“All the world’s a stage, every word’s a note, and every day is filled with songs you never knew you wrote.”

                                                                        -- Volkskrieg Overdrive, “Pull The Strings.”


Damnation, I have been spotted!

With control just this side of panic Lt. Jon Walters attempted, even though he knew he would not be fast enough, to bring his weapon to bear on the armored figure bearing down on his position.  Suddenly the weapon arm of his nemesis was blown completely off at the shoulder and he dropped.

Thank God Lear was as good as he said he was.  Now you’re mine, asshole.

Concentrating on his target so that he would not miss, Walters was completely surprised when the hill he was laying on burst into flames.


Damien sat very still, considering his next move.  His spiker rifle was slagged, and if they thought him still combat capable, they would shoot again.  His plasma pistols were trapped beneath his power armor, and with one arm he could not reach them.  Although there was only a light roll to the hills, without the ability to watch the full battle, Damien could not lead his troops effectively.  No good tactical strategy presented itself.  The land had too little cover for any kind of attack, especially with the enemy perched on top of the only hill.

Leviathan, take command.  I am not to be retrieved.  In the event of my destruction, continue with the mission.

His final orders transmitted, the machine concentrated on the situation at hand. 

Rebel TI troops were being massacred, and all of their leader's party is incapacitated and dead.  The enemy soldier is still cloaked nearly five feet away.


Private Lear quickly finished setting the rods just to the left and right of the weapons barrel; he then removed the safeguards from the Plasma Cannon turning it on full auto.  The weapon bucked back and forth, between two strategically placed rods, spraying the hill in front of it with white-hot death.  Lear then scrambled 100 yards to the rear to a position he had picked out earlier in the day.  Whoever tried to take out that gun was going to have to reveal himself to the trooper… and Lear did not miss often.


Damien didn’t dare move under the onslaught of the plasma cannon ripping into the ground. Present as little of a target area as possible. Mark 100 PA can withstand several glancing blows. However, the situation didn’t lend itself to staying still for long. The machine soon realized the pattern of the shots. Plasma cannon is firing in a simple pattern; if timed properly, one can eliminate the obstacle.

 The nanotech and normal clotting having pinched off all major arterial damage to his arm, Damien allowed his adrenalin boosters to kick in.  Saturating his system with the drug, his muscles began to shake lightly as the hormone fed them.  By then, his neuro-processors had worked out the pattern. Ready to move forward in 10, 9, 8…


Recovering from his initial shock, Lieutenant Walters realized that since he wasn’t dead, the fire to his front could only be one thing. That’s covering fire, Jon, which usually means it is time to get the hell outta Dodge.  Triggering his dent-com, he screamed “Cover me, boys, I’m falling back to your positions now.”

“Sir,” replied the frantic voice of Corporal Stroebel, “the bastards in the power aren’t alive, well, at least I don’t detect any brain activity.  I think we may be facing cyborgs.”

Diving into a convenient shell hole, Walters gave a quick response before leaping for the next piece of cover.  “Cyborgs? Great, just what I needed to hear.  Birdie get on the horn and let Division know what we are facing.”

“Division, this is 3rd Platoon, 1-811 Scouts, we’re facing severe resistance and request immediate…”

Unfortunately for Private George “Birdie” Williams, his frantic call for help did nothing more than reveal his position to the nearest cyborg.  When it fired the jump-jets on its suit, it leapt over to the trooper’s position, guaranteeing that no further messages would get out. 

“Birdie’s down,” screamed Private Tegs, as he rose from his position just five yards from Pvt. Williams corpse and unleashed his entire arsenal upon the cyborg, reducing it to slag.  Within seconds, he was also cut down.


As his counter reached zero, Damien wasted no time.  Grabbing one of the fried guns around him, he maxed out the suits power charging the hill.   At point blank range they quickly appeared and slowly turned, time seemingly slowed by the excessive overdose of epinephrine hormone.  Jumping and firing in midair, he was knocked riddled with plasma rounds and hit in the lower leg with a spiker round.  He lay on the ground, his armor shelled off of him by the massive plasma hits.  He lay on the ground, unable to move, the pain editor overloaded.  As he saw them turn back his arm came back online.  A plasma rifle lay nearby, and he grabbed it slowly.  Running his field cleaning procedures file, he slowly disassembled the rifle with his one hand, plasma rounds flying wide across the sky from both sides of the battlefield.  Grabbing the main plasma battery, he placed it !next to his smoldering leg.  Grabbing the trigger assembly, he switched the polarity and held the cylindrical battery and trigger into the air. 

Damien, your model can not handle that extent of EMP, do not...

As his user interface went hazy, he pulled the trigger, and went black.


Diving into a position close to Sergeant. Links, Lieutenant Walters was finally able to take a second and contemplate his situation.  “Sergeant, you’ve had a better view of this than me, what are we facing?”

“Well suh, I’ve seen about sixteen hostiles…” Suddenly there was an explosion, and their chameleon circuits went dead. “What the hell?”

“EMP… shit!” Jon cursed. “Fall back!”

Just then, the Dead Boys seemed to come to life, charging down the hill towards them. The insanity of the firefight around them burst into ever greater chaos. With some charging, some retreating, and some standing still, many on both sides didn’t make it.


Working… repair circuits have repaired aural unit.

“Shee-ooot! Hey, Hass… you ever seen so much crap in one place?!”

The salvage leader spat out piece of his cigar. “Will you stop flapping your gums and get hauling! We gotta scoot before the Techs get here to clean up the mess!”

The charred battlefield was a vision of hell. Blackened soot covered everything as the trees that had covered each side had been burned down. The ground was saturated with plasma holes and bodies lay everywhere. None of this mattered to the salvagers, hoping to grab some junked tech for a quick repair and sell. There were always other groups that wanted power armor components.

“Hey, look’ee here!”

“Come on, Moe, we’re on the clock here!”

“Relax, Hass, the TI’s too busy fighting on the other side of town! They won’t get here for days!”

“Better safe than sorry, now come on!”

“This one looks good!” the salvager grabbed one of the corpses.

Pressure sensors indicate contact.

“Throw it on the flitter, damn it!”

“What about the corpse?”

“Throw it on, too! We can extract it later and put it in the decomposers. Now get that counter-grav unit movin’ and let’s go!”

Sensors indicate movement by portable counter-grav unit. Logic processors on-line. Action suggested: power down all extraneous systems, put all efforts into maximum repair. Persons present are considered minimal threat, require full function to automate higher functions. Shall we proceed?





            “Vorheis can blow me!”

            With that enlightened comment, Xinjao O’Reilly entered Top Brass, the elegant bar down the road from Earth Fleet Headquarters.  After their, long, tedious debriefing, they were both famished, and O’Reilly was dying for a tall, cold beer.

            “Look, I know the Fed’s between a rock and a hard place…” Leisa reasoned, making a token attempt at objectivity, “but, I mean, come on!  No invasions of the Righteous Army?  A squadron of cruisers could mop up the rest of their Navy in a month!  What is she thinking!?”

            “It’s all fucking politics,” O’Reilly bitched as he made his way through the quiet murmur of the crowd to the bar counter.  On some level, Xinjao realized with mild interest that something was out of place… for this time of night, with this many people, the bar should have been a lot noisier.  He ignored it, however, and continued ranting.  “Apparently, the Federation’s full of churches who’ll throw a fit if we actually invade the Righteous Army -- probably want a negotiated settlement or some bullshit like that.”

            “You can’t negotiate with Bad Andy,” Leisa said, shaking her head.

            “I know that.  You know that.  No one else does!  No one realizes how dangerous these fanatics are, and it’s fucking pissing me off! Bartender!” Xinjao snapped after the bartender failed to even acknowledge their presence at the bar.  The barkeep barely looked at them as he poured their drinks, all the while keeping his eyes glues to the vid screen… just like everyone else in the bar. Fucking sports fans! O’Reilly thought briefly.

            “So Vorheis won’t attack the fundies…‘cause she doesn’t want to piss off the churches and undermine the war effort,” Leisa reasoned, sipping her whiskey & soda.  “Great.  Just fucking wonderful.”

            “And we sit here on our asses and let Bad Andy rebuild.  It’s good politics, but it’s horrible strategy.” Xinjao declared, pausing to light up a cigarette.  “This war is too important to be left to the goddamn politicians.”  He slouched glumly at the bar, a Guinness in one hand and a Marlboro in the other, depressed as hell.  Strangely, he had dreamed of this indulgent moment for months while captive in the repressive culture of the Christian Federation, light years from the nearest beer.  Now that it had finally arrived, however…well, after the bad news about the offensive, it felt strangely empty. 

