"I do consider a multitude doth make rather discord and confusion than good counsel."


-- Elizabeth Tudor, pre-Fed politician.

            "There's a song for this," Scyr said.  He was working to a very strict, very near deadline; but sometimes work just had to take a back seat to rumination.  "I think I'm remembering it from, well, from somewhere.  But maybe not.  I may just be making it all up myself."

            Scyr floated, beyond the reach of any perceivable gravity.  Momentum rolled him, slowly, gently.  His chin was raised, facing towards the heavens if he had been on the ground.  His overly large, bulging eyes fixed on the wall spinning above his head.

            "Daisy, Daisy," he breathed.  Softly, lips barely parting.  "Give me your answer, do."

            The correct access panel rotated into view.  A hand darted upward, reaching and becoming a clenched fist.

            "I'm half crazy, all for the love of you."

            The hand ripped back downward, and wires, little broken seals, connectors came fluttering out with it.

            "It won't be a stylish marriage," he chanted.  Scyr had to pause in the song for a moment as he took his cybermodem and other equipment off his belt.  But he smirked as he threaded wires into the little machine.

            "I can't afford a carriage."  The cybermodem's holoprojector snapped on with a graphic mapping the most complicated networked computer system Scyr had ever imagined.  It took nearly a full minute of simply staring before he had the entire thing charted and inscribed into his mind.

            This was fun.  At least as fun as when Scyr was first figuring out how to be an effective financial investor and trader.  It was also at least three times more complicated—thousands, millions of variables and simultaneous processes, all of it interconnected.  But the results were perfectly predictable; there was no intuition to it, unless you were sloppy.

            "But you'll look sweet…"

            Incredibly, for a government built out of what had been a glorified terrorist organization, the Terran Republic's orbital defense grid above Babylon was almost entirely unsecured against sabotage.  A Bug asteroid would never have penetrated the multilayered, overlapping system of manned battlestations and unmanned weapons and sensor platforms.  A Federation invasion fleet would have had a serious fight on its hands before it could capture the orbitals and invade the planet.  But one man with a forged maintenance order and a rented repair pod was a threat to the entire system.

            "…on the seat…."

            Or perhaps it wasn't systemic.  The defense grid was mostly inherited from the old Fed, and the old Fed hadn't been stupid.  So perhaps it was just the inevitable result of a fledgling command structure serving a government still feeling its way into its own authority.  One short of money, short of professional operators, and still short of integrity or even the most basic sense of duty to public service.  The grid was crewed and overseen by soldiers who still felt stronger loyalty to their former cell leaders and warlords than to the Executive Committee.  Soldiers who had no problem compromising security procedures in order to line their own pockets.  Indeed, soldiers who often had little choice to do otherwise because their paychecks came in fits and starts.

            "Of a bicycle built for two!"

            Scyr executed a command.  It started from this one weapons platform and spread from there to hundreds of others.  He could have ordered them all to flip over and start bombarding the planet.  He could have done it.  He wanted to do it.  But it would have been too much.  It would have been an obvious infiltration—and, if the soldiers on the battlestations weren't the best in the galaxy, they weren't going to completely ignore an attack against their own aegis.

            Instead, Scyr simply adjusted two equations in two subroutines, significantly degrading the resolution of the grid's sensors and the accuracy of its targeting systems.  It was no more complicated than moving a decimal point, and yet it would cripple the entire defense network.  The riskiest part of the whole thing was not changing the subroutines, but fudging command access so that the changes were repeated on every platform, station, and satellite.

            "I just figured it out," Scyr said, blinking.  Little symbols on the holoprojector graphic were changing color in an expanding pattern.  "Today my name is Cyrus."

            The gates of Babylon opened.



            "What do you think?"

            Melody Kaur sucked on her lower lip.  She was leaning in towards the nav plot as the Scum Sucker coasted into Babylon's gravity well.  There was no real reason she needed to be watching so closely, but she was feeling rather anxious just now.

            "Shit, Raz, I think I'm just going to retire after this," she said.  "Buy a new ship if you want, but I don't think my nerves can keep doing this."

            She cupped her hands under her chin and turned her head to look at her tactical officer, business partner, and quite possibly life-partner, Diraz Mack.  He was relaxing at his own station, with his hands crossed behind his head, with his feet up on the console.

            Raz rolled his eyes.  "No, Mel.  I mean, what do you think of our mysterious employer?"

            A sigh.  "What do you want from me, Raz?  He's a nutcase; I think we're all agreed he's a complete nutcase."

            "So why are—"

            "Because he's also obviously good at this!"  Melody threw up her hands.  "I love you, Raz, but you can't tell me that you could have put together that op plan.  He's gotta be ex-Fleet or something."

            If it had been her on the receiving end, Melody would have gotten angry about the insult to her comparative ability.  Raz just turned his eyes to the ceiling and blew out his cheeks thoughtfully.  The man was deadly competent but never hotheaded or overconfident.  It was why she loved him.

            When he finally spoke, he said, "That's… that's actually what worries me, Melody."

            "What do you mean?"

            Raz lifted his feet off the tactical console and leaned forward himself.  "Oldman's a first-class operator, right?  So what the hell does he need us for?"

            "He had to get someone."  She waved a hand.  "Why not us?"

            "No!  That's not…"  He shut his eyes tight and took a deep breath, as he did when he was trying to collect his thoughts into something he could actually communicate.  "What I mean is, why pay us fifteen million credits to do this job?  I think you may have been right before; it's too good to be true."

            Melody turned away so that her frown was directed back towards the nav display rather than at Raz.  "Yeah."

            He kept going.  "Even if he doesn't care about the money—and I'm not sure I believe that—he doesn't care about us, either.  And even if Oldman's on the level, we're going to look like a loose end to his mysterious employer.  I'm worried that when this guy gets off and leaves us with the money, he's also going to leave us with a bomb or something."

            "Hey, Raz, in that scenario, I think he'd leave us with just the bomb and no money."  That was the navigator, Dominic Vasey.

            "Would you keep your eyes on the damn flight controls!" Melody hissed.

            Dominic snickered, but refocused on his console.

            Melody sighed.  "Look, Raz, you're right, okay?  You're right.  And we need to figure out a way to cover our asses once this is over.  But I think it's too late now to turn back—from this part, at least.  So for the moment let's just focus on surviving this little pickup and getting back out of the system safe.  Yeah?"

            "Yeah."  Raz leaned back again, crossing his feet on top of the weapons console.  "I'll just sit here and think."

            Melody felt the smile growing on her face as she watched him.  She called herself "Captain", and the rest of her crew used the title, too.  But she knew it wasn't real.  On some level, it was all nothing more than a game.  Just a fantasy of a little girl who was once bullied on a playground, fought back, and found out that she liked being the bully herself.  That was all Melody was, and she was okay with that, it was enough.  Raz, though… Raz was the real thing.  Maybe he didn't know it, or maybe he just liked Melody enough to not let it show.  He was smart, thoughtful, almost professional.  Maybe after this was over, they could defect to Smythe's Federation and—

            Every one of the Scum Sucker's three primary ion drives throttled up from less than 1% maintaining power to full power in the space of a second.  The Scum Sucker's intertial compensators and artificial gravity did not throttle up to match.  Diraz Mack was flipped over the back of his chair, to which he was not strapped down.  He slammed upside-down into the rear bulkhead of the bridge, breaking his neck and killing him.

            Melody didn't realize her lover was dead.  She saw him flung from his chair, but then was too busy fighting to stay in her own seat to pay attention to anyone else.  She spent the next several seconds battling with the straps on her acceleration chair.  Only once the buckles were secure did she spare a thought about what was happening to her ship.  Scum Sucker was rocketing towards the surface of Babylon.

            "Dom!" she shouted.  The way the ship was rumbling it felt like it should make more noise, but it was actually relatively quiet inside.  Still, she shouted.  "What the fuck?!"

            "I don't know!" the navigator yelled back.  "Working on it!"

            Melody bared her teeth and snarled at the ship, as if it would do some good.  When it didn't, she tried punching the console.  That didn't fix the ship either, but it made Melody feel a little better, even if it hurt her hand.

            "Fuck, Captain!" the navigator shouted some more.  "I don't know what the hell—the controls say they're adjusting, but the course doesn't change!  I can't even figure out where the problem is!"

            The nav plot said the ship was still accelerating towards the planet surface, though air friction was slowing the rate even as it began to warp and burn the exterior hull.  According to the plot, they were going to crater some point on the capital outskirts in about twenty seconds.  Some part of Melody's mind chuckled at the irony that the crash would only be a few kilometers from their planned rendezvous point.  The rest of her mind was racing to find a way out.

