“The Master leads by emptying people’s minds and filling their cores, by weakening their ambition and toughening their resolve.  He helps people lose everything they know, everything they desire, and creates confusion in those that think they know.”

                                                                        -- Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter Three


The bridge of the Dickerson was littered with debris, both human and mechanical.  The raking pass by the Rising Sun-class battlecruiser had left the smaller ship a shattered wreck.  Ensign Weathers, stunned by the ferocity of repeated torpedo concussions, regained his senses only to realize he was the only person left alive on the bridge.  A quick scan of the room told him that the only systems left online were the damage control alert panel and the communications panel, which had been shielded from harm by the com officer’s corpse.  Damage control revealed that there were out of control fires in most of the decks, not currently open to space, and the fusion engines were quickly working their way to meltdown. A glance out the forward observation ports revealed that the battlecruiser was engaged with the rest of the flotilla but would soon return to check on the wounded, but not yet dead, prey…

            Unless, of course, thought the ensign, she believes were already dead.

            Weathers pulled himself away from the view of the battle and moved towards the gore covered communications station.

            “Engineering, this is the bridge, is there anyone alive down there?”

            “Bridge, this is Engineering, we figured all of you were goners. I would say it is good to hear from you, but things are a real mess down here.”

            “Yes, I see from here that we are about to lose Fusion 2. How big of a bang will that baby make when they light off?”

            “Well, sir, it will be enough to finish what that cruiser started.”

            “Understood. When we were in port last, they yanked that bad boy in order to do a refit. Is it possible to jury-rig something that that when it goes, it blows out the way it came in? I’d like to salvage the ion engines?”

            “Possible, but unlikely. Shouldn’t we try to get it under control so we can jump outta here?”

            “Not enough time. That cruiser will be back in minutes; our best chance for survival is to look dead.  I want you to do whatever you can to help this process along, then get your people into secure areas.  When the engine blows I am venting the ship to kill the fires.  It might be some time before we can restore atmosphere.”

            “Yes, sir. We’ll cut the clamps to the rear access ways, open the rear holds, and quick-weld some plates to redirect the blast from the rest of the ship. We’ll need at least 15 minutes.”

            “Make it ten if you can, who knows how long we have left. Contact me when you’re ready.”

            Weathers cut the comlink with engineering and opened the ship-wide channel. “All hands, this is the bridge. The Captain and XO are dead—I’m assuming command. We have fires on 70% of the unvented decks and we’re about to lose the jump engines. If you want to see tomorrow, you’ll need to move as far forward as you can into secure areas. If we survive the explosion, we’ll vent the ship and play possum.  Hopefully we will be able to recover enough material from the other wrecks to get clear of the area before the vultures come. You have no more than 10 minutes, good luck.”

            With that complete, the ensign put the helmet on his skinsuit and strapped himself to the damage control console.  There was nothing more he could do - except wait.


            “Honorable sai.

            “Yes, ensign,” responded Captain Pak Eun Sun, commanding officer of the His Imperial Majesty’s Morning Calm, “report?”

            “The aft section of the first ship we attacked has exploded violently. Sensors indicate that internal temperatures are dropping rapidly to match external ones.”

            “Captain, I believe we can call that a kill,“ chimed in the executive officer, “I’ll notify maintenance that they can add another crow to the outer hull.”

            The crow was the ancient symbol of the area of Earth where Captain Pak’s family had originated.  His crew had adopted it as a symbol of victory during his tenure as their leader.

           “Thank you, I’m sure that’s a duty they’ll relish.  Tactical, target that final destroyer and let us finish this business. Com, contact fleet and let them know we have use for a salvage flotilla at these coordinates.”

            Within minutes, the final destroyer had been dealt with, and the Morning Calm and her auxiliaries jumped towards their other pre-arranged targets.

            Ensign Weathers watched them leave with anticipation, then moved to the comm station.  “This is the bridge. Do we have any other survivors out there? Please check-in by giving your location, the number of survivors with you, and critical systems you can get online.


            Within minutes, he had the total butcher’s bill.  Sixty-eight percent of the crew was gone, but they did have enough skilled personal to get life support back online.  Other good news was that the boys in engineering had successfully protected enough maneuvering thrusters that the ship would be able to get under way shortly.  They would not be fast, but they would be able to check the other ships for survivors and salvage.

            So much for the Ashdown Rebellion, Weathers pondered as he allowed his sensors to look over the remains of the revolutionary fleet. The Kalintos Republic wouldn’t have been able to take down the human mutiny—but then the Imperial Fleet had to come in. Well, so much for Ashdown, so much for our paycheck, and so much for fighting the slant-eyes back.

            It had been twenty years since this old Fed ship had been rechristened; ever since we lost our home to the Eastern Bloc. Weathers had never forgotten that, never forgot that he had served in Earth Fleet, even though it had been many years since he had seen Avalon. Their time will come, the ensign reminded himself, and we’ll pay those han back in spades.

            “Bridge, this is Engineering.”

            The sole remaining bridge officer went over to the comm panel. “This is the bridge.”

            “Sir, we’ve got the ion engines back on-line. We’re willing to go if you are.”

            We just might make it out of here, Weathers pondered and began the grim task ahead.




It was dark when Chan Lee managed to regain consciousness. Just before he had blacked out, he had been reminded that he hadn’t floated for quite some time. As the orange and black swirl began to slow in front of his eyes, Chan noticed that there was something different. Turning hjs head to check outside his fighter, he stopped, his head swimming. Grimacing, Lee forced himself to breathe slowly and rhythmically. After a brief stillness, he reopened his eyes and looked out the cockpit window. The swirl was dark.

            “Strange,” he muttered to himself as he prepared to pull out of the jumpgate. Flicking his fingers gently over the control board that Night Fang had been able to salvage, Chan waited for his body to slam against the restraints of the pilot’s seat. Nothing happened. Tapping the controls again had the same response as before. As Lee prepared to place in the instructions one more time, something moved outside. Chan leaned forward and peered into what he presumed was space. A hand suddenly appeared against the window and he flinched, suppressing a cry of fear. What the chen she deh is going on? Lee leaned forward again and looked out the window. It was dark… real dark. Chan morphed into the being within him, werewolf in its most horrid form, and blinked on his night vision.


            Joy Ryan had watched as the junk fighter hit the atmosphere of Artemis. Even though it burst into flames a mile away from where she was standing, she could still feel the heat of the impact as it washed over her. Joy immediately threw the auto extinguisher in the back of her hovertruck and gunned the flitter to life. With the high oxygen content of this terraformed moon, fire could spread quickly, getting out of control before anyone could stop it. There are too few people here anyway.

