"And I swear to God I saw an angel hand attend you
But that was just the dancing of the light.
No mortal or immortal did deliver or defend you.
All hands have forsaken you tonight."

-- Karine Polwart, "Waterlily"

The test dummy body was not designed for speedy articulation, and so Alphonse stumbled along, half dragged by Victoria who could run much faster.

"Listen to me, Victoria!" the disembodied voice of Alphonse resonated from somewhere in the direction of the robotic cat Bell, who ran several paces behind the children, throwing up an obfuscating wall of distracting flashes and strobes and other false images.  "Let go of the test dummy, it's nothing but dead weight!"

"Just shut up and run!" she barked between breaths.

"Well I'd like to, but this body isn't exactly designed for this sort of thing!"  Izzy fiddled desperately with the dummy's parameters, trying to squeeze out every ounce of responsiveness from the outclassed item.  Why, oh why didn't I chose one of the extreme sport safety dummies?

"I said shut up and run!"  Izzy was dismayed to find Victoria hadn't understood what she had seen—she still thought she was saving them both.  This just wasn't going to work, Izzy thought.  She could never outrun even an injured Lilith at this rate, and flashbangs could only go so far.  Calculating very quickly, he found the nearest route to the underground maintenance network and threw up a breadcrumb trail.

"Follow that light!" Alphonse ordered with such authority that Victoria obeyed without even thinking.  As soon as the heavy security door to maintenance duct was shut, Izzy slammed on the locks, sealing Bell out and Victoria safely inside.  The robot cat avatar didn't skip a beat; not even pausing, Izzy continued leading the vampires away like a robotic feline pied piper leading a band of rats.

As the distance increased and Izzy found it harder and harder to maintain both localities, he sent one final message and prayed she didn't do anything unexpected.  "Victoria, stay here.  You're safe here.  I'll be right back."

Victoria clutched the lifelike dummy to her chest.  She was openly crying now that she was no longer running for her life.  She gulped for air between sobs.  "When she twisted your head like that, I sure you were dead, Alphonse!...  Alphonse?...  Alphonse?!"

But Izzy was no longer connected to the test dummy.  Freed from the double connection, Bell was vaulting at full tilt and creating a spectacular illusion show.  There were now three sets of Alphonse, Victoria, and Bell, each appearing to run in separate directions.  The group of girls had now slowed, confused on which set to follow.  Izzy, elated that the ruse was working, concentrated his illusions, focusing in on his feather-clad pursuers.

But something was wrong.  They weren't even trying to chase him anymore; they finally stopped, grinning in a pale mockery of Lilith's own terrifying grin.

That grin.  All at once the illusions were gone as Izzy lost concentration.  None amongst the identically-clad women wore exactly that trademarked grin.  Back and forth between the leering faces Izzy stared, but that witch was not among them.  Where had she gone?


"Helloooo collateral!"  A pair of slender, tanned arms wrapped themselves around Victoria like two malevolent boas, and Victoria dropped the soulless dummy.  She screamed, but a perfumed hand clamped down over her keening mouth.  "Or... maybe collateral damage, I haven't really decided yet.  You plan on being useful, kid, or what?"

Never in her short life had Victoria been so frightened.  She was teetering on the edge of exhaustion and her lungs burned from overexertion, but somehow she managed to produce a mighty sound most likely only audible to K'Nes.

Lilith expertly tightened her grip on the struggling girl, being careful to avoid the gnashing teeth.  "Okay, that noise is really starting to piss me off, and that's probably not a good idea for you—and by the way, don't think I forgot about the skewer, that was just... embarrassing.  And in front of the girls, too!  God, skewered by some little kid, I'm never gonna live that one down."

Victoria was beginning to tire now, and her struggling became less and less insistent.  "You're just lucky, is all... lucky you seem to be the I-Man's new favorite," Lilith hissed.  "I've been working here a while now.  He hardly ever appears on the streets.  Stays holed up in his Ivory Tower or whatever.  Can't get anywhere near there without like a zillion suits getting all up in your business.  And now he decides to take a toy out for a spin?  What gives?  So it seems to me you must be something pretty special.  Is that true?  Are you special?"  Lilith relaxed her grip on Victoria's head so she could answer.  She shook it vigorously.

"Everyone is special."  Bell's purple glowing eyes peered out from an air vent, and Izzy's matching purple-clad form materialized in the room below.

When Victoria saw him, she strained at her bonds with renewed vigor.  "Help!" she pleaded before Lilith muffled her once again.  Izzy's face was an emotionless mask, but his words were saturated with hatred barely held in check.  He needed to keep Lilith focused on him, and drawing attention to Victoria was not the way to do it.  Izzy knew of her special hatred for children; the last thing she needed was provocation.  Izzy just had to keep her talking while security moved into position.

" 'Everyone is special'...  Okay, Mister Rogers," Lilith snorted, "you know, I think you were a lot more fun back when you were that naive little kid I uplifted in Switzerland.  What, are you regressing or something?  Trying to make up for a childhood you never had?  Daddy didn't hug you enough?  Because I gotta say, this Neverland thing is a bit weird, even for you.  And what's up with the holograms?  Did you know there's this rumor going around the ranks that you're some kind of AI?"

"I started that rumor myself, actually."

"See... there's this thing I don't get... you gotta feed, right?  But no one seems to have ever seen you in person.  Now that, I understand, 'cause we both know dead men tell no tales.  But that's the thing: I've been digging around, and there hasn't been a single death or disappearance here since that big fiasco near the end of the first year this place opened."  Izzy looked away.  "Yeah... I thought you might've had something to do with that."  Lilith smirked knowingly.  "But since then, nothing.  So how are you still alive?  And don't tell me you've gone all cliché and raid the blood banks, because I checked for that too.  So what's your secret?  Do you pick off stowaways?"


"Deal with human traffickers?"


"Subsist on animals?  Please don't say yes, that makes my stomach churn."

"I don't."

"Well, I've run out of ideas..."

"I've stopped feeding."

Lilith frowned, as though that thought hadn't even occurred to her.  "You're lying.  You can't just stop feeding..."

"Yes, well, I did."

Lilith shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around the concept.  "...but it's been years...  and you've been active..."

"In a sense..."  Izzy made a halfhearted flourishing gesture as though to say, This holo-ghost is me now.

Without warning, Lilith leaped with unnatural speed at the hologram, tossing Victoria aside.  She landed in a heap next to the Alphonse test dummy.  It took all of Izzy's self-control not to do anything rash.

"I give you this wonderful gift of immortality, and starving yourself is how you repay me?" Lilith demanded.  "Where are you, so I can come knock some sense in that head of yours!"  She brandished a finger ineffectually in the hologram's face.

Izzy shrugged.  "Perhaps I don't even have a body anymore."


In the back of Izzy's mind, Lilith's vehement rejection made Izzy wonder… could she possibly care about him in some twisted way?  He had always wondered why she had hunted him down just to whisk him away from Gehenna all those years ago.

"Oh, I'm almost certainly dead," Izzy replied.  "I could have downloaded my brain patterns into a computer and reconstructed them as an Artificial Intelligence.  Or perhaps I died many years ago, and am merely back as an especially eccentric spirit.  Or perhaps I'm just a mass hallucination caused by the unique geologic properties of this moon.  Or—"

"No.  I gave you second birth.  That bond tells me you still have a physical form.  I would know if you were dead—and using that, I will find you, even if I have to tear this rock apart and break every one of your illusions to do it!  Every.  Single.  One.  Don't think I won't tell the world what you are."

A chill ran down Izzy's spine; she knew better than anyone what his weaknesses were... but he smiled and bluffed through it.  "Fine.  Go ahead.  I hardly think anyone is going to believe you…"  His breath caught in his throat and before he could stop himself, his eyes flicked to Victoria.  Lilith spun around faster than any human could—and managed to get a face full of fire suppressant.

Lilith was momentarily disoriented by the stream of fire retardant spewing from the canister Victoria wielded.  Izzy slammed open the locks on the maintenance door.  "Victoria, run!" he yelled.  She bolted for the door.

Enraged and half-blinded, Lilith lunged at the girl as Victoria slammed all her weight into the door.  It seemed to swing open in slow motion… and just as slowly swing shut again as Lilith tore the girl away from it.

