“Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths…

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”


                                    -- William Butler Yeats


Through a kaleidoscope of color, the Dickerson burst into the black light of deep space. On the edge of long range sensors, the shining dot of the Middle Kingdom’s Tanto military resupply station glimmered like a jewel. 

Weather’s unblinking blue eyes bore into the speck of light.  “FMS, Hargrave?” he asked.

“Footprint Magnification System alive and screaming…sir,” Ensign Hargrave said timidly.  He’d never seen his captain like this… ever.  “For all they can tell, we’re an Akagi-class cruiser.”

“Mm,” Weather’s nodded, focused on the station.  “Palmers?” He never shifted his glace.


“You know the drill.  If anything should happen to me—“

“I’ll take over.” She said firmly, then after a pause, “Are you sure you want to –“

“Yes.” Weathers answered.  Unswerving.  Focused.  Obsessed.

            His XO dropped her voice to a whisper. “A military station, sir?  It’s not too late to call this off… every MK station must have the Dickerson’s specs by now… if they even think we’re—“

            “Leave that to me.”  His eyes shifted briefly to meet hers.  “If something should happen to me… will you carry out my orders, Palmers?”

A pause. “Aye, sir.”

“See that you do,” Weathers said firmly, signaling the conversation was over.  With that, he opened his mind.  No, not opened… pointed.  At that dot of light.  At their sensors.  Were an Akagi-class Middle Kingdom cruiser. You’re expecting us.  Every neuron in his brain screamed it.

“Sir?” his comm. officer chirped, “The station is asking us for identification.”

“Send the pirated codes.  They’ll believe it.”  Weather’s voice left no room for discussion.

A slight pause.  “They’ve cleared us to dock for fuel, sir,” Aurelius said.

Of course they did.  “Maintain course.  Notify me when we’re in docking range.”  Weathers made no move to leave the bridge.

“Uh… sir?” comm. officer Aurelius asked after a few minutes, “It’ll be at least an hour—“

“I’m aware of that,” Weathers snapped.  White-knuckled fingers dug into the arms of the captain’s chair.  “Maintain course.  I’m staying here.”


A tense hour later, the Dickerson made it’s final approach to the Tanto station.

“Approaching final run,” Helmsman Andolini said.  “Normally, we’d slow down for docking… your orders, sir?”

“Launch the Stones.” Weathers said feverishly.  “Maintain velocity.  Be ready to punch it.”

“Sir?” his comm officer spoke up shrilly, “They’re asking about the Stones!“

“Just fighters on routine maneuvers,” Weathers barked,  “They’ll believe it!”

Sweat on his brow, Weathers’ nails tore into the padded arms of the captain’s chair as he doubled his efforts.  His mind reached beyond mere sensors to the minds of men watching them.  Minds of the men I’ll kill… Weathers pushed the distracting thought from his mind and focused…

“They… seem to be believing it, sir!” Lieutenant Aurelius called out, almost in disbelief.

“Fire the Stones!” Weathers said shrilly.  “Change bearing to escape vector!  Maximum burn!”  The Dickerson lurched beneath him as maneuvering thrusters dramatically shifted direction, then slammed back in his chair as the ion drive hit full burn… just a distraction – FOCUS!!  

The deadly asteroid-bombs bore down on the refueling station as the Dickerson sped away from the impending carnage – yet the slant officers watching believed it was business as usual.  The first Stone ripped into the refueling station in an explosion of shrapnel and atmosphere.  Anguished screams of dying souls poured into Weathers’ mind like cold fire… but he couldn’t break the connection… not yet…

We’re an Akagi-class MK cruiser, David projected.  We’re heading for the digital gate…

“Captain!  Tanto station is firing on us!” tactical officer Schultz yelled,

Weather’s fingers found the intercom and signaled engineering while his eyes fixated on Tanto station.  “Bodovsky!  Is that “fusion drive” ready to go!?”

“On your order, sir!”


The Dickerson’s fusion cannons launched nuclear shells that converged and exploded directly in front of the Dickerson’s flight path, ripping a hole in the fabric of space…

 “Direct grav laser hit on our port ion drive, sir!” Lieutenant Schultz yelled.

 The bridge shook as the Dickerson shuddered from secondary explosion in the port engines.  The ship lurched off course. Weathers’s concentration shattered.  He struggled to regain the psychic link as his ship spun lopsidedly toward the brief, swirling orange gate.  The disguise illusion hopelessly gone, he fought to throw off the enemy’s targeting sensors instead …

We’re… an Akagi-class MK cruiser, and... we’re heading for the digital gate… not here

He saw a bright explosion, and his world dissolved into stars.


“Kill the thrusters!  NOW!”  Weathers bellowed, sitting bolt upright.

A firm hand pushed him back down into the infirmary pallet.  “The battle’s over, Captain Weathers,” Doc Cody said firmly.  “We won.  Now rest.

“Its... over?” David Weathers looked around groggily.  Worried faces looked down at him - Doc Cody, Commander Palmers, Lieutenant Schultz…  “Okay…” he said, “what happened?”

“You passed out on the bridge,” Palmers answered, “right after Tanto station exploded.” 

“Right when everyone died,” Weathers nodded.  Now the memory came flooding back to him - hundreds of screaming voices in his head.  A chill washed over him and he shuddered.


“Nothing,” Weathers waved her off and shook his head to clear it. 

“A Stone must have hit one of the fuel tanks or something,” Palmers continued.  “The whole place just went up at once.  Before you did it, I’d have said it couldn’t be done, sir, but – praise God! – the station was completely destroyed and we escaped.”

“Casualties?”  Weathers asked.  The world was coming into focus again.

“Some injuries, but no KIA,” Palmers smiled.

“Damage report?’

“One of our port ion drives is down,” Palmer answered, more seriously.  “Bodovsky tells me the damage is mostly superficial, but…” she paused.  “A few parts are beyond repair.  And we don’t have any spares.”

“Mm.” Weathers nodded as he climbed off the bed.  “That could be a problem… do we have the right equipment back at Gamma Base?”

“No sir,” Palmers answered.  “We’ll have to get some new ones.  The Yazuka black market, perhaps.  Or the K’Nes Tor… they’ll sell to anyone with enough crowns… either way, it looks like we’re out for the fight for while.”

“Uh-uh,” Weathers grunted.  “We’ll raid a slant repair base, take what we need, and detonate the rest behind us on the way out.”  He made his way to the door amid stunned silence.

“Dismissed!” Palmers barked at the rest of the crew, then hurried to catch up with her captain.  “Can I have a word with you, sir?” she asked him in a low voice.

“No.” Weathers said, heading for his quarters.  He needed to research MK repair bases.

Palmers ignored him.  “Attacking another Kingdom station?’” she asked, “Alone?  With a crippled drive?  Don’t you think we’re pushing our luck?  Someday it’s going to run out…”

“They blew up an inhabited planet, Teresa!”  Weathers turned to face her suddenly, body tense, anger darkening his face. “If we back down now, that will become their standard solution for everything - the magic bullet that cows enemies into submission.  The next time someone fights back, they’ll blow up another planet!  Resistance cell?  Blow up the planet!  Student protest?  Blow up the planet!  Overdue library book?  Blow up the planet!” 

Teresa took an involuntary step backward, caught of guard by his intensity.  Weathers suddenly realized he was yelling.  He took a deep breath, calmed himself, then continued.

“No, Teresa,” he shook his head.  “We have to fight back even harder now.  We have to show that destroying Chapman’s Folly did more damage to them then us.  Only then – maybe – will they think twice before doing it again.”


“Incoming call, captain!”

“On screen,” ordered Captain Jae Young Park, of His Imperial Majesty’s newly-repaired reconnaissance frigate Minami Tori Shima.

“it’s.. uh… not for you, sir,” the ensign shot a nervous glance at the Imperial Regulator.

Captain Park tried to hide is irritation as he turned to the pasty blonde hung mao invading his bridge.  “Are you expecting a call, Regulator Beatrix?” he asked with a hint of sarcasm. 

“I don’t need to be,” she answered coldly.  “Confidential, I assume, Ensign?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’ll take it elsewhere, then.  Your ready room will do just fine, Captain.”

Park merely nodded curtly once, not opening his mouth for fear of what might come out.  He glared at Beatrix as she swept off his bridge.  The last time he’d played babysitter to this bitch, she had caused him to loose half his crew and nearly his ship.  When he had been assigned to escort her again, his ship barely out of dry dock, he had done everything in his power to prevent it – and failed.  Now he just wanted to finish the mission as fast as possible and get rid of her.  He wanted Beatrix off his boat.  The bitch was bad luck.


