"Das Schicksal hat mich angelacht
und mir ein Geschenk gemacht
Warf mich auf einen warmen Stern
Der Haut so nah dem Auge fern
Ich nehm mein Schicksal in die Hand."
"Destiny smiled on me
and gave me a present
Threw me on a warm star
So close to the skin, so far from the eye
I take my destiny in my own hands."

               -- Rammstein, Mann Gegen Mann

Yasayama Takamitsu didn't have time to scream; when the plasma bolts broke through the clearplaz window, it shattered.  The atmosphere in the orbital's room was blown out and the young manager was blown out with it.  He heard his father scream behind him, feel the force wall being cast from his hands, but it was too late to help his son.  It didn't take long to feel the cold… his capillaries bursting from the vacuum, his lungs aching to exhale.  Takamitsu closed his eyes, praying that death would come soon.  He composed a death poem in his head; his only regret is that no one would hear it…

            …and then silence.  His body eventually forced him to exhale, and when his lungs reached for more air, it came easily.  Am I dead, he wondered, or is this paradise?  Reluctantly, he opened his eyes and saw nothingness.  Not space, not stars, just the absence of light and permanence.  If this paradise, I want my money back.

            "Damn it, damn it, damn IT!" came a light voice behind him.  Yasayama turned around slowly.  In the middle of this nothing-space stood a woman.  That would have been strange enough.  The fact that she was dressed in an old-style military uniform, had an antique plasma cannon shoulder-strapped around her, and spoke in a strange lilting accent was too much strangeness in his normally boring life.  "It's too soon!  It happened too bloody soon!  They canna awaken the lad now, or...  Oh, that bastard!  I'm make him pay for—"

            "Excuse me," Takamitsu held up a hand—a nasty habit from his private school days.  "Who are you?"

            "He's gonna…"  At that moment, the woman finally seemed to notice Taka was there.  She sighed and glared at him.  "Well… at least this worked.  He won't be expecting that."

            "Who—are—you?" the young man spoke slower, hoping that Federation English would someone allow for normal communication.

            "Taka…" the strange soldier said, shaking her head.  "Aye, you are the spitting image of your father!  Aki shoulda known better than to put you in this position, though."

            Takamitsu gulped; the last person to call his father Aki had found himself stationed on the edge of Bug space the next week.  "Why am I here?"

            "Why are you here?!" she exclaimed, as it were perfectly normal to be standing in null space.  "Don't you remember the attack?  Being blown out into space?"

            "Sure, but—"

            "Then count your blessings!  You're alive and... Oh."  The mystery woman came closer, looking at the decompression damage the accident had caused Taka.  " 'Ere, let me take care o' that."  She opened her palm and, as it glowed a pale blue, a presence came upon him.  Aching through the life magick she invoked, Takamitsu felt his wounds healing, the ache in his chest disappear.  The manager only wished he had access to this level of magickal knowledge…

            "Thank you," he whispered in gratitude.

            She shrugged in response, then suddenly cocked her head.  "Ah, dammit.  I hate when this happens."  Finally she stared at his face.  "Listen, lad, we don't have a lot o' time 'ere... ironic, when I think about it..."  Taka was about to reply, when she cut him off.  "No, just shut up and listen!  Your grandparents... they made a terrible mistake.  They made a deal with the devil himself in order to survive—and if we don't stop them, they'll destroy the universe as we know it.  You got that?"

            Takamitsu blinked for a few seconds, trying to take in the madness she was saying.  "My grandparents?  They... died.  During the Vin Shriak War.  My mother, my—"

            "No, they didn't!" the woman shouted back.  "That's just what they made you believe.  They made a little end run around time, y'see—an' now it's come time to pay the price!"

            "They were time mages, yes," Taka tried to explain, "but they couldn't—"

            "Listen, lad," she interrupted, "forget the word impossible for a moment, since you're living in it right bloody now."  The soldier waved her hands around the null space.  "Get it?  Now, I canna maintain this for much longer.  You have to find your grandparents and stop them... or everyone dies.  An' not just die—they'll 'ave never even existed!"

            Yasuyama blinked.  "How can I believe that?  Or you?!  You might have been the one shooting at me!"

            She rolled her eyes. "If I wanted you dead, I could shoot you right now."  She jiggled her plasma cannon for emphasis.  "Look, you cheeky boy, I'm trying to help you here!  I give you me word as a Federation officer."

            "That's no good—the Fed's dead!  Well, almost..."

            The woman stared at him for a heartbeat.  "Oh.  We're in that timeline.  Middle Kingdom?  The Celestial Emperor?"

            Takamitsu shook his head.  "What are you talking about?"

            "Alright—who's lord o' the castle right now?  If it's not the Fed, then who?"

            "No one.  Everyone.  After the Caal Invasion—"

            "Shite!"  She slapped her head.  "Vin bloody Dane?!  He's still around?"  The soldier spat into the void.  "Some god has a wicked sense o' humor..."

            "Look, I don't know who you are, but could you—"

            "Who am I?  Use your eyes!"  She pointed to her name patch.  "Colonel Fialla Spencer, Tech Infantry!  Jaysus, what's with kids these—"  She slapped her head again, and then jerked her head.  "Blast, our time's up.  Listen, lad—find your grandparents, stop their deal with the devil, save the universe.  You got that?"
            "No, I don't!  What—"

As quickly as he was transported there, he suddenly found himself standing in a hallway.  It looked like the orbital, but Takamitsu wasn't sure until he saw his father and Shinsuke's security team racing out of the room Taka had just been in.  As the door screamed shut behind them, they suddenly stopped in shock.

 "Taka?!" Akihiro exclaimed, rushing over to embrace his son.  "I…"  Suddenly the old man remembered himself, reclaimed his reserve, and stepped back.  "We were afraid we had lost you.  I told the correspondence mages to find you.  I must call off the search."  With that, he quietly stepped down the hallway.

            The head of Taka's security team stepped forward.  "What the hell just happened?"

            "I wish I knew, Shinsuke."  Takamitsu looked off into space.  "I wish I knew."





            is the place

            where we go

            to and fro

            in a bind

            lost our mind

            this mortal fear

            we call it


            Scyr was drooling.  His lips had been stretched open in a feral grin for over an hour now, and a small run of spittle flowed down the side of his chin and neck to stain his collar.

            Outside, the orange nightmare swirled around the ship.  Wisps and tendrils of a hideous nothing enveloped the creaking freighter like a newborn even as it sped on its way.  Scyr watched it with unaccountable fascination.  There were no exterior windows in his quarters, but he watched; he could taste hyperspace, and it was both a terror and a comfort.

            Scyr had probably been in hyperspace before.  He had memories—small scraps and images—of other worlds beyond Jennifer's Star.  Places he'd probably been that would have required travel through this magnificent altered realm.  But Scyr had no memories of hyperspace itself.  This may as well have been his first experience, and it was nothing short of hypnotic.

            "Mr. Oldman?" a woman's voice bleated.  "You wanted to know when we were a day out from Babylon?"

            If she had actually walked into his quarters to interrupt him, Scyr would likely have killed Captain Kaur.  Ripped her apart piece by piece and laughed at the screams and the blood.  Of course, then he would have had to kill the rest of her crew, and his entire plan would be undone.  He didn't want to be stuck in hyperspace forever.  It was really for the best that her voice came crackling out of the Scum Sucker's intercom.

            Scyr shook his head to clear the oddly violent haze that had developed and gathered his wits again.

