"It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence."                                                                                                                                                                                                  – Mahatma Gandhi


            The door slammed shut with a colossal clang.  "Whose name did you say you rented this storage space under, again?"  Pablo Losada looked around the dimly-lit room, which was crammed from one stained fungicrete wall to the other with boxes of lab equipment and supplies. 
            "Director Wei, of course," Icarus replied, weaving his way between a crated ultramicroscope and a pedestal-mounted centrifuge to the far corner of the room.  "When you have a photographic memory, you kinda pick up other people's passwords, credit codes, and locker combinations whether you mean to or don't."  He turned to his former lab assistant with his trademarked big grin.  "Speaking of which, 12345 isn't the hardest door code to remember." 
            "That was kinda the point," Losada grumbled.  "Something I could give out to my girlfriends without worrying that it would give them a clue what my other passwords might be." 
            "Ah, here we go," Icarus muttered as he turned back to the box he was after.  He reached in and pulled out a handful of paper banknotes.  Even in a high-tech society, street vendors (and criminals) preferred paper money to credit chips and cash cards, and non-electronic money was essential for the petty bribery and other off-the-books transactions that kept the machinery of bureaucracy well-lubricated.  Even so, Losada let out a low whistle when he saw the thickness of the bankroll that Dr. Hicks calmly shoved in his pants pocket. 
            "As I said, I've been planning a getaway for twenty years," the scientist cheerfully offered as he made his way back through the piled boxes and gear.  "So, every time I drew out cash from an ATM, I stuck 20 crowns or so in my rainy-day fund.  Anyone checking my bank records who even noticed the discrepancy between what I withdrew and what I spent, would just assume I was spending it on booze or drugs or porn from some street vendor, giving it to beggars, stuff like that.  Small amounts like that, but over twenty years…it added up pretty fast."  Icarus led his reluctant partner out of the storage shed, locking it behind him.  "Couple that with some discreet investments once the piggy bank got full, and I've got almost a quarter million crowns stashed here and there in small bills."
            "Discreet investments?"
            "Gambling, Pablo...photographic memory, remember?  You'd be amazed how useful it can be to be able to remember the order of cards in a deck at a blackjack table."
            "You're full of surprises, boss…"
            "Not half as surprising as where we're going next."

            Back in the days of the Fed, the Talavera spaceport had once also had an attached military launch field for supply shuttles and stratospheric fighters.  When the Eastern Bloc had taken the planet over, they'd built their own military base on the other side of the Canal and had converted the ex-military facilities to civilian use.  But the war had reduced the population of the nearby systems, and enough people fled New Madrid in the immediate aftermath of the war to set up shop elsewhere that there was no longer enough traffic to keep all runways and launch cradles at the spaceport running.  The former military strip had been shut down for over a decade, and several disused outbuildings and storage sheds had been converted to non-aerospace uses.  One such building was a former missile-warhead storage bunker that had been converted (after a few discreet payments to a spaceport official) into a watering hole for the ground crews and maintenance technicians who worked at the spaceport, as well as the lower-class type of flight crews. 
            "This is your favorite bar?" Losada asked incredulously. 
            Dr. Hicks smiled wryly.  "Of course I prefer the Double Helix," he said, referring to one of the bars near the sprawling UNM-Talavera campus that catered to students at the School of Life Sciences.  "But this place has a certain je ne sais quai that I rather enjoy."
            "It's got a certain I don't know what, you've got that right," Pablo muttered to himself.  The decades-old ceramcrete was crumbling, and what dust wasn't floating in the air seemed to be coating every surface in sight, including several of the patrons.  A haze of dust and smoke, combined with a poorly-designed (and poorly-maintained) lighting system to make it nearly impossible to see all the way across the room, despite it being barely 15 meters from the main door to the back wall.  Also blocking the view were several large and mean-looking individuals, some of whom were merely standing around and getting noisily drunk, but one of whom seemed determined to block not only the view of the back wall, but physical entrance to the facility as well. 
            "Well, if it isn't the good Doctor," the man said in a mocking tone of voice, his voice slightly slurred from the alcohol he'd been liberally consuming all afternoon.  "Didn't I tell you not to come here again?"
            "Now, Lobo, don't get angry," Icarus said in a soothing tone of voice.  "I told you, I wasn't cheating…"
            "Counting cards ain't cheating?"  His tone made it quite plain that, as far as he was concerned, it was the worst kind of cheating imaginable.. 
            "Maybe we'd better pick another bar," Pablo said under his breath.
            "Oh, don't worry, Pablo," Icarus continued.  "Lobo here looks mean, but he's really harmless, ain't that right, Lobo?"
            "I'll show you how harmless I am," Lobo bellowed, and swung a fist the size of a Christmas Ham at the two researchers.  Losada dodged to the left, Hicks to the right, and both began rapidly backing up towards the door.  Lobo gave a low growl and started after them, but suddenly yelped in surprise and turned to face the bar with an astonished expression on his face.  The bartender fired a second time with his dartgun, and a second tranquilizer-filled syringe plunged into Lobo's torso, this time into his chest instead of his back.  The large bully's eyes bugged out in utter wonderment, then he stiffened, and collapsed like a heap of bricks. 
            "Sorry about that, Doc," the bartender apologized as he came out from behind the bar, his dart rifle still warily aimed at the now-sleeping Lobo.  "Lobo had a couple too many today, was a bit annoyed when I cut him off.”  He nudged the sleeping man with his toe, and seemed satisfied when the hulking mass of flesh didn't stir.  In fact, a low, buzzing snore came up from the prostrate thug. 
            "Hey, no problem, Emile," Dr. Hicks said.  "Thanks for putting him down."
            "Hey, thanks for the tranq darts," the bartender replied.  "They've been mighty useful with some of the regulars around here." 
            "Well, they're designed for escaping mental patients, but I figured they'd be just as useful on rowdy drunks."  Dr. Hicks nodded over to an empty table in the corner.  "Let us give you a hand with wolf-boy here, and then you can get me two glasses of my usual."
            The two researchers helped the bartender drag the unconscious form of Lobo to the empty table in the corner, and then sat down at a side booth while the bartender went to get their drinks. 
            "You're a regular here?" an incredulous Pablo Losada asked his boss.  "Do you think it's wise to go someplace where people know who you are?"  He surreptitiously looked both ways to see if anyone seemed to be listening in on their conversation.  "After all, you're supposedly dead."
            Icarus chuckled.  "Pablo, no one here is gonna poke their nose in anyone else's business, especially if the cops are involved."
            "There's no honor among thieves, doc," Pablo reminded him. 
            "Anyone rats out anyone else here, they'll never be able to show their faces in Magritte's place ever again."
            "Who's Magritte?"
            "Emile Magritte, the bartender.  We were in the LI together, back in the Fed." 
            "Great.  Another damn Lost Geezer…"
            "The whole galaxy is lost," the bartender said, arriving with two liter-sized mugs of best bitters.  "But still the stars manage to not bump into each other."
            "At least not too often," agreed Icarus.  "Speaking of the stars, Emile…"
            "You want a chaser of something stronger, gonna see the stars, are you?" answered Emile Magritte with a big grin. 
            "No, I was wondering if you can recommend a good travel agent, so to speak," Icarus replied with a laugh.  "Someone who can cut through all the red tape, if one wants to arrange a vacation.  At the last minute, so to speak."

