I scrape up my face

Bounce my head off the floor

’Cause anything worth doing

Is worth bleeding for

                        -The Faint, Take Me to the Hospital


            "How soon to Jennifer's Star gate, Andolini?" Captain Weathers asked his helmsman.

            "Three hours, sir."

            "Tactical analysis, Schultz," the Cpatain said to his tactical officer, "what the best location for a fight - Sinkiang, Jennifer's Star, or Wilke's Star?"

            "Sinkaing," he answered instantly.  "The deeper we go into MK space, the more enemy shjps we'll have to deal with.  Besides, the only hyperspace routes heading in the right direction are here at Sinking – this is the best place to make a getaway."

            "So we've got three hours to find a way out of this?"

            "Afraid so, Captain," Schultz said darkly.  "Once we go through that Digital Gate, our chances of surviving this drop – a lot."

            "What kind of armament does this boat have?"

            "Well, ignoring the fact that I'm taking them all off-line," Schultz said sarcastically, "20 lance torpedoes in box launchers, one 2-meter chemlaser, one 300mm fusion cannon, and only four point-defense turrets.  No fighters, of course.  This is a destroyer."

            "I see…" David Weathers scowled.  That wasn't much to work with. "I believe this destroyer class has a modular weapons bay, right?" Schultz nodded.  "What's installed in it?"

            Schultz winced.  "A cargo pallet handling system," he shook his head, "and it's empty."

            Weathers let out a slow breath.  "And what does the enemy ship have?"

            "It's an Akaigi-class cruiser, Captain," Schultz said, giving him a serious look.  "It's fighters could take us out.  With the Dickerson here, the two of us might have a chance – but the rest of that slant task force is watching us.  Anything beyond a surprise hit and run would bring ’em into the fight fastern' flies on shit.  And, yeah, the Dickerson can jump out of here, but we can't - no jump drive.  We don't have to codes for the Digital Gate, and we'd have to cross the system to get to the nearest Hypergate – I don't have to tell you the odds of that succeeding…"

            "We can't contact the Dickerson or Marm, anyway," Lt. Aurelius added, "They're in hyperspace."

            "Not necessarily," Weathers said, thoughtfully, "Is there an O'Reilly Node in this system?"

            "Well…" Aurelius said, checking his instruments, "yes, there is, sir… but O'Reilly Nodes are restricted to government and military use – we don't have access to it."

            Weathers just nodded.  He'd been expecting that.  O'Reilly Nodes communicated to hyperspace by opening a radio-wave sized portal, but despite its tiny size, any hyper portal required massive amounts of energy to open and maintain.  Consequently, their use was expensive and thus restricted.  This time, though, he had an advantage.        He turned to Jyong.

"Do you still have full access to the Sinkiang communication hub, M. Guo?"

            "Yeah, and those elitist bastards are locked out, too," she said, "If you're wanting to use that O'Reilly Node and get through to the Marm and Dickerson… yeah, I think we could do that!"

            "Well, that's something, at least," David said.  "Schultz, what are our best attack options?"

            "You're… going about this all wrong, David," Cynthia said groggily, "This is suicide!"

            "What did you say?" Weathers demanded, staring at her sternly.

            "You can't… fight your way out of this," she said.  Normally she would have caught his nonverbal warnings, but the Quellers made her too disoriented to catch such subtleties.  "You gotta psych your way out… think up a trick or something…"

            "Ensign Petersen," the Captain said coldly, "Escort M. Beatrix back to her cell."

            Cynthia looked surprised and confused, but did resist when the security officer draged her roughly off the bridge.  Weathers would reprimand her later.  For now, he had other concerns.

Still, she had a point.  A clever trick would help, but what?  How?  Fight, run, or hide… David thought, we can't fight, we can't run, so that leaves hiding – the psychological option.  But where?  His options where limited.  He didn't have much room for deception while being watched so closely, and there were no convenient planets, moons, or asteroid belts to hide in. The last time he successfully hid was in a debris field after the Ashdown disaster, but here there were no—

            Wait… debris...

            The plan came to him almost at once, all the pieces falling into place quickly… it was a long shot… and would take precise timing… but it was still there best chance…

            "Schultz!" he snapped.  "That modular bay – does it have life support?"

            Schultz pulled up the specs, "It's modified for cargo right now, so... yes, it does.  Why?"

            The captain didn't answer.  He opened a channel Engineering.  "Bodovsky!"

            "Yes, Captain?"

            "The modular bay – it's detachable, right?  Can you rig it to eject from the ship?"

            There was a lengthy silence.  "It could be done, sir, given enough time.  Why?"

            Weathers quickly explained his plan.  Make it eject from the ship at high velocity, the Captain told him, find a way to mask biosigns.  Equip it with a beacon.  Transfer all food, water, and oxygen to the modular bay.  "You have three hours, Chief, don't let us down," Weathers said, and cut the connection before Bodovsky could protest.  "Aurelius, get me the Dickerson!"


            Three hours later, the IMS Mushashi began its final approach to the Jennifer's Star Digital Gate.  Captain Quang So Lam followed the No-Dachi at a distance, safely behind it's capital weapons. He still didn't believe their story about transporting an Imperial Regulator with an urgent message for the Emperor – but with the stakes so high, he couldn't afford to be wrong. 

            "Captain!" his sensor officer yelled, "Jump point opening a thousand kilometers to starboard!  It's… a Prince of Wales-class light cruiser!"

            "Target their weapons." Lam said calmly.  He was expecting something… this must be it.

            "Sir?" tactical officer Chyu said.

            "If it's a Prince of Wales, it's not one of ours!" Lam explained testily.  "Now fire."            

            "Direct hit to their torpedo bays!" his sensor officer reported.  Excellent, Lam thought.

            "Sir, the cruiser is firing!" the tactical officer called out, "Grav laser beam!"

            "Point defense." Lam ordered.

            "Not at us, Sir!" he said, "At the No-Dachi!"

            "Return fi- what?"

            Captain Lam could only watch helplessly as the enemy cruiser's capital laser beam sliced the No-Dachi in half.  Lam had been so sure the suspicious destroyer had been rouge it had never occurred to him to protect it. 


            In the confusion, the Musashi's sensor officer never noticed that seconds before the grav laser bisected the No-Dachi, an explosion in the aft of the destroyer violently shot the modular weapons bay away from the ship.  When secondary explosions shattered the ­No-Dachi moments later, the capsule was far enough away to be shaken but not damaged by the shockwave.  The crew of the Musashi was so horrified at the concept of critical information for the Emperor's ears alone lost forever – and it was their fault - that no thought twice about a lifeless piece of debris rocketing off into the space.


