"I don't know what to do and I'm always in the dark

We're living in a powder keg and giving off sparks

I really need you tonight

Forever's gonna start tonight."


-- Jim Steinman, Total Eclipse of the Heart (sung by Bonnie Tyler)

There was one thing to be said for black market economies: they were resilient.  Not twelve hours ago, the capital of Babylon had been decimated by a low-altitude fusion explosion.  The subsequent cee-fractional hail had caused fewer casualties, but raised public terror to a fever pitch across the primary settled continent.  No one yet knew how many were dead and, more importantly, no one yet knew who was dead.  Nearly a fifth of the Republic's General Assembly members were missing, including the Chairman of the Executive Committee.  The rest of the Assembly was in bunkers or on shuttlecraft scattered about the system.  Babylon Defense might have dropped the ball on the initial attack, but at least one person knew what he was doing when it came to securing the political principals.

Amid that chaos, the Marduk spaceport had barely seen a ten minute delay in its lift schedule.  Marduk spaceport served the continent of the same name, Babylon's third largest and on the far side of the planet from the capital.  The spaceport saw almost exclusively freight traffic.  Marduk ranches exported beef all across the western reaches of human space.  Business was booming, too.  Wilke's Star and the Empire were closed to trade, of course.  But all the old Federation taxes (as well as health and quality regulations) were gone, while the Republic had yet to fill the void.  It would take more than vaporizing a bunch of impotent government suits to faze Marduk's ranchers and haulers.

Scyr swirled the glass around in his right hand.  His favorite part of gin and tonic was listening to the ice cubes clink against the sides of the glass as it moved.  He liked drinking it, too, but often he didn't get around to that part until the ice was melted and the tonic nearly flat.  If the bartender in the spaceport lounge thought Scyr was strange, he kept that opinion to himself.  Scyr was waiting for a ship off the planet.  He could have taken any of a hundred freighters which had lifted since he walked into the port, but he was in no hurry, and had booked one with actual prepared passenger accommodations.

"You just ruined my day."

The voice came from behind, and Scyr felt himself tense for a second before relaxing again.  A man in dark clothes walked around the high bar table until he was standing on the opposite side.

Scyr took a sip of his drink.  "If you wish to claim a refund, then you'll need a valid receipt," he said.

The other man drew back a bar chair and took a seat.  "Even if you hadn't just ruined my day, I probably would not have laughed at that.  I don't laugh often."  He clasped his hands together.  "I have snipers with shots on you, a couple of assault teams in reserve, and I have command access to the orbital weapons platforms."

Scyr raised his glass to pantomime a toast.  "Do you?"

"Yes.  And you do not."

Scyr ought to have been frightened; he ought to have felt more anxious, alert, or maybe even panicked.  His adrenal glands should have been kicking in and his mind racing to formulate plans for escape.  But he found, to his quiet dismay, that he just could not muster the energy.  It had been a long, busy day and Scyr was, quite simply, tired.

Scyr set down his drink and looked at the man across the table.  He had short black hair streaked with gray, and his expression was readable enough.  He glared at Scyr, cold intensity behind his eyes.  A small memory flickered within Scyr's mind.

"My name is Andrea Treschi," the man said.

Another flicker.  "Aaah," Scyr said, and sipped his drink again to stall.  "Well, what brings you out here?"

"Damage control," Treschi said.  "You killed my Chairman."

Scyr gave him a small, sad smile.  "Kazzy was my Chairman too, M. Treschi."

The dark man just looked at him.  After a moment, he leaned back in his seat.  "You should know I counseled him against assassinating you.  Of course that was because, at the time, I judged you weren't a threat."

"And now?"  Scyr might not survive this conversation, but at least his ego could enjoy the flattery.

"Now I think you're a rather significant threat."  Treschi tapped a finger on the table's wood surface a few times.  "…but I hate to waste talent."

Scyr set his right elbow on the table so that he could lean his temple against his fist.  "I don't do birthday parties."

"How would you like to be the new Chairman?"

A snort turned into a giggle.  "And become your replacement figurehead?"  Scyr shook his head.  "No, I don't think so."

Treschi looked like he was trying to turn the atmosphere to ice with his glare alone.  "Do you think turning me down is a good idea, Scyr?"

"Oh, I'm obviously going to agree to do whatever you tell me.  Snipers and assault teams and all that."  Scyr waved his left hand around in a vague gesture.  "But you don't want me to be Chairman."

"Well that leaves me with a problem."

"Have Chen do it," Scyr said dismissively.  "Let her keep the Treasurer portfolio on top of the Chairman title and you may start to see some real political consolidation.  I assume that's what you want for this little 'Republic' project."

The dark man folded his hands together again.  "I have plenty of figureheads to fall back on.  That isn't what I meant."

There might have been the barest hint of a smile at the corners of the man's mouth, and Scyr began to feel the first chill in his belly.  It wouldn't have helped in the slightest, but he found himself wishing that he'd kept the plasma rifle he'd taken from Jennifer's Star.  Unfortunately, Captain Kaur had accepted his offer to hand it over as part of his initial payment.

"What am I going to do with you, Scyr?"  It was an obvious rhetorical question, and Scyr said nothing while Treschi visibly pondered the answer.  "Perhaps… I might have another problem you could help me solve."

"I'm pretty good at impromptu retribution."

"So am I," Treschi said, "but what I need right now is a fleet."

"Your puppet strings don't extend to the Terran Navy, too?"

Treschi really did smile this time.  "There is no Terran Navy," he said.  "We've suppressed the story in the media, but the Republic doesn't have two frigates to rub together.  Oh, a few of the committee members are keeping one or two real warships hidden in their back pockets.  But it's not really worth the political repercussions to force them to cough up.  Or rather, it wouldn't be if the Emperor weren't starting to breathe down my neck.  He can hammer on us because he thinks we don't have the ships to fight back—and he's right.  So now the Wolf system's been blockaded by… well, by nothing."


"Nothing.  A pair of destroyers backed up by some converted freighters.  Still, that's more than I have, so they're free to wait around and invade the planet at their leisure.  I need someone to stop them."

"Hmmm," Scyr said.  He took another sip of his drink.  "I do like a challenge.  Not that turning back a token blockade will be difficult, of course.  Your real worry should be how to survive the counterattack after the Imperial Navy realizes we aren't a pushover."

Treschi nodded.  "Without a fleet, the Republic will die by inches."

"Okay."  Scyr clasped both hands behind his head and grinned.  "So what resources would you provide to help me turn the Terran Navy into a force to be reckoned with?"

"Above all, what I need are the ships themselves, plus their heavy armaments.  Get those, and I can guarantee they'll be supplied with ammunition, fuel, and other consumables.  Some sort of budget to be worked out.  I can provide you with crews for the ships as well, although building up a corps of officers capable of serving as actual military leaders will be the work of years.  Most importantly, what I can give you is an official seal of approval: legal authority within the Republic to pursue your objective by whatever means necessary."

"Great!" Scyr chirped.  "So what would my title be?"

"Civilian or military?"

"Definitely civilian, I prefer to wear my own uniforms."  Scyr patted the front of his sleek jacket.

"Make up whatever title you want, then.  Secretary of the Navy?  There might be one of those already, I'm not sure, but that can be dealt with."

"Oh, no."  Scyr held up a hand and shook his head.  "How about… Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Strategic Operations?"

"Sure."  Treschi sounded a little exasperated now.  "The title hardly matters.  What does matter is my backing—and so long as you get the job done for me, that's what you will have."

"Right, and what should I call you, oh great puppet master overlord?"

The dark man blinked, and cocked his head to one side.  "Is it possible," he said slowly, "that you don't know who I am?"

Scyr shrugged.  "Well you've strongly implied that you're some kind of shadowy power broker, and the true ruler of the Republic.  For the moment I'm assuming that's true; again, this is the convincing power of snipers and assault teams.  Obviously I'm going to be looking you up shortly after this meeting is over; shouldn't be too hard to at least confirm the potential that your claim is legit."

Treschi stared for just a moment, then shook his head.  "Something new every day… well, I have no title, M. Scyr.  What I have is influence.  And I hope that when the Executive Committee confirms your appointment as Assistant Secretary tomorrow, you'll find it sufficiently convincing."

"Convincing and rather more appealing than snipers."

"I'm liking the snipers more and more, myself."