“Weathers struck again.”  Lord High Regulator Il-Jan wasted no time with pleasantries.


Twelve hours ago. Tanto refueling station was completely destroyed.  But communication satellites in near orbit had enough sensor data in their buffers for us to determine it was the Dickerson.  I’m sending you those readings now.”

“Any idea where they might be heading now?” Beatrix asked eagerly.

“Yes, yes, I’m getting to that!” Il-Jan snapped irritably.  “We believe the Dickerson took some damage to their engines before escaping.  Weather’s next move will most likely be repairs.  In one of the border states, most likely.  Focus your search there.  All border pickets have been given the Dickerson’s description.  We’ll let you know if there are any sightings.”

“Have you thought of tracking any merchant who deals in obsolete Fed-era ship parts?”

Il-Jan glared at her in silence and drummed his fingers.  “Of course we have.”

“Of course, sir.  How stupid of me,” Beatrix replied, bowing her head.

“If we find anything, we’ll inform you.  And Major?”  Beatirx looked up.  “Remember… if you find Weathers, do not follow him, do not engage him.  Just find him, report, and get out.”

“Yes, si-“ but Il-Jan had already cut the connection.

Cynthia Beatrix studied the intelligence reports for hours.  The Dickerson’s engines were damaged, alright… but she disagreed with Il-Jan that Weathers would seek repairs in one of the border nations.  It was too risky, not to mention expensive.  Most of all, she couldn’t see him staying out of action that long.  No, she thought, you’d steal it for from the Middle Kingdom, wouldn’t you?  And not a commercial station, either… not if you want to stay on the people’s good side… you’d raid a military repair dock, that’s what you’d do, isn’t it?  But… could he actually pull that off, with just a lone crippled ship?  Was he that good?  Was he that insane?

She knew the answer to both questions. Cynthia began searching for any repair dock that carried equipment compatible with old Federation ships.  Then she chose the best military target. In a fast reconnaissance vessel -- with all its engines working – she was sure to get there first.


The pressure door to the control center blew open in a blast of smoke and shrapnel.  A hailstorm of plasma bolts poured through the door and pelted the room.  The few frightened defenders ducked behind any and everything to escape the suppressing fire.  Power armored marines sprinted through the door and jumped from cover to cover, firing at anything that moved, outflanking the defenders quickly.  Most surrendered instantly; the rest were gunned down.  In less then a minute, it was over.

“Sanchez to the Marm!”

“This is Captain Lyle – go ahead, Sergeant.”

“The command center on Vesuvius station is secured. Bravo team has secured the cargo bays.  Charlie’s still working on the habitation ring.”

“That was fast work!”

“Hell, sir, wasn’t much resistance!” Sanchez boomed heartily.  “Slants don’t waste marines on backwater rustbuckets like this.  Couple security guards with small arms - that’s all.”

“Excellent, Sergeant.  Once the prisoners are secured, load up every shuttle you can find with loot and get back to the Marm.  Just weapons, rations, and water, Sanchez - leave the spare parts to the engineering crew, they’ll know what worth taking.  And be fast. Lyle out.”


“Captain Weathers?” comm. officer Aurelius said.  “The Marm just checked in.  They’ve taken the administrative station of the shipyards and have stated loading supplies.”

“The Trojan Horse trick worked, then?”  Weathers asked.

“Apparently.” Aurelius shrugged.  “The Marm’s a converted freighter, so it was believable, I guess.  I’m just surprised they didn’t find an unscheduled supply delivery a little bit suspicious…”

Weathers wasn’t.  It was he who had eased their minds into believing it, after all.

“Dispatch our shuttles to help with the looting.  Still no ships in sensor range, Hargrave?”

“Nothing new, Captain,” his sensor officer replied with a sigh.  It was the third time the Captain had asked.  “Just that Daikyu-class destroyer in dry dock, and it’s still powered down.”

“Sergeant Akbar and his marines are securing that dock as we speak,” Aurelius piped up.  “Hell, if that destroyer, hasn’t launched or fired by now, it’s not gonna!”

“If we’re lucky, we can fly it out of here and add it to our little fleet,” Lt. Schultz, the Dickerson’s tactical officer, added.  “Hey, three ships!  We’ve almost got a quarter of a squadron!”

“Mm,” Weathers mused skeptically.  Something’s not right.  This is too easy.

“Did Vesuvius station have time to send a distress call?” he asked.

“Yes sir,” Aurelius said.  “I tried scrambling it, but we better expect company anyway.”

“Alright, bring us around Mars, Andolini.  I want a clear line of fire if the Marm needs cover in a hurry,” Weathers ordered.  “Hargrave, switch to active scans.  There should be some sort of picket out there – a patrol corvette, at least. Keep scanning.”  And I’ll do scans of my own.

David Weathers opened his mind and extended his senses in all directions across the emptiness of space, searching for… what am I looking for?  He didn’t know, exactly - but something was wrong.  He knew that for sure.  The last time he felt this uneasy he had been walking into an ambush.  That, combined with the absence of any enemy ships, convinced him that something was hiding out there.  Palmers was right… their luck couldn’t last forever.

He sensed the dozen or so free-floating docks of the Vulcan ship yards, the Vesuvius administrative station at its center, and all the minds on each.  Once, the Vulcan shipyards had been the beating heart of the Federation’s vast navy.  Now it was ancient and horribly obsolete, its dozens of docks depleted to a handful by losses in the Vin Shiak and Bloc Alliance wars.  As a final indignity, its new Asian overlords had downgraded it to a mere backwater repair station. 

Weathers was here to destroy it, of course.  Yet he felt no guilt – only the sad responsibility of a mercy killing, like putting down an old sick dog rather than let it live and suf—

Captain Weathers?

“Wha--?!” David recognized that voice, that presence - and a moment later, the image of the blond woman that appeared in his mind’s eye.  “YOU!!” David yelled.  His crew turned to look at him, startled.  “Red alert!  Launch fighters!  Notify the Marm!  Something’s out there!”

“But sir!”  Hargrave protested, “I’m not ready any-“

“DO IT!”  Weathers commanded, then turned his attention back to blond bitch in his head.  He focused his shock and anger into a weapon and blasted his way into her mind – which, he found to his surprise, was completely undefended.  Where are you, bitch?!  Show yourself!!

I’m in a reconnaissance frigate, hiding in the sensor shadow of Mars’ larger moon.

Weathers blinked.  He paused in his mental assault, caught off guard.  Never breaking his concentration, he pointed at Hargrave.  “Scan Phobos for any sign of a ship – a frigate!”

Seconds ticked by.  “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m just not – wait a minute…”


“The moon’s mass is off… by about fifty thousand tons… might just be a sensor glitch…”


Why are you telling me this?  Weathers asked suspiciously.

You told me to seek out the history of our ancestors; I have.  You told me this empire is a cancer; you were right.  After Chapman’s Folly, I couldn’t sit back and watch anymore. 

Oh, I see!  So you’ve seen the light and been born again, glory halleluiah!  Right?  And now you want to join me and my band of merry men and stick it to the man.  Is that it?

Well… yeah.

Bullshit.  You lie.  You’re a liar and this is a trap.

Why else would I give you the location of my ship?

And where’s the rest of the picket?

I… don’t know.  They were gone when we got here.

You lie.

For several seconds, only silence.  Don’t be a fool, Weathers!  the ice had returned to her voice.  Think of the information I have.  Think of what I can do for your cause. Think of what I can do for you!

Oh, really?  And what’s that?

Your magick is powerful, Captain Weathers… but you don’t know what you’re doing.

I knew enough to kick your ass, didn’t I?

Think how much more powerful you could be with a little training.

Oh, so you’re my mentor now?

I could be.  If you let me.  You can’t afford not to believe me, Weathers.  Trust me, and I’ll tell you how to defeat my ship.

A pause.  I’m listening.

Amami o Shima-class frigates’ capital weapons hare in fixed mounts, facing forward.  All they have in back are point-defense weapons.  Send your fighters to engage from the front, then bring the Dickerson behind the moon and disable our engines from behind.

Why not just destroy it?

Because I’m on board, you idiot!  Critically disable our engines, force us to abandon ship, and then pick up my escape pod later!  After that, you can blow it out of the sky for all I care!  This captain is a racist, sexist pig and I couldn’ t care—

But David didn’t care about shipboard politics.  “Hargrave, you reading any ships out there?”

