Monday, 27 May 2019

12. A-Watch, Sector 13: Come on and feel the noise!

The sense of urgency in the voice of Control spurred them on, as if the threat of the Dark Judges hanging over the city they were sworn to protect wasn’t enough. As soon as the Med-Wagon arrived, Muller handed Martins over to the waiting Med-Judges. ‘Keep this perp alive. He’s got a lot of questions to answer’. As he disappeared into the interior of the Med-Wagon, Martins stirred slightly and his eyes seemed to open and focus on Muller briefly, the shadow of a smile on his lips. Muller’s nagging sense of doom at this sight was blown away by the familiar downdraft of a H-Wagon appearing on scene. Tac-Team Wily’s helmet comms crackled into life as soon as the vehicle touched down. ‘Dredd and the Sector Chief want you airborne, asap. You’ll be briefed en-route’.

As the H-Wagon climbed into the air, the current strategic situation was relayed directly to them via hololink. Brushfire lawlessness was still endemic throughout the Sector, and had spread to nearby Sectors despite the Department’s best efforts. Dredd himself remained on hand, going wherever was needed to stem the flow of unrest. Hart couldn’t resist reviewing Dredd’s arrest record since coming on-scene; even for a young Judge, his arrest record and kill-tally was impressive. For one of his years...Hart again felt the pressure of the need to achieve more keenly than ever and swore he’d do whatever was necessary to live up to Dredd’s legacy, even if it killed him.

Wily and Muller were entirely focussed on the data streaming to their display. The reported HQ of the Church of Death was now the centre of a huge crowd of perps, juves and otherwise uninvolved citizens who’d been drawn in by the spectacle unfolding around them. The HQ was in a large warehouse complex in District One, just to the north of KK Block and near to the northern Rad-Zone. Spycam footage showed the blocky building surrounded by hordes of citizens, many wearing Church of Death t-shirts and suspiciously cultist-like costumes, but there were also many ordinary citizens who’d just followed the herd to see what this latest craze was all about. In the distance could be seen blossoming explosions and crackling gunfire from the ongoing Block-War between Kimi Kardashian Block and Peach Trees; it was this that was taking up a good deal of Judge-hours to pacify. For this reason, Anderson had attached herself to the teams tasked with maintaining a cordon around the CoD HQ. The Department couldn’t risk a riot there until the judicial resources locked down in the ongoing Block War were released, as they simply wouldn’t be able to prevent it from spinning out of control. As with so many things in Mega-City One, this was the lesser of two evils from which the Judges were forced to choose.

Kowalski stood back from the holo-display with a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Although Martins was now out of commission, the chaos he’d created across the Sector and beyond remained in full swing. Although she and her fellow Judges had performed a minor miracle at Nixon Pen, the fact remained that Fear and Death were still on the loose in her city, no doubt revelling in the chaos and, well, death. From time spent with Anderson and from reviewing Department records, she knew that the undead monsters were subtle and clever, and would never do what was expected of them. The next step would be for them to take new bodies, recently dead but carefully prepared with ‘death juices’, whatever they were. This was their dilemma; the Judges couldn’t be everywhere, and the psychic turmoil caused by the rampant law-breaking and the nodes of thanaton energy caused by zombie outbreaks meant that it was almost impossible to track the Dark Judges. So they had to wait and watch for them to make the first move and hope they could stop them in time. But even this could be a cover for a yet deeper plan, so Dredd was keeping himself in reserve to account for their machinations; if he deployed against a suspected Dark Judge incursion, that would be the last throw of the dice for the Judges. And if that happened; well, Grud be with them all...

Within minutes, the H Wagon touched down at the mobile command post for the cordon around the Church of Death HQ. The adapted H-Wagon was filled with Tek-Judges monitoring bank after bank of green displays, data and lines of text reflecting from the impersonal visors of their helmets. Seeing Anderson’s helmetless head amongst a group of senior Judges, Wily pushed through the cramped interior to stand before her. He saw immediately that she was exhausted, no time for the flippant humour that was her trademark. ‘Wily, glad you’re here. We’re keeping a lid on things for the moment, turning back any new arrivals and sending them on their way. But there are still several thousand people in the area ‘, indicating a wide circle on the tac-grid. ‘We’ve declared this an illegal assembly, so they’re all perps now. The epicentre seems to be this large warehouse’ again indicating a point on the screen ‘but we can’t risk setting them off until we can be sure of containing it and we don’t have eyes inside’. Seeing Hart’s critical glance, Anderson continued with a sigh: ‘Yes, Hart, we’ve cut the power as per procedure, but they’ve obviously got their own generator in there’.  At this, Muller spoke up: ‘Roof. We go in by air, land on the roof and then improvise from there’. Quickly, this was agreed as the plan and they headed back to their H-Wagon. As they went, the team grabbed ammo, stim-tabs (and tranqs in Kowalski’s case) and anything else they might need. Finally, as the H-Wagon shot straight up into the city sky, the team pulled on their grav-harnesses.

Within what seemed like moments, the H-Wagon hovered high above the target location. Hart merely jumped out of the vehicle without a word, activating his grav-harness at the last minute. Muller, Kowalski and Wily gave each other a nod before they followed suit; over the past months, they’d bonded as a team, their various personalities and differing skill sets allowing the whole to be greater than the sum. They were as ready as any team of Judges could be.

By the time they touched down on the roof, Hart had already wrenched back an access panel so they could peer within. The whole structure shook with the ear-bleeding, thought-numbing assault of Black Spug being played at maximum volume. If not for the aural dampers within their helmets, the Judges would quickly have been rendered insensible by the sheer noise. Through the rusted access panel, they could see that the centre of the warehouse floor some 40 metres below was dominated by a circular stage. The stage was currently occupied by a group of black-clad juves who were entirely focused on wringing every erg of noise out of their various instruments. The stage was set up to appear like an altar or some sort of shrine, with a shrouded plinth set at each of the four cardinal points and some sort of column or monolith set at the centre. As Kowalski looked at the monolith, a sick feeling washed over her; even if it wasn’t for the glowing green occult symbols etched into its surface, it was clear that this was more than just set-dressing.