            "Well where the fuck is engineering?  Seems like the damn engines are what's—"

            The magnetic bottle at the heart of Scum Sucker's fusion reactor switched off.  Hundreds of kilograms of hydrogen plasma, being held at a density far greater than that found in the core of any natural starm, were suddenly and catastrophically unchained.



            Light twinkled off the transparent observation window of the maintenance pod, and Scyr pursed his lips as he watched.  The little nova flared, then vanished as quickly as it had appeared, leaving only the sandy-blue disc of Babylon behind.

            "On the other hand," Scyr said aloud, continuing a conversation with himself, "Cyrus conquered Babylon without slaughter, ruled mercifully, and integrated the city into a prosperous empire."

            In a few minutes, the first of the makeshift kinetic bombs which Scum Sucker had deployed would be striking atmosphere.  Scyr wouldn't be able to observe that directly.  It was unlikely any of them would hit the pod, but Babylonian Orbital Defense would be throwing around a lot of ordnance in the attempt to intercept.  Scyr's orbit would put him on the far side of the planet to avoid being caught in the fracas.  The sabotage wasn't a guarantee that the missiles would get through.  If the station crews were quick enough on their feet, if they were willing to spam the hemisphere with weapons fire, if they were more competent than Scyr thought, then they had a fair chance at interception.  But then, a successful attack wasn't really the point.

            Scyr raised one hand to rub his chin as the thought occurred to him.  "So what is the real point, then?"

            Certainly he enjoyed wreaking havoc with the local military establishment.  But it was a minor amusement, and hardly worth the expense and risk to his own life which it entailed.  Scyr had no intention of running out to the Empire or Ministry in order to do it all again once Vitek was dead.

            "Don't I?" he asked himself.  "Hmm… ignore for the moment the fact that this is likely to lead to revised security procedures.  I can't very well go back to the penthouse on Jenny's Star.  So if I'm relocating anyway…  No, it's not a sustainable occupation," he decided.  "If I don't get killed, I'll just end up totally trashing civilization, and the shattered ruin of human society doesn't sound like a fun place to live at all.  Don't shit where you eat, then, I guess."

            He'd passed beyond the terminator, now.  Outside the pod's window, Babylon was dark, tranquil, a world asleep and oblivious to Scyr, watching from the heavens.  Only in Scyr's mind was the entire planet lit by the fire he had cast down upon it.

            He clicked his tongue.  "You know what, internal dialogue?  Occasionally I think there might be something profoundly wrong with me."




"Hi!"  A boy of about seven or eight years old grinned at Victoria Sylvest in the seat in front of him on the Flight of the Phoenix, one of the more daring roller coasters in this area of the Sylvania amusement park.  "Have you been on this one yet?  It's great!  I've been on nine times today!  This'll be ten!"  The boy grinned even wider in his harness as he flashed his hands at her, holding up ten fingers, a curtain of platinum blonde hair bobbing enthusiastically around his head.

"I haven't been on this one yet… it's that good huh?"  Victoria adjusted her own harness in anticipation.

"Uh huh!  There's this big wall of flame that you ride through and it's all wooosh!  And then there's the antigrav part—but you'll see."  He bobbed in his seat and craned his neck back to look below at the crowd below.  "Man, the line is taking forever this time… Hey, look!  There's my Mom!  Hi Mom!"  He waved at the crowd below to no one in particular.  An odd servo noise accompanied his movement, but the girl didn't seem to notice.  "Hey, I bet you can see your folks from here too, right?"

"Oh no, I'm by myself."  Victoria puffed out her chest a bit, proud that her mom trusted her to be on her own in such a big park.  "Mom says I know how to take care of myself."

"Oh yeah?  That's great!  I wish my Mom would let me go off on my own…"  He rolled his large light blue eyes.  "Oh hey, have you been to Ghost City yet?  There's this haunted skyscraper there that's really scary, you can tour the whole building and then the elevator drops like forty stories!  We're going there after this, you want to come hang out with us?"

"Um… sure, okay."  Victoria straightened in her seat as the roller coaster finally began its ascent.

"What's your name?  Mine's Alphonse."  The antigrav units kicked into high gear as the cars were lifted to the apex of the first hill.  The boy's countenance blurred with electromagnetic interference, momentarily revealing the generic appearance of the child-sized test dummy robot underneath the holo skin.  The robotic cat wedged securely underneath the girl's seat compensated for the interference almost immediately, and the boy's features returned to normal.  Izzy was glad the girl was now facing forward in her seat.

"It's Victoria!"  She shouted behind her as their mass began to tilt forward.

Through hair-like nanofiber sensors built into the test dummy, Izzy could feel the first downhill run of the roller coaster—a sweeping downward spiral into a dark pit littered with glowing lava—then the track went through a series of caves.  Izzy had a hand in designing this ride himself, and at least part of it was based on footage of Aladdin's magic carpet escape from the Cave of Wonders.  It really was a enjoyable breakneck ride, if he did say so himself!

Izzy's persona of Alphonse screamed in delight with the rest of the riders as they narrowly escaped a careening wall of lava by making a particularly daring hairpin turn.  The lava wall set some cave vegetation on fire, creating humongous columns of flame that the Phoenix dodged through handily until they finally came to what seemed like an impossible situation.  The roller coaster seemed to circle in the room as though it didn't know which way to turn, leaving the riders disoriented, then finally plunged into a pool of flame.  The fire enveloped them, blocking their vision, seemingly close enough to lick at their faces.  There was a sound like a screeching eagle and they finally shot out of the flames, high into the air, until they paused in that moment of weightlessness just before forward momentum becomes backward momentum.  Victoria was laughing giddily with an equal measure of fear and excitement.  Even with the low resolution of test dummy's sensors, Izzy too felt a little of that frightened giddy joy inherent to the best of roller coasters.

"That was awesome!" Victoria squealed as she shakily got off the Phoenix.  "I have to do that again!"

"I know, right!?"  Alphonse leapt off the ride, nearly falling over, servos screeching to compensate.  Izzy had to remind himself not to be so animated, then leaned the test dummy against the phoenix's car.  "I'm gonna go again too!  Eleven's the charm!  Geronimo!"


"Er... it's something my mom says.  It's like when you make a bit leap, you say... 'geronimo!' "


"...I don't know… because it's fun, I guess!"  He grinned cheekily as they both got in line again.  "Oh, I'd better go tell my Mom I'm going agai—"  Izzy made a big show of looking around for a minute.  "Hey, uh, Victoria...  You don't see my mom anywhere, do you?  She looks a lot like me."

"Is it that lady there?"  She pointed to a tall woman with a white-blonde pageboy haircut very similar to Izzy's Alphonse persona's.

"No," he said a bit too quickly, "but she does look sort of like that..."  Izzy was mildly surprised that haircut was still in style.

"Did she say where she'd meet you if you got lost?"  Victoria looked seriously at the slightly younger boy.  "That's what my mom does," she said matter-of-factly.  "We're going to meet at Main Street."

"Well, no... but... I guess we did say we were going to Ghost City after this... maybe she went on ahead..."  Izzy arranged his avatar's face into a carefully constructed stoic mask that poorly hid the helplessness behind Alphonse's eyes.  "I guess... maybe I should just go there…"  He hung reluctantly for a bit before taking a shuffling step away from the Flight of the Phoenix.  "Bye Victoria, it was nice meeting you..."  He stopped a little ways away and pretended to fret and look around for his non-existent mother.

And three... two... one... Izzy thought, watching Victoria hesitate in line before breaking queue.

"Wait a minute Alphonse!  I said I'd go with you to Ghost City, right?  So let's go, and we can look for your Mom there."

"What, really?"

"Yeah, really.  C'mon!  Let's go!"

She held out her hand for him, but he just grinned.  "You know what?  You're pretty nice.  C'mon, it's this way, I think!"

"Pfffftaahahaa...  Whatever!"  Victoria laughed.  "Geronimo!"

"Geronimo!" Alphonse repeated, cheered up considerably, and the two ran off in the direction of Ghost City.



Rarhath was floating above the bar, sipping some green concoction, while his cubs were having fun slamming into the whack-a-mole game.  They didn't quite get the idea that they were supposed to "whack" the plastic moles rather than capture them, but the K'Nes claws didn't hurt the targets any more than generations of rubber mallets had.

"Are you enjoying your drink, M. Durmach?" the bartender asked, turning the spigot with the hidden microphone closer to his customer.

"Ex-tro-dinary!"  Rarhath lifted the glass high in salute.  "My compliments!  I haven't tasted something this good in years."

"I'm glad you're pleased, M. Durmach."

"Please," the K'Nes bubbled, "call me Rarhath.  Everybody does."  He took another sip.  "Ahhh.  It's hard enough to deal with humans when they can't pronounce your name.  It's not your fault—you don't have a purrach."