            “I don’t know about you, O’Reilly,” Leisa said quietly, staring at him evenly, “but I have no intention of sitting on my ass.  I didn’t escape a labor camp deep in enemy territory just to be stopped by paperwork.  There’s gotta be a way to get an offensive rolling against the Christian Federation… some Admiral somewhere… and I’m not stopping ‘till I find them.”

            Xinjao threw her a sideways glance.  “Yeah,” he agreed quietly, sipping his Guiness again.  “I’ve been thinking about that, too.  It’s not insubordination just to ask around, right?”  He took a drag of his cigarette and released the smoke slowly.  “I’ve been in the Fleet for fifteen years.  I got a lot of people I know and favors to call in.  Hell, a friend of mine just made Rear Admiral of the home fleet… and he’s got no love for the fundies, I can tell you that.  Maybe I can arrange something…”

“I’ve got some connections, too,” Leisa mused, lost in thought.  “I might be able to pull some strings… talk to the right people… Hell, if I have to fight them in a transport with a pistol, I will!” she declared.  “They’re not getting near the homeworld.  After Auschwitz?  No way in hell.  I’ll die first.”

O’Reilly didn’t catch the reference. Must be some Jewish thing, he figured as he watched her through the tobacco smoke.  Yeah, she was a bit psycho, sure… but he had to admit, he respected her spirit.  Few soldiers were true warriors; this one was.  Too bad she was only a non-com…

“Say,” O’Reilly said suddenly, switching topics, “you gonna take them up on that offer for OCS?”

Leisa shrugged.  “Maybe after the war.  I haven’t got time for that right now,” she answered, sipping her whiskey.  “I’m trying to win a war, not build a resume.”

“Shame.  You woulda made a good officer. Fleet could use more like you.” O’Reilly said, putting out his cigarette.  “Well, if it’s time you’re worried about, you could always check out VOCS.”

“VOCS?” Leisa asked, shaking her head.

“Virtual OCS.  Kind of a new thing I heard about,” O’Reilly answered, lighting up anther smoke.  “They jack you into a VR processor and download the whole course into your brain.  I think Earth Fleet got the idea from the TI… only they use chemicals or something.” He paused for a quick drag. “It was designed for emergency field promotions in forward bases, but they’ve probably got one here at Fleet HQ.”

“Yeah, like I’m really going to plug my brain into a computer,” Leisa scoffed… but she had a thoughtful look in her eyes as she returned to her whisky.  Well, at least I got her thinking about it, Xinjao thought.  He drained his glass and looked around for the bartender… who was still watching the vidscreen.

“Hey!  Bartender!” Xinjao called out, losing patience. “Can we get some food or what?”  The barkeep reluctantly turned to get their order, then suddenly stopped when he saw their uniforms.

“You guys are Fleet?”

“Yeah… is that a problem?” O’Reilly snapped, being more of an asshole than usual.

“Shouldn’t you guys be up there?”

“Up where?” Xinjao asked, irritated.

“Space!  Jesus, there’s an army advancing on the capital, and you guys are out drinking?!”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Leisa asked, confused.

“You don’t know?” the bartender asked, surprised and angry.  “Jeez, what am I paying taxes for?  Haven’t you seen the newsvids?” he demanded, pointing.  They followed his finger to the screen.  To his surprise, what Xinjao had assumed was a soccer game was actually a live emergency news broadcast.

“…Avalon Action News, bringing you live updates from the capital, where Technical Infantry soldiers are advancing on San Cristobal.  Admiral Vorheis has declared a state of emergency and evacuated the recently-reformed Senate to a safer, undisclosed location.  Earth Fleet Marines are being deployed around the capital city to form a line of defense against the approaching divisions, and their ships are monitoring the situation from orbit.  It has not yet been determined if these TI divisions have joined the Rebels, or are a separate faction altogether…”

O’Reilly absorbed the news silently.  Little in this war surprised him anymore.  Instead of shock, he just felt a deep weariness.  Leisa, on the other hand, had a lot to say.

            “What the hell is going on out there!?” she spat.  “And why don’t people tell us these things!?”

            “Well, so much for getting away from the front for a while,” O’Reilly said sadly as he threw some credits on the counter for his beer.  “Just one war after another… come on, we gotta report for duty.”

            “Is it an invasion?  A rebellion?” Leisa guessed as they headed for the door.  “A coup?”

            “Does it matter?” O’Reilly answered cynically.  “We follow orders and we fight.”

            “Let me get this straight…” Leisa said skeptically, “we’re having a civil war within a civil war?”

            “That’s about it, yeah,” Xinjao sighed.  “A bunch of kids fighting over who gets to play in the fucking sandbox…” he muttered under his breath.

            “And why do we risk our lives to defend this bullshit again?” Leisa asked sarcastically.

            O’Reilly stopped walking and turned to look Leisa straight in the eye.  “Because it’s better than the alternatives,” he answered.


            “You’ve been assigned to Aft Damage Control aboard the EFS Hyperion,” the officer at the terminal of the Earth Fleet personnel office said to Chief Horton, reading her orders off the screen.  “There’s a shuttle on landing platform two leaving for the Ark in fifteen minutes” she said, fingers flying across the keyboard.  “The Hyperion can send out a shuttle to pick you up from there.

            “Aye, sir,” Leisa answered.  Her first day on the new assignment was going to be interesting...

            “Captain O’Reilly… you’ve been assigned to the EFS Schaumburg,” the officer read off.  “It’s stationed at Nightingale Repair Base.”

            “How soon can I get there?” O’Reilly asked.

            “Well, we can send for a shuttle within the hour,” the officer started, searching through the files, “but the Schaumburg just came out of dry dock… except for the engineering staff helping with repairs, you have no crew.”

“No crew?!” O’Reilly burst out. “How the hell am I supposed to follow orders with no crew!?”

“They were all been reassigned to other vessels for the duration of the repairs,” the woman answered the angry Irishman with forced politeness.  “It would take days to recall the former crew or organize a new one… so unless you can find a crew somewhere, you’ll just have to sit this one out, sir.

 “God damn it, you shouldn’t have assigned me to a new ship unless it was ready to sail!” he shouted at the helpless woman, aggravated.  Poor organization and incompetence like this were two things O’Reilly simply couldn’t stand.  “Where the hell am I supposed to get a crew from?”

            “The Phoenix Resistance?” Leisa suggested behind him.  “I don’t think the crew from the McInerny has been reassigned yet…”

            The angry scowl on Xinjao’s face vanished and his eyes lit up as he spun around.  “Yeah… yeah, that might work…” he said, a distant look in his eyes as mind already launched into calculations.   “I’ll have to contact them… and get the transfers approved… it would take a few hours, but that’s better than a few days…right!” Xinjao spun around and headed for the door.  If you want the job done right …

            “O’Reilly!” Leisa grabbed his wrist and yanked him around.  Her brown eyes burned into his with a frightening zeal for a second.  “You’re not gonna give up on the crusade… are you?”

            “Never,” Xinjao answered, without a second’s hesitation.  “I’ll check with my sources, you see what you can do.  We’ll meet back here after this mess is over and go from there….  agreed?”

            “Agreed.  Good Luck, O’Reilly.”

            “You too, Horton.”  Xinjao lingered a moment, watching his former partner in the Phoenix Resistance stride down the hall to catch a shuttle to her new ship, then turned back toward the door.  She’s a rare one, that girl, he thought to himself, smiling.  They don’t make women like that anymore.


Several hours later found O’Reilly aboard a heavy assault transport docking in one of the Schaumburg’s landing bays, dragging with him as many of the McInery’s former crew as he could scrounge up.  He wasn’t able to get all of them transferred… but enough to form a skeleton crew for a light cruiser.  Of course, none of them were happy about their well-deserved shore leave being cut short, but O’Reilly had managed to convince most of them that their duties would only be required for a short time until the crisis was over, and that they weren’t in any real danger since there were no enemy ships in orbit.  A few... a very few… had volunteered.  The rest had to be drafted.

And it was a damn good thing there weren’t any enemy ships waiting for them, O’Reilly thought as he shuffled them off the transport once the bay had pressurized.  Sure, they were smart and capable, but few of them had any formal training in the jobs they were assigned to.  They had been able to guide the McInnery home on luck and a prayer, and they could certainly fly the Schaumburg… but if they had to engage in space combat… well… he’d rather not think about that.  He’d get a real crew once this was over.