Hargrave feverishly worked the controls.  “No sir… but I missed something before, so –“

“Send fighters to intercept from the starboard side of the moon, then bring us around the port side!”   If you’re lying, I’ll make your painful death the last thing I do…

What the—Jesus Christ, what do I have to do to convince you I’m on you’re side?  Wear sackcloth and ashes??

There was something in that arrogant, annoyed exasperation Weathers could trust.  His fighters engaged the half-squadron of fighters the Minami launched while the Dickerson, even sporting just half its thruster speed, handily swung around Phobos for a clear shot at the enemy frigate’s engines.  Weathers and his new-found ally confused the Asian pilot’s minds long enough for the Dickerson’s fighters to blow them out of the sky.  Weathers destroyed the frigate’s engines, dismissing the Dickerson’s lance torpedoes in favor of the more precise grav lasers (much to the annoyance of tactical Lieutenant Schultz) and – sure enough – the Minami launched escape pods minutes later.

The battle, at that point, was a forgone conclusion.  The Dickerson’s fighters shot down all escape pods (except one which, by captain’s orders, they captured instead).  And – wonders never cease – no enemy ships suddenly appeared the ambush Weathers’ crippled cruiser. Not long after, the Marm, the Dickerson, and their new Daikyu destroyer winked out of the system, towing a new ion drive, and leaving behind them only wrecked shipyards that, one by one, blossomed into flowers of nuclear light, signaling nothing less than the rebirth of the Technical Infantry into this new world of conflict.

It’s official, Weathers though as his little fleet, crammed full of loot and holding an invaluable prisoner in the brig, sped to safety though hyperspace.  I’m the luckiest sumbitch ever.


Millions of kilometers away, hidden in the debris field of a planet once known as Earth, an Imperial Regular stealth corvette watched the brilliant flashes from the Vulcan shipyards ripple across the darkness.  Aboard the craft, a communication channel was opened to Lord High Regulator Il-Jan on Wilkes’ Star.

“Everything went according to plan, sai.  Your sleeper agent is aboard the Dickerson.”


* * *


Usha Venkatramani flashed a smile and a wink as the salaryman bowed and left.  As soon as the door closed, the smile slid off her face.  She yanked a flask of high-proof sake from its hiding place under the pillow and threw back a big swallow.  She stared at the wall for a long, long moment, her face blank, marinating in the stink of smoke, sweat, and sex.  Then she sighed, set down the flask, fished her white lace thong off the floor, and pulled it on.

At least this guy had enough self-control to undress me first, she thought, shrugging into her white lace bra, the elastic stretching painfully under the weight of her D-cups spilling over the top, and fastened the front clasp with weary hands.  No cum stains this time, thank the godsI’m running out of clean clothes.  Just like room and board, the cost of renting and laundering her uniforms was deducted from the meager profit she made off each customer after the yakuza took their enormous cutcash she needed to pay off her debt and get the hell out of this place.  Just last night, Usha had broken the hygiene rules by washing the semen off with a wet sponge and wearing the damp dirty clothes out to meet her next client, all just to avoid another laundry fee.  Her stomach turned.

            Usha scooped up the sake flask and slammed back another huge shot, feeling the tingle of an early buzz.  She’d need one to make it through this night—just like every night since… since Cho was disowned by the Tanzhi.  Usha’s mouth twisted into a sour frown.  Half a million crowns…  Buddha…  I could turn twenty tricks a day until I die and never pay that off!  The yakuza had her bound for life, and they both knew it.  Usha raised the flask and drank.

            The bedroom door slammed open in a blast of pounding dance music from the club upstairs.  Usha ripped the flask from her lips, but had no time to hide it.  Madam Shinaki of the Hello Kitty Club, with a face like an onion wearing lipstick, glared at Usha.  Then her eyes fell to the flask.  “Another unhappy customer!” the Madam's strained voice said with forced politeness.  “We had to refund the money—again!  And the same complaint: you just lie there and wait for it to be over!”

            Usha scowled at her.  “Hey, I moaned this time!”

            Madam Shinaki’s eyes narrowed into slits.  “You know it takes more than that to fool a man!  If all they wanted was a wet hole, they’d find some cheap whore on a street corner!  They come here because the girls enjoy it—or at least act like they do… or rather, they're supposed to!”

            Usha threw back another shot of sake defiantly.  The burn of alcohol covered that filthy, salty taste.  “Well, what the hell do you expect?!” Usha shot back.  “I’ve been running a freighter for the last two years, not riding cock!  I’m out of practice!  Under Cho I was—”

            “Cho is dead to the family!” Madam Shinaki shot back.  “Nothing will change that!  Oyabun Toku has seen fit to send you back here because he knows you’re worth more on your back than in a ship!  Anyone can run that boat, but an exotic look like yours can turn a thousand crowns a client—or used to—do the math, girl!”

Usha said nothing.  Shinaki was right, of course.  For all that Usha wanted to believe mere yakuza sexism was responsible for purging the only female freighter captain from authority, she knew it was really simple economics.  For that wrinkled old bastard Toku, money was all that mattered.

 “Girls work their bagina off to get a room here in the Hello Kitty Club,” the Madam continued, “because here, they’re looked after, paid well, and safe.”

“Oh, safe, huh?” Usha burst out, unable to stop herself.  “What about that guy?!  You know the one I’m talking about!”

Shinaki narrowed her eyes.  “An unfortunate and rare exception, I admit,” she hissed, her voice was low and strained, “and a patron I have made sure will never set foot inside the Hello Kitty again!  The rest of our clients, however,” she continued, raising her voice, “are screened, tested, and pay handsomely… and in return they want the best—not some arrogant whore with sake breath!”

Usha said nothing. She threw back another shot, trying to numb her brain with alcohol.

“Frankly,” the Madam continued, “I don’t care where you turn your tricks—but unless you meet the standards of a Hello Kitten, it won’t be here!  You’re free to find a street corner—and you know the clientele you’ll find there!”

            Usha knew only too well.  She put the flask to her lips and chugged.  She was trapped.  Yeah, I could run, but where would I go?  The Tanzhi would hunt her down for her desertion and drag her back to their brothels.  If she managed to flee beyond their reach on backwater planets… what could I do but start over again—on my back?

            “Alright, alright,” Usha muttered.  “I’ll try harder.”  Madam Shinaki held out her hand, and Usha reluctantly handed over the flask.  “Just gimme a little time, will ya?” Usha said, snapping on a white lace garter belt with clumsy, tipsy fingers.  “It’s been a while…”

            “I’m afraid you don’t have a little time,” the Madam said curtly.  “Your next client is already waiting upstairs—and he paid extremely well!”  Usha froze in the middle of clipping garters to white silk thigh-highs, then clenched her jaw and continued.  “Act well,” the Madam continued, “and these… incidents… will be forgotten.  Behave poorly… and the oyabun will hear of it!” the Madam said sternly.

            “Wonderful…” Usha muttered miserably, scooping a double-breasted white “evening dress” (that looked more like a bathrobe) off the floor.  She slowly drew the dress over her barely-there lingerie, the shiny white silk eclipsing the sheen of her golden brown skin, and tied it in place with a bow.  The dress was cut so wide and low that the edges of her lacy bra peeked out.  Then again, Usha thought, that’s the point.

“Come on, hurry up, girl!” the Madam snapped impatiently.  “We don’t want to keep him waiting all night!  And don’t bother with the sheets this time—I’ll send someone down to change them for you.”

Usha sighed as she staggered into white stiletto heels.  She thrust her breasts forward, cocked her hips, and put on her best fake smile.  “Well, let’s go!” Usha said in the most cheerful little girl voice she could muster.  “I can’t wait to meet him!”

            The Madam cocked an eyebrow.  “I believe you forgot the ears...?”

            Usha ground her teeth.  Reluctantly, she turned and picked the headband with the ridiculous furry white cat ears off the floor and shoved it into her curly black hair.  Of all the degrading things about this job, she hated those stupid ears the most.  And I used to command a ship…

            Shinaki nodded approvingly and swept from the room, motioning for Usha to follow.  Thundering dance music engulfed Usha as she left her tiny soundproofed apartment.  Usha stumbled after the Madam down the hall, past doors to miniscule apartments where other Hello Kittens lived, up the stairway and out of the basement.

