displaced refugees found on the roads and the shattered highways. With the collapse of any central government and the territories all squabbling over dividing lines, the warlords were having an easy time of carving out large fiefdoms from the remains of the Old World order. In the world today, might still made right. There was strength in numbers, and divided, without alliances, without trade routes and trust, the territories were falling under bandit control, one by one.

Towns and cities paid for what protection they could with what they had; supplies, food, equipment, alcohol, and sometimes drugs and medical supplies. Trade between areas of ordered civilization required constant protection from the outlaws. Often the mercenaries were as bad as the bandits that they replaced, sometimes taking up residence in the locales that they had been hired to protect, establishing a new order in favor of their own regimen. The territories grew wary of any strangers, especially well armed strangers.

But every now and then, there were tales of groups of soldiers who still lived by some semblance of ordered discipline, with a view to justice, and who molded their lives by the rule of law.

This is one of those tales.

General Rettig had more than a full company of loyal soldiers hidden in the mountains to the southwest. Her mixed force was one of the better equipped mercenary units operating this side of the Line after the Fall, but even Rettig had suffered from simple attrition and prolonged depletion of her supplies over the last few years. Her armor was patched, her infantry hobbling, and her munitions dwindling. From her hidden base of operations in a fertile valley, Rettig had waged wholesale war on the bandits and the outlaws for the last seven years, sweeping down with the shriek of blower fans and the rumble of heavy treads, showing no mercy in her war on the lawless, and looting the ill-gained caches of those who stood against her. She often traded with cities and towns, equitably, gaining her reputation as a fair and honest, if somewhat cold and harsh abdicator of justice. For years, Rettig’s troops were the favorite choice of many territories, and a regular sight with many of the established trade route caravans. But that was years ago, and times had become hard and bitter now for everyone.

At first, the pickings had been good, Rettig could maintain her force’s pressure through simple combat accumulation, but as the bandits fought against not only Rettig, but each other, the supplies available to all sides dwindled and were fiercely contested. At the current rate, Rettig estimated that her forces would be walking and using sharp sticks by Spring time, maybe sooner. Rettig needed supplies to maintain her forces; medicine, food, ammunition, spare parts, and volunteers to replace those who fell under her command. Her best scouts were sent far and wide, by foot and by horse, to negotiate contracts and to find supplies or those who would still trade for protection. Most of her scouts never returned, they were either killed or chose to desert, finding better employment opportunities. Either way, Rettig knew it was only a matter of time before her base was discovered, if it hadn’t already been learned in a variety of methods from one of those who had not returned. She needed a new base of operations and she needed her scouts to find her one and quickly. Out of all the scouts sent out, only three returned but one of those scouts had a very interesting story to tell and backed it up with detailed information.

The roads were never safe, packed with refugees and gangs of highwaymen, the once prosperous trade between towns and cities had come to a virtual halt in the last two years, despite the efforts of Rettig and others like her to keep the conduits of civilization open and flowing.

Somewhere, some of the bandits had gotten smart, much to even Rettig’s surprise. The roving packs of outlaws were suffering horrendous attrition rates when they tried anything other than their traditional hit and run raid tactics, but the targets available for such hit and run raids were rapidly vanishing. The refugees were little more than sport for the bandits, and often the refugees were just displaced victims from a previous raid. The philosophy became that you could only rob someone so often before they had nothing more to take. That time had come upon the outlaws without warning and without mercy. The lifestyle had reached its pinnacle, a new order was required if banditry was to survive as a profitable occupation. A new angle was needed and one man had the vision. Escobara Farez, an ex-Paneuropean special forces officer who prided himself not only in his tactical cunning and military ruthlessness, but also in his claim to owning the most still-functioning military hardware as well as the ex-military personnel required to maintain it. Farez had taken over several rival factions, often by brute force, assimilated them, and shaped them into a large, fast moving raider force, a cohesive blade which he used to carve himself out a small outlaw empire southwest of the Line, making Bethelshire in Cape Far his hub of operations.

