Confusion of goals and perfection of means seems to characterize our age.”

                                                                                                            – Albert Einstein


            For the third time in less than three hours, Habor regained consciousness. Finding that he still had a massive headache, he kept his eyes closed and didn’t move. For one, he didn’t know where he was, how deep he was in hexash*t and two whether or not all his body parts were intact. After a few minutes of silence and stillness, Chan peered out carefully through one eye. The room around him was dark, but Chan Lee noticed that he was still in Crinos form. Nothing appeared red around him so Chan, guessing that there was nothing living around that could harm him morphed back into his human form.

            “Ah, I see our friend has awakened.”

            The voice so shocked Lee that he morphed sporadically.

            “Whoa,” came the voice again, “calm down, my friend, there is nothing to fear. Except maybe my niece here, who managed to pull you out of your burning wreck. I can’t ima…”

            His sentence was abruptly interrupted by Chan’s sitting up. As he stared at the voice, it replied,   “Spirited young wolf huh? Well, no matter, you just lie back down until we can get you back into perfect form.

            Lee didn’t speak but looked in amazement at the two people that sat at the edge of the bed he was lying on. One, who he expected was the speaker was a small, stocky looking old man with white hair, dark yellow eyes, and a nose that barely held his glasses on his face. The other was a beautiful woman with short, shoulder length hair, piercing brown eyes and an athletic form. She was about the same height as the old man, maybe a little taller.

           He heard the old man whisper to him but noticed to his surprise that the old man’s mouth didn’t move. Pretty isn’t she. Yes, she was a favorite of the soldiers before they left. Peering closer, he saw the old man’s smile. “Friend,” the old man said out loud, “lie still, we shall not harm you. I need to give you a few more rubs of gentle weed and then you’ll feel perfect.”

            The old man reached under the bed, Chan’s eyes following his every move. When the man’s hand returned from under the bed, he carried what looking like a small weapon. Lee morphed instantly and swung his legs over the edge of his bunk. He heard the small thing spit gas and he felt a small sting on his back. Rushing towards the man and woman, he watched in amazement as they disappeared before his eyes; watched as everything disappeared before him. And then, for a fourth time, he was out.


            When Chan finally awoke, his face had stopped hurting. His whole body had stopped hurting and he felt a quiet peace about himself. Lifting his hand to scratch his face, Lee felt a slippery substance slip off his arm. Looking at it, he saw it change shape and turn into a miniature copy of himself. Watching closer, he saw it act out a small scene where it wobbled all around, and finally fell to the ground. Snickering, Chan swatted the glob, but the magic was gone.

            Habor felt, rather than saw, the presence behind him. “What… was that?”

            “Gentle weed,” the female voice replied, “grows naturally. Killed dozens of colonists when man first came here. Then someone figured out if you diluted the poison, it made for a powerful pain killer.”

            “And the shapes?”

            “In your head, friend. It also makes you hallucinate. What is your name, by the way?”

            Lee decided to be careful. “Habor.”

            “Rather unusual.”

            “It’s what they call me.”

            “And what in Buddha’s name were you doing out here?”

            “Passed out in my fighter. Made a crash landing.”

            “Part of a convoy? A carrier?”


            The voice finally made her appearance as she stepped around the table. Red hair, green eyes, but the face… it was so familiar. “Just taking a stroll then? Taking the sights of the Wastelands?”

            “What’s your name?” Chan dodged the question.

            “Joy. Joy Ryan. Doc Gavenny’s my uncle.”

            “Rather unusual.” Lee smiled.

            Joy smiled back. “It’s what they call me.”

            “And what’s a piaoliang like you doing on this piece of gosa?”

            “Huh? What’s that you’re speaking, Chinese?”

            “Pi-yin. I said, what’s a pretty girl doing in the middle of nowhere?”

            “I was raised here. It’s one of the few places safe for our kind, better than the Free State.”

            “And what are you?”

            She closed her eyes and shook her hair. Suddenly her hair turned blonde and her eyes blue. “I’m different.”

            Lee recoiled, but he couldn’t move—suddenly, he realized he couldn’t shift. “What go sch did you do to me?”

            Ryan tapped her neck. “Feel this?”

            Chan touched a circular piece of metal around his neck. “What is it?”

            “Control collar. Used in prisons to keep you boys in check.” She read the panic in Habor’s eyes. “Don’t worry, we’re not the damn Bloc. That’s there until you’ve healed. We don’t want you hurting yourself or others.”

           Lee pulled himself to sit up and felt the world swirling around him. Somehow, he kept his concentration on the woman, despite the fairies dancing at the edge of his perception. “So what are you?”

            “A gentleman wouldn’t ask a lady those questions.”

            “But I’m not a gentleman… and you’re certainly no lady.”

            Joy’s eyes flashed to yellow. “All right, wolf boy, it’s quite simple. I’m a hybrid.”

            “Hybrid of what?”

            “K’Nes and Human.”

            “You’re part cat.”

            “Yeah… if I hold my breath, I can even float a couple inches off the ground.”

            “And that lets your hair and eyes change?”

            “No, just simple nanotech implants. Parents slipped them in after I was born. Came in handy in running from the Feds… or anyone else.” She let her hair turn brown, keeping the yellow eyes. “These are natural—at least I think so.”

            “You’re in the Resistance?”

            “Parents were. Husband was. They all dead now; dead fighting a cause that ain’t hardly worth a shit.” Joy looked out the window for a moment. “The Bloc leaves us alone here, we’ve got enough to survive. What else do you need?”

            “Justice,” escaped his lips before he could stop it.

            “’All life is suffering,’ ain’t that what the monks say? Where’s the justice in that?”