            "Buddha!" the Musashi's sensor officer exclaimed, "That cruiser - it's the Dickerson!"

            "Fire at will!" Captain Lam yelled, his calm control finally shaken.  "Destroy them!"

            "Chemlaser hit to our sensor grid!"

            "Direct hit on the Dickerson's engines!"

            "Enemy firing multiple fusion shells!"

            Captain Lam fought to focus through the chaos.  "Pont defense!  Intercept the shells!"

            "No at us!" his tactical officer yelled again, "At the digital gate!"

            Lam blinked.  He struggled to understand.  The gate?  WHY?  His torpedoes and missiles could never intercept the shells in time – he would have to use the chemlasers – and instantly he saw the dilemma.  Save the priceless and invaluable Digital Gate?  Or destroy Public Enemy #2?  Thankfully, indecision had never been once of Cpatain Lam's failings. 

"Chemlasers, intercept those shells!" Lam ordered.  He could destroy the Dickerson later.  This would only take a moment.  His lasers cut down the nuclear shells one by one before they could damage the gate.  When he turned his attention back to the Dickerson, just seconds later, he watched in stunned disbelief as a portal into hyperspace tore open in front of the enemy ship and it disappeared in a flash of light,

            A hushed silence fell over the bridge.  Finally their Captain spoke.  "I thought Prince of Wales-class cruisers weren't equipped with jump engines."

            "They're not, sir," his tactical officer mumbled, "they must have modified it… somehow…"

            "The No-Dachi?"

            "Destroyed, sir."


            A slight pause.  "I'm not reading any biosigns, sir…"

            Captain Lam rose from his command chair and looked over his bridge crew.  "You all preformed your duties excellently," he said at last.  "I will accept full responsibility for this disgrace.  I suggest you all prepare for a new Captain.  Commander, you have the bridge." 


            Hours later, Captain Weather's surviving crew huddled together in the modular bay, gripping each other for warmth and to keep from floating away in the dim, cold weightlessness of the floating modular bay.  Bodovsky's crew had managed to pressurize the bay and stuff it with water and oxygen tanks, but there had been no time to install thermal units.  There was no power source for them, anyway.  Now there was nothing Weather's crew could do but shiver and hope for rescue before they froze to death.  David feared the giant lifepod might become a giant tomb.

             "S-sure am sorry to l-loose that destroyer, Captain!" Lieutenant Schultz stuttered, "It was n-nice to have a modern sh-ship in the fleet!"

            "Sometimes, J-Jeff," Weathers said, "you've j-just got to fold and c-cut your losses."

            "I j-just hope we're not out of the g-game," Schultz said grimly.  "Was it worth it, S-Sir?  Losing the sh-ship, just to s-send a message?"

            "We haven't g-got the strength to take on the Middle K-Kingdom, you know that," David chattered back, "I see our g-goal as stirring up other rebellions.  You got a b-better strategy?

            Before Jeff Schultz could answer, a loud metallic clunk rang through the bay.  The crew looked around with mixed relief and alarm.  Someone had found them – but who?  Weathers motioned for everyone to draw what weapons they had and try to swim behind what little cover there was.  If Imperial forces had found and salvaged them, David would rather fight and die here than risk capture… ImpSec interrogators were infamous…

            With a hiss and blast of light, the airlock rolled open.  Warm air rolled over them.  Bright searchlights cut through the almost total darkness, blinding the crew, reducing the people in the doorway to a dim siloutette.  David's heart hammered in his chest.

            "Captain Weathers?"

            They knew that voice.  Any further words were drowned out by cheers and laughter.  Captain Weathers holstered his sidearm, grinning like an idiot, and pushed his way to the door, relishing the warm air that rolled over him.  "Commander Lyle!" he barked with mock disapproval, "What took you so long?"

            "Just giving your ego time to cool down," the Marm's Captain said casually, but she was grinning too.    

            "Better late than never, I guess," Weathers conceded, giving her a warm handshake.  "I can honestly say that I've never been happier to see you, Susan!"

            "Ah, you're just saying that because I saved your life," Captain Lyle dismissed him with a wave.  "Seriously, though - we had to wait until the bay was far enough away from the wreck not to draw attention.  And even then, we waited until the fuss at the Digial Gate died down a bit before we dared try to pick you up."

"The Marm can pass for a commercial vessel," Weathers said as he and his crew piled into the Marm's shuttle, "it shouldn't raise any red flags."

"The Marm isn't suspicious, no," Lyle agreed, climbing into the pilot's chair, "but salvaging wreckage of an Imperial warship is.  At best, it's looting.  At worst… well…" she didn't finish.

"You expecting trouble getting out of the system?"  Weathers asked, growing concerned.

Susan shrugged.  "It's a possibility.  I'm hoping their attention is too focused on the investigation to notice this shuttle.  Maybe with a little luck…"

Luck, strangely, was the one thing David Weathers never seemed to run out of.  The shuttle returned to the Marm and their ship left the system without incident.  He hadn't lost a single crewmember.  David's consistently miraculous luck was beginning to spook him.  Still, he didn't question it too much.  I'm just that damn good, he thought smugly.

Months later, David would look back and deeply, bitterly regret his pride and stupidity.  In retrospect, the reason for his luck seemed so obvious… how could he have missed it?


            "Hail, citizens of the Middle Kingdom!  For you are not subjects but citizens, and have the natural right to demand nothing less. 

            "I am David Eugene Weathers, Captain of the Dickerson, survivor of the Ashdown Rebellion, and head of the Citizen's Liberation and Independence Militia.  The privileged and greedy leaders of the Middle Kingdom call me a terrorist – but you only need to examine my record to see that I am not.  Since the Ashdown Rebellion, our militias have struck only at military targets of the Middle Kingdom.  We have not - and will not - attack innocent civilians of the Empire.  My war is not against the citizens of the Middle Kingdom, but against the racist and oppressive regime that has subjugated you.

            "All citizens of the Middle Kingdom – of any species, race, or class – are oppressed by the Emperor.  Your rulers are chosen not by ability or the will of the people, by but species, race, and birth, to pursue their own greedy agendas of power and profit.  The citizens have no voice – no power for sovereignty, or for liberty, or even justice.  How many of you have been denied your dreams for these very reasons?  When a government becomes indifferent to the needs of its citizens – when it looses the Mandate of Heaven – it is no longer worthy of the support of its citizens, and must be replaced. 