"That was a very stupid thing to do," Lilith growled in Victoria's ear.  "But like I said before, 'You're the favorite', so I'll show you something pretty neat."

"NO!" Izzy screamed, as though he could knock Lilith down with the compression wave created by the sound alone.  "Lilith, don't do it!"  He was nearly pleading.

"Truth is, kid... he got this ghost shtick from me.  See... they used to call me the Demon of the Wind."  Holding tightly to the struggling Victoria, she grinned like a Cheshire Cat—and, also like a Cheshire Cat, the two of them evaporated into thin air.




Lieutenant Commander Aaron Roquefort caught himself staring again, and he quickly averted his eyes.  The concentration needed to restrain himself was taxing, as there was little to hold his attention and he would have preferred to leave his mind free to wander.  Unfortunately, he could not allow himself the luxury just at the moment, as it always seemed to end with him staring at Admiral Qing Mengyao, the new commander of the Terran Navy's 6th Fleet.

Admiral Qing was… well, he was a testament to the sad truth that, even in this day and age, biosculpt was not a perfected science.  That fact was even more exaggerated with the Admiral seated next to Assistant Secretary Scyr.  The Secretary, of course, looked improbably young; Aaron would have been surprised to learn that he was less than fifty, but his features were those of a teenager.  Admiral Qing, on the other hand, looked like he had cut the face off a twelve year old boy and stretched it across his own to wear like a mask.  The cosmetic alteration was unsubtle, unimpressive, and more than a little nauseating.

The Admiral's true age was well over eighty.  He had been retired from the Eastern Bloc Fleet and living abroad (possibly in exile, Aaron was still unclear on the details) for many years before the Vin Shriak's Holy War destroyed his country.  And that was all Aaron knew about the man, because that was all Scyr had told him.  The Secretary had dug Qing up on his own to place in command of the newly-created 6th Fleet.  For all Aaron knew, the Admiral could really be just a fry cook with a fancy uniform.  At least he managed to seem like he knew what the uniform meant.  Aaron glanced at the person seated to Qing's right.  He would have liked to liaise with the Admiral's personal assistant, but so far the grey-haired, pinch-faced woman had flatly refused to speak in English.

Thinking about the whole situation made Aaron want to bury his face in his hands and weep.  Everything had seemed to be going so well for a while, but now his boss was insisting on handing over Fleet commands to completely unknown officers with completely uncooperative staffs.

Things weren't going much better on Aaron's own end, where he had only the most tenuous grip on the other half of this operation.  On Aaron's left sat Colonel Stefan Bezrukov, late of the Terran Army, who had just transferred with an infantry regiment into the also newly-established Terran Marines.  Colonel Bezrukov was commanding the 6th Fleet's marine detachment, and for the time being would officially serve as Admiral Qing's second in command.  That much, Aaron could handle.  He knew who Bezrukov was; the werewolf had served with distinction for nearly two decades in the Tech Infantry.  He had not hesitated for a moment to declare himself an enemy of Vin Dane after the man killed Chairman Clarke and proclaimed himself Emperor.  More importantly, when he left, he brought almost a full division of TI soldiers with him.  He was certainly a bit eccentric—Bezrukov refused to take off his power armor, apparently ever, and the black nanotech soup on its exterior visibly bubbled whenever he shifted his bulk at the conference table.  But at least Aaron had known what he was getting when he hired the Colonel for this job, and he was elated when Bezrukov agreed to take it.

It was just how Aaron had found the colonel that worried him.  When Aaron first inquired about Bezrukov after trawling the Army's personnel files, a staff officer had told him it might be difficult to arrange a transfer because the colonel was busy commanding three divisions of troops on P7.  That stunned Aaron, but then the officer had clammed up in a hurry when asked what the Terran Army was doing on P7.  That still bothered him; Aaron couldn't even figure out how the Army had gotten three divisions into Bug Space in the first place.  Then Bezrukov had shown up, but refused to answer any of Aaron's probing questions.  When Aaron voiced his concerns to Scyr, the Assistant Secretary had grinned, chuckled, and told him not to worry about it (as if such a directive were possible to obey).  Something was going on with the Terran Army that Aaron hadn't even had the slightest inkling of until the previous week, and now he felt like he could only have scratched the surface of what it was.  Aaron was used to not having control of events around him; he was even grudgingly accepting of the need for operational secrecy.  But now he felt like he was only a tiny cog in machinations whose full extent and shape he could only guess at.  That bothered him on a deeper level than he knew how to handle.

Aaron would have to wait to deal with his discomfort.  At the moment, 6th Fleet was being born as a genuine military force, and Aaron ought to pay attention as it happened.  The other five people at the conference table were passing the idle wait in their own ways, tapping fingers against the table surface or daydreaming.

They were gathered in the briefing room of the battle station Tenerife 7 in orbit above the planet Elysia.  It was the first time Aaron had returned to the system since his days in the Resistance.  Not too much had changed.  The planetary governor had been a wealthy aristocrat under Clarke.  She claimed to have supported the Resistance, and maybe she had agreed with their goals personally, but she'd never lifted a finger to offer any material support.  The policy paid off for her, of course—those who had supported the Resistance were mostly imprisoned or executed by the Federation before the Caal invaded.  Afterwards, most of the politicians who had done the imprisoning and executing were themselves hanged by vengeful rebels in the aftermath of the Fed's collapse.  Governor Kessler inherited her position by the simple virtue of being the richest person left standing once the chaos died down.  She was probably one of the Republic's better governors: reasonably competent and not nearly so conniving as most of her peers.  Aaron wondered how she would react to what was about to happen.  Kessler had no real allies or even much of an agenda in the General Assembly.  Yet.

Faint though it was, the electronic beep of a comlink pierced the silence of the briefing room.  Five heads turned to look at Colonel Bezrukov's aide, a young lieutenant.  He glanced at the device before turning to his boss and nodding, murmuring something that even the colonel couldn't hear, though there was clearly no need.

"My marines are in position," the Colonel announced, giving Admiral Qing and Secretary Scyr his own firm, satisfied nod.  "We are ready to execute."

The Secretary perked up at once.  He showed the colonel a toothy grin and started to speak before he caught himself.  "Ah, no."  He pointed to Qing.  "Sorry.  Admiral, if you please, your men have the order."

Admiral Qing offered his own smile.  He probably meant it to be friendly and understanding, but the way his jawbone moved under the too-tight skin of his face was only disturbing.  "Very good, Colonel," he said, "you are ordered to execute."

Another nod from Bezrukov.  The colonel took the comlink from his aide, and said "Go."  Then, after a moment, "Operation PEGBOARD One is go.  Thank you, M. Secretary."

"Thank you, M. Secretary," Qing echoed.  "Well done."

"Thank you, gentlemen," Scyr said.  "How long until we have the count?"

"Fifteen minutes if none of them get cute, probably no more than half an hour.  Yeah, Haskell," Bezrukov looked at his aide, "get us a general low-orbit plot up on the holo."

"Sir!"  The lieutenant looked down to fiddle with some equipment.  After a moment, the holoproj at one end of the conference table blinked on to show charts of the two hemispheres of Elysia and the control zones of the various orbital defenses.

On the ground, at all four of Elysia's major and a dozen smaller spaceports, squads of marines were pouring out of aircars.  Elysian traffic control and orbital defense were issuing instructions to every spacecraft in range to stand down and allow the marines to board.  The broadcasts were vague, but the marines' orders were to seize control of every private spacecraft on the planet large enough for interstellar operations.  Nearly a hundred freighters and small ships were on or around Elysia; they were all to be commissioned into the Terran Navy, along with their crews.  The same orders were being carried out at Epsilon, Hadley, and Hector.  It was a quick, heavy-handed, and questionably legal way of acquiring a rudimentary star fleet.  If the ships' crews cooperated...

And, as if in response to Aaron's thought, three blips on the holoproj were highlighted in bright scarlet, then four more.

"Runners," Lieutenant Haskell said.  Bezrukov and Qing looked to Scyr; the Secretary just raised an eyebrow.

"Easy enough," he said.  "Have orbital defense select one for destruction, then remind the others of their instructions, and inform them we can do the same to them.  Repeat until they land, or they're all destroyed."

