A STAR IN HELL – Act III
"He yelled at everybody in the road
And did not notice all the moths he'd massacred
Spread across the open road."
-- Toad the Wet Sprocket, "Butterflies"
Bishop and Fisher waited patiently on their hotel balcony for retired Lieutenant General Albert Goldworth to arrive. They said nothing as each quietly reflected on the events that had taken place since they came to Midgar. After what seemed like five minutes, but was really half an hour, they heard their hotel room doorbell ring. Crossing to the door, Fisher activated the observation camera and saw an old man standing on the other side carrying a briefcase.
"Who is it?" she asked.
"My name is Alfred Goldworth," the man said in a thick English accent. "I'm looking for Bishop and Fisher. Are you there?"
Fisher opened the door. "Yes. Come in." As she closed the door, she smiled and said, "I'm Captain Fisher—this is Major Bishop."
"A pleasure to meet you." Alfred extended his hand to Fisher; she reluctantly shook his hand, and Goldworth did the same with Bishop. "Now that we've exchanged pleasantries, forgive me, but I am a very busy man. I'm led to understand you have a treaty, one to be delivered to Ramirez?"
"Correct," Bishop answered.
"May I see the document?"
Bishop retrieved a small tube containing the treaty and handed it to Goldworth. The retired general took it over to the hotel room's desk and pulled out the long paper document. Putting on his glasses, he quickly skimmed through it, paying close attention to the signatures at the bottom. "That's Joseph's signature, all right." He held the document up to the lamp, pulled out what looked like a red laser pen, slowly ran it over the paper from top to bottom, and could clearly see the Earth Federation's official symbol in the background. After examining it very closely for a few more seconds, he turned towards Bishop and Fisher. "It's authentic."
"Great," said Bishop. "Do you know if you can get us into contact with Ramirez?"
"Before coming here, one of my former military contacts in the Light Infantry let me know that Ramirez is currently on New Tokyo. He told me that if I could verify the authenticity of the treaty, he would make arrangements for Ramirez to immediately come to Midgar and sign it… provided I believed the terms were something she would agree to."
William nodded. "Must be a pretty powerful contact."
"Major Robert Mason, Light Infantry," Goldworth explained without the slightest pause. "He's now M. Ramirez's chief advisor. I informed him of the situation." The retired general paused a moment, then chuckled to himself. "Of course, given the current riots on New Tokyo, I imagine M. Ramirez will welcome any excuse to leave."
"Why are you telling us all this?" Michelle asked.
The general glanced at her. "Because the treaty is authentic; I want to assure you that I am authentic as well."
"So what do you think about the treaty?" asked Fisher.
"I think it's about bloody time. It's foolish for the Ministry of Public Safety and the Earth Federation to be separated. Simply foolish."
"Because of the Holy Terran Empire?" Bishop asked.
"Among other powers in the universe," Goldworth agreed. "We need to get our act in order. I'm going to email Robert at once." The Englishmen opened his briefcase and withdrew what looked like an antique laptop.
"E-mail?" Michelle asked, incredulous.
"Yes, e-mail," the retired general answered.
"Why not just comm him?"
Goldworth flipped open the laptop and placed it on the desk. "Because, young miss," he answered as he entered several passwords to reach his email client, "an interstellar comm on a government channel would be noticed... and inevitably hacked." He typed out the letter at a surprisingly fast rate. "Everyone uses the same Federation ciphers—they're simply not as reliable as they were before the Fall." He finished typing and sent the letter. "Whereas one encrypted e-mail? Among millions daily? Who would notice?"
Even the major admitted his security was "Impressive."
Goldworth stood up from the desk. "If one is to survive on Mount Olympus as a mere mortal, as M. Mason is, you need to learn to steal fire from the gods."
Bishop went cross-eyed. "What?"
The general sighed with disappointment. "Major, I expect to get a reply from Mason shortly, but there are a few ground rules I want to go over with you. First, Ramirez will not come here at the drop of a hat. I expect that she will arrive sometime late this evening at the earliest."
"I thought you said…" Michelle interrupted.
"A head of state does not travel on freighters, my dear. The Ministry's flagship is very fast." Alfred cleared his throat. "Now, second, when we go to give her the treaty, I want you to say as little as possible. Let me do the talking. Politics makes everyone… unsettled. I do not want the wrong word to pass your lips and ruin everything."
"Don't let us get in your way," Fisher mumbled.
A chime sounded. Goldworth checked his laptop, saw a message in his inbox, and quickly read the message. "Yes, she should arrive around 7:30. I suggest that you two relax. I'll go to the restaurant downstairs and get a cup of tea. Care to join me?"
"No, thanks," Fisher answered. "There're some things I want to go over with the Major."
"Very well." Goldworth closed the laptop and put back in his briefcase. "I'll meet with you again later this evening. We'll travel together. With luck, we'll restore order… for all our sakes."
As he left the room, Fisher relaxed. "Looks like we have some time to kill."
"Being stuck here… doing nothing for the next eight hours… it's going to make me go stir crazy."
"We don't have to do nothing." Michelle smiled coyly.
William felt hopeful. "What do you have in mind?"
"I have time to teach you two more gifts that could also be helpful for you on this mission… and in the future."
Bishop was noticeably disappointed. "Sure."
Fisher grabbed a datapad and started punching buttons. "There's an ability available to our kind that allows us to easily speak and read any language for about an hour. It'll even allow you to understand alien and ancient languages, although that will be harder."
The major looked doubtful. "I can hardly read English, Captain."
Michelle shrugged. "You need a strong connection to the spirits in your heart, Major. They'll translate for you… but you still need to work on your reading. It'd be a wasteful use of your gifts if you have to use it every time you read an instruction manual."
"Sounds good." Bishop nodded. "Let's do it."
"All right. This gift was given to us by the Spirit of the Raven," Michelle began. "To use it, you must clear your mind of the rage you feel when you change into Crinos. Instead, simmer and temper that rage so you can increase your concentration. Close your eyes." Bishop closed his eyes and forced himself to relax. He could still feel the rage of his heart pumping, but it was more subdued.
"Our ancestors considered ravens to be very wise and knowledgeable. The ravens listened to humans when they were talking among themselves, when they looked at ancient texts. The ravens were often ignored, but took in all." Michelle took a deep breath. "Now imagine one of those ravens is on your shoulder when you open your eyes. Hear it in your mind, let it tell you what you're looking at. The raven can also read your thoughts, and it'll tell you what to say if you want to speak in that language." Fisher paused for a second, then said, "Okay. Open your eyes and listen to the Spirit of the Raven in your mind when you look at the datapad."
Bishop did as he was told. Even though he could not consciously make out what the symbols and scribbles meant, somehow he heard a voice in his mind, and he repeated it aloud. "Tanis, ha-ir itikah… it says that an ancient city named Tanis was destroyed by a sandstorm that lasted a whole year."
Fisher smiled. "Correct. You just read Hebrew. Impressive. You should have no problem using this gift to interpret or read any modern human language… and speak them as well."
Bishop looked at Fisher. "Thank you," he said with great sincerity.
"We have time for one more," Fisher said, "then I think you should go back to practicing your reading and writing."
William felt emboldened by the magick—the gifts gave him access to a world he never knew existed. His pursuit of physical perfection seemed ludicrous next to the power these gifts gave him. "I want it. Shoot."
Fisher smiled. "The next and final gift that I will teach you…"
"For now. You need to practice these gifts for a while. Too many at once, and you'll forget the ones I've already taught you." She continued. "This gift is called Pass without Trace, and was taught to our kind by the spirit servant Uktena, who was a great serpent. This gift will allow you to move while creating only a scarce amount of smell or sound. If you only move at roughly half your normal speed, you'll be effectively invisible."
"Very powerful beings and spirits might still be able to see you… although their success is not assured. So it's like Blissful Ignorance, the gift I taught you a couple weeks ago. That gift allows you to be undetectable while staying still—but in that state, no one can see or detect you. Since Pass without Trace is similar, it shouldn't take you long to learn."
Bishop centered his mind, taking in a deep breath. "Okay, I'm ready."
"When you learned Blissful Ignorance, you imagined that you were a chameleon. Now instead, look into your soul and imagine the spirit of Uktena, the serpent. Hold that image in your mind and stand very still. Then, slowly, walk in front of the mirror."
Bishop did as he was told. He walked over to the mirror… and could still see his image clearly reflected.
"Now while holding that, imagine that you're not standing there," Michelle instructed. "Instead, see yourself like a serpent crawling along the carpet."
Bishop closed his eyes and did as she instructed.
"Now open them."
Bishop opened his eyes—and could no longer see his image in the mirror. He slowly walked forwards and backwards, but still could not see his reflection. He gradually increased his speed until he was moving half as fast as normal, and yet he was still invisible. Then he made a sudden movement—and his image reappeared in the mirror.
"Excellent," Fisher said. "Now let's practice your reading until Goldworth comes back." She punched a few buttons on her datapad, sat down at the hotel room's desk, and joined Bishop in going through his third grade level reading exercises.
