A STAR IN HELL – Act I
"Formless and vanquished, we shall travel, / shield and faith will guide our battle.
Salvation comes in desperate hours, / Angels on high proclaim these powers.
Lead us from chaos, we shall follow, / Bear us to a bright tomorrow."
-- Globus, "Take Me Away"
That had better not be a self-destruct mechanism, Argus thought to himself, as the ship's captain squeezed the remote device clutched in his skin-suited hand.
But the captain was still grinning with defiance when the faceplate of his skinsuit helmet shattered and his brains splattered all over the main holodisplay behind him as a 15mm slug from Argus' sniper railgun blasted clear through his skull. "Anyone else want to die for the Emperor today?!" Argus called out as his two unwounded squadmates took up flanking positions on either side of him, Piccone plasma rifles covering the surviving members of the bridge crew.
For a moment, all that could be heard on the bridge (other than the still-keening "repel boarders" alarm) was the faint sparking of equipment and consoles damaged by gunfire and grenade fragments. Then the ship's executive officer unhooked himself from his acceleration shock frame and slowly stood up. "Sir, you have taken the bridge. I hereby ask for your terms of surrender."
Frakking fleet pukes and their gorram formalities. "My terms are that you surrender, Imperial scum. No trying to scuttle this ship, no fighting back, no sabotage, and no more of you making extra work for the scutters that will already be working overtime trying to scrub your late captain's miniscule brains off of the holotank over there. Do you accept?"
The executive officer managed a rueful smile. "Not like we have a lot of choice. We surrender, the ship is yours."
"God be praised," Argus replied. "I do believe they have seen the light. What's your name, prisoner?"
"Okay, Commander Pandit, tell the helm officer to cut all engines and plot a new course towards the planet. We want to be nice and slow so we don't get there before our main fleet. Comms officer, assuming you're still alive?"
A hand reached up next to a bulkhead. "Sir?"
"Good. Contact our ships on standard Earth Fleet Gold Channel Alpha and signal your surrender. Ask them to detach a destroyer to match velocities with us on our new course to put aboard a loyal crew and take off prisoners and wounded. Weapons officer?" He waited until a hand raised, a young woman looking scared witless. "You, cease all offensive fire… but if there are any missiles or something still coming towards this ship, feel free to shoot them down—with point-defense only! And Pandit..."
"Yes, sir?" the executive officer replied.
"Get on the intercom and order the rest of your crew lay down their arms and surrender to the first trooper who they see," Argus finished, before turning to his own squad. "Sandburg, Davis, go back and see what you can do for Dunston back there." Dunston was a werewolf, and he didn't look too badly hurt, so he had probably healed on his own by now. But now the mission was accomplished; it was time to see to the wounded. The mage and the other werewolf could take care of their comrade in ways Argus could not… lacking in magical ability as he was.
Argus turned back to the surrendered bridge crew as they went about the task of completing the capitulation of their ship. Not a bad first mission with the new unit, he thought to himself. Almost wasn't, though. However that self-destruct failed to detonate… whether it was another squad taking over engineering and disabling the charge… or the control run getting cut by gunfire… or the detonator itself getting damaged by my frag grenade… praise be to God.
He smiled. Maybe it was even that time mage and Major Reid back on the ship keeping an eye on us from afar. Frankly, I don't care which particular Mysterious Way God Worked in today. The point was he was working today. And we both still have work to do.
As the destroyer came alongside to transfer over an Earth Fleet prize crew to take possession of the captured ship, Major Kabila and Captain Soti joined Argus on the bridge. The company and platoon commanders had led other squads in other directions out of the cargo bay, seizing other parts of the ship, but it was Argus' squad who'd gotten to the bridge first. So he would have the honor of turning it over to the fleet... hmmm, what ship was this, anyways? Argus snuck a peek at the commissioning plaque in its traditional alcove at the main entrance to the bridge.
"From this moment on, all of us are dead" – Alistar Dimiye, February 21, 2244
What the hell kind of name is Alistar Dimye? And why has no one apparently heard of a human ship that can do the things this one does, if it's been in commission for half a decade? Argus just shook his head. Way above my pay grade to worry about such things. But at least I know what name to use when I turn the ship over... assuming I don't butcher the pronunciation.
He turned to the captive executive officer. "Commander Pandit, what kind of ship is this, anyways?"
"Some… sort of experiment. Covert operations ship."
"You mean designed to insert spec-ops teams deep behind enemy lines?"
The tan-skin officer rolled his eyes. "Something like that, yeah. Hell, when the Caal hit, I was just an assistant nav officer on a customs frigate on the Litterbox Line around the K'Laek system. We got back to Avalon too late for the battle, and after those losses, the new Emperor was desperate for trained fleet personnel. The original crew of this ship tried to mutiny and flee to join Smythe… when they failed, I got bumped up about six ranks and handed this job." The officer shrugged and gestured towards the body of the former captain, still temporarily shoved against the wall to be sort of out of the way. "Six weeks with Captain Yano over there, and I think I understand why my predecessor wanted out."
Argus smiled. "Well, Smythe is always hiring, too. Something tells me that you might get a job interview rather than a POW Camp assignment once we turn you over to your former buddies in the Fleet."
"You really think so?"
"War is hell, civil war doubly so. But war is great for military career prospects, and civil war doubly so," Argus joked. "Even when you get captured, the other side already has your personnel jacket on file, and just as many holes in the org chart that need to be plugged. Back in the third civil war, some officers swapped sides every other month and got a promotion each time."
Freed of the depredations of one armed troop transport with an exotic propulsion system, the Earth Fleet task force closed in on the helpless fleet of Imperial Guard troop transports. Several of the Fleet ships had taken hits, but only one light cruiser was seriously damaged, while the pair of Imperial destroyers escorting the convoy were seriously outgunned. Vice Admiral Munoz ordered a double salvo of Lance Torpedoes fired, and the entire task force spat out the deadly projectiles, all fire converging on the two poor destroyers. They never had a chance. Both exploded into clouds of expanding plasma.
A signal was sent to the remaining transports: "Your escorts are dead or captured, we've got you outgunned. Surrender now and be treated generously. Refuse, and be promptly destroyed." One of the four transports promptly self-destructed in a spectacular explosion, someone on the command staff preferring death to dishonor, but the other three soon cut their acceleration to zero and agreed to heave to and be boarded.
Two more destroyers and a fleet tender broke off to take over the new prize ships, plus a Skorzeny-class transport full of TI soldiers in case the cargo of Imperial Guardsmen on board the transports decided to make a fight of it against the prize crews.
The main Imperial force of starships changed course, trying to flee at right angles away from both the oncoming Earth Fleet Task Force and the planet. But they'd already built up too much velocity toward the oncoming task force in a vain attempt to save the convoy; at this point at least a passing engagement was inevitable. Belatedly realizing this, they turned to engage when it became clear the Task Force wasn't content to let them escape and continue on straight for the planet.
Seven minutes of exchanges of lance torpedoes, fusion cannon shells, and finally dueling salvoes of grav lasers and particle beams later, and the three surviving Imperial Navy warships cut their engines and signaled their surrender as well. Six Earth Fleet vessels were destroyed, including the assault dreadnought EFS Proserpina, and three more badly damaged… but the battle was won.
The easy part was over. Next came the battle to take the planet itself.
When Lieutenant Commander Aaron Roquefort first took this job, he'd been led to believe he had been selected for a great honor. Aaron believed he deserved it, too. When Clarke's Raptors cracked the Resistance cell on Elysia in '63, it was only Aaron's cool head and quick thinking that had allowed any of them to escape the planet at all. In the chaotic two years since, plenty of praise had been heaped on Aaron's abilities, but never anything so fancy as a simple bonus check.
So when Aaron's old boss, Captain O'Shaughnessy, and his boss, Governor Windling of the Eden system, called Aaron into the Governor's office, Aaron had thought he was finally getting his due. They offered him a promotion and an exciting, important new assignment. On paper, Aaron was already a lieutenant in the Terran Navy. In reality, he captained a gunboat which was still very much part of Governor Windling's personal property. Now the commission would be real, and the new lieutenant commander's salary paid directly out of the Republic's Treasury on Babylon. Of course, the Governor expected Aaron to remember where his true loyalty lay. Windling had fought hard to get Aaron the assignment; that sort of favor didn't come without strings attached.
Acting Chairman Vivas was reorganizing the Republic's administration, and she was on a crusade. Most of the old guard would retain their posts, but a slew of new positions were being created, too. The new appointees did not appear as if they would prove as… pliable as Vitek's cronies. The Governors and other Assemblymen were desperate to keep the newcomers in check, so they were filling as many staff and assistant jobs as possible with their own agents.