            "Let me now state bluntly what secretly lies in most of your hearts:  the Emperor no longer deserves our support.  Our rulers are chosen not by ability or dedication to the welfare of our citizens, but by wealth and ancestry.  Justice relies more on species, race, and class than on truth or lies, guilt or innocence.  The media reports not the truth or opinion of its citizens, but lies designed to keep the privileged in positions of power.  And any dissention is ruthlessly repressed by the Emperor.  The Imperial Navy and Imperial Security systematically and excessively suppress any desire for liberty, justice, or self-rule.  During the Mars Rebellion, the Middle Kingdom deployed bugs to eradicate not just rebel forces but any and all humanity on Mars, including many of its own loyal subjects.  And more recently, the Imperial Nay destroyed the entire planet of Chapman's Folly, killing every sentient being on its surface, regardless of species, race, or loyalty to the Emperor.

            "We have endured this much, but we can't endure any more.  We have spoken and written of our dissatisfaction, but earned only censorship and repression.  We have peaceably demonstrated and protested these injustices, but received only imprisonment and persecution.  We have exhausted all peaceful means of reforming society, and so we have no other option left but outright resistance – by force, if necessary.  Peace has failed - it's time for the sword. 

            "You have the natural right of all sentient species to freedom and independence.  You have to right to think, speak, and act as we wish without undue repression.  You deserve to live in a world where each being succeeds due to their own effort and ability, not due to species, class, or ancestry.  You have the right to rule yourselves, to a government run by the will of its citizens, where any consensus is willing and voluntary.  The K'nes and the Jurvain planets have the right to seceded and rejoin their civilization if they wish. The non-han planets have the right to join the Western Reserve if they wish.  The Christians of New Israel have the right to live and worship as they please.  We all have the right to choose the future of our own planets.

            "Don't let the Emperor fool you into believing you there is no resistance to his rule.  The revolution is already here!  Resistance is active and everywhere - the Citizen's Liberation Militia is just one of many movements across the empire!  Join them.  Declare independence.  If the Middle Kingdom tries to stop you, resist.  The Mars and Ashdown rebellions failed because the Kingdom was swatting at flies, one at a time.  But if we unite and coordinate, the Emperor doesn't have the power to stop us all.

"Han civilization has a long tradition of overthrowing corrupt and incompetent dynasties and replacing them with responsible ones.  Follow the example of your ancestors.  That has come again."


            Lord High Regulator, General Lord Il-Jan was silent for a second, contemplating the holoproj.  "Tough words for a man with two ships!" he said scornfully.  "How far has it spread?"

            "Every station on every planet in the Middle Kingdom, simultaneously," his secretary answered, pale, hating to be the bearer of bad news.  "We suppressed it immediately, of course… but it's already out there.  It will be difficult, if not impossible, to suppress every copy, especially since it's also spread to the border states."

            "What's been the public reaction?" Il-Jan asked.

"Hard to say, sir," his secretary said, scowling at his datapad, "Right now, just surprise and curiosity, but… big things have small beginnings.  We'll just have to wait and see."

Il-Jan was silent, considering.  "Arrange a private audience with Emperor Rao, ordered his secretary.  "We need to discuss the Kingdom's reaction to this, if any.  For now," he said, getting up, "I have a trial to preside over."


* * *


            Hawking didn't like wearing civvies, they made him feel vulnerable.  For the past two years the only time he'd been in anything less than his delta armor had been when he slept, and even then it wasn't far from his bedside.  But now he was wearing an ordinary suit of clothing, his only protection was a small plasma revolver in his pocket.  And he was walking through the middle of the Imperial City, the enemy's capital, the hornet's nest.  Here, Hawking suspected that he would have felt naked even in full power armor and armed to the teeth with spiker guns and his Y-rack.

            Hawking risked a glance to his left.  Peterson was making his way across the square on the opposite sidewalk.  Of all the soldiers, he probably pulled off the disguise the best, though he was also the least concerned about his cover; Hawking watched him eye some passing girls.

            The young soldier breathed a bit easier when, a few blocks later, they had reached a much less crowded part of town; though he still kept his hand within easy reach of his pocket.  Bordering on the slums, they were in a warehouse district.  Cautiously, the soldiers gathered.

            Freak broke the silence, "Hehe, we've been away for a long time, eh?  Nothing's changed, heh."

They were in front of one of the many government warehouses in a vast complex stretching three blocks back.  This particular one stocked electrical and communications equipment, mostly wires and fiber optic cables; several tons of materials moved through the building in a week, but it was closed down for the night.

The soldiers went around the side of the warehouse to an alley; Hawking watched the exit while their entrance was secured.  The Imperial Palace, inside the walls of the Forbidden City, glowed blood red against a starry sky.  The Emperors had declared that the surrounding city blocks be unlit at night to preserve the splendor of the effect.

Major Shrak's voice announced, "We're in."

Hawking backed into the alley, and hopped over a metal railing guarding a stairwell to a basement door in the side of the warehouse.  The six soldiers hurried inside the opening into a bare fungicrete hallway.  The door, unaided, slammed closed behind them.

There was an eerie silence while they peered around the emptiness.  The daytime buzz from the work above was missing.  Shrak raised a hand to his face, searching.  He pointed to a pair of plasteel pillars, no different from a dozen others in the corridor.

"Ah yes, I remember."  He placed his hand on the surface of a pillar, and was bathed in a blue light.

"Now we've just got to hope I've still got clearance."

Apparently he did, as a piece of fungicrete separated itself from the rest of the wall, and slid away to reveal a small lift.  It was a tight fit, but all six of them managed to squeeze inside.

Hawking tried to keep his breathing even with his back against a wall and Harvern's elbow pressing into his ribs.

He was grateful that the ride lasted only a few seconds, and even more so when the door at the bottom opened and the soldiers could pile out.

The center had expanded, banks of computers and terminals covered the walls of the vast bunker, though only a few screens were lit, cables covered the floors.  A few technicians and messengers hurried across the cavernous room.

Major Shrak turned to a sentry sitting near the lift opening who was folding a magazine shut.

"Corporal Hasgarth, how have you been?"

"For God's sake, it's Sergeant-Major, and—holy shit!"

The sentry's jaw was hanging open, as he stared in open disbelief at the men that had just come through his door.

"The Resistance must be in some kind of trouble if they've promoted you, Hasgarth."


"Back, Sergeant-Major, and I need to see the Colonel, he may really be in trouble."  Shrak's face twitched almost imperceptibly as he said this.

Hasgarth recovered from his initial shock, "Uh, I'm sorry, sir, but, uh, I don't think I can let you in."


"Er, we had a sort of breech in security last week and Clarke's been cracking down ever since, and you're…well I'm sure you can understand, I mean it's been two years, and—"

Shrak cut him off with a gesture, "I don't have time for this, we've got urgent information which Clarke needs to know about right now."

The sentry clenched his teeth, apparently making a very tough decision.

"All right, go on in, but it's my head if you cause any trouble."  From the look in his eyes, Hasgarth was serious about the comment.

