“This is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

                                                                                                            --Winston Churchill


            Chan Lee howled the song of his clan every morning. Since he came to this planet prison, it became part of Habor’s daily ritual. The songs of the changelings were an aspect of garou life he had never bothered with before; until he had no one to sing them to.  Suddenly, they were a balm of relief in his wretched existence.

            The desert/swamp landscape didn’t even bother to have a name, much like any worthless piece of real estate, it only had an antiseptic locator: G2 Prime. The air stank with methane, the white dwarf sun was dim, and the daily temperature varied between sunburn and frostbite. The only sustenance was swamp rat, a weed called nehm, and the usual supply of stale emergency food packets that had been sent here far past their expiration date. Swamp rat, at least, had some decent gravy to fry the puffed celery-like nehm in.

            Here there were no guards, no stockade, not even a prison collar around his neck. The second they removed the collar, they pushed him out the shuttle door twenty meters from the planet’s surface and let him bleed on the harsh rocks below. But I didn’t die; no, I didn’t die.  Lee didn’t even die from the Endari weed that cured the cancer of Netter’s Syndrome inside him. The poison wracked his body every day for an hour, but he ate it, for he would live. He would live to kill every one of those who had hurt him; those who had denied his birthright as a prince of the Middle Kingdom. He would carve their names into rocks with his claws, just to make sure he didn’t forget.  Hate is what kept Lee alive.

            The social calendar of G2 helped him keep his anger burning inside him.  Every week or so, when he had finished eating his share of emergency food packs, Habor had to return to the Box.  Much like the planet, they didn’t bother naming the only building on it. The Box was the old prison, before they realized they didn’t have to leave any guards to keep people here. The hyperspace distortion zone prevented standard ships from entering the system, the string of defense satellites prevented those that did without clearance, and simply trying to find anyone on this forsaken rock was difficult enough.  More likely your ship would get jumped by the first group of prisoners and then you would be left here instead.

            The Box is where the official government ship hovered over for a minute every week, dropped enough food packets for everyone on planet, and then scuttled back out of orbit.  It was a maze of black stone walls, covered in thick vines and fruit trees that grew out of walls, much like a disturbed biology experiment. The fruit was always eaten raw yearly, by those prisoners inventive enough to get to it first.

            Since the food packets were dropped from high altitude, they were scattered all over the Box, so to get your share became free entertainment for the prisoner community.  It turned out to be a free-form fight through the mazes.  After a while, it became predictable with the regulars. Everyone knew who could beat who, and as long as the weaker dropped the proper amount of packs in front of the stronger, the weaker survived.  Chan was the one of the stronger; the only one he dared not face was an old TI corporal – not because he was tougher, but because he didn’t play by the rules.  He was a berserker, and by prison protocol, you left the crazies alone, because you never knew what they’d do next.

            Though on occasion, like today with the mage with the shaggy hair in front of him, you’d get fresh fish, new prisoners who didn’t understand the game, and fought to the death.  Shaggy fired a lightning bolt at him as he turned a corner, luckily he flipped back before impact, leaving a nice char mark on the ground.  “Back off, ju tou!” he barked around the corner, shifting into gabbro form.

            “Give me all ya got, chuin-zi, or I’ll turn your fur to silver!”

            Habor extended his claws and climbed the sides of the walls, find the higher ground to attack from.  A deeper voice returned the insult.  “Ni shi bai chi!  Just ’cause you’re a mage, don’t make you top sch here!”

            “Why don’t you step out and we’ll see!”
            Gods, Chan thought, what an idiot. Broadcast your location for everyone to know where the fresh fish was. He won’t live long.

            “Hey, fur ball, why don’t I give you a quick bath!” Shaggy threw a ball of water that splashed over the char mark.

            Meanwhile, Lee had gotten to the top of the wall.  He saw that new mage just standing there, waiting for Chan to step out to face him.  One jump, Habor knew, would end it.  Then he heard the thunder in the sky; it only meant one thing: incoming shuttle.

            The supply shuttle was predictable as the Middle Kingdom itself; it only came once a week and never landed, just dropped off the packs from a hundred meters in the air.  To have another one meant a new prisoner was being dropped off.  As amusing as this psychotic mage was, he found the shuttle much more amusing; besides, he wasn’t in the mood to kill idiots.

            Habor ran across the tops of the walls, noticing other prisoners doing the same.  He noticed them, kept his distance, and kept running towards the sound.  Soon enough, Chan found a safe place to crouch and watch the incoming shuttle, hidden between some rubble of one of the old guard towers and an overactive vine.  The spacecraft made its appearance, punching through the thick cloud cover of the early morning hours.  Yeah, it looks like the government shuttle, Lee mentally nodded, and continued to watch it through his one eye.  Instead of hovering over the rocks of sharp rubble that used to be the warden’s house, it actually moved towards the landing pad.

            The disgraced prince stayed still, restraining the urge to rush after the shuttle.  No one landed here, his mind screamed, and those who did ended up dead or prisoners themselves. Chan knew he had to watch; see what happened.

            As soon as it landed, the expected prisoners raced towards it, hoping to overwhelm the guards and take over before the fools knew what happened to them.  However, the shuttle was prepared, opening him its chemical lasers, spraying the would-be attackers with plasma fire.  The prisoners died in agony but more soon followed, trying to inch their way through the rubble in order to reach the door.  Lee knew it didn’t matter; desperate men would eventually overcome that ship’s defenses.  Then he heard the sound.

            It was high-pitched, beyond what normal humans could hear, but to Habor’s ears, it was music to his soul.  The sound was the song of his clan; my clan has come to take me home!  Lee broke from his hiding spot and answered with the refrain.  Chan knew it was foolish to expose himself, but this was his chance to go home!

            The prince immediately had to run.  Lightning bolts and fireballs immediately descended on his former location, blowing it to atoms.  Already, desperate prisoners made their way up the walls towards him.  Chan shifted into crinos form and kept running, puffing as his continued to sing, hoping that shuttle would see where the sound was coming from.

            Soon the Box was alight with arcane fire and Lee decided it was time to make a run for the shuttle.  He jumped down three stories to the ground below, rolled with the fall, and kept running, trying not to notice the menacing shapes that were converging on all sides.  The shuttle’s cannon turret turned towards him and fired.  Chan closed his eyes for a second, and when they were opened again, the plasma was firing to each side of him, slaughtering those who would destroy him.  They do recognize me!  His heart fluttered with excitement and he came closer to the shuttle door.  Sure enough, it opened, and Lee barreled inside.  As soon as he was in, they closed the door, and the prince could feel the buzzing of the floor plates and the whirr of liftoff.  He was so elated as he knew he was finally leaving G2.  He shifted back to human form and finally noticed the smiling faces of his clan, garou who had come all the way from R34, cheering around him.

            Crescent Moon, his blood brother, stepped forward and lifted him off the deck. “Welcome back to the living, Habor.”

            “I don’t understand. How did you find me?”

            “They broadcast it all over the Kingdom. ‘Criminal prince sent to G2.’ You made the headlines; hell, you bumped down Volkskrieg Overdrive’s lip-synching scandal!”

            “Well, that’s a relief.” Lee laughed… and laughed, as it had been the first time he felt like laughing in… a month? A year? Chan didn’t know how long he had been on that hellhole.  Soon, his clan was laughing with him, howling with delight, and embracing him in their arms.  When they finally settled down, Lee turned back to his brother and asked, “Wait a minute, how did you leave R34 in the first place?”

