"You're one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan, designed and directed by his red right hand!"

                                                            -- Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "Red Right Hand"


            No one stopped the assassin walked out of the pit and the club. They parted for Mark Smith and all were hushed. To everyone, it was the day that the magic died.

Mark made it halfway down the street before little Shannon caught up to him. "Hey! Wait up! Where are you going?!"

"I have to think about my next move." Mark replied, a calm look creeping over his face.  His mind was so mixed up with so many emotions that it was hard for him to find any answer. It seemed like the only time that he could think straight is when he was fighting.  Yes… fighting brought some type of ease over him. 

She grabbed his arm, forcing him to face her.  "You can't go! We need you!" Her little face was beautifully framed by her blonde hair. "You don't understand, we're about to make our move."

"YOUR move, not mine. I'm not going to fight with you. I need to find out who I am… find out why I'm here."

"I can help answer that for you. I…"

Mark interrupts her before she can say another word. "Can you?" Under his stare, the little girl seemed to melt. You never have answers, Shannon, Smith derided, you only have more questions. You're your father's girl. She said nothing as he turned and walked away.

Smith walked the streets for sometime. Night enclosed in around him as he strolled down long-forgotten streets and abandoned homes. Before he knew it, he found himself near the Elysia River, somewhere within the capital city proper. He checked out the street sign; Sixth and Hanley. Across the street was a little old bar named O'Kim's, an "authentic" Irish bar run by a Westernized Korean that didn't make the run to the Eastern Bloc. He felt the hunger growing just looking at the place and decided to go in. Taking a seat with a window view of the waterfront, he orders a couple beers and some food.

A couple hours go by and he is still there. No answers come to the same few questions going through his mind.  Why the hell does everyone want me to side with them? Why do they need me so bad? Who is left to trust?  He took a long drink from his large glass of whiskey. The liquor burned like fire down his throat. Ahhh, that hit the spot.

Even in his blurred state, Mark felt danger coming up behind him. He turned just as a large man put a hand on his shoulder.  "Hey, buddy! Don't I know you from somewhere?"

"Don't think so." Smith muttered, turning back to the window.

"Yes, I think I do! I know you from somewhere!"

"Sorry." Mark took another drink from his glass.

"That's it!  You were at the Rage just a while ago… that's where I know you from!"

"Whatever." Smith got up and walked over to the bar. The assassin was trying to not get into another fight; the pain was starting the throb through his body. After his little fight with King and his more intense fight with Clarke, he wasn't exactly in prime condition.

Then, from nowhere, the man gripped his shoulder again, squeezed stone tight, and pulled him off his feet. Lifted into the air, toes not touching the ground, Mark turned to look at the creature before him… the were-creature.

The figure was a huge nine-foot tall werewolf, his claws digging into Smith's flesh, fangs gleaming from his teeth. Tossing the assassin like a doll, he threw Smith's body through the window. Once he landed on the waterfront pavement, his body wracked with pain, he lay there, limp in the middle of the street. 

The werewolf walked over to pick Mark off the ground, but Smith suddenly found the strength to move. Rolling around, the assassin twirled from his grasp, dropping to his hands. Picking up his left leg and spun a kick hard into his opponent's legs, knocking the werewolf to the ground.  Mark got back up and moved into a defensive stance. 

The creature got up himself and took a step back. A smile gleamed off his enlarged teeth.  "Yes, that is what I expected from the guy who killed Clarke."  Then he did some motion with his hand. His friends came out from their hiding place… lots of them.

"Okay," Mark said, spitting the blood from his mouth, "what do you want?"

"Your head, fucker."

As the first man took a leap at Mark, suddenly his sword was in his hand. To Smith, he was moving way too slow.  Mark ducked down as the person flew over him, landing behind his position. Smith wasted no time, slashing down on the helpless victim. More came after him, rushing toward him; the assassin braced himself for the attack.

Compared to Smith, they all moved so slowly. Mark found himself moving faster, reacting quicker. The next four coming at him were a bit more cautious, but he managed to continue blocking each of his attacks. As he fought, he felt Kuar was emitting something, almost on a level just beneath the limits of normal sound. Suddenly, his opponents stopped fighting him, and fought each other. Smith took a step back and watched as his attackers tore each other to shreds. Mark took advantage of this situation and walked away.  "Just a sword?" he muttered to the hunk of polished metal in his hands, "Right…"

Once away from the battle, the strength just seemed to drain from him. Smith was suddenly very tired. Luckily, Mark found his way to a nearby motel, paid the computer console at the window, and went to his room. Once his head hit the pillow, he lost consciousness, going right to sleep.


            Andrea Treschi was standing there, present at one of the biggest events of the decade; even the war seemed to pause for a moment. The media were held back a kilometer away from the New Arlington National Cemetery, forcing them to use their long-distance camera lenses to capture this historical moment. They couldn't get any closer since there were seven heavily armed aerodynes waiting to shoot any aircraft that dared to violate the airspace above the site.

            Even without the media, the gravesite service for Major-General Arthur Clarke, T.I. was packed beyond capacity. Admirals, generals, Grand Council members; all kinds of brass were showing up for the ceremony. Then there were the rows upon rows of personnel who served in the Raptors. Captain Treschi himself was in the procession, near the front dressed in his black-and-red dress uniform, since he was one of the division's officers. Funny how quickly people get promoted around here, he pondered.

This was not a funeral, Andrea knew. This was a political event, necessary for the Fed's war effort, a chance to give new courage to the troops fighting on the front. It was also one last chance for these people who lived under Clarke's shadow to say good-bye. So long, sucker, Andrea heard their thoughts, looks like you got in somebody's way.

            It was pretty obvious whose way he crossed; the one person who was not here, Colonel Rashid King. The pale form of Grand Fleet Admiral Kristen Vorheis could plainly be seen. The fear in her eyes told him plenty. Arthur Clarke had been a balance between those two power brokers; with him gone, anything goes. It was obvious that the admiral believed she could weather the storm that was coming. Good luck, Treschi smiled inside, you're gonna need it.

            A hard squint of his eye muscles broke the water tablets and tears ran down his face. Yes, it was good to cry at a moment like this. Andrea caused the feeling of sadness he didn't possess to well up inside him, his emotions flaring up bright enough for anyone with sensitivity to catch it. The Raptors need to see me like this. Oh, yes, let me be the perfect soldier for Clarke, his mind laughed, let me cry and feel pain and let them believe that I give a shit. You're more useful in death than you ever were in life… sir! I'm glad I led King right to you, general. Choke on it while you rot in hell.

            Then the wails of the were-tigers dancing around the totem cried to Gaia. Treschi was amazed they could find that many Bestat still around. "Behold, a warrior comes to you, great mother!" a man in light robes translated for the crowd. The drums and beats of the primordial ceremony seemed to pulse throughout the crowd. The sadness of the tones pounded through, as the Siberian tigers raced around the carved wooden pole, dancing their mournful chant.

The commentary continued. "We give praise to his deeds, the scars of honor taken for your name's sake!" The drums beat faster and louder as the dance came closer to the totem. Finally, with one great jolt of energy, the were-creatures touched the totem, and howled out a terrible scream.

"His spirit has returned to Gaia," the psuedo-priest concluded, "we honor him by honoring our lives with glory, honor, and pride. A warrior is dead. Let us honor him by living."

Then another priest appeared and took the other's place. For some reason, Clarke had insisted on having a Catholic priest at his funeral as well as a tribal service. Hedging your bets, general? Andrea thought, watching the smooth change of the guard.