As they opened the hatch into the ship, Xinjao noticed the engineering staff – the only members of the Schaumburg’s crew that had stayed on board during the repairs -- weren’t there to greet them.  He sighed in exasperation.  With the chaotic, disorganized mess caused but the crisis on the surface below, he wouldn’t be surprised to learn they had no idea he and the new crew were coming at all…

O’Reilly felt like a ghost as he led his crew down the familiar hallways of his old ship. In a way, it felt good to be home.  In another way, it felt awkward.  He was a very different person than the one who had been transferred off the Schaumburg mere months ago, and the warm memories of his assignment here were haunted by the dark specter of Herbert Gergenstein – his “best friend” who had betrayed him.  The whole damn time, Xinjao had been playing poker with the InSec spy he had never been able to find…

O’Reilly was relieved to hear voices talking and laughing as they approached the bridge.  It was the engineering staff – he could even recognize certain voices of his old staff as he approached the open hatch…Chief Tran, Collins, Miklusicak…

The Schaumburg’s engineering staff were sitting around the bridge surrounded by datapads and open beer cans running through post-repair diagnostics when O’Reilly swept onto the bridge, grinning like an idiot, followed by his crew of non-coms and yard dogs.

“Chief Tran!  How ya doing!?  Good ta see ya again!” O’Reilly burst out as he sized the shocked man’s hand and pumped it furiously.  “Hope you been taking good care of my ship, ‘cause we’re going to need all the juice she’s got!  I got a raw crew here, and I’m counting on you guys to help ‘em out.”  Xinjao dropped Tran’s hand and began directing his crew around.  “Ensign Higgins, flight control’s over there, see if you can figure it out.  Baisihk, tactical’s that console over there.  Maitri, the comm is…”  O’Reilly’s voice trailed off as he slowly realized no one was moving.  His crew was staring at the Schaumburg’s engineers… who were all staring at him…

O’Reilly looked around.  There was something unsettling about how his former staff now gazed at him.  “What?  What’s wrong?”  Xinjao asked.  “Have I got something hanging of my nose or something?”

“No, sir,” Chief Tran said, standing up and looking at him with that same weird smile, “everything’s fine.”

“What is it, Chief?” O’Reilly asked, confused and a little worried.  “The left one’s cybernetic, if that’s what you’re looking at…”

“No, everything’s fine, sir,” the short Vietnamese man replied.  Xinjao noticed the difference immediately; Tran addressed him in a far more formal, revert way than he ever had before.  “It’s… it’s just good to see you, that’s all.”

“Is something wrong, guys?” O’Reilly asked, looking around at them. “You’re all looking at me like… like…” …like I’m some sort of idol, Xinjao suddenly realized as a chill washed over him.

“Everything’s fine, sir, really!” Tran protested.  “So… you really showed those fundies not to fuck with us, huh?”  The other engineers all broke into chuckles and grins.  They’ve all heard about Phoenix, he suddenly realized.  I’m already some sort of dammed champion of Fleet engineers.

This was something he was not prepared for.  Short fat computer nerd porn addicts never expect to become legends.  For a brief, brief moment, O’Reilly almost wished he was back on the Pheonix Yards, scorned and ridiculed.  At least he knew how to handle that.

“Look, guys,” O’Reilly almost pleaded.  “I’m…  I’m the same guy that left a few months ago… I just saw a bit more combat than you did, that’s all…” It wasn’t true; he wasn’t the same person… but that didn’t really matter right now.  “And we got a job to do, so get with it, okay?  We got a new crew we gotta break in and not much time to do it in.”

“Whatever you say, sir,” Tran agreed. “Just promise to tell us all about it down in the mess hall later on.”

O’Reilly laughed, more out of nerves than anything else.  “Don’t worry, I got plenty of stories to tell!” he said as he walked over to Erich’s old command chair.  “But for right now, can you get down to the engine rooms and get the ion drive fired up?  The shit’s really hitting the fan downstairs, and we really need to join up with the rest of the home fleet.”

“Well… okay, sir,” Tran said, walking with him. “But, uh, are you sure we’re authorized to?  We still haven’t been assigned a new–“ he stopped abruptly as O’Reilly sat down and strapped himself into the captain’s chair.  “You’re the new Captain?” he asked, amazed.  He had assumed Xinjao was returning to his old position as Chief Engineer.

“Yeah,” O’Reilly answered, feeling more awkward than ever.  “That’s not a problem, is it?"

“No, sir…” Tran answered with a smile, “I think we can deal with that just fine.”




            Andrea Treschi looked up at the commandant of Internal Security and smiled. “Good, that’s what I was counting on.”

            “Why don’t you get to the point, colonel?” Herbert Gergenstein took a step down the stairs. “Since we’re both in political limbo at the moment, I think we can skip the pleasantries.”

            “We need to get back into the game. I think we can both agree on that.”

            “Depends. What do you bring to the table?”

            “Me.” Treschi pointed to himself. “A powerful card in its own right.”

            “For you, perhaps,” Gergenstein moaned, “for me, you might as well as be in someone else’s deck. In fact, from what I’ve heard, you are.

            “Wall’s been eliminated.” Lisa Quinlan spoke up, shifting uncomfortably in the suburban house.

            “Really? Did you kill him?”

            “No, but somebody got to him.” Treschi answered. “Otherwise, Vorheis wouldn’t have been able to move the Senate.”           

            Herbert stepped down another step. “Or someone made him a better offer. How do you know Vorheis didn’t go along with Wall’s plan.”

            “Please, colonel. We’re not that naïve.”

            The commandant smiled. “I guess not. May I be frank?”


            “Colonel Treschi, you no longer interest me. Your organization has been compromised, your men are under the command of Fleet, and your connections…? Let’s just say I don’t hold much faith in them. So if you’ll forgive me, get out of my house.”

            “Let me put it this way, Herb.” Andrea didn’t miss a beat. “Your organization is divided, it’s doubtful you’ll get restored under a Fleet-run government. From what I hear, they don’t like spies in their ranks. Face it, colonel, you need me.”

            “I don’t need any help from the likes of you, Treschi, now get out,” Gergenstein smiled in homicidal glee, “or I’ll throw you out.”

            “Stop it, both of you!” Lisa suddenly yelled. The shock of it stunned them into silence. She first pointed to the commandant. “You, stop acting like a spoiled brat and face facts. Anything you do will be countered by MacManus if you try to use your connections in InSec. You can’t talk to him directly, Treschi can. You need him.” Then the secretary turned on the colonel. “And you, let me remind you of some not-so-ancient history. The last coup attempt you tried failed because other people, namely King and Wall, got to it first. Most of your allies are dead and you have no one to fall back on. You need him.” Quinlan sighed as her rant died away. “Now work it out, both of you, or die separately. Your choice. Mother, could I get a cup of tea?”

            “Of course, dear,” the grandmother smiled, “this way.”

            As the two women went off into the kitchen, both of the men were humbled as they stood there. They said nothing at first, then Gergenstein managed to say, “Well, it seems she hasn’t lost her touch.”

            “Yeah…” Treschi muttered, looking at his shoes.

            “So where do we go from here?”

            “I get MacManus to sign on?” the colonel offered.

            “And you get us all off planet,” the commandant added, ”in exchange, we’ll allow you access to our mainframe and our assistance.”

            “Off-planet? Can’t you do it yourself?”

            “Fleet Intel has compromised our normal comm channels, M. Treschi. If we launched in one of our ships, the Home Fleet would pinpoint us and… poof.”

            “I see,” Andrea nodded, “but why leave Avalon?”

            “You said it yourself,” Herbert shrugged, “it’s doubtful InSec will get restored under a Fleet-run government. So… we turn to others who might be more open to our assistance.”


            Gergenstein smiled. “There’s more than one Federation, Colonel Treschi. Pick one.”


            Victor MacManus was looking at the schematics of an Ares-class Star Control Ship when the door exploded. The InSec major quickly shifted beneath the desk, grabbing the plasma revolver hidden there, and waited for the unfortunate soul to rush through the door.

            None came. Instead, a small ball rolled into the room, stopped abruptly, and activated its holoproj unit. Andrea Treschi suddenly stood there in shimmering color. “Major MacManus?”

            “Treschi? What the hell do you want?”

            “I’m just here to tell you that this projector is connected to a two-minute bomb. When it goes off, it will incinerate this entire block. Whatever escape route you may have planned, I doubt you’ll clear the blast zone in time.”