Scyr started to respond, but some recessed corner of his personality gave him a mental slap, and he closed his mouth again.  Treschi nodded solemnly, then pushed his chair back from the table and stood up.  "I will contact you again with details tomorrow," he said.  "Do not leave Babylon.  Do not draw attention to yourself.  And most of all, do not make me regret extending this offer."  He waited until Scyr nodded his agreement.

Treschi straightened up, and then gave Scyr an odd, sharp look.  For just a second, Scyr felt his mind become sluggish, his attention drifting irresistibly away from the man standing in front of him.  Then clarity flooded back into his brain.  He felt slightly sick to his stomach, but his eyes refocused on Treschi.

"Curious."  The dark man cocked his head.  "That spell always works.  But I suppose there's no harm if you see me leave."  Treschi shrugged, then turned and strode deliberately out of the bar.

Once he was gone, Scyr looked back down at his drink.  The ice had melted, and the tonic water was nearly flat.




Bishop met Fisher in the hallway after he had packed his things.  They nodded to each other and went down to the first floor of HQ where Santiago's was located.  It was completely empty, except for Major Dent standing behind the bar.  As soon as he noticed them, he waived.  As they walked over, he took a massive swig of vodka from a large pitcher.  Drinking vodka straight from a pitcher was another of Dent's unusual habits.  The werebear had a reputation for being able to out-drink anyone in their division, let alone their unit.

Dent nodded to them as they drew close.  "The hovercar outside will take you to New Herford Spaceport," he said.  "General Smits tells me Earth Fleet can't really afford to transport you guys in a gravity drive ship—those are needed for bringing troops down to the fight on Kalintos—so once you arrive at the spaceport, you'll be taken by shuttle up to the EFS Ramsey.  It'll take you via commercial hyperspace routes to Rios, then from Rios to the new Federation capitol at New Madrid.  The Major raised his pitcher of vodka in salute.  "You two were my most promising Raptors.  Most of the new recruits being brought in are a bunch of slack-jawed faggots, especially those cyborgs."  He took another swig before continuing.  "I recruited both of you, and you've served under me for at least six years.  I've seen a lot of growth, and respect that you take your jobs seriously.  I'm proud of you both.  Good luck."

"Thanks.  Take care of yourself," said Bishop, and Fisher nodded with a smile.  The pair saluted, then made their way to the exit, found the waiting hovercar, then hovered off at full speed towards New Herford.

Within forty-five minutes, they were at the space dock, parked the hovercar, and quickly loaded the shuttle waiting to take them up into space.  Twenty minutes later the shuttle docked with the EFS Ramsey, a medium-sized military transport ship designed to provide logistical support, and probably headed back to New Madrid for supplies.  Bishop and Fisher found their way to their sleeping quarters, grabbed a quick meal, and shortly after the ship entered the hyperspace jumpgate to Rios.  A crew member told them the entire trip to New Madrid would take a week.

Knowing that the trip would take a while and having nothing better to do, Bishop pulled out his data pad and started his reading & writing tutorial program.  Fisher offered to help him.  Bishop continued studying, stopping only to eat and rest, and by the end of the week Fisher could see a lot of progress.  Finally, when they were about six hours from reaching New Madrid, Fisher decided Bishop was ready to learn some new gifts.

"There's another ability that I'd like to teach you.  It'll make you a more effective hunter," Fisher said.  "This ability was given to us by the Spirit of the Mouse.  With it, you'll be able to create total and complete silence within a five to fifty yard radius, depending upon the strength of your spirit."

"Sounds like an interesting gift."
            "As we both know, sound is created by vibrations that travel outwards from their source.  When you use this gift, tap into your rage, and at the same time draw upon your natural spiritual self to create a mental goblet in your hand.  Imagine the bottom of the cup has a magical magnetic attraction to sound waves that draws them inwards.  To end the silence, all you have to do is mentally let go of the cup."

"Okay."  Bishop shrugged.  "I'll give it a shot."

"Wait."  Fisher walked over to the computer terminal.  She pressed a few buttons and Earth Federation Weekly came on the holoproj.  It started describing the government position regarding the Holy Terran Empire (and why it was considered evil).  She turned the volume up to maximum.

"Okay!  Now try!" Fisher shouted.

Bishop closed his eyes briefly, increasing his anger and the feeling of spirit magic in his body.  In his mind's eye, he started visualizing the foggy image of a goblet slowly materializing in his hand.  He opened his eyes, and could almost see sound waves being drawn into his hand like a miniature black hole.

Bishop suddenly couldn't hear anything at all.  He turned to speak to Fisher, but his words were silent.  He picked up a book and slammed it face-down onto the floor, but still heard nothing.  Fisher smiled.  She picked up a cup and put it back down.  Bishop nodded and mentally let go of the goblet.  Suddenly, the blasting sound of the newscast came back.  Fisher quickly turned it off.

"Good job!" Fisher said.  "Now when you use this gift, remember—although people around you can't make noise, neither can you."


Fisher nodded.  "We're not done yet.  We still have a few more hours before we reach New Madrid, so you have time to learn one more gift."

"Alright… but what's the real reason you're teaching me these talents?" Bishop asked.

"Well, a big reason is so that we can be a more effective team," Fisher answered.  "Since my life will be in your hands at times, I want you to be the best warrior possible.  Everything I've taught you so far have been basic talents and are easy to learn—in my opinion, every werecreature should know them.  The next one I'm going to teach you is another basic—but very useful—talent called Blissful Ignorance, given to us by the Spirit of the Chameleon.  Get up and stand in front of that pole.  I'll be right back."  Bishop went over to the pole while Fisher left and returned a few minutes later with a power armor helmet.

"I'm turning on the helmet's surveillance mode and image recording," she explained as she put the helmet on.  "Now stand absolutely still and slow your breathing.  At the same time, tap into the spirit of magic in your soul and bring to mind an image of a chameleon as it crawls along a rock.  Look at the scales as they shift in color to match their surroundings.  Keep that thought in your mind.  Now imagine yourself through my eyes.  Imagine that all I can see is the pole, because colors of your skin and cloths are so similar to your background that they are completely transparent.  Once you have that thought, hold on to it.  Stay still and wait."

Bishop did as he was told, stood in front of the pole, waited, and felt stupid.  After what seemed like an hour, Fisher finally said, "OK, you can move."

Bishop relaxed and asked, "What was the point of that?!"

Fisher removed her helmet, pressed a button, and said, "I'm transferring the recorded video to your datapad.  Watch it."

Bishop did.  The recording displayed the pole for several minutes… but he couldn't see his image.  He looked at Fisher and said, "Did you have that camera set up right?"

"I sure did, and I had it scanning on all frequencies.  It didn't detect a thing.  Whenever you use this gift, so long as you don't move, there's no way your presence can be observed or detected by any monitoring device, physical or magical—spiritual or otherwise.  This is what I meant before when I said that there are gifts we werecreatures can learn that no type of technology can duplicate."

 "Thanks, Fisher!"  Bishop glanced at the clock and said, "We'll be reaching New Madrid in a couple hours.  We should probably get ready."

After showers, dinner, and dressing in full uniform, Bishop went back to practicing his reading with Fisher until the ship reached its destination.



Once ship docked, Bishop and Fisher were taken down in a CT-6 Proton personnel shuttle to Terranova, the capital of New Madrid—and, now, the Federation.  After being dropped off at the new Earth Federation Tech Infantry headquarters, they were then quickly escorted to a conference room and the door closed behind them.  General Smits sat in the middle of a long table, with a strange Earth Fleet captain seated next to him.

"Welcome to New Madrid.  Take a seat," Smits said.  After Bishop and Fisher sat down on the opposite side of the table, Smits continued.  "As you know, I am General Smits.  The man to my right is Captain Herbert Gergenstein, Military Intelligence.  Now I'm short on time, so I'll get right to the point.

"First of all, I'm promoting both of you.  I'm doing this for three reasons: The first is your pivotal role on Ashdown.  The second, a letter of recommendation I've just received from Major Dent.  The last reason is because the assignment you'll be going on must be led by someone with at least a rank of Major.  Sending just a Captain would be disrespectful."

"Thank you, sir," Bishop said.

"Don't thank me until you hear what your mission is."  General Smits paused and looked at Captain Gergenstein before continuing.  "As you know, we're fighting a war against the Holy Terran Empire, while at the same time having to guard our border with the Ministry of Public Safety.  At my suggestion, Smythe has agreed to accept terms with the Ministry.  He now wants to offer a unification treaty with favorable terms for them.

