"Sometimes in life, we are given a choice between being a slave in Heaven or a star in Hell. And Hell does not always look like Hell. On a good day, it can look a lot like LA."


-- Eugene Sands, Playing God

Deep below the surface of New Sparta, the mechanical storm troopers bore down on Lilith and Victoria in phalanx formation, their bootfalls echoing in a threatening manner and threatening to push the two back into the wall of flame behind them.  In unison they drew their weapons: anachronistically high tech looking crossbows loaded with wooden stakes.

Lilith cackled.  "Hah, this is great!  You've really outdone yourself, Iz.  Robotroopers!  I mean, really… this is like the height of classic B movie cheese."

Victoria said nothing.  She wasn't frightened by the metal men nearly so much as she was terrified by the seemingly unhinged vampiress.  And besides, she was fairly certain those crossbows weren't directed at her.  Instead, Victoria tried looking for an opening in the ranks of robots, or figure out the pattern of the flame gouts that erupted at near-regular intervals.

"It's situations like this," Lilith sighed melodramatically between giddy chuckles, "that I wonder to myself, 'What would The Doctor do?' "

The pattern of flame was beginning to make sense to Victoria—it was very much like the hologames she used to play.  If she could think of it like a game, she might be able to get through this ordeal alive.  She visualized herself running back the way she had been thrown.  If she timed it just right, the vampire would almost certainly be burned to a crisp if she tried to follow. 

Victoria tensed as she readied herself to jump through at the end of the next flame spurt.

Then two things happened at once; Lilith grabbed Victoria, holding her up in front of herself like a meat shield—which was only slightly better than being burned to a crisp as the flame spurts suddenly changed pattern without warning, varying in such a way so as to allow no humanoid completely safe passage.

"And then I figure," Lilith continued, "it probably wouldn't be this."  With one arm Lilith forced Victoria's head to the side painfully.  "Lower the sharp 'n pointies, tin men, or I snap her neck!"

The silver men stopped their advance in unison.  Then finally, they slowly lowered their crossbows.  "Yeah, that's what I thou—NNNGH!"

Lilith pitched forward and the two women fell into a pile of tangled limbs.  Not understanding what had happened, Victoria frantically shoved the vampire off of her.  Untangling herself, she look up and saw a single robotroopers behind them, obscured amidst the flames, crossbow discharged.  The red-hot metal man saluted to her, pointed further down the hall, and the metal phalanx parted to allow the child passage.  The corridor beyond was in darkness—except for a mechanical cat with purple glowing eyes, lighting the way for her.

Izzy grinned from his virtual mountaintop.  It was a classic misdirection, and Lilith had played right into it.  He ordered his crude tin army to apprehend the paralyzed vampire (making sure the scalding-hot tin man did his share).  Through Bell, he led the girl farther into the labyrinth; in hindsight, it would have been wise to lead her back the way they had come, but Izzy wanted some face time with the girl to explain the situation.  By now he was sure Victoria probably had an inkling there was some sort of vampire feud going on, and he felt he needed to set the record straight.  Lilith would be brought so far underground there there was no chance of escape.  If there was anything these caves did well, it was to turn into corridors of twisty little passages, all alike.  And the place Izzy had in mind was specifically designed to keep a vampire—namely himself—imprisoned.  With any luck, he and Lilith would die there together someday.  How poetic.

"Warning," a proximity klaxon sounded, startling Izzy out of his rather morbid daydream.  "Hacking attempt in progress, sectors 3, 7, 12 partially breached.  Sector 2 corrupted.  Download of sector 4 attempted."  Izzy ran to the edge of the virtual cliff and looked down into the nothingness—surely Lilith hadn't developed those kinds of skills?  But no…  What kind of avatar was that?

It looked like an angel of such formidable countenance that Izzy instinctively drew back.  Around the angel's head was a halo of information running like a ticker tape… Izzy's information.

Izzy recalled all periphery sensory data and concentrated fully on the hacker.  The robotroopers stopped in their tracks, as did Bell.  Well, I don't call himself Israfel for nothing…  He leaped off the edge of the cliff, sprouting two pairs of wings, and barreled towards the intruder.



"What do you mean, lockdown?!" Lieutenant Commander Aaron Roquefort yelled at the shuttle pilot in the orbital station above New Sparta.

"I mean, it's locked down.  What?  You gotta hearing problem or somethin'?"

"Locked down for what?"

"Hell if I know."  The pilot leaned against the airlock, smoking a cigarette of something that was obviously not tobacco.  "Look.  I gotta a good gig here.  They pay me to take the nice tourists down to the surface.  M. D'Argent says to lock down, we lock down.  Capisce?"

"Yeah, I get you… now you get me."  Aaron loomed over the pilot.  "I'm the direct representative of the Terran Republic.  I've got enough authorization to draft you into the fighter squadrons of those Shrieker 'Suicide Saucers' and have you blasting Bugs until they eat you.  Now fly me down!"

The pilot took another casual drag off his smoke.  "You ever fight Bugs, son?"

Aaron was taken aback; apparently his brow hadn't beat the pilot hard enough.  "What?"

"Bug ships go up like Christmas trees.  No point defense; don't need it, since hitting the sides don't stop 'em.  Just avoid the one big plasma bug they fire off in the front.  But you hit them in the engine… ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!"

"You were in Earth Fleet?"

"Yup.  In the Three Cee Dubya.  I punched the clock in over Avalon… and a bunch of other systems I'd rather forget.  When I retired, M. D'Argent here gave me a nice job as a ferryman.  It beats riding fire."

"Look, I need to get down there."

"Listen, sonny…"  The pilot took another drag.  "I've been working here ten years.  Izzy's never called a lockdown before.  We've had three Bug squadrons roll through here; the resort stayed open, the rides kept rolling.  So if he's scared enough now to lock it down, trust me… you don't wanna be down there."



"I really don't wanna be down here," Stefan Quattone muttered for the umpteenth time as the four of them walked through the underground labyrinth.

"You shouldn't be here," Tammy Chakravarty reminded him.  "Your dad's cutting through the security for us.  He shouldn't have to worry about you while he's doing it."

"He… heck, M. Chaka.  Mom's watching your kids…"  He pointed to Malai walking ahead of him.  "…and your kids, too!  You think they ain't worried?  Besides… what am I supposed to do?  Just sit it out while you're having all the fun?"

Malai Prattabong kept her eyes peeled as they walked through icky blackness.  "This is hardly fun."

"Where now?" Patty Sylvest asked, still holding her pool cue.

The whisker-thin Thai woman stopped and pressed an emergency panel.  It lit up and showed a diagram of their level.  "If Gabriel was right, the secure section of this sub-basement should be down the hallway to the left, then three floors down in the lift.  If your little girl is anywhere, she'll be there."

"Fine, let's…"  The teenager broke off as a sudden scream stopped them in their tracks.  There was suddenly a horde of robot men walking across the tunnel intersection down the hall, holding a shrieking woman.

Even after they passed, the four would-be rescuers were too shaken to move.  Tammy was a veteran of Resistance fighting for years, but the strangeness of this place weirded her out.  "You still want to do this?"

Patty nodded reluctantly.  "Absolutely… but if you see a plasma rifle, I want that, too."



Israfel dove towards the avenging angel avatar approaching him.  Gabriel threw up a firewall and Izzy bounced off it—before he stuck his hands out, letting his cracking subroutines rip through the angel's initial defense.

The human hacker immediately flew his avatar away, throwing intrusive countermeasures at Izzy, while firing lightning bolts of Death Shrike programs, trying to overload the vampire's Net connection.

Izzy pulled out a virtual trumpet and blew it, wiping out the attack programs in a single blow.  As zombie dwarfs from Walt Disney's nightmares erupted out the ground, the vampire asked, "Can't we talk about this?  Avatar to avatar?"

Gabriel flicked his fingers, disabling Izzy's attackbot programs, and the dwarfs deflated like poorly-made balloons.  "Sure.  Turn over Victoria Sylvest."

"I don't have her!"

The Holy Lance appeared in the angel's hand and Gabriel hurled it at Izzy.  The vampire tried to dodge… but in the virtual world, the lance had a mind of its own, following the vampire.  D'Argent's avatar disappeared and the lance stopped.  When Izzy reappeared behind it, he grabbed the lance shaft.  It moved like a live snake, trying to break out of the vampire's grasp.

"Listen, friend," Izzy said.  "It's only a matter of time before I decode this Cyber Arrow of yours and send it right back at you.  So let me explain—"

That's when the sky fell on him.  Literally.  Izzy's virtual environment collapsed, leaving him in the cold black of uncollated data.  "You listen, Weefle runner," Gabriel cursed, "you're gonna give up Victoria now, or I'm gonna collapse your whole server.  And then I'm gonna have fun."

"You don't understand…"

"Wrong answer."  The angel avatar smirked before his halo expanded out in a wave.




By the time Bishop and Fisher returned to the Ungae Palace & Vacation Resort after Ramirez signed the treaty, it was after nine o'clock.  Fisher scanned the room for bugs; it was clean.  Bishop retrieved from its hiding place the holoproj David had given them of Fort Trevor Valens's schematics, placed it on their hotel room's large wooden desk, and turned it on.  Within moments, the holograms sprang to life.

An image of David's face appeared about a foot above the module.  "Hello, Bishop.  Hello, Fisher.  We're asking a lot of you two, so I want to let you know that we're behind you.  After all, you're no use to us dead."  The vampire's smile told them otherwise.  "For instance, if you are worried about listening devices, don't be.  Our agents have infiltrated the hotel staff and personally inspected this room, as well as monitoring all hall activity on your floor.  If anyone but you had entered your room, you would have been told."

William looked over at Michelle.  She shrugged.  "Always check for yourself.  Learned that in boot camp."

David continued.  "Our agents will help you two exit the hotel without being detected.  You will leave by the east stairwell at 2200 hours.  A driver in a black hovercar will be waiting for you.  Halfway to the base, you'll be transferred to a food delivery truck that will take you the rest of the way to Fort Trevor Valens.  In the back of the truck is stealth gear.  Spidersilk tights with camo nanobots woven in, masks, plasma revolvers… the works.  You want it, we'll have it ready."

Bishop snorted.  "Now we just need a reason for a midnight delivery."