"Let us pray." the black-and-white father said and everyone bowed their heads. While the assembly was bowed, with the priest blathering on, Treschi opened his eyes. A small grin had appeared on the side of his face; he couldn't help it. I destroyed all your work, general, Andrea thought as he fought back the smile. All your hopes and dreams for the future are gone. It's my future now! My turn to shine!

While his thoughts betrayed him, Andrea looked up… and saw the oldest lieutenant in the Tech Infantry. There he was, standing in the black-and-red dress uniform, with the insignia of a second lieutenant, long gray hair, and piercing brown eyes staring right at him. His smile melted under the tanned grandfather's gaze. He knows, Treschi realized. He knows what I've done.

As if he read his thoughts, the old lieutenant nodded his head, keeping his paralyzing stare on him all the while. Finally, Andrea broke away, closing his eyes and turning away from his dread gaze. Then, the prayer ended, he opened his eyes again, and the grandfather was gone. Captain Treschi looked around frantically, but couldn't see him among the rows of faces. By Allah, he rationalized; I must be losing my mind.

The funeral ended with full military honors. 21-gun salute, playing Taps, and the presentation of the Earth Federation flag to some elderly woman, who supposedly was Clarke's lover before the war… the Bug War, that is. I guess if they were to find anyone to fill in for a loving wife, the mother of his child seemed to do just fine. With the service complete, Andrea rushed off toward the monorail station. It was time to collect his reward.


When Mark Smith woke up the next morning, one thought settled on his lips. "It's time I talked to King."

It didn't take long to ride the monorail down to the Capitol Park station. From there, it was a few short blocks to reach Internal Security headquarters. No one stopped him as he walked in through the front door. No one questioned him as he got into the lift. When he walked right into the high security area, the people passing him didn't even raise an eyebrow. Coming to the commandant's office, the beautiful dark-skinned secretary wasn't surprised to see Smith there. Waving toward the door, she said with a smile, "Colonel King has been waiting for you."

His mind was bewildered but he tried to shake off the cold dread sweeping over him. Is it really that strange? King is always waiting for me. Mark walks into his office and watches the commandant looking through some file that's projected above his desk. Turning toward his new guest, he offered his hand in friendship. "Glad you can make it."

Mark looked at the offered hand and folded his above his chest. Smith glared at Rashid for a moment, and matter-of-factly answered, "You set me up."

King withdrew his hand and leaned back in the chair. He said nothing for a moment then gave a huge smile; the pure white teeth contrasting sharply with the brown of his skin. "You left me no choice. Will you have a seat?"

"Why don't you tell what's happening?"

"Why don't you sit down and I'll tell you." The commandant waved him toward the nearby seat.

Mark reluctantly sat down and took another glare at King. "All right."

Rashid visibly relaxed and stared back at Smith. "May I see your sword?"


"You wanted the answers, don't you?"

Smith reached into his coat and pulled out Kuar. All of a sudden, the anger built up inside him again, and taking the opportunity, he slashed to cut King down. The sword stopped in mid-air as it hit the flash of a force field.

The commandant didn't seem all that surprised. "This field is set to stop anything traveling above a certain speed. It's a safety precaution, M. Smith… after all, you're not the only one who wants to kill me. Now, place the sword on the desk… I won't even touch it. I don't think it would let me anyway. Please?"

Mark backed the sword away from the field and placed it slowly on the desk. King brushed his hand over its surface and twelve symbols appeared in circles like blazing fire across the blade. "This is faerie fire, harmless… but it does reveal amazing things. In the days before the Ascension War, mages used to write with it, to prevent their secrets from being revealed to the unawakened."

"The Ascension War?"

King shook his head. "Never mind. You can say I'm a student of history." Pointing to the fire-lit symbols, he asked, "Can you read them?"

Smith took a moment and looked at the strange symbols. They looked familiar, but he couldn't place where he'd seen them before. They were convoluted; the central symbols were very simple, but they were surrounded by tons of smaller symbols of a different script. It reminded him of Arabic calligraphy; he once had a Muslim bunkmate back when he served in the LI. However, much like then, none of it was readable. "No."

"Then I'll translate. The center symbols are the inscriptions necessary to lock down the talisman with a certain power. They mean nothing in themselves, but they are… how does one put it, reminders for the sword to use."


"Well, this sword… it's not alive in the true sense of the word, but it does know its power. The great mage craftsmen tried many ways to contain pure quintessance."


"Quintessance. Fifth Element. Lifeforce of the universe. There's no easy way to explain it. The point is that many simply wove spirits into their items, using them to contain and use the power."

"But Kuar doesn't."

"No. The inscriptions work as a kind of computer program, that when activated, will operate a certain task. The trick, of course, is to activate it. You've managed to do that."

Smith was getting sick of this mystic bullshit. "What does it say?"

King looked closer at the symbols. "Well, to translate it in a way that makes sense to you, they're all different sayings. Each of them is a different phrase."

Mark was frustrated; why didn't anyone just SAY what they meant! "Well?!"

Rashid sighed and started pointing to each circle as he translated them. "They run from the point to the hilt from weakest to strongest. Every cut leaves a mark, every light casts a shadow, every breeze stirs the wind, every arm knows its hand, every eye sees the truth…"

"Wait a minute! Does this actually mean something?"

"Of course it does. Take this third symbol, for instance. Every breeze stirs the wind. Wind is fast, is it not? Haven't you noticed that you're quicker with the sword that you've ever been on your own? When a breeze comes through, the air around it speeds up, creating wind. Get it?"

Smith's eyes flashed as he realized what these symbols were. It was an instruction book for his sword! "Go on…"

King pointed to the sixth symbol. "Every hand grips the blade. You notice that the fire changes slightly?"

"Yes. What does that mean?"

The colonel shrugged. "I haven't the faintest idea. To continue: every mind knows its thoughts, every heart beats its chest, every mouth speaks its voice, every ear hears its name, every foot moves the toe."

"Every foot moves the toe? That sounds rather stupid."

"I didn't make the sword, M. Smith, I'm just reading it. The twelfth symbol says that every muscle lifts the sword."

"Twelve symbols, twelve powers… is that it?"

"Not quite. Look at the pommel."

Mark bent his head over and looked at the pommel. Written in faerie fire was another symbol, even more complex than anything else they had seen. "What does it say?"

The intercom suddenly buzzed. "Sir, M. Treschi is here to see you."

"Send him in." Rashid answered, and then motioned for Mark to put away his sword. As Smith did, an Italian man in a business suit, slicked-back hair, with a fiendish grin came through the door. Mark looked in disgust and Andrea looked back in the same way. The assassin was clean-cut, well-trained… that disgustingly perfect "All-American" type (as they used to say in the pre-Fed days) that everyone wants to be and hates to see in others. King couldn't have cared less about what they thought about each other; they were both doing a job for him. "Ah, M. Treschi, may I present M. Smith."

"I know." Andrea answered, with a coy smile. "He's had his picture plastered over the newsvids since yesterday. Apparently someone co-opted the Rage's security cameras."

"Who would have thought?" King answered with his own knowing grin.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Smith shot back, eyes blazing with fire. Mark knew he had been set up; he hadn't realized how far he'd been set up, though.

"Captain Treschi here not only told me where I could find Clarke, but also how I could patch into the cameras, so I could watch." Rashid twirled his fingers in a lazy pattern. "It just so happens that I recorded it… so I could watch it again when I'm feeling blue. So I could realize I've put my greatest rival out of the way and watched you do it."