"Your mission will be to hand-deliver a written unification treaty that we've prepared directly to Chief Minister Ramirez in person.  This is so she'll know the gesture is authentic, and have written proof of it she can show to her staff that our offer is genuine.  We cannot simply send this through the Earth Federation Postal service.  It could be intercepted by those who wouldn't be happy with this agreement—and that includes traitors within our own ranks as well as enemies in the Ministry and Empire.  For the same reason, we can't just send one of our ships to drop it off—some in the Fleet don't trust us either."

Bishop glanced at the Earth Fleet captain; he merely gazed back and smiled.  Turning to the general again, he asked, "Excuse me, Sir.  What's in the treaty that could be so… controversial?"

"What I am about to say is for your ears only," Smits answered.  "In exchange for our faction having fifty percent representation on the New Grand Council after the senate is restored, we're willing to end the draft, disband the Tech Infantry, and have the Light Infantry become the new Federation Marine Corps."

"Sir, what does Smythe think about those terms?" Bishop asked.  Does he no longer see a need for the TI?"

"As an Earth Fleet Admiral, I really don't believe Smythe has any special feelings for the TI," Smits answered.  "Personally, I think the TI has done its service to the Federation… but it's time for us to move on.  With improvements in technology, unawakened humans will soon be on an even footing with werewolves and mages.  It's only a matter of time."

Fisher flashed Bishop a very briefly but angry glare at Bishop, who returned it with a quick I-told-you-so expression.  The general either didn't notice or didn't care.

But Captain Gergenstein did.  "Major, I think we need the Tech Infantry… but we need the Ministry worlds more.  Your mission can do more to restore the Federation than an entire legion of troopers... and all without firing a shot.  That's worth dealing for."

"Major, we have a ship ready to take you to Midgar in Ministry space," Smits continued.  "You'll be ejected from the ship in a specially-designed stealth drop pod beyond the range of their sensors.  You should land on the southern coastal region of northern continent, an area that happens to have a large population of retired Tech Infantry veterans.  Once there, you'll head to the Ungae Palace & Vacation Resort—undercover, of course, posing as a newlywed couple on your honeymoon.  We'll provide you with the appropriate travelling papers and access to a Ministry credit account.  Once you've found your room and are situated, you'll contact retired General Alfred Goldworth.  I'll give you his contact information.  He's been out of the force for a long time, but he used to be my CO, so I know this unification treaty is what he would want.  He'll fill you in on the tactical details about how to contact Ramirez, maybe even help set up the meeting."  Smits paused once again, looking Bishop in the eye.  "Of course, we feel someone with the rank of Major or higher should represent us when the treaty is delivered, hence your promotion… although in my opinion, you deserve it anyway."

He then turned to Fisher, looking her in the eye before turning his gaze back to Bishop.  "I cannot over-emphasize just how important this mission is to our cause," Smits said.  "After this meeting, report to the spaceport.  We have a shuttle ready and waiting.  Any questions?"

"No, sir," Bishop replied.

Smits and Gergenstein stood up.  Bishop and Fisher took the cue and jumped to their feet.

"Dismissed," Smits said in a sharp tone.

Bishop and Fisher saluted the general.  Smits returned the salute.  Bishop and Fisher did an about face and left the room.




Shinsuke took a few quick shots at the first trooper through the apartment door before handing his plasma revolver to Takamitsu with a glance.  Taka took a couple more pot shots over the top of the couch while Shinsuke went around the side of it, shifted into Crinos, and charged the intruders.  From the corner of his eye, Taka could see Ji-yoon frozen in terror on his left.  I have to protect her, he thought as he popped up over the back of the couch with the pistol.

He could see one trooper on the ground in front of the doorway, and the werewolf had already charged forward to clothesline the two others.  Good, Shinsuke has the front door, Taka thought, smiling to himself… then turned to see two more troopers in delta armor break through the sliding glass door to the patio behind him, raising their weapons at him and Ji-yoon.

Taka wheeled his plasma revolver back around, aimed a shot at the trooper on the right, squeezed the trigger… and nothing happened.  Kuso! he thought.  It's empty!  He had no time to reload, and the second trooper was aiming his plasma rifle at Ji-yoon…

Taka threw himself in front of Ji-yoon.  It wasn't a conscious decision; he just reacted.  He raised his left arm up in a futile gesture of protection as the two invaders leveled their plasma cannons.  I am a wall, I am a wall, Taka told himself again and again, nothing will happen to Ji-yoon.

The invaders intruders opened fire—but hit nothing.  Taka blinked in surprise.  They couldn't have missed from point-blank range.  It more like the flaming plasma bolts dissipated into thin air.

In that instant, a remembered phrase from the mysterious letter flashed through his mind: Protect Ji-yoon from the fire.  Could that instruction have been meant for him?

The brush with death finally woke up Ji-yoon; glaring at the first man, she murmured, "Burn, you bastard.  Burn your brain to ash."

The first attacker suddenly screamed in pain, dropping to his knees.  His partner rushed forward to knock out the mind mage—but within a few feet, he bounced off an invisible shield.  "What the…"  His voice was distorted through the helmet.

Taka was just as confused—but didn’t have time to puzzle it out right now.

The shield bought Ji-yoon time to cast her second spell.  Holding out her hand, she blew imaginary dust from her palm towards the remaining man.  Suddenly, the man felt as if tiny insects were digging into his flesh.  He forgot his mission and fell to the ground, swatting at bugs that only existed in his mind's eye.

Meanwhile, Shinsuke kept busy.  Using his brute strength, he slammed one attacker into the nearest wall while choking the other with his foot.  Once he was sure they weren't going anywhere, he shifted back into his hominid form, grabbed the troopers' weapons, and peered quickly down the hall.  The werewolf barely managed to yank his head out of the way before plasma bolts burned past him.  "You okay?!" he screamed back to his friends in Japanese.

"Hai," Takamitsu yelled back.  "Ji-yoon got them."

"We got three more down the hall."  Shin raised the two rifles and emptied the clips down the hallway.  "They're not real anxious to be joining us," he said, dropping the drained plasma rifles and yanking out one of the downed trooper's plasma revolver instead.

"We need to send a signal," the mind mage offered.  "Get security backup."

"I—"  Shin's comment was cut off by chain lightning rolling past the door.  "What the…?"

When the moans and shrieks had passed, they heard a familiar voice in English.  "Did someone order hired goons?!"

Shin risked a quick look down the hallway, but saw nothing but three downed troopers in delta armor… and the displaced image of someone in camouflaged power armor.  "Wen?  Is that you?"

"Who else?"

"Prove it!"
            "July 22nd, 2261!"

Shinsuke blushed, gulped, then finally said, "Decloak and get in here!"

Taka's cousin Kim Wen stepped through the door, dressed in the Anshin Heavy Industries prototype Zeta armor suit, grinning inanely through her clearplaz helmet.  Takamitsu simply shook his head.  "How in the world did you get here?"

"Uh… I was in the neighborhood?"

The werewolf glared at her.  "In full body armor?"

"It's a rough neighborhood."

"It's the most exclusive part of Shinjuku," Taka complained.

The Korean forces mage looked down at the dead and unconscious bodies.  "Yeah, people will do anything to get an apartment here," she said.  "Good thing I came along."

The younger Yasuyama stood up and walked over to her.  "My father sent you too, didn't he?"

Wen nodded.

Shin's eyes got wider, finally turning to Taka.  "Another letter, you think?"

"There are no coincidences," the young executive confirmed.  "And it's time we got to the bottom of this."

"Then why don't we start here."  Ji-yoon stepped forward to the man writhing on the floor amid imaginary insects.  "I can make them stop," she said gently, "but you have to help me."

"Anything!" he screamed.

"Who sent you?  Why did you come here?"

"Extraction!  God, make it stop!"


"Some corp named Takamitsu.  Said he was the… aaagggghhh!  The perfect lure."

"Lure for what?"

"Make it STOP!" the soldier cried.

Ji-yoon was immune to his tears.  "Lure for what?"

"To trade!"

"Trade for what?"

"The suit!"

"The suit?"  The mind mage was confused, but everyone else in the room instantly understood.

"The attack on the orbital?" Shinsuke suggested.  "And now this?  Over the new Zeta armor?"