Around the circular stage a huge crowd surged, caught up with the sheer abandon of the noise being inflicted on them. Wily winced to think what would have happened to their hearing within moments of the music starting, but that wasn’t his problem. Feeling a hand on his arm, he looked towards where Muller was pointing out a sound desk and bank of generators in the far corner of the space; reading Muller’s intent, Wily nodded. As they formulated their plan to disrupt whatever was happening below, the music suddenly cut off to be replaced by a roar of human voices. Quickly, the roar resolved itself into a single word, chanted over and over again: ‘Rise! Rise! Rise!’. Looking below, the band had been replaced by four hulking figures in black robes and a smaller, similarly robed but more fragile-appearing figure. The larger figures took up position at the head of each of the shrouded plinths, and as one ripped back the covers to reveal a cadaverous body hooked up to an IV line carrying a green liquid into their dead flesh. As the slighter figure stood near the central monolith, the crowd roared and surged forward, clearly thinking this was part of the performance.

Things happened quickly from this point. Without hesitation, Hart flung himself through the opening in the roof, activating his grav-harness as he did so. Although it wasn’t intended for interior, low-level use he was banking on it slowing him enough to prevent serious injury. Cursing (in approved Department fashion, Wily hoped) Muller climbed through the access point and began to swing hand over hand through the support struts until he was directly above the bank of generators. As Kowalski took up position with her Lawgiver at the opening, a pile of Hi-Ex rounds beside her, Wily climbed through with a little more caution and began to unravel cabling from the lighting rigs in the ceiling.
As he careened down from above, despite his best efforts Hart clipped the tip of the stone monolith with his trailing leg and felt a sharp crack. As he landed on the stage, he bit down on the pain, and instead rose to his feet. As the four hulking figures turned towards him, he grimaced and drew his Lawgiver with a practiced ease: ‘Now it’s my turn to drop the beat, freaks’.

Seeing Hart in the thick of things as usual, Wily coiled his hand around the released cabling and launched himself into a wide spiralling arc, hoping to bleed some of the momentum out of his descent before he joined Hart on the stage. In the far corner, Muller had finished wrapping himself in the cabling attached to the ceiling. As Kowalski looked on disbelievingly, Muller executed a perfect swan-dive, curling and twisting elegantly as the cables unwound from his body until he gently placed his Judge-boot on the ground, all momentum halted by his stunning technique. The two uglies at the desk looked disbelievingly at the Judge that had appeared before them. Smiling coldly, Muller yelled ‘the only ‘DJs’ around here will be ‘Dead Juves’ if you don’t beat it!’ as he drew his Lawgiver. Terrified, the perps threw themselves backwards as one, just avoiding the explosion as Muller riddled the lighting desk and generator with bullets.

Seeing the cream of the Justice Department in their midst and suddenly being plunged into darkness was enough to send the crowd into a panicked stampede. As the sea of humanity swirled below him, Wily clearly saw Hart surrounded by what were clearly four vampires. Hart was taking a beating, although he’d had sufficient presence of mind to destroy one of the cadaver-bearing plinths with an incendiary round.  As Wily finally swung towards the stage, he took the opportunity to apply Judge-boot to the back of a vampire’s head: ‘You’ve got no soul, so have some of mine creep!’. Pleased with his witty entrance to the fight, Wily rose to his feet and drew his Lawgiver. The smile died on his lips, however, when he saw the way the vamp to which he’d just applied his sole looked at him: the word ‘hungrily’ sprang to mind...

To an observer, the next minutes would be a staccato series of images lit up by the phosphorous glare from a stream of gunfire unleashed by the Judges. The proximity of Hart and Wily to the vampires made life difficult for Kowalski and Muller, as they couldn’t deploy their favoured tactic of ‘Hi-Ex to the face’ when faced with vampire perps. As a result, both of the Judges on the stage took heavy damage from the claws of the creatures, particularly as their focus was on the plinths containing the cadavers rather than the vampires’ slavering jaws. The whole team had quickly identified that these were the real threat, as they could be used by the Dark Judges as hosts. To prevent that, well; any casualties could be deemed acceptable, even fellow Judges.

Amidst the mayhem, no-one took much notice of the smaller robed figure as it moved to the crowd, snatched up a squealing perp wearing a ‘Death Lives!’ t-shirt and dragged him over to the central monolith. High up in the rafters, Kowalski looked on in horror as the robed figure opened the perp’s jugular, causing blood to arc towards the pillar. As soon as the blood touched the stone, Kowalski felt a dreadful pressure within her mind. Above the pillar, unseen by those below, she could almost taste the presence of Death as he and Fear coalesced in spirit form. Coiling like the greasy smoke from a funeral pyre, the Dark Judges began to move in a spiral down towards the monolith. In her mind, she heard the sibilant words forming even as her soul shrunk away in horror: ‘Yesss, give usss form! Let the sssinnerss be judged!’ Reeling in shock, she let out a scream of horror.

All that her fellow Judges heard was a high-pitched, warbling scream through their helmet comms, seeming to form the words ‘"Aim for the drokking slabs! He's almost heeere!’. At this, the slight, berobed figure looked up at Kowalski, and their minds briefly met. With a shock, Kowalski saw through the illusion that had cloaked the figure’s true form; not a frail human after all, but a huge, grossly mutated form that positively seemed to burn with the dark light of death. A tracery of green lines covered the figure’s immense, pulsing musculature, clearly related to the green retrovirus created by Martins at Everpet. But what was most disturbing was the perp’s face; atop this crime against nature was an all-too-human face. The face of a young girl with sad eyes, instantly recognisable from ID shots Kowalski had seen what seemed like an eternity ago; this was what remained of Jennifer Radley at the end of her dark road of discovery and it was both more and less than human.