            Victor watched in dread fascination as the ball suddenly activated another holoproj, showing the readout of the time as it slowly worked down to zero. He closed his eyes and tried to teleport himself away… nothing happened.

            “This device, manufactured by friends of your erstwhile employer, was built in with a magickal disrupter, designed specifically to strengthen reality enough to prevent a correspondence jump. They’re amazing people, those orientals…”

            “What do you want?!”

            “I’m here to offer a deal. Since Wall’s gone, you may need some new employment. I’m happy to say that your former boss is willing to take you back…”

            “Gergenstein? Screw him! He’s an amateur!”

            “An amateur, perhaps, but he is the commandant of InSec. Which is more than I can say for you, whose about to be a flaming mess in…” the holoproj of Treschi looked over at the holoproj timer, “a little over a minute.”

            “So I join you? No deal.”

            “It’s better than the alternative.” the colonel looked at the timer again. “One minute.”

            MacManus looked at the false wall, wondering if he could still make it down the slide to the waiting flitter in time. “What do I do to get out of here… if I agree.”

            “There’s a lovely lady just outside the door. I think you may remember her, you tried to kill her once. However, she holds no grudges, but she does hold a counter-jamming device and a beacon. When activated, our correspondence mage will jump you to where we’re waiting.”

            “Where exactly is that?”

            The holoproj Treschi smiled. “Well, I’d rather keep that a surprise. 45 seconds.”

            Victor tried to break the magickal interference, but no matter what he did, the major couldn’t break through the strengthening of reality. “So what do you want me to do for you?”

            “Unite InSec, become deputy commandant… you know, the same old boring routine.”

            “Anything else?”

            “Well, we’ll leave that up to your boss.”

            “Tell me everything, Treschi.”

            “The beautiful thing about this is that I don’t have to tell you everything. Whoops, thirty seconds. Have you figured out how to break the interference yet or do you still need a way out?”

            MacManus finally got to his feet and rushed for the door. Lisa Quinlan was there waiting for him, smiling there holding the beacon. As Victor reached her, she held out her arm. “Take my hand.”

            The major did, Quinlan activated the beacon, and they disappeared in a ball of light… right before the building burst into incandescent flame.


            They materialized on board a shuttle, hovering above the exploded building, Gergenstein sitting there with another mage. “Ah, major. Glad you could join us.”

            “How could I refuse? The invitation was so… warming.”

            Herbert smiled as he knocked twice on the pilot’s door. On the other side, Treschi sat there with Cornelius, the dark-skinned man at the controls. Andrea smiled at his connection in the Fearless Jackals as he said, “All right, let’s go.”

            The shuttle took off, disappearing into the upper atmosphere, swinging around the moon, and disappearing into the void.




            General Edward "Lucky" Llangollen braced himself against the shaking and rattling of the tactical transport aircraft.  The large, ungainly atmosphere-only airplane fought its way through the lower atmosphere of Avalon above the capital city, with over a hundred power-suited troopers in the capacious cargo compartment.  "It looks like we have some sort of surprise," the general noted above the roar of the engines.  "At least, they aren't shooting at us."

            "Yet," his aide, Lieutenant Wolheter, reminded him, "they may not have changed their IFF transponder codes. When they do…”

            "Always the pessimist, aren't you?”

            "Devil's Advocate is in the job description, sir."

            "Then why the hell didn't you tell me this was a bad idea?"

            "You didn't give me the chance.” Wolheter replied. 

            "That's a terrible epitaph, lieutenant." Langollen shot back gruffly.

            "We'll be landing at Capital Field in five minutes," the co-pilot shouted from the cockpit. 

            “That’s even worse.” Ed snorted out a laugh. "We may be too late to grab the Senate, but they shouldn't be mad enough to bombard us when we're inside the capital."

            "Admiral Vorheis is staging a coup in the middle of a civil war that started because a high-ranking officer tried a military coup," the aide reminded him.  "She's already demonstrated that she's mad."


            "The troops are in place outside the capital," Johanna Ingolfsson reported.  The flag bridge of the EFS Zeus was being used as the command center for the coup leaders.  Since it had been designed in part to direct fleet battles and planetary invasions, it served the purpose admirably. 

            Erich Von Shrakenberg strode over to her display console.  "And the enemy forces?"

            "They've deployed in attack order along this line here," Johanna explained, highlighting the location on the map. 

            "They're pretty well dispersed," Erich noted.  "Mass drivers won't be terribly effective."

            "Not as effective as we'd like, but there are still command posts and artillery batteries that make excellent targets," Grand Fleet Admiral Kristen Vorheis stated, walking up to stand behind them.  "We have to make a statement here… and minimize our own losses."

            "I agree," Erich replied, "but we'll still need close air support to accomplish that."

            "Then launch fighters." Vorheis shrugged. 

            The rear admiral turned to give the order when Terry Carter ran over to him.  "Erich, it looks like some of them made it into the capital itself.  They've seized control of the landing field in the outskirts and are moving in towards the central district."

            "How many?"

            "Satellite reconnaissance shows three heavy atmospheric transports on the tarmac, we think maybe 500 troops at the most," Carter replied. 

            "We can’t use mass drivers that close to the city center, drop some of the reserves where they can block their advance," Erich ordered. 

            "What about the ones holding the airport?"

            "Nuke them." Kristen answered, walking over to the pair. 

            "Within the city limits?" Von Shrakenberg asked incredulously.  "We can't possibly…"

            "We can't spare troops to dig them out." Vorheis interjected.  "If they hold the field, they can fly in reinforcements, and even more civilian deaths will result.  I don't like it, but we have no choice."

            Erich pursed his lips.  Well… in for a centicred, in for a credit.  "Of course… you're right.  But not nukes, a couple mass driver rounds should suffice.  It's bad enough we're bombarding the capital, we don't want radioactive fallout in a civilian zone as well."

            "Of course." the admiral sounded bored as she turned back to the master display. 


            General Llangollen's command APC drove at high speed down the wide boulevards of the capital city.  "We still can't raise HQ on the tac comm net," Wolheter reported.  "They must have switched frequencies after that terrorist attack took out the old building."  The Loyalist TI was now run out of a converted office building a couple miles from the former location, since the old military headquarters building had been destroyed by an attack by the XES units. 

            "Either that or they switched frequencies." Llangollen decided.  "We'll have to assume any units we encounter from now on are hostile."  If we don't get to HQ, Vorheis will be able to rally the remaining troops around the capital to her side, saying that WE are the ones attempting the coup, he though to himself.  Well, we are, but so is she, damn it…

            Suddenly, the armored vehicle shook a lot harder than usual.  "What the hell was that?" the general demanded.  "The mother of all potholes?"

            "No, sir." the driver responded, pointing at the rear camera display that did the job of an old rear-view mirror.  The center of the display was washed out by a very bright explosion.  As the display cleared up, they saw four massive mushroom clouds rising into the air behind them. 

            Lieutenant Wolheter was flabbergasted.  "Nukes?! In the city, are they mad?"

            Edward was less shocked.  "No, I've seen clouds like that before.  Big mass drivers, probably from an Ares-class ship." 

            "They must have hit the airport," the driver observed.  "Scratch bringing in any more troops that way."

            "Yeah, but I doubt they'll hit a target as small as this convoy with that." 

“Yes…” The driver suddenly swerved as a lance cannon took out the lead scout vehicle in the convoy.  The other six APC's in the convoy suddenly pulled to the side of the road and disgorged their troops, under heavy fire from the rooftops on either side of the street. 

            "Get into the buildings," ordered Lucky over the comm net.  "Get out of the street, now!"  As troops scrambled for the doorways and the cover of the passages between buildings, a roar was heard overhead.  "Everybody down, now!"

            Wolheter had a brief glimpse of the Crusader strike fighter as it flashed by overhead, then lay himself flat on the ground as thousands of small explosions flashed on the ground around him.  Snowflake clusters!, flashed through his head. Every surviving APC and several dozen parked cars went up in flames from larger guided bomblets from the same dispenser pod.  The aide stood up and checked himself.  Aside from a small crease along the side of his helmet from a ricochet, he was all right.  He looked around.  No one else was standing up.  Either they're all dead, or they're too smart to stand up in the middle of a firefight. The shock finally washed over him and he dashed for cover.  From underneath the shattered remains of a porch, he watched the brief flashes of light from plasma bolts and heard the chuff, chuff of railguns as the firefight resumed.  After a few moments of desultory gunfire, he saw power-suited troops leaping down from the tops of the buildings and checking bodies.  Without a weapon, there was no choice.  When one came close to him, the aide stood up and raised his hands.