After several hours of practice, they heard a knock at the door. Fisher checked the door cam, saw it was Goldworth, and opened the door.
"It's time," Goldworth said. Without delay, Bishop grabbed the treaty, and the three of them walked out of the hotel to find a Light Infantry armored hovercar waiting for them. A soldier standing to the side hastily opened a passenger door. All three squeezed in, and the hovercar sped out of the parking lot.
An hour of driving brought them to one of the more remote parts of Midgar. Eventually, they saw the outer fence of a military establishment, with laser wires extending very high into the air along the outer wall. Within moments, they drove up to an entrance where a sign hanging over it identified it as "Fort Trevor Valens." As they passed through the gate, Bishop and Fisher were pleased to notice a relatively thin force of Light Infantry soldiers occupying the base. The armored hovercar drove up to the main building, where a small squad of six troopers rushed over to them, opened the passenger doors, and escorted them inside.
They made their way through to a large room dominated by a huge polished wooden desk with bookcases lining the walls. A dusky, attractive woman sat behind the desk, with a man in a business suit to her left and one in a major general's uniform to her left. The woman stood as the trio entered. "It's pleasure to see you again, Alfred."
"The pleasure is all mine, madam." Goldworth bowed slightly. "May I introduce my companions…"
"Major Bishop." The woman nodded as she walked over and shook his hand, and then repeated the pleasantry with his partner. "Captain Fisher. I appreciate the effort it took for you both to come here. I, of course, am Aisha Ramirez."
"Chief Minister," Goldworth clarified, "of the Ministry of Public Safety."
She rolled her eyes. "We'll have plenty of time for formalities after the treaty is signed, Alfred. Besides… I don't have to wear the title for much longer, do I?" Aisha smiled.
You have no idea, Bishop thought, but instead said, "Yes, ma'am."
"Now, do you have the treaty?"
Bishop produced the tube and Ramirez opened it, pulling out the treaty. She unrolled it on her desk and started reading it very slowly. "General Richards, Robert, please take a look," she said to the two men standing beside her. They both leaned over and also examined the wording of the treaty very carefully. After a few moments, each looked up at Ramirez and nodded.
"The terms are acceptable," the man in the suit answered. Robert Mason, Bishop identified, as the suit gave her an ornamental pen. Ramirez signed the treaty, along with the uniformed general next to her.
"Thank you," she said to the two Tech Infantry officers. "It will take a few days for this new agreement to go into effect, so I'd ask that you wait before returning back to Chairman Smythe. I intend to discuss some other details with Smythe myself, and I may need another courier; you've both proven yourselves capable."
"We're available, ma'am," Fisher assured her.
Aisha gave a hungry smile. "Excellent. Then stay at the resort and enjoy a few days of vacation. You deserve it."
"Thank you, ma'am," Bishop replied, and they both saluted her. They nodded to the other men in the room, did an about face, and left.
"Get out! GET OUT OF MY OFFICE!" Izzy would've thrown something at his Chief of Security if he could have. It was all he could do to keep his holographic form from lunging ineffectually at the small quivering paper pusher. Despite Izzy's lack of physical presence, the milquetoast man did indeed make a hasty retreat.
No one currently employed at the amusement park had ever seen their cheerful and eccentric employer in any kind of black emotional state beyond mild annoyance. Even in the park's most trying situations, he was known for his unwavering and cheerful calm. His current mood, however, was so far beyond mild annoyance that some of the people who had the misfortune to meet with Izzy that day could hardly match his face with the emotion, which made it all the more frightening.
Izzy paced barefoot in a virtual alpine blizzard. The simulated cold's sharpness helped clear his mind, but did nothing to ease his rage. How dare they be so lackadaisical with background checks! How could they have let one as dangerous as Lilith through? What happened to the strict standards I put in place to prevent this sort of thing? But what fueled his anger more than anything else was that he knew, in his heart of hearts, that it had been his responsibility to watch the child… and he had failed. No amount of lying to himself could get around that it was his fault.
The news of the missing child spread like Greek fire amongst the staff. The park was on Level Three Lockdown; there would be no transport on or off world, and the rail lines were on alert. But Izzy knew such measures were completely useless against Lilith; for one, he knew she wasn't going to try to make an escape. Her goal was to lure him out of hiding, not petty kidnapping. And second, Lilith was perfectly capable of travelling without the use of the public transit system, as evidenced by her disappearing act. No, these measures were merely for show. The public did not know—and would not be told—the nature of the kidnapping. In fact, only his top security officials and crack vampire hunting team knew of the vampiric nature of the kidnapper; the fewer who knew, the better. There was no reason to start a panic, especially since Izzy knew this was a focused attack directed at him. That last bit of information, only he knew.
Izzy turned his attention back to his now-empty office, materializing in the sober deep purple and dark grey pinstripe suit of the modern style he often wore to important meetings and political events. Taking a deep calming breath, he said to the air, "Alright, please send M. Sylvest in."
Patty did not take the news well. A minute or so later, tears streaming down her cheeks, the outraged mother did what she did best—organize. The other contest winners soon found themselves corralled back to their hotel, which made it easy for Patty Sylvest to find them. As she brought them to the games room, she told them all what happened.
"…so this wacko manages to get past all the security and steal my daughter!"
Rarhath looked over at his own cubs, happily floating around playing tag in the air above them. "This kidnapper? Have they issued any demands? In similar situations, paying the ransom is usually the most effective strategy."
"Izzy won't tell me!" Patty's frustration shone through.
"He doesn't need to." Gabriel Quattone took out a cord of wire out of his pocket and stuck one end into his neck, into a dataport no one had noticed before, since it had been hidden by his shirt collar.
"What are you doing?" Chakravarty asked.
"Cutting through the red tape—virtually. Does anyone see something on the wall that looks like this?" Quattone pointed to the dataport in his neck.
Everyone started looking around until one of Tammy Chakravarty's kids found one behind the pool table. As Gabriel walked over to plug himself in, Tammy had to ask, "Don't you have a cybermodem implant?"
"Sure, but you get faster speed and less data degradation when you straight-jack it in." The netrunner blushed as he plugged himself in. "Besides, they encrypted the wireless about half an hour ago. I'll have better luck cracking the database directly."
As Gabriel closed his eyes, Tammy huffed. "Now while he's asleep, what are we gonna do?"
Malai Prattabong had the answer. "We're going to find the kidnapper," she said matter-of-factly.
"How?" Patty glared at her like a drowning woman looking for a rope.
The Thai woman took out her datapad and opened the park's map; unlike more sensitive areas, it wasn't blocked from customer access. "My father was in InSec. He infiltrated the refugee community of Mars." Before Tammy could finish gasping, Malai explained, "He taught me how to do EPOW searches—"
"EPOW?" Rarhath repeated, puzzled by the human acronym.
"Enemy Prisoner of War," Malai clarified, "basically how to find who you wanted. You want to find a particular person who's being hidden, but not send up any flags to let their captors know you're coming. You quarter the area, eliminate public areas, and find out which buildings have the best defensibility and escape options."
"So that's why your family didn't go to the Eastern Bloc!" Chakravarty realized.
Malai drew lines all over the map and didn't look up at Tammy's accusing eyes. "Thais were at the bottom of the political ladder," Malai explained. "Do you think I became an assistant director on my good looks alone?" She made a few more virtual marks on her pad, then circled her conclusions. "I've eliminated the possibilities down to three."
Patty Sylvest leaned closer. "The Hall of Mirrors, Ghost City, and… what's that?"
"Underground access," Prattabong explained.
Tamara looked closer. "The map doesn't say that…"
"There are no offices in the park," Malai said. "Where do you think they are?"
"Well, she was kidnapped in Ghost City," Patty explained, "so you can be sure Security has covered that area."
"So just those two…"
The Thai woman was interrupted when Gabriel "woke up" with a gasp. Sylvest swiveled towards him. "What? What is it?"
"You're not going to like it…"
"Tell me," Patty insisted.
"Turns out this isn't the first time a child has gone missing," Quattone explained. "There are reports of vampires having been—"
"Vampires?!" Sylvest screamed.
"It makes sense, I suppose," Rarhath muttered into the sudden silence. "For this 'Izzy' to have developed this moon, built all this up, and not be noticed in the global markets? It must have taken several lifetimes."
"You're saying our host is a vampire?" Chakravarty gasped.
"I don't know," Gabriel shrugged. "I just know what the Net tells me. But this has happened before…"
"Wish I'd thought of it," the K'Nes rambled on. "Think of the possibilities! Managing long-term investments, cornering the market on low-yield annuities…"
"What are we going to do about it?" Malai said, dragging the conversation back on track.
"Do?" Patty walked over to the pool table and picked up a cue. "I'm gonna get my daughter back—and put a stake into any vampire that tries to stop me!"