The holoproj detected the sarcasm and ran the appropriate subroutine.  "In case you're wondering, the supplies are for the extra personnel they unexpectedly have on base due to Ramirez's sudden presence.  The Chief Minister has a lot of staff, and Fort Valens isn't exactly a major base."  The image flickered back to its primary program.  "The floor of the food truck has been altered; there's enough space for you both to squeeze in beneath, and your biosigns will be shielded from detection.  Once the truck passes the gate, it'll proceed to the back of the mess hall.  When the truck parks, the security cams will have a fairly obscure view.  After making sure the area is clear, the driver will let you out."

"We got a fix on our target?" Fisher asked.

The hololeech ignored her.  "By this time, it will be nearly 2300 hours.  You should change into feline forms and go to Point Bravo designated on the map."  David's image shrank to reveal the base map, showing the suggested route.  "Bravo is located beneath some stairs, going into a building right across from a walkway.  On the other side of the walkway are the Officer's Barracks.  According to our source, Ramirez will be staying in a room on the third floor with a window facing your position.  There's a security camera in that area which you'll need to either avoid or disable."

Michelle frowned.  "That could be a problem…"

"We can handle it," Bishop said, confident.

Fisher shot William a questioning look as the hologram continued.  "You can use the equipment we provide to scale the wall."

"We won't need any equipment," Fisher scoffed.

The holographic vampire ignored the interruption.  "Scale the wall, enter the room at 2315, and hide.  Ramirez will be working in the office downstairs, but her pattern indicates military discipline.  She always goes to bed at 2330.  Two guards in Delta armor watch the door and monitor the room while she sleeps.  I'd suggest waiting until she goes to sleep before dispatching the guards and killing her.  That's when she'll be the most vulnerable, and the guards least wary."

"Then how do we get out?" Bishop muttered.

David had apparently anticipated the question, as the hologram went on to explain, "We'll get you inside, but then you're on your own.  It'll be your responsibility to find a way out of the base," the subroutine answered.  "Once out, return to your hotel room, and our alibi will be established.  If you fail, you will probably be killed by the Light Infantry.  Succeed, and we will reward both of you greatly.  Show no mercy," was the final statement by David's image.  His hologram disappeared and the schematic of the fort expanded.  It was the same one they had seen at David's house.

After a short pause, Bishop said, "Getting to Ramirez shouldn't be a problem, but getting out will tough."

"Leave that to me," said Fisher confidently.

"Some of your gifts?"

"Of course," she smiled.  "Can't you see that what you've learned can help you on this mission?"

William had to admit she was right.  "Absolutely," he replied with a nod.  "I definitely think we should use the silence gift right when we come out of hiding.  But… with all the other gifts I learned, I'd prefer you do it."

Michelle looked puzzled.  "Why?"

"You've got more practice.  I'd rather not depend on a weapon I only just learned how to fire."

"Good point."  Michelle nodded.  "Alright, then.  At 2345—or whenever Ramirez turns off the lights—we'll come out of hiding, kill her, and then the bodyguards."

"And the guards?"

"You seriously think they're not going to notice?"

"Hmph," Bishop answered, and went back to focusing on the base map.  She joined him, occasionally discussing their strategy, and how the major could use his new gifts.  By the time William looked at the clock, it was 2145.  "Alright, let's do this."

Bishop checked his belt for his swords, now the size of hunting knives, and strapped them on while Fisher buckled on her own special daggers.  Then they changed into their civilian vacation clothing, khaki shorts and hula shirts over their weapons.  Not forgetting to return the holoproj blueprints to its hiding place, they left the room, went down the eastern stairwell as instructed, and left the building into the dark and cloudy night.  The hovercar was waiting for them.

It drove off as soon as they got in, and before they knew it they had reached the rendezvous point where the food truck waited for them: a side road that didn't look like it got much use.  Quickly changing into stealth suits, they squeezed into the hidden compartment in the truck's floor.  The second they sealed it, the truck took off for Fort Trevor Valens.

Stealth is rarely comfortable, and it was more than disconcerting in the pitch dark.  After a lifetime of using tech to stay connected, to be ripped from it completely was… unnerving.  After what seemed like hours, the hatch was finally opened by the driver.  The deliberately average-looking man simply pointed with his thumb out the back.

They exited the truck into a dark corner of a parking lot behind the mess hall.  Bishop checked the time: 2256.  He looked at Fisher, nodded, and they transformed; Bishop into a panther, Fisher into a lynx.  Fisher's feline form was still for a moment, eyes closed, concentrating on the gift to heighten her senses.  Then she opened her cat eyes and looked about, sniffing the air, whiskers twitching, ears swiveling around… and turned to give Bishop's panther form a nod; there were no sentries nearby.

Sticking to the shadows, alert for patrols, they cautiously but swiftly made their way to Point Bravo beneath the stairs and shifted back into hominid form.  Bishop peered up into the darkness, searching the shadows in the eaves of the barracks roof for the security camera the fort's blueprints had said was concealed up there.  Finally he saw the tiny red light on the camera, indicating that it was on and active.  He pointed it out to Fisher; she nodded.  Bishop closed his eyes, remembering the Glasswalker gift Jason Regis had taught him.  He concentrated on his rage, tapping his spirit and envisioning gremlins tearing the camera apart.  Then William opened his eyes, glaring in hatred at the camera… and the red dot of light winked off.

Michelle turned to him, one eyebrow raised, impressed.

William checked the time again: 2307.  The camera wouldn't be out for long—a few minutes, fifteen at most—but that should be enough time for them to slip inside.  He looked over at Fisher and nodded; she nodded back, getting the message.

Now Bishop concentrated on using his gift to pass unnoticed, holding very still and trying to imagine Uteka the serpent in his mind's eye.  He knew it was working when Fisher nodded her approval.  Michelle did the same, quickly and effortlessly, and was soon invisible as well.  They waited a moment, checking to see that the coast was clear, then walked slowly across the sidewalk and up to the wall of the Officer's Barracks.  

Bishop concentrated again on the gift to climb like a fly, tapping his spirit and trying hard to imagine seeing the building's wall through a fly's compound eyes, and soon felt the strange sticky sensation on his hands and feet.  The moment Fisher mounted the wall, William followed, and they both slowly scaled the vertical surface, concealed as best they could between their gifts and stealth suits.

At the top, Bishop checked the time again; 2314.  William heard a quiet click as Fisher slid the window open, and they both crept into the room.  Just as the holoproj schematics had predicted, the bed was to their right facing out from the wall.  Ahead of them were some closets and the bathroom door; to their left, the entrance to the room.  Bishop slowly made his way to the far right corner of the room between the bed and the bathroom door and settled into the corner.  He slowly drew his hunting knives, gradually extending them to the lengths of swords, and folded them over his chest.  He stood statue-still, slowed his breathing, tapped his spirit, and visualized a chameleon's scales changing color as he imagined himself growing more and more transparent until he completely blended in with the bedroom wall behind him.  This gift would not just render himself invisible to the human eye, but to monitoring devices as well… at least in theory; Bishop hoped his hours of practice would pay off.

Right on time, Aisha Ramirez entered the room with two Infantrymen in light Delta armor.  The bodyguards did a quick sweep of the room with detection devices, but thankfully didn't sense anything.  Satisfied, they nodded to Chief Minister Ramirez and took up their sentry posts around the room.  Aisha disappeared into the bathroom to change (and what sounded like brushing her teeth), then came out in a robe, settled into the bed, and turned off the lights.

Almost automatically, Bishop used the gift he'd figured out on his own during childhood, the one that allowed him to see in near-darkness like a cat; he'd been using that gift for so long it was almost effortless.  He noted the position of the bodyguards.  Soon, one of them tapped the side of his helmet, indicating that he couldn't hear; that was Bishop's cue to that Fisher had used her gift of silence.

Bishop sprang into action, eager to draw blood, so fast he was a blur as he crossed the room toward the back of the bodyguard closest to him.  Bishop made three deep stabs into the man's back before the soldier even knew what hit him.  Then, almost faster than the eye could see, William crossed his swords, brought them up in a double forehand slash at the guard's neck, and flung his arms wide.  The black blades easily sliced through the Delta armor.  The guard's head fell to the ground, followed by the rest of his body.

From the corner of his eye, Bishop saw Fisher spring forth as well, her sudden movement instantly dispelling her veil of invisibility.  She looked like she had gained forty pounds of muscle in her Glabro form.  She surprised the second bodyguard completely, viciously stabbing her left dagger behind the his knee, the point punching through the man's kneecap.  Then, with incredible speed, she slammed the dagger in her right hand into the man's chest, pushing him back with all of her weight.  The soldier slammed down to the ground, her knife impaled in his chest to the hilt.  Yet everything was utterly silent; what should have made a loud crash was completely masked by Fisher's gift of silence.

As the second guard's body was falling, Bishop instantly shrank his swords to throwing daggers and turned toward the bed just as Ramirez was leaning up.  He could clearly see Aisha's face as he hurled his daggers across the room in rapid succession.  It was as if the daggers had been shot from a gun.  They twirled towards Ramirez, burying themselves in Aisha's chest and right eye.  Bishop could hear her last breath as he rushed over, pulled the blades out, and made another quick series of stabs into her chest.  By the time the politician's body fell back into the bloody sheets, Fisher had opened the window.  Both of them leapt out, grabbing the window frame and swinging up to the deserted empty metal roof.

"Now," William growled, and Fisher closed her eyes.  Within moments, the clouds in the sky started to swirl.  At first he felt only a few raindrops, but seconds later there was a downpour, followed quickly by the total gush of rain one would expect from a monsoon.  Looking back towards Fisher, still in Glabro form, Bishop saw her open her eyes; they were completely white.  She looked towards the outer fence of the fort, and a huge flash of lightning came down from the sky, striking the laser detection grid transmitter and shooting sparks high into the air.  A second lightning strike knocked out the complex's main power grid.  Emergency floodlights flashed on.  The wind picked up suddenly and the air started to swirl, faster and faster; soon a tornado was bearing down on the barracks.  Michelle opened her eyes and quickly closed them again.  Bishop looked down and saw flames starting to rise beneath Fisher's boots.  She ran forward, picked up Bishop, and jumped off the roof, running through the air at an incredible speed.