Takamitsu walked over to the downed, writhing man.  "Who ordered it?  Who ordered the attack?!"

"General… General Wagenecht!"

The name meant nothing to most of them… except Taka.  In fact, he had met the woman personally, in her office, after they were attacked on Battlestation Yamato.  Karen Wagenecht was the Chief of Light Infantry Operations; effectively, the number three person in charge of the entire Ministry of Public Safety.  She was also the woman they were negotiating with for the sale of the new prototype suits to the Ministry in the first place.  All this… just to save a few credits?

After breathing out a sigh, Takamitsu ordered, "Let him go."

Ji-yoon nodded and released the delusion on the man.  The attacker collapsed in relief.  "Now what?" she asked.

"Now we see my father," Taka ordered.  "Besides, we'll have better security and a more defensible position there.  Shin, contact dad and have him put corporate headquarters on full alert.  Since this abduction attempt failed, I'm betting a raid on Anshin HQ to seize the Zeta armor will be next.  And we'll take him along…"  Taka kicked the attacker.  "…to prove our story."

"Then what?" Shinsuke asked, connecting to Akihiro on his comlink.

Like I know, the manager moaned inwardly.  "Then we'll see.  We move together as a family, or not at all."

"Kuso!" Shinsuke cursed, turning to Taka.  "We're too late—there's already an armed assault happening on the armor lab at corp HQ.  Security's already on it—but we gotta get there, now!"

Wen nodded.  "I'll take point.  They won't see me coming," she smiled, then activated her armor's chameleon circuit.

As she disappeared from normal view, Takamitsu shook his head.  "Looks like we'll have to work on the Zeta armor some more, Wen.  I can see you plain as day."

"What do you mean, Taka?"  Shinsuke looked puzzled.  "The chameleon circuit's working fine."

The manager looked again; he could still see Wen as she walked down the burned hallway, without the normal sight distortion blur of the suit's stealth suite.  "Oh… oh, my…"

Ji-yoon felt the confusion rolling off Takamitsu's mind.  "Taka?  What is it?"

Taka smiled, held out his hand, and sparks flew above his palm.  With a little concentration, a small ball of flame appeared.  "I… I think I just awakened…"  I am a mage after all! he thought as joy surged though his chest.  Just like my father!

There was a moment of stunned silence.  The Shinsuke broke into a broad grin.  "Congratulations, Taka!" he said, clapping him on the back.  "I knew it was in your blood!"

Ji-yoon looked astonished but delighted.  "Well, why didn't you tell me sooner?" she demanded with playful indignation.  "So when did it happen?"

"Uh… just a few minutes ago, I guess…"  Suddenly, the invisible barrier that stopped the plasma fire made perfect sense.

"But… wait…"  It was Ji-yoon's turn to look confused.  "Then… when you jumped between me and those soldiers… how'd you know they wouldn't kill you?"

Taka shrugged.  "I didn't."

Ji-yoon simply stared at him for a moment, at a loss for words.

She was looking at him in a way she'd never looked at him before.

And he kinda liked it.




By the time Victoria and Izzy's makeshift avatar Alphonse reached Ghost City, the sun had already begun to hang above the distant pine-covered peaks, causing the shadows of the two children to follow them like tall, dark guardians.  It was still too early for the lights to switch on, Izzy noted, but he knew he would have to make a decision one way or another very soon.

From the antigrav shuttle train, the pair stepped out onto an old-fashioned city block.  Alphonse hailed the nearest ghost cab.

"Where to?"  The spectral cab driver materialized behind the wheel and gave them his best jaunty grin.

"Skyscraper of Souls, please," Alphonse said.  From his end, Izzy wired his banking chit through.

"Sure thing, Boss."

Izzy cringed inwardly; of course the AI would recognize him by his chit.  Izzy hoped it sounded delightfully old world New Yorker instead of an accurate title.  Luckily, Victoria didn't seem to notice.  Just in case, Izzy went ahead and masked his identity so there would be no further, more explicit, mishaps.

The city was structured as a scale representation of Manhattan Island before its destruction, and served as the main shopping and passive entertainment hub for the amusement park.  The theatres, nightclubs, music halls, cinemas, and casinos made it a colorful mix of New York and the Las Vegas Strip.  Although it was compact, it was still rather labyrinthine and so very easy to get lost among the jungle of looming buildings and back alleys.

Victoria craned her neck back and looked through the vehicle's semitransparent ceiling at the tall buildings.  True to its name, the ghost cab was designed to look as though one was riding in an apparition; nearly every material used in its construction was at least partially transparent, and what couldn't be achieved through materials was augmented through holographic technology.  It was an unsettling effect if you looked down at the speeding road beneath you, yet at the same time it was ideal for picture and holo taking.  Ultimately Izzy decided he was very impressed with his creative team for coming up with the idea; right now, however, it was so very damned inconvenient.  Izzy tried not to draw attention to the very solid robo-cat shoved underneath the translucent front seat.

It hadn't worked for very long.

"Do you know, I think that cat is following us," Victoria said conspiratorially, and glanced pointedly at the feline-shaped object.  "It's been following us all the way from the roller coasters…  You know what?  I think it's that purple man's robot."

"Purple man?"

"Oh yeah, I guess maybe you didn't get to see him.  I think he owns the park or something.  Anyway he's this weird old guy in old purple clothes like something out of an old story, and he's got that cat that follows him around..."

So many 'olds,' Izzy lamented.  "OH, Right!" Alphonse said.  "You must mean Mr. D'Argent."  Izzy thought quickly.  "He owns the place, and yeah, he has a cat just like that.  It's the theme park mascot, Bell.  That one is mine though, I got it from a gift shop.  It's my new pet."

"Oh, neat!  Does it do any tricks?"

"Well..."  Oh how the lies add up, Izzy thought.  "I haven't read the instructions yet, I just got it.  But it seems to follow me everywhere now.  Must have some owner imprinting code in it."

"Oh..."  Victoria sat back in her seat, somewhat disappointed, but then suddenly brightened.  "Hey, maybe we can use it to find your mom.  I'm pretty good with electronics, I'm sure we can figure it out.  It might've imprinted on her too—she bought it for you, right?  We can set it to find her and follow it back!"

"Victoria, that's a great idea!"  Alphonse grinned, but Izzy was practically tearing his virtual hair out as he watched the lies snowball.  Undone by an eight year old?  How embarrassing.  Certainly Lwan had chosen the wrong man for the job.

But aside from that, it really was excellent creative thinking even for an eighteen year old.  It reminded Izzy that he couldn't discount the children from this clandestine contest, not for a moment.

Just then, Victoria's stomach let out an amazingly audible gurgle.  "Er...."  She looked away, embarrassed.  "I didn't want to eat before going on all those roller coasters..."

"There's a cafe right inside the Skyscraper of Souls lobby.  We can eat there, keep an eye out for Mom, then figure out how this thing works so we can try your plan."  Alphonse pointed to Bell.

"Right."  Victoria nodded approval of the plan.

The cab slowed in front of the tall art deco-inspired building that was the haunted city hall, the Skyscraper of Souls.  The cafe inside featured all of old New York's favorites; Hot Dogs, Hamburgers, French Fries, Pretzels, Bagels, Root Beer Floats, Waffle Cones, and Candied Apples to name a few things   Unfortunately this particular test dummy was not designed for taste tests, much to Izzy's consternation, so he sat back, mumbling some excuse as Victoria bit into a rather delicious-looking corn dog and a basket of onion rings.  While she ate, Alphonse busied himself with the robot cat, pretending to try the different suggestions Victoria spouted between mouthfuls.  Izzy continued to be impressed by her ingenuity and felt certain that she had a bright future ahead of her.

His plan was certainly to follow the cat, as Victoria suggested, only he planned on leading her around the city until they were both lost.  Despite it being based on such cities as New York and Vegas, crime was very low… and anyway, he planned to keep out of the more adult-oriented sections of the city.  Eventually the cat would lead them back to here, safe and sound.  By then, Victoria's mother would be looking for her.  He'd find out right away when and if she contacted security.

"You know," Victoria said as she wiped her face with a replica of a vintage paper napkin, "we really should just call security, they'd find your mother in no time flat, for sure."  Well, that was close to what Izzy was just thinking...

"Okay, we'll do that," Alphonse nodded, setting Bell down.  "But we might as well try your idea first.  I just set this thing up!"