Bethelshire had once been a thriving port city, a resupply depot for the Combine as it launched its Springtime offensives ever deeper into Paneuropean controlled territory. Some twenty years ago, much of Bethelshire had been leveled in a three week long campaign by the mechanized forces of the 3rd Paneuropean Army to retake the port, and the dogged effort of the Combine 5th Army to deny them that outcome. Then, as war often does on a whim, the strategic and tactical value of Bethelshire shifted, it was forgotten as the Last War moved on to other territories, leaving the refugees and the citizens to salvage and rebuild as they could in the wake of combat.

The refugees from the smashed and broken criminal gangs were inherently drawn to Farez’s carefully organized operation. Farez required discipline, and the weak and malcontents were quickly eliminated. The survivors of the bandit wars and the punitive mercenary strikes enlisted in his ranks, swelling his numbers obscenely and multiplying his strength to that which was far greater than anyone could have ever imagined. In the space of a few months, under his direction, Farez fortified the city of Bethelshire. He and his men reinforced the walls, restrained the citizens, and took control of the city. Now, after fortifying the city and using the raw materials available from the ruins, Escobara and his gang were in an enviable position of having a well stocked base of operations from which to terrorize other cities and towns, bringing them under Farez’s control.

Farez’s assault on Bethelshire had been one of surprise, expert planning, and lightning swiftness. Months in planning, Farez had seeded the city with his own spies to act as a Fifth Column when the time was right. On his command, his army attacked simultaneously from within and from outside the city. Victory was complete and undeniable. Any local resistance had been overrun and smashed, dissenters were quelled, and the city became his and his alone. Three months of purging out any resistance to his plans, both on the side of the townsfolk and within his own ranks cleared the way for his ascendancy to be the supreme ruler of Bethelshire and eventually the surrounding area.

Bethelshire had been transformed into a vision of hell. Fires burned in Bethelshire all day long, the makeshift factories of Farez producing crude instruments of war for his army, the citizens working as the menial labor. Those who stood against Farez, those who betrayed him, or those whom he simply took a dislike to were often made examples of. Public displays of torture and mutilation were regular, with the sentence of being tortured to death as the most common punishment to be meted out. The body of the victim was often left impaled on a pike outside the city, mounted along the thoroughfare leading up to the city gates, or simply hung from an outside wall like a banner until it decayed into nothing. Each corpse was left as a warning to others and as a tribute to the handiwork of Farez’s torturers and their ill-gained craft turned vile art. Bastards and orphans were rampant in the social order of Bethelshire, where Farez’s soldiers roamed where they wanted to and did as they pleased.

The raid on the local manufactory, soon to be the jewel in Farez’s crown, had been equally well orchestrated. A crack team of ex-Paneuropean military computer and heuristical specialists had quickly reactivated the Artifint and put the automated processes to their own use. But a factory needed raw materials to produce finished goods, and Farez used his army to enslave the citizens of Bethelshire into a crude slave labor force, working day and night to supply the manufactory with raw materials scavenged from the destroyed parts of the city. Now the manufactory turned out small arms, support weapons and basic equipment for Farez and his forces. His army began to look more and more like an army, insignia, as well as equipment and weapons became standardized. Old junk was fed to the recyclers, to act as the core material for the construction of an insane outlaw war machine.

Understanding the capacity for Farez to gain control of the entire region, and knowing the fate of the cities and towns nearby if he did so, General Rettig had sent a single soldier into this man-made visage of Hell on Earth. That soldier was Lieutenant Jace Hendricks. His mission was to find the leader of the citizens, discover if there was any chance of resistance, and to destroy Farez and his troops from the inside out, freeing the city and setting up trade negotiations between Rettig and the citizens. It was an impossible mission and an unobtainable objective, but it was the only shot that Rettig had, short of signing over her troops and joining Farez’s army to feed her soldiers and ensure her continued survival past the Spring. Morale was starting to fall within the ranks of the Irregulars and already there was talk of joining Farez’s army by some of the soldiers in Rettig’s ranks.

