Raccowrimo

The Super Wizard From Space #44

"The Red Hand Of General Dragutin, part 1" by

Damn. Didn't notice his approach 'til he was right on top of
me. With so much of equipment is disrepair (or, to be
honest, completely non-existent as I hadn't bother to even
make half of it), its only luck that I spotted the warp
tunnel opening at all. Didn't have a chance to compose
myself. Barely had time to exit the House and lock up behind
me before he arrived. Hope he interprets my uneasiness as
bewilderment.

"Petar," I say, extending my hand in greeting, "you're a
long way from Hoag. What brings a member of our super wizard
parliament out this far?"

His handshake's as noncommittal as I remember. "Hello
Dragutin. I wouldn't be here if things weren't desperate.
But things *are* desperate, and seeing as you're partially
to blame, I think it appropriate to give you the chance to
resolve it."

The plain speech does nothing to put me at ease. Have to get
control of this engagement. "Not a social visit then. Hrm.
Well then, care to accompany me on my rounds? The billet
isn't particularly spacious, nor is it in a state for
guests."

Petar raises an eyebrow, takes a quick inspection of the
House. Dwarf star. Old. Numb. Stubborn. The blue white
surface has patches of irregular brown light. The fusion
leaks loose gravity. "I'm disappointed, Dragutin. You were a
fanatic supporter of discipline back in the day. Its said
that you'd upbraid your troops if you found so much as a
scuff on their uniforms."

I bite my tongue. Should find out what he's here for. "Yes...
well, you'll have to forgive me," I say, starting toward the
orbiting asteroid prisons. "Penitentiary life has dulled my
habits."

He doesn't follow, the stubborn bastard. "You're the warden
here. You're not a prisoner."

I stop. And turn back to him. "I'm an exile," I jab back.
"The job title hardly matters. I'm trapped in this star
system, just like any of my frozen charges."

"Too bad. I'm not here to hear your grievances. I'm here to
reinstate the Red Hand."

Ah...?

Hm.

Okay. I admit, that's caught me off guard.

"Have you been following current events?" Petar asks. "The
cosmic tournament we started?"

I drift back to him. My curiosity overcomes my concern. I
think... is he here looking for *help*? "I've been getting
reports. Matter of fact, our own super-champion was just
here. The boy's certainly managed to overcome the odds
against him. Already had five of the seven crowns."

"Five. Of seven," says Petar, disgusted. "Our calculations
had him faltering by the third. Even our outside projections
never had him succeeding past the fourth."

"Your projections were based on faulty intel. I tried to
warn you. We severely underestimated the power of the
crowns. And the effects they had on their bearers. The
profile drawn up for Rex was laughable."

"Perhaps we should have listened." Wow. That admission must
be killing him. He looks at me quizzically. "The super
wizard parliament still believes he'll be stopped at Planet
M."

I try to not enjoy dashing his hopes. "They're still wrong."

He points an accusing finger at me. "Emperor M is above and
beyond the *fiercest* combatant in our known universe. Your
own accounts ranks him second only to the late Sidney
Dharma, and that was before the robot claimed himself a
cosmic crown."

"Oh yes, certainly. *Senator M* was. But he's been a wet
blanket since his 'elevation'. He's a figurehead now. The
fighting spirit's been drilled out of him. If he puts up any
sort of resistance, it's only 'cause of Buzz."

"And of the Queen herself?"

"Ha! Come on, be serious. This whole operation *started*
'cause the boy cracked a planet in half. She doesn't stand a
chance. I'd be surprised if her Swarm hasn't abandoned her
already."

Petar nods reluctantly. He paces around empty space. One
hand rubbing the top of his head. I recognize the habit.
He's not here willingly. If anything, I figure he wants to
be here less than I do.

"I never understood why you did it." He says after a long
thought. "You went behind all our backs. You took the cosmic
crown away from Gavrilo, your own kin. You imprisoned the
entire Super Warlock race outside space and time..."

This again. It always comes back to this malarkey. "I had to
do something. *Someone had to do something.* Gavrilo was
advocating moderation. Moderation! As if we had the time to
research, the time to investigate, the time to formulate
hypotheses... damn it, man, the enemy had just released
space-greed into the universe. They were on the verge of
releasing a handful *more* infectious space-crimes. And us?
We were stuck in our laboratories and our parliamentary
debates." I wave a hand at him in disgust. "We needed to
act. So I took action. I didn't trick Gavrilo out of the
crown. He gave it to me. *He knew*. He knew we didn't need
him right then. We needed me!"

"But why did you give it up?" Petar presses. "That's what I
never understood. Why did you just surrendered after all
that. You had to know our parliament would never forgive
you. Not if they wanted to save face in front of the others
super-races."

My hands feel warm. I'm dripping red fire. Wasn't even aware
I was. I'm letting him get to me. Deep breathe. At ease.
Hands behind my back and my chin up. "I purged a threat from
the universe. I saved the our race and countless others. I
didn't think I'd done anything that needed forgiveness. Or
punishing."

"Would you do it again? If you knew you'd be exiled out
here? Or worse?"

"I won't act false to my nature, if that's what you're
asking. Then or now. I remain the wizard I am."

"But would you act the same way?"

"The point is I *acted*."

"I guess someone had to," Petar says with a small smile.

"Someone had to," I agree.