She seemed to think it over before taking another bite.  "Alright, we'll do that, but I've got my comlink.  If this doesn't work, we'll call security.  Besides, my mom will want me to check in pretty soon."

"Right."  It wouldn't be too difficult for Izzy to patch into her comlink before the signal even reached security, if need be.  He worked out the route they would take on their wild goose chase in his head as a gaggle of Rockette-inspired dancers entered the cafe and sat down at the bar.  He only barely registered their feathery besequined leotard-clad forms as he made plans.

A part of Izzy knew he was still stalling.  In the back of his mind he knew he originally had intentions of detaining the child—kidnapping her—in order to put the mother under a little stress test, to see what she would do.  But this initial plan seemed to have evolved into something entirely different.  Victoria was a smart girl, was indeed able to care for herself, and cared about others, even going so far as to help another child.  It was becoming less and less about the mother and more and more about the daughter.  Izzy was becoming interested in what Victoria would do next.

And in an instant, these optimistic affirmations of humanity came to a bone-shattering halt as one of the dancers laughed raucously into her drink at the bar.  There was no mistaking that sound, for it had taken Izzy many, many years to exorcise it from his mind, from both his dreams and nightmares.

It was his siress.

It was his Lilith.




Heth's claws clicked on his datapad screen.  He had a lot to do, not much time to do it in—and as always, time was money.

The Impossibarium deal with the Jurvain had been closed and its consequences managed.  Now Heth had to pick up Federation families on St. Michael's Star within the Holy Terran Empire, smuggle them out of the Empire into Federation space, and then—hopefully—get the chance to negotiate more lucrative refugee smuggling operations with someone high up in the Federation.  Then he had to get back to Urrin in K'Nes space in time for the first Impossibarium shipment to the Jurvain… oh, and somewhere in there, he had to prove his innocence of breaking the Imperial power armor contract.  Well… he'd manage that challenge later; right now, he needed to focus on the immediate supply-side issue of the Federation refugees.

He had the right tool for the job.  When passing through Urrin, he'd managed to requisition (thanks to knowing which paws to grease) one of Miao Mercantile's special covert cargo containers, specifically designed with hidden compartments for smuggling, and swapped it out for one of the containers on his freighter, the Bountiful.  His crew had complained about the unnecessary work transferring the cargo, of course, but a 2% overtime bonus fixed that problem.  After off-loading the mineral shipment to the Jurvain at Laang, he had refilled the covert cargo container with harmless, inoffensive merchandise that would (hopefully) cause no problems with customs.

Unfortunately, navigation was a bit of a problem.  At times like this, Heth dearly missed his old super-freighter, the Avarice—secretly equipped with a hidden gravity drive, it could enter hyperspace where and whenever it needed.  Sure, it came in useful for smuggling, but more importantly it drastically reduced travel times—with a corresponding increase in profit margins!  Managing any of the Miao's three super-freighters was a hard-won competitive advantage and corporate privilege…which meant, of course, that once Heth broke a contract and his stock fell, he was immediately demoted from managing the Avarice to the Bountiful.  Like all standard cargo freighters, it was not equipped with the extremely large and hideously expensive grav-drive—meaning the Bountiful was limited to traveling along existing hyperspace shipping lanes through commercial jumpgates.  If Heth's convoy stuck strictly to commercial jumpgates, it would mean a long, long detour through Jurvain space, taking him far out of his way—and he had a schedule to keep. 

Of course, Heth had anticipated this, and simply attached a rider to the Impossibarium contract with the Jurvain, buried in the fine print, that guaranteed him one-time access through the Jurvain's military jumpgate from Ilbo to Chalfont in Imperial space.  The Jurvain were not necessarily pleased about discovering the addendum, but they stood by the contract they had signed.  Heth's constant whining might have had something to do with it, of course.

Getting into the Holy Terran Empire was easy enough.  His paperwork was in order.  His use of the Jurvain military jumpgate was explained away as having friends in high places in the Commonality (with the implied threat that he had friends in high places in the Empire as well).  When it came to justifying to Imperial bureaucrats why his convoy happened to be passing through Imperial space on the way to the rump Federation—who the Empire was currently at war with—fortune had smiled upon Heth.  Normally, he explained, his convoy would have passed through the Kalintos system—but there was currently active fighting between the Fed and the Empire in that system.  So Heth's convoy had to take a detour—through the Empire.  Luckily, they understood; it was just business, nothing more.  The K'Nes were neutral, after all, and the Empire needed their trade to supply the war effort.

Heth's cargo, however, did raise some red flags, along with a few eyebrows.  Huge biosigns always do.  Heth was relieved when his explanation caused more puzzlement than suspicion.

"Algae?"  The customs official looked dumbfounded.  "You're hauling a thousand tons of algae?"

"Among other cargo, yes," Heth answered.  "And not just any algae—Jurvain Mungunwha algae!  It contains all the essential vitamins and minerals required to sustain any carbon-based life form in the known galaxy!  With the proper processing, it can be turned into emergency nutritional supplement meals.  It tastes foul, of course, but it'll keep you alive—and you'll be amazed what people will eat when they're hungryI don't suppose I could interest you in some…?"

The bureaucrat looked incredulous and slightly disgusted.  "I've never heard of this Munga… this algae before."

"Well, it's a Jurvain commodity, obviously," Heth explained, "and when the Federation conquered and quarantined Jurvain space, commerce was severely limited.  What little trade that was allowed didn't bother with Mungunwha algae—it's a high-bulk, low-value commodity, you see.  Sky Father above, it takes a cubic meter of algae just to produce one emergency meal!  Very low profit margins.  But now the border has opened up to trade again.  And… well, with the Caal invasion and the subsequent chaos and breakdown of commerce throughout the galaxy, Imperial lords are once again concerned about feeding their subjects and soldiers.  Demand has increased.   Profit margins have grown.  And wherever there's profit, you'll find a K'Nes cargo convoy!"

"Um…okay."  The young customs officer blinked.  "Well, uh… we'll still have to check it out for biological contaminants and stuff."  Luckily, the cargo was obscure enough for him not to have the procedure memorized.

"Of course, of course," Heth nodded.  "And we'll comply completely.  But do be quick about it, please.  We have a schedule to keep, and time is money."

The convoy passed inspection with flying colors.  After all, Heth had nothing to hide—yet.  Mungunwha algae had one more characteristic that was extremely valuable—to a smuggler, at least.  With that much biomass on board, it would hopefully drown out the biosigns of human refugees being smuggled across the border.

While they were inspecting the cargo, Heth gave them a constant sales pitch about the virtues of Mungunwha algae, and would the Grand Count of Chalfont like to buy some?  Eventually the customs officials agreed to pass on the message, presumably just to shut Heth up.  Still, when all was said and done, Heth managed to offload a few tons of algae at Chalfont—the local presumptive nobility seemed to understand that nothing created an angry mob faster than empty stomachs.

Heth wasn't about the waste the empty cargo space, of course.  Before they left the system, Heth sent as many members of his crew as he could spare down to the human settlements on Chalfont with a single, simple order: hit every pet shop they could find and buy out their stocks of a certain product. 

And that brought him here, to St. Michael's Star, Heth's rendezvous point with the Federation families.  When Heth first saw the holoproj display of the system, his tail bristled in nervous fear.  The system was a swarm of space traffic.  Cargo transports and commercial space stations surrounded the wealthy and prosperous planet, and the nearby Harrington Shipyards buzzed with activity building new freighters; the chaos of capitalism at its finest.  But what worried Heth were the warships.

St. Michael's Star was on the border of the war between the Empire and the Federation—and the Harrington Shipyards made it a tempting prize.  Consequently, the system was heavily fortified with orbital defenses and Imperial warships to protect it from the Federation's Earth Fleet, just one jump away in the Ashdown system.  And, if the Imperial Navy picket was big enough to repel an Earth Fleet invasion, it could certainly capture or destroy a small unarmed freighter like the Bountiful caught smuggling loyalists to the enemy.

So Heth only had one option: Don't get caught.

Luckily, St. Michael's Star was also corporate colony—it was founded by the Harrington Industries megacorp, after all.  All the politicians in charge were, ultimately, businessmen.  Heth could work with them.  He spoke their language—fluently.  They both understood that empires rise and fall, dictators come and go, but real power, money, lasts forever.