"A what?"

"It's an air sac, keeps us afloat, but all that hydrogen in your body changes how you speak.  For instance…"  He floated over, a little less graceful than usual.  "When I speak to you, I'm holding my breath… a little... to get the right neutral tone in Fed English."

Izzy's employee raised his eyebrows.  "What if you don't?"

"Then iss takkks sommmthhhhigggg likkkk thissssss."  the floating cat laughed.  "The K'Nes tongue is a lot more guttural.  Worse, if you come from K'Laek… that's the, ah, unfashionable part of the K'Nes Llan."

The bartender's hidden earpiece squawked.  "Keep him talking," Izzy ordered.

"So… you learned a better accent for your business?"

Rarhath nodded vigorously as he took another sip.  "Absolutely!  It's essential for my business!  I deal with humans every day, and they won't work with you if they have to think twice about what you just said."  He hissed a little to lower his buoyancy; the smell of rotten eggs was quickly overtaken by a thick mint mask, probably mouthwash.

"What kind of business are you in?"

"I told you—humans!"

The bartender looked confused.  "I know you deal with humans, but—"

"No, no, no!"  Rarhath shook his whiskers.  "I deal in humans!  People!"

Izzy and his employee were miles apart, but had the same look on their faces.  "I don't understand," the bartender said.

"Imagine this—the Caal come through, stir up the pot, leaving a lot of poor, suffering people out there…  Children!  A potential workforce, lost!"  He puffed himself up.  "Human children are resilient, easy to fix, and cheap to house.  You gather them up, train them in some basic education, then farm them out to your clients and subsidiaries who are desperate for good, trained labor."

"You enslave them?"

 The K'Nes snorted.  "I don't have to!  The poor kittens actually thank me!  So do my clients!  I guarantee their future employees are healthy, well-educated, and—most of all—available now.  With all that chaos out there, and background checks being useless now, it's hard for a decent megacorp to hire anyone, much less quality personnel."  Rarhath sipped his drink.  "And if they're really desperate, they pay me a percentage of each new employee's paycheck.  That's the beauty.  I pull in so much, I imagine by this time next year, I'll sit on the Board of Directors!"

"Fascinating…" the bartender said, pretending to be interested.

Izzy sank into his virtual chair.  "I guess I shouldn't have expected a cat to be so charitable.  Still, I guess he's doing the right thing… but for the wrong reasons."  Izzy activated his comm to the bartender.  "Let him go… and next time, put less nepeta in the drink."



The problem with letting kids play together is that the parents eventually have to talk.  Tamara Chakravarty and Malai Prattabong were standing there, next to the playground, and introductions were made.  D'Argent was ready, taking the scene in with full holography; instead of a flat screen, Izzy copied the stage on his virtual grassland.  Turning around, he watched in awe when Tammy asked, "So where do you come from, Malai?"

"Mars," the Thai woman said.

"Mars?  I didn't think anyone lived in the Earth system anymore!"

She gave a slight smile.  "Most people don't.  But Mars was the natural place for refugees to go after Earth was destroyed.  My family was one of those who stayed."

"Funny, that."  Tammy scratched her head.  "Was your family originally in the Eastern Bloc?"

Prattabong paused.  "Yes, but not by choice.  Thais were at the bottom of the Bloc ethnic hierarchy.  When they left, we stayed… and they almost didn't survive."

The tanned woman's face shifted, uncertain whether to offer condolences or say something else.  So she changed the subject.  "I understand.  I'm out of Port Arthur, and the sl… Bloc bosses were the worst.  I've been struggling to get their errors out of the system just for the stupid gas collection to work right."

Malai twitched her nose.  "Gas?"

"Port Arthur's one big plant, orbiting a gas giant.  We extract methane, hydrogen… all the atmospheric gases."


Tammy smiled broadly.  "Fuel!  It's the cheapest out there—starships, cooking grates, aerodynes—they might need separate fuels, but we supply them all.  I tell you, I swear I power half the Republic!"

The Thai woman looked uncomfortable and whispered.  "That's very ingenious of you."

"Thanks.  So what do you do?"

"I build ships."

"Ships?  Who's buying ships… wait a minute.  If you're from Mars… you're building the Imperial Fleet?!"

She turned back to Tammy with a level gaze.  "Yes.  One of many."

"How can you build ships for that monster?!"

Malai tensed.  "I assume you mean the Emperor?"

"Yes!  That bastard!  I knew him back in the 3rd Civil War.  Massive prick!  Felt he could take on the whole Fed fleet, just needed us to get out of his way.  And then what does he do?  Just when the Gatecrasher started dumping his fleet on us, he disappears and leaves us to die!"

"Then why didn't you?"

Tammy was flummoxed by the question.  "Wh… what?"

"You seemed to survive.  You were lucky, perhaps?"  Malai cocked her head.  "Maybe the Fed got lucky.  Maybe the Emperor did what he could.  But it doesn't matter."

"It doesn't?"

"No, because when it mattered, he defeated the Caal.  And he hasn't left us since."

"You'll see," Chakravarty spat back.  "When the Republic starts crushing the ships you build, you'll see that pansy running off in his god-ship and leaving you high and dry.  That's what I live for."

"And when you do, you'll have the satisfaction of being right."  Prattabong never lost her temper, despite being disturbed by Tammy's venom.  "Until then, I build ships.  I guess we'll see who's the better engineer, won't we?  Excuse me."  With that, she walked away towards her kids.

D'Argent was impressed.  As he dissipated the image of the scene, he walked among the virtual grass.  "Interesting.  Let's see where this takes us next."




Bishop and Fisher, standing on the roof of a tall building just down the street from the Bisbee Grill, took a moment to collect their thoughts after Fabian had left.  Bishop started to make his way to towards the rear of the rooftop where the fire escape was located.  "Wait a second," Fisher said.  "Do you remember that gift that I taught you to enhance your perceptions?  Well, there's another gift that will helpful here—one that'll let you climb smooth vertical surfaces and crawl across ceilings."

            "Okay, but this better be quick," Bishop sighed.  "We don't have a lot of time."

            "This gift was taught to us by the Spirit of the Fly," Fisher began.  "It's very similar to the gift allowing you to smell and hear things better.  Close your eyes, tap into the same spirit of energy you did when I taught you that last gift.  Imagine a fly scaling a wall with their sticky feet.  Now see the world through a fly's eyes, feel those adhesive chemicals on your own hands and feet."

            Bishop closed his eyes and did as she said.  He felt nothing at first… but within seconds felt a strange sensation on his hands and feet.  They suddenly felt very sticky.  Turning to Fisher, he noticed her hands glistened with some sort of sticky gel, a very thin layer on the surfaces of her palms and fingers.

            Fisher went to roof's edge, surveying the street below.  The area was empty, clear.  She crawled over the edge, motioning Bishop to follow.  He crawled over the roof edge, pleased to find he had a very strong grip on side of the building.  Once securely attached to the side of the building with his sticky feet and hands, both quickly crawled down the wall to street level, then detached themselves from the side of the building.  Within moments, their hands and feet no longer felt sticky.

            Bishop and Fisher walked along the sidewalk towards the Bisbee Grill across the street.  When they were about a hundred paces away, Bishop turned to Fisher and whispered, "You know, the suspect could know who Fabian is… which means she might also know who I a—"

            "We can't take that chance," interrupted Fisher.  "Message understood."

"You go first," Bishop said.  "The suspect won't be expecting a woman."  Fisher nodded.  Nothing more had to be said—both of them had been hunting rogue mages and werewolves for over five years, after all.  Michelle calmly crossed the street and entered the restaurant while Bishop backed up a side alley, out of sight.  After five minutes, he casually walked over to the Bisbee Grill and entered.

            The inside looked like a very nice upper class restaurant, about half full of customers.  Along the right wall were booths, while heavy round wooden tables stood in the center.  On the left was a tasteful, well-polished bar of dark oak.  Bishop didn't see Fisher, but it didn't worry him—he knew she was there somewhere.  He was heading to the bar, discretely scanning the room, when a familiar face caught his eye.

            Bishop continued walking, nonchalant, and snuck a closer look.  An Asian woman with a black crew cut sat alone in the darkest corner booth at the back of the restaurant.  If she was the saboteur—and she almost certainly was—then she was doing a terrible job of blending into the crowd.  In a room full of people in suits and evening gowns, her black leather jacket and combat boots stood out like a clown at a funeral.  She wore fingerless gloves, but Bishop still noticed the kanji tattoos on her fingers… and could barely make out the edges of a huge elaborate tattoo peeking out of her collar.  Bishop knew he recognized her… he just couldn't remember from where

The woman silently sipped a beer (not wine, beer) while sweeping the room with her eyes.  Bishop peered closer.  Her pupils were dilated—strange, considering she was sitting in a dark corner.  On a hunch, William sniffed the air… and his keen nose picked up the stink of body odor, cheap incense, and stale opium.  She was high.  Not just high, wasted.  That final clue clicked Bishop's memory into place—he put the pieces together and suddenly remembered her from his younger years on the rough streets of Wilke's Star.