            "Yes, Captain, I did.  If it's not too much trouble, I would like to speak with you and your senior officers.  Would you arrange that?"

            "Uh, yeah, sure," Kaur said.  "I'll gather the boys.  Do you know where my quarters are?"

            "No."  It wasn't quite a lie.  Scyr had downloaded the ship's schematic, but it was possible Kaur didn't use the original captain's cabin.

            "Hang tight, then.  Someone will fetch you in a few minutes."

            Scyr stood to wait.  Hyperspace was all around him; it filled his chest with warmth and sang in his ears.  A little voice in his brain plead desperately for salvation.  Scyr tried not to think about it.



            Fifteen minutes later, Scyr was in the captain's cabin with Kaur and three other men.  Her quarters made Scyr think that Kaur thought of herself as a storybook Pirate Queen.  Beads and curtains hung from the ceiling, which turned the normally open room into a hot and claustrophobic den.  Scyr found Kaur and her officers lounged on large cushions that made the place a trip hazard.  For a moment, Scyr debated whether to sit or stand, and finally just hopped down onto one of the cushions.  It was not as well padded as he'd expected, and he banged his knee against the deck plate.  He had to force himself to ignore the pain.

            Two of the other men Scyr knew to be the Scum Sucker's navigator and engineer.  Naton, the mechanic Scyr had met at the spaceport, was not in the room.  The third officer seemed to be Kaur's lover.  He was a ratty little man whom the others had introduced as their "Chief Negotiator"; Scyr assumed that meant he operated the weapons.

            All four of them looked rather suspicious of Scyr.  He had to remind himself that just because he wanted them to be uncommonly dense, it didn't mean they actually were.  That might be inconvenient, but it was hardly an insurmountable barrier.

            "So, Mr. Oldman," Captain Kaur started, "you wanted to discuss something?"

            Scyr shifted on his cushion, trying to get his legs just right beneath him.  He didn't answer until he was comfortable.

            "Well, Captain, I know I promised you two million credits to take me to Babylon.  But the truth—"

            All three of the men were giving him sharp, threatening looks, and Captain Kaur interrupted.

            "Oldman, it's way too late to renegotiate your fare."

            Scyr met their eyes steadily.  "The truth is I'd like you to do a little more than a simple trip to Babylon.  And I'm willing to pay considerably more than two million… if you're successful."

            A moment of silent contemplation; it was the navigator who broke the silence.  "What's the job?"

            "In a moment," Scyr nodded at him before looking back to Captain Kaur.  "I was pleased to see that your ship was well-armed back at Deport.  I presume that you don't mind doing less… polite work than hauling cargo?"

            For a moment, Kaur's expression was cagey.  Then she grinned.  "Ah hell, if you're some kind of cop, we can just toss you out the airlock.  Yes."  She and her companions all chuckled a bit.

            Scyr returned the smile.  "Excellent.  Then allow me to explain.  I have been contracted to acquire a specific item now on Babylon.  I won't tell you what it is except to say that it's worthless to me and, I think, worthless to you.  My employer, however, has a certain… affection, let's say, which makes this item invaluable to him.  To retrieve this item, I am being paid enough money to make me… quite frankly, richer than God.  So I'm not concerned about overpaying in order to move quickly.

            "Unfortunately, I do need to move quickly now.  My target is currently in the possession of someone who would rather hold on to his property than give it to me.  His agents discovered me on Jennifer's Star—hence my rush to depart—and there's a good chance they will be expecting me on Babylon."

            He paused and glanced at each of the other four in turn to see if they had any comments.

            "So what's the job?" the navigator repeated.

            Scyr refrained from rolling his eyes.

            "I should be able to infiltrate Babylon without trouble," he said.  "Even stealing the target shouldn't be too hard.  I expect the great challenge will be getting back off the planet and out of the system.  I would like to have my transport arranged in advance so that I can depart with even less trouble than it took to hire you on Jennifer's Star.  And I would like to arrange some distractions to cover that escape.  If you can do this, I would pay…"  Scyr stroked his chin a couple times.  "…not less than fifteen million credits."

            Kaur snorted and shook her head.  "No way.  I don't know what you're peddling, but fifteen million is just too good to be true.  Which means it isn't."

            Scyr held up a hand.  "The money is real; I can prove that easily enough.  But this isn't a risk-free job… far from it.  Even if everything goes smoothly, there's a ten percent chance that we'd all die a swift death.  Worse if there are complications.  Fifteen million is not an unreasonable price, because I am asking a lot."  He added a sigh for effect.  "Still, if you don't want to take it, I'll pay you the two million we agreed upon, and ask you to depart the system immediately the second I step off the ship."

            He'd been worried by Captain Kaur's swift rejection.  That sort of instinctual mistrust probably served her well, but it made Scyr's life difficult.  He didn't want her to think too much.  So it was a good sign that she was silent; maybe greed would triumph after all.

            This time, it was the "negotiator" who spoke up.  His words came out slurred, since he was chewing on gum or food that Scyr hadn't noticed.

            "I want to know what this 'distraction' you've got in mind is."

            Scyr showed the man one of his tamer grins.  "I want several long-range cee-fractional kinetic strikes against Babylon."

            The negotiator nearly choked.  "Holy shit!"

            Captain Kaur's expression was similar.  "You want us to attack Babylon?  Scum Sucker hasn't got a prayer of pulling that off!"

            But no moral objection, Scyr thought, relieved.  He chuckled and waved a hand.  "Oh, I don't care if the strikes succeed.  I just want to spook the planetary defense grid.  That way, while you're picking me up, they'll be looking in the wrong direction.  Hell, you could miss the planet completely… but let's try to do it right, shall we?"

            "I… you're…"  Captain Kaur's mouth opened and closed several times without saying anything more.

            "So."  Scyr cocked his head to one side.  "Is fifteen million credits enough for your assistance?"

            Kaur looked over at the "negotiator," who smiled before nodding.  The captain smiled back and turned to Scyr.  "You got a deal, M. Oldman.  Where do you want to start?"

            "Let's talk armaments."  Their patron's smile threatened to tear a gash in his face.  "What 'accessories' can you bring to the party?"

            The negotiator coughed out a laugh.  "Dumb-fire missiles, some live warheads, depleted uranium shells for the rotating cannon, some smaller calibers for the chain gun…."  He leaned forward to stare directly at Scyr's eyes.  "Of course, if you go cee-fractional, you can just fire trash at the planet out an open airlock and you'll demolish a skyscraper."

            "That's forward thinking!" Scyr yelped in glee.  "Yes, let's use it all!  Beds, trash…" he looked up at the appalling decorations, "…curtains, the works!  If you could throw the kitchen sink in, I'll even throw in an extra hundred grand."

            "You want us to strip the ship?"  Kaur looked annoyed.

            "For fifteen million, I suspect you'll buy a new ship… and certainly a better one than this."

            The captain thought for a moment and shrugged.  The navigator laughed and asked, "So just hit the planet?"

            Now it was Scyr's turn to shrug.  "I expect quality, people!  'Just hit the planet'… feh!  I'll give exact coordinates for my targets once I'm in system.  After all, I can hardly pull up a detailed map of Babylon from here!  But I figure that if you cruise the outer system, firing your trash first and your missiles later, we should give enough flashing lights for the authorities to worry about to provide for my escape."

            "Are you sure it'll be enough?" the negotiator asked.