            “We got there somehow, Habor,” Crescent Moon laughed, “and we hid the ships we traveled in.  Luckily, Night Fang somehow fixed the damn things, and we made our way back to normal space.  I asked for 12 volunteers and got them easily.  Then we hijacked the spare government shuttle, that luckily had the right codes and engine, and got you out.”

            “Wait… wait…” Lee was suspicious; they smelled like his clan, but the facts didn’t work out. “You don’t watch the news, how did you know I needed help?”
            “Your songs.”

            “My songs?”

            “You sang to the clan every day, we heard it in our dreams.”

            “You heard my songs? In your dreams?!”

            “The umbra knows no bounds of hyperspace or planet, brother.  We were tortured by your loneliness and had to release you.”

            Habor sighed and nodded his head. “I’m grateful. Grateful beyond all measure.”

            “So you should!  We risked our hides for you, fur ball!” Crescent Moon said, laughter dancing in his eyes. “So will you come home with us and dance the victory cant with us?”

            “I wish I could, my friend, but…”

            “Don’t say it. The heart-hunger still burns within you, yes?”

            Lee nodded.

            “I understand.  Remember that you always have a home, young pup, and we want you there.”  Moon shook his hair for a moment and then sighed. “Where do you want to go, Habor?”
            “Wilke’s Star.”


* * *


Deep in the luxurious casino serving as yakuza-Tanzhi’s headquarters, Toku Tanzhi, oyabun of Yakuza-Tanzhi, stood alone in his office, staring at the electronic maps amid a mountain of paperwork on his desk.  Green operations were running smoothly.  Yellow were feeling heat from the police.  Red were under active attack from the government and rival families.  Black operations had collapsed.  Far too many lights were changing from green to yellow to red, then going out completely.  Some of the foothold planets were completely dark.

            Production facilities had been seized, smuggling rings broken, distributor gangs arrested and jailed.  The civil police had closed down casinos and brothels for one excuse or another.  Below the police radar, rival families sensed Tanzhi weakness and swept down like vultures.  His kobun fought fierce but quiet battles in dark alleys and forgotten slums… but all too often, his soldiers had lost.  It was all happening so fast.  The police were clearly gunning for the Tanzhi, suddenly and completely.  But why?

            The oyabun sighed and sipped his tea.  The dignified old man looked a bit like his empire.  His appearance was growing worn around the edges.  His eyes were dark from too many hours of lost sleep.  He needed a shave and was overdue for a haircut.  His expensive silk business suit was wrinkled and his tie sported a tea stain.

            The old man sat down and rubbed his eyes.  He attributed the sudden reversal of his family’s fortunes to losing the patronage of the Earl of New Tokyo.  That made the most sense.  Certainly the pressure had started after the fiasco with Cho Yamazaki and Lord Dai.  Yet, somehow, that didn’t seem to fit.  The attack was so sudden, so fierce, so total, that it had to have been planned beforehand.  And the actions of the police, courts, and rival yakuza clans played out so quickly and smoothly that it had to be organized and coordinated.  And not by the Earl—this kind of power and reach required someone much higher up.  Instinct from years of running the yakuza told Toku that there was something larger at work here… he just couldn’t quite see it.  Toku set down his teacup, picked up his stylus, and went back to work, shifting men and cargo and money.  He reached out and changed a district in Tatsumori from red to black… an entire gashira killed in a shootout, including Gang Hirake.  He was a moron, to be sure, but also one of Toku’s very few wu jen.

            There was a knock at his office door.  “I do not wish to be disturbed,” Toku called out.

            The door opened anyway and Zhou Tanzhi, Toku’s wakagashira, stepped in.  “Hung Luong is here.  He wants to speak with you.  He says it’s important.”

            “You talk to him,” Toku said, “brief me later.  I’m busy right now.”

            “He’s very insistent, oyabun, and… if what he says is true…”  Zhou narrowed his eyes.  “I really think you should see him, sai… it could be important…”

            “Oh, very well,” the oyabun said with the slightest trace of irritation.  “He has five minutes.”

Zhou bowed and stepped out.  Toku returned to his work.  He heard the door open and close.  He didn’t even look up.  He had work to do.  “I expect this issue to be as critical as you insist, M. Luong,” he said sternly, finally looking up from his paper work, “for I am extremely busy and I…”  His voice trailed away when he saw the enormous man.  He blinked.  He had seen much during a lifetime in the yakuza, but this sight—Hung’s red, blistered face, the hair and eyebrows burned away—was a new one.

“M. Luong…” he said, standing.  “What happened?”

“Kiyocho Yamazaki, oyabun.”  Hung slowly bowed a full ninety degrees.

Toku’s face twitched.  “Cho.  That woman…” he muttered.  “Did she attack you?”

“Not ’zactly, sai,” Hung said, slurring his words slightly.  “She tried ta… recruit me.”

“Did she indeed?”  Toku raised an eyebrow a millimeter.  He regarded Hung silently for a moment, not sure if he should believe him.  Toku was slightly suspicious of Hung’s slurred words and slow movement.  Toku sniffed the air discretely, but strangely did not detect the tang of alcohol in the room.  “Hung Luong,” he said sternly, just to make sure, “have you been drinking?”

“No, sai!” Hung said, then looked down, embarrassed.  “I’ve… I been injected with Quellersh.  Twice.”

Toku’s eyes widened slightly.  This conversation was growing more interesting with every second.  He had apparently underestimated Cho’s resourcefulness.  “So M. Yamazaki tried to recruit you,” he repeated.  “How… interesting.  I presume you refused?”

Hung looked up and blinked, looking genuinely offended.  “A course!” he exclaimed.

“And when you declined her invitation,” Toku said, “that is when she attacked you?”

“Actually, I attacked her, shai,” Hung corrected him, still slurring.  “We’re ta capture her if we find her… sho I did.”

“I see,” Toku said.  “So…”  He spread his hands.  “Where is she now?  Occupying one of our cells downstairs?”

“No, oyabun.”  Hung looked down.  “I tried, but… I failed.”

“I see,” Toku said quietly.  “Then… M. Yamazaki is still at large… yes?”

Silently, Hung reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a small box, wrapped in bright rice paper and bound in silk ribbons.  He placed it on the oyabun’s desk and bowed.  “A token of apology fer my failure, oyabun.

Toku allowed the silence to linger in the air.  He did not open the gift.  A quick glance at the little finger on Hung’s left hand, bandaged and noticeably shorter, told him exactly what was inside.  Given Hung’s current incapacitated state, it was bound to be a sloppy job, too.

He stared at Hung for a moment, then nodded once.  “I accept your gift,” the oyabun said at last, sweeping the gift box from the desk into a drawer with a smooth, discrete gesture.  “Your loyalty and obedience will not be forgotten.  Now,” he said, gesturing for Hung to sit as he rang a little bell on his desk, “tell me about M. Yamazaki’s recruitment efforts.  It’s not what I would expect from her.  Frankly, I’m surprised to find she’s still on New Tokyo.”

“In Oshaka City, sai.”  Hung nodded slowly.  “Less than an hour ago.”

“And what, exactly, was she hoping to achieve through your assistance?” he asked as a young kimono-clad girl entered the office carrying a tea tray.