And that was how Aaron found himself commanding a desk as Chief of Staff to the new Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Strategic Operations. Governor Windling was particularly worried about the authority being carved out for the Assistant Secretary. He feared Vivas might be preparing to move in on the various warlords' private fleets, something Vitek never had the balls to try.
That was not Aaron's read of the Secretary's objectives. Actually, the man didn't seem to care what the warlords had, and was instead doing his best to make their forces irrelevant next to the new Terran Navy he was trying to build. If anything, Governor Windling probably would have found that more disturbing. Aaron had trouble finding sympathy for the Governor. He liked the Republic, he was certainly more proud to be serving it than a one-system tin despot. And the Republic needed all the help it could get now that the Holy Terran Empire was starting to encroach. That meant the Terran Navy needed to be strong. And that meant the Navy needed a leader determined to give it a serious kick in the pants. Aaron just wished the Assistant Secretary wasn't also determined to drive one Lieutenant Commander Roquefort into a small padded room before the end of the month.
"Welcome to Port Arthur, M. Secretary!" A man wearing a rumpled coat and a pasted-on grin welcomed Aaron and his boss as they stepped out of their shuttle. "My name is Raymond Choi, Project Manager. I'm afraid Director Chakravarty is on vacation with her family on New Sparta in the Hadrian system. She sends her apologies."
"No trouble at all, M. Choi, thank you." The Project Manager's grin was returned by an improbably young-looking man sporting a shiny suit. "It's good to be back. This is my assistant, Rocky."
"Commander Roquefort," Aaron said as he shook hands.
"Oh, have you been to Port Arthur before?" Choi asked the Secretary.
"Once. I actually used to write for a Food & Drink magazine on Avalon back before the Vin Shriak Wars. We'd heard rumors of some excellent pork dishes out this way, if memory serves."
Aaron didn't believe the story for a moment. Secretary Scyr lied about the strangest things.
"That may still be the case," Choi said. "Would you like me to see if I can locate a chef for you?"
"Oh, don't trouble yourself," Scyr waved him off. "Just the tour of the facility, if you please."
Choi bowed. "Of course, M. Secretary; just this way, please." He gestured for them to follow him out of the docking bay.
From the outside, the place was one of the ugliest free-floating space stations Aaron had ever seen. The modules were mismatched, cannibalized from at least a dozen different sources, and thrown together in a haphazard fashion that looked like it would crumble any second. Inside, the effect was more muted. The interface between modules was obvious, but the construction felt sturdy enough, like one was walking through a surface building that had built out in waves of expansions over several decades.
"We only got the three original lines operational four days ago," Choi said as they walked, "but our engineers have already completed designs for our second generation equipment and sent them to the asteroid facility. The first of those lines should be finished replicating within a few days."
"What sort of plant did you end up using?" Scyr asked.
"It was an aerodyne factory for the Bloc's surface military. Run by a Chin-Hua subsidiary," Choi tapped his knuckles against a large exterior window plate. "The Vin Shriak blew off the roof and some walls, but most of the actual equipment survived intact."
Aaron sighed. "Could you salvage anything from their Fleet yards?"
Choi shook his head. "Whatever isn't just gone is slagged beyond all recognition. And I don't just mean the physical infrastructure; all of the personnel are dead, too. We're starting from scratch."
Scyr spoke again, "So… what did you do before coming to the project?"
"Well, I was forcibly retired for a while," Choi said grimly, "but before that I was COO for a mining services company out on Hadley."
"The Bloc destroyed an atmosphere condenser during their invasion," Aaron explained, "M. Choi took over and had it rebuilt within a week."
The Project Manager looked over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised. Scyr smiled. "I just tell people what I want to happen. Rocky here is the one who actually hired you."
Choi inclined his head. "Well, thank you, Commander, I appreciate it."
They walked for a few minutes until they came to a large compartment with a floor-to-ceiling window. Beyond it was an expansive factory space. Robotic arms zipped around a dark metal chassis, aligning and attaching parts, or sparking away with arc welders.
"This is the primary assembly area for line one," Choi said. He indicated the big object coming together through the window. "This unit has about another two hours here, then maybe six more in final assembly before it's complete. By far the longest and most difficult phase is manufacturing all the instruments and powered components, especially here in the original facility. The asteroid factories will cut down on that somewhat now that we've figured out where the major bottlenecks are, and I expect there'll be even more streamlining to come. But that's always going to be the longest stretch in the manufacturing process. There just aren't that many steps we can cut out of making a laser assembly."
Scyr nodded. "What are you calling them?"
"Still just the LAF-1 as you suggested. Well, the LAF-1B, since we figured out our original drive assembly was going to tear the hull apart. I had to talk one of the engineers out of suicide when he realized he'd used the wrong equation. Anyway, we don't have anything fancier than that yet."
"How quickly can you produce them?"
"At this facility, fifteen to eighteen units per week, five or six for each line. Again, that's due to the huge bottleneck on the precision components. We expect the asteroid facilities will reach double that rate once they start coming online."
"And how quickly are you building that capacity?"
"The industrial replicator we've
got grows about two new lines a week, so pretty damn fast."
"Good." Scyr rubbed his hands together. "And what's the cost?"
"Cheap," Choi said. "If this were a commercial operation, I'd probably be spending around 100,000 per unit. But with the emergency requisition authority it's dirt cheap. We're not spending anything for the raw materials or the equipment… or tariffs, for that matter. With staff salaries and maintenance I think we're probably coming in under 50,000 a piece."
Scyr was grinning. Choi seemed unsure what to think about that, and he shifted his weight nervously.
"Of course," he said after a moment, "the quality issue—"
"Yes," Scyr cut him off. "I assume you have some finished units already. Are you able to give a demonstration?"
"Absolutely, M. Secretary. We'll want to catch a tram for that, if you'll follow me."
The tram took them around the outside of the space station to a module on the opposite end. A bulbous observation tower looked out over the green-and-yellow horizon of Port Arthur and the larger of the station's docking bays. Choi left Aaron and the Secretary alone for a moment as he spoke with some of his subordinates in the command center.
"This is excellent work, Rocky," Scyr said. "I'm impressed."
"Thank you, sir," Aaron said without looking at his boss.
The Project Manager came hurrying back to them. "I've arranged a demonstration flight. The bays are this way, if you'd like to meet the pilot and see the prep."
"I certainly would, M. Choi, please lead on," Scyr gestured graciously.
They met the test pilot in a hallway a few minutes later.
"Ah!" Choi said. "This is M. Sakamoto, I believe. Yes?"
"Yes, Project Manager," Sakamoto bowed deeply. He was wearing a pocket-less white jumpsuit and seemed oblivious to the armed guard standing a few meters behind him.
"M. Sakamoto, this is Assistant Secretary Scyr, the man responsible for authorizing this project."
"I am honored, M. Secretary." The pilot bowed again. It shouldn't have bothered him, but Aaron found he was a little miffed to be left out of the introductions.
"Pleased to meet you, Pilot," Scyr said. "What do you think of the project, if I may ask?"
Aaron found the pilot's servile smile nauseating. "I am grateful for the opportunity to serve the Republic, M. Secretary. And for the opportunity to restore my good name and return to my family."
Scyr laughed a low chuckle. "Well then, to the ship, please."
There were only seven vessels in the cavernous fighter bay; it had room for at least a hundred more. Pilot Sakamoto walked up to the ship closest to the entry door.
The LAF-1B was the simplest of fighter craft. The hull was a slightly oblong saucer shape, with a cockpit on top and a single ion drive on bottom. A bulky, cylindrical chemlaser stuck straight up from either side: the fighter's only armament.
Pilot Sakamoto clambered on top of the fighter and into the cockpit. After he pulled the canopy down around his head, Choi leaned forward and worked a heavy lever on the outer hull. It latched into place with a clang.
"That's it, he's sealed in," Choi wiped his hands together. "Let's head back to the observation tower."
"What was his crime?" Aaron asked as they retraced their steps.
"Probably insulted an Assemblyman's mother," Choi shrugged. "Seems like they're all in for something petty like that."
Back in the tower, the three of them watched as station controllers guided Sakamoto's fighter through take-off and departure from the bay. Choi had the pilot run through some maneuvers within visual range of the tower, and then brought up a holographic sensor display so they could track him for high-speed tests.
"So how would you evaluate the design next to other military fighters?" Scyr asked while target drones were being deployed for a weapons demonstration.