            “Never studied the Great Buddha.”

            “Neither did I, wolfie.” Ryan turned away from the window and walked over to the door. “Once the drug wears off, if you’re well enough, maybe you can help us around here with a few chores. Then we’ll give ya some food for your belly.”

            “Sounds good.”

            Joy flashed red eyes back at him. “When you’re ready,” she hushed, and then left him with his glowing butterflies.           




James was vaguely aware of a dull pain in his chest and left arm.  He tried to examine his injuries, but was unable to remove the dark haze that clouded his vision.  Putting that endeavor on hold, he attempted to recall how he’d gotten himself into this mess.

I got back to the Resolve after watching Hatchet Face get himself fried, and Joe was staring down those ImpSec goons, damn him. Yes, now he remembered; that greenhorn lieutenant whom James had fed that bullshit under-cover fleet assignment story, and the han captain who’d put an end to it.

Damn, but she was hot.  Welthammer smiled, and nearly passed out again from the pain that shot through his face.  She kicked like a mule too.

His vision was starting to clear up now, and James blinked a few times.  He was lying on a worn blanket, in a small square fungicrete cubicle.  Directly across from him was a very sturdy looking door, closed, and as James assumed, bolted from the outside; a prison cell.  A single fluorescent light, set in the far corner from the door so it could light four adjacent cells, gave the room a faint glow.

Using his good arm, James propped himself up against a wall, and winced from the knives that no one had bothered to remove from his ribcage, probably cracked.  From his weight, he figured that Imperial Security had shipped him down to a planet-side prison; it was cheaper that way.

James strained to look at his left wrist; it was 0112 GST, not much chance of an interrogation at this hour.  He was surprised that the imps hadn’t taken his wristwatch, or for that matter, his clothing.

Leaning back, he tried to work out what the hell he was going to do now.  Joe Howard was a good man, and a damn fine first mate, but James doubted if he had the spunk to stand up to Imperial Security after watching the shit get beat out of his captain like that.  So the Resolve was almost certainly in the custody of the authorities, definitely not good.  You certainly fucked this one up, James, old boy.  He’d seen some tight spots, but he’d never managed to get his ship impounded.  Hopefully they wouldn’t scrap her before James could get her back, a feat he didn’t even want to contemplate at this moment.

Welthammer had been in prison before, and for worse offenses.  His Grace, the Earl of Hyperion, had probably had his nose rebuilt by now.  James wasn’t worried; Ian would have him out in a day or two, but whether even the senator could get the Resolve out of Imperial Security’s hands was a question James didn’t want to speculate on.

            He couldn’t keep running forever.  Eventually, he was going to wind up in a fix that wouldn’t come undone.  Or the cops wouldn’t bother to arrest him.  Or Ian would fall out of favor with Minister Treschi.  Or something worse.  Eventually, James was going to get caught.

            But this had never happened before.  Imperial Security was starting to take more liberties with its authority.  When they had tried to take his ship before, James had always been able to stall them in the bureaucracy until he either managed to get away, or was cleared from on high.  Of course, he had been away from the ship, but Joe was far from incompetent, he knew how to handle ImpSec almost as well as James did.  That they would actually board his ship under threat of deadly force in the time that it took him to get his cash from Hatchet Face was beyond the realm that James would have been able to imagine beforehand.  What did it mean?

            It might be a shakeup in the bureaucracy, but the last James had heard, Jai Nalwa was still in charge of Imperial Security, and his death or resignation would be big enough news that James should have heard.  Something weird was going on, James would have to remember to ask Ian about it when he got out of here…


            James bolted upright, and clenched his teeth against protesting muscles.  He’d been dozing.  Someone was unbolting the cell door, it began to swing open, and James braced himself.  Two men walked through the doorway; one a tall and sturdy Asian man, whom James took to be the superior from his stride, the other was scrawny and pale.  Both wore the black with silver robes of Imperial Security.  The tall man thrust a plastic cup at James, who grabbed it with his right hand.

            “Drink this, M. Welthammer; it is a nutrient cocktail that will speed the recovery of your injuries.”  The officer sounded entirely disinterested.

            James looked at the dark and viscous liquid, his stomach did a somersault.  “And why does Imperial Security care whether I recover or not?  That implies that a member of this organization has some compassion for human life, don’t they test for that on the civil service exams?”

            The Asian man made a bored glace at his watch, “Deaths in custody require all sorts of unpleasant paperwork.”  He snorted, “Besides, if you die, we can’t beat any more information out of you.”

            At this, his partner gave a wry grin, “Well, we can, but then we’d have to fill out even more paperwork.”

            James, missing the joke, replied, "I hope you know that your division will receive a stern letter of complaint over this.  Your superiors expect you to maintain a certain standard of brutality, really inspire fear in the proles, you know?  If word gets out that you pamper your prisoners with expensive medicines rather than just letting them die quietly, not only do you look like pushovers, but you'll probably face an audit from the Budget Department for misuse of Imperial funds."

            “M. Welthammer, I don’t think you understand the gravity of your situation.”

            James, oblivious to the interruption, continued, “I mean, you're supposed to be running a prison and torture center here!  Where are the manacles hanging from the walls?  You wasted money on soundproofing these cells; don't you know that it's much more effective to let your prisoners hear the pained screams and helpless whimpers of their fellow inmates?"

            The Asian man was becoming incensed.  "M. Welthammer..."

            But James kept pushing.  "Come on, I've been here for hours!  My spirit should be broken, I should be huddled on my cot sobbing for it all to stop, begging to die!  How do you ever expect to be promoted to Chief Pain Technician -- you guys used to be called torturers, but since you were unionized, we gotta call you Pain Technicians -- with this kind of slipshod performance?  I bet you haven't even thought about what size of genital electrodes to order from the quartermaster yet!"