If they listened hard, they could hear the fort's alarms going off through the wind and thunder.  Some troopers on the ground shot in their direction as Fisher ran higher and higher into the air, but between the monsoon rains and her incredible speed, they didn't even come close to hitting them.  As Michelle ran through the air, her legs left a line of fire behind, quickly put out by the heavy rain, leaving only a trail of dissipating smoke.

Carrying Bishop, Fisher continued to sprint through the rain and sky for what must have been nearly fifteen miles before they were finally beyond the area of the storm.  Finding a clearing within the jungle, she landed, put Bishop down, and took a few moments to catch her breath.

Finally, Michelle looked towards Bishop and said, "Thousand Forms?  Owl?"

Bishop nodded.  He had just enough magickal spirit left in his body for this last gift.  He closed his eyes and felt that spiritual energy while calming his breathing and lowering his heartbeat.  He envisioned an owl flying through a forest, felt the rush of air beneath his wings, and released the last of his body's energy into the transformation.  Opening his eyes, he found the change had been successful, and that Fisher had also changed into an owl.  Spreading their wings, they flew back to the Ungae Palace.

There were no police vehicles in the parking lot when they got back; that was a good sign.  They flew up to the balcony of their room and changed back into hominid form.  Fisher went to the sliding door, but found it locked.  "Damn it.  Did you lock this?"

"Of course," William admitted.  It didn't occur to him that they wouldn't be using the stairwell on their return.

Michelle rolled her eyes at Bishop.  "Fine.  Opening this lock will be my last gift today.  I'm burnt out."  She placed her hand on the handle, concentrated, and they both heard a click.  Sliding open the door, they both stepped inside.

But William's senses were still heightened; sensing someone was in the room with them, he pulled out his swords and fell into a defensive stance.  Fisher instantly did the same.  Before either could move, they heard the flip of a light switch.

Seated in an overstuffed chair was a man in his mid-fifties, dressed in an immaculate business suit matched with a perfect crew cut of salt-and-pepper hair.  He looked like the stereotypical elder statesman one often saw in holodramas.  He looked at Bishop, and the werecreature felt like the man could see right through him.

The man made a very quick nod to his left.  There, William saw Irene leaning against a wall with a smile.

"About time," the mystery man said.  "So much for werecats' fabled speed."

"We did the job she asked us for," Michelle said, pointing to Irene.  "Now who are you?  And what do you want?"

"My name is Andrea Treschi.  I've come to take your memories of the assassination."  The mage smiled.  "Well, not exactly take.  You're going to give them to me."




Despite the confusion of the initial spontaneous rush into the streets of New Tokyo, the rebellion organized itself with amazing speed.  Thanks to Anshin Heavy Industries' support of Minister Robertson's resistance cell, a flood of plasma weaponry went out to the Cultists.  Contrary to popular belief, the Cult of the Emperor was not nearly as centralized as the popular press made people believe.  On a Ministry world, where the pro-Imperial religion was actively repressed, the Cult cells rarely had contact with each other before the rebellion started.  Now, however, Robertson had the guns, so he made the rules.  Suddenly he was the High Priest in the city of Shinjuku, and within a day he had established a command structure.  The other cell leaders quickly fell in line—and within a week, they were obeying throughout the entire planet.

Of course, nothing was ever as easy as it should be.  Despite the fact that a wave of popular support was behind the Cult, the Light Infantry hadn't been completely overrun.  True, most of their barracks were in the cities, and in the surprise and confusion of the sudden riots, the newly-armed Cultists managed to capture them after a few days… although with far more casualties than the Yasuyamas had inflicted when they seized the Sisko Hawke Barracks in Shinjuku.  Every urban barracks, base, and armory that fell added to the Cultist's arsenal.  Yet like most ex-Federation planets, the Light Infantry had training bases in the countryside, away from the volatile flash mobs of the population centers, which were well-stocked with soldiers, weapons, and vehicles—in other words, everything their troopers needed to counter a planetary insurrection.

Takamitsu led the way in taking out one of these planetside bastions of Ministry control.  Robertson didn't object to Taka taking several "companies" of Cultist forces to achieve their objective.  Thankfully, the High Priest also sent along a lieutenant—what he called a "sexton"—to help Taka command the Cultists.  As the young manager rode up in the front of a "borrowed" LI armored personnel carrier, sitting next to the Cultist leader whose cell members huddled in the back, Taka finally had a chance to catch his breath.

"So… er, Sexton… um?" Taka began introductions awkwardly.

The dreadlocked Chinese man couldn't look more out of place—anywhere—if he tried, but his grip was heavy and his smile wide.  "Call me Hu.  I don't know where they came up with the term 'sexton.' "

"It means the man who takes care of a chur—"

"Yeah, yeah."  Hu waved, checking the holoproj of the Light Infantry base to see if any updates had come in.  "I wouldn't know that from church, though.  Before the Caal came, I was a Buddhist."

"A good Buddhist?"

"Not really.  Turns out not all suffering comes from self—some comes from deep space.  Sometimes the universe really is out to get you."  Hu snorted and charged his plasma rifle.  "But thankfully, when the Caal invaded, we had a bodhisattva.  Now, by worshipping Him, He brings us closer to enlightenment."

"You think Emperor Vin Dane is—"

"Sir, this ain't the time to debate theology.  Company!"

"Sir!" came the reply from the collected masses behind them.

"Contact in five.  Heat 'em up!"

Sexton Hu clearly had military experience.  To the chorus of charging clips, Taka asked, "You former Tech Infantry?"

"Nah, not really."  Sexton Hu smiled, rolling up his sleeve to show a military tattoo, one that would never have appeared on a Federation trooper.  "Served one emperor, serve them all."

"You were Eastern Bloc?"

"So were you, from what I hear."


"Company!" the cult leader called back.  "Ready to attack, on the bounce.  Remember!  Aim for the flag.  Take their HQ and we'll fan out from there.  And never forget… the Emperor protects!"  Hu winked at Taka as the men yelled their battle cry: Praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal!  Suddenly the APC stopped, the hatch opened, and everyone except Taka and the driver jumped out the back.

Then everything went to hell.  What was supposed to be a surprise attack somehow failed; the Light Infantry were waiting for them.  Plasma fire flew everywhere.  Many of the Cultists fell before they could find cover.

"Pabo pyongshin," Taka cursed, then yelled at the driver, "Use the lance cannon!  Suppressive fire, now!"

"Can't!" the shaken driver protested.  "I got no gunner!"

"Damn it!"  Yasayama jumped out of his seat and ran to the gunner's chair.  Already, he could hear the pelting of small plasma bolts against the transport's armored hull.  He jumped into the chair, pulled on the interface helmet, and immersed himself in virtual reality.

Within seconds, Takamitsu could see everything outside.  He was the vehicle.  Looking up at the line of enemy fire and tracing it back to its source, he directed the lance cannon atop the APC like it was his hand.  Slowly, he let loose a wave of his own rapid-fire plasma bolts, providing just enough suppressing fire to give the Cultists time to scramble for cover.

But the bolts kept coming—directed at him now.  "Driver!  Move on this line!"  The young manager drew a line with his finger right into the heart off to the hostile territory.  "Our men are pinned down, and we're the only thing that can force the enemy to move!"

"What?  I ain't getting any closer to—"

Taka cut the comlink and looked around to find the manual override.  Within seconds, the vehicle was moving towards the line he had indicated.  He could hear the cheers of the company, the outrage of the scared driver, and the dying screams of Cultists and LI troopers alike as he advanced.  With pinpoint precision, Taka sprayed the enemy positions with burst of automatic plasma fire from the lance cannon as his APC advanced, forcing the Light Infantry to fall back or die.  The Cultists advanced, running from cover to cover as they flanked the enemy, driving them back with plasma rifle fire, and converging on the gates as Taka's armored transport led the way into the LI training base.

I love this! the young manager's mind cheered.  This must be why so many kids become netrunners.  In this virtual command chair, I'm a god!

But even gods have enemies, Taka realized, when a hovertank rounded the corner from behind a barracks, rotating its main cannon right at him.  Looking around, Taka suddenly noticed that the APC had precious little room to maneuver between the closely-clustered buildings.  It's a trap! Taka realized with horror.  They suckered me in, and I fell for it!  In blind panic, Taka fired the transport's lance cannon at the tank; its electromagnetic deflector shields laughed it off.  Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap, he thought as he turned the vehicle to drive behind the nearest building.  Too slow, come on!

The hovertank narrowly missed its return shot; thankfully, the ECM generator on the APC was just enough to scramble the tank's targeting comp.  The massive plasma bolt flew by with only centimeters to spare—but it bought Taka enough time to race behind the building.  Whew… all right, now I can move around and…

But whatever Taka thought was irrelevant after the hovertank fired its second shot.  It punched through the building and into the front of the APC.  The blast knocked Takamitsu out of his virtual perch as everything went dark.  It took his mind a few seconds to readjust to reality, and it was a poor substitute for virtual kind.  Their transport was on its side, and the front half of the vehicle had disappeared… along with the driver.

Through the sparks and leaking fluids, Taka dragged himself out of the burning vehicle.  Thankfully, he was unhurt, although his Delta armor had seen better days.  He reached for his plasma revolver, only to find the holster empty; he'd lost it in all the chaos.  Of course, he still had his wakazashi.  Great, the manager groaned, I brought a knife to a gun fight.

He drew it anyway.  Maybe I can cut off someone's hand and take their gun...  Right as Taka staggered to his feet to run, the hovertank came around the corner, ready to finish the job.

Before Taka could react to the multiple tons of military-grade plasteel coming at him, someone else reacted first.  There was a blaze of light to the side of the tank and an armored man darted out of thin air—literally.  As the tank trained its main gun on Takamitsu, the mystery man drew a katana as he raced past and—to Takamitsu's wide-eyed surprise—chopped the barrel off.  The trooper disappeared again in another flash of light just as the hovertank fired.

But without the electromagnetic rings in the barrel to contain, direct, and propel the plasma bolt, it exploded prematurely into an inferno of corrosive gas that burned into the plasteel turret.  Part of the expanding plasma cloud blew back inside the tank, and Taka heard muffled screams a moment before secondary explosions rocked the hovertank as the gun's remaining plasma rounds ignited and detonated, engulfing the tank in toxic flames.  The hovertank fell to the ground with a crash as its antigrav systems failed… and then lay still, burning.