Lilith wandered the underground labyrinth, dragging the young Victoria along at a normal pace, not the slightest bit delayed by the child occasional falling. The collection of bruises across Victoria's hands and legs were quickly multiplying. It was only when the girl started moaning that the elder vampire looked down. "Naughty. You know, you keep blushing like that, you're gonna make me hungry." She waggled her finger in Victoria's face. "Keep up, sweetie. I don't want to wear you like a backpack."
The two of them turned a corner, and suddenly a wall of flame erupted in front of them. Lilith laughed insanely and pulled them back. The flames stopped just as suddenly.
"How 'bout a little fire, scarecrow!" The vampire continued cackling at her own joke.
"We can't go through that!" Victoria tried to find a way to turn around.
"Fire doesn't bother me… how 'bout yourself?"
"You need me alive," the younger Sylvest glared.
"You're right," Lilith answered… and then threw Victoria through the barrier. The little girl barely passed through the space before the flames roared again. Once they stopped, the vampire called, "Your biscuits burnin', honey?"
"I'm fine," Victoria moaned.
Lilith took off her shoes and tossed them through. When the flames roared again, she was ready. The second they stopped, the vampire jumped through unscathed. "Recharge cycle," she explained, putting her expensive shoes back on.
Victoria looked down the corridor they'd come into and gasped. Moving down the corridor were silver humanoid robots, marching towards them. Lilith roared with laughter. "Oh, Izzy, you genius. I can't wait to see the flying monkeys!" Grabbing the girl, she marched right towards the advancing robots. "Come on, collateral, I ain't no cowardly lion."
"What do you know about vampires, Rocky?"
"Sir?" Aaron Roquefort caught himself mid-step. He had just finished delivering his end-of-shift report and was turning to leave when Secretary Scyr asked the question.
"I asked what you know about vampires." Scyr stood up from his chair and stretched his arms over his head.
"Um…" Aaron blinked and shook his head, trying to recover from the unexpected question. "Nothing more than what's common knowledge, M. Secretary."
"Have you ever met a leech, Rocky?" Scyr began walking out from behind his desk, dragging one finger along the surface as he moved.
The Secretary rounded his desk and stopped just a step or two away from the Lieutenant Commander. His icy blue eyes locked onto Aaron's own. "How would you know?"
Aaron should not have let the silence drag on for so long, but he could not get past the sensation of fingers closing around his heart. Scyr licked his lips.
"I…" It was taking every ounce of Aaron's will not to take a step back from his boss.
"I'm sending you to the Hadrian system tomorrow," the Secretary said.
"What?" The question sort of rolled out of Aaron's mouth and plopped onto the floor like a K'Nes hairball.
Casual once more, Scyr turned and walked back around his desk, drawing up his chair with one hand to sit. "Apparently the Governor's getting shrill about Imperial probes into the system. It's not locked down like Wolf, and we don't have any real evidence of an imminent push… but we can't completely ignore the Charybdis gate, either. I want you to poke around to find out more, and liaise with the locals to see about shoring up defenses."
"You're sending me away?" Aaron couldn't quite keep the hurt out of his voice.
"It's a show of favor, Rocky, not the opposite." Scyr glanced up at the ceiling for a moment. "I'm short of competent subordinates with whom I'm familiar enough to trust on independent assignment. And as useful as you are to me around here, we've dispensed with most of the messy stuff already. Admiral Qing's staff can handle the rest of the details on their own. I'm staying to oversee Wolf, but you're going to Hadrian."
Aaron took a deep breath, nodding as he felt his confidence being restored. "Yes, M. Secretary."
"And I want you to be careful, Rocky," Scyr went on. "I don't know how familiar you are with the system, but there's a big secondary settlement on a moon, New Sparta. It's controlled by this reclusive tycoon who built an enormous amusement park there. He's attracted his share of unpleasant rumors, including…" Scyr paused a moment to meet Aaron's eyes again, "that he's a vampire. And the Governor thinks he may be conspiring with the Empire to seize the rest of the system. I don't care to speculate about either of those rumors, but I find it's always safest to assume that the aloof rich are dangerous, dangerous people. I used to be one of them, you know."
"Erm… very well." Aaron nodded. Really, what am I supposed to say to that?
Scyr smiled, and then made a shooing motion. "All right, Rocky, get on out of here."
Aaron saluted, and then turned to leave. He was just reaching the office door when the Secretary stopped him once again.
"No, wait a moment, Commander."
Secretary Scyr might have addressed Lieutenant Commander Roquefort by his proper title once before, but if so, Aaron couldn't remember when. He turned slowly, and found the Secretary tapping a finger against the surface of his desk while gazing up at the ceiling.
"Commander…" he said again, still without looking at Aaron. "Before you leave, I'd like your opinion on the work we've been doing here."
"My opinion, M. Secretary?"
"Yes." Scyr nodded up at the ceiling. "I know much of what we've done would probably be considered… well, unpleasant by many, even if it has produced results. So before I lose the benefit of your advice, I would like to know what you think. And I'd appreciate candor, Commander."
The Secretary had thanked Aaron for his help before, but it had always seemed a formality. Now, it felt like Scyr's appreciation might actually be genuine. The shock of that revelation gave Aaron more pause than the question itself.
"M. Secretary, I… don't think it's going to come as a shock when I say that you scare the hell out of me sometimes. You scare the hell out of everyone, but I think that's by design." Scyr nodded again while Aaron collected his thoughts before continuing. "Sir, in my time in the Resistance, I saw a lot of really horrible stuff. A lot of people died for no better reason than to satisfy the appetites of evil men; men whose cruelty I only wish that I could still call unimaginable. I'm still not really comfortable with killing people—maybe that's a strange thing for a soldier to say, but I'm not. Still, I can deal with that; that's not what really bothers me."
Scyr continued looking up at the ceiling in silence, and Aaron took a deep breath. "What really bothers me, sir, is when the killing doesn't mean anything. When the Raptors shoot people in container lots because the Chairman's ego can't handle a little criticism. When aliens wipe out whole planets because they're psychopathic zombie freaks. And when fanatics slaughter the survivors because they just can't imagine that their God-Emperor might not actually be such a fucking saint. That's what really gets me seething."
Finally, the Secretary turned in his chair to look calmly back at Aaron. The Lieutenant Commander shook his head and waved one hand at Roquefort to continue.
"So yeah, I might not be delighted about the way we have to do things sometimes," Aaron conceded. "But at least I know that the people who died did it for something. I believe in the Terran Republic, M. Secretary. I believe in what we're building here, and what we will become. And I believe those things are worth the sacrifices. I'd die for them myself. And…" Aaron's tongue caught, and he had to consciously force himself to keep speaking. "…and however much you might like to freak out your subordinates, M. Secretary, I believe in what you've done with the Terran Navy. The Republic has real hope because of what you've achieved. I have seen you kill people, sir. But this whole time, I've never thought you enjoyed it. I don't think I could work for you if I did. But here I am, and—well, it really is an honor to be here, M. Secretary."
Scyr just watched Aaron in silence for a minute or two after he finished. Then the Secretary smiled, a genuine, friendly grin which Aaron had never before seen on the man's face. "I'm glad to hear you say so, Commander. I'll be sorry to lose you tomorrow—however temporarily. All right, then. Dismissed."
Once again, Aaron saluted. And once again, he turned for the door. This time, nothing stopped him as he walked out of the office and back to his quarters to sleep. He had a long trip ahead of him in the morning.
The ship looked like nothing so much as a spiny terrestrial sea creature, only floating among a field of stars rather than a murky ocean. The hull was a stretched ellipsoid, with dozens of wicked metal spines radiating from the long central axis. The spines weren't strictly necessary. Each one housed an antennae booster for the ship's sensors and communications suites, but the performance gain was minimal. Scyr just liked the aesthetic.
This was his ship. His personal prize from Operation PEGBOARD; the Imperial spy ship captured in Elysia. It would be Scyr's flagship, the command center of the task force he had assembled. From it he would observe and direct all the myriad other ships according to his will. The Empire had called the ship the INS Carrefour. Scyr had rechristened it the TNS Scalable Brutality. The name was painted in white on the side of the grey hull, the letters broken up by the antennae spines. Scyr's shuttle approached its small bay.
"I wonder what Rocky would think of the name," Scyr murmured, then chuckled below his breath.
Admiral Qing's flagship was named the Vigilant or something more conventional like that. It was still being retrofitted in one of Elysia's repair yards. Both ships had started life as freighters, but Qing's was being up-armed and armored enough to make at least a respectable frigate. The Scalable Brutality would have to make do with its thin skin and a few hastily bolted-on missile pods. That was alright with Scyr, he didn't want to wait around for the yards to conjure up a real warship. And since he outranked everyone in the system, he didn't have to.
His shuttle docked, and Scyr waited for the main boarding airlock to cycle. As soon as it opened, Scyr was greeted by a young man wearing a dress uniform which had been officially approved for the Terran Navy only two days ago.
"Welcome aboard, M. Secretary," the man said, snapping off a smart salute.
