Black Atom Disaster
AWD: Knights - Episode 1

by Kermit O

WARNING: The following contains language and subject matter that may not be suitable for all audiences.

Inside the laboratory’s central research facility, the members of the infiltration team discovered a gruesome scene. Five scientists - three men and two women - lay crumpled against the laboratory wall. Blood was everywhere – on the floors, the walls, and soaked through their white lab coats. They had been executed; each had a single gunshot wound to back of the head. The last one probably got to see his colleagues’ brains splatter the walls just before everything went black for him as well. One cadet vomited the second he saw the massacre, a violent explosion of half-digested combat rations.

Will Ramses, leader of the infiltration team, briefly glanced over his shoulder at the cadet before turning back to the scientists. He wasn’t surprised. It was to be expected from the uninitiated. It was these kinds of things that the academy called “stomach training”. So he said nothing. Instead his eyes scanned the scene in an attempt to reconstruct what had happened. That was his way – always composed, always professional, a real cool-under-pressure kind of cadet. Despite all of that, even he was shaken. It was one thing to witness death in a combat situation, but murder was a different story. However, as troubled as he was by the scene, his trepidation had actually begun much earlier. He had felt uneasy from the very start of the mission.

Two hours earlier...

The Academy was an elite institution established by the Knights Foundation to train young people in academics and combat. Students entered as cadets, then after four years could be promoted to knights. In their post graduate years, they could become instructors at the academy or train to be part of the elite class, known as the Knight-Savants. The academy was founded in a collaborative effort by several nations and private investors in the aftermath of the Etherium Wars as a pledge of solidarity. Although it was located in the Laconian Federation, the academy was recognized internationally as an autonomous organization. In only a few years, it became renowned all across Planet M as a prestigious and honorable institution. Still, it was not without its critics.

As Laconia was one of the foremost military powers on the planet, and anything but shy about flexing its muscle, some people felt that the academy was just a special division of its army. The key difference was that knights were allowed to operate freely within the borders of any nation, provided their missions were sanctioned by the government. More importantly, since the academy operated independently of its parent nations, they could not be held accountable for its actions. As a result, there were ongoing concerns about espionage, rogue knights, and above all - civilian casualties. The political climate of Planet M made the possibility of war an everyday reality.

As part of their training, academy students were often deployed on a variety of missions, ranging from enemy surveillance and reconnaissance to neutralizing threats to international security. One such threat came in the form of a group of rogue scientists calling itself Black Atom. They had allegedly designed a compact super weapon, one that could reap mass destruction yet was small enough to be concealed on a person’s body. For their final exam, the senior cadets were to assigned to commandeer the weapon or its schematics, take the scientists into custody, and finally, to destroy the research facility.

It was an hour before dawn as six Academy sea transports approached Black Atom’s laboratory, located approximately one hundred miles off the east coast of Laconia. It was a small man-made island, with one heavily fortified building stationed at its center. Not surprisingly, it had once been used by Laconia as a test site for experimental weapons during the Etherium Wars. Like many facilities from that era, it had fallen into non-use and neglect; it was choice real estate for squatters – especially a group of tech-heads with military leanings like Black Atom.

As they drew close to the island, the sea transports submerged halfway into the water and reduced their speed to thirty percent. With a gentle crash, they buried their noses into the beach, anchoring equipment grinding deeply into the dirt and rock. In the next instant the front arrays split open, the docking ramps extended, and five squadrons of knights and cadets poured out onto the shore. At the front was Nazarus, world-renowned knight and field operations instructor, who had been assigned to lead the mission and proctor the exam.

“Look alive, cadets.” he said seriously, “This is your final test to see if you’re knight material. This is a real mission, not a field training exercise. Failure not only means returning to academy hanging your head, it could also mean losing it.”

Raine Merovich absently re-wrapped the grip on her sword handle. She was listening to Nazarus, but her mind was already clicking through possible scenarios and preparing for inevitable combat. But then as her attention shifted to Will Ramses, a gentle smile came to her face.

She admired him. He may not have had the highest marks in his class, but he was just brimming with potential. His instructors all knew it. She knew it. Nazarus knew it. That’s why they had both taken a special interest in him, and why they - against the recommendations of the Academy administration and much to the disappointment of the regular top-rankers – chose him as one of the squad leaders for this mission.

He was busy adjusting the settings on his gun tower, a unique piece of equipment he had designed himself and built with the help of a few other students during the interdisciplinary senior project. It was a small arsenal enclosed within an oblong black metal casing with touch-sensitive panels. The aesthetic was sleek and deceptively benign, because inside were adjustable and interchangeable compartments which stored and issued various weapons by tactile, vocal, or pre-programmed command.

The outer shell was all but impenetrable, and the internal power core generated a proximity field capable of filtering out select ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum. This meant it was resistant to EMP weapons and that it could even employ a sort of light-bending camouflage. Will claimed that the schematics came to him in a dream one night, and that he had written it all down in a hurry the next morning. After a year and a half of drafting and reworking it, he was able to create a field-ready prototype. It was things like this – instances of sheer genius – that set him apart from the rest of the student body.

“Savants and upper-class knights, you’re expected to pull your weight as usual.” said Nazarus’ voice somewhere in the backs of everyone’s minds as they made the necessary mental preparations, “Beyond the final exam, it is also vital that we succeed in acquiring Black Atom’s designer weapon.”

Raine continued to focus on Will. He was the rare person who could switch between whatever personalities were required for different situations smooth and effortlessly. Not that he wasn’t genuine, but he knew the rules – whatever the game – be it the delicate handling of academy politics, or navigating the rich social scene. He wasn’t an avid socialite, but he made himself visible enough, and was well-liked by students and faculty alike. But when it came time for a mission, Raine noticed how naturally he shifted into a more serious mindset – focused, determined, and composed. She didn’t expect today of all days to be any different, but underlying Will’s seriousness was something more urgent.

“You’re looking tense, Will.” she said finally, after several minutes of silent observation, “Something bothering you?”

“No...” he said, glancing up at her and then away again. Then after a pause, “Nothing I can put into words, anyway.”

“Keep your wits. It’s important for us to be at our best to make up for the weaker cadets’ shortcomings.”

“Of course,” Will nodded.

He cracked a weak smile, but it was there and gone so quickly that Raine knew he was only trying to humor her. And she knew better than to push the issue any further. This was the biggest moment in his academy career, and the last thing he needed was to have her project onto him any of the anxiety she was feeling, even if it was on his behalf.

Now if the overall mood of the group at this point was serious or anxious, then magician Ark Christophe was completely oblivious to it all. While the other knights and cadets were busy reviewing their mission plans and second-checking their equipment, he was hovering at the ear of a female cadet, whispering something quite inappropriate given the gravity of the situation. His mischievous expression betrayed his negligence, but if you were to ask him, he’d tell you with a straight face that distracting yourself with a beautiful woman was the only way to release any built up pressure before a big mission.

The senior cadet he was courting probably would’ve agreed, because right about then, rogue scientists and compact super weapons were the last things on her mind. Outwardly her attention was focused on Nazarus, who continued to give his speech. But every few seconds she ventured a glance at Ark out of the corner of her eye. She bit her bottom lip trying to suppress a smile, but there was no hiding the fierce redness in her cheeks. After a minute or so of visible tension, she closed her eyes and nodded quickly three times. Ark placed a hand at the small of her back for just a moment, an unspoken confirmation, then slipped away quietly with a triumphant look on his face. Once he was gone, the cadet finally released the breath she had been holding for the past thirty seconds.

Raine, who had witnessed the tail end of the exchange all the way from the other side of the crowd, pointed at Ark and narrowed her eyes intently. As if feeling her gaze, or as if her finger had somehow poked him from that distance, he spun around nervously and came face to face with her silent accusation. Upon meeting her gaze, he raised his hands defensively and gave a coy smile. Exasperated, but also partially amused, Raine dismissed him with a wave of her hand.

Ark grinned, tipped his hat, and disappeared back into the crowd. Raine wouldn’t bother reprimanding him. He may have been a slacker, but there were few people more dependable when it really mattered. She shifted her attention to Nazarus, who had just finished his speech and turned to her to review the mission briefing. With the crunching sound of leather on gravel, and long graceful strides, Raine closed the distance between them in seconds. She nodded to him, then turned to face the crowd.

“Alright everyone, listen up.”, she said, “We’re splitting into five teams, as discussed in the mission briefing. “Hopefully you were all paying attention, but here’s a review...”