            It took her mere moments to reach the crash, sending the golden rice paddies splashing around her. Already, the flames were starting to spread out—she yanked the extinguisher out and activated it. Suddenly the whole area was covered in asphyxiating foam; smothering the fire, eating up the oxygen faster then the flames could reach it. Ryan covered her mouth from the plastic stench until it was finished. Vishnu on a fucking stick, she thought, I hate that thing. I wish my husband had bought something more…

            The thought of John sent a cold chill down her spine. As her eyes saw the glow of Alpha Centauri in the sky, she remembered the day when John joined up with the Resistance to free Mars—and never came back. Buddha take it, that was two years ago.

            Joy thought she heard a cough; she looked into the mass of smoke and metal and saw a body in the wreckage. Then it moved. Someone survived a crash like that? She stepped into the heat and got closer to the man. In his ripped leather clothes, the Asian man looked grotesque—his face gashed out like that. Probably from the crash, Ryan thought, but otherwise his wounds were minimal. She carefully touched the unwounded part of his face.

            The body jerked at the touch; Joy pulled her hand back as his form changed into a large hairy beast. “A werewolf?!” she said out loud, shocked by the oddness of it. She had heard stories; her grandfather had told of the time he had served with them in the Tech Infantry, back in the old Fed, but she had never seen one before now.

            “Hey! Are you okay?!” Joy yelled out to the still quivering form.


            “A werewolf?!” came over the fighter’s static-filled com.

            Chan finally got a message—but that was impossible in hyperspace, unless there was another ship near the jumpgate.

            “Hey! Are you okay?!” sparkled in that same female voice.

            Lee immediately punched the com button. “Where are you?”

            “Where am I?” she responded. “I’m right in front of you!”

            “I don’t understand. I can’t see you.”

            “I’m sorry?”

            “I said, I don’t understand! I can’t see you!”


            The werewolf was speaking—but he was mumbling terribly, like he was speaking from a dream. It was hard to understand. Finally he said, “I don’t understand. I can’t see you.”

            “Your face—I think it got hurt in the crash. That’s why you can’t see me. Can you stand?”

            “Stand?” the beast warbled out. “I need you to activate the gate.”

            “What gate?” Joy was confused. “Can you stand?”


            This lady must be out of her mind, Lee thought, how in the pi khu am I supposed to stand in a cockpit? “Sure, I can stand, but I need to get through the gate.”

            “Fine, I can help you through the gate, but you need to stand first. Here—I’ll help.” Suddenly the fighter lurched away from the jumpgate, spiraling out into the infinity of swirls. “What are you doing?”

            “Trying to get you on your feet.”

            “Couldn’t we do this easier in normal space?”

            “Yes, but we need to get you clear of this fighter.”


            “What? I can’t leave the fighter!” the beast roared out.

            Spirits above, Ryan thought, it’s like trying to move a cow—the man is shell-shocked. “Come on. You’ll never make it unless you help me.”

            “What in the t’ien she deh do you want me to do?”

            Was that Chinese? Maybe that strange pi-yin those Asians keep talking. Thankfully they leave us alone. However, she did think that knowing it might come in handy today. “I want you to get up and follow my lead.”

            “Okay—activating thrusters now.”

            Joy rolled her eyes, continuing to pull him through the wreckage, but this time, he actually managed to stand and walk with her.


            Suddenly, the fighter was able to turn around and he reestablished his link with the beacon. Soon enough, the jumpgate was in his sights; was this girl using a tractor beam? Why didn’t her ship appear on his sensors? “On target.”

            “Looks like it, don’t it?”

            “Can you activate the jumpgate sequence?”

            “Sure, once we get back to my truck.”

            “I’m sorry?”

            “My truck—right in front of you.”


            “Do you have a cloaking device or something?”

            They had finally cleared the wreckage and the two of them were meters away from her hovertruck. The sooner I get him to Doc Gavenny the better—he’s really out of it.

            “Remember? I told you, your face is hurt.”

            “It’s always been hurt.”

            “Oh really?” A few more steps…

            “I fought him—his guards, really. They were weak, but there was so many of them…”


            The jumpgate opened up and his little fighter got sucked into the vortex between dimensions. However, instead of stars, the universe became a barrage of light. He squinted against the brightness. “We jumped too close to the sun.”

            “Buddha, if we were any farther from the sun, we’d be freezing.”

            Soon enough, the lightness started to become bearable, and a large figure began to appear in shadow against the power of the illumination. “Do you see that?”


            “In front of us—that image.”

            “That’s me, wolf boy.”

            The fighter dissipated around him and the figure became more distinct. Before his eyes, a young adult woman smiled at him, rubbing the sweat that ran down from her golden hair. Looking at him through yellow eyes, she asked, “What’s wrong?”

            “You’re beautiful,” Chan replied, then collapsed in the back of Joy’s flitter, dropping back into unconsciousness.




“Ain’t that a pretty sight?”

James Welthammer walked over to the observation window and stared out at the blue jewel known as New Madrid. “After two days in hyperspace, I would have been glad to see an asteroid.”

“Well,” Lieutenant Joe Howard smiled, “we’re only a jump away from Hrothgar, if you wanna see rocks…”

“No thanks. Just try not to crash into it.”

“Sure, dad. I’ll even wash the flitter when I come back.”

Welthammer smiled and left his first mate to work. It was a quick jaunt up the main tube to the crew lounge, where his squad was in the middle of their weekly poker game. “Are you winning, Shrak?”

“No, sir, Tiller’s cleaning us all out. I swear he’s a mind mage rather than a medic.”

James looked over to the tanned man staring at his cards. Will just shrugged and went back to betting.

“Where’s Harvern?”

Peterson, the fitness junkie, just laughed as he put his bet in. “He’s in his quarters, sir, praying for forgiveness. He thinks he may have blasphemed a couple hundred times back on Phoenix.”

Major Shrek shrugged. “Whole lot of need for blaspheming, if you ask me, sir. That mission was completely FUBAR.”

“I agree.” As the proximity alarm rang out, the ship’s captain had an evil glint in his eye. “Time to do something about it.”


De Ulloa Station was the pride of the Orion Arm systems. Gleaming white surfaces, holoproj interactive screens, and antigrav transports allowed the fastest movement of people and cargo anywhere outside the capital. When the han took over, they had to build a new space station from scratch. The Fed had never built another civilian station after most of the orbitals had been destroyed during a fleet raid in the 3rd Civil War. They had relied on mothballed starships to cover the load, which were then destroyed in turn when the Vin Shriak invaded.

