Chapter 1: To Fight Another Day
Prince Ahya laid eyes upon his kingdom for the first time and was desperate to escape it.
He observed his people blissful yet enslaved, with no will of their own and refused to let the same fate befall the Earth. That was why, despite the grandeur of the kingdom before him, the prince could not obey his king, Grigori Geist. It was Dietrich Schmidt, the prince's only ally, who had convinced him that he could be more than an instrument of destruction; but rather, a freer of the enslaved. It would begin with an escape from the city, the exposure of Geist to the outside world, and the rallying of allies to their cause.
The prince surveyed the city of Regnum Aeturnum, a megalopolis of over one hundred million people, built from a round, basin-shaped cavern excavated beneath the continent of Antarctica. Gleaming towers, temples, ramparts, and terraces sprang from the city floor, while Aether, a second city, hung from the cavern ceiling above. This suspended series of towers comprised a glowing ceiling of blue-white light imitating the true sky, far above, that Prince Ahya had never witnessed.
Ahya the meaning of the prince's name was never given to him, nor could he discern it. Frustrated, the prince stood on an open air balcony on the lower levels of the Great Spire, an hourglass-shaped fortress of gleaming white quartz that lay in the center of Regnum Aeturnum, and the only structure that reached both cavern floor and ceiling. The Great Spire had been the prince's home for the entirety of his young life.
In the solitude of the balcony, the prince watched and waited for his opportunity. Ahead of him, the Jupiter Terrace the primary road of the city stretched out from the base of the Great Spire toward the castle-like Gate of Ishtar, twenty-eight miles away. It was a dangerous gauntlet to run. In his youth and inexperience, the prince was not at the height of his power, nor did he expect Geist to simply let him leave. Despite the peculiar sensation of doubt creeping from his chest to the ends of his limbs, the prince had to try. Until he succeeded, millions of citizens would remain Geist's puppets.
The prince spoke aloud with resolve in his voice. "Is it time?"
A quiet, slightly hoarse voice answered, heard only by the prince. "It is."
At this, the prince leapt over the railing of the terrace, falling hundreds of feet below and sliding along the base of the Great Spire as it leveled off toward the ground. Such a fall did not faze the prince, for he was not made of flesh and blood, but of metal and circuitry his sixty-foot body adorned in shining plates of gray armor, sculpted as like broad human muscles. As the prince sprinted from the Great Spire to the Jupiter Terrace, his glowing red eyes burned with determination like Dietrich, he wished not only to escape Geist, but to one day defeat him.
Within the prince's chest, in lieu of a heart, were human quarters, where Dietrich Schmidt sat uneasily in a leather armchair. A ponderous, kind, gentle man on the verge of his seventies, Dietrich appeared the slightly mad scientist at first glance: disheveled white hair and wrinkles spanned a pale face of sagging brown eyes, ears, and nose, his tired body draped with a white coat over a black shirt and slacks. His meager appearance belied the fact that he, not Grigori Geist, was the true architect of Regnum Aeturnum.
Around Dietrich, the room's sparse furniture and shelving remained still, even as the prince darted amongst shining towers, hoping to avoid the armies now searching for them. In front of Dietrich was a three dimensional image, a map of Regnum Aeturnum; a miniature model of the prince appeared in white upon the display, and Dietrich nervously watched as hundreds of gray dots lit up around their position.
"How many has he sent?" the prince asked anxiously.
"Nearly every Protector-class division."
Dietrich activated a switch on the chair's armrest, and as the 3D display dissolved, every surface in his quarters became a projection of the view outside the prince. He disliked the Vigil display it had always given him motion sickness and nausea now gripped him at the sight of Regnum Aeturnum.
Unable to watch the rapid passing of scenery, Dietrich focused straight ahead on the Gate of Ishtar, which now seemed even farther away than it was from the Great Spire. He wondered where Geist was at that moment; the tyrant had no doubt waited for the prince to reveal himself, and now he unleashed an army of vaucans upon them.
It was this vaucan race that had been Dietrich's greatest creation, and although the prince was intended to be the seventh and final of the archvaucans, leaders of the vaucan race and generals in war, the newly created prince's powers had barely developed. Dietrich's treachery had been exposed, however, leading to this desperate gambit.
