BLACK FIRE UPON WHITE FIRE – Act I
"When you enter a room full of the enemy, kill the first one that moves—he has started to think and is therefore dangerous."
— Robert Blair "Paddy" Mayne, SAS founding member
The flash of light faded, and Takamitsu felt his feet slip in mud. He staggered to keep from falling, arms windmilling to regain stability. Frankly, his mind was as off-balance as his body. In the space of a minute, he'd seen a man take out a hovertank with a sword, a man who turned out to be Taka's uncle Akira (who'd been dead for twenty years), and wanted Takamitsu to talk with his grandmother and great-grandmother (who'd both been dead for ten years). Now both of them had been magickally transported to what looked like a rice paddy terraced into the side of a mountain. It was a lot to take in.
"We're still too close, Liu."
Taka looked up to see Akira gazing off into the distance. He followed Akira's gaze and saw the Light Infantry training base where they'd both been moments before—only now it was miles away, a far off cluster of buildings sparkling with the bright flashes of plasma bolts flying back and forth, and semi-obscured by a plume of black smoke rising from a burning hovertank.
"Working on it, Yasuyama-san," someone else said in heavily-accented Japanese.
Taka turned to the source of the new voice. It belonged to a short young man with a round face, also wearing an outdated suit of Eastern Bloc light power armor identical to Akira's, right down to the unit insignia, with an obsolete gauss rifle slung across his back. But what caught Taka's attention was the man's hands, slowly moving together to seal the glowing correspondence portal that had just extracted them from the assault on the Light Infantry base. He was a mage—and no lightweight.
"Wait… what's going on?" Taka asked, disoriented and overwhelmed. "Where are we?"
"Away from the fighting, for now," Akira answered. He saw the look on Taka face and smiled. "Don't worry, nephew, you already won the battle," he reassured him, clapping him on the back. "All that's left to do is mop up the rest of the Light Infantry resistance and take prisoners—and your Cultists can handle that. You, however, have more important places to be."
Well, Taka was relieved to know he wasn't deserting his men at a crucial moment—but he was still confused as hell. "And where is that?"
"Next stop, Tatsumori," the shorter trooper said. He clapped his hands together and the glowing disk of a tiny correspondence portal appeared between his palms. He slowly pulled his hands apart as the portal grew.
"Why are we going to Tatsumori?" Taka asked, confused. None of this was making any sense.
"To meet your grandmothers," Akira answered.
"My grandmothers… are in Tatsumori?" Taka asked in disbelief. "I thought they were dead… but they've really been here on New Tokyo this whole time?"
"Uh… no, not exactly." Akira's brow creased. "It's… complicated."
"Alright, Yasuyama-san, that's big enough," the smaller soldier said, pulling his hands away as the portal stabilized. "I'll seal it once we're all through on the other side." With that, he climbed through the glowing portal and disappeared. Akira climbed through right after him. Taka hesitated a moment, unsure—this was all happening so fast—then he sighed, resigned, and followed.
He emerged into what looked like an empty maglev subway tunnel. "Okay," Taka said, looking around in the dim light from the correspondence portal the other mage was sealing. "I, uh… do not see my grandmothers here," Taka said as a feeling of unease slowly crept over him.
"Of course not," Akira scoffed. "Tatsumori's just a stop on the way."
"Forgive my poor magick, sai," the smaller trooper addressed Taka, "but I must use several jumps to hide our tracks and protect your grandmothers from the Ministry," he said as he finished sealing the portal. Its soft light winked out, leaving them for a moment in total pitch blackness. Taka felt an instant of panic—but then he heard the little soldier clap his hands, and the glow of a new portal disk lit up the tunnel again. "Even the Light Infantry might have the equipment to trace a correspondence portal, sai," he continued explaining in Japanese through his thick accent, "but taking a few detours through several portals before reaching our final destination makes it harder for them to follow us, and provides a little extra time for the trail to go cold." Taka finally identified the trooper's accent: Chinese. "Besides, I'm sure you'd agree your family's safety is worth a little travel delay on our part."
Taka stared at the little Chinese man, unable to argue with what he'd said. Well… that does makes sense, I suppose, Taka thought. But as his brain caught up with the situation, Takamitsu was slowly realizing that he didn't really know who either of these men were, where he was, where they were taking him, or why. For all he knew, this could be another abduction or assassination attempt by the Ministry of Public Safety.
Actually, now that he thought about it, that made a lot more sense than his long-dead uncle escorting Taka to his long-dead grandmothers… especially since "Akira" didn’t look old enough to have even been born during the Third Civil War, let alone fought in it. Sure, the guy looked like his uncle—but anyone with a few thousand credits and a black market surgeon could get a biosculpt like that…
"We're almost there, Yasuyama-san," the Chinese mage said, stabilizing the portal. "Just one more jump to go." He climbed through the glowing hole and disappeared.
