Chapter 42: On the Road
1.9k 16 105
Reading Options
Font Size
A- 15px A+
Table of Contents
Loading... please wait.

Check out my Patreon account to support me and read up to Chapter 45 now!

Eight minutes and thirty-three seconds after bidding farewell to Prison 09 once and for all, Athena found herself speeding through the desert in a lone hellion. The nuclear weapon was set to go off 10 minutes after she left. It was more than enough time for Athena to escape the blast radius.

Her current destination was Storm’s City, the city she and Adrianna were heading to before they were interrupted by the gunshots from the small town. After leaving the prison, she contacted Dash and confirmed that Adrianna and her two marine bodyguards had arrived at the city not long ago unscathed.

There was quite a distance between Prison 09 and Storm’s City, and Athena knew she wouldn’t be able to cover the entire distance in the hellion. If the adjutant was right, and it tended to be, only a fraction of the distance was in the deserts. As fast as hellions were, they would obviously catch a lot of attention out in the open. Athena had no intention of capturing a top-secret Decima military base without much fuss, only to get into a high-speed car chase with Decima traffic cops.

Still, until she reached more populated areas, Athena could have some fun in the hellion, and having fun was exactly what she did. To be honest, she had grown to like the Terran rapid reconnaissance vehicle. It was so much faster than the used car she bought and drove back on Earth, and there was something about pressing the gas pedal to the floor and speeding through an empty desert that was just so satisfying.

As she was driving, Athena suddenly received a psychic communication request from Doctor Vincent. After being taken over by the neural parasite and being transformed into an asset of the Swarm, the doctor gained a similar psychic connection to Athena as the other Zerg units had.

“My Queen. Is this a good time?” Doctor Vincent asked. The infestation had changed her loyalties, but it kept most of the woman’s personalities intact. A Zerg queen like Kir would never ask a question like this.

“Yes,” Athena scanned her surroundings and saw nothing but miles and miles of desert. More often than not no ordinary civilian would have reason to be here. Driving and texting was wrong, but were psychic messages really the same as text messages? “Speak.”

“I have returned to the Decima positions. I was asked about what I know about the incident in the facility, and I gave them an edited version of the truth.”

“Were you held responsible for the loss of the facility?”

“No, my Queen. While I was the facility overseer, the defense of the facility was the responsibility of Colonel Rikers. I still have the full trust of my superiors.” The doctor’s voice was a little shaken before she continued her betrayal of her beloved kingdom and all those who put their faith in her. “I have just had a quick meeting with General Thero. He is my superior…”

“General Anton Thero of the Decima Royal Court. Chief overseer of Project Guardian. I know. I saw the files. What happened in the meeting?”

“General Thero informed me that he had dispatched three regiments from the Royal Guard to Prison 09. They will arrive at the facility in around 15 minutes.”

“15 minutes? Counting from now?”

“Yes, my Queen.” The doctor’s voice was strained. She could hear the disbelief in Athena’s voice, and she knew why. If this was the reaction time of the Imperials, she might be tempted to laugh to, but this was the forces of the nation she loved so much.

“Even with security concerns, this is absurd. What is taking them so long?”

“General Thero believed that in no circumstance should units of the Royal Legion be deployed to the site of Project Guardian. Only the Royal Guard could be somewhat trusted, and there are no units of the Decima Royal Guard near the area. Units had to be transported in from the rest of the province, and with the war going on, things had to be done discreetly.”

“So…none of you thought you may need to have units near your most important project in the entire kingdom in case something goes wrong?”

“Project Guardian had existed for over 70 years, my Queen. There had never been an assault on the project, and the garrison was enough to handle any containment breaches. It was deemed long ago that having additional security measures would do more harm than good.” The doctor was inclined to defend her colleagues despite knowing quite well how meaningless that was.

“I suppose, not that it matters anymore. In truth, they are fortunate to take so long,” Athena said.

“May I ask what you are referring to, my Queen?”

“I have rigged the facility’s fail-safe device to explode soon. It will destroy Project Guardian once and for all. Neither the Kingdom of Decima nor the Venya Imperium shall have a weapon like that for themselves.”

There was silence from the doctor for a while, and Athena could sense the woman’s distraught.

“You seem disturbed, doctor.”

“It…it is nothing, my Queen.”

“Speak, doctor.” Athena insisted.

“As you command.” The doctor obeyed, unable to resist a direct command from Athena. “It’s just that…so much sacrifice had gone into this project. So many losses. I have spent my whole life around that crystal, and so had my predecessor. But…but if the Swarm commands its destruction, then I will obey.”

The doctor wasn’t happy about this. Athena could sense it as clearly as she could feel the sun on her face. She had just been told that decades of work was completely gone, but there was nothing she could do. This was the terrifying part of the neural parasites. Doctor Vincent wasn’t an ally or a simple subordinate. She was a slave to the Swarm. She had no real free will left. Despite what she might think about Athena’s decisions, the doctor’s only option was to obey, without question, if that was what was asked of her.

