These, in the day when heaven was falling, / The hour when earth’s foundations fled,

Followed their mercenary calling / And took their wages and are dead.”

                                                             – “Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries”, A.E. Houseman,


The wings of the pinnace bit into the dense atmosphere surrounding the planet of New Paris, giving a short jolt to the occupants.  From the copilot’s seat, James could see the green of the planet’s surface rapidly approaching.

An indicator light blinked, James reached out to hit the button next to it.

There was a short beep, and then, “This is New Paris Port Authority to unidentified military landing craft, identify yourself at once.”

Moving his hand to another set of controls, James keyed in a command to broadcast the military ID codes that were given to him by his last passenger.

“Thanks Doc.”  James spoke to himself, not knowing that his benefactor was now little more than a charred stain on the floor of a warehouse.

The comm indicator shut off, and the Port Authority of New Paris didn’t call back.

On James’ left, Tanya Kaul announced, “Cruising altitude; we’ll be hitting Maine City in just a couple minutes.”

For a population approaching four billion people, New Paris seemed sparsely populated.  The suburb of the galaxy, New Paris had been home to the Federation’s rich and famous, and had not declined much with the rise of the Middle Kingdom.  Boasting sprawling plantation estates and luxury penthouses, it was the choice retreat and vacation spot for humanity’s elite.

Putting down his mental travel brochure, James focused his attention on the approaching skyline.

Maine City was unlike the administrative cities of most other planets.  It had the standard sprawl of glass-covered towers and grav-plated streets; but, and there was no other way to put, it was clean.  Missing were the slums, the run-down “bad” parts of down; conspicuously absent were municipal dumps and smog-pumping factories.  Oh, there were factories, if one knew what to look for.  But they were very few, and all of them entirely automated, using solar or geothermal energy.  You would certainly be hard-pressed to find a beggar on New Paris.

And this was for the simple fact that no one on the planet was poor, it wasn’t allowed.  James’ mother had once told him that it wasn’t always that way, but James couldn’t imagine it any differently; it had certainly been like that since the Middle Kingdom came into power.  If you wanted to move to New Paris, you had to shell out, and then you had to keep shelling out.  If you couldn’t meet your payments, the Civil Police would knock on your door and politely tell you that you had a week to get off planet before they deported you to the Ark.  Then they would foreclose your home and sell it to the highest bidder.  James smirked; he might be the only exception to that rule.

In fact, the only place on New Paris that even approached lower-class was the Lord-General Chen Hsia Spaceport (formerly the Charles de Gaulle Spaceport), where spacers would hang out between shipments; but the CPs kept that complex well-contained.

After passing by the skyhooks and sprawling fungicrete platforms of the spaceport, they passed into the rolling fields of East Canton, one of the largest and wealthiest of New Paris’ administrative districts.

“Approaching the Samothrace compound.”  The pilot announced.

The house where James’ friend Ian grew up had started huge.  It was now a veritable fortress, with its own mini-spaceport and Senatorial Police barracks and armory.  James made a mental note to stop by to say hi to Mrs. Samothrace.  James’ and Ian’s mothers had been friends, and now that the elder Welthammer had passed away, James would drop in on his occasional planetside stop, and catch up on local and family happenings.  Mrs. Samothrace was also an excellent cook; James’ own mother had preferred delivered meals.

Leaving the squat metal structures of the compound behind, the pinnace passed over more fields, until another building came into being on the horizon.

“Welthammer estate, coming up.”

“Right,” James sat up straight, ‘put her down over by the north wing, as usual.”

The pinnace circled the three-story imitation wood-and-brick and came to a soft landing near what was properly called the back door, but was no less grand for the name.

Tanya flipped a couple switches over her head, “Powered down, and we are cleared to disembark.”

Everyone, soldiers and crew alike was happy to get out of the cramped pinnace and onto firm ground with real gravity to stretch in, and fresh air to breathe.

James walked up to the double doors with the sign “This building foreclosed for taxes due.” hanging over them.  He fished a key out of his pocket, placed it into the dual mechanical and electronic lock, turned the bolt, pulled the handle, and took a deep breath of the stale, musty air of his childhood home.  The power seemed to work, it had better after all the trouble he’d gone through to run an illegal line to the Samothraces’ legitimate one.

Taking a couple steps inside, he turned to the men and women following him, and spoke:

“Welcome to my humble home, comrades; please wipe your feet before entering.  Shrak, I believe you and your men will find the storage units in their usual location if you want to get to stocking up.  I’m going to go pay a visit to my friends out west; somebody get the air conditioner going, and order yourselves a pizza, I’ll buy.”



A few hours later, James was lying on a sofa, slogging through some accounting when his comm-link rang.  Grumbling, he took the phone out of his pocket, jacked it into the receiver on a coffee table, and transferred the call to the large viewscreen on his right, enabling both audio and video.  Ian Samothrace appeared on the screen.

“James, just the man I needed to see.”

Welthammer happily set his bookkeeping aside and sat up, “Hullo Ian, what can I do for you.”

“What indeed.  Where, are you James, I—“ Ian actually saw where Welthammer was, “Golrammit, James, you’re not back at your house, are you?  Do you know how many times the New Paris Chief has called me complaining about you?”

“My father bought this house, Ian.  It belongs to my family.”  Whether James remembered the old ways or not, he believed in them firmly.

The Senator sighed, they’d had the argument before, and Ian knew it was useless, “Have you been to see my mother?  Is she still getting along?”

“Still fit as a horse, keeps the staff on their toes too.  And your wife was there too, Ian, why didn’t you tell me you’d had a daughter?”

Ian jumped slightly, “I didn’t?  I must have been too distracted with the job, forgive me.  How are Gracie and Ann?”

Grace Samothrace was a short, brown-haired Caucasian woman who’d worked for a large advertising firm until she’d married Ian, which allowed her an early retirement.  She was nice, but she didn’t meet Ian until James had gone into business for himself, so he hadn’t met her very often.

“Grace is fine; your daughter’s cute, loud too.”  Halfway through lunch, her mother had had to carry the little girl off, crying.  “Your wife wishes you were around more, though.”

