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BLACKTHORN: SPIRES OF MARS
The online serial novel
by I.A. Watson


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


20.     THE TROJAN GOAT

    “Report,” said Blackthorn.

    “Heavy automated perimeter defences with a truckload of armed goons inside,” Reith summarised. “Walls are reinforced with quark-resonance force-fields, probably from an Acidalian SureWall Mark III or IV. Expensive toy. It’ll turn force and magic and selectively filter out airborne toxins and nanoforms. Usual internal perimeter hard countermeasures, automated gun ports, remote defence drones, screamers and a couple flame throwers. Unusual glass columns that might be Utopian demon bottles. Guards stationed and patrolling in pairs with laser-rifles and sonic grenades.”

    Oglok indicated that someone very much wanted to keep kids off his lawn.

    “Hey, this is one of the big capos in Phoenix Landing. If they don’t keep themselves secure they don’t last long,” the Runner pointed out. “Massacring a rival is just seen as good business up here. That’s why they’ve all got their personal domes with such tight security.”

    “Arcane defences?” Aria wondered.

    “Not my speciality, but a check on the target’s household budget shows money going out to four of the town’s best mages, suggesting some kind of weekly maintenance fee on some sort of sorceries.”

    Oglok suggested that tearing the heads off the magic-workers might be a good way of preventing that. And fun.

    Aria caught the gist of the Mock-man’s suggestion and scowled at him. “Have you any sensible stratagem about how we break in, John? Perhaps we could mail Oglok in there in small pieces?”

    “Well, the thing about all these tight-security fortresses with all these counter-intrusion procedures is that when they’re over-run all those things that are meant to keep the enemy out suddenly become traps keeping them from escaping. If you’re not careful your secret base with its restricted entrances becomes a killing ground with restricted exits,” the General mused. “So we need to turn their biggest strengths into their greatest weaknesses. Reith, do you have their grocery list?”

    “Groceries?” The Runner spy was surprised by the request – but he still handed over a datapad with the various supplies purchases from the target. Reith was nothing if not thorough.

    Blackthorn traced a finger down the datapad then tapped on the item he needed. “There! That’s our way in, folks”

    Reith looked at the item the General had highlighted. “We’re going to break in using… Alba Pateran goat’s cheese?” he checked.

    Oglok objected that all the fortress’ foodstuffs would go through rigorous bio-scanning as standard practice. There was no way to poison it.

    “Oh, we don’t have to poison it,” Blackthorn promised. “We just have to turn it against them”

***

    “When he comes it won’t be a frontal assault,” Morningstar warned Boss Wennister. “He’ll be smart. He’ll find some way through some loophole in your perimeter. He’s got a world-class sorceress working for him who’s been personally trained by a First Man. However good you think your contract mages are she’ll be better. He’ll bring a Mock-man warrior that can tear apart a battle-robot with his bare hands – and who won’t come bare-handed! Don’t count on the usual Mock-man reticence about violence. You know how those beastlings get when their family is threatened? This one’s adopted Blackthorn as family.”

    “We can take three guys,” Wennister insisted.

    “He might have Edar Reith as well,” the Colonel briefed. “He’s tricky and after me he’s probably the best guy on Mars at finding out secrets. Figure that whatever you didn’t want finding out about this place, he’ll know it.”

    “They can’t be that clever if they come here, against me, in my home!”

    Morningstar glanced at his chrono. “I’m guessing you’ll find out by tonight.”

***

    Vendal was one of the Phoenix Landing mages that serviced the defence magics on most of the capos’ strongholds. His work was overseen by three other magic-workers, as he oversaw theirs, to ensure no treachery or error was made in maintaining the spells supplementing the physical and electronic resources of the various sites.

    Vendal’s magics came from the arcane parasite clinging under his left armpit, a bulky green sack about the size of a newborn child that grew its tendrils into his flesh and connected with his nervous system. It made him quite a powerful mage; he’d once served the Lord of Fatal Laughter before escaping. The odorous arcane growth and the pale mottled complexion it gave him meant he lived alone and friendless.

    He did take an early morning constitutional though. The parasite seemed to like that, seeping in contentment as its host traversed the tight corridors and cluttered throughways of the merchant town. Vendal took the opportunity of the walk to carry out routine checks on his work for the day, mentally putting in order the restocking spells he’d be crafting on the capos' defences.