It seemed that Kowalski’s realisation caused the illusion to fall away from all the Judges’ eyes. Summoning up the last reserves of his strength, Hart tried to leap atop the monolith, hoping to topple it over onto the Jennifer creature. Unfortunately, the effort proved too much for him and he fell back badly wounded, as the thing with a girl’s face came for him. But Wily was too quick; turning away from the burning remnants of the final plinth, he sprayed the creature with SE shells, turning its attention from Hart to himself. Seeing the hate and urge to kill burn in the thing’s eyes, Wily wondered whether he’d made the right decision.

With the destruction of the final plinth, Kowaski felt a wave of superhuman rage and frustration wash over her from where the spirits of the Dark Judges faded away into nothing. As they went, she felt a cold certainty that they were not defeated, merely delayed. Death was too canny a foe to be beaten so easily.

As Death and Fear disappeared into the aether, the vampires advancing towards Hart jerked as though they were vid-puppets with faulty code. Their grim purpose seemed to have fled along with the Dark Judges, and now their desire for blood took over. Unable to resist the lure of so much living flesh nearby, both threw themselves into the surging crowd, adding to the chaos. Badly wounded and bleeding profusely, Hart dragged himself to the side of the stage and propped himself up against a smouldering plinth, a small grimace of self-satisfaction twisting his lips before he blacked out.
Unlike the lesser vampires, Beast-Jennifer was less affected by the failure of the ritual. Although it was obviously shaken by the Judges’ intervention, it remained utterly focussed on taking revenge on the Department in the person of Wily before it. One exchange of blows convinced Wily that there was no way he’d defeat this thing on his own, so he threw himself backwards and crowd-surfed away from the beast, firing his Lawgiver until he finally disappeared from view. Enraged, the thing leaped after him but in its wounded state was unable to reach its tormentor. Instead, it was carried away by the flow of human detritus, lashing about itself and howling as it disappeared into the darkness.

Within minutes, the ceiling-height main warehouse doors began to open, the glare of the late afternoon light pouring in on a scene of devastation. The floor of the warehouse was covered with the forms of wounded and dead citizens and perps, and the Riot Squads began to expertly corral and process the remaining throng. The remaining feral vampires were quickly located and put down, and the mammoth task of sorting the living for med-tek support and the dead for Resyk began, meat wagons queueing along the slab. Wily pushed his way to the stage and began to administer first aid to Hart, yelling for a Med-Judge to assist. By the time the remainder of the Tac-Team joined him, Hart was safely entombed in a mobile SpeedHeal machine aboard a Med-Wagon. As they stood amongst the aftermath, a troubled-looking Anderson approached along with another couple of Psi-Div Judges. Nodding to Kowalski, she began: ‘A job well-done here, but this isn’t over yet. Death and his freaky friend won’t give up that easily, and whilst they’re still on the loose the City is at risk’. Nodding to her companions, she went on: ‘In the last 30 minutes, Precogs have been getting strong flashes of something about to happen in the Undercity, something bad. I’m going down there and you’re coming with me. Dredd is going to stay mobile topside in case this is just another dead-end’. Cracking a smile at her own unwitting pun, she turned to Wily. ‘Let’s go downtown and see what the nightlife’s like’.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

26. Freezeday/ Fertility Week to Freezeday/ Stasis Week; Fire Season; 1618

The stamp of bronze-shod Lunar feet echoed around the Royal Palace of Boldhome as Terrastal and Sandene were escorted within. Although there was every chance that things would end badly for them, they found it impossible to be anything but awestruck by the opulence around them. Although Sandene was used to the austere grandeur of the temples at Wintertop, she’d never seen anything like this and  Terrastal was agape despite himself; this whole palace had been built by the mysterious Mostali to the design of the demi-god Sartar. It was Sartar who’d established the Orlanthi in these lands, and who for many was the ideal of everything an Orlanthi should be. Huge columns of red-veined marble surrounded them, marvelously fashioned to resemble tree trunks until they reached the ceiling high above when their forms shifted to become those of storm clouds. The craft of the dwarves was such that Sandene found herself wondering whether the palace was indeed open to the sky before she noted the way the shadows played across the distant ceiling. Artfully placed windows meant that the whole interior was supplied with natural sunlight, drawing the viewers attention to the carved friezes of the seven Lightbringers that adorned the walls. As the light moved over them, it seemed as if the figures moved and gestured imperiously at those below. It was at this point that Terrastal’s mood began to sour; in places, tapestries covered in Lunar symbols hung down, clearly obscuring any representation of mighty Orlanth. The sound of tramping soldiers’ feet likewise grated on his nerves, a symbol of how firmly the pride of Sartarite culture lay under the heel of the Lunar oppressor. Sandene noted the storm clouds gathering on Terrastal’s brow, and prayed that he would be able to restrain himself in the hours to come.

After what seemed like an age, the heroes and their escorts entered what was clearly the throne room. Here, the Lunar presence was even more evident. Foreign tapestries hung all around the room, obscuring all of the Lightbringers, and at the far end of the room behind a raised dais was a huge banner bearing the iconography of the Red Goddess herself. Around the room stood small knots of courtiers, discussing their affairs in hushed voices. Although many were of Orlanthi stock, all wore clothing of Lunar fashion. On the dais itself, a group of Lunar priests were burning offerings to the Seven Mothers of the Red Goddess, clouds of sickly sweet smelling vapour rising into the air. Towards the rear of the dais stood a powerfully-built armoured warrior of 50 or so summers, heavily bearded and clearly commanding the respect of the other warriors and scribes surrounding him. The center of the platform was occupied by a stone chair, in which lolled an unprepossessing middle-aged man wearing robes of Esrolian style. Seated next to him was a strikingly beautiful woman, clearly leaving her youth behind but with a proud demeanour and a penetrating gaze.  She was feeding grapes to the seated man, who Sandene noted was pale of skin, watery of eye and with a scraggly beard; she disliked him instantly. The tableau was completed by a two heavily tattooed and bearded warriors that stood near the prince, accompanied by a pair of huge  wolves. No doubt these were the infamous Telmori, chaos-tainted brothers to the wolf sworn to defend the Prince with their lives. They watched Sandene and Terrastal through hooded eyes and waited.