“Muscle,” Hung answered.  “She’s ’specting trouble with yakuza-gaijin.  Wants help.”

Toku looked up sharply.  “That would not be a prudent action,” he said firmly.  It was a mild enough statement, but his old body tensed.  “The Tanzhi currently have sufficient difficulties without inviting undue aggression from another family.”

“But…” Hung said, confused.  “Cho’sh been disowned by the Tanzhi, sai.  She’sh on her own now.”

“Perhaps yakuza-gaijin will understand that, perhaps not,” Toku said as the girl handed him a steaming cup of tea.  “In any case, it is not a risk I wish to take at this time.  She must be apprehended before she can cause further chaos.”

Hung clumsily accepted a teacup from the pretty young girl, then shifted uncomfortably in his seat.  He scowled and moved his lips wordlessly, as if trying to collect his confused thoughts.  “May I… speak freely, oyabun?” he asked.  Toku nodded curtly.  “Yakuza-gaijin’sh already moved against us, sai,” Hung said slowly, each word clearly an effort of concentration.  “Cho’sh actions won’ make much difference now.”

“Competition over markets and resources are to be expected in our profession, M. Luong,” the oyabun explained.  “Right now, it is just business, nothing more.  But M. Yamazaki is a loose cannon.  Her actions could turn the conflict personal and instigate a clan feud at a time when the Tanzhi can least afford to conduct one.  No, M. Luong, she must be stopped.  Quickly.”

Hung looked far from convinced, but blinked his eyes blearily and nodded obediently.

“Now tell me, M. Luong,” Toku said, sipping his tea.  “Why is M. Yamazaki so insistent on confronting yakuza-gaijin?  What does she hope to gain by such suicidal efforts?”

“Clearing her name, sai,” Hung answered slowly.  “She thinks she’sh been framed by, uh… yakuza-gaijin and, umm… Earl of—”

“Yes, I’ve heard her story before,” Toku cut him off, “although I wasn’t sure if even she believed it.”

“She does,” Hung nodded.  “Says she’sh convinced some others, too.”

“Others?”  The oyabun looked up with mild interest.  “Who, exactly?”

“Well, didn’t say, but Usha ’n Nhut are definitely helpin’ her... and, uh…”  Hung scowled down again, confused.  He absently swept a hand over his scalp, running fingers through hair that was no longer there.  “An’… possibly Yoko, too.”

The oyabun contemplated his teacup silently.  Usha Venkatramani, Nhut Moon, and Yoko Tanzhi… nearly all his surviving wu jen… problematic...  “Do you think it’s true?”

“Well, Nhut ’n Usha are.”  Hung shrugged.  “They both joined th’ fight atta last minute.  Tha’s why I failed.”


“Well…”  Hung scowled again, concentrating.  “Cho reached me by a phone call I couldn’ trace.  An’ her voice was all fuzzy… y’know, ’lectronically or somethin’?  Tha’s why I didn’ realize it was Cho at first.  Anyway…”  Hung looked up at the oyabun and shook his head.  “Trust me, Cho don’t know how ta do that.  An’ the only person I can think of who Cho knows an’ could get ta help with all that… is Yoko.”

Toku sipped his teacup and was silent, thinking.  He didn’t know where any of Cho’s former apprentices were.  He’d been too preoccupied with more pressing matters to keep track of where each of his thousands of shatei were at any given moment.  And he had given each of his wu jen fresh orders just a few days ago—could Cho really have moved that fast?  “It is indeed possible she recruited M. Venkatramani,” Toku said at last, swirling his cup and staring at the pale tea.  “It wouldn’t take much to convince her to betray the Tanzhi.  She was rather… disappointed… by her reassignment to the Hello Kitty Club.  And Nhut Moon is a simply a fool.  But Yoko, my own grandniece… to say the least, I would be surprised to find she chose to betray her family.  Still, it is something I must investigate.”  He sipped his tea and looked up at Hung.  “As you can imagine, M. Luong, hunting down a lone rouge traitor is low on my list of priorities at the moment.  However, as M. Yamakzaki seems intent on causing us even more trouble… and if bringing the Earl her head will alleviate our concerns even marginally… then perhaps it is worth committing some resources to.”  Toku finished off his tea.

“I agree, sai,” Hung said.  “An’ I know th’ perfect man fer the job.”

Toku cocked an eyebrow.  “Do you?”

“Hai, oyabun.”  Hung nodded.  “Me.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, sai.“  Hung nodded eagerly.  Any Queller-induced confusion was gone now.  Hung looked at Toku focused, determined.  “I am ninja.  I am wu jen.  I know Cho ’n her students.  I know their magic.  I know what she wants and what she’ll do ta get it.  I’m the best man fer the job.”

“All excellent qualifications,” Toku nodded slowly, “and all very impersonal, of course.  I can’t help but wonder, however, if a private vendetta plays any role in your enthusiastic volunteerism?”

For a moment, Hung was silent, looking at him.  “I wish to save face, yes,” he nodded.

“And you don’t think that would make you…”  Toku searched for the right words.  “Lose objectivity?”

Hung shrugged.  “I am ninja.

The oyabun regarded him in silence for several seconds, eyes narrowed, considering.  He lifted his cup in the air almost absently.  Instantly the girl poured him a fresh cup of tea.

“Unfortunately, some your assets in this mission are also liabilities.  You know Cho, yes, but she also knows you.  You’re strategies, your weaknesses…”  He paused to sip his steaming cup.  “How do I know, for example, that she will not persuade you to join her?  That you are not already assisting her?”

Hung’s eyes went round.  A look of shock and then anger crossed his face.  He opened his mouth… then closed it again wordlessly.  He struggled to his feet and bowed.

“I will accept yer decision, sai, a course,” Hung said.  He fell back into his chair, making an exaggerated show of folding his hands in his lap, displaying his bandaged finger.  “But I think I’ve already shown where my loyalty lies.”

The oyabun was stone-faced for a moment.  Then he flashed Hung one of his rare, thin smiles.  “Indeed you have, M. Luong, indeed you have.  And you are right, of course.  You are the obvious candidate for this assignment.”  He sipped his tea.  “I’m promoting you to shateigashira, M. Luong.  Select a team of shatei.  I’ll have the Tetsubo reassigned to you and prepared for launch.  You are to find M. Yamazaki and bring her to me, preferably alive, but… well, as long as her irezumi is intact, I’m not particular.”  He sipped his tea.  “I suspect she will be heading for the Teppodama,” Toku continued.  “I can’t think of why else she would require Usha’s assistance.  Start your search there.”

Hai, oyabun.”  Hung stood and bowed.  “En katame itto on waga zinghi.”

            I swear it on my honor.


Yoko gasped as Cho staggered into the dojo, blood dripping from a shattered nose, looking like death warmed over, gone cold, and reheated.  Nhut limped in behind her.  He didn’t look much better.  Usha alone looked drenched but unharmed.

“Buddha, Cho!” Yoko said.  “What happened?  Where’s Hung?”

“He ain’t coming!” Cho snapped angrily, yanking her pipe and dust from a pocket.

“You might say he refused,” Nhut added, collapsing into a bean bag.  “Enthusiastically.”

“Muscle versus magic,” Cho said, packing her pipe.  “Muscle won.”

“Well, I guess we know who the traitor is,” Usha muttered.

“Yeah, no kiddin’,” Nhut agreed.