Mark leaped to his feet. "Why, you little…"

"I happened to send that tape to the newsvids, because after all, everyone wants an exclusive. So now, you're the most known criminal in the Federation, and every were-creature will be aiming for your head."


King leaned forward. "Unless you come work for me. I'm tired of asking, M. Smith. I will have you on my side, one way or another. I can protect you, change your identity, change your face, and train you to reach your destiny. Or you can take your chances out there. Despite how good you've become on your own, the element of chance is always against you. Someone will eventually put a plasma bolt through your head and you will be quite… dead."

"Who cares?" Treschi interrupted. "I was promised certain considerations, sir, and I've come to collect."

"Of course." King answered, and suddenly a mechanical device popped a plasma revolver into his hand. As the clip whirred to life, the force field came down, and the colonel fired. The plasma bolt ripped into Andrea's body, knocking him down to the ground. Smith could only watch as Treschi gasped for breath on the carpet, the dark burn mark charring his chest, his mouth coughing blood.

The commandant came out from behind the desk and spat in the smuggler's face. "Before you die, remember this. Never demand… never demand ANYTHING from me!!!" Rashid kicked him for good measure, hearing the painful moans of Andrea as he lay dying. The head of InSec frowned down on his as he cocked his head to the side. "Don't worry, M. Treschi. I will not let you bleed on my carpet." With a snap of his fingers, Andrea disappeared in a flash of light, leaving nothing behind.

Smith moved for his sword but the commandant snapped the revolver towards him. "Don't. I care less for you than I do for him." Stepping back towards the safety of his desk, the colonel breathed out slowly, as if trying to calm himself. "It seems you have a choice, the same choice I offered before. I won't kill you, unless you force me to. After all, you've already done what I wanted."

"What if I choose to walk out that door?"

"Then you walk… and become the most famous assassin of all time. Of course, you'll be dead in two weeks, since every gun in the Fed will be after you. Even you can't dodge them all."

"But you'll protect me?"

"I'll train you, M. Smith. I can change your face, your speech patterns, even your brain waves, but even I can't save you from everything. I'm offering a chance at life… and a destiny. The choice is yours."




            Major Dimiye walked towards the room where the press conference was being held. Word traveled fast through the systems about the holocaust the Eastern Bloc had committed on Epsilon. The death toll was catastrophic to say the least; over 56 million people had been vaporized instantly. The Eastern Bloc offered no explanation or accountability for its actions. Now all sides of this war were screaming for blood. Dimiye knew that it was his job to give it to them. That's what this press conference was all about.  At least we all agree on something, Dimiye thought.

            On his way, he passed Colonel Wolfe. "Good morning, sir." Dimiye said.

            "Good morning, Al." He answered none too cheerily. "Are you ready for this?"

            Ready, yes. Happy about it, no. "I suppose it's necessary, sir. A lot of people want to know what happened down there." Dimiye replied, not totally convinced by his own words.

            "Excuse me, Major Dimiye!" Came a voice from behind him. He turned to see a young male adjutant from the press corps running towards him. "You'll need this sir." He said as he deftly slapped an insta-patch on Dimiye's arm. Well, not that deftly; it took him a few moments to find room on Dimiye's uniform. Satisfied, he moved away quickly in another direction.

            Alistar looked at the newest decoration on his already ornamented, overly garlanded, "Christmas Tree" of a uniform. It was a black patch with a distorted death's head skull; the same one that adorned the helmets of his brigade. It read "86-61st DEAD BOY BRIGADE" at the top, with something below in Hermetic Latin, that he couldn't read. He stood there staring at it in disbelief.

            Wolfe searched for something to say. "It should be good… for morale?"

            "Yes." That's the only thing keeping me from ripping it off right now! "Yes, sir… morale."


            General Russell Fargus was the first to speak to the assembled crowd. The rest of the general staff was positioned behind the podium along with a few colonels. Dimiye recognized that he would be the most junior officer to speak; window dressing, he realized. The general's speech was brief and eloquent.

            "I'd like to finish by saying that the atrocities committed on Epsilon have done nothing but strengthen our resolve to take back Port Arthur, by any means necessary!" Fargus ended with a flurry of applause. One by one, each of the generals went to the podium to put in his or her two centi-creds about the situation. Alistar's attention quickly drifted to the Righteous Army delegates sitting in the crowd. The Army had been the first to send representatives after the nuclear device had been detonated against Federation citizens. For days, the generals and politicians had been locked in sessions together; Alistar didn't like it. I refuse to fight along side those religious bigots, he thought.

            Much too soon for his taste, it was Dimiye's turn to make his speech; and he did so dutifully. Afterwards, the floor was opened up to questions. Most of them directed at Fargus and Dimiye.

            "Have you been authorized to use weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations General?" one reporter asked.

            "No comment." The general replied.

            "Have you been authorized to use these weapons at all?" asked the same reporter.

            "I cannot answer those types of question on security grounds."

            "Major, you have family living in Port Arthur correct?" another reporter asked

            Dimiye didn't like that one. "I hope there still living, yes."

            "How does it feel to come back home and liberate the place of your birth like a real hero?" asked the same reporter unabashed.

            He really didn't like that question. We haven't liberated it yet, you idiot. "I look forward to seeing my family again."

            "How long has it been since you've seen them?" a different reporter asked.

            "Seven years." he answered

            "Seven years?!" the reporter was shocked.

            "War is hell." Dimiye answered to a round of laughter.


            An hour after the dog and pony show ended, Dimiye was ordered to report to General Fargus' office. He entered to find a familiar scene waiting for him. Sitting behind his desk was General Fargus, facing a seated General Fabin and Colonel Wolfe, with an empty chair between them. Great Buddha, what do they want me to do now?! They all stopped their conversation and turned to greet him.

            "Have a seat, major, we promise this will be short and sweet." Fargus said.

            As he sat down, a chill ran through his body. Am I in trouble? What have I done that might… then a thought occurred to him. Oh Buddha, the prisoners! His mind automatically started constructing his defense. The EB's don't even take prisoners, they're lucky we still do. We were all in shock after the blast, that's why court marshals and executions didn't happen for half the fucking army! Then again, half the army doesn't get its face plastered all over the net as a war hero. This could be bad.

            General Fabin turned to him, Alistar knew Fabin had blood on his hands too. Maybe I'm over reacting. "Al," the general started in, "when we get to Port Arthur tomorrow, were gonna offer them terms of surrender."

            "Unconditional terms." Colonel Wolfe added, flanking him on the other side.

            "And the general staff has decided that it would be best received if you delivered it." General Fargus said.

            "Sir, with all due respect, you should be the one to deliver any message to the enemy." Dimiye said to Fargus.

            A sly smile played on all three of the men's faces. "Did you know they got a nickname for you over there? The slopes I mean." General Fabin said.

            They even know who I am?! Dimiye thought. General Fargus, wearing a broad smile on his face, slid a picture across his desk to Dimiye. The picture was of a giant humanoid with two, four, six, eight pairs of arms, and a demonic head surrounded by a nimbus of blue-white light. Below the grotesque figure were the words Tou Mu, God of the Northern Star.

            "No." Dimiye said.

            The three men bursted into laughter. Colonel Wolfe grabbed him by the shoulder. "Sorry Al, I'm afraid it's true."

            Dimiye thought of the big board in General Fabin's office. Tou Mu? "So that's what Tou Mu means!" He directed at Fabin, making the three men laugh even harder.