Choi sighed. "I'm not a military man, myself. But from what my subordinates tell me, I understand that the comparison to any other single fighter is probably not good. We don't have any magickal enhancements on our units at all, which more than halves power efficiency alone from what the literature says we could get. The lasers are significantly weaker. We have to use a high-capacity battery rather than a fusion reactor. Its acceleration is about what you'd expect from another fighter the same size, but we won't have much endurance. Maybe three hours of combat operations before both power and propellant run out."
"Of course, they are cheap," Choi went on, more optimistically. "We don't need many rare materials. We'll run out of pilots before we hit a resource bottleneck. For what they are, they're also damn sturdy, won't require a lot of maintenance. The drive and lasers are the most fragile parts, and even their maintenance cycles should be at least a few months."
"Well, M. Choi," Scyr said slowly, "you've produced exactly what I asked for. Congratulations."
Choi was visibly relieved. Aaron had to restrain himself from shaking his head in sympathy. On the observation display, Pilot Sakamoto completed his target practice with over eighty percent accuracy. A station controller began to instruct him on a return approach, but Scyr stepped forward and placed a hand on the man's shoulder.
"Just a moment, please," Scyr said. He gestured to the Project Manager. "I would like to test the loyalty system. M. Choi?"
The heads of every controller in the tower turned toward the Secretary, but all of them quickly decided they would rather look busy with something else. To his credit, Choi only hesitated for a second before saying, "Yes, M. Secretary. Just a moment."
He stepped up to the controllers console and entered a few commands. When a confirmation screen appeared, he stepped back again and gestured to Scyr. "If you would like to issue the signal, M. Secretary…"
For just a second, Aaron found himself getting angry at Choi for the pathetic attempt at sidestepping responsibility. But the Assistant Secretary didn't seem to mind at all. Scyr took two steps forward and casually confirmed the order with a press of his thumb.
Even at the extended distance, the explosion was visible through the observation window. A fleeting burst of light, barely brighter than the stars, where Pilot Sakamoto's fighter had been.
"Excellent, M. Project Manager, excellent," Scyr said. "You may tell your people that I am highly satisfied with all of their work. I'm sure the Executive Committee will be just as pleased when I present my report."
After the meeting with General Smits, Bishop and Fisher's role was simple. They gathered their gear, went to the docking bay, were met by an officer who guided them to a shuttle, and took that out to a ship for their voyage to Midgar. Once aboard, with their equipment settled, they settled in for the long journey. In their quarters, they found travel papers with false identities, several credchits for Ministry credit accounts with a number of different banks on New Tokyo, and a wide array of civilian clothing. After changing, between their hula shirts and khaki shorts, they looked completely out of place on an Earth Federation warship.
While in transit, the pair soon received more information about the mission, including where they would be staying on Midgar and who their points of contact would be. They'd be secretly dropped off along the southern coast of Midgar's northern continent, an area that was a combination tourist attraction and Tech Infantry retirement community (due mainly to generous real estate discounts for veterans). It was also home to a strange but harmless alien race, the Ungae, although Bishop and Fisher were instructed to avoid contact with them and proceed directly to the Ungae Palace & Vacation Resort Hotel after landing. After checking into their room, they were to contact Alfred Goldworth, a retired TI Lieutenant General, using special communication equipment they'd be provided with. It seemed simple.
The trip was quiet. During their journey, Bishop practiced reading and writing with Fisher's help. Although she was tempted to teach him another gift, she decided against it—he'd learned enough skills over the past few days, after all, and needed to practice those before learning any more.
A little over a week later, the ship jumped into the edge of the Midgar system, far out past the planet's orbital sensor platforms. This was the critical part; they could not be detected entering the system. Bishop and Fisher boarded what looked like a very sleek escape pod equipped with a stealth suite and barely enough room inside for the two passengers and their luggage. After strapping into their seats, Fleet technicians closed the hatch. Shortly after, the ship launched the pod, and they watched the ship swirl away in small circles though a little window at the back. Far too small for artificial gravity equipment, their luggage began to drift around the cabin almost instantly.
The force of gravity returned a few hours later the pod entered the planet's atmosphere, and they felt the antigrav kick in soon after to slow their descent. Twenty minutes later, the pod finally landed. Kicking out the hatch, Bishop and Fisher found themselves on a beach at night. After quickly unloading their luggage, the newly-minted major hit a button and the pod began rotating, digging its way into the sand. Within minutes, it had completely disappeared. Pleased to have covered his tracks, Bishop picked up the luggage, turned, and started hiking in the direction of the Ungae Palace.
"It could take us a week to get there," Fisher said.
"You got a better plan?"
She smiled. "I know an easier
Before Bishop could ask what she meant, she transformed into her Hispo form, a lynx the size of a Siberian tiger. Then Bishop saw silvery wings grow out of her flanks, extending until they were each eight feet long. Fisher motioned to him, grunting for him to climb on her back. Bishop grabbed the luggage, got on her back, and Fisher took off, flying low but fast. They made excellent time. As soon as lights could be seen in the distance, they landed and Bishop jumped off. "Nice trick," he had to admit.
Fisher shifted back into human form and smiled. "That gift was taught to us by our South American cousins. I'm sure you could learn it too, since your ancestors are from there, but I'll have to teach you some other time."
Bishop nodded, but pointed towards the lights, keeping her on target. They walked towards the settlement, and soon found themselves in a small town of retirees. It was very quiet, save for the whirr of automatic cabs—which were conveniently heading to their destination, the Ungae Palace. Once there, the pair found the concierge, checked in to their room, unpacked and got settled in.
It had been a long journey, especially after hours in zero gravity, and all William wanted to do was sleep. Unfortunately, they knew they had to look like honeymooners, so they went down to the restaurant on the first floor. It was dimly lit with one wall entirely of glass, through which they could see a large waterfall illuminated by floodlights. Bishop smiled. "What do you want to drink, love?"
Fisher smiled back, digging her fingernails into his hands. "Just some nice wine, dear. I'll find us a booth along the back wall."
Bishop chuckled quietly as he placed their order with the robo-bartender. The wine came quickly, and as and William made his way over to where Michelle sat, he discretely activated a small jammer, scrambling any electronic surveillance around them. "You clean up well," Bishop said, handing her a glass of wine.
"There are all kinds of camouflage, William." She took a sip. "So what do civilians talk about? I've been in the service so long, I've forgotten."
"Same thing grunts do. The weather, the barracks, the food…"
Fisher held up her glass to the dim light. "I have to admit—the drinks are better here."
"So do we move on to the weather, then?"
She sniffed the air and said, "Rain this evening, coming in off the sea, and…" Michelle suddenly stiffened. Bishop immediately opened his senses and looked around the restaurant. It didn't take long to find the source of her distress.
A very attractive woman with short black hair was approaching their table. She should have been making a scene; the clothes she was wearing were far from conservative, looking like she had walked straight out of a Goth club… except without the makeup. Such a person would turn heads, yet in the whole busy restaurant, only the two of them seemed to notice her.
She sat down on the booth next to Bishop and smiled. In a purring voice, she said, "I have been informed by an associate you would be coming here."
"By who?" Fisher asked.
"You know him as Fabian."
Now Fisher and Bishop immediately recognized her as a ghoul. The major was the first to reply. "Yes, he said to widen my gaze."
"Fabian likes to speak in riddles," the attractive ghoul replied. "I am more direct. He said you have a particular desire… one that might be helped by becoming more involved with my Master."
"And his organization?" Bishop clarified; the ghoul nodded.
Fisher leaned forward. "Look, we've been disappointed with the Federation since the Caal Invasion. We're concerned about the position of werecreatures in the universe."
"A relationship with us would help that."
Michelle took another sip of wine as she collected her thoughts. She didn't like dealing with this creature; everything inside her screamed wyrm and destroy… but this was an option she didn't want to ignore. "Maybe. I think your master has the same problem with v… his kind. We could be mutually beneficial."
The ghoul with the black hair pivoted to face Bishop. "What do you think, William?"
"I think our roles… vampires, werewolves, humans… something needs to change, or the mages will dominate like they did before."
"Fabian said that you see the truth of our kind."
"More riddles?" Fisher mocked.
The ghoul ignored her. "The truth… is that a new order is emerging. My Master has dedicated his life to opposing tyranny—"
"Really?!" Michelle blurted out. The more she heard, the less she could believe; the rage was building inside her. "Tyranny? From what I've heard, he's the worst leech out there!"
"But there are worse things out in the universe," the ghoul explained, "things even my Master fears to face alone. That's why we serve him, because we know he sees the truth, and fights to keep us free from them."
"Freedom," William grumbled, "yet you serve Mordred as your master. Frankly, I don't see the difference between what you're offering and the slavery of Vin Dane."