“I shouldn’t have wasted time on him,” Cho said.  She paused to light and puff the pipe with the quick mechanical movements of a junkie.  “As soon as he reports to the oyabun, the heat’s gonna turn up.  You guys got five minutes to pack.  We gotta move—now!” Cho snapped at her at students.  She paused to take another long, deep drag off the pipe, then scooped up a knapsack and began packing, cramming clothes, money, and weapons unceremoniously into the bag, pausing occasionally to puff her pipe.  She wrapped the Queller vials in an old shirt, then began limping painfully around her dojo grabbing spell components—candles, crystals, herbs, firecrackers, everything she’d need for big spells cast on the fly.  She paused, considering, and then took the sunglasses she found next to her hospital bed and shoved them in the bag.  Every movement hurt her beaten body, but the dust was beginning to work its magic.  Soon she would be beyond pain.

“Where are we going, Cho?” Yoko asked nervously, packing her mobile computer and strapping gear onto her absurd improvised webbing.

“Where do you think, gaujo?!” Cho snapped, shoving several cartons of Nirvana Marijuana cigarettes into her knapsack.  “The Teppodama!”  Cho tossed the duffel down against the wall, dropped to her knees, unlocked a metal footlocker, and reached into the pile of tarnished metal guns.

“Nhut!” Cho called, tossing him a gun.  “You and I secure the ship.  Don’t kill anyone or we’re out of the Tanzhi for good.  Yakuza don’t kill their kumi.  Yoko!”

“Wait a minute!” Usha cut her off as she grabbed the gun from Nhut and examined it.  “Slugthrowers?!  What kinda rounds you got in these?”

“Bullets, dumbass,” Cho snapped.  “What else?”

“Plain old lead?  Dum-dums?”

“Hell no!” Cho said.  “Armor-piercing!  Cops wear armor, gaujo!”

“We can’t use these.”  Usha shook her head.

Cho slammed her gun down.  “Dammit, Usha!” Cho yelled.  “This is my crew, and if I say—”

“They’ll puncture the ship’s hull!” Usha shouted.  “We lose pressure, air escapes, everyone dies!”

Cho glared at her, panting, but said nothing.  Damn… she’s got a point.  “Alright then, General,” Cho sneered, “what can we use?”

“Got any lasers?  Plasma weapons?  Flamers?  My gun’s a plasma, if that helps.”

Cho stared into her trunk of guns and shrugged helplessly.  Her only good laser had been lost in the battle with Hung.  She did have others—optical lasers were silent and invisible, good assassin weapons, and electrolasers had that nice knockout setting.  But she didn’t have any flamers or plasma guns—slugthrowers did the job just as well, and were a whole hell of a lot cheaper.  And her remaining lasers, like all black market military contraband in an empire where side arms were banned for private citizens, were old and obsolete junk, stolen from munitions dumps and refurbished.  She didn’t know if any of them were reliable.  They might blow up in your face—if they worked at all.

“I… got some lasers…”  Cho reached in, picked out the least tarnished gun, and flung it at Nhut.  She picked out another and tossed it to Yoko, who promptly fumbled and dropped it.  “Yoko!  You and Usha get to the bridge, kill the comlink, and get us out of the system as fast as you can!”  Cho grabbed the last, badly tarnished laser pistol and shoved it into her own pocket.  She wasn’t even sure it worked.  Battery might be dead…

“Uh… Cho?” Yoko began.  ”I’m…uh… fighting’s not really my strong suit."  She threw a frightened look at Cho.

“Aw, hell, fighting’s easy!”  Cho waved dismissively at her, taking another deep drag of her pipe.  “Just shoot anything that moves.  Usha!”  She looked up.  “You used to captain that boat.  How many people are onboard when it’s docked?”

“Up to four,” Usha replied, checking the power cell in her pistol.  “It’s not just the crew’s job, Cho, it’s their home.  Unless they’re all on shore leave, assume at least two.”

“Not good.”  Cho shook her head.  She took another drag off the pipe, inhaling the thin smoke as the pipe burned empty.  She threw a disappointed glance into the bowl.  “Cached,” she muttered, and shoved the pipe into her pocket.

“Look, Cho,” Nhut said hesitantly, looking over his weapon.  ”We’re never gonna get past spaceport security with these guns—I mean, you realize that, right?”

“We’re not going through the spaceport.”  Cho shook her head, staggering around the room, lighting candles and incense.

“We’re not?” Yoko asked, surprised.  “Then… how are we…”

“Are you a wu jen or a wus?” Cho snapped at her angrily.

Yoko and Usha looked puzzled, but Nhut caught on instantly.  “Buddha!” he swore, his eyes growing wide.  “What… how… which spell?” he sputtered.

“Terepo-to,” Cho grunted.

“Teleportation?”  Usha yelled.  “Are you insane?!”

“Got a better idea?” Cho snapped, pulling out homemade ink, a brush, and rice paper.

“Yeah, at least a dozen!” Usha retorted hotly.  “We’re talking thousands of miles, Cho!  Mess up just a bit, and we’re sucking vacuum!  If we don’t jump into a bulkhead, that is!”

“Haven’t got time for anything else,” muttered Cho, dipping her calligraphy brush in squid ink mixed with moth wings and dried, crushed cherry blossoms.

“Cho, this is suicide!”

Cho turned on her, suddenly furious.  “And what’s the alternative, huh?”  She stabbed the brush in Usha’s direction.  “The longer we wait, the more guards they stick on that ship!  They probably got some there already!  Do you want the yakuza to catch us?!” she demanded.  “If they don’t kill you, they’ll send you back to that street corner!  That what you want?!”

Usha glared at her in silent fury, but her answer was obvious.  “You know I don’t.”

“Then shut up, follow my orders, and trust me!  I can do this!” Cho snapped.  She returned to the rice paper, painting Chinese characters across it in sloppy, rushed calligraphy while Usha seethed silently.  “Besides,” Cho said, calming a bit, “this’ll only work if you think it can!”


“You’re our link to the Teppodama, dumbass!” Cho said, exasperated.  “I’ve been there once or twice.  Nhut an’ Yoko have never been there!  But you lived on that boat for two years—no one here has a better connection to it than you!”

Usha blinked, and her expression changed completely.

“You think you can focus enough to get us there on target?” Cho demanded.

“I… don’t know,” Usha said, clearly unprepared for this sudden responsibility.

“You’d better,” Cho said, “or we’re all dead”.  Silence dominated the small room.  Finished with the rice paper, Cho let the ink dry while she limped around the room, kicking trash and furniture out of the way, revealing a stained rug with the fire kanji symbol woven into it.

“Where do you want us to jump in?” Usha asked.  “The cargo hold?  There’s lots of room there… assuming it’s empty.”

“Naw, too far from the crew,” Cho answered, placing candles in a circle around the rug.  “We gotta surprise ’em and take ’em all out fast… if they lock us down in the cargo hold, it’s over.”

“What, can’t we just, y’know, teleport past the door?” Yoko asked timidly.

Cho winced.  Thankfully, hunched over the candles, none of her students saw.  Even with every last ounce of magical whoopass she had, Cho wasn’t sure if this would work.  She’d never attempted a spell this big before… but she couldn’t tell her students that.