"Ah, gonna do some traveling, but don't have time to jump through a bunch of bureaucratic hoops, so to speak."
            "That's right."
            "So to speak," interjected Losada with a very weak grin.  He was already halfway through his mug. 
            "Well then, the man you're looking for is right over there.  Just came in yesterday, but from the talk, he's got a fine ship, and is adept at cutting through red tape." 
            "Exactly what I'm looking for," said Dr. Hicks with a decisive nod of his head.  "Send him a round on me."
            "M. Welthammer will be mighty pleased with that introduction, I'm sure."




            The ship experienced one final jolt and then stopped.

            Jonathan Hawking looked about the eerily silent cargo module.  Using his light amplification oculars, he could see the other six soldiers around him.  All of them were crouched among the 43 plasteel crates of ketracite.  Their delta-armor was significantly less bulky than fully powered suits, but it still made for poor concealment in the cramped module.  They would have to rely on the darkness.

            Peterson’s voice sounded in Hawking’s helmet on the wide-band, “You think they’ll search us now, sir?”

            The major replied, “Don’t know, they may wait until the beginning of the next shift, whenever that is.  Stay alert.  If they don’t open her up in the next few minutes, we’ll try reentering the ship.”

            When that ImpSec platoon had showed up in the docking bay, the squadron had barely had enough time to grab their armor and duck into the cargo module before the Imps had busted down the door.  Since no one had opened up the compartment yet, they all figured that the ship was in enemy hands, but they didn’t know much past that.  They’d been in transit for about three hours now, and Hawking assumed the stop meant they were docked, probably at an impound station.

            There was a clanging noise from the cargo module’s hatchway, and the whirring of motors as the airlock mechanism that separated the ship from the independent modules was activated.

            Major Shrak commed in, “Looks like they’re not going to keep us waiting.  This probably isn’t anything more dangerous than a search party come to see what the Captain was hauling, let them come all the way in the door before you open up.  And remember where you are, I don’t want anyone firing anything bigger than a pop-gun.”

            Civilian ships, like the Resolve, weren’t designed to deal with combat, either external or internal, and firing any of a power armor’s array of heavy weapons inside the ship could destroy the stability of the hull, and blow them all into space.  So, the squadron carried would use low-velocity gauss guns.  The pellets they fired would shatter on impact, powerful enough to kill an unarmored man, if you hit him just right, but they wouldn’t do anything more than just leave a tiny dent on the ship’s walls.

            Hawking looked to his left; Private Jenkins was rolling a high-explosive grenade around in his left hand.  He didn’t think Freak would disobey the major, but even so, the man’s obsession with explosions and fire worried Hawking.

            The hatch slid open and two men wearing black Imperial Security uniforms stepped in.  They carried a large scanning device between them, and set it down a few feet inside the hatchway.

            One of them punched a command into the object, and looked at a glowing screen.  “What do we have here…ketracite, and lots of it!”

            The other was looking at a couple of crates near him, and fumbling for a flashlight on his belt, “By the Emperor, that stuff’s worth a fortune.  I wonder if—“

            The hatch slammed shut behind them.  Somehow, Tiller had managed to get behind the men without alerting them.  The Imps started to spin around, but it was over before they even saw the phantom.

            Hawking chambered a new flechette cartridge into his weapon, and stepped forward with the rest of the squad.

            With a wave from Shrak, the team formed up on the hatch, and Tiller re-opened it.

            Hawking jumped down first.  He landed, went to his knees, and shot another Imp at internal diagnostics console of the bridge.  The rest of the squad followed him.

            There was no one on the ship’s living deck, though they noted that the weapons locker had been emptied, but thankfully its contents were sitting in a pile just a few meters away.  On the lower deck, they killed two more men, apparently assigned to guard the ship’s external hatch.  And then they were alone.

            “It’s an impound station alright,” Shrak announced.

            They were in a small (a pessimist would say cramped) docking bay, the Imperial Security insignia and the designation “Node A-9” were painted along the walls.

            “So now what, boss?  We just fly her out of here?”  That was Peterson again.

            “Nah, this station is bound to be armed; we wouldn’t get half a klick before they slagged us.  We’ll need something to either distract or disable them.  Tiller, think you might be able to find the control—“

            “Heh heh, why risk attacking the control center, sir?  Heh... I have a better plan.”

            A grimace crossed the major’s face, but he didn’t bother to discipline Freak; it would be a waste of time. “And what would that be, private?”

            “Still 43 crates of ketracite in the hold, heh, heh.  Make a very big boom, destroy the entire station.”

            “That’s the Captain’s cargo.”

            “So?” The sergeant belted out. “Captain’s not here and his ship’s worth more than the ketracite.  How he going to get it back if we kill ourselves assaulting an ImpSec garrison?”

            “Point taken, anyone else have any thoughts?”

            Tiller spoke quietly, “Station of this class… 30, 40 crewmen, half with power armor.”

            Major Shrak considered this for a few moments.  Hawking shifted his weight, looking bored as his eyes moved about.  The bay had an unfinished, industrial look about it.  The only moving parts seemed to be the enormous doorway immediately aft of the Resolve, and a freight-sized lift just fore.  The space-entrance seemed to be only a single hatch, so Hawking assumed the entire bay could act as an airlock itself, and pump atmosphere in and out of the chamber.

            The major looked up again, “All right, Freak, it’s your lucky day.  Peterson, you watch him as he sets charges to blow the station.  Tiller, take Harvern and Moore and guard the lift for Imps.  Hawking, see about that door behind us and about killing the gravity in here.  I’ll try to get the ship up and running again.  All clear?  Move.”

            Hawking borrowed a demolitions kit from Freak, though the private only parted with his bombs after much grumbling.  Using some zero-gee handholds, he scaled the wall to the door, and began placing shaped charges where Hawking hoped the outer rails were mounted to the station.

            He was nearly done packing some high-density plastic explosives around the door’s perimeter when the lift on the opposing wall gave a metallic groan, and Harvern yelled for everyone to go to ground.

            Hawking hit the deck, twisting his ankle in the process.  He drew the gauss rifle from his back and stared down the length of the bay to the lift.

            His rifle had a mid-range telescopic sight on it, so he could see some of what was going on nearly 300 meters away.