Ian sighed again, in a different way this time, “Yeah, job never lets you have a break; paperwork on top of endless paperwork.  I’d recommend forming a committee to work on efficiency if it didn’t mean forming five other committees to even consider such a thing.  It’s giving me gray hairs, James.”

James laughed, but it was hardly a joke, Samothrace was definitely going gray, and he hadn’t even reached thirty.  James had been there for the campaign that made Ian one of the youngest senators ever elected, and had seen the effect that amount of work had on the man.

“Anyway, James, the reason I called you… I’ve got a high-risk, highly-sensitive job that needs doing.  And unfortunately, I don’t think anyone in my own department is up to doing it.  I hope you’re up to doing it.”

“All right, I’ve been free-lancing since my last boss got himself in on the wrong side of a fight with ImpSec heavies.  What’s the job?”

“Er…well I can’t tell you unless I’ve got your agreement to do it.”

James blinked, Ian had asked James to carry out some awfully surreptitious operations before, including breaking an Imperial blockade; but he’d never needed a condition like this before.

“Sort of hard for me to tell you if I can do it if I don’t even know what it is, Ian.  Can you tell me anything?  I hope you’re just wanting something moved around, I don’t do assassinations and I’m not fond of negotiations.”

“Um…yes, just a pickup.  One passenger, from a potentially hostile area.  I’m afraid that’s about all I can tell you.”

Now it was Welthammer’s turn to sigh, “All right, Ian, I’ll do it.  I figure I owe you one, lay it on me.”  If it turned out to be downright impossible, James could always cut and run, but he’d rather not let down his friend like that.

“Thanks, James; I think you’ll be able to handle it.  I’ve got an agent of the Senatorial Police, deep undercover operative, and he’s just signaled for an extraction.”

“A spy, eh?  So the Senate keeps their own watch on things?”

“He’s observing a local government, yes; and please don’t ask me for details.”

“OK, so this boy thinks his cover’s blown, needs someone to get him out?”

“Well, he didn’t hit the panic button, but the signal was flagged high enough that we think the subjects might be on to him.  You’ll want to use extreme caution on your pickup.”

“Oh, hell, Ian; you sent me to make a pickup under fire from the bloody Bugs once, I think I can handle some suspicious policemen.  Where is he?”


James started reviewing his mental map of the galaxy, when every alarm bell ever made went of in his head.  He leapt to his feet.

“Jesus, Ian!  Are you out of your golramn mind?!  You’re spying on the fucking Horadrim!


How?!  I mean, god dammit, Ian, if he thinks they’re onto him, then they’re damn well onto him!  Christ, just sign his death certificate already; I’d rather save mine for later.”

“Please, James.  The information he’s got is crucial to the security of the Middle Kingdom, possibly humanity itself.  It’s too sensitive for broadcast, we need him.”

James took a couple breaths, calmed down only slightly, “Jesus, Ian…”

“Look, he’s a professional.  Trust me, we sent him in there with the absolute best training and equipment possible, he’s been able to survive unharmed for several months, you’ve got to believe he knows what he’s doing.”

“Yeah, but…come on, Ian, it’s the Horadrim!

“I know, and he knows it to.  A signal like this could mean as little as one of them looked at him funny, I’m sure he knows how dangerous his situation is, and values his life just as much as you do.”

“I don’t know…”

“Please, James, you’ve already agreed, I need you.”

James hung his head, Ian had him there.  “All right, I’ll do it.  But if I come out of this one alive, then promise you won’t send me back there again.”

Ian nodded, “I swear it.”

“All right, I expect a more detailed briefing to be sent to me before I leave the planet.  How soon do you need this guy?”

“ASAP James, like you said, it is the Horadrim, best not to let them have too long to confirm any suspicion.”

“All right, then I’ll lift tomorrow; I assume you’re giving me digital gate and military route clearance for this one.”

“Of course.”

“Right, then I’ll be there in four days, make it noon local time.  Tell your agent to be waiting for me, preferably as close to the spaceport as possible.  You can send a message like that, right?”

“In four days?  It’ll get there, I’m sure he’ll be expecting you.”

“All right then.  I’d best get going, make preparations, send me that briefing.”

“You’ll get it; tell my family I love them.”

“Will do.  Oh, and Ian?”


“If I do die, perish the thought, but if I do, I want you to slug Jai Nalwa for me, parting gift.”

Ian laughed, “I’ll break his nose.  See you in a week, James.”  The comm ended.

“Yeah, see you…”  I hope.  Damn Horadrim.

James retrieved his phone from the receiver.  Picking up the datapad he’d been working on, accounting was suddenly too much for him.  He threw the thin piece of electronics against a wall, it cracked and the screen died.

He opened the door to his estate’s hallway; he had to tell his men the bad news.




Nhut Moon gobbled down some take-out sushi, hoping the rice would sober him up a bit, on his way over to the Shaanxi Hotel and his mystery hook up.  He strutted into the hotel lobby (memorizing all the exits, just in case).  Nhut was ready for action, either way.  He just hoped the excitement didn’t show too obviously through his pants.

Nhut found the right door, flicked the key card through the lock, and stumbled into the hotel room.  It was dark.  The door swung closed behind him.

“Hello?” he called.  “Anyone here?”

“Nhut?” a vaguely familiar voice called out of the darkness.  “You alone?”

“Umm… yeah,” he answered.  “This is a private party—isn’t it?”

“Were you followed?”

“Uh…”  Apprehension crept over him.  This wasn’t going the way he expected.  Instinct warned him of danger.  “Uh, no… don’t think so… why?” he asked suspiciously.

             “The yakuza can’t know I’m here,” the woman said.  Nhut could swear he knew that voice…”  And we don’t want to be interrupted… do we?”

            Well, that could be interpreted two ways, and Nhut didn’t want to stay long enough to find out which.  He shuffled backwards toward the door.  Nhut saw movement in the darkness, and the woman stepped out of the shadows.

At first he didn’t recognize her under the heavy make-up, but then…

            “Cho?!  Oh kuso!” he swore as fear seized him.  He didn’t know what she wanted—but it sure as hell wasn’t sex.  He turned and groped for the doorknob in the darkness, but Cho moved fast.  She leapt forward, grabbed his arm, spun him around, and kissed him… deeply.