James let his money do the talking here—not that he had that much of it. A tiny Japanese guy in his flowing robes was told the ketracite they were unloading was actually ball bearings. The han didn’t dispute it since he slipped him a couple hundred crowns in a credchit. Now the dock they were in was under maintenance as well—Welthammer didn’t want any record trail to follow him here.

It didn’t take him long to reach another part of the station soon after—a part of the station that was officially part of the automated waste recycling. No one ever came down this far, thanks to the smell, and frankly, that was fine to his employer. The only visitors he wanted were those determined enough to step through the stench.

James reached a plain metal door that said “High Voltage” in five languages and knocked. A cheap sensor on top of the door made a clicking noise and then the gate opened smoothly. On the other side, there was a rather tough han with a slicked back pony-tail, wearing an Imperial Marine earring. His impressive control and fierceness looked ridiculous in a three-piece suit. The bodyguard bowed slightly; Welthammer just stared at him. The bodyguard was annoyed, but said nothing as he stood up straight. “M. Welthammer, I presume?” a cultured voice responded, sounding completely out of place.

The freighter captain just nodded slightly—he wanted to get this done with. The muscle pushes a button and an inner door slides open. James needed no further invitation.

“Jimmy!” the Hispanic man with the slender, wedge-shaped head yelled from behind his desk. “It’s great to see you! How’s it hanging?”

“Low and a little to the left.” Welthammer shrugged, taking the offered hand and shaking it.

“Please have a seat—besides, I’m going to make you a very happy man today. I assume you got the shipment?”

James nodded as he sunk into the overstuffed chair opposite Hatchet Face. The captain didn’t really have any other name for him; he never gave me any.

“Good.” The Hispanic man was all smiles as he took back to his own chair. “I’ve got a credchit here for…”

“Half a million crowns.”

Hatchet Face’s smile drops as Welthammer leans his feet on his desk—then laughs. “Jimmy, always a kidder! You had me going for a moment there. Now, about your one twenty five…”

“Five hundred thousand.”

The fence finally stopped smiling. “We agreed to one twenty five. If you’re trying to get a raise for a milk run…”

“Your milk run had the entire Phoenix police force lighting up that warehouse like a Christmas tree. Our deal was to pick up undisclosed boxes at a low-security government building. I didn’t ask, you didn’t tell. You also didn’t tell me that the reason why that particular stretch of nowhere was out there because it was full of ketracite.”

“Well, I…”

Like a flash, Welthammer was on his feet, finger in the employer’s face. “It was also a bit more than low-security. When you provided the blueprints, you never bothered to check if the security had been upgraded in the past twenty years!”

“Now just…”

“AND you neglected to mention the Civil Police were monitoring that warehouse because when your shiba pyongshin checked the place out, they tripped some sensors,” James’ fist slammed on the desk, “which weren’t on the golram blueprints!”

The freighter captain leaned in close enough to smell the fear and the enchiladas he had for lunch. As he whispered, a smile spread across his face. “Now here’s the good news, brown eyes. Ketracite happens to be a highly dangerous, highly prized compound. Each of those forty-three boxes my crew’s unloading now has a listed price of a hundred thousand crowns. Now if that’s the listed price, I don’t even wanna know what you’re gonna charge.”

“Forty-three?” Hatchet Face’s eyes sparkled.

“Well, we would had 44, but we had to blow a Dragonfly out of orbit.” Welthammer stood back up. “Not to mention the giant crater in the ground sitting where the warehouse used to be, filled with several dead police officers. Now, do I get my half mil, or do I tell our friendly boys in delta armor where they can find a cop-killer?”


Untraceable credchit in hand, James didn’t bother bowing to the bodyguard on his way out. The freighter captain wanted out of here just as soon as he could before Hatchet Face could think about using the plasma revolver he was fingering under the desk. He quickly made his way to the front door and thought about how they could get off New Madrid the fastest.

As he palmed the door signal, it slid open… and Welthammer was staring into a black armored mask.

James blinked—then smiles and nods. “Well done, sergeant!  I am thoroughly impressed with your response time to my tip. When I get back to headquarters, I’ll see to it that your unit gets a nice bonus for this, and perhaps even some extra leave. Carry on.”

The freighter captain kept smiling and walked on past, leaving the confused soldier standing at the entrance. Welthammer didn’t break pace; desperate more than ever to get out of this gan ni zhou system. Then as he turned the corner out of the narrow hallway, he was suddenly facing four more black suits. This time he had time to recognize their insignia—Imperial Security. Go sch, James thought, this has got to be the worst timing ever.

Before James could say anything, there was suddenly a massive whine and scorch through the air; the sound of plasma being fired. The black power armor ran past him towards his employer… former employer, his mind corrected, allowing him to make his way to the rest of the station and disappear.


At least, that was the plan. As Welthammer reached Resolve, suddenly he saw his first mate standing on the hatchway ramp, arms crossed, and looking down at an entire platoon of IS troopers, spiker guns cycled and armed at Howard. The lieutenant looked completely unphased at certain death staring at him.

Better stop this standoff before Joe does something stupid… well, more stupid than now. James stepped forward, head up, and looked for the highest rank. There he was—the lieutenant up in front. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing, lieutenant?!  Are you trying to destroy my entire operation?!?! What damn slope came up with this bullshit order?!?!”

Even Joe was astonished at the level of insult his captain had just released; one never swore in the same language you were speaking. The lieutenant released the nanobots from his face shield so he could look the enraged Welthammer in the eye. “M. Welthammer, your ship is being impounded as a result…”

Captain Welthammer, you pabo sung sam neem, Captain Welthammer, of his Imperial Majesty’s Navy!”


“You think I like being on this piece of gosa ship? You think I haven’t spent six months of life trying to track down these low-life vultures for fun? Do you realize just how much you may have endangered my entire operation?! I will have your superior’s head on the block in front of the Emperor for this, and his superior—heads will roll, lieutenant!”

“Uh, sai, I need…”

“Unless you get out of my way, lieutenant, you’ll find yourself a prison guard on G2. Dongma?

“I doubt that very much, captain.”

James’ head swiveled towards the light-sounding voice; standing behind Joe was an oriental woman in the same black armor, her head fully revealed. The han was stunningly beautiful, but her eyes pointed like daggers at him.

Welthammer stared at his first mate with a questioning look. Joe just shrugged, as if to say, I would have told you she was on board, but you didn’t ask. He shifted his bravado towards the new target. “And just who the jin sai are you?”

Captain Pei Li Fang, Imperial Security.”

“Captain, you may endangered my entire mission! You and your black bas…”

“You are not in the navy, M. Welthammer, secret mission or otherwise.”

“How in the den deh mah would you know?”