The soldiers crossed the threshold, Freak gave the sentry an evil grin as he passed, Hasgarth did not go back to reading his magazine.

At the far corner of the center, a very large, very old man was bent over a holographic map table, making some marks with a stylus.  Colonel Arthur Clarke of the Tech Infantry, leader of the Resistance, and one of the most dangerous men in the universe, turned to face the small party approaching him.

"What is this?  More treachery?"  Clarke's eyes narrowed in his leathery face.

Shrak's fists were clenched, and there was a noticeable pause before he answered, "Major Shrak reporting, colonel.  We—"

"Major Shrak died on Mars."  Clarke's face was inscrutable.

Shrak took a deep breath, visibly holding back, "No, sir, we—"

Clarke raised a hand and pointed, "You reported the Bugs overwhelming your position."

Shrak had had enough, he went into Crinos, stepping towards Clarke shouting, "And you left us there to die!  Couldn't be bothered to reinforce our position!  End of the Middle Kingdom, my ass!  You have no honor!"  The werewolf lunged.

Clarke, now also enlarged, caught the Major in the shins, sending Shrak to the ground on his back.

"Left you to die?  I mourned you as heroes!"

Shrak was thrashing to get back to his feet, "You…uh…what?"  The werewolf shrank slightly.

"We were preparing the second wave of drop-capsules when you told us to cancel the attack, the Bugs had overrun you."

"What?  We never reported that."

Clarke's head cocked slightly, "Yes, it was sent by—" the Colonel's eyes shot open.


Clarke's face contorted with rage, and he nearly doubled in size, "I'LL KILL HIM!!!!"  The weretiger bellowed and slammed a massive fist into the nearby table, gutting its electronics and causing the holographic map to disappear.

Most of the soldiers had backed away without realizing what they were doing.  Clarke turned back to them.

"Lwan Eddington."

Hawking blinked; the old lieutenant had disappeared decades ago.  There were always the occasional rumors, but they'd dropped significantly since the fall of the Federation.

Major Shrak studied Clarke's face, "Eddington's dead."

Clarke, still scowling with rage grunted sharply, "Hardly, he barged in here a week ago, hauled in some egghead.  He was traveling as your Lieutenant Tiller."

That prompted a long, awkward silence form most of the soldiers.  No.  It was ludicrous.  It couldn't be true; there was no way, no opportunity…

Shrak recovered, "That's not possible.  Tiller's been with us all the way since Mars.  The only time we let him out of our sight was when we sent him with a passenger here—"

Clarke had sat down and was rocking on the back legs of a wide leather chair, he interrupted, "And when he walked in, it was Eddington."

"But how could he have gotten—"

"Eddington's abilities have grown immensely in the past decades, Reality bends to his will."

"But it just does make any sense, I'm it's been Tiller all—"

Clarke leaned forward, "So why isn't he with you now, eh?

"He said he had to…oh shit."

Freak's throaty cackle filled the silence.  Clarke sat back and gave a small chuckle himself.

"He won't come back here for a while, he acts like he's God, but he's still afraid to face me directly.  The coward."

"I…I…" Shrak sputtered.

Clarke stood up abruptly, "Straighten up, soldier!  He'll pay before too long.  Now, what were you going to tell me?"

Shrak's shook off his shock, and all of the soldiers came to attention, "Sir, I'm not sure it's credible in light of recent information."

"Out with it, Major.  Eddington's a despicable, dishonorable maggot, but he still thinks he's fighting a war.  It may be important."

"Uh, yes sir.  In that case I'm to report to you that the Middle Kingdom knows you're here, Colonel Clarke sir."



The thug prodded James again, and he shuffled his feet quicker for a couple steps, then slowed down to the same pace as before.  The tough was just poking him for the hell of it anyway.

He was walking down a long, marble hall to one of the courtyards in the Imperial "Palace of Justice".  Why they'd wasted the crowns to give prisoners such an impressive view before their trial, James didn't know.  Probably just Chiang's inflated ego, he figured.

Or maybe it was for tourists.  James passed an Imperial News Monitor set into one of the columns lining the great hall.  It was battle-camera showing an Imperial Fleet, and a planet under massive orbital bombardment.  James thought it looked like something out of the VS War, but he was moved along before he could see any description of what was going on.

At the end of the hall, a couple of overdressed Imperial Regulators pulled open a pair of heavy wooden doors, which James and his brutish escort passed through.

Most of the architecture in and around the Forbidden City was based off of ancient Chinese styles on Earth.  This particular building, however, was a strange blend of medieval European stone, and the grand work of the Greco-Roman tradition.  Perhaps the designers thought that was more intimidating.  They were right.

For all his arrests, James had never actually gone to trial before.  He'd always imagined courtrooms as boring, blocky wood or fungicrete amphitheaters, with a few benches and tables for those involved.  Of course, he wasn't in an ordinary courtroom; this was Imperial Regulation's High Court of Justice.  But even still, James was unprepared for the sight of it.

For one thing, the room was open to the air.  It was an enormous stone amphitheater, with seats for an audience encircling almost the entire space.  At the far end from James's entrance was an elevated bench where the judges of his tribunal would sit.  Behind them a special section of stands had been built apart from the rest, with its own entrance, where the Ministers or Royal Family themselves could sit to observe their law being administered.  James could see that he had drawn at least one such person to his trial.

A wooden awning covered this ring, leaving only the center open to the elements.  This was where James would stand for the duration.  The sky was clear, but James still feared it was going to rain.

Moving out into the amphitheater, James could see he had drawn quite a crowd.  He wasn't sure yet whether that was good or bad.  He was lead toward a platform in the center, and stepped a few centimeters off the ground onto hit.  There were no chairs; he would have to stand the entire time.  Apparently, Imperial Justice didn't think much of rights of the accused.

Tilting his head back, James could see that his special observer was the Left Minister himself, Vin Dane, accompanied by a very angry looking Horadrim bodyguard.  Great.

The Lord High Regulator, General Lord Il-Jan (who had the longest title of any MK official James knew), appeared behind the judges' bench.

"The prisoner will bow before the Arbiters of the Imperial Court."  Il-Jan announced in official pi-yin without looking at James.

James stood his ground.

Now the Regulator looked down at James, his face was stone, "The prisoner will bow before the Arbiters of the Imperial Court."

One of the guards standing behind James slammed a stun-baton into the back of James's knees.  James nearly broke his nose as he fell forward, but caught himself just in time.  The electric shock debilitating, James was glad they'd let him use the restroom before entering the courtroom.  The audience broke into applause and cheers.