Once he was certain Raine had the students’ attention, Nazarus made his way to the far end of the gathering. With his arms folded behind his back, he surveyed the crowd, moving from one end to the other, pausing several times during his route just long enough to commit every face to memory. As he passed, all eyes were drawn to him. His was a commanding presence. After all, he was Nazarus - the most decorated member of the knights Corps. The most experienced and most accomplished Knight-Savant. The one who had personally put the Academy on the political map after his role in the Etherium Wars. He was a living legend. As he examined this year’s knight candidates, his face was emotionless, distant. But the vacancy in his expression belied the flurry of activity in his head. He had planned this entire operation himself, every last detail, and was now mapping out contingencies for when things didn’t go as expected. As they almost never did.

“The knights and cadets from transport 1 will make up the support and supply team,” continued Raine, “You are responsible for keeping the deployment vehicles on standby, providing ammunition, and medical support.”

“Security team – those of you from transport 2 - you are tasked with eliminating any immediate threats as we make our approach. Be on the look out for guards and automatic defense systems.”

After finishing his own preparations, Will attended to other cadets who needed assistance. He was in the midst of helping a young cadet adjust his gun holster, as Raine called his squad to attention.

“Infiltration team!” she shouted to cover the distance, “Your job is securing the weapon. If we come under fire, you are not to engage the enemy. You must continue on towards the target.”

Just then, Nazarus’s patrol brought him right in front of the members of infiltration team, who all corrected their postures, lifted their chins, and stood at attention. All except Will. He finished adjusting the cadet’s holster, then stood up and brushed himself off.

“Hey listen, Nazarus...” he said casually, “There’s something about this mission that...”

“Squad Leader Ramses.”, said Nazarus abruptly, “I’m especially counting on you.”

“You know I won’t let you down. But...”

But Nazarus had already walked away. Will shrugged and reminded himself to take up his concerns with Nazarus later. He turned to check on his squad to find the other cadets staring at him as if he had suddenly grown a third eye. It only took him a second to realize why. While everyone else regarded Nazarus with awe and reverence, Will interacted with him as if he were just another knight. He didn’t get caught up in all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Nazarus the legend.

To Will, he was just Nazarus – someone he respected and admired, yes – but more than that, someone he considered a close friend. In retrospect, Will would look back on the exchange and think that perhaps Nazarus was acting out of character, that he should’ve recognized the signs that something was wrong. At the time, though, he simply figured that Nazarus had his mind on the mission. He didn’t make the connection between his own uneasiness and his friend’s distant behavior.

“Is it ok, Will?” asked the young cadet with the loose gun holster.

“Yeah, it’s fine.” Will said, sounding dismissive without intending to. Humbled, the cadet nodded his thanks, then slipped away to rejoin his own squad.

Elsewhere in the crowd, Gideon Thorne and Kimi Vazraka were having an urgent conversation, but in hushed tones. Well, it was more that Gideon was urgently whispering to Kimi, who may or may not have even been paying attention.

Because of her full stealth garb, Kimi’s facial expression was indiscernible, but she also wasn’t even looking in Gideon’s direction. Instead she was kneeling, holding one hand out in front of her. On the ground, a rune of some sort had been inscribed in the dirt, and with a silent invocation, both the symbol and her hand bore a soft glow.

“Are you even listening to me!?” shouted Gideon, then lowering his voice as he realized he was drawing too much attention. He gave a female cadet the evil eyes, and she turned back to whatever she was doing.

“Every word,” said Kimi. She suddenly clutched her hand into a fist and the rune on the ground began to glow blindingly bright.

An instant later a small explosion opened a melon-sized hole where the rune had once been. Kimi’s fox-tail swished back and forth in satisfaction. She stood up to face Gideon and pulled down her mask.

“And you’re sure it’s him?”

“The message was addressed to him,” nodded Gideon, “And I’ve been watching him. He’s been acting strange all day.”

Gideon reached back to grasp the pommel of his double-scythe, finding some perverse comfort in the touch of the steel.

“What’s your obsession with him, anyway?”

“Nothing.”, said Gideon plainly, “I told you, I just don’t like him.”

“Did you ever stop to think about what would’ve happened if you hadn’t intercepted the message?” asked Kimi, her face somehow becoming more serious than usual, “That maybe he would’ve told someone, and that if something is going to happen, we’d all be better prepared for it?”

Of course Gideon hadn’t thought of that. And it pissed him off to have Kimi point it out to him.

“Whatever.”, he said, “I’m keeping an eye on him.”

“Just one?”

“Shut up.”

As a rule, Kimi didn’t place much stock in Gideon’s conspiracy theories. All throughout their years as cadets he was always “on to something”, dragging her along on whatever half-baked mission his intuition told him was vital to their academic careers, their futures as knights, or even their very survival. She’d admit that a few times he did manage to stumble on to some interesting things, but more often than not he led her and the rest of his makeshift entourage on wild goose chases. But she never complained. Because Gideon was her best friend and confidant. And beyond that, in spite of everything, it was always fun. Of course, she’d just as soon kill someone as let them know that part.

She looked at Gideon with something that almost resembled a smile, but a second later it was buried behind her facemask. Gideon didn’t notice. He was already somewhere else in his mind. He wore his usual disgruntled frown, but now it was highlighted by something Kimi didn’t recognize at first. When she did, however, she felt the hair bristle all up and down her back.

For the first time in all the years she’d known him...Gideon was afraid.

“Damage Control Team!” came Raine’s call, “You are to provide intermittent support to the security team, but continue moving towards the facility.”

Nazarus had rejoined her at the front of the group. He slid his sword out the harness on his back and planted it vertically in the dirt in front of him. His eyes were dark, unfathomable, closed to anyone who tried to discern his thoughts. He surveyed the students again, this time focusing on several individuals in particular.

He looked at Will Ramses. Solid. Consistent.

He looked at Ark Christophe. Reliable. Cool under pressure.

He looked at Gideon Thorne. Reckless. A liability.

Nazarus’s eyes flashed for an instant, then he leveled his gaze against the horizon, once again becoming distant and contemplative.

“Once inside”, said Raine, “You’re to take any non-hostiles into custody, namely the Black Atom scientists. It is vital that they be captured unharmed.”

“Neutralization team. Fall in right behind infiltration. Your job is to locate and make digital copies of all weapons research, and then destroy the originals.

Jet Aries nodded his head so rapidly and repeatedly as he heard his squad’s instructions that he looked like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But unlike the other cadets, he wasn’t nervous at all. He wasn’t afraid. If anything, he was eager for the mission to begin. Lilith Capra, who stood several feet behind him, had been mortified when the squad assignments were given, to find out that she would be teaming up with her own personal stalker. She looked at him with repulsion. Jet didn’t pay her any mind. In fact, he hadn’t so much as looked at her since they boarded the transport together earlier that evening. He was too preoccupied with his own thoughts and busy mumbling to himself. She was grateful that for once all of his anxious energy had found another outlet.

Raine continued. “Once you’ve been given the signal to evacuate, your final task is to activate the laboratory’s self-destruct mechanism.”

“Self destruct...” mumbled Jet, an ugly smile coming to his face. And then, suddenly, out of turn, and at the top of his voice, “Brilliant, sir!”

If Raine paused at all for Jet’s disruption, it was only for a heartbeat. She laid out the final details of the mission, stressing the importance of everyone checking their equipment and making sure that they were absolutely prepared. As if he was unaware of his own outburst, Jet went back to mumbling to himself.

“God, what a freak...” said a disgusted voice at Lilith’s ear.

Lena Solancer. The only other female member of her squad. Lilith turned and nodded absently. It was strange, because even though she was thinking mostly the same thing, hearing it aloud in someone else’s voice somehow annoyed her. Lena looked at her as if the comment had been an invitation to start a conversation. But Lilith didn’t take it. Instead she walked away without a word, leaving Lena to think that maybe she and Jet were two of a kind. And perhaps they were. It was that possibility which had made Lena’s words so piercing.

Finally, with all the preparations made and the finer details of the operation embedded in the mind of every knight and cadet, Operation Black Atom was ready to begin. As the last sliver of the sun slipped into the sea, the security team took up the vanguard, advancing quickly and quietly. Night vision bathed the desolate island in pale green to light their way, and the directional mics fixed to the barrels of their rifles would pick up anything that crossed their path a whole thirty seconds before it knew they were coming. Ark Christophe didn’t bother with all the gear, allowing his teammates to pick up the slack and cover him as he forged ahead into the darkness. The trade-off, of course, was the uncanny power he brought to the table. If the enemy proved to be too much for them, he was their wild card. Guns and grenades they’d be prepared for, but the ground itself opening up to swallow them, or their own weapons melting in their hands – not a chance they’d be expecting that.