To begin with, they quickly understood the potential economic value of Mungunwha algae, at least well enough to invest in a small amount, before Heth even left the Bountiful.  The resulting empty cargo space in Heth's convoy kicked off yet another pet store raid.  During the shuttle ride down to the planetary capital of Port Prosperity, Heth armed his crew with extensive credit and strict orders to leave no merchandise behind, no store unturned.

Heth, meanwhile, visited with the various corporate and government officials, looking for the right paws to grease.  The meetings were not shady deals in back alleys or smoke-filled rooms; oh no, everyone involved was far too sophisticated for such disreputable venues.  Rather, negotiations took place in picturesque sidewalk cafes in the suburbs of Port Prosperity, overlooking the beautiful white sand beaches of Tranquility Bay while sipping creamy but sickly-sweet concoctions called "mochaccinos."  Heth never asked the bureaucrats he met to break the law on his behalf—Sky Father forbid, he would never dream of such a thing!—but rather to… stretch legal loopholes wide enough for Heth's gray market transaction to slip through unnoticed.

Of course, the gold rings and bracelets Heth left behind on café countertops might have played a role.  Not bribes, of course, merely… gifts, a sign of respect to promote a profitable business partnership.  The agreements were unspoken, but thoroughly understood by both sides.

And they were only eight carat!  The chumps! 

So when, in all the confusion of loading and unloading cargo from the scores of freighters orbiting St. Michael's Star, when a single unmarked and unscheduled transport made its rendezvous with the KLS freighter Bountiful, no one in any position of authority noticed… or if they did, they looked the other way.



Heth found himself holding his breath as the shuttle docked with the Bountiful.  Preening himself one last time as the airlock cycled, the businesscat waited to receive his very profitable guests.  But when the airlock opened, instead of families, Heth saw only one man shoving a large rectangular box mounted on anti-grav skates.  The man was unremarkable, almost as if he tried hard to be that way: scuffed shoes, nice but creased clothes, and a layer of dust that made him blend into the background of the displaced masses that drifted the universe since the Caal Invasion.  Heth's whisker rings suddenly kicked into full gear; it felt like the air was full of static electricity.  Heth realized instantly what that meant, and his tail twitched nervously. 

Of all Heth's jewelry, the most unremarkable were the two tiny, plain silver rings slipped over a whisker on either side of his face.  They did one simple but important job: they detected magick.  They were standard issue for all Miao middle managers—in a world where you could never be sure if the person you were negotiating deals with could read your mind, the whisker rings leveled the playing field somewhat.  Usually, however, Heth had to concentrate just to notice if his whisker rings were detecting anything.  The fact that they were practically quivering now meant that the man in the airlock was not just a mage—he was an extremely powerful one.  Heth swallowed, then straightened his tie.

The stranger looked bored when he finally peered up from under his hat.  "You Heth Miao?"

"Miao K'Rrowr K'Heth… and you better hope so," the black cat spat, "otherwise, I just emptied several pet stores for nothing.  Where are the Federation families, and… what is this, exactly?"  Heth pointed his tail at the large box.

"Your shipment."  The mage nodded towards the box.  "Where do you want it?"

Heth stared at him, aghast.  Scat up to the claws, Heth cursed mentally, I arranged a per-head deal.  One person?  Where's the profit in smuggling that?  "But…" he sputtered, "our contract specified transporting family members..."

"She is family… in a way."  The stranger looked down at the box.  "It's a stasis pod.  We couldn't risk her waking up and alerting those watching for her."

The K'Nes was silent a moment, thinking through the implications of that statement.  So… I'm transporting this person against their will.  This isn't an escape… it's an abduction.  This deal keeps getting worse and worse.  The cat floated closer to the mage.  "Look, whoever you are…"

"Wells," the man nodded.

"M. Wells, there was no mention of stasis pods in our contract."

"So?"  Wells shrugged.  "She's in suspended animation instead of awake.  What difference does it make?"

Heth suppressed a hiss.  "It makes all the difference!  Smuggling is a long and honorable profession, M. Wells," he explained, "but for it to work, it needs to be precise.  The electronic emissions of an active stasis pod is much harder to hide than the biosign a normal breathing person."  The K'Nes wasn't sure if that was true or not, but he needed some leverage in this negotiation if he wanted to achieve a more profitable outcome.

"I…"  The mage seemed at a loss.  "Just stick it in a corner, or…?"

"And now," the K'Nes continued, ignoring him, "without any prior notice, you expect me to sneak a type of cargo I'm not prepared for across an active war front into a neighboring enemy system?"  Heth narrowed his yellow eyes, pressing his advantage.  "What if I get caught and boarded?  Have you noticed the large amount of warships in orbit, M. Wells?" he asked, voice dripping with sarcasm.  "I've arranged to have enough biomass onboard to disguise a person, yes, even several… but not electronic contraband!"

Wells blinked.  "Well, what do you want me to do about it?"

"You can either pop her out of there and—"

"No!"  Wells nearly jumped out of his skin.  "We need her… as she is.  She has a medical—"

"Or," Heth continued, "you can put her back and your shuttle and find someone else insane or stupid enough to risk running an Imperial blockade for a measly ten thousand credits!"

Wells narrowed his eyes.  "Don't you cats have laws against breaking contracts like that?"

"Of course we do!" Heth snapped.  It was far more than a law, though… more like a taboo.  "But not if the other parties involved fail to live up to their terms of the contract first," he said, pointing a claw at the human, "like delivering a lone woman in a stasis pod instead of multiple refugee families on their feet."  Heth flashed the ape a fanged smile.  "That claw cuts both ways, M. Wells."

The mage looked down at the pod, worried and a little frustrated.  "Look… we don't have time to find someone else!  We need to get her out as soon as possible, before St. Michael's Star is—"  He stopped suddenly.

Heth looked at him sharply.  "Before what, M. Wells?  What's going to happen in this system?"

"Nothing.  Forget it."  The mage sighed.  "Look, a neutral merchant has the best chance of getting her across the border to the Fed, and word on the street is you Miao are supposed to be the best K'Nes smugglers there are.  Isn't there something you can do?  Look, if it's a matter of money…"

That was what Heth was waiting to hear.  He concealed his satisfaction under an exasperated sigh.  "I supposed I could try to rig up a cloak to disguise the pod as part of the ship's systems… but that's going to take time and money, not to mention the risk.  I expect to be compensated for the additional expenses."

"Sure, take it up with—"

"No, M. Wells.  Before this ship moves another meter, I want some assurance that I will receive the full amount I'm charging for this transaction—one hundred thousand credits—half up front, half on delivery, as previously agreed in our contract."

The mage's eyes bulged.  "What… you think I have that kind of cred on me?"

"No, but I'm sure you've got something I can use as collateral.  Your choice—work with me, or try your luck with the Imperial Guard.  I'm sure they'll understand why you kidnapped a woman and tried to sneak her to Ashdown."

"Shebing cats..." Wells cursed as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a thick golden ring.  "This should compensate you."

Heth's whisker rings fluttered like they were dancing.  Powerful magick, he knew, and magick items are very valuable.  He pretended to think about it for a few seconds, then nodded.  "Yes, I suppose that will do."

"Good," Wells said, relieved, "but I expect it back when you deliver her!"

"Of course," Heth purred.  "And I'll contact you… how?"

Wells rolled his eyes, exasperated and impatient, as he dug into his pocket and slapped a clearplaz business card into Heth's paw.  "Here.  Look, just get the ring back to me when you reach New Madrid, okay?"

"New Madrid?"  Heth sniffed the air, confused.  "No, we agreed Ashdown—"

"Before you tried to shake me down, yeah, it was Ashdown.  But you want that kind of coin, you go to New Madrid."

"Oh, very well!" Heth agreed grudgingly.  "Now lay the ring down on the deck plate—carefully.  M'Rowr's got you covered with a plasma cannon."

Wells shrugged off the threat and placed the ring down.  "Anything else?"

"No, we'll take it from here.  Thank you for your business, it's been a pleasure working with you."

The mage snorted a laugh and walked back through the airlock.  Once the shuttle flew away, Heth let out a breath he wasn't aware he was holding, pulled out his snuffbox, and sniffed a little pinch of nepeta.  He let out a long sigh as he felt the pleasant, calming effects of the herb settle in.  Finally, he looked over into the shadows and yowled, "M'Rowr, get out here already!"