            Sergeant Harvern, the squad’s heavy-weapons guy, was crouching behind the triple spiker-gun he had set up directly in front of the lift, about 20 meters away. Tiller was beside him making some adjustments to the weapon.  Moore was partially concealed behind the ship’s forward laser, and was sighting the long-range gauss rifle at the lift entrance.  Freak and Peterson were jogging toward the lift from Hawking’s left, Freak looking absolutely gleeful while he tinkered with some device whose function Hawking couldn’t even begin to imagine.

            The lift slid open, and four ImpSec Troopers burst out.  Each was wearing power-armor, not the heaviest equipment Hawking had seen, but still very capable military suits, far-outclassing anything his own squadron had.   The troopers all hefted heavy plasma rifles.

            Harvern began firing immediately, the spiker gun spewing a nearly continuous blaze of energy.  The first of the assaulters jerked and toppled forward, his suit charred, before the others broke and began firing their own weapons.

            Luckily for Hawking’s team, the Imps weren’t very good shots, and most of the initial plasma bursts dissipated in the bay’s atmosphere, or landed comfortably distant from anyone on the thick metal surface.  Another of their attackers was chewed up by Harvern, and then finished off with a couple of gauss bolts to the face from Moore.

            Tiller, in his usually creepy way, was simply standing and firing a gauss gun single handedly, paying no mind to the plasma that seemed to just bend around him.

            One of the Imps charged Harvern’s position while he was tracking back from the last kill, but this attack was cut short when the soldier simply exploded.

            Freak giggled, and loaded another bomb into his weapon.  Glancing back, Hawking saw that the Imp had probably survived; the blast didn’t penetrate his armor.  But he wasn’t a worry anymore; one of his arms had been wrenched around his back, and his suit seemed to have lost power, the squadron could deal with him later.

            The final survivor blazed away and Peterson fell from a blast.  But the rest of the team’s fire converged on him, and the Imp was cut to pieces.

            Peterson pulled himself to his feet, the blow had been a glancing one, but his side was still badly burned, and his armor would have to be replaced.  Freak tossed a grenade into the lift, and they wouldn’t have to worry about more attacks, for a while at least.

            Clutching his gut, Peterson cheered, “Well, we sure kicked those sons of bitches’ asses.”

            Harvern shouldered his gun and said simply, “Divine judgment has been passed.”  It was a solemn eulogy.

            Major Shrak jumped out the ship’s hatch, “Well, I got her fired up; I hope for your sake you didn’t let the bastards put a hole in her.”


Ten minutes later, with all-too rusty pilot, Major Shrak, at the helm, the Resolve entered orbit around New Madrid while Imperial Security Impound Node Alpha-Nine went up in a silent, majestic ball of fire.

Hawking got a dreadful feeling in his gut as the bandaged Peterson turned to the Major and asked, “Now what?”


Joseph Howard bent over a steaming mug of coffee, and inhaled deeply.  He was seated at an outlying café in the middle-class district of De Ulloa station, as far as he could be from people who might bother him, while still in a public area. Joe wasn’t worried about the captain, he would get away somehow, he always did, and then he’d call Joe, and they’d meet up again.

            What Joe was really worried about was the ship.  He’d put a lot of time into making that thing run better and smoother than the bucket of bolts it wanted to be, and Joe didn’t want to lose it now.  But getting the Resolve away from ImpSec was going to be a hell of a feat.

            He drank his coffee and decided not to think about, the captain would think of a plan.

            Joe looked around.  It was a nice station, completed just fourteen years ago, though it had been host to a number of people since its inception just two years after the Middle Kingdom crystallized its hold on the galaxy.  Bloody waste of money too, in Joe’s opinion, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy it.

            The people were nice enough, though like most stations many of them were either just passing through, or looking to hide from a former life.  But this was one of the better parts—

            Joe spotted them.  Three ImpSec agents, had walked into the café, and were talking to the bartender.  One of them noticed Joe, and the three began walking towards him.


            Joe took a final sip from his mug, then set it on the table, and leaned back, trying to look relaxed.  The Imps had already interrogated him, and he’d shared everything he thought it was safe to know.  But obviously they weren’t satisfied, probably still looking for the soldiers, so they were coming back for him.

            Only too late did Joe notice the agents’ posture, the way they looked at him as they approached.  They weren’t here for more questions.

            Joe desperately grabbed for his gun, but it was hopeless.  He felt the impacts, and was surprised that no pain followed.  His chair toppled backwards, and landed hard.  New Madrid filled the observation windows as Joe’s world was engulfed in darkness.




            Chan took his time. Lying down and getting back up, stretching his sore muscles as he did so. After a while he lifted his arms and felt around the control collar buzzed, gave Chan a slight shock and fell to the bed. Chan again stretched, finding it to be more refreshing when he could lift his arms above his head and let out a groan.

            Turning towards the door that Joy had left through, he made his way over and carefully stepped through. He found himself in a clear tunnel. The end was a door about a hundred meters from where he stood into a large dome that hovered far above the room he had been in. Looking out across the campus, a huge area, about three hundred acres, surrounded by walls, he caught his breath at the sight. Green covered everywhere. Vines clung to the walls, twirling in the slight breezes of Artemis. Trees shot from the ground and their limbs reminded him of home. Habor sighed and leaned against a wall. The door to the dome opened and a small stocky man limped over to Chan, stopping right in front of him, looking from his altitude at the towering height of Chan’s body.

            “Mighty fine specimen, if I don’t say so myself.”

            Chan looked with some bemusement at the old man. “And who are you?”

            “I’m the one who saved your scrawny neck, son, and you’d better watch yourself. You’re not the only one with special powers.” As he said this, the old man chuckled and poked Chan in the stomach.

            “Can’t the doc give his patient a physical?” The old man prodded him again; Lee was powerless to stop him. Every time he moved his arms to stop him, they froze. He continued to poke the werewolf until Joy entered the tunnel.

            Turning, both men watched her approach. Chan watched her, embarrassed, through glinting eyes. Joy gave him a dirty look but smiled beneath it, standing beside the old man.

            “I’m surprised you haven’t beaten him up, Uncle Gav.” she said with a laugh.

            I’d like to see you try, Habor said to himself.

            I bet you would, came a voice from behind him.

            Chan whirled to find the speaker, but there was no person to go with the voice.

            It isn’t such a good idea to turn your back on the enemy, Chan Lee!

            Habor turned to see, not the old man he was expecting, but a soldier twice his size, muscles bulging from arms of steel, and a hand ready to grip his throat. He morphed; nothing happened.

            Chan braced himself against the wall, waiting for the attack, his muscles pulsing to move… but the attack never came. Instead, only a laugh and a gentle fading of the large soldier occurred, returning into the old man that originally was there. Gavenny’s shoulders were heaving with laughter and Joy held her laugh in her shining brown eyes that were filled with her smile.

            “What the go sch was that?”

            “A figment of your imagination.”

            “Whoever you are, you’d better…” Chan looked down at himself; he was in full Crinos form.