Takamitsu could only stand there in numb shock at what he had just seen.  He registered another flash of light behind him, then felt a firm hand on his shoulder.  "You alright?" asked a voice behind him.  "Any injuries?"

The young man turned to see the mystery man standing there, katana in hand, wearing an outdated suit of Eastern Bloc power armor.  He was definitely not a Cultist.  "Wha...?" Taka stammered.  "Who…?"

The trooper lifted his helmet's faceplate and smiled at Takamitsu.  "You're a hard man to keep alive, nephew."

Taka stared in stunned disbelief.  He knew that face—he saw it every time he passed the family shrine honoring the dead.  "Uncle… Akira?"

"Konnichiwa, Takamitsu."  Yasuyama Akira the Younger smiled.  "It's good to finally meet you."

"But…you're dead," Taka said.  "You died in the Third Civil War, over twenty years ago!"

"Oh no, I'm quite alive!"  Akira laughed, sheathing his katana.  "Come.  Hikari and Akiko are dying to see you again, all grown up."

"My… my grandmothers?  They're alive too?"  It was too much for his brain to handle.  "What the jigoku is going on?!"

"Don't worry, Taka, I'll explain everything.  Well, not everything… but I've been telling Mother and Grandmother that they really need to tell you something—and the sooner, the better!"  Akira just stood there quietly, his hand on his nephew's shoulder.  As the seconds passed, the soldier grew annoyed.  Finally, he tapped his ear with his free hand.  "Shiba, Liu!  Don't you know a good exit line when you hear it?!"

And with that, both of them disappeared in a flash of light.




With Lord General Malakov and his staff dead, and the Kalintos planetary capital once more in Federation hands, it wasn't long before the senior surviving officers of the Imperial Army on Kalintos surrendered.  A few hundred of their more fanatical members fled into the jungles to attempt a guerrilla campaign of their own, but Colonel Knowles doubted it would take long to chase them down—especially with most of the locals hopping mad at having their planet invaded in the first place.  Guerrillas could never last long without the support of the local populace, and the brief Imperial occupation of the planet had not won the Empire many friends.

Raptor Planetary Headquarters in Loud Water had never been particularly large.  Only a single lance had been assigned to the capital city, mostly as a reserve reaction force, with a few detached squads stationed at recruiting centers in some of the outlying settlements.  Even so, the HQ had taken a direct hit in the initial Imperial attack a month before.  So the victory party had been moved to a mostly-intact restaurant a few blocks away.  The restaurant was called the "Bikiin Palace" and had the sort of rice-centric menu that Knowles's great-grandfather probably would have called "Chinese" a century ago.  His father would have called it "Han" a couple decades ago.  The elderly couple running the place showed no phenotypic signs of any of their ancestors having left the African continent before Gehenna, and they themselves probably only left when the Bug Meteor had forced everyone to leave the planet.  How in the world did they end up on the ass end of human space?  And why were they running a restaurant on a jungle planet? Knowles wondered… then chose not to speculate.  But the Mongolian Rabbit was darn good.

Most of his troopers had finished eating by now.  Some of them were quietly getting drunk in dark corners.  Some were rather more loudly getting drunk at the bar.  Still more were flirting with the edge of the fraternization regulations on the dance floor.  Someone had actually managed to dig up an old BLAM of music by Gun Metal Grey, the sort of stuff Chairman Clarke had tried to ban as subversive.  Well, he had a good reason to ban it as subversive, the lieutenant colonel admitted, not that the ban was any more effective than… well, half the other social-engineering programs Clarke had tried.  The troopers not gazing meaningfully into each other's eyes on the dance floor were occasionally chuckling at some of the more ludicrously anti-Clarke lyrics.

The place had actually thinned out a bit compared to earlier.  Knowles figured some of the younger werecreatures had gone out back to beat the slobber out of each other.  If Knowles had been a few years younger, he might have joined them.  Instead, he circulated around the room, congratulating his men and women for a job well done.  Kalintos and Minos were back in Federation hands, and everyone was hoping that two defeats in a row would put a serious dent in Vin Dane's reputation as a miracle worker and god of victory.  Of course, many of the Raptors in this room had known Vin Dane personally, back when he was only a colonel in their ranks.  They knew first hand that, clever and dangerous as he was, he was certainly no god.  He wasn't fit to spit-shine Clarke's jackboots, Knowles knew, much less take his old place as Raptor Commandant.  And fit to take his place as overlord of the human race?  It would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic.

Knowles spotted one of those old Raptor comrades of Clarke's sitting at a table which was neither dark enough to be filled with sad drunks nor close enough to the dance floor to be filled with hormonal young soldiers.  Instead, it seemed filled with middle-aged officers playing cards.  Knowles smirked as he recognized the other troopers Bernard Dent was playing against.

"You must be drunk, Dent.  You're playing against a mind mage who can read your mind and can tell if you're bluffing!  Of course, the cyborg here could count every card in the deck, and your Entropy Mage can sense the very currents of probability as you shuffle the deck.  You crazy old bear, don't you realize you're screwed?"

Major Dent didn't bother looking up.  "Of course I do.  But they realize they're playing with a crazy old werebear who can rip their spines out through their throats and beat them to death with their own tailbones if they cheat."  He punctuated his statement by taking a swig from his usual pitcher of vodka.

"Which is why we're playing Go Fish instead of Poker," chimed in Captain Adelisa Soti, the entropy mage at the table.  "Much less likely to get anyone mad.  At least, not enough to start a spine fight."

"Clearly you never played against my older sister," Knowles laughed back.  He took a closer look at the layout of cards and chips on the table.  "Seven card stud Go Fish, I see."

"With water chestnuts for chips," Argus McCall chipped in, eating one from his pile.  "Captain Petz here forgot to bring his set down from the transport."

"What am I, a mind reader?" asked the battalion intelligence officer with mock plaintiveness.

"Yes!" everyone at the table answered at once.  The mind mage shrugged.

Captain Soti took the pot with a smile and began reshuffling the deck for the next hand.  "Would you care to sit in for a hand or two, colonel?"

"I ate my water chestnuts."

"Regulations prohibit gambling for money, sir," McCall replied, pushing over part of his own stack and gesturing at the others at the table to do the same.

"They also prohibit smoking in public restaurants," Dent replied, his teeth clenched around his cigar.  "Frak 'em."

"We're in a tropical jungle," Soti answered.  "This place's ventilation can easily handle your stogie smoke."

"And if he stepped outside, he might miss someone else buying a round of drinks," McCall piped up.

"Speaking of which, colonel," said Petz hopefully.  "Since you're the new guy at the table..."

Knowles let out a barking laugh and raised his hand holding his credit chit to attract the waiter's attention.  Dent grinned and drained the remaining half-pitcher of Vodka in front of him in one long swig to clear the way for the next one.

Soti finished dealing the cards and the betting began.  Three quick hands and a couple more rounds of drinks later, Dent got up from the table and excused himself.  Following him was a round of jokes about what a bear does on a planet covered in woods.  Knowles followed him out the rear door of the restaurant a moment later.

In the alley behind the Bikiin Palace, a circle of werecreatures were ritualistically beating each other to an enthusiastic pulp while someone's boom box blared out an old Volkskrieg Overdrive song.  Or maybe it was supposed to be dancing, the colonel thought.  There wasn't much difference when werecreatures were concerned.

"Have you given any more thought to our proposal?" the colonel asked the major.

Dent lit a fresh cigar.  "I'm a soldier, I don't give a frak about that political crap and you know it."

"Our kind did well under Clarke.  We had respect.  The draft kept us together rather than setting us apart," Knowles implored him.  "I don't like some of the scuttlebutt coming out of New Madrid these days about the sort of reforms Smythe is contemplating."

"Then remember it's just scuttlebutt," the werebear answered through a haze of smoke, "and do your job."

"These sources haven't been wrong before," the werewolf pressed on.  "Something is coming, some big announcement.  They're in talks with those Mundane-supremacist REMF's in the Ministry about an alliance.  Maybe even getting them to rejoin the Fed.  Smythe's desperate enough to give them anything they want—and nothing they want is gonna be good for our kind of people."

Dent angrily dropped his cigar to the ground and stomped it out.  "Listen, dogboy.  You and your buddies can bark and yowl over who gets to be pack alpha all they want.  If they disband the Tech Infantry, I get to take a nice long vacation.  Maybe even hibernate for once.  But they can't afford to fire us or muck up our setup too much, and they know it.  So I'll still have a job busting heads and kicking butts, and whether the resulting crunch is from rebel skulls or bug carapaces, I don't really care.  Now I'm gonna go back inside and finish drinking away everyone else's victory bonus."

As Dent angrily strode back past the circle of growling young werecreatures, he called out to one of the bloodied troopers fighting in the center.  "McMichael!  Get your hairy ass back inside, it's your turn to buy drinks!"

Knowles rubbed his bald head in frustration.  Thinking about what to do next, his eyes wandered over the recycling bins and refuse dumpsters lining the alleyway.  A hovercar drove down the street past the nearest end of the alley, and the glow of its headlights momentarily glinted off of something sitting on the lid of one of the nearby garbage containers.  As his eyes narrowed and a low guttural growl issued from somewhere deep in his chest, he recognized the small beetle-like device as it suddenly flew into the air and zoomed back towards the restaurant after Dent.

"That cyborg snitch," he growled to himself.  "McCall!"

Before he could morph into Crinos form and charge back into the restaurant, the hovercar turned the corner onto the street in front of the restaurant... and then turned sharply to ram itself into the facade of the building before the powerful explosive in its trunk went off.  The car bomb blew through the entryway of the restaurant and into the interior, sending flame and shrapnel through the celebrating soldiers inside.

The Cult of the Emperor had struck its first blow to re-liberate Kalintos for the Empire.



            It took Heth almost two weeks to finally reach Purrfang, the capitol system of the K'Nes Llan.  The Bountiful was limited to traveling through commercial hyperspace lanes, and they stopped to trade in nearly every system they passed through (they pretty much had to, or Heth would have a mutiny on his hands).  It was times like this when Heth missed his old super-freighter Avarice (and its fast gravity drive) more than ever—time, after all, was money.