Usha stepped into the huge, dark, smoke-hazed neon jungle of the Hello Kitty Club.  The music was deafening.  The air smelled faintly of sweat and cheap perfume under the reek of smoke and alcohol.  She followed Shinaki past several raised platforms where strippers in white ears and fluorescent body paint danced, arched, and posed in a glowing blur under black lights, strobe lights, and colored laser beams.  Dozens of drunken, hooting salarymen crowed around each stage, half-burned cigarettes hanging from their mouths, shouldering each other aside and waving twenty-crown notes, fighting for the strippers’ interest.  Between the surreal scene and a growing sake buzz, Usha felt like she was walking through a dream… good… it’s better that way…

All around Usha, fellow Hello Kittens chatted up potential clients.  A few girls were han, but the rest were white and black and every shade of brown.  It was the Hello Kitty Club’s specialty.  In a han empire where all women had black hair and eyes, the exotic allure of a pale blue-eyed blonde or green-eyed redhead was irresistible—and fetched a high price.  Blondes from the once-mighty Terran Federation, defeated a generation ago in a bitter war, seemed by far the most popular Kittens… and Usha preferred not to think about the dark sexual politics behind that.  She had no illusions; they were all plunder from the Middle Kingdom’s conquered races.  Usha, who couldn’t be more Hindu if she tried, fit neatly into that category.  If I get one more request for a Kama Sutra position, I swear I’m gonna strangle them!  At least she didn’t have to belly dance or do the damn Lambada.

            Yet despite the panorama of exotic beauties surrounding them, every head turned toward Usha and followed her with their eyes as she walked through the gloom, her white uniform and ears glowing under the backlights.  She knew why—even in a sea of half-naked women jostling for money and attention, there was something about Usha’s beauty that made it impossible for men not to notice her.  Cho said it had something to do with magic… but Usha had never figured out how to turn it off.  At that moment, Usha would gladly have traded her glossy dark curls and perfect skin for acne and stringy hair.  The other Kittens serviced eight, maybe ten clients a night… but Usha always had a waiting list.  Twenty customers in one shift wasn't unusual.

            As they neared the front of the club, Madam Shinaki nudged Usha and pointed at a man seated at the bar with his back to them.  Usha groaned under her breath.  Her new client had long punch-permed hair and wore a cheap baggy suit—every movement oozed sleaze as he absently browsed through the picture profiles of Hello Kittens on a display screen embedded in the countertop.  Usha was amazed they even let him in to the Hello Kitty.  He must have paid very, very well.

            “You… sure that’s him?” Usha asked the Madam, vainly hoping there was a mix-up.

            “That’s the patron who paid for number forty-three,” Shinaki nodded.

            Usha had her number memorized, but checked the badge on her dress anyway.  Hello Kittens didn’t have names, just numbers.

            “Well, go on, then!” the Madam urged.  “He’s been waiting quite a while, you know!”

            Usha sighed and stepped forward.  She hated this part—the idle chitchat, the fake flirting, pretending he was picking her up and not buying her services.  Officially, a Hello Kitten was just like any hostesses in any nightclub across New Tokyo, paid—sometimes quite well—simply to provide an evening’s feminine companionship and entertainment (and encourage men to buy more drinks), nothing more.  Unofficially, Usha was required to invite the client back to her apartment—which was, of course, just happened to be downstairs.  If she accidentally screwed a cop on the vice beat, Shinaki could claim Usha was acting on her own, and the Madam had no idea dirty little whores were operating out of her club, gods forbid!  Never mind that Shinaki was also Usha’s landlord… the Madam would get a warning and Usha would go to jail.  Well, at least Usha was fairly certain this sleazebag wasn’t a cop—they had regulations on hair length.  With any luck, he would want to get right to the sex, and she wouldn’t have to waste an hour drinking and flirting, stroking his ego and listening to him whine about his problems before he “seduced” her.

            Usha sat down on the barstool next to him and crossed her long sleek legs.  Trying to use a high-pitched, singsong voice while at the same time bellowing over the pounding music, she said, “Well, hello, sexy!  Wanna buy me a drink?”

            “Sure!”  Her client turned to look at her.  “What’s your poison, Usha?”

            Usha blinked.  She knew that sallow face with the beady eyes and crooked grin…


“Hey, baby!”  Nhut grinned.  “Been a while, Usha.  How ya doin' these days?”

Anger flared in her chest.  Screwing strangers was one thing… but a colleague?  He thought he could just buy her?  The insult was staggering.  “What the hell are you doing here!?” Usha demanded.

“Eh, you know…”  Nhut shrugged.  “Just thought I’d swing by, see how yer doin’.  Catch up.  So, you wanna martini?  Wiskey-oolong?  More sake?”

Usha narrowed her eyes.  The bastard was lying.  “You paid six hundred crowns… just to catch up?”

“Sure!” Nhut said, motioning to the bartender for two sakes.  “Have a few drinks, shoot the breeze, maybe head back to your place…”

I knew it!  “Oh, you think so, do ya?” Usha scoffed.  She recognized the way Nhut always looked at her, knew what it meant.  Anger flushed her face.

If Nhut heard the edge in her voice, he ignored it.  “Well, kinda loud up here for conversation, don’t ya think?”

“Cut the kuso, Nhut!” Usha sneered with all the sass she could muster.  “I know what you want, and you’re not gonna get it, now or ever!”  Usha pointed down at her crotch.  “Your greasy little mitts ain't touchin’ this honey while I got strength left to smack you down!!”  In an instant, Usha felt Madam Shinaki appear behind her, sensing trouble.

Nhut blinked at Usha.  For a second, his eyes were surprised, almost hurt.  Then they went blank.  “Damn, Usha, that was harsh!” he said.  “I’m just trying to do you a favor here!  I’m payin’ good money so you can take a break!  Hang out in your room, drink, chat, relax…”

“Right.  Relax,” Usha scoffed.  “Like I don’t know what that—”

            “She’s just joking!” Shinaki interrupted, reassuring Nhut with a fake laugh and looking around nervously as customers and Kittens alike turned to watch the argument.  “Some men find the cast-iron power bitch act sexy, you know… clearly, you’re not one of them!”  Shinaki hacked out a nervous machine-gun laugh.  “Forty-three will be happy to please you, sai…”  Shinaki’s eyes looked daggers at Usha.  “For the sake of her family

            “NO!” Usha yelled, furious.  “Not him!  He’s an old… co-worker!”

            “This guy bothering you, Ush—uh, forty-three?” a deep voice boomed behind her.  Usha snapped a look over her shoulder.  It was Hinyutso, the bouncer who followed her around like an adoring puppy.  He looked like a gorilla squeezed into a suit and was about as smart—but he had his uses.

            “Yeah, he… uh… tried to feel me up already!” Usha lied, pointing angrily at Nhut.

“Oh really…” Hinyutso growled, narrowing his eyes at Nhut.

“What the—aw, c’mon, Usha!” Nhut protested.  “Don’t be like that!  We’re old pals, right?  I just wanna be with you alone…”

“Not if you were the last man alive!” Usha yelled.

            Shikai winced.  “Usha,” she said softly, leaning close, “you know the consequences of refusing a client…”

            “Yeah, an’ I don’t care!”  Usha shot back.  Maybe it was just too much sake, but she had drawn her line in the sand.  She still had her pride… hell, it was all she had.  “NOT him!”

            “I’ll pay double!” Nhut offered Shinaki.  “C’mon, Usha, I just wanna little private time, that’s all!”

            “Not willingly, you ji bai!” Usha yelled, and Shinaki groaned.  “You’ll have to force me, and you know you can’t take me without a fight!  Or is that what you want?” she asked.  “A dozen bouncers to hold me down while you… while you do your…“  She couldn’t finish.

“Well, not with bouncers in the room, no,” Nhut said with a roll of his eyes.

“So you gonna kick his scrawny ass out?” Usha asked Shinaki, throwing a look at Hinyutso and seeing unconditional support in his eyes.  “Or get the bouncers to strap me down?”

Usha watched Shinaki look around nervously at the growing crowd of onlookers, and knew this wasn’t the image the Madam wanted associated with the Hello Kitty Club.  “I’m… I’m terribly sorry, sai,” Shinaki apologized to Nhut.  “We have many other hostesses who would be happy to accompany you, if you’d care to look?”

Nhut looked around at the bouncer, madam, and whore allied against him and sighed.  “Nah… thanks, but she was the one I wanted.”  Nhut shook his head and stood.  He stuck out his hand out to Usha, slightly curled, palm down.  “See ya later, Usha.”