As one, their Lunar escort crashed to a halt before the dais, clashing their weapons to their chest and shouting ‘Hail Fazzur!’, to which the powerfully built warrior turned and inclined his head. ‘So this was Fazzur Wideread!’ thought Sandene. She had been brought up on tales of his bravery and military prowess, for all that it had led to her people’s mountainous exile. Although she hated him, with a shock she realised she was also strangely attracted to him. Guiltily, she glanced at Terrastal and, noticing his quizzical expression, glowered all the more furiously to cover her discomfort. Fortunately for her, Fazzur began to speak in a rich, powerful voice. ‘Mighty Temertain, here are the brawlers who would break your royal peace, to receive  your judgement’. The weaker man rose to his feet, grapes spilling to the floor, outrage marking his features. ‘How dare you break my royal peace! I should have you flogged and crucified!’ and for a moment the heroes’ hearts sank as their escort closed in around them. But then they noted that the courtiers who had turned on hearing Fazzur’s voice had turned back to their own affairs on seeing that the general had lost interest in proceedings; it was clear who held the power here, and it was not Temertain. As the Prince paced forward, his companion stepped forward and laid her hand on his arm. ‘My Prince’ she began, ‘perhaps we should hear them out’, and as she spoke Terrastal noted that she gave him a frank, appraising stare; taking a chance, he favoured her with his most charming smile whilst Temertain was distracted, and he thought he saw the shadow of a smile in return. Sighing loudly, Temertain turned back to the heroes and gestured irritably for them to explain themselves. Buoyed up by the unexpected turn of events, Terrastal launched into an explanation that leaned heavily on terms like ‘honour’, ‘tradition’, and ‘stability’ whilst Sandene provided her own interjections when he paused for breath. It was clear that the Prince had lost interest in the matter by the way he slumped back in his throne and began to examine a small figurine of foreign style; only his companion remained attentive, asking questions and making encouraging noises in the right places. As Sandene and Terrastal lapsed into a nervous silence once more, the lady leaned over and whispered in Temertain’s ear. Looking up, he began to speak distractedly: ‘The Lady Estal feels your case should be heard in my Law Court, and I agree. In the meantime, we will provide you with food and drink and a place to rest. Now, look at the fine detailing on this votive statuette, my dear…’
The Lady Estal summoned a serving maid and whispered urgent instructions into her ear. As the maid led them off into the interior of the palace, the heroes looked at each other in confusion; what did this mean? Neither of them saw Estal’s calculating expression as she watched them leave, however…

Meanwhile, Randel, Bofrost and Yrsa had been left outside the palace gates to wonder at their next course of action. Around them milled the witnesses to the duel from the Lismelder and Colymar tribes. From overheard conversations, two things became clear: the duel had impressed those watching, and was already being embellished in the telling. ‘Did you see the lightning flash from Terrastal’s blade as he struck!’ and ‘I saw the Death Rune blaze on her brow as she fought!’. Bofrost shook his head, sharing a look with the puzzled Yrsa. Whilst she was mystified by the need to look beyond what was, Bofrost knew the power of stories in the world, and that the story of this duel was beginning to take on a life of its own. After all, the myths that shaped reality had started out as mere stories...
In the midst of this, Randel felt a pull on his sleeve; looking down, he saw a scrawny child, unsightly sores covering one side of her face. Wrinkling his nose, he made to pull away, fearful of the disease spirit she carried. As he did so, the child spoke up in a clear voice, and he realised the ‘sores’ were just artfully applied make-up. The child grinned mirthlessly up at him: ‘Sweet Arkell would like a word’, and with that she set off through the crowd at a run. Pulling Bofrost and Yrsa along with him, Randel set off after her. It seemed that they were always just on the verge of losing her as she ran ahead, and soon they realised they were being led into the dangerous rat-runs of Geo’s Pocket. But this ‘Sweet Arkell’ might be their best chance of rescuing Sandene and Terrastal, so they gritted their teeth and kept moving...
Eventually, they found themselves in a courtyard of dilapidated buildings, dark windows staring down at them like dead eyes. The child was nowhere in sight, and there were no obvious ways out. The place was oppressive and reeked of poverty. As they stood there, an odd high-pitched voice rang out from an upper story window, the speaker hidden from view. ‘You wished to speak with me. What is it you want from the Lightfingers?’ As the voice continued, it appeared to emanate from different windows in the courtyard, meaning that the speaker was either impossibly fast or using some gift of the Trickster God. In response to their request to help get access to the Palace, Arkell was  willing to help... as long as they took and oath to repay him with a favour at some point. Randel hesitated; his was the God of Trade, he knew how bargains were made and this felt like a bad one. The Trickster was a fickle ally, and although he was a Lightbringer he often caused as much harm as help. Without a word, the heroes realised they were in agreement; they would take the offered deal if they desperately needed it, but only if they had no other options. As if from nowhere, the child Lightfinger reappeared and led them out from the maze of crumbling streets.

Returning to the Colymar Manor, they were amazed to find a message from Terrastal asking to meet them at the Palace gates! Reunited, the companions shared their experiences since the duel. Sandene had spent her time wisely, calling on her renewing link with the Fertility Rune to build a rapport with the Palace servants. As a result, she’d learned that the keys to the Vault where the Red Hands were held by one Berra Stone, a venal and corrupt bully who thought only of her own pockets. Bofrost had discovered that the Red Hands were kept in the Prince’s Strongbox, a marvellous Mostali artefact that can only be opened by one of the Royal Line. Furthermore, the Red Hands were only brought out for Royal Feasts and displayed next to the throne. Would-be thieves were discouraged through the presence of a magic dove near the Prince, bought with the Prince from Nochet. The dove had the ability to sense those with the intent to steal and warned the Prince accordingly, which posed a problem.

