As the blue-green moons gazed down impassively on the world called Merivan, Celebrand and his group followed the Diamond Sect and soon came upon a rocky cavern. The Dominator called 3452 stretched out one long arm, pointing at the dark mouth of the cave.
Celebrand nodded and gestured his men forward. “Gardner, Binder, secure the perimeter. Alert us if anyone comes near the cavern. We don’t want to be cut off from the outside,” he said. “Kasmir, you are the expert on stealth. Take the lead.”
Kasmir drew his ornate dagger and disappeared into the darkness, moving swiftly and quietly.
Celebrand led the others inside. He trusted the Diamond Sect for reasons he could not explain. He felt as if by pure instinct that they could be relied upon. This type of intuition went back to his days as a pupil on Titan at the Mind Institute. He was not a native, of course, but he had learned certain mental disciplines on that world. He felt that his instincts could be trusted. This type of thing made him more uncomfortable with the fleet, because policy often precluded his kind of decision-making.
Soon, they found themselves looking down on a huge chamber that opened up from the narrow entranceway to expand into a opening that held a larger group of Dominators.
Celebrand whispered to his allies, “We have them. It looks like there are around twenty of them. Conventional weaponry can be seen from here. We need to catch them by surprise. Move swiftly, and remember to kill only as a last resort. They are valuable to us for the data they may have.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” said Haymar. “We’ll do you proud.” He raised an energy rifle and said, “At your command?”
Celebrand nodded, and they moved closer to the group. The Diamond Sect Dominators had drawn their own weapons as well. Celebrand had returned their weapons to them before they entered the cavern. They quickly surrounded the larger group and charged into battle.
Kasmir had stabbed a sentry in the back and had removed him from the immediate area. The Dominators were caught completely off-guard.
Celebrand saw Valentina Armorr fire a laser blaster with precise aim. She brought down the nearest two Dominators before rolling across the floor to take shelter behind a rock formation. He fired his own gun and drove back a Dominator who was running out of places to hide. Celebrand was a good shot, but he knew he lacked the woman’s skill.
Haymar fired directly into the roof of the cavern and smiled coldly as rocks showered down on top of the tightly clustered enemy Dominators.
Kasmir was nowhere to be seen, but the stealthy thief worked best from the shadows.
No one could miss Wolf Behbach as he roared and brought his Persuader down with brutal force.
As he saw the thug turn the ax against one of the Diamond Sect Dominators, Celebrand thought, He’s completely out of control. He can’t be trusted. I knew it! “Stop it, Wolf!” he yelled as he kicked another Dominator aside and saw the Diamond Sect group try to fight their way back to help their fallen brother.
Wolf ignored them all, using the ancient ax to slice open the very atmosphere above the nearest Dominators.
They choked in pain and fell to the ground, even as the rip in space sealed itself again, as Wolf panted in pleasure, standing over their bodies. Grinning, he glanced left and right in search of more victims.
Boltux and the others had managed to contain the Dominators and forced them to surrender. The young soldier was clearly shocked by Wolf’s conduct. He was uncertain how to respond, and he looked desperately for some sign from his commander.
Celebrand noticed the victory, such as it was, but he made no statement and gave no orders. Instead, he tackled Wolf Behbach and began to wrestle the Persuader out of his grasp. “Behbach, you vicious butcher!” he yelled. “You won’t understand what you’ve done. You won’t care about official reproach. Maybe you’ll learn from a simple beating!” He was not as strong as his foe, and he certainly lacked the other man’s savage nature. He drew upon his skills in various martial arts, but mainly he merely wrestled with the brute and tried to keep the Persuader from entering the fight.
“Ha! You’re more than a coward! I never would have guessed it of you,” said Wolf as he tried to turn the long-handled ax around to cut the man.
Celebrand said nothing as he struggled with his enemy. He no longer saw the cavern nor heard the cries of his soldiers. He only saw a red haze as his anger took over, and he fought for his life. He groaned and ripped the ax out of Behbach’s hands.
It clattered across the floor of the cavern, and Haymar reached out for it. He yelped in pain as Valentina’s high-heeled boot crashed down on his hand.
“Stay out of it. This is between the two of them,” she said. Haymar rubbed his hand and scowled as she eased him away from the battling pair.
Celebrand punched Wolf in the nose. He darted back and connected again and again. Still, Behbach was made of hardy stock, and he continued to fight back. He clawed at Celebrand’s eyes and rammed a knee into his stomach.
Gasping, Celebrand began to choke the bigger man until slowly, in spite of his best efforts, Wolf broke his grip and knocked him flat. “Give me the Persuader, or I’ll kill you!” he cried as he turned to Valentina.
She grabbed the ax, hesitating for a moment. She saw Celebrand try to rise from the cave floor, only to fall back down again. She raised the ax and hurled it out of the cavern. “Go claim it, but leave us!” she shouted. “You aren’t wanted here anymore!”
Wolf scowled and rubbed his hands together nervously. “OK, you win! I’m heading for the mining colonies, anyway,” he said. “A guy can really get some action there.” He walked off and retrieved the gleaming ax. He turned around and stared at the group before walking away into the night.
Boltux helped Celebrand to his feet and took stock of the situation. “The terrorists have surrendered, but the Diamond Sect departed during the fight,” he explained slowly. “The woman said her people would fight alone. They could not trust allies like us.”
Celebrand rubbed his aching head and cursed. “If we could have gained their trust, perhaps they could have helped us end the Dominion border wars for good. Now, if they choose to work alone, they may never achieve their goal of toppling the current caste.”
“You truly cared about ending the conflict,” remarked Valentina. “It’s not just business or duty to you.” She placed one hand on his face and leaned closer. “You are a good man. You don’t belong with the fleet. I hope you find what you’re searching for out there. I think I’m going to go to Japan. I’d like to pit my skills against a certain felon I’ve heard about from those parts.”
He kissed her once, and then she was gone. Celebrand turned to Boltux and said, “Take them in. You are in command. I’m leaving.”
“But — Captain Celebrand, sir, you are in command,” cried Boltux.
Celebrand ripped the insignia off of his fleet jacket and tossed it aside. “Not any longer,” he said. “I resign from the Space Fleet. I’m not a captain anymore. I’m just Celebrand.”
“You can’t just quit like that!” said Gardner.
“I just did,” said Celebrand, shrugging. “I never really belonged to the Space Fleet, anyway. I always felt like an outsider. I need to do something else. I need to find allies with my kind of values. I don’t believe in any system that continues a senseless border dispute when peace could be reached under different measures. I think a small group of likeminded nomadic individuals could do more good for people than the outdated and sometimes-corrupt U.P. Fleet.”
Boltux ran over to him and said, “Wait! Admiral Allon will order your arrest!”
Celebrand shook his head. “This mission was to be my last. He knew that. I’ve chosen to abort it a bit earlier than he expected, that’s all. Allon is a good man. He knows I did my best. I saved his life once on Earth’s Moon, of all places. He’ll fix things for me. I know I can rely on him for that.” He walked into the darkness and left the soldiers, the captured Dominators, and Haymar and Kasmir behind him.
Kasmir said, “If I can make a good sum from helping the desert people, I’ll take it and finance a few schemes I’ve been hatching. The woman was right. I’m a thief, not a soldier.”
Haymar smiled and said, “I think I may just leave as well. Maybe I can get Valentina to team up with me. If not, well, there’s always piracy!”
Celebrand did not hear them. He was deep in thought, and he was oddly optimistic. He did not know where his journey would take him, but he was determined to forge a brighter future for himself and for others.