"What a cruel world, letting something this profound be conveyed in words this trite."


-- Sara, The Maxx

Heth shifted nervously on a guest perch in the waiting room outside the CEO's office of MIRADI—the Miu Institute for Research And Development, Inc.  Be confident.  No weakness.  No begging and no crying, he reminded himself, checking the gift box's wrapping for the millionth time.  And no manipulation, demands, or threats.  This is a sales pitch, after all, not a hostile takeover.  Pulling out his snuff box, he took a quick, sharp inhale of nepeta.  It worked immediately, calming his down and cheering him up.  You can do this!

            Suddenly he froze, ears swiveling, nose sniffing the air.  Yes… that we her scent, her voice!

            "Our stock dropped how much today, Aie?"

            "One and half points.  And it's only mid-morning."

            "I don't understand… what's spooking the investors?"

            "If I knew that, Miu, I'd be a stock broker, not an executive assistant."

            Heth heard Miu sigh, an adorable little noise.  "Well, issue another press release about the upcoming Impossibarium product line.  That always causes our stock price to jump.  What's next on my schedule, Aie?"

            That was his cue.  Heth jumped down, anxiously smoothing his mane and checking his jewelry.

"Uh… you've got an appointment with a representative of Miao Mercantile, Inc."

Heth shot some breath spray in his mouth and checked his claw manicure, wondering if his cologne was too musky.

"The Miao?"  Miu's voice suddenly sounded suspicious.  "Wait… who is it?  What do they want?"

"Uh... looks like they didn't give a name.  And, uh… it just says they have a business proposition."

Heth checked to ensure he hadn't shed on the perch or carpet, then took a deep, calming breath.

"Oh, no… always get the name of a Miao representative, Aie!  For all we know, it could be—"  Miu turned around the corner and saw him.  Her eyes narrowed to slits.  "Miao K'Rrowr K'Heth."

Heth flashed his best grin.  "Gainful day, Prurr K'Aou K'Miu."  He extended his tail toward her.

Miu let out an exasperated breath, but swung out her fluffy tail to return the pleasantry.  "Gainful day, Heth."  She gave him the briefest of tail tip taps, then strode past him into her office, Aie following behind her.  "Now what do you want, Miao?"

"I'm here," Heth said, grabbing the wrapped box and following her, "to make you an offer you can't refuse."

"I've already refused it, Heth.  Several times.  Firmly."

"Yes, I know—but, believe it or not, this isn't about future reproductive rights."

"Good, because those are never going to happen."  Miu spun around to face him.  "I dissolved our merger, Heth, and nullified the Articles of Procreation.  Remember?"

"Oh yes, I remember well."  Heth nodded casually—but struggled not to let the hurt show on his face.  Remember?  How could I possibly forget!  "I have to admit, it was very clever of you to invoke the Nullification Clause due to low return on investment."

"You signed the contract, Heth."

"Indeed I did, and a deal is a deal.  I just never thought such a small drop in my net worth would qualify me for termination so quickly.  Investments are, after all, a long-term proposition."  Against his will, Heth felt himself getting sucked back into the old argument.  He knew he shouldn't ask… but just couldn't stop himself…  "I assume you received a better offer, yes?  Or are you still sole proprietor?"

Miu was silent for a moment.  "Not that it's any of your business… but yes, I am still sole propriety of my reproductive products.  And yes, I have a long list of potential investors—and you're not on it."

Heth blinked, trying not to let it show how much that stung.  He cocked his head and sniffed the air.  "So…potential investors, then?  No contracts signed yet?"

"Yet.  There will be."  Miu's fur bristled ever so slightly.  "I've already committed to sign with whoever wins."

"Wins?  Oh… so you're auctioning your reproductive rights, then?"  Heth's whiskers twitched at this new development.  "So… you could end up merged with anyone."  Anyone except me…

"No, not anyone."  Miu rolled her eyes in exasperation.  "You know how reproductive auctions work, Heth.  I decide which investors get to bid—and my standards are high.  Give me some credit!"

"With your credit score?  Certainly."  Heth forced a smile.  If her explanation was supposed to make him feel better, it failed miserably.  Miu wasn't about to let him bid anytime soon.  "Well, an auction is certainly a… bold strategy.  Risky, too."

"High risk, high return." Miu returned, eyes narrowing.  "Auctions drive the price up."

"Yes…"  Heth nodded slowly.  "But not knowing which personnel you'll be contracted with involves highly uncertain future projections… making for a rather unstable long-term investment..."

"My company needs capital, Heth, now," Miu growled.  "I'll use whatever assets I have to remain solvent."

"Well, you're in luck then, Miu," Heth said.  "Your assets are excellent.  Undervalued, even."

And they were.  She was.  She was priceless.  Heth had always profoundly respected and admired Miu.  She was a truly self-made female.  Born to a insignificant pride with no assets, she had nevertheless worked her way up to personally running a wildly successful start-up—an industrial research company, no less—and she wasn't even old enough to have kittens yet!  A prodigy.  Miu was a highly efficient administrator, a shrewd negotiator, a ruthless businesscat, and a financial genius.  Oh, and she was beautiful too.

Huge blue eyes.  Glossy white fur.  Her scent was natural perfume. She slinked around the room, fluid and graceful.  Her body was an asset, and she knew how to exploit it for maximum profit.  And she was unconventionally and dangerously fashionable.  Her business suits were perfectly tailored to display every lean muscle.  She eschewed the gaudy jewelry of most K'Nes females in favor of something far more subtle and alluring—thin strands of silver woven with her long white hairs into tiny braids, interspersed throughout her furred body in a pattern.  She glowed like starlight.  True, the look had caught on, but she had pioneered it—and collected the royalties.  Stars above, I miss her…

That's why Heth had to stop talking about the past, to shift the conversation back to the impersonal, the professional.  "But I didn't come here to discuss defunct partnerships, Miu.  This is strictly business."

"Procreation is business, Heth."

"Strictly supply and demand, then.  I've come to offer you a business arrangement that could make you and your company very, very profitable."

"And what will it make you?" Miu asked, suspicious.

"A tidy profit, of course," he answered.  "I'd take ten percent for facilitating the transaction, naturally."

"Naturally," she echoed.  "Look, Heth, I'm busy.  Time is money.  Don't waste my money."

Heth held up the wrapped package.  "I think you'll find this to be an adequate return for investing your time in listening to my lucrative offer."

Miu glared at the package, then at Heth.  "That had better not be a gift," she growled.

            "Of course not!" Heth scoffed.  "You know K'Nes don't give gifts.  It's a bribe."

"Good," Miu said, slicing the wrapping open with a flick of her claws.  "If it wasn't, I would have lost all respect for…" her voice trailed off as she popped the sealed lid off the box and an intoxicating aroma instantly filled the room.  Her big eyes grew even bigger as she stared inside the box.

"Nepeta…" Miu said, surprised—and, Heth hoped, a little impressed.  She held up the potted plant, examining the gray-green leaves with tiny purple flowers.  She inhaled deeply, and her pupils dilated slightly.  Heth even thought he heard a faint, tiny purr.  "It smells… expensive…"

"The high-quality hybrids always are."  Heth smiled.  "It's Nepeta Faassenii, actually.  Known to the apes as Faassen's Catnip.  And you can't get any fresher than a live plant.  Watered daily, it could last you for quite a long time."