Aaron swallowed, but the others just nodded, and Haskell relayed the order.  Almost immediately, one of the blips winked out of existence.  A second one followed a minute later.  Shortly thereafter, the highlights were removed as the ships changed course to land.  Admiral Qing and Colonel Bezrukov both smirked, while Lieutenant Haskell blew out a sigh of relief.

"We should have the tally in just a few more minutes," Bezrukov said.  The Secretary nodded, and the briefing room descended into silence once more.

That silence stretched.  To Aaron, at least, it went on well past the Colonel's few minutes estimate.  The holoproj plot remained uninterestingly blank and silent.  Eventually, Aaron's mind began to wander once more.

"Does anyone here," Scyr asked abruptly, "know the Legend of Guanglin and the bamboo rods?"

The Secretary's eyes flicked about the conference table, but no one spoke.  Scyr nodded, and continued.  "Guanglin was a small village in the far north of China.  It was founded by a famous soldier who named the village after his wife, who died many years before he retired.  The village was very poor, because the land in that area was not very good, and the farmers had to struggle every day to grow enough to eat.

"But despite their poverty, the villagers always kept one building in excellent repair.  It was a large temple house, and it was always painted in rich colors and gleamed brightly, even if the villagers had to sacrifice a full day to clean the walls after a dusty wind.  Inside the temple were two long rods of bamboo, each a little taller than a man."  Scyr held one hand up above the conference table to indicate just how tall he meant.

"The rods had been Guanglin's great treasure for as long as any of the villagers had lived, and many even believed they had been the personal property of the soldier who founded the village.  The rods were precious because of a village legend.  There was a prophecy about the bamboo rods, one issued either by the Buddha himself or simply by an elderly wise man, depending on who was telling the story.  The prophecy said that someday, Guanglin would no longer be just a poor village, but that it would rise to greatness as a powerful city.  This transformation would be accomplished by the man who could build a house out of nothing more than two sticks of bamboo, without cutting or shaping either; and this man would be hailed as a hero by the entire village.

"Now this was the sort of legend from which a small village can find endless entertainment.  Solving the puzzle of the two rods was a favorite pastime of the villagers.  Every so often some young man would try to prove himself to the temple elders by showing them what 'house' he could build out of the two bamboo rods."  Scyr held up his two index fingers next to one another to demonstrate solutions.  "Liu Peizhi leaned the two rods together and sat beneath them, but he was not thin enough for this arch to keep the rain off his head.  Huan Tengfei laid the rods on the ground with their ends against a dirt mound, but his enclosure could not keep out the winds which covered him with dust.  Both of the Feng brothers, sons of the village's only scribe, attempted to solve the riddle, too.  Feng Zian, who was very clever, planted the rods in the hope of growing more, but the bamboo had long since died.  Feng Zihao, who was not at all clever, tried to use the rods to support a large stone as a leaning roof, but one of the rods cracked, and the other villagers beat him to death for damaging their treasure."

Scyr shook his head and chuckled softly, as if out pity for the foolish boy.  "Well," he said, "then the Mongols came to Guanglin.  The Great Khan himself rode through the village on his way to conquer all of China.  And as he passed through, some brave soul inquired of the Khan how he might build a house out of two bamboo rods and solve the ancient riddle.  And do you know what the Khan did?"

The Secretary looked around the room, pausing to meet the eyes of everyone else at the conference table, including Aaron, until everyone had shaken a head.  Scyr grinned, held up his hands again, and waggled his two index fingers.

"The Khan killed every last one the villagers.  He burned Guanglin to the ground, along with its temple and its two bamboo rods.  That is the end of the legend."

Satisfied, Scyr clasped his hands together once more and fell silent.  Admiral Qing's secretary raised her chin and sniffed derisively, while the Admiral himself appeared thoughtful, as if he were pondering some deep wisdom.  Both Colonel Bezrukov and his aide looked horrified by the story, and Haskell glanced nervously at Aaron.  The lieutenant commander just wanted to bang his forehead down upon the table.

Fortunately, he was saved from self-injury when the marines received a new update.  After a few seconds of murmuring, Bezrukov announced, "M. Secretary, we have the count.  Ninety-six vessels have been secured here at Elysia, and eighty of them are freighters or other sizable transports."

Scyr grinned madly, but before he could say anything, Bezrukov continued.  "That's not all, sir," he said.  "One of the freighters seems to have been retrofitted as a spy ship for the Imperial Fleet.  One of the crew opened fire when he saw my men approaching, and the marines stormed the vessel before they were fully alerted and able to destroy the ship or their equipment.  We've captured their files, and may well get some genuine military hardware out of the ship itself."

"Very well done, Colonel," Admiral Qing said from across the table.

"Yes, indeed," Scyr said, his expression hungry, "that is excellent news."

"Any word from the other systems yet?" Aaron asked.

"Not yet, Commander," Bezrukov shook his head.  "But I think we're likely to be pleased with the results, especially from Hadley.  We had over two hundred private ships in that system just yesterday."

"Well, let's hope we catch enough in the net that we don't have to do this again," the Secretary said lightly.  "Just this one time is going to put a good dent in the Republic's shipping.  I anticipate greed will get the better of the remaining freighter captains' anxiety quickly enough.  But if we have to run a second PEGBOARD, we're likely to cripple ourselves for a long time to come."

"Better than being run over by the cultists," Aaron muttered.

"Yes indeed, Rocky!" Scyr laughed.  "Yes, indeed.  If it comes down to it, I think the Executive Committee will pay whatever price is necessary for survival.  Be that as it may, let's hope the task proves easy, shall we?"




"I'm pleased to hear that both of you would like to help us."  The pale goddess Irene smiled as she leaned back in the hotel restaurant booth on Midgar.

"Sure," Bishop replied, "but what's the task?"

The vampire shrugged.  "I'd like to discuss it with you… but in a more private location.  We can't discuss it in a public place like this… and I can't trust that your room isn't bugged."

"We've got scramblers," Fisher explained.

"As do I… after a fashion."  Irene smiled at Michelle like one would to a child.  "But our presence may tip off the wrong people.  So I'll ask you to come to where I live.  There's someone that I'd like you to meet."

Michelle tensed, but Bishop had no qualms.  "Sure," he replied.

"Great.  Let's go."  Irene got up from the table, left the restaurant, and led Bishop and Fisher out of the hotel into the cool night outside.  They crossed the parking lot to a hovercar (that resembled an old station wagon) parked in a dark corner.  As soon as they were seated, Irene drove away at a dangerous speed, taking back roads and side streets.  Twenty minutes later, they were beyond the main town surrounding the Ungae Palace & Vacation Resort.  Twenty minutes after that, they were in a hilly, heavily-forested rural area, where Irene turned onto a dirt road.  After another twenty minutes, Irene finally parked the hovercar outside a wooden fence surrounding a large two-story house, and everyone climbed out.

She led them to the front door of the house and knocked, hard.  No one responded, but the ghoul seemed content to wait.  Two minutes later, a man finally unlocked and opened the door.  Dressed in black jeans and a black leather jacket, the contrast against his pale skin immediately marked him as a vampire.  He made eye contact with Bishop for a moment, and clearly recognized him.

"Great… you got them to come back with you.  Come in," he said, motioning for them to enter.  Bishop and Fisher followed Irene inside into a huge open foyer with chandeliers hanging high above and stone marble floors below.  Opposite them, a set of closed double doors led to the rest of the vampire's home.

"Thank you for coming," their host said, closing the main door behind them.  "I overheard your conversation with Irene at the restaurant."

"How?" Michelle asked.

"Bishop's scrambler," the vampire replied.  "It opened a communications link with our equipment here."

The werelynx turned on her partner.  "You're working for them already?"

Their host answered for him.  "I have known and observed Bishop for many years.  I can understand why he is with us."  He looked towards Fisher.  "But are you?"

"What do you mean?" asked Fisher, surprised.

"If you want to be included in our plans, we need to know you're in all the way, a willing participant, not someone just going along for the ride or dragging their feet."  The vampire's leather creaked as he stepped closer to her.  "I ask again, and for the last time… are you with us?"