"Thank you, captain." Scyr returned the salute casually, then stepped forward and shook the officer's hand. He half-turned to gesture at the marines in power armor following behind him.
"This is Lieutenant Dennis and Lieutenant Moyers," Scyr said. "They'll be your marine contingent for this operation. I trust you'll appreciate a couple of entropy mages, Captain?"
"Oh yes, sir," the Captain said, returning the salute of the two stone-faced marines. "Very much. Shall I show you the flag bridge, M. Secretary?"
"Please," Scyr said, gesturing for the man to lead on. Lead he did, and Scyr followed, with the two marine mages behind him.
Most of the Terran Navy's other starships would have at least a squad or two of marines aboard for the time being. They were not assigned to conduct landing operations or repel unlikely borders, but to ensure the obedience of the drafted crews, who had been operating their ships as independent freighters until PEGBOARD. Scalable Brutality was an exception, crewed entirely out of the Terran Navy's still small pool of volunteers. Scyr had brought the two marine lieutenants aboard for their magick, not their martial talents. In battle, a single entropy mage ought to be worth at least twenty centimeters of armor plating.
They passed another pair of men in the hallway. One was wearing a white one-piece jumpsuit that Scyr had seen once before. His wrists and ankles were bound together, and a Navy spacer was standing behind him with a shock prod.
"Captain," Scyr said, stopping the little procession. "This man is in chains."
The ship's commander turned, and glanced uncertainly between Scyr and the bound man. "M. Reilly is one of our Shrieker pilots, M. Secretary," he said after a moment, clearly believing this was sufficient explanation.
Despite its size, the Brutality carried only three of the LAF-1B fighters on external mountings, because of its other sensor equipment.
"I can see that," Scyr said, "and as a pilot he is putting his life at considerable risk in order to defend the Republic. Neither he nor his comrades should be humiliated for their service."
The Captain opened and then quickly closed his mouth. After a second's thought, he nodded firmly. "Yes, M. Secretary, of course you're right. Waldon, remove Pilot Reilly's bindings."
The spacer, Waldon, took longer to overcome his shock. But he did eventually holster his shock prod and unlock Reilly's restraints. The Shrieker pilot grinned as he rubbed his wrists.
"Thank you, sir!" he chirped to Scyr.
"Of course," Scyr told him. "You understand I can't have you put at complete liberty aboard ship or anything. But I do intend to see you treated with respect during your term of service. You'll pass that along to the rest of the fleet, Captain?"
"Yes, sir," the young man agreed.
The task force was assembled. Fifty freighters, the first to complete their retrofits and arrive at the 6th Fleet staging space in Elysia. For freighters, they were heavily (but crudely) armed: box launchers for missiles and heavy lasers which couldn't fire without deep cuts into engine power. The smallest ships, formerly private tramp freighters, carried only two or three of the LAF-1B Shrieker light fighters. The very largest liner carried twenty-six in its bays and external racks. Altogether the task force had two hundred and fifty Shriekers. They had capacity for dozens more, but the factories hadn't built them yet. Secretary Scyr had scraped up everything he could; it was time to go.
The Terran Navy had three hundred fighting vessels in total. According to intelligence reports, the Holy Terran Empire had blockaded the Wolf system with two ancient Rota-class destroyers, a dozen of its own converted merchant ships, and one frigate in questionable repair. They couldn't approach the planet, but they had completely shut down the Republic's gate traffic, and were slowly seizing or demolishing the outer system infrastructure. And Wolf was just barely self-sufficient in food. The situation on the surface would become desperate soon, if it wasn't already.
Three hundred sounded like a lot; against fifteen enemy vessels it sounded overwhelming. Scyr was not so confident. The destroyers were the problem. They might be old, but they were real warships, with trained crews and highly capable hardware. Their point defenses would cut through the Shriekers like a scythe through wheat. The Terran Navy needed overwhelming numbers to have any chance of victory at all.
Admiral Qing had shed his usual sycophantic demeanor to implore Scyr not to accompany the task force. Scyr bluntly refused. The operation needed a skilled commander, and the admiral had to stay right where he was to continue overseeing the proper formation of the rest of the 6th Fleet. The only other person Scyr trusted with the responsibility was himself. Duty called, he'd told the admiral.
Of course, that wasn't the real reason. Through his monitor on the Scalable Brutality's flag bridge, Scyr watched the magnified image of the Elysia system's jumpgate as it dilated to accommodate the flotilla. The dazzling light inside the gate hypnotized him. Scyr had spent too long in Elysia. Ever since that first trip out from Jennifer's Star, Scyr had been able to feel hyperspace calling to him. The feeling seemed to become stronger with every trip through the ether realm.
He felt a grin stretching across his face as the Brutality approached the transition. He was leaving. He didn't want to be here anymore, and he was leaving. He wanted to go. He needed to go… somewhere else. Somewhere. He was going to Wolf, maybe it was there. And if not, he could always leave again. Leave once again.
The ship and forty nine other freighters were swallowed up into another universe.
On New Madrid, Heth's convoy was almost ready to depart. Overall, it had been a very profitable venture—not only did he have the cash in hand, he'd also discovered a potential new source of income. Unfortunately, one issue of business remained unresolved—the refund of collateral secured against default: M. Wells' magick ring.
The rather… unprofessional M. Wells had provided the ring as collateral for the half of Heth's fee paid in advance. Now that Gergenstien had settled the account in full, however, the ring needed to be returned. Frankly, Heth was glad to be rid of it; the volatile and unpredictable nature of magick always made him uncomfortable.
Finding M. Wells, however, turned out to be surprisingly difficult. When he failed to get in touch on New Madrid, Heth quickly discovered the contact information on the human's business card was bogus. A directory search for Herbert George Wells turned up nothing except a long-dead writer; the name was almost certainly an alias… especially given that the writer penned a book titled The Invisible Man. Whoever M. Wells was, he had gone to great lengths to disappear and remain hidden. Still, a deal was a deal, and Heth wasn't about to risk breaking another contract, verbal or otherwise. So he attempted to contact their only known mutual associate: Captain Herbert Gergenstein.
Unfortunately, the elusive Earth Fleet officer proved almost as difficult to locate as Wells. The Tech Infantry Research & Development Office that Gergenstein referred Heth's power armor problem to didn't know any more than Heth did. He tried Federation Chairman Smythe's office next; they claimed to not know who Heth was talking about—although the gasp in their voice when they heard Gergenstein's name told him otherwise.
So Heth went back to the source he started with—Sergeant Tinsler. Thankfully, his commline was still in service, but he was not happy about being called back. "You want me to bug the boss with this?!"
"Normally I'd go through proper channels, of course," Heth assured the jumpy young non-com, "but... ah, apparently there are no channels for this, proper or otherwise. I'm afraid I've exhausted all my other options."
"Look, pal, I just work for him now. I don't know where he is..."
"Please, sergeant, I'm sure you must have some way to get a hold of him. In emergencies, for example? I'm on a schedule, so if you could expedite this, I'll make it worth your while." Heth smiled, pawing one of his shinier (and least valuable) rings.
The sergeant's higher and lesser angels did battle across his face's facial tics. It wasn't a protracted engagement; his greater angels had surrendered long ago. "I... I should have something in an hour. Meet me at the marketplace in Concourse B then. Discom."
True to his greed, Heth found the shaky sergeant an hour later, impatient to leave such a public place. Tinsler took him out of the concourse to a service elevator, taking him deep into the less fashionable parts of the sprawling orbital. Once they reached what seemed to be an industrial section, the sergeant led the way down abandoned corridors. When Heth heard the screams, his tail bristled in fear—but suspected they'd reached the right place.
Tinsler gestured to a nameless door, looking even more gutless than usual. "He's through there," he said, backing away. "Good Luck." Then the sergeant turned and scurried down the call to hide in a shadowy alcove. Heth watched him go. Clearly courage was not the human's strong suit, given that he was a soldier cutting deals for a desk job behind the lines during an active war. Swallowing hard, Heth took a quick sniff of nepeta to calm his nerves, composed himself, and scratched at the door.
The screams slowly stopped and a moment later Captain Gergenstein stuck his head out. He looked around, then down, and did a double-take when he saw the K'Nes. "Ah. M. Miao." He hesitated a moment. "How the hell did you find me?"
"With great difficulty, I assure you."
"I see…" Gergenstein glanced down the dark hallway. "We'll talk about this later, Tinsler." The Captain's head swiveled back towards Heth; not particularly annoyed, just impatient. "I'm afraid you caught me at a bad time—I'm in the middle of something right now. What do you want?"
Heth put on his game face and smiled politely. "I'm terribly sorry to bother you, but I'm afraid I have some unfinished business with one of your agents: M. Wells."
Gergenstein was silent a moment. "Who?"
"Herbert George Wells? He delivered your, ah, merchandise to me at St. Michael's Star?"
"Sorry." The Captain shook his head. "Don't know anyone by that name."