Throughout this, Terrastal was uncharacteristically quiet; he too had made a discovery, but one not to his liking. On his first night in the palace, a servant had come to his room at midnight and led him through the Palace’s labyrinthine corridors to a well-appointed chamber; Estal had summoned him, and he found she was as skilled with her wit as with matters of the flesh. Before he knew it, he’d revealed his role in the Lunar resistance around Clearwine, his part in the death of Vanthorion, everything. As he’d returned to his room in the cold light of the next day, he knew he’d placed himself in Estal’s power, and the thought made his blood run cold.
But still, there remained the matter of the Duel in the House of Death. Although they had been given leave to stay at Estal’s request, Sandene and Terrastal were still charged with breaking the Prince’s Peace and were bound to stand trial for this. They spent what time they had preparing their arguments; they could have fled, but they were bound to retrieve the Red Hands. Not only did the Marriage Contest demand it, but having the Hands might sway those Colymar Clan Chiefs at Baranthos’ trial to their side. After all, all Orlanthi were drawn to and respected bold foolhardiness like moths to a flame.
On the day of the Prince’s Lawcourt, the companions assembled along with the dozens of other petitioners hoping for Temertain’s favour. As the day wore on, the companions dealt with the wait in their own way. Yrsa stood patiently and looked on whilst Terrastal fretted and paced, not through fear but from forced inactivity. Bofrost squatted down and pored over a scroll he’d borrowed from the Royal Library. Every now and then he exclaimed out loud at a particularly interesting passage, before lapsing into silence once more. Randel spent the hours talking to those around him, ever on the search for possible trading opportunities; as many of the petitioners were either followers of Issaries or Etyries, the time passed swiftly and fruitfully. Sandene, however, stood slightly apart. Since her healing, she was rediscovering a connection with the Fertility Rune. As such, she now appeared as she hadn’t for many years. Rather than her usual warriors garb, she wore a simple but elegant garment such as those worn by Tarshite followers of Ernalda. She had tried to style her short hair to match, and even wore a line of kohl around her eyes. On seeing her that morning, the usual jest had died on Terrastal’s lips. He recognised that Sandene was seeking to express her nature more fully, and she deserved his support as she had supported him.

Finally, their turn came. As expected, Temertain was present as was Estal; both paid little attention to the petitioners, being more interested in their wine, although the shrewd observer would note that nothing transpired that Estal didn’t see and remember. Much of the work of the court was done by a pinch-faced Lunar with a high-pitched, querulous voice. Randel whispered to his comrades that this was Gordius Silverus, Fazzur’s Legate of Barbarian Affairs. He was renowned for having a deep knowledge of Orlanthi law and customs, and for supporting Fazzur in all things. As the companions came forward, he frowned deeply and glanced at Estal. ‘What had she told him?’ wondered Terrastal.
The companions stepped forward and set out their arguments. As before, Terrastal put his natural eloquence to good use, speaking passionately about honour and tribal custom. Sandene likewise spoke to great effect, playing on Silverus’ Tarshite heritage to good effect. As usual, Yrsa stood back with Bofrost and took note of all that happened. Whispering to Bofrost, she noted that the Prince was particularly enamoured of a bottle of Clearwine, but she bided her time.

After the arguments were made, Silverus leaned towards Temertain and spoke for all to hear. ‘I counsel that these peace-breakers be crucified as an example to others. Hiding behind talk of custom is a dangerous precedent’. Estal glanced at Terrastal coldly, and whispered in Temertain’s ear. All present held their breath. ‘It is my wish...that they be spared’ spoke the Prince. At this, Yrsa leaned forward and whispered to Randel. ‘My Prince’ he spoke up. ‘I note you have a liking for Clearwine. Perhaps I might be permitted to make a gift of a fine Konthasos vintage, to show my respect and our fealty’. At this, Temertain pricked up his ears; the Konthasos were the finest makers of Clearwine in Sartar, and their vintage rarely made it into the City of Shadows. ‘Of course, we would be happy to taste your wine, good merchant. Bring it to the Royal Feast, and with it yourselves!’
As the heroes walked free from the Law Court, followed by Silverus’ scowling gaze, already they were planning their theft of the Red Hands. If they stole them before the Feast, they could avoid both the magic of the dove and breaking Temertain’s hospitality by stealing from him. What could possibly go wrong?

Saturday, 11 May 2019

11. A-Watch, Sector 13: Domo arigato, Mr Roboto

The tension in Sector 13 Control seemed to have taken on a life of its own. It pooled in shadowed corners, and seemed to reach out towards the room’s inhabitants as they stared mutely at the holographic projection spinning slowly in its center. Although Tac-Team Wily had performed exceptionally during the pacification of Nixon Penitentiary, no-one but a fool could present the current situation as a victory. True, the zombie outbreak had largely been confined to the perps held within, which could appropriately be put down to  ‘acceptable losses’. Further, Kowalski and Muller had managed to secure a live specimen of the latest type of vampire for Tek-Judge Helsing’s research; at that very moment, somewhere below them, he was vivisecting the creature to see how best it, and others like it, could be neutralised. Also, Hart and Anderson had succeeded in preventing the release of two of the Dark Judges, Fire and Mortis. But still the fact remained that Judges Death and Fear had been released and were on the loose once more. This fact alone meant that all 400 million citizens of Mega-City One were in mortal danger, and everyone in the room knew it.
As the display turned, it cast a harsh blue light across the features of all present. Sector Chief DiMaggio was there, as were all Senior Judges. Anderson and Dredd were there, standing away from the table. Although DiMaggio had offered him command as soon as his H-Wagon touched down, Dredd had refused, saying only that he was there on behalf of the Chief Judge and would intervene only when necessary. Anderson knew that although Dredd had a genius for command he never sought it unless it was the best course of action; he much preferred the freedom to act as he knew best, which was usually smashing faces on the Street.