“It’s a big spell, Yoko,” she said at last.  “I can only do it if I got all this ritual crap with me,” she waved a hand at the rug and candles.  “We got one shot at this.  Get there, take them out, take the ship, get out-system.  Fast.”

“Well, the cockpit’s way too small,” Usha said, scowling.  “We’ll jump into the walls!”

“Crew probably wouldn’t be there anyway,” Nhut added, looking a little pale himself.  “Not if the ship’s in dock.”

“Then… crew room, maybe?” Usha said.  “It’s big enough—barely—and if the crew’s on the ship, that’s where they’ll be.”

“And if the yakuza’s got shatei waiting for us, they’ll probably be there too,” Nhut added.

“Crowded,” Usha said doubtfully, slowly shaking her head.

“It’ll do,” Cho said gruffly as she carefully measured a little charcoal into a bronze brazier.  Gotta get this just right… hot enough to burn, but not too fast...  Cho and placed it over the kanji fire symbol on the rug.  “Muri,” she said with a snap of her fingers, and a tongue of flame burst from her thumb.  She dipped it into the brazier and the coals lit instantly.  Cho stared into the bowl, concentrating, and the coals burned down to red embers unnaturally fast.  Nodding and grunting in satisfaction, Cho stood, turned back to the table, scooped up the calligraphy paper and yanked the photo of the Teppodama off the wall.  She crossed the room, flung her duffel over one shoulder, and then scooped up her dust-covered emergency duffel stuffed full of spell components and shrugged it onto her other shoulder.  She turned back to her students.  “It’s time,” Cho said, “C’mon make a circle on the rug.”

The master and her students gathered around the coals.  Cho set the picture and rice paper over the brazier, and watched the smoke flow around it.  She nodded, then pulled out her pipe and poured the last of her dust into the bowl.  It was time for her personal sorcery ritual: the Passing of the Pipe.  With a snap of her fingers and a flare from her thumb, Cho dipped the flame into the fresh bowl, closed her eyes, and inhaled the thick yellow smoke.  The red glow of the burning powder illuminated her scarred face as she took a long, deep drag, then breathed out as a grin slowly swept across her features.  She slowly opened her glazed eyes—and saw the looks on her kobun’s faces.


Cho’s students exchanged uncomfortable glances.

“Uh…” Nhut began, “haven’t you already had… uh… a lot?”

“Nah, I’m nowhere near an overdose.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Do you really need that much?” Usha asked bluntly.

Cho looked extremely annoyed.  “Dammit, Usha, we’ve been over this before!” Cho said irritably.  “I need the dust.  It helps me work the funky mojo.  The bigger the spell, the stronger the high.  That’s just how it works.  You know that.”  And if I’m gonna pull this spell off, Cho thought, I need the biggest high I can get!  “Besides,” she said, passing the pipe to Nhut, “this ain’t just for me!”  Nhut hesitated, then took a small puff and passed it to Usha, who passed it untouched to Yoko, who, after hesitating, passed it untouched to Cho.

Cho stared at them.  Resentful anger flared in her chest.  “Fine!” Cho sneered at them.  “You bitches too chickenshit to smoke a little dust, it’s just more for me!”  She stuck the pipe defiantly in her mouth and heaved another drag.  “C’mon, if you turds wanna live, then repeat after me… zhei doa qui…”

Cho closed her eyes as her students began to chant the mystic words.  She felt another wave of drug-induced ecstasy surge through her body.  Oh yeah, baby… I can do this…  The thought filled her like a revelation.  Of course she could.  Why had she ever doubted herself?

Cho stared into the brazier, puffing absently on her pipe.  The rice paper began to brown in the center as the smoke rose and the flames danced in the dim candlelight.  She heard the power in the ancient words her students chanted—she could almost feel that power… zhei doa qui…


She was Cho Yamazaki of Yakuza-Tanzhi.  She was master wu jen.  There was nothing she couldn’t do.


The Teppodama wasn’t really that far away… not in the cosmic sense…


She would cross the distance in a single step, taking her faithful servants with her, and they would crush all who opposed them.

The rice paper in the brazier smoked and curled…


Vaguely, Cho realized she was shoving that wonderful pipe into her pocket—must be cashed—as another ripple of bliss and power coursed through her.  Cho linked hands with her kobun at her side, feeling the strength of their chi and the unity of their thoughts.  Power washed over her.  The Teppodama…

Usha’s thoughts drifted into her own… the crew quarters of the ship… she could almost see it!  As Cho stared into the flames, the rice paper began to burn at the center, then at the edges as the firelight grew—brighter, harder—and suddenly Cho was staring into the bright, whitewashed walls of the crew room.

Her students chanted.  The dust flooded her.  The flame grew.  The Teppodama hardened into reality.

The fire touched the wet, infused ink of the Chinese characters.  A flash of violet flames burst out of the brazier.  The fluorescent walls of the crew room shined clear through the flames…


As one, they took a step forward into the flame, and the smoke melted into stale air.


* * *


James didn’t know what time it was.  Odd that he should think of that first, considering he also didn’t know where he was or what he was doing there, the time seemed like it should be the least of his worries.  But nevertheless, it was the time that bothered him.

Some people had the ability to judge the passage of time without a watch.  James couldn’t, whether he’d been here for a few minutes or a few hours was a mystery.  He didn’t think that he’d been here for more than a day, but he couldn’t be positive of that feeling either.  He supposed he’d been asleep for a while, since he could distinctly recall waking up here, but how long he’d been out was even less of a certainty.  Realizing that he was getting nowhere, James put the thoughts out of his mind, which took considerable effort.

“Here” was a cell.  Or at least James assumed it was a cell, he supposed it could be any small, bare room; and it was definitely being used to confine and contain him, so “cell” was as good a word as any.  The cell was made of metal, about four by three meters in area with a low ceiling.  There was a foam and plastic mat in one corner that James was painfully aware he had not been sleeping on before he woke up.  Along one of the walls was a bowl-and-drain fixture that James assumed was a toilet and had been using as such.  The cell was unlit and he’d found no way to turn on any lights.

He was thirsty, but his hunger wasn’t too great, which he also took to mean that he hadn’t been here for too long, though thinking about this made him wish for food more.  As far as he’d been able to discover, there was no way for him to obtain food or water.

The “door” to the cell was located on the opposite wall from his toilet, he thought it was a door because of the rectangular indention into the wall, where a door would presumably slide away; it was wide enough to allow two people to fit easily through the hypothetical opening.

They had taken his clothes.  He was dressed in a slightly too small pair of boxer shorts and a thin cotton shirt, neither his own.  Without shoes his feet became cold quickly.  James stopped the pacing he’d been doing and returned to the less-than-adequate mat to curl up.


After shooting the Page, the spy from the Senatorial Police, the Horadrim had arrested James and his entire crew.  He remembered being clubbed by one of the humanoid soldiers.  James reached to his head, there was no sign of a bruise, so he’d either been unconscious for a long time, or they’d put him in an autodoc.

After they’d been marched into the strange interior of the Horadrim shuttle, the transport had unclamped from the Resolve and jetted toward the big destroyer it came from.  During the flight, James had stared in horror as he watched energy beams from the Destroyer lance out and cut his already derelict ship to shreds.


…and then he was here.  The cell didn’t seem like the strange semi-biological surfaces of a Horadrim vessel.  He figured that the Horadrim, not wanting to deal with a conscious human cargo had simply drugged him and the others until they could be transferred to a Middle Kingdom transport.  He couldn’t be sure, but cell just didn’t feel like a ground-based chamber either, so James guessed that he was still on a human-made prison ship.