Bishop could sense that Michelle was offended.  She became angry, speaking loudly.  "Bishop follows you because he thinks you're different.  He's seen how humans treat werewolves in the Federation, and believes the chain of command should be different: vampires, werewolves, and humans… in that order."

Irene's laughed tinkled the chandelier.  "Well, we know why Bishop follows us, yes.  But why do you?"

Fisher whipped around to face her.  Glaring into her pale eyes, the werelynx asked, "Are you a student of history?"

The vampire seemed confused by the question.  "No..."

"Neither is Bishop.  If he did know history, he'd know that after the Bug asteroid hit Earth, there were still hundreds of sacred werewolf burial grounds that survived.  Precious wild life, important totems… it's why the Resistance concentrated there under the command of the werewolf Marko Vitek.  He defeated thousands of Federation Tech Infantry troopers sent in to kill him and his companions."

"I remember," the pale man said, "but how does that answer my question?"

Michelle turned back to her host.  "What did the humans do when they failed to defeat Vitek's Resistance?"

The man shrugged.  "They killed them all."

"How?" she pressed.

"They crashed the moon into the Earth."  Bishop gave his partner a slight smile.  "Even I know that."

Fisher nodded.  "A human named Erich Von Shrakenburg led a fleet with human crews to destroy Gaia.  He crashed his ship into Luna, destroying Her sister, and turning Gaia into a volcanic planet… killing millions of precious creatures!  He destroyed the werewolves' most sacred ancestral symbols and desecrated the most holy lands on Earth treasured by my people… and all just to murder a werewolf and his fellow freedom fighters that refused to bow down to the tyranny of the Federation.  And for that outrage, Shrakenburg is now praised!  'Destroyer of Worlds' honors in his name, statues in his image!  That bastard!"

"So…"  The male vampire cocked his head.  "You want to get revenge?  Against a man who is dead?"

Michelle shook her head.  "You misunderstand.  When I was drafted into the Tech Infantry, I wanted to be transferred to the Raptors as soon as possible.  I volunteered for my Special Forces unit so I could be led by a werebear.  I hoped I would never have to take orders from these humans again.  Humans that treat our sacred lands like pieces of garbage.  Humans that think of us only as overgrown soldiers.  They have no respect for us or our heritage.  They only care about themselves.  They only believe in their own inflated sense of self-righteousness and self-exaltedness."

Irene cleared her throat.  "I'm sorry, but I don't suppose you've noticed… we're not exactly children of Gaia.  Why are vampires better?"

"When Bishop and I first talked about working with you guys, honestly, I wasn't too sure."  Fisher smiled.  "But, just a few days ago when I met with Smits, I finally learned what the Earth Federation has in store for us.  The only thing I wanted to do was rip his throat out!"

"I don't understand," their host replied.

"The treaty?  The disbanding of the Tech Infantry?  They mean to shape the Federation in their own image with no regard for the spiritual values of my kind.  The draft may suck, but it's the only thing that's kept us together as a people!  If they succeed, we'll be pariahs, having to follow these humans and be treated like a bunch of mangy animals.  Rejects.  Diseased."

Michelle stepped closer to the male vampire; his leather glistened in the overhead light.  "After what the humans did to Mother Earth and Sister Moon, our ancient rivalry has now changed.  Had our ancient ancestors known how humans would trample over their holy graves and sacred totems, I'm confident they would have considered them to be the true enemies of our kind."  Her smile had no warmth in it.  "As far as I'm concerned, you vampires can suck as many humans as you want—because that's what they deserve!  They're only cattle… and I'll gladly herd them for you."

After a long pause, the vampire smiled back.  "Then we understand each other.  My name is David.  Follow me."  He led them through the double doors into a large combination living room and dining area.  A holoproj set into the wood of the heavy dining room table.  David leaned back against the table.  "As you predicted, we know all about your plans to hand-deliver a treaty to Aisha Ramirez.  Presently, she's on New Tokyo closing a deal for some sort of new power armor.  She doesn't trust that even her own troopers will keep you two safe, once they find out who you are and what you're here for.  So she's coming here to Midgar instead."

"How do you know this?" Bishop asked.

"There's only so much I can discuss with you until after you've completed the mission," David explained, "because if you're apprehended, you'll undoubtedly be interrogated."

"And what exactly is the mission?" Fisher asked.

"We know that Ramirez will be staying the night at Fort Trevor Valens on Midgar.  So after she signs the treaty, we want you to go back to the military base and… kill her."  He pressed a button on the holoproj and a perfect miniature of the fort complex came to life atop the table.  It included a wealth of information, showing all the security alarms, laser wires, regular patrol routes, power grids, and buildings—including the sleeping quarters of Aisha Ramirez.  "We can get you into Fort Trevor Valens and help you find her," David continued, "but after that… it'll be your job to kill her and get out."

"Sounds great," groaned Bishop, openly skeptical.  "Look, I said I'd work for you guys… but you obviously didn't think this through.  We'd be the prime suspects.  We'll be the first people the Ministry will come looking for."

"I see you haven't lost your keen sense of intuition."  David smiled.  "I saw it even when you were growing up, Bishop."  With a nod of his head, he ordered, "Follow me."

He took them to a door leading to the basement, and they followed him down the stairs.  Upon reaching the bottom, the two werewolves immediately noticed a man and a woman hanging on the far wall, chained, gagged, and unconscious.

"After you complete this mission, a mind mage will scan you for memories of the killing.  Then he'll create those same memories in these two."

William sniffed them.  "They're werewolves."

David shrugged.  "An unfortunate coincidence, I know.  You see, they currently work for the Yakuza, and the Ministry has a recent history of interfering with their operations.  So when these two are apprehended, they will be the ones that get blamed.  Everyone will believe it.  I'll see to that."

"You're going to need one heck of a mind mage to do that," Fisher said.

"The most powerful in the business has already agreed to do it… for an exchange of favors.  Now, after you kill Ramirez, go back to your hotel room.  We'll take it from there.  That's all you need to know for now."

"What about those Fort Valens schematics on your holoproj?"  Bishop pointed back up the stairs.  "This mission of yours is rather detailed, and we won't have much time to plan the attack."

"Irene will give you a copy of the file."

"And the details of how you'll get us in so we can get to Ramirez?" the major pressed.

"Of course," David nodded.  "Irene will take you back now."

"That won't be necessary," Fisher said.  "I have a way we can get back by ourselves."

"Good.  Irene, see them out."

As Irene led them out of the house, she gave them a copy of the holoproj blueprints for Fort Trevor Valens and other details about the mission.  "I'll see you after the mission is done," she said.  "If all goes well, we'll be spending a lot of time together."  With a wink, she went back inside and closed the door.

William looked at Michelle for a moment.  "You said you have a way to get back?"

Fisher nodded towards the forest and started walking; Bishop followed.  After a hundred paces, she turned to him and said, "You've done well learning gifts, and the work has paid off.  I sense your attachment to your spirit has increased."

"Are you saying I can summon aircars now?"

Michelle rolled her eyes.  "Remember how we got to the hotel?"

Bishop's eyes widened.  "The wings?"

She nodded.  "There's one last gift I need to teach you, one you'll need to know for this mission.  It's called Thousand Forms.  It'll allow you to turn into any animal—as small as a bird, or up to the size of a bison.  You can even turn into mythical animals and beasts… but that's very, very difficult."

"I feel that I've learned enough already," William groaned—but didn't like the look Michelle gave him.  "But… if this will help, then I'll give it a shot."

"This gift was given to us by the Spirit of the Shapeshifter," Fisher explained.  "To use it, tap your inner strength, just like you do when you change into a wolf.  Now instead, visualize the other animal you want to turn into, and visualize their senses and feelings at the same time."

"Any animal?"

Fisher grinned.  "In this case, I'd recommend an owl.  That way, we'll be able to see where we're going when we fly back."

"I'll give it a try."  Bishop shrugged and did as she said.  As he transformed, William could feel himself changing into the owl—but his mind couldn't handle it.  Soon he found himself stuck, halfway between bird and beast.  He squawked in frustration.

"You're almost there," Fisher said.  "Again… but this time, let go.  Let the strength of your spirit guide you."