“Rifles at 2 and 10. Light gear, none too interested in the job.”

“Probably mercenaries. On one.”


The two Black Atom guards collapsed simultaneously as the tranquilizer rounds hit their marks. A gesture of his left hand, a swipe of the staff with his right, and Ark hid the bodies from sight. Waves of sand billowed up and over the guards, hiding them from the immediate view of anyone who happened to pass by. After a few more take downs without so much as a gun being pointed at them, it became clear to the security team that Black Atom didn’t have enough in the budget to hire top-rate mercenaries. Three quarters of the way to the tower and the knights ran into – or actually stepped on – their first real problem.

A muffled beeping sound could be heard somewhere beneath them, starting slow then rapidly accelerating to become a high-pitched whine. For a moment, the members of the security team thought they were finished. There wasn’t even time to run or dive for cover. But then they felt the yield of the sand become solid beneath their feet, a circle of rock spreading out from the point where Ark touched his staff to the ground. After a subtle vibration, and a few cracks in the earthen surface, the threat of the land mine was neutralized. Ark gestured for his teammates to stop short, then ran ahead, twirling his staff above his head before leaping forward and slamming the end against the ground.

A stone path formed rapidly on the top level of sand, extending from the head of the staff to the front entrance of the abandoned weapons testing facility. Two guards were leaning against the wall to either side of the doorway leading inside. One of them, upon seeing the stone path, stood up straight to get a better look. Before he could even question what he saw, or ask his comrade to verify it, Ark had already dealt with them.

Lines appeared in the walls and in the ground, forming rectangular panels behind them, and circular panels beneath them. An instant after, they heard the sound of stone grinding, and the wall panels rotated like revolving doors, pulling them inside newly made hollows. Runes of sealing appeared briefly on each wall, as they closed upon the guards, and the lines that revealed the makeshift prisons disappeared. The stone was porous enough to ensure that they wouldn’t suffocate, but they wouldn’t be getting out anytime soon.

After meeting with very little resistance, the advance team secured the entrance. Ark was relieved that they had managed to get this far without any casualties. Within the next three minutes, each exactly sixty seconds apart, the infiltration, damage control, and neutralization teams appeared. With little more than a silent acknowledgment of the security force, they all passed quickly into the facility. Inside the groups split up to tend to their separate objectives. There was no turning back now.

Fast forward to the present...

“What a disaster," said the sick cadet - carefully keeping his gaze averted from the bodies.

"What should we do?"

"I'll contact Commander Nazarus to let him know about the scientists.", said Will, "But we should proceed with the mission as instructed."

Although visibly uneasy about the situation, the cadets remained resolute, and nodded their agreement. Will contacted Nazarus, and explained the situation.

"Hm.", said Nazarus over the communicator, "That's tragic. I'm sure the scientists at the academy would like to have picked tbe Black Atoms' brains about their research."

Will really wished he had used a different metaphor. The sick cadet put his hand over his mouth, but managed to contain himself.

"Proceed as planned.", said Nazarus, "But be on your guard. Whoever killed the scientists may still be in the facility."

"Alright.", said Will, "I'll contact you if there are any other developments."

"No need.", said Nazarus, "I have faith that you'll be able to carry out this mission to the end. Don't forget that you're all being tested on how you conduct yourselves in a real field situation. Nazarus out."

"Great.", said the sick cadet, "I wonder how many points they deduct for having a weak stomach."

"I wouldn't worry about it.", said Will, "Right now we need to focus on securing the weapon and clearing the facility."

"Will...", beckoned another cadet, "Look at this."

The center of the laboratory appeared to have been cut out in order to accomodate a massive cylinder, made of semi-opaque glass, running from floor to ceiling. That there was anything behind it wasn't obvious at first, due to poor lighting. The cadet had his hands cupped near his eyes as he put his face near the glass to see through it. As Will joined him, he discovered that the cylinder surrounded an empty shaft which ran at least thirty yards down before being obscured by darkness. The other cadets joined them at the glass.

"Is this some kind of elevator?"

"If it is, then the entrance must be somewhere else. No doors here."


Rena Solancer - twin sister of Lena - was not so enamored with the glass cylinder as the others. She had walked around it to the rear of the laboratory, where she found a giant computer mainframe. A real technology geek, it took her no time at all to access the mainframe and bring the schematics for the entire laboratory up on the giant screen.

"So, the entire cylinder moves up and down?", asked Will as he examined the diagram now on display.

"It seems that way.", said Rena, "There are eight separate labs beneath us, one on each floor. None of them are inaccessible by lab personnel, or any other people for that matter. Only specially programmed automata are allowed on those floors. So this thing isn't so much an elevator as some kind of viewing column. But it does allow access to the very last level.

"And what's down there?"

Rena shrugged. "They use a bunch of encoded terminology. Some of it looks familiar, but I can't really make heads or tails of it."

"You think the weapon's down there?"

"Well, the good news is that I don't think it's a weapon at all."

"Then what?"

"Something called an Ether Magnifier.", said Rena, "But the bad news is that it's not something that we can just take out of here. The facility on the bottom floor is huge - like the size of the Knights Stadium. And...well, that whole thing is the magnifier."

"But I thought it was supposed to be compact? Wasn't that the whole threat?"

"According to this...", said Will, further examining the archive, "This laboratory has been active for about thirty years, but only for the last five have the scientists been trying to create a portable prototype."

"Well that's just great.", said another cadet, "So much for the mission."

"Don't worry.", said Will, "We have a contingency plan for just this kind of situation. We just need to download the prototype schematics onto some kind of portable media. Can we do that from this computer?"

Rena shook her head. "No. This is only a slave terminal. The master computer is down inside the magnifier itself."

"Can we use the column to get down there?"

"Yeah, I think so. Let me just..."

Rena pressed a series of keys on the terminal interface, and within a minute, the entire room started to vibrate softly, the hum of a tremendous power source audible on a subconscious frequency. It gave the cadets the feeling of being a part of the room. The viewing column was suddenly illuminated from within, and everyone watched in amazement as it began to rotate and slide downward into the floor. From the level above came a circular standing platform and a set of double doors which turned to face the computer terminal as the column came to a stop. The doors slid open with a faint hissing sound.

"Rena and I will go down.", said Will, "The rest of you stand guard here. Report in if anything unusual happens."

As the viewing column cleared the floor, Will and Rena were surprised at what they found. Unlike the surface labs, the lower floors weren't cold, metallic, and sterile. Instead they were lush with greenery and insect life - huge arboretums, botanical gardens, and encapsulated mini-farms. These kinds of controlled environments were a big technological fad in Laconia thirty years earlier, but the projects had been abandoned due to unsustainable crops. But here at the Black Atom facility, they seemed to be quite successful.

Could it be because of the ether magnifier? Will wondered.

"This is incredible.", said Rena.

But they hadn't seen the half of it. Once they cleared the first seven lower levels, the viewing column brought them down into a massive theater, one that had been converted into an entire forest. Full-sized trees stretched towards the domed ceiling, which had been lined with panels that simulated sunlight. There were fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, and all sorts of other vegetation from all around the world - plants that did not normally grow together did so here without conflict.

Once the viewing column came to a stop at the bottom and the doors opened, Rena ran towards the master terminal filled with enthusiasm. Her fingers ran over the keys like spiders spinning their webs, and the terminal came to life. Will watched as several diagrams and reports flashed across the screen. And then Rena found what she was looking for. As she stopped pressing buttons, a 3-D wireframe of a tree rotated on the left side of the screen. On the right side was a string of strange numbers and symbols. Rena's face lit up with understanding and enthusiasm.

"The encoded sequences on the terminal above...", she said finally, "I know what they are now."


"They're DNA sequences. Will, the Ether Magnifier is an experimental technology that facilitates growth. You know...which would make it the very opposite of a weapon?"

"Was our intelligence wrong?"

"I don't know if that's it, but...something is definitely off about this whole mission."

"Let's download the schematics and return to the surface. We can sort everything out afterwards."

Rena nodded, then removed a metal cylinder about the same dimensions as a flashlight from her equipment bag. A high-density plasma drive. She found the corresponding slot on the computer terminal and slid the cylinder inside.