But the wait had been worth it.  There was a reason Heth jumped at every excuse to visit Purrfang: it was a breathtaking sight, especially from orbit.  Now he stared out the porthole of a drop shuttle approaching Purrfang, a tiny blue-green moon orbiting the massive red orb of the gas giant T'Ssowll, the Sky Father.  It was like a enormous ball of flame in the darkness; the massive red, orange, and yellow bands of gas clouds swirled slowly in endless waves.  After weeks in black space, the colors were dazzling.

The moment he and M'Rowr stepped off the shuttle into the Awuon City spaceport, Heth instantly, instinctively felt—no, he knew­­—this was the K'Nes homeworld.  "Ah…" he purred.  "It's good to be home."

"What, you were born here?"  M'Rowr shot him a puzzled look.

"Well… no," Heth admitted.  "I was born and raised on Nhur, just like you."  The Miao corporate clan's home colony was a lifeless snowball in space; not exactly a tourist destination.  "But I've been to Purrfang a few times on business," Heth continued, "and… well, can't you feel it?  The gravity, the temperature, the air… it's perfect!  Comfortable, even.  You can tell this is the place where our species evolved—we were meant to live here.  This is our planet."

"Moon," M'Rowr corrected.  Heth shot him an exasperated glance, but said nothing,

The two cats stepped out of the spaceport onto the soft, reddish-purple grass growing between buildings—a species that floated had no need of paved roads—and stopped short, looking around at the biggest K'Nes metropolis in the universe, awed into silence.

This was the birthplace of K'Nes civilization, and here, more than anywhere else, the evidence of human occupation had been torn down with the speed only profit could motivate.  Gone were the imposing statues and eternal flames, the military flags and propaganda posters.  They had been replaced by the highest form of K'Nes artwork: the advertisement.  Every available surface promoted a company or product.  Billboards glowed, blinked, flashed, and screamed their wares; holographic advertisements practically muscled each other aside, vying desperately for the attention of passersby.  It was gaudy, garish, chaotic… and so very beautiful.

"Well, little cuz," M'Rowr smiled.  "Ready to fly?"

"Without that heavy helium tank?"  Heth flashed a fang-filled grin. "Try and stop me!"

It took all of two seconds to find a merchant selling bottled water—at exorbitant prices, of course, pure spaceway robbery.  Yet the crafty K'Nes peddler knew tourists to Purrfang wanted to fly—not just hover or float, fly—and to do that, they needed water… and Heth and M'Rowr were no different from the thousands of other visitors willing to pay a convenience premium.  Heth paid for M'Rowr's bottle, of course; his mangy older cousin was chronically short of disposable income (he had two litters to feed on a pilot's salary, after all).

"Thanks, cuz!" M'Rowr said, ripping the lid off.  He held the bottle up in a toast.  "To peace and a free Llan!"

"Indeed!" Heth agreed, tapping bottles, and then the two cats chugged, tossing away the empty containers (instantly retrieved by the water peddler to be sanitized and reused).  Heth and M'Rowr's bellies gurgled as a biological form of electrolysis converted the water to hydrogen for lift and oxygen for propellant.  There bodies began to swell until they were almost spherical, their elastic suits stretching with them, and they rose up into the air where the red glow of Sky Father seemed to fill half the heavens.  They lifted their long tails and squeezed out enough oxygen to build up some speed, then relaxed and let the gentle breeze carry them along.  They bushed their tails up and caught the wind, guiding themselves between the buildings.

  It was springtime on Purrfang, warm and humid but not yet sweltering, and the perfume of pollen and stench of industry created a unique scent, sweet and profitable.  Heth closed his eyes and relished the feel of sunlight on his face and wind ruffling his fur.  That's something you don't get in deep space!  Heth purred happily.

And Heth had a good reason to be happy.  Sure, he'd cleared his name, been promoted, closed trade deals, and was meeting the LEO of the K'Nes Llan… but the main reason was that Miu was on Purrfang too, meeting with investors—and she'd agreed to a business appointment with Heth later that day.  He was already planning out the evening in the back of his mind.

"Y'know, M'Rowr," Heth said, "if I do re-merge with Miu, we just might move here to raise our cubs."

"Then you'll need a lot more money!" M'Rowr scoffed.  "You know how much Purrfang real estate costs?"

M'Rowr had talked his way into tagging along by arguing that Heth needed a bodyguard, and Heth had humored his older cousin (what K'Nes didn't want to visit their homeworld, after all?).  True, M'Rowr had been in the K'Nes Tor Army—back when there was one—but that was eight years ago, before the Human Occupation, and Heth wasn't sure how much good the older and fatter M'Rowr would be in a fight these days.  Still, Heth was mildly surprised to see M'Rowr taking his role seriously, carefully looking around with a watchful eye… even if he did sporadically pause to admire his reflection as they passed the occasional glass window.

The pair drifted through the swarms of busy K'Nes flying to and fro.  It was clear the mating season was approaching; the amount of jewelry on display was staggering.  From ledges and alcoves on the buildings above, K'Nes vendors hawked their merchandise and customers haggled.  Heth noticed the price of grilled rodent-on-a-stick had gone up again.

Heth turned to M'Rowr with a grin.  "So… ready to meet Varrless K'Pirr, the richest K'Nes alive?"

"As I'll ever be, I guess."  M'Rowr licked his whiskers nervously.  "Just remember, boss… be real careful with Varrless.  I hear he's not the kind of K'Nes whose fur you wanna rub the wrong way."

"Yes, M'Rowr."  Heth rolled his eyes, exasperated.  The idea of taking business advice from M'Rwor was ridiculous.  "I'm well aware that Pirr takes an aggressive negotiating stance and has a rather… forceful management style."

"Ya got that right!" M'Rowr spat.  "I hear Varrless doesn't like to lose, and will do anything to cop a credit."  He lowered his voice.  "Look, boss, word is this K'Nes takes cutthroat competition to a new level.  There are rumors, y'know…"

"Yes, I know," Heth sighed, bored but humoring his cousin.  "I've heard all the rumors, M'Rowr, and place no stock in them."

"His sire did die kinda sudden," M'Rowr pointed out, "right after he was appointed LEO of the K'Nes Llan, no less."

"Pirr the Elder was an old K'Nes."  Heth shrugged.  "His death is not exactly suspicious."

"Yeah, but I hear Pirr the Younger prevented an autopsy…"

"That's not terribly unusual," Heth replied, growing irritated, "assuming that rumor is even true, which it might not be."

"What about that last-minute change to his will?" M'Rowr pressed.  "Leaving all his assets to Pirr the Younger?  Don't K'Nes usually divide their assents among their cubs?"

"Unorthodox, true," Heth admitted.  "But in this case, an excellent business move.  If Varrless Financial divided their shares in the K'Nes Llan, they'd lose their dominant position on the Executive Board, and the LEO position would have gone to another Executive Director… probably Horrath K'Urrin K'Meorr of Horrath Industries.  Remember, M'Rowr, the Varrless didn't get to be the richest corporate clan by being stupid."

"No," M'Rowr growled.  "They did it by collaborating with the Human Occupation before the war was even over!"

Heth was wondering when that would come up.  He knew quite well why his cousin was so suspicious of Varrless Financial.  "Unpatriotic?  Yes, perhaps," Heth conceded.  "But you can't deny it was an effective business strategy, judging by the results."

"For Varrless Financial, sure," M'Rwor growled.  "But the Occupation wasn't very profitable for the rest of us!  Some things have a non-monetary value, boss—like our independence."

"Yes, M'Rwor, I agree."  Heth sighed again; he knew this was one argument he wasn't going to win, not with M'Rowr—or any veteran, for that matter.  "But rumors and history are irrelevant in this case—Captain Gergenstein instructed me to paw-deliver this contract to First Patriarch Varrless, and a deal is a deal.  I'm not about to risk breaking another contract, verbal or otherwise.  Besides," Heth added, "it shouldn't be too controversial… I can't see how anyone would object to peace with the Federation right now."

M'Rowr let out his own sigh of resignation.  "Yeah, boss, I know, but… well, just be careful, huh?"

"Of course, M'Rowr, I'll…"  Heth's voice trailed off as the two cats shifted their tails, tacking into the wind to round the corner of a building… and suddenly there it was, rising before them, dominating the horizon, the top nearly lost in the clouds—the Capital Hall of the K'Nes Llan, where the capital needed to govern their space was raised and allocated, and the long-term futures of the K'Nes species were negotiated and planned.  Both cats lapsed into silence as they drifted closer.

"I've… never actually been inside Capital Hall before," Heth admitted.

"Me neither."  M'Rowr licked his paws and slicked down his mane.  "Wore my best suit, too."

Heth stared aghast at M'Rowr's orange waistcoat, red breeches, and purple blouse.  That's his best suit?  Then Heth looked around, noticing for the first time other K'Nes wearing suits equally loud and garish.  Heth looked down at his own suit, dark blues and greens and grays, and suddenly realized he's spent far, far too long among humans.  On deals, Heth wore the corporate uniform of whatever race he was negotiating with, and ape businesspeople seemed to only wear one of four dark colors: blue, brown, gray, and black.  What a depressing species, Heth thought, no wonder they're always at war.  K'Nes business fashion was much more colorful and imaginative.

Hoping his unfashionably drab suit wouldn't draw too much notice, Heth deflated, landing on the ledge outside a mid-level entrance to Capital Hall.  M'Rowr followed, and they padded inside.  True to his word, Yawr had wrangled an appointment for them with the LEO of the Executive Board, Varrless K'Pirr.  After passing through security (where M'Rowr was relieved of his pistol), an aide guided them through the halls.  As they floated along, both cats looked around in wonder at the interior of Capital Hall.  The massive, ancient hall was the oldest K'Nes structure in existence.  Heth could see layers of K'Nes history preserved in stone architecture—the building had originally been a Merchant's Guild House, then a Bank Vault, then a Stock Exchange… and, now, the K'Nes Llan Capital Hall.

They finally arrived at the waiting area outside the LEO's office.  Even this room was appropriately grand as stylish as befitted the importance of the dominant executive; the interior design was luxurious, indulgent, and staggeringly expensive.  A beautiful young secretary perched behind an ornate desk, the furniture was carved in exquisite detail, and the carpet thick and lush.  Dark wooden wainscoting ran along walls adorned with awards, trophies, and portraits of the K'Nes Tor Emperors… including, at the end, a portrait of Varrless.  Heth wasn't sure how he felt about that.