Rettig needed a miracle not only to save her and her troops, but to restore justice and trade to the area. Lieutenant Hendricks was given the task of manufacturing that miracle, in short order, from almost nothing at all. It was his specialty and Hendricks accepted his mission with the discipline of a soldier. His infiltration of the outlaw fortress would require that he travel light and fast, on foot. He took only what he needed; a secure tactical communications set, six days hard rations, a supply of drinking water, and two layers of refugee clothing to fight off the lingering Winter chill as well as not to arouse suspicion. His rucksack also carried a few personal essentials; a small Bible, some chemoglow sticks, first aid kit, some antibiotics, a few gold coins, a pair of silver chains, and a gold locket containing two pictures of complete strangers now long dead, the last items to be used for trade and barter if the need should arise. His weapons were also chosen with care and for the fast pace he would have to maintain to meet his mission parameters; a 5mm NORINCO snubmachinegun with variable electronic sight, five cassettes of spare ammunition, and his combat knife strapped to his right thigh in a low, quick break sheath.

Rettig gave Hendricks his final piece of equipment, a dull, flat gray case, metal and alloy, with faded lettering on it. Hendricks couldn’t make out the faded writing, but the stylized hourglass and the barely legible large word TACOMBINE were all he needed to see to know that he held a genuine piece of relictech in his hands. Something from long ago, created when the world was at war and conflict was not simply confined to this territory, or the next one beyond. Rettig then handed him a codekey, with a chain around it. Only the key would open the case. The small skull and crossbones at the lower right hand side of the case indicated that any attempt to access the contents of the case without the key would result in destruction of the case, the contents, and possibly anyone within a few meters radius. For its size, the case was light, a kilo or two at the most. Hendricks stowed it carefully in his rucksack and hung the key around his neck, next to his crucifix on a chain. A silent play of hands and arms in mutual conformation of an unspoken pact, a pledge to duty understood and sincerely felt, followed by a short nod where the eyes met, was all that was required between the soldier and his commander. By the time that Rettig had turned to say something else, something she might have had trouble saying, Hendricks was gone.

Rettig’s envoy to Bethelshire spent five days marching into hell, down from the mountains, through the mire that was the late Winter melt, and losing himself among a group of refugees where he found shelter on his second and third night. The 5mm select fire caseless repeater was hung from a strap beneath his right arm, ready to be grabbed and fired through the rags that he had draped himself in, but the refugees were beyond thievery and banditry. Their morale was gone, they were already lost souls, wandering the Earth, looking for the basics of survival. He adjusted his stature and his pace from that of a disciplined soldier to that of a broken and destitute soul. They accepted him as one of their own, silently, asking no questions, and offering nothing in return. Hendricks took leave of their fetid company on the fourth day of his march, having come as close to his objective as the streams of refugees could carry him. From here on out, he was on his own. His regimen carried him south-southwest of the Line, away from the streams of refugees and he soon found signs of organized banditry. Some small groups of refugees, ambushed and picked clean, none more recent than several hours. His margin for safety remained high but his pace became more cautious, his actions carefully chosen, his stops for rest carefully planned and secreted from any wondering eyes. Often he avoided roving patrols of bandits, Farez’s men and women, well armed, but not always disciplined or alert. Their nature suggested busy duty rather than a steadfast desire to stop anyone who might try to infiltrate the area. Their search patterns were designed around large scale engagements, masses of troops, large gangs of rival factions or groups of frightened refugees, not solitary individuals wishing to avoid contact with them altogether.