"There's so much data here.", she said - images, text, and diagrams flashing across the screen as they were copied to the drive. "The schematics as well as information on all the samples here. Downloading is going to take at least five minutes."

Suddenly there was a deep rumbling underground. There was the sound of something huge moving nearby, then with a crash that shook the entire facility and almost threw the cadets to the floor, it came to rest. The lighting all throughout the forest lab turned from sun-gold to alarm-red. A loud horn began to blare, and a female voice sounded over the communication system.

WARNING! Sixty minutes until initiation of self-destruct protocol. All personnel must evacuate the facility immediately.

"What? That can't be...", said Will, "They weren't supposed to set off the self-destruct until we got what we needed here."

"What should we do?", asked Rena, "There are still four minutes left on the data transfer. Should we cancel it and evacuate?"

"Four minutes. Doesn't sound like much, but if we meet with any resistance trying to get out of here, that little bit of time could make a big difference."

"Yeah, I know, but...after all of this, I really don't wanna fail this mission. We're so close!"

"Damn it."

"It's your decision, Will. I'll do whatever you think is right. some strange way, I feel that even by seeing all of this I'm obligated to the Black Atom scientists to make sure their research is preserved."

Will paused to consider something, then nodded. "You're right. It may be risky, but...we'll wait."

Rena's face lit up with a huge smile. She turned back to the computer terminal and started drumming her fingers on the edge, eagerly waiting for the download to complete.

Meanwhile, in the laboratory above...

"What the hell is going on?", complained Gideon Thorne, as he entered the lab, flanked by the other members of the damage control team. "This whole mission has been a total bust, and now those idiots from the neutralization team have gone and set off the self-destruct sequence early?

As usual, Kimi didn't say anything. Her eyes were closed and she appeared to be caught up in her own private musings.

"Where the hell are these stupid scienti —"

Gideon stopped in his tracks and his jaw dropped as he caught sight of the bodies slumped against the wall. Above her facemask, Kimi's eyes registered shock and disgust. The other cadets all at once started muttering their dismay. As Gideon finished his sweep of the lab, he glared at the members of the infiltration team.

"Did...did you guys do this?!", he demanded.

"Don't be stupid, Gideon.", said a cadet from infiltration named Caleb, "You know we didn't."

"I don't know shit.", said Gideon, "Nothing has been right about this mission from minute one. First we're told that we're here to comandeer some kind of super weapon, and yet...there's no one but a bunch of scrub-ass mercenaries guarding the place. Then we're supposed to find and apprehend some evil rogue scientists, but they're no where to be found. Until now...when we find them with their...with their goddamn heads blown off!"


"Man, I knew this whole thing smelled funny. Someone in the Academy brass really doesn't want me to graduate."

"Are you...are you serious?",asked Caleb, "After all of think...this is all somehow about you? Someone killed these scientists to set you up to fail? Yeah, asshole, because you're that important."

Even Kimi was taken aback by Gideon's words. Could all of his anxiety and paranoia at the start of the mission really have been about something so trite? She shook her head no. Not even Gideon was that self-absorbed.

"Get a clue, Caleb.", he said, "It's not just about me. It's about my father and the stinkin' academy bureaucracy. They're trying to get to him through me. If I fail this exam, it'll really tarnish the Thorne family name, and damage his credibility."

Gideon's father - Lucius Thorne - was a high-ranking official of the Knights Foundation, and a member of their Board of Trustees. Mr. Thorne had been under fire in recent years for suspected corruption and for various radical new policies he wanted to see implemened at the academy. His two older sons had raced through the academy brilliantly, maintaining top marks all throughout their careers, and even setting individual records. They were both now members of the Knights Corps and starting to become active in the political forum. But Gideon, by contrast, appeared to be an underachiever. He had already failed the Knights exam twice before, and Mr. Thorne's political opponents never hesitated to bring his son's shortcomings to the table when criticizing or debating with him.

"Dude, whatever, I don't care.", said Caleb.

Abruptly and unexpectedly, Gideon brandished his melee claws, pointing one towards Caleb.

"Do you care now?", he asked.

"What the hell is wrong with you, Gideon?" Caleb yelled, "Nobody's out to get you. The only reason you keep failing is because you suck!

With a flick of his thumb, Gideon snapped open the triple blades of both claws. He flared both of his arms out from his sides as if he were about to lunge.

"Say that again.", he growled, "I dare you."

In one fluid motion, Caleb drew his techsword from the sheath on his back and pointed it forward.

"You're so full of shit.", he said, "But I'll play along. Not like I'm about to back down from a loser."

"Where's Ramses?", asked Gideon, either forfeiting his bluff, or actually noticing for the first time that the infiltration squad leader wasn't there.

"Don't worry about it.", said Caleb,

The viewing column started to ascend again, bringing the argument to a sudden stop.

"The hell is this?" Gideon asked.

"Some kind of elevator," said Kimi, "Someone's coming up."

"If it's Ramses, he's got a lot of explaining to do."

"He doesn't answer to you.", said another infiltration cadet, "And unlike you, he's actually doing his job."

"You guys sure have some big mouths.", said a damage control cadet.

As the column came to rest, and Will and Rena stepped through the doors, all heads turned towards them. It didn't take Will long to realize that there was a situation.

"What's going on?", he asked, "You guys are damage control, right? What're you doing here?"

"Controlling damage.", said Gideon, "Or at least we would be if your team hadn't beaten us to it." He gestured towards the bodies of the Black Atom scientists.

"What're you talking about?", asked Will, "You think we...?"

"I'm talking about secret advance communications and shady backroom deals.", said Gideon, "What did you know about Black Atom before the mission started?

Will looked at Gideon was though he were completely out of his mind. He paused for several moments, trying to think of something to say, but he had absolutely no idea what Gideon was talking about, or where his veiled accusations were coming from.

"I'm not here to be interrogated by you.", he said, "We all have a mission to complete, and..." He lifted the plasma drive and waved it in front of Gideon. "This is our part. I don't know about you, but we're done here.

"Why are you avoiding the question, Ramses?", asked Garrett, another DC cadet.

"Because it's a stupid question. And unless you all didn't notice, we have like fifty minutes until this whole place is destroyed."

"Ramses...", said Gideon, his voice more tempered - serious. "What would you say if I told you that I intercepted a communique - addressed to you - which hinted at some foreknowledge of this whole mess, and advised you to skip the mission altogether?"

"I'd say you're out of your mind.", said Will.

"Maybe I am.", said Gideon, "I do sometimes let my conspiracy theories get the best of me."

Kimi looked at Gideon in surprise. It wasn't like him to admit to his mistakes.

"So I'll tell you what...", he said, "You hand over the weapon to me - as a show of faith - and I'll be convinced that you didn't kill the scientists, and that you're not a traitor."

"Hey fuck you, Gideon!", shouted Caleb angrily, "Who the hell do you think you are?"

He took a step forward, placing himself between Will and Gideon, and triggering the electric coils in his techsword.

Instinctively, as she had always taken it upon herself to protect Gideon - sometimes from himself - Kimi drew her twin kukris from their sheaths and lowered herself into a defensive posture. She looked at Caleb in a way that dared him to act on what he was thinking.

"Heh." Gideon looked at Kimi and smiled.

The other members of the damage control team followed Kimi's example and brandished their weapons.

"Wait a minute...", said Will, uneasily at first, but then with a sudden vigor, "If anyone's acting suspicious here, it's you. You come here accusing us of killing the scientists, of being involved in some kind of conspiracy, and now you're threatening us and making demands?"

Will threw both of his arms back, touching the sides of his gun tower, which promptly fed a pistol into each hand. He swung the weapons forward, crossing his wrists and lining up Gideon in his sights.

"Maybe you're the traitor.", he said.

The members of the infiltration team all drew their weapons as well. But neither team was truly committed to fighting the other. The apprehension was evident in all of their faces. And to make matters worse, the self-destruct warning reminded them all that there were only forty-five minutes remaining.

"Cadets!", said a booming voice from the darkness of the adjacent hall.

Nazarus entered the laboratory with a stern look on his face. He deliberately stepped in between the two teams, glancing back and forth at the cadets on each side.

"Are those the schematics for the weapon?", he asked Will, pointing to the plasma drive.

"Well, it does contain the schematics for Black Atom's research, but it doesn't seem to be a..."

"Give it here."