Maybe they were taking him to G2.  He’d been threatened with such a fate several times in his life, but had never taken the suggestions seriously.  Now, he thought he was going to be sick to his stomach.

He wondered what happened to the rest of the people on the Resolve.  They’d all been on the shuttle, but were they still with him?  Was Major Shrak in a similar cell right on the other side of one of these walls?  James tried pounding on the metal, but the act only produced a dull thud, the walls were thicker than he’d thought.

            Concluding that he didn’t know anything, and wasn’t about to figure anything out either, James tucked his chin to his knees and tried to sleep.


            The door shot open, and light flooded the small chamber.  James’s eyes were dazzled and he shut them tightly against the brightness.  Fighting the pain, James forced his eyelids open slightly to find out what was happening.  He couldn’t see anything beyond the threshold, but a shadow was standing in the center of the doorway, James presumed it was a person.

            “M. Welthammer, are you enjoying your trip?”

            James had heard the voice before, but he couldn’t place it.

            The shadow pulled a stool from somewhere outside the door and sat down.  “Quite a coincidence that we should meet again like this, don’t you think?  You seem more subdued than last time, however.”

            The spots finally cleared from James’s vision and he could see the man sitting in front of him.  The black-haired man was horribly thin and pale.  He smirked at James’s recognition.

            James unrolled himself.  “Oh, greetings Major.  I don’t believe I got your name during our previous conversation.”

            “You may address me as Major Deveraux.”

            “Of course.  And where is your lovely assistant today?”

            “Major Shon is currently arranging your final transfer planetside.”

            James stood up.  “I see.  Well, it was a pleasure making your acquaintance Major, but if you’ll excuse me, I need to be going.”  James walked for the still open door.

            “M. Welthammer, I do not believe you want to give me the pleasure of tearing you limb from limb.”

            James made a swift about-face, “I bet it’s boring out there anyway.”  Instead he walked to what had become visibly a toilet and urinated.

            Deveraux seemed unfazed when James turned to face him again.

            James frowned, and realized he was being forced to make the first move, “Yes, Major?”

            The vampire Imp smiled, he produced a datapad from his robes, “Did you know, M. Welthammer, that in the space of two weeks, the list of offenses on your criminal record has more than doubled?”

            “I wasn’t aware that I had committed any offenses.”

            Deveraux snorted, “Oh yes, you’re quite a hot item in law enforcement these days.  Let’s see: theft of Middle Kingdom property, resisting arrest, smuggling, resisting arrest again, murder, grand theft of an Imperial Security spacecraft, treason,” the Imp looked up at James for a moment, “tsk tsk, M. Welthammer.  Another count of resisting arrest, attempted murder—“

            “Attempted murder?”  James interrupted.

            Deveraux ignored him, “—transporting a wanted criminal, trespassing, leaving Middle Kingdom space as a fugitive, espionage, treason again, and a final count of resisting arrest.”

            The Imp put the datapad away.  “Quite a development in your file, if I do say so.”

            “All right, I demand a lawyer.”

            “Request denied.  This isn’t an interrogation, and you couldn’t afford a lawyer anyway!”

            “The hell I can’t!  I’ve got—“

            “M. Welhammer, all of your financial assets have been seized and frozen pending the results of your trial.”

            James worked his jaw for a moment before speaking again, “If this isn’t an interrogation then what do you want?”

            “I’m to offer you a final chance.  If you choose to cooperate and help us to locate the so-called ‘resistance’ soldiers you have been aiding for the past two years, we will consider lightening your sentence.”

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

            The Imp stood up abruptly, “I figured as much.  Enjoy the remaining hours of your life M. Welthammer.”  He picked up the stool and walked briskly out of the cell.  The door snapped shut and James was enveloped in darkness again.

            James lay back down, bewildered.  Shrak and the soldiers had been captured by the Horadrim along with everyone else on the Resolve.  What the hell was going on?


            James’s question still hadn’t been answered several days later.  They’d transferred him planetside to a larger, lit, fungicrete cell much like the one he’d occupied on New Madrid.  But now they told him he was only a few kilometers from the Imperial Palace on Wilke’s Star.

            The Lao Ts’e Prison Complex was not a pleasant place to stay.  James was on the seventh floor, the especially nasty ward where the Middle Kingdom housed murderers, rapists, and political activists.  There were rumors about an even worse eighth floor of the prison, and the guards would threaten particularly unruly prisoners with reassignment.  But no one seemed to know what they did to prisoners up there, or what exactly it took to be assigned there.  Everyone except James, that was.  He had counted the floors before they took him inside.  There was no eighth floor.

            Ordinarily, James would have been amused at the psychological weapon the guards used to control their prisoners.  But shortly after his arrival, the guards had actually taken someone to the eighth floor, and he’d never come back.

            His usually bright personality was subdued, it was best not to get noticed around here, you didn’t want to make “friends” with too many of the others.  The three other people in his cell were okay, however.  None of them were too bright, but they weren’t out to kill James either, so he counted himself lucky.  They played cards for the cheap cigarettes the prisoners could get from the scant prison “store”.  It was both this sole source of entertainment and the stress he was under that led James to take up the habit again, it helped him to relax.  And, he told himself, it was only until he got out.

            He’d been in the complex for just over a week when the guards came to take him away.  James stubbed out the last of the previous day’s winnings.

            “Ah, are they finally going to let me use the comm facility?”

            “Prisoner Welthammer, you are to report to the Palace of Justice for your trial.  Come with us.”  The warden addressed him coldly, while a couple of his thugs brandished their electric clubs.

            James stood, “Trial, eh?  Isn’t this few couple years too early for that?”  More than half of the other prisoners in the ward had been awaiting trial for over twelve months.

            The warden didn’t bother to respond, he turned and the pair of ruffians flanked James, leading him out of the cell, and then out of the ward altogether.

            Down an elevator, out of the fungicrete building, and into an armored aircar sitting inside the razor wire surrounding the outdoor complex, the Warden expressed no emotion as the door shut on Welthammer, and he was alone again in the back of the aircar, the partition between his compartment and the driver’s was completely blocked off.

            He felt the aircar hum and lift off; James lay back on the seat and tried to nap.


* * *


            Captain Weathers’ captured Imperial Destroyer entered the Sinkiang system.  A noticeable chill swept through the bridge crew.  Even Captain Weathers felt his heart beat faster as the sensor data poured onto the main tactical display – the sheer number of ships was terrifying.  A full task force of warships guarded the jump gates – most blockading the Chapman’s Folly gates, of course, but there were plenty left to intercept any ship trying to flee.  The overwhelming volume of civilian traffic was also alarming – harmless themselves, but every pair of eyes increased the chances of someone noticing something amiss with their destroyer– and it only took a single shuttle to raise the alarm. 

One thing was clear: if their ruse failed, they wouldn’t be able to fight their way out.

            Port Authority computers quizzed them for identification, itinerary, and flight path.  Communications Officer Aurelius responded with stolen codes and forged data.  Their ship would have been recognized as captured or destroyed, so Weathers had chosen to impersonate another Daikyu-class destroyer that – to the best of their knowledge – was on a long-range, deep-space patrol.  With luck, no one could tell the difference between the two ships.  Thankfully, the Port Authority computers apparently couldn’t, and quickly cleared them for transit.  Weathers relaxed a little. 