“M. Welthammer, drink the cocktail or I shall have to inject it directly.”

            James, now in hysterics, cried, “My God man!  Do you realize that the prisoners’ cafeteria here has dessert pastries?!  I expect maggots in my bread-and-water tomorrow, do you hear me?!”

"M. Welthammer!" The smaller man’s voice suddenly cut through the atmosphere in the room like a sledgehammer, bringing James' tirade to an abrupt halt.  "M. Welthammer," he continued in an only slightly quieter voice.  "Your display was quite impressive, but your clumsy attempt to assert the dominance of your personality will not work on me."

He leaned forward and looked James straight in the eyes.  "You can rest assured on that point.  You will drink the nutrient solution, and you will do"

The wind knocked out of his sails by the force of the man's sheer presence, James slumped visibly back against the wall.  All right, they want me to drink this stuff just a bit too much for it to be anything good.  He reached forward and grasped the cup in his left hand, and raised it shakily to his lips.

Suddenly, James’s face convulsed with an expression of pain, and he winced as a muscle spasm shook his entire body.  His sweat-slicked fingers slipped, and his instinctive effort to tighten his grasp and maintain a hold on the cup caused it to practically squirt out of his hand and bounce off the floor, spilling its contents in a liquid spray away from James.  Both ImpSec officers jumped backward, cursing as a few droplets stained their immaculate uniforms.  As they turned two pairs of dagger eyes on the injured smuggler, he looked back at them with an expression of wronged innocence on his face.

”Oops, sorry about that."

The Asian officer continued to brush spots of the stuff from his robes, but his companion bent toward James and hissed, “You have made a grave mistake, M. Welthammer.”

James pointed his finger in the man’s face, unfazed, and exclaimed, “You’re a vampire, aren’t you?  That’s a good trick, feed the prisoner your blood, tell him it’s good for him.  Maybe you guys really do know what you’re doing.”

The man blinked, and recoiled slightly.

Holy shit, I was right, he is a leech…I’m screwed.

But before anything could come from this new development, another officer entered the room, looked about at the strange tableau, and visibly wondered what the hell he’d just walked into. However, he kept his comments to himself and simply repeated his message. “Uh… I have orders that Prisoner Welthammer is to be brought to the warden’s office to receive a high-level communication from Wilke’s Star.”

James calmly stood up and composed himself, while the original two officers stared; one confused, the other enraged.  “Well, Gentlemen, that’ll be my release notice.  If you’ll excuse me, it’s been a pleasure making your acquaintances.”  He was about to pat the vampire on the back, but thought better of it, and strode toward the worried-looking man standing in the door.  “If you would lead the way, lieutenant, I seem to have misplaced my tour guide to the facilities.”

The officer hurried out of the room.


“I can’t keep busting you out like this.  You do realize that, don’t you?”

James stood before a small holoproj in the office of the prison warden.  “I know it, Ian, but there’s nothing I could do about it this time.  ImpSec’s never done anything like this before, not even to me.”

“Minister Nalwa’s starting to grow some real balls, James.  I think Dane must be cracking down on the bureaucracy.  My advice is to watch yourself more carefully these days.”  Ian sounded tired.  Senator Samothrace had gotten his position about the same time James had finally acquired his ship.  But despite his relatively young age, the senator’s face was lined, and his hair was beginning to gray; signs of a man who has seen too many late nights doing too much work.

“I’m always careful.”  James said it with a straight face, but Ian visibly rolled his eyes. “What about my ship?”

“Nothing doing.  Your first mate, Howard, is it?  Well, he surrendered it into the custody of Imperial Security.  It’s like this, I can say you’re our boy and bust you out; but that ship is ImpSec evidence, and I don’t have much authority there.  By the time I’d get it cleared, they’d have it stripped down to scrap.  I suggest you get yourself a new one.”  Ian obviously had no idea how much a ship, even a cargo hauler like the Resolve, cost in this day and age.

“Where are they holding her?”


“Humor me Ian.”

His friend shrugged, and reached to his side to enter some commands into a computer terminal.  After a few minutes, he looked back, “Imperial Security Impound Node Alpha-Nine, off of New Madrid.  Don’t do anything stupid, James.  If ImpSec grabs you so soon, they’re not likely to play nice again.  I don’t want to pop your cell just to find you’re missing half a brain.”

“Not to worry, Ian, the way things were looking before you called, I would’ve only been a ghoul.  Well, unless you have anything else, I’d like to get out of this place.”

“Just stay where I can reach you.  Things are starting to get a bit tight down here, and I may need your help soon.  Other than that, good luck.”  Ian nodded casually.

James started to switch the comm off, but remembered something, “Do me one last favor, Ian.  Pass along a message from me to Minister Nalwa, inform him that the ImpSec prison on New Madrid is absolutely unacceptable; the prisoners’ facilities are entirely too accommodating.  His staff here should be able to explain, a pair of majors, I think.  Thanks Ian.”  The senator had a puzzled expression on his face, and the captain cut the line.

James stepped away from the desk, and opened the office door.  He brushed past the short and fat warden, who was growling at James.  Massaging his still sore arm, James walked down a barren fungicrete corridor toward the double-door exit.

As he neared the exit, one of the officers transiting the hall, a woman, stopped in her tracks and gaped at James.  It was the agent that had sent him here in the first place.  James beamed, and whistled a light tune as he walked by Captain Fang and out the doors to the city.