Heth blinked, hesitating. It was a lie, of course; Gergenstein hadn't even tried to hide that fact. Plausible deniability, perhaps? Heth wondered. Letting me know I'm only to deal with him from now on, not his agents? Whatever the reason, it made no difference; Heth got the message loud and clear: Pursue this no farther.
Of course, the Captain would almost certainly change his mind once he discovered Heth still possessed Wells's powerful and expensive magickal ring. Heth hesitated a second, unsure how to proceed, then decided to leave the decision in Gergenstein's hands: he could reclaim the ring when and if he wanted to.
"I see… well, thank you for your time, and my apologies for disturbing you," Heth said, holding out a clearplaz business card to the Captain, "but if you—or your agents—should need to reach me in the future, here's my contact information. Plug it into any holophone, and I'll answer right away; it'll be marked top priority. For you, M. Gergenstein, I will always be available for additional covert contracts."
"Yeah. Sure. Thanks." The Captain began to close the door, but then he paused, staring down at the business card. He looked back at Heth thoughtfully and narrowed his eyes. "You're headed straight back to the K'Nes Llan, right?"
"Oh, yes indeed, right away." Heth nodded. "I'm on a very tight schedule."
Gergenstein held up a single finger. "Wait a moment," he said, then ducked back inside, closing the door behind him.
Heth waited for several seconds, alone, puzzled, and a little apprehensive. Through the door drifted the sounds of feminine whimpering and a muffled "Shut up!" Heth sniffed the air, detecting the faint smell of an expensive floral perfume mixed with the musky scent of sweat, the metallic tang of blood, and the stink of human fear. Now Heth understood why curiosity killed the cat; he struggled to keep his tail from bristling.
A second later Gergenstein stepped back out into the hallway, datapad in hand. "Since you offered, I'd like you to personally deliver this to the K'Nes Llan Executive Board, preferably to the... what's the term, the leader of the K'Nes Llan?"
"Pirr Varrless? Some would call him the LEO," Heth offered, "but he goes by First Patriarch. The title is up for debate at the next shareholders meeting."
Herbert rolled his eyes. "Whatever. Just make sure he gets this, or someone on the Executive Board. Someone who can act on it." He held out the datapad to Heth. As he took it, Heth's eyes flickered down to the text and saw it was unencrypted; Gergenstein noticed the move, too. "It's not secret, but it is digitally signed. You can't alter it without invalidating the agreement."
"Of course, of course," Heth mumbled, eyes widening as he scanned the text. He looked back up at the Captain, stunned and amazed. "Are… are you sure you want me to deliver this? Instead of going through formal diplomatic channels?"
Gergenstein shrugged, impatient. "It's not like we have an embassy on Purrfang or anything—until now, Chairman Smythe's seen the K'Nes Llan as little more than a rebel province." He gestured to the datapad. "Hopefully this will change all that. The Federation's got its hands too full with the Holy Terran Empire to get bogged down in a Cold War with the K'Nes."
"Yes, let's hope so," Heth agreed as he tucked the datapad into the breast pocket of his blazer, thinking. "Well, I don't have a direct connection to the Executive Board… but the LEO of our corporate clan is Chair of the Board of Directors; that's rather like the lower house of your—"
"That's fine," the Captain cut him off as he pulled something out of his pocket. "For your trouble." Gergenstein stepped back inside and closed the door as he tossed something towards Heth.
In the lower artificial gravity of the space station, the K'Nes caught it with ease. Opening his paw, Heth saw it was another ring. He appraised it with an expert eye as he turned and headed back down the hall. Nice setting, he evaluated, fourteen-karat gold, three diamonds, high clarity, several carats each... quite an expensive tip!
Sergeant Tinsler stepped out of the shadows
as Heth passed by. "Hope that was worth it… what did the Captain
give—" His voice cut off suddenly. Heth looked up to see the young
soldier staring at Heth's "tip," a look of shock on his pale face.
Heth frowned and looked at the ring again. He suddenly realized he'd seen
rings like this before, on human females. It was a… a "wedding ring."
Against his will, the fur on Heth's tail rose.
Having finally found evidence that his power armor contract with the Holy Terran Empire had indeed been sabotaged, Heth scheduled a holo call to the LEO of Miao Mercantile. Given the contents of the datapad Captain Gergenstein had given him, Heth also needed to speak to someone who could get him in touch with the head of the K'Nes Llan, First Patriarch Varrless. Miao K'Nhurr K'Yawr was Heth's only contact who could.
Heth waited for the LEO to call him, then answered when the call arrived fashionably late. Heth shifted his posture slightly into a tiny defensive cower, tail lowered. It was only polite when addressing the dominant male of his clan. "Gainful day, sire."
"Gainful for me, yes," Yawr said as he took a pinch of powdered nepeta from a snuffbox. "Whether it will be gainful for you, well… that has yet to be seen." The big gray cat brought the powder to his nose and inhaled sharply in one quick, practiced gesture… and purred softly.
That's a good sign, Heth thought. He'll be in a good mood.
"I told you not to contact me again without proof you didn't break that Imperial contract," Yawr growled.
"Indeed you did, sire."
"Well, cub? I'm waiting."
And so Heth explained what the Federation technician had found, that the power armor sold to the Empire was infected with foreign nanos that cut the rest of the bots off from the suitcomp, rendering it powerless and dead.
"Sounds more like defective merchandise to me," Yawr scoffed. "I could think of several other explanations for that than sabotage."
"So have I, sire, but I haven't told you the most important part. Those foreign nanobots?" Heth flashed his LEO a fanged grin. "They were Horadrim."
"Horadrim nanobots?" Yawr purred, his expression skepticism mixed with naked greed. "Are you sure?"
"These bots are insanely tiny, highly advanced, and partly organic. I can't think of what else they possibly could be except Horadrim."
"Do you have any idea how much those are worth, cub?"
"Indeed I so, sire. Low supply, high demand… excellent profit. And as I'm sure you know, the Horadrim are very protective of their technology," Heth said, trying to drag the conversation back on track, "so I really can't believe that the suits got accidentally infected with Horadrim nanos."
"You raise a good point, Heth," the old cat said. "How did those suits get infected with Horadrim biotech, then?"
"Well, I do have a theory, sire," Heth said. "You see, the power armor was working fine when Zechariah McNeilly, the Empire's sales representative, came to examine the merchandise prior to signing the contract. But by the time the suits reached Imperial space, they were drained and unresponsive. They must have been infected during that window of time."
"A competitor's spy within our corporate clan?" Yawr suggested… but he sounded doubtful.
"Possible, but unlikely," Heth said. "I doubt any K'Nes could get their hands on Horadrim nanobots—and if they could, they'd flip them for a massive profit instead of planting them in power armor, Imperial contracts notwithstanding. No, I think it must have been a Horadrim who infected the suits… and that Horadrim had to have been an Imperial agent. There aren't many Horadrim left, after all, and what few there are almost all work for Emperor Vin Dane. And the only Imperial agent who had any contact with the suits during that time frame… was the sales representative, McNeilly. He handled every suit while inspecting the merchandise. He must have been the saboteur—that's the only thing that makes sense."
"Nonsense!" Yawr spat. "McNeilly was obviously human!"
"We thought he was human, yes," Heth agreed. "But Horadrim can use their Soul Web to look perfectly human if they choose to. That's how Emperor Vin Dane passes himself off as human to his followers, after all."
Horadrim were—among many other things—shapeshifters. In a process no one fully understood, the remaining Horadrim had long ago integrated their bodies with massive colonies of their advanced semi-organic nanobots, something they called a "Soul Web," which allowed them to drastically change their form. Strong as werecreatures, fast as K'Nes, and tough as Bugs, where exactly the technology ended and the alien began was anyone's guess. For that matter, no one was entirely sure what Horadrim looked like in their natural form. Perhaps even the Horadrim themselves had forgotten. All that remained were dark whispered rumors of grotesque black insectoid or reptilian things.
"It's difficult to tell a human from a Horadrim imposter," Heth continued, "and we didn't run any biometric scans on McNeilly because… well, quite frankly, it's rude. It never occurred to us that a Horadrim might be masquerading as a human sales representative. The odds were heavily against it—there are so few Horadrim left, after all."
"I'm not sure your theory makes sense, though," Yawr said. "You're right when you say the Horadrim are protective of their technology—so I doubt they'd leave their nanobots behind for anyone to find and exploit."
"But that's just it," Heth said. "McNeilly infected the suits right before he purchased them, and we smuggled them past the Federation into the Empire. The armor—and its nanos—would have ended up in his possession anyway. The Empire knew they'd be keeping the suits, broken or not. I had to negotiate rather hard just to keep the one suit I did—and I think they only allowed that in the end to avoid suspicion. In fact, I wondered at the time why they insisted on keeping the defective merchandise instead of an exchange or invoking the warranty…"
"All right, so the nanobots wouldn't have been out of Horadrim hands for very long," the big cat agreed, "and the chances of anyone finding them during that time are slim, I'll give you that. But there's still one thing that doesn't make sense—why ruin merchandise they paid for? What was the purpose in throwing away money like that? And don't tell me it was a grand conspiracy orchestrated by the Emperor himself just to ruin your reputation, Heth. You're not that important, cub!"