The ghoul giggled; an unnerving sound. "Here you have a choice. My Master forces no one to bow the knee to him. Yes, our methods are ancient… often obscene… but our cause is just. Once the Emperor sits firmly on his throne, no one else will dare oppose him for a thousand years." She narrowed her eyes. "My Master refuses to let anyone bow to a false god… since he's killed two of them himself."
Michelle felt the girl was being honest... as strange as that sounds, she realized. A ghoul being honest? "So you're saying we'll be stepped on like everyone else?"
"Eventually. Unless you join our movement. So… are you willing to take the next step?"
Bishop looked at her straight in the eye and said, "I'm in."
"Excellent. We can use your services."
"But I'm not going to be jerked around." William pointed at her. "If I say I'm in, then I want in all the way."
"If you help us… and succeed with what I'm about to ask of you… then you will be introduced to the true nature of the Sabbat."
"That's the condition?" Fisher asked.
"Truth is not understood without struggle. For your task, you will be rewarded with a small piece of the truth… your history, our ways, and the fight that is to come. As well as other rewards; I will see to that personally."
Bishop leaned back in the booth. "Good. I've been looking forward to this for a long time."
Michelle shrugged. What have I got to lose? "What's the task?"
"First things first, let me introduce myself. My name is Irene."
"Wha—what the hell is this?"
In the covert cargo container on Heth's freighter Bountiful, the fat Imperial inspector stared inside the secret compartment concealed inside the bulkhead. His brow furrowed in confusion as he pulled out a bag filled with crushed, dried greyish-green herbs.
Heth's heart pounded, but he struggled to maintain a calm, cool demeanor. In all his years of trading and smuggling, no inspector ever found the outer hidden chamber before. Heth wasn't sure his "Plan B" would work.
The young, scrawny subordinate inspector also examined a bag. "Marijuana, you think?" he suggested.
"Maybe…" the boss said—but he sounded doubtful. Perhaps it was because the herbs didn't look right, or didn't smell right… or had a drawing of a kitten chasing a butterfly on the label reading "Cosmic Catnip."
"Oh, no! Certainly not!" Heth said, scandalized. "I work for a respectable business, you know!"
The plump head inspector ripped open a bag and dug through it, certain that there must be something of value concealed within. "What the hell is this stuff?"
"It's nepeta," Heth explained.
The two inspectors looked at him, then each other. Neither of them seemed to know what that was.
"It's known to humans as 'catnip,' " Heth clarified.
"Well, why didn't you just say 'catnip,' then?" the head inspector asked, clearly growing frustrated.
"Please!" Heth spat in mock offense, bristling his fur. "I know humans refer to K'Nes as 'cats'—but we consider that a derogatory term. We prefer the more… scientific designation for this human herb."
"Yeah, but what do you want with catnip?" the scrawny one said. "Does this stuff work on you guys, too?"
"It has a… mild mind-altering effect on my species, yes," Heth acknowledged. "It's a sedative, mainly."
"So… it's is an illegal drug, then?" the big inspector asked. "That why you're hiding it?"
"Oh, it's perfectly legal—and profitable!—in K'Nes space," Heth said. "And I assume it's not a controlled substance in the Holy Terran Empire either, since it's for sale to the public in dozens of commercial stores."
"But then…" The inspector looked more confused than ever. "If it's legal in both places… why are you smuggling it?"
"I'm not smuggling anything!" Heth protested, with just a hint of exasperation.
" 'Course you were!" the scrawny subordinate inspector insisted. "Why else would you stash it in here?"
"I'm hiding it from my crew!" Heth explained impatiently. "If I don't, by the time we pull into port, I'll have quite a bit missing and a very relaxed labor force." Heth let out an exaggerated sigh, shaking his head. "Of course, I'll have to find a new hiding place—now that you've shown my crew exactly where the nepeta is hidden!"
"Your crew?" The inspectors looked around. The three of them were alone. "Nobody here but us."
Heth rolled his eyes and pointed to a tiny security camera above the door. "I can guarantee that my pilot M'Rowr is watching us right now."
"He's spying on official Imperial business?" the scrawny inspector exclaimed.
"Of course not!" Heth hissed. "He's just bored! Our departure through the Ashdown jumpgate is taking far, far longer than usual—and I'm behind schedule as it is! Now, please, can we have clearance to leave the system?"
"If it's legal, why didn't you just tell us about this catnip stuff?" the chubby head inspector asked, clearly irked by Heth's behavior. "That would have saved you a lot of time."
"Well…" For the first time, Heth looked less than indignant. He struggled for an answer. "Just in case."
The head inspector narrowed his eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Well, the K'Nes have had this problem before, you know, especially with theocratic governments like the Holy Terran Empire. My grandsire, for example, had some trouble with the Christian Federation, back during your civil war. Nepeta could be bought there legally, of course, and transported in and out freely—but not, apparently, by a K'Nes merchant." He lowered his voice. "Look, K'Nes have always careful about following local trade regulations for controlled substances, so… personally, I think the Christian Federation just made up that law on the spur of the moment, once they realized nepeta was a K'Nes narcotic. And I'm sure racism played no small part in that decision!"
The two inspectors just looked at him, not sure what to say to that. They looked at each other. "Whadaya think, boss?" the scrawny one asked. "Arrest 'em for smuggling anyway?"
Scat! Heth's tail began swishing nervously. "Look, you're clearly busy looking for something important, and it's not on this ship. If time is of the essence, then arresting me—especially when I doubt you could make a smuggling charge stick—would be an even greater waste of time and effort, not to mention unnecessary legal expenses. What don't we just call it even—you won't arrest me for smuggling, and I won't, uh… file charges for species profiling and racial harassment. Deal?" He held out his paw, the human custom for sealing a deal.
The head inspector blinked at the K'Nes, confused and indecisive. He stared at the paw. He couldn't see the claws—they were retracted at the moment—but he knew they were there. But then he saw the glittering jewelry on the cat's fingers, and his demeanor changed completely.
"Sure. Deal. Paperwork's a bitch anyway." He reached out and (carefully) grasped the cat's paw in a prolonged handshake. Heth slid a thin silver ring off his finger and into the man's palm with a discrete, practiced movement. The inspector released Heth's paw, then turned to his subordinate while slipping his hand casually into his pocket. "Come on, let's go. Radio the head office, let 'em know these cats don't have what we're looking for."
Heth escorted them to the airlock, giving a non-stop sales pitch the whole time. "Would you like to buy some Mungunwha algae? Or perhaps some Jurvain splatterbugs? They're really quite tasty, once you get past the gag reflex!" By the time they left, he was fairly sure they wanted to be off the Bountiful as much as he did.
The minute the airlock sealed behind them, Heth let out a huge sigh of relief. That had been close. Too close. Closer than he'd ever come to being caught. He fished out his snuff box with trembling paws, raised a large pinch of nepeta to his nose, inhaled sharply… and within seconds felt the calm descend over him.
After that, Heth's convoy was given clearance to move through the jumpgate to Ashdown and Federation space. Heth waited until the Bountiful was deep into the safe, legal no-man's-land of hyperspace, then summoned M'Rowr to the covert cargo container. "Smooth move with the apes there, boss!" M'Rowr said, floating through the hatch.
"Not smooth enough," Heth chided himself, already tossing bags of nepeta out of the hidden compartment. "Now deflate, get down here, and help me with this!"
After a long belch, M'Rowr landed softly on his paws. "Scat, why me, Heth? I mean, you got a lotta sailors who aren't overdue for their nocturnal cycle…"
Heth sighed. "Because I trust you, M'Rowr. When I got demoted for breaking a contract, you still supported me—even though no one else in the clan did. Besides… you've got a financial stake in this operation."
"Well… thanks, cousin!" M'Rowr grinned as he cleared out the concealed compartment. Once empty, Heth activated a transmitter hidden in his clan signet ring and waved his hand over the floor of the concealed compartment. A moment later, a deck plate seemed to melt away as thousands of nanobots moved to reveal a sunken latch.
"So… is our 'trust' growing any?" M'Rowr asked. "Gotta send the cubs to business school, after all…"
"Oh, very well," Heth growled. He activated the latch, and the false back wall of the concealed compartment swung down, exposing a second chamber hidden behind it. "I'll transfer one percent of the proceeds from this deal to their trust fund."
"Hmm… two percent, you say?" M'Rowr licked his fangs hungrily.
"Oh, alright! One and a quarter—and it's null and void unless you keep your big mouth shut about this cargo!"