"You first," Akira said, planting a hand on Taka's back and shoving him toward the portal.
"Wait!" Taka said, digging in his heels as a sudden wave of apprehension swamped him. "Where are—"
"Chikusho! We haven't got time for this, Taka!" Akira swore, irritated. "Now go!" With that, he grabbed the back of Taka's neck and shoved him head-first into the portal.
Okay, that's it, Taka thought as he stumbled through, I'm definitely being hijacked. I need to escape—now! He emerged onto a dim, dusty fungicrete floor and looked around, trying to orient himself. The place was near-dark inside, but it only took a thought for Taka to see as plainly as day. He was in a huge windowless building, mostly vacant except for empty shelving and a handful of shipping crates.
Taka turned back in time to see Akira step away from the portal and look around, pleased. "Hora, yarujanai?" his uncle praised the smaller trooper somewhat half-heartedly.
"You honor me, Lieutenant," the Chinese mage replied in his heavy accent, then turned back to the portal and began sealing it. "But you've seen me do much harder things," he muttered under his breath in Chinese, shaking his head slightly. "Don’t know why you ask me to do this stuff, and then talk like I can't do it…"
Akira turned to his nephew somewhat expectantly for a moment, but Taka pretended not to understand Chinese and just stared blankly at the little mage—and eyed the gauss rifle hanging on a strap across his back.
"Isn't the old abandoned warehouse a bit cliché?" Takamitsu asked, trying to sound and act nonchalant as he took a casual step toward the smaller trooper's turned back.
"They're used for a reason," Akira answered. "Especially this one. It's hidden, empty, and private."
Taka cast a casual glance around, surveying the dusty facility; there was no sign of anyone having used the warehouse in a while. "So there's no one else here, then?"
"Oh no," Akira assured him. "We're quite alone."
"Good." Taka jumped forward, grabbed the grip of the gauss rifle with one hand, hit the release for the back strap with the other, and ripped the gun away as he sprang back, leveling it at the two soldiers. "Freeze!"
Taka knew instantly he'd caught them both off guard. The Chinese trooper's head spun around in surprise, while Akira looked utterly astonished. Then he winced, chagrined, and he shook his head in disgust. "Shiba, Liu!" he cursed. "How can a correspondence mage be so clumsy!?"
"I have my hands full here, Lieutenant!" he snapped back, his voice betraying a hint of annoyance with his superior officer as Liu continued sealing the transit portal.
"Silence, both of you!" Takamatsu barked. "Now who are you? What do you want?"
"I already told you, Taka!" Akira said. "I'm your uncle, Yasu—"
"Burukuso!" Taka sneered. "Akira died on Epsilon—twenty years ago! Who are you, really?"
Akira's face darkened with anger. His hand rested on the hilt of his katana, but he hadn’t drawn it—yet. "I'm disappointed my brother didn't teach his son more respect for his elders…"
"Elders?" Taka spat. "If you really were my uncle Akira, you'd be… what? Forty years old? Forty-five? But you… you're no older than me!"
Akira's face blanched. "Oh. Right. I forgot about that," he said, his expression softening. "Yes, I can see why you're confused—it's been over twenty years for you, but less than a year for Liu and I." He raised his arms in a placating gesture. "Look, Taka, I promise your grandmothers will explain everything when we get th—"
"No," Taka shook his head, "we’re not moving until I get some answers."
"I told you, Taka, we don't have time for that!"
"Actually, Lieutenant," the Chinese trooper said as he finished sealing the correspondence portal, "I don't see any harm in it. We're safe here for now—I doubt anyone could follow us through three portals. And, uh… I could use a rest before we continue, anyway."
Both Yasuyamas glanced at the little mage. He did look tired and pale, breathing hard with perspiration beading his forehead. Akira hesitated a moment, considering, then shrugged and nodded. "Very well." He looked at Taka. "Alright, nephew, I'll answer your questions—if you lower the rifle."
Slowly, cautiously, Taka lowered the gauss rifle's muzzle—slightly—toward the floor. The little Chinese trooper sat down on a shipping crate with a sigh of relief and mopped his brow.
"I don't know everything, mind you," Akira cautioned Taka. "Your great-grandmother Hikari just loves hoarding information and keeping everyone else in the dark—including me." He rolled his eyes and shook his head in irritation. "Now, as for proving that I'm who I say I am…" Taka tensed as Akira reached for his katana, then relaxed when, instead of drawing it, he unclipped it from his armor. "…this should convince you—and if it doesn't, you're a fool." He tossed the sword gently, sheath and all, through the air to his nephew.