            “Young man,” Gav replied, “you’re just full of anger. I’m helping you release that anger without being a danger to others. You have a story that is far more complicated than ours. I can help, but you’re going to have to do a lot of work on that temper.”

            But you have to admit, the old man’s voice sounded in his head, that was quite funny. Chan watched him closely, but no sound came out his lips. You learn fast, my Chan, now let’s not scare the young lady. How bout a drink and a warm meal?

            “That sounds great.” Lee smiled again and followed the old man towards the dome.

            The dome turned out to be a huge reservoir, filled with sparkling water. A huge species of… something swam in the bright depths of the tank, their bodies creating ripples on top of the water. Doc Gavenny led Chan down the stairs that circled the tank, descending the entire length. A large fish bumped the wall, teeth glinting in the artificial light.

            “What are those?” Lee asked as a large mammal swam by, flippers pushing its long neck, elephant-like body, and webbed hind feet cleanly through the water.

            “Those are hemtaphohelians—hemtas for short. We breed em here, then let them loose on the planet. They’re extremely useful in refurnishing the ground with nutrients.”

            It took Habor a moment to understand what he was saying. “You mean they shit a lot.”

            “Like clockwork.” The doctor shrugged. “Plus they cut down on the weeds, allowing for fertile land to be processed. Sooner or later, we’re gonna have to engineer a species to keep their numbers down.”

            “Do they taste any good?”
            Joy gasped but Gavenny just chuckled. “Yep. Come on, we’re almost there.”

            At the end of the stairs, there was a large circular space, filled with comfortable seats that faced the tank. Everything seemed to be made out of glass and Chan searched the area with amazement, without trying to show too much curiosity.

            “Take a seat.”

            “Thanks,” Chan replied, began to sit, then straightened himself. “After you,” he waved to Joy.

            “Gentleman, huh? I thought you chose the rougher side of life.”

            “Stop bugging him,” her uncle chastised her, “he’s trying. I don’t remember John…” he stopped as silence filled the room. The swimming of the fish nearby was deafening. “Joy, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

            Joy lifted her head and tried to smile. “It’s okay, I know. I think I’m going to go through and take a break. I’ll see you in a while.”

            “Sure you don’t want something to eat?”

            “No, you guys go ahead. This guy,” she pointed to Habor, “needs something in his stomach.”

            Slowly she turned and left through another door; Chan watched her leave.

            She’s missed her John since he left for war and went missing.

            “I’m sorry.”

            “Well, that’s the pi chi way things go.”

            “Let me get some of that grub.”

            Lee sat and watched as the doctor sat beside him on the couch and tapped something into a panel on the armrest. Two droids appeared from the walls approached dragging gurneys. In a few moments, a steaming plate of food sat on Chan’s lap, and he began to devour it.


            After filling his stomach, Habor left the doctor and went looking for Joy. Following her path, he found her sitting beside a pool. Small red fish swam joyfully beneath her feet. Her hair was brown and the pool reflected her beautifully. Chan moved towards her and rested his hand on her shoulder.

            “You okay?” Chan was surprised with himself. Normally he wouldn’t have cared a pentera su what this woman was thinking.

            “Yeah.” Joy was surprised with herself. Normally she wouldn’t have showed her emotions to a stranger.

            “You don’t look okay.”

            “I’ll be fine. It’s really nothing.” She smiled up into his face.” You get enough to eat?”

            ‘What’s that supposed to mean?”

            “It’s just something I used to say to Cres back on R34.” He laughed remembering their last conversation. “Cres was one hell of a good joker. You wouldn’t have liked him though; too crude.”

            “I’m not that civilized.”

            “Shut up.”




            Sherif Tian-yi Adams walks.  Above him, sunlight defused by the smoke of ten thousand furnaces lit his way.  Below him, the chipped industrial road made its way like a canal between the walls of productive factories and abandoned shells of fungicrete.  Shadows from artificial fall on his path, but no shadow comes from sunlight.  There is too much pollution.

            Sherif pauses and takes a breath.  And then another.  It’s hard to get a decent lungful of air on this miserable planet, he thinks to himself.  Above him, another Hoshin Aircar spews its poison into the atmosphere.  “God this planet is polluted.”  Minos didn’t spend unnecessary money on atmosphere condensers.

            After many more hours, even walking became difficult.  Sherif finally sat down, tired and unable to go further.  He was wheezing badly.  It wasn’t that breathing was hard, it was just impossible to get a full lungful.

            “It’s hard, ain’t it?  You can’t breathe until you get used to it.” 

           Adams looked around.  It was hard to focus, but in a moment, it came to him.  Next to him, a raggedy man was standing.  “Ya don’t realize it, but ya’ve been climbing up.  Ya’re on one of the higher points of Minos.  And one of the more dirty.  Ya must be an offworlder.”

            Sherif took another breath that didn’t help.  The old man sighed.  “Get up, son.  You gotta get to a place with some moving air.”  The old man dragged him to his feet and pulled him towards an intersection.  Adams stumbled, hacking and breathing hard.  He couldn’t really see where he was going, but after what seemed an hour, he found himself able to pull in a breath.

            “There now, don’t ya feel better, ja?”  Sherif leaned over and spit up.  The old man stood back and chuckled grimly.  “Ya get into a London afternoon, and its all over.  Ya woulda died.”

            Adams struggled to speak, but could only cough.  After a violent spasm, he stood up shakily.  “There ya go.  That’s it.  When you find that you can’t get a breath, go to an intersection.  These large factories block de flow of air.  The smoke gets trapped down, down in those alleys.  You know, we used to call 'em London afternoons, but now they’re called si xue.”

            And a particularly violent hurl, Sherif could finally speak.  “Thank you, sai, I appreciate it.  I really do.”  He leaned forward, and spit up again.

            The old man chuckled.  “Ya’ve probably not ever smelt anything like this before.” Adams nodded his head.  “Yeah, ya’re from not around here.  Come on ya, ya can buy me lunch, ja.”


            Lunch was good, but dinner was better.  Jason, the old man, took Sherif around the industrial area.  They spoke to each other, with Jason doing most of the talking.  Adams learned to spot a London afternoon fairly quickly.

            At dinner time, Sherif and Jason wandered towards a soup kitchen.  "It's not much," Jason explained, "but it beats tightening yar belt again."  The soup kitchen was run by Lord's Christians Church.  "There's something about them Christians.  Ever since they were run out of New Israel, they have been weird.  My folks were Christian, and I supposes that makes me one too.  But watch yar toes; I hears they eat babies."  Jason chuckled harshly.

            Sherif had a natural distrust of religion taught in school.  It wasn't that he had ever met anyone particularly religious, but he had been taught how most of humanity's problems stemmed from the belief in a god.  The official religion of the Middle Kingdom was none at all.

            So when Adams met his first Christian, he was surprised at how small she was.  Tanya Roberts was directing the less fortunate where to sit.  When she saw Sherif staring at her, she said, "You, over here.  You're serving."  Adams looked around for Jason, who winked at him and went over to his assigned place.