            After awhile, General Fargus spoke. "Gentlemen, please. Major, this is the speech you will deliver to the Eastern Bloc commander holding Port Arthur tomorrow. The fleet is scheduled to be at battle stations at 0900. Have it memorized by then." He said handing Dimiye a data pad.

            Alistar quickly scanned through the speech. "Sir, are we prepared to follow up on this threat?"

            "By order of Auntie Sarah herself." Fargus said. "Dismissed."


            At 0900 hours, Alistar was ready. For a change, the fleet had gotten into positions earlier than expected. He was lead into a comm room by techs that were supposed to make all the magic happen. After a few minutes of adjusting lighting, setting room tone for his voice, and other various details, they left. Left alone, he admired the view he had of the battle to come. Arthur 2 loomed beautifully in the distance, as did all the stations surrounding it. From this distance, he could make out the forms of the Eastern Bloc ships set in a battle line along the planet. None of them looked bigger than cruisers or destroyers. He didn't know ships that well, but there weren't that many anyway. He looked for orbital defense platforms, but saw nothing, so he accessed the ship's sensor grids from the station he was at.

            There were no orbital defense platforms; the Bloc hadn't had time to rebuild them. Alistar found that he was also correct with the ships, the largest standing in front of them was a heavy cruiser. After the two crushing defeats their fleet had given them at Hadley and Epsilon; this was all the Eastern Bloc had left in the Federation. Dimiye had no idea the Eastern Bloc's fleet had been so demolished. I guess we did 'bust up their little ships and send 'em home to mama.' he realized.

            As he poured over the sensor data, General Fargus appeared on one of the screens. "Are you ready, major?"

            "Yes, sir." he replied.

            "Good, transmission will commence in ten seconds." Russell answered, then the screen went blank.

            Alistar braced himself, it was a very long ten seconds. Eventually, the hail was answered and an Asian man appeared on the large screen in front of him. "Federation vessels," the computer translated, "withdraw from this vicinity or face the consequences!" Dimiye knew what the consequences would be. The many stations in orbit would turn into balls of bright light before him. He went into his speech.

            "I am Major Alistar Dimiye, speaking on behalf of the Earth Federation's 5th Army. You are hereby ordered to surrender unconditionally all arms, men, holdings, and vessels in and around the system of Port Arthur into our custody."

            "And if we do not!?" The computer translated again.

            Dimiye had practiced this part of the speech for hours. "Then we will turn our ships to the Showa jumpgate and destroy all surface life in that system. We will continue to do so to all worlds currently held by the Eastern Bloc until Port Arthur is surrendered to us."

            He relished in the shock and fear showing in the face of his Asian counterpart. "You have one hour to comply." Before the oriental could reply, he terminated the transmission.


            It was the longest hour of Alistar's life. Nothing moved; every ship and trooper hardly even stirred as they waited for the EB's response. It was as if the universe were holding its breath. Finally, a message came through the channel. The same oriental man appeared, but he looked different somehow, as if he aged five years in a single hour. "Federation vessels," the computer translated again, "we… we accept your terms. All of our ships have stood down; our troops are laying down their arms."

            Dimiye resisted the temptation to sigh. "Thank you, sir. Prepare to be boarded. Dimiye out." The major quickly cut the connection.

            The cheering came from all sides as personnel rushed in to thank the conquering hero. The chant when through the crowd, "Dimiye, Dimiye!" Finally, Alistar relaxed and cheered himself, joining the celebration as the campaign was finally over.


            Two hours later, he was beside General Fargus on the troop shuttle heading toward the main orbital station. There was half a battalion of his brigade's best troopers in front of them and an entire legion of reporters behind. Luckily, they were all segregated, and Russell and Alistar were alone in one of the side storage rooms. The general had asked to speak with the major privately, and hoping for any chance to get away from the reporters, jumped at it. Fargus sat down on one of the crates scattered around the place and relaxed. "Major, have a seat."

            "With all due respect, sir, I'm too anxious to sit down."

            Fargus took off his cap with its two stars and scratched his graying head. "I've served in the TI for twenty years. I've learned that if you don't rest while you can, you won't get to when you need it." He slapped his cap on his knees. "You know, I volunteered for this shit? Back when the Civil War broke out… the last one, I mean, I knew I was a year or two away from the draft, but I signed up anyway. Wanted to go fight the Liberation, free the Fed, all that crap. I did it, all right. I fought along side some big names. Did you know I actually knew Abdul Johnson before he became Grand Council Chairman? Most self-righteous prick I ever knew… well, not counting myself, of course."

            Dimiye couldn't help but smile. "Yes, sir."

            "Now this happens. All of this, the Council, Bad Andy, alien invasions, and… hmph, Auntie Sarah."

            "I guess we make do the best we can."

            "No… we don't, major. We fumble around and hope for the best. Every goddamned time; we hope and we fight and we get nowhere. It's going to be different this time. I'll make sure it's different."


            "Major, which side are you on?"

            "On ours, of course."

            "That's not what I mean, Dimiye. I mean, what's important to you? What do you believe?"

            "I believe in the TI, sir. It's all I've got left."

            A knock at the door cut their conversation short. The general put his cap back on and shouted, "Come in!"

            Sergeant-Major Benjamin walked through the door. He smiled for a moment when he saw Dimiye, then turned to the general. "Sir, we've reached the dock."

            "Good." Fargus stood up. "Well, major, let's take you home."


            The Dead Boys had cleared the way quite nicely, with all of the EB troopers assembled in nice, orderly rows. Their weapons were stacked off to the side. As Fargus and Dimiye stepped onto the well-worn deck plates, they could hear the noisy clicks and whirring cameras as they made their entrance. The crowd of weary civilians pressed closer as they moved forward. They looked tired and thin. Alistar could guess what happened here already. Even so, the major felt the sense that he was finally where he belonged. He was home.

            The general stepped forward and addressed the crowd. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have fulfilled our promise, and kicked the Eastern Bloc out of the Federation. We have restored order and dignity to our citizens again. Port Arthur… is ours."

            Someone started clapping, then the crowd joined in, followed by the reporters. Soon the whole bay was filled with thunderous applause. Yes, Alistar thought, I am home.




“Whacha gonna du?!” He cackled in cyber space. He was confident that the newbie hanging around the BBS asking questions was a total weefle runner. For someone of his near god-like abilities, virtually speaking, BeBop6 was rubbing in his superiority. “Hell wha kinna runner uses his real space handle?” He laughed across from him in the virtual privacy chamber, M_Creed cursed a blue streak as he tried to talk BeBop6 into giving him the information he was looking for. BeBop6 smiled and launched into another verbal tirade as he made M_Creed’s virtual image suddenly lost all its clothes and his genitals shrink to microscopic size. Meanwhile BeBop6’s real world body lay comfortably in a reclining chair, his eyes closed as his mind interfaced with cyber space. The same could not be said for Miro Creed.

"Third door on the right.” The landlord finally caved in as Miro continued to pour credits into his hand.


Creed had returned the hotel just in time to catch the police beginning to sweep for witnesses. Of course, they had wanted to question the personal bodyguard of the missing Priscilla Savant. Miro had complied, making sure to keep the PO's recorder disconnected with the precinct database. Creed hadn’t wanted to give out where he was at the time. Eventually, he managed to get the PO to tell him what had happened. A nearby guest had reported a disturbance, and upon entry into M. Grey’s and M. Mendota’s suite, they had discovered the two men's bodies. Both died of a plasma bolt to the head. Mendota’s appeared to be self-inflicted. A search was made of M. Savant’s suite and the room had been wrecked. All three had had their personal computers wiped by an unknown party. Miro had managed to talk the PO into letting him look around.