Struggling to catch his breath, James looked up from his knees to watch his Arbiters enter.  From the left came Lee-Ang Yak, the Minister of Law, followed by the rat Jai Nalwa of Imperial Security himself.  This told James he was probably the high-profile trial of the season, to rate the Bureaucracy's highest Justice Ministers.  It also told him they would probably be followed by their counterparts from the Imperial Senate, which meant…

Eun-Hae Kim, the Justice Chair entered on the right, and James's suspicions were confirmed when he was followed Ian Samothrace, the head of the Civil Police, and James's close friend.  James suspected that Dane and Nalwa were personally targeting James and Ian with this move.  This would not be pleasant.

Ian kept his face stony, and did not glace at James.  The Arbiters sat down, Il-Jan in the center.

The High Regulator read from a piece of paper, "James Welthammer, you will be hereby tried for Grand Treason against the Crown.  The charges in your case are theft of Imperial property, murder of officers of the Imperial Law, giving aid and comfort to a known traitor to the Crown, and espionage against an ally of the Crown.  If you are convicted you will be sentenced to immediate execution."

James had climbed back to his feet.  He looked up at Il-Jan defiantly, responding with English to the official's proper Mandarin, "I deny all of these allegations."

The Regulator's face remained cold, "M. Welthammer, if we believed anything you said, you wouldn't be here.  We shall ascertain your guilt."  The audience laughed.

James tried again, "So why do you even need me here?"

But Il-Jin wasn't taking it, "Would the prisoner prefer to be executed now?"

Better not to push it.  James didn't respond.

"M. Welthammer, do you deny that on July 24th of the year 2271, you attempted to murder an agent of Imperial Security in the execution of his service to the Crown?"

James's memory didn't work like that.  He had no idea what he'd been doing on that date; he didn't even have a calendar handy to give him some kind of reference.  But as far as he could remember, any Imp he'd ever tried to kill, which thankfully hadn't been too many, he'd succeeded in the effort.  Not that he would have said that anyway, outright denial was safer.  "I deny it."

At the bench, James could see Ian Samothrace clench his teeth and close his eyes, almost imperceptibly shaking his head.  That wasn't a good sign.

Il-Jin continued, "This court calls for the testimony of Agent Clyde Anweir of Imperial Security."

To the left and slightly in front of James, a door opened in the amphitheater wall.  A man in a business suit came through it, pushing another man before him in a wheelchair.

James flinched at the sight of the man in the wheelchair.  His face was a horrible mass of loose, scarred flesh.  Only one of his eyes was barely visible through the folds of purpled skin.  There was some kind of apparatus attached to the man's chest, it seemed as if it penetrated right through his shirt and into his ribcage, and James thought it might be breathing for him.

The man in the suit pushed him to a small stand in front of the Arbiters' bench, to James's left.  Then the man, whom James correctly guessed was a lawyer, addressed the Court.

"M. Anweir was discovered by a merchant vessel in hyperspace on the New Madrid/Minos trade route.  He had been kept alive for several hours only by his own aptitude for magick."

Oh shit.

The lawyer kept going, "M. Anweir has not fully recovered from his ordeal, but he has prepared written testimony which he has provided to the court, and authorized me to read upon request."

Il-Jin nodded to him, "That may not be necessary, M. Hwa."  The High Regulator turned back towards James, "M. Welthammer, do you wish to comment?"

James shut his mouth, which had been hanging open.  He couldn't believe how stupid he'd been.  Being tossed unprotected out of an airlock, especially in hyperspace was a death sentence for an ordinary human.  But James had known the spy was a mage, if only a weak one.  He should have…

Il-Jin leaned forward over the bench now, and there was a hint of a grin forming on his face, "Perhaps your memory fails you, M. Welthammer.  M. Anweir has given us a detailed description of events aboard your ship following his insertion in the New Madrid system."

The General Lord paused a moment for this to sink in, then he positively smirked, "Yes, M. Welthammer, we know all about your sojourn with the renegade scientist, your theft of our pinnace," he bared his teeth, "and we know the location of the infamous Arthur Clarke and his rabble."

There was a gasp from the audience, and James took part as well.  Somehow, he'd managed to forget about the whole Clarke business.  Boy, James, could you have fucked this one up any worse?  Why didn't you just give yourself to the golram slants, eh?  James saw Ian running a hand through his hair, sighing.

Il-Jin leaned back and let a small laugh slip, he was enjoying himself now, "Yes, M. Welthammer.  It was quite a cunning plan, but I'm afraid we've already dispatched our security forces, they will smother this pathetic insurrection in its cradle."

James would later recall that what happened next played out very much like one of the many action flicks produced in the Avalon holo-studios.  Certainly Il-Jin's words were a fitting cue for the explosion that rocked the courtroom.

There was a second shockwave, and the wall of the amphitheater, in one of the thin sections between the stands and the Arbiters' bench on James's right, blew in, showering bits of stone across the floor.  People in the stands screamed and ran, while most of the officials just stared, dumbfounded.

Through the still-smoking doorway leapt several figures in full power armor.  One of them made two towering jumps, and landed with a crash right in front of the chair-bound imp.  Clyde Anweir could only stare in wide-eyed horror as the soldier lifted a gauss rifle and shot through his skull.

Meanwhile, the troopers were quickly tearing apart the unarmored courtroom guards, assaulting with batons and sidearms.  James saw his own escorts get swatted aside by a metal arm as big as their torsos, sending their broken bodies spinning.

Most of the Arbiters, including Samothrace had ducked behind their bench and fled into their doors at the back.  Il-Jin, however, remained, and seemed to be locked in a mental struggle, presumably trying to magickally bend the soldiers' minds.

It never occurred to James to get out of there.  He just stood, rooted to his spot, even though his right leg burned from splinters of stone.  He merely stared on as the two Horadrim at the very back of the amphitheater leaped down from the stands onto the courtroom floor.  The bodyguard hefted his weapon and began engaging the intruding soldiers, who now numbered about a dozen.  Vin Dane, however, made a beeline for James.  When one of the power-armored behemoths attempted to block him, the Minister didn't even turn aside, he just lifted his arm, and a lightning bolt leaped out at the soldier, knocking him back and frying his suit's electronics.

It was clear to James that Dane was going to kill him, but still James could only look on, jaw gaping.  When the Horadrim was about ten meters away, and nearly glowing with anger, James felt a hand on his shoulder.  He turned his head and saw the old medic, Tiller, dressed in a dark hooded robe.  The lieutenant waved a hand, and Vin Dane yelled as he was tossed back several meters and slammed into a wall.

Tiller then raised both his arms, and made a sweeping gesture in front of him.  James had trouble comprehending what had happened, but he decided to call it a hole-in-space after Tiller shoved him forward into it.  James landed hard on a surface of rust-colored rock.  He rolled over to see Tiller closing the window into the courtroom as if he were drawing shut some drapes.