Usha stared coldly at his hand and held perfectly still, refusing to shake it.  Nhut scowled and his mouth twitched.  He closed his hand and pretended to look at his wrist watch instead in a face-saving gesture.  “Well, it’s late, I gotta go.”  Nhut reached out and patted Usha’s shoulder.  “Take care, Usha.  Good luck.”

Usha felt Nhut pull the neckline of her dress down and something scrape her skin.  Instantly she smacked his hand away.  “Don’t touch me, ji bai!”

Hinyutso took a step forward.  “I’m afraid you’ll have to leave now, sai.”

Nhut sagged, defeated.  “Yeah, yeah… I thought this might happen…”  He sighed.  The clown façade dropped, and for a second Nhut Moon didn’t look cocky or comical—just tired.  He took his sake and sipped down the last of it, then wiped his mouth slowly.  He worked his lips for a moment, then pulled a crown note from his pocket.  “A hundred crowns—just for a kiss?”  He tossed the note at the Madam, not waiting for an answer, and while Shinaki clutched at the flying money, Nhut jumped forward, yanked Usha off her barstool, and stuck his tongue down her throat.

For a split second Usha was too drunk to react.  Then, halfway thru the kiss, her eyes, burning with fury, switched to a look of surprise and confusion.  The second she began to struggle, Nhut pulled away, wiping his mouth.  Usha paused, then slapped him—but it seemed only a half-hearted gesture.

The Madam looked horrified.  “I’m sorry, sai!” she cried.  “Surely we can find another girl—”

In one fluid movement, Hinyutso stepped forward, seized Nhut by the neck, and lifted him off his feet.  “Please come with me, sai,” he said, dragging Nhut toward the door.

Shinaki turned to Usha, eyes burning with the fury of lost revenue, and leaned close.  “The oyabun will hear of this!” she hissed in Usha’s ear.  “I suggest you pack your bags—the Kawaii Club knows what to do with girls like you!”

Usha said nothing, merely nodded obediently.  The Madam stormed away.

Usha headed straight for the ladies’ room and hid herself in a stall.  The instant the door swung closed, Usha reached into her mouth and pulled out the piece of paper Nhut had passed to her in the kiss.  The characters were few—but enough to give her hope.

Want out?

Honshu Park

4:00 AM


            Usha was thrown out of the Hello Kitty Club within the hourShe wasn’t fired—no, yakuza-Tanzhi still had a debt to collect.  She had been transferred to another, cheaper whorehouse, with harsher discipline and seedier customers.  The half-million crowns would be harder than ever to pay off.  Usha didn’t care; she'd been offered an escape.

Usha walked through Honshu Park in the cold moonless night, relishing the soft feel of loose denim and simple cotton underwear on her skin after weeks of silk and lace.  She had packed all her lingerie in the knapsack slung over her shoulder, just in case Nhut’s lead didn’t pan out… but she had drenched those stupid cat ears in sake and burned them.

Usha gripped the pistol in her pocket—just in case—and looked around.  She didn’t know exactly where to meet Nhut (if it was Nhut waiting for her—in her line of work, you could never be sure), but she headed toward the sound of a rhythmic squeaking, the only sign of life in the deserted patch of sickly grass and trees that passed for a New Tokyo park.  The sound led her to the children’s playground, where she found Nhut playing on a rusty, squeaking swing set.  For a gambler, he wasn’t terribly subtle.

            “Man, I haven’t been on a swing in years!” he said, jacket and tie flapping in the breeze as he swung back and forth.  “I forgot how much fun it is!  You really should try it, Usha!”

            Usha didn’t move.  Nor was she amused.  “Well, I’m here.  What do you want, Nhut?”

            “Well, it’s more about what you want,” he said, scraping his feet loudly on the gravel to stop his swinging.  “And how badly you want it.”

            “Just tell me the deal, Nhut,” Usha said irritably.  “I’m not in the mood to be fucked with.”

            “No, I guess you’ve had too much of that recently, huh?” Nhut agreed as he came to a stop.  “I wasn’t sure if you’d show.  Glad you did, though.”  He looked around quickly.  “You alone?” he asked.  Usha nodded.  “Were you followed?”

“No… I don’t think so.”

Nhut looked around again, his shifty eyes peering into the shadows, then nodded, apparently satisfied.  He lowered his voice.  “How would you like command of your ship back?”

            “In exchange for what?” Usha said cautiously, careful not to answer his question.

            “Taking orders from a new boss.”  Nhut shrugged.  “At least for a while.  Play chauffer for a few weeks.  Then go back to work for yakuza-Tanzhi—as a smuggler, not a whore.”

            “If it sounds too good to be true,” Usha answered sarcastically, “it is.  What’s the catch?”

            “There’s some risk involved.”  Nhut nodded.  “Would you rather go back to the brothel?”

            Usha considered that.  “Alright, I’m listening,” she said finally.  “Who’s the new boss?”

            “Meet the new boss,” Nhut chuckled, pointing at Usha with a grin, “same as the old boss!”

            Usha scowled.  Me?  I’m the new boss?  Then it dawned on her with a chill—Nhut was pointing at someone behind her.  Usha spun around in time to see a tall scrawny woman reaching for Usha’s face—a woman with glowing blood-red eyes.


Fury and hatred gripped her.  Usha ripped her pistol out as Cho’s cold fingers gripped her face on the acupressure points and dug deep.  Another hand grabbed Usha's gun arm and forced it back.  The pistol blasted harmlessly into the grass.  Zhan shi… bu ke… gao ren…” Cho grunted, her face twisted with effort as she physically and mentally fought her way into Usha’s head.

Usha fought with a strength born of ragebut Nhut quickly wrenched the gun from her hand.  Someone else seized Usha from behind and pushed her to her knees.  Usha quit struggling and desperately threw up every mental barrier she knew instead, forcing Cho to fight for every secret she pried from Usha’s brain.  You sold my body, Usha mentally screamed, but, dammit, you will NOT rape my mind too!!  She put up a valiant struggle… but it was a losing battle.  Cho was just too strong.  An eternity later Cho released her, and Usha slumped weakly to the ground.  The red glow in Cho’s eyes dimmed and disappeared.

“You… chronic… bitch!” Usha moaned in a voice barely above a whisper.  Above her, she heard the whine of her own plasma revolver charging up.

“Well?” Nhut asked, gun pointed at Usha’s head.

“She’s clean,” Cho grunted.  “She don’t like me much… but she didn’t betray me.”

“Are you alright, Usha?” a high, cheerful voice said as someone rubbed her back reassuringly.  “Don’t worry, the headache will go away soon.  Cho did it to me, too.”

Usha peered up at the pale face the voice belonged to.  “Yoko?”  She pushed Yoko’s arm away.  “What the pi khu is going on!?” she demanded angrily.  “What the hell do you want, Cho!?”

“Your help,” Cho answered.

“You got a funny way of asking for it!” Usha shot back.

Cho spread her arms.  “Someone betrayed me.  I had to make sure it wasn’t you.”

“No one betrayed you, you stupid chronic junkie!” Usha spat.  “You overdosed!”

“Someone poisoned me, actually.  And I got the proof right here.” Cho patted her pocket.

“It’s true!” Yoko chirped.  “I analyzed the residue in her bowl—I don’t know what, but there’s some kind of chemical in there besides dust!”

“What I don’t know is who, or why,” Cho said.  “I need to figure that out before I go to the oyabun.  For that, I need to travel.  And for that, I need you.”

“Why the hell should I help you!?” Usha yelled as she fought her way up to her knees.  “They’d never have thrown my ass back in that whorehouse if it wasn’t for you, bitch!”

“I… I know!” Cho snapped, looking away.  “But I got you out as soon as I could, Usha!  I never thought the oyabun would do that crap to you a second time—hell, I didn’t even know until today!  And when Yoko finally told me, I was pissed!”

Usha paused.  She glanced at Yoko, who nodded enthusiastically.

“Oh yeah!” Yoko agreed.  “She demolished a bean bag!  It’s kinda messy down there, actually…”

Usha looked back at Cho suspiciously.  “You really expect me to believe all this?”

“Not really, no,” Cho answered, crouching down to stare Usha in the eye.  “But what I do expect is that you’re sick of turning tricks.  Am I right?”  Usha glared at her, but didn’t answer.  “What I expect,” Cho continued, “is you want to be back in command of my ship.”

My ship!” Usha snapped.

            “I bought it!  I own it!” Cho returned.