            He had agreed with the report that Mendota had shot himself. There was backwash burns on his hand. Nothing else seemed out of the ordinary. He had checked the three personal computers and that was where the mystery deepened. Priscilla’s and Mendota’s had been wiped by the same person and in a moment of pride, the hacker had actually left his online name. BeBop6 had been encrypted and hidden it deep in the system… but computers couldn’t hide much from Miro.

            Grey’s, on the other hand, managed to. The wipe was total and irreversible.  There was nothing to be found, but indirectly, it gave Miro a clue. The wipe pattern was recognizable to him, even if the contents were beyond retrieval. The TI had some experience with the Horadrim ability to work with Terran computer systems. Their wipe process was tailored to prevent a Horadrim from drawing forth information after a clean sweep. However, it left dozens of tell tale signs; Miro spotted it after a few minutes.

            The TI lead was important but useless at the moment. BeBop6, however, was a name he could find. It turned out to be easier than he thought. The little prick was cocky. After leaving the scene, (of course, telling the officer he wouldn’t leave town), he had immediately shifted his thought process into dual mental sub routines. One entered cyberspace and within minutes had managed to track down BeBop6. Meanwhile the other subroutine guided him through the streets of Babylon into the seedier section of town. The virtual self continued to trace BeBop6’s carrier wave despite the many layers of encryption BeBop6 maintained on his deck.

            Miro walked past the landlord and to the specified door. He fashioned a thin probe with an optic sensor and inserted into the old style keyhole. Meanwhile BeBop6 was laughing at M_Creed’s virtual growing a penis from his forehead. Miro closed his eyes and transferred his vision into the probe. He quickly spotted BeBop6’s meat self; rather unimpressive. He was pretty fat and clad only in an old pair of shorts as he lay reclined in a chair next to his cell deck. Miro concentrated on the probe and shifted it to pop open the tumblers on the lock. He popped open the door and quietly walked in and closed the door behind him. He relocked the door and pulled his plasma revolver from his coat. He walked over to BeBop6 and put the plasma emitter to the middle of his forehead.

            “Wake up, fatboy.” M_Creed smiled in virtual space as all of BeBop6’s pranks vanished. BeBop6’s virtual face showed his surprise as Miro picked up BeBop6’s wallet from where it sat next to his cell deck. “Don’t like fatboy? How about Edmund Filks? Does that sound better Edmund?” BeBop6’s virtual face went from horror to shock. Immediately he ordered a Cyber Arrow program; it was designed to remove a user from cyberspace by rebooting their cell deck. It formed into a glimmering arrow and streaked toward M_Creed only to shatter into a thousand tiny fragments. Horror shifted to panic. He fired off a Death Shrike, trying to overload his deck, as well as burn the fucker. Of course, that was strictly illegal black ice, and just as ineffective as the first program. Now BeBop6 went from panic to total hysteria. He decided to use his ace and unleashed an InSec Shatter Star anti-personnel program. This program would cause an overload to the cell deck but it would localize it and literally burn the victim’s mind out. It soared toward M_Creed and both vanished.

            “SHIT!” Edmund Filks cursed as Miro yanked the interface lead from the fat man’s head. Reality slapped back making Filks convulse and vomit on himself. He recovered a minute later and promptly urinated himself when he saw Miro standing over him with a drawn plasma revolver pointed at his head. “Oh God, please don’t kill me!”

            “Nice piece of ice you got there with that last one.” Miro stated flatly. “Where did a little shit like you get something that slick?”

            “I bought it.” Edmund blubbered.

            “Bullshit.” Miro replied knowing that he was lying. His bioelectric aura told him that plain enough. Even without it, Creed knew enough to know you didn’t buy a Shatter Star. At least, not for any kind of money that fatboy could pull together. “Time to start telling the truth or we see how well you interface with your brains burned to a crisp.”

            “Honest, dude.” Filks protested. Miro pressed the plasma revolver against his forehead.

            “Fried or extra crispy?” Miro asked.

            “All right, man!” Filks bawled. “I got it from this government stiff.”

            “And why would a government stiff give you something so dangerous to a weefle runner like yourself?” Miro asked.

            “I cleaned out some computers for him dude.” Filks replied. “Priscilla Savant’s, actually.” Filks' eyes narrowed and lit with recognition. “You’re her new lover aren’t you?”

            “If you want to talk about sex life, let’s discuss yours.” Miro answered as he lowered the plasma revolver down to the man’s groin. “Like how you are going to beat off without a dick.”

            “It’s the truth!” Filks cried.

            “Who was the government stiff?”           

            “He never gave his name.” Filks replied sobbing. “We met in cyber space. The whole deal was done through cyber space.” Miro smiled and pulled the revolver away.

            “Good boy.” Miro stated with a grin. “If you don’t mind, I’m gonna borrow your deck. You don’t mind do you?”

            “Take it dude.” Filks answered quickly. “Be my guest.”

            “Now here’s some advice.” Miro stated, holstering his plasma revolver as he lifted the deck. “The folks you’ve been dealing with just killed two people. I doubt they're gonna let you live. If I were you, I’d disappear.”

            “Okay.” Filks stated cautiously. Miro stepped away and started for the door. Filks surprised him by suddenly rushing him. He never had a chance.

            Miro spun away and caught the back of Filks’ head and continued it into the wall. Filks staggered back and managed to catch himself by sitting on the table. A thin stream of blood trickled down his face.

            “Are you fucking stupid?” Miro cursed setting the deck down next to the doorway.

            “Fuck you.” Filks cursed. “And fuck that bitch you’ve screwing.”

That was a mistake. Miro had managed to put his concern for Priscilla in the back of his mind, but Filks had just set something off. Creed moved quickly across the room. He threw a six shot combo into Edmund’s head and stomach. The fat boy started to collapse but Miro lifted him up and snapped another combo followed with a kick that broke several of Filks’ ribs. Edmund collapsed and Creed shattered his ankle with a stomp. Miro wasn’t done though. Creed yanked him to Filks’ feet.

            “You little shit.” Miro seethed. He then grabbed his head in his hands and cracked the table with his face. Creed stood over the shattered form as Filks managed to roll over. Miro grabbed his good leg and shattered the kneecap… then he dislocated the leg. Finally, he shattered his right pelvis with a stomp of his foot.

            “Oh, God!” Filks sobbed. Miro silenced it with a kick that broke Edmund's jaw and knocked him unconscious. Creed stood over him for a second before turning, retrieving the cyber deck, and leaving the apartment.




Since they'd captured the planet, Malachi had been looking for someone. Actually, two people; Max Thames and the one he mentioned, one of his "formers." He had seen no other rescued prisoners so far, but he figured the only way Max could know he'd fought two of his former troopers in one battle is if he'd captured both.

After searching for several hours, he soon realized that the only familar person he'd met was Elly Ragdowski. The sergeant had reported him missing after his capture, and after finally getting a bead on his whereabouts, had come looking for him again. "LT?" she said, coming up suddenly behind him.

"Yeah?" After being caught in a crossfire, chased by angry troops, and getting captured, nothing scared him anymore.

"Sir, I've got a handle on our losses." Ragdowski's eyes drifted down to the rifle. "What's that?"

"A present from an old friend. What's the damage?"

"Two dead, three wounded. Old friend?"

"Don't ask. Which ones?"

"Ericson and Collins are dead.  Cromwell, Klawien, and Wolsky injured.

"All right, not great, but it could be worse. Do you know where our POW's are being kept?"

