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FINALIST — Submission by Matt Hilliard

Occidentis Telum Est   [ Part 1 of 3 ]

"Quemadmoeum gladius neminem occidit, occidentis telum est."
("A sword kills no one, it is a tool in the killer's hands.")
     — Seneca the Younger

Darian Morris shouted and pushed forward with the rest of the crowd as it surged against the barricades. The row of armored riot control police held firm behind the improvised barrier, their body armor and powerful firearms glistening in the summer sun. The wave of humanity broke against them and fell back once more. From his vantage point near the front of the crowd, Morris could see and hear everything as someone shouted an impromptu speech.

"How many have to die? How many of our children must die in space far away before they give up?"

A murmur ran through the mob, but Morris sensed reluctance. The Antarans were universally disliked, and the thought of surrender to them was a bitter one.

"It's not about saving humanity any more! Even now we're at the mercy of the Antarans!" the man shouted. "The siege of our system is complete! We cannot escape! So why fight on? Because they can't give up their power!"

The crowd shouted their agreement with renewed vigor. The Antarans hadn't exterminated the other races they had crushed in the one-sided war. True, everything would be taken but the home system, but that was all humanity had left at this point anyhow.

"How many more have to die because they can't give up their grip on power! They refuse us elections and referenda and anything else that might weaken them!"

The mob was now truly stirred up. Morris could see that for the first time this was becoming more dangerous than the food riots and protests of the past weeks. The line of thirty riot control police could see it, too. Behind them, the government complex's buildings seemed vulnerable and unguarded. The police sergeant was speaking into his communicator, asking for reinforcements.

Someone shouted a simpler, more primal exhortation, and the mob responded. Rocks were thrown, bouncing harmlessly off the riot shields but setting the stage for increased aggression.

"Hey, can you hold this for a sec?" the man next to Morris asked him. Without waiting for a response, he shoved a collection of anti-government pamphlets into Morris' hands. With both hands free, the man started hurling rocks from a pile collected by others near by. Morris, though he agreed something needed to be done about the government's foolish decisions, felt sickened by the violence. He looked on in horrified fascination as the rocks, trash, and anything else at hand was thrown.

At a shouted order, the line of police readied their weapons. The crowd shrank back somewhat, and in the tumult Morris lost track of the man who had given him the stack of leaflets. He was too busy watching the developing riot to really notice. Something needed to be done, he rationalized to himself. Clearly the leaders who had by their own admission circumvented democracy to continue the useless fight against the Antarans had to be sent a message. A little violence, perhaps, was warranted, as long as no one really got hurt. When the government saw the protesters' resolve, they would have to listen to reason.

Suddenly, the pamphlets in his hand felt warm. As he looked down at them, there was a hiss and a harsh bolt of energy surged from the pamphlets and struck one of the police officers in the shoulder. The officer fell back, reflexively pulling the trigger on his weapon. Tracers went shooting up into the air as the weapon fired harmlessly over the crowd. A small section of the mob near that officer jumped back, but the rest of the crowd, most of whom didn't really know what was going on and only knew they heard gunfire, screamed in anger and went crashing forward in a rush towards the police.

The panicked riot control officers opened fire on the onrushing mob. Some fell, others turned and ran, but many reached the police and tackled them. What had been a violent but under control protest disintegrated into chaos. Knocked down in the rush, Morris stared at the pamphlets, which had fallen to the ground by his face. Slipped inside had been a small high-energy weapon, apparently activated by remote control. Someone had set this off deliberately, Morris realized. He had to get the message out! It was probably a traitor working for the Antarans!

Rolling to the side, he jumped to his feet and sprinted for the cover of the nearby buildings. Gunfire still echoed in the street, and people were running in every direction. Reaching a line of buildings, he ran down an alley. Out of the thick of the riot, he breathed easier. Rounding a corner, he--

--was kicked first in the stomach and then across the face. He fell to the ground and stared up at his assailant: the man who had slipped him the weapon. The spy drew a small but potent-looking handgun and aimed at Morris' face. "Sorry," the spy muttered. Morris, essentially in shock, barely heard him. Beyond the pistol pointed at him, beyond the spy, beyond the buildings, the sky gleamed and flickered. More Antaran drone ships being destroyed...and with them, probably human-crewed warships and defense emplacements. His mind having rejected the idea that a fellow human was about to kill him, he stared in fascination at the gleaming. From this distance, it was so beautiful, he thought in amazement.

The spy pulled the trigger and the muzzle flash obscured the distant gleaming...

Dylan Etoin, government secret agent, ripped his eyes from the gruesome act he had just committed and looked around. The alleyway was empty and in the streets beyond, chaos reigned. Chaos he had instigated. A visceral thrill replaced his mixed feelings over the killing. He could hardly believe all this was real.

Of course, he was discovering that a gritty meniality lurked underneath the excitement and intrigue of his work. He had to make things look like the poor guy, whoever he was, had been killed in the street by the police and not in the alley. Perhaps well-meaning protesters had dragged him in and then tried to get medical help, he decided. Steeling himself, he looked back at the body. The handgun had made a mess of the man's face as it cut right through the head and into the pavement. There really was no chance anyone could even think he'd survive.