            Sherif wandered into the kitchen.  It was spartan, but clean.  He looked around, a little confused.  "Over here, hung mao."  Adams looked over, and saw a teenage Asian boy waving at him.  "Here.  You'll be dipping this potato soup."

            He peered into the giant pot.  Inside, bits of potato floated in water with bits of fish and bits of leaves.  "Smells good," Sherif said.

            "It should.  Bay leaves are tasty," said the Asian boy.  "By the way, my name is Shao Feng."

            "Pleased to meet you, Feng."

            "Oops, here they come."

            Sherif spent the next forty-five minutes ladling out soup.  He was careful not to spill any, and answered the thank yous with a smile.  Several people came up for second helpings, and although Tanya frowned at them, and then at Sherif, he filled their bowl again.  At one point, she came up and looked into the soup bowl, saw that it was still mostly full, and nodded her head curtly.

            After everyone had been up, Tanya walked back over.  She looked into the giant pot, and when it wasn't near to empty, she berated Sherif.  "You're supposed to give them a full bowl.  Why bother saving any?"  She frowned fiercely at him, and "Go over and clean dishes.  Feng, ladle out the rest of this soup to anyone who wants some more."  Upon hearing this, several people immediately stood up and went to the line again.

            Sherif hung his head, and went over to clean dishes.  He had enjoyed all the "thank yous" he was getting.  He wiped dishes for twenty minutes, until Tanya Roberts walked over towards him.  "I've not seen you here before.  What's your name?"

            "Sherif Tian-yi Adams, ma'am."

            "Well Mr. Adams, you need to be certain to be more careful in the future."  She flipped her head away and walked towards Feng and came back a moment later with a bowl of soup.  "Here you are."

            Sherif mumbled a grateful "thanks", quickly ate the soup, and went back to washing dishes.

            After he was finished, Adams quietly put down his towel and walked away.  He left without looking for Jason, and started walking again.  He walked for a long time, and found a place to sit down for the night.  He glanced up at the sky, and for a brief moment, stars showed through the haze.  He sighed, and almost immediately fell asleep.


            Sherif dreamt of his parents, and when he awoke, he awoke with hatred.  Anger struck.  Anger at the people who killed his parents.  Anger at the hate and pain done to him.  He wished vengeance.

            Adams took a breath and cleared his mind.  “Dreams played funny tricks on a person”, he thought.  He forced a smile onto his face, and turned to face the dawn.  He stood back up, and started walking again.

            He walked all day.  He walked past apartments and factories, stores and warehouses, taverns and churches.  He walked until his feet hurt and then he walked until they didn’t hurt.  At the end of the day, his throat was dry, his eyes were dry, and his nose was dry.  He sat down again on the pavement.  His knees ached; he wasn’t used to walking on fungicrete.  He drew his legs close to his body.  Sherif Tian-yi Adams sighed.  And it began to rain.




            As the Dickerson approached the asteroid cluster, which contained Gamma Site, Weathers felt the other members of his bridge crew relax.  There was no automated distress call to warn them away.  Beta had been swarming with slants and the free ship had spent the last week making very sure that they were not being pursued.  Weathers ordered the ship to approach the base carefully, but that was more to give the appearance of vigilance that out of necessity. 

            There is no danger here, or if there is I don’t feel it.   The stress of the last couple weeks had seemed to hone Weathers’ special sensory abilities.  Unsure why, he chalked it up to all the stress he and the crew had undergone.  Nothing like facing survival situation to cause one to evolve, wish I knew where this was going… or how to control it.

            “Sir,” Ensign Hargave reported, “I am picking up signs of a ship alongside Gamma, it appears to be the Marm.”  Looks of joy cascaded along the faces of the crew as the bridge erupted in adulation.  The Marm was the pet name given to the Marduke, a fast freighter which had been adapted by the flotilla’s original leader to serve as a training platform for any new members the group might acquire.  The vessel’s first commander had been an older female officer whom the students had called, behind her back, the school marm.  While she had passed away a few years back, her nickname lived on as the name of the ship. More importantly to Weathers, his son, Gordon, was on his first tour as a midshipman aboard the training vessel.

            “Open a hail, let’s see if they are who we hope they are,” requested Weathers.  Once they determined they were friendly, the exultant vessel docked with Gamma.  As the crew disembarked, they were met with cheers from the younger sailors who made up the crew of the Marm.  Weathers immediately found Gordon amongst the crowd and raced to be reunited with his son.  Similar scenes were replayed across the dock area as the two crews mingled.  Allowing himself a moment to revel in an embrace with the child he thought he had lost, Weathers soon pulled himself back to matters at hand.  “Son, where’s your captain?  I have some bad news.”

            “We figured as much, Dad.  We were out on maneuvers when the slopes hit Alpha.  Commander Blackburn put out a message that all ships should scatter, but so far we are the only one to make it here, other than Dickerson of course.  Where is the rest of the flotilla?”

            “Well…” David couldn’t bring himself to say it. Yes, Gordie, everyone else is sucking vacuum around Ashdown because we didn’t expect the Eastern Bastards to pop out right in front of us. All he could manage was “they didn’t make it.”

            “Oh,” the midshipman knew what that meant, and immediately starting scanning the crowd to change the topic. “Well, the captain is around here somewhere. Frankly, I think everyone is here to meet y’all.”

            At that point Gordon Weathers found the woman he was looking for.  As he tried to make his way towards her, he saw a member of his crew with whom she was talking, do the exact same ritual and pointed David Weathers out.  After exchanging greetings, the two moved to storeroom three, which had apparently been converted into officer’s quarters.

            “So, Captain Weathers, I assume things were disastrous out there? Last time we met, you were a buck lieutenant.” Her eyes looked him over. “What happened at Alpha?”
            “That is exactly what I was going to mention, Captain Lyle.”

            “Call me Susan, Dave. We’re both captains now… plus there’s are no crew present.”

            “All right… Susan. Someone must have told the slopes we and other free flotillas were going to help Ashdown.  When we came out of hyperspace at the meeting coordinates, we were hammered by a heavy cruiser and its auxiliaries.  We had to play possum to make it out alive.  We salvaged enough from the other ships to get out, but… we were lucky.”

            “Yeah, guess so.” Lyle nodded. “When the order to scatter was issued, I thought we might have a traitor in our ranks. That’s why we came here.  Only bridge officers know about this place, since it is little more than an emergency re-supply station.  Lucky for us, someone had the vision to put it here.”

            “Here” was actually an asteroid belt orbiting a cold star in a planet-less system roughly between Saemaul, Mool and the Bug Quarantine zone.  The captain of the Featherston, one of the ships destroyed during the Ashdown Rebellion, was the son of a free-lance space miner.  His family had visited that system when he was young. After the slants had destroyed Earth Fleet, he suggested it as a possible site for a base.  The other captains did not want to be that close to the bugs, but it was to be utilized in an emergency, such as their other two bases getting demolished.