"No. Why?"

"Have you heard of anyone else rescued other than me?"

"No, you may have noticed, we've been kinda busy."

His search had given the lieutenant a headache. "All right, then. Do you know where Captain Kraai is?"

"Ummm, she's meeting with our brigade commander. Why? What's going on?"

"I'll tell you later. I've gotta go." With that, the trooper went back to his battalion's position. After checking on his platoon, Spyder took a hard look at the rifle and the clip. It didn't have much ammo left, but he could deal with that later; with the blueprints he'd found, he could have his company begin producing the rifle AND the ammunition.  He jammed the blueprints into his letter along with a few instructions for Bob and Hope.  In a short amount of time, he'd have more ammunition, and an extra rifle.  That is, if it all went as planned. 

The hope of finding this other person, whoever Max was talking about, was a driving obsession in his mind. He needed to find him… her… who knows? Doubt started to creep into his mind and he truly wondered if he would even know them if he came across them at all. As he reached the former drugstore which was now brigade headquarters, he waited for Kraai to appear. He didn't have to wait long.

Jada walked out and caught Malachi's eye quickly. "Spyder?"

"Can I speak to you for a moment?"

Kraai nodded and smiled at him. "Funny. I was supposed to find you."


"Never mind, that can wait. What is it?"

"Was I the only one held at the prison in Talavera, ma'am?"


"Could you tell me where I could find the other person?"


"The man who captured me, he was a former commander of mine, and…"

"Not real friendly, I assume?"

"No, ma'am, he tried to kill me when I was under his command."

"I see, but how does this connect to the other person we rescued?"

"My former CO said that I was the second former subordinate of his he'd captured."

"I see. Well, I promise I'll look into it for you." A look of gloom suddenly came over her face. "Now that you're here, we get to go see Major Eerdman." 

Spyder raised an inquisitive eyebrow. "We?"

"You'll see." she answered, leading him into the store. The place was buzzing with activity. Maps of the city were covered with different control sectors, danger zones, and secure areas. In the midst of all this chaos was the blush-red Major Eerdman, maneuvering three computer consoles at once. "Sir, this is 2nd Lieutenant Malachi Spyder."

Eerdman looked up and noted his presence. "Ah, lieutenant. You'll forgive me if I don't get up. I'm in the middle of ten things, all of them annoying."

"Yes, sir."

"I'm hearing that you took out two platoons of the enemy by yourself, is that true?"

Spyder coughed. "With a lance cannon, yes."

The major stopped and stared at him. "You know what this means, lieutenant?"

"I killed 42 of the enemy?"

"It means that you're doing your job too effectively. It means you're ruining my org chart."

"Your org chart, sir?"

Eerdman looked bored as he pulled out two boxes and put them on the desk in front of Spyder. "By order of Brigadier General Zonda Zschau, commanding officer, 137th Legion, you are awarded the Bronze Star for gallantry." He opened the first box and the medal was there. "Captain, if you would do the honors?"

Kraai reached down, picked up the medal, and pinned it on his beige service uniform. "Congratulations, lieutenant." she smiled.

With a tonal growl, the major opened the second box. "Also by order of General Zschau, you are promoted to the rank of captain, and are to be reassigned off New Madrid at the earliest convenience to a posting to be decided by the Bureau of Personnel."

As Jada pinned the captain's rank on his uniform, Malachi went dumb all over. Me, he asked himself, a captain? I haven't done anything to earn that! Of course, he wasn't about to give it back. As Kraai stepped away, an overwhelming pride filled him; he felt he could fly.

The major's gruffness brought him back planet-side. "The Vishnu's taking off back to Avalon in a few hours. Be on it."

"Yes, sir."

By the time Eerdman said "Dismissed," he was already back working at his screens. Jada just looked at him with a warm smile he had never seen before.

"Congratulations again, lieu… Malachi."




            He was glad to get away from “Pint” for a while.  His three “escorts” (more like prison wardens) took him to a restaurant where he could meet a mind mage who would teach him some of the basics of his sphere.  If they hadn't been teaching him how to control his magick, he would have left the Resistance right after the Rage incident.  As it was, he tolerated Kash and company in exchange for some rudimentary arcane knowledge and news on the outside world.  He would only get bits and pieces of information on current events back home at the Cent—

            “Damn it…” Hex whispered to himself.

            “We’re here,” said the faltering voice of the brown-haired man sitting next to him.

            The car came to a stop, and they all stepped out of the car at the same time.  The doors closed in unison.  Hex thought nothing of it.  He had already learned that probabilities mean nothing.  Over there, said a voice in his head, and he knew which way to turn.  Hex couldn’t wait to learn how to keep all those damned mages from toying with him.  He faced the small Malaysian restaurant and recognized it immediately.  It was the same one he had blown up in Maine City.  That can’t be right.  That restaurant is—was on New Paris.  That’s not just improbable; that’s impossible.

            He walked straight past the two reincarnated guards and went through the door right next to the bathrooms.  The guards followed him.  By the time he reached the steps, they pulled out their plasma revolvers and started shooting at him.  He knew they would miss.  The stairway had seen better days though.  He turned around to face the two men he had already killed once.  Since he was unarmed himself, he jumped to disarm them and even the odds.  However, when he tried to take the revolvers from the two men’s hands, he ripped their hands off as well.  Blood sprayed all over him as the faceless corpses fell to the ground, their hands (those that were still attached) clawing at his feet.  He turned around to face the other resistance personnel that came to the top of the steps to kill him.  He pulled a katana out of the back of his coat and leapt to the next floor instantly.  He thrusted its tip deep into the throat of the first guard, immediately cutting through the right side of his neck, then spinning around to his left and disemboweling the guard behind him.  He was covered in blood already, but when he finished killing the rest of the guards, he could taste the blood in his mouth.  Then he saw himself—not in the mirror, but as another person would.  His right arm was shattered and his right shoulder was completely gone.  He had killed around ten people… and as he watched himself, he spit the blood out of his mouth that had sprayed in from all the corpses.  He was an animal; he hated himself.

            Wake up, Hex.  It’s only a dream.

            No, It’s real.  I lived this.  It happened.  I was there, damn it!  I did this!  That’s me standing there—suddenly the image of himself disappeared—the whole picture before him disappeared.  All he could see was the back of his eye lids.  “Damn you.”

            “I’ve done nothing but try to help you understand how my sphere of magick works.  I felt it was the best way.”

            “I’ve died eleven times in the past two days,” Hex said, his eyes still closed,” running through your training programs.  I can live with that.  I’ve had to break my arm twice to get it to set right using life magick, and that hurts like hell.  If that’s what it takes to learn life, fine.  Tell me how digging around in my memories helps me learn mind?”

            The mind mage that he was supposed to meet in the restaurant paused, trying to come up with an answer. “Kiddo, I’m usi—“

            Hex rose from the couch and grabbed Simon Jasper—who looked exactly like the brown-haired man from his dream—by the throat.  “My name is Hex, and those are MY memories, damn it!  Don’t touch them!” 

Okay, Hex heard in his mind.

He tightened his grip.  “And stop doing that!”

            Jasper looked at him for a moment and then rubbed his eyes. "All right, we'll stop for today."

            Hex got up off the couch and stood up. "Thanks." he grunted out, before walking out of the room.