Hendricks was a shadow, even during the day. He moved from cover to cover, using every bit of terrain to mask his presence, to break up his silhouette, and to hide his form. There in the shadows he silently observed each patrol, making notes of any old unit insignia, any uniforms, and any equipment. He tried to ascertain patterns to the equipment, if any weapons present were old or new, used or freshly manufactured. He made notes of patrol routes, routines, and anything else he thought Rettig might be interested in, carefully building a map of the area, detailing it as much as he could. The glow on the horizon reminded him of the Hell mentioned in the Christian Bible which he had read occasionally, sporadically, and in bits and pieces. It was the one book he kept with him, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. He had found it five years ago, while hiding out in some ruins north of the Line. The tiny book had been clutched in the hands of a corpse, kneeling in the corner, back to the wall. Death must have come slowly, judging by the grimace on the face, illuminated by infrequent flashes from incoming artillery rounds in the distance. Intrigued as to what someone would wish to read in the last painful minutes of their life, Hendricks had carefully taken the Bible from the brittle fingers and spent the next few minutes reviewing the yellowing pages. After sliding the small Bible into a pocket in his fatigues, he noticed a silver chain and a crucifix around the corpse’s neck. Hendricks had taken that as well fort he dead had no use for such things. Now the crucifix rode around Hendrick’s neck, sharing the space with his dog tags, relics of his time spent in the Combine’s 4th lift calvary group, a lifetime ago and a world away. The tiny book in his pocket and the cold metal around his neck gave him comfort when he focused on them.

From his point of view, hidden from sight, the visage of Bethelshire was different at night, when the fires of the crude factories lit up the night sky in orange and yellow as they cast eerie dancing shadows that played across the buildings and lurked among the metal skeletons of the industrial ruins. During the day, he noted that a pall of black smoke hung about the city, a dark shroud that dimmed the sunlight. The smell of manufacturing mixed with the smell of decaying flesh in a putrid swirl that made him breathe lightly. The amount of violence that hung around the city was appalling even to one who had seen such horrors of war as Hendricks had.

Hendricks easily adjusted and synchronized his routine to match the various patrols. Their discipline was lacking, often the least concealed of available hiding places served him just as well as any of the harder to find areas would have. Either the outlaws were lax, or they were over confident. Each prospect was to his sole advantage. His entry into the city proper occurred at night, between patrol changes, and was not difficult for a specialist of his talents and experience to achieve. Gaining his bearings, he found shelter for the night in an abandoned warehouse, some three kays walking distance from his point of contact. His resting place would be within a discarded modular packing container half again his height and five meters long. It was one of many such units long ago abandoned in the ruins of an industrial warehouse, possibly by the retreating Paneuropeans. It’s owners had never come back to claim it and no one since then had staked a claim to it, so Hendricks considered it fair game.

The container smelled of dust and decades of disuse by anything larger than vermin, but it was his home for the night and he welcomed it as he would a hard cot back at the base. The five sides of the container were molded from three centimeter thick gray plastic and made for an excellent wind break since the open container end faced the wall of the warehouse, further masking his presence. His luck as much as his skill had determined where he would rest for the night. As long as he was silent, he was free to move around inside the container as he desired and be free of roving eyes which might see his movements. Hendricks had long ago foregone the softer pleasures of life which would lead him to be weak and undisciplined. Comfort was a stranger to him, decadence a sin. His life was regimented, his every move thought out, and his nature Spartan to a fault. Hendricks sat down, slowly relaxing sore muscles. After a brief and silent prayer of thanksgiving, he ate sparingly from the last of his rations, alone, and in the dim light afforded him by the early morning dawn that was slowly rising. His rucksack was noticeably lighter now without the six days of hardtack rations and his water supply was almost depleted. He bunched up the now empty space in his rucksack to form a crude pillow for his head. Setting his snubmachinegun where he could instantly reach it in the dark, he closed his eyes, said another short but heartfelt prayer, and relaxed as his soul became at ease. His sleep was one of a soldier’s, practiced, light and shallow, but enough to recharge his reserves and rest his tired muscles.

He did not dream and if he did, he did not remember.

Nightfall found him refreshed, awake, and hungry. He finished the last of his rations, clearing and focusing his mind. The hunger in his stomach now abated, he reviewed his list of standing mission parameters, sanitized his presence in the warehouse, and became one again with the shadows of the night, moving deeper into the city and his objective.