Will was a bit unraveled by Nazarus's abruptness, but he handed over the data cylinder without hesitation. Nazarus slid it into his equipment harness, then folded his arms across his chest.

"This mission was meticulously planned around a team dynamic.", he said, "The only way it works is if each team does its job separately, and then all come together as a comprehensive unit. Yet here we are in a crisis, the whole mission at risk, and what do I find but a complete lack of solidarity amongst my cadets?"

"Sir!", said Caleb, standing at attention, "If Gideon hadn't..."

Nazarus turned towards the cadet and gave him a look that silenced him. He then began to pace back and forth between the two teams with his hands clasped behind his back.

"Casting blame brings shame on everyone.", he said, "Even if only one of you makes a mistake, the entire team - all five squads - bear the responsibility for it."

Caleb bowed his head.

"But there is an exception to that rule.", said Nazarus, "And I believe Mr. Thorne knows what I mean better than anyone else."

"What? I do?"

"You are aware that there is, in fact, a traitor amongst us, are you not?"

"The secret communique.", said Gideon, "You know about it, too?"

"I do.", said Nazarus, "We have been aware of a side-plot conceived by members of the Academy to get the Black Atom research into the hands of an outside agency. If we aborted the mission, then we might as well have handed over Black Atom's technology to whoever wanted it. So we decided to proceed as planned, because it was the best way to get the traitors to surface."

"But who...who is it?", asked Will.

Nazarus turned and stared him for a long, cold five seconds. The other members of the infiltration team began to fidget uneasily. The members of the damage control team started muttering amongst themselves. But then Nazarus turned abruptly to face Gideon.

"Gideon Thorne.", he said calmly, "You claim to have a communique sent by some unknown party to one of your fellow cadets, providing some advance warning as to the plot we've been discussing."

"Yes, and it's addressed to..."

"Tell me.", said Nazarus, "How did you come across this information?"

Gideon froze. At first he was certain that Nazarus was going to confirm his suspicions, validate his conspiracy theory, and name Will Ramses as a traitor to the academy. But suddenly he was in a bind. The information he had acquired which seemed to point to Will as a conspirator, had come from his fooling around in the academy's internal mail server with unauthorized access codes. He had unwittingly intercepted the message intended for Will Ramses, and from there had started to draw his own conclusions.


"Gideon, you were sloppy.", said Nazarus, "If you wanted to feed information to whatever agency you've been working for, you should've known better than to do so from inside the Academy. You left digital fingerprints all over the network."

"Wait.", said Gideon incredulously, "What are you talking about? Are you saying that I'm —"

"I'm disappointed.", said Nazarus, "I would've thought that under my teaching, you would've turned out to be a better spy."

"Spy?!", exclaimed Gideon in complete and utter shock, "What the hell? I'm not a goddamn spy! You're trying to..."

Nazarus reached back and wrapped his hand around the handle of his sword. He bore down on Gideon with a terrifying gaze.

"...trying to...wait a minute..."

Gideon's eyes widened with a sudden realization as he looked at Nazarus. He glanced around at the other cadets as if looking for confirmation in their faces, but they only looked back at him with apprehension. As he looked at Will - saw his confusion - he knew then for sure that he had been wrong all along. Will Ramses was not the traitor. How could he have been so blind?

"You...", he said, looking back at Nazarus. "It was you. Everyone, don't you see? The traitor is...!"

But Gideon would not get a chance to finish his accusation. Nazarus, in a move so quick it seemed impossible, struck Gideon down before he could say the name. He drew his segmented sword and thrusted forward, the weapon extending and retracting in one fluid motion. As the pieces merged to form a solid blade again, it was done. The tip segment had opened a large hole in Gideon's neck just below his adam's apple. With the other cadets looking on in sheer dismay, Gideon collapsed to his knees, eyes wide with terror, and making an awful gurgling sound. He clutched at his neck desperately as blood started gushing between his fingers.

"What...", muttered Rena, tears in her voice, "Why did..."

"What the hell are you doing, Nazarus?!", shouted Garrett, rushing to Gideon's side, trying futilely to help him stem the flow of blood from his neck. But seconds later, Gideon's eyes rolled into the back of his head, and his breathing stopped. His body went still.

"He's...he's fucking dead!", Garrett cried.

"His was a final desperate act.", said Nazarus, "Trying to deflect his own guilt by blaming others. Failing that, he might've done something even more desperate, like trying to harm one of you. I couldn't allow it to go any further."

"What the hell are you talking about?!"

"You still don't understand?", asked Nazarus, "Gideon was the traitor. We have evidence that shows that he was in communication with an outside agency for the past several months. But to be sure, we had to get him to show his hand. And sure enough..."

Garrett began to tremble with indignation. "Bullshit.", he said, standing up and glaring at Nazarus. "Gideon was no traitor. You're a liar."

"Oh? And are you willing to put your Knight career on the line - risk collaboration charges - to defend that claim?"

"I don't know or care about any of that.", said Garrett, "All I know is that you're a goddamn liar. And that I'm going to take you to task for Gideon's sake."

He pulled a short-barreled rifle from a harness on his back and pointed it towards Nazarus. Nazarus merely looked at him and smiled. He gestured to the other members of the DC team.

"And the rest of you? Are you also convinced of Gideon's innocence? Enough to risk your lives for it?"

In short order, the other DC cadets raised their weapons as well, all of them pointing at their commander.

"And now there's solidarity.", said Nazarus, "How ironic."

He turned towards Will Ramses and the members of the infiltration team, who were all still in a state of shock as to what had just happened - what was still happening.

"Infiltration team.", said Nazarus, "The members of the damage control team have raised arms against their field commander, in defense of a known traitor to the academy. A traitor who risked the lives of everyone involved in this mission, for his own personal gain. Defending such a person clearly marks them as traitors themselves. I need you all to take them into custody."

The members of both teams stared at each other across what seemed to be a tremendous distance, a mix of fear, doubt, suspicion, and confusion on their faces. There were only a few ways that this scenario could play out, and none of them seemed too postive. But, in spite of their doubts, the members of the infiltration team - one by one - aimed their weapons towards the damage control team. In a situation like this, they had to assume that Nazarus - the legend, the hero, their protector, their commander - was on the right side. Will Ramses had been the first to raise his gun, and was the first to speak.

"This doesn't have to end badly.", he said, "I wanna believe that none of you were involved in this - that Gideon was acting alone. But if you keep on pointing weapons at your allies, then that makes you suspects."

"Fuck you, Ramses.", said Garrett, "You're stupid if you don't realize...

Suddenly, there was the sound of metal bursting, and one of the DC cadets started gushing thick white smoke from his hip.

"What the hell are you doing?"

The smoke grenade had gone off without warning, and within seconds the room was blanketed in a thick fog.

"I didn' anything!" the cadet exclaimed between coughs, "It just...!"

His next word was replaced by the sickening wet impact of a bullet tearing through flesh and enamel. Rena, who was close enough to him to see what happened, screamed as his face practically disappeared in an explosion of blood. Everyone in the room heard the sound of his body hit the floor, and the situation spiraled into chaos.

"You fucking traitors!", shouted Garrett, pointing his pistol in the general of Will Ramses and the Infiltration group.

Several shots were fired, the first by him, the next two in response. Rena screamed again, but this time her voice was heavy with the strain of injury. The clamor of desperate and angry voices rose to a hubbub, defeating any chance at a rational solution. Then someone shot out the lights overhead, adding darkness to a growing list of complications.

"Stop shooting!", shouted Will, who had already wedged himself into the corner of the room.

Just then he heard the sound of another bullet embedding itself in the wall above his head, and he went immediately quiet. He dropped to the floor and tentatively aimed his twin pistols out in front of him. The last thing he wanted was to raise arms against the other cadets, and so he had little choice but to wait. But the blare of the emergency alarm reminded him that he would have to find a way to resolve the situation quickly.

Nearby, three figures - associated with neither the Academy nor Black Atom - stood silently in the darkness. The infrared setting on their unispectrum gear revealed several hazy multicolored shapes moving around the area frantically, some trying to find cover, others trying to find a way to escape. But of course it was their job to make sure no one left this place alive.

Amidst the chaos, one figure was calm and composed, and until that very moment had been standing completely still. For the last few minutes, Kimi Vazraka had been dead to the world. She didn't hear anything. She didn't feel anything. And all she saw was something that she refused to believe - Gideon Thorne sprawled across the floor, leaking blood from a gaping wound in his neck.