"You got it, boss!" M'Rowr said, yanking the stasis pod within then inner compartment. "Y'know… I wasn't sure the backup chamber would be able to cloak the stasis pod…"
"Neither was I," Heth admitted. "But these nanobots came from an old suit of K'Nes Tor Army power armor—including its stealth programming." Heth grunted, tugging at the pod. "Even during the Second Vulthra War, the apes didn't have cloaks that even came close!"
"Well, yeah… but you're forgetting how that war ended, cuz," M'Rowr said, pulling. "We lost—believe me, I remember, I was on the front lines!" The stasis pod slowly floated out of its hiding place on anti-grav skates. "An' then the apes took everything that wasn't nailed down—including our stealth tech!" M'Rwor leaned on the pod, panting. "I worried… they might've… developed countermeasures… by now…"
"Perhaps they did," Heth said, puffing himself, "but not completely, apparently. They obviously detected something on our freighter… they just didn't know what. That's where bluffing came in." Heth pointed a weary claw at his mangy cousin. "The apes have many advantages, true… but we K'Nes can talk anyone into anything at any time. Never forget that, M'Rowr."
"Eh… if you say so, boss." M'Rwor shrugged, indifferent. "So, where we moving this pod to?"
"Biohazard containment," Heth answered. "There's a powerful mage inside here. I don't care if she's unconscious—I'm not taking any chances! I want this stasis pod—and that ring Wells gave us, too—locked down tighter than the First Varrless Bank of Purrfang!"
The voyage to New Madrid, the capital of what was left of the Federation, was long and uneventful. The K'Nes on board took turns for their nocturnal cycles, and Heth fell exhausted onto his cushion before curling up for a very long, deep sleep.
K'Nes and humans evolved on very different planets—in fact, the K'Nes homeworld of Purrfang was not even a planet, but a large moon orbiting the enormous gas giant T'Ssowll. When the moon's long orbit took it behind the dark side of T'Ssowll, blotting out the sun, Purrfang nights lasted over three and a half human days. K'Nes nocturnal cycles had evolved to match the long darkness. Of course, this meant that K'Nes could stay awake and alert much, much longer than humans could… but the apes seemed to ignore that, focusing instead on the K'Nes as lazy beasts who "sleep all the time."
But after eighty-four hours of uninterrupted slumber, Heth was once again bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to negotiate the next part of his trade deal with the Federation. As predicted, the initial contact did not go well.
"A hundred thousand?!"
"I'm glad we understand each other." The businesscat preened himself. "I've worked hard on my English. The accent is difficult to master."
"This is not what we agreed!" The trooper with the sergeant's stripes literally stomped his feet. The deckplates answered with a dull roar. The civilian orbital station was obviously not in good repair. Even M'Rowr, floating next to Heth, hovered closer to the airlock… just in case.
"No, it most certainly is not." Heth bristled his fur in indignation. "Our contract specified I was to pick up refugee families. Instead, I find a single woman in a box, being transported against her will, who apparently the Empire is looking for." Heth floated closer, his yellow eyes narrowing to slits. "You wouldn't happen to know why, would you, Sergeant?"
To his disappointment, the sergeant appeared just as clueless as the K'Nes was. After a couple blinks, he said, "Well… I can't authorize that kind of payment."
"Fine. Then take me to someone who can."
"That won't be necessary," a man's voice erupted. Suddenly a man in an Earth Fleet uniform appeared out of thin air, leaning in the shadows of bulkhead. Heth blinked in surprise. The man wasn't wearing stealth armor, so he must have been using magick… yet Heth's whisker rings had sensed nothing. Either he's so magically weak my rings can't detect him, Heth thought, which is doubtful, considering the trick he just pulled, or… he's powerful enough to hide himself from magickal detection. Heth's fur bristled again—but in fear this time.
The pale, dark-haired officer strolled casually toward the cats. He looked like any normal healthy human male… too healthy in fact, too good to be real. He looked in the prime of his life, but his cold eyes betrayed his actual age. Biosculpt, Heth guessed. After all, if you don't like your pelt, why not change it?
The sergeant snapped to attention. "Captain, I was just—"
"Doing what you were told, I know." The officer seemed bored. "You've done well, Tinsler. You're dismissed."
The sergeant's emotions played games on his face. "So… does that mean…?"
"Yes, you'll get the transfer."
Sergeant Tinsler brightened up immediately. Snapping a salute, he said, "You won't regret it, sir!"
"I know." The captain gave a predatory smile that gave Heth the shivers. "Dismissed."
Once the trooper walked away, the officer shrugged. "I apologize for your troubles, M. Miao. I was assured this transaction would go smoothly. One of my agents was supposed to deliver the shipment to you at St. Michael's Star."
"He did. You have good choice in assistants… unlike myself." Heth nodded towards M'Rowr, looking unabashedly at his own reflection in the airlock window. "But there appears to have been some… er, confusion about the cargo volume. I was led to believe I would be dealing in economies of scale."
The officer shrugged, unconcerned. "Just a little misunderstanding, I'm sure. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to inspect the… er, merchandise before paying."
He's stalling, Heth thought. Well, let him. Either way, he'll soon realize I've got the upper paw. This isn't my first pissing contest. Heth gave the ape his most vicious fang-filled smile. "Certainly, sir, right this way." He nodded at M'Rowr. His pilot didn't get the signal at first, so Heth had to growl—loudly. "M'Rowr?"
"The hatch, M'Rowr?"
"Oh." The pilot sheepishly grinned and opened the hatch into the Bountiful's airlock. Heth led the way through the freighter, followed by the captain, with M'Rowr in tow, until they came to the biohazard containment unit. The businesscat pointed to a clear plastic porthole in the hatch. "I believe you'll find your shipment safely stowed in here."
The captain looked through the hatch, saw the stasis pod safely inside the biohazard chamber… and raised an eyebrow. In the event of a leak from chemical, biological, or radiological cargo, every biohazard unit was equipped with an emergency airlock, ready to blow the contents of the chamber into space—which, in this case, included the stasis pod, conveniently placed right in front of the airlock.
"I see…" The Captain nodded, instantly grasping the implications. "I'd like to see the pod to confirm its contents first."
"Certainly—once we agree to a hundred thousand credits. Payment in full, on delivery."
"Oh really?" The officer sounder more amused than worried. "And if I refuse?"
Now Heth's whisker rings started quivering. He forced himself to act casual as he tapped a claw on the access panel next to the hatch. "Then without the correct passcode, the airlock blows, the pod is shot into space, and an attached explosive will detonate once it's clear of the ship. I detest violence, Captain, I really do… but I detest operating under a false contract even more."
The whisker rings stilled as the captain sighed and tried a different approach. "I thought you cats lived and died by your contracts… and you agreed with M. Chambers for—"
"Ten thousand per head, yes," Heth agreed, nodding, "in families—you'll notice the plural form of the word. Therefore, assuming at least two families, containing an average of five people per household—according to your census data, at least—it was a reasonable expectation that I would be transporting at least ten humans. That comes to a total of one hundred thousand credits… which is why I accepted this job in the first place. Anything less, and it would simply not be cost-effective to run past the Imperial Guard." Heth narrowed his eyes. "But I suspect you already know what… which is why you had M. Chambers tell me some bluster and nonsense about saving refugee families instead of kidnapping a single human female."
The officer shot a glare at Heth, then returned to gazing through the porthole at the stasis pod, muttering darkly under his breath about legal loopholes (and some unfounded accusations about the parentage of K'Nes accountants).
Heth knew he was playing a dangerous game... but he still had several goals to accomplish during this negotiation. So, despite the risk, he pressed the mage harder. "K'Nes don't take kindly to contract breakers, you know. I suspect a man in your position may require the services of Miao Mercantile again—but we Miao have a motto: A deal is a deal. Fail to honor our contract, and we'll never do business with you again… nor will our subsidiaries… or our corporate allies… not to mention public customer blacklists… you get the picture."
The captain's face was unreadable, but Heth's whisker rings began tingling again; it was time for him to back off. Besides, he had the ape where he wanted him: angry and resentful at being strong-armed. Now if I give him just a little leverage back and let him think he's in control, Heth thought, he'll agree to my offer. "Of course," Heth said casually, making it sound like an afterthought, "I might be willing to drop the price by ten percent in exchange for a small additional service."
The captain shot Heth a sideways glance. "What kind of service?"
"Well," Heth began, "a man who can negotiate thousands of credits and arrange such a covert transfer successfully is obviously quite powerful, presumably with many influential connections within the Feder—"
"I'm a special assistant to Chairman Smythe," the officer cut him off, losing patience. "Cut the flattery and get to the point, M. Miao."