    He’d have noticed if anyone tried to alter or delete any of his enchantments. He never suspected a thing when Aria, sitting at an Arcadian pierogi stand he regularly passed, threaded in one simple, unthreatening addition to his spell bundle.

***

    “Anything yet?” Morningstar asked Boss Wennister’s intelligence people.

    The men scanning the security boards shook their heads. “Nothing, sir. Not even from those extra defences your, um, consultant added.”

    “You mean the shadow-traps from the rather scary Incantrus Veil?” the Colonel grinned. “That’s just me keeping the General on his toes. No point in making this too easy for him, is it?”

    The security men didn’t like the necromantic signatures from the new additions to their fortress. The readings were nearly off the scale.

    “Any word yet on where the glorious Blackthorn is hiding little Lady Ysilde while he chases after Olssen?” Morningstar checked. “No? Not a problem. I expect by now our brave virgin-de-jour will have ditched whatever muffling magics the lovely Aria had placed on her and will be quite visible to my consultant’s scrying. I’ll pop in on her later when I’m sure the General’s otherwise occupied and I’ll see about another date.”

    David Morningstar felt his jaw and grimaced. “I’d better shave. It’s going to be a big day.”

***

    Before noon Vendal visited his scheduled fortresses for his regular tune-up work. With a selection of mutually-despised colleagues he renewed the sorceries that contributed to the security on five compounds. His third call was to the fortress that Blackthorn had targeted. It was there that the harmless additional spell-code that Aria had slipped into his renewal incantations got added to the fortress wardings.

    Neither he nor the other sorcerers noticed anything amiss. Why should they? There were thousands of detection cantrips bundled into a standard arcane watch-list. One more was insignificant and, since it was so trivial, failed to raise any red-flags to even the most vigilant of peer observers.

    It took two and a half hours for the new spells to fully update through the complex of wardings and the abjuration helix but thereafter, in addition to non-corporeal undead, malicework, scry-portals, demon-lures, necrovirii, curesemorts and a terrifying list of other supernatural attack forms, that particular fortress also guarded against Alba Pateran goat’s cheese.

    Which was unfortunate, since that had been on the menu for lunch that day, in a creamy sauce that was popular with the fortress’ staff. It meant that not only were there wheels of the green-striated stuff in stores and leftovers in the kitchen, but eighty percent of the guards, servants, and guests held some in their stomach contents. And as far as the fortress’ defences were now concerned those diners might as well have been suffering from demonic possession.

    Arcane alarms began to flare, not in one place or two, but in multiple sectors. The wardings triggered off the physical responses too, locking down doors, setting drone defence platforms to automatic, offering one terse warning to the inhabitants it now identified as contaminated intruders before shifting to lethal containment mode. The capo’s thugs didn’t dare move as giant battle robots disarmed them and cuffed them.

    In less than an hour everyone in the fortress was in a screaming panic. ‘Possessed’ people were everywhere, some battling the automated defences, most now captured, some fighting each other as paranoia ran rampant. The strained defences were spooking all over the place. The few harassed technicians still able to access the control grid – mostly the lactose-intolerant technicians – had to start systematically powering down out-of-control sections and downgrading threat levels to prevent escalating fatal countermeasures wiping out most of the capo’s crew.

***

    “Sir, we’re getting reports of a disturbance,” the technician on the security board reported to Morningstar.

    The Colonel came to look over the man’s shoulder at the data screens. “Excellent. What has the ever-ingenious Blackthorn come up with this time? Where’s he coming in?”

    “That’s the thing, sir. Look!”

    Morningstar followed the technician’s finger to the glowing grid of alarm lights on his monitor. “What?”

***

    As the fortress defence system cascaded through a domino-effect triggering of increasingly powerful responses to cheese-based invasion, Reith located a minor emergency exit and convinced it to let him in. It took the Runner fifteen minutes to get through the tangled locked-up defences to the gang-lord’s private panic room. Oglok only had to thump two guards.

    Aria tweaked her little added arcane code to suggest that the unseen intruder had now got inside the sealed secure refuge room. More shrill alarm bells made very little difference to the deafening chaos.