            The battle had taken less than a minute. Within that time, the aide was the only one of the New African troops still alive in that part of the capital. 


            In the southern suburbs, the situation was much different.  There were two brigades of Marines hastily dug in along the raised embankment of a gravlev line, and three brigades of General Cao's troops were trying to get around them.  General Cao was talking to his operations officer in a forward command post.  "They can't delay us for too long, we have them outnumbered already, and more troops arrive by the hour," the General said.  "But every minute they do delay us, things seem to get worse."

            The operations officer nodded grimly.  "Back when we were in New Africa, the fleet battle above kept most of their ships away from the planet.  Now, every ship they have is busy pounding us from orbit.  Every move we make is observed from space, and they have more transport assets to move troops to plug any gaps even when we do achieve a breakthrough."

            "We can’t win without more air support.  Can our new friends get us any?" asked the general. 

            The operations officer shook his head.  "General Llangollen went to the capital with a detachment to try and seize TI HQ.  We haven’t been able to contact him for half an hour."  He looked up from the map at his general.  "I don't think we can expect any more help from Lucky."

            "Shit." the General observed.  "We're trapped on this planet.  We don’t have a single recon sat in orbit, no fleet support, no resupply, no hope of rescue.  Now we've managed to piss off the only people we could have even surrendered to.  What else can go wrong with this mission?"

            "Are you suggesting we try to surrender?" asked the operations officer quietly. 

            "That's no longer an option," General Cao reminded him, "but we can still salvage some sort of victory." He stabbed his finger at the map.  "If we can break through rapidly enough, we can get through their lines and into the capital itself.  There, among the civilian population, they dare not use their air power or orbital weaponry against us.  Concentrate all forces along this highway here."

            "If we bunch up like that, they will be able to do even more damage with their mass drivers," the operations officer observed. 

            "We'll just have to take that risk," Cao responded.  "If this works, we won't be bunched up for long.  Speed is of the essence."


            The small amount of artillery that Llangollen's troops had brought from New Africa opened up fifteen minutes later, and started blowing a hole in the lines of troops defending the capital.  Troops in power armor poured through the gap thus created, supported by a handful of hovertanks.  Once through, they kept going. 


            "They're breaking through into the suburbs." observed Terry Carter quietly.  "We have to stop them now or never."

            "We're out of reserves," Johanna agreed, "and half our fighters are out of ammo and fuel."

            "Well, then…” Kristen nodded, “we have no choice, do we?". 

            "No, we don't." Von Shrakenberg agreed.  "No choice at all."  He keyed the comlink to the main bridge of the Star Control Ship.  "Begin bombardment at these coordinates." he ordered, feeding the targeting data into the computer.  "Well, that's the end of that." he observed quietly to himself, and sat down heavily.  The mythological Zeus could hurl lightning bolts down from the heavens.  Is that so different from what we are doing?  The god Zeus also killed his father, Cronos.  And, by bombarding our own capital, that's pretty much what we are doing as well.  Not content with overthrowing our own government, we're now acting like gods.  How the hell did it come to this?  He wasn't content with any of the answers he came up with.  Just because something is better than any of the alternatives doesn't make it right.  Erich sat there and impassively watched the impacts on his monitor.  It seems like I should cry, but… I can't.  And that's possibly the saddest part of it all…


            The mass drivers on the EFS Zeus and several other ships began firing on the battle below.  Massive gravitic coils hurled ingots of steel massing up to 500 tons down through the atmosphere.  With the acceleration from the launchers added to the seven kilometers per second orbital velocity of the ship, plus the boost from falling down into the planet's gravity well, the masses of metal fell downward with truly astronomical velocities.  When they hit the surface, the kinetic energy of their fall was converted into heat, resulting in multi-kiloton explosions and craters measuring up to 500 meters wide.  The barrage walked backwards from the leading edge of the enemy advance, and the masses of troops and equipment pouring through the gap had nowhere to go.  A hundred thousand soldiers died in ten minutes.  The barrage kept moving backwards, spreading out to the sides once it was past the lines of friendly defending troops.  When the ships ran out of mass driver projectiles, they fired fusion cannon shells and lance torpedoes without warheads, using the bodies of the projectiles as kinetic weapons.  Non-atmosphere-capable fighters hovered at the outer edge of the atmosphere, firing missiles down under computer control to add to the barrage. 

            When it was over, all that was left of two suburbs and several square miles of surrounding farmland was a cratered moonscape and patches of dirt and sand fused to glass by the intense heat. 


            "Well, that's the end of that." Admiral Vorheis flatly stated, a satisfied air creeping into her voice.  "Time to inform the Senate, then make my announcement to the press.  We have to put a careful spin on this or the outlying planetary governors could rise in revolt. Carry on."

            The grand fleet admiral strode off the flag bridge and Erich watched her go.  Damn you for making me do this, he thought at her back, damn you to hell.




"Gabe?" Pollos' eyes raised. "You're Gabriel?"

The vampire stepped back slowly. "Yes, M. Pollos. I think we have much to discuss."

His hand clenched the now cold drink in his right hand, "We do?" Xavior could now feel his throat drying in the stillness of the room.  All of it made him rather uneasy.

"M. Pollos, I know exactly why you are here.  I understand what you are looking for.”


“Come now, M. Pollos, you would have not sought me out if you were not entwined with the doings of Al-Hazen.  At one point, yes, I did have Luos in my possession. However, that was a long time back.”

“What happened?”

Daphonston nodded his head back to the corner table. “Why don’t we have a seat first?” He looked back at the pregnant bartender. “Sorry to disturb you, Mary.”

They walked over  back to the table and sat down. “Well?” Xavier asked.

“I was double crossed by The Black Hand… they took my ship and everything I had on board. You could say I have a score to settle with them.  You are the key to my revenge.”

Damn keys, I wish people would stop saying that to me! "I am no one’s key.  I am Xavier Pollos and I run my life.  All I want is Luos, I want nothing to do with the Black Hand."

"Fair enough, but our goals are linked, since right now, your glove is in the hands of the Black Hand.  Helping you get that glove will help even the score."

“That’s it?”

“Come now, M. Pollos, you didn’t come all the way here to barter. You need my help, I need yours… simple as that. The universe has amazing symmetry.”

"There’s just a couple things that doesn’t make any sense.  How in this world can I trust you? Or for that matter, how can you put that much trust into a total stranger?  Then there is the hassle of keeping you alive; I don’t really feel like dealing with that.” Xavier smiled evilly.

“Without me, you’ll never be able to find Luos.  Without you, I’ll never be able to gain my revenge. It’s not a question of trust. It’s a question of convenience.”

“Why don’t I just cut the truth out of you?”

Gabriel looked at the window. “Because I would fly out that window before you got the chance.”


“Fly.” Daphonston laughed. “Do you really believe my kind would have survived for so long if we didn’t know how to escape fools like you?”

"Fine… then let’s go.  The sooner we get this over with, the sooner I don't have to see your ugly face." 

The vampire turned to him with a cockeyed smirk. “Whatever makes you happy, M. Pollos.”

It didn’t take long for the two men to make it to Xavier's craft. The pilot watched them as they came in. “Heh, heh… have fun?”

“Shut up,” Xavier shot back, walking over to the navigation controls. “Would you mind?”

The vampire strolled over to the star charts and looked over them carefully. Finally, Gabriel nodded and pointed to a place. "Here. We have to get to this point." 

"Heh, heh…. where?"

“Wilke’s Star."  Pollos read off the charts. “Get us there.”

"Heh, heh, heh… no way, man… heh.”

“Why not?”

“Crossing the border, big ships, heh, heh… too dangerous. More money."  The little pilot gave the assassin a huge grin.

"You are a fucking weasel."

“Weasel, heh, heh… only a weasel’s getting through those jumpgates, heh, heh, heh. Anything else, heh, heh… BOOM! Heh, heh, heh…”

Pollos dialed out a sufficient amount of credits on his chit and showed it to the crazy pilot. “Well?”

The door suddenly slammed shut and the pilot hit the engines. The two of them barely had time to get to their seats before they left the Proxima system behind.


It took a week to reach there. Whoever this freak of a pilot was knew his job. Jumping back to Avalon, they didn’t stay long before jumping out to Babylon. Since it was a contested system, they flashed one ship authorization code to the Loyalists, whipped around the main planet, and then flashed another to the Rebels. Once given permission, it only took a few more days to reach the heart of the TI Rebellion.