Fang held up a BLAM disk. “Because I just downloaded your ship’s database, captain.”

James sighed. Well, big mouth, he pondered, now what? His feet moved of their own volition towards the lovely secret cop. Once he had passed Howard, he looked right into Pei Li’s eyes and spat out the first thing that came to mind. “Do you think I leave my ship defenseless, captain? A click of this button here,” Welthammer pointed to a rather large button on his suit, “and I’ll activate my point defenses. Your shiny armor is going to be so much cat food tins after a burst from my plasma phalanx.”

“Your ship has no weapons, save for the front, and that’s pointed away from us.”

“They’re disguised, gaujo!”

She rubbed the BLAM back in his face. “Remember, I already know what your ship knows, captain. Besides, had you served in the Imperial Navy, M. Welthammer, you would know how large a particle phalanx is. You can’t hide it.” Fang put away the disk. “Now, unless you want me to kick your quai loh sch all over this cargo bay, you’ll tell me where you’re hiding those rebel soldiers you picked up in Mars.”

“Mars? That was two years ago! We dropped them all off on Avalon, as we were ordered by the Senatorial Police Committee. You can check with Senator Samothrace—he can tell you all about it.”

“We can account for all but seven of them, captain. We know they’re on your ship. Now… you either show the proper respect, or you can spend the next ten years on G2.”

Tanj,” James shrugged and began to lower himself into a bow. Once he lost eye contact with Pei Li, he barreled into her, slamming her off the ramp, and landing on the plasteel floor below. Welthammer went for the only exposed area, her face, and rammed his fist towards it.

He never even connected. As the fist moved towards her face, Fang grabbed his wrist and turned it, causing extreme pain to flow through his body. Then a knee followed into his chest, an elbow into his chin, finally a leg flipping him over, until he was flat on his back—in too much pain to do anything.

“You touched my hair, you shi fa ren!” Pei Mi screamed, slamming several more kicks into his rib cage. As her hands went to her damaged hair bun, she ordered, “Take him away!”

While Welthammer was being dragged away moaning, Captain Fang fixed her hair, then marched over to Howard, still dumbfounded by James’ actions. “Now… you’re not going to give me any more trouble, are you?”

Iye, sai.” Joe bowed. “What’s to happen to my captain?”

Pei Mi smiled as she rubbed a finger over her lips. “Don’t worry, he’ll be taken care of.”




            Icarus Hicks walked out into the parking lot behind the research building.  It had been a long day, and he hadn’t had much time to reflect on the disturbing email he had read early that morning.  He got into his aircar and drove out through the guard gate, flashing his ID to the bored rent-a-cop on duty as he left.  Once out on the main road, he spun up the main liftjets and took off, rising into the air and turning into the main air corridor circling the city of Talavera. 

            Talavera was situated on a narrow isthmus along the equatorial belt on the planet New Madrid, an isthmus connecting the continents of Andalusia and Navarra.  The hills around the city were covered by the riotous greens of native jungle and the subtly different greens of plantations growing Terran bananas and coffee.  A travel mug of coffee grown in those hills was in the cup holder next to Icarus as he activated the autopilot and set it to take him to Baja Verde, the suburban hamlet nestled in the main valley near the Talavera Canal across the isthmus. 

            The autopilot landed the aircar at a strip alongside the Canal Highway and briefly merged again into the ground traffic, turning off into the side streets and toward his dwelling.  Once there, he parked in his attached garage and went inside.  He set the autochef to make dinner, drained the last of his now-cold coffee from his travel mug, and popped a can of Yangtze Cola out of the cooler.  As he waited for his teriyaki to warm up in the autochef, he put on some music and sipped his cola.  Ah, sweet carbonated caffeine

            Why would Imperial Security be interested in basic neurological research, he thought to himself.  Yes, he could think of a couple applications for his work involving crime prevention, reducing the aggressiveness of habitual bullies and even curing drug and gambling addictions.  The last two could significantly reduce crime, but it would probably be prohibitively expensive to use on a wide scale.  Heck, if his work could bring shell-shocked werewolf veterans of the Vin Shriak War out of permanent rages and cure crippled vets of addiction to painkillers, it could probably deal with rowdy drunks.  But there was a big difference between paying for surgery and therapy for a few thousand ex-soldiers, and paying for surgery and therapy for the millions of petty criminals across human space.  And if ImpSec wanted to use his work to rehabilitate criminals, why all the secrecy?  Sure, the Imps were habitually paranoid, almost on a par with InSec back in the days of the Fed, but curing criminal behavior is the kind of things governments like to crow from the rooftops.  Even when your government has only the thinnest veneer of Democracy, the Senate and the Propaganda bureau still liked to at least pretend they cared what the people thought. 

            So they probably weren’t planning on using the new therapies on drug runners or Yakuza thugs.  Interrogation, perhaps?  But electrodes in the pain or pleasure centers of the brain had been around for centuries, and were pretty darn foolproof on unawakened humans.  When there’s no legal barrier to torture, you don’t have to bother with genital electrodes and rubber hoses or other age-old techniques designed to not leave a mark, you can dope people up with a variety of drugs or pry their neurons apart with a mind mage or hit them with a vampiric blood bond, or any other dozen methods of interrogation.  His work had no applicability to alien biologies or even vampires (when you’re already technically dead, nerve cells and neurotransmitters aren’t as useful as they used to be), so it wouldn’t be much good at spying on the Middle Kingdom’s enemies.  Sure, they were some technically independent human worlds out there, but they were all more or less puppet states of the Kingdom, dependent on it for trade and many manufactured goods. 

            The autochef beeped, and he took his dinner out of the oven and sat down to eat it right over the sink.  Dammit, I’m too old to still be living the bachelor lifestyle.  He idly tossed the wrapper from his dinner packet into the DisposAll unit and checked the plasma ball schedule hanging on his fridge.  On the other hand, living alone has its advantages - like never having to fight over the vid remote, he smiled to himself. 

            So what did ImpSec want with his work?  Heh, if this was InSec instead of ImpSec we were talking about, I’d half believe they intended to use it for mind control on EVERYBODY.  That’d be just the kind of megalomaniacal, insanely expensive, and utterly evil scheme that those Technocracy thugs would think of. 