    The titanium alloy force-shielded door to the panic suite slammed open as the capo tried to leave the contaminated area. He almost ran straight into General Blackthorn.

    “Boss Osmius Kemp,” the Earthman said to the gangster. “We need to talk.”

***

    “Why?” demanded David Morningstar, glaring at the readout monitors. “Why would Blackthorn attack the wrong fortress?

***

    Vendal finished his last job of the day, renewing the arcane defences at Boss Wennister’s compound, and shuffled off to get some dinner from one of the strip-side take-aways.

    And Wennister’s fortress began to learn about the dangers of goat cheese too.

***

    “You did this!” Boss Kemp gasped to Blackthorn as Oglok relieved him of his personal knuckle-blaster. “Who sent you for me? Nasalak? Fishe? The Cimmerian Consortium?”

    Blackthorn eased the captured capo back into his strong room and shut the door. “This isn’t a hit,” he advised the gangster. “I’m about to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

    “A shakedown!” Kemp snarled. “How the hell did you do this? What the hell did you do?”

    “The how doesn’t matter, Mister Kemp,” Aria pointed out. “What matters is that we can do it. And if we can do it to you, we can do it for you.”

    Boss Kemp went still. “What?”

    “Think of all this as an audition,” Blackthorn suggested. “It’s us establishing our bona fides. Showing what we’re capable of. We wanted to talk to you and we didn’t have time to make an appointment.”

    “You did all this… to talk to me?”

    Reith was leaned against the wall, detached from the conversation. “Man got your attention, didn’t he? Listen up, Kemp. He’s got the best offer you’re gonna get for a long while.”

    The crime-lord turned back to the General. “Who are you?”

    “Name’s Blackthorn. Same guy from the Battle of Anx and the Hades rebellion and at the Forges of Cryse. Now I’m at Phoenix Landing.”

    “You’ve come to take over the rackets?”

    “No. One day I might come to shut down the rackets unless you all seriously clean up your acts. But for now I’m giving you a chance to change. All except a guy called Boss Wennister. He’s going down. The question is, who’ll take him down and who’ll take over his patch?”

    Kemp hadn’t got to be a capo by being dumb. “I’m listening – General.”

    “You’ve seen what we did to your security? Can you imagine how bad it would have been for you if a rival Boss had been expecting your problems and had his men ready to come in now?”

    The capo nodded.

    “Well Wennister’s going to have a similar malfunction in about three hours,” Blackthorn revealed. “Any ideas about that?”

    Kemp realised that the soldier meant it. “Wennister’s going to be wide open. This wide open!” He started to calculate. “If I called in Boss Bennett and Boss Pen-Sho, if we looked at a three way split… three hours isn’t long but there’s always local talent out there ready for hire…”

    “You’re not asking me the fee yet, Boss Kemp.”

    The mobster looked up. “What do you want?” he asked suspiciously.

    “There’s a man supposedly taking refuge with Wennister, a local operator named Nord Olssen. I want him alive so I can talk to him. Also, if there’s a man in the compound called Morningstar or Heosphoros I want him too.”     “That’s it? That’s all? No… money?”

    “We also expect you to shape up, Kemp,” Aria intervened. “You and the other Bosses. You’ve seen today what we can do. Don’t make us come back again. You wouldn’t enjoy it.”

    “I’ll be watching,” added Reith quietly.

    “So you’ll just hand me Wennister and all his holdings for these two guys?” Kemp asked, boggled.

    Blackthorn pointed to Oglok. “The Mock-man will come with you to collect them.”

    “You’re not coming too?”

    “Oh no,” replied the Earthman. “While the attack’s going on, Colonel Morningstar will be going after a girl I’m protecting. He’ll wait till I’m busy with the compound attack then swoop in to grab her. So that’s where I’m going to be.”

***

CONTINUED in Chapter 21: The Last Testimony of Lars Olssen
in which we finally get to hear what Mr Olssen has to say, then everyone wishes he hadn't said it.

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Original concepts, characters, and situations copyright © 2012 reserved by Ian Watson. Key characters and concepts from the Blackthorn works of Van Allen Plexico copyright © 2012 by him. The right of Ian Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.

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