            The boy found himself in front of the holoproj, trying to catch up on the news… for the past fifteen years. He was glad he was able to process the information quickly, and thankfully, they had a good filter system here. He had passed through the vestiges of the 2nd Civil War, seen the rebirth, and now the beginnings of the present troubles. The imbalance of power in the Senate, thanks to the old Harrington daughter corporations fighting each other, had led to the TI faction losing power in the general election of November 2242. A faked bug attack had failed to disrupt the government, leading to Auntie Sarah's coup, and of course, that failed, too. Stealing an entire fleet, she took it with her to Phoenix and tried to seize the yards there. You would think that three times would be a charm, but nope… lost again. Ran to New Tokyo… ah-ha! Victory at last; soon the central systems flocked to her banner, and that's when every alien government rushed in to take some of the leftovers. Now Enoch and the Eastern Bloc are pretty much kicked out, the K'Nes never really took much, but the Jurvain have a significant foothold.

            Man, he thought, it's amazing how fast things go to shit.

            Suddenly, a group of people burst into the room, starting to grab whatever they could find, shoving it into their packs. "What the hell is going on?"

            Cerise rushed over to him. "We hit the Raptors' headquarters! We gotta get out here!"


            "Because they captured two of our people! This base is compromised!"

            Hex rushed back toward the office of the partitioned warehouse. He could see Kash talking with one of his flunkies. "The gate to Earth is closed, you know that."

            "We could try and get to New Paris." The woman next to the leader replied.

            "No, our cell there was wiped out a month ago. We have to go somewhere we can hook up with Vitek."


            "That would be the first place they'd check. No, the military route to Babylon is open to commercial traffic. We'll go there."

            "Why there?" Hex interrupted.

            "Because, Hex, it's only one jump from there to the Eden System, which is held by our friends."


            "And it's the last place they'd look for us." Kash turned towards the woman. "Tell Dan to ready the ship. We leave within the hour."

            The woman departed, leaving Hex standing before the Resistance cell's leader. "What if I don't want to go?"

            "Then don't." Kash blew him off and went back to the office, presumably to pack all the weapons he had stashed there.

            Hex wasn't going to be brushed off that easily. He followed Kash into the office. "What?"

            "You heard me, Hex," the man said, throwing as much stuff as he could into a bag on his desk. "You're old enough to make your own decisions. If you're not happy with us, I'm not going to force you to stay." Several plasma revolvers got shoved into his pockets. "Personally, I wouldn't blame you. Sometimes I wish I could just walk away. But I can't."

            Sealing up the bag, the boy put his hand on Kash's arm. It felt warm, but it was… strange feeling. "Why? Why can't you walk away?"

            The leader instantly became a father, placing his hands on his shoulders. "The Resistance is my family, Hex. I love them. I fight for them because I believe what we're doing is right. When you find a home and a family, I hope you'll do the same for them."

            "I've never had a home." Hex said absently, then realized that he meant it.

            "Your choice." Kash let go and grabbed his bag on the way out the door. "Coming?"




            Commodore Erich Von Shrakenberg rode the shuttlecraft in silence.  This would be his third new assignment in less than a year, and his second promotion in rank.  He should have been proud.  Taking two ships into combat as captain, surviving two battles against incredible odds, and coming through it all covered in glory would have made him swell up with pride only a few months ago.  Why then did he feel nothing but dread?  Why was he suddenly so cold inside?  Why was he filled with doubt?  Erich didn't know. 

            The armada of head-shrinkers at the hospital told him it was post-traumatic stress disorder.  He certainly had enough reason to feel that, but Erich had been in the Fleet for more than twenty-five years.  He had been in combat many times, often against superior enemy forces.  He had faced death, both in the vacuum of space, and in close-quarters gun battles in seedy spaceport bars.  Okay, going out alone in a spacesuit to toss a satchel charge at a 750,000-ton Jurvain battlecruiser was possibly a new level of personal danger, but dammit, that had worked, and was over now. 

            So why the bad dreams?  Why the sudden doubts about the rightness of his cause, the justice of his chosen path in life? 

            Something was wrong… but Erich hadn't the faintest idea what. 

            He chased such thoughts from his mind as his new ship swam into sight through the viewport.  Okay, it wasn't HIS ship.  Erich had been commanding officer of his last four ships, starting with a tiny little Barclay-class PF, and through two destroyers and a light cruiser.  Erich wished wistfully that his career could have taken him to the usual next step, command of a heavy cruiser or even a battlecruiser, but the Grand Council didn't want to risk their new "war hero" in an assignment likely to get him killed. So he was promoted to commodore, and given a nice, safe staff slot aboard the star control ship that also served as flagship of Task Force 54. 

            It was a magnificent ship.  The EFS Hachiman was an Ares-class SC, over 10 kilometers long, one of the largest warships in human history.  In fact, the only bigger ships the human race had ever built were the massive constructor ships that built digital gates.  Erich longed to command a vessel such as the Hachiman, but he didn't have the seniority yet for such a post.  The irony was, however, that as Operations Officer for Task Force 54, he got to write the battle plans that the captain of the Hachiman and the other 23 warships in the Task Force had to carry out.

            On paper, it was an impressive force: one star control ship, two Electra-class assault dreadnoughts, a single Enterprise-class heavy carrier, four battlecruisers, two heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, six destroyers, and four frigates.  All the fleet could spare, stretched as thin as they were, trying to protect over a dozen star systems all at once.  Of course, this mission was designed to reduce the threat to several of those star systems.  If it worked, the fleet would be able to safely transfer most of the ships out of several systems, concentrating them for a strike elsewhere.  If it worked.  If it failed, the fleet would be stretched too thin to carry out any more offensive operations, and the war would be as good as lost.  Of course, as bad as things were going lately, that was true of every mission. 

            It was a sad state of affairs, but that's the way it goes with civil wars.  That thought brought Erich back to his earlier, more depressing thoughts and worries.  Oh well, at least this time he would be working under Uncle Karl.  Admiral Karl Von Shrakenberg was too senior to be commanding a little probing raid like this, but the Admiralty wanted to make sure this one worked.  Either that, or they wanted to make sure that if things went badly, at least they would wipe out all the Von Shrakenberg clan at once.  Johanna Ingolfsson, Erich's cousin, was commanding the EFS Palomino, one of the frigates in the task force's escort screen.  Erich's other cousins in the fleet, Erwin and Frederick, were officers on two of the cruisers.  And his younger brother Manfred was exec on board the EFS Kursk, one of the battlecruisers.  Even his Academy roommate, Terry Carter, was in the task force with his ship, the EFS Shenandoah.  It was a regular family reunion of sorts. 

            The shuttle approached the Hachiman's starboard docking bays, and Erich put all these thoughts out of his head as he prepared to disembark. 


            Admiral Karl Von Shrakenberg looked over his Task Force staff.  "Okay, damen und herren.  Our forces are assembled, and vee haff completed loading all supplies.  We are ready to depart for our primary objective.  Some of you already know our primary objective."

            The briefing screen behind him lighted up with a familiar schematic of a nine-planet system.  "We depart for Earth in two hours.  It's time to reclaim our home."

            The staff sat up straight in their seats.  The Sol system had been the most heavily guarded system in the Federation at one time.  Then a Bug meteor had wiped out almost the entire population of Earth itself.  There had still been over a quarter billion people in the system, on Mars and the Moon, and on a couple dozen smaller outposts such as the Jovian moons and several larger asteroids.  The system had still fallen to the Resistance, however, when the TI insurgents had seized the garrison and pulled out of the system. 

            "Resistance is expected to be light, if you vill pardon the pun," continued the Admiral.  "The so-called Resistance is belieffed to haff only a tiny, insignificant fleet, but if they are allowed to retain control of the Mars and Ceres Main shipyards, that won't last for long.  Ve haff to deny them those resources."