            No.  They couldn’t be THAT insane.  Mind control everyone?  What good would it do?  Sure, you could tickle the right neurons and a person would do whatever you told him to, but they’d do whatever ANYONE told them to do.  Chemically lobotomized zombies have no loyalty.  First time they saw an ad saying “Drink Yangtze Cola”, they’d stop whatever they were doing and drink Yangtze Cola.  Granted, using his methods to extend the research into other areas of the brain might allow better-targeted mind control, but it would still be more trouble than it was worth.  Just mapping everyone’s brains to find the inevitable differences in how neural links developed in childhood to find the right neurons to tickle would be prohibitively expensive.  And you couldn’t just mind-control the troublemakers, since, if you can identify the troublemakers, it’s cheaper to just shoot them than to subject them to a expensive course of surgeries and drug therapies.  Bullets are a heck of a lot cheaper than individually tailored viruses loaded with memory RNA.  You’d have to mind-control EVERYONE to make it work, or the ones you don’t lobotomize would turn against you. 

            Unless the only ones left with free minds were all Han, he thought.  Tanj dammit, those arrogant Han bastards WOULD think of something like this.  Even the good ones like Jin-Bin wouldn’t think of marrying a gaijin, and the ape-brain that hides in all of us tends to classify anyone outside your own breeding population as one of two categories.  Rivals...or prey. 

            No, werewolves still think in terms of prey, he thought, not us.  Humans rarely hunted any more, and the Asian culture that had conquered the stars had even less of a hunting tradition than the Western-dominated Federation had once had.  Humans domesticate animals.  Tame our prey, cut a devil’s bargain with them.  He chuckled uncomfortably as he forked another mouthful of teriyaki beef into his mouth.  The same kind of devil’s bargain I made when I went along with the surrender order.  Not that he’d had much choice.  Not that any of them had much choice that day, with an Eastern Bloc fleet in orbit, surrounded on the surface by EB troopers and those damn tamed bugs…

            Tamed bugs.  The Han overlords of the Eastern Bloc who’d founded the Middle Kingdom had tamed Bugs, the most fearsome alien enemy that humanity had ever faced.  Eight-limbed insectoids with a hive mind and full command of True Magick, plus extremely high technology based on Horadrim tech.  Of course, the original Bugs were Horadrim domesticated animals, their equivalent of cattle or hunting dogs or whatever.  The Han had tamed bugs, and used them to supplement and finally replace their power-armored ground troopers.  The Han think in terms of domesticating both their rivals and their prey, as we once domesticated both the antelope we hunted and the wolves we competed with…producing goats and dogs.  And, back on Earth, the Chinese who had founded the old Eastern Bloc had treated their own peasants as little better than domesticated cattle.  There was even an old Chinese saying, at least I think it was a Chinese saying, he thought, that went something like this.  “A woman must work twice as hard as a donkey, because a woman eats rice, while a donkey eats grass.” 

            Icarus practically choked on his last mouthful of rice.  Holy mother of….

            The Han aren’t planning on mind-controlling us forever.  Just long enough to replace us without a struggle.  In his research, he’d identified a couple of genes that left their carriers unusually susceptible to certain brain injuries, malformed proteins for certain receptor sites or neurotransmitter precursors.  That’s what his research was really focused on, fixing brain injuries among the thousands of wounded veterans still left over from the last series of wars 20 years ago.  And the new cripples and basket cases from the Mars rebellion and the Year of Hell revolts.  Extend that research just a bit…and you might be able to literally cut aggression or selfishness or greed out of the human genome.  Back in med school under the Fed, some of his classmates had joked that the Asians of the Eastern Bloc had bred themselves over the centuries into a hive-mind like the Bugs or Jurvain. 

            Now the joke’s on us.  They’re gonna do it to us for real.  Chemically and surgically geld the current generation to prevent uprisings when they banned unplanned pregnancies.  Clone a few million genetically altered human fetuses, implant them in the lobotomized women of the current generation.  Keep us around just long enough to raise the generation of slaves and peasants to replace us.  Then feed us to their pet bug soldiers. 

            Icarus tossed his empty plate into the sink and headed down into the basement towards his home workshop.  Rivals, prey, or sheep, he thought.  Yes, perhaps it’s finally time.  Twenty years is long enough.  Icarus had had this house built to his own specifications, and one late-night caffeine-fueled bout of digging in still-wet fungicrete had given him a secret compartment in the basement floor, with a few special items buried in case of emergency.  After all, even when your patron is the duke of the whole golram planet, people fall in and out of favor with the Imperial Court all the time.  There were those in power who didn’t think ANY ex-Fed soldiers could be trusted, even those who were just Light Infantry field medics in the Vin Shriak War.  Icarus Hicks had survived twenty years of comfortable captivity since being ordered to surrender in the last war, but even as comfortable as it was, it was still captivity all the same.  I’ve been prey long enough.    

            He put on a pot of coffee and opened his toolbox.  He took out a methane microlaser, knelt down, and began cutting through the floor covering.  It was going to be another long night.




            When Magellan's crew arrived in Spain, the date in the log that they had meticulously kept did not match the date in Spain.  It was assumed that the crew members that the crew had slept through an entire day.  However, the crew insisted that this was not the case.  A delegation was sent to the Vatican to discover the truth of the matter.  After much debate, scientists set to discover the truth of the matter, so that Easter could be celebrated on the correct day.

            Approximately four hundred years later, time zones were created.  This was done to keep trains in the United States on schedule.  Speed had reached a point that deadly accidents were common when towns operated on different schedules.  Time became unified.

            Later, time itself was altered.  American nuclear submariners in the 20th and 21st century adapted their schedules to match an 18-hour day.  Without a sun, the need to keep time according to the sun became pointless.  Life revolved around efficiency.

            Early starships adopted this 18-hour schedule.  But when starships began servicing planets aside from Earth, it became necessary to adapt to local standards.  One planet might be on a 25-hour schedule, with every Sunday an extra 30 minutes to sleep.  This was very difficult to deal with initially, but human ingenuity and excellent programming of computers and digital watches soon compensated.  When starships with passengers traveled between systems, they would always adopt the time schedule of the system that they were traveling to, in order to let the passengers adjust.  It was also found that doing this all at once, rather than slowly over the trip, would increase coffee sales in the ship's store.

            Military ships, which seldom landed on planets, kept on the 18-hour schedule.  This made the infantry that the ships carried particularly upset, as they were forced to adjust to the 18-hour schedule until they landed.  Interestingly, some historians have referred to this as the reason the Federation lost the war.  Tech infantry troops tended to panic on ships more in the first two weeks than in the rest of the voyage combined.  This was attributed at the time to the werewolves being confined on starships, but it was found later to be caused by difficulty adjusting to military time.  The panics caused by sleep deprivation could lead to as much as a 30% decline in unit size when they arrived at their destination.

            The Middle Kingdom, with its refusal to rely on the inherently unreliable werewolves, fought with greater precision than its foes. 