Petar rubs the top of his head again. Staring at me in
silence. He's pensive. Uneasy. Trying to come to a decision.
Hrm. No, that's not it. Coming here, he's already decided.
Now he's trying to justify it. Trying to tell himself there
wasn't another way. "You think the boy's going to turn on
you," I let slip in realization.

"On us," Petar corrects. A quiver to his voice he's fighting
to hide. "On you, on me, on all of us who were there. On
everyone who allowed this tournament to happen."

"You believe, after Buzz, after he's free of the crown's
compulsion, he'll take revenge on the super wizard
parliament? You think he'll march on Hoag itself?"

Petar nods. "Some are less pessimistic. We're crunching the
probabilities right now, running simulations, but...
well..." He looks at me. Right at me. "You said he was here.
You talked to him. What's your take on it? What would you
do?"

Here we go. Now we're getting to the point. "What are you
*asking* me to do?"

"You're our best chance at stopping him."

"Is that why you're here? You want to put me in front of the
boy, hope for the best? The parliament was willing to
sacrifice one solider, now they want to throw another on the
altar?"

"Our parliament... hasn't agreed to anything," Petar admitted
with a frown. "They haven't authorized anything yet. They
don't even know I'm here."

Oh. Oh wow. Of all people, I never expected this of him.
"Petar, what you're suggesting..."

"This is why you first formed the Red Hand! To be soliders
when everyone else wanted to be diplomats. To take action
when action was needed!"

"You're asking me to commit treason. I'm an exile. I'm
forbidden from leaving here."

"You've acted without approval before."

"And look where it's gotten me. Abandoned to a dying star
system. What you're asking is *worse*. To act against my
own. A high crime against my people. Against my home."

"If you don't do this, you may not have a home. Not the way
we know it. Maybe not at all."

I wave off the hyperbole. "You don't need me. The Red Hand
doesn't need me. Track done any of the others. Find Trifko.
Or Vaso, even. Both fine soliders."

"Oh, I tried. I definitely tried," the arrogant prick, as if
I'm the one insulting *him*. "I started looking soon after
Brody was defeated, but your small company has dwindled to
near extinction. Trifko and Vaso have disappeared; no one
knows where either of them are. Danilo went a little mad and
is now chasing the edge of the universe, or so I heard.
Nedeljko is trapped along with the Super Warlock race. And
Cvjetko died when his House collapsed in on itself. All
that's left of the Red Hand is you. And the boy."

"And... what, you didn't even *bother* with Gavrilo? Are we
that ashamed of him now?"

He's struck silent. Petar, of all people. Has it really been
so long since anyone's thrown mistakes back at his face?
Back at the parliament as a whole? Hardly believed it when I
was told how imperious they'd gotten. Hardly believe it now.
Maybe it *is* long past due for Hoag to face its failures.

Petar closes his eyes, just for a moment, then opens them
heavier than before. "Has no one told you?" He doesn't wait
for my frustration to resolve itself into sarcasm.
"Dragutin, Gavrilo is gone."

What?

...what? "...?"

"Our super champion went to him shortly after the tournament
started. There was an incident of some sort. A bad one.
We're not certain of the details, but we've intercepted
reliable reports from Buzz's Swarm."

I... I don't... this isn't...

He pauses. "I'm sorry. Your brother is dead."

I think... I don't know what I think. I don't know how to
think.

My chest feels empty and heavy at the same time.

When was the last time I saw him? What was the last thing I
said to him?

A hand on my shoulder. Petar's looking at me with a
politician's mask. Feigning concern. Practiced words of
condolence. A mechanical empathy.

It's... all somewhat appreciated regardless.

Then he starts talking. About who's to blame. What needs to
be done. He throws around words like sacrifice.
Responsibility. Patriotism. Duty. I can't hear him. I'm not
listening. Him and his kind don't know the meanings of those
things. Its just leverage to them.

I make some semblance of an answer that satisfies him. He
makes promises he can't keep. He makes assurances that have
no weight.

He shakes my hand. "You're doing the right thing, Dragutin."

I hold it firm, so that he remembers it. "Yes... someone has
to."

I watched him leave, flying free of my penitentiary. When
he's beyond the orbit of the asteroids and the systems
gravity, he peels open a tunnel under spacetime and warps
away.

I float outside my small drab House for a long while
afterwards. I stare out into the black where he' ha'd gone.
Somewhere that way is an infinite number of stars. Countless
planets swinging around them. An impossible variety of
creatures and their cities and their empires. The mighty
super-races of the universe. Super Wizards From Space. Hoag.
And *him*.

It seems so emptier now.

There's a knock from inside the dwarf star. A coded banging
of neutrons against the fusion surface. I toss back an
all-clear. A spiralling darkness splits from the bottom as
the House opens. Trifko and Vaso come out. Both wearing the
same style red uniform as myself. Both scanning the visible
spectrums for hostiles, watching the subtle radiations for
eavesdrops. Trifko has a loop of fusion in one hand, armed
and at the ready. Good formation. Good discipline.

"What was he doing here, General?" asks Vaso, nodding out at
that emptiness. "What'd he say?"

"Very little," I reply.

"Sir. Does this change anything, sir? Are we still doing...
doing all this, sir?"

I set my jaw. I stare right at him. "Oh yes. More so than
ever."

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Wil Alambre. Follow me at http://twitter.com/wilalambre