A week had been too long for the assassin. Every day he lived with the freak, the more he drove him crazy. Since Gabriel claimed the back compartment as his own domain, he was forced to sit up from with the pilot. Day upon day, he contemplated killing the bastard, but he was the only one who keep the crate together.

Finally, they reached the system, and Daphonston managed to reappear from the rear chamber. “Take her to the dark side of the main planet.” The vampire quickly cycled through the planetary maps, until he focused a small peninsula near what pretended to be a sea. “There.”

As the small craft made its way towards the landing point, a good distance away from the point Gabriel pointed out, Xavier noticed something through the window.  Through the black and the clouds, he could see some sort of old-style castle; built to shield everyone around from the harsh weather.

            The place had a dark look to it.  Everything was too still and no one was around.  Xavier sensed something was wrong.  It was all too easy.  The two shadowy men walked from a mile away to reach the side tunnels of the old castle.  "We have to go below. That’s where your precious glove is."

            Pollos waved toward the opening. “You first.”

            “You have the sword,” Gabriel smiled, “what are you afraid of?”

            Xavier snorted a laugh. “You’re the only one who knows the way.”

The vampire shrugged his acceptance and led the way. They slowly made progress as they went down the strange tunnels, digging into the foundation deep beneath the castle. Finally, they reached a grate in the floor, light beaming through it. "I have been waiting for this day for a very long time.  I hope you’re ready."

"What are you talking about?" Pollos whispered back.

"They know we are here… I can sense it."  The vampire showed Xavior his fangs.  "It has been a while since I saw one of my own kind." Gabriel lifted up the grate and got ready to jump down into it. “It’s time.”

They both jumped into the room Xavier had been looking for.  Landing on their feet, they soon appraised the situation. The room looked like a cave, except that the walls were smooth, and the entire place was filled with stuff. Gold, silver… treasures beyond imagining. However, in the center of the room, was a small statue; a strange carving, like it stepped out of some vampire fable. It was fully decorated with gold rings and necklaces, except for a simple metallic glove on its right hand. Not any kind of glove, Pollos realized, Luos.

Xavier walked over, reached out, and took the glove from the statue.  It slid off easy; it felt like it had no weight whatsoever.  As he slid it onto his hand, which came so naturally, the assassin could feel everything in his body change.  "This is what I have been looking for."

You’ve the one I’ve been looking for.”

Pollos was so lost in amazement at the glove it took a few seconds for him to realize what the vampire said. “What?”

“I said, you’re the one I’ve been looking for.” Daphonston stepped back toward the collection of treasure as twelve more vampires suddenly stood up behind other piles of gold.

“You betrayed me?”

Gabriel smiled. “One cannot betray if trust was never given.”

Another figure stepped out of the shadows. Dressed in elaborate designed fabrics, his face was definitely Hispanic, even though the paleness of his skin confused the viewer. As he pushed the strands of curly black hair out of his face, he turned toward the visitors. “Is this him?”

“Yes, Santino,” Daphonston nodded, “he’s the one you sought.”

“Thank you. Lord Modred thanks you for your help.”

“I serve the true master.”

Xavier soon understood what was happening. “You work for the Black Hand?”

Gabriel smiled. “Do you know how hard it was to make sure your hacker found me? How long I had to rot in the Dark Zone for you to find me? Patience is a virtue that our kind has cultivated.”

“What do you want?”

“Your heart, kine.” Santino stepped closer. “You killed Elizabeth, assassin, the brightest and most beautiful of all of us. You sent my sister to hell, and for that, I will see you suffer in continuous agony… for centuries.

Pollos brought his sword was brought to his hand, but this time, something was different.  The sword was different, wielded with the glove of Luos. Xavier could feel what Kuar was feeling or thinking. In a small way, he was the sword. "Here we go… our moment of truth."

The elder vampire bared his fangs and pointed to the thirteen others of his kind. “Now my brothers, let us harvest this soul.”




Ehud and Remi were knelt in prayer in the back of the shuttle, the former cradling his spiker gun and the albino leaning on his MK-50, when Wade Kennedy called them up front to help with the return to normal space.  Although they had entered hyperspace without being devoured by a quantum singularity, it had not been without a great deal of exertion.

The teenage soldier stared at the display assigned to him and concentrated on the two anti-matter explosives as they sped off to detonate at just the right time for their small shuttle to arrive unscathed in the Valkyrie system.  If the Righteous Army believed in luck, surely they would have claimed it as such; instead, each of them said a silent prayer of thanks. Praising the Lord for having brought them this far, they cheerfully prayed, on their quest to do battle with the devil’s minions.  Ehud harbored doubts that this was the doing of an omnipotent being… or if it were, perhaps the boy himself was the omnipotent being.  After all, it had been his magic that had brought them here.

He pushed these thoughts aside and ran through the mission plan for the twenty-third time.  They had jumped in very close to Valkyrie itself and were quickly calculating when and where their hole in the orbital defenses would be.

“The Lord is with us,” said Wade, breaking the silence, “all we have to do is continue on our current course and decrease our speed slightly and we should be able to penetrate the orbital weapons platforms without difficulty.”

“Praise God!” interrupted Remi.

“We should be on the planet’s surface within a few hours…” Wade continued.

“What about the small Earth Fleet garrison stationed here?” the boy questioned.

“They don’t appear to be very concerned about our presence; I don’t see any ships nearby on our sensors.  Who knows?  We might not even have been detected yet.”

Ehud thought this optimism careless, but, truth be told, their shuttle was ill equipped to deal with a military vessel of any kind. There was little that they could do even if a ship was approaching.  The only weapons that they had were the explosives that they used for jumping in and out of hyperspace.

As they approached the hole in the Valkriye defenses, a corvette came out of nowhere, kicking in its thrusters from behind a small moon. “This is the EFS Allegrezza, you have entered Valkriye space, please signal your ship authorization code.”

Wade activated the com system. “I’m afraid that I can’t give you any.”

There was some static over the audio pickup, then finally they replied. “Why not?”

“Because if I did, you would discover that this is a Righteous Navy shuttle, and would deduce that we are here to do you harm.”

“What?” There was some discussion in the background, then finally, “Stand down immediately or we will open fire!”

“No, you will stand down.  I offer you and your crew a chance at salvation, if you will simply let us pass through without a word to your other Fleet friends.  Just as Rahab was spared from the destruction of Jericho, so shall you be also if you are faithful to the Lord God.  Otherwise, we shall be forced to destroy you.” Deacon Kennedy pointed to Ehud and Remi to pick up their weapons; they bother understood what this meant.

“Hate to tell you this, unidentified shuttle, but I’ve got two 75 centimeter chemlasers locked onto your craft, and you’ve got nothing. You try to activate your piece-of-shit hyperspace device, we’ll blast you before you get a chance.”

Wade was nonplussed. “You have been warned.  You have five seconds to comply.”

            “No, you have ten seconds to comply.  Stop your ship now or we will fire!

            Wade cut the transmission.  A correspondence portal suddenly opened on the shuttle and they walked through, stepping onto the bridge of the Allegrezza, before their highly-vaunted chemlasers destroyed the shuttle they had just left. All eyes turned towards them as they moved.


            The fleet personnel were not ready for the onslaught that ensued. When it was done, the bridge was bathed in blood, and Remi holding the captain up by his neck. Wade looked into his counterparts’ eyes. “That was not necessary, captain. I regret having to send your crew unshriven to judgement, but I really had no choice.”

            The corvette’s CO spat back a bloody patch of saliva. “Fuck… you.”

            “You, though, do have a chance of salvation. The price is your assistance to passing through to the planet’s surface. You can choose to be faithful to the Lord God or… you may join your friends. What say you?”

            The captain was turning blue from the lack of oxygen, but finally, he nodded his head yes.

            “Let him go, brother.”

            Remi dropped the captain right to the deck. As he gasped for air, Wade made sure to watch him. Meanwhile, Ehud got into position at the helm control, taking them in to the atmosphere.

            It didn’t take long for the communication signal to activate. Kennedy pointed the captain to the comm station. “Audio only, remember.”

            The captain was still wheezing when he got there. “This is the Allegrezza.

            “This is Valkriye Space Control. Sammy, what’s wrong? Why you coming down?”

            “Intercepted a shuttle with an old-style hyperdrive. When it blew, it knocked out a lot of stuff. Gotta fix it.”

            “Knocked out visual, too?”

            “Oh, yeah! Let us through, please?”

            “All right. Make it quick.”