Sherif was tired during the first weeks of the voyage, but he blamed this on his injuries and the time adjustment from Jennifer to Minos time.  Sherif spent the first week of the journey doing nothing but sleeping in his third class two berth that he, thankfully, had all to himself.  Sherif only went out for food four times, but he just wasn't hungry.  The fifth day into the trip, Sherif received a knock on his cabin door.  He awoke from a deep sleep and intense dreams about his home and stumbled towards the door.  He said he would be right there, and put on a pair of pants.  He opened the door and was surprised to find a lady in a staff uniform of the Minos Queen with a very worried expression.  He stared at her through very bleary eyes.  She seemed to struggle for a moment, trying to determine if to smile at Sherif's bedraggled expression or be concerned with her duty.

"M. Adams, I'm afraid that there has been an outbreak of Jurvain Fever on board.  Oh my… are you feeling well?"  She apparently chose duty.

Sherif shrugged.  "I'm still recovering from a wound I received two weeks ago."  Sherif struggled for a moment, but only for a moment, and connected the worried expression and the words.  "Jurvain Fever?  What's that?"

The crewman stammered, "Perhaps you should come to the ship's infirmary.  You seem to have caught a case.  Would you come with me please?"

Sherif followed the nervous crewman from his cabin.  He chatted with her on the way down to the infirmary and was unconcerned with the outbreak.  When he arrived at the infirmary, he was surprised to see so many cots out, with so many children on them.

A nurse walked up and exchanged a few words with the crewman, who handed off Sherif to the nurse.  She asked him to sit down, and he did.  A few moments later, Sherif had a temperature, blood pressure, blood analysis unit on him.  It beeped another minute later, and a nurse informed Sherif that he had Jurvain Fever.  She immediately handed him a pamphlet on the illness and said she would be back.

Sherif read through the pamphlet.  Jurvain Fever had come from Sahlmeen, and generally wasn't a threat.  But from time to time, nasty outbreaks occurred that affected the very young, or the very old.  When adults got sick, they slept for a week or more while the virus mutated and ran its course.  But children and the elderly were known to die from the disease.  It tended to be worse and more common on cruise liners, where thousands of passengers breathed the same air.  Because of the exotic source of the virus, and the Jurvain not taking kindly to strangers these days, vaccines were hard to come by.

The nurse came back over.  "Do you have any questions?"

"Yes, doesn't the ship have air filters?"

"It does, but they don't work with 100% efficiency.  What I need you to do is to go back to your cabin and sleep.  The crew will be serving you breakfast in your cabin.  You don't need to worry; you'll be fine.  But you do need to sleep."

This was exactly what Sherif wanted to do and so he thanked the nurse and returned to his cabin.  He slept for the next week, waking up occasionally to take a sonic shower and eat food.

He watched a little closed circuit television when he started to feel more awake at the end of the week, and found that the ship had left the Jennifer Star system and was nearing the New Paris jump gate in the Wilke's Star system.

Over the next day, Sherif felt much better, and wanted to get out and go for a walk.  When he asked the crewman serving breakfast, he was told that another strain had appeared on the ship.  Sherif was feeling much better, and protested that he needed to walk.  The crewman appeared understanding, and said that he would speak to the captain.

A few hours later, the crewman returned and told Sherif that he was welcome to walk on the top deck.  Sherif left his cabin and followed the crewman's instructions.  He walked by most cabins, and they were silent.  In a cabin though, he heard a soft voice speaking.  He stopped to listen, curious.  "I've given her a sedative.  Your wife will sleep for a few more hours.  We'll be at the Wilke's Star Forward Military Post in a few more hours.  We can take on more anti-viral medicines.  I think your daughter will…" Sherif stepped away.  He sighed deeply, remembering that all children lose parents, but only the most miserable parents lose children.  It simply wasn't the way the universe was supposed to work.

Soon, he found the lift, and took it to the top deck.  He walked for ten minutes in a lap and on the second lap, Sherif found a room named "Observatory." Curious, he stepped inside.


Jennifer Star was a smaller planet.  It was close to its bright red sun.  This meant that it was seldom dark, and when it was, few stars could be seen.  Sherif had seen space in science books, and had taken an astronomy course in college, but he had never really seen stars.  Sherif walked into the dark observatory.  He turned his face towards the heavens.

            "My God."

"My God."

Wonder, truth, color, black, nothing, everything…

All before me…

The universe.  The circles.  The curves.  Gravity, energy, matter, religion, truth, all of it was in front of Sherif.  From stardust we came, and from stardust we return.  Clockwork chaos.

"And my parents are there.  They are safe.  I know they are.  They're inside the universe, and they're inside me."

It was out there.  It was in here.  It was in him.  It was him.  He closed his eyes and felt everything.  He felt the artificial gravity well from the ship, the engines creating power and heat, he heard the light from the far off sun bouncing off the ship's shields, he heard the sound of a breathing child and a sobbing mother and a thousand other passengers hearts' beating.  He knew that the speed of the galaxy had increased slowly in the past ten seconds.  Everything was always moving faster.  He felt Wilke's Star's rotation slowing from the gravitational pull of the Minos Queen.  Entropy ceased when definition began.

A quote he had once heard floated through his head.  "God does not play dice."  God.  What was God?  God was the universe.  It, he, had to be.  But Sherif knew he was part of the universe.  He remembered his grandmother telling him of Allah, and he felt sad when he remembered burning the Koran in class at the insistence of the teacher.  A crusade against religion…

But God.  Why couldn't there be as many Gods as truths.  One truth, one God.  Another Truth, another God.  There was a universe of souls, and the truth of the truth was truth.

And Sherif continued to gaze at the heavens.


            The giant cruise liner spent half a day at Wilke's Star Forward Military Post, and then she left for New Paris.  The Minos Queen had an excellent safety record, but statistics finally caught up to her.  Besides, outbreaks occurred with frequency on such ships.  "These sorts of things just happen" was a phrase that was of small consolation to Deng Jing's family.

            She was the only fatality of the Minos Queen outbreak, though two other children, one Deng Jing's sister, suffered minor brain damage.


            Deng Mei Li was playing with her doll.  It was a doll of a beautiful Chinese lady.  The beautiful doll was wearing a beautiful dress.  Deng was touching the doll's hair.  Her Mommy had been very upset when she heard that Mei Li was ill.  But Mei Li did not feel sick any more.  She felt good, but she could not think as well as she used to.  To speak was difficult, and that frustrated her.  Sometimes, the words got in the way of the other words.  Sometimes, they just wouldn't come out.

            Daddy said that maybe someone could fix her brain, but Mei Li heard the doctor tell her baba that repairing brains was very hard.  It didn't seem fair.  She used to be able to help her sister dress the doll.  But now her sister was dead.  She was mad that her mami wouldn't let her out.  So she went out on her own.