The cloaked man then turned to face James.  He bent over and reached out a hand, and it was the first time James had ever seen him smile, ever-so-slightly.

"Greetings, M. Welthammer.  Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Lwan Eddington."

The neurons inside James's skull decided it was time to mutiny, and James Welthammer fainted.


* * *


Everything faded.  For a second, the starship’s bright interior seemed to merge with Cho’s dark, candlelit sanctum.  With a blur of light and motion, Cho stepped into the Teppodama’s crew cabin.  There was a distant crack of displaced air.

Cho felt an instant of weightlessness, her feet groping for a floor that wasn’t there.  She dropped to the ground and lost balance.  Musta teleported in above the floor… fucking Usha… Cho thought absently, and fell backwards onto her butt, both backpacks sliding off her shoulders.  This seemed funny, and she chuckled.

A second of shocked silence.  Then the air was full of shouting voices.  Cho didn’t care; it was time to fight.  She knew what to do.  She was born for this.

Cho stood slowly to her feet, one hand raised to bend the world around her, rising through a blur of confusion.  She turned her head, taking in everything around her.  Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, yet at the same time everything was happening too fast.

Cho turned slowly to the right.  Nhut was crouched behind a bunk firing at someone.  She turned her head to the left, eyes sweeping across the room.  Two men—the crew—were paralyzed in fear, staring wide-eyed and open-mouthed, frozen in the middle of a hanafuda game.  Behind them several toughs—shatei—were on their feet, weapons drawn, firing.  With a casual flick of her hand, Cho easily deflected the beam, bending the light off to the side.  She heard a muffled scream as the beam licked out behind her.  Cho turned her head to the left.  A third terrified crew member sat on a bunk trying desperately to hide behind a comic book.  On the edge of her vision she caught a flurry of motion and panicked cries.

As if stuck underwater, Cho swung her head slowly back to the center of the room, where the biggest threat seemed to be.  Shatei.  Firing at me.  Huh.  What should I do ’bout that? Cho thought stupidly.  Oh yeah.  Fry ’em.  …and she realized her hand was swinging through the air, a ball of cracking electricity forming in her palm.  She swung at the biggest shatei.  The blue ball of light sailed through the air and hit him.  He screamed silently as the electricity shook him, convulsing, then he collapsed to the floor.  Cho grinned.

This is gonna be easy, Cho thought, chuckling, and I’m gonna have some fun!  Blue and white laser beams crisscrossed the room as Nhut and the gangsters exchanged fire.  Cho switched hands, her right swinging up to bend the world around her while her left swung down, conjuring another crackling spark ball.  She swung it at the next shatei.  But… the thugs were already scrambling for cover, alarmed as their comrade fell. The spell missed and crashed into the wall.

Oh, you Sleepers wanna play, huh?  Cho narrowed her eyes.  She charged forward, shield spell raised, and leapt onto the table in the center of the crew room, scattering the hanafuda cards—and the players too, who fell to the ground cowering.  She looked groggily around for the gangsters with blurred sight.  Finally her bloodshot eyes found them, ducked behind bunks on opposite sides of her.  Cho didn’t even notice the laser beams curling around her.  She dropped the shield spell and flung her arms out to either side.  Arcs of crackling electricity shot from her fingertips at the thugs.  They yelled in surprise, scrambling away.  Swinging her bleary eyes back and forth, Cho moved the beams of magical lightning until they found their targets.  The shatei screamed and spasmed as the electricity coursed through their bodies, then collapsed unconscious.

“OH YEAH!!” Cho bellowed, shaking her fists in triumph.  “WHO’S A BADASS BITCH?  THAT’S RIGHT, ME!!”  She launched into a victory dance on the tabletop, promptly lost her balance, and tumbled to the ground.

“I’m okay, I’m okay!” Cho said as she staggered to her feet, shaking her groggy head.  She was really stoned…  Behind her, panicked voices yelled.  “I said I’m okay!” Cho barked at her kobun, not sparing a backward glance.  She focused what little attention she had on the unconscious shatei at her feet.  We need the crew… but I gotta get rid of these guys… throw them off the ship, I guess…

Cho took a deep breath and centered herself, tapping her chi... she forced her foggy mind to concentrate… push against the gravity… it’s fake anyway… slowly, she levitated the thugs off the floor.  She turned toward the door…

Oh, kuso, it’s closed!

Already struggling under the effort of floating three heavy bodies, Cho tried to force the door to open, grunting with exertion.  Slowly the airlock rolled backwards… behind her, Cho’s students were still squalling like babies and calling her name.

“OH FOR BUDDHA’S SAKE!” she bellowed in anger.  “You bitches can handle the crew!  They’re not even armed!”  Can’t they see I’m busy?  Do I have to do everything myself?

            Cho ignored them.  She floated the gangsters out the door into the dark cargo hold.  The airlock snapped closed behind her.  She wandered around the empty hold.  Her fuzzy mind slowly realized that she wasn’t really familiar with the ship and had no idea where the exit was.  She stumbled around the dark room in a haze, her chest throbbing as her chi ebbed away.  Every step made her weaker, struggling under the strain of levitation.  Finally, after what to her drugged mind seemed like forever, she found the airlock that led off the ship to the orbital space station.

            Cho stumbled and collapsed as she neared it.  The thugs fell heavily to the deck.  She raised herself on trembling legs.  She tried to focus, tried to tap her chi… and suddenly wrenched painfully.  It was gone.  Her chi, pushed to the limit, had faded until she had nothing left to give… nothing but her own life’s blood.  She dropped any pretense of magic.  It was gone... for now, at least.  She opened the airlock, grabbed a thug, and heaved.  She physically threw the men off the ship, too exhausted for more magic, then sealed the hatch.  She leaned against the wall, panting.

            Staggering, wandering around a drug-induced neverland, Cho finally found her way back to the hatch leading to the crew quarters.  Her clumsy fingers groped at the controls for a moment, then the hatch rolled back and she stepped into the room.

            Her kobun were still moving and shouting excitedly.

“WHAT THE FUCK!?” Cho bellowed angrily.  “CAN’T YOU HANDLE A FEW… uh…”  Her voice trailed off.  Her eyes drank in the situation.  The Teppodamma’s crew huddled in a corner where Nhut held them at gunpoint.  He looked anxiously over his shoulder at Usha and Yoko…


Why was Yoko lying on the floor?




            Cho stumbled forward, leaning against the wall for support, struggling to understand what was happening.  Yoko was lying on the floor.  She was very pale…  Was all that red stuff blood?


            Cho tried to kneel at Yoko’s side, but lost her balance and fell.  Someone pushed her back to her knees.  Usha was screaming at her…


            “Huuuuuh?” Cho grunted, looking at Yoko and the red stuff, not understanding.