Bishop closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and tried again.  This time he succeeded.  The sensation was amazing.  His vision in the black night was suddenly better, and he instinctively knew how to fly.  Fisher quickly turned into an owl as well, then led their flight back to the Ungae Palace & Vacation Resort.  Once they were within sight of the hotel, they landed in a dark alley and shifted back into hominid form.

"Good job, Bishop," Fisher said.  "I'm really looking forward to this mission."

"Are you?"

She winked.  "Of course.  You'll get to practice some of the gifts I've taught you… and you'll see me do some you've never seen before."

"Cool."  William nodded.  "Now let's get back to the hotel and contact Goldworth."
            They returned to their hotel room, found the communication equipment, and checked the clock: 2:30 AM, far too late to call Goldworth.  Besides, they were pretty tired themselves… so they slept in the following morning.  Once awake, after a quick breakfast at the restaurant, they returned to their room, assembled the communication equipment, and entered the code Smits had given them… and waited.

A few minutes later, an old man appeared on the screen.  Although he wore a floral shirt and sandals, his penetrating stare made them want to salute.  "Hello, this is Alfred Goldworth," he said with a deep English accent, the kind that made Bishop think of documentaries.  Goldworth's face darkened as he saw their images on his screen.  "This channel was reserved for General Smits.  Who is this?"

"I'm Major Bishop, sir, and this is my partner, Captain Fisher.  We've been ordered by General Smits to make contact with you.  We have an important treaty in hand, with terms—"

"Yes, yes," the retired general waved them off.  "I need to verify your authenticity.  Where are you?"

"We're staying at the Ungae Palace, sir.  Our room number is 618," Bishop answered.  "We have sensitive information, and need to deliver it to Aisha Ramirez personally.  General Smits believes you're willing to help."

"I'm going to have to cancel my plans today."  Alfred sighed.  "I'll be there in thirty minutes.  Discom."




By the time Argus McCall and the rest of Fifth Platoon were back on board the EFS Aegis Fist, and into their drop pods, the first wave of troopers were already down on the surface of Kalintos and neck-deep in combat.  Carried down to the surface in drop pods and assault pinnaces, or teleported down with transit beacons and correspondence portals, the Tech Infantry forces had already surrounded the main body of Imperial Army forces in the capital city of Loud Water.  Crusader and Wraith strike fighters from the Earth Fleet carriers in orbit, as well as the handful of surviving atmospheric fighters from the original Federal garrison, and had wrested back a tenuous control of the air from the Imperial Navy fighters brought in by the invaders.

But, as Argus's commanders had feared, the Imperial Troops were not surrendering.  So Argus and the rest of the Special Operations troopers still had a job to do, even if they were going to be a few hours late in getting started.

The first wave of forces down onto the ground had come in by drop pod or transit beacon, and had secured a series of landing zones in large clearings in the forest belt outside the capital city or at airstrips serving some of the nearby logging and mining camps.  This let the heavier equipment and additional forces come down in relative comfort in assault pinnaces, and begin the heavy slogging work of pushing the Imperial forces back on the capital.  But "Soti's Slammers" were not going to ride down in some glorified airliner and land on a runway.  They were not going to land in an empty forest or a pre-secured airstrip.  They were gonna fall from the sky in drop pods right into the middle of the capital city itself.

As his pod's countdown timer neared zero, Argus quietly prayed to himself, encased in his power armor inside a metal and plastic shell loaded into God's own gauss rifle.  The Lord is my strength and salvation, he leadeth me to lie down in green pastures, and not crater into them at mach seven when my drogue chute doesn't properly deploy.  He bids me drink from still waters, not burn up in the upper atmosphere when a proximity fusion blast scorches off my ablative shielding.  The clock reached zero.  God protect me, as I seek to protect your people.

The launch was like getting kicked in the ass by Godzilla.  Fifty meters of superconducting, magickally-enhanced magnetic rings flung the drop pod into the vacuum of space, after which its onboard ion thrusters took over and accelerated the pod down towards the atmosphere.  Well, decelerated, relative to the planet, but from his initial inertial frame of reference, he was zooming away from the assault ship at several dozen G's.  Only the foam padding inside his power armor, and the shock absorbers and inertial compensator in his pod, kept him from getting the life squeezed out of him.  And my old squadmates in the LI wondered why the werewolves and mages of the TI got all the glory of making first wave assaults.  The inertia alone would kill half of them before the enemy even bothered to shoot.

Speaking of which, the enemy in question had indeed begun to shoot.  Earth Fleet fighters and precision kinetic strikes had tried to suppress the enemy defenses, but they must have missed a few emplacements.  Missiles and beams of coherent energy stabbed up at the falling drop pods.  Empty pods fired as decoys were mixed in with the ones full of troopers, and an Assault Dreadnought was orbiting above the city, firing down additional kinetic strikes and precision grav laser bursts to take out the weapons emplacements as they fired.  Full-scale mass driver attacks with 100-ton cee-fractional slugs of metal were out of the question in a populated area like Loud Water, but lance torpedo and fusion cannon projectiles with solid penetrator warheads still did an awful lot of damage when they came down at over a hundred thousand kilometers per hour.

The drop pod carrying Argus entered the atmosphere going not much slower than the projectiles fired to aid his passage.  Since any form of stealth system was basically useless—considering the mere speed of his passage turned the air into glowing plasma that left a shooting-star trail that any infrared guidance systems within a thousand miles could pick up on with ease—the outer shell of his pod broke open and split into multiple fragments to confuse enemy seekers.  The inner pod continued to protect him from the heat of his passage, but soon the friction that had been lighting up the sky slowed his pod enough that it no longer glowed.  The inner pod in turn broke away, but not before its retro rockets fired, slamming Argus forward into his shock frame almost as hard as the launch had slammed him backwards.  Once the inner pod was gone, a series of three ribbon parachutes in turn deployed from his bare shock frame, each soon shredded into radar-spoofing chaff by the wind of his continued fall through the sky… but they too slowed his descent further.

Next his shock frame was cut by explosive bolts and fell away behind him as well, adding more metal targets for enemy radar to sort through.  Now he was falling in nothing but a suit of power armor, and he had nothing to guide him but the helmet-mounted sensors and his own two eyes.  Here, at least, Argus had a slight advantage over some of his more magickal squadmates, as his telescopic artificial eye quickly told him exactly where he was.  Only a kilometer or two off course, Argus realized.  The fleet pukes didn't screw up too badly… for once.

He told the nanobots in the arms and legs of his power armor to spread out a bit.  They formed stubby wings that let him control his descent a bit without having to resort to firing his jump jets.  At least not yet.  He banked sharply towards the downtown of Loud Water, picking out the gigantic waterfall that gave the city its name from several miles above it.  He told his suit radio to send out one brief low-power pulse, and was gratified to see that all three of his squadmates' suits answered.  Whisker lasers swiveled on their shoulders to lock on for secure communications, and shortly after they could all hear each other calling out to coordinate their landings.

All six squads of Fifth Platoon had jobs to do that day.  The four heavy weapons squads were tasked with specific targets to take out, defensive installations which had apparently survived the Imperial assault and which were too close to something else valuable to take out with an orbital strike.  The fifth and sixth squads were sniper squads, each with a sniper, a scout to find him a target, and two troopers to protect him.  Fifth Squad was led by a wereraven named Lopez, and Sixth Squad by Argus himself.

Their job was to find the enemy commanders and kill them.

Before the first wave had hit, the enemy commanders had been using a downtown luxury hotel as their temporary headquarters.  But that, of course, had been high on the target list, and a grav laser from the Assault Dreadnought in orbit had burned right through the hotel from the roof to the sub-basement, and Argus could still make out the burning hulk at the base of a plume of black smoke below.  Still, wherever the Imps had moved their high command to, that "somewhere" had enough uniforms and power suits crawling around that somebody had to have noticed.  Both sniper squads were furnished with lists of contact info for the local partisans, who would be instrumental in helping them locate their targets and take them out.  But first they had to get on the ground without taking a missile or chemlaser beam to the face.  And Argus knew just how to do that.