Then she heard someone screaming in her head. It wasn't until she felt the burning in her throat that she realized that it was her own voice. Free from her catatonia, Kimi's mind went to work, and her eyes scanned the area. With a natural ability to see in the dark, it only took her a second to notice three sets of faint green lights hovering in the distance. She screamed again, this time a low angry howl that reverberated in her chest. At the speed of neurons firing she launched herself towards the attackers, a curved blade in each hand.

The sudden cry drew Will's attention. By now his eyes had started to adjust, and carved into the darkness of the background he saw something darker still - a fleet form moving at a speed that was barely comprehensible.


Her posture indicated that she was on the offensive, but at first he couldn't see what it was that she was stalking. But when he noticed the hovering green lights, he felt suddenly sick to his stomach. There was someone there. Whoever they were - whatever they were - they were taking advantage of the situation, and had been picking off the cadets one by one.

Driven by a sudden sorrow, a sudden rage, he placed one hand on the ground and pushed himself up, already sprinting the moment he returned to his feet. He reached back to his gun tower and stroked one of the long side panels with a practiced touch. The metal split and shifted on contact and thrusted the barrel of a slim carbine against his palm. Wrenching the weapon free, he took aim in mid-stride...

The first of the three assassins somehow didn't see Kimi until she was right on top of him. The three unispectrum lenses tilted up a second before two kukri blades divided them. Kimi had given no consideration to the nature of her opponent - her intentions were clear. But there was a moment of surprise as she felt her weapons lodge into something inorganic. The assassin was some kind of mechanical soldier.

Metal whined and splintered as she dragged the blades from its brow to the back of its neck. It collapsed under her weight, and she paused just long enough to see the three green lights fade into the dark. Leaving the weapons lodged where they were, she used their handles for leverage as she launched herself towards her next target.

The second mechanical soldier had lined her up in its sights, but with a powerful lunge, she had leapt out of view. Not that it mattered, because it was only a second later that a hot line of bullets shattered its faceplate and bore deeply into the pulp of wires and circuits behind it. By the time the steady rattle of gunfire had ceased, the machine had been practically torn in half down the middle, its metal frame twisted and smoking.

The third soldier tossed its gun to the floor, and moments later a blue light extended from its hands, forming the blade of a beam sword. It turned its attention towards Will, who had just ejected the empty cartridge from his gun and reached back to his gun tower for a replacement. The soldier ran through several calculations, weighing the probability of killing Will before he could reload. The chances being within the allowable range set by its programming, it charged towards him with measured steps, the blazing weapon lowered to its hip for the fatal blow.

But Kimi, who had all but vanished several seconds earlier and been left out of its calculations, reappeared from the least predictable of places.

The air above.

Kimi Vazraka had always been a mystery - to the other students, to the faculty, and even to her benefactors in the Thorne family who had known her since she was a child. There were things about her that no one would guess, like the fact that her entire body was speckled with strange glyphs. Her fully concealing attire wasn't just a matter of efficiency in her combat class, but a matter of privacy. Two of these glyphs were inscribed on her palms, which with the rare exception of moments like these, were always hidden inside of gloves. Will had stopped short in his advance, having just retrieved his clip when he saw Kimi descending upon the soldier like a bird of prey. That she came from the air wasn't so surprising as the symbols burned black into her flesh, which now glowed at the edges with violet light. As she landed on top of the mechanical soldier, it managed to remain standing, its metal frame buckled under her weight.

Kimi slammed her palms against either side of its head, and within moments its entire body began to take on the same aura as the glyphs. She looked at Will briefly, and there was something dark in her eyes. Something like hatred. The exchange lasted for only a second, before she somersaulted backwards and shuffled away into a dark corner of the room. Will barely had time to get clear as white-hot light began to surge from the gaps in the mechanical soldier's armor.

A single ray pierced the metal from within, carving a glyph in its chest plate - a superimposition of the two on Kimi's hands. And then the soldier exploded in a hot white flash. Or at least it almost did. Its metal frame had bulged outward and shattered, but before the pieces had traveled far beyond the blast point, another force suddenly drew them back inward, as if the explosion was playing out in reverse. The metal pieces, the wires, the circuits, the flames and hot air - everything - collapsed into a single point of light, which then faded quietly into nothingness.

When the emergency lights came on, Will didn't even notice. He was still staring absently at the spot where the third mechanical soldier once stood. What the hell had just happened? He didn't know. And even if someone told him, he wasn't in the right frame of mind to try and understand it. All around him lay the bodies of the cadets from the Infiltration and Damage Control teams, dead either by each other's hands or killed in cold blood by the mechanical soldiers. Kimi was the only one besides himself who was left standing - who was left alive. She stood with her back to Gideon Thorne, who she had propped up against the wall, with a piece of cloth torn from her own uniform wrapped around his throat.

Will didn't really know Gideon. And what little he had known, he didn't like. But seeing him there, his face paling in a death mask, it culminated such a tremendous sense of loss that Will felt his composure deteriorate. His eyes burned and his chest ached. His muscles were tensed to the point of exhaustion. At first he didn't notice that Kimi was staring at him. When he looked up and met her gaze, the cold darkness he had seen before was gone. Moisture collected in her eyes, but she turned away before any tears could fall.

"Nazarus," she said quietly, "I'm going after him."

Although Will knew what she meant, his mind was not ready to process the implications. That Nazarus had betrayed the Academy, the Foundation, the students - everyone. That Nazarus had betrayed him. And that Kimi intended to kill Nazarus for it. After what he had just seen her do, he thought she might actually be capable of it. But still...he couldn't allow it. Not only because he was in denial, but because Nazarus was the only one who could explain all of this away. The only one who could make sense of something that seemed so utterly senseless. And he would - he must - if Will was ever to regain any peace of mind.

Kimi was about to move when she heard the sliding click and whistling hum of an armed pulse rifle. She froze.

"Stop.", said Will, a strain in his voice, "I...I can't let you do that."

Kimi was incredulous. She turned to face Will, this time with everything she was feeling written clearly all over her face. The pain, the sorrow, the rage, the hatred, came together in an expression that threatened to wrench Will's heart from his chest and tear it apart. The barrel of the pulse rifle dipped momentarily, but he managed to raise it again with a firm but trembling grip.

"So you're a traitor, after all..." said Kimi.


"You're responsible for all of this." she said, "All of this blood. It's on your hands."

Kimi's words struck home. He was no traitor, but she was right that he was responsible for what had happened here. He was a squad leader, and so at the very least he was in charge of the lives of those cadets who had been placed under his command. Beyond that he was a member of the Academy, which meant he was part of a community that was bound by honor and duty to protect its own. But he had failed. The dead bodies at the edges of his vision reminded him of that.

"You will be judged, Will Ramses." Kimi said, "But not today."

Turning her back to him, she squatted down and pulled two kukri from the leg sheaths below her knees. She stood again and glanced at him over her shoulder.

"I'm going now.", she said, "So if you're going to stop me, you'll have to shoot me in the back."

"Kimi." Will said, finding her name difficult, "Nazarus didn't... He didn't do this."

"Do you really believe that? Then where is he? Why isn't he here? Why did he leave us all here to die?"

Why? That was what Will needed Nazarus to tell him.

"Gideon figured it out.", said Kimi, "That's why Nazarus killed him."

Nazarus...killed Gideon? What was she talking about?

Then the memory rushed back to the surface like blood to an open wound. Nazarus killed Gideon. Had Will somehow forgotten that? Or was he in such denial that he had blocked it out, even while it was happening right in front of him? No matter what Nazarus's involvement had been in this whole disaster, there was no question that he had killed one of his own students. And what reason could he possibly give for that? Will's veil of delusion began to disintegrate. He couldn't bring himself to say, or to even think the words, but abstractly he was aware that Kimi was right. That Nazarus was a traitor. He lowered his pulse rifle, then watched himself drop it to the floor.

"I'll go too." he said, but as he looked up again, Kimi was gone.

"Will?" said a voice quietly, approaching from his left.

He turned as Knight-Savant Raine entered the research lab, the scene twisting her face into a mask of utter shock and disbelief. She looked from one body to the next, then back and forth between them, as if a second or third look would reveal that this impossible scenario was some kind of illusion or cruel trick. She mouthed a silent inquiry, but wasn't able to voice the words.

"Savant Raine.", said Will, his expression of grief a mirror of her own. "I..."