            Nhut was too shocked to move.  He blinked.  Okaaaay… wasn’t expecting that

            “Thank Buddha you came!” Cho whispered as she slammed him against the door.  “I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see you again!”  She kissed him again.

            Nhut peeked an eye open and glanced Cho over from foot to face.  She was wearing black stiletto heels with pink pom-poms, neon pink fishnet thigh-highs and garter belt, a red sequined thong, and—oh, dear Buddha—some sort of black vinyl bustier trimmed in fluffy pink feathers.  The dark, rich colors of Cho’s irezumi tattoo rose absurdly out of the pink feathers and spread over her shoulders.  Nhut almost had to choke down laughter.  Cho would never wear this!  Did someone spike my drink?

“What the pi khu is going on?” Nhut demanded as he pushed her away.

            “Don’t act like you didn’t know!” Cho scolded.  “I’m like a damn dog in heat around you!”

            “What—no you’re not!” Nhut said.  “You think I’m a… a drunken fool!”

            “Oh, I was just teasing, Nhut!” Cho purred, nibbling his neck.  “It’s just so easy with you!  And speaking of easy… I’m out of the yakuza now… I don’t have to follow their gan ni zhou rules anymore…”

            “Rules?  What rules?”  None of this made sense to Nhut.  It didn’t help that he was drunk. 

            “I want you, Nhut,” Cho said, pressing her body against his.  “I want you at least once before I die!”  He could feel her writhing hips and small, hard breasts through his clothes.  “Don’t you want me, too?”

            “I… uh…”  Kosu.  There was just no good answer to that question.  Cho wasn’t much to look at, but her aggressive seduction had aroused him despite the surprise and confusion.  “Well… you see… it’s not that I don’t wanna…” Nhut stalled.  How the hell am I going to get out of this?  He found it difficult to concentrate between the confusion, the alcohol, and Cho doing something quite creative with her tongue.  “I just… uh… y’know… we’re friends an’ all… confused… uh…”

            “You talk too much, Nhut,” Cho said, grinding against him and licking his ear.  “You’re not gonna stop me, are you?” she asked, her voice deep and husky.  “Don’t you want to…?”

            “Yes!  I mean, no!  I mean… uh…”  Everything was happening too fast.  Cho pushed her hips against him, her painted face swimming before his spinning, drunken eyes…

The way out came to him in a flash.

“Well?” Cho asked.  “This is a one-time offer, you know...”

 “Uh… yeah!” Nhut said.  “Go for it!”

Cho planted another kiss on him, just as he expected.  He felt her hot tongue, smelled her intoxicating scent of opium and incense.  Buddha, he wanted… but not now, not like this…

He made choking sounds.  Cho stopped kissing him.  “Oh fuck,” Nhut said, covering his mouth, “I think I’m gonna… gonna hurl…”

Cho backed off instantly, stumbling a bit in her high heels.

Nhut darted into the bathroom, bouncing drunkenly off the wall as he slammed the door behind him.  Knelling before the toilet, he forced himself to puke—it didn’t take much—and retched as loudly and obnoxiously as he could.  He stood trembling to his feet.  Not bothering to rinse his mouth, he swung the door open.

Cho grabbed him, spun him around, and slammed him against the opposite wall.

“Feel better?”


“Good.  Now fuck me!”  She kissed him again.

Yep.  That settles it.  There’s definitely something else going on here.

“No,” Nhut mumbled through her lips.  He pushed her away.  “Now, look, Cho… I got puke breath, and that is not sexy!”  He waved a drunken finger at her.  “So the only reason you would…okay, this obviously ain’t about sex, so what’s really going on?”

Cho jumped and stared at him, looking shocked.  “Oh,” she said at last.  “Yeah.  Not about sex.  Right.”  Her voice was cold and hard again.  “Because even with beer goggles the size of China, you wouldn’t bone a dog like me… is that it?”

“Uh…”  Nhut froze.  She was angry.  That meant danger.  “I… didn’t say that…”

“You didn’t need to,” she sneered.  “An ugly bitch hits on to you, so there must be some other reason, right?!”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“I’m an ugly skank,” Cho nodded, her eyes flashing, “and you wouldn’t do me with Hung’s dick and Yoko pushing, right!?”

“Wha—no!  I’d totally do you, Cho!” Nhut exclaimed.  “Hell, I got a hard-on for you the size of Toru Tower!  Just… not right now…”

Cho blinked.  She steped back.  “You… do?”

 “I… uh… fuck,” Nhut shook his head.  I said too much.   “Damn booze… okay, look,” he stuck an unsteady finger in Cho’s face, “point is, pukin’ definitely kills the mood!  I know.  Been there.  Long embarrassing story.  But you didn’t stop, so that means this ain’t really about Nhut’s nuts, right?”

Cho looked at him silently.  Nhut used the down time to flop his hand out and flip the light switch.  The harsh white light killed whatever mood still lingered.  “And speaking of puke breath,” Nhut said looking around.  “Ya got any beer?”

“Uh…” Cho said, looking around.  “Well...”  There was a moment of silence.  “No beer, but…”  She stumbled in her heels over to the bedside table and pulled a dripping bottle of plum sake from an ice bucket.  “I got, uh… y’know, I thought…”

“It’ll do,” Nhut said.  He swayed toward her, yanked the bottle from her outstretched hand, ripped the cork out and chugged.  He shook his head, swishing the liquor around his teeth, and swallowed the foul mixture of vomit and alcohol with a grimace.  “Guuh!”  He stuck his tongue out and shook his head.  “Hope I don’t puke again!”  He glanced at Cho as she frantically ripped the blanket off the bed and flung it over her shoulders.  Can’t blame her… I’d be embarrassed in that outfit, too…

“Wine?”  He held the bottle of sake out to Cho, who took it and tossed back a huge gulp.

            “Don’t know about you,” Nhut fished a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, “but I could use a smoke right about now.”  He pulled a joint clumsily from the pack and stuck it in his mouth.  He held it out to Cho.

            “Nirvanas?” she asked.

            “Of course.”

            “Oh, hell yeah,” Cho sighed, taking one.  She snapped her fingers and lit it off the flame erupting from her thumb.