"I hope you didn't expect me to use this thing," his pilot shook the plasma rifle strapped lazily over his body.  "With a Piccone .50, I would have done more damage to the ship than anything else."

"Then get some target practice.  The universe is a dangerous place."

M'Rowr shrugged.  "High risk, high reward, right?"

"Absolutely.  There's hope for you yet, M'Rowr.  Now pick that up."  Heth pointed to the gold ring, practically glowing with its own aura.  "I've got to scan this pod."

"Oooh, shiny… you know, K'Heth, I supposed to be on my nocturnal cycle right now..."

"Nap off the clock, M'Rowr.  That's what autopilot was invented for—or did you think I didn't notice?"  Heth went to work, floating over to a computer terminal embedded in the wall.  The sensor comp immediately ran diagnostics, running the full spectrum of detectors over the stasis pod.  The readout picked up life signs, but no explosives, no gas, no radiation… the thing was what Wells said it was.

Once his pilot picked up the ring, Heth felt confident enough to float over to the stasis pod.  As he approached, he felt the static electric quiver of his whisker rings growing with every meter.  He risked a quick glance through the clear plastic over the inhabitant's face.  A pale, red-furred human female lay inside, her features calm and relaxed in an endless sleep.  But this female ape is a mage, Heth realized, and a powerful one, too.  No wonder they want to keep her in stasis.  If she ever woke up…

The K'Nes felt a shiver of fear go through his body.  "Okay, M'Rowr.  Help me push this thing."


"The Miao covert cargo container.  Come on."

"You mean the inner—"

"Yes!  Now help push!"

On top of everything else, Heth now had a new problem to deal with: What the scat am I going to do with a thousand tons of algae?



Things began to go wrong the minute Heth applied for departure through the Ashdown jumpgate.  It was taking far too long.  Unlike the corporate lords on the planet below, who understood the relative priority of revenues to regulations, the jumpgates were monitored by Imperial Guards—and they were far less prone to corruption.  Not immune… just less prone.  A bribe might work… or Heth might get thrown in prison for trying to bribe an Imperial official.  There was nothing he could do but wait.

Finally, they got back to him.  "Bountiful, we're reading some discrepancies between the cargo on your manifest and what our checkpoint scanners are showing.  Please explain."

"Discrepancies?"  Heth kept his cool.  "Oh dear… just small ones, I trust?"

"Well, yes… but all cargo needs to be on the manifest before—"

"I'm terribly sorry," Heth cut him off, "that manifest must be out of date.  I filed it before this convoy departed—but then we had to detour around Kalintos."

"Yeah, so?"

"Well, as you know, K'Nes buy and sell at every planet we visit," Heth explained.  "The long detour meant we had to stop at more planets, and consequently the exact nature of our cargo has changed somewhat since we filed our original manifest.  I'll send you our updated manifest right away.  You're free to double-check it with the Chalfont port authority, if you wish."

They did… and that worried Heth.  Normally, his excuse would have been sufficient—given the choice between a halfway plausible explanation or a bunch of extra paperwork, apes usually just waved him through.  That the Imperial Guard was actually taking the time to verify his story meant that more was going on here than just the usual bureaucratic red tape.  This was a checkpoint, and the Empire were clearly searching for something… and Heth had a bad feeling that what they were looking for was concealed in his covert cargo container.

They finally got back to him.  His story checked out, and the manifest had been updated... but now there was another problem.  "Bountiful, we're reading massive biosigns in one of your cargo containers," the official said.

"Of course you do!"  Heth let a bit of frustration leak into his voice.  "That container holds hundreds of tons of Mungunwha algae!  Now please, I have a tight sched—"

That's when they said they were going to board and inspect that cargo container personally… just to verify that it was algae.  Heth had no choice to agree, doing his best to sound simultaneously bored and impatient.  Never let them see your fur bristle, he told himself.  He turned to leave the bridge for the boarding airlock.

"Hey, Heth… you want me to cover you again?"  M'Rowr hoisted his hand cannon.

Heth ran a quick cost-benefit analysis.  Even if M'Rowr could get the drop on a pair of Imperial Guards—which was extremely unlikely—it wouldn't solve their long-term problem.  In fact, it would probably make their predicament worse.

"No, M'Rowr.  Stay here and be ready to contact the Miao for help."  The Miao maintained a small but well-armed and highly-trained army of lawyers.  "Hopefully you won't need to… but…"

M'Rowr nodded, and Heth went to meet the Imperial inspectors (sniffing a quick pinch of nepata on the way).  The bureaucrats inspected the cargo container, tested the algae, ran all sorts of scans… and came up empty.

"Are you satisfied now?" Heth asked impatiently.  "Can we leave for Ashdown yet?"

"Well… here's the problem, M. Miao," the plump head inspector said.  "Every algae sample we've tested is just fine, 100% pure," he explained.  "But when we scan the cargo container as a whole, it doesn't completely match the algae biosignature.  There's a small, anomalous reading."

"Our cargo was already tested for contamination at Chalfont!" Heth insisted, frustrated (and frightened).  "You've seen the reports yourself!"

"Yes…" the inspector agreed, "which is what makes this anomaly even more peculiar."

Heth threw up his paws in exasperation.  "Trace elements!  This stuff happens when you've got a thousand tons of biological material!"

"Or you're hiding something in here," the inspector said firmly.  "My partner is running a structural analysis of this cargo container.  If he finds something… well, M. Miao, it'd be better for you to fess up now."

"Wha—I have nothing to hide!" Heth insisted.

As if on cue, the second inspector spoke up.  "Sir!  I've found something!  Here, in the bulkhead!"

His boss spared Heth a nasty glance, then hurried over to his partner.

"Your equipment is malfunctioning!" Heth insisted, floating along behind him.  "My ship is clean!"

"Oh yeah?  Then how do you explain this?"  The inspector pressed a bolt in the wall, and a hull panel slid down to reveal a hidden compartment.

Heth was speechless.  He was caught, and he knew it.

The inspector turned to look inside the hidden cache.  "Wha—what the hell is this?"




No sooner had the Imperial convoy exited the Chalfont Gate into the Kalintos system than their sensor technicians started making urgent reports about a hyper footprint appearing nearby.  The Earth Fleet task force poured through into normal space through the glowing, swirling jump point opened by the gravity drive of their lead dreadnought.  Four other dreadnoughts poured through, followed by over a dozen cruisers and battlecruisers and an equal number of destroyers.  Nearly a quarter of Smythe's entire fleet was committed to this battle, and Vice Admiral Munoz was confident of victory.

The Imperial convoy of transports and commandeered merchant vessels, guarded only by a pair of destroyers, accelerated in-system towards Kalintos at maximum thrust, but soon realized they could not beat the faster warships bearing down on them.  Frantic distress calls went out, and the original Imperial invasion fleet broke orbit from above Kalintos and began accelerating out to meet them.  Soon after they had, a second jump point appeared on the other side of the planet.  A lone scout carrier, the EFS Eagle, and a single obsolescent assault transport, the EFS Aegis Fist, appeared through the dimensional rift and began moving towards the back side of the planet.

On board the transport, Argus McCall was buttoned up in his power armor and strapped into his drop pod inside its launching tube.  If all went to plan, in an hour he'd be ejected from the launch tube with the fifteen other men of his strike team and be shot towards the landing zone just outside the city of Loud Water.  If all didn't go to plan, if the Imperial Navy invasion force either managed to beat off the attack of the rest of their Earth Fleet comrades, or turned back towards the planet and abandoned the convoy to its fate, then the fighter cover from the light carrier was hardly going to be enough to land their insertion teams onto the planet in anything approaching safety.  Heck, if the Imps had left behind any significant force to protect the planet, the carrier and transport would have to turn around and run.  But so far it seemed like the plan was working.

The red alert siren started whining loudly enough to be heard even inside the drop pod, interrupting Argus in his umpteenth recitation of the 23rd Psalm since being sealed inside his pod a couple of hours before.  It's a bit early to be preparing for launch, Argus thought to himself, checking the countdown timer glowing inside his helmet.  I wonder how the fleet pukes screwed the pooch this time.  He didn't have long to wonder.  The pod's systems began telling his suit computer that it was time to exit the pod and abort the launch sequence.

As Argus unfolded himself and his nanotech armor from the confines of the pod, a procedure that took over a minute thanks to a system design optimized for ejecting from the pod in free-fall via explosive bolts, parachutes, and retro-rockets, he saw the company XO, Major Reid, standing at the end of the launch bay with her helmet visor open.