            They rushed towards the planet’s atmosphere, heading perfectly for their target. Ehud drove the large ship through the heat shield, doubts slowly eroding from his mind. This is why I was created, this is God’s will.




            The general stood in grim fascination, pouring over the macabre sight. The body of the dead K'Nes warrior lay motionless in front of him. The enemy had tried creeping into the human held compounds en mass the past few nights and were stopped. But every night, they penetrated a little further.

            The power armor it was wearing wasn't really power armor at all. It was a partial armor with an exoskeleton to augment speed and strength. What really interested the general was the creature's chameleon circuits. Apparently, as they had found out repeatedly, they were much better than their own.

            I must have this technology, he thought, looking to his subordinates. "How far in did this one get?" Dimiye asked.

            "Sir, it was terminated right inside the second perimeter." Lieutenant Kappa reported.

            He continued to look down at his slain enemy. "Have all sensors been recalibrated as ordered?"

            "Yes, sir," Lieutenant Hurch broke in, "but any further sensor sensitivity has proven fruitless. We go any higher and the point defenses shoot at strong air currents, sir."

            "Those cats know how to prowl, sir." Kappa commented.

            "Increase sensor sensitivity to maximum, that's an order."

            "But sir, our guns will fire all night. Think of what that kind of stress will do to the men?"

            "None of us are getting any sleep anyway, lieutenant. At least it will keep these," he pointed at the K'Nes, "damn things out of here."

            The junior officer conceded the point. The K'Nes fighter craft had been pounding the compounds non-stop for over a week. The point defenses were holding, but the constant roar of explosions overhead had made everyone jittery and sleep deprived.

            "How many men have we lost so far in these night raids?"

            "The total comes to 93, sir. Most of them were the first perimeter night watch."

            "And how many of their dead have we counted?"

            Kappa smiled. "158 confirmed, sir."

            Dimiye stared at the young man hard, wiping the grin off of his face. "The fleet won't be here with reinforcements for another two days and I don't intend to just sit here and let those bastards wear us down. Order all division commanders to the ready room…and send a tech in here immediately."

            "Yes, general!" They both saluted and left the room.

            Soon afterward, the tech he'd requested appeared. “Sir?"

            Dimiye stood and pointed at the dead carcass. "Have you and your boys had a look at this?"

            He nodded. "We've had a look at all of them, sir, as you requested."

            "What can you tell me about their stealth technology?"

            "Well sir, we've been over it and over it. They can stay cloaked a lot longer than we can for a few reasons. The biggest reason is that their armor doesn't have nearly as many power emissions to mask as ours do. They don't utilize power cells like we do, that's another thing. They use a small but powerful micro generator that puts out power for the suit constantly. Our suits have a small generator that charges the cells slowly, but as you know, we rely mainly on portable generators to juice our suits. It's more cost effective that way. So…"

            "That's why it seems they can stay cloaked indefinitely." Dimiye broke in.

            "It's not just that, sir. We've also been examining the species, and we feel that the kitties," he pointed at the dead husk in front of him, "have a supernatural ability to… well, cloak. And that they can use that to further the effect with their technology."

            'Is that all?"

            "Well, their circuit designs are a bit more sophisticated then what we got. But any changes we could make would have to be on the production end. Sorry I couldn't be of more help, sir."

            "That's okay, sergeant. I hoped we could use this to our advantage. Dismissed."

            The sergeant left the room, and with it, the general's hopes to better the odds. He bent over the body of his enemy and let his senses examine it in detail. The smell of the feline warrior less than half an hour dead was pleasing to his Garou senses. His right arm transformed into that of a beast, and before he could stop himself, it dug deep into the fresh tender flesh of the fallen K'Nes. He quickly pulled out his arm and examined the organ he held in his taloned hand. In a flash, his fangs sunk into the still warm meat as his tongue lapped at the blood. Within seconds, the meat was gone, and an air of contentment washed over him. Luckily, he had just enough time to clean himself off before his division commanders arrived.


            Hundreds of K'Nes warriors silently prowled along the perimeter of the enemy compound, invisible to one another, but staying in constant contact. They'd been doing this night after night, but this time was different; reports stated that the humans had evacuated the first few rings of their defensive perimeter. They each could see that it was true with their own eyes and it pleased them. They had put the desired fear into their prey and made them hide indoors little a frightened mouse. Now was the chance to deal the humans a decisive blow in return for what they'd done with their nuclear devices. Over four thousand warriors waited, invisible, to exploit the breach they were to make. Now was the time that every K'Nes warrior dreamed of, a chance for personal glory.


            "Are you sure of this sir? It's rather risky." Colonel Dyar asked his general.

            "The K'Nes are looking for decisive action just as we are. We're presenting that opportunity to them."

            "But what if it works, sir? I mean… for them." asked Lieutenant Colonel Kantoe

            "Are the sensors to maximum?"

            "Yes, sir."

            "Have the point defenses been deactivated?"

            "Yes, sir."

            "Are divisions 1 through 5 where they should be? Have those charges I asked for been set?"

            "Yes, sir, but…"

            "But nothing. Just sit back, gentlemen, and watch what hubris will do… regardless of one's species."



            "Preator, the first two defensive rings have been abandoned. The human's defensive weapons cannot sense our warriors movements. What are your orders my lord?"

            Preator Naarah examined the situation. Finally, we'll finish these hairless apes! No more relying on air power from Ship Lord Xeancou. No more crawling to that miserable bastard for more fire support. No more hearing about not having enough munitions for a fleet battle if bombardments keep at this rate. And so on, and so on…

            His subordinate called to him. "Preator, your orders?"

            "Order our two Ujon to attack the fortress! Have three more come up for support, if it is needed."

            The adjutant hissed with glee. "Yes, my lord!"


             The hundreds of K'Nes leading the assault got the word. They gracefully crawled along the defensive lines to where the humans were. Although dulled slightly my evolution, their predatory instincts quickened their pulse rate as they approached their unwitting prey.


            "How close are they John?" Private Bilal Dardi asked nervously.

            The corporal checked with the perimeter sensors. "About fifteen meters and closing fast. Don't worry, Billy."

            "Worry? Invisible panthers are about to have us for lunch and you say don't worry? How'd we get picked for this job anyway? I never signed on to be used as bait."

            "We weren’'t picked, it was just our turn for guard duty."

            "Lets fire at em now!"

            "No, God damn it! The orders come from the general himself. No firing till the charges go off."

            "The general…” the trooper scoffed, “I don't know what scares me more. Those things… or him."


            "Sir, were detecting a massive signal coming over first perimeter now."

            "Looks like they took the bait." The general said, looking at the readouts for himself. He waited till the little red dots all fell into the area of the set charges then gave the order. "Fire the charges and activate all defensive systems!"

            Outside the compound, the charges were activated. Stunned, the K'Nes warriors paused just short of their targets as they were enveloped in clouds of strange glowing particles. The fluorescent compounds within the clouds settled on their armor, sticking like glue. Each warrior slowly realized that the glowing orange substance made them very visible, and horrified them. Before they could react, scores of humans charged out of their hardened positions as point defenses cut them to pieces.


            Naarah watched with dread fascination as more of his ujons disintegrated before him. One by one, their signals dropped out under the amazing firepower of the humans. I’ve failed them, he realized, ripping a part of his cloak in anger.

            “Praetor? What shall we do?”

            “Order all ujons to fall back. We can’t continue.”

            “Praetor, our warriors are…”

            “Didn’t you hear me?! Order the withdrawal!”

            “Not necessary.”

 All the cats suddenly turned on the figure hidden in the folds of a dark cloak. The praetor stepped forward. “Who are you? How did you find us?!”

“Your army is not what it once was, honored leader.”

The human is using a translator box, Naarah realized, interesting that it would have one. “What do you want?”

“The same thing you do. The destruction of the human army.”

“You’d betray your own people?” the ujon commander gaped.

“Silence!” the praetor shot back. The humans have no sense of honor, I already knew that. If they want to betray each other, I might as well benefit. “What do you want?”

“Transport off this planet. In exchange, I will deliver the entire human army into your hands.”
            “I see. You want a shuttle.”

“I want a fighter,” the shadowy figure corrected, “modified to serve my kind. Bring them to these coordinates.” The human slid a datapad across the floor at them. “I will check it thoroughly. If there is any flaw, any detail missed, any sabotage, I’ll give you nothing.”

“How can we trust one who would betray their own kind?”

“The most you lose is one fighter, honored leader. You can gain so much more. A fair gamble, my desire to kill that army over your trust… a good bet.”