            Nhut preferred the much safer route of a lighter.  He staggered over to the only chair in the room and dropped into it.  Cho kicked off her heels and sat on a corner of the mattress across from Nhut, staring at him.  She took a long drag off her cigarette and was silent.

            “Uh…” Nhut began uncomfortably.  “Y’know, Cho… if you wanna get dressed, that’s cool.”

            “What, you wanna watch, pervert?” Cho snapped.

            Nhut shrugged and grinned.  “Wouldn’t mind.”

            Cho glared at him, but said nothing.  Clenching the cigarette in her teeth, she unsnapped the pink garter belts and began peeling off the neon fishnets.  “Don’t know what I was thinking,” Cho muttered when she took the joint out of her mouth long enough to take a quick puff, and rest it on the ashtray.  “I hate lingerie!  Can’t wait to burn all this kuso…”

            “Save the bustier,” Nhut said, pointing.  “That works.”

            Cho blinked at him.  “Uh… what?”

            “Well, the pink feathers gotta go,” Nhut conceded.  “But the rest is black leather.  Think about it, Cho, that’s your style.  Add the jacket, and your irezumi won’t show.”

            Cho looked down at her corset doubtfully.  “I dunno, Nhut…”

            “Sure!” Nhut said.  “Black leather always looks tough!  Only now you got cleavage and that little strip of belly between your corset and belt…”  Nhut licked his lips and arched his eyebrows.  “Sexy!  Besides, it… compensates.”

            Cho’s brow furrowed.  “Compensates?”

            “Yeah, uh… it, uh…”  Nhut made a cupping gesture in front of his chest.  “Lifts and separates… y’know… compensates for what nature forgot.”

            Chow narrowed her eyes.  “Watch it, Nhut!” she growled.

            Nhut hastily shoved a cigarette in his lips as Cho kicked into her loose, baggy black hakimas.

            “What, aren’t ya gonna change out of the thong?” Nhut asked.

            “Not with you watching, asshole!  And I’m not letting you out of my sight, either!” Cho said as she pulled on her knee-high combat boots.  “I’ll change back at the dojo.  Can’t wait, either,” she muttered.  “I hate this thing.  Damn sequins itch.”  Nhut chucked as Cho latched the boot buckles, but was silenced by a glare from Cho.  “Alright, ya figured it out, congratulations,” Cho said as she put her leather jacket on over the bustier and began plucking at the pink feathers angrily.  “This ain’t about wu jen Nhut and his magic wand.  So why haven’t you run screaming yet?”

            “Well, you haven’t killed me yet…”  Nhut gave her a thumbs-up.  “So that’s a good sign.”  He grabbed the wine bottle and took a swig.  “And you want something from me, or you wouldn’t be here.  And it must be important, ’cause you haven’t got time to waste.”

            Cho cocked her head.  “How do you figure?”

            “Well, last I heard, you were gonna be executed,” Nhut said.


“So what happened?”


            “Obviously.  How?”


           “Right.”  Nhut nodded.  “I figured a death row pardon was too optimistic.  So you’re on the run now.  From the Yakuza, I mean, not the law… you’re always on the run from them.”

“Yeah, pretty much.”  She nodded and took a drag off her joint.

“And then you take time out to seduce me.  Now, I haven’t got a problem with that...”  Nhut winked, then took another swig from the bottle.  “But I figure a round of slap-and-tickle ain’t exactly a priority when everyone’s trying to kill you.  So there’s gotta be another reason.  What is it?”

Cho took the wine bottle and threw back, then stared at him.  “I need help.”

“Well, yeah, I figured that,” Nhut shrugged.  “But not money, ’cause I haven’t got much on me.  Not dust, ’cause I don’t usually smoke it.  I don’t have the right contacts to get you off planet, and there are better sources if you need information.  So that means you’re here for my skills.  Right?”

Cho blinked and stared at him, taken aback.  “You always been this clever?”

Nhut shrugged and took a drag.  “I’m bakuto, Cho.  A gambler.  A scam artist.  A con man.  You can’t do that kuso if you’re stupid.”

“Huh.  No, I guess not.”

“Well, if you need a job done, I’m the guy,” Nhut smiled.

“Yeah, but ain’t that simple, Nhut, and you know it,” Cho said.  “Normally, I’d just ask you… well, no, normally I’d just smack you and give you an order…but it’s different this time.”

“Because you’ve been disowned by the family.”


“And I’m not supposed to help you.”


“And I’m in big trouble if I do.”

“Yup.  So why are you even talking to me?”

“Besides the fact that you’d kill me if I tried to run?”

“Besides that, yeah.”

“Well,” Nhut shrugged.  “It’s only a crime if you get caught, right?  And if the price is right... I’d be up for a little under-the-table work, sure.  So what do you need done?  Forgery?  Fencing?  Theft?”

“It’s not just one job, Nhut.”

“Oh…”  Nhut scowled a bit.  “How much are we talking about?”

“A lot.  Some right now, a lot more later.  Hell, some jobs I don’t even know about yet.”

“So you want me to be at your beck n’ call,” Nhut said slowly, frowning.

“No.  I need you to come with me.  Help me out.”

“Go with you…” Nhut said slowly.  “So I’d definitely get caught then, right?”

“They’d know you were working with me, yeah,” Cho nodded.

“So I’d be disowned and hunted, too…”  Nhut paused to take a long drag off his joint.  He let out a long sigh and took another swig from the bottle.  “You’re asking for a lot here, Cho.”

“I know.”

“If I say no?”

“I leave.”  Cho shrugged.  “Don’t wanna kill you if I don’t have to.”

“That’s very generous of you.”

“I’d have to wipe this from your memory, you know,” Cho said.


            “It’ll hurt.”


            “No hard feelings, of course.”

            “Of course.”  Nhut took another hit off his joint.  “So what’s in it for me?”

“Anything.  Name your price.”

Nhut looked at her with wide eyes.  “Really?”

“This is important, Nhut.  I need you with me no matter what.  Pick something and it’s yours.”