Weathers set a course for the communication node, then turned to Jyong, the self-appointed telecommunications specialist responsible for spreading their message across the galaxy.  She was egotistical, bossy, and extremely annoying – but on one doubeted her brilliance.

 “M. Guo?”

“Eh?” the wheelchair-bound “scientist” looked up, peering at him through thick lenses.

“When we tap into the node, what exactly do you need to do? Tell me in layman’s terms.”

“Well, first hack the administrator account,” she said, dropping her datapad and ticking things off on her fingers, “then locate and access the Emergency Broadcast Override protocols, and finally adjust the distribution algorithm to the Middle Kingdom’s telecommunications network.”

If that’s laymen’s terms, David wondered, what qualifies as “technical”?

“And how long do you need for all that?”  Weathers asked.

The scientist just shrugged. “Depends on how good the security is.  As long as it takes.”

That wasn’t what he wanted to hear.  “You sure you can do it this?” he asked doubtfully.

“Of course!” she snapped, offended.  “I’m the best damn network administrator the Middle Kingdom’s they’ve ever seen!  And if ability counted more than blood, I’d be running my own node by now!  But NOOOO, I’m a mandarin cripple, so I’m not even eligible, and –“

“Alright, alright,” Weathers cut her off.  He’d heard that particular rant before – many times.  ”Helm, set a course for the Khymer gate – take us past the communications array.”

As they approached, Aurelius requested permission from the satellite staff to open a secured channel to Wilke’s Star.  The node staff - an actual person this time - asked for their clearance codes.  Aurelius use Beatrix’s code for the Imperial Regulators… and waited.  Weathers held his breath.  If Cynthia had betrayed them, the whole plan would have to be called off… and we might not make it out of here.  After a short pause (which felt like an eternity) the node staff informed them, in a supremely bored voice, that a secure broadcast channel had been opened for them, and made routine inquiries about destination, frequency, and whatnot.  Weathers let Lieutenant Aurelius do the talking – he could speak any Middle Kingdom language flawlessly with no trace of accent - except, oddly, Horadrim, where his British accent leaked through (and David still didn’t know how that was possible).

            “Alright, M. Guo,“ Weathers said to Jyong with a nod, “That’s as far as we can get legitimately.  The rest is up to you.  Be quick.”

            Jyong rolled up to the comm station, clamped her wheelchair to the console, studied the display intently, opened several programs and began to type.  Minutes ticked by in silence.

            The node staff hailed them.  ”No-Dachi, we can tell you’re trying to gain root access.  You’re not authorized for that level of security.  Please explain.”

            Weathers motioned to mute the audio feed.  “What’s your status?” he asked Jyong.

            “Still trying the access the administrator account…” Jyong answered, almost absently.

            Not good.  At all.  He nodded to Aurelius.  “Give them the story.”

            “We’ve got an Imperial Regulator on board,” Aurelius answered in perfect pi-yin, with just the right amount of uninterested irritation.  “She’s claims she’s got a message for Emperor Rao.”

            There was only a slight pause.  “Imperial Regulators aren’t authorized for root access to an imperial communication node,” the node staffed answered.  “Please tell her – respectfully – that she’ll have to use the designated Regulator channel.”

            “We… uh… don’t have authority over Imperial Regulators,” Aurelius answered with a hint of embarrassment.  “I can tell her… but I don’t think she’ll listen…”  Weathers nodded in approval.

            There was a confused silence from the node staff.  “Well, uh, please tell her anyway.”

            Aurelius looked questioningly at the Captain.  Weathers motioned to cut the auto feed.  “Don’t respond.  Let them contact us.”  That bought them a minute or two. 

            “Wha – they’re trying to block me!” Jyong exclaimed.  “You bastards wanna play?  I’ve got a few tricks, too!” she snarled, opening yet more programs as her fingers flew over the keys.

“No-Dachi, you’re still trying to gain root access.  Please use the designated channel.”

“We’ve tried, sir,” Aurelius answered, “The Regulator refuses to.  She says she only takes orders from the Office of Imperial Regulation.”

“Only Port Authority is permitted root access – no exceptions!” the voice said, a bit frustrated, “Tell the Regulator to stop while we contact Imperial Regulation for confirmation.”

            Weathers felt himself tense.  That could easily call their bluff – but it would also take few minutes, which might be all they needed.  “Status?” he asked Jyong.

            “Still trying to access the Emergency Broadcast Override protocols… and they’re not making it easy, either,” Jyong grunted, her voice strained.  “I can’t do much without those…”

            When the node hailed them again a few minutes later, a new voice addressed them – one that carried considerably more authority. “Let me speak to your Captain,” it said.-

            Aurelius glanced at Weathers, who nodded.  Aurelius activated a masking video feed and translation protocols – a false image of an Asian captain would be transmitted, and Weather’s speech would be translated perfectly, but would lack the emotional overtones of natural conversation – and Weathers knew that alone, to a careful observer, might give him away.

            “Imperial Regulation claims Regulator Beatrix, is deceased,” the voice said, “We’ve contacted the local picket.  You’re ordered to power down and prepare to be boarded.”

            “Captain, an Akagi-class cruiser is heading for us!” sensor officer Hargrave called out.

            Weathers motioned to mute the feed.  He opened a channel to his ship’s security staff.  “Give Beatrix a queller injection, put her in her regulator uniform, and get to the bridge NOW!” he barked, then turned his attention back to his inquisitor.

            “This is Captain Chil-sung Hashimoto,” Weathers said, giving the name of the ship’s last legitimate leader, “You say Regulator Beatrix is dead, but I’m staring at her right now.  We did DNA scans when she came onboard – standard security procedure – and them matched!” he said, “So before I detain someone who personally reports to the Emperor… are you sure there hasn’t been an error?” he demanded.  Then – closing his eyes and touching the mind of the node’s commander – he conveyed a subtle but slowly building sense of doubt and uncertainty.

            More silence.  It bought them enough time to drag Beatrix, disoriented and dizzy from the queller injection, to the bridge.  David quickly explained the situation to her, and despite her incapacitated state, she caught on quickly.  She stood and steadied herself with a visible effort.  If she was aware of the security crewman aiming a pistol at her from off-camera, she ignored him.

When Port Authority hailed them next, she managed to answer with all the arrogance and icy disdain of an Imperial Regulator.  “This is Imperial Regulator Cynthia Beatrix,” she snapped in perfect pi-yin, “You are interfering with orders handed down from the Emperor himself!  I advise you to carefully consider the consequences of your actions - and your future career – before continuing with this line of questioning,” she spat.  “Are you sure you want to challenge me?”

            A slight pause.  “I’m sorry, sir,” Port Authority said, respectfully but firm, “but we can’t confirm your claim.  Imperial Regulation reports you as dead.  Unless you can explain…?”

            Weathers noticed – with a twinge of admiration - how Cynthia allows a few seconds of icy silence before speaking.  “What you are about to hear is classified at the highest level.  You are to repeat this to no one.  If you do, Imperial Regulation will deny it and you will be arrested on changes of sedition.  Do you understand?” after a few seconds with no answer, she continued.  “I am on a covert mission for the Emperor.  Of course Imperial Regulation will deny my involvement – for the sake of plausible deniability!” she said, as if explaining something to a child. “Frankly, I’m surprised they admit to have even heard of me!”