            Oh, it will, Scyr thought, especially when I take control of your ship.  "It will have to be, sir, for all our sakes.  Meanwhile, let's talk placement—I'm sure I can trust you to tweak the parabolas later."  When none of them immediately spoke, he added, "Come now, let's get to work!  After all, I'm about to change your lives forever!"




            In the early 21st century, the discovery of hyperspace and the invention of the ion drive made long-distance space travel practical… but "practical" is a broad term.  England, Spain, and many other countries built huge colonial empires based on sail-driven ships that weren't much faster than a man walking.  A message from a far-flung outpost to the capital could take several months to get a reply, so the ships that had made worldwide-empire practical had not made it very efficient.

            In the same way, hyperspace made multi-system star nations practical, but it took digital gates and the hyperspace beacons to make them efficient.  Hyperspace beacons—beams of tachyons sent from one jump gate to another—tied the galaxy together in a Net of near-instantaneous information.  Digital gates allowed ships to move just as fast from one system to another... as long as a digital gate was installed and functioning.

            Two decades earlier, Erich Von Shrakenberg had destroyed the Ashdown Gate in the Rios system, preventing the Jurvain invasion fleet from jumping through it.  It was because of the expense that the gate had been rebuilt as a normal jump gate, not a full digital gate.  In fact, only the digital gates in or out of Avalon, the most travelled routes, were economically viable.  Thanks to a botched attempt to repeat Von Shrakenberg's trick on the Caal invasion force, they were the only way to get to Avalon.  With the pieces of the Federation busy squabbling over who got to rebuild civilization—and in what form—God only knew when Avalon's destroyed jump gates would be rebuilt.

            Or if they will be rebuilt, Argus McCall thought to himself as he boarded the civilian passenger liner.  It was civilian because there weren't enough Earth Fleet transports for the several thousand troopers who needed to reach Ashdown in preparation for the relief expedition to Kalintos.  Smythe fought alongside Erich Von Shrakenberg back then.  He might just decide to blow up Avalon and abandon the system if he thinks that's what it will take to end Vin Dane and his blasphemous delusions of apotheosis.

            Digital gate or not, hyperspace travel had reversed one annoying trend in technology.  Even though normal gates were nowhere near as fast as digital ones, they still cut the travel time between star systems to a matter of days.  You could travel from one end of human civilization to the other in less than a month.  In the days of steam-driven passenger ships, passenger accommodations were often luxurious staterooms, with sleeping and eating and bathing facilities to make the weeks of travel pass in comfort and style.  As technology made trips shorter, the accommodations got worse.  Trains had cramped sleeping compartments for long trips and bare seats for short ones.  Airliners did away with private compartments altogether.  When space travel made trips take weeks once more, staterooms were reinvented for a new age.

            Which didn't necessarily mean travel was pleasant—especially when military needs demanded it.  Argus was berthed with three other junior officers in a stateroom that normally held two people.  He almost wished there were still ghouls and vampires serving with the TI.  One of them could turn into a bat and hang from the ceiling.

            Argus had checked in most of his gear with the LI sergeant standing at the security station.  Normally the scanner made sure terrorists didn't bring weapons on board.  Today the scanner was turned off… and the sergeant made sure no one forgot to bring their weapons on board.  Argus had his spare uniform, hygiene kit, and an extra set of batteries for his Social Arm.  That one was almost indistinguishable from a natural arm, with coarse black hair to match his original equipment… but medical science hadn't yet invented a truly convincing synthetic for real skin.

            Argus rode the shuttle up to the starship waiting in orbit.  Many ships, even civilian liners like this one, could land on the surface of a planet and take off again.  But it was still more efficient in terms of fuel, time, and money to leave the bulky ship in orbit and just shuttle up the cargo and passengers at each stop.  Plus it gave a chance to identify those with motion sickness before they started puking in a starship and polluting the recycled air supply.  Shuttles were also easier to clean on the ground, opened up for fresh air to get rid of the smell.

            No one lost their lunch on the way up, thankfully, and Argus found his way to his stateroom quickly.  Everywhere he went, he drew stares; Lieutenant McCall was used to that.  But with his new TI uniform, those stares turned other Tech Infantry troopers angry.  Not so special now, are we, doggies?  Argus smiled.  Maybe that spook was right.  The Raptors aren't the Chairman's pets anymore… and they're starving for attention.

            He opened the hatch and found three pairs of eyes lock onto him like targeting scanners.  McCall kept walking in, found the open cot, and dropped his gear on it.  Looking at the three men focused on their new roommate, the cyborg smiled and said with gusto, "Greetings!  I'm Lieutenant Argus McCall.  Looks like we'll be bunking together for a while!"

            The hairy officer with the leathery skin seemed to taste something foul in his mouth.  "They made you a Raptor?"

            "Funny world, huh?"  McCall ignored the insult.  "You are?"

            The werecreature rolled his eyes and replied.  "Lieutenant Windspeaker Durward, 10th Legion, Force Recon.  This one," he pointed to the thin stick of a man juggling (well, floating) ten miscellaneous objects in the air, "is Lieutenant Halsson, head of the 10-672nd Engineers.  And my partner here," he pointed to another obvious werewolf with white hair, "is Lieutenant Titus Vardan, also Force Recon."

            "Glad to meet ya."  Argus stuck out his real arm to shake, but none of them took it.  Argus shook it off with a shrug.  "Any idea where the mess is?"

            Durward coughed out a laugh.  "Your batteries running low?  Thought they built you guys to last."

            "Cybernetic human," McCall clarified, a cold note creeping into voice.  "The meat needs to feed, since it controls the metal.  With this," he lifted up his elegant piece of a combat arm implant, "I can shoot the wings off a mosquito at two miles away.  Imagine what I can do to anyone who really pisses me off."  He shot Windbag a patented smile.

            Windspeaker wouldn't let it go.  "What do we need some wirehead sniper for anyhow?  The Raptors have a sniper detachment of Wereravens we can call on."  He turned to the other werewolf.  "Weren't there a couple of them here on Rios?"

            "They got sent to join the attack on Minos last week," Lieutenant Vardan answered, turning his white head towards Argus.  "Apparently Smythe thinks he can replace us.  Half a dozen highly experienced super-sighted shapeshifters must not equal a jumped-up mundane with a chip in his head."

            "Maybe he thought it would make a nice complement," McCall shot back.

"Compliment?!" Titus barked.

"Yeah.  Smythe saw all you highly-experienced, supercilious shapeshifters sitting around with those giant chips on your shoulders—"  His monologue was cut off mid-sentence when the enraged werewolf threw Argus across the stateroom into the bulkhead.  It would have hurt a lot more if he'd had more than five feet to be thrown.

Dammit, his brain finally kicked in, why must the one emotion that got amplified by my head re-wiring be my snarky sense of humor?  Why couldn't it have been my sense of self-preservati—

"You will respect a Silver Fang!" Titus yelled at him.  "I am a prince among my people!"

Argus paused for a second, then figured, why not?  "Sorry, your majesty… for not recognizing you without your crown.  Oh, that's right!  Nowadays, you're just another freaking ground pounder like me.  Tanj, don't that beat all…"

The mage saw it first.  "Vardan, no!"

But it was too late; the werewolf went into Crinos and charged towards McCall.  The former Light Infantry officer had broken up enough bar fights among old changelings to be scared of his rage.  As Titus moved for the ram, Argus dodged, swinging his artificial arm into the back of the Silver Fang's head.  It connected with brutal force, knocking the werewolf's balance off, and his inertia continued into the wall.