"But… where in the stars did you find this, Heth?  Nepeta hasn't grown on Earth for decades…"

Heth shrugged modestly.  "I know a botanist on Andersvald.  I was just there closing a deal."

Miu looked at Heth with her huge blue eyes, and actually seemed at a loss for words—which, Heth knew, was a very good sign.  It took a lot to strike Prurr Miu speechless.  He pushed his advantage.

"I know you're under a lot of stress these days, so I figured you could use something to make your office into a more… relaxing… work environment." 

Miu looked back down at the plant.  "Oh… Heth… Look, I…"  The rarity and expense of the bribe, the thought that went into it, its personal nature… all were having the desired effect on Miu.  She seemed touched… and troubled.  Heth could see the confused emotions whirling in her big eyes.  Maybe she still values me after all?  Just a little bit?

Heth decided to quit while he was ahead, offering Miu a dignified way out of the potentially uncomfortable conversation she was clearly bracing herself to have.  "Now tell me, Miu," he asked, "is a bribe of that value worth an hour of your time—just for a sales pitch?"

Miu looked back at him and the cold businesscat snapped back into place behind her eyes.  "All right.  Twenty minutes."


"Done."  She set the nepeta down on her desk.  "So, what's this business proposition you have for me?" she asked as she slinked up onto her executive perch.

Heth was silent.  He glanced at Miu's executive assistant.

"Aie, could you give us a moment?" Miu asked.  Aie nodded, took one more deep breath of the fragrant room, and left wearing a goofy smile.  Miu turned back to Heth.  "A deal that important, hmm?"

"Potentially."  Heth hopped up onto one of the guest perches across from Miu's desk.  "A new and lucrative customer base for your flagship product."

"Impossibarium?"  Miu knew it was a silly, sensationalistic name, but her marketing department had insisted on it.

"Exactly.  I just closed a deal to escort a freighter convoy of minerals to Jurvain space.  In a few days, I'll have a rare opportunity to speak directly with a Jurvain construction administrator."

"Constructing what, exactly?"  Miu sounded interested.

"Why, the new Jurvain Fleet, of course."

"But what would they need Impossibarium for?"  Miu narrowed her eyes.  "Razors for the sailors?"

"No—armor plating for their ships, of course.  It's insanely strong, the perfect material for armor.  As far as we can tell, the only thing that can damage Impossibarium is… well, Impossibarium."

Miu shook her head.  "I doubt the Jurvain will take the deal.  Impossibarium is far too expensive for anyone to purchase in those quantities.  And we can't lower the price—it costs too much to synthesize and produce.  It's the product's main drawback."  Miu sighed.  "Even if we added only a ten percent markup for profit instead of the usual thirty percent, no company could ever afford to buy enough of it to armor a spaceship.  It's industrial applications are limited to small but important component parts—blades and cutting tools, containment units, products like that."

"And for the apes and K'Nes, that's correct," Heth conceded.  "But this is the Jurvain we're talking about.  A communal hive mind.  Cooperative economics.  When their leaders decide to focus their race on a goal, every member falls into line.  Properly motivated, the Jurvain can mobilize the resources of a dozen star systems to purchase what they need."

Miu looked doubtful.  "An entire civilization bankrupting itself to buy vast quantities of my company's product?  And what would motivate them to do that?"

"Freedom.  The Jurvain are very nervous about maintaining their new-found independence from the humans—as well they should be, considering they have almost no fleet to defend it with.  What few ships they have are no match for the apes' fleet.  But if the Jurvain could armor those few ships with Impossibarium… well, they would become a much more effective defense force."

"And you think you can sell this idea to them?"  Miu sounded skeptical… but interested.

"I know I can," Heth answered.  "The only question is how much Impossibarium can your company produce, and how fast?"

Miu was silent, crunching the numbers in her head, thinking through the potential implications.  Heth watched her, letting the tense silence draw out.  He could tell she was tempted… but it was a big and risky decision.  One more nudge should do it, Heth thought.  She's taken the bait; it's time for the switch.

"I follow the stock market reports, Miu," Heth said softly.  He hesitated, trying to phrase it delicately.  "Your company is having… difficulties, to say the least.  MIRADI needs a fat government contract like this."

Miu sighed.  "You're right.  We do."  She shot him a suspicious glance.  "But why are you being so helpful?  After I dissolved our merger?  I'd think you'd want to see my company and I go bankrupt."

"Come now, Miu," Heth chuckled, shaking his head.  "We both know that if I wanted to sabotage MIRADI, I could have done that ages ago!  I'd simply get your Impossibarium patent revoked by going public with what I know about its origins."

Miu froze—then her fur bristled.  Heth, her ex-mate, was the only other person besides herself who knew where Impossibarium really came from.  "Yes… and I always wondered why you didn't…"  She narrowed her eyes.  "If you're planning to blackmail me—"

"Relax, Miu."  Heth cut her off with a wave of his paw.  "I've haven't gone public, and I don't intend to."

"Yes…"  Miu's fluffy tail swished back and forth pensively.  "But why?"

"Well, if I allowed petty revenge to override my profit motive, why… I wouldn't be much of a K'Nes then, would I?"  Heth gave her a Cheshire grin.  "Besides, with the sales figures I'm envisioning from an Impossibarium deal with the Jurvain, even my ten percent commission would quite substantial."

"I see…"  Miu nodded slowly as she relaxed back onto her perch, apparently reassured that Heth's greed superseded his broken heart.  "So you're simply using your insider information to make a little more money, right?"

"No—a lot more money!  In fact, properly reinvested, my commission could drastically increase my net worth."  Heth widened an eye.  "Perhaps even enough for you to consider renewing our merger…?"

Miu blinked at him, and her tail swished.  "Look… Heth… I simply can't wait for your stock to rise again, you know that."  She grew uncomfortable.  "Females can only reproduce once every eleven years—I won't get another chance to bear a litter until I'm twenty-two.  And the mating cycle starts in fifteen weeks!"

"Well, that just gives me fifteen weeks to grow my assets, then.  I'm working on another lucrative deal with the Earth Federation at the moment.  If I do well, they'll be repeat customers—with a very high profit margin."

Miu stared at him, shocked.  For an instant, Heth thought he'd gone too far, that he'd angered her.  But the she smiled and purred out a chuckle.  "You never give up, do you, Heth?"

"Not when I value something this highly, no."

Miu's eyes softened, and for the second time in an hour, she clearly didn't know what to say.

I'm up another point, Heth thought, and pushed ahead.  "So is it a deal?  I pitch Impossibarium to the Jurvain for you?  Come on, Miu… what have you got to lose?"

"That's a good question," Miu said.  "There's something you're not telling me, isn't there?  You didn't need to see me in person to negotiate this deal."

"True," Heth admitted.  "I need something."

"I figured as much.  What is it?"

"If I'm going to convince the Jurvain to purchase Impossibarium… well, at that price, they'll want to inspect the merchandise first, test it, measure it.  I need a sample."

Miu almost hissed.  "I haven't publicly launched the product yet!  Any sample that leaves my corporate headquarters runs the risk of being intercepted and stolen by our competitors!"