“Intriguing…” Nhut nodded with a cock of his eyebrow.  “A master wu jen in my debt!  Imagine the possibilities…”  He did.  He let his imagination run wild as he smoked… premium sake, the finest suits, huge piles of cash, unlimited schoolgirls in tiny skirts…then a glance at Cho yanked him back to reality.  He took a one last drag off his cigarette and exhaled, watching the smoke curl away through the air.  Yeah, he could help her, but…

“Okay, here’s what I can’t figure out,” he said at last.  “What you need me for?  You can hold your own against yakuza if you need to.  You can get off-planet without my help.  And you can stay on the run alone—easier if you’re alone, really.”

“Running isn’t in the plan, Nhut.  Well…”  Cho shrugged.  “Maybe at first… but that’s not the goal.”

“So what is?” Nhut asked.

“Save face.  Clear my name.  Prove my innocence.”

Nhut looked at her, puzzled.  “Innocent of what, exactly?”

“I didn’t overdose.  Someone poisoned my Khymer Rouge, probably so I’d blow the hit.”

“Mmm…”  Nhut nodded.  He said nothing, but cast her a skeptical glance.

            “Hey, I can prove it, asshole!” Cho said defensively.  “Yoko scanned my old bowl and found some kinda toxin in it!”

            “Wait… Yoko?” Nhut sputtered, sitting up in his chair.  “Yoko’s helping you?  Why?”

            “Hmmm, let’s see…” Cho said sarcastically.  “Master wu jen or casino tech support?  You figure it out.”

            “Huh…” Nhut said thoughtfully.  “Yoko, eh?  She chose your outfit, didn’t she?”

            Cho scowled at Nhut.  “How’d you know?”

            “Way too gaudy!”  He shook his head.  “Let’s just say no woman looks good in slut-red lipstick.”

            Instantly Cho wiped the lipstick off on her arm.

            “Hey, don’t try to wipe the mascara off!” Nhut warned her.  “It’ll get in your eyes… especially when you wear that much!  Oh, and Cho?  Purple eye shadow is way out of fashion!”

            “Great, the guy with the punch-permed hair is giving me fashion tips!” Cho muttered.

            “Hey, man!”  Nhut gave her a thumbs-up.  “The retro look is in!”

            “No it isn’t!” Cho scoffed.

            “So I’m bringing it in!”  Nhut shrugged.  “Point it, you look like a hentai cartoon.  Next time you wanna dress to get laid, get Usha to help you, not Yoko.”

            Cho looked down.  “Usha’s sorta unavailable, Nhut.”

            Nhut’s grin melted.  “Yeah, I heard.  Tough luck, huh?”

            Cho said nothing, starting at the carpet.  She lit up another Nirvana from Nhut’s pack.  The silence grew uncomfortable.

            “Well, anyway,” Nhut said, shifting in his seat.  “So ya got the laced bowl.  What more do you need?  Sounds pretty good to me.”

            Cho shook her head.  “You know the oyabun, Nhut.  He’ll want to know who spiked it, and how, and why… and I don’t know that kuso yet.”  Cho paused to take a drag off her cigarette.  “I think yakuza-gaijin is involved, though,” she said slowly.  Nhut looked up with surprised interest.  “And the Earl of New Tokyo,” Cho continued, “he’s the one who gave me the damn spiked dust and possibly someone inside yakuza-Tanzhi, too.”  Nhut opened his mouth, but Cho cut him off.  “Yeah, I know.  But I got my reasons to think that.  I’ll explain later… details ain’t important right now.”

            “Buddha…”  Nhut took a deep breath, grabbed the bottle and chugged.  “If you’re even half right about this, Cho—and I’m not saying you are, but if you’re right—then this is big.”

            “Yeah.  See why I need you?”

            “Alright…” Nhut said, nodding.  “Alright, I’m in.  What’s the plan?”

            “You’re in?” Cho said doubtfully.


            “Okay… so what’s your price?  What do you want?”

            “Oh, I dunno,” Nhut said with a shrug.  “I’ll think of something.”

            Cho stared at him silently for a long time.  Nhut returned her gaze.  “So you’re signing up for danger and exile,” Cho said suspiciously, “and you don’t have a price?”

            “I said I’d think of something…”

            “That doesn’t make any sense.”

            Nhut rolled his eyes and laughed.  “Since when have I ever made sense?”

            “You may be crazy,” Cho nodded, “but you’re not stupid.  What’s your angle?”

            “Mystery… adventure… danger… sounds like fun!”

            Cho blinked, then sighed and shook her head.  “Only you would call this kuso ‘fun’…”

“Hell,” Nhut continued with a crooked grin, “if it means raiding the Earl’s palace, I’m all over that like flies on hot kuso!  You know a mandarin like me loves stickin’ it to the nobility!”  He thrust his hips forward.  “Oh, yeah, baby!  Do ‘em in the ass an’ make ‘em bark like a dog! Woof!”  He turned to Cho and grinned.  She didn’t smile back.  Her eyes were narrow.

            “You don’t get sometin’ for nothing’ in our line of work, Nhut,” Cho said.  “An’ when it does happen, ya gotta wonder, ‘what’re they really after?’  So, tell me, Nhut…why are you suddenly so eager to help me?” she asked in a low voice.

            “Wha—because you asked me to, dumbass!” Nhut said, spreading his hands.  “Look… you want my help or not?”

            Cho shook her head.  “Not if I don’t know why you’re doing it.”

            “What the—Buddha, I can’t believe I have to talk you into letting me help you!”  Nhut threw up his hands in disgust.  “What?  You don’t trust me?  Think I spiked your dust?  I got no secret plans, Cho!  Hell, you can scan me if you want!”

            Cho glared at him.  She took a long toke off her joint and blew it in his face… but, strangely, she made no move to scan him.

            “Okay, look, this is simple, really… if you weren’t such a paranoid fuck, that is!”  Nhut paused to light a cigarette.  “Look at it this way, Cho… how long have we been friends?”

“I don’t have any friends,” Cho said quietly.

“Look, we’re kinda short on time here, so I’ll tell you what,” Nhut said, annoyed.  “Let’s pretend I’ve appealed to your better nature, you’ve made a big tough show proving you don’t have one, skip past it all and cut to the chase.  That’ll save about ten minutes.  Deal?”

Cho glared at him, but said nothing.