"Hey, Heth!" M'Rowr whispered.  "Take a look at this!"

Heth floated over to where his cousin hovered by the only window in the room, framed in rich and heavy drapes.  The view was magnificent.  Capital Hall was the tallest building on Purrfang—and considering the semi- airborne K'Nes already had a reputation for towering architecture, that was saying a lot.  Awuon City spread out far, far below them, sprawling out to the horizon in every direction.

Heth wasn't sure how long they floated in that cathedral of capitalism, gazing at the urban heart of their species… only that by the time he noticed the roaring and hissing coming from Varrless's office, he realized it had been building for quite some time.  M'Rowr was oblivious (as usual), but Heth discretely swiveled an ear toward the door.  Considering the office was almost certainly soundproofed, the fact that he could hear anything at all implied a truly royal row occurring within.  He could make out three voices, but only caught the occasional word or two… something about ships and budgets and mercenaries and accounts payable.  It reached a crescendo with roars that shook the walls—something about calling for security—and the door slammed open and two furious K'Nes burst out.

Heth recognized them instantly: Gurrmew K'Soth and Yeomurt K'Prria, co-LEOs of Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP, the political enemies of Miao Mercantile Inc.  Both cats were former military, and played the part from nose-tip to tail-tip with obnoxious abandon.  Soth floated across the room, a stocky calico in a bright red waistcoat (blatantly tailored to resemble a K'Nes Tor Navy uniform), with a short-cropped mane and conspicuous lack of jewelry completing the military look.  His mate Prria, a lean and lanky K'Nes wearing a form-fitting business suit (in the same cut and dark blue color as the K'Nes Tor Army), walked next to Soth—or stalked, rather, every bit a lithe and lethal predator.  The couple were a truly intimidating pair… and Varrless had just sent them running.

Heth suddenly felt much less confident.

" 'Not a budgetary priority'… bah!" Soth spat.  "If the apes invades again, we've only got one warship—my ship—to stop them!  Blast it, we need to rebuild our fleet, now!"

…and the fact that you own the largest shipyards in K'Nes space has nothing to do with it, I'm sure, Heth thought, narrowing his eyes.  Yes, you'd like a nice fat government contract, wouldn't you?

"The Executive Board wants a Llan Fleet," Prria growled.  "They just don't want to pay for it."

"They're paying for a Llan Army, aren't they?" Soth demanded.  "So why not a Llan Fleet?"

"If you can call it an army," Prria hissed.  "A collection of mercenary companies?  No standardization, no supply infrastructure, no clear command structure?  It's inefficient and cost-ineffective!"  Prria flexed her paws in frustration, claws extending and retracting.

Heth listened, fascinated.  Thankfully, neither of the couple seemed to have noticed him or M'Rowr yet.  Heth had heard something about the more enterprising K'Nes veterans founding mercenary companies in the months since the Human Occupation ended, but had no idea Varrless was trying to organize them into an army.  I've spent too long on foreign business, Heth chided himself, I'm losing track of what's happening in the Llan.

"Besides," Prria continued, seething, "the Executive Board voted down funding for the Llan Army—Varrless Financial is paying for them, not the K'Nes Llan… and that worries me.  Mercenaries are only loyal to whoever signs their paychecks."

Frankly, that worried Heth too.

M'Rwor turned to Heth, a puzzled expression on his furry face, and said a bit too loud, "An army, but no ships to move 'em around with?  That doesn't make any sense…"

Soth spun around in mid-air, pointing a claw at M'Rowr.  "Exactly!" he yowled.  "Finally, someone who—"  He stopped abruptly, staring at Heth and M'Rowr.  Soth's eyes narrowed to slits.  "Miao Mercantile…" he growled, floating closer to them.  Prria slinked up alongside Soth, still, silent, and glowering.  "What business do you have with First Patriarch Varrless, Miao?" Soth demanded.

M'Rowr involuntarily floated back a bit, intimidated, then bumped into the window and promptly got tangled in the curtains.  As usual, it was up to Heth to handle the formalities.  "I'm afraid that's proprietary information," he replied with a polite cower.  "But suffice to say, I don't think you'll need to worry about hostilities with the Federation anytime soon."

"Eh?   Why?"  Soth's whiskers twitched as he sniffed the air, curious.  "Why do you say that?  What do you know, Miao?"

"Something you don't.  And it's going to stay that way."  Heth bared his fangs in a grin.  "Gainful day."

Prria's silver-blue fur bristled—and for an instant, she looked like she was about to pounce.  Then Soth lay a restraining paw on his mate's shoulder.  "Come, precious," he said, "let's not waste any more time with smugglers and black marketers…"  He shot a piecing glance at Heth.  "…or contract-breakers."

Heth felt an unwanted growl rising from his chest.

M'Rwor suddenly seemed to find his nerve in his back pocket.  "Oh yeah?  Well… well, at least we aren't always bragging about owning a warship over fifty years old!"  Gurrmew and Yeomurt ignored him completely as they left.  Heth gave M'Rwor a questioning sideways glance.  "It… was all I could think of…" M'Rowr said with a bashful shrug.

"Miao K'Rrowr K'Heth?"

Surprised, Heth turned toward the voice to see the LEO's gorgeous blonde-furred secretary holding a datapad and a disapproving glower.  "First Patriarch Varrless is ready to see you and your… associate."

At least M'Rowr had the decency to look abashed.  After a quick last-minute preening, they both floated through the open door into the executive office and deflated onto the thick rug.  Heth just hoped M'Rowr wouldn't shed on it too much… that would be frightfully embarrassing.

Balanced on a padded leather perch behind an immense and astoundingly expensive desk was First Patriarch Varrless K'Purrfang K'Pirr the Younger.  He was a massive yellow tabby—taller than some females, even—with a huge mane glittering with splendid jewelry, dressed in a pristine red waistcoat and breeches, orange blouse, and yellow ascot.  He looked like a flame—which, Heth thought, was a fairly accurate description of both his personality and management style.  Heth and M'Rowr immediately observed proper protocol, lowering their tails and cowering deferentially to this most dominant of males.

The LEO of the K'Nes Llan held up a paw to silence them without even looking up; he was growling at an Executive Director over a comm line and didn't want to be interrupted in the middle of a good rant.  Heth glanced around the splendid office.  It was an unparalleled display of conspicuous consumption bordering on decadence, even by K'Nes standards.  Every item was crafted from rare and priceless materials, every available surface intricately decorated, opulent and extravagant without ever crossing the line into gaudy.

Then Heth noticed something unusual: a chair.  Not a perch or cushion, but a chair, like humans or Jurvain used.  It was hardly unheard of, but it was unusual, especially in a LEO's office.  Varrless obviously entertained an alien on a regular basis, and Heth couldn't help but wonder who, and why.

Varrless finished his call with a hiss, clawed up a light stylus, and began poking at a holographic spreadsheet hovering over his desk.  "Bah!  This blasted, inefficient bureaucracy!" he growled, fuming.  "If it's not the Executive Board, it's the Board of Directors!  If it's not the Board of Directors, it's the shareholders!  If it's not the shareholders, it's the—"  The patriarch stopped abruptly, his golden eyes focusing on Heth and M'Rowr through the holographic display.  "Who the scat are you?" he growled.

"Miao K'Rrowr K'Heth, sire."  Heth smiled, not sure what negotiating technique to take. Submissive?  Arrogant?  When in doubt, stall with introductions.  "This is Miao K'Rrowr M'Rowr, my business assoc—"

"I don't care!"  Pirr snapped as he shut off the holoprojection.  "All you Miao are the same, greedily little scavengers picking at my waste.  I don't know how you got past my scheduler… I should buy your house and turn it into a parking lot for squandering my time!"

Heth cut to the core and pulled out Gergenstien's datapad.  "I believe you will find this explains our presence."

Varrless flew over and grabbed the datapad out of Heth's paws.   A couple quick scans told him everything.  "Smythe?!  How in the moon did you…?"

"I was passing through New Madrid," Heth deliberately stared at his claws, admiring his manicure.  Need to act dismissive; he's a bully, defuse his power.  "A customer asked me to pass this to you as a favor.  I never leave a customer unsatisfied."  The businesscat bared his fangs in a smile.

"A non-aggression contract?  With the Federation?!"  Pirr threw the datapad down on his desk.  "Never!  I'd rather stick my claws in raw scat than deal with those hairless apes!"

Heth froze, shocked.  This wasn't the reaction he expected.  "So… you're refusing it?"

"Of course I am!" Varrless snarled.  "I wouldn't trust those treacherous primates to honor a deal, no matter how it was phrased.  Looks like you wasted your time… now get out!"

Heth didn't budge.  This was too important.  "Does the Executive Board share your feelings?"


"I asked, does the Executive Board share your feelings?"

"The Board does nothing but waste my time with their endless debates!  And time is money!" Varrless blustered.  "My administration would be so much more streamlined and cost-effective without their constant negotiating…"

"I understand the sentiment," Heth said, agreeing without actually agreeing, "but the K'Nes Llan Articles of Incorporation clearly state that all diplomatics contract must be approv—"

"I don't need you to quote the bylaws to me, cub!" Varrless spat.

"My point," Heth said, trying to drag the negotiation back to focus, "is that the Executive Board has already approved non-aggression contracts with both the Jurvain and the Ministry.  What's one more?"

"Of course they approved those!  I put them on the agenda!"  Pirr inflated himself up.  "Those contracts were in my interests.  Opened up our borders to trade and security.  But I'm not going to deal with that admiral… chairman… whatever he calls himself!  No!"

Heth swallowed and held his ground.  "I'm sure that after it's introduced for debate to the Board of Directors, the Executive Board might see it differently."

The patriarch floated closer, fur bristling.  His eyes narrowed to slits.  "You wouldn't dare…"

Heth met his gaze.  "Too many K'Nes know about the proposal already, sire.  If it doesn't appear on the next agenda, I'm sure they'll wonder why you're blocking it.  They will demand it come up for debate."

"A demand led by Miao K'Nhur K'Yawr, no doubt!"  Varrless spun around and deflated onto his executive perch, glaring at them.  "Which leads me to ask, Heth… why are you so determined, cub?  How are you profiting from this?"