As he hobbled down the footway toward the spaceport, James passed a small hospice.  Glancing at his left arm, he thought: well, there’s only one way kill the pain.

            James stepped into a saloon.




Cho puffed out pure white opium smoke as she felt the pulsing body-gasm throb through her, watching her vision grow fuzzy.  Damn, this Khmer Rouge is good shit! she thought, blinking rapidly  And you gotta share the good shit…  She took another drag and passed the pipe on to Nhut on her left.  Puff, Puff, Pass, she thought.  Don’t mess up the rotation.  It was the sacred mantra of the junkie.  She had seen fights break out many times over someone sneaking an extra drag or passing in the wrong direction.  She wanted to avoid that in this circle.  They were all friends here… or at least as close to friends as Cho ever got.

            She glanced around the circle at the faces staring back at her through the smoky haze.  Cho had summoned all of her apprentices to help in the assassination of Prince Tomo, and was pleased to see most of them had dutifully flocked to her side.  She had begun the meeting as she always did: with drugs.  Cho felt it helped to relax her pupils and loosen everyone up—at least, that was her official excuse.

            “Hey,” Nhut mumbled, “the huong do pipe went out…”  The tall, scrawny gambler turned to look at Cho with bloodshot eyes.  “Got a light?”

            “Always,” Cho answered.  She reached out and stuck a finger in the pipe bowl.  There was a flash of light and a puff of smoke, and the pipe was burning again.

            Nhut blinked.  “That was cool.  Show me how to do that some time, Cho?”

            “Sure,” Cho answered, an involuntary grin beginning to spread across her face.  “Always useful to know how to create fire…”  She clenched her fist, then released it with a burst of light as a tongue of flame danced above her palm.  Cho stared at it, turning the flame blue, then green, and then back to reddish-orange.  She always worked her best magic when she was good and stoned.  It was so much easier to twist reality when reality seemed fluid in the first place…

            “Ta ma de, that’s strong stuff!”  Nhut coughed, choking on the thick smoke as he passed the pipe on to Usha.The beautiful, petite Hindustani smuggler took only a small puff before passing the pipe on.  “So…” she began, “what did you need us for, sensei?

            “Huh?” Cho grunted.  She had been busy turning the tongue of flame into a Grateful Dead bear and making it dance up her arm.  “Oh… yeah, that.”  The flame-bear snuffed out with an alarmed squeak.  “Yeah… got a tough job.  A hit.  Big time.  Like, royalty big time.  Prince Tomo.”  Cho’s apprentices perked up at that, exchanging worried, bleary-eyes glances before focusing on Cho.

            “Uh, yeah, I know,” Cho said, looking around the circle.  “But the pay off is just short of a million crowns, all expenses paid, plus bragging rights.”  Cho watched as her apprentices exchanged another round of glances—but this time ones of excitement and greed.

            “They’re gonna smuggle me in as a lady in waiting,” Cho continued.  “But once I’m in, I gotta find a way to whack this guy on my own.  First, I gotta know what kinda defenses they got around this guy.  Yoko, I need you to hack into the royal palace network and see what you can dig up about the security systems.”

The chubby young girl almost dropped the opium pipe and gagged on the cloud of smoke.  “What?! the hacker spat out when she could breathe again.  “Sensei, you got any idea what kind of security they got shielding that net?”

“Absolutely none.”  Cho shook her head.  “That’s your specialty, not mine.  But use that masking spell I taught you.  If that don’t work, try the polymorph spell.  If all else fails, use the luck charm.  Anyone can guess a million-to-one password combo with enough luck.  Oh, and that’s coincidental magic, too, so you won’t have to worry about paradox causing another damn ‘illegal operation’ error.”

“Whoa…” Yoko muttered, shaking her foggy head.  “I dunno if this is gonna be exciting or terrifying…”

“Both, at the same time,” Cho proclaimed proudly.  Good opium always made her feel smarter than she actually was.  “That’s what makes crime so cool, Yoko, the danger.  It’s a gan ni niang rush!  Besides, you know I got your back if you get in over your head.”

            Yoko nodded, but still didn’t look convinced.  She handed the opium pipe back to Cho, skipping Hung Luong completely.  Everyone had long since given up on trying to get Hung to smoke up.  The muscle-bound ninja was a health nut who refused to let anything more potent than wasabi pass his lips.

            “Hung, I’m gonna see if I can get you put on Lady so-and-so’s bodyguard team.  I hope we don’t need your funky whoopass voodoo, but if the shit hits the fan were gonna need some muscle to bust us outa there.  Think you’re up for taking on the Imperial Guard?”

            Hung merely nodded curtly once.  Nhut, on the other hand, burst into laughter.

            “You kidding?!” Nhut asked, chuckling.  “This jarhead’s got slabs of Sino-beefcake that can kick people in half!  This si lang kow ninja could eat a Jurvain army for breakfast and shit them out before lunch!  WHOOO!”  Nhut tumbled backwards and collapsed on his back, giggling.  “Damn, Cho, this Kinda Whoosh is really strong stuff!  WHOOSH!”  Anything he said after that was lost in giggles.

            “What’s so funny?” Yoko asked Usha, confused.

            “Nothing,” Usha replied, rolling her eyes.  “Except possibly the size of his brain.”

            “Good one!” Nhut shouted, pointing at Usha—and that kicked off a fresh round of giggles.

“Damn,” Cho muttered, shaking her head in disgust.  “That ji bai can’t hold his dust worth kuso.”




            “Sir, the gook bastards seem to be moving away.  I have not heard any concussions in the last five minutes.”

            “Excellent, lets give them another couple of hours to make sure,” responded David Weathers, the Dickerson’s new captain by attrition.