Bleeding didn't stop the experienced trooper from jumping back onto his feet.  The werewolf roar that followed echoed off the walls.  The sniper simply waved Vardan to make his next move—which he did with spectacular form.  Launching into a spin, he darted and jumped to keep McCall off balance until he could find an opening.  But the cyborg lieutenant was too wily for that, dodging Vardan's rage-fueled attacks, waiting for his moment.  Finally, Argus got bored and gave Titus an opening—the werewolf saw it and charged in with his fist…

…caught by McCall's cybernetic hand.  Then the cyborg squeezed; Vardan tried to pull away, but Argus kept increasing the pressure, yanking the werewolf around to prevent his escape.  The changeling screamed in pain as his claws were slowly crushed to jelly.

Windspeaker couldn't take any more of it.  Seeing his friend get tortured, he changed forms, launched himself at McCall…and suddenly bounced off a force wall.  He jumped back up and bounced into it again.  All eyes suddenly turned to Lieutenant Halsson, holding his hand up towards Windspeaker.  "Durward, back down!  McCall, let go of Vardan and back away."

"Why?"  Argus smiled.

The mage pointed a spare finger at Argus' head.  "Do it, McCall!"

Argus released the crushed hand and kicked the werewolf back.  Both changelings shifted back into human form, Durward heading over to help his wounded friend.  As they were convalescing, Argus nodded towards Halsson.  "Thank you."

"I didn't do it for you, lieutenant," the mage spat back.  "I just hate an unfair fight."  Turning to the werewolves, he argued, "Shame on you, Durward.  It was an honorable fight between troopers."

"He was hurting my—"

"I don't care if he was spanking your momma!" Halsson yelled back.  "On this ship, we fight fair.  This cyborg took his licks and didn't call the MP's.  That makes him more honorable than you, lieutenant."

Windspeaker tried staring back at the mage for a moment, then lowered his gaze, returning back to comforting his friend.  McCall shook off the bruises he could feel forming on the flesh that whacked into the bulkhead.  Playing it cool, he laid down on his cot and laughed.  "Let me know if you've got any more burning issues.  I'm taking a nap."  There he pretended to sleep, keeping an artificial eye on them all through his synthetic eyelashes.




Later that afternoon, Captain Bishop and Lieutenant Fisher made their way to another apartment in their ramshackle headquarters on Ashdown.  It had its walls knocked down and removed, converting it into a small assembly area.  Thirty Raptors, some in civilian clothes and others in uniform, were seated in metal folding chairs facing the far wall.  In the center of their attention, a holographic map zoomed in on the Iron District of New Bisbee.  As the waiting troopers whispered among themselves, Major Bernard Dent and some nameless superior examined the map.  Bishop exhaled as he thought, that must be Mosley.  Funny, he doesn't look like some REMF.  William glanced at his chronometer; 0529 hours, one minute before the meeting was scheduled to begin.  Bishop and Michelle hastily found a couple chairs in the back row. 

Major Dent finally turned around and said in his deep voice, "Attention!"  The troopers immediately came to their feet.  In a lower voice, he continued, "Raptors, Lieutenant Colonel Mosley has been reassigned.  Instead, we are coordinating with Lieutenant Colonel Richard Knowles.  He'll be leading this operation; you all know he has a proven track record as a leader."  Dent then turned towards Knowles and nodded.  "Sir."

"Thank you, Major.  Raptors, as you may already know, our suspect was seen entering the Iron District last night.  We've had every exit under constant surveillance since then, and fenced the entire perimeter with laser whiskers.  We have her surrounded.  Now we have to tighten the noose."  He pointed to the map.  "One of our sources has just informed us that our target's associates are hiding in an abandoned warehouse.  We suspect that there are roughly twenty of them, all heavily armed.  Unfortunately, our contact does not believe that our main suspect is among them.

            "Major Dent is going to lead an assault team to capture or eliminate the terrorists in the warehouse.  Meanwhile, I'm sending two small teams into the Iron District to find and capture the primary suspect.  We need her alive; kill only if necessary.  The first team will consist of Lieutenant McMichael, with troopers Greene and Anderson.  They will proceed to her last sighted location—the intersection of Gemstone and Iron View—and remain there to keep the area under surveillance.  The second team, Captain Bishop and Lieutenant Fisher, will go to the Bisbee Grill, over on West Wilcox.  Our source who provided us the terrorists' location has been out of contact since yesterday.  You should find him living on the sixth floor, apartment… what was that number, Major?"
            "618, sir."

            "Thanks.  Our source's name is Michael Jacobs.  Bishop and Fisher will attempt to contact him and place him under protection.  If he's dead, report back to base and assist with the search for the suspect.

            "We need to minimize any interruption to the general populace.  Ashdown is key to the Federation's continued survival as an effective fighting force.  If the suspect has not been apprehended by the time Major Dent has eliminated the rest of the terrorists, the gloves come off.  The plan will be to begin an aggressive house-to-house search of the entire district.  This situation must be resolved tonight.  Any questions?"

Bishop raised his hand.  "Sir, why is Special Ops taking over this operation?"

Dent's teeth looked ready to grind themselves flat, but Knowles was unaffected.  "SOCOM has been called in because any group this organized means trouble for the whole Federation, not just Ashdown.  We've got enough troubles from without; we don't need any more from within.  That's why I asked Chairman Smythe to let me lead this mission.  We nip this threat in the bud now, before it grows into a noxious weed.  Does that answer your question, captain?"

There's something he's not saying, William thought, but didn't push the issue.  "Yes, sir."

"Anyone else?"  When there was only silence for a few seconds, he ordered, "Dismissed."

            The Raptors moved out, down the stairs to the barracks and armory on the second floor.  Those in civilian clothes ran to the weapons lockers; those in uniform quickly suited up in power armor.  Bishop and Fisher each grabbed two guns, their com links, and some other small equipment they could conceal in their clothes.  Bishop also took his two strange daggers.  Once ready, the troopers ran outside and went down a back alley.  The sun had already set as William and Michelle changed into their animal forms—panther and lynx—and ran toward their objective.

            Fifteen minutes later they reached the Iron District, smelling the ozone of laser whiskers as they stepped through.  Once inside they kept running, keeping in the shadows until they reached the intersection of Wilcox and 7th Street.  From there, they could see down the street to the Bisbee Grill and the apartments above it.  They stepped back into an alley and turned back into human form.

            "We'll watch the entrance for a while," Bishop ordered.  "Keep an eye on whose coming and going."

            "Right, captain… but this position isn't ideal for that.  I think we'll have better luck on the roof there."  Fisher pointed at the building next to them.  "We can observe in all directions—and be better concealed."

            Bishop nodded.  Within seconds, they'd scaled the fire escapes and ledges along the back of the building, reached the roof, and crept to the edge.  From there they and could see the windows of Jacobs' apartment as well as the entrance.  Bishop slapped a thin piece of plastic over his eyes; the nighttime binoculars made the street as bright as day.  He offered them to Fisher, but she shook her head.  The irises of her eyes shined like a cat's.

"The entrance looks…"

"…boring," said a flat voice behind them.  They flipped around to face the detached shadow.  The man snorted a laugh.  "All those skills, and you still feel the need to sneak up on your prey.  Must be written in your genes."

Fisher whipped out her guns, Bishop his daggers.  "You're interfering in official Federation business," Michelle barked.  "You've got ten seconds to identify yourself."

            "William," the man said, sounding amused and looking too well dressed to be walking these streets.  "It's nice to see you still have those swords."