            Cho’s head snapped sideways as a loud slap echoed in the distance.

            “She got hit!” Usha barked.  “She was screaming, but now she’s…  I don’t think she’s...  Can’t you DO something!?”

            “…but… how… when…” Cho mumbled, squinting and blinking.  The battle had gone so well

Cho’s head rolled back and forth as Usha shook her.  “When you deflected that blast” she screamed.  “In the chest!  Just a laser, but she won’t stop bleeding!  Heal her, Cho!  I know you can, I’ve seen you do it!”

“I… uh… okay…”  This was all happening too fast

Cho bit her finger clumsily, tearing with her teeth until it bleed, then leaned down, holding onto Usha for support, and rubbed the red blood on Yoko’s temples and throat.

Xu sheng ai… uh… dao sheng… umm…”  The precious words just weren’t coming to her.  Combat spell are so much easier when you’re stoned…  Cho stuttered mystical words in Cantonese, fingers pressed against Yoko’s throat, struggling to pour her Chi into Yoko, but it… wasn’t working….

            Cho grunted in pain as her chest wrenched painfully.  Cho couldn’t breathe… nothing left… but my own life…  Slowly, Cho turned and looked at Usha with bleary eyes.  “Can’t…”

            “You CAN!!  I’ve seen you!” Usha yelled with another viscous shake.

            “…uh... tapped out…” Cho muttered, “those guys… and the floating… used up… can’t…”

            “You can’t?  You…”  Usha gave her a look and of utter hatred.  “You… you bitch!!” she roared.  “If you had just listened to us, you… you… do you want her to die, you golram stoner?!”

            “…well… no… but…”

            “Then do it!” Usha screamed.

            Cho tried again—and failed again, painfully.  Yoko’s chest wasn’t moving…

            “No pulse!” screamed Usha.

            “... but... no…”  Cho stared in disbelief at Yoko’s body.  She CAN’T die…  I need her…  ”I’m out…” Cho muttered dumbly.  “No chi… need more…”

            “You stupid selfish—”  Usha stopped suddenly.  Her eyes widened.  “Chi… life…” Usha stammered.  “You’re out... you need more?”

            “Uh… yeah,” Cho said, nodding.

            “Use mine!” Usha yelled, grasping Cho’s throat, fingers pinching into her jugulars.

            “Yeah, mine, too!” yelled Nhut.

            “Shutup asshole!” Usha shot back.  “Keep your gun on the crew!  If we need you we’ll say!”

            But Cho already sensed Usha’s healthy, abundant life energy… Cho could feel her own blood surging though her throat… and the pulse in Usha’s fingertips was already slowing to match it…

“Naw, naw, I can do this… now…” Cho mumbled.  Her arm groped for Usha’s throat, seeking the acupressure points, digging into the veins, feeling the pulse of her blood.

“Xu sheng ai dao sheng… xu sheng ai dao sheng…”

Usha gasped, her tirade cut short.  She trembled as Cho cemented the connection.  Cho swung her eyes back to Yoko’s body, chanting in Cantonese and massaging Yoko’s acupressure points.  She breathed in, drawing Usha’s chi into herself, and exhaled, pouring the healing energy into Yoko’s body.  Usha gasped and shuddered, grabbing the wall for support.

“Xu sheng ai dao sheng… xu sheng ai dao sheng…”

Cho closed her eyes, focusing on the wound in Yoko’s chest.  The laser had already burned the wounds halfway closed…  She forced the flesh to seal itself… the blood in Yoko’s lungs to flow up her throat… the heart muscles to start pumping…  With a sudden, gurgling breath, Yoko’s chest rose and fell.  Blood poured over her lips.

            Cho maintained the link as long as she could.  Usha moaned softly, trembling as her chi drained away.  Finally Cho released her, breaking the connection.  Both women fell away, utterly exhausted.

            Cho tumbled backward onto the cold hard floor.  “She’ll… live,” said weakly.  Totally, completely drained, Cho lay on the floor as Nhut’s form swam above her.

            “Y’okay, Usha?”

            “Uh… yeah, Nhut, I’m okay.”  Usha’s form slowly rose into Cho’s field of vision, swaying.  “Take care of Yoko…  I… gotta get the… Teppodamma moving…”  She staggered away.  Nhut turned and briefly shot Cho a look…

            Cho was suddenly very much aware that she was lying in a jumbled heap on the floor, enjoying the cold steel… while one of her kobun bled and another took charge of the mission.  The next thing she knew, Cho was on her feet… somehow… and trying clumsily to help move the three hundred pound girl.

“She’ll be okay, Nhut,” Cho said, gripping under Yoko’s meaty armpits and heaving.  “She’s got… one badass muthafuka… healin’ her…”

            “Buddha!  Stop, Cho, you’re gonna reopen the wound!” Nhut yelled.  “Stop—just stop, you’re—“

It was a moot point.  Cho, dizzy and weak, heaved at Yoko’s massive frame for an instant, lost her grip, and fell back against the wall, dazed.

“Good!  Just... stay there, Cho, and… don’t try to help.”  Nhut was opening a first-aid kit—Buddha knew where he got it—and beginning to dress Yoko’s wounds.

Cho felt a sudden, overwhelming need to explain herself.  “Gotta get…those guys… offa ship… right?”

Nhut didn’t look at her.

“An’ Yoko… s’okay, right?  I mean… you know, Nhut!”

Nhut glanced up at her.

“Nhut…” she whispered.  “I had to… y’know?...  An’ she’s all right…  It wasn’t as if I… cause I wasn’t…

Nhut looked away.  “Whatever you say, Cho.”  But there was something in his voice…

“It… woulda been the same if I…” Cho protested weakly.  “Right?  Nhut?  Right?”

Nhut didn’t answer.  He glanced at Cho for a brief second, then looked away and began swabbing Yoko’s wound with disinfectant.

Slowly, Cho groggily looked around her, her foggy mind taking in the scene.  Nhut wasn’t speaking to her.  Yoko lay in a pool of blood.  Behind her, Usha had taken control of the ship, heading Buddha Knew Where.  And she… she lay propped against a wall, too stoned to move, completely out of magic, totally useless…

A wave of disgust swept her.

Cho concentrated every effort on moving her arm.  She fished the opium pipe out of her pocket and stared at it in her palm.  With a mind too blown to think coherently, she struggled to recall a crumbling memory.  Hadn’t… hadn’t she sat in a dumpster... recently… staring at a pipe… that same pipe… hating it... swearing never again?

And now she sat against a bulkhead, too stoned to move.

And Yoko might die.