WARNING! Thirty minutes until initiation of self-destruct protocol. All personnel must evacuate the facility immediately.

Raine shook her head. "There's no time. Save the story for the debriefing."

She tilted her face away from the massacre. "I hate to leave them here like this...but our obligation now is to the living."

"Yes, of course."

"Are you injured?"

Will shook his head.

"Then help me gather their ID tags, and we'll make our move for the exit."

A gruesome task. Will cringed, averting his gaze away from the empty eyes of the fallen cadets as he collected their identifications. The dead would have to be accounted for, and where it was impossible to present their bodies, the ID tags were the minimum requirement for the final report to be made to the Academy. But to the cadets' families, the little plastic and metal squares would be meaningless. Although it went against protocol, Will swore that he would personally face the families of his squadmates and tell them why they would never see their children again. It was this thought, even more than the sight of the bodies, that started to transform Will's sorrow into something darker. He would look back on this moment and remember it as the first time in his life that he experienced real hatred.

On their way out, Will and Raine practically crashed into the members of the Neutralization team. Their faces reflected a sense of urgency and dismay, but Will was glad just to see that they were alive.

"Jet...", said Lilith Capra breathlessly, then moving her hands frantically as if to gesture the rest of her sentence.

"Jet Aries activated the self-destruct sequence early", said Lena Solancer, "The rest of us were making digital archives of Black Atom's research and he slipped away without anyone noticing. The next thing we knew..."

WARNING! Twenty-seven minutes until initiation of self-destruct protocol...

Raine suddenly remembered Jet's outburst during the mission briefing and silently chastised herself for not being more careful, for not seeing the warning signs. Lena appeared to share her thoughts.

"Now that I think back on it...", said Lena, becoming visibly angry, "It should've been so obvious. That...that loser!"

"Where is Cadet Aries now?", asked Raine.

"Who knows. After he...did it...he climbed up and disappeared into the overhead infrastructure. I couldn't get a clear shot at him without risking the whole room coming down on top of us."

Jet was a part of this whole scheme, Will thought. His betrayal couldn't have been a coincidence. What advance information did he have? Who was he working with? Had someone planned for this mission to go so terribly wrong from the very beginning?

Will knew the answers to those questions, but wasn't ready to voice them to anyone. He still could barely acknowledge it himself.

Suddenly there was an explosion near the entrance to the facility. A mechanical soldier - identical to the ones Will had fought earlier - slid into the foyer on its back, its frame warped and smoking. Three more entered in a hurry, the last of which turned and started laying down cover fire. The sounds of a fullscale battle could be heard in the distance.

"What's going on!?", shouted Lilith frantically, "Who are they!?"

The question went unanswered. Will and Raine were already moving to attack. The situation became even more dire as two more drones entered the foyer from an intersecting passageway. This pair raised their weapons immediately - short range machine guns - and opened fire. This prompted two others to extend their beam swords and charge forward. Raine met the hail of gunfire with a 360 degree arc of her sword which, trailed by a frosty white mist, formed a makeshift barrier of ice to absorb the bullets. A follow-up slash downward and one of the advancing soldiers was caught up in a swath of orange flames racing across the floor. It reacted almost human-like, flailing in an attempt to extinguish itself, but within seconds one of its arms had wrapped around and fused to its head. It fell to the ground in a molten heap.

Will emptied both clips from his twin pistols into the faceplate and chest of one of the soldiers with the machine guns, literally severing its head and wedging its body into a corner of the room. Due to his overzealousness, however, he didn't have time to reload as another of the sword carriers converged on him. He prepared himself to evade or deflect the attack, but as the soldier raised its weapon, it suddenly stopped moving altogether. The silver and black of its armor rapidly changed to a rust-brown, a wave of corrosion starting at its chest and spreading outward to envelop its entire body within seconds.

Lilith Capra came out of nowhere, then, bringing the business end of her multipurpose wrench crashing down on top of the soldier's head. It all but crumbled to dust on impact. Will was then able to see Ark Christophe standing at the entrance, his staff glowing with the remnant of his recent invocation. The soldier that had been trying to cover the others lay at his feet, another brown and brittle ruin. Meanwhile, Raine had somehow closed the distance between her and the remaining gunner without being shot, and buried her sword hilt-deep into its chest. It continued to fire its weapon at her from close range, but there was only the harmless rattle of an empty cartridge. Staring purposefully into what she imagined were its eyes, Raine wrenched her sword free, cleaving its body wide from chestplate to helmet.

"This mission sure went to hell in a hurry.", said Ark humorously, although his face matched the seriousness of the situation.

"Who are they?", asked Raine, "Where did they come from?"

Ark shrugged. "No idea who they are, but their transports docked on the east and west sides of the island. We didn't see them until they came down on us in a full attack."

"How many?"

"At least twice our own numbers, but there could be more on standby in the transports."

"Where is Commander Nazarus?"

"He ran past me several minutes ago.", said Ark, "He told me to come back here and help the internal teams evacuate."

"Did he...say anything else?", ventured Will cautiously.

"Yeah.", said Ark, his expression falling, "He said...there may be casualties. So please tell me that there's another group right behind you."

Will didn't answer. Raine looked at him ruefully but didn't say anything, either.

"Did you see Kimi Vazraka?", he asked instead.

"Yeah, that chick is a beast.", said Ark, "I watched her cut down two of these robots with one stroke from each of her weapons without breaking stride. Then she blew right past me - I suspect she would've ran over me if I hadn't gotten out of the way. I guess she was going to back up Commander Nazarus."


Without warning, Will shoved past Ark and ran through the exit door. Raine reached out and started to call for him, but the words died in her throat.

"What the hell was that?" asked Ark, a bit frustrated at being pushed aside for the second time in short span.

"I'm not sure of all that happened," said Raine, "But..."

She pushed her Savant coat to the side to show Ark and the others the collection of ID tags attached to her belt. Ark bowed his head, his eyes disappearing under the brim of his hat, and his mouth tightened into a tense frown.

"No...", said Lilith, "You can't be serious..."

"W-wait a minute.", said Lena, "That's...that's my sister's ID."


Lena Solancer screamed so loud and so forcefully that you could almost hear her throat abrading. She collapsed to her knees, bending over and burying her face in her hands. The sheer volume of tears that poured from her eyes and between her fingers seemed impossible. Lilith knelt beside her and placed a hand on her back. Tears were falling down her cheeks as well.

"We'd better go after Will." said Ark, struggling to keep himself centered, "I can only imagine what happened, but he looked like someone in a hurry to get himself killed."

Raine nodded, then looked to Lilith and Lena. "Lilith, can you...?"

"I'll...take care of her.", the engineer said quietly.

"Be careful.", said Raine, "I'll send some of the security forces in here to help escort you out."

Then, with Ark in tow, she rushed through the exit to catch up with Will.

Meanwhile, the fighting between Academy forces and mechanical soldiers was in full swing outside the facility. A solitary figure remained disengaged from the fighting. Nazarus seemed oblivious to all the bullets and energy pulses whizzing by, and to the people and robots falling wounded, dead, or destroyed into the dirt all around him. Instead he walked with a brisk pace towards a quartet of expectant mechanical soldiers. He pulled the Black Atom plasma drive from the slot on his belt, and held it out for them to examine. One of the soldiers, smaller and sleeker than the others, stepped forward. Its chest plate opened down the middle, revealing an empty chassis, and Nazarus placed the cylinder inside. The compartment sealed itself again, and the machine's entire body flashed with the activation of some kind of energy barrier.

Suddenly, a shuriken flew over Nazarus's shoulder and buried itself in the faceplate of one of the mechanical soldiers. Only superficially damaged, the robot tilted its head to the side in a gesture that mimicked human curiosity. Nazarus gestured to the soldier quartet, and with the larger three protecting the courier, they set off towards the transports. Slowly and deliberately, Nazarus turned to find Kimi Vazraka, who had already lowered herself into a combat stance. His facial expression did not register the threat.

"Nazarus!", Kimi shouted, all her rage and pain causing her voice to crack.

"What?", asked Nazarus plainly, doing nothing to match her enthusiasm.

Kimi screamed, a shrill animalistic wail that suggested only one intention. She launched herself full-bodied at Nazarus. Propelling herself with such force, even were it not for the twin blades in her hands, she stood to inflict considerable damage. But as fast as Kimi was, Nazarus was much much faster. He went from being completely stationary to a blur of forward motion in less time than it took Kimi's mind to register that she had been struck. She was barely aware that her forward momentum had been violently reversed, and all of a sudden she was face down on the ground. An excruciating pain lanced outward from her abdomen - where Nazarus had charged and planted his shoulder - raced through her limbs, and rattled between her temples. Blood exploded from her mouth, pooling and mixing with the dirt.