            That was when Bishop recognized the voice… and winced.  "It's been a long time, Fabian."

            Michelle interrupted.  "You know this—"

            "My master sends his regards."  Fabian Cortez looked at Fisher's plasma revolvers and yawned.  "He asks a favor of you."

Bishop slowly nodded.  Michelle just looked confused.

"Thank you," Fabian said.  "It's good to work with reasonable men again.  Refreshing, you might say."

The werelynx sniffed the intruder's scent.  "Wyrm…"  She instantly tensed, sensing the ghoul's nature.

Cortez ignored her.  "As you know, William, my master does not ask such favors lightly.  You will be rewarded—and the events set in motion by your actions will favor you highly."

"What's the mission?" Bishop asked, his eyes gazing downward.

            "In time," Fabian teased.  "You can even bring your little kitten friend."  He turned to Fisher, shoving his chest into contact with her weapons.  "You would like to help your superior, wouldn't you… Michelle?"

            "Look, I don't know who—"

            "Michelle!" Bishop stressed in a whisper, cutting her off, then turned to Cortez.  "I apologize for my pup's insolence."

            Fabian nodded.  "You know me—she does not."  With a wave of his hand, Cortez yanked the revolvers out of her hands and into his own.  She gasped, stepping back into a defensive stance.  The ghoul held the weapons back out to her.  "You will need them tonight—but not against me.  Do we understand each other?"

            Fisher didn't need to use any Gifts to tell that she was terribly outmatched.  She simply nodded and took back her plasma revolvers.  "I know you have a mission of your own tonight, so I'll help you.  The little bitch you're looking for is waiting in the Bisbee Grill for your 'source' to return.  Finish your mission and we'll speak again."

            "How do you know all this?" Bishop asked.

            "Simple.  I killed him."  Fabian shrugged.  "It's no great loss to art; I've seen wererats with better tattoos.  Michael Jacobs may have been an excellent double-agent, but a poor judge of character… and not just in ink.  Your target found out he was betraying them and wants to settle the score.  The ink on her skin is better… but compared to the Maoris?"  He rolled his eyes.  "Pathetic.  No one these days has an eye for a skilled artist."

            The captain nodded.  "Thank you."

            "I will see you soon."  Cortez stepped up onto the edge of the roof.  With a final nod, he said, "William!  You must widen your gaze!"  Then he turned and hopped off the roof.  He fell slowly, soft as a feather, until his feet landed quietly on the sidewalk.  With a casual walk, he strolled down the street—and vanished.

            Once he was out of sight, Michelle turned to William.  "Who was that?"

"Fabian Cortez," he whispered, afraid of summoning him again.

"A ghoul!" Fisher cursed.  "You're working for those suck-heads?!"

            Bishop took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.  "Let me explain.  I'm from Wilkes Star."

            "I read your file, captain," Michelle spat.  "Just because vampires love the place doesn't—"

"My ancestors have been there for over a century," William interrupted her.  "Long ago, my clan was allowed to live in the wilderness in exchange for keeping the peace between us and the vampires.  They didn't see the werepanthers as a threat, and we stayed out of their way.  Without knowing it, I accidentally broke the covenant."

"What?  Why didn't you know?"

"Because my father died… and never told me—that son of a bitch."  The captain calmed down his rage, then continued.  "Yet they spared my life.  So now I owe a vampire of great power… a favor.  One that can never be repaid."

            "So you're a slave of this badass vampire?"

            "No.  When I moved to the main city, I was just a little punk.  I didn't fit in and didn't know shit.  I should have died within two weeks… but for some reason, even the toughest street gangs left me alone.  Someone high up in a particular vampire organization was behind it."  Bishop sighed.  "So now I owe him a favor."

            "You don't sound very regretful."

            "We're cats, not wolves, Michelle.  We remember the War of Rage, and being hunted by our brothers, the werewolves."

"But I thought you didn't believe—"

"I don't… but I've been in the TI to smell the difference.  We work together because we're thrown together.  Without mages or vamps, those werewolves would be at our throats again."  Bishop looked down at their target again; no change.  "My grandfather once told me that the vampires and werewolves once worked together.  While the vampires slept during the day, the werewolves guarded them.  During the night, the vampires fed and left the werewolves alone.  There was a symbiotic relationship.  But then something happened… I don't know what, but they've been at war ever since."  Bishop smiled.  "A war that does not involve werecats like us."

            Fisher blinked.  "Okay… I don't quite buy it, but what's your point?"

            "You said to me earlier that we obey humans who treat us like fodder.  We need another Clarke… or we're going to get more humans to replace us…"  William saw Michelle's eyes flash to red, then back to reflection.  "We've got a choice.  We can either side with the humans, who treat us like meat, or side with those with true power, who won't treat us like animals?"

"Sounds like lose-lose situation either way.  So we have to choose between humans and vampires?"

"No.  Yes.  Ah, hell…"  Bishop was confused.  "To be honest, I haven't made up my mind yet.  Whatever the case, I refuse to blindly accept a human's lead anymore.  Something's gotta change, and soon… or I'll choose to follow someone else."

Fisher was awed for a moment.  Yesterday, I would have thought he was insane, but after what happened today…  She looked up and made eye contact with Bishop.  "You're a far wiser person than I thought, William Bishop."

"I get that a lot."  The captain smirked and looked down at the street.  "Come on, let's get this over with."

"Wait."  Michelle put her hand on his shoulder.  "One question: how did he—that Fabian ghoul—know my name?"

            "He always knows," Bishop answered, then made his way down to the street.




In an orbital station over New Sparta, Izzy smiled broadly (sans fangs, through the magic of holography) at his guests and their immediate families.  "Welcome!  Welcome, my dear guests!  My dear, ah—contest winners!"  He clasped his hands together to punctuate the point.  "I am your host, Israfel D'Argent, but please, everyone calls me Izzy.  Hopefully you will too, from here on in."

At this, he removed his outlandish purple top hat and held it modestly at his heart in a deferential bow.  "In just a short while, you will set foot on a planet like none other… in the whole of the galaxy!"  Ever the showman, he spread his arms as though to encompass the stars—stars that conveniently shone behind him through the space station's viewing gallery.  "A planet where dreams are the reality… and reality is but a waking dream.  A strange and wonderful—yes, even alien—planet to behold. Yet it is so very familiar, so very close to one's heart, that you will feel as if you have always been here."

Now he was moving through the throng of guests, giving them each attention and monitoring their reactions.  Some, especially the children, seemed to fall into the fantasy Izzy was painting for them.  They looked on with rapt anticipation. Others let the words roll over their heads, looking rather bored and impatient.  Still others appeared slightly terrified by the crazy man in the outlandish purple tailcoat; those people he passed by quickly, pretending not to notice.  There was really no need to frighten them.  Instead, he maneuvered the robotic cat that was his mobile holoplatform to rub up against their legs reassuringly.

"So!" Izzy continued.  "Without furthur ado, I welcome you to my shining jewel in the sea of black space.  I do hope you enjoy your stay, and leave here with perhaps a little more than you came with; a little more joy, a little more relaxation, a little more hope!  You are all my honored guests, and if you have need of anything at all, I will naturally be more than happy to assist you.  Just call me by name—that's 'Izzy'—and I will answer your questions to the best of my ability.  But I'm sure you are all spent from your journey, so I shall bid you farewell."  Rolling the top hat up his arm and onto his head, he bowed again, this time the proper gentleman's bow of his youth.  Then, with a wave of his hand and another winning smile, he disappeared in a flurry of showy holographic magic.  There was a smattering of applause, then the flight attendants took over, preparing the passengers for their short hop to the planet.