            “I figured something like that had gone down.  Where do you think we should go from here?”

            Weathers shrugged. “I had some ideas.  I think Ashdown demonstrated that we cannot count on outsiders for help, and involvement in anything less that a massive movement against the Eastern Bloc exposes us to great risk.  What would you think of keeping it simple and in-house.  Let’s start raiding supply routes and wait.  Someday a chance to hit those bastards will appear, and I want to be around to enjoy their fall.”

            “Sounds like an excellent plan, Dave.  What would you think of re-shuffling folks between the crews?  My people are young and… well, I wouldn’t mind a few experienced people on my bridge.”

            “Strip my staff clean?”
            “Well, I am senior officer now.”

            “You want an admiral’s flag with that?”

            “God, no!” She smiled. “We’ve got a fleet of two ships for the moment, and that’s hardly enough to worry about pinning stars and planets to people.”

            “Fair enough, Susan. Let’s put our XO’s on that personnel shuffle immediately while you give me a tour of this place.  We need to know what’s available for our little war.”




Yoko raised the can of Yangtze Cola to her lips with trembling fingers and took a long gulp.  “I’m sorry, sensei,“ she said to Cho, exhausted.  “I just can’t do it!  The Imperial Palace network is too secure!”

            “Burukuso!” Cho countered.  “You can and you will.  You’re weak, but you’re still wu jen.


            “A mage, Yoko,” Cho said irritably.  “I’ve used that term before, you should know it by now!  C’mon, Yoko, give the spell one more try.  I’ll talk you through it.”

Hai, sensei,” the fat hacker said wearily, staring bleary-eyed at the password prompt.

“Nhut!  Usha!  Hung!”  Cho beckoned to her other apprentices.  “Watch and learn!”

            Yoko sighed heavily, drained the rest of her Yangtze, and pitched the empty can into a wastebasket.  As her fellow students gathered around her, Yoko closed her eyes and placed her fingers on the keyboard.

            “There is no reality except what we create,” Cho whispered to her apprentice.  “Reality is clay; you are the potter.”  Cho observed Yoko’s brow furrow at the reference, and tried a different approach.  “Uh… reality is just code, and you are the programmer?”

            “Oh!” Yoko said, nodding.

            Golram computer nerd, Cho thought scornfully, but continued in a gentle voice.  “Take a deep breath.  Now hold it.  Now tap your quintessence.  Concen—”

            “Eh?” Yoko grunted.

            “Your chi, Yoko, your chi,” Cho clarified, her voice betraying a trace of annoyance.  “Concentrate you chi in your chest, in your heart.  Your chi is all that is truly real—and you control it.  Now breathe out.  Your chi is a river of reality, flowing through you, down your arms, into the computer, across the network, into the Imperial Palace server.  Keep breathing until you can feel the connection.”

            Cho waited while Yoko’s greasy face twisted in concentration, beads of sweat forming on her brow as she huffed and puffed like a hog.  Finally she grunted affirmatively and nodded.

            “What is a password, anyway?” Cho continued softly.  “Just digits.  Anyone can guess it.  The odds are high, but it is possible.  You can read the password, Yoko.  You can feel the password.  You know the password.  You are the password; your chi determines it.  Let your chi flow through your fingertips into the keyboard, Yoko; they know where to go.  Pour it out, Yoko… now!”  Instantly Yoko tapped out a fifteen-digit code and hit enter, then opened her eyes to see the results.


There was a tense silence one could cut with a knife.  Yoko shot a nervous glance at her master.  Cho’s face had hardened.  Her jaw pressed her lips into a thin, angry line.  Nhut and Usha exchanged worried glances.

“Sorry, sensei,” Yoko apologized.  “I just…  I dunno…  I told you I couldn’t—AHH!“

Like a snake, Cho’s arm shot out and smacked Yoko hard upside the head, knocking her face into the keyboard with a startled cry.  “You didn’t put enough positive chi in the box, you worthless piece of kuso!” Cho snapped.  Her apprentices shifted uncomfortably behind her.  “You’ve tried this twelve times!” Cho yelled.  “I could have trained a yak to do this by now!”

“But it’s the Imperial Net, Cho!” Yoko whined, pinching her nose as it began to bleed.  “And I’m just a ’prentice!”

“Y’know, I think I will train a yak!  At least a yak would be thinner and smell better!”  The insult hit Yoko like a blow.  She flinched and looked away, blinking rapidly.  Cho knew Yoko was sensitive about her weight—and didn’t care.  Hell, she was just getting started.  “Your dad thinks you’ll be the best hacker in Yakuza-Tanzhi, but I think I should kick your fat ass back down to casino tech support—‘cause you’re totally useless!  What do you think about that, fatso-san?

Behind Cho, Usha kicked Nhut’s ankle and jerked her head toward Yoko.  Nhut shrugged.

“I… I’m sorry, sensei… I… I…” Yoko stammered, her voice beginning to crack.

“On, stop blubbering!” Cho sneered.  “Everyone knows whales can’t cry!”

Do something! Usha silently mouthed to Nhut, glaring at the scrawny gambler.  Nhut shook his head, eyes wide, and pointed urgently back at Usha; You do something!

Ta ma de!” Cho swore as she dealt Yoko a harsh slap that knocked her out of her chair.  “Golram shi fa ren shiba pyongshin—”

“Sensei!” Hung called out.

Cho stopped, surprised, and glanced at the muscle-bound ninja with no neck.  It was the first time he had spoken all day.

“Honorable sensei,” Hung said, bowing low.  “Time is short.  Can you not cast the spell yourself so we may continue with the planning?”

Cho scowled at him.  She knew he had a point, but she was in the middle of a good rant…

Nhut whipped out his pack of smokes and popped one between his lips.  “Hey, you want one, Cho?” he mumbled, providing another distraction.  “They’re Nirvanas!”  He held the pack of marijuana cigarettes out to Cho, who stared at them, undecided.

“Regulars?” Cho asked finally.

“Uh… no, ultralight 100s.” Nhut said.  He knew Cho preferred extra-wide unfiltered, but hoped she’d smoke one anyway and mellow out.  Weed is weed, after all, and junkies are junkies.

Sch, why not?” Cho sighed, taking one.  “I deserve a break after training that gaujo!  As soon as Cho turned away, Usha yanked Yoko to her feet and scurried out of the room with the crying, bleeding young girl.

“Please, sensei,” Hung bowed, gesturing toward the computer.  “Show us how it is done.”

Golram right I will!” Cho muttered, sitting down at the terminal and puffing on her joint as the stench of burning marijuana filled the room.  She paused for a brief second, eyes closed, palm pressed against the monitor, before tapping out a password.


            “Eh?” Cho grunted, clearly surprised.  She tried again, concentrating longer this time.