It was several seconds longer before she was able to breathe. She just lay there for a moment, giving her mind time to process what had just happened. But then a large hand clasped around her neck, squeezing enough to hurt, but also hinting at a power that could crush her throat to a pulp. Nazarus lifted her from the ground in one motion and held her high in the air. She felt her entire body go numb all at once as he planted the other of his giant fists square against the base of her spine. Then he tossed her away like so much trash, and she landed in an awkward heap.

For what seemed like an eternity, she couldn't move at all. Her first thought, one that filled her with such horror that tears instantly started running down her face, was that she had been paralyzed. But then with considerable effort she was able to move the index and middle fingers of her right hand against the dirt. A few seconds later the feeling returned to her arms and legs and she rolled herself to her back. She craned her head up enough to see Nazarus standing about ten feet away, looking down at her with his arms folded across his chest.

"Do you fashion yourself a killer, Kimi?", asked Nazarus.

Kimi trembled with the effort of sitting up. She gritted her teeth and spit more blood onto the ground. She looked at Nazarus with an animosity that would've unraveled even a hardened soldier.

"You might be, against animals or monsters or robotic soldiers.", said Nazarus, "Maybe, on a day when you've learned true despair and felt genuine hatred, you could even kill a man.

But Miss Vazraka..." He shook his head, then gave her a look that sent icewater through her veins. " a demon!"

Nazarus's expression reverted to one of cold indifference, and he reached back to slide Chaos Law free from its harness. The separated pieces formed a line from the hilt, suspended in the air by an unnatural force.

"And to be able to kill a demon, is to know death intimately, to be able to look her in the face and feel...not fear, but reverence!

The black segments snapped together all at once with a heavy metal clang, forming a single, solid blade. The entire weapon resonated with a pale blue aura as Nazarus raised it to shoulder height.

Kimi was quite certain that his next movement would be the one that ended her life. But damned if he would kill her without any resistance. As Nazarus approached, she got back to her feet in a crouch, and with a last ditch surge of adrenaline she leapt backwards several yards. This, of course, did nothing to stop Nazarus's advance.

But then...Kimi did not want him to stop. Only at the last second did he notice the rune engraved in the dirt at his feet. And the trail of blood that spotted the ground between him and Kimi. She slammed her palm against the ground and her garments and hair were suddenly swept in the updraft of an unseen magical force. The pools of blood moved - like mercury under a magnet - to form five different shapes, runes that together spelled out a powerful invocation. The symbols changed from deep red to gleaming blue-white, and the ground along that path erupted as though something huge were trying to break free.

Nazarus half jumped and was half thrown twenty yards as the earth beneath his feet exploded. He landed in a three-point sprawl, staring across the field at Kimi with a mixture of anger and surprise. But then the anger faded and was replaced by an adrenaline-charged smile. Then his expression blurred with the sudden speed of his next charge, a trail of blue light from Chaos Law in his wake.

Then something unexpected happened. Nazarus stopped several yards short of Kimi, and the sword segments, seemingly of their own volition, began to revolve around his body at a high speed. In rapid succession three silver objects flew at Nazarus from an unknown location, but the ring of blades tilted appropriately to deflect them. Then Knight-Savant Raine literally flew onto the scene, clearing Kimi's head as she descended upon Nazarus with a ferocious overhead swing of her sword. There was a repeated clanging sound as the segments of Chaos Law snapped at Raine's blade, but as the strength of her swing cleared their defense, Nazarus was forced to leap backwards to evade.

"So...even you would turn against me?", he asked.

Raine said nothing, her only response an authoritative swing of her sword, followed by a combat stance. And then Will Ramses was there as well, taking up a protective position in front of Kimi, lining up the barrel of a small-calber submachine gun. It was then that the burden of Kimi's injuries caught up with her. The last thing she remembered before losing consciousness was a whirlwind of blades as Raine met Nazarus's charge, more than adequately deflecting and returning his attacks.

Chaos law fluidly and rapidly toggled between solid, whip, and spinning ring states, as Nazarus sought an opening in her defenses. He found it when Raine risked a powerful thrust, only to have him slip aside and snatch her by the wrist. He yanked her close, forcefully planted her sword into the ground, and threw his weight behind a ferocious elbow that slammed against her right shoulder. She lost her grip on the sword as the impact knocked her backwards, but managed to keep her feet. However, the wet popping sound and surge of pain running up and down her side let her know that her sword arm had been dislocated. Nazarus came again from her weak side, looking to do nothing less than chop her arm off completely this time.

But Raine was nothing if not resourceful. She lunged and pulled her sword out of the ground with her left hand, and with no break in continuity, spun clockwise to unleash a powerful backhand slash. The move was so quick and unpredictable that only by virtue of lightning reflexes did Nazarus escape a nasty blow to the head. The tip of Raine's blade opened a shallow gash from cheek to cheek across the bridge of his nose. He immediately raised a hand to the wound and took a few steps backwards. When he uncovered it, the lower half of his face was soaked in blood, as though he had just finished gorging himself on a live animal. He ran the back of his hand across his mouth and smiled perversely.

Then Ark Christophe was there, coming up to cover Raine on her injured side. That's about when Nazarus noticed that a relative calm had settled across the island. The sound of gunfire and weapons clashing and shouts of pain or triumph had almost faded completely. And now at least five more knights and cadets were converging on his location - as the obvious place where all the action was. Nazarus briefly considered killing them all.

And he could. But it would be little more than an exercise in pride, and he wasn't so vainglorious as that. Besides, this mission had never been about killing his own so much as severing ties and starting along a new path. He raised his right hand, the runic markings along his arm glowing an electric blue. Every knight and cadet tensed visibly, either raising their weapons or preparing to fend off whatever was coming. But when the shards of Chaos Law began spinning behind him in a wide circle, each firing a sustained bolt of fuchsia and lavender, and forming a crackling knot of energy at the center, only Ark reacted knowingly.

"He's trying to escape!"

"No, Mr. Christophe.", said Nazarus, "I have escaped."

A shroud of energy surged into being to fill the circle formed by the spinning blades. Nazarus took two steps backwards and half of his body disappeared into the portal, purplish flames leaping out from the surface and licking at him expectantly.

Will Ramses charged forward several steps and slid into position in front of the others, his gun raised, his posture perfect. Up until that point he hadn't said or done anything, and except to be aware of his presence, Nazarus had intentionally avoided acknowledging him. But now he had no choice.

"Wait...Nazarus.", said Will.

His tone wasn't accusatory. It was a rare moment when Will wore his emotions on his face, and there were so many there - sorrow, betrayal, anger, doubt, and confusion - that Nazarus couldn't distinguish them.

"Are you really —"

"You know I am."

The response came so quickly that Nazarus must've known the question before Will asked it. And if the words weren't enough...

"Will, get down!", said a voice behind him.

Nazarus shoved a glowing fist forward, blue flames gathering then surging forth in a large cluster. Will was thrown from his feet and spun around, his mind reeling from pain caused by the heat and the force of the impact. His gun - which had taken the brunt of the damage - landed in pieces all around him, warped and smoking. All eyes widened and moved to where he fell, and in that moment time seemed to stand still.

Except for Nazarus, who used the diversion finalize his escape. He glanced down at Will maybe for a heartbeat, then the roiling flames swallowed him. The segments of Chaos Law were sucked into the center, and the portal collapsed upon itself, disappearing in a small flash of white light.

And just like that, Nazarus had finally and decisively disassociated himself with the Knights Academy. Raine, in spite of her injuries, would prove herself an able leader, gathering all the remaining students aboard the transports. Will Ramses would recover fully from his physical injuries, but something else inside of him had been damaged permanently.

As the transports fled the island, the self-destruct countdown finished behind them. The offshore laboratory exploded, leaving the island littered with flaming wreckage and smoke erupting into the noon sky. All accounted for, the Academy had lost fourteen knights and cadets in what would henceforth be known as the Black Atom Disaster. And they lost another, as Nazarus - once the institution's finest student, soldier, and teacher - had just become its greatest enemy. It was the death rattle of the peaceful era following the Etherium Wars - a peace that Nazarus himself had won for the world - and truly an omen of dark times to come...

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