Excerpt from Keltan's Gambit
|Art by Michael Lam 2014|
Nero rounded the corner of the building, and paused by the wounded maw of the noodle shop before casting his eyes further down the edifice towards a neon sign. “The Wall” glowed in angry-looking Solan letters. Below the sign an Achinoi with a tall Mohawk of quills sat on a tall stool, staring into the e-pad held in his clawed hands. To his side, three meters away, a group of non-humans stood chuckling and conversing with each other while they puffed away at short pipes hanging from their lips. Each was a giant towering over the Achinoi. Nero estimated they could probably touch the second floor of the building with their three-digit hands just by reaching up. They had bulging forearms out of proportion with the rest of their limbs, and triple-jointed legs attached to elongated torsos. They wore blue armor as the shorter, big-eyed species did, but had their helmets off. Their faces were smooth, white, and capped by dark, rough scalps trailing rubbery cables to their shoulders. Two eyes flanked a thick, nasal bulge with six nostrils on the sides like the holes in a flute. Their mouths were small with thin lips, and each seeped puffs of smoke between draws on their pipes.
Nero took a deep breath of the frosty air and leaned against the building, watching from the shadows while the three exchanged jibes and made a popping, hoarse sound he assumed was laughter. One of them touched the shoulder of another and pointed at him. All three turned their heads, as did the Achinoi.
Damn it, he thought.
“You, human!” The voice of the soldier was deep, echoing thickly accented Solan across the lot of parked cars. “Come here!”
Damn it, he thought again. This wasn’t supposed to be a combat mission. Without Prospero he wasn’t sure he could take the three giants in a fight without a firearm. His high-frequency knife was tucked into his right boot, but they were armored. Just my luck, he thought with some bitterness as he walked towards the entrance of the club. He could feel the beat of the music in his chest. Eerie, electronic melodies muffled by the dark doors assailed his ears. The soldiers were taller up close, averaging a meter above his own height. He hadn’t felt so small since his meeting with Irin the Savorchan in the Kosfantari Biodome. Over each of their shoulders pointed the coiled nozzle of a rifle, and he noted a dark-gray pistol holstered on their hips.
“You are out past curfew, human. Show your pass.” One of the three took a step forward, shoving his breastplate in Nero’s face. It was strangely formed, having two pairs of lumps across the top third of it, and a flexible sleeve at the waist connecting to the plates covering his wide pelvis. Strange, gold characters were embedded over each lump, and the style varied among the three individuals.
“I must have forgotten it,” he answered, looking up at each one of them in turn. Two had blue, four-pointed irises, but the eyes of the one challenging him were hazel and had a gleam to them Nero knew meant he was in for it.
“Forgot your pass?” The two blue-eyed soldiers moved to flank him.
“I can go back and get it.” Nero gestured behind him.
“Too late for that, human. We’ll have to make an example of you, now. We can’t have the others thinking our rules don’t mean anything.”
He glanced at the Achinoi as the three closed on him. The four eyes across his brow gleamed in the dim light and the quills on his shoulders rattled as he shook his head.
“Okay, I see how it is,” Nero said. “How about I buy you all a drink inside and no one gets hurt?”
They laughed with that popping, croaking sound. He took a step back, sizing up the way they moved, and what the apparent bulk of their armor might mean about their musculature. It didn’t look good.
“Are you sure there isn’t anything I can do for you three?”
The one on Nero’s right leaned in and thrust a fist at his head. Reflexes took over and he ducked under the blow, stepping into it so the Brogh’s fist past by his ear. He popped up, putting fist to abdomen with all of his artificial muscle’s might. The blow caused the air to rush from the soldier’s mouth. Nero half-turned with his arm up to deflect a blow from the second or third Brogh, but the first, who had stumbled back a step after his punch, thrust a kick into his ribs. He staggered back a few steps from the force of the blow, then took another step back with his eyes on his three opponents.
“Quicker than I thought,” he muttered, rubbing his side and wishing Prospero were online to dilate his time-perception.
The next attack came from the one on his left. The Brogh swept in with a hooking high punch while the one next to him attacked with a stiff jab at his gut. Nero swayed back, causing the first punch to miss his nose by centimeters, and swept his arm down to block the second. He felt it connect with his forearm and used the contact to trigger his own counter punch, stepping in and thrusting his fist down towards the flexible armor in the center Broghite’s upper knee. He felt the hard joint bend and shift beneath his knuckles and heard the loud cry from its owner before the third soldier kicked him. He took it on the chest and rolled back with it. Turning most of the force into backward momentum, he tumbled out of their considerable reach. He let the roll carry him to his feet and stepped back, feeling the edge of one of the parked air-cars on the back of his knee.
This is a lot harder without Prospero. He wished he’d paid more heed to his SCC nagging him about endurance training.
“I don’t suppose you want to talk this out?” he said between pants as they closed in again.
One of them circled around to the side while the other two lunged forward. Nero jumped up onto the hood of the vehicle behind him, keeping his fists up in guard when he landed. The first Broghite came at him high and he ducked with the bounce of the car while the second came in low with a punch. The first attack missed. The second he blocked with a painful jolt to his forearm—and something hit the back of his head hard enough to black his vision out. His body flopped to the asphalt with a grunt.
Nero got to his knees and looked up, rubbing the back of his head as his vision returned. The third Broghite was holding a rifle with the stock end pointed outward. There was a broad grin on his thin-lipped mouth.
“No fair, that’s cheating,” Nero said.
-Excerpt from Keltna's Gambit, by Michael Formichelli