"Yes…" Heth conceded, "but they'd have to know about me having a sample first.  No one but the two of us even knows that much."

"They'll still try to block the deal.  Varrless Financial in particular could get desperate enough to use… extreme measures."

"I'm a Miao.  We can take care of ourselves.  Security is one of our best selling products.  Besides, how would the other corporate clans even learn about the deal?

"From the Jurvain," Miu answered.  "What one of them knows, all of them know, remember?"

"Yes, and what one of them wants to a keep secret, all of them try to keep secret.  And can you think of a better secret to keep than that what few ships they have are being upgraded?  Anyone seriously considering invading the Jurvain—the Holy Terran Empire, perhaps—would want to attack before the upgrades are complete, preferably while the ships are in dry dock.  No, it's in the Jurvain's interest to be just as tight-lipped about this as we are."

Miu was silent, drumming her claws on her desktop.  She was running out of objections.

"I'm your prefect salesman in this situation, Miu," Heth pressed.  "I'm already heading to the Jurvain Commonality anyway to meet with their naval officials on completely unrelated business.  No one need ever know that you or your company is involved in any way."

"True…" Miu said, "but I'm sure it hasn't escaped the attention of our corporate competitors that you and I were formerly involved in a reproductive joint venture."

Heth shrugged.  "So we convince them that I'm angry, biter, vengeful, and what nothing more than to see your stock drop like a rock.  That would be easy enough to believe."

"Yes… if you hadn't shown up here today and talked your way into my office."

"True… but negotiations aren't over yet.  We can always create the illusion that it ended badly."

"Yes, we could."  Miu nodded slowly, thinking.  "But then how do we explain you walking out of here with an Impossibarium sample?"

"I don't—because no one except you and I will know I have it."

Miu wrinkled her nose disdainfully.  "Come now, Heth.  A product that proprietary and expensive is under tight security.  My accountants will notice if I just give a sample away—or if any goes missing, for that matter."

"Yes, I've thought of that, too."  Heth winked at her.  "But you already have a sample with you: your ring."

Miu's face blanched as she raised a paw to look at her simplest—but by far most expensive—jewelry: a plain, glossy black metallic ring.  Heth understood her hesitation; it was valuable, yes, but more importantly it was a proud symbol of her economic success and scientific achievement.  She'd come a long way from her start as a creditless cub.  Miu looked up at Heth and narrowed her eyes, thinking, weighing the cost-benefit analysis.  Finally she signed and nodded.  "Well, you were right, Heth.  It is an offer I can't refuse."  She slid the ring off and pawed it for a moment, reluctant, then finally handed it to Heth.  "But I want that back, Miao—understand?"

"Perfectly."  Heth slid the ring into his breast pocket.  "I'll guard it with my life, Miu."

"You'd better," she growled, leaning back on her perch.  "So, shall I have my lawyers draw up the contract?"

"Normally, I'd say yes," Heth nodded slowly, "but a paper trail might be a liability for an enterprise this sensitive and confidential.  A simple tail-tap agreement would be more secure."

"And if you were anything other than a Miao, I wouldn't trust that.  But…"

"A deal is a deal."  Heth smiled.  "That's the Miao motto, and we live and die by it."

"Yes," Miu nodded, "I know."  She hopped of her perch and strode forward, her fluffy white tail swinging out, and Heth extended his own tail to meet hers.  She did more than just tap this time—their tail tips entwined slightly.  She held it for a moment, and then released.  "You know, Heth," Miu said, sounding mildly surprised, "I do believe I've actually missed you."

"Not nearly as much as I've missed you, Miu."

"Well!" she said, returning to a brusque businesslike tone.  "If we want everyone to believe that negotiations have completely fallen apart between us, I'm going to have to sell it convincingly."

"Yes, I know."  Heth braced himself.  "Avoid the face if you could, please."

She was quick.  Heth was knocked to the floor, his suit slashed by her claws, before he even realized she had moved.  "Get out of my office, you worthless vermin! Security!" she yowled.

Heth sprang back up, hissing.  "Worthless?  How dare you, you vixen!"  He hooked his claws into a cushion and hurled it at her.  "My assets are huge!"

That was when the door burst open and Heth was dogpiled by three suited security guards.  He was dragged spitting and hissing from Miu's office and thrown out of the building on his tail.

Overall, he thought things had gone pretty well.




Bishop woke up early; the alarm clock on his comm started buzzing around 4:30 AM.  His eyes shot open instantly.  William was always ready for the hunt.  His upcoming task of tracking down his saboteur/assassin was going to be difficult, but he relished the challenge.  The werepanther calmed his thoughts; the unbridled fires raging to escape were common among changelings.  He knew his success was dependent on discipline and focus.

Instead of fighting brashly in a conflict like other werecreatures, William tempered and controlled his power into an intelligent, cunning, and disciplined warrior.  In Bishop's view, it was the difference between a caveman and the caviler.  A club can crack a person's skull, but a skilled creature with a blade would triumph every time.  Bishop had mastered many arts of combat that took decades to reach the level of perfection he hoped to achieve.  He didn't know why that goal was so vital to him, but he felt it was for a greater purpose.  Throughout his entire military career, he'd never lost his calm or cool in combat.  True, he admitted to himself, I've taken unnecessary risks, but that's the field of battle.  I can't do that on this mission.  I can't let Bernard Dent down.

            Bishop slowed down his breathing and proceeded to meditate.  With years of practice, he quickly settled his mind into nothingness, then stood up.  Performing a variation of tai chi, he awoke the muscles of his sculpted body into sharp focus; it was a technique his father had taught him many years ago; battling the hormone rages of a teenager that were far worse for the awakened.

Only with his body and mind united did Bishop begin his exercises.  He couldn't go jogging or use exercise equipment, but years in the service taught him to make do with what he had available.  He did a very light routine; three sets of sixty pushups, followed by a hundred fifty sit-ups.  Afterwards, he cooled down by performing numerous stretches.  By the time he was done, it was nearly 6:00 AM, so he took a quick shower and ate some rations to fuel the machine within.

Once he got dressed in civilian clothes—Raptors rarely wore uniforms in the field—he put on his custom belt, the one with two scabbards for the small daggers he wore on each hip.  They were his only physical connection with the father he lost so long ago.  William admired the mystifying and memorizing symbols, patterns, and engravings on the blades that gradually changed shape over time.  He made a quick tight squeeze on the handles, and mysteriously, the solid blades became soft.  Like liquid metal, they extended, hardening into full-size swords with an edge so sharp it could cut plasteel.  Another squeeze drastically reduced them back into small daggers.  The mystery of the blades always sang to him.  His dad called it "alien metal," some bits of rock he found on a distant world and had forged, but Bishop knew the truth.  They were far more than just metal.  Finally, he took a deep breath, inserted the blades into their custom sheaths, and left the room.

Bishop was walking to Dent's office to discuss the operation.  The whole plan seemed flawed.  If I can't trust my fellow Raptors, he pondered, how I can trust the three coming on this mission?  He felt McMichael was reliable, but he really didn't know Greene and Anderson.  Dent said he could trust them… but despite the respect Bishop had for Dent, he knew the major's only fault was that he trusted his troopers too much.  William didn't suffer from that; years on the streets of Wilke's Star burned that out of him.