Three hours later found him observing the section of the city where Farez kept the citizens confined to. Crude walls had been erected around a five square block area to contain the population in the remains of office buildings. Gates, with guards and watch towers were spaced at regular intervals around the perimeter of the wall, but they appeared to be designed to prevent someone from escaping from the compound, not entering. Forced work gangs, often twenty to thirty individuals guarded by two or three armed outlaws, were taken from the compound and put back within at regular intervals and shifts. It was little trouble to wait in hiding and slip in among the gangs of workers shuffling back to their quarters. The populace had been crushed, their morale dampened to the point where even the guards inside the city were careless in their duties.

Hendrick’s best option for entering and leaving the compound would be if he appeared

Private Jace Hendricks had been in worse situations before but none that were this uncertain and none that carried so much weight upon the outcome. He watched as the elder talked quietly with a strong looking bearded man, apparently the leader of the city militia which had captured him. Their voices did not carry across the distance between though Jace could tell that their exchange was often heated. Jace silently tried the strength of his bonds again and found the leather cords to be more than adequate to prevent him from regaining his full mobility, such as they were used to bind his ankles and his wrists. He sighed quietly and squatted on the concrete floor in what used to be a large commercial warehouse. The smell of the building was musty, old. It was abandoned, and the general upkeep of the building suggested it hadn’t been used for its intended purpose in decades, maybe longer. Everything was dark save for the sputtering flicker from a few hooded candles that did not cast shadows where anyone else might see them from outside the warehouse.

Jace caught a glimpse of dull gray and black, the strange case which the General had given to Jace to present to the leaders of the city. The elder and the bearded man took turns handling the metal case he had brought down from the mountains with him. It was evidently an item of great worth or great importance, such he could gather from the way they spoke of it and the way that they handled it, occasionally looking back in his direction with sometimes incredulous expressions. He tried to study their lips, to read words without sound, but such was not his gift and he gave up trying to eavesdrop. His single guard was still behind him, carefully watching Jace while standing out of the way of any sudden movement which Jace might be able to produce. A slugthrower of questionable vintage yet suitable caliber had been used to prod Jace to his current position. Jace didn’t know if the man behind him was trained in the use of the slugthrower, but he didn’t intend to find out the hard way.

Jace relaxed as best as he could, given his current situation. As a soldier in Rettig’s company, he was used to discomfort, even long periods of being motionless in miserable conditions. Jace, however, did not care for captivity or confinement. There was a difference between choosing not to move, and not being able to move. The bonds, he thought, were more for the peace of mind of his captors than anything else. If he had wanted to kill them, he could have done it long before now, at the time when he allowed himself to be discovered and taken by the bumbling town strong men who were assigned to protect this elder. Jace was well trained, seasoned and experienced with five years of active combat duty. He was a soldier, with a keen eye and quick reflexes and the brains to use them both. He had fully penetrated the city, past its formal guards, into the residential sector, and found his assigned contact. From there, he had simply entered the residence and announced his presence, giving a great deal of surprise to those assigned to protect his contact.

Jace was unarmed save for a combat knife which had been taken from him. Nearly thirty centimeters of razor sharp and serrated BPC with a kilo and a half heft to it served him well in the past and he was fond of his blade. He hoped to be given the blade back when this was over with. He had traveled light, coming down from the mountains, carrying a disposable ruck sack with only enough provisions to get him to the city, two days march. Once his rucksack was empty, he had folded it into a tight roll and stowed it in the thigh pocket of his fatigues. Hopefully, his captors would be able to provide him with some hardtack for his return trip, where he would carry their answer back to General Rettig.