"If you wish… I recently obtained an old suit of human power armor for resale," Heth explained, leaving out the part about the customer being the Holy Terran Empire. "A Mark 100 Centurion model, I believe."
The captain let out a low whistle. "That is old."
"Indeed—which is probably why it doesn't work, making it nothing more than a very expensive office decoration… but that's the inherent risk in buying military surplus, I suppose." Heth sighed. "But… well, given your position and influence, if you could arrange for a specialist to diagnose and repair it, I might still be able to flip it for a profit."
The officer was silent a moment, suspicious. "You'd knock ten thousand off the price… to repair an obsolete suit of power armor?"
"It's far cheaper than building our own equipment to repair it, I assure you. The Miao don't currently have the facilities for military-grade nanotechnology," Heth answered. "And with the current war raging, you'd be surprised how much even an obsolete power armor suit will sell for in the Ministry or Terran Republic." Heth carefully only mentioned factions the Federation had good—or at least neutral—relations with.
"I see." The captain looked back into the biohazard chamber and nodded. "Yes, I can arrange that… for twenty-five percent off."
"Twenty. Any less and I won't turn a profit on the suit."
The officer considered that, then nodded. "Done. Eighty thousand for this job."
"And future jobs?"
The officer snorted disdainfully. "You can't be serious…"
But Heth pressed his case. "Captain, the misleading contract we had was simply bad business, and our mutual betrayal produced only a one-time profit. But a happy customer is an investment—leading to repeat business. If you can't trust K'Nes ethics, I'm sure you can trust K'Nes greed." The human chuckled—or perhaps scoffed—but said nothing. "Besides," Heth pushed, "not only is Miao Mercantile the industry leader in transporting black market commodities, our neutral political status gives us considerable freedom to move through your enemy's territory—with much less scrutiny than other ap… er, humans. Think about it: I just delivered your cargo—the wrong type of cargo, I might add—right under the Empire's nose while they were looking for her. And I'm only middle management."
The captain stared at the K'Nes for a moment… then slowly smiled. "Why don't I have you on my staff?"
"You can't afford me." Heth whistled, and M'Rowr floated over to hand him a datapad. "You can, however, rent my services. This is a standard Miao contract. Transportation of unnamed individuals in locations to be specified by you, ten thousand per head, with a minimum of ten individuals per shipment. Delivery to be here in New Madrid… or if you specify somewhere else, a rider is attached to cover that eventuality."
The man took the datapad, hit the translator, and scanned the short document. K'Nes legalese was simplified and air-tight; after all, they had been practicing it for centuries. The captain looked up. "Five thousand."
"Ten is the—"
"Five… or you can keep your credits and walk."
Five thousand is still a good profit for this kind of venture, Heth reminded himself, plus I've pushed this mage too far all ready. "Done. If I may make the necessary alterations?" The captain handed the datapad back and the businesscat moved his paw across the screen, altering the key phrase. "Shall we sign?"
Heth held out the pad, and the human officer placed his thumb over the pressure patch in the corner of the tablet. There was a muffled click as the needles drew their blood signature; the captain barely seemed to notice it.
The K'Nes grinned. I'm that much closer to winning Miu's auction! He looked back at his very profitable customer. "I'm sorry, I never caught your name…?"
"Gergenstein. Captain Herbert Gergenstein."
"Well, M. Gerginsign," Heth said, stumbling over the foreign name a bit as he punched in the access code, "the merchandise is yours."
Gergenstein nearly ran over, immediately running his hands over the pod, an almost hungry expression on his face. After a close inspection of the seals, he seemed curiously amused as he turned back to Heth. "I'm surprised you didn't let Stephanie out."
"Of course not!" Heth replied indignantly. "I was told that… Stephanie, is it?... had a medical condition." He paused to lick a paw and smooth down his mane. "Frankly, you can ship all your families this way if you wish—but I'd prefer to know first. A human on their feet is much easier to smuggle than an active stasis pod."
"You weren't curious?" Gergenstein asked absently, staring at the red-haired woman inside the pod.
"Oh, of course I am. But in our profession, discretion is held at a premium, and it pays not to ask unnecessary questions. Besides, I believe your people have a saying about curiosity and cats?"
Gergenstein laughed; it wasn't a pleasant sound. "It's a pity no one ever follows that advice. I assume you will deactivate the explosive?"
"Uh… yes, of course!" Thinking fast, Heth pulled a plastic tab from his breast pocket and pressed the lone button; it made a beeping sound. "It's deactivated." The businesscat was glad he hadn't left his aircar remote back home on Nhur; after all, there was no explosive device. Heth had no desire to kill anyone or throw away his expensive trump card in the negotiation. "The anti-grav can be turned on just…" He pointed to a lever. "…there."
Gergenstein kicked the anti-grav and started to push the pod back towards the airlock to the space station, looking down at the woman inside. "We've got a lot of work to do, Stephanie," he muttered softly. "Assuming you're a good girl, that is…" The captain smiled like the proverbial cat with the canary.
"Stephanie?" Suddenly it all clicked in Heth's mind—a powerful female mage from St. Michael's Star named Stephanie… With a squirt of oxygen, he zoomed up next the Gergenstien. "Stephanie Harrington? Heir to the Harrington Industries megacorp fortune? That Stephanie?"
"Remember that saying about curiosity and cats?" Gergenstein growled, low and dangerous.
"Oh, it's none of my business, of course," Heth was quick to add. "It's just… I thought Stephanie Harrington was assassinated decades ago..."
The captain shrugged absently, his attention completely on the pod. "Poisoned, yes; killed, no. They put her in a stasis coma until they could find a cure for the virus. That much, I can tell you—it’s a matter of public record."
"Oh. I see." Well, perhaps I saved a life after all, Heth thought, albeit just one instead of several. "Well, I'm delighted to hear that!"
They moved through the corridors in silence for a while, M'Rowr floating behind. "Is there anything else, M. Miao?" Gergenstein finally sighed in frustration, like a kid desperate to unwrap his new present. "Or is our business concluded?"
"Not quite yet, I'm afraid," Heth said. "There is still the matter of the power armor repairs…"
"Oh. Right." Gergenstein reached in his jacket and pulled out a piece of clearplaz. "Contact this office. I'll tell them to assist you in any way possible."
Heth smiled happily at the business card. Technical Infantry Research & Development—excellent! With any luck, I'll finally be able to prove my power armor deal was sabotaged, that I didn't break a contract! He turned back to Gergenstein. "So, uh… wanna buy some algae? Feed the troops?"
"Get outta town!" The female vampire Lilith laughed into her drink, the sound resonating with the glass and echoing far longer in Izzy's ears than was physically possible. "If I were you, I'd dump his sorry ass… No. First I'd squeeze him for all he was worth, then I'd dump his sorry ass in a gutter somewhere barely habitable on the edge of Caal space!" As if to say the matter was settled, she took a long draught from her fizzy blue drink.
The showgirl closest to her tittered, scandalized. "You're evil!"
"I would too," Lilith reinforced seriously. "Honey, any man like that, you don't need. Trust me, you'd be doing the galaxy a favor."
Izzy drew himself away from the scene forcibly to collect his thoughts, leaving Alphonse in an autopilot induced stupor and Victoria more alone than she was aware of. That woman, that thing, was alive and decided to meddle in his life again. D'Argent was utterly convinced that he was the only reason she could possibly be on New Sparta… and if they had compared datebooks, she could not have chosen a worse time.
He stared hard at the nearest virtual gentian, attempting to absorb the coolness of the flower and its violet color. He was overreacting. He still had the upper hand; she hadn't even noticed him yet. It was still a thing to be dealt with—another time. For now, his task was to get Victoria home safely.
Izzy plunged himself back into reality. Victoria was still munching on her corn dog, oblivious to the danger not ten feet away from her.
"I think we should go. Now." Alphonse stood up, the robot cat leaping gracefully to the floor before making a beeline for the door.
"What? I'm not done eating yet!" Victoria protested. "I still have these onion rings—"
"You can take them with you. I've already paid. Let's go!" he whispered hoarsely.
This seemed to have the opposite effect than what Izzy desired; she set down the nearly finished corn dog and gave him a nasty look. "I'm not finished eating. You can go if you want to, but I'm staying here until I'm done." Agonizingly slowly, she picked up an onion ring and took a bite.
A part of Izzy admitted silently that he was no longer thinking very clearly. There were about a dozen things that would have gotten Victoria up out of that seat and out of the door willingly… if only I can think of them! Instead, he had resorted to the ham-handed caveman tactics he was now employing. Lilith had an infuriating way of reducing him to base instinct.
Which is why that part of himself was screaming for him to stop even as he grabbed Victoria by the wrist. "Come on!" he whined urgently, hopefully louder than the servos in his fingers.