Right then, they made eye contact.  Bishop saw no recognition on her face… so he decided to jog her memory.  "Hey, Cho," Bishop said in a loud voice.  "What're you doing here on Ashdown?  Too many outstanding warrants on New Tokyo?"

A hush fell over the Bisbee Grill as customers turned to watch, scandalized.  Cho blinked bleary eyes at Bishop, confused.  "Who the pi hua are you, gaijin?"

He ignored the question.  "What's wrong, Cho?" Bishop taunted her.  "Was that prostitution gig on Wilke's Star not paying enough?  Or did you just get worn out?"

Anger flashed in her eyes.  "Seikou shi masu, ji bai!"  She slammed her hands down on the table, stood, and staggered slowly into the center aisle of the restaurant, muttering under her breath—possibly curses, but more likely readying a spell.  She was their saboteur, alright.

Bishop took a small step forward and adjusted his balance before asking, in an even louder voice, "Tell me, is your little sister in the business yet?!  Me and the boys like 'em youn—"

"Kaze!"  She snapped her arms at Bishop, fingers curled, and before he could even finish the sentence dozens of plates, bottles, glasses, chairs—even a heavy table—rocketed through the air, converging on him.

            But Bishop had anticipated this—he'd known the rogue mage was telekinetic—and dove behind a table to his right.  He got struck numerous times, but nothing hit solidly, and the rest clattered against the table.

Cho took a few steps closer, chuckling in scorn and glee.  With a flick of her wrist, the heavy table Bishop hid behind flew off to his left, smashing into the bar and crushing two customers.  She glanced around the room, eyes glowing red, and raised a hand.  Thousands of glass shards, broken plates, knives and forks levitated off the floor.  Grinning in insane hatred at Bishop, she curled her hand into a fist and the blades formed a circular cloud around him…

            From out of nowhere, Fisher appeared at the end of the bar with two daggers, sprinted up behind the mage in a blur, and slammed her left blade into the mage's back.  Bishop smiled—the look of utter shock on Cho's face was priceless.

            But Fisher wasn't done—she spun the saboteur around to face her and slashed the mage's throat open with her right dagger, splattering blood into the air, then buried her left blade up to the hilt under Cho's jaw.  Fisher released the dagger, grabbed Cho's throat in her right hand, Cho's waist in her left, lifted the mage off the ground, and slammed her back down onto the hard slate-tiled floor like a rag doll.  Everyone in the restaurant could hear the shattering of the spine and ribs, and a loud CRACK! as the back of Cho's skull split open from the sheer force of the impact.

            The instant the mage hit the ground, all the levitating objects fell to the floor with a loud crash.  The bar was completely silent.  All the customers stared with looks of horror, wide-open eyes in frozen faces.  Some had their mouths half-open and were too shocked to close them.  Bishop raised an eyebrow.

 Fisher was still bent over her victim, panting, seemingly admiring the small pool of blood forming around the upper half of the saboteur's body and a few scattered lumps of brain on the floor.  Fisher appeared to have gained thirty-five pounds of muscle, but was rapidly decreasing in size.  She slowly retrieved her daggers, and by the time she stood up she was back to her original form.  She turned to face Bishop, parts of her face and shirt splattered with blood.

With a wide, warm comforting smile, she said in a pleasant voice, "I love my job."

            Bishop laughed and said, "Next time, you can be the decoy."  He glanced around the restaurant, taking in the devastation.  Thousands of glass shards, broken plates, and silverware were scattered around the room.  Tables were overturned, and broken chairs were everywhere.  Even the nice oak bar had been smashed in by a flying table.

He got out his comm link and thought to himself, I love hunting mages! before pressing the button to open a channel to HQ.  "This is Bishop.  I need to speak to Colonel Knowles."

            "This is Knowles.  Do you have an update?"
            "Affirmative, sir.  After checking the apartment building to find out what happened to our source, Jacobs, we engaged the suspect in the Bisbee Grill.  She resisted arrest, killing two customers and wounding several others in the process.  She almost killed me, too.  Fisher had to put her down.  Sorry, sir."

            "Damn it, captain!  I needed her alive!"  The short colonel breathed heavily for a few seconds.  "She would have led us to her superiors, and then…"  The officer's voice rambled off quietly.
            Bishop paused before asking, "Do you want me to continue searching for Jacobs?  Sir?"

            The colonel's voice calmed when he replied, "Negative.  Stay with the suspect's body.  I'm sending a unit to relieve you and a med team.  You and Fisher report to Dent's office when you get back.  Good work.  Discom."



            A team arrived at the Bisbee Grill within five minutes, and Bishop and Fisher were taken back to HQ in a high-speed transport vehicle.  They went straight to Dent's office, where Knowles waited for them behind Dent's desk.  Major Dent stood off to his left.  The second they entered, Knowles asked Bishop to close the door.

            "Good work out there tonight," the Colonel began.  "Like I said, we would have preferred taking the saboteur alive… but at least the threat to our operations here on Ashdown has ended."  He nodded at the Major.  "Dent's operation against the terrorists in the warehouse was also successful."
            "Thank you, sir," Bishop replied.

            "But that's not the reason I ordered you to report to me.  I just received a communiqué from General Smits.  They're organizing a special top-secret mission on New Madrid.  Smits had me ask Major Dent for his two best men… and he selected you two.  Your shuttle leaves in two hours… so shower up, get your gear, eat something, and relax.  Good luck."

            "Thank you, sir," Bishop said as he and Fisher saluted the Lt. Colonel.  Just as they turned to leave, Dent said, "Hey, Fisher.  Teach this guy to read."

            "Will do, sir," Fisher said with a smile.

After they showered and changed clothes, Fisher headed for the mess hall while Bishop went to the main room to say goodbye to Regis.  Suddenly he remembered his promise to Fisher to teach another unit member the Gifts she'd shown him.  Bishop found Regis at a computer typing some sort of code.

"Hi, Regis.  Can I talk to you in private in my room for a sec?"

"Sure man," Regis answered.  He quickly typed in a few last keys, then stood up and they both walked to Bishop's room.

"Hey Regis," Bishop began, "Fisher showed me this interesting ability to enhance our senses.  She made me promise to show someone else.  You mind if I show you?"


Bishop instructed him the way Fisher had shown him, and when Regis opened his eyes he said, "Holy Shit!  That's cool!  Thanks for showing me.  But now let me show you one."


"This is a gift that just about all werecreatures can learn because all our ancestors abhorred technology.  It was given to us by the Spirit of the Gremlin."  Regis picked up Bishop's alarm clock and said, "When you turn into Crinos, you gradually build up your rage.  To use this gift you do the same thing, but concentrate that rage as one focused burst of hatred towards the alarm clock while simultaneously tapping into your spirit and envisioning gremlins ripping out the circuitry inside.  Remember, it's a quick focused burst."

Bishop did as instructed.  After a very brief delay, the alarm clock turned off.

"Good job!" said Regis.  "That'll turn it off for about a quarter hour.  You can use this ability to turn off all electrical equipment or any kind of machinery, including computers, within fifty feet all at once.  Pretty cool that you can just shut things down with a thought, huh?  There's another version you can learn that will shut them down permanently, but I don't have time to teach you that one."

"Thanks, man," Bishop said.  "I'm shipping out later today.  I'm not sure if I'll return.  It's been great working with you, Regis.  I can't believe we've been together for over five years."

"Hey, I'm going to miss you, man.  You've been in this unit longer than I have!"

As Regis got up to leave, Bishop remembered something Fabian had said—widen your gaze.  Before Regis opened the door, Bishop asked, "Hey man, I was wondering… could you keep me informed if anything unusual happens after I leave?  Who knows?  If you start to hate it here, I may be able to get you transferred out of this place at some point."

"Sure, man!" Regis answered.  "You know where to find me, and if you need a favor just let me know.  You were always my favorite fellow officer in this unit.  Take care, dude."  Regis walked over to Bishop, shook his hand, and left the room.

Bishop got up and checked his datapad.  There was an audio message from Bree Colby, his old were-rat contact (and friend) from Wilke's Star.  He turned the volume down and hit play.