Within seconds, the first wave of five hundred vaucans took flight from all directions to chase the prince as he dashed across the silver Jupiter Terrace, between the colossal towers of Invidia to his left and the amusement region of Promenade to the right. The silver-clad, thirty-foot vaucans split into squadrons of twenty, fell into phalanx formations resembling massive arrowheads and closed in on the prince. These sentient, humanoid assassins were both numerous and dangerous, the thick armor of their carbon nanofiber bodies, like the prince's, mimicking powerful human musculature.
The vaucan squadrons flew above the prince as he dashed forward, each footfall far more agile than the pursuers half his size. As vaucans descended upon them, Dietrich observed the distinct insignia upon their shoulders, denoting their Protector class, Geist's homeland infantry.
Powerful, short bursts of laser fire opened up above the prince, who deftly anticipated and dodged past the flashes of deadly light. Dietrich tried to remain calm, though the gate ahead seemed unreachable. Yet still, the prince advanced.
Far ahead, dark shapes amassed on the terrace, and more still rallied at the Ishtar Gate, fifteen miles away. All of them trained their weaponry on the prince and prepared to open fire.
"I can make it to the gate," the prince said, dodging laser fire from behind, "but I fear it is too well defended to pass through."
"Not if you're at your best," Dietrich countered, deactivating the Vigil and queuing up a wireframe hologram of the city that emitted from his chair. He was no pilot or war hero, but only he knew what the prince was capable of. The tactical display in front of Dietrich registered the prince as one white dot amidst a sea of gray; in Dietrich's wildest dreams, the prince could eventually overcome even these odds, but every fiber in his being told him that it was too soon, that the prince wasn't ready.
Before Dietrich could offer any course of action, a cold, authoritative voice filled the quarters around Dietrich.
"My lord," said Dyne, the Protector Supreme, "I have held back my division's artillery at the gate out of respect. This is your last chance to relent without punishment."
The prince halted as Dyne blocked his path. Clad in gray, with large white paulders upon his shoulders, and nearly as impressive as the prince in stature, Dyne held his powerful arm up, ready to call forth the gathered legion of vaucans that grew with each passing moment.
"Prince Ahya," Dyne declared formally, "Dr. Schmidt has sabotaged you and your six archvaucan lieutenants. Surrender him to us now, and all shall be forgiven."
The prince said nothing, and Dietrich sighed through gritted teeth. Around him, human faces now stared up at the prince and the vaucan assault force both on and above the Jupiter Terrace. Do they even want to be set free? Dietrich considered.
"Ahya! You must decide where your allegiances lie," Dyne asserted.
Dietrich opened a communication channel on his chair's command panel and spoke aloud to Dyne. "Would you destroy me, Dyne? Your own creator?"
"As my creator, you know my allegiance is always to Regnum Aeturnum."
"So is mine, but to its people," Dietrich answered. "Not to a tyrant. What lies has Geist told you?"
Dyne's face lowered to a glare. "You are a traitor and a saboteur."
Dietrich chose his parting words carefully. "Our fight is not with you," he reasoned. "I made you to be more than just an enforcer for the wicked."
Dietrich closed communications and fixed his eyes again upon the Ishtar Gate. As vaucans continued to swarm around them a ray of hope dawned upon him; the more their attackers used their powers to stop the prince, the quicker he adapted to and acquired those abilities. Could it save us now?
"Fly," Dietrich urged the prince.
"Doctor, I cannot yet"
"You know as well as I that Geist will not stop at ruling over one continent," Dietrich warned. "If we have any chance of stopping him, you have to try."
The prince hesitated. "Understood."
Dyne waited as the prince stepped forward slowly, anticipating his prince's surrender. But the prince broke into a run, and just as he closed in on Dyne, he suddenly leapt upward and stayed aloft, as budding wings extended upon his back, soaring in the open air for the first time.
"Well done," Dietrich said, astonished and relieved.
Dyne signaled the withering assault upon his general. Around the prince's body, laser light again danced through the air, but it was sparse; the vaucans hadn't expected such an audacious act.