Taka caught the katana with one hand and glanced at it. "This? A standard issue Bloc katana?" he replied. "Anyone could buy one…" His voice trailed away and as he suddenly felt the magickal power flowing off the sword in waves. He looked again and stared in disbelief, eyes wide.
What Taka had assumed was a cheap, mass-produced katana issued to some Eastern Bloc officers was instead a much older, far superior weapon—and the crimson lacquered sheath bore the golden Yasuyama family crest. His gaze traveled up, studying the gilded tusba crossguard, the woven silk grip, and the matching pommel cap, all engraved with ornate designs he'd seen many times before, but only in photographs. "Is… is this…?"
"Shizukana Senshi," Akira nodded proudly. "Quiet Warrior, the family sword of the Yasuyama clan."
Taka set aside the gauss rifle, instantly forgotten, as he drew a few inches of Quiet Warrior's blade from the sheath. The polished steel gleamed even in the dim light of the dark warehouse, and light glinted off an impossibly sharp edge. Taka felt the magick pouring off the blade almost like heat on his face. This katana had been in the Yasuyama family for hundreds of years, dating back to well before the Federation, with each passing generation investing it with additional Force magick. Of course it could chop a hovertank in half, Taka thought.
There was absolutely no way this could be a fake. No way.
"We… we thought it was lost forever…" Taka whispered, almost reverently. "Destroyed in the atomic blast at Alpha Epsilon…"
"Well, as you can see, it wasn't." Akira smiled. "And if Shizukana Senshi survived Epsilon, is it that hard to believe the man who wielded it survived too?"
Taka slid Quiet Warrior back into its sheath and passed it back to Akira. "You really are my uncle."
The smaller trooper cleared his throat loudly.
"Oh, right!" Akira blurted. "I forgot to introduce you. This is Corporal Liu, former Eastern Bloc Imperial Army. Corporal Liu, my nephew Yasuyama Takamitsu."
Corporal Liu jumped to his feet. "Konnichiwa, Yasuyama-san," he said with a quick bow of respect.
Taka glanced back over at Liu, whom Taka suspected did not appreciate remaining a corporal after twenty years. "Douzo yoroshiku onegaishimasu," Taka said in Japanese, with a slight bow of his own. He could have used Chinese, but he was trying to keep up the act of not being able to understand that language.
"It's nice to finally meet you, sai," Liu replied. "I've heard a lot about you."
"Liu served under me during the Third Civil War," Akira continued. "We fought the Federation together on Epsilon—and that was the kind of battle that turns you into comrades for life. That kind of feeling."
"We fought, yes," Liu added with a sigh, "but we lost." Taka glanced at the Chinese man; his shame at their failure was clearly written across his face. Still? Taka thought. After all this time?
"We survived," Akira corrected the corporal. "And given that we were up against Dimiye's Dead Boy Battalion, I consider that a victory."
A chill ran down Taka's spine; he'd heard of Alistar Dimiye and his Dead Boys. The Eastern Bloc had lost every battle they ever fought against him, usually taking heavy casualties in the process… and his wartime atrocities were legendary. "I've studied the Battle of Epsilon," Taka said. "Alpha Epsilon was nuked—the whole city was destroyed—and then the Dead Boys massacred all the prisoners. No one from the Eastern Bloc survived Alpha Epsilon. Soldiers, civilians… no one. So how did you two manage to get out of there alive?"
"With a family of powerful time mages," Akira answered. "My parents and grandparents extracted us."
Liu cleared his throat again.
"Oh yes, and Corporal Kickass here," he added, slapping the corporal on the back. "Not much point in messing with time if you can't mess with space, too. At any rate," he continued, "they brought us forward twenty years through time to 2264. Technically, Liu and I have only been here for about six months!" Taka opened his mouth to ask a question, but his uncle cut him off with an upraised hand. "And no, don't ask me how—I couldn't even begin to explain it! I don't understand it myself—I'm a force mage after all, not a time mage!"
Taka mulled that over silently. Well, I guess that explains why they look so young, Taka thought, and where my uncle's been all this time. Finally he looked up and asked, "So where are we going? Where are my grandmothers?" He looked over at Corporal Liu. "Forgive me, sai, but I doubt even you could open a transit portal between star systems. So that means they must be somewhere here on New Tokyo."
"That's… complicated." Akira frowned. "They're not really anywhere… or anywhen, for that matter..."
Takamitsu stared at his uncle, utterly confused. "Would you please start making sense?"
"They've spent the last ten years in a… sort of… pocket… of space-time… or something like that." Akira shook his head in exasperation. "Jigoku, I don't know! I can't explain all that advanced time magick kuso!"
The young manger tried to comprehend that, but couldn't—and wasn't completely sure he even believed it. "So… how do we get to that pocket of space-time? Correspondence portal? Starship?" He hesitated a moment, then added sarcastically, "Chronometer? Hourglass? Sundial?"