"Hi, Bishop.  One of my associates recognized that woman's picture you sent me.  Her name is Cho Yamazaki.  She lived with her sister in his neighborhood on Wilke's Star for a couple years.  Apparently, they were from New Tokyo and eventually moved back.  Word on the street is that Cho is involved with the Yakuza—probably the Iizuka family—although we don't know what her sister is up to.  That's all I have.  Good luck."
            So she was involved with the Yakuza, Bishop thought.  Then, after a brief smile, I love hunting mages!  He starting to pack his bags.




Heth preened himself—fluffing his mane, brushing down his fur, straightening all his jewelry, running his tongue over his fangs—while he waited for the Llan Executive Officer, or LEO, of Miao Mercantile to answer Heth's video call.

"Gainful day, Miao K'Nhur K'Yawr!"  Heth cowered politely.

"Miao K'Rowr K'Heth," the old feline said as he sat and looked at the holoproj display.  Yawr was a big cat, grown plump with age and wealth.  His black fur had faded to dark gray.  He wore a spectacularly expensive suit, and his mane was woven with golden strips into long, tiny braids—but that was his only jewelry.  It sent a subtle message to other K'Nes: this was a man so fantastically rich that he simply couldn't wear one percent of his net worth in decorative hard currency—he'd be crushed under the weight.  He scowled into the camera.  "If you're not about to make me a lot of money," he growled, pointing a claw at Heth, "I'm going to terminate you just for having the audacity to call me—directly!"

"Oh yes, sire—lots of money," Heth assured the executive.  "I have highly valuable information for you, sire.  News that could affect markets on a galactic scale.  If the Miao move fast to position ourselves, profits could be vast."

Yawr narrowed his eyes for a moment.  "Alright, cub, you've raised my interest," he admitted, settling down on his designer perch.  "Tell me your valuable news—and it had better be good!"

"It is, sire."  Heth smiled.  "The Jurvain are going to invade."

The LEO looked at him blankly for a moment.  "What?  The Jurvain?  Invade who?  When?  Where?  Why?  How do you know all this?"

Heth explained his deal with the Jurvain military, offering them as much Impossibarium as they could buy to defend themselves—only they appeared to be using it for an offensive force instead.  Yawr silent stared at Heth with narrowed eyes for a moment, stroking his mane.  "You mean to tell me," the LEO said slowly, voice dripping with menace, "that you just armed the Jurvain with powerful new weapons… without obtaining permission from the company first?"

Heth had anticipated this reaction, and had his response prepared.  "MIRADI armed the Jurvain," he clarified, raising a claw.  "I merely facilitated the transaction.  Remember, after my merger with Miu was dissolved, MIRADI spun off back into an independent company, one we have no control over.  This Jurvain deal would have gone through anyway, sire—if I hadn't been the middlemerchant, someone else would have."  Well, that's not exactly true, Heth thought, but Yawr doesn't need to know the details.  "This way, at least," Heth continued, "Miao Mercantile is privy to insider information before the news hits the market—and a ten percent commission on an expensive and ongoing sale, I might add."

Heth waited breathlessly his LEO's reaction.  After a moment's silence, the old cat slowly began to nod.  "Alright… alright, you raise some good points.  But next time!"  He pointed a vicious claw at Heth.  "You keep the company informed from the start.  Understood, cub?"

"Yes, sire!"  Heth cowered politely and nodded.

"Now then," Yawr continued, relaxing a bit on his padded perch, "what makes you think the Jurvain plan to invade anyone?"

Heth explained the specifications for the Jurvain Impossibarium order, and about how they appeared to be investing it in weapons and fighters rather than defensive armor.   

"Hmm…"  Yawr rubbed a paw behind his ear thoughtfully.  "Well, it's hardly conclusive evidence.  Fighter fleets are not necessarily offensive—they could be used for defense.  And quite well, I imagine."

"Yes, the Jurvain would have a fleet that could serve both purposes, true," Heth conceded, "but they're planning to fight someone—and they lied to me about who."

"Eh?" Yawr looked up.  "Why do you say that?"

"Because when I asked Vice Admiral Tsonguo who the Jurvain had to fight, he paused before answering 'The Bugs,' sire," Heth explained.  "That's their tell, you see.  When a Jurvain answers honestly, their response is immediate.  But when they don't tell the truth, they always pause for a second to check with the Commonality—telepathically, of course—to determine the best lie."

Yawr widened one eye.  "Very perceptive, Heth.  So, a Jurvain offensive is a possibility—and one that we know about before anyone else.  But it will take the Jurvain weeks to upgrade their fighters with Impossibarium—"

"Oh, two months at least, sire," Heth added.

The LEO waved away the interruption.  "When the news breaks, it'll cause quite a bit of excitement in the commodity exchanges… fear sells, cub.  Sells like nothing else.  And by then…" Yawr bared his fangs in a grin, "the Miao will have had ample opportunity to position ourselves strategically in the marketplace… yes, perhaps we should hedge our bets… diversify our investments… maybe the Jurvain would be interested in the new line of Miao gravity drives we're planning…"

Yawr's voice trailed off, and Heth saw the LEO's eyes lose focus as he concentrated, crunching numbers and weighing odds.  Heth could practically see the spreadsheets flying past the old cat's eyes.

"Uh… sire?"  Heth hated to interrupt, but he had to ask the question that worried him the most.  "What… what if the Jurvain invade the K'Nes Llan?"

"Hmm?"  Yawr asked, roused from his monetary daydream.  "Oh, I doubt that.  The Jurvain would much rather take back their lost colonies from the humans.  And the K'Nes have been the Jurvain's traditional allies against the apes since… well, forever.  There's never been violence between K'Nes and Jurvain … well, except for that unfortunate incident at Shu, of course… and we've always been their natural allies.  Why would they attack us?"

"Because we are rich, sire," Heth answered.  "The Jurvain economy was decimated by years of human quarantine… and the Federation, in turn, was ripped apart by the Caal.  But the K'Nes escaped that destruction—we weren't in the Caal's path—and once we rid ourselves of those accursed Five Acts, our economy boomed.  Our infrastructure is intact and our industries are producing at near-full capacity.  Why would the Jurvain pay for what they could take by force?"

Yawr growled, and Heth knew he'd succeeded in rubbing the LEO exactly the wrong way—nothing raised K'Nes hackles quite like the thought of having their assets stolen.  "Mmm…. another good point," Yawr conceded.  "One at least worth considering."

"Sire…"  Heth swallowed, his tail swishing nervously.  "Should the K'Nes Llan consider investing in, uh… security?  Just in case the Jurvain do invade?  Our fleet has little more than… well, cargo freighters."

"That's all we were allowed to have under the human occupation," Yawr growled.  "The apes scuttled the entire K'Nes Tor Navy after our defeat the Second Vulthra War."

"Exactly," Heth agreed, "and now, there's only one actual warship in all of K'Nes space!"

"The Loophole, I know!"  Yawr rolled his eyes, exasperated.  "It's Gurrmew K'Laek K'Soth's personal property—and he never shuts up about it, the swaggering rodent!"  The LEO's eyes narrowed to slits.  "Lording it over us, using it for leverage to extort more favorable contracts out of the other trading houses…  K'Nes Hero, my tail!"

It was a mistake bringing up Gurrmew K'Soth, even indirectly.  Heth had to derail Yawr's train of thought quickly, before the old cat launched into yet another full-blown rant about the Miao's political enemies.  "I couldn't agree more, sire."  Heth grinned, baring his fangs.  "But if the K'Nes Llan invested in a few modern warships, Soth would lose his negotiating advantage!... oh, and it would protect us from the Jurvain and apes too, of course."  He hesitated.  "Couldn't you propose to the Boa—"

"I'm afraid you overestimate my position in the K'Nes Llan, cub."  Yawr's fur bristled.  "That treacherous rat Soth stabbed the Miao in the tail—and after all we did for them during the Occupation!  Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP beat us out for the last seat on the Executive Board, remember?"  Being shut out of the executive boardroom of the K'Nes Llan was still a sore point for Yawr... and all Miao, for that matter, including Heth.

"Of course I remember, sire… how could I forget?"  Heth's mind raced to find a way around his awkward gaff and drag the conversation back on topic.  He went with flattery.  "But you're still the most powerful member of the lower house, sire—the Chair of the Board of Directors!  Your stock is rising, and the other corporate clans on the Board value your opinions.  Couldn't you at least suggest—"

"It'd be waste of my time and theirs, cub."  The LEO shook his head.  "Convincing the K'Nes Llan to invest resources in warships would be a very, very hard sell.  Low return on investment.  Little profit, if any.  No, they're relying on trade and diplomacy to avoid war with the Jurvain—or anyone else, for that matter."

            "I see, sire."  Heth tried a different approach.  "Well, what about our defenses, then?  Should the Miao… I mean, the Nhur Llan… prepare for a Jurvain invasion?"