“You may own it, but I run the damn thing!”

“Oh, knock it off, for the love of Buddha!!” Nhut said, rolling his eyes.  “How many times have we heard this argument, Yoko?  One hundred?  Two hundred?”

“Please,” Yoko pleaded, looking around nervously.  “We don’t have time for this, Cho!”

            After an uncomfortable silence, Cho continued.  “Anyway, point is, I been lookin’ out for you ever since I met you, Usha.  This ain’t the first time I sprung you from a whorehouse.  Last time was three years ago.”

             “Wha—the hell you did!” Usha cut her off.  “You didn’t do kuso to get me outta the Hello Kitty Club the first time!  Lord Tsutani paid off my debt!”

“That’s what the Tanzhi told you back then, yeah.”  Cho shrugged.  “But come on—a Lord who bought out your contract and didn’t make you his concubine?”  Cho arched an eyebrow.  “Did you really believe it?  You’re smarter than that, Usha.”

Usha scowled.  Actually, she had always wondered about that—it was highly unusual—but she hadn’t questioned it, not then.  “But… no… I…” Usha stammered.  “He did it ’cause—”

“Reward for a fantastic lay?” Cho scoffed.  “Hell no, he’d just become a regular customer!  Lords ain’t got no respect for mandarin like us, Usha, you know that!”

“But… they said…”

“It was me, Usha.” Cho nodded.  “Took a little financial trickery to convince the Tanzhi the cash was coming from Lord Tsutani, but…”  Cho flashed a thin smile.  “Yoko’s good at hackin’ in an’ cooking the books.”

Usha looked up at Yoko, eyes widening.  “You… you helped?”

“Well… yeah,” Yoko said in a small voice.  “You were one of the few girls who was actually nice to me, so… why not?”  Yoko shrugged.  “I… guess I could show you the paper trail if you still don’t believe us…?”

Usha looked back at Cho, convinced for now, but confused.  “But… why the hell didn’t you ever tell me, dammit?!”

“What, one shatei pay off another’s debt, an’ make yakuza-Tanzhi loose all that money in interest and their cut of your tricks?”  Cho dismissed the thought with a wave of her hand.  “Nah, they’d never allow it.  An’ Yoko and I coulda got in big trouble if they ever found out… so the fewer people who knew the better, y’know?  Of course, that don’t really matter anymore, does it?  Now, a Lord offering to pay it off…”  Cho stuck a finger in the air.  “No oyabun would say no to that.  Always good business to make friends among the nobles—you know how it is.”  Cho lapsed into silence and stared evenly at Usha, who scowled, trying to understand it all.

“But… why?” Usha asked.  “Why’d you do it?  I hardly knew you back then!”

“To get you out of that whorehouse.”  Cho shrugged.  “You were wu jen.  You didn’t seem to know it, but you had to be!  There was no other explanation for that much sex appeal!  You could do so much more than lie on your back counting ceiling tiles, Usha!  Sure, you were high-priced japayuki back then—not bad for a gaijin commoner—but I could still tell you didn’t like sucking cock any more than I d—”  Cho stopped suddenly.

            Usha blinked and cocked her head.  “You were a—“

            “Shutup, Usha!” Cho snapped fiercely… and Usha had the wisdom to stay quiet.  She noticed Nhut and Yoko exchange a puzzled look.

            “Anyway,” Cho continued after an uncomfortable pause, “after you were free, I tried to recruit you—remember that?—but you refused.”

“Yeah, I said you were a crazy bitch,” Usha said.  “And I was right, too.”

Incredibly, Cho let the insult slide.  “Yeah, you didn’t want to work for me.  You didn’t want to do anything but run a freighter, just like yer ol’ man.  But if that’s what it took to bring you on… then I’d do it.  Took me a while, but I managed to get my hands on a tiny ol’ rustbucket.  It wasn’t yer dad’s boat—I couldn’t get that one back—but it was a ship.  Said I’d let you run it if—”

“If I became your student!” Usha nodded as everything suddenly fell into place in her mind.

“Wasn’t easy,” Cho shook her head.  “I had to call in a lot of favors, but I begged, bribed, and fought to make you its captain.  Then I put you to work smuggling contraband for the Tanzhi.  Hell, I even let you name that old wreck.”

“The Teppodama…”  Usha nodded, and the ghost of a genuine smile touched her face for the first time in weeks at the memory of her ship.  It’s not much, but it’s mine.  “And she wasn’t a wreck, Cho,” Usha said.  “Had a lot of light-years on her, sure, but the engines were solid.”

            “Well… if you say so.”  Cho shrugged, openly skeptical.

            “Hey, don’t dis my boat, Cho!” Usha snapped defensively.  “That ship was solid!  Still is!  I sunk all my profits for years into repairs and upgrades!  She made the San Angeles run in two days!” Usha declared with a hint of pride.  “Did you know that?”

            Nhut laughed, and Usha shot him a nasty look.  “Oh, you mighta mentioned it,” Nhut said, rolling his eyes.  “Once… twice… a hundred times…”

            “Okay, it was a nice boat, and you did a good job running it, sure.  But then I screwed up,” Cho said, yanking Usha’s mind back to the present.  “Blew the hit.  Got banished.  And the second I was out of the way… well, the Tanzhi took the first excuse to take your ship and shove yer ass back in the Hello Kitty, didn’t they?  Shatei hate taking orders from girls… you see where I’m goin’ with this?”

            Usha was silent… but she saw.

            “You want the Teppodama back, Usha?”

            Usha looked Cho dead in the eye.  “Yeah.  You know I do.”

            “Well, the only way that’s gonna happen is if I’m back in the Tanzhi to make it happen!” Cho said firmly—and, dammit, Usha knew she was right.  “So the question is,” Cho continued, their eyes locked, “how far are you willing to go to get it back?”

            Usha met Cho’s gaze.  “As far as I have to.”

“Then all you gotta do is follow my orders.”  Cho smiled.  “You don’t have to help me, Usha.  If you say no, I’ll wipe this meeting from your memory and never bug ya again.  But I don’t think you wanna go back to being a whore… do you?”

            “No.”  Usha shook her head slowly.  “I don’t.”

            Cho nodded.  “Alright then,” she said, rising to her feet.  “Here’s the deal.  I need you to be a captain again.  To fly the Teppodama wherever I need to go to prove my innocence and save face.  When I clear my name—and it’s a matter of when, Usha, not if—you can bet your brown ass you won’t be goin’ back to no whorehouse!” Cho said firmly.

            Usha stood up slowly.  Not a bad deal, considering her alternatives… but…  “I see one snag in your brilliant plan,” Usha said sarcastically.  “When you were disowned, the yakuza took the Teppodama.  How are you going to put me in charge of a ship you no longer technically own?”

            “Oh, fer the love a Buddha!” Cho muttered, shaking her head, annoyed.  “We’re criminals, Usha!  We’ll hijack the damn thing!”

            “Oh.  Well… alright, then.”  Usha nodded, glancing over the trio.  “I’m in.  On one condition.”

            “What’s that?” Cho asked eagerly.

            Usha pulled her fist back, swung, and punched Cho as hard as she could.  Cho’s head snapped to the side and she staggered back.  “That’s for the whorehouse, you bitch!!”

            ”… oh fuck…” Nhut muttered.  Yoko whimpered and stepped back… waiting.

            Usha also waited, body tense, ready for the counterattack.  Cho breathed heavily and her face turned red.  Her fists clenched and released again and again.  Slowly, not looking at them, Cho pulled out a pack of Nirvanas and lit one.  She sucked down the weed.  Exhaled.  “Okay...” she said finally, her voice strained.  “Okay.  Maybe I deserved that.  For the whorehouse.  Like you said.”  Cho took another deep drag and breathed out.  Finally she turned back to Usha.  “It’s a small price to pay to bring you on board, anyway.”  She nodded.  “But the next time!” Cho said fiercely, sticking a finger in Usha’s face.  “Next time, bitch… I hit back!  Dong ma?”

            For a second, Usha was silent.  Then “Hai… sensei.”

            Cho nodded and grunted in satisfaction.  “Welcome back, Usha,” she said, then spun around and took off through the pale grass.  “You bitches comin’ or not?”

            First Nhut, then Yoko turned to follow her.  Usha watched them go.  She didn’t trust Cho.  Not one bit.  Still… she looked down at her bruised knuckles.  She didn’t hit back.  Usha rubbed her sore fistand then she, too, followed across the grass.