He changed directions and headed to Fisher's room.  Lieutenant Michelle Fisher was their unit's infiltration specialist.  While she was undoubtedly the weakest combat operative in their unit, she had mastered an incredible number of gifts accessible to changelings.  Michelle was a mage in all but name.  That enabled her to handle difficult assignments that many other Raptors were incapable of.  Dent said she was "irreplaceable," a designation Bishop knew that applied to none one else in his unit, including himself.  He appreciated her talents, but at the end of the day, she was just a trooper like him.

Bishop knocked on her door, and after a few moments, Michelle appeared.  She had an athletic build, dark black hair, and a critical stare.  You couldn't help but notice her brown eyes had a yellow tinge, especially when they bored into your soul.  "How can I help you, Captain Bishop?"

"Can I speak to you for a moment?"

"Sure," she shrugged, standing in the doorway.

"In private?" Bishop asked.

Fisher paused for a moment, then nodded.  "Wait," she said, grabbing a thin black wand and waving it around her apartment.  Bishop recognized it as a bug sniffer, designed to detect monitoring equipment.  Once she was done, she turned to him.  "Alright, come in." 

Once the door closed, Bishop began.  "Today I've got a special assignment—"

"Shadow girl?"  When the werepanther blinked in surprise, Michelle smiled.  "There are no secrets in the Holiday Hotel, captain.  Especially not from me."

"Then you'll see my problem.  I'm not sure I can trust the troopers that have been assigned to me."

Now it was her turn to be confused.  "What do you mean?"

"I mean I need help.  So I was wondering if you would like to come with me on this assignment."

"You don't need an infiltration specialist for a grab-and-bag."

"I need someone to watch my back," Bishop admitted.  "You and I have worked well together in the past, and I hope I can trust you."

"If you're that worried about it, what makes you think I wouldn't backstab you?  After all, if you can't trust your team in this business, you're screwed."

Bishop gave her a serious look.  "I figure that if you meant to betray me, you already would have by now."

"Gee, captain, I'm so glad you trust me."  Fisher smiled slightly.  "Why not?  We've been on the streets for three weeks looking for that bitch—might as well see it to the end.  Besides, being stuck in this smelly old apartment building is boring as hell."

"Good," William exhaled in relief, "let's go to Dent's office."

"Look, if we're going to the Iron District," Michelle said, "then we need to be more concerned about you than your team."

            "Why?  I've lived in some pretty tough neighborhoods before.  I seem to have survived well enough."

            "That's because you knew the terrain, the streets, and who was who.  You won't have that advantage here.  I suggest you use the gifts available to our kind.  They'll be able to help you in these situations."

            Bishop wasn't impressed.  "No offense, lieutenant, but we all know that technology these days can match almost anything mages can do.  There is no point in learning a few magick tricks."

            "That's because you're an idiot," Fisher shot back.

"Say again?"

Michelle glared at him.  "You can spot a chameleon circuit on a power suit if you're looking for the distortion.  You can do what you did last night and run scramblers while you jump between rooftops.  But there's a reason I've been the eyes on the ground for the mission."

William squelched the rage that wanted to ignore her, to sooth his ego, but Bishop hadn't gotten to the rank of captain by ignoring good advice.  "Go on..."

"I've been in and out of the Iron District in broad daylight because I blend in with the environment.  Only a high-level mage or vampire would detect me.  My 'tricks' go around magick detection; even your modern technology doesn't know what to look for.  Imagine what I could do at night."

"Say you're right," Bishop said, although he doubted it himself, "why can't a mage pick up on it?"

"Because mages have the same problem—they depend on the modern world.  This is much older; a primal sort of magick, open to those who serve Gaia and the Moon."

William was buying this less and less.  "You do know that the Moon crashed into Earth, right?"

"Not the spirit, captain," Fisher explained, "just the physical presence was damaged.  Remember stories of werecreatures passing into the Umbra through mirrors?"


            "They're not stories.  Over the centuries, because we've fought in the TI, we've forgotten what it means to be Children of Gaia.  We've drifted away from our gifts and rely on modern technology to help us."

"In other words," Bishop interrupted, "we're just very angry, super strong humans."

"Exactly," Fisher nodded, "but we can be so much more.  To ignore our natural abilities is insane.  It's…" she struggled for a metaphor, "it's like a tiger in captivity.  It knows how to fight, sure, but not how to use its senses and camouflage to be a hunter.  In the wild, that tiger would starve to death, because it doesn't know how to catch his own food.

That makes more sense than this Gaia crap, William admitted.  He nodded and said, "I see your point."

Her eyes softened.  "Everyone in this unit knows how hard you train, captain.  You perfect the use of those swords, and trust me, we all respect that.  But you could do so much more.  Let me teach you our gifts.  When used properly, they can substantially enhance your ability.  You will become a complete warrior."

            "Sounds great."  Bishop shrugged.  "Why me?"

            "Because…" Michelle said, starting to breathe faster, "because I am fucking tired of being the only one in this unit that takes this fucking shit seriously!"  Her rage made her punch a dent into the metal table.  "The Raptors are losing their edge, captain.  Soon we'll be replaced by a bunch of incompetent mages and geeked-up normals.  Take a look around.  Clarke's gone—he kept the Raptors united, focused.  Now we're killing each other again, in different factions, and on different sides.  Every year that passes, the technology improves, and one day even normal humans will be able to flip a switch and be able to surpass us.  When that happens, we'll be an anachronism.  Just very angry, very strong humans… more frontline fodder for a bunch of dumbass generals that don't give a shit how many of us die for their lazy asses!  But maybe… just maybe, I can make a difference if I keep my knowledge alive.  Maybe one day we can remember how to be changelings… if I can find one person worthy to receive it."

Bishop took a deep breath and thought WOW.  "Okay, you sold me, but I don't have a lot of time.  Is there something quick and simple you can teach me before we go on our mission?"

            Fisher thought for a second, then nodded.  "Sure.  I know one, and I'll show it to you… on one condition."

"Name it."

"Promise to teach it to someone else in the unit after the mission."

            Bishop nodded.  "Done."  It's a small price to pay, he admitted to himself.

            "Do you know how to enhance your senses?" she asked.  "Smell?  Hearing?"

"I can see well in near-darkness, kinda like a cat," he replied.  "I discovered it when I was a kid."

"Good, then you're halfway there. So let's start by closing your eyes… relax… and lower your heartbeat."

William eased into a meditative stance and waited.  "Ready."

"When you're given a gift, it's important to remember where it came from.  Brother Wolf taught Sister Minx this at the beginning of the world.  She taught my mother's line, who gave it to me, and now I give to you."

"Really?"  Bishop couldn't help the cynicism creeping into his voice.

"You don't have to believe, captain, just remember," Michelle chided gently.  "Now tap into the spirit of energy, that same one you draw upon when you use the eyes of a cat.  Envision a lone wolf running through a forest in pursuit of its prey.  Now see yourself as the wolf… hear what he hears, smell the prey as he does."  She was silent for a few moments as William was guided towards the vision.