            "Eh?  Why?" Yawr said.  "If the Jurvain attack, the first system they'll invade will be Urrin, not Nhur."

            "True," Heth agreed.  And that's where Miu and MIRADI are, he thought.  Aloud he said, "But to conquer the K'Nes Llan, they'd have to make it all the way to Purrfang.  The Jurvain are very thorough—they wouldn't leave a planetary llan's fleet in their rear for very long, even if it is just a merchant marine.  They'd have to take Nhur sooner or later—probably sooner."  He shrugged.  "I'm just saying that planetary defense might be a good investment for our long-term future projections."

            "Are you mad, cub?" Yawr growled.  "What makes you think the Nhur Llan can afford a warship?!"

            "Oh, we can't, obviously," Heth agreed.  "But I suggest a simpler—and cheaper—upgrade to our defenses."

            Yawr sniffed the air.  "Eh?  Cheaper, you say?  What did you have in mind?"

            "Well, most of the Miao freighters have at least some armament—"

            "If you can call it that," Yawr scoffed.  "Point defense grids and a short-range laser or two for defense against pirates and meteors, nothing more.  That was all the humans allowed us to have."

            "Yes…"  Heth smiled.  "But the Miao weren't limited by that, were we?  Some of our larger smuggling freighters carry a railgun—concealed, of course.  Correct?"

            "True."  Yawr nodded.  "If they get caught by an Earth Fleet patrol ship, a hidden asset to surprise them with is always a prudent investment."

"And," Heth continued, "we still have the orbital defense platforms that we… er, inherited from the Earth Fleet when they withdrew from Nhur.  Those are armed with missiles and railguns, among other things."

            Yawr narrowed his eyes, growing impatient.  "What's your point, cub?"

            "Well, the Jurvain ordered quite a lot of Impossibarium casings for railgun fusion shells," Heth explained.  "If Miao Mercantile were to purchase some casings as well, we could have a simple, comparatively cheap weapon that would neutralize the Jurvain's advantage of Impossibarium-armored fighters.  Currently, MIRADI's entire production is being sold to the Jurvain, of course, but I might be able to convince Miu to expand production… if there would be a guaranteed customer, that is…"

            The LEO drummed his claws on his desktop.  "Isn't Impossibarium prohibitively expensive?"

"Well, yes," Heth conceded, "but then, quality costs.  In addition to standing up to an armored Jurvain fighter, the Impossibarium shrapnel from an exploding fusion shell would rip a standard warship to pieces."  Heth suddenly saw exactly how to tip the LEO's decision in his favor.  "A warship, for example, like the Loophole—Gurrmew K'Soth's escort carrier."  Heth gave Yawr a Cheshire grin.  "If nothing else, just having that capability would certainly level the playing field when negotiating with Soth."

            A slow smile spread across the LEO's whiskers.  "Yes... perhaps it might be worth investing some resources in after all.  It's worth a cost-benefit analysis, at least."

Heth pushed his advantage.  "And if I was to merge with Miu again, MIRADI would go back to being a Miao subsidiary!  Imagine access to all the Impossibarium that can be produced—and with monopoly ownership!"

Yawr smiled and his tail whisked.  "I was wondering when that would come up."

"Why, Nhur could become a K'Nes fortress of profi… uh… what?"

"Still chasing pussy, are you, cub?"  The LEO chuckled.

For one of the very, very few times in his life, Heth had no idea what to say.  His tail twitched nervously.

"Get your head out of your tail," Yawr said gruffly.  "You're running with the big cats now."

"Uh… yes, sire."  Heth struggled to get off the topic before he could embarrass himself further.  "Umm… well, uh, given our inside information on Jurvain activities, perhaps it would be prudent for the K'Nes Llan to offer a non-aggression contract to the Jurvain?"

"That sounds a lot like an alliance," Yawr hissed, almost recoiling.  "Have you forgotten what happened with our last alliance with aliens—the Vulthra?"

            "We lost the war," Heth answered, "followed by eight years of human occupation and economic oppression under the Five Acts."  He nodded.  "Yes, sire, I remember.  I lived through it."

            "Eh?  Did you?"  For a moment the LEO looked slightly puzzled.  "Bah!  All you young cubs look the same to me these days…"

            "But I'm not suggesting an alliance, sire," Heth pressed.  "Just offering a non-aggression contract!  If they don't attack us, we won't attack them—and there our obligation ends.  If the Jurvain go to war, we're not obligated to join them, merely remain neutral—which, I believe the K'Nes Llan is planning to do anyway, correct?"

            "Eventually…"  Yawr nodded.

            "And I'm not even saying we have to sign it, sire—just open negotiations.  Given what we know about the Jurvain, how they react to the offer will tell us a lot about their intentions."

            The LEO licked a paw and rubbed his ear, thinking.  "A good point.  If we offer a non-aggression contract to them, and they are planning to attack the K'Nes… they'll hedge, they'll delay, they'll stall.  But if they're not planning to invade us—which is the most likely option, anyway—they'll jump at the contract."  Yawr stroked his mane.  "I imagine they'd find it very convenient—it would secure their flank while they focused their attention on the apes.  And then the K'Nes can do what we've always done—secretly bankroll the Jurvain to fight the apes for us."

            "Either way," Heth added, "we'll know right away if the Jurvain are headed towards the K'Nes or not."

            "It's worth floating the idea to the K'Nes Llan Board of Directors," the LEO conceded.  "But there might be… unprofitable repercussions."


"Most of our business is with the apes, you know," he explained.  "What if one—or all—of their factions take offense at a K'Nes-Jurvain contract?  Or find out we're selling valuable war materials to the Jurvain?"

"Then we sell it to them, too!" Heth answered.  "And offer them a non-aggression contract while we're at it!  The K'Nes are neutral, after all."

"Well…" Yawr hedged, "the K'Nes Llan hasn't officially declared universal neutrality yet…"

            "But… why not?" Heth asked, genuinely puzzled.

            Yawr smiled at understanding an angle this young startup didn't.  "Because the mere possibility that the K'Nes might ally with one human faction over another tends to sweeten their trade deals.  They'll offer our merchants more favorable terms if they think we might eventually take their side in the growing conflict."

            "And we can play on that!" Heth said, suddenly excited.  "If it looks like the K'Nes Llan might show some mild interest in taking sides—like starting with a simple non-aggression contract with the Jurvain, a move that will surprise no one—the human factions might start competing even more for K'Nes support.  Raising their bids, so to speak."

            "Which would mean increased profits all around.  And that might get some votes in favor of it."  The LEO was quiet a moment, his tail swishing thoughtfully.  "Alright.  I can submit the proposal to the Board of Directors… but that's all I can do.  Still, that alone might be enough to put us in a very profitable position."  He looked back at Heth.  "When will the Jurvain contract be signed?"

            "As soon as I can send it to Miu on Urrin," Heth answered.  "And… that's something else I wanted to talk to you about, sire.  As you know, Miao Mercantile provides the most secure cargo convoys in the K'Nes Llan… I'm sure I can talk MIRADI into hiring our services for the Impossibarium shipments."

            "Then do it.  I'll reassign one of our security directors to the project."

            "Actually, sire…"

            Yawr's eyes narrowed to slits; he pawed his perch.  "Yes?"

            Heth licked his teeth and took the plunge.  "Well, I'm already the single point of contact for the Jurvain and MIRADI in this deal.  I'm the perfect man to facilitate this transaction…this very big, ongoing transaction."

            "What are you saying, cub?"

            "Well, to do that, of course, I'd need to be able to manage the entire convoy, not just one ship."

            "That would make you a… Vice-Director, I believe," the LEO said.

            "Yes, sire.  It would."

            "And you are currently an Assistant Vice-Director, yes?"

            "That's correct, sire."

            "So you're asking for a promotion?  After what you did to devalue Miao Trading House?"

            "I never meant to damage our reputation, sire."

            "Reputation is everything in our line of business, cub!" the LEO rebuked him strongly, fur bristling.  "And yet you violated the most sacred rule—the only rule!—of the Miao!  You…" his face contorted in disgust, "broke a contract!"

            "Not intentionally, sire," Heth shook his head vehemently, unable to avoid a touch of panic at this unexpected grilling. 

            "And not a contract with just any customer," Yawr continued, "but with one of our biggest and most important customers—the Holy Terran Empire!"

"Sire, I delivered the all sixteen power armor suits to Avalon, in full, ahead of sched—"

            "And broken!" Yawr snapped.

            "They were all working perfectly before they shipped, sire," Heth protested.  "Zechariah McNeilly, the Imperial sales representative, inspected each suit personally and found nothing wrong with them!  They were old, yes, but in perfect working order!"