While they were otherwise distracted, the robotic cat slipped onto the shuttle, hiding itself in a nondescript corner of the cabin.

Izzy's plan, still not fully formed within his mind, basically revolved around putting them in the most trying situation he could muster… without actually hurting anyone, of course.  The illusion of danger was fine—necessary even—and Izzy was oh so very good at illusions. 

His mind ran through a hundred hypothetical situations; a locked room scenario, wherein each would need to use all their resourcefulness to escape.  Would they work together?  Or would they use each other's backs to climb out of a trying situation?  Izzy had never really enjoyed movies such as Saw and Cube or reality shows like Big Brother, but he had to admit that the puzzles and psychology fascinated him.  They were just the thing for such a situation.

Or perhaps a gentler approach; send each on a tailor-made journey of discovery.  This would be much harder to orchestrate and would require intimate, almost supernatural knowledge of the individual's psyche… but it would probably also yield the greatest, most revealing results in the most positive manner possible, so Izzy would not discount the 'Mr. Rourke route' just yet.

Or finally, a scenario that was the least appealing to him, yet certainly the easiest to orchestrate: a scenario that required him to become The Adversary—the evil vampire, who traps poor victims in a park of horror for his own 'amusement.'  It would put himself and his park in jeopardy, yes, but at least he would have his man (or woman).  And what would do the most good for the universe?  As much as Izzy wanted to dismiss this idea out of hand, it was impossible.  It would be all too easy for Lwan and himself to play a game of "Good Cop/Bad Cop."  Well... he would save that one as a last resort.

For now, though, he needed to gather as much information as he could, things that couldn't be gotten from a dossier.  He needed to know what really drove them, to find out what they really cared about.  Was it money?  Family?  Country?  Freedom?  Luxury?  The Future?  Let the surveillance stage begin.

"Yes, the play's the thing," Izzy mused, watching the universe's champions board the shuttle, "wherein I'll catch the conscience of a future king."



            Once on the ground, Izzy did nothing to inhibit his guests' movements around the park.  "After all," he said in his hologrammatic suite, "what's better to see their soul than what they choose?"  The family groups stayed together, partly out of survival, until they got a better idea on how to navigate their way through this strange new world.  The Quattones drifted to the midway, Real having infinite fun with the target shooting events while his wife watched with pleasure.  After a while, their son Stefan drifted off on his own, finding some fun with the bumper cars.  Although he was the only human on the ride, he quickly found the automatic controls to find some aggressive holograms to bash into.

            Rarhath looked utterly out of place, and in more ways than just his alien demeanor.  It had never occurred to Izzy how human-centric his amusements were.  The old vampire was afraid he was disappointing his new floating friends.  Then they found the House of Mirrors—if K'Nes loved nothing else, they absolutely adored their reflection.

            Patty found a seat in a café filled with antiques from the first wave of colonization, simply enjoying the silence while her daughter, Victoria Sylvest, eventually ventured out on her own to try one—or a dozen—of the roller coasters.

            Malai kept her house in order, but once they hit the little kids' rides, she let them loose.  She stood there, leaning against her husband, while her kids played joyfully on the great variety of interactive rides.  Despite what looked like an uncomfortable position, the two adults looked the most relaxed they had been in years.

            The Chakravartys soon joined them in the children's area and, after watching to see if it was safe, finally stepped away and enjoyed a drink from one of the nearby cafés.

            D'Argent sat there in his virtual paradise watching his created one.  "An interesting start.  Let's see where the game takes us next…"




            In a lab on a Jurvain shipyard orbiting Laang, Heth watched the material test.  He couldn't actually see the military-grade laser when it struck the black ring of Impossibarium, only that the intense light actually seemed to push it back a fraction of a millimeter.  It carbonized, it softened, part of it burned away in the tiniest wisp of smoke… but that was it.

            "And that's exactly how Impossibarium reacted in the development labs during quality assurance testing," Heth said, taking off his protective goggles.  "It absorbs the energy, bending but never breaking.  Then it re-solidifies and hardens in an instant—almost as if it grew back."

Above Heth, the Jurvain surrounding him leaned forward to examine the Impossibarium test sample.  Heth looked up—way up—at the faces of Jurvain more than twice his height, seeking out the face of the Vice Admiral leading negotiations.  K'Nes were short, just over a meter tall… well, the females at least.  Heth, not only male but the runt of his liter, was positively tiny compared to the towering green giants.  If Heth wanted to look his prospective customers in their eyes, he'd need some lift.  He clamped his jaw around the nozzle to the helium tank on his back and inhaled.  Heth inflated, stretching like a balloon, until he was almost spheroid.  He had to hold that much gas to get any lift—the shipyard's artificial gravity, although comfortable for the Jurvain, was set significantly heavier than the K'Nes home moon of Purrfang… and Heth's heavy gold jewelry didn't help, either.

He could generate his own hydrogen inside his body if he needed to (provided he drank enough water, of course), but when popping up and down during negotiations like this, using a helium tank was quicker and easier.  The laser test, for example—when near a high-intensity heat source, it's always safer to be on the ground and not full of extremely flammable gas.

Heth finally rose to eye level with the Jurvain.  "Now imagine a fleet of ships armored with this material," Heth said.  "Why, you could close to short range and not even feel it.  It's the perfect thing to make a legacy warship more effective than an enemy would ever expect.  Better yet, it's naturally resistant to corrosion and rust.  All Impossibarium products come with a full twenty-year warranty (voided by combat, of course), and you don't have to worry about cutting and shaping this incredibly tough material—all Impossibarium that ships from MIRADI will be custom cut to your exact specifications.  All you have to do is assemble them."

Heth's pitch seemed to fall on deaf ears.  The Jurvain continued staring at Miu's Impossibarium ring as if Heth had said nothing.  Eventually, Vice-Admiral Tsonguo stood upright, and the others followed.  Officially, since they were in a civilian shipyard, the Jurvain construction foreman Heth had opened negotiations with was technically in charge of the deal.  In reality, as Vice-Admiral Tsonguo was the highest ranking member of the Commonality present, all Jurvain deferred to her instantly and without question. 

Heth had been orbiting Laang for two days now.  When he'd shown the Jurvain foreman the potential of Impossibarium, he'd seemed impressed, but then stalled for over a day.  Heth understood once the Vice Admiral, hurriedly pulled away from the Ilbo picket guarding the jumpgate to Kalintos, had appeared to inspect the product personally.  That was alright with Heth—the higher up the food chain he got, the fatter the contract would be.

The construction foreman retrieved the black Impossibarium ring and returned it to Heth.  Vice Admiral Tsonguo shifted her head slightly and gazed at the foreman.  It was a sign, Heth knew from previous negotiations, that meant the Jurvain were communicating on a personal telepathic wavelength.   The gathered Jurvain were silent as the mental conversation took place, their three eyes darting around from face to face.  Suddenly the voiceless conversation was over, and the Jurvain turned as one and walked down the corridors.  Heth floated along behind.

They ended at a conference room.  Several Jurvain swerved off and sat in chairs; the rest moved along the walls and stood, observing.  Heth floated across the room to the only open chair left at the foot of the table across from Vice Admiral Tsonguo.  Heth hovered above the seat and, discretely as possible, opened his throat and belched out the helium from his flanks, sinking down into the chair.  Luckily, the Jurvain either didn't notice or didn't care about his somewhat embarrassing bodily function.