A moment later, started scratching the table gently.  Bishop's eyes flew open.  The sound suddenly became clear to him.  He could hear a cockroach walking across the floor; it boomed like a loud speaker.  He heard conversations outside the room and could make out the words.  When he concentrated more, he heard voices down at street level—three floors down, through closed windows!  William sniffed the aromas in the air and found them hundreds of times stronger.  He got down close to the floor and could literally smell the scent of the different people who had walked across the floor.  He could tell the differences between them.  Excited, he got up and opened the window.  He could smell the food being cooked in Santiago's three floors below.  Finally, he stepped away from the window and looked at Fisher.  "I don't believe it…"

She smiled.  "You see?  Imagine what else is out there."

"Don't speak so loud," Bishop winced, but returned her smile.  "Thank you.  It's an amazing gift, but… how do you stop it?"

"It doesn't last forever," she whispered.  "This effect will last for about fifteen minutes—because if you let it go longer, it might drive you mad.  But if you practice, you can control it better.  You can activate this talent on instinct, use it multiple times a day, even extend its effect to an entire day."  Michelle winked.  "I'm sure you can probably think of some ways this might be useful for the mission, hmmm?"

Bishop snorted a laugh and paused.  "I hear Dent shuffling in his office.  He's getting impatient for us.  I think it's time to report."

"After you," she waved.



They reported to Dent's office.  Bishop was glad to see that they had arrived before the other Raptors.  Bernard Dent was sitting behind his desk smoking a cigar, which would have been just one of his weird habits if it wasn't first thing in the morning.  The tobacco burned the captain's sensitive nose.  "You're early, Bishop," Dent lied.  "Meeting's not for another fifteen minutes.  And… Lieutenant Fisher?  What're you doing here?  You should be getting some rest."

"I have asked—" Bishop started.

Fisher jumped in.  "Sir, the captain asked me to teach him a helpful talent for an upcoming mission.  From that, I guessed he was going after our spook.  I want to help."

"Fisher," Dent took another puff, "you are one of my most important assets.  I am anticipating some heavy fighting on this mission, and I can't take the chance of losing you."

Bishop came to her aid.  "I need a tracker.  Yesterday I only found the assassin because I made a lucky guess where to look.  I can't count on luck.  Our target could be anywhere in the Iron District, and Fisher is the only one in this unit that has the necessary skills."

Dent stared at them a moment, took another puff, and exhaled.  "Fine.  You can have Fisher, but you better make sure nothing happens to her.  Now… where the hell are the actual members of the team?!"

            A few seconds later, McMichael, Anderson, and Greene slowly filtered into the room.  "I'm glad you guys decided to join us," the major scoffed, taking a big puff on his cigar.  "Don't sit down, men, this'll only take a moment.  I have been informed that Lt. Colonel Mosley will be arriving later this afternoon.  He will personally direct this mission."

"Mosley?" Greene asked.

"Smythe named him to Tech Infantry Special Ops—the Raptors.  Frankly, I don't know much more about him than that.  Unfortunately, the Iron District has attracted the attention of the top brass.  They want to do whatever it takes to catch this thug, so they sent their best man to help."  There was a series of uncomfortable coughs from his men.  Dent groaned.  "Yeah, I know, so stop your bellyaching.  Report to my office at 1730 hours.  Get some sack time, get some food, and be ready later today.  I've got a feeling all hell is about to break loose, so I want you ready and energized to get through it.  Dismissed."




"...we can't restore the Earth Federation unless we have people we can trust," Commander Tibbets finished.  "What do you say?"

            Argus McCall finally managed to close his mouth, which had dropped open involuntarily in sheer surprise.  This was a most unexpected offer: for him, a mere normal human—albeit one with a lot of impressive hardware surgically graftedto join not only the all-awakened ranks of the Tech Infantry, but one of their elite units, the Raptors.  He pondered a response for all of fifteen seconds before answering.

            "Well, sir one of the things they taught us in OCS was to never turn down a promotion, or we'd likely never get another such offer again."

            "Good Lad," the bald, mustached commander smiled.  "Now, the original plan was to send you back to New Madrid to sign in at the Raptor HQ."

"The capital?"

"Temporarily, until we get Avalon back.  Then I'd send you to join a Raptor detachment taking part in our liberation of Minos."

            "I grew up there," Argus mentioned wistfully.  I just wish more of my memories of those days had survived; installing this new cyberbrain cost me those.  Not that growing up in the industrial slums of Sukhoi City had an excess of happy memories—but they were my memories, dammit!

            "was part of the plan," Tibbets continued.  "Your transfer to that unit would officially be because of your background there, to be sort of a local guide."

            "Good thing the plan fell through, then.  Enough of my childhood memories were lost—due to my injuriesthat I probably couldn't even find my old kindergarten, much less tell them how to avoid bombing it."

            "Whatever.  The new plan is to check in here on Rios instead.  Then we're sending you to Ashdown, where Lt. Col. Moseley is putting together a combat detachment.  He's rustling it up from his anti-terrorism squad to join the relief expedition for Kalintos."

            "Where they'll need a sniper, eh?"

            "Exactly."  Tibbets gave a particularly predatory smile.  "We're confident we are sending enough ships to retake the orbitals above the planet and chase away the Imperial Fleet.  But they landed enough furballs and mindbenders in power suits that they may not surrender even after being cut off.  Depending on how fanatical their general officers are feeling, they may opt to either sit tight and wait for Vin Dane to scrape together an even bigger fleet to come rescue them..."

            "...or they may just decide to die for the Emperor and go to Imperial Heaven," McCall finished the thought.  "So why am I being sent there, rather than just spying on the Raptors here or on New Madrid?"

            "Moseley's anti-terrorism squad is, we think, partly a cover for some sort of top-secret Raptor Dirty Tricks squad.  They may be behind some mysterious disappearances of Clarke's political enemies back before the Caal came.  Disapparences that never really got investigated."  Tibbets sighed.  "And we don't know if they did so on Clarke's orders, or Vin Dane's.  Are they loyal to the guy who was their direct boss until six months ago, or to the memory of a Raptor legend?  That's what we need you to find out.  Because if those guys aren't worthy of the trust the Admiral has been forced to place in them, it's gonna blow up in our faces like a collapsing fusion bottle."



            Argus was sitting alone in the non-offensive, religiously vague chapel in the Rios Spaceport.  He had time to kill before he shipped out to Ashdown; he was shipping out with TI reinforcements for the relief forces to Kalintos.  He was told he would meet his new Raptor detachment on the ship, which was good because it meant he was in the system.  It took a few minutes with a nanobot processor to alter his uniform from the Light to the Tech Infantry.  Thankfully, his rank stayed the same, and everyone knew a TI lieutenant was the equivalent of an LI major.  Things are looking up; time to praise God.

 Without a cross present, he took out his necklace and stared at it.  He found it incredibly easy to pray since his transformation.  Errant thoughts in his head no longer plagued his contemplations.  He was free to commune with his God.

            He felt the pressure change as another figure walked in the door.  Unconsciously, McCall felt his danger level increase, and he crossed himself—allowing him to place his hand on his sidearm without drawing attention.

            "Truly, a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry."  The stranger laughed, plopping himself down in the pew across from McCall.