"Let go of me!" Victoria dropped the onion ring she was holding on the floor, half annoyed, half surprised.
"Not so loud!" he whispered back hoarsely. "Please, you just have to trust—"
The test-dummy suddenly registered an arm's weight clamped down on Alphonse's head, and Izzy followed Victoria's gaze upwards. "Hey, kid!" Lilith's fangs showed prominently as she grinned manically. "Is this little man here bothering you?" Alphonse looked helplessly back at Victoria—and as their eyes met, Victoria understood.
"N-no ma'am. We were just leav—"
"Hey, what is this?" Lilith interrupted, no longer interested in the girl. She was now staring hard at Alphonse. "Hey girls, come here and take a look at this! Must be one of the big boss' new toys. Very lifelike. Where'd you get this thing, kid?" Lilith pointed to Alphonse.
"I…" Victoria began, completely baffled. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Victoria! Run! Get out of here! Follow Bell! Get out now!" Izzy strained at Alphonse's bonds, but Lilith grabbed a tighter hold of the doll. Everything, the whole charade, was about to be exposed… and all Izzy could do was watch. Valiant Victoria didn't budge, and the stubborn expression on her face said she was not going to let a vampire do anything to her new friend.
"You don't know what... wait... wait a minute..." Lilith's grin grew even wider, though it hardly seemed possible. "You don't know?!" Lilith burst out into a gleeful cackle. "Oh man, this is just great. Hey, want to see a neat trick?"
Without warning, there was a sickening snap of artificial tendon and bone as Izzy was momentarily disoriented. For an instant, he was only aware of a protracted, high pitched scream and the sound of a chair falling over. When he gathered his wits again, he was looking at the crumpled, momentarily featureless test dummy from the perspective of the robotic cat Bell.
Two of Lilith's chorus line goons restrained the screaming Victoria, struggling against them mightily. "Alphonse! Alphonse! I'm so sorry!" she repeated through hot tears, too shocked to register the less than human form now propped up by Lilith.
Izzy wanted to call out to her in Alphonse's voice to say he was okay, but some semblance of self-preservation prevented him; Bell was his only physical link in close range to the situation, powerless though it was. No one had yet noticed the robotic cat—and he intended to keep it that way until absolutely necessary.
"Chill kid, you haven't seen the good part yet." Lilith grinned. "See? It's only a toy, like half the junk in this park."
And through all this, Alphonse the test dummy did what test dummies were meant to do; statistics scrolled across one of Izzy's virtual control monitors detailing exactly what had been damaged, with exactly how much force and at what angles and velocities. There were odd snapping noises as the breaks mended and the crumpled body readied itself for the next test.
Victoria no longer struggled, and Lilith motioned for her goons to release the girl, evidently deciding this mental torture was way more entertaining than anything she could've come up with on her own. Victoria stood, her mouth agape, unable to form coherent words, but mouthing the word Alphonse over and over again. Lilith grinned hungrily, silently soaking up the sweet disillusionment.
One of Izzy's virtual monitors caught his attention: "Dummy Module Online. Reconnect? Y/N"
He hesitated over the virtual console, then finally—deciding he couldn't possibly do much more damage—hit the "Y" key.
Alphonse opened his eyes.
"Oh, your toys repair themselves now?" Lilith laughed. "Why don't you tell herself, Israfel? Why don't you tell the girl who you really are?"
"Alphonse…?" Victoria blinked, even more confused now from the vampire's questions.
"You need to leave, Lilith."
"But I'm just having fun!" The vampire smiled. "Isn't that what this place is about? Fun?"
"Your fight is with me."
"You always were a wizard with electronics, Izzy. I could break your toys all day, but none of that could get to the real you. You're somewhere on this moon, aren't you? Why don't you come out and play?"
"Is that why you're here?"
Lilith danced closer to the kid dummy. "All this time, pretending to be Walt Disney… at first, I thought it a brilliant scheme. Why hunt the cattle when you could bring them to you? But there were no deaths. No ghouls. Just trinkets and baubles and…" A look of disgust came over her face. "Could it be you forgotten your destiny?"
"Leave him alone!" Victoria cried.
The vampire turned to face the little girl. "I've got a different game, Izzy." In a blink of an eye, Lilith arms were around Victoria's throat. "Why don't I kill your guests, one by one, until you tell me where you are?"
D'Argent sighed. "All right, you win. I'm—"
Izzy's confession was cut short by Lilith's scream—less in pain, more in outrage—as a corn dog stick was suddenly implanted in the vampire's chest. Victoria broke free and grabbed Alphonse.
"Forget me!" Izzy screamed through the dummy's voice. "Just run!"
But Victoria did not let go, running through the hallways of Ghost City, away from the horrifying screech of the vampire behind them.
"You've finally opened your eyes, eh? Awakened?"
Takamitsu looked up from the doorway to the armor lab where he stood, assessing the damage. The laboratory was a mess, but Taka's father Akihiro seemed strangely unconcerned as he stood in the midst of it. No, not just unconcerned, Taka thought, reflecting on his father's beaming expression as he gazed at his son. Ecstatic is more like it.
"Uh… yes. I did. Just now." Taka cocked his head slightly. "How did you know?"
Akihiro pulled an envelope from the breast pocket of his jacket and held it up. "You know what this means, right?" When his son nodded, Akihiro returned the letter to the pocket. "They told me to leave the last one in my desk for you to find. They also told me that would be awakened before I saw you tonight."
Taka stared at him amazed. So the letter was meant for me to read, he realized, confirming what he'd already suspected. They knew Ji-yoon was in danger… and warned me to protect her.
"Why they chose to send a letter to me to give to you in such an indirect way, I don't know," Akihiro continued, "but their advice has always been for the best of the family, even when I don't understand it. Or agree with it."
Father and son walked toward each other, stepping awkwardly around the debris scattered about the lab. There was no embrace, of course, but they stood side by side and surveyed the aftermath of the attempted raid. With the exception of the suit that Wen was still wearing, all four Zeta armor prototypes were still secured in their display cases against the wall. There was a bit of an awkward silence. Akihiro conjured a cigarette which promptly lit itself as he took a long drag off of it. As he exhaled, he gestured toward the suits. "I know I haven't been saying much about it, but you're doing an excellent job on these suits." He looked over at his son for a moment, then tossed the barely used cigarette to the floor and stamped it out. "Your mother would be screaming into my mind if she saw me doing this."
Taka stared blankly at his father. They rarely spoke of late, and Akihiro never spoke about Taka's mother. "Why, all of the sudden...?"
"Because you're an adult now." Akihiro could see the frustration and confusion on his son's face. "You must have all sorts of questions. Hell, I do, too. The letters only tell me what the family decided I need to know." He gazed across the room at one of the Light Infantry corpses. "Sometimes, that's not very much," he continued as he began to move toward a lifeless, armored body. "Can you hear that yet?" he turned toward his son, pointing at the suit.
"I can't hear anything," Taka replied, even more confused. "Why?"
"I'm suppressing the signal so that our conversation remains private—but you should be able to hear it, if you focus. With a little more focus, you should be able to see it, too. Try it." Akihiro leaned against a desk and looked down at the body.
Taka couldn't detect a thing.
"In any case," Akihiro continued, "I'm not supposed to give you many answers right now, even if I have them. Your grandmother's orders. As for what to do about General Wagenecht, let's just say..."
Suddenly, Taka could see the signal being emitted from the fallen soldier's suit.
"Whoever sent these bastards is going to pay," his father finished, crushing the source of the signal with his foot.
Despite there being plenty of open land on New Tokyo, Light Infantry bases were always placed right next to the major population centers. Since they were the ones responsible for law and order within the Ministry of Public Safety, it made sense to place them near where the action was likely to happen. This was a problem in Shinjuku, being a massive metropolis built onto a peninsula, so Sisko Hawke Barracks was constructed on land reclaimed from the sea. In theory, the modern fortress was impregnable: one narrow access point to the city proper, twenty meters of compressed rock below, encased in plasteel. From the sea, attack was dissuaded by a series of mines; from the air, a forest of surface-to-air missiles. All of this made it the perfect base of operations to defend from…
…as long as they saw an attack coming.
Shinsuke and his strike team were using breathing tubes, a miniaturized version of what they used to call SCUBA, swimming under the surface of the water. The Light Infantry had predicted this type of attack against the barracks, of course, and placed mines anchored around its perimeter. The mines were loaded with sensor packages—which the strike team’s ECM generators deluded nicely, making their silhouettes look like more fish coming into the shallows. Quietly, under cover of night, they slipped onto the side of the barracks’ shoreline walls and up behind bored security guards supposedly on watch. Shinsuke's team cycled their revolvers with non-lethal ammunition, rounds that only hit with a static charge, and fired. The shock temporarily paralyzed the sentries' systems, but didn't kill them; after all, they weren't the object of the Yasuyamas' rage.