On the far side of the situation display from Team Wily, Tek Judge Klop shifted nervously in his seat. Whether this was due to the gravity of the situation or because of who he found himself next to, Kowalski was uncertain. Beside Kowalski, Muller and Hart stared bullishly across the room at the figure beside Klop, Kowalski easily picking up the dislike radiating white-hot from both of them. Wily stood at the head of the table, hands clasped behind his back in a parade-ground perfect stance, having just delivered his report on the Nixon Pen action. Despite the situation and the seniority of his audience, Kowalski realised that  Wily was perfectly relaxed and calm, a far cry from the nervous rookie that had tripped over his own feet at morning briefing so long ago…. Kowalski caught herself; it had only been a matter of weeks, but it seemed like a year ago.
As Wily finished speaking, the figure next to Klop leaned forward from the shadows that had hidden his features. Although the lower part of his face was all whirring prosthetics, the upper part of his face was a mirror for the faces of Dredd and Hart. His eyes especially gave away their shared genetic heritage; a zeal for the Law bordering on fanaticism. Clearing his throat, the prosthetic reconstruction rendering the act into a rattling wheeze, SJS Judge Smith began to speak. ‘Sector Chief, it’s clear to me that this operation has been a monumental failure, due largely to the lack of foresight from Tac-Team. A competent team would have identified the strategic implications of the patterns of criminal activity and recommended the reinforcement of Nixon Penitentiary before it could be isolated.’ Pausing, he indicated the holographic sector map hovering before them. ‘Instead, most of our resources are tied up by planned law-breaking across this and adjacent Sectors. As you know, our resources are stretched thin across the city at the best of times. Furthermore, we have isolated zombie outbreaks across the Sector, apparently connected with the activity of so-called vampires feeding on citizens and passing on some sort of virus. Although these are easily contained, they again demand resources. It’s clear that this has been planned for some time, and that we’ve been played for fools.’ Sitting back in his chair, he regarded Wily and his team with a venomous glare. ‘This should have been preventable, with the information at hand, and it’s clear to me there’s been some collusion from within the department. I will be investigating this thoroughly, and I recommed Tac-team Wily be suspended from duty pending further interrogation.’ Muller and Hart seemed to lean forward in their seats, ready to launch themselves across the table at Smith, but sat back at a murmured word from Wily. As Chief DiMaggio opened his mouth to speak, Dredd took a step forward. ‘If it hadn’t been for the work of this group of Judges, we wouldn’t have known about the assault on Nixon Pen until it was too late, and we’d be looking for four of those Deadworld creeps instead of two. As it was, Wily and his team were first on the scene along with Anderson. As far as I can see, they conducted an exemplary operation, and this has been backed up by Anderson here’. As Smith opened his mouth once more, Dredd cut him dead. ‘The fact is that the whole department was fooled, and the post-mortem can wait for now. Tek-Judge Helsing, I think you have something to share with us?’

A crackle of static filled the room, quickly overtaken by Helsing’s clear, clipped tones. ‘Thank you, Judge Dredd. Yes, although my analyses are yet to be confirmed, it seems clear that the retrovirus causing the physical changes in the so-called vampire subjects shares much in common with the Everpet molecule’. A murmur spread through the assembled Judges as Helsing’s disembodied voice continued. ‘Although the base Everpet molecule only works on simple neurological systems, appearing to destroy any higher cognitive functions, the enhanced molecule found in the perps enhances resistance to damage and increases strength along with psychotic rage responses. It appears that each iteration of the vampire-type is an ‘improvement’ on what came before, usually  through the ingenious application of thanaton particles to trigger additional mutations in the host. But each iteration appears to share certain similarities; the enhanced metabolism eventually causes catastrophic cellular collapse, leading to true death. This can be partially offset by taking in large quantities of haemoglobin, leading to the desire for human blood observed in subjects thus far. Also, the retrovirus can be passed on to victims, producing the apparent zombie effect. This can be passed on to those bitten by these quasi-zombies, but the effect is weaker each time. Therefore, we are unlikely to see a zombie outbreak on the scale of Necropolis, which may be some consolation’.
As Helsing finished speaking, another Judge stood and addressed the assembled Judges. ‘Judge Gimlet from Acc-Div, Sector Chief’. Giving Wily a nod, the female Judge continued. ‘Working on the data provided by Tac-Team Wily and Judge Helsing, my team have been able to uncover further information on Everpet and uncover some interesting facts. Everpet is owned by Dr Dick Icarus, formerly known as Vernon Martins. Martins graduated from Meg-U in 2101 with a first-class honours in Biochemistry, specialising in age-retardation and cell regeneration. Everpet was established in 2105. Martins has no criminal record, but spent time in a kook cube following the death of his wife and child in the Necropolis disaster of 2112.’ Judge Gimlet let that hang in the air for a moment, allowing the links to slot into place before continuing. ‘Martins, now Icarus, returned to his work on the Everpet molecule with renewed enthusiasm following his release. Interestingly, although the pet regeneration product is a commercial success, the company has always traded at an enormous loss with huge amounts of money put into ‘research projects’. Particular care seems to have been taken to obscure the ownership of a site in the very heart of Sector 13, near to the BoJo Johnson Luxy-Block where Martins’ owns a penthouse suite.’
At this point, Tek-Judge Klop took up the story. ‘As well as funding off-books research, large amounts of creds have been transferred to overseas accounts and then transferred back into the Meg as charitable donations to fringe religious organisations, many of which we’ve now been able to link to…’  ‘…The Church of Death’ came Dredd’s voice, with a grinding finality. ‘It was there all along, if we’d thought to look. But that’s for later. Right now, we have a probable location for the center of Martins’ web of insanity, and one other piece of actionable intel’. Anderson leaned forward to speak. ‘Since the release of the two Dark Judges, Psi-Div has been working overtime to track those drokkers down. Although they’re keeping a worryingly low profile, we’ve located what seems to be the main headquarters of the Church of Death. There’s been a big spike in emotional charge from the Black Spug weirdos who’ve started congregating there over the past several hours. Strain on our resources mean we haven’t been able to stamp on it as we’d like to, and now there’s just too many of the perps on-scene for us to intervene without precipitating a riot we’re not equipped to handle. Although it might just be a diversion, it’s possible this is where the Dark Judges plan to take physical form. For now, we’re trying to keep a watch everywhere at once and we can’t afford to tip our hand too soon. That’s all we have’.