            “Sir, may I ask how you knew they would not nuke this rock?”

            “Well son, when you’re my age and have seen as much as I have, you sorta get a feel for your enemy.”

            “So in other words, you guessed!”

            The bridge erupted in nervous laughter, and many of the crewmembers visibly relaxed.

            “All right, folks, we are in for a bit of a break, so I would suggest everyone but the watch get some shut eye. We will all need to be alert when we try and break free of the system,” stated Weathers.  “Marison, you have the com, please let Chief Engineer Bodovsky know I am on my way to engineering, good day.”


            On his way to engineering, Weathers lay back, trying to absorb all that had happened over the last few days. Lucky my ass, thought the captain, you know they would not hit that rock.  But how do you explain that to others when you cannot understand it yourself.  What had started out as feelings as a child had grown into hunches, and by the time he was middle-aged he could often times see situations unfold before they occurred.  It was this “ability” that had allowed him to advance through the lower ranks and eventually mustang into the ranks of officer.  It was also this ability that had led him to believe joining the Ashdown Rebellion was a mistake.  Unfortunately no one listened to a lowly ensign, especially one that was from the ranks.  Hell, they might not even let me keep this old Prince of Wales-class light cruiser, if there is anyone left at Alpha Base.  Hopefully none of our allies gave up that location.  At least, they did listen enough to keep Beta and Gamma unknown.

            With that last thought, the lift reached engineering, and the doors opened to reveal the red face giant that was the Dickerson’s chief engineer.  “Afternoon, Paul. How are things shaping up down here?” asked Weathers.

            “Well, we were able to salvage enough from the Springstead to fashion a workable jump engine.  We won’t be fast or smooth, but she’ll get us home,” answered Paul Bodovsky.

            “That is good to hear.” Weathers shuffled his feet for a moment. “Do you have time to talk in private, Paul?”

            “Of course, sir. Let’s step into my quarters.”

            It took a minute or so to get through the formalities before David got to what was on his heart. “Paul, I just wanted to ask you… well, if you were sure in your decision, not to command the ship. When I acted from the bridge, I had no way of knowing if there was anyone, of rank, left on board.”

            Bodovsky looked at him for a moment, then smiled. “David, we have known each other for many years.  You were an excellent sailor and when you were brought up for promotion. Hell, when you got your commission, I was one of the first to support it.  I am an Engineer.  I love this boat, and I know her from the bottom up, but that love is a working love.  If I wasn’t able to be down here, where the action is, so to speak, I wouldn’t be happy.  So as long as you keep making decisions like that one a few days ago, and keep us alive, you have all my support.”

            “Thanks, Paul. I just wanted to make sure you understood. I mean, I respect your position, but I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t using a bad situation to go over your head.”

            That brought a roar of laughter from the large man who grabbed Weathers’ hand and shook it. “David, it would take two of you to go over a crusty ol’ slav like me, if I was of the mind to keep you from it!”


            Later that day, after extensive passive scans, it was determined that it was safe enough to try and break free of the system.  Weathers was correct and the Easterners had indeed left.  The course they took home was circuitous one designed to throw off any pursuit which may have been unnoticed.  As they approached the dead world, which had been the flotilla’s base since the destruction of the Federation, they picked up an automated distress beacon.  While it gave no details, everyone on the bridge knew what it meant.

            “Those bastards found Alpha…” David cursed under his breath, mentally praying that his crew’s families made it out safely.  “Navigation get us out of here, standard evasion pattern Kappa. Break into hyperspace once we’re out of the system and pick a random beacon once we get in.”

            “Step off the standard beacon, sir?”

            “You heard me, Hogave. Pick a direction, any one, till we reach that beacon, then choose another at random.”

            “That’ll take days!”

            “I need at least three, chief. Those slant scouts are good bloodhounds, but enough dodging in hyperspace will be enough to throw any of ‘em off.” He looked around the worried looks on his bridge; no one liked stepping off the standard beacon, no one knew if they would ever make it out again. “Once we’ve done that, we’ll see if Beta and Gamma Bases are still functioning. Then, and only then, will we be able to strike back.”




Eighteen large asteroids circled Minos in a geosynchronous orbit above landing platforms on the surface of the planet.  Attached to the asteroids were rather long and strong ropes.  The ropes themselves were not made out hemp, but rather a substance called a carbon nanotube. The ropes did, however, serve a function similar to their ancient ancestors.  The rope tugged a vessel or container from the planet of Minos into orbit.  The retracting motion of a pulley and wench on the asteroid both brought the ship into orbit, and pulled the asteroid towards the planet.  Thrusters, combined with the enormous mass of the asteroids, were kept the rocks in orbit.

The rope could retrieve much of the spent energy when it guided an object back down to the planet's surface.  The process was rather efficient, although there were, of course, other ways of transporting goods to and from the surface of Minos.  The problem with this efficient system was its cost and vulnerability to attack. 

During the past twenty years, Jewish separatists had three times destroyed the carbon nanotube rope linking space to the surface, twice in a bombing, and once in a standoff attack.  Although the separatists' and their families were found and severely punished, the fact remained that the system was vulnerable.  Because of this, a heavy military presence was maintained near the lifting stations.

            When the Minos Queen pulled into orbit around Minos, she was placed into a standard parking orbit.  There she remained, while doctors from a nearby space station came over and ensured that the plague had run its course.  Satisfied that it had, they gave everyone on the ship a clean bill of health.  The exact source of outbreak was never found, but the Middle Kingdom had better uses for its resources.