Naarah licked his nose. “Agreed.”

“I’ll transmit the information when I’m sure the fighter is safe for flight.” the figure replied, before dancing back into the shadows from where it came from.


            General Dimiye smiled as his men welcomed the incoming shuttles landing before them. The fleet had gotten through and had sent the reinforcements they needed. One figure in power armor came out of the shuttle, making a bee-line right for Alistar. “You in charge?”

            Alistar nodded. The woman took off her helmet and smiled. “Fallon Cox, commanding officer, one-nine-nine Legion. Heard you boys couldn’t do without us. Any action left.”

            “A little.” Dimiye gave a slight grin. “Glad you could join the party, although our guests here on Midgar are thinking of leaving early.”

            “Well, we’ll make sure they stay put, won’t we?” she smiled. “Hell of a job, I have to say, general.”

            “We held the line, general. We held the line.”




            The name on the card said Gregory Walker, people called him Zechariah McNeilly, the Fed called him “armed and extremely dangerous”; none of them was his true name. No one knew his true name, not even himself… and frankly, he was too busy to worry about finding it now.

            “Hey, Zech,” the man sitting next to him at the table said, “loosen up!”

            The music seemed to flow through them, sitting there on the balcony of the Event Horizon. Without a doubt, it was the night spot on Jennifer’s Star. The band was good, the place was packed with beautiful women, and McNeilly… cared for none of it. The man in the stolen expensive clothes that were two sizes too big hated this barrage of humanity. He sat there sipping at his beer, disgusted by the smell around him, waiting for the guy who was supposed to meet them.

            “Zech! You hearing me?”

            McNeilly turned to look at him, his green eyes peering from his pale white skin; a stark contrast to his short-cropped, jet-black hair. “What?”

            “I said loosen up! We’re on vacation!”

            “Errol, we’re here to meet some VIP, not to party.”

            “Geez, Zech… relax! An entire universe is at war. Take some time to enjoy the reason we’re fighting.” Errol pointed to one of the well-endowed women gyrating nearby. “For instance, that blonde…”   

            “Keep focused. Attack could come from anywhere.” Zechariah shot back, turning to scan the crowd… and there he was. He could hardly be mistaken for anyone else; business suit, briefcase, discreetly hidden .50 caliber Piccone pointing at him from the briefcase in his hand. And, oh yeah, he’s Asian, his mind added. Sticks out like a sore thumb here, even the crowd parts for him.

            “M. Walker?” the voice from the suit was flawless, precise English.

            “You must be Ito.” McNeilly shot back, shifting his body so that his own micro-needler was at the ready.

            “Correct. May I have a seat?”

            Errol was frozen to his chair. Zechariah’s partner had never seen a member of the Imperial Council; no one had outside the Eastern Bloc. The stranger had so much self-control it looked like he thought carefully about every muscle he moved. Chi, McNeilly smiled, if you believe that sort of thing. “Of course. We’re here to do business, right?”

            Ito gave a slight bow and took a seat. “Are you authorized to speak for your government?”

            “Are you?” McNeilly challenged.

            “I am next in line, gentlemen. The Council takes my… opinion very seriously.”

            “Hmmm.” Errol muttered, feeling like he had to say something. Zech’s partner had been cooped up too long in Sanfran; the excitement around him was almost too much.

            “Then you should know that we speak for our employer.” Zechariah replied. “What do you want?”

            “I am here to offer a deal. As your…” the Asian man smiled, “…employer has come to an arrangement with Russell, we would like to do the same. However, we linger under this silly arrangement imposed on us by his forces.”

            “So what’dya want from us?” Errol interrupted. “Why don’t you talk to the Rebs yourself?”

            Ito was nonplussed by the question. “As I said, they insist on the terms of the cease fire. We wish to go beyond that.”

            “Such as?” Zechariah jumped back into the conversation.

            “We offer to recognize Russell’s government as the true Federation.”

            “A rather moot point considering you don’t border the other one.”

            “But an important one. You see, the Council believes we can benefit from supporting this Federation. Establishing our security is important.”

            Errol got angry. “What about all those systems you took? Huh? Hardly secure!”

            “Relax,” McNeilly told his partner, “let’s hear what he has to say.” Why did they insist on me bringing him, he asked himself. I work so much better without these nurastule to mess things up. “Go on. What do you offer the Reb… Russell’s camp if they agree?”

            “Financial and technological support. I’m sure they could use our assistance in this matter. In exchange, we open up new markets into Federation worlds. If we can’t conquer their worlds, the least we can do is enter their markets.”

            “So what are you offering us?” Errol butted in again.

            Ito looked down at his manicured fingernails. “Your employers may have political pull, but without the war to distract them, they would quickly perish.” The oriental looked straight into Zechariah’s eyes. “You need a fleet, gentlemen. I think I know where we can find one.”

            “Converted freighters?” the Resistance fighter clarified. “Old warships?”

            “Better than what you have now, correct?”

            McNeilly shrugged off the insult. “Throw in some ships of the line and you’ve got a deal.”

            “I’m not sure I can do that.” Ito replied. “I’d have to consult the Council.”

            “Then we’d have to consult our employers as well.” Zechariah got up from the table; Errol followed. “Shall we contact you tomorrow?”

            The oriental nodded. “Don’t wait too long. I must get back to Showa as soon as possible. The Council notices my absence.”

            “Understood.” McNeilly gave a short nod and walked away. Errol tagged along unwillingly.

            As they made their way through the crowd, the two Resistance members left the bar, finally exiting into the street beyond. Errol was pissed off. “You gonna believe those slant-eyes?”

            The nurastule, Zach pondered, so self-destructive, as if the race itself was rushing to commit suicide. Why did the universe bother bestowing life on Earth in the first place? “It’s not up to us to believe him. Go back to the hotel, contact HQ, find out our instructions. I’ll meet you later.”

            “Hey, where are you going?”

            “Out.” McNeilly shot back, disappearing into the black night of Jennifer’s Star.


            You shouldn’t be so harsh to the boy.

            “Shut up.” he spoke to his other self, the part of him that he truly despised. Unfortunately, it was the only part of him that felt real.

            Why don’t you take his advice and just enjoy your time here?

            “I’m not here to enjoy myself. I’m here to work.”

            So where are you going to now? Work?


            Doing what?

            “Saving this puny race from itself.”

            It didn’t take long for Zechariah to find what he wanted. When you walk long enough in the wrong part of town, eventually you will find them: street gangs. There one was, beating some old bum up, just for kicks. McNeilly walked forward; it didn’t take long for one of them to notice the man. One of the gang flashed a plasma revolver at him and yelled, “Hey, gaijan, beat it!”

            Manchurian descent, analysis assumes that they’re members of the Hun Die-Nasty gang, drawn from the Bloc immigrant district.

            “What if I said no, yujian?” McNeilly replied, feeling his chest slowly turn to armor.

            The rest of the gang turned from their entertainment and looked at the stranger. Another one stepped forward. “Weigook, you asked for it now. Drop everything you got and you won’t end up like adashi here.”

            Zechariah just smiled, folding his hands.

            “Slag him!” the gang leader cried, and the kid’s plasma revolver flashed out a bolt. It hit him square in the chest… and did absolutely nothing.

            McNeilly unfolded his arms as they soon molded into long black spikes, sharp as any razor, and twice as deadly. The gang’s eyes went wide. They didn’t realize what trouble they were in before the Hodraida stabbed the first of them.

            An assortment of weaponry suddenly flashed out but it did no good against the killing machine. Zechariah moved from scared boy to scared boy, ripping out their internal organs, eviscerating them one by one. Within seconds, their bodies soon joined the decaying brush that lay all around them. The last two tried to run, but McNeilly was faster. Out from his claws launched two bolts, impacting square in their chest, as the electric current delivered from the Hodraida’s body fried their neurocircuits. They were soon brain-dead; fodder for the organ banks, he smiled.

            It was only then that he noticed the choking sobs of the old man. Zechariah walked over and looked at the feeble man. The old bum smiled. “Th… thank you.”

            McNeilly smiled back, knelt down, and then slammed his spikes into his fragile rib cage. The look of shock on the old man’s face was complete shock. As Zechariah reformed his hands, they held the warm heart of the homeless corpse, blood still oozing from its tender cage.

            The Hodraida held it for a moment, looking at the amazing intricacy of something so important to human life… then threw it away. “You’re welcome.” he replied, walking out of the alleyway back into the darkness, warm from the fight.



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