            The diagram behind him zoomed in to show the orbit of Mars and the Ceres Main shipyard in the asteroid belt.  "Ve haff two objectives.  First, ve must smash the shipyards in the belt and in Mars orbit.  Ve could do that with a cee-fractional strike, like at New Madrid, but then ve wouldn't be able to carry out our second objective."

            The diagram switched to a chart of known warships that had been captured by the Resistance, as well as several others that Fleet Intelligence believed might have been completed in the shipyards since the system fell.  "Ve must also draw out the Resistance fleet into a decisive battle and destroy it.  If ve only flash through the system at half-cee, anything that survived our first pass vould simply pull out of the system and vithdraw to Wolf or Elysia.  As long as the Resistance has a fleet, they are a threat to rear-area systems and our supply lines.  Ve have to force them into an engagement against a superior force, so they can be destroyed."

            The diagram zoomed in further, to just Mars and its two moons, Phobos and Deimos.  Admiral Von Shrakenberg's voice caught briefly in his throat.  "To force them to stand and fight, ve haf to give them a reason to fight.  Ve haff thus been ordered to bombard Mars, Phobos, and Deimos with mass drivers.  Our orders are to obliterate all above-surface structures, including all colony domes.  Then ve vill move on Earth itself.  The Resistance vill have to stand and fight, or ve vill bombard Earth as vell.  The near-Earth asteroid Cleopatra vill be in position to be diverted to Earth Orbit.  The EFS Hachiman vill grapple on to the asteroid, and use its gravitic drive to alter the asteroid's trajectory so that it will impact in the Eurasian Mainland.  It is belieffed that the dust vill intensify the existing ice-age conditions and cause temperatures to drop even further.  It is hoped that temperatures vill drop far enough to freeze the oceans to the seabed. "

            A tear ran down his right cheek as the elderly Admiral continued.  "It is belieffed that the Resistance on Earth vill surrender vhhen they see the asteroid coming.  If they do not, ve have orders to allow the asteroid to impact as I described.  Once this var is over, and with the Resistance crushed, ve vill be able to terraform Earth back to habitability within another generation… maybe two."

            The Admiral wiped away the single tear and forced his voice to sound normal again.  "Any questions?"  The staff was too shocked to reply.  "Dismissed."


            After the briefing, Erich retired to his quarters.  His personal data console was beeping; there was a message waiting. 

            "Accept message," intoned Erich tiredly. 

            "Level Blue password required for message delivery," demanded the console. 

            Erich's eyebrows went up.  Level Blue information was pretty high-level stuff, detailed tactical battle plans and such.  Information so important that if it fell into the wrong hands, it could blow operations and cause thousands of deaths.  "Identify, Commodore Erich Von Shrakenberg, password Barbarossa". 

            The computer console flashed and the face of Admiral Vorheis appeared. "This is a recorded message, Commodore.  It will automatically be deleted once it has finished playing.  I have a warning for you.  You are being set up again.  It is absolutely imperative that you do not carry out your orders as given.   The fate of the Federation rests on your shoulders."




Xinjao was looking at shuttles on-line when the call came.

            Having been in the Fleet for almost half his life, with decent pay, free room and board, and his only real expense being his …entertainment, he had accumulated a nice sum in banked credits.  Now he sifted through online catalogs, trying to find just the right personal shuttle to buy.  Small, fast, with armor or a point defense grid… and he’d be willing to pay extra to have stealth equipment installed.  He needed a way to escape when InSec came for him… they were watching him… they were out to get him…

            His console suddenly beeped an incoming call. Glancing over, he saw it was Commodore Clarissa Frampton - one of the Phoenix Yard’s Deputy Administrative Officers, and his immediate boss.  The call was marked urgent.  Quickly tossing his inflatable doll out of view, he hit the comm channel.


            “O’Reilly, what’s your status?” the middle aged blonde demanded.

            “Ma'am?” O’Reilly replied, confused.

            “What’s Dock 14’s repair status?”

            “Oh… good.  Life Support’s back up to full, we got the new weapons mounts installed, but th..”

            “Already?” Frampton asked, mildly surprised.

            “Yeah,” Xinjao nodded. “Smitty’s good at his job.  Why else would we put up with his crap?  Anyway, the mounts are up but they’re not hooked into the power grid yet. Our power systems are back up and running, but were having problems with the fuel storage tanks.  Most systems are back online, be we have a lot of bugs in them,” Xinjao continued, only he catching the double meaning.  “DuCroix’s working on them.  The armor replacements are going slowly… I don’t know if there’s any way to speed up zero-G construction.”

            “That’s good, commander,” Frampton said grimly, “but not good enough.  We need the weapons mounts operational ASAP.  Any problem with the fuel storage system is unacceptable - we can’t afford a systems failure in the middle of a battle.  You’ve got to do better, O’Reilly.  We need all systems go in thirty-six hours.”

            Xinjao was taken aback by the unexpected criticism.  He thought they were making good time with the repairs!  He struggled to fight down his defensive instinct and get more information.  “Commodore, I assure you my crew’s doing the best they can with the resources and manpower available.  Some of the repairs, like the glitches in the computer systems, are simply gonna take time.”

            “This deadline is not negotiable, Commander,” Frampton said firmly, stress clear in her voice.  “Everything in Dock 14 has to be battle ready in a day and a half.  Vice-Admiral Toboas has authorized mandatory overtime for the construction battalions, so spread that news to your foremen.” 

            Xinjao was silent staring back at her, trying to absorb all the information, churning a response over in his mind. What she was asking was unreasonable -- maybe even impossible -- and he suspected she knew that.  He wanted to argue, but he could tell it would do no good.  Yet he still couldn’t agree to the orders if he knew he couldn’t deliver.  Finally, he chose the only response that seemed safe.

            “Yes, Ma’am,” he replied obediently. “ We’ll do the best we can to meet the deadline - we’ll pull triple shifts if we have to.  But we’re gonna need more labor and more equipment if you want us to succeed, Ma’am.”

            “The Light Infantry garrison has been instructed to assist with repairs,” Frampton agreed, nodding. “I’ll send two platoons your way.  Equipment’s spread pretty thin, but let me know what you need and I’ll see what I can do.” Xinjao was right; all she wanted was a promise to do his best.

            “What we really need,” Xinjao pressed, “is a mage/engineer, or some sort of specialist in paranormal technology.  Do we have any on the station?  The fuel storage tanks have a magickal design in order to hold all the reaction mass we need to power the dock, and most of us are in the dark on it. That’s what’s causing the delay.”

            Frampton let out a skeptical sign.  “I’ll check into it, but I can’t think of one off the top of my head.  If I can’t find one, find some other way to fix the tanks, O’Reilly.  Failure is not an option, Commander.  Frampton out.”

As the screen went dark, O’Reilly spun around in his chair and let out a deep sign.  What the HELL was that all about?!  He needed a few seconds to absorb everything and organize it in his mind.  He had seen a lot of disturbing non-verbal signals in his superior officer’s actions - she appeared not just stressed, but apprehensive… maybe even a tiny bit panicked. 

It only took him a few seconds to figure it out.  The stress… the sudden deadline… the demand that repairs and upgrades be completed… there could only be one reason.  It wasn’t official yet, but he knew

O’Reilly jump out of his chair, grabbing his toolbox and uniform as he went out the door.  Sleep would have to wait.  He had to call an emergency meeting for his foremen… they had a lot of work to do.



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Text Copyright (C) 2000 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.