"Your Prometheus system is providing enough energy for sustained flight," Dietrich said, studying the prince's power levels. "Now, let's test your Taxis ability."
"It grieves me to strike my own brethren," the prince admitted.
"And I, as well. When Geist is defeated, I will restore them."
Over a hundred yards away, a platoon of fifty aerial vaucans crossed the prince's path, flying at him in close V-formation. Holding out his outstretched right hand toward them, the prince activated Taxis, exerting an invisible, kinetic force upon the squadron and forcing their formation into a single file column. The prince then seized a nearby vaucan with his left hand, and plunged his fist through the vaucan's midsection.
Readying himself, the prince used the fallen vaucan as a battering ram and launched forward at the others, still constricted into a thin column. With a deafening series of collisions, the prince slammed into the line of vaucans, who each fell one by one like dominos onto the terrace below, and he resumed course for the gate.
Behind them, more vaucan forces rose from the depths of the fortress region of Arx, on the far side of the Great Spire, and rapidly closed in. Although he had successfully tested his Taxis ability, the prince's chances of escape were rapidly deteriorating in the face of Geist's strength in numbers.
Dietrich faced the heavy fortifications upon the Gate of Ishtar in despair. The prince could not hope to fend off the forces surrounding them now. In spite of all his intellect, Dietrich's haste to escape had put them both in mortal danger.
"I'm afraid I've set you up to fail," Dietrich admitted, as the prince was grazed by a laser blast from the gate ahead.
"I am here of my own volition, Doctor," the prince replied, and despite their dire situation, Dietrich appreciated the resolve of his greatest creation.
Encouraged by his expanding array of abilities, the prince increased his speed, outmaneuvering the squadrons behind him while he careened straight toward the cannons upon the gate.
"What is so important about Geist's target, the man called Brian Renney?" asked the prince, deflecting the incoming laser volley from the gate into a hapless vaucan.
"I do not know, but Geist and his Camarilla must fear him, if they ordered you to carry out his murder. We've got to find Renney at any cost."
The prince sped toward the Ishtar Gate, evading lasers and explosions from all directions. He could feel himself growing stronger with each passing moment, leaving his pursuers behind, and Dietrich gazed urgently at the open gate ahead, so close now
Without warning, artillery shells erupted from the gate's cannons, exploding in front of the prince before he could evade them, and they dispersed a shimmering cloud that enveloped him. Within moments, the effect became clear. The nanites that Dietrich used to construct the vaucan race had been weaponized, now a poisonous vapor that began to eat at the prince's armor. The power he drew from Regnum Aeturnum was fading, leeched from his body by the mist, and his body grew numb.
Dietrich could see the end coming before the prince did. But there was still a glimmer of hope; to their right, Promenade's borders had little vaucan presence, for they saw no tactical advantage for the prince there. Dietrich did, however: Promenade's dense tree canopy and lush foliage a sharp contrast from the city's gleaming terraces and towers would provide ample cover, if only for a precious few seconds, for him to form a plan. They just had to make it there.
Struggling to stay aloft, the prince was struck in the back by a laser blast, and for the first time he felt a sensation akin to human pain, as the nanite mist crippled him. Dietrich could see on the display that the prince's internal functions were turning against each other. For a moment, Dietrich resigned himself to the prince's likely fate his free will would be erased just as the citizens below, forced to obey Geist and commit unparalleled atrocities. As the prince's descent quickened, the Protector-class vaucans crept around him, encircling him like vultures.
Dietrich left his chair with great difficulty, as the prince's weakening functions destabilized the quarters around him, which shook violently. Reaching a small control console hidden on the front wall of the room, Dietrich hurriedly input a series of commands upon it, enacting a safeguard he had built into every archvaucan. With enough time, Dietrich could protect the prince's sentience even if captured, but he had only seconds
"What are you doing?" the prince asked weakly, plummeting further.
"Trying to protect you from Geist," Dietrich answered. "There are ducts by the terrace that lead to Lupercal, under the city. I can hide there and devise a plan."
"But I must protect you, Doctor."