If an Imperial civilian was unhappy about the government, they could complain behind closed doors. If an Imperial soldier was unhappy, they could desert or frag their officer. If an Imperial noble was unhappy, they could ally themselves with external forces and plot to overthrow the Leviathan. Whether they would succeed was a different matter, but at least they could try.

If an infested Terran or a human who was under the control of the neural parasite was unhappy, there was nothing they could do to hinder the Swarm in the slightest. The Zerg influence on them had made sure that the interest of the Swarm would forever be more important to them than anything else. They were slaves, and not just their bodies but also their minds.

This was a fate that most people didn't deserve. It just so happened that the doctor was one of the few people Athena had encountered who did.

“With the detonation of the nuclear device, it is almost guaranteed that Project Guardian will be noticed by the Imperium.” The doctor continued, doing her best to approach this topic logically and without involving her personal feelings. “Once the Imperials start looking into the location, it will all be over. To think General Thero was just consulting me on the measures to take to ensure the soldiers from the three Royal Guard regiments will not leak the information...”

“Indeed. The Imperials will discover this project, and even though the project is gone, experts in xeno technologies like you are still valuable, even to the Imperium.” Athena reasoned. “After this war is over, you will likely be invited to join the Imperial Research Academy…or maybe some other science organization that reports to Lord Vitz instead of the Leviathan. Both options provide a lot of opportunities.”

“By your command.” Doctor Vincent whispered. She had hoped to die in Prison 09 as just another martyr to the kingdom, but now even that had become an impossibility.

As the conversation came to an end and Athena returned to driving in silence, her thoughts began wandering.

A lot had happened in the last 48 hours. Landing on Sierra Prime. The multiple skirmishes against the Decima forces in the Beta Regions. The battle against Experiment Delta-3 and then the assault on Prison 09. It felt like a long time to her, but in reality, not much time had gone by.

As she looked back, Athena suddenly realized she had left quite a trail of bodies behind her. Hundreds of Decima soldiers killed by her Terran forces in the Beta Regions. Over a thousand dead in Prison 09. Even the dozens of survivors she had to execute in the small town of Terrin. A few months ago she was hesitant about killing dozens of rebels in Research Outpost Delta, and now she was spilling the blood of thousands to keep herself alive.

What truly stood out to her wasn’t necessarily the death count, but rather how easy it was for her to take so many lives. Back on Morgo IV, when Corporal Huo and his fellow rebels made an attempt on her life, she still had to watch as the Zerg cut them down. But now, with units from all three races fighting for her, she no longer needed to be at the forefront of the fighting. She no longer needed to be there as her enemies were slain. All she had to do was give the order, and her units, the ruthless killing machines that they were, would gladly cut down any and all threats to her life, be them soldiers or civilians. This was the very reason they were produced and summoned. Even the Terrans, who had appeared the most human-like to Athena, were no different when it came to their complete obedience. Compared to them, even the most zealous Imperial or Republic soldiers seemed to have questionable loyalties.

The level of power she had could keep her alive much longer in this dangerous galaxy, but if there was one thing agreed by all throughout history, it was that power corrupts.

Athena remembered hearing about a number of atrocities committed by high-ranking Imperials after she ended up in this world. The Day of Reckoning, where an Imperial admiral rained down nuclear hellfire on several major population centers on a rebel planet to teach the other potential traitors an expensive lesson. The Hour of Triumph, where an Imperial commander allowed his men to plunder, rape, and murder their way through an enemy city that refused to surrender and held off the Imperials for weeks. Back then, when she first found out about these atrocities, she remembered wondering what type of psychopath could issue these orders.

Now she knew. Committing atrocities and war crimes was a lot easier when those giving the orders saw the civilians not as human beings with their own pasts and aspirations but rather as numbers on a screen. When putting untold numbers of civilians to the sword was only a matter of saying a few words. When there was a loyal army ready and eager to obey the worst commands without question.

She didn't regret killing the Decima soldiers in the Beta Regions and in Prison 09. They were combatants who had sworn an oath to lay down their lives against the enemies of their nation. They knew what they were getting into, and given the chance they would gladly gun her down. What bothered her in retrospect were the survivors in Terrin. There were dozens of them when Delta-3 was killed, and Athena ordered all of them executed by Vodka and his Terran forces because she was afraid they would inform the Decima forces of what they saw and compromise her plans of infiltrating the prison.

In hindsight, was that her only option? Not necessarily. She had Terran units to spare. Perhaps she could have taken these survivors somewhere else and held them there with a handful of Terrans until the battle at Prison 09 was over. At that point, their knowledge about the Terrans would be of no threat to Athena. It wouldn’t be the safest thing to do, but it would’ve kept her from murdering dozens of innocent civilians.

Yet at the moment, with a lot of things on her mind, Athena subconsciously chose the quickest and easiest solution. If there was someone else there, like Adrianna, they could’ve suggested that Athena think twice, and maybe she would’ve listened. But the only ones near her at the moment were the Terrans, and they simply complied with her kills orders without a second thought.