The Jurvain stared across the table at one another, glancing back and forth with the tiniest of head movements—the signs of a lively and rapid telepathic debate taking place.  No one spoke to Heth, though, and it felt… weird.  He felt left out of the conversation in a way he rarely experienced.  All creatures at least spoke during business negotiations, and there was so much a crafty salesman could read between the lines if he was observant.  The apes are so much easier to mark, Heth thought.

Once or twice, Heth tried weighing in on this conversation he couldn't hear, extolling the virtues of his product and the unbelievably good deal he was offering the Jurvain now—but all it earned him was perfectly unison glares.  Getting the message, Heth did the polite thing: he sat back and waited patiently.

Heth pulled out his datapad and continued working while he waited.  Time is money, he thought, and I have a very tight schedule to keep.  The convoy Heth was escorting would ultimately be heading to Ashdown in the Earth Federation, but would have to pass through St. Michael's Star in the Holy Terran Empire on the way—a potentially sticky political situation, given that the two factions were currently at war.  K'Nes maintained a strict neutrality in the galactic conflict brewing, and most humans understood that… but it never hurt to have your paperwork in order, just in case.  So he continued registering the convoy's flight plan, itinerary, and manifest with the different agencies of the star nations they'd be travelling through.

Finally he turned to the more important matter of commerce.  The Ministry convoy Heth had brought safely to Laang, after unloading its cargo of minerals, would need to refill their cargo holds with whatever commodities the Jurvain had to offer before continuing their journey to St. Michael's Star—and Heth's ship, the Bountiful, was no exception.  He joined in the bidding, except he knew exactly what he was looking for: Mungunwha algae.  It was a safe, common cargo that would cause no problems with customs checkpoints or border patrols (and far too bulky to bother confiscating).  More importantly, it gave off massive biosigns… enough, at least, to mask several Federation families being smuggled across the border into Federation space.

A light flashed over the table, and a holographic image appeared before the Jurvain.  Heth looked and up and kept one eye on the display while continuing his digital work.  He could speak Jurvain, and read and write it with some effort—but not at the speed with which the pictograms flashed across the display.  He was able to recognize most of the symbols as numbers, though—presumably a cost-benefit analysis of accepting his offer.  Heth knew the telepathic conversation was over when all the Jurvain simultaneously turned to look at him.  He whipped away his datapad and turned to the Tsonguo with a polite smile.

The Vice Admiral nodded.  "We approve.  How much can you produce, and how fast?"

The black cat kept him smile behind his whiskers.  "MIRADI has assured me that they can produce a hundred square meters a day.  Mind you, that's a conservative estimate, and only the raw sheets.  If you want it customized… well, they are more than happy to adjust the product, but it will slow down production."

Tsonguo looked back to her fellow aliens for a moment and consulted.  Finally, they nodded and she turned back to the K'Nes.  "How soon can it be delivered?"

"That's the beauty of this plan," Heth answered.  "Depending on your needs, we can take the daily production, put it on a freighter convoy, and have it within Jurvain space in three days.  That's the advantage of trading with your neighbors."  Heth finally released his fanged grin; I have them now, bait the hook well.  "Of course, that kind of shipping would be horrifically expensive, so I suggest a weekly shipment schedule for greater efficiency."


            "As you can see, this is a quality product," Heth stalled.  "You will not find anything close in terms of density and mall—"

            "How much?" the Vice Admiral repeated with infinite patience.

            "Two thousand Llan credits per square meter—of the toughest material money can buy!"

            "Too much."

            "Gentle… er, being.  This is far superior to plastisteel," Heth pressed.  "Even if you lacquered your ships in ceramcrete, you couldn't get the amount of protection you might see with a thin layer of Impossibarium."

            "Too much."

"Very well."  Heth sighed loudly for dramatic effect.  Well, I didn't really expect them to take the first offer, Heth reflected.  That's why I inflated the cost—so when I 'lower' it to the original price they think it's a good deal.  "Well, it's fortunate that the Commonality works in economies of scale, then," Heth told Vice Admiral, "because I am authorized to offer you an exclusive deal.  If you can assure the producer that you will buy their entire production…"

"We will," Tsonguo said.  The Jurvain nodded as one.

            "Excellent.  In that case, I'm permitted to bring the price down to a wholesale cost, rather than retail."

            "How much?"

            One track hive mind, Heth amused himself, but so malleable.  I'm almost sorry to bleed these green giants.  "Knock fifteen percent off the price.  Seventeen hundred per square meter."

There was another silent telepathic debate, red eyes glancing back and forth.  More images and text flashed across the holoproj display.  Tsonguo looked up at Heth and shook her head.  "We cannot afford it.  Counteroffer: one thousand per square meter."

            "Admiral!"  The K'Nes floated off his cushion in indignation.  "How could I return to my patrons with such an offer?  They would throw me out of the company!"

            The Vice Admiral turned back to her gathering, blinked, and achieved a new consensus.  "Then we will have to buy less than your daily production."

            Heth suppressed a hiss—he didn't want that, either.  He needed MIRADI to stay solvent… and Miu grateful enough to consider renewing their merger.  "Neither of us want that, Admiral.  After all, your entire race's survival is at stake!" Heth said, pressing the obvious issue.  "Now, I will take a hit to my personal commission… but I believe I can convince MIRADI to accept sixteen hundred."

Tsonguo shook her head firmly.  "One thousand per square meter," she repeated in a monotone.

Time to grease some paws, Heth thought.  "I'll put an addendum on the contract," he said, picking up his datapad and altering the text.  "A standard K'Nes sales commission for all members of the negotiating team present at the contract signing, coming to one tenth of one percent per person of the total purchase value."  He looked up at them.  "That may not sound like much, but I think you'll find that, with the sums we're dealing with, it adds up rather quickly."

            Sure enough, the holoproj whirled with numerals—and when the final figure popped up, red Jurvain eyes widened at its size.  Kickbacks were standard K'Nes policy for tough negotiations.  Nothing pushed a mark over the edge of a hard decisions quite like personal greed.  The Jurvain were a commonality, true—but one made up of individuals.  The lower they negotiated the price now, the lower their cut of the deal would be…

            The Jurvain exchanged minute glances again.  New numbers and images flashed across the holoproj on the table at incredible speed.  The silent debate raged for a long, long time.  Finally, Vice Admiral Tsonguo turned back to Heth.  "Fifteen hundred per square meter or no deal."  

It was a lower price than Heth had hoped for, but still well with acceptable profit margins.  More importantly, Heth knew it was the Commonality's final offer—he'd done enough business with the Jurvain to know that when they threatened to walk away from the negotiating table, they meant it.  Jurvain didn't bluff.  Deception didn't come naturally to them; when every member of your species can read your thoughts, there's not much point in lying.

            "I believe we can do that," Heth purred, feeling the thrill of victory rippling through his fur.  Fifteen thousand a day into my coffers… for a few days travel!  If the Jurvain keep up their order for even three months, I might have enough to win Miu's reproductive auction!

Tsonguo jabbed a finger at Heth.  "And MIRADI will accept the cost of customizing the Impossibarium sheets to our requirements!"

"Of course," Heth nodded, "that's already part of the contract.  I would need to see the specifications, however…"

            The Vice Admiral tapped on her terminal, and the holoproj displayed three-dimensional wire images showing the minutia of each object in glorious detail.  "These are the specifications."