Loud Water was, of course, named for its waterfall.  Everyone knew that.  But waterfalls meant splash pools at the bottom, huge clouds of obscuring spray and fog, and observation boats full of sightseeing tourists.  And power armor suits designed to be airtight in a vacuum also tended to be water-tight with their own independent oxygen supply—all of which added up to four members of McCall's squad of troopers firing their jump jets at the last possible instant as they swooped diagonally in on their stubby nanotech wings directly into the tumbling waters of the Hydora river as they plunged over the falls and into Loud Water Bay.  The plunging column of water at the base meant a less severe impact than if they had splashed down into calm water with intact surface tension, and the scouring effect of the jet of water meant a deep splash pool for them to plunge into and disappear.

A few minutes later, the four troopers were calmly walking along the seabed at the bottom of the bay, weighed down by their armor and navigating by infrared and lidar.  Strange alien sea life swirled around them; mostly small analogues of fish and jellyfish, but a few larger sealsharks and squidiformes could be seen lurking in the shadows.  None were quite foolish enough to try and taste the four armored soldiers, but in case they did, enough of their weaponry would work underwater to repel any predators hungry enough to try.

Half an hour's steady trudging had brought them past sunken groundcars and discarded appliances, giant seaweed, and a local equivalent of a hermit crab that was big enough to be using an entire abandoned shipping container as its borrowed shell.  Eventually Argus's squad found themselves on a stretch of shallow water along a private beach.  Argus waded near enough to the surface to send one of his remote drones up into the air for a look-see.

Smoke and flame rose from many places around the city and its surroundings.  A couple of flying vehicles whizzed by overhead, too fast to tell whose they were or what type of craft they were.  Argus hoped they were friendly starfighters.  But most importantly, the beach was empty except for a lone truck-sized hovercar idling a few yards above the high-tide line.  That had better be our contact, Argus thought to himself, or this will be one heck of a short mission.

Argus signaled for his troopers to follow him out of the water, and they waded up onto the beach in diamond formation.  As they neared the truck, the driver stepped out of the cab and waved them forward.

"Get in the back, guys," he called out in a ridiculously bad stage whisper.  "I'll drive you to our hideout!"  Civilians getting the chance to play soldier always think they're in a gorram holovid or something, Argus smiled to himself.  Christ, he's even got on a frakking beret and neckerchief.  What, did he go as Che Guevara for Halloween last year?  Then he noticed the Webelos bumper sticker on the back of the truck.  Ah, that explains it.  Scout master.  Could be useful after all.

Argus thanked the partisan and motioned for his troopers to get into the back of the truck.  There was a little access hatch in the front bulkhead of the cargo compartment, opening into the front cabin.  Argus climbed into the back of the truck and positioned himself near the hatch, and then opened the faceplate of his helmet.

"Argus McCall, Lieutenant, Tenth Legion," he introduced himself.

"Brian Kaufman, Scoutmaster, Troop 3894," the partisan answered him.  "Boy, am I glad to see you guys!"

"The feeling is mutual," Argus replied.  "Any word on where the Imps moved their HQ?"

The driver laughed.  "You're never gonna believe it.  They moved to the local Girl Scout Summer Camp!"




I should be dead, Takamitsu thought to himself.  He felt like a mule had kicked him in the chest, but he could still act as he fell backward.  Stumbling, Taka took a pot shot at his attacker, giving the offending colonel a matching burn on the chest plate of his light armor.

In his berserker rage, the colonel was unphased by it.  He probably would have continued dual-wielding plasma revolvers to his heart's content if Shinsuke hadn't nailed him in the head a split-second later.

On the ground, Yasuyama Takamitsu saw his security team race around him.  One of them placed a scanner on his head, then furrowed his eyebrows at the result.  "Sarge, he's okay!"

"Okay?"  The newly-minted forces mage looked down and saw the blackened char on his breastplate.  He pounded it and heard a thin thump still remaining.  The Delta armor had protected Takamitsu from what would otherwise have been a lethal wound… but it still hurt getting shot in the chest.  Grateful, he managed to make it to his feet.  His Sergeant Ise rushed over to help him up, but Taka waved him off.

 "Xie-xie ni," Taka remarked to his platoon sergeant while stepping up to the colonel's limp body.  Takamitsu kicked it into the air with his right foot and elbowed it back down to the ground with equal force.  Venting is somehow more satisfying now with magick, he thought to himself.  "Captain?" he turned to the captive huddled on the floor.  "I assume that was the colonel?"

The blonde woman nodded quickly.

"Sergeant Ise," Taka reverted to Japanese, "let's not discuss this little oversight with my father, shall we?"  The sergeant nodded, just as eager to avoid Akihiro's wrath as Taka was to avoid Akihiro's shaming… but it was already too late.

"Has the control room been re-secured?" Akihiro's voice came through over the comm.

"Yes, we're fine here," Taka responded.

"Chanto kiwotsukero," his father lectured.

"Wakatteruyo," Taka shot back impatiently.  His father was too busy to be bothered by the fact that his son had just neglected honorifics.

Geunde, oppa, jinjja jogeumdeo joshimhaeyadoeyo, Ji-yoon whispered into Taka's mind, repeating Akahiro's admonishment in Korean.

Great, Taka thought to himself.  She's monitoring me?  No wonder Dad found out so quickly.

"I regret to inform you of more bad news, Yasuyama-san," Shinsuke said, he voice grave.  "We failed to capture General Wagenecht."  There was no need for Akihiro to reprimand his security chief; the shame of having failed in his objective was written all over Shinsuke's face.  "Her office was empty.  We're not sure how she escaped—"

"With a transit beacon," Akihiro cut him off.  "We know; I've already executed the contingency plan."

Takamitsu wasn't surprised his father had a backup plan—he always had one, and usually several.  The young manager sighed and turned back to Ise.  "Alright, sergeant.  Plug the icebreaker into the machines; they should deactivate our attackbots.  Once we have control of their systems, this battle is over."


Kathryn Wagenecht stepped through the transit portal and found herself in the beacon projection room of Battlestation Yamato, New Tokyo's primary orbital defense station.  There was no one in the transit room; hardly surprising, since the power constraints of using such a device made it impractical for everyday use.

"Only the military need a big glowing door to anywhere," she laughed.  Punching her beltcomm, she barked, "New Tokyo Planetary Command, this is General Wagenecht.  We have an uprising in Shinjuku—Hawke Barracks have been compromised.  Need immediate action."  She waited for the response…

And waited.  And waited.

"Planetary Command," she repeated, "this is an Alpha priority situation.  Respond!"

"Your first mistake," a man's voice drifted out of the shadows, "was threatening my family."

Kathryn spun around, pointing her plasma revolver in the direction of the sound.  "Come out slowly.  Now!"

A young Asian man obeyed, walking slowly out into the floodlights, scraping the tip of a katana across the deck plates as he moved.  Kathryn stared in surprise.  He was lean and muscular, with an appearance and bearing that screamed career military, and wearing an old suit of Eastern Bloc power armor.  "Your second mistake," he said softly, regarding her with cold brown eyes, "was attacking my nephew."

"Drop the sword!"  Wagenecht moved flawlessly into a two-hand pistol stance, born from years of active service, aiming at the stranger at point-blank range.  "Drop it or I drop you!"

The swordsman twisted his free wrist almost casually.

The plasma revolver instantly sizzled in Kathryn's hands.  She dropped it immediately and watched in surprise as it melted into the deck plates.  She looked up, suddenly tense as she realized she faced a mage.

"But do you know your biggest mistake?" he asked, amusement in his voice.

Kathryn shifted into a defensive stance, fists raised and ready to strike the second her opponent made his first move.  "What's that?"

"Using a transit beacon to escape."  The stranger smiled.  "The Bugs can detect those in seconds—how fast do you think a family of mages could react?"

With unnerving speed, the swordsman struck.  Even with all her training and the performance-enhancing FTS drugs singing in her veins, she only barely dodged the blade; a red line traced across her back.  Kathryn moved to disarm; her opponent danced around it and swept his sword down.  Her hand fell limp; its tendons severed.  As she screamed in pain, he swept his leg around hers, knocking her to the ground.  He raised his katana for the final blow.

"Wh… who?" she pleaded from the deckplates.

"My name is Yasuyama Akira.  Scream it in hell."  And with one stroke, he ended that threat to his family forever.