            Mei Li wandered the ship for over an hour before she met someone.  He was nice.  He asked her name, she told him, after some difficulty.  He looked at her, and asked her if the sickness did this to her.  Mei Li wanted to say yes, but couldn't do it.  Tears of frustration and shame began pouring down her face.  She wanted to cry, to run, to do anything.  She used to be so elegant, so tall.  Now she was dumb and ugly.

            The stranger was crying as well.  Mei Li looked up.  She didn't understand.  He was crying harder than Mei Li had ever seen a boy, much less a man, cry.  Sobs shook his body.  She leaned forward, and raised a hand to touch his tears.

            Instantly, Mei Li dropped her doll.  She stood up straight, and looked shocked at the stranger.  Her mouth opened, closed, and then opened again.  She didn't understand what had happened, but it wasn't because her mind was muddled.  The stranger must be magic, a mage.  How else could this be?  What could this be?

            The stranger took a step back, and looked at the now poised and intelligent Mei Li.  She looked back and instantly ran away.  She dropped her doll and ran as though she had never ran before.  She knew he had healed her.  She was ran faster than she had ever run in her fourteen years.

She arrived at her first class cabin and slammed the door.  Her father asked her what happened.  She told him every detail.  Her father sighed.  "There are no registered mages on the ship.  You are to keep what happened to yourself.  If you see him, turn the other way and walk away.  You must do this to protect him.  Do you understand?"  Mei Li nodded.  She understood. 

Later, she went back for her doll, but it wasn't there.




Cho looked apprehensively up at the palace of Cheon-Ha Jeong, Earl of New Tokyo.  I got a BAD feeling about this  She took the final drag off her marijuana cigarette, then flicked the butt away.  It’s gotta be a trap… is Zhou setting me up?  He knows I don’t have the option to refuse his request…

She had done dirty work for the nobility before, but never like this.  Normally they contacted her through middlemen, in obscure bars or isolated rice paddies, trying to keep as much distance as possible between themselves and criminals like her.  Now she was supposed to believe the damn Earl wanted her, a wanted murderer, to walk up to his palace and knock on his front door?  This reeks of a setup… but why me?  I’m small time…

Cho, at least, had the sense to come late at night.  She drove cautiously through the back gate of the estate and handed the guard her fake identification, keeping her eyes and senses peeled for any sign of ambush.  As the guard turned away, she glanced up at the security camera and concentrated—there was a soft electrical snap, and the camera went dead.  Incredibly, the guard waved her through without question.

Parking her hovercycle and dismounting, she stalked slowly toward the servant’s entrance in the back of the palace, alert and watchful.  If something goes wrong, she thought, I’ve got to get out of the palace, back to my bike, through the gate… not good.  She felt naked without the two pistols she always carried, but she had to be unarmed.  Cho knew she would be frisked for weapons, and if they found any… well, at the very least, it would get her off on the wrong foot with the Earl.  I can defend myself just with magic, she reminded herself.  I’ve survived this long, haven’t I?  Taking a deep breath, she silently opened the door and peered inside.

 Three people were waiting for her.

“Good evening, M. Yamazaki,” said a tall han in a waistcoat and tie said, bowing to her.

“Oh…uh… good evening, sai,” Cho responded, entering and bowing.  “I’m honored to be here.”  Her shifty eyes bounced over the other two people in the room.  The tall muscular man with dull eyes was obviously a bodyguard—almost certainly armed.  The other, a slim, short man in a silk robe could only have been another mage—and, Cho noted as she examined his aura, quite a powerful one too.  Probably to keep me in check, she figured.

“My apologies for the inconvenience,” the butler said, “but would you mind turning around and placing your hands along the wall?”

“Whatever.”  Cho rolled her eyes, but raised her arms and leaned against the wall, waiting for the bodyguard to pat her down.  “Just keep your hands outta places they don’t belong, dong ma?”

“The Earl will see you now,” the butler said.  “But first we’ll provide you with…” he cast a disdainful glance up and down her body, “some more appropriate attire.”

Cho felt a surge of anger and indignation.  What’s wrong with my clothes? she thought as she looked down at her outfit.  She was wearing her expensive red silk shirt and her very best leather jacket.  She’d even shined her steel-toed boots for the occasion!  Still, she didn’t want to offend the Earl, so she traded her leather jacket for a black silk robe as the three servants led her through a series of corridors to the Earl’s study.  Cho memorized the route as they went… just in case she needed to leave the palace in a hurry.  The butler knocked on the study door.  A voice within told them to enter.  The butler swung the door open, and Cho saw Cheon-Ha Jeong, Earl of New Tokyo, in person for the first time.

He was a younger man, having inherited the title from his father only a few years ago.  He was tall and dashingly handsome, standing tall and stately, decked out in an exquisite black smoking jacket embroidered with golden lions.  But what caught Cho’s attention were his eyes; they were dark and devious, calculating, shifty, filled with a contemptuous, humorless smile.  I’ve seen that look before on the streets, Cho thought.  This guy’s tricky… and dangerous.

“Your grace,” the butler announced as Cho entered, “M. Kiyocho Yamazaki.”

“Good evening,” the Earl said, bowing slightly to her.

“I am honored to be here, your grace,” Cho said, instantly bowing deeply in return.  “How may I be of service?”  Cho remained bowed a few seconds, facing the floor.  Is this deep enough? she wondered.  Too deep?  Should I kow-tow?  How long do I have to stay down?  Gods, I hate this manners burukuso!  This is my sister’s specialty, not mine…

The Earl seemed satisfied, though.  He silently dismissed the servants with a wave of his hand, but the mage and bodyguard hovered just outside the door.  Cho eyed the Earl nervously as she straightened.  She still hadn’t ruled out the possibility of a setup.

“Now, forgive me,” the Earl said politely, easing himself into an overstuffed armchair and picking up a tube from a water pipe on the end table between the chairs, “but how do I know you are indeed Kiyocho Yamazaki, and not an imposter?”

Cho knew what the question meant, knew what he wanted to see.  She hated this part.  It was embarrassing.  Without a word, she took off the black robe and began unbuttoning her silk shirt.  She pulled it off her shoulders as she turned her back to the Earl… but twisted her head around to keep an eye on him.  Puffing on his pipe, Jeong gazed at the enormous tattoo across her back and shoulder blades, a complicated knot work of intricate images, koi and kanji and Chinese dragons.  To those who could interpret the symbols, it denoted her allegiance, position, and history: Yakuza, Tanzhi family, journeyman mage, seven years service.  She doubted the nobleman could read it, though—few outside yakuza could.

