Is this Man a Threat?
"Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people"
- W. C. Fields
Sweden stared in wonder at the landscape around him.
The dome was perched at the top of a two-hundred-meter-high cliff that yawned precipitously over a vast canyon. The gateway to the Southside was a large tubular beam that fed from the core of the firewall, directly into the dome. The outer surface of the gateway tube shimmered and rippled with complex patterns of blueish green light as the magnetic field that shielded it reacted to the forces spewing forth from the heavens. Sweden was spellbound. His gaze tracked the gateway tube from the dome out across the canyon until he was staring directly into the distant heart of the Skyforge. The opaque visor of his environment suit allowed him to gaze upon its violent glory. He held his breath and braced himself against its radiant energy. What he thought was a strong breeze and mist, was in fact a combination of heat convection and a thin, almost plasma-like energy that coursed through the air around him. He was blissfully unaware of the flood of high energy particles that were washing over him, trying to strip him apart, atom by atom.
He shook his head to regain his composure. Turning to his right he spotted the door to the docking bay that housed Argentum. He had no way to know that the creature he hoped to ride was nothing like the flesh and blood horses he had spent his entire life mastering. He was expecting to be able to mount it and control it like any other trained horse. As he pulled the lever that secured the door to the large docking enclosure, the possibility that he was approaching a being vastly superior to himself was not something that troubled him. He ducked in and closed the door behind him. There was a moment of blindness while the enviro suit's visor adjusted itself to the new lighting conditions. The docking bay was a large, open room. Argentum stood in the middle.
Sweden cautiously approached the steel horse. It was bigger than he had first assumed, towering a good foot over him at the shoulder. He had never seen anything so beautiful in his life.
Argentum sensed his approach and came out of standby. The loud hum and whir of his servos made Sweden jump. The southlander crouched down, eyeing the warhorse warily, ready to make a dash for the door. Argentum turned to look at him and Sweden felt his blood run cold as the light from the horse’s eyes blazed fiercely. He was suddenly conscious that he was dealing with a very strange animal. An animal that appeared to be staring into his soul and yet, at the same time, looking right through him. He felt weirdly exposed and naked before the beast’s dispassionate gaze.
"Is this man a threat?" Argentum sent the query through his commlink.
"Why is he in here with me, and what should I do with him?"
When Antigua did not respond, Argentum turned to the viewing port. He spotted his mistress and observed that she was not wearing her armour. This meant she had no means of communicating with him. She did not seem to be in any danger, but her hands appeared to be bound behind her back. She nodded and winked at him.
So, this was some sport?
He snorted sharply and turned to face Sweden. The southlander cowered back from him waving his shattered blade in a feeble attempt to ward the horse off. Argentum started taking slow, methodical steps towards Sweden. He snorted and nickered loudly for effect. Each menacing step sparked and rang hollowly as his steel hooves struck the dome floor.
Sweden's heart leapt into his throat and he scrabbled backwards in a panic. This was going horribly wrong.
Argentum kept pushing forward, driving him further and further until he was backed up into the corner of the bay.
"Oh, fuck!" Sweden thought, turning his head away and squeezing his eyes shut in anticipation of being crushed.
A moment passed, and then another. Sweden opened an eye and hazarded a peak. Argentum was standing stock still before him, his long equine snout hovering just inches from his face. The horse was kneeling, one hoof stretched out in front of him in a weird facsimile of a bow. Sweden, a man practically born in the saddle, was familiar with the pose. Was this animal inviting him to mount up? He was dubious of the horse's intentions so he quickly shuffled sideways to escape the immediate crushing danger and scrambled to his feet.
"What the hell?" He shouted, rounding angrily on the horse waving his broken sword for emphasis.
Argentum stayed where he was, maintaining the apparent offer. Sweden looked over at the viewing port. Something very strange was going on and he wanted to see if the red-haired woman had anything to do with it. He was relieved to see that she had not moved and still appeared to have her hands tied. He turned back to the steel horse, eyeing it warily.
There was a soft whirring noise that emanated from the horse’s lower midriff and Sweden was surprised to see what looked like a small ladder unfold from its side.
"Oh," he said, "am I to assume that you would like me to climb on?"
Argentum nickered in response, steam billowing from his nostrils.
Sweden was shocked. Had this animal just responded to a direct question?
"You can understand what I'm saying?" he asked, a note of awe creeping into his voice.
Argentum nickered again and stomped his front hoof impatiently, the metal sparking as it struck the floor.
Sweden was delighted. All his fears and concerns were set aside and he beamed an excited grin at the horse. He threw the shattered remains of his sword aside, stepped up onto Argentum's flank, threw his leg over and settled into the saddle.
There was a loud crack. His entire body spasmed, arched violently in the saddle and was thrown to the floor. Argentum rose, turned to him and gently placed his front hoof on Sweden's chest, pinning him to the floor. Sweden groaned and passed out.
Antigua turned from the viewing port. She strolled over to one of the remaining enviro suit lockers, and with some difficulty, managed to wrangle it open. She fished around in the suit's pocket until she found what she was looking for. With a casual flick, she used the small vibro tool to cut her bonds. Once she had rubbed the deep marks on her wrist to get the blood flowing again, she opened the internal airlock door and went back into the dome to retrieve her own armour.
As soon as they heard the airlock opening, Chad, Guam and Mali stopped what they were doing and watched her warily. Antigua hurried over to the locker that contained her powered armour, pulled it out and began putting it on.
"Which one of you opened the airlock?" she asked, aware that they were staring at her.
Guam and Mali turned to look at Chad. He cursed under his breath. Why did he have to get landed with two greeners who couldn't keep a secret to save their lives?
"I did, Mistress," he said, trying to avoid eye contact.
"Good for you," she said, "a little cold-hearted, but it was the right decision. What's your name? I will put a commendation in my next field report."
"Uh... Chad?" He replied, confused.
He had been expecting a thrashing for what he had done. A commendation was the last thing he would have expected and from a High-Born no less.
"Thank you, Mistress," he stammered, "you honour me."
Antigua grunted, but said nothing further. There was no sense becoming too familiar with the working class. Now fully suited, she flicked on her visor and hailed Argentum.
"How is our little viper?" she asked, failing to keep the grin from filtering into her voice.
"Pah!" came the snorted response, "I've seen bigger fangs on a milk snake."
"Good work Argee, I'll be out in a minute. Just make sure you keep his suit intact, I don't want him frying on the ride out."
"As you wish."
Antigua chuckled to herself as she signed off. She could have sworn that he sounded disappointed.
She ran a full diagnostic test on her suit and was pleased to note that the life support system and powerpack were showing green across the board. She started walking back to the airlock when an incoming commlink request pinged on her HUD. She accepted the request and her father’s face floated into view.
"Antigua, my dear. Always a pleasure to watch you work."
The Overseer was relieved to see that she had resolved the situation. Not because she was okay. That he had no concern over, but rather that the barbarian Southlander had been kept alive.
"Oh, I'm fine, thank you father," she replied sardonically.
"Tell me, how does Mayotte fair with his brother?"
Barbuda turned to look at the monitor on his desk. The screen was displaying a feed from one of the sickbay recuperation stations.
"Ah... let's just say, your sister has the issue firmly in hand."
Antigua rolled her eyes, signed off and headed back to the airlock.
Additional Art by Adam Russ https://atrdesigns.artstation.com/resume