On New Madrid, it took Heth a day or two to meet with the power armor technician, but he didn't mind. Heth simply used the time to plot his convoy's return trip home.  The biggest challenge was avoiding an obnoxiously long detour by negotiating safe passage through Kalintos.  Although the star system and its jumpgates were firmly in Federation hands, there was still fighting on the main planet, and it was considered an active war zone—meaning it wasn't open to commercial traffic.  That didn't stop Heth from trying, though, wheeling and dealing, exploiting legal loopholes in international trade agreements, and dropping every important name he could think of.  Interestingly, once Captain Gergenstein was mentioned, things suddenly went a lot smoother.  Whoever the shady officer was, he obviously commanded a lot of respect—or a lot of fear.  Heth couldn't decide if he was excited or worried to have signed a contract with such an obviously powerful human.

The catch was that in exchange for free passage, Heth's convoy had to drop off a shipment of fuel and provisions with the Earth Fleet task force in orbit above the contested planet.  That was no problem—Heth just used the opportunity to sell the Earth Fleet a few tons of Mungunwha algae.  As he suspected, quartermasters were always worried about feeding their soldiers and spacers.  Finally, Heth negotiated an excellent price for filling his remaining cargo containers with exotic New Madrid seafood, popular with both Ministry humans and K'Nes… although they'd have to settle for frozen fish, obviously.

So all in all, Heth was in a fairly good mood when he entered the power armor repair shop, pushing an antiquated suit of power armor before him on an antigrav pallet.  Heth had recently promised the LEO of Miao Mercantile, under pain of termination, that he had proof he hadn't broken a contract after all, that the deal had been sabotaged instead.  The problem, of course, was that Heth had no such proof.  But, if he was lucky, he might just walk out of here with what he was looking for.

Heth pushed the pallet past low, wide tubs of nanobot sludge.  Modern Federation power armor was comprised of millions of tiny nanobots, getting power and instruction from a central suitcomp.  These tubs, by the look of it, were either repairing or recycling damaged and partial suits into new ones.

Heth looked around for his contact, the lab technician, and finally spotted him at a cluttered desk in a corner.  He was staring at multiple holoproj displays showing schematics, readouts, and other technical data Heth couldn't even being to interpret.  The tech had the rumpled look of the recently-promoted, over-worked, and sleep-deprived.  As Heth approached, he noticed buds in the man's ears.  Heth could hear the music clearly, and wondered why the man hadn't gone deaf by now.  Then again, K'Nes ears were considerably more sensitive than humans…

After standing there unnoticed for a few moments, Heth attempted to "clear his throat"—a human custom for courteously announcing one's presence.  Unfortunately, the K'Nes's attempt sounded more like a growl.

"Jesus!"  The tech nearly jumped out of his seat.  He looked around, saw no one… then looked down and saw Heth.  "Oh."  He blinked his bloodshot eyes, taking in the sight of the black cat in a business suit, pushing a pallet containing an old suit of power armor easily twice the feline's size.  "Uh… you Heth Miao?"

"Miao K'Rowr K'Heth, actually," Heth clarified politely, offering a clearplaz business card.  "But yes, I'm the vendor you're expecting."

"Oh.  Okay."  The tech tossed the card on his desk without even glancing at it.  "Sorry, he, uh… didn't tell me you was gonna be a cat."

"Please, a K'Nes!"  Heth tried to stifle his irritation, but it still came out a bit huffy.

"K'Nes, sure," the tech said.  He looked over the power armor.  "That a Mark 100 Centurion model?" 

"It is."  Heth nodded.

The tech gave a low whistle.  "Whoa… that's gotta be forty years old if it's a day!  Where'd you find a relic like that?"

"I'm afraid that's proprietary information," Heth answered, then pushed on before the tech could argue the point.  "Given the current rather chaotic state of the galaxy, you'd be surprised how much some customers will pay for any suit of power armor.  Even an obsolete model like this one—assuming you can get it working—can turn a handsome profit."

"Wait—that's Fed armor."  The tech frowned and looked confused.  "But you're not Fed… are you?"

"It's my property, I assure you, legally purchased as military surplus before the Caal Invasion," Heth lied smoothly, pulling a datapad from his inside breast pocket.  "I can show you the sales documents, if you wish."  It wasn't true, of course.  The obsolete armor had simply been abandoned when the Federation garrison withdrew from Nhur in K'Nes space… and the Miao had quickly appropriated it for resale.  Still, Heth's documentation would back up his story.  The Miao had many assets at their disposal, and expert forgers were one of them.

"Uh…"  The tech hesitated, and Heth could see him weighing the possibilities in his mind.  As always, humans opted for less work.  "Nah, that's okay.  If Gerg—er, 'The Captain' sent you, then I ain't gonna argue with it.  Around here, it pays not to ask too many questions—unless you want to end up on the Kalintos front.  So!" he said, leaning closer and examining the armor.  "What's wrong with it?"

"If I knew that, then I wouldn't require your services, now would I?" Heth answered, trying and failing to contain his exasperation.

"C'mon, pal, you gotta give something to work with here!  How's it broken?  Is it frozen?  Not morphing?  Won't respond to the user?  What?"

"The power is drained," Heth explained, "and it won't hold a recharge.  Consequently, the nanobots are stuck in their default form."

"Hmm.  Ever had a problem like this before?"

"Yes, actually.  This was one of a set of sixteen suits sold to the customer."  Heth left out the detail about the customer being the Holy Terran Empire.  "When the sales representative came to examine the merchandise, every suit performed perfectly.  But by the time I delivered them, all sixteen suits were exactly like this.  And as you may or may not know, the K'Nes don't look kindly upon one of their employees breaking a contract like that."  And thus began my downfall…

"Sixteen suits?" the tech asked, eyes widening in alarm.  "Where're the rest of 'em?  I mean, how big of a job is this gonna be?"

"I insisted on keeping one suit, so that I could determine what went wrong," Heth explained, "to make sure it never happened again."  And to test it for signs of sabotage, he mentally added.  "But we allowed the client to keep the defective merchandise—along with a full refund, of course."

"Really?  You cats let 'em keep the tech and the money?"  The tech whistled again.  "Must be one hellova important client!"

"You have no idea, I assure you."  Heth tried not to roll his eyes.

"Well," the tech said with a sigh, "let's check this suit out, then."  He stood and adjusted the antigrav on the pallet, levitating it until it was level with one of the nanobot tubs, and then rolled it in before turning back to his console.  The tech was used to the sight, but Heth couldn't help watching in eerie fascination as the nanobots absorbed the armor.  The contents of the tub, seeming near-solid, suddenly seemed to melt into a sludge, sucking the armor down into its depths, then re-solidified.  A second later, it seemed near-solid once again.

"Diagnostic & repair bay," the tech explained.  He sat down and opened software programs as the holoproj display brought up a three-dimensional image of the power armor suit.  He entered a few commands into the terminal, then studied the results.  "Well, they're definitely not holding a charge," he said.  "And it's not just some of the bots—it looks like all of 'em.  And, uh… yup, just as I thought.  They're not registering commands from the suitcomp, either."

"I see," Heth said, even though he didn't.  "Is that… a serious problem?"

"Dunno," the tech shrugged.  "Depends on what's causing it."  He tapped out more commands into the computer terminal while data and images flickered across the holoproj display, far too fast for Heth to keep up with.  "Crap.  Well, the suitcomp's fine—hardware and software, far as I can tell.  That means the problem's with the nanobots—and they're millions of 'em."  He sighed.  "Well, if it was an easy fix, then you wouldn't have come to me, would ya?"

Heth assumed it was a rhetorical question and remained silent.  Humans were fond of asking them.

The holoproj display zoomed in, magnified thousands of times, and the tech analyzed and examined a random nanobot.  He entered some more commands and looked at the test results.  "Well, good news is the bot appears to be fine physically—I'm not finding any damage to the hardware.  Hmm.  Let me check the firmware…"  He entered a few more commands.  "Wha—hey!  That's weird…"

"Indeed?" Heth prompted. 

"Firmware's been changed.  Don't recognize it.  Like they re-flashed the memory or something…"  He ran some more diagnostics.  "Okay…" he said slowly, "the firmware's functional—it's not just corrupted junk data.  Far as I can tell, it's been reprogrammed to accept power and instruction from a different source than the suitcomp."

"And what could have caused that?" Heth asked, tail swishing as he got closer to the answer he sought.