"You've done more than enough, my friend," Dietrich assured, as a red light blinked upon the console; he need only input a voice-activated trigger.
Before Dietrich could speak, a cry from the prince warned him to brace himself, and Dietrich clamored for his chair and activated the emergency harness, causing cushioned braces to extend from the seat around his waist and chest. The crash came sooner, and harder, than Dietrich anticipated. His harness had not fully deployed, and though it took the brunt of the impact, Dietrich was still flung across the room, slamming into the front wall by the console and crumpling to the floor.
How long he lay there, Dietrich couldn't guess. Thoughts swam in his mind, about his first days in that doomed place, about Grigori Geist and his grand promises that had deceived Dietrich. All of his achievements had since been shaped for evil purposes, and only too late did he decide to act the regret needling him as he lay there.
Dietrich tried to move, even as pain shot through his head and blood gurgled in his mouth, but it was nothing compared to Geist's wrath. From the awful silence, a quiet voice dispelled his fears: This is not how you are supposed to die, it said to him, in the voice of his wife, Helen, whom Dietrich had left behind to chase achievement and fame with Geist. It was her memory that had compelled Dietrich to escape with the prince, and her voice offered him comfort. Voice
Willing himself to stand, Dietrich swayed clumsily back to the hidden panel where he had been working, and he uttered into the panel's sensors one simple code, a saying of Helen's that honored her memory and insulted Geist's pride in his own power:
"He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak."
With the encryption finished, he prepared to depart
"Doctor you must go. You must not be captured," Dietrich heard suddenly, and he froze with compassion; there was fear in the prince's voice.
"I will come back for you," Dietrich promised with wet eyes.
As Dietrich sealed the hidden panel upon the wall, he felt the prince crawling forward on his hands and knees. Reaching the escape hatch upon the Prince's chest, Dietrich grasped its latch and pulled. Amazingly, the mechanical hatch still opened, revealing that the prince had indeed reached Promenade, not far from the hundred-foot steel wall that led up to the Jupiter Terrace. At its base, only several yards away, was a vaucan-sized service entrance.
Lowering himself down carefully from the prince's chest to the forest floor, wincing with every step, Dietrich heard vaucans closing in from above, his view obscured by the towering trees around him. Hurriedly, Dietrich hobbled toward the open passageway, passing through it without looking back, too anguished to watch the prince's capture. As the service entrance door slid closed behind him, explosions met his ears, along with shouts of surprise and blows being landed the prince was making his last stand, buying him time to flee. Immensely thankful, Dietrich limped down the dark passage, following a track of red lights along the floor to a service hatch and ladder, which descended into a larger cavern meant for the ten-foot Proletariat-class vaucans that maintained the city.
Struggling upon ladder rungs and through cold passages for what seemed like hours, Dietrich descended further, glancing over his shoulder and listening for any sign of pursuit. A little further, and he would reach Lupercal a series of interconnected tunnels carved into the Earth's mantle that snaked through the foundations of Regnum Aeturnum. The technological paradise of above did not reach Lupercal; it was nearly inhospitable for humans and lower vaucan classes due to its unforgiving heat.
When he had at last passed from metal passages to warm, jagged rock, Dietrich collapsed in the recess of an infernal tunnel, devoid of strength. If any vaucans had hunted him this far, he had nothing left to give. Yet Dietrich could hardly afford to recover. He had to reach the one place where the prince would be held: the Genesis Chamber, the lowest level of the Great Spire, where the archvaucans and all their brethren had been created. If Dietrich could get there in time, he could still rescue the prince.
Dietrich laid his head upon the crude, earthen floor, utterly miserable. The outside world did not know that its freedom now hung by the thinnest of threads. They had to be warned, but rest was now most important. Strength had left Dietrich as he lay upon unforgiving ground, exhausted and in despair, and he thought of the only man whom Geist feared.
"If he can save us," he prayed feebly into the dark, "please protect Brian Renney."
Dietrich drifted into fitful sleep, uncertain about his survival and the outcome of his actions. Yet his act of rebellion would lead to a lasting freedom even greater than he could imagine one that would last forever.