Glancing at Dredd, Sector Chief DiMaggio stood and leaned forward, harsh holographic lines playing across his craggy features as he placed his fists on the display surface. ‘So we have two likely avenues of enquiry, with most of our resources tied up just stopping the whole Sector going to stomm. Wily, what do you recommend?’ Momentarily taken aback, Wily took a moment to come to a decision. ‘My Tac-Team will head for Martins’ bolt-hole, Sector Chief. My gut feeling is that this thread needs to be pulled hard to see what else turns up.’ Hart also spoke up, having been uncharacteristically deep in thought during the previous exchanges. ‘Tek-Judge Helsing, a moment. As the retro-virus seems to work only on dead or dying tissue, do you think a dose of anagathic compound such as adifax might slow it down at least?’. After a brief, crackling silence, Helsing responded, almost succeeding in keeping the surprise from his voice. ‘Why yes, Judge Hart, it may be that a modified version of adifax could cause cells to reject the Everpet retro-virus. We’ll need to do some further tests, but you may have something there. Good work, Judge Hart!’. Hart rose to his feet, unable to resist sneaking a glance at his gene-father Dredd for some sign of approval. Just before Dredd turned away to speak to Anderson, he thought he caught something…no, he couldn’t be sure. Shrugging, he turned to his team-mates, only to see Muller looking at him with something approaching… what, sympathy? No, nothing so weak. They regarded each other with a grudging respect, which was all that either of them would ever offer the other.
Within minutes, Tac-Team Wily were heading out on their Lawmasters towards the probable location of Martins’ secret hideaway. As they rode, they saw ample evidence of the pressure being put on the Department by current events. Here, a group of juves surrounded a citizen infected with the zombie virus, poking it with sticks until it finally lashed out and caught one of them, sinking its fangs into the juve’s neck as he squealed. By the time a Judge arrived on scene, the juves were taunting two zombies. There, a group of Black Spug fans smashed up a robo-bus whilst blasting out the dissonant strains of their favourite bands, until a pat-wagon full of Judges showed up and beat them bloody with their daysticks. But Tac-Team Wily ignored it all; they had a mission that could mean life or death for millions.

As the Judges rode into the area around the BoJo Luxy-Block, they noted an increased presence of private security personnel patrolling the streets. Though rentacops like these might impress the well-heeled locals, who saw them as another way to signal their wealth, they produced only feelings of mild contempt in a Judge. In front of the local citizens, who affected pinstripe suits, bowler hats and other fripperies associated with the Brit-Cit elite they idolised, the priv-secs swaggered and preened, showing off their stun weapons and polished body armour. But as the Tac-Team roared by, the rentacops looked away and made sure they couldn’t be mistaken as any sort of threat; they all knew one of their kind who’d ended up in a med-bay or even Resyk after believing their own propaganda a little too much.

Finally, the team drew up outside a nondescript luxy-block in the center of the residential area. The block itself was built to resemble a picture-postcard of a Brit-Cit stately home, with a large synthi-turf area out front, a plasti-gravel driveway and a fountain burbling merrily to itself in the centre. Surrounding the whole was a plascrete wall rendered to look like red brick; someone had clearly spared no expense to make this place blend in. Although Sector Control was inundated with requests for materiel, Muller was able to secure the use of a spy-in-the-sky to give the place a once-over. It quickly became clear that the front of the two-story building was just that; a front. Immediately behind the frontage was a utilitarian, single-level grey building reaching some 100m beyond. From the air, it was camouflaged by a simple holo-projection of a slated roof, but as soon as the spycam swooped lower, the vid-feed crackled and disappeared; clearly the building had some auto-defence capabilities.
As Muller, Kowalski and Wily considered this, a massive ‘whoom!’ sounded and a wash of super-heated air swept over them, leaving an acrid tang of ozone in its wake; the tell-tale result of a Cyclops laser being discharged. Whilst the others had viewed the vid-feed, Hart had become impatient and bellowed a command to surrender to all inside the block. Receiving no response, he’d merely grunted and directed his Lawmaster to destroy the gate and, as it turned out, much of the flanking walls. Although Wily might despair of Hart’s execution, he couldn’t deny the results and the team rode past the smoking remains up to the front door. Leaning forward from his bike, Muller pressed the intercom with one gloved finger. Hearing no response, he used his Department-issue key card to gain entry. Remaining on their bikes as the door slowly opened, the team could see a utilitarian reception area with a simpering droid in attendance. Immediately behind the droid was a doorway leading towards the back of the structure; as the Judges assessed the situation, the door to the rear smashed open and two vampire creatures bounded towards them! Without hesitation, the team opened up with their bike cannons, shredding the vampires and coincidentally everything else in their arc of fire. As their weapons cycled down with a whine, pieces of rockcrete fell from the ceiling, smashing to the floor. The droid, or what remained of it, buzzed and smoked on the floor. The door itself had been vapourised, and a corridor could be seen leading off to the rear of the building. Dismounting, the team picked their way through the rubble. As they did so, Hart noted some delivery crates lying undamaged and took some of their contents for later analysis.

Entering the corridor, a makeshift barricade could be seen blocking the far end, beyond which was what appeared to a service elevator. Before they could move forward, however, a bloodthirsty howl sounded and another pair of vampire creatures sped towards them, backed up by a group of Church of Death cultists firing spit guns wildly, yelling madly. A well-placed hi-ex round silenced the cultists, but the vamps proved a tougher proposition. Within the narrow confines of the corridor, the Judges’ usual tactic of deploying hi-ex proved dangerous as the funnelling of the blast caught Kowalski off-guard and threw her bodily back into the reception area, injured. Thinking quickly, Muller switched his aim to the already-weakened ceiling above the furthest of the creatures, collapsing the roof and pinning it to the floor under a reinforced girder. Meanwhile, Hart and Wily deployed Standard Execution rounds to great effect, dispatching the lead vamp with only minor cuts and bruises in return.