"Fifth platoon, Transit Beacon room, on the bounce!"  Clearly she was annoyed about something.  Apparently there had been a change of plans.  "C'mon people," she ordered.  "Move move move!"

Not bothering to remove his armor, Argus went down the extra-wide corridor towards the Transit Beacon room.  The same corridor served both the Pod Launcher bay and the Transit Beacon room, connecting them to the Armory where the suits of Power Armor were stored and maintained, so it was designed to be wide enough for bulky Crinos-form weretroopers in even bulkier suits of armor to move around comfortably.  Of course, a fleet architect's ideas of "comfortable movement room" were not exactly the same as those of the werecreatures in question, but Argus didn't put on a couple dozen kilos of muscle mass and enough body hair to make his Uncle Giorgi look clean-shaven along with his armor before a battle, so he actually managed a brisk jog and didn't bump his elbows on anything along the way.  And he still was one of the last into the room.  Damn super-fast hairballs.

Waiting for him and his platoon mates in the Transit Beacon room was the company commander, Major Kabila.  The black-skinned Werewolf looked almost absurdly young for his rank, but that was mostly in comparison to the proportion of grizzled old veterans in the room.  All twenty-four members of the Fifth Platoon, Company A, First Battalion, 2nd Regiment of the 10th TI Legion were soon surrounding him.

"Troopers, we have a situation," the CO began, turning to a flat holo being projected on the wall behind him.  It showed a copy of the main tactical display up on the bridge of the ship, with glowing dots marking the positions of each friendly and enemy ship in the system.  "A lone enemy ship, apparently Horadrim, has begun making high-speed hit-and-run attacks on the main body of our forces, jumping in and out with one of those mother-frakking tunnel drives of theirs."  And indeed, Argus could make out a lone red dot suddenly appearing on one side of the cloud of blue dots representing the main body of the Earth Fleet invasion force.  Smaller orange dots representing lance torpedoes suddenly closed the distance between the two, before vanishing in a mass of strobing bright-orange lines of bomb-pumped X-Ray Lasers lashing out at the friendly blue dots.  Even before the missiles fired, the red dot of the tunnel-drive ship had already vanished, and it almost immediately appeared on the other side of the fleet, again firing into their flank.

"The Fleet pukes can't target and hit this thing in time to do any damage before it jumps back into whatever dimension those Horadrim tunnel drives work through.  So our landing's being pushed back a bit while we deal with this."  A chorus of half a dozen voices interrupted their commander, almost in unison, with various expletives and expressions of disbelief and confusion, but he continued on.  "Major Reid is currently plugging herself into the controls for this transit beacon.  She's got a Time Mage with her from B Company who's gonna try and slow down time so she can get a good fix on that ship next time they jump.  She's the best Correspondence Mage with the task force, so she'll have the best chance of putting us right inside that ship before it can tunnel-jump itself out again."

"Why not just teleport a nuke over there and take the ship out that way?" asked a wererat in the back.

"If this was an actual Horadrim ship, it would be using Energy Beams, not Lance Torpedoes, and the whole fleet would be dead already," Argus piped up before the CO could answer.  "Obviously it's a human ship if it's just firing Lance Torpedoes—and a fairly small one too, or it would have a larger salvo weight and, again, the fleet would already be dead.  A human ship with a tunnel drive must be some sort of secret project, too valuable to just blow to smithereens."

"Unlike us," grumbled Windspeaker Durward, but he was already motioning his squad towards their usual positions for a Transit Beacon jump.  Argus took the cue and motioned for his squad to take their place at the back row of the transit array.

"Since we're going to have a very narrow window, we can't do the usual countdown with fancy lights," finished Major Kabila.  "As soon as you see the Correspondence Portal open up, go through it.  Hit the deck running on the other side and keep going to let the guys behind you come through as well.  Remember, we're there to capture the ship, not blow it up with us on board—but that's plan B.  That's all the briefing time we have, so... places, everyone!"

Plan B always stinks, Argus thought to himself.  And this plan smells like a Plan C at best.  Five seconds later, a shimmering disc appeared in the air in the front of the room, and nearly two dozen werecreatures and mages dove into it at a mad dash (followed by one screaming Cyborg) before the rip in reality sealed itself shut once more.

Six light-minutes away, the other end of the portal opened in an empty cargo bay and two dozen suits of power armor tumbled out of it in a mad dash, the first few with Gauss Guns and Plasma Rifles blazing, but no one else was in the cargo bay.  The troopers paused briefly to regroup with their squads, then they headed for the hatches out of the cargo bay.

"How do we find the bridge if we don't know the layout of the ship?" wondered another trooper over the platoon radio link.

"Like this," Argus answered, and jogged over to the nearest com panel.  He quickly punched in the code for FIRE EMERGENCY.  Alarms went off all over the ship and safety lights in the floor illuminated, showing the pathways to the nearest escape pods or shuttle bays.  Argus, however, was still looking at the com panel, where a simplified ship schematic was automatically displayed to help any crew member lost in smoke to find his way out of danger.  One of the landmarks always shown on such maps was the Command Core, the armored section at any warship's center of gravity holding the bridge, sickbay, and damage control central.  Coupled with the brightly flashing "YOU ARE HERE" symbol showing which cargo bay they were in, it told Argus everything he needed to know about getting to the command center.  Especially since one of the benefits of having a telescopic video camera for an eye and a computer in your head was the possibility of perfect memory for visual images.  "Follow me," he called out to his squad.

The four troopers made a beeline for the bridge, shooting several confused and scared spacers they met on the way, all of whom were either trying to find the fire the alarms were warning them about or to reach the nearest escape pods.  The airtight doors were sealed shut in every major bulkhead—but darn few ships had internal hatches capable of standing up to a point-blank blast from a Lance Cannon, and this one was no exception.  By now the Fire Alarm had been cancelled and the Repel Boarders alarm was instead buzzing its constantly-repeating warning that the ship was under attack.

Argus let one of his troopers take point while he hung back, constantly checking the corridors they went down against his stored image of the emergency-evacuation schematic so he could keep the group moving in the right direction.  After a few minutes of moving, and a few more Imperial Navy spacers learning the hard way that survival skinsuits don't have nearly as much armor value as Mark 100 power armor and that burp guns designed to not accidentally shoot holes in the hull of a starship probably can't shoot holes in power armor either, they reached the corridor outside the command core—and these hatches were indeed designed to quite literally stand up to a tactical nuclear weapon.

The two Marine guards in power armor on either side of the bridge hatchway also looked big enough to not only withstand a tactical nuclear weapon, but to carry one as a sidearm.  But there were two of them, and four of Argus' squad.  Thirty seconds later, there were two dead guards on either side of the door, and one wounded trooper down on the deck next to him while his three squadmates contemplated a locked pressure hatch.

Argus plugged the data cable he normally used to interface his brain and his rifle scope into the access panel next to the hatchway.  I don't really expect them to keep the main Earth Fleet access codes unchanged… but salvage and rescue guys can't be expected to have comprehensive security access to the codes for every ship in the fleet handy at all times.  Twenty seconds later the ship's computer was sufficiently convinced that the fire alarm was real and Argus was an Earth Fleet rescue crew come to save the lives of the poor spacers trapped in the bridge of a burning starship, and the hatch obediently popped open.

Argus tossed one of his little insect-like recon drones in through the open hatchway.  A spate of small-arms fire peppered the air around it, but firing a sidearm while wearing skinsuit gloves is not easy for people who don't do it on a regular basis, and none of them hit the tiny beetle-sized target that was jinking and weaving its way towards the darkest corner it could find on the brightly-lit bridge.  The two other troopers in Argus' squad tossed frag grenades into the room, and Argus followed close behind.  Two gauss pistol rounds and a blast of burp-gun flechettes bounced mostly harmlessly off the carapace of his power armor before Argus' amplified voice boomed across the room and on the usual Fleet internal communications net frequencies: "Surrender or die!"

The skin-suited figure strapped into the captain's command chair's inertial frame unhooked himself and stood up.  "For the Emperor," he shouted, and pressed the button on the small control device he was holding in one gloved hand.

Oh crap, thought Argus.  That better not be a self-destruct switch...

It was.


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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home—even Scyr was taking a huge risk by mouthing off to Andrea Treschi!