Heth could read Jurvain script, of course, but it took him a little longer to decode the adjectives… so it was a second before he realized what he was looking at: starfighters.  The Commonality was buying armor plating, alright… just not for their capital ships.  It wasn't what Heth had expected, true… but he had to admit it was an excellent allocation of resources, and sound military strategy too.  The ability of starfighters to strike at multiple targets from multiple directions would work particularly well for a collective consciousness linked by telepathy.  The Jurvain could organize and coordinate their fighters extremely efficiently.  There was no doubt about it: the Jurvain were definitely rearming—but for what?

Heth watched the schematics flicker past on the holoproj—then felt a shock of recognition.  "Wait!"  He reached out a paw to pause the display.  "I know this one…"  He leaned closer, studying the graceful curves of the fighter.  "This is an Urrkkak heavy strike fighter—a K'Nes ship!"  Well, almost… the two-seat tandem cockpit had been modified for a single, larger Jurvain pilot.  "A variation on a K'Nes design sold by one of our competitors, I believe—the Gurrmew Construction Yards, I presume?"

When the Jurvain just stared back at Heth silently, his mind kicked into overdrive.  Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP were Miao Mercantile's political enemies in the K'Nes Llan.  This was an interesting new development… but Heth's wasn't sure what it meant or if it was even relevant.  When you can't tell, undersell.  "I'm sure our company could offer you a more advanced design through—"

            "These are the specifications," Tsonguo repeated.

"Well, as you insist..."  The black feline shrugged.  "Just consider it an open offer."  Best not to push the issue now, Heth thought, not until the Impossibarium contract is signed, at least.  I can always look into it later.  He continued scrolling through the schematics—no K'Nes worth his portfolio ever signed a contract without knowing exactly was he was agreeing to.  There was another puzzling specification—thousands of small cylinders and spheres, much too small for armor plating even for a fighter.  "Are you sure about these?" Heth asked, running a statistical analysis of the shape and size on his datapad.

"These are the specifications," the Vice Admiral intoned, as if they were written in fire on sapphire tablets.

"Very well… it seems a waste, but I will inform our—"  Heth stopped as his pad's analysis found a match.  Given the shape and quantity, it could only be used one thing: missile and shell casings.  Heth looked back up at the schematics on the holoproj and noticed something he'd missed before—the casing were notched and grooved for fragmentation.  For a moment, Heth was impressed.  That particular military use for Impossibarium hadn't occurred to him… but it could be quite profitable.

Then the uneasiness set in.  This is why I never went into gunrunning, Heth thought.  I don't have the stomach for it.  He was selling Impossibarium to the Jurvain on the assumption they'd merely use it to defend themselves—but this force they were building instead could serve just as well for offense.  What if they turn these new guns on us? 

"Are you sure you want to go the offensive route so soon?" Heth asked.  "Conquest is a rather risky venture with a highly unpredictable return on investment.  Besides, who you do you have to fight?  The Commonality isn't strong enough to take on the Holy Terran Empire—let alone the Earth Federation—anytime soon."  He purposefully left out the Jurvain's other (and most vulnerable) neighbor: the K'Nes Llan.

            Vice Admiral Tsonguo seemed to hesitate for a moment before finally answering, "The Bugs."

            Heth's stomach dropped.  Just because the Jurvain weren't good at lying didn't mean they wouldn't try—and Heth was fairly sure Tsonguo just had.  Somewhere in the back of Heth's mind, an alarm went off.

            The hordes of huge alien arachnids known only as "Bugs" that inhabited the galactic southwestern rim were certainly a threat—but one easily contained.  True, if the Bugs got a foothold on a populated planet, they could only be exterminated through a huge commitment of time, money, effort, and blood.  Eradicating the Bugs from a planet they'd already infested was nearly impossible.  But park a few warships in orbit around that planet, and one could effectively prevent the infestation from spreading.

The bottom line was that no one fought the Bugs if they could possibly avoid it, and invading Bug systems was the delusional domain of fools and madmen; Vice Admiral Tsonguo was neither.  She had lied—badly.

            Of course, Heth couldn't let the Jurvain know that he knew.  "I see…" he began casually.  "Well, on behalf of Miao Mercantile, I wish you the best of luck.  Of course, we'll need to make sure you won't resell the merchandise…" Heth said, hastily adding another article to the contract on his datapad.  "The Bugs are certainly a threat, one I'm glad you're focused on, for all our sakes."

            But the sake of all species didn't seem to rank too high in the assembled Jurvain affairs.  "We will accept weekly delivery here on Laang," Tsonguo said.  "Payment will be sent, half now, half on delivery of each shipment.  Acceptable?"

            "Perfectly."  Heth held a datapad contract out to the Vice Admiral and bared his fangs in a smile.  "I assume you are legally authorized to sign on behalf of the Commonality?"  Tsonguo answered by gripping the datapad's pressure patch.  She didn't even blink as it drew her blood signature.  Heth ignored the needle—he was used to it (and had the scar tissue to prove it).  "I'll send the contract back to Urrin for approval," Heth continued.  "Once Prurr K'Aou K'Miu signs it, MIRADI can begin production immediately."  Hopefully, the delay would give him enough time to determine the Commonality's intentions—and, if necessary, cancel the sale.

            "Good," Tsonguo said.  Then, without any parting pleasantries, all Jurvain stood, turned, and filed out the door.

            Heth waited for the Jurvain to leave, then quickly followed.  He made his way to the waiting auto-flitter and ordered it to the docking bays.  Heth always made sure to get the automated shuttles when dealing with the Jurvain; drivers had a bad habit of eavesdropping… and, what one knows, the rest know.  After checking for listening devices, Heth activated a comm channel to the Bountiful 's pilot.  "M'Rowr, pick up."

            A second later, plump, mangy long-haired black cat answered with a yawn.  "Yeah, director?"

            "Get me a secure line to Miao K'Nhur K'Yawr, now.  This can't wait."

"The Miao LEO?"  M'Rowr's whiskers twitched in confusion.  "You sure, boss?  Don't you remember the last time you—"

"M'Rowr, I don't have time for this!" Heth growled.  "Time is money.  This deal might impact international relations, and he's my feed to the Board of Directors."

"Heth…"  His pilot rolled his eyes.  "I hate to break it to you, cousin, but these days you're too small time to deal with the K'Nes Llan."

"Then it'll be a short call."

M'Rowr shrugged.  "It's on your credit."

Heth sighed.  "Fine, it'll be a personal call."  Trust me, even with interstellar Net rates, I can afford it now.

M'Rowr's eyes went wide.  "Sky Father above… you are serious!"

"You didn't appreciate that from the encryption I put on this feed?"

"Scat, Heth… I put encryption on the feed to my mate and litter!"

"That's because you leveraged your cubs for a loan."

"That's right," M'Rowr smiled, "and now I own a percentage of this operation.  I expect dividends, y'know…"

"And you'll get them—but only if I get that secure feed, now," Heth warned, pointing an angry claw at the screen.

The pilot shrugged—a popular alien gesture among the K'Nes.  "Sure thing, boss.  One moment."

Heth leaned back in the uncomfortable flitter's cushions.  If the Jurvain are going to war, then we need to get  a non-aggression pact in place right away.  Not only will it protect us from the Jurvain, but it'll keep us from being forced into another unfortunate alliance against the apes… and looked what happened to the last one with the Vulthra!  As the screen switched to the call waiting display, Heth preened himself while he waited for the head of his company to pick up.  After all, one has to look good for the boss… and it's about time for a promotion.





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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, no matter how obnoxious your roommates are being.