Chapter 22
Unlikely Allies
ESS Iberia, Outer Rim of the Martian Sphere
Date: Mon 11 May 123
Time: UST 0218

Marshal Graves sat in the Admiral's chair on the bridge. He didn't like to sit still, but this was where he needed to be for what was coming up.
Eight armed Marines were posted for his security and to keep the bridge crew on task. For the most part, the crew had been pacified and the elements that would threaten his command of the ship were either dead or detained in the brig. The situation was still tenuous, but there were no serious challenges to his authority. Everything had come under control just in time, because they were already moving into the next phase of the plan.
The communications officer announced, "Sir, Zulu-Sierra One and Zulu-Echo One have docked. I repeat, Zulu-Sierra One and Zulu-Echo One have docked."
The Marshal could only wonder what was going through the bridge crew's heads at the moment. Even now, he had a bit of a hard time believing it himself. Who would have ever imagined a Shelly dreadnought and an Empyrean heavy cruiser parked on either side of an Imperium-class flagship? Barring the participants in Operation Heaven's Door, no one except for the highest levels of the chain of command even knew much of anything about the Empyrean at all and as for the Shellies, not even half a year had passed since the Phlegethon was wreaking havoc on the Union's defensive lines during the Battle of Mars. Yet now former enemies were united in a common purpose.
Glancing to Major Mustafa, the Marshal said, "Escort our guests to the bridge."
"Sir, should we check them for weapons?" Major Mustafa asked.
Marshal Graves balked at this. "Don't you now anything about diplomacy, boy? That'd be rude. Bring 'em up as they are." He then quickly added, "Just don't forget to have that escort armed. We may be polite, but we ain't dumb."
"Aye-aye, sir."
It took a good while for Major Mustafa to return with their guests in tow. They entered double file so that one side would not be ahead of the other. They couldn't be more different, the Shellies with their corpse-grey skin, crude cybernetics and bug shell armor and the Empyreans with their flowing robes and mirrored breastplates like something out of an old pulp novel. Both a bunch of freaks and nutjobs, just different flavors. However, now was the time for freaks and nutjobs to shine.
Marshal Graves hopped down from his chair to greet his guests.
"Welcome to the Iberia, Grandmaster Asmodeus, Seraph Ben Raziel."
"I call myself Lord Gnosis these days," Ben Raziel said.
If he wanted to be called Gnosis instead of Ben Raziel, that was his business, but if he expected the Marshal to address him as 'Lord', he had another thing coming. Ben Raziel, Gnosis, or whatever he was supposed to be was a smug little man, a Viet by the looks of him, but that ego had the same effect as an extra thirty senches. It was all in how you carried yourself.
The Marshal turned to the fore of the bridge, making a dramatic sweeping gesture with his hand.
"How d'ya like her, Asmodeus? Bet you boys wish ya coulda got the Tico this easy."
It wasn't the most gracious thing to do as a host, but the Marshal couldn't help but rub the Shellies' noses in their failure to capture the Ticonderoga even when the vast majority of their naval forces were committed to the operation. How could one ship delivered on a silver platter given them so much trouble? It said something about the Union's incompetence that the Shellies kept them at war for nearly a quarter century. It was that very incompetence that drove the Marshal into the current situation.
To his credit, Asmodeus didn't rise to the provocation, but he didn't take it passively either.
"You are bold to turn your back to an enemy, Donovan Graves."
Marshal turned back and grinned.
"But we ain't enemies, Asmodeus, are we?"
"That is a question you must ask yourself," Asmodeus replied. "I simply carry out the Emperor's will."
"Your Emperor's dead," Marsha Graves said. "The guy who did it's still on the loose."
"The Emperor does not die," Asmodeus insisted. "The flesh is merely borrowed for a time, discarded when its purposes is served, and if it is needed, the new flesh will be taken up in its season."
It was hard for Marshal Graves to not roll his eyes. He never could understand it. One of his old grannies was a holy roller, but believing in something you couldn't see or feel didn't make a damn bit of sense to him at all. The Shelly Emperor was dead and no amount of supernatural mumbo-jumbo was going to change that. The Empyreans weren't any better, though. After all, they were the ones who believed a cracked AI was the voice of God.
The more he thought about it, the more it annoyed him. Yes, they were pawns in the grand scheme of things and they had their use, but the Marshal wished he didn't have to use them at all. Perhaps they could be disposed of once this mission was over.
Before Marshal Graves could dwell on it any further, Gnosis spoke up.
"Pleasant as this is, Marshal Graves, why did you insist on meeting in person?"
"We're about ta turn all humanity on its head, gentlemen," the Marshal replied. "The least we can do is look each other in the eye face-to-face before we do it."
"What faith do you have in this plan succeeding?"
Faith? Marshal Graves didn't need faith. He was Donovan Graves. What he wanted, he took. Nothing was going to stand in his way. He would get what he wanted no matter the cost.
"It ain't the succeedin' or the failin' that I care about, gentlemen," the Marshal told his guests. "I mean ta shake things up."
Gnosis was taken aback by his answer.
"You betray your people and abandon your station just to... shake things up?" He paused for a moment, puzzling over it as if it were some great mystery of the universe before concluding,"You are an interesting one, Marshal Graves."
The Marshal grinned.
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"Enough words," Asmodeus said impatiently. "My people need action. What are we going to do?"
"Sorry ta disappoint ya, Asmodeus," the Marshal replied, "but I got some more words before we can get ta the action, but don't ya worry none. Ya'll get action aplenny real soon."