            By the time Usha and Yoko returned, the chubby young hacker pressing a cold can of Yangtze Cola to her swollen nose, Cho had tried the password a dozen times and failed.  She glared at the screen, puzzled, and took a long drag off the joint.

            “Something ain’t right here,” Cho muttered.  “Something’s blocking me.  Ain’t just a security program—there’s something magickal going on, too.  Seen anything like this before, Nhut?” she asked, turning to the tall gambler.  He also happened to be their resident con artist and thief.

            Nhut shook his head slowly as breathed out a cloud of smoke.  He was already squinting and grinning from the weed.  “Don’t think so.  What about you, Yoko?”

Yoko shook her head.  “Uh-uh.  Magitech locks… y’know… run off chi crystal batteries, sensei—those aren’t nearly powerful enough to stop you,” she said timidly, then paused to wipe blood off her chin.  “There must be a live mage on the other end—or several.”

A chill ran down Cho’s spine.  This hit was looking tougher all the time.  She took a deep drag off the joint.  “Well, this is a dead end,” she muttered.  “The network’s too secure.”

            Hung cleared his throat loudly.  Cho glanced at him.  Hung stared silently back at her.

            “What?” Cho asked, puzzled.

            Hung glanced at Yoko.  Her eyes were dry now, but blood still dribbled down her face.

            “Oh…” Cho said softly.  “How’s your nose, Yoko?” she finally asked, not looking at her student.

            “Fine, sensei!” Yoko chirped.

            “Burukuso.  Don’t lie to me, girl.  It still stings.”

            “Uh… well… yeah,” Yoko confessed, looking down.

            “What about now?”

            “Uh… no!  It stopped!”  Yoko lowered the soda can and gingerly felt her nose.  The swelling had disappeared, as had the blood.  “Thank you, sensei!”

            “Okay, so you couldn’t hack the Imperial Palace network,” Cho moved on, ignoring her comment.  “What else you got?”

            “Oh, lots!” Yoko said, perking up at the chance to be useful again.  She opened the can of Yangtze Cola and slurped it noisily.  “Well, I was able to hack into the contractor company that built the palace, so we’ve got floor plans, blueprints, schematics… even some info about security systems.  Here, I downloaded it to my datapad!” Yoko said, tossing it to Cho.  “Of course, the palace was built sixteen years ago, so the security info could be out of date…”

            “So what are we dealing with?” Cho asked her.

            “Mostly standard stuff,” Yoko answered cheerfully.  “Security cameras, keycards, retinal scans, weapon scanners—the usual chem, bio, and rad sensors—armed guards, and… um…”  Yoko paused to slurp her cola.  “Uh… etheral scanners.”

            “Jin sai!” Cho cried.  “Those machines that read auras and spot wu jen at fifty meters?”

            “Uh… yeah,” Yoko said, not looking at her.

            “So there’s no way to get in there without them knowing we’re all wu jen?

            Yoko shrugged and nodded, then stepped back, obviously fearing another angry outburst.

            “Okay, Nhut, how do we get past them?” Cho asked lanky con man.

            “Mmm?”  Nhut looked up, clearly high.  “Oh.  Ummm… well…”  He pondered a while, puffing his joint and grinning.  “Not around so much as through.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “Uh… like, we go through the scanners.”

            “Gaujo!  We’ll get caught!”

            “Uh, no, don’t think so,” Nhut said casually, taking another hit off his joint.

            “Why not?”

            “Well, duh!”  Nhut giggled.  “ ’Cause they only detect wu jen, Cho!”

            “But we ARE wu jen!”

            “Uh, well, yeah, right now we are—but not by the time we go through, we won’t be, no.”

            “I have a gun and a shovel, Nhut...”

            “Y’know, like, Quellers, Cho!” Nhut explained quickly.  “Y’know, the funky drugs they use on rouge wu jen in prison to stop their magic?  So, like, we take those, and the ethereal scanners will read us as unawakened!”

            “Walk into the Imperial Palace to whack the prince with no magic?” Cho summed up in disbelief.

            “Uh… yeah, that’s the idea.”

            “No way in hell.”

            “Hey, Quellers do wear off in a few hours, y’know...”

            “No way in hell.  And did I mention you’re a stoned fool?”

            “Well, yeah.  Hell, everyone knows that!”  Nhut chucked.  “But, like, that’s the only way I know around the scanners, Cho.”  Nhut shrugged.  “So unless you got a better idea, take it or leave it.”

            Cho glared at him.  She was liking this job less and less.

“Usha, think you can get your hands on some Quellers?” she asked at last.

The dusky Indian smuggler scowled and let out a low whistle.  “I dunno, Cho.  I mean, we’re yakuza, controlled substances are our business, but… well, Quellers don’t technically exist.  No one knows about ’em, so nobody wants ’em.”

“Yeah,” Cho nodded, “but I’ll bet the ones who do, want ’em bad!  That means a stiff price.  An’ if there’s good money to be made off ’em, that means out tightfisted oyabun’s got Quellers stashed somewhere!  So find ’em an’ get ’em!”

Usha shifted uncomfortably and shrugged.  “Well… I'll see what I find, Cho—but no promises.”

“Now, I’m not saying we’re going to use ’em,” Cho said firmly, wheeling back on Nhut and sticking a finger in his face.  “I’m just covering all the angles, that’s all.”  Cho lit another joint and threw herself down on Yoko’s dusty, worn out sofa.  “Okay, now how are we gonna whack this guy?  This is gonna be a tough one…”

“What, can’t we just shoot ’em?” Nhut asked.  He threw himself down on the couch next to Cho—and missed completely, toppling over the back and onto the floor.

“No more Nirvanas for you,” Cho called over the back of the sofa.  “And no, we can’t just cap this guy, ’cause Earl Cheong wants us to frame Lord Dai for it.”  Cho took another drag off the joint.  “Trouble is, nobles are too rich and too smart to blatantly murder a prince.  Dai would assassinate the guy quietly—make it look natural or something.  So that means we gotta murder this guy in a way that looks natural, but screw up the job so they can tell it is a murder after all.  And we gotta do it in a way that no one can tell it was screwed up on purpose.”  Cho leaned back and closed her eyes, concentrating.  “On top of all that, we gotta leave an evidence trial pointing to Lord Dai.  But once again, a Lord would be smart enough to cover his ass, so we gotta leave an evidence trail that looks like it was covered up, but not quite well enough.  And if that ain’t enough, we can’t leave any evidence pointing back to Yakuza-Tanzhi.  Oh, and we’ve only got a few days to set this all up… is this making any sense to you guys, or I just pissing in the wind?”

“No, that makes sense,” Yoko agreed, and sipped her Cola.

Hung grunted affirmatively.

“I’m following you so far,” Usha nodded.

“Ummm… what?” Nhut asked from behind the couch.