            “We… understand that possibility, Regulator,” the node commander responded, his voice strained.  “But even if that’s true… Imperial Regulation isn’t cleared for the security level you’re trying to gain!  We can tell you’re trying to access the Emergency Override sys-“

            “Which should tell you how important this transmission is!” Beatrix growled.  Think about it, you meddling idiot!  I am on a covert mission of national security authorized at the very highest level of our government, and suddenly, unexpectedly, I need to make a galaxy-wide transmission using Emergency Broadcast Override!  You know what that implies!  Can you risk the consequences of stopping me?  Do you want responsibility for that?  Do you dare?!”

            Weathers could feel shock and fear flood the man’s mind, then terrible stress and indecision.  Weathers sent more feelings of doubt.  Finally, the commander spoke.  “We understand, ma’am,” he said, and closed the transmission.  Immediately Cynthia, who had managed to stand straight and still through the exchange, staggered and sank dizzily to the floor. 

            David breathed a sigh of relief – that  had been close.   “What’s you’re status, M. Guo?” 

            “Well, they’re not trying to block me anymore,” she said, not looking up from the screen, “and they’re not going to!  I just locked them out!  Hah!  Let’s see you get past that, you snobby-“

            But the Captain had stopped listening.  He turned his attention to Cynthia, who was pulling herself groggily into a bridge chair.  “You alright?” he asked with a hint of concern.

“These... damn drugs…” she muttered, “please don’t do this to me again, David!”

            Weathers shrugged.  “You gave a pretty good performance just now, despite that.”

            “I… got lucky…” she muttered. 

            “Captain!  That cruiser is hailing us!” Aurelius called out. 

            “Answer it,” Weathers commanded.

            “This is Captain Lam of the IMS Mushashi.  Power down and prepare to be boarded.”

            “This is the IMS No-Dachi,” Aurelius responded, “We’ve been over this, Captain.  We’re on a confidential mission on behalf of Imperial Regulation. The node commander has already-“

            “Your hull number and identification codes match the No-Dachi,” the Captain Lam said in a no-nonsense tone, “but you are not that ship!  The No-Dachi’s was recently caught in a solar flare.  Its sensors were fried.  It was towed back to the Babylon shipyards – it’s still there, we just checked.  You are an imposter.  And if you do not power down now, we will open fire!” 

Stunned, Aurelius looked to the captain for orders.  No one had anticipated this – how could they possibly have known?  This was bad - very bad.  Weathers motioned to mute the feed. 

“Jyong, status!” he barked.

            “Still working on the distribution algorithm,” she answered.

            “How much more time do you need?”

            “As much as you can give me!” she snapped irritably.  David fought back surge of anger. 

            “Let me try, David,” Beatrix said, struggling to her feet.  Weathers nodded to Aurelius, who opened the transmission again.  “Captain, you are endangering a classified Imperial Regulation operation!” she said sternly.  “Has it occurred to you this ship is listed as disabled in dry dock for a reason?  In the name of the Emperor, I orer you to stand down, erase all sensor logs of your encounter with this vessel, and speak of this to no one!  Do I make myself clear?”

            “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I can’t take that risk.  Power down and prepare to be boarded.”

            David reached out and mentally touched the other Captain’s mind – and instantly knew this man would be tough to sway.  His will was strong, he had committed to his course of action, and… God help us… he was awakened.  He had only a touch of magick – but enough to mount a defense.  David felt a sinking sensation in his gut.  The situation was worsening every second.

            “If you interfere with this mission, Captain Lam, there will be consequences!” Beatrix growled.  “I’ll have you busted down to crewman – if you aren’t executed for treason!”

            “I assume full responsibility, Regulator,” Lam shot back.  “We’ll determine if you business is legitimate after you are in custody.  You have ten seconds to power down or we open fire.”

            “Do you have any idea what’s at stake here, Captain?!” Beatrix yelled. 

            “No.  And – let me guess - you’re not going to tell me because it’s confidential, right?”

            “At least let me finish my transmission!” Beatrix cried, “It’s a matter of national security!” 

            “I can’t allow that, ma’am.  You have five seconds.”

            David gestured to mute the feed.  “Jyong, transmit whatever you can and get out NOW!”

            “But –“

            “DO IT!” he barked, then opened the channel again.  “This is Captain Hashimoto, Weathers said, “My security team has detained the Regulator – and we’re closing the connection to the node - but that’s as far as I’m willing to go.  I won’t risk my ship over this - but I can not allow it to be boarded, either.  I have my orders.”

            “You will power down and prepare to be boarded.  This is your final-“

            “Captain, you are about to fire on another Imperial ship!” Weathers said intently.  “I know you think this is suspicious, and frankly I don’t blame you!  But if you fire on us, Imperial property will be destroyed, lives lost on both ships, and crucial information might never reach the Emperor!  Before you give the order to fire, ask yourself this: are you sure we’re rouge?  Are you absolutely, positively sure?”  And then David, just as Beatrix had taught him, sent into it a sudden, focused, overwhelming sense of doubt into Captain Lam’s mind.  He followed these with images –of the No-Dachi exploding, of Captain Lam’s crewmen dead and dying.  Images of Lam in court martial, of reporters flashing cameras at him, of weeping families of civilian ships caught in the crossfire.

            There was only silence from the other end of the comm line.  Lam was thinking about it.

            “We’ve cut our connection to the communication node,” David pressed, so whatever dire threat you thought existed has passed.  The rest we can negotiate.  You have your orders… but I have mine, too - no one is to have access to the Regulator Beatrix and her information except Imperial Regulation or the Emperor himself.  I’m sure we can find a compromise that satisfied us both.  We can leave the system and deliver Beatrix personally to Wilke’s Star, or wait here for clearance from Imperial Regulation – I’m open to suggestions, Captain.”

            Weathers continued to send the feelings and images.  At first there was no response from Captain Lam – then, finally, he spoke.  “Power down your weapons.  We will escort you to Wilke’s Star.  Imperial Regulation can sort it out from there.”  He closed the connection.

            Weathers let out a deep breath, then turned to his tactical officer.  “Power down the weapon systems, Schultz, but as slowly as possible.  Stall until we’re out of the system, if you can, when it’ll just be us and that cruiser.”  He turned to Jyong.  “How far did you get?”

            “Well, we got it out,” Jyong muttered, disappointed, “it’ll spread like a virus for a few days, they simultaneously launch on every system its on using the Emergency Broadcast Override.  They won’t be able to shut it down until the transmission is already over.”

            “So it worked, then?” Weathers asked hopefully.

            “Not completely,” Jyong said glumly.  “I didn’t have time to disguise the distribution path.  It’ll be easy to tell where it originated – especially considering the fuss we caused at the node.  I wouldn’t plan on being able to do this again anytime soon, Captain – not the same way, at least.”

            If we don’t get out of this mess, Weathers thought, that won’t matter.

            There were only two digital gate jumps from Sinkiang to Wilke’s Star – a journey of a few hours.  Their only chance for escape would be when crossing the Jennifer’s Star system, deep in Middle Kingdom territory, while being closely watched by a warship that out-classed and out-gunned them.  David had no idea how he was going to manage that – and time was running out.




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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 really, REALLY want to find out what's on the eighth floor.