“Alright, then,” Nhut nodded, taking a drag off his cigarette.  “So how long have we known each other?”

“I dunno.”  Cho shifted uncomfortably on the corner of the bed.  “Couple years, I guess.”

“A couple?  Try over ten!  Hell, Cho, we were bosozoku together!”  Nhut suddenly slammed his fist on his chest, index and little fingers thrust out like bull horns.  “Osaka Ushi!”

“Osaka Ushi!”  Cho instantly thumped the hand sign of their gangland days over her heart.  Nhut smiled.  Old habits die hard.

“Exactly!”  Nhut nodded with a crooked grin, pointing at her.  Harakara.  Brothers.  Us against the world, baby!”  He paused to puff his joint.  “Now… you remember the night I became enlightened, don’t ya?  When I realized reality wasn’t real an’ all that?”

“Sure,” Cho chuckled.  “Kinda hard to forget!”

“Hell yeah!” Nhut swore, leaning back in his chair.  “Buddha, was I sooo stoned that night!  Hell, we all were!  And that was a bad trip, Cho, bad!  A damn demon crawled into the room!”  Nhut shook his head and shuddered.  He took another drink to calm himself.  “I knew I was just hallucinating, of course… freaky, but nothing to worry about… until everyone else started jumping and screaming and shooting at it.  That’s when I knew it was real.  And it was heading right for me.  I was so scared I just about pissed my pants.”  He looked over at Cho.  “You remember what happened next?”

Cho was silent, not looking at him.  She took another drag.  “Yeah.”

 “They all ran.  Motherfuckers ran.  Brothers, family, Osaka Ushi, all that burukuso meant nothing.  Gang?  What gang?  That thing wants Nhut?  Fuck Nhut!  Let it have him!  Everyone ran... everyone except you... you stayed.  Remember?”

Cho stared at her burning cigarette and nodded silently.

“I couldn’t move, too terrified, just knowing I was dead… until you jumped up between me an’ that demon thing and whipped out all the wu jen whoopass you had!”  Nhut chuckled and took another hit.  “Buddha, Cho!  You were… chanting an’ waving an’... makin’ that glowing circle on the floor an’… an’ shooting fire outa yer damn HANDS!  You drove that thing away… an’ then you looked at me… and your damn eyes were glowing!  Glowing fucking RED!  And I knew it was all for real!”

Nhut shook his head at the memory and took another drag.  “We didn’t know you were wu jen back then, none of us!  Hell, you hadn’t told nobody, not even your sister!  So I thought I musta gone crazy... nothing else made sense.  That’s it, Nhut, you’ve snapped!  Yer gone!  Dropped too much acid an’ lost it!  Hell, I probably woulda gone crazy, too, but…”  He paused to smile at Cho.  “But you talked me down.  Told me I wasn’t insane… just enlightened.  Told me what that meant, what I was.  Buddha… we all hear about wu jen, y’know?  Fairy tales, urban legends… but realizing it’s all real?  That you are one?  That’s heavy stuff, Cho!”  Nhut looked off into the distance again.  “How many wu jen lose it when they’re enlightened, Cho?”

Cho took a long drag.  “A lot.”

“Yup.  But not me… because you were there.”  Nhut took a puff and nodded.  “An’ then you started training me.  Before you were my sensei—hell, before we were even yakuza!  You taught me how to focus, control it, use it… how to avoid the cops an’ hide from the Regulators… so I guess that makes me your oldest student, huh?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“So, you could say, without exaggerating…”  Nhut paused dramatically to puff his joint.  “That you saved my life that night.  My sanity, too, for that matter.”

Cho merely shrugged.  She snuffed out her cigarette and reached for Nhut’s pack of Nirvanas.

“So here’s the million-crown question: Why?”

“Why?”  Cho shot him a puzzled look.  “Hell, Nhut, no one coulda stopped that demon but me, you know that!”

“True.”  Nhut nodded.  “Or it might have killed you.  You coulda run like the others.  Let it eat me, saved your own skin.  Kept your secret.  But you stayed.  You fought.  You let me know what you were.  Why?”

Cho lit her joint, brow furrowed.  “You’re wu jen, too.  Not like you woulda turned me in.”

“Aw, hell, Cho.”  Nhut waved her words away.  “You been boryokudan long enough to know better.  I coulda turned you into the Regulators, no questions asked, got the bounty, and walked away.  That’s a lota cash for guys like us.  You had no way to know I wouldn’t.”

“Sure I did!”  Cho straightened.  “I knew you wouldn’t.  Not you.  You’re… well, you’re Nhut.”

“Yeah… go on…”

“Eh?  Go where?”  Cho scowled.  “I know you, that’s all.  Yer not that kinda guy.”

“So you’re saying…”  Nhut snuffed out his cigarette and leaned toward Cho, folding his hands.  “…that I’m not the kinda guy who’d sell out one of my own for a little cash and safety, right?”

“Well… yeah.”

“Because we’re Osaka Ushi.”

“Osaka Ushi.”  Cho nodded.

Harakara.  Brothers.”


“Katei.  Family.”



Cho froze.  She threw him a sideways scowl.  “Not the same, Nhut.  Situation’s different.”

Nhut looked her in the eye.  “Not to me, it isn’t.”  He shook his head.  “We were katei long before we were yakuza, Cho.  If you’re in trouble, you’ve been framed, all you gotta do is say.”

Cho eyebrows arched.  For a second she started at him with naked eyes… then she looked away and laughed.  “You always were a sappy fool, Nhut!”

“Maybe.”  Nhut nodded.  “But a sappy fool you want on your side… right?  So if you need help, harakara, just say so and I’m there.  That’s just how it works.”  Nhut leaned back in his chair.  “Now you gotta problem with that, you better wipe my memory and leave… ’cause that’s all I got.”

Cho sat motionless for a long time, letting the joint in her hand shrink into ash.  Once or twice she glanced at him suspiciously, then looked away… thinking.  Nhut waited.  He had plenty of time… but he knew Cho didn’t.  Finally, she shrugged and looked at him.  “Alright, harakara, yer in.  But you better name a price soon, Nhut… an’ whatever it is, I’ll pay it.  That’s how we work.  Dong ma?”