Cho twisted her palm and dumped the glass pipe onto the steel floor with a loud clunk.  Slowly, she raised a steel-toed boot and dropped it.  Distantly, she heard a crash.  Eventually she became aware of a soft crunching sound that droned on and on and on… slowly, Cho leaned forward and watched as the heel of her boot ground the glass opium pipe into powder.


* * *


            Chan Lee awoke in pain. It had been two days since he left the prison moon and already the withdrawal of the Endari weed was already allowing the Netter's cancer inside him to grow. Last night, he said goodbye to Crescent Moon, Night Fang, and all the valiant warriors of his tribe as they dropped him outside the capital city on Wilke's Star. He had spent the night on a roof, watching his objective as his eyes drooped with sleep; the Forbidden City.

            When he woke up again, it wasn't hard to remember the nursery rhymes he had learned as a child, the mnemonic devices used to train the members of the royal family about their new world. Knowing all the entrances and exits of the Forbidden City was essential for the family's… and the empire's survival. Now he would use that information to destroy them – Lee smiled at the irony and went through the possible scenarios in his head. It wasn't difficult, he had spent much of his time at G2 scheming for this day.

            His plan was simplicity itself. There were several tunnels underneath the capital complex  used for sewer, water, and even escape. Habor could easily reach one of the escape tunnels and enter into the complex from beneath. There was only one catch; if the imperial guards had flagged his DNA and aura as being unauthorized, he could never get in - or worse, he could get in, and then be easily captured within the complex. He needed someone to help open the door.


            Lee found himself at the front door of a very ornate building, wrapped up in a black cloak, staring at the two ghoul guards charging their plasma rifles. He decided the best course of action was to wait patiently; after all, he had come to ask a favor, it would be impolite to kill his guards as he came. It took about a minute of him standing there before one of them asked Habor, "What do you want, changeling?"

            "I wish to see Logrus."

            "Never heard of him. Now why don't you be a nice little doggy and go piss on a fire hydrant?"

            Chan felt the ire building inside him, but he stood his ground. "Logrus de Mordecai. You know who I mean."

            "So?" the other ghoul shrugged, "Even if I did, what makes you think we'll let you through this door?"

            "Prince from Canteern wishes to see him. That should be all the identification I should need."

            "Prince? I don't care if your name is…"

            "Shhh!" the first ghoul cut him off, then clicked his tongue in his mouth, activating his dentcom. "Sir, Prince from Canteern wishes to see Logrus de Mordecai, I request… yes, sir… yes, sir." He clicked his tongue again and lowered his weapon. "Of course, M. Mordecai is expecting you."

            Chan waited until the other ghoul lowered his rifle before stepping forward, a confused look on the guard's face. As the werewolf walked past them, the doors opened, with a dark-suited figure waiting for him. "Your highness, please follow me."

            The figure took him to the elevator down a hallway of dark paintings and gloomy tapestries. Then he motioned for him to walk in, Habor did so, and the doors shut behind him. There was some whirring and suddenly the doors opened again into another darkened room. A large fire blazed on one side where two overstuffed chairs sat. Lee wasted no time and stepped over to one; neither was sat in, so Chan made himself comfortable while he waited.

            He didn't have to wait long. "So, Prince Chan, we meet again."
            Lee didn't bother looking for the voice amidst the whirling shadows; Habor was used to this treatment from him, and besides, he had woke him up. Let him play his stupid games and we can eventually get to business. "Long time."
            "Not for me," a shadow glimpsed him, "a few years could be like days. Patience is an excellent virtue to acquire."

            "Not for me," Habor smiled, "I have unfinished business."

            "Yes," a hand appeared on the back of the opposing chair, but Chan still couldn't see the body it was attached to, "so I've heard. No longer running the finest in substances that achieve temporary enlightenment?"

            "No, and I'm no longer a prince."           

            "Although from your tone, one would doubt that condition will last for long." Another hand appeared and then a shadowy figure of a body became more defined.

            "I require your assistance, Mordred."

            The old vampire sat down in the chair. The long black hair framed his gentle face perfectly, he was so at least with fingernails that shown like diamonds. His presence was enough to disarm anyone. The aura he emanated made him feel like he wanted to worship him, but the rage inside was enough to barely counter the effect. "And what would that be, M. Lee? Access to the Forbidden City? Such a small favor… why come to me?"

            "'Cause I'm sure that…" the waves of trust kept washing over him, "I'm sure that you're aren't connected to the Empire, ’cause I know you can do this, and I know you understand the payment I am offering."

            "And that would be?"    

            "A favor."

            Mordred smiled – which felt like a thousand ice cubes melting at once – and looked closer at the werewolf. "You're offering me… a favor?"

            "If I accomplish my goal, I would be disrupting the government – so much that it could only help your cause."

            "Unless the current stability is to my advantage?"

            "If it is, it won't be for long. Nothing is ever as stable as it seems in the government. If my relatives don't kill each other, their ministers might."

            "And you intend to stabilize it?"


            Mordred coughed a laugh. "You don't really know what will happen, do you? You're caught up in your rage that you have no plan for what comes later."

            Chan felt his rage rise again. "I… must have revenge."

            The vampire sighed. "Then you shall have it. And I will call on your favor soon, have no doubt."

            "Soon meaning?"

            "A couple weeks, years… all the same to me."

            Lee managed to calm himself. "Very well."

            The elevator doors opened again. "Meet my assistants upstairs.  They will take care of your needs, your highness."

            Habor didn't wait to invited to dinner; he quickly got up and walked to the door with all calmness that his courage could muster.


            Prince Hoon stretched his body out on the bed after sending his concubines away. Ah, it is good to back in the Forbidden City, he thought, enjoying the wonderful sensations that only the finest trained geishas could provide. I was a fool to abandon this; the outside world is so… banal. The throne is the sun, I intend to stay warm the rest of my life.

            He shifted his body up to prop the pillows behind his head. A couple minutes and he would soon be asleep – or he would have been, had he not felt cold steel wrap around his throat. His two eyes shot open to stare right into one eye, with another obscured by a massive scar. "CHAN!"

            "You remember? Good. I have placed a control collar around your neck. Remember these? You put one around me before you sent me to hell. I decided to return the favor."           

            "What… what are you doing here?!" Hoon was in a panic. "What are you going to do to me?!"

            "I want you to be awake as I tear your body into shreds," Lee lifted up his hand and claws appeared, "I want you to scream as I play with your organs, and finally, and I will carve my name into the wall with your blood."

            "Chan, please…"

            "Aren't you going to welcome me home, cousin?" Habor's claws swung down to strike.




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Text Copyright (C) 2004 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.  Do not try ANY of this at home, no matter how badly you want to get into the Forbidden City.