Cho opened her eyes.  “Ta ma de, Nhut!  How can you possibly be stoned on this ultralight kuso!” Cho exclaimed, snuffing out her joint.  “I’m not even getting a buzz of this ditch weed!”  She pulled out her opium pipe and began filling the bowl with Khymer Rouge.  “Okay, Hung, you’re our resident ninja.  How would a lord whack a political rival and get away with it?”

Hung was busy doing push-ups in a corner, a sure sign he was bored.  “Hire an assassin,” he said without looking up, arms pumping up and down, “who would use poison or a fake accident.”

“I like the fake accident idea,” Cho said, puffing on her pipe.  “Fast.  Lethal.  Easy to miss something in a cover-up, more evidence for ImpSec to follow.  So Prince Tomo has a little accident.  Now, how do we frame Lord Dai?”  The quintet pondered the question in silence.

“Well, a lord would hire an assassin,” Usha began, brushing long dark curly lock out of her face.  “So we tie the evidence to the assassin, then tie the assassin to Lord Dai.  That shouldn’t be too hard, as long as Yoko hacks into Lord Dai’s records and for a little creative bookkeeping.”

“I like it!” Cho said, pausing to take another hit off her pipe.  “Except for the part where they catch the assassin.  I’m not really looking to end my days in a prison pumped full of Quellers.”

“Well, not us, obviously,” Usha conceded.  “We’ll have to set up someone else as the assassin, perhaps from a rival yakuza, since ImpSec is bound to go after whoever’s involved.”

“I like the sound of that,” Cho nodded.

“I suggest Yakuza-Yuriatu,” Usha continued.  “If we can weaken them, we’ll have a better foothold on the Babylon system.”

“Nope,” Cho said, shaking her head.  “Yakuza-Gaijin.”

“I… don’t think that’s wise,” Usha said cautiously.  “They’re a very powerful family, Cho.”

“Yeah, but I hate those round-eyed hung mao,” Cho said, as if that settled the matter.

“Umm…” Usha said, clearly uncomfortable with the idea but searching for the most diplomatic words.  “Word on the street is they’ve got friends in high places.”

“So do we.”  Cho shrugged, exhaling white opium smoke.

“Not this high,” Usha said firmly, shaking her head.  “Rumor has it the obuyan of Yakuza-Gaijin has a direct pipeline to Minister Treschi.”

Burukuso!” Cho swore dismissively.  “Rumor, nothing more.”

“Cho…” Usha said, deadly serious.  “Yakuza-Gaijin is the only non-han family on the streets.  Not just that, but they dominate Avalon—no other yakuza family can even get a toehold there.  They couldn’t have come this far without a lot of help from powerful friends.”

“All the more reason to sic ImpSec on ’em and bring ’em down a peg,” Cho countered.

“Look, Cho, this hit is very political, and—”

“I said Yakuza-Gaijin,” Cho said, raising her voice.  “Why are we still talking about this?”

“The obuyan of our family should make kind of call,” Usha said, meeting Cho’s gaze.

Cho put down her pipe and stood up slowly.  Her eyes bored into Usha’s.  “You questioning me, ji nu?” she asked, her voice dangerously low.  Usha lowered her eyes, but not before Cho caught a glimpse of burning anger.

Cho glared art Usha in silence.  The woman had always vexed Cho, just by existingUsha Venkatramani had the look of a woman trying very hard to appear ugly and failing miserably.  She had the sort of perfect hair, skin, and teeth that other women spend thousands of hours and crowns on and never completely achieve.  She tried unsuccessfully to hide her figure under loose, baggy jeans and jackets… which still somehow managed to cling to the curves and swell of her body nonetheless.  Worst of all, Usha always moved with a natural grace and elegance without trying, even when wearing thick clunky magnetic boots aboard her freighter.  Cho always felt extraordinarily ugly whenever Usha was in the room, and resented it bitterly.  Beauty and the damn beast…

“I said," Cho snapped loudly, "are you questioning me?”

Iye, sensei,” Usha said softly.

“Yer golram right, yer not!” Cho spat.  “And let me make this clear, bitch: if you even think about going over my head to the oyabun—you’re finished, done, gone from my service and protection.  That little smuggling ship you’re so proud of?  Don’t forget who owns it.  I’ll find a new captain and kick your sorry ass back into the whorehouse you came from.  I’m sure some fat sweaty hung mao could think up a few new uses for that firm brown ass of yours.  That what you want?”

“Iye, sensei.”

“Well, then get this through your head—I am in charge, you do what I say.  Dong ma?”


“And that goes for the rest of you!” Cho sneered at her other apprentices.  “Anyone who’s got a problem with me can leave at any time!  Under me you’re wu jen—special, elite, invaluable… but without me you’re just freaks.  Yakuza street scum.  Dong ma?”

A chorus of “hai’s” sounded, but Cho wasn’t listening anymore.  She snatched up her pipe and dug in her pocket for the opium.  Usha’s challenge—however minor—had pissed her off tremendously, and she needed to mellow out, now—before she began flinging spells at her pupils.

“All right, here’s the plan,” Cho dictated and she shook some Khmer Rouge into her pipe bowl.  “Nhut, you work with me on planning this ‘accident.’  Yoko, start hacking Lord Dai’s accounts wherever you can find them.”  Cho paused to light the bowl and inhale a deep breath of the pure white smoke.  “Hung, go kidnap a Yakuza-Gaijin assassin and bring him back here for a little memory magic.”  As Cho sucked down a second toke, Hung made his first facial expression of the day—stunned disbelief—but nodded obediently and headed for the door.  “Usha, you—”  Cho stopped suddenly, coughing fiercely.  She pounded on her chest, then took a deep, gasping breath.  “Usha, you go and—cuf! cuf!—find us some—cuf! cuf!—Quellers, and—cuf! cuf! cuf!—

“Sensei?” Yoko asked timidly.  “You alright?”

Cho nodded and gave her a thumbs-up, but couldn’t stop coughing long enough to talk.

“Sensei?  Cho?” Usha asked, concerned.  Nhut’s head popped over the back of the couch, looking alarmed.  Even Hung paused in the doorway to watch.  All eyes were on Cho.

But Cho didn’t respond.  She was clutching her throat, eyes bulging, as her chokes turned into thin wheezes.  She began to stagger and flailed her arms around for balance.  Her opium pipe slipped from her fingers and shattered on the ground a second before Cho collapsed to the floor herself.

“Den deh mah!” Nhut yelled, staggering forward as spasms racked Cho’s body.

“Is she okay?” Yoko asked fearfully, hands pressed to her mouth.

            “No she’s not okay, gaujo!” Nhut yelled as he ripped his belt off and tried to shove the leather between Cho’s teeth while she convulsed violently.  “Call an ambulance—I think she’s overdosing!”





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Text Copyright (C) 2004 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.  Do not try ANY of this at home, because no matter how obviously great the idea is, most bartenders do not have a tranquilizer rifle hidden next to the cash register.