“Oh yeah, baby!”  Nhut leered at her.  “When the time’s right, I’ll think of a price, alright!”

Cho rolled her eyes and muttered curses under her breath.  “Just one more thing, Nhut…”


“Tell anyone about this sexcapade and I’ll gut you.”

“Oh… okay.”  Nhut paused, then shook his head.  “Right.  No sexcapades.  Don’t worry, Cho, I ain’t gonna tell nobody.  Who’d believe me anyway?”

“Oh… yeah, good point,” Cho nodded.

“So… when do we start, sensei?”

“Tonight.  I got a job for you.  One yer gonna like.”




            Kago had been given a few hours to prepare himself, and he took that time first to get some clothes and a pack to keep them in, then to try to figure out something of who he was.  Net searches on his name (about the only part of his identity he did seem to have down) turned up nothing but Japanese dictionary entries, but he already knew what his name meant.  He couldn't even seem to locate any family within the Middle Kingdom.  Perhaps they had had to go

underground?  Kago felt like he was some sort of covert agent at the thought of his family in hiding, but the thrill quickly disintegrated when reality set in.

            "I have no idea who I am except for a name," he thought to himself on the orbital shuttle taking him to the Avalon bound transport, the Tentou.  "This is crazy.  What am I doing going to this guy's camp?"

            Two digital gates and another shuttle later, he arrived at the camp on New Paris or a moon of New Paris and was greeted by a couple of well dressed young men, one of whom eyed him suspiciously.  "M. Adauchi, I'm Ian McPherson," said the red head on the left, "and this..." gesturing to the younger man to his right, who appeared fresh out of high school.

            The teenager gave a quarter bow of respect and a smile.  "Hajimemashite.  Matsuzawa desu.  Doozo yoroshiku."  He had an air of youthful exuberance to him.  He seemed to be trying to keep something inside, but Kago couldn't tell what it was.  He was so concerned about it that he almost forgot to bow in return.

            "Hajimemashite.  Adauchi desu.  Doozo yoroshiku."

            McPherson continued.  "Jeff here is going to be your roommate for the weekend.  I'll let you two get acquainted and find your room.  We can discuss the weekend's agenda as soon as you're ready."  He gave a nod and turned to walk away but stopped.  "Oh, and welcome to Camp Icthus."

            The two young men were left alone, and suddenly Jeff had to speak.  "So you got to meet Graham Quentin?"

            Kago shrugged in indifference.  "Yeah, I think that was his name."

            "Wow!  That's so awesome!  He's the most godly man of our time!"



            "...he seemed like an ordinary guy to me..."

            "Yeah, I know, he's so approachable!"

            "So you've met him before?"

            "Yeah.  He's the one who got me into this camp last year."

            "You mean you've been here before?"

            "Soo desu.  I got to come once I graduated from high school.  I came to know the Lord through some friends of mine my senior year, and I wanted to learn about how I could best serve Him in our time."

            "What do you mean?"

            "Oh, don't worry about that right now, actually. You'll be learning about that all weekend.  For now,let's go find our room.  It's this way."  He gestured toward one of the main buildings on the campgrounds, and they started walking.  "By the way, your English is very good.  How did you learn it so well?"

            "...I'm not sure.  Just... practice, I guess."  Jeff had a look of concern when he heard the tone in Kago's voice, but Kago didn't notice it.  "How did you learn?"

            "Well, you see, my mom and dad met back during the civil war, when God's kingdom was more visible.  Mom was in the Christian Federation, and Dad met her in college.  My mom stayed around the house all the time and taught me at home until I was about eleven.  Then she started getting more involved in the Christian underground, and... well, Dad was all I had left for a while, but he seemed really distant ever since Mom died, and I got really connected with some Christian

friends at school.  After I insisted on coming to camp last year, Dad disowned me, and now the church is the only family I have left."

            The story was largely lost on Kago, whose mind was still a bit preoccupied, but he managed an "...interesting..." as a reply.  He was particularly concerned about the prospect of brainwashing, which his instincts told him was commonplace among religious organizations.  Of course, he wasn't sure if he had experiences to back this up, but a feeling in his gut urged caution.  Jeff continued.

            "I think you're going to like it here.  There are so many wonderful people, and the scenery really helps bring peace to the soul."


            McPherson looked at the cabin, waiting to go in. Who was this guy, he asked himself, wondering why GQ had asked him to take charge of this boy. After all, he had been nothing but a camp director for the past ten years, empowering the new batches of recruits for the cause. Nothing like what it had been like back in the days of the Righteous Army, but… Graham said to be patient, so he would be.

            Still, why me? From what little of the dossier he had received before this kid’s landing on New Paris, he was able to get the details. Quentin was impressed this young man had managed to bypass his security just to ask a question. “Where was Tremont?”

            That’s it, isn’t it? He came to me since I’m one of the few who knows… Ian felt a cold sweat run down his back. It’s either a test or an invitation. Either way, Jeff’s one of my best. If anyone can weasel out of him his identity, he can. Finally, steeling himself against the unknown, he stepped towards the door. Time to play the camp counselor again… what a lie I live.




            “You’re doing WHAT?!”

            Captain Weathers was unbelievably pissed. He didn’t want to be; the last thing he wanted to do was abandon his cool in front of his bridge crew, but the news had hit him like a ton of bricks.

            “Orders from the top, Dave,” his friend Admiral Matheson reluctantly replied. “The Western Reserve isn’t ready for a head-on confrontation with the Middle Kingdom. We don’t got much of a fleet. Hell, we don’t got much of a population… we gotta bug out.”

            “And just leave us and a whole system high and dry?”

            “Dave, shut up for a second and listen. We didn’t tell you to take this planet, we just saved your bacon when you were about to play Custer with the slants. This is not our fight.” The admiral leaned back and sighed. “I suggest you pull out with as many of the civilians as you can, but we have to depart now.

            “If someone doesn’t take a stand against the slopes, who will?”


            “Patience my ass! We’ve had over twenty years of patience!”

            “When you’re weak, you go along with what the bully says. When the bully’s weak, you kick the crap out of him. Something’s coming soon, don’t worry. But till then, keep your damn ass out of the fire… or you’re gonna miss the whole show.”