Jace reviewed his captors. Given time, he could easily escape from his current captors, but he kept reminding himself of his mission, and that he was not truly a captive for he and his people had done no wrong to those who lived in the city. If anything, they were trying to save the people who lived here more pain and misery. Often, however, those who carried the guns were little better than the ones they replaced. The world was short on trust, and well so it was for there was little trust between men these days. Deeds, not words, ruled the negotiation table. Vada non verba, General Rettig had once said. It was the motto of Rettig’s outfit.
His guard shifted his balance behind him, keeping out of peripheral sight of Jace. Good. That meant that the man was at least somewhat competent. Jace was bound because one of the things that the world had lost during the Last War was trust. Jace did not have the trust of those who he appeared before now, and they were afraid of him. Fear generated anger, anger lead to violence and irrational hatred. Rettig had taught all of her soldiers this. Trust was the most important thing you could offer in the world, and it came with a price, often a high one. Because Jace did not have the trust of these people, the leather cords would have to suffice for their trust of him. They did not know him from a common bandit or highwayman. The leather cords and the power to restrain him gave them the trust that they needed it reduced their fear of him because they thought that they controlled him.

Jace moved against the bonds again more out of habit, not so much testing them as simply trying to find a more comfortable position from which the leather cords would not bite so deeply into his wrists and ankles. Already, after what seemed more than thirty minutes he was beginning to feel the pins and needles of the loss of circulation. He moved, slowly, without noise, and felt the blood return to his extremities. For that he was grateful and murmured a small thanksgiving to God.

Jace shut his eyes and relaxed. He must have cat napped because when he opened his eyes, the elder and the bearded man had been joined by three others, all showing the signs of middle age, without much exercise. Bureaucrats all looked the same, whether they wore a uniform or a farmer’s garb. Jace hated bureaucrats, their decisions were often based on their own personal welfare, and not the lives of ordinary people. To a bureaucrat, soldiers were expendable, and often for the most foolish of exercises. Bureaucrats had almost destroyed the world, once, with their talk, their ideals, and their orders. Men and women had died, everywhere in the world, but the bureaucrats had been safe, in their offices, in their bunkers, behind their desks. Jace sneered and unconsciously flexed his muscles, the bite of the leather cords restored his professionalism in an instant.

Jace was a soldier, but right now, the General needed Jace to be something else. The General needed Jace to be an envoy, and he had sent Jace to the leaders of the people of the town with a gift and he had no illusions on why his insertion required a solitary five day overland march on his part.

Rettig couldn’t spare the fuel, not even for something as important as this.

“Release him.”

Jace looked up again at the sound of those words, the elder and the bearded man were looking at him. The elder made a motion with his hand and suddenly Jace was hauled to his feet by the man behind him. He tried to stand on legs that were numb and found it took nearly all of his concentration.

“Stand still. I will untie you.” The man behind him said.

Jace nodded as his bonds were released. He bent in half at the waist, and massaged his ankles through his boots, then rubbed his legs slowly, rising as he rubbed higher, massaging the feeling back into his lower extremeties. The two men approached as he straightened, massaging his wrists. His combat gloves were short, fingerless, with no protection other than the palm and first digit of each finger and thumb.

“You will cause no trouble?” the elder asked.

The bearded man stood behind the elder, arms folded, dubious.

“I will cause no trouble.” Jace replied. “I am not authorized to cause trouble for you, only to negotiate on General Rettig’s behalf.”

“Hummmph.” The elder replied, turning to motion for the other three men to come forward. “Soldiers always cause trouble.”

Jace watched the other three men approach, one in front, two behind him. The first one carried the case which Jace had brought with him. They formed a semi-circle around him, staring him up and down.

“You speak for Rettig?” one of them asked.

“I do.”

“Do you know what this is?” another one asked, pointing to the case held by yet the third man.

“It is a gift, from General Rettig. It is an offer of trust.”

There was murmuring, the shaking of heads.

“And what do we have to offer Rettig in return?” one of the elders asked.

“Food. Shelter. Clothing. Equipment. Supplies. A secure base of operations.”

“Bah! A base for raiders and bandits!” one of the elders said, spittle forming as he spoke excitedly.

“Rettig is not a bandit or a warlord. We do not prey upon the weak.”

“But you are soldiers! We have soldiers already in our town!”

“Yes.” Jace replied. “But you did not invite them here, did you?”

More murmuring, dissension, and shaking of heads. Whispers and glances.