This issue would only grow as she unlocked more and more powerful units. She was only human, and all humans make mistakes. While sometimes she needed deadly combat units who would do everything they were told, other times she needed people who would notice her errors and advise her to rethink her decisions. The Terran, Zerg, and Protoss units were unlikely to serve that role. Perhaps they could notice her strategic or tactical errors, but there was more to life than finding the best ways to kill her enemies. More likely than not, this meant she should look to keep a few ordinary human beings around her as advisors and involve them in the decision-making process.

After leaving the desert, Athena returned her hellion to her game and instead opted for something she had done a few times back on Earth and tried to hitch a ride to her destination. Luckily, likely due to the fact that she was a lone woman, it didn't take her too long to find someone willing to give her a ride.

Before long, Athena found herself sitting in the middle seat of a seven-seat vehicle whose brand she didn't recognize. It was likely some type of automobile conglomerate exclusive to the Kingdom of Decima. The vehicle belonged to an older couple who asked where Athena was going and offered her a ride. Athena quickly noticed the suitcases and bags that occupied most of the car.

“We are heading for Triumph City. I don’t know if you have heard of the place before. It’s still a distance from Storm’s City, but you should be able to find a train that takes you there.” The old man explained as he put the car to auto-driving.

“Yeah, Triumph City.” Athena repeatedly quietly as the adjutant quickly fed her some important information about the city that it had scavenged from local databases. “That’s to the South of Storm’s City, right? I heard that’s where the final battle in the War of Conquest took place. That’s the city where King Decima the First concluded his unification of this world.”

“Someone paid attention in their history class!” The old woman smiled warmly. “We have a few family friends over there. We’ll be staying over with them for a while until things cool down back home.” She glanced at Athena in the rearview mirror. “We were lucky to be a distance away from where the Imps landed…Imperials. That’s what my son likes to call them. It’s a thing in the Legions.”

Athena didn't have any luggage with her, and the old couple naturally saw her as a refugee from the warzone who left everything back home to flee the fighting. They were right to a certain degree.

“Your son…” Athena paused. “He’s in the Decima Royal Legion?”

“Yes. 14th Legion.”

There was a moment of silence in the vehicle. Once again Athena’s adjutant fed the appropriate information into her head. The 14th Legion…wasn’t that the Legion at Airfield Sigma that she attacked? To be more precise, it was one of the regiments in the 14th Legion at the airfield. The rest of the Legion had been fighting against the Imperials since the first wave of landing crafts hit the ground. They have taken heavy casualties in the process.

“I also have a few friends in the 14th Legion.” Despite her brain telling her to shut up and ideally spend the rest of the trip in silence, Athena couldn’t help but ask. “What’s your son’s name? There’s a chance they may know each other.”

“Oh.” The old woman hesitated before deciding there was no risk in sharing their son’s name with a young woman. “John. John West.”

“Corporal John West. 1st Regiment. 14th Legion. Reports indicate he had served with distinction in the past.” The adjutant was as good at its job as ever. “He was still alive as of 9:21 PM last night. His current condition is unknown.”

“He’s a corporal, right? In the 1st Regiment?” Athena did her best to comfort the old couple. “My friends have actually talked to me about him before. He’s a good man and a good soldier. I am sure he will be fine when this is all over.”

“Thank you, young lady. John has always been good at making friends.” The woman gave Athena a small smile before sighing. “If we had known that there would suddenly be a war like this, we never would’ve let him enlist all those years ago…”

“Maria!” The old man glanced at his wife. “Don’t talk like that. John is out there defending his country, and so are the other soldiers in the Legions. It’s an honorable service.”

Maria made no reply.

The vehicle continued to move down the road. There were some occasional conversations, but Athena mainly kept to herself. Gradually, the small, poorly maintained rural road was replaced by highways filled with all sorts of traffic as they closed in on a major city. Maria was reading something on her PEI and her husband was typing something into his own device. Athena kept her eyes on the world outside of her window. She had spent six months in this new galaxy and she was no stranger to basic autonomous vehicles and roads designed to maximize their efficiency, but she had grown to enjoy watching countless self-driving vehicles make their way down a highway at the exact same speed. Every vehicle was completely still relative to each other. It was as if they were all parts of the same machine. There was a certain sense of harmony to it.

Finally, the vehicle came to a stop near a rail station on the outskirts of Triumph City.

“There. You can take the train there to Storm’s City.” The old man pointed at the station.

“Best of luck, young lady. Be careful on the road.” Maria said to Athena as she got off the car. “Remember, no matter how bad things look now, one day this war will end and we will all get to find our way home. Never give up hope.”

Athena gave the old couple one last smile before they finally parted ways. Perhaps that was true for these two, but would she ever make it back home? Her real home? It was a question she didn't want to think about as she headed for the train station.