            Once given the go ahead, the passengers and their cargo moved from the Minos Queen to Landing Platform 12.  From there, they were lowered to the planet below.  The process took three hours.  Once on the ground, the process of matching up each passenger with his luggage was a relatively simple process. The RFs in the tag made quick tracking of luggage easy, and lost luggage a thing of the forgotten past.  The items in the luggage were another matter.


            A cup of coffee warmed Sherif's hands.  "It was good to have coffee", thought Adams.  Tea was could be tepid, watery, thick with milk, cloying, scalded, or ruined a million other ways, but no matter what was done to coffee, it always tasted like coffee.

            The past two days had been bad.  When Sherif arrived, he was charged an arrival tax that wasn't part of the ticket.  He suspected that it had more to do with his race than an actual law.  He was told that three hotels were out of room before he finally found one.  And he had no contacts on the planet.  What was he doing here?

            Sherif closed his eyes, and then reopened them.  He looked into the coffee, and the swirls from the movement of the cup reminded him of the experience he had on the Minos Queen.  What had happened?

            When Sherif was in college, strange things had happened around him, but two mages came and concluded that he was not one of their ilk.  Perhaps he was a mage.  Adams placed the coffee cup on the table and concentrated.  It failed to rise.  And perhaps it was a good thing too.  He didn't need to spill coffee on his shirt.

            Sherif closed his eyes again, and wrapped his hands around his coffee mug.  It was still warm, and felt good.   felt a presence near by.  He opened his eyes, and the waitress was there.  She was also part Han, and maybe part American.  Adams pulled his hands away from the coffee mug and the waitress wordlessly poured more coffee into the mug.  Sherif was struck how by poetic all the motion seemed.  It was almost as if two planets were socially revolving around each other.  He mumbled "thank you"; the waitress walked away.

            The coffee was now piping hot.  Sherif wrapped his hands around the mug, and held it for as long as he could, until it was too hot to touch.  He kept holding it when it started burning.  It felt good and reminded him that he was alive.

            Sherif glanced up at the waitress, and then remembered reading something about American culture when he was young.  The teacher had been showing how flawed it was, with the American belief in a deity called "Superman."  This Superman was a drawing character, based off a belief that one person could be better than others.  Superman could fly, and shoot plasma rays out of his eyes.  But it was a make believe, like the belief in the individual.  Ultimately, the group always triumphed over the individual, as the Middle Kingdom triumphed over the Federation, and as China triumphed over America.  Later in college, Sherif learned about Nietzsche, and more about the idea of the Superman.  He also learned about the flaws of Communism, and how the Imperial system was the most perfect system for governing.

            The waitress walked behind the counter.  She looked briefly at Sherif, who suddenly realized he had been staring; Adams looked away.  Embarrassed, and with his train of thought interrupted, Sherif got up.  Again the social planets moved; he paid and left.

            Leaving the restaurant, Sherif walked nowhere in particular.  A few times he glanced skyward, but saw no sun.  He wondered briefly if the weather on Minos was always this cloudy. Looking back down, the mixed breed continued to walk.  He walked until his legs were stiff, and then he walked until they were not stiff.  He continued to put kilometers under his feet.

            Sherif noticed a person sleeping on the side of the street as he was walking.  He thought about his parents, and the hard life that they had led.  This led to thinking about their deaths, and back to fleeing Jennifer's Star.  What was he going to do?  A wave of dread swept over him when he thought about his life.  How would he do when the money ran out, which it was close to doing.  He needed a job, but he didn't have the right visa.  He didn't even think about that before he left Jennifer's Star.  Without the visa, he couldn't work.  The dread seemed to invade his ever pore and thought.  He couldn't get the visa to work off Jennifer's Star without being on Jennifer's Star, and he couldn't get home.

            While still thinking, Sherif used his watch to summon a hovertaxi.  It arrived quickly.  The feeling of dread still encompassing the former rice planter, he boarded it and asked the driver to take him to the apartment he had rented.  Once there, he found a small corner, sat down, and began to cry.  How would he get home?  There was no home anymore.


Sherif was hunched over, planting rice.  It was a breezy day, and the water slapped about his ankles.  He had to be sure to push the rice all the way into the mud, otherwise, when a strong breeze came, it would push the plant over.  When this happened, Adams had to go back and put it back in the ground.

Sherif worked quickly, this was work he had done his entire life.  He was more familiar with the movements of pushing rice into the earth than most scholars were with writing.  It was effortless, though his back was sore. 

Left hand to right hand.

Right hand to earth.

Push and twist.

Left hand to right hand.

Right hand to earth.

Push and twist.

Left hand to right hand.

Right hand to earth.

Push and twist.

Up and down the field he wadded.  The green of the paddy soon covered his eyes.  The wind pushed the rice shoots, but did not push them over.  The water lapped at his ankles.  Left hand to right hand.

Sherif stood up for a moment, and the breeze picked up.  Confucius had said that farmers were noble, but Adams did not think so.  His hand looked foul.  It was caked with mud.  He sighed.  They would come and eat his food, but not at his table.

Like Sisyphus, Sherif labored back and forth over the entire field.  He looked around, and wondered when his work would end.  He stood up, and saw that it was done.  He was quite surprised at this.  He waited a moment.

The wind struck like a hurricane.  It came and pulled the entire field.  The rice shoots were picked up by the gale.  They spun into the air, and were gone.  Adams fell to his knees.  It had to stop.  It had to stop.

The gale blew.  Mud was slapping into Sherif's face, into his eyes.  He couldn't see any more.  The wind had taken the field.  It had taken all of his work.  He reached around, blind.  His parents were gone.  His home was gone.  How could this happen?