            "…for that shall abide with him of his labor the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun."  Argus finished the quote and gave the newcomer his attention.  The middle-aged man looked like an assistant principal or a late night manager.  His clothes were good quality, but dirty.  The bags under his eyes and the sheer exhaustion in the way he breathed told of a life regularly on the move.

            He also stank of magick.

            "I'll have to take your word for it."  The mage smiled.  "Never was one for the Good Book."

            "Yet you're here."

            "Cheaper than an autocafe."  He leaned back.  "Besides, I got an hour to kill."

            "Someone puke on the terminal seats?"
            The stranger rolled his head back on the pew.  "I don't know why they asked for you.  That comeback was terrible."

            "Come again?"

            He rolled his head towards Argus' face.  "I hope you got something better in that brain of yours, 'cause so far, I don't see anything worth buying."

            "I'm an officer in the Tech Infantry," McCall returned a stare with his artificial eye.  "So if you have something to say, say it, or let me get on with my prayers.  Otherwise, I'll turn you over as an unlicensed mage.  That's a crime here, as I'm sure you know."

            "And you're a good Raptor, so you always get your man."

            Argus pulled his sidearm out and pointed it right at the smug man's face.  "I gave you a chance.  Speak, die, or leave.  It's all the same to me."

            "Lieutenant Argus McCall, Light Infantry.  All that circuitry and they turn you into a lowly sniper."

            "Your point?"

            "You deserve better."

            McCall lowered his plasma revolver, keeping it pointed at him, but closer to his belt.  "Since you know all about me, you got a name?"

            "H.G. Wells." Argus snorted a laugh; the mage raised his eyebrows.  "You've heard of me?"

            "The Invisible Man.  Cute."

            "You'd be surprised how many people forget the classics."

            "So what's your real name?"

            "Call me Wells for now.  I want to give you a quick update."

            "From whom?"

            "Commander Tibbets.  I work for him… and a few others."

            "I'm supposed to take your word for that?"

            With a sigh, the mage pulled out a BLAM disk and set it next to him on the pew.  "I don't normally carry these things, but some things are too sensitive to put on the Net."

            "What's that supposed to prove?  That you're a low-tech geek?"

            "That you can verify what I'm telling you," Wells answered, "but you can't ask me questions."

            McCall groaned.  "If this is what's passing for intelligence these days, the term is grossly mislabeled."

            "Plug this into your dataport, metal head."  The mystery man suddenly got serious.  "The man we're looking at is named Major Bernard Dent.  He's a werebear with a habit of smelling like roses when the shit hits the fan."

            "I thought my commanding officer would be Lieutenant Colonel—"

"Yeah, he will, but he'll be one of the operational leaders under Dent's command.  He came up under Clarke."

"So did most of the Raptors," Angus pointed out.  "Not their fault."

"No, but there's a difference between Clarke supporters and those who just went along.  He rose up through the ranks in the Chairman's pet division.  We need to know if the Admiral can trust him."

"And who are you?  Does the admiral trust you?"

"Me?"  The mage laughed.  "He doesn't know I exist—and neither do you.  Copy?"

McCall nodded.  "Loud and clear.  You got more for me than that?"

"Read the BLAM.  Keep an eye on Dent.  Don't make a move until you report to us.  Clear?"




            When walking around Dynaport's commercial complex, Scyr thought carrying a large plasma cannon would draw strange looks; he was wrong.  His expectations about "civilization" were somewhat out-of-date for Jennifer's Star.  Most people were armed, some with guns that made you wonder if they were overcompensating.  Scyr was a little disappointed.  "I wonder if I'd get their attention if I actually shot someone," he mused aloud.

            "Only long enough to loot your corpse," a beggar said from Scyr's left.  "You wouldn't be the first today."

            Scyr stopped dead in the middle of the hallway; a woman cursed harshly as she stepped around him.  Scyr ignored her and turned his huge eyes to gaze at the beggar.  The man was sickly thin, unshaven, and shaking.  He guessed he was survivor of the Caal Invasion… and the subsequent, bloody "liberation" of the planet.  A tarnished metal bowl sat on the floor in front of him, showing off his grand haul of three one-credit coins.

            Nodding in approval, Scyr dug in his pocket and brought out the credit chit he'd stolen from the dead trooper in his apartment.  The chit was worthless.  The ultra-high-end and formerly illegal hacking equipment he'd bought might have been able to crack the encryption, but it turned out the chit had been fried by plasma fire.

            Scyr tossed the chit to the beggar.  The man caught it, and his eyes bulged as he saw its (illusory) value.

            "Th—thank you, sir!" he called out.  "Bless you!"

            "Onward and upward!" Scyr shouted.  That did draw a few stares.  Smiling, Scyr continued walking.



            It was the grimiest, seediest, most foreboding-looking bar that Scyr could find in the spaceport.  It was called the Deport Dungheap, and it made Scyr want to cry tears of joy.  First, because someone had actually named a bar that and, second, because customers actually wanted to go there.  Most of them were poorer spacers taking leave from their ships on the docking pad—exactly what Scyr wanted.

            Terribly pleased with himself, Scyr scrubbed his face of all expression except his best thousand-yard-stare.  He swiveled the plasma rifle around—now resting on his right shoulder, muzzle pointed straight up—and then strode through the bar's front door.

            It was even more foreboding inside.  It was dimly lit, a simple bar running the length of one side, with a open room filled by tables placed just far enough apart to keep nervous patrons from bumping into one another.  The holes in the walls suggested what happened if they didn't.  The air was filled with fumes that seemed closer to evaporated lubricants and chemicals than drug smoke.

            Everyone inside was armed, but Scyr was the only one brandishing his weapon.  It only took a moment before they all gave him uneasy looks.  "Hello," Scyr said.  He was not yelling, but did project his voice enough to be heard by everyone inside.  "I require a ship that can leave within the hour and transport me to the Babylon system.  No hassle, no probing questions, though I expect to be fed and watered on the journey.  For this service, I will pay one million credits."  He glanced up at the rifle resting on his shoulder.  "You may also have the plasma cannon.  It's in excellent condition, slightly used."

            Scyr scanned the bar.  No one was jumping at the offer. "I only ask because I do not like to deal with travel agencies.  They are deplorably slow and like to give out pamphlets, which I detest."

            Still no one spoke.

            "One million five hundred," Scyr said.

            "You're insane, kid."

            Scyr pivoted and pointed with his free hand at the cross-eyed spacer who'd spoken up.  "I am one hundred and three years old, sir; you will address me properly as 'old man'."  His smile shimmered in the dim light.  "Perhaps I am insane, but I will still pay two million credits to hire your vessel now."


            "Hey!" shouted another man from the bar.  "For two million, I'll take you wherever you want to go right now."  He began to get up from his stool, but Scyr stopped him with a harsh chopping gesture.

            "I am afraid the bidding is now closed," he said.  He beckoned to the cross-eyed man.  "Come now, I am in a terrible hurry."

            Clearly bewildered, the spacer got to his feet and started walking towards the crazy newcomer.  Scyr had been hoping to find someone utterly unscrupulous to hire, like a pirate or a smuggler.  Offering an absurd price seemed the best way to do that.  But finding a pirate or smuggler willing to offer advice to a young man clearly out of his league was even better.  Scyr kept himself from cackling wildly, and merely continued to grin.