“Can you make them leave?” the elder asked.

“I can.” Jace replied. “With that …”

He indicated the case which he had brought with him.

“And your help.”

“What you speak of is a crime, punishable by death!” an elder said.

“Death is best when it is quick, not when it is a life to be endured. You are all dead men now, even as you speak. You do not control your own fate, your own time of dying. Escobara does that for you. He takes what he wants, when he wants.”

“Escobara is powerful!”

“Rettig is powerful. Rettig can defeat Escobara. I have served with Rettig for many years now. Rettig can be trusted.”

“Bah! One bandit warlord is just as good as another…”

“Rettig is not a bandit. Rettig is not a warlord. Rettig is a soldier.”

“A soldier?” the elders asked. “In what army?”

“Rettig is a soldier in her own army. A bandit lives by the day. A soldier lives by discipline.”

“And this?” the elder with the case asked, holding the case up so that the faded symbols could be seen in the flickering light.

“That is a key. It comes with trust.”

“A key? What does this key open?” the bearded man asked.

“Your future. It unlocks the chains that currently bind you, it makes you all free men again, and it gives you command of your lives once more.”

“And only you can use this key.”

“I have been instructed how to use that device, yes.” Rettig answered.

The elders looked at the case again, turning it over, examining it carefully, and talking. Always talk, scared little men uncertain of their future, at a crossroads to their destiny and scared to take it. They lacked discipline, they lacked devotion, and the lacked courage. Jace pitied them for their kind would always be sheep to the wolves.

A furtive movement out of the corner of his eye caught Jace’s attention. He watched a shadow form barely five mitas away, near some smashed shipping containers. They were being watched. The man behind Jace must have seen the spy as well, as his hand moved swiftly to bring the slughthrower to bear on the target.

“No!” Jace said in a firm voice, attracting the man’s attention.

The shadow began to sprint, breaking free from the boxes and resolving itself into the form of a running man, heading for the exit to the warehouse.

“One of Escobar’s men!” the elder with the case cried.

Jace shoved the guard’s arm out of the way, seeing his blade tucked inside the guard’s belt, he reached for it, felt its familiar weight in his hand, and turned. His arm snapped down and the weight left his palm, tracking true to a spot a hand’s length down from the base of the neck on the fleeing man. The strike was nearly soundless, the swish of the blade through the air, and the staggering of the dead man as he careened into more discarded shipping containers. Jace and the guard sprinted forward to the dead spy as the elders shuffled up behind them. Jace squatted near the body and retrieved his blade, wiping it on the body of his enemy before returning it to its sheath at his side. The barrel of the slugthrower touched the nape of his neck and he slowly raised his hands.

“Why?!” one of the elders asked.

“It was one of Escobara’s men. If he had reported to Escobara that we were talking with a soldier…”

“Why didn’t you shoot him?! You have a gun!”

Jace turned his head to face them all.

“If you had fired, you would have brought every one of Escobara’s men down on our heads.”

“And your way was better?”

“My way was quieter.” Jace said flatly.

“You have killed him!” one of the elders cried. “Escobara will kill us all and slowly too! Our families will be made to suffer as well! What have you done?!”

Jace slowly stood up, the barrel of the slugthrower never left the contact of the skin of his neck. He turned to face the men, staring down the dark barrel of the weapon which the guard pointed now at his face.

“I have taken the first step for you. I have set you on the road which will make you free.”

“You have doomed us all.” The first elder said, but there was no hatred in his voice.

“I have just set you free.” Jace said flatly.

The older man stood near the body of Escobara’s soldier and prodded it with his foot.

“If only this were Escobara…” he said softly, wishfully.

Jace turned and stood beside him.

“It can be.” He said. “I bring you trust. I bring you a future that is your own. I only ask for your trust in return. And for sanctuary for my people in your city.”

The elder turned to stare at the ceiling, lost in darkness some twenty meters above. After what seemed an eternity to Jace, the man turned to him, put a hand on his shoulder.

“Tell us what must be done.”