Adams whipped the mud from his eyes.  Everything was gone.  He was standing in a shallow pool of flowing water.  The dikes holding together the field were destroyed.  Everything was ruined.  He was ruined.  He had no home.

Everything was gone.  Sherif yelled.  He shouted at the top of his lungs.  He shouted.  He cursed against the gods, and railed against reality.  He screamed.  Only He existed.  Nothing else.  He challenged and then cursed all that might impede His wishes.  And then he turned inward.  He concentrated with all his might.

The field was replanted.  The dike was repaired.  It was as it should be.  He made his own destiny.  He made his own home.  Sherif made his own happiness.  And he woke up.


            "So you've got your yourself into a little bit of trouble, Sherif."

            "Yes sir."

            "Well, it's nothing that we won't be able to sort out."  The big man looked at him from across the table.  "You were smart making friends with Mikado.  She led you to the right place."

            Sherif almost imperceptivity sighed.  He knew the trouble he was getting into.  "I haven't much money with…."  Adams stopped as the man frowned at him.

            "Tch.  It isn't polite to speak about money.  This is a job opportunity.  We're discussing your future."  Sherif remained silent.  "Doesn't that make you happy?"

            "Yes sir.  There's nothing more important than being happy."

            The man looked taken back for a moment.  "Sherif, family is.  You must remember that.  Do you have family, Sherif?"

            Adams looked away briefly.  "No, my family is gone."

            "I'm sorry to hear that.  Work is nothing without family.  But we'll see that you get work.  Family is something you must accomplish."

            Sherif looked up, startled.  "You'll get me a job?"

            "Of course.  It won't be a problem.  Not at all."

            Adams stood up, and then fell to his knees and kowtowed.  The large man merely smiled.


On second thought, it might have been a bad idea to say something about they way they were treating her.  He didn't know her and he only washed dishes.  It was certainly stupid to press the issue.  And when the girl ran, it definitely was not the smart thing to do to block them from chasing after her.

It was strange how detached he felt.  Sherif was looking at the three men.  One held a brick in his hand; the other two, knives.   He wondered for a moment what it would feel like to be stabbed, but found himself not really caring.

It was like he was watching traffic go past, people walking one way and another, moving unstoppably, but yet without purpose.  He blinked slowly.  When the brick came flying at his head, he just turned and walked away.  The brick did not hit him.  And Sherif walked.




The Imperial Security vehicle whirred quietly to a halt in front of an otherwise unassuming suburban house in Baja Verde. “Why are we on this case?” the tall Asian ImpSec officer asked his partner as they exited their groundcar and walked up to the front entrance.  A couple Civil Police uniforms were already waiting for them there.  “This is just arson, right?” 

“Not necessarily,” the shorter, quieter of the pair replied as they neared the doorway.  The CP trooper there swung his plasma carbine to port arms as they halted in front of him.

“Agents Shon and Deveraux, Imperial Security,” answered the Asian man.  “I believe Captain Xia is waiting for us inside?”  The CP trooper waved them through, and they found the Civil Police captain in the kitchen of the ranch-style house, looking over the impressive collection of gourmet coffees and teas in sealed containers on one countertop, next to an expensive cappuccino machine. 

“This guy sure liked his hot beverages,” Captain Xia said, turning to face the two ImpSec agents, “But I doubt that’s why they called you in.” 

“No, of course not,” Major Shon answered immediately. “We only get called in on matters of threats to interplanetary security.”

“Or when crimes cross lines of planetary jurisdiction.” Deveraux began opening cabinets and peering inside with obvious distaste. “Caffeine addiction not withstanding.”

“And how does the case of a missing brain surgeon qualify under either of those requirements,” asked the local cop, allowing her annoyance to creep in at these two imperial officers stepping in on her case.

”This good doctor worked at a facility receiving funding from the Imperial Army,” answered Deveraux in a voice that exuded calm authority, as he finished his cursory peek through the supply cupboards.  “He was working on a research project concerned with combat-related brain injuries.”

Captain Xia gave a skeptical grunt.  “More likely, you got called in for the same reason I did.  This Hicks was some sort of close friend of the duke.  Lord Jin-Bin doesn’t like it that one of his buddies might have been hurt.”

“Always a possibility,” grumbled Major Shon, looking around the rest of the kitchen.  “This guy a bachelor?”

“Yes,” answered Xia, “no living relatives, practically no known associates outside of his work, other than the duke, of course.”  He consulted his datapad.  “Membership in a few scientific organizations, but apparently all he did there was read their newsletters and write research articles.”

“Practically a non-entity,” observed Major Shon, poking his head around the corner to peer into the neighboring rooms. 

“Not a social butterfly, no,” the CP Captain continued.  “No criminal record, only a security file dating him as Fed military during the war.”

That got Major Shon’s attention.  “Wait a minute, we banned all former Tech Infantry members from working above Class Three.”

“Those who weren’t sent to the labor camps.” Devereaux tisked, shaking a bottle of unused whiskey.

“Of course, but Dr. Hicks wasn’t in the TI. He was just a medic in the Light Infantry, the old Fed’s non-awakened ground forces.  They were more like the Civil Police; only got thrown into major combat in the last months of the war, when everything was going to hell.” 

“Even so,” said Major Shon, “why was the Duke of New Madrid, a decorated Admiral in the Imperial Fleet in that war, close friends with someone who fought on the other side?”

“The duke’s dreadnought was hit in the battle to take this very planet,” Xia explained impatiently.  This story was old news to anyone living on New Madrid, but these ImpSec officers were obviously from out of town.  “His escape pod hit some debris, and crash-landed behind Federation lines down on the surface.  He was badly injured in the crash, but an LI medic fixed him up, despite the fact that our own troops rarely took prisoners, and the Fed by that point in the war was retaliating in kind.  Despite the loss of his own flagship, the duke’s fleet won the battle up in space by continuing to follow his battle plan, and once they were cut off, the Federation forces down on the surface agreed to surrender in exchange for amnesty.”