"But that's just it, sire, the suits weren't ruined!" Heth protested. "I learned from the Fed technician that the damage could be easily repaired in a matter of days—at almost no cost! In the meantime, the Empire negotiated keeping the suits anyway and a full refund—with interest! They got the suits effectively for free. Given that they got interest on the refund, we actually paid them."
The LEO was silent. His gray fur bristled, his whiskers twitched, and his eyes narrowed to slits. "So… they cheated us," he hissed quietly.
"Yes, sire," Heth nodded. "It's the only explanation that makes any logical sense to me. It was a scam."
"Well… the Miao will be sure never to work with Zechariah McNeilly again, that's for sure," Yawr growled.
"An excellent idea, sire," Heth agreed. "McNeilly's not just a swindler and a fraud… he's also dangerous."
"Dangerous?" Yawr looked up at Heth sharply. "Why do you say that?"
"Well, any Horadrim can be dangerous if they choose to be, of course," Heth began. "Sky Father above, their Soul Web makes them living suits of power armor! So I thought it would be prudent to do a little research on Zechariah McNeilly, and... well, I suspect M. McNeilly may choose to be dangerous more often than others of his kind."
The old cat leaned closer to the camera, ears forward, listening intently. "What did you find out, cub?"
"Not a lot, I'm sorry to say. He appears to have been a personal agent of Emperor Vin Dane for quite a while—well before he was Emperor, as far as I can tell—and, if the rumors are true, not terribly fond of humans. When the Holy Terran Empire was formed, McNeilly was initially rather high up in the Imperial bureaucracy… at least at first…"
Yawr narrowed his eyes. "What happened?"
"There was an… incident," Heth continued. "Media reports are rather vague about what actually happened, but apparently several of McNeilly's human colleagues were killed rather suddenly—and rather brutally, I'm afraid. The Empire eventually claimed they were assassinated by terrorists, of course… but McNeilly was transferred to the K'Nes Llan immediately."
"Where there are no humans to kill." Yawr stroked his mane and nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, I see…"
There was no need to state the obvious. Both cats recognized a punitive demotion when their saw it. The apes considered being sent to the K'Nes systems only slightly better than being transferred to a harsh frontier world on the edge of known space.
"At any rate," Heth resumed, "it's not clear what exactly his position is now. As far as I can tell, he's some sort of unofficial Imperial envoy to First Patriarch Varrless."
"That might explain some of Varrless's recent actions in Capital Hall, yes," the old gray cat mused. "Officially, the K'Nes Llan is strictly neutrality is galactic politics… but it’s fairly common knowledge that Varrless seems to prefer the Empire to the Federation for some reason. Well, we'll clearly have to be more careful in our dealings with the Empire in the future," Yawr said, coming out of his reverie. "In fact, in light of your sabotaged power armor contract, I think you've given us good cause to sue the Empire for breach of contract. Treachery of this kind can't go unanswered, cub."
"I agree, sire. What shall we do?"
The old cat scowled. "I'm not sure yet. Give me some time to think it over. But rest assured, there will be consequences for this."
"Actually, I've got other information that might influence your decision in that respect, sire."
"Oh yes?" Yawr widened one eye, mildly interested.
"I negotiated a contract with a high-ranking official within the Federation. He wanted me to deliver an important document to the head of the K'Nes Llan. I'm sending a copy of it to you now—triple encrypted, standard Miao rotating frequency and cipher key."
The LEO reached over to pick up a datapad, and then tapped over the screen with his paw. Heth studied his boss's face carefully as he read the document and absorbed the news. The graying old cat's fangs bared slowly in a Cheshire grin. "The Federation is proposing a Non-Aggression Contract… well, it's about time!"
"Excellent news, isn't it, sire?" Heth asked, barely able to contain his own excitement.
"Indeed it is," Yawr purred. "Once this passes, I imagine it will cause a nice surge in the stock exchanges." The big cat looked up, grinning. "Investors love political stability!"
"I assume you'll support the contract on the Board of Directors?" Heth asked.
"Oh, of course!" Yawr said. "But I imagine First Patriarch Varrless will want to introduce the measure to the Executive Board himself."
"I'll be back in K'Nes space in a few days, sire," Heth said. "I'll have to deliver it to the Patriarch then. As our representative to the Board of Directors, I assume you can arrange the meeting for me?"
"No need," the old gray cat said with a wave of his paw. "I'll pass it on for you."
Heth hesitated, and then pushed ahead. "I'm sorry, sire… but I need to hand-deliver it personally to First Patriarch Varrless."
"Oh, do you now?" Yawr's tone has half-amused, half-reproachful. "What makes you think you're so important?"
"I don't, sire, but…" Heth shrugged. "Well, it's in the contract."
"Oh. Very well, then. In the meantime, I'll see if I can start laying the groundwork to support the motion in the Board of Directors."
"Thank you, sire. If you don't mind, could you arrange the meeting with Varrless for as soon as I arrive? I won't have much time before the first Impossibarium convoy leaves for Jurvain space." Heth hesitated a moment. "I, uh… I will be managing the convoy now, won't I, sire?"
"That was the agreement," the LEO nodded, "and a deal is a deal. You've not only proven your contract was sabotaged and tipped us off to a shady customer we should we wary of in the future… but you've also acquired some very valuable Horadrim technology, and apparently made some important contacts in the Federation government as well. I couldn't be more pleased with your performance, Heth. In fact, I'm restoring you to your previous management level. Congratulations, cub, you're once again a Director in the Extralegal Transit Division of Miao Mercantile, Incorporated."
Heth was shocked silent. The news was stronger than any nepeta he had ever sniffed. "My… my old position? Does… does that mean my old super-freighter command, the Avarice…?"
"It's yours again." Yawr nodded. "I can have it rendezvous with the Impossibarium convoy at Urrin."
"Why… thank you, sire, thank you!"
"Not at all, my cub, not at all. Keep up the good work out there." Yawr cut the connection.
Heth floated there, deliriously happy and slightly dazed. Wait until Miu hears this news! he thought. If this doesn't get me back on her list of reproductive investors for her auction, nothing will!
Argus McCall sat motionless in the jungles of Kalintos. His suit of nanotech armor was configured with ridges and splotches of green and brown that blended him in almost perfectly with the vines and moss hanging from the other branches of tree he perched in. A kilometer away, three of his remote drones were transmitting back imagery from the edges of the Reichenspurger Tess Memorial Campgrounds. Argus could see inside his mind's eye all the standard Girl Scout Camp accoutrements. Sleeping cabins. Cafeteria. Pottery kiln. Canoes and fishing gear. Badminton, tennis, and volleyball courts. A sprinting track. Rifle and pistol ranges. Electronics lab. Obstacle course. Martial arts gym. A couple of obsolete suits of power armor standing guard either side of the gate. Life-sized statues of Warrior and Guardian Bugs with the nerve clusters and other weak points picked out in fluorescent orange paint. A captured suit of Jurvain power armor standing between them, also strategically marked. An eternal flame with several plaques listing the names of alumni of this camp who had fallen in service to the Federation and the human race over the past couple of decades. If Juliette Low could see this now, she'd roll over in her grave... if her grave wasn't probably molten lava now from all the lunar meteors falling on Earth, Argus thought to himself. Robert Baden-Powell would have felt right at home, though.
The Imperial Army had made themselves right at home as well. A couple of communications pods were parked in between the sleeping cabins, their antenna whips poking up almost higher than the trees surrounding the camp. The obsolete power armor suits to either side of the gate were themselves flanked by two much more modern suits, slouched at a bored simulation of attention as the Imp troopers within endured yet another uneventful few hours of guard duty. Another pair of troopers stood guard over the Counselor's Cabin at one end of the camp, their posture somewhat better since they were more likely to be surprised by their Lord General entering or leaving his commandeered living quarters within.
But at the moment, Argus guessed the Lord General was probably in either the Cafeteria or the building his partisan guides had informed him was the Crafts Hall. A building full of medium-sized rooms designed for classes in woodworking, resin crafting with plastics, knot-tying, and field-stripping a plasma rifle was just the sort of structure one could turn into a combat headquarters in a hurry. By now the rooms would be briefing rooms, map rooms, and offices for the harried staff officers and the piles of paperwork that any army couldn't live without. If the defense of the Imperial Planet of Kalintos was being organized from this camp, the Crafts Hall was probably where it was all going on. The defense of the camp, meanwhile, didn't rely entirely on the four power-armored troopers. They also had an old Mark III light hovertank and a pair of Stegosaurus air-defense vehicles armed with light missiles and point-defense chemlaser turrets, all three vehicles parked in a triangle around the perimeter with its apex at the tank opposite the main entrance to the camp from the access road.