            The gashira was almost complete.  One more to go—but he would be the hardest to turn.


* * *


“ETA to Beacon five minutes!”  Edward Ramsey’s voice shrieked over the intercom.

James bolted out of his bed; scrambled to the metal rack against the wall of his quarters, and pulled on some pants and a pair of the felt boots most of the crew wore around this ship.  He paused at the door for a moment while he recovered from the shock of standing up too fast.  He tore open the door and fairly ran to the control center of his freighter, the Resolve.  Less than a minute had passed since the alert woke him.


Crewmen and women crowded into the chaotic bridge, strapping down at their respective stations.  Ramsey called out without looking up from his terminal, “Just crossed the five-thousand klick mark; all systems running hot.  Three minutes…”

James had an acceleration chair installed on the starboard side between the pilots’ station and the signals terminal complex.  He sat down and buckled the four-point belts together.  He’d just registered the final click when Pritesh Patel stumbled into the command center at last, clutching his head.  “We’re coming in today?!” he groaned.

Ed glanced over his shoulder now, “Yeah, and you’d better get your ass over here, we’re coming up on a thousand klicks.”

The Chief Astrogator groaned, but moved to his seat a couple meters away from James, strapping himself in with one hand.  “Uh…all right, Horadrim…” he ran his hand through his hair, straining to clear his head.  “Yeah, we’re going to want to drop in pretty tight, say half a klick from the beacon.”  He turned toward James, “And you’re going to want to have our authorization codes ready, the devils have a reputation for itchy trigger fingers.”

James pulled up the files from his console, and transferred them to a datapad.  Ed Ramsey looked up from his instruments again, “Okay, we’ve hit that threshold; you want to try this gizmo out, Nik?”

Senator Samothrace had not been joking when he said this mission was high priority.  From New Paris to Augustus system, the Resolve had been cleared through the digital gate system.  Hyperspace cut travel time between systems hundreds of light years apart from lifetimes down to days, but even that miracle of transportation was outdated technology.  Digital Gates, incredible feats of macro-engineering which broke down matter passing the threshold, and transmitted it via near-instantaneous tachyon signals to identical gates in the next system, where travelers were reassembled; with no apparent lapse of time.  One of the few good deeds that James credited to the Middle Kingdom was the massive expansion of the digital gate complex from the tiny, experimental system of the Federation.  Even so, a single digital hop could cost a captain one hundred thousand crowns, depending on the size of his vessel; meaning the system was only used by the most important of government VIPs, the military, and the largest shipping conglomerates.  This was the second time in his life that James got to ride the system for free.

There was, however, no digital gate connection between the Middle Kingdom and the Horadrim Empire.  There was not even a commercial hypergate in operation linking the two nations, though James had heard rumors that the Western Reserve was constructing one of its own.  All routes in or out of the Empire were controlled by the military, and for a commercial shipper that could be seen as an even higher barrier than digital gate fees.  At the hyperspace beacon marking the Augustus system, an Imperial Fleet destroyer had blown open a temporary entrance to hyperspace, through which the Resolve had passed.  The devices needed to do that could only be found on military vessels, since they required enormous amounts of power and involved some highly classified equipment used primarily in large weapon systems.  But no military ship followed the Resolve, nor was one waiting at the Istoral beacon to allow James and his crew back into the normal universe.  They were instead relying on one of the many near-magical Horadrim technologies, a beacon which would automatically open a tear itself when given the proper military authorization.  And in fact, the system marker appeared wildly different from the ones James had seen in the human systems.  But he didn’t have time for a closer examination of the bulbous, not-quite-metal monolith.  Nikola Tesla sent whatever signal he’d had prepared and, a short burst of light later, the Resolve was crossing back into familiar space, and the opening into hyperspace whirled closed behind.

“Hailing, military and emergency tags!”  The comm officer, Laura Matheson spun around in her chair.

“Let’s hear it.”

There was a short burst of static from the ship’s speakers, and then a vaguely electronic voice, “Imperial Horadrim Fleet Cruiser Shhhaaaaaaaaaaasssss of Istoral System Defenses to unidentified freighter entering from Augustus System.  The Emperor Vin Dane commands you to identify yourself and give proper authorization and activity parameters.  Failure to comply will result in immediate destruction.  Message repeats once.  Imperial Horadrim…”

James hesitated a moment before reading the prepared script.

“Independent Civilian Ship Resolve of the Middle Kingdom, Captain James Welthammer.  Here for minor trading in goods and routine business transactions.  Authorization code follows: M-K-I-F- two-two-seven-two-point-five-point-one-eight-point-seven-zero-three-nine, repeat: MKIF2271.5.18.7039, authorization code ends.”

There was silence for a moment, and James hoped they weren’t all about to blasted into oblivion.

Resolve, declare all cargo and passengers to be exchanged.”

James realized he’d been holding his breath; he let it out and responded.  “We are carrying no non-permanent passengers and a cargo of heavy metals, approximately a hundred kilos.”  That was James’ emergency fund of platinum, but he thought it best to say he was trading something.”

“Welcome to Istoral System, Resolve.  You are reminded that this is sovereign territory of the Horadrim Empire, and Imperial Horadrim law is to be obeyed at all times.  You may access a visitors’ summary of regulations via the system navigational beacon.  Discom.”  The signal broke.

“Friendly devils, aren’t they?”  Nik Tesla had unstrapped from his seat and was stretching, “But I guess they did let us through.”


The Horadrim Empire had once covered nearly as many worlds as the Middle Kingdom did now.  Or at least, the Horadrim had told the writers’ of James’s history texts it did; and considering what James had seen of Horadrim technology, he believed it.  But, not long before Humanity’s first contact with the Horadrim, war with the Caal had destroyed that empire, and nearly exterminated the entire Horadrim species.

Since that time, the world toward which the James was descending had been a barren wasteland of a Bug world, known as M7.  But, with the aid of the Middle Kingdom, the Horadrim and the Western Reserve had been prosecuting an eerily successful offensive against the Bugs, cutting the Quarantine Zone to a fraction of its pre-VS War size; providing room for the Horadrim to expand, and a near-endless supply of warriors for the MK exobiology labs.

The change in the planet was unbelievable.  Like most of its planets, the Bugs had turned M7 into a rocky desert, their extensive underground nests, and the waste they produced making the surface hostile to the development and survival of its native life.  But Horadrim terraforming was hardly short of miraculous; legions of nanoscale robots had bulldozed and revitalized the planet in under a decade.  Istoral was not New Paris, to be certain; most of the mountainous terrain was covered by scrub and brush; but there were recognizable belts of green along the ocean shores.

Istoral was the third most populous of the Horadrim worlds, after Hodraida itself and the two planets of the Safava system.  Even at that, Horadrim on the planet numbered under ten million; the species was still recovering from its near-extinction centuries ago.  Most of the Horadrim’s administration offices were located on Hodraida, which made James wonder about what this spy was spying on.  The only thing James could think of was that the MK was trying to steal some of the Horadrim’s super-advanced technology; Istoral was home to one of the race’s primary bioengineering plants.

“Captain?”  Tanya Kaul’s voice cut through his daydream.

James shook his head clear, “Eh?  Sorry, I was wool-gathering.”

Tanya gave him a look, “Right, well we’re coming up on the spaceport; they’ve already got us cleared for a pad.”

It was a midsized spaceport of rather unremarkable construction, after all the Horadrim wonders James found himself a bit disappointed.  A spaceport was a spaceport, and James guessed that all that fancy technology would be money wasted on an otherwise simple design.

What James did find remarkable was the number of K’Nes ships occupying the fungicrete berths.  James estimated that the large, outdated cargo shuttles occupied about three out of every four landing pads.  Tanya put the pinnace down in one of the smaller bays, which was only just large enough for the military landing craft.

James undid the crash belts, “Okay, I’ll be back in an hour or two, I don’t expect this guy wants to hang around for too long.”

Tanya adjusted the pilot’s chair to its maximum recline setting, “Wake me then.”


James was even more astonished once he got out of the spaceport.  The cat-like K’Nes outnumbered the Horadrim nearly five-to-one on the streets.  He knew the Horadrim were still struggling to get their numbers back up, and the traders were out in force in every port city; but this was insane.  James’s brain grappled with the oddness as he wandered through the city with the unpronounceable Horadrim name (James hadn’t even bothered to read all of the lengthy yan-giz transliteration) looking for the café where he was supposed to meet his passenger.