Major Shon was shocked.  “Surely the Emperor didn’t follow through with a general amnesty?  That would have been contrary to policy!”

“Of course not,” Deveraux interjected. “It only applied to non-combat branches and combat soldiers below the rank of sergeant.  The officers and sergeants agreed to be executed to spare the lives of their men.”

“Or they were killed by their own men.” Shon suggested.

“Well, the old Fed was a corrupt lot. All that foolish democracy…”

Xia rolled his eyes and finished. “Yes, and for his part, Admiral Jin-Bin Im was named Duke of New Madrid after the war, and the doctor who patched him up, our Dr. Icarus Hicks, became the personal physician to the Duke and his family.” 

The major was incredulous.  “A gaijin doc was trusted to treat such high nobility?”

            Deveraux again interrupted.  “Federation medical officers took something called the Hippocratic Oath.  It’s an old Gaijin tradition dating back long before space travel, and the oath bound all physicians to treat all sick or injured persons, regardless of any other factor, including ability to pay, which side of a war they were on, or anything else.  Doctor Hicks apparently took that oath very seriously.” 

            Before Major Shon could dismiss the Hippocratic Oath as mere gaijin window-dressing, another Civil Police officer poked his head in through the doorway.  “Captain Xia, there’s a call from headquarters for you on the secure com in your vehicle.”

            “You’ll excuse me, gentlemen, but I have to take this call,” the CP Captain said with a slight bow.  “It’s probably about the other team investigating the fire at the lab.”

            Deveraux and Shon bowed in turn, and Captain Xia left.  Shon turned to his partner.  “Something here doesn’t smell right.”

            “Literally,” the pale major replied, opening a side door and looking down a set of wooden stairs into a dark basement.  He flicked on the switch and led his partner down the stairs.  The two ImpSec agents descended to find a spartan-looking cellar, just a few metallic shapes along two walls housing the machinery and equipment needed to make a modern residence run smoothly, and a small but well-equipped home workshop in the corner of the other two walls. 

            “Impressive setup,” Major Shon observed, walking over to the workbench.  “Nanowelders, microlasers…even a synthetic-diamond abrasion wheel.” 

           “The man was a research scientist, used to making some of his own equipment and tools,” Deveraux observed quietly, opening the knee-level cabinets and peering inside them one by one. 

            “I thought he was the personal physician of the Duke’s family.” Shon queried, while admiring a nearly completed old-fashioned, hand-cranked coffee grinder with an inlaid mother-of-pearl design on the sides, which he had found lying on the workbench, obviously in the process of being made from scratch by hand.  The drawer for catching the hand-ground coffee still didn’t have a pull-knob.  . 

            “That too,” replied Deveraux absentmindedly, beginning to frown slightly.

            “This thing is really nice,” Shon said, still looking at the coffee grinder.  “Heh, this guy even put a double-helix DNA design on his coffee grinder.  Because he’s a medico, you think?”

            Deveraux turned a calm gaze on his partner.  “Or maybe that caffeine was life to him.”

            “Probably it.”

            “Speaking of DNA,” Deveraux stated in a slightly louder tone.  “According to his file, our Dr. Hicks had a license for a home biogenetic lab.  Apparently, he occasionally took his work home with him.”

            “Those licenses are tough to get.” Shon answered, finally putting down the coffee grinder. 

            “Yes, so where is this ‘specialized equipment?’”

            Shon looked around, but didn’t see any test tube racks, centrifuges, or electrophoresis boxes.  “Maybe he keeps that stuff in another room?  Upstairs, maybe?”

            Before the two agents could head upstairs to check, Captain Xia came down the stairs looking for them. 

            “Ah, there you are.  You can go home now, the investigation is closed.”

            Shon looked back at him, surprised.  “Eh?”  Deveraux was as nonplussed as ever. 

            “That call was from the team going over the ashes of the lab.  They found some human remains in the room where Dr. Hicks was working late.  An on-spot DNA check confirms the body is that of the erstwhile Dr. Hicks.  The whole wing of the building was destroyed by the fire, so there wasn’t much left to run the test on… but it was him, alright.”

            “Didn’t a high-tech facility like that have an automated fire suppression system,” asked Major Shon. 

            Captain Xia suppressed a giggle.  “Sure.  In fact, it was an electrical fault in that system that started the fire in the first place.  By the time the smoke got to a corridor on a different detection circuit, the whole wing of the building was on fire.”

            “Interesting,” muttered Deveraux, possibly to himself. 

            “Well, either way, we’re closing this case. Doctor Icarus Hicks is being declared officially dead by accident.  You two can go home now,” the Civil Police officer said with barely-suppressed glee, “us poor local cops can finish up here.”


            On the other side of town, Pablo Losada awoke suddenly to find a hand clamped over his mouth.  

“Don’t scream, Pablo, it’s just me,” a familiar voice whispered in his ear.  The light flicked on to reveal his boss, Dr. Icarus Hicks, leaning over the graduate student’s bed in his small apartment.  “I’m afraid your current job just went up in smoke.  I’m here to offer you a new one, in the exciting field of saving your own butt, and everyone else’s butt in the bargain.”  Icarus leaned closer, with a big grin on his face.  “Interested?”






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Text Copyright (C) 2004 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.  Do not try ANY of this at home, not even Cho's trick with the Grateful Dead dancing teddy bear.