Old Chairman Clarke would have just wiped this place off the map from orbit rather than risk the lives of troopers, Argus ruminated. Chairman Smythe must think there's some major propaganda value in seeming reluctant to sacrifice civilians... or maybe the Fleet Puke just didn't care if a few Ground Pounders got creamed if it meant he got some nice propaganda footage of cowardly Imp Generals hiding under the skirts of a Girl Scout troop.
Before Argus' imagination could ruminate too long on the mental image of hiding under the skirts of a troop of Girl Scouts, one of his drones spotted Lord General Malakov moving across the camp from the Cafeteria to the Crafts Hall. Major Houseman was, as usual, right behind him, carrying his datapad full of reports and status updates.
Go time. Argus climbed down from the tree and rejoined his troopers and the partisan group at the base of the hill. Sandburg and Davis were there, as was Dunston, his wounds received in the taking of the Alistar Dimiye all healed up by a Life Mage back aboard the Aegis Fist. Standing with them were Scoutmaster Brian Kaufman, and his "Partisan Cell," also known as his troop of Girl Scouts. Kaufman still had on his ridiculous beret along with his scoutmaster's neckerchief, but any comedy lent to the occasion by the scoutmaster's headgear was drowned out by the sight of three adolescent girls wearing sparring armor and carrying Gauss Rifles. Argus doubted the padded gear designed to protect the wearer during hand-to-hand combat training would do much against a plasma blast or a railgun round, but it might keep them from getting too bruised while throwing themselves behind cover. Not that any of the girls looked likely to be shirking from combat. The sheer anger in their eyes at seeing their summer camp turned into the headquarters for an invading army was enough to scare even Argus.
Argus surveyed his little band. "Okay, you all know the plan. Our targets are in the Crafts Hall. Are we ready?"
The scoutmaster smiled. "We're more than ready. We're prepared!"
The hovertruck trundled up the access road to the main entrance to the camp, coasting to a halt as it approached the two power-armored guards. They had, of course, seen this truck before. Although the status of the camp as the planetary HQ was new since the Imp forces landed, the camp had actually been occupied for nearly a month as a regimental HQ, and the gate guards had established a fairly regular routine.
"Here to pick up some more gear?" asked the first guard of the man driving the truck.
"You don't want it cluttering up the Crafts Hall, we don't want it just thrown out, so yes, I'm here to pick up a load of stuff from the workshops," Kaufman lied smoothly. "I've also got some food, letters from home, and changes of clothing for the girls in the sleeping cabins." After noticing that the Earth Fleet ships tried to show restraint in bombarding near civilian targets during the invasion, two dozen Girl Scouts who had been at the camp were told to stay in the sleeping cabins on the premises as human shields. They were confined to quarters and half-mad from cabin fever, but otherwise seemed to have been treated reasonably well.
"All right, let's see what's in the back of the truck."
"I know the drill." Kaufman hit the button to roll up the rear cargo door of the truck as one of the troopers stepped back and looked inside. He didn't see anything out of the ordinary, especially not the motionless form of Private Dunston in full power armor, magically shielded by the Gift of Blissful Ignorance. Nor did he see the dozen assorted hand weapons strapped and clipped to various parts of his body so as to also be covered by the illusion. Just a couple of boxes of canned food, some bags of trail mix, and several shopping bags full of clean Girl Scout uniforms. The trooper nodded to his companion that all was well, and the truck was waved through the gate.
Two minutes later, it pulled to a halt in front of the pair of sleeping cabins where the captive scouts were confined. No guards were posted in the immediate vicinity, so when the scoutmaster opened the doors and invited the girls to help him carry the stuff in, none of the handful of Imperial soldiers in sight thought anything odd about it, and they went about their business. So none of them noticed the plasma revolvers, gauss guns, and two full plasma rifles being carried into the cabins alongside the trail mix and clean uniforms.
Fifteen minutes after that, all hell broke loose in the camp. It started when a pair of plasma grenades went off under the hovertank parked at the rear of the camp. Then both air-defense vehicles were struck by rockets fired from just inside the tree line surrounding the camp and also exploded into flame and smoke. On cue, a dozen surprisingly heavily-armed Girl Scouts (in fresh clean uniforms) poured out of the sleeping cabins, firing on the surprised clerks and communications techs racing for cover.
With the sensors and point-defense capabilities of the air-defense vehicles gone, two more suits of power armor exploded out of the Jungle. Sandburg and Davis had dropped their rocket launchers and used their jump jets to leap to the camp perimeter in just a couple of bounds, firing on the gate guards as they came. Laser-guided 15mm railgun rounds began arcing down out of the sky, each guided unerringly to its target by one of Argus's remote drones. The makeshift artillery wasn't particularly powerful, but when an explosive round the size of your thumb hits the top of your head at several hundred kilometers per hour, the lack of spectacular pyrotechnics doesn't bother you for long. Both guards on the Counselors' Cabin were hit almost simultaneously, the armor on their helmets not quite strong enough to resist the heavy railgun shells.
Doubling back from taking out the tank, Dunston let the scouts handle the techs and office staff while he charged for the Crafts Hall at incredible speed. As he came on, Malakov and Houseman burst out of the building. Neither was wearing armor, but both had plasma revolvers in their hands—but the guns were not nearly so worrisome as the palpable aura of magickal energy crackling from the two powerful mages. As Dunston opened fire with his own plasma rifle, the shots were harmlessly deflected around his targets by Malakov's forces magick. Then Houseman's Life Magick reached out and stopped Dunston dead in his tracks. Not literally dead—yet—but the werewolf collapsed in an unconscious heap onto the ground, knocked out cold by the spell.
Before anyone could deliver a coup de grace to the helpless werewolf, Sandburg and Davis finished blowing past the now-dead gate guards and leapt onto the roof of the Cafeteria. More plasma rounds flew harmlessly past Malakov's head as he and his loyal aide returned fire. Outclassed by the older and more experienced mage, Davis dropped back down behind the Cafeteria to take care of secondary concerns like the com techs pouring out of the communications pods. One of them seemed to be a werewolf, probably a Glass Walker, as he was easily soaking up gauss gun rounds from the Girl Scouts as he returned accurate fire from his slugthrower sidearm. A quick spell from Davis to cook off the rest of the ammunition in his clip startled the werewolf long enough for Davis to put two quick plasma bolts into his torso, the white-hot ionized gas causing enough damage that even the werewolf couldn't just shrug it off, and the com tech fell down dead or unconscious.
Sandburg instead charged forward, howling in extreme rage. The helmet on his armor was open, and his Crinos-form snout was flinging specks of spittle and snot to either side as he ran, fangs gleaming in the sun. Houseman was briefly shocked into immobility by the supernatural terror of the wolf, just long enough for one of Argus' railgun rounds to blast down from the sky, pierce the top of his skull, and bore down through his palette and neck before the round exploded in his chest. Suffice it to say, the major was instantly killed. Malakov magickally picked up the charging Sandburg and bodily flung him into the side of one of the sleeping cabins, the flimsy wood splintering on impact and the heavy trooper plowing right through to the inside.
Furious at the loss of his friend Houseman, Malakov reached out with his spirit, sensed the emanations of Argus' drones, and fried all three with a single thought. Blinded momentarily, Argus switched back to using his eyes as his primary sensors and leapt into the camp from his hiding place in a nearby treetop. While still in midair, he blazed away at Malakov with the maximum rate of fire of his railgun, but the General sensed the rounds coming and deflected them with contemptuous ease, raising his own plasma revolver to return fire.
But so focused was the Lord General on the airborne cyborg sniper bearing down on him from above that he didn't even notice the eleven-year-old Girl Scout coming around the corner of the counselor's cabin. Unawakened, she had no magickal aura to trigger his notice. Besides, the simple target pistol she carried was an ancient chemical-powered weapon with no magnetic fields or power cell for the Forces Mage to pick up on. So the first the Lord General knew of his doom was the simple 9mm slug entering the back of his skull, exiting through the bridge of his nose, and obliterating most of his face as it left. Argus crashed to the ground fifty meters short of the General, satisfied himself that his major target was dead. He then turned to assist in the mopping up of the handful of surviving Imperial Army personnel in the camp.
On New Tokyo, within half an hour of the attack on Sisko Hawke Barracks, it had fallen… but the Yasuyama Family had not finished their revenge on General Wagenecht. A small fusion device was placed at the center of the facility. As soon as the corporate security unit had evacuated, taking all the Light Infantry wounded or captured with them, they activated the device. The artificial peninsula burst into a pleasing display of light.
The plan was to simply release the prisoners, return to the corporate campus, and issue their apology to the Ministry for the unfortunate loss of the facility. It was an elegant communiqué; signaling their willingness to work with the government, but their refusal to be bowed by their whims.
But the destruction of the barracks turned out to have another effect, one they hadn't counted on. As soon as the attack happened, all media cameras suddenly focused on the news and broadcasted it all over the planetary net. Within minutes, a repressed group within New Tokyo's population, the Cult of the Emperor, saw it as a sign. An hour later, riots were in place all over the planet. The Light Infantry was literally overwhelmed everywhere. Already, law and order was collapsing to the religiously-fueled mob that raced through the streets.