"Eh, this happens every now and then nanos from different batches of armor get mixed up together," the tech said with a shrug.  "Sometimes a bot begins reprogramming all the others during a firmware update or something, setting off a chain reaction that spreads throughout the whole suit like a virus.  It's rare—we got safeguards built in to avoid that kind of stuff—but it's been known to happen."

"I see," Heth said, whiskers twitching thoughtfully.  "Can it be repaired?"

"Oh, sure!  Just gotta isolate and reprogram the infected bots.  How long you say it's been busted?"

"Oh, a couple months, at least," Heth answered.

The tech grimaced.  "I was afraid you was gonna say that."  He sighed and shook his head.  "It's probably spread to every nano in the suit by now."  He entered some more commands into his terminal.  "Okay, there we go.  The repair bots in that tub will fix the suit's infected nanos."

"That's all?" Heth asked in mild surprise.

"Oh yeah.  It's a relatively easy fix, once you know what you're looking for.  Just takes time for the fix to replicate throughout all the millions of nanobots in the suit."

"How much time?" Heth asked, leaning forward, eager.

The tech shrugged.  "Depends on the suit.  This old one?  Couple hours, maybe."

Heth did the math.  Assuming the Holy Terran Empire had the right tools and equipment—which they almost certain did, somewhere—the sabotaged power armor the Miao had all but given away could be fixed cheaply and easily in a matter of days.  He'd nearly bankrupted himself refunding the Empire for the defective merchandise… and now it looked like they would end up with fifteen perfectly functional suits and a full refund.  Apparently, the Emperor was not just a King and a God—he was also a tightwad.

Heth's fur began to bristle.  The Imperial sales representative, Zechariah McNeilly, had all but destroyed Heth's savings, career, and family… all just to save some money.  Heth felt cheated, scammed… and he didn't like it one bit.  K'Nes culture was quite clear—and harsh—about how to handle a client who didn't live up to their end of the bargain.

Heth looked back at the tech.  "What caused this 'infection'?  How did it happen?"

"Well, I can figure out where the infection came from, I guess."  The tech scratched his chin as he opened another diagnostic program and ran it.  "The firmware update spreads exponentially, so I should be able to trace it back to its point of origin.  Probably a nano from a newer model of armor, I'm guessing."  He opened yet another program.  "I'll search for foreign nanobots in the suit.  Gotta be one somewhere… probably a whole bunch of 'em…"

The black cat and the pink ape made awkward small talk while they waited for the diagnostics to complete.  Suddenly a new image popped up on the holoproj display.

"There you are!" the tech exclaimed, leaning toward it and increasing the magnification.  Suddenly he frowned.  "Wait… what are you?"


"No, no.  Just… uh… I don't recognize this nano.  It's not from one of the later models.  I don't think it's one of ours… a bot from an old Eastern Bloc suit, maybe?  Here, let me check it against the database."  The pair waited in silence until the result appeared: No Match.  "Really?" the tech asked, incredulous.  He looked at Heth.  "This a K'Nes nanobot or something?"

"I'm afraid I really wouldn't know," Heth admitted honestly.  "I specialize in trade, not tech."

"This is really advanced!" the tech muttered as he analyzed the unknown nano, fascinated.  "It's tiny—smaller than anything we got, that's for sure… and, wow, they got a lot packed in there!  I mean, this bit, right here… I'm not even sure what that is…"  He increased the magnification again, examining the mystery nano.  "Almost looks more animal or vegetable that mineral, know what I'm saying?  I mean, it's almost like it's organ—oh God!"  He froze utterly still for a second.  Then he looked around in near-panic, searching for anyone or anything watching them.

Heth leaned forward, ears swiveling toward the tech, sniffing the air.  He suddenly caught the unmistakable stink of human fear.

Finally convinced they were alone, the tech spun back to his console and began shutting down programs, deleting data, erasing logs…

Heth stepped closer and whispered into his ear, "What is it?  What's wrong?"

"N-nothing!" the tech gulped.

"Don't lie to me!" Heth hissed.  "You think I don't already know what this all means?"  He didn't, of course—but bluffing was an art form any K'Nes of his experience had mastered.

The tech looked around again nervously, then said to Heth in a voice barely above a whisper, "Look, if the Horadrim are on your ass, then you're in deep shit.  Whatever you did to piss them off, I don't want any part of it.  You were never here.  Capisce?"

Heth kept a stone face as a wave of shock rolled over him.  The Horadrim?  Sky Father above—what have I gotten myself into?

No one knew much about the Horadrim, but everyone knew of them—enough to fear them, at least.   They were a very old, very secretive, very powerful race of aliens—and, thankfully, also a dying race.  There were only a handful left alive, although no knew exactly how many; it was the only thing that kept them from conquering the galaxy with ease.  For now, if one left them alone, they'd leave you alone—but their part-nanotech, part-biotech science and technology was insanely advanced, and they were very protective of it.  And, suddenly, the tech's analysis (and fear) made perfect sense.  A highly advanced, partially-organic rogue nanobot in the armor… of course it was Horadrim.  What else could it possibly be?

As the pieces continued to fall into place in Heth's mind, he began to understand how a Horadrim nanobot could have ended up in his suit of power armor.  Vin Dane, the God-Emperor of the Holy Terran Empire, was actually a Horadrim—although his human followers didn't like to dwell on that fact.  It was Vin Dane who (as his followers like to mention at every possible opportunity) had "saved us from the Caal" by organizing the last-minute, desperate defense of the Federation and destroying the Caal invasion fleet at the Battle of Avalon.  He'd convinced the few remaining Horadrim to join the fight, and it was their semi-organic god-ships that had turned the tide of battle.  Now, whatever Horadrim were left worked for the Holy Terran Empire.

Who had, of course, purchased the suits of power armor from Heth.

"Go on, get outta here!" the tech said, making urgent shooing gestures with his hands.

Even though his mind was still reeling, Heth's K'Nes instincts didn't fail him.  "Not without my property!" he insisted, pointing a claw at the nano-tub containing his obsolete suit of power armor.

The tech looked at Heth as if he had grown a second head.  "You're insane!"

"Would you rather I left the evidence here with you?"

"Oh.  Right.  Good point."  The tech spun around and hammered a new command into his terminal, and the power armor rose up from the nanobot sludge.  He heaved it onto the antigrav pallet and shoved it toward Heth.  "Now take it and go!"

"And a copy of your diagnostic results, if you please?"

The tech blinked at Heth, incredulous.  "Seriously?  You want that?"

Heth merely stared back, paw outstretched, open and waiting.

The tech hesitated a moment, unsure, then apparently decided the quickest and easiest way to get rid of the insane cat was by capitulating to his demands.  "Whatever," he said with an exasperated sigh.  "It's your funeral, pal!"  Heth waited patiently while the tech compiled the data in record time, then slapped a datachip into Heth's eager paw.  "Here!  And remember—you don't know me!"  He sighed in relief when Heth finally turned to go.

Heth pushed the pallet out of the repair facility, doing his best to keep his tail hairs from standing up like a bottle brush.  Slowly, he calmed down, gathered his wits, and tried to think through the situation rationally.

He'd found the answers to his questions—but it only raised other, more disturbing questions.  Why did the Horadrim blow my deal?  It seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to just to save a few credits… not the mention the risk of their all-important nanotechnology falling into the wrong hands.  And how did they do it?  None of this makes sense…

Well, Heth thought, at least I got what I came for.  He finally had proof that his armor deal with the Empire had been sabotaged.  At least, he assumed it was sabotaged.  He couldn't think of how Horadrim nanobots could have possibly gotten into the power armor accidentally.  Someone must have put them there deliberately... and Heth suspected he might know who; there was only one person who could have.  Heth didn't know how or why yet, true—but this much evidence, at least, should be enough to convince the Miao LEO that Heth's deal was undermined, that Heth neither knowingly nor intentionally broke the contract.  The promotion was as good as his.

Heth looked down at his antique suit of power armor on the antigrav pallet, and thought about the precious secret it contained.  Horadrim nanobots… Sky Father above!  In spite of himself, his face slid into a fanged smile.  There's got to be a way I can flip this for a major profit!



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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, even if you have two bamboo rods and plenty of spare time.