"Now?" Yasuyama Takamitsu asked over his dentcom, sealed inside old Delta armor, waiting impatiently for his role in the attack with the rest of the support team. Having avoided the Tech Infantry draft due to his late awakening, this was his first battle; the adrenaline was singing in his blood to move, move, move!
"Wait," came back over the line. His father oversaw the attack, his voice steady over the comlink from years of management experience. Maybe the battlefield and the board room aren't so different, Taka mused. Yeah, except a failed deal doesn't leave someone's head exploding on the… wait, why the hell did I demand to come along?!
"Shinsuke's strike team has secured the gate," Akihiro said. "We have an active link into the Barrack's mainframe; launching cyber-attack and downloading blueprints as we speak. Support team, get ready."
Behind him, Taka could hear ammo clips being locked into place and the high-pitch whine as they powered their plasma rifles. Takamitsu did the same, comforted by the feeling of a live weapon in his hands. It comforted him more than the wakizashi on his back. Years of kendo training taught him how to use it… but also taught him how unlikely he was to get close enough to use a sword on an armed trooper.
Across the land bridge, Shinsuke and his strike team opened the main gates and slipped inside.
"Now," Taka's father ordered.
The entire corporate security support team surged forward. They were a sea of white Delta armor, its color designed to deflect laser blasts somewhat. Takamitsu never felt more alive—or scared—in his entire life. Racing along with his fellow troopers, he sprinted across the narrow bridge of land to the military base. The whole time, he kept an eye on the plasma cannons mounted on the roof, specifically designed to stop a mass assault on the barracks like this. But they never moved—because no one had been ordered to man them. Taka and his team reached the gate and were inside Hawke Barracks before any Light Infantry could make a move to stop them.
Downloading hacked schematics of the barracks into their Delta armor's heads-up displays, the support team followed the strike team spearhead, navigating their way toward the control room—and, hopefully, General Wagenecht herself. There were one or two sentry troopers walking around that encountered the corporate security teams, but they were paralyzed just as quickly as the gate guards. Still, the manager thought, it's only a matter of time until we're noticed…
Alarms blared and lights flashed, scattering red light throughout the complex. General Kathryn Wagenecht stopped glaring at the progress reports on her holoproj and hit the comlink button. "Colonel, report!"
The barracks commander rushed into the holocamera frame. "Ma'am! Someone's penetrated the complex. Two of our sentries are down."
"Unknown. Our internal sensors crashed—we're only now getting them back up."
They know, ran through Kathryn's head. I should have sent a brigade for those Zeta suits. Black ops were never my specialty; I should have gone with my instincts. "Lock down the compound, Colonel," she ordered. "Bring down the blast doors. Trap them like rats and we'll crush them inside."
"Yes, ma'am." The colonel turned his head to someone off-screen. "You heard her! Blast doors down, now!"
"Sir," a nervous man's voice replied, "the controls are, uh… not responding."
"What?!" the colonel barked. "Where's our netrunner?"
"Maternity leave, sir."
The anxious off-screen voice continued. "Sir, we have a platoon… no, make that a company breaching the gate."
The colonel pulled out his plasma revolver and turned to the camera. "Ma'am, we will clear them section by section!"
"Then hop to it. Wagenecht out."
The general killed the link and pulled out her own revolver. "Neuking incompetent assholes," she cursed as she brought up the internal sensor readout herself. "How are we supposed to fight a war with cops instead of soldiers?" She watched the blips move through the complex like a three-dimensional chess game on steroids. All her pieces were in the wrong place.
The Yasuyamas' luck couldn't last forever. First it was a single plasma bolt, then two, and before Taka knew it he'd dropped for cover in the large hallway, caught in a firefight. Light blazed around him for a moment, but before he could even get his weapon up to fire, it was over.
"Move!" a man screamed, and against his will, Takamitsu obeyed. The wave of white rushed forward, securing another junction and section of the complex. As the wave advanced, less and less of them followed, splitting off by platoon to seize control of different parts of the barracks. From what the manager could see, the Light Infantry had been taken completely by surprise.
"Taka!" another voice screamed to his right. He looked and saw Yan Xu, the senior security officer in charge of the support team Taka was attached to for this mission.
"Yes? I mean… yes, sir?"
"Take your platoon, follow the strike team, and secure the control room. Shinsuke's men will neutralize it, but we'll still need it occupied before this is all over."
"Hai," Takamitsu nodded and pointed to the few men around him. "Follow me!" His platoon raced down another hallway, and before long they reached the large double blast doors that clearly marked the control room. The strike team was already at work getting it open.
Taka looked over at his platoon sergeant. "Explosives?"
"Signal disrupter," Sergeant Ise corrected, then barked out, "Defensive positions! Provide cover and support while they work!"
Two of Shinsuke's troopers moved forward, placing a small grey device on each door, and then stepped away quickly.
"Taka!" Shinsuke snapped as the device began buzzing. "My strike team takes point. Your platoon follows us to secure the control room, while we charge through it to the General's office. Dong ma?"
"Hai!" Taka threw a glance at Sergeant Ise, who nodded his understanding.
The buzz from the device grew louder and louder until there was a big pop!… and the doors opened.
"Chen, grenade!" Shinsuke ordered, and without a moment's hesitation, a trooper threw a sonic grenade through the small opening. The resulting bright flash created a sound that rang like a gong signaling the end of the world. Thankfully, Taka's suit's dampeners were working properly, leaving him still standing and functional. Before the echo even died away, Shinsuke and his strike team had sprinted through the door.
It wasn't until General Wagenecht heard the sounds of battle outside her office that she realized just how close she was to checkmate. Kathryn's face set, grim; she still had one move left—and they would never see it coming! She quickly typed her emergency passcode into her holoproj display, then listened to the welcome hum of a carefully-concealed transit beacon inside her office charging up.
Suddenly a thunderous wall of sound crashed against her office wall, nearly blowing the door down. Only the soundproofing around her office kept Kathryn from being temporarily deafened. Sonic grenade, Wagenecht thought, they must be right outside. She raised her plasma revolver at the door, waiting…
With a sudden bright flash of energy, the shimmering disc of a transit portal appeared in the center of her office, opening a door out of her dead-end trap. Kathryn smiled, holstered her pistol, and ran toward it. Nice try, Yasuyama… but your checkmate failed, and this game is far from over! With a single step through the portal, she escaped far away to safety.
"Go!" Takamitsu cheered, and his platoon rushed forward after Shinsuke's men, eager for the hunt. The white suits punched through the door into the control room, cutting through the dust and debris that blew throughout the air around them. Taka saw a bright flash coming from Wagenecht's office seconds before the strike team broke down the door and charged inside. He snapped his attention back to securing the control room; there was a single shot fired back, but the attacking defender was quickly knocked to the ground by the platoon charging in. The few unarmored troopers still remaining in the control room surrendered the moment a plasma rifle was pointed at them; without armor, resistance would be pointless, brief, and lethal.
Sergeant Ise checked around as the platoon took positions… and reluctantly nodded his approval. "Sir, the control room is secured."
"Thank you, Sergeant," Taka nodded, then bit down on his dentcom. "Sir, the control room is ours."
"Understood," his father's voice echoed through his suit's speaker. "Hold until further orders."
"Yes, sir," the younger Yasayama called back, then looked around at the room his men had taken. My men, Taka's mind cried with excitement. My first battle, and I made it through! I can't believe it.
His thrill of victory was cut short when Shinsuke came storming out of the General's office, spewing a stream of curses that would have made even a spacer blush. "Empty! The General's gone!" He swung his rifle around at the prisoners Taka's men had secured. "Where is she?" he demanded. "Where's Wagenecht?"
Taka glanced at the captive huddled on the floor—and what he saw disheartened him; they all looked just as surprised and confused as the strike team was. Taka searched out the highest ranking prisoner—a blonde woman with captain's insignia—and asked, "Were you in command here?"
"No, sir," the woman whimpered. "The colonel left a minute before you came in the door."
"And where is he now?"
A panel burst open behind Takamitsu and a ragged officer emerged, two plasma revolvers in his hands. Screaming incoherently, the missing colonel opened fire, spraying plasma bolts all over the room.
Taka was more surprised than anyone when one of them hit him in the chest.
END OF ACT ONE
Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, especially the part with the corn dog and the vampire.