            Weathers was confused. “What are you saying?”

            “I’ve said too much all ready. In fact, it would be nice if the slants didn’t know we were here.”

            David sighed. “Fine, don’t worry, we’ll cover ya. And… I’m sorry.”
            “I would have said the same. Discom.”

            The holoproj went blank, leaving all eyes on Weathers, as the captain simply stretched and thought for a moment. It didn’t take long to figure out his next move. “Aurelius, send a message to Charlie. Tell him to start evacuating the planet; use every ship you can, we’ll evacuate them back to Base. Ring down to Bodovsky and tell him we’ll need some more of Mountain’s Stones and to move on the double time. It’s not going to take those slants long to come back with reinforcements.”


            Shih Huang Ti arrived two days later; his task force was leading the entire Fourth Fleet into Chapman’s Folly, steaming active lidar with righteous indignation. “Let them try to sucker us now,” the vice-admiral muttered under his breath, “ou lun dun jhew hai!

            “Sai, we have contact… a fleet is poised around the planet itself, with one squadron veering away.”

            “Towards the jump gate?”

            “No, sai, toward the outer asteroid rings.”

            “Have we confirmed the fleet exists?”

            “We’ve confirmed the mass of the objects, but not the class. Planetary distortion, as well as our active fire control, make it difficult to confirm…”    

            “Skip it, that’s good enough for me. As long as they’re real ships, I don’t care if they’re corvettes or carriers. We still outnumber them four to one.” Ti turned to his com officer. “Any word from flag?”

            “One moment, sai.” He was listening to his implant. “The word is: ‘Forget the maneuvers, just go straight at them.’

            The admiral couldn’t help but smile. “Ah, Nelson… if only he had been born a han. Very well, signal the task force. We have the honor of leading the attack. Course 024 mark 354; straight at the shebing planet.”


            “Frankly, those FMS’s aren’t worth the crowns we shelled out for them!” Paul Bodovsky whined to his captain. “Once they get within missile distance of the planet, they’re going to be able to see that our ‘fleet’ is just asteroids with missiles on them, and then we’re fucked… sir.”

            “Just get them in range, commander, that’s all I ask.” Weathers replied calmly.

            “They’ll be able to just turn around and outrun the range our weapons!”

            “I depend on surprise, Paul, not footprint magnification systems.”
            “But without good FMS…”

            “I’ll take care of it.” David replied stronger, signaling an end to the debate. “Understood?”

            Bodovsky sounded dubious. “Yes, sir.”

            Weathers didn’t wait for the coming comment, but simply stepped into the lift and made his way onto the bridge. As he took his chair, he thought about the civilian ships he was leading away from the zone. Some refused to leave; some always did. He couldn’t make them leave, but he could allow their chances for survival to be greater.

            “Commander Palmer?”

            “Sir?” Teresa looked over at him with concern.

            “Remember what I said before. If I don’t answer for some reason, I want you to take command until I order you not to.”

            “I… still don’t understand.”

            “I don’t ask you to. Just do it.”  

            “Yes, sir.”

            The captain relaxed a bit further and stared into the holoproj of the converging red blips and concentrated. They must believe that a fleet is there, if we stand any chance of getting out of here. His mind started reaching out to the ships, but it was too much. Wait, I don’t need to convince the ships, just their sensors… sure enough, the tension ceased, and he started playing with electronics across the far reaches of space.


            “Sai, confirmation on the fleet. We read three battlecruisers, seven heavy cruisers…”

            “Belay that,” Shih yelled back, “I can see it for myself. But why aren’t they moving?”

            “Maybe they’re trying to use the planet as a shield, sai?”

            The admiral gave a grin. “Then we better take it away first, shouldn’t we?”


            “Signal task force to load quantum torpedoes – aim for the center of the planet, fire when ready.”

            “But sai, we’re beyond effective range!”

            “It doesn’t matter. We’re destroying the planet, commander, as long as you aim in the right direction, the range doesn’t matter!”

            “But a planet, sai?”       

            “Carry out my orders!”


            “Sir, they’re already firing.”

            Weathers was just as stunned as the rest of them. “At this range? What do they expect to hit?”

            The whole bridge crew waited and watched as the tiny red blips moved ever closer and closer towards the fleet. Suddenly David figured it out. “Signal the automation on board the battlestation, automate the chaff and ECM, hurry!”

            But it was already too late. In vivid color, they watched helplessly as the planet that used to hold a hundred thousand souls was ripped apart by sub-nuclear fire, tearing great chunks of earth and rock into all six vectors, leaving everyone on board the Dickerson stunned.

            “Uh... sir, we’ve lost communication with our asteroids.”

            Weathers simply closed his eyes. “Electromagnetic pulse, Lieutenant Aurelius. It wiped all communications. Shielding can’t help against that level of magnitude.” When David opened his eyes again, they were stained with tears. He could feel the last gasp of the colonists who were left behind; he had left his mind too far open. To pull great feats of magic, he couldn’t shut himself down in time to avoid the pain of distant death. “Open a… jump point and get our little fleet out of here, this should be safe enough.” He quickly wiped the tears away and turned back to Aurelius. “Did we record that?”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Since the enemy left us no other weapon, we’ll have to use that.”


            Cynthia Beatrix was in the middle of the quiet bar, stunned like all the rest of the patrons, watching the destruction of an inhabited planet by the Imperial Fleet. Somehow it had gotten to all of the news networks. Even Imperial Security couldn’t stop the information from getting out; it was so horrible. No one could speak as the footage taken from… God knows where, she thought, was repeated again and again. Of course, the government had tried to put a spin on it, but this time, no one was buying it.

            I’ve been serving a lie, Cynthia realized, sitting there in the Wilke’s Star café, her whiskey and water untouched. All this time, I’ve been serving a lie. Any government who does this…

            Beatrix left her loyalties on the counter, paid, and left. There was only one person she could talk to about this; only one person she could trust. I have to find Weathers.



Click to go to the previous act in the storyGo back to the Table of ContentsClick to go to the next act in the story, if and when it gets released and posted here.

Text Copyright (C) 2004 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.  Do not try ANY of this at home, even if a planet does make a better target.