            "And yet they were all useless by the time they arrived—on your watch!"  The LEO's tail swished menacingly back and forth.  "McNeilly is a personal agent of Emperor Vin Dane," Yawr growled, "and he told me the Emperor was very upset.  The only reason we didn't permanently lose the Empire as a customer was because Miao Mercantile let the Empire keep the defective merchandise and refunded their money—with interest!"

            "Yes," Heth agreed, "and I compensated the Miao for the loss out of my personal assets—barely.  But I did everything according to the contract, sire, right down the letter!  The contract wasn't violated due to negligence or incompetence on my part…"  Heth hesitated, then took the plunge.  "The merchandise was sabotaged, sire."

            "Yes, I've heard your story before."  Yawr rolled his eyes.  "And you still can't prove it, can you?"

            "Actually, I've got a lead on that, sire," Heth lied smoothly. 

"Really?"  Yawr sounded mildly interested. 

"Indeed.  I kept one of the broken suits for analysis, you see.  It's currently here on my freighter, the Bountiful, right now."  Heth's heart pounded as he dug himself deeper into the lie.  "I think I've figured out how it was impaired… just not by who, or why.  Yet."

            "Hmmm… intriguing…"  The LEO stroked his whiskers thoughtfully.  "Alright then… when the first Impossibarium convoy heads for Jurvain space—if you can prove to me that your contract was subverted—then the convoy is yours.  But if you can't… you're terminated!  Understand, cub?"

            "Yes, sire."

            "Good."  Yawr cut the video feed.  He didn't even say goodbye.

            Panic gripped Heth.  He whipped out his snuff box and took a deep breath of nepeta; it quickly calmed him.  I lose everything in a little over a month… unless I can prove I was sabotaged.  He took another deep hit of nepeta.  How in the stars am I going to do that?!




It was still raining as Takamitsu turned the yellowed piece of paper over to read the back of the letter for the third time.  It was a little late, even for a Friday night, but some of the city lights of Shinjuku could still be seen shining in the distance from his sixth-floor patio.  He was a bit shaky, partly from lack of sleep, partly from his sixth cup of tea, and partly from the contents of the letter he now held in his hands.  There was too much evidence for him to maintain a reasonable doubt about it.

The paper on which the letter was written and the envelope that contained it were definitely old, and the marks on the envelope indicated that it had traveled throughout the old Federation for a good long while.  More importantly, though, the handwriting matched his grandmother's and great-grandmother's, and the details they described were just too precise.

Taka had always envied his father's ability to work magick, and Akihiro, for his part, had always wished Taka had followed in the family tradition of force magick.  The stories of his great-great-grandpa Akira in the Drakat War filled Taka with a pride that was matched only by his shame for not being able to do likewise.  The true source of the Yasuyama family's strength ever since their migration from Earth, however, had been in its women.  When they heard about the Vin Shriak attack, Taka's father told him not to worry about their family.  "Your great-grandma Hikari's time magick is a far better shield than any force field I can create, and your grandma Akiko's time magick should not be taken lightly, either."

But to think that they had written a letter over a decade before that detailed the events of the last week was simply staggering.  That the letter even made it to father after being in postal limbo for so long was miracle enough.  That it detailed everything about his day and gave him specific instructions on what to do for the next several hours was a bit much.  Truly, Hikari and Akiko had been given a rare gift.  Perhaps to make up for it, God had seen fit to deny Taka any and all magic ability.  The jealousy welled up in him for the third time that night.

The first knock at the door was Shinsuke, Taka's security team leader and longtime friend.  "Hey, Taka.  Your old man sent me to come check on you."

Takamitsu rolled his eyes.  "I told him, I'm fine!  The medics ran every test they could think of and gave me a clean bill of health a week ago."  He sighed.  "Besides, I'm more concerned with just what the hell happened up there on the orbital."

"Yeah, well, we finally got the Ministry's preliminary report on the accident."

"Oh yeah?"  Taka perked up.  "What did they say caused it?"

Shinsuke chuckled humorlessly.  "Well, they're kinda blaming your dad for rescheduling the demonstration on such short notice.  The Ministry claims that in all the confusion of the sudden deadline, no one thought to shut down Battlestation Yamato's point-defense grid where the EVA test was being conducted.  They also hadn't updated the friend-or-foe recognition systems with the new Zeta armor specs yet."  He spread his hands.  "So when the automated sensors on the plasma phalanx detected an unknown suit on the hull of the station…" 

"… it identified it as threat and tried to shoot it down," Taka completed the thought, nodding.

"Exactly.  And the Ministry claims that when the mages zapped Kiyokazu and his Zeta armor back inside, the plasma cannon turrets kept firing at him—right through the observation window."

Taka raised an eyebrow.  "You don't sound convinced."

"Well… it's possible, I suppose." .Shinsuke scowled and shrugged.  "Sure, it'd take a lot of people in a lot of different positions making a lot of errors—but it's possible.  I'm just not sure it's likely.  I mean, what are the odds of all those mistakes happening at the same time?"

"Astronomical," Taka answered immediately.  "But there are other parts of that explanation that don't make sense.  For example, I wasn't aware targeting computers could track an object through a correspondence portal."

Shinsuke blinked at him.  Apparently, that thought hadn't occurred to him.  "Uh… can they?"

"I don't know for sure, but I doubt it," Taka answered.  "I'd have to look that up and double-check it, though."

"There's something else I've been wondering about," Shinsuke added.  "Can point-defense cannons even aim at their own ship?  I mean, that seems kinda counterproductive in battle."

"Not the automated targeting systems, no."  Taka shook his head; he was almost certain of that.  "Maybe if you used the manual override, you could...."  His voice trailed off as he suddenly grasped the implications of what he'd just said.

"So it might not have been an accident," Shinsuke finished the thought for him.  "It might have been an assassination attempt.  A failed attempt—meaning there might be another."

Taka sighed.  "And that's why dad sent you here, isn't it?"

"Yeah, pretty much."  Shinsuke nodded.  "I don't know what his deal is—it seems pretty obvious that he was the target, not you—but he insisted that I needed to come to your place tonight.  And he's the boss, so here I am."  He cocked his head and looked at his friend.  "Is it just me, or is he getting weirder?"

"That," Taka replied, "or he knows something we don't."

Shinsuke brow furrowed.  "What do you mean?"

"Check out this letter.  It says it's from my grandma and great-grandma."

"So what?"

"They were supposed to have died in the Vin Shriak attack."

"Yeah?" the werewolf replied, his curiosity growing.

"They were really powerful time mages, man.  Really powerful."


"Lately Dad's been watching snail mail like a hawk."


Takamitsu handed the letter over to his friend.  "Read it."

Shinsuke took the old stationary and scanned the words.  As he rushed through the characters on the page, the werewolf finally realized what was written there.  His eyes flashed back to his friend.  "But this…"

"Impossible?"  Taka shook his head.  "I've been saying that to myself and getting tired of it.  Time magick.  It's gotta be.  My family were magi dating back to before the Federation… and guess what, I'm the exception."

His bodyguard glanced back at the letter.  "This was written ten years ago."

"I know."

"But it talks about the attack on the orbital last week.  How is…"

"Magick."  The young manager shrugged.

"Where did you get it?"

"I stole it from my dad's desk."

"You what?!"  Shinsuke's eyes grew round.

"I needed answers," Taka said, turning back to the window, "and Dad wasn't giving me any.  For instance, since when do we have an extraction team for an EVA test?  And why did he want your whole security team there?"

The werewolf put the letter down.  "Because M. Yasuyama knew the attack was going to happen?"

"Exactly.  That's why he pushed up the test to that morning.  He was hoping to avoid it… but you can't avoid fate."

"This ain't fate, Taka," Shinsuke spat.  "Someone's trying to kill us!"

"Don't I know it," the unawakened human nodded.  "Which makes all of this… it can't be a coincidence."

His friend stepped closer, narrowing his eyes.  "What aren't you telling me, Taka?"

Takamitsu looked into the werewolf's eyes and replied, "I wasn't saved by the correspondence mages.  Someone else plucked me out of the big black."

"Really?"  Shinsuke blinked in surprise.  "Who?"

"I'm… not sure.  She gave me a name, but I ran it through the Net, and… she died.  Decades ago.  I need to find out what's going on.  I don't know who I can trust."

"You can trust me."

Taka put his hand on his friend's shoulder.  "I know it.  I might have to ask a lot of you in the next few weeks, Shinsuke—you and your team.  Wherever this leads me, it's not going to be somewhere pleasant."

Shinsuke nodded.  "Say, about that letter… any idea what that last part means?"