As Wily saw to Kowalski’s concussion, Muller used his Lawmaster’s computer to hack into the security feeds in the facility. It was surprisingly compact, and appeared to only have two levels below this one. Each level consisted of a number of labs, each occupied by droids busily producing vials of glowing green liquid in glass vials; easily enough to infect the city! The lowest of the levels was slightly different, however; at the far end of the central corridor, flanked by labs, was a plain grey blast door leading to…what? The security cams didn’t cover that far, which was enough for the team’s danger sense to go into overdrive.

Warily, the team descended in the lift, pausing only to spray the pinned vampire with Boing!(TM) which rendered it spinning helplessly in a sphere of impenetrable wonder plastic. As they reached the bottom level, they team approached the far door with caution. As they did so, however, they each felt a familiar, sickening sensation, as if sour milk was seeping into every pore. The last time they’d felt this was in the presence of SJS Judge Smith’s ‘blank’ associate. Although this was merely uncomfortable for three of the team, it proved too much for Kowalski. Along with her concussion, the pressure of the blank zone caused her to fall back to the lift, barely restraining the desire to vomit.

Carefully, the remainder of the team approached the door and pushed it open. Beyond was darkness; as their helmets began to cycle into night-vision mode, two widely-spaced red lights could be seen moving slowly upwards. As their night-vision came online, the source of the lights could be seen: a war-droid! As it rose to its feet, each of the Judges automatically recalled information that had been drummed into them at the Academy. Manufactured by Quartz Industries towards the end of the Volgan Wars some 140 years ago, these beasts were of course illegal in MC-1, but collectors and perps always found a way. Having been around for so long, there were thousands of different official variants, not accounting for the ‘specials’ built by wackos and nutjobs into customising these angels of death. Which meant they had no clue what the thing was capable of. All of this went through their minds in the moments it took for the droid to climb to its feet and roar its deafening war-cry; the rest was up to them.

As Wily and Muller moved into the room, they fanned out left and right to take advantage of cover from the storage containers within. Wily called out tactics to his team: ‘these things are designed for frontal assaults, so armour is usually weaker at the back. Flank it!’. Taking him at his word, Hart barrelled past him at full speed, moving to the right of the war-machine and diving over some boxes. Assessing him as the nearest threat, the droid turned and extended its hammer arm, a nozzle opening at the end and dousing him in burning fluid. His suit absorbing most of the heat, Hart readied himself to leap at the thing. Sighing, Wily tried to use Ricochet rounds to reach the machine’s weaker rear armour to no avail. Meanwhile, Muller took a moment to assess the structure of the room, seeing that the north-east corner appeared less sturdy; perhaps if he could lure it in there, he could repeat the trick he’d used earlier on the vamp…

His train of thought was broken as Hart leapt howling through the air and landed on the droid, intending to stuff his Lawgiver under his chin and use Hi-Ex, consequences be drokked. But the droid’s designers had foreseen such an eventuality and built in a one-use, high voltage anti-personnel shock system. As electricity crackled over his burning form, Wily and Muller could hear Hart’s teeth crack as his muscles spasmed until he was thrown backwards against the wall. Again, he was saved by his body suit and readied himself to leap back into the fight. Meanwhile, Wily and Muller continued to pound the droid with AP rounds, with Wily causing some serious damage. Now assessing Wily as the main threat, the droid advanced towards him as a mini-gun attachment popped up from his left shoulder. Immediately, the weapon sprayed automatic fire at Wily, driving him to his knees. Looking upwards, he saw the thing loom over him as Muller readied a Hi-Ex round. Seeing he was in the blast radius, Wily merely grunted ‘Do it, Muller!’, to which Muller replied ‘I intend to.’
The resulting explosion drove Wily further back, but mercifully didn’t cause any significant harm. The now-recovered Hart and Muller continued to target the droid’s weak points until finally it crashed to the floor, almost crushing Wily in the process. As he pushed himself upright, he saw the light finally die in the venerable war-machine’s optics.

Again, the team approached the door at the far end of the room, expecting more of the same. Instead, they saw what appeared to be a simple office, with piles of vid-plaques and old-fashioned paper books and journals scattered around in apparent confusion. At the far end of the room was an ornate desk, behind which sat the thin form of Dick Icarus, also known as Vernon Martins. ‘I wondered how long it would take you to get here’ he began in an almost conversational tone. As the team advanced into the room, Muller barked at Martins to stand up and put his hands on his head. Wily scanned the titles of the scattered material; amongst the inevitable papers on biochemistry and virology could be seen titles covering the Dark Judges and the last time they’d invaded the city during the so-called ‘Necropolis’ disaster. Muller barked another order, but again Martins seemed lost in his own thoughts. ‘I’m going to live forever, you see. The Dark Judges have shown me the way, and I’ve taken it. You will all die, but not me; eternal life awaits!’ Wily thought Martins looked a million miles from a crazed mastermind. He looked thin and unwell, and more than a little sad; sad and old, grieving for his lost family. But such things meant little to Hart; seeing Martins’ failure to comply, Hart launched himself across the desk to grab Martins. In the following tussle, Hart found Martins was a little stronger than he looked, but not much. When Muller entered the fray, nightstick in fist, Martins was easily outclassed. Especially when Muller caved in his skull with an enthusiastic blow.

Martins went down as if pole-axed, which to all intents and purposes he had been. Switching from subdual to trying to keep Martins alive, the team half-carried, half-dragged the unconscious Martins back to the waiting lift. As they left the room, the team noticed a cage in the corner of the room containing a chained female mutant, a large glowing third eye in the middle of her forehead. The sensation of sour milk shut off instantly as she closed this third eye; Martins had clearly been using her to keep his secrets safe from Psi-Div.
As soon as the Judges reached ground level, their helmet comms crackled into life. ‘…please respond. This is Sector Control, relaying a priority one message to Tac-Team Wily from Judge Dredd. Please respond!’ As soon as Wily called in their sitrep, he and his Judges were directed to rendezvous immediately with Judge Anderson near to the suspected headquarters of the Church of Death in District One. Things were about to get even more interesting…