It was kind of a shabby cover, but it would have to do. Wincing, he stuck his hands in the pooling blood and began "painting" a trail back towards the streets. Think about the mission, he told himself as his stomach churned.

Yes, the mission. Against the backdrop of the Antaran siege of the Solar System, his mission was of crucial importance. These foolish protesters were agitating for surrender to the hated Antarans and trying to destabilize the government if it continued its brave stand. Their protests were generating more and more support amongst the gullible populace. Something had to be done to protect the government, and Dylan Etoin, secret agent, was the man behind the scenes.

Those tricked by the protester rhetoric would be horrified when the news came that the mob had opened fire on police attempting to maintain order. The very presence of banned weapons amongst the ostensibly non-violent protests might be enough by itself, but shooting a policeman...that was beyond the pale.

Fooling the idiot now lying dead in the alley had been easy enough, but all the talents that had led his superiors to choose him out of all their agents for this mission had been needed to manage the chaos afterward. His superiors had assumed in the briefing that whoever got stuck with the remote-controlled weapon would be taken out of action when the police returned fire. Regrettably, the guy had managed to escape. If word that an agent had triggered the violence had gotten to the press, it would have been a disaster.

But Dylan Etoin had been there, he told himself with a grim smile. Wait until they heard about this...he'd probably get a secret medal and be recognized public ally after the siege was broken. There'd be publicity, morale-boosting tours, media deals--

He blinked at the pavement that suddenly was in front of his face. All around him, shattered glass was raining down on to the street as the sonic boom's thunderclap continued to reverberate between the buildings. He rolled on to his back and groaned. His nose felt broken, his lip was bleeding, and he was scraped and bruised from being knocked over.

"What's going on?" he managed to say into his communicator.

"Is that you, agent Zeno? What is your position?" The sounds were tight-beamed into his left ear by the communicator. He craned his neck to see the street name.

"Corner of 7th street near the government complex. What was that noise? Was there an explosion?"

There was a long pause. "Yes, possibly some kind of terrorist action. We need you to investigate. Source seems to be a mile east of your current position."

Etoin struggled to his feet, wiping blood from his lip on to hands already stained with the bystander's blood. Stepping out into the broad street, he looked in horror towards the government complex. The barricade line the police had fallen back to defend after the riot Etoin had incited threatened to overcome their position had collapsed after the shock wave. Thousands of angry rioters were swarming into the now-undefended government area. "Hey! The protesters have penetrated the government complex! I ought to try to do something!" Unconsciously, he drew his handgun.

"Negative, Zeno, continue east to investigate the disturbance."

"But the complex..."

"We know!" his controller on the other end snapped. "Follow your orders!"

"Yes, sir! Sorry, sir!" he answered. Of course, the controller was in a position to see what Etoin couldn't--movements of other agents, the government's troop and police deployments, the big picture. The controller had to be obeyed.

That the protesters were sacking the complex was disturbing, however. He had been assured that the government only needed an excuse to stop the protesters. Where were the soldiers he had seen being massed within the complex? Only a few would be enough to control the mob.

Orders were orders, though, and the big picture would have to be left for history books. He jogged at a brisk but manageable pace through the empty side streets. His sidearm was still in his hand. He felt a little guilty about not making himself appear like an average citizen, but the implied strength and power of the weapon in his hand was too reassuring for him to give up.

He was definitely getting closer. An ever-thickening crowd of people was running towards him. There was no doubt he was headed towards something interesting, he supposed, and there was no longer any point in concealing the weapon or trying to get the blood off his hands. Just by running towards danger and not away, his cover was blown.

Pushing and waving his gun to get through the thickest part of the running crowd, he drew closer to the source of the fear. Only the slow or injured were around now. A woman limped past him as he pulled up to a more cautious walk. The sound of gunfire could now be heard echoing down the streets, but the reverberation prevented him from guessing a distance. Was the mob in the complex being resisted, or was it coming from somewhere else?

In an intersection up ahead, a man ran at full tilt around the corner, only to be shot in the back by a kind of energy beam Etoin had never seen before. Tightening his already white-knuckled grip on his sidearm, he stepped forward. Maybe it was just the police...but would riot police shoot a man in the back?

He stepped around the corner and jumped awkwardly to the side as the battle robot fired at him. The blast hit the wall he had just stepped around, sending scalding pieces of concrete flying around him as he returned fire. The robot seemed to react fairly slowly. He dropped into a kneeling position and continued firing. The battle robot snapped off another shot which missed him high by two or three meters, then collapsed in a burning heap of melted metal and scorched polymer.

The air reeked of ozone and scorched concrete. It took thirty seconds before he had calmed down enough to use his communicator. "There's a huge disturbance here, a real stampede of people running away from something. There's some kind of robot here in the street. It shot someone and tried to kill me, but I took it out." He decided that he had been sufficiently nonchalant and cool with his report, and had left the most critical aspect ominously unsaid: the Antarans' drones had gotten to Earth. Earth. Earth! His mind recoiled from and rejected the notion as impossible. The government news outlets said the defense forces were still holding them off.

"See if you can find out more."

 

[ CONTINUED...   Part 2 ]


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