"Well… I'm not," Heth admitted.  "At least, not directly."

Varrless hissed out a laugh.  "They you're a fool!"

"Sire, this is the first step the Federation has ever made in even recognizing us as a sovereign nation," Heth argued.  "They're offering us a contract!  Instead of being a rebel province targeted for re-conquest, we're now equals!  The K'Nes can finally secure our independence, once and for all.  That has to be the first, the most important thing!"

"Sky Father above, you are a naïve little kitten!"  Varrless rolled his eyes, exasperated.  "Don't you remember what those apes were like, what they did to us during the Occupation?  The nationalization of private property?  State control of industrial production and trade routes?  Government direction of the economy—all toward a profitless war machine?  It was… socialism!"  Pirr's tongue tripped over the alien word—until the Occupation, the K'Nes had no concept of such a thing, much less a word for it.  "They're a treacherous species, cub.  They don't abide by contracts.  They'll break it the first chance they get!"

"Then at the very least, it will buy us some time to get our war machine ready," Heth pressed, "and with good relations already in place, we'll have a better chance of ensuring peace and continued trade indefinitely.  Everyone profits.  What do we have to lose?"

Varrless raised a single claw.  "Your favorable projection fails to take in to account one thing."

Heth widened an eye.  "And that is?"

"The Emperor.  He won't look favorably towards a K'Nes deal with his most… aggressive enemy."

"But… we trade with the Empire all the time!" M'Rowr blurted out, speaking for the first time.  "They know we trade with others, and—"

"But a formal diplomatic contract is different."  Varrless spoke as if talking to a kitten.  "If the K'Nes Llan provides assistance to the Emperor's enemies—no matter how little—he will not forget such an outrage."

Heth didn't like where this was going.  Following that logic, he thought, we can't have diplomatic relations with anyone BUT the Empire.  He tried a different tactic.  "Futures, like stocks, fluctuate," Heth reminded Varrless.  "There's no guarantee the Empire will even survive.  The Federation has the largest fleet…"

"…and the Empire has the Horadrim," Varrless countered.  "With their technology, they could easily counter that advantage.  Sky Father above, just one of those Horadrim god-ships could take out an entire Earth Fleet task force!  No, I plan to place the Llan in a favorable trading position for when the Empire succeeds, not if."

"Yes… but will the Llan survive in the meantime?"

"And why wouldn't we?" Pirr demanded.

"The Federation is much closer, sire, a much more immediate threat.  If they see a chance to grab our factories to help fuel their war effort, we can hardly stop them!"

"Now you sound like that swaggering rodent Gurrmew K'Soth," Varrless growled.

Heth ignored him, pushing forward.  "It's best to negotiate peace with the Federation now, while they're preoccupied and stretched thin.  Then, if the Empire takes offense, we'll make them a deal too."  Heth smiled—without fangs this time.  "It gives us a chance to be the middlemerchants on the galactic stage; friendly to all, beholden to none.  Surely that's worth pursuing…?"

"And if I refuse?"  Varrless bristled.

"Then it will come up for debate anyway."  Heth shrugged.  "Moreover, you'll look short-sighted and incompetent for not bringing it to the Board yourself."  He swished his tail slowly, nonchalant.  "Who knows?  There might even be a shareholder challenge.  Varrless Financial needs a majority of shares to remain dominant, you know…"

For a moment, Heth thought Varrless was going to claw his throat out.  Then, incredibly, the First Patriarch gave in.  "Fine," Pirr growled, "I'll bring the Federation's non-aggression contract to the Board… and a non-aggression contract with the Empire, too!"

Even better, Heth thought.  He nodded to Varrless.  "Fair enough."

"But…"  Pirr pointed a claw at Heth.  "There is a price."

Heth's ears perked up.  "And that would be?"
            "Up until now, I've been content to ignore the Miao… I have the Llan, after all," he growled.  "But your LEO is trying to push his whiskers where they don't belong.  Varrless Financial will no longer ignore the expansion of Miao Mercantile into national affairs.  Consider that your best and final offer."

Heth didn't like the sound of that.  "Or what?" he pushed.  "You'll attempt a hostile takeover of Miao Mercantile?  You're rich, but you're not that rich."

"Who said anything about Miao Mercantile?"  Varrless gave him a predatory smile.  "Gainful day, Heth."

Heth stared at him silently, puzzled.  What's he referring to?  If not the Miao… then who?  Then, taking his cue, he cowered politely, turned, and left the Patriarch's office.  They he came back in, grabbed a dumbfounded M'Rowr by the collar, and dragged him out.

The pair inflated and floated out of Capital Hall in silence.  At security, M'Rowr reclaimed his pistol, and they left the Hall.  They sat on the ledge in the breeze, dangling their legs over the chasm below.  Heth pulled out his snuffbox and snorted a huge pinch of nepeta.  M'Rowr rolled a nepeta cigarette.  He couldn't afford powdered nepeta—he had two litters to support, after all.  He lit his nepeta joint and took a huge drag.

"You just challenged the richest K'Nes in the Llan," M'Rowr said.

"Of course."  Heth shrugged.  "It's a free market."

"And… you won…"

"Yes… I suppose I did, didn't I?" Heth replied.  You don't have to sound so surprised, he thought, irked.

"Did you mean what you said in there?  About the K'Nes?"

"What, about being the galaxy's middlemerchants?  Certainly!  That's the most profita—"

"No," M'Rowr cut him off.  "About K'Nes independence being the most important thing.  Did you mean it?"

Heth sniffed at him, confused.  "Of course.  Don't you?"

M'Rowr smiled.  The he stiffened and snapped his tail around to tap against his forehead; the military salute of the old K'Nes Tor Army.  "Yes, sire!"

Heth stared at him silently, not sure how to respond.  M'Rowr was twice his age; it made Heth uncomfortable for M'Rowr to address him as 'sire'.

M'Rowr lowered his tail.  "You know, I think I might've underestimated you, cuz… what with you being the runt of the litter and all that.  But… well, you might just have what it takes to be an alpha after all."

Heth didn't know if he should feel complimented or insulted, so he switched the topic instead.  "Do you think it will last, M'Rowr?  Our freedom, I mean.  The galaxy's at war… and we've got no fleet, no real army…"

M'Rowr puffed his joint.  "As long as we can keep the apes fighting each other… sure."

"Yes… but when one ape faction inevitably wins, and conquers all the others… what then?"

"Then we're next," M'Rowr said.

The two cats sat silently on the ledge for a while, watching the chaotic commerce below.




"One minute until transition to realspace," a voice chimed over the Scalable Brutality's intercom.  Scyr wondered briefly if it belonged to an actual bridge officer or was an automatic alert.

"All vessels, confirm combat readiness," Scyr instructed.  He'd given the same command half an hour ago too, but it didn't hurt to be careful.  It might hurt to be so obviously anxious, though, but Scyr didn't think about that.  One by one, the blips marking each of the task force's fifty carrier ships blinked in acknowledgment on the holo-plot.  One of those blips was the Scalable Brutality itself.  Somehow, it felt weird to realize that Scyr's command ship was part of the fleet too, its maneuvers not under his direct control.

The jump point through the Wolf system's Elysia-vector gate loomed large on visual displays.  Wolf itself was visible through the interface, although sensor feeds would be much degraded until the task force was free of the distortive interference of hyperspace.  Most of the Imperial Fleet's warships were gathered in planetary orbit, presumably engaged in the slow, dicey work of defeating Wolf's orbital defenses: probing weaknesses and degrading capabilities until they could find an opening or simply cracked the whole grid wide open.  Now that the small Imperial fleet was aware of the swarm of incoming Republican ships, it was scrambling to assemble into a defensive posture.  The Empire would not be able to tell just how dangerous the approaching ships were, merely that there were a lot of them.  For now, they would assume the worst.

So far, Scyr's task force had identified nine Imperial ships.  The other six were either obscured by the planet, or somewhere else in the system beyond the cone of light visible through the oncoming jump point.  Scyr wasn't especially worried.  Up until two days ago, the Terran Navy had still had access to the sensors of both of Wolf's jumpgates.  The task force was already halfway to Wolf by the time someone in the Imperial Fleet (or maybe it was one of the Empire's civilian gate techs) had thought to manually reset the control codes.  But by that time, Scyr had developed a good sense of the Empire's blockade strategy.

The Republic's gate fortifications had been the Empire's first targets (prompting Scyr to redesign and reinforce the equivalent defense systems in Elysia).  But after that initial destruction, the Imperial Fleet had essentially abandoned the gates to focus their forces against the much more heavily defended planet and outer system infrastructure.  The Empire clearly wasn't worried about retaliation from a nonexistent Terran Navy, and the few hapless Republican merchants jumping in after the blockade went up had been easily intercepted and captured by Imperial warships before they had enough time to turn around and escape.

The task force's fifty converted freighters—with the Scalable Brutality slightly ahead of center—crossed the jump point's interface.  The "walls" of an immensely powerful gravity field opened up into the calming star field of normal space.  Scyr's excitement and anxiety about the mission had already drowned out the subtle voices which seemed to leak out of hyperspace into his mind, but he still felt like a great weight had been lifted from his chest now that he was no longer actually in that strange realm.

His relief lasted for about two seconds.

"Holy shit!" someone yelled.  Scyr couldn't tell if it was one of his subordinates on the flag bridge, or a relay from the Brutality's command crew.  "Imperial destroyer, right on top of us!"

Sure enough, one of the two destroyers in the Imperial Fleet's blockade detachment had come over the lip of the jump point's conical opening, travelling on a vector matched almost perfectly to Scyr's task force.

The Rota-class of destroyers was obsolete.  They had been obsolete during their last significant deployments in the Vin Shriak wars.  The only reason Earth Fleet had never retired the remaining ships entirely was that sufficient attrition rates among all of its vessels over decades of continuous warfare necessitated manning every available hull.  But even in their prime, the Rota had never been a terribly effective design.  It might almost be described as a destroyer-sized assault fighter: a small warship intended to quickly strike and kill much larger fleet cruisers and battleships.  But, ultimately, a destroyer hull was much too expensive to waste on suicide runs, even against even more expensive capital ships.  The Rotas were not only under-armed for their size, but wielded a poor mix of weapons: they were specialist ships in a class that needed to generalize.  Scyr had anticipated an easy time taking the ships down.  All of a Rota's heavy weaponry was front-loaded; a hundred Shriekers could easily englobe one and cut it to pieces from the vulnerable rear while the more heavily armed but less nimble carrier ships stood off and watched from a safe distance.