Aerodynes weren't safe to transport the Yasuyamas back to their headquarters; surface-to-air missiles were grounding all traffic, military or civilian. So their corporate security squads kept to the streets, creating a glacier of protection as they made their way slowly back to the Anshin Heavy Industries office complex. It became a long grind through the sprawl; travel times that normally took minutes, now took hours. The security officers were careful not to provoke the screaming, spitting, yelling, burning mass of humanity that now roamed the streets.
Hours later, they reached the sealed corporate complex, only to find a small army waiting for them outside the complex. They were swathed in red—uniforms, fire buckets, even drapes—and carrying the flag of the Holy Terran Empire. Given their few plasma revolvers and baseball bats, corporate security should have easily swept them aside… but there was a feeling in the air. Something was about to occur; Takamitsu waited to see what would happen next.
One man, with a red fire bucket on his head—painted with arcane symbols—stepped forward. "We wish to greet our liberators!"
The roar of the mob was deafening; all around them, the red-clad fiends were bashing on garbage can lids, metal pots, and some even shot into the air. The corporate security men looked around them, wondering what they were supposed to do.
The younger Yasuyama saw an opportunity here. Stepping forward, Taka met the trash-can-headed speaker in the eyes and gave a slight bow. The crowd suddenly went silent. "We thank you for your hospitality. What we have done was… to send a message to the Ministry, that they are not allowed to threaten our family, or those families who have aligned with us. The 'peaceful mountain' family may appear to bow to the whims of the mighty, but they are as wind…" Takamitsu could see that he was losing the crowd with his fanciful language, so he wrapped it up, "…and we will erupt with vengeance against all who attack us!"
The crowd was back to its cacophonous roar. Trash Can Head across from Taka simply smiled and bowed back to him. Then the cultist leader lifted up his hand and the roar quieted down. "Well said! We, the followers of the Living God, can only hope to do the same. You have shown us the way to victory over the corrupt Ministry, and we honor you for it. We ask only that you help us fight the evil oppressor, before he strikes back at our heads… and yours."
Ah, that's why they're here, Taka suddenly realized. They need weapons, and since we just attacked an LI installation, they think we'll help them. "Let us talk," he replied to the mob, "and see how we can help each other… as allies!"
As the crowd erupted into more cheers, Takamitsu led the cultist leader through the narrow entrance of the corporate complex. Both of the armed forces kept their distance, but neither of them made a move to enter the facility.
Already, he could hear Ji-yoon's voice in his head. Taka, what are you doing?!
I don't know yet, Yasuyama admitted to her, but already he could feel a sense of rightness in the action. But something important is about to happen... like a tipping point...
Your father is confused, Ji-yoon transmitted back, we're all confused. What are we going to say to this… freak leader… mob guy…
Silence! Takamitsu mind-shouted back. Somehow, facing death had changed him. As crazy as this looked, the young manager knew he had to follow this to the end. We started this war, he thought to her, we better finish it. Tell Father to meet us in the formal conference room in five minutes.
And then what?
You're asking me? Taka mentally shrugged. I'm just making this up as I go along.
While the negotiations between the Yasuyamas and the cultists proceeded inside the corporate conference room, Shinsuke stood guard outside with Taka's cousin Wen. The two stood somewhat awkwardly on opposite sides of the doorway for what seemed like hours, staring blankly ahead to avoid eye contact. The room behind them was more or less soundproof, and the silence in the hallway made the awkward tension in the air even worse. Finally, with a swallow loud enough to be heard from quite a distance in the quiet of the hallway, Wen spoke first.
"How's your aunt?" she whispered hurriedly in Chinese.
After a moment, Shinsuke turned toward the Chinese-Korean girl and replied in Japanese, "What?"
If she could have been honest about it, Wen would have said she was disappointed that Shinsuke didn't seem to remember much of the Chinese she'd taught him. After all, they had spent a lot of time together while they did their mandatory service in the Tech Infantry back under the Federation. She turned to look at him and asked in Japanese this time, "How's your aunt?"
"Ah, genki, genki," he replied in a tone that was almost too friendly from having been forced through the awkwardness. After a pause, he continued. "She's been slowing down a little bit lately, but she's still got plenty of life left in her."
"Tai hao le," Wen remarked in Chinese, turning away and resuming the blank forward stare. Of course, she wanted to ask about Shinsuke's new girlfriend, but she couldn't quite bring herself to be that friendly... or that rude. Wen and Shin rarely spent time alone or just talked one-on-one anymore. But, because they were often together with Ji-yoon and Taka respectively, they still were pretty well aware of all of the ins-and-outs of each other's lives. The bond the four of them had shared since childhood managed to keep Shinsuke from completely cutting ties with Wen after their breakup. Yet despite two and a half years apart, Wen still had feelings for him... when she didn't hate his guts, that is.
For his part, Shinsuke was fine spending time with her as long as she didn't get too clingy, nosy, or belligerent (usually it was the last of the three that was the issue), but things had been relatively peaceful between them for a few weeks. Ever since things between him and his new girlfriend Yoko had become official, however, he had become increasingly nervous that Wen would start prying.
Wen suddenly turned toward Shinsuke with a determined look in her eye that made him nervous. "Ne, Shinsuke-kun..." she began.
Oh crap, the werewolf thought to himself. He cast a desperate look over his shoulder at the door to the conference room. What's taking so long in there?
"How are things going with... um... what's her name...?"
Ji-yoon suddenly emerged from the conference room with Trash Can Head. She glared at Wen for a moment, then turned to Shinsuke. Couldn't the two of you get along without me for half an hour? she spoke in English into Shinsuke's mind. "Omataseshiteshimaimashita," she spoke out loud in Japanese before continuing in English. "The negotiations are finished. Please escort the honorable Minister Robertson here outside to his followers." Taka might be crazy, but M. Yasuyama thinks it just might work, she mentally notified Shinsuke in Japanese and Wen in Chinese. At any rate, we know this guy is crazy. Make sure he doesn't cause any trouble inside corporate headquarters, alright?
She shot another glance at Wen. Shinsuke was pretty sure that Ji-yoon was saying something in Wen's head, but he pretended not to notice and motioned for Wen to accompany him and Minister Robertson to the main entrance.
Ji-yoon returned to the conference room and found father and son sitting in silence. She could hear the different conversations they were both preparing to have with each other, though, and from the comments Akihiro was holding inside himself, she could tell that it would not be a quiet conversation for long. "Genmai-cha wa dou desuka?" she offered abruptly. Of course, Taka and Akihiro had each just finished drinking tea during the negotiations with Minister Robertson—but the Yasuyamas never turned down tea.
Taka sat at his father's right hand at the head of the long conference table, analyzing his father's perturbed facial expression. It was obvious to Taka that he had gone far beyond his authority in inviting a cult leader into corporate headquarters for a "talk as allies." He didn't need Ji-yoon's magickal abilities to anticipate his father's anger. Taka had done his best to allow Akihiro to do most of the talking during the negotiations, although Ji-yoon had facilitated a lot of inaudible conversation between Taka and Akihiro behind the scenes. Akihiro was a genius, but unlike his grandfather Akihiko, he was not a statesman. This was one of the few areas in which Taka had surpassed his father, and it had been Taka's words on Akihiro's lips that had made the negotiations go smoothly even after Trash Can Head's somewhat alarmingly high mental defenses prevented Ji-yoon from being able to perform even simple thought monitoring without raising suspicion.
Ji-yoon poured fresh genmai tea into each of their cups, filling Akihiro's cup first, then Taka's. Do your best, she spoke into the younger Yasuyama's mind in Japanese. The tea is all I can do to help you against your dad, you know, she continued in English. Oppa! Fighting!
Taka couldn't help but let a little smile dart across face for a moment. The tea is plenty help enough. Gamsahae, Ji-yoon-ah.
"Dewa, shitsurei shimasu," Ji-yoon dismissed herself in Japanese with a bow, leaving the father and son to discuss matters privately. I hope they're going to be okay... she thought as the doors closed behind her.
Akihiro raised his cup to his nose and breathed in deeply, his anger subsiding somewhat as he did. He took a couple of sips before he gently set the cup back down. "We'll discuss your little usurpation of my authority later," he noted calmly, glaring at his son. "Your grandmother specifically wrote that you would do this eventually... and I know that your mom wouldn't want me to be too angry..."
Taka continued staring down at his tea cup in mock shame. He shyly lifted the cup and took a long sip in unison with his father before Akihiro continued.
"In any case, the Light Infantry will likely no longer accept a simple apology from us. We'll be seen as the catalyst for the Cult of the Emperor's activities, regardless. We may as well make use of them." Akihiro took another sip from his tea cup and looked back over at his son. "So... shall we plan the takeover of New Tokyo?"
END OF ACT THREE
Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, even if the guys armed with baseball bats and fire bucket helmets DO seem like the superior faction.