            "I'm not actually the captain, you know," the cross-eyed man said once he was closer to Scyr.  He was unusually short, and Scyr's chin nearly touched his chest when he looked down to talk.

            "But your captain will agree to my offer, yes?" Scyr spoke calmly.  "Otherwise, the man at the bar…"

            The spacer snorted.  "Two million?  Yeah, she'll take it.  Buy us a new ship, or at least new air scrubbers.  Name's Naton."  He stuck out a pudgy, grease-smeared hand.

            Scyr did not shake it.  "My name is Oldman; that should make it easy to remember.  Now show me to your captain, Naton."  He waved the plasma rifle in the general direction of the exit.

            "Right."  Naton withdrew his hand and wiped it against his pants.  "Follow me, then… uh, old man."

            Before turning to follow, Scyr waved a thumbs-up at the bartender on the other side of the room.  "I love the name of your place," he shouted before he left.



            Naton's ship was called the Scum Sucker.  It was a clunker of a freighter, a model used as a light transport by the Eastern Bloc a decade ago.  That knowledge came easily to Scyr's mind, but how or why it had remained a frustrating mystery.  Scum Sucker was armed, with missiles and a few light guns grafted on after its original construction.  Scyr hoped he may have actually stumbled across a true pirate; a wretched one to be sure, but perhaps one unaffiliated with any of the Republic's assortment of warlords.

            "Two million credits?" Captain Melody Kaur asked again, blinking her eyes in disbelief.

            "Yes," Scyr said again.  "And the plasma rifle, if you want it."

            He was holding out his own personal credit chit—they wanted to confirm he had the money up front.  It was understandable, though he certainly wasn't going pay the full sum just yet.

            Captain Kaur finally just shrugged.  "Well, I can't turn that down.  We've got a hold full of salvaged luxuries for Wilke's Star, but designer clothes don't rot.  Might sell as well on Babylon, too.  How soon you need to leave?"

            "Right now."  The woman was terribly slow and it was testing Scyr's patience.

            "We've refueled, so we can lift in twenty minutes.  Good enough?"

            Scyr nodded.

            "Jetty and Pierce are still out," Naton said anxiously from beside Scyr.

            Kaur made an unsympathetic gesture.  "So call them; but for two million they can go screw themselves if they don't make it back.  The rest of you can work double shifts."  She smiled at Scyr.  "Welcome aboard, Mr. Oldman."

            She half-turned and offered a hand to usher him up the boarding ramp and into the little freighter.  Then she fell into step beside him as Scyr started up.  "So why Babylon… if you don't mind me asking?"

            "I do.  Part of the deal is no questions."  A small bit of Scyr's anger found its way into his voice.

            "Right, sorry."  Captain Kaur had the good sense to look embarrassed.

            Scyr stopped walking, and the ship's corridor was small enough that Kaur had to stop as well.  Slowly, he looked from side to side, and then leaned in close to the captain.

            "Just between you and me though.  There is a certain pub in a certain mining facility on a certain asteroid that serves truly amazing chicken soup."

            He stared directly into Captain Kaur's eyes, without a hint of expression on his face.  Her own eyebrows and mouth were twitching, as if she didn't know whether she should be laughing or just agreeing.  Eventually, she just looked worried.

            "Er," she said after at least two minutes of awkward silence, "you can use the quarters just down this way.  Let me show you and then I can prep the ship."

            "Splendid," Scyr said.



            While the crew scrambled to prep for a three (or five) day trip, with two hands rushing to get back to the ship, Scyr was blissfully left alone.  In a passenger room that should have been decommissioned years ago, he took out a black box with shiny packaging.  It was rather bulky, Scyr noted, but if you didn't want to mess with connections with your existing equipment, you bought a full sensor-capable cybermodem along with the software.  He ripped off the shiny plastic and activated it.

            The device hummed with a nasty sound, like it was ready to bore into the first target it saw; it brought a smile to Scyr's face.  The holoproj activated and immediately started scanning for available networks to infiltrate.  Finally the results came: Five networks located.  Which target?

            Scyr located the one he wanted: SS618.  "Perfect… infiltrate?"  With the press of a virtual button, the machine whirred to a quiet roar, activating multiple levels of black ice software, crushing the security remnants of any Eastern Bloc military encryption.  Soon I'll have a ship… and insurance.  One doesn't pick up the first ship without a little risk.  Time to minimize that.

            Right on time, the ship started to rattle around him, taking off from the spaceport and heading off into open space.  "All right, Vitek… you wanted me?  Here I come."




Izzy D'Argent mulled over Lwan's words as he returned to his virtual estate.  Find a good man and guide him to greatness, he thought.  Oh sure, it was easy enough for Lwan to say, but I'm far, far from a God.  Lord knows, I'm not even a good human.  His current near-virtual existence was a glaring testament to his failure as a human being.  Izzy tore up a handful of alpine grass in frustration as he sat at the edge of a virtual cliff.  The wind stole the blades from his open hand and carried them over the cliff's edge.  He watched them dance in the air for a while until they disappeared over the object rendering threshold and blinked out of existence.

Lwan suggested starting with the Net.  It was true that the Net probably—was—Izzy's greatest resource.  But the Net didn't show who was a 'good man.'  No search engine in existence could sort people by soul-worth.  And even if I found a 'good man,' what would I do with him exactly?  Lwan was putting more faith in the wily old vampire's abilities than the old vampire put in himself.  Izzy had been around for a while, to be sure, but he was no Merlin.  Who am I to guide anyone to greatness?

He sighed, summoning his favorite terminal in the form of an old fashioned laptop computer.  A journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step, he remembered from an old fortune cookie, and it seemed to Izzy that there was no time like the present to begin his search.

If I am to play Merlin, I'll need some sort of "sword in the stone" to find my Arthur.  He had no intention of leaving Sylvania, so it was obvious he would have to bring his Arthur to him.

The amusement park was looking a little empty as of late; perhaps it was time to freshen Sylvania's advertising campaign.  Perhaps a… not-quite-so-random drawing would spark some interest in the park, and bring in a few Arthurian candidates.  If Wonka could do it, I could at least give it a try.  It was no less of a miracle than what Lwan was asking for.

It took only a few minutes to get his marketing team cracking.  An all-expense paid trip, travel included, to one of the most luxurious resorts in the universe… what person could turn that down?  Izzy's marketing exec, a clever man he had groomed for the role right out of college, insisted that they needed a week of multimedia saturation to get a good Net presence.  Izzy didn't know that what that meant, but he figured it must be good.

Trans-Sylvania Entertainment Limited, the holding company for Izzy's resort, spent a ton of his credits that he would never even notice were missing.  Within a day, the Net remembered Sylvania, his island of serenity at the edge of nowhere.  Popular audio feeds, talking head shows, indycasts… it was mentioned everywhere.  He even tried to get an ad on the Imperial Fleet Broadcast, but they wouldn't return Izzy's transmissions.  Billions signed up, half of them using anonymous proxy accounts that were supposed to be untraceable, but D'Argent's software cracked them like nutshells.

With access to this vast database, Izzy started winnowing the wheat from the chaff.  The first filter was those who had a link to the different faction governments.  The vampire didn't want to have to start a power base from scratch—besides, that would raise too many questions.  He then eliminated those with a higher rank than lower management; somebody with proven ability, but not hardened by the political infighting present in any bureaucracy.