The manager closed his eyes and repeated from memory.  " 'Protect Ji-yoon from the fire, as I wish I could have protected her great, great aunt.'  I wish I knew.  I'd hate to see Ji-yoon get involved with—"

Just then, the door chime rang.  Taka signaled to Shinsuke with his eyes; his bodyguard walked to the securcomp and activated the door camera.  "You're never gonna believe this…" the werewolf said, shaking his head.

"There are no coincidences."  Takamitsu smiled wryly.  "And I thought my life was complicated before.  Go ahead, let her in."

The apartment door opened and Ji-yoon walked in.  She was dressed to kill; her makeup was flawless, with only the tiniest smudge around her eyes.  "Taka, I… oh… hello, Shin."

"Ji-yoon," he nodded.

"What is it?" Takamitsu asked.

"I…"  She looked at the scene in front of her and shook her head.  "I'm sorry.  I shouldn't have come.  I'll go."

"What is it, Ji-yoon?" Taka asked, concerned.  "What's happening?"

The young woman hesitated for a moment, then replied, "I… I met with Kyung Oh.  I knew I shouldn't, but…"

Taka closed his eyes.  "What did your ex say now?"

"He…" Ji-yoon was interrupted by another knock on the door.

Shinsuke activated the securcomp again, only to find the camera dark.  "Uh oh…"  The werewolf pulled out his plasma revolver, slapped the power cell into the weapon, and heard the reassuring charge.  "We got trouble."

"What is it?" Taka said for the third time, never getting a satisfactory answer.

The knock came again; his bodyguard waved them away from the door.  "Someone scrambled the sensors, which means they probably scrambled the comm lines and anything else that might help us.  Something nasty's about to come through that door."

"Great," Taka sighed, trying to center himself as they taught him in his classes.  Of course, his nerves were frayed already, so his mind was anywhere but concentrated on the fight ahead.  On the plus side, it also meant that he wasn't afraid—he had too much else on his mind for that.

When the knocking stopped, the sizzling began.  The intruders were frying the door lock with a common chemical weapon, usually reserved to the Light Infantry.  But these days, the manager smiled, you could pick it up on the streets for a few credits.

Shinsuke ran over to them, dragging them behind the couch.  "Cover!" he whispered loudly.  As he aimed his gun towards the door, the entrance slammed open—and three men in Delta armor rushed inside.




            The Kalintos campaign had started well for the Holy Terran Empire.  A task force of the Imperial Navy had quickly seized control of the orbitals over the only inhabited planet, and boarding parties had taken the jumpgate control station without much fuss.  The capital city of Loud Water, and the half of the planetary population that lived in the immediate vicinity, were quickly surrounded by Imperial Army forces landed via drop pods and assault pinnaces.  The small Federation garrison had fled into the jungle and left the city open, and it was occupied by the end of the first day of the assault.

            That's when the problems began.

            First off, that Federation garrison fleeing into the jungle had taken enough weapons and supplies with them to outfit a small army—which, of course, is exactly what they were doing.  Small Imperial units that moved to occupy remote mining or logging settlements often found the settlements empty, the local inhabitants having fled into the jungle to join the escaped soldiery.  Supplies to these occupied settlements needed to be sent by orbital spacecraft, since ground transport or atmospheric flight was frequently interrupted by ambushing partisans or lone missiles fired out of seemingly empty stretches of jungle.

            Secondly, the occupied planetary capital of Loud Water was far from peaceful.  A handful of Cultists, ex-Resistance supporters, and other malcontents had greeted the Imperial Army as liberators, but most of the populace was at best sullen and resentful, and at worst fled into the jungle to join the partisans.  Enough opponents of the Imperial occupation had stayed in town to make it dangerous for Imperial troops to travel through certain neighborhoods at night, at least in anything less than platoon strength.  Parked military or supply vehicles needed to be guarded at all times against attack or sabotage.

            Lord General Nicolai Malakov, the commander of the ground assault force, was not happy about this situation.  He was ensconced in his commandeered residence in the penthouse suite of the finest hotel on the planet, preparing to bed down for the night.  His aide, Major Fred Houseman, was delivering some reports for the Lord General to read before bed.

            "This was supposed to be easy," Malakov said to his aide.  "There are barely a million people on this planet, half of them clustered in one settlement.  So why are we still unable to report our success to the Emperor?"

            "A planet mostly populated by miners and lumberjacks means a planet full of big burly men, and that means a lot of veterans, both from the Tech Infantry and Light Infantry… and the Earth Fleet," Houseman reminded his commander.  "A planet full of half-terraformed wilderness means weapons are commonplace for hunting and pest control.  Put them together, and you got a lot of people with guns who know how to use them."

            "The Emperor is not concerned about a few rogues in the jungle, Major," admonished the Lord General, "and neither am I."

"They'll run out of food or ammo sooner or later, and they don't have a prayer of actually pushing us off this planet by themselves."

            "Which is why I want those Imperial Guard reinforcements we were promised.  The sooner we can hand the planet over to them for final pacification and absorption into the Empire, the sooner we can get to Ashdown and continue the offensive."

            "And the sooner we can cut the rogues off from their most likely route of reinforcements, relief, or resupply, yes," replied the aide in a soothing voice.

            "And have we heard any news from Chalfont about the Guard convoy?"

            "They left Chalfont two days ago, so they should be here tomorrow."

            "Good.  Report any changes in their scheduled arrival to me in the morning."

            As the Major bowed out of the master bedroom of the penthouse suite and the Lord General finished preparing for bed, the faint background roar of the waterfall outside neatly covered up the almost inaudible pop sound made when a tiny correspondence portal closed in the corner of the room where the ceiling met two walls.



            "Thank you, Major Reid," said Lieutenant Colonel Richard Knowles.  He had joined their Raptor team when they stopped on Ashdown to pick up reinforcements.  The short, bald officer with a head shaped like an artillery shell placed a soothing hand on the shoulder of the near-unconscious Major Diana Reid, slumping to her knees within an inscribed circle of arcane symbols drawn on the deck of the starship.  "I know that must have taken a lot out of you."

            "You... have... no idea," the auburn-haired Correspondence Mage replied.  Even a tiny portal over that distance would normally be possible only for brief seconds.  It was only because she spent her honeymoon in that same hotel room that she had been able to hold the portal open so long at all.  The strong emotions and memories bound up with that place had made her personal link to that location powerful and persistent enough to open the portal and keep it open for several minutes.  It had just been long enough.

            Colonel Knowles turned to the other figure in the room.  "Lieutenant McCall, your assistance with the technical side of things was also invaluable.  Please download your recording to my assistant's console on your way out."  Argus McCall nodded silently and scooped up his remote sensor drone that had just returned through the portal from its first interstellar recon mission.

            Knowles helped the mage to her feet.  "I know that must have been hard."

            "It's only been two years since we honeymooned there," she replied, groggily limping towards the door.  "And less than a year since he died."  Her dead husband had been among the TI Marine detachment on board the EFS Hachiman when it was destroyed fighting the Caal over Avalon.  Major Reid had also fought in the battle, surviving only because she made it to an escape pod when her own ship was destroyed early in the battle, and it landed her down on Avalon before the starfighters had started shooting up the remaining ejected escape pods to prevent the Caal from finding refuge in the survivors trapped within.  When the credit for the victory went to Vin Dane instead of the million or so Fleet and TI personnel who had died making it possible, she fled from Avalon and joined what was left of the Earth Federation, swearing revenge on Vin Dane for the loss of her husband and her crewmates.

            Knowles helped her limp into the next room, where a team of medics was waiting to take her back to her quarters to rest and recover from the ordeal.  Then he returned to the briefing room where his special forces team and a few others were waiting.

            "Okay.  We now know exactly who's leading the enemy forces, and when they expect reinforcements," he announced to his team with a determined look on his face.  It looked entirely natural there.  "If they stick to schedule, we should arrive at about the same time."

            A low rumble of grumbles swept through the assembled officers.  "That's good news and bad news," Captain Nils Astrovik interjected.

            "Indeed," Knowles continued.  "The bad news is, we're gonna jump out of hyperspace right in between two enemy forces.  The good news is, one of those forces is predicted to be a lightly-escorted convoy of troop transports.  Our escorts hit that first, and we'll force the enemy warships up and out of the gravity well of the planet to try and engage us.  In open space, away from whatever orbital defenses they captured intact, we will have the advantage of numbers, firepower, and training.  We'll be able to turn and destroy them in turn.  That should leave the planet exposed to our relief landings a few hours later.  If this Lord General Malakov doesn't surrender his lordly ass once we control the orbitals, we get to have our fun."





Click to go to the previous act in the story Go back to the Table of Contents Click to go to the next act in the story

Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home—unless, of course, you have backup waiting to ambush the angry mage.