But now one of the destroyers was less than half of a light-second away from the center of the task force.  Almost every one of Scyr's carriers with their still-undeployed fighter complements was within the firing arc of the Imperial ship's primary weaponry, and its matched velocity would keep them there for several minutes at least.  On top of that, at such close range even the destroyers' point defenses would be deadly effective against the converted freighters of the Terran Navy.

One fifth of Scyr's forces died before he could even finish shouting a rhetorical, "What?!"

Shock and fear washed over Scyr's brain like a tsunami.  Panic seized the other freighters of the task force and they began to scatter.  Seven of them fired all their missiles without even acquiring a target lock on the destroyer; four did so while pointed clear away from the warship.  Most did launch their fighters at least, and the Shriekers charged grimly at the enemy.  For their pilots, the only way out was through victory.

But admirable as the bravery might have been, it wouldn't save the situation.  The fighters had no plan of attack; they were bunched up and too close to the enemy.  The destroyer duly began swatting them out of space.  Scyr was utterly helpless to do anything but watch the disaster unfold.  There might have been a way out; there almost certainly was some strategy or plan which could turn this whole thing around.  But Scyr needed time to assess the problem, work out a solution, and communicate it to his subordinates, and there simply wasn't time.  It was like his house had been set on fire, and now it was crashing down on top of him before he even had time to grab a hose.

Scyr watched, paralyzed.  Two more freighters and ten Shriekers were caught in plasma bursts and destroyed.  No plan survived first contact with the enemy.  Scyr had known that, and thought he'd been prepared.  But there were just too many variables changing too quickly for him to respond.

Don't respond.  Act.

The situation had got completely away from him.  Scyr felt himself being swallowed up in the catastrophe, lost in the monumental scope of his failure.  His mind flailed desperately in the darkness.  And as he drowned, the whispers of those other voices, his constant companions, grew louder.

This is what you know, he thought.


The destroyer's main weapon fired again.  A one-meter beam of light lanced out to pierce the lead freighter of the pack.  Its icon on Scyr's command plot blinked and then disappeared.

This is who you are.  This is what you are trained for.

Kill.  Kill, kill, kill.

A new cloud of missiles.  Short-range point defenses, but they were just as deadly to the swarming fighters.  Another dozen Shriekers gone.

You must not panic.  Fear is the deadliest enemy.  Do not let it control you.


To Scyr's right, Lieutenant Dennis looked over his shoulder from where he was drawing hermetic symbols on a rolling chalkboard.  For just an instant, the worry on the marine's face was plain, but then he turned back to his work.  His fellow entropy mage, Moyers, remained seated with crossed legs on Scyr's left, staring passively at a great kettle of water.


It was like a jolt of lightning shot through Scyr's spine.  He sat upright, and then leaned in towards his command console.  His fingers flew.  First he removed extraneous information: the carriers winked away, let them flee; no missile tracks, either, he couldn't do anything about them.  Scyr wanted the Shriekers and he wanted the destroyer.  A hundred and eighty fighters left, and the number was ticking down like a timer.  But it would be enough to make the enemy die.

Firing arcs for the destroyer's weapons.  Vector plots for each of the fighters.  The Shrieker pilots had only the most elementary understanding of tactics and practice in formation flying.  But the training software for their Heads-Up Displays was top-notch.  If Scyr could give them flight plans and designate targets, they could follow and shoot.  He was going to need at least twenty different groups flying elliptical attack runs, probably closer to thirty.  And each would have to be constantly adjusted as the destroyer's weapons tracked and fighters died.

Scyr did not have a dataport.  That was just fine with him; he didn't like the idea of letting a computer interact directly with his brain.  But it meant that he needed to input all of his commands manually.  No macro in the universe could possibly have sufficed for the task Scyr was trying to perform now.  The control he needed was too fine; there were too many details he needed to manipulate, and every second counted.  He wasn't going to be able to manage it; his fingers simply did not move fast enough.

And then they did.  His digits flew, selecting ships and issuing orders just as fast as Scyr could think of them.  Joints bent and rotated faster than nerve impulses and mere muscle should have allowed.  Tissues tore and capillaries burst, tendons began to snap.  Scyr ignored this; he kept his focus.  His strategy was coming together.  Shriekers began to die more slowly as they fell into their assigned paths.

They wrecked the missile tubes first; apparently the exit ports were quite fragile.  That was good, but not as good as it might be.  The destroyer had eight fast-tracking plasma phalanxes with overlapping cones of fire that were nearly impossible to avoid.  Even keeping the Shriekers' attack patterns constantly updated, the phalanxes always had a target.  They were small targets, too; the fighters were having trouble hitting them before passing out of range again.  Thirty more Shriekers died before the first phalanx was finally knocked out of commission.

Now it was merely a matter of time.  Scyr reassigned the fighters he had flying in two patterns against the destroyer's engine assembly.  It was too well armored to knock out quickly, and Scyr didn't actually want the ship to lose acceleration.  That would put more of his task force in danger from the big chemlaser mounted on its nose.

The destroyer's crew was good.  They adjusted the targeting sequence of the remaining plasma phalanxes to neutralize much of the advantage of the Shriekers' maneuvers.  Scyr needed only a second to grasp the altered parameters before drawing up new orders.  He wondered if he was fighting another living human, or if it was an AI in control of the point defenses.  Two more guns went down.  Either way, the destroyer was now doomed.

Scyr had to continue tweaking his fighters' instructions as the enemy guns swiveled and Shriekers exploded, but he could already feel himself beginning to relax.  The worst of the crisis was passed.  The pressure had fallen enough that he brought his remaining carriers back up onto the plot.  Twenty-four were left of the original fifty.  None had gotten too far away from the main body of the fight, but Scyr began issuing orders to group them back into a reasonable formation.  He confirmed instructions to hold off firing the remaining missile stocks.  The fighters would handle this destroyer.  The carriers' missiles could be held in reserve until they fought the rest of the Empire's ships in the system.

The destroyer was down to its last plasma phalanx, and Scyr ordered fighters to focus on taking out its main cannon now.  The warship was effectively disarmed.  Scyr could capture or destroy it at an almost leisurely pace now.

"It was a good effort," he admitted graciously.  "But not quite enough to beat—"

The Hand of God Himself reached out and smacked the Scalable Brutality.  If Scyr had not been belted down to his seat, he might well have broken his neck against the compartment ceiling.  The two marine mages went tumbling, and boiling water spilled out of Lieutenant Moyers' kettle to hiss against the far bulkhead.  The marines were fine, and they staggered back to their feet.  Scyr was winded, and had to gulp for air for a few seconds.

That couldn't have been a weapon strike.  For one thing, Brutality should not have been within the firing cone of either the destroyer's main gun or its remaining plasma phalanx.  For another, a hit from either weapon almost certainly would have destroyed the freighter.  Scyr was too alive to be dead.  He glanced around the holoproj plot.  Every other Imperial ship was well out of range… although Scyr supposed one of them could have fired a laser or something and just gotten lucky.

Scyr only had to ponder for a few seconds.

"Uh, M. Secretary," came the voice of Scalable Brutality's young captain over the intercom.  "Looks like the destroyer had some nonstandard outfits.  That was a couple of assault pods we just got pegged with.  I think we need to expect boarders."

In other circumstances, Scyr might have commented on the absurdity of using planetary drop pods against another ship.  He might have wondered how he missed the launches on his tactical plot.  But right now, Scyr was too deep into the zone of whatever trance was allowing him to command this battle to feel real surprise.  It was obvious that he'd missed the pod launches because the CIC had tagged them as missiles, which he'd wiped from the plot.  It was just as obvious that boarding soldiers would be a mortal threat to the Brutality.

Scyr raised his chin to look at the two marine lieutenants.  Both mages had paused in the act of repositioning their focuses to look at Scyr, the question on their faces obvious.  Neither one was wearing his power armor.

"You," Scyr pointed at Lieutenant Moyers.  Little flecks of blood flew off the ends of his purple, swollen fingers.  "Suit up, double-time.  You," he nodded to Dennis, "keep up the magick."

Both of them snapped salutes.  Dennis nervously fingered the sidearm at his hip, but continued to focus on his chalkboard.

Moyers was only seconds out the door when they heard the clanging coming from the pressure hull above the flag bridge.  Scyr updated his instructions to the Shriekers pilots.  The destroyer had been thoroughly disarmed.  Now it was merely a matter of pounding it until it surrendered or broke up.  Then the task force needed to reform before moving on the rest of the Imperial forces.

A hissing noise came from the ceiling.  It quickly rose to a screech, and sparks began to fly into the flag bridge.  Then the sparks were flying up and out as atmosphere started to vent.  Scyr unbuckled his straps and stood up from his chair.  His eyes darted around the bridge.

"I need…" he murmured.

There was an unused console just left of the forward bulkhead.  Scyr walked up to it, careful not to step directly under the spray from the enemy's cutting torch above.  Inside his coat was a small holdout plasma pistol.  Scyr eased it out of the holster, then pointed with his left arm.  One, two, three shots and the console was burning.  That was good.  Scyr ignored the looks he got from Lieutenant Dennis and the rest of the command staff.  The fire would only last a minute or so.

As he replaced it, he noticed blood from his hand smeared on the pistol's grip.  That was good too.  Scyr raised his right hand and rubbed a wet thumb on his forehead in a circle.  Good.  He looked at his palms, puffy and running with blood from his fingers.  There was more he could do… but, no.  The Imperial troopers were nearly through.  Scyr closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then another.  Acrid smoke from the burning console burned his lungs, but he ignored it.  That was good too.  He pivoted towards the hole being cut in his ship.  To his left, he could feel that slight irritation, that tingling he was looking for.  Good.

Scyr opened his eyes just as a big sheet of steel was ripped straight up from the ceiling and cast into space.  The rush of air from the compartment trebled.  The massive figure of a soldier in heavy power armor glared down at him from above.  Already he was leveling his weapon.

Scyr's grin was manic.  "Cheers, gentlemen."

He stepped sideways.




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, even if your corporate security DOES have an APC for some reason.