“Satisfied?” Cho asked roughly.  She felt extremely self-conscious standing in her underwear in front of the Earl of New Tokyo.

Hai.  Please, have a seat,” the Earl said, gesturing.

“I’d rather stand, thank you, your grace,” Cho said, as she yanked her shirt back up and spun around.  Her eyes still slid across the room, still looking for hidden cameras.

The Earl cocked an eyebrow.  “If you wish.”  He inhaled deeply and blew a perfect smoke ring.  “Please, join me,” Jeong said, holding out the other pipe stem, “it’s Khmer Rouge—premium opium.  Quite exquisite.”

Cho stared at the pipe longingly, torn.  As a general rule, she never ate, drank, or smoked anything she didn’t prepare herself… but still… a chance to try genuine Khmer Rouge!  It was so rare and expensive, she might never get another chance…  Her paranoia struggled with her addiction; the addiction won.

Cho sat down next to the Earl, took the pipe stem, and breathed in the smooth smoke.  She puffed out pure white cloud—the stuff she normally smoked was yellow—it was good opium, aright.  I’m getting’ stoned with the Earl of New Tokyo! she thought giddily.  The guys’ll never believe this…

She breathed out the smoke and leaned back in her chair.  “Now, what can a lowly mandarin like me do for you, your grace?” she asked as the opium’s pleasant rush began to pulse through her body.

            “Zhou Tanzhi specifically recommended you for this task,” the Earl said.  “Your unique skills and… unconventional profession make you the perfect candidate.”

            “Thank you, sai,” said Cho, glancing sideways at the Jeong curiously at the mention of Zhou’s name.  How does an Earl know a Yakuza lieutenant? she wondered, and made a mental note to check up on Lord Zhou later.

            “I want you to…”  The Earl paused dramatically to puff on his pipe.  “…to attend the Imperial Court on Wilke’s Star with my sister, Lady Mai, as one of her ladies-in-waiting.”

            Cho choked on the pipe fumes.  ME? she thought, shocked.  I could NEVER pass for a noble!  She had no illusions about her appearance or her manners—both were abysmal.  There had to be more to it than that…

            “Why?” she demanded.  “Obviously not for my stunning beauty or winning personality…”

            Jeong smirked smugly, clearly pleased with himself for catching her off guard.  Cho had a sudden impulse to smash that smile with a brick.  “Yes, obviously,” the Earl said with clear disdain.  “The lady-in-waiting position is just a charade to get you into the Imperial Court.  Once there, you will kill Prince Tomo.  Discretely.”

She nodded, her face impassive, and was silent for a while, turning the idea over in her head, puffing on the pipe.  She’d done hits before, sure, but on small-time folk.  Mostly rival yakaza, cops, reporters, bureaucrats… cheating boyfriends… but never anyone this big!  This would be difficult and dangerous.  Tomo was a high profile celebrity, well guarded, and seldom alone.  If they linked the assassination back to the yakuza, the entire Imperial Police would start gunning for the Tanzhi family.  And Cho could never pass herself off as an aristocratic courtier.

On the other hand, if she could pull it off… it would bring honor to the Tanzhi and give her reputation one hell of a boost.  And the payment was bound to be good…

            “Why?” Cho said when she finally spoke.

            “That doesn’t concern you.”

            Cho shrugged impassively.  “Maybe not,” she agreed, “but I need to know, if you want the job done right.  If it’s politics, we’ll knock him off quietly.  Make it seem natural.  If it’s revenge, we make it bloody and public and in bed with a young male sheep.  I don’t need the details, just the motive.”

            Jeong smiled.  “Politics, M. Yamazaki.  It would also be favorable to shift the blame onto Lord Dai… if that would be within your ability.”

            The Yakuza assassin coughed out a laugh.

            “Any other concerns you need to address?” the Earl asked quietly.

            “The most obvious.  I don’t think I could pass for a noble,” Cho said.  “I got the wrong look.  I got the wrong accent.  And I don’t know any of that courtly manners burukuso.”

            “You have a sister, I believe,” Jeong said, exhaling smoke, “who excels in such matters.  I’m sure she could teach you all you need to know.”

            “Maybe,” Cho agreed coolly.  She was keeping a poker face, but her heart began to race.  How does this guy know so much about me?  What’s he playing at?  “This kind of work don’t come cheap, you know,” she said, changing the subject.  “What are you offering?”

            “500,000 crowns, plus expenses,” Jeong answered.

            Cho shook her head.  “Oh, hell no,” she replied.  “One million, at least.”

            Jeong blinked.  He stared at her a second, shocked and appalled at the sheer nerve she had to talk to him that way.  He recovered a second later, regaining his composure.

            “Very well.  600,000 crowns,” the Earl offered.

            “One million.”


            “A million.”

            “900, 000.”

            “A million or no deal.”

            Jeong narrowed his eyes, glaring at Cho, thinking.  “Final offer,” he said, at last.  “950,000… and a kilo of Khmer Rouge.”

            Cho’s eyes widened.  A whole kilo? she thought, amazed.  That would last her for years… and, incidentally, cost enough to push the Earl's total price tag over a million.  So why offer that?

He can’t lose this haggle to a mandarin like me, Cho suddenly realized.  He’s gotta go below a million crowns, somehow, just to save face… he’ll find someone else rather than loose this bidding match.  Well, let him have his face—I’ll take the cash… and that awesome designer dust!

            “Alright,” Cho finally agreed.  “950,000 crowns, plus expenses.  Half up front, half when the job’s done.  Oh, and I'll need that Khmer Rouge in advance too.  Like… now.”

            For a split second, Jeong’s face was unreadable—then he burst into laughter.

“I accept that price,” he finally said.

“Uh… you do know that I’ll have to clear it with my oyabun—er, my boss, that is—before I can give you a definite yes... right?”

“I understand,” Jeong nodded, “but I doubt that will be a problem.”

“All right then.”  Cho paused to take a final drag from the water pipe before standing and bowing.

“Return tomorrow,” Jeong instructed, “and we will begin your etiquette training.  For now, Phom will show you to the door.”


Cho left the palace  with a kilo of the best opium money could buy in the saddlebags of her hovercycle.  Overall, it had been a good evening… so why did she still feel uneasy?  Something’s not right here… but I don’t know what or why.  No matter what she told herself, she still couldn’t help feeling like she’d just stumbled headlong into a hidden trap.  Then again, Cho thought, I usually feel that way.



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Text Copyright (C) 2004 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.  Do not try ANY of this at home, because a real-life medical doctor would know better than to drink THAT much caffeine!