Eventually he found the place, recognizing it by the Horadrim symbols he’d copied onto a piece of paper; again he didn’t bother to read through the too-long transliteration.  The café was open to the outside air, which was pleasantly cool, though James suspected there were invisible protections to maintain sanitary conditions.  Most of the people inside were humans in business suits, representatives of trading corporations no doubt, and there was also a scattering of Horadrim and K’Nes, James assumed it must be break time in the city businesses, it was just after noon local time.

James didn’t know who his contact was; Ian had said the spy would find James himself, so the spacer headed for the service counter.  James found himself in an unusually adventurous mood, so he ordered a drink made from some Horadrim fruit, carbonated and with a mild sedative; it was good, but the price meant it would probably be the only one he’d ever have.  He found a chair at a small table and sat down, sipping the drink.

A hand clamped onto James’s shoulder, “Why, Manuel Garrett, you’re just on time, how are you today?”  James hesitated before he remembered the name he would be identified by.  He turned around to face his charge.  The spy was a short, round Caucasian man with thin grey hair combed across his bald head.  James smiled and shook his hand.

“I see you’ve started without me,” the spy indicated the glass in James’s hand, “if you’ll excuse me a moment, I’ll be right back.”  James watched as the man sauntered up to the counter and ordered some black coffee, he returned grinning.

The jolly man sat down across from James, “I’m Page, by the way, Theodore Page, call me Ted.”  Without any noticeable lapse in his jovial disposition, Ted reached across the table, grabbed James’s drink, pulled a small capsule from inside his jacket, and cracked it over the glass, allowing a white powder to fall into the liquid.  Still smiling, he shook the glass slightly, and handed it back to James.

“Drink this.”

James stared at the drink, stupefied.

“Drink it now; it won’t hurt you, all right then.”  James picked up the glass, his mind still several steps behind, and took a big swallow from the glass, clenching his teeth against the lingering carbonation.


            “The Horadrim have the amazing ability to sort of read a person’s emotions; that will help regulate your state of mind, sort of a chemical disguise.”

            James nodded, still completely lost.

            Still cheerful, the plump man leaned back in his chair and drank his coffee, “So you’ve got a ship have you?”

            James nodded.

            “Right, well I’m eager to get out of here, if you know what I mean.  I trust you’ll be able to get by the authorities all right then?”

            James had a sudden feeling of déjà vu, but he shook the feeling from his head.

            “Yeah, it’s all cleared and legal.  We can ship off as soon as you’re ready.”

            The man kept sipping from the foam cup, “Well, we’d better stick around here for a while longer, best not to look like we’re in too much of a hurry.”

            James nodded again.  Several moments of silence passed between them.

            “So…you’ve got all the information?”

            The spy smiled, set down his cup, and pulled a standard datapad from his jacket, “All the accounts right here, looks like they really were fudging on their books.”

            James played along, “Well, they certainly won’t be having a good time once we publish the audit.”

            Theodore laughed, “No they certainly won’t be.”  James had another sip of his drink; he was beginning to think it might be worth the price.

            Without warning, the spy took a big gulp from the coffee cup, then slammed it onto the table.  “Well, we’d better be going; home office doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”

            James wasn’t sure he liked the sudden change in Ted’s behavior, but he didn’t argue, he finished off the last dregs of the Horadrim drink, then followed the spy out of the café.

            Ted pointed, “Spaceport’s this way, right?”  James agreed, and they set off at a good walk, fast but not noticeably hurried.

            Still speaking in cheerful tones, Ted made a gesture as if he was telling a fishing story, “There’s a Horadrim following us, about three meters behind and to our right, I’ve seen him a couple too many times in the past weeks.”

            James laughed in response, and hoped he didn’t seem too nervous.

            But they reached bay where the pinnace was resting without incident.  James woke Tanya, and they were soon powered up and prepared to lift.

            James directed the spy to the rows of crash seats lining the walls of the pinnaces rear compartment, and told him they would be rejoining the Resolve in about half an hour.

            “Good,” the man snorted as he strapped in, his laughing façade gone, “the sooner the better.  I don’t think you need to be told how dangerous the Horadrim can be.”


            Forty-five minutes later, the pinnace was docked, and James had introduced Theodore to some of the senior crew members who were on hand plus Major Shrak, and was now directing the spy to the ship’s receiving room.

            “Welcome to the Resolve, M. Page.  I’ve told my Astrogator to ship out, and we should be out of system in a few minutes.  Can I get you anything?”

            The spy stretched his hands over his head, “No thank you, Captain Welthammer,” James had told the man his real name on the flight up to the ship.  “Did you call this a yacht?  It looks more like a freighter to me.”

            “No sir, the ICS Resolve is my own personal pleasure yacht; cargo haulers require trade licenses and are subject to tariffs and commercial shipping fees.”

            The fat man chuckled, “I see.  You’re lucky I’m not in Customs, or I might have to report you.”

            “How are the clandestine services in the Senatorial Police?”

            This laugh was darker, “Well, if you believe the recruiting ads, like me, it’s a cakewalk.  I don’t call having to control your very thoughts a cakewalk, though.”

            James shook his head in sympathy.  “Heh, what were you spying on anyway?  Isn’t all the government on Hodraida?”

           This question brought on another laugh, louder, “Oh, if only you knew…”  The spy smirked at James.  Then he paused.

            “Actually…”  The balding man pulled the datapad from his jacket again, and turned it over in his fingers, “Ah, what the hell.  The SP can kiss my ass after that assignment, and it’ll be all over the news in a week anyway; Treschi’s not stupid.”

            James blinked, “What’s that?”

            Ted laughed again, “Captain, it’s your lucky day; this spy doesn’t give a shit anymore.”

            James leaned forward intently.  The spy continued to twirl the datapad through his fingers, “Well, it basically comes down to Vin Dane abusing Imperial Security, he’s pretty much turned the whole bureaucracy into a puppet, keeping the MK down so that he can build up his own Empire out here.”

            James frowned, “Hell, Ted, I didn’t know that was a secret, isn’t it obvious?”

            The spy snorted, “You probably noticed the big plant outside of town.  It’s a bioengineering site, makes a lot of the biological components that go into Horadrim tech, named after one of their scientists whose name isn’t worth taking the trouble to say.  Anyway, this plant’s been retooling recently, they’re not making as much of the same stuff they used to be.”


            “So, the Horadrim don’t really make this kind of dramatic change.  Their technology is so great, that any advancements they make are incremental, minutiae.  Something big is going down.”  He paused for a moment, “We really didn’t suspect anything, much less notice the change until a couple months ago.  The Senate Chairman on the Science and Progress Committee comes to us, and says Jai Nalwa from ImpSec has been bugging him about some research project out on New Madrid, wants to upgrade the project status, move it over to the bureaucracy’s jurisdiction.  Anyway, it’s some kind of study into behavioral therapy methods, cure addictions, that kind of thing; so the Chairman can’t figure out what ImpSec has to do with it, and he asks Samothrace to get Nalwa off his back. 

“Well, about that time, this Horadrim biotech company puts in a huge order for some of the early products from the corporation sponsoring this project.  That’s the point where they send me in.  I’m down there for a couple weeks, and let me tell you, you can’t get anything out of those devils.  I talked to some of the K’Nes traders bringing the stuff in, they don’t know anything.  Corporate literature doesn’t give us anything we don’t already know either.  It’s just some compounds, hormones to help regulate mood swings, emotions.  Hell, like that stuff I put in your drink, not anything unusual.

“So I’m about to call the whole thing off, say there’s nothing down here to find, just some overcurious Horadrim scientists; when the lead scientist in charge of the research project gets his lab burned down and disappears.  Well the Imps go nuts, put out a manhunt, lock down the entire New Madrid system looking for this guy.  Of course I can’t leave then, now headquarters is really curious.”

James was reeling; he couldn’t help himself, “This scientist, a Doctor Hicks?”

The spy nodded, “Yeah, guess you saw the news, Imps were on a real wild goose chase.  Anyway, I keep digging of course, getting nothing as usual, until last Thursday.  I’ve got the break I need, one of those Human/Horadrim hybrids they’ve got running around, works at the plant, anyway he agrees to get me the real story for some cash, says he can’t reject his humanity.  Of course, the money’s not a problem, so two days later he comes to me with this.”  He held up the datapad.  “And let me tell you, Captain, you only thought you knew the score.”




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Text Copyright (C) 2004 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.  Do not try ANY of this at home, even if you are an unbelieveably lucky as Captain Weathers.