Even with those outrageous filters, D'Argent still had a huge list.  He chose those with spouses and children, on the hope that if the person convinced another to breed with them—and they stayed around—they couldn't be all that bad.  Then he made sure to get a representative pile from each faction, checked their extra-curricular activities, and winnowed it down further.  In the end, with four or five names in each pile, Izzy finally just chose the ones with the most amusing names, and sent them the winning tickets.

A week later, they arrived.  Izzy made sure to time their starship itineraries so that they arrived simultaneously.  As soon as they reached the orbital station hovering over the moon of New Sparta, D'Argent couldn't help but smile with glee.  They were as different as they were similar, and it gave the old vampire a chance to see them in the wild.  Nothing tells you more about a man than when you see him drunk, he thought, and then corrected himself.  Er… relaxed.

He viewed them filing in.  In a way, they were the finalists for his own reality show: "Who Wants To Be the Next Galactic President?"  It was a joke that only someone of Izzy's age could appreciate.  The first one through the gate was Tamara Chakravarty, a woman with enough different bloodlines to make herself the poster child for genetic diversity.  Tammy looked perpetually tanned, with bleached blond hair, dragging three small kids behind her who didn't want to leave the ship.  D'Argent knew from her records that she had served in the Resistance during Clarke's reign and, despite her hatred of the Federation, served as an artillery observer for the Tech Infantry during the Vin Shriak War.  Two of those three children weren't hers, but she had been acting as their mother since they were born.  A more selfless person one could not hope for, Izzy thought, save for the fact that she had no compulsions about blowing up Fed buildings.  Ah, but she was a 'freedom fighter'… what else was she supposed to do?  Now as the Director for Infrastructure of the Terran Republic on Port Arthur's mining orbital, she had been managing to make the aging space station turn a profit.

Behind her was the rather stoic Gabriel Quatttone, or "Real" to his friends.  Escorted by his lovely wife and teenage son Stefan, Real looked more out of place on vacation than most people felt anywhere else.  A concentrated worker, he had managed to find a place in the Ministry of Public Safety in the Department of Communications.  On the surface it seemed like a rather silly job, since most communications were handled automatically, but D'Argent looked beneath the surface.  Although governments claimed to be centralized, that kind of control only worked with the consent of the people on the ground.  Real may have been a simple netrunner and console jockey, but on the Net, he knew who got the job done in twelve systems.

Durrmach K'Hhak Rarhath floated along quite comfortably, despite the strange stares he got from all those around.  His litter and mate floated through the air, puffed full of hydrogen.  Unlike the Jurvain—none of whom signed up for the contest—the K'Nes were the friendliest race to human life.  Izzy knew that Rarhath was a long shot for galactic unity, but being a relation to one of the Executive Board of the K'Nes Llan didn't hurt, as well as being one of the most charitable of a race not known for their generosity.  Rarhath ran a series of orphanages throughout the galactic east, got the grown-up kids jobs, and educated the rest effectively.

Speaking of long shots, Malai Prattabong was a native Martian of Thai descent, and was the assistant director of the Utopia Planetia Ship Yards.  One of those responsible for building the new Imperial Fleet, she coordinated with the Ministry of Production constantly, and when that failed, had a discreet black market connection to make sure the ships got finished on time… and, strangely, under budget.  Malai was fiercely loyal to the Emperor (which left a question mark in Izzy's mind), but no one could doubt she was effective, efficient, and lovely to boot.  She toted along her five children, who stayed in order without being reminded, with her thin gasp of a husband trailing behind them.

Finally, Patty Sylvest didn't fit the profiles, but somehow kept breaking through the filters.  She looked good.  Former TI trooper, working as the civilian coordinator for the Earth Federation's Light Infantry department, the middle-aged mage was acceptable to all the military branches.  This was a crucial problem the Fed had suffered from in the beginning.  Patty also managed the civilian side of things through the Light Infantry maintaining law and order.  Sylvest was widowed, but had an eight-year-old daughter Victoria, and loved kids.

The five of them were there, ready to board the shuttle to take them down to the moon's surface and the gates of Sylvania.  D'Argent made the last adjustments to his holoprofile.  Time to greet our guests, he thought.




            Akihiro's eyes transmitted his thoughts clearer than if he'd spoke words directly into his son Takamitsu's mind—about time you got here.  Of course, the corporate executive was too well-cultured, too well schooled from a life in the Eastern Bloc to speak such a crass comment aloud.  Takamitsu's father simply nodded and activated the holoproj.  "We're ready to begin the Zeta armor vacuum speed trials."

            "Father," Takamitsu asked, still catching his breath after running from his shuttle in the docking station to the other end of the orbital, "I know we… made the armor specifications able to… handle EVA spacewalks, but they weren't intended…"

            "I have no intention of selling the Ministry—or anyone else we choose—an inferior product," Akihiro snapped.  "We will replace the old Delta-style armor once and for all.  And when it becomes the standard, our company will have a monopoly on production for the next hundred years."  Akihiro turned away from the holoproj and looked at his son.  "We are running out of time."

            "But we're meeting the Ministry today…"

            "Then we will have more to tell them, won't we?"  A slight smile crept along the side of Akihiro's face, then quickly disappeared.  "Test subject is ready.  Safety extraction team is ready.  Begin!"

            Takamitsu and his panting entourage watched as the white-suited trooper ran across the outside hull of the orbital battlestation.  The head of research leaned over to his old friend Shinsuke, the head of Taka's security team, and asked, "Do you know who's in the white suit?"


            Takamitsu's eyebrows furrowed and he looked back at his bodyguards.  One, two, three, four… how did I miss him?  Hmph, I guess I was in a rush.  "When did he become—"

            "When your father asked for him."

            "And you let him?"

            Shinsuke gave his friend a blank stare.  "He signs the paychecks.  I'm supposed to say no?"

            "But why…?"

            "Because he served in the Tech Infantry and he's got the EVA experience.  Plus, with some correspondence mages standing by to zap him up, if the suit fails then the worst danger he's in is getting some freezer burn.  Those werewolves are tough."

            "But still…"

            Takamitsu's conversation was cut short by the armored werewolf reaching the first objective.  Activating the chameleon circuits, he continued across the support posts of two connecting modules.  Now he was only blur against the stars behind him.  The R&D manager felt a swell of pride as the technology worked flawlessly.  Now if it can get through the stress test…

            That's when the plasma bolts started to appear.  Streaking towards where Kiyokazu was, the bursts of fire and light were like a concert show—except these were deadly.  His brother in the strike team started screaming, "Kiyokazu!  Get out!"

            "Father!" Takamitsu yelled.

            Akihiro immediately pressed a button.  "Get him out of there!  Da-re!"

            Before the correspondence mages could open a portal near the armored man, one of the plasma bolts hit the test subject in the chest.  The chameleon circuits failed and Kiyokazu sailed off the platform, caught in mid-stride, floating off into deep space.  The portal opened in front of him and zapped him into their control center.

            Then the plasma bolts started raining down on their observation window, threatening to expose them all to vacuum.




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, even if you know the bartenders really well.