His uncle chuckled, deep and hearty. "You're my nephew, alright! Oh, I can already tell you're going to drive grandma Hikari nuts—and I'm going to love it! But anyway, yes, that part, at least, I understand. When the family set up this pocket thing, they also set up a way in and out—a sort of 'door.' So yes, getting in is easy."
"I see." Taka nodded. "And where is it?"
Akira smiled mischievously. "Wherever it needs to be. You see, they put it on our parent's little space yacht—that way, they could keep it hidden by constantly moving it around."
"And that ship is currently on New Tokyo," Corporal Liu added. Suddenly he stood up and clapped his hands. "So! Are you ready to go down to the shuttle?" Not waiting for a reply, he began rubbing his hands together, squatted down, and placed them flat on the concrete, opening a fresh portal on the floor.
Taka stood over the portal and looked down through it to see a clearly lit hangar area with a large shuttle in it. It was a little odd, though, because he was getting a side view of the room by staring down through the portal. "Uh… is this safe to fall through?" he asked his uncle.
"It is if you do it right," Akira answered. "Like this!" He grabbed the back of Taka's neck, pushed him down to his knees, and shoved his head into the portal.
The rest of his body followed as he crawled through on his hands and knees, as did his uncle and the Chinese mage. Taka stood up and reoriented himself to the new direction of gravity.
"We'll be waiting outside, Yasuyama-san," Corporal Liu said with a quick bow.
"They wanted to talk with you alone," Akira explained as he dusted himself off.
The rear hatch of the shuttle opened up as Taka approached it, but it was dark inside. Not just dark, though, because Taka would have been able to see if it were mere darkness. He could sense something powerful about it, but in his short lifetime as a mage, he had no category for it. He looked back over his shoulder at his uncle, who waved him on. Taka took one step into the darkness, which felt like trying to move his body through peanut butter for a moment before he was suddenly sucked into the interior and the hatch closed behind him. He blinked in surprise—the room he stood in was far larger than could possibly fit inside the shuttle.
"Welcome to our home," two older ladies said in unison.
Taka was suddenly staring his grandmother and great-grandmother in their faces—both of whom, of course, were supposed to be dead.
"It's been a long time, Takamitsu," Grandma Akiko said somewhat wistfully. "Longer for you than for us, I suppose."
"We've much to discuss, of course," Great-Grandmother Hikari interjected, getting straight to the point (which earned her a glare from Akiko). "But as long as we are in here, we should have ample time to discuss it."
"So it's true?" Taka almost whispered. "You really did find a way to survive the Vin Shriak attacks?"
"Oh yes," his grandmother Akiko replied. "And not just us, but your mother, sister, and grandfathers too, among others. But before we discuss all of that, have some tea," Akiko suggested.
In their hotel room on Midgar, Andrea Treschi had read Bishop and Fisher's minds, then transferred their memories of the assassination into the captive Yakuza werewolves. When they awoke, they would believe they had committed the murder. Afterwards, Treschi stood up from his chair and looked at Irene York. "Let's finish up our business. I've got pressing matters of state to attend to."
"Matters of state?" Michelle asked.
Treschi shot her an annoyed look, like he wanted to fry her mind for wasting his time. "It doesn't concern you, kitty." Then his expression changed completely, and he was all smiles as he turned back to Irene. "I need to get back to the Terran Republic before my allies screw up my last decade's work." Then he paused, thinking for a moment, and snapped his fingers. "Oh! And I want you to contact your Regent. Tell him I'll soon have a small favor to ask."
"Certainly, M. Treschi," York replied. She looked towards Bishop and Fisher with a smile, saying, "You'll be contacted later." She led Treschi out of the hotel room and closed the door behind her.
Bishop and Fisher took showers and went to bed—it had been a very long night. They were awoken by an alarm at four in the morning. William immediately jumped to his feet, looked around, and located the source of the noise: it was coming from the communication equipment they'd used to contact Goldworth. Bishop quickly assembled the device on the desk and activated it. A holoprojection immediately popped up, and Captain Gergenstein's face hovered about a foot off the desk.
"Major Bishop? Captain Fisher?"
Michelle wiped the sleep from her eyes. "Yes?"
"We've just been informed that Aisha Ramirez and two of her bodyguards were murdered earlier tonight."
William did his best to act surprised. "What?!"
"I'm afraid so." Gergenstein nodded. "The Ministry authorities investigating the assassination and have already apprehended two Yakuza suspects they believe are responsible." The officer was noticeably upset; he would be pacing if it didn't mean leaving the camera's view. "Thankfully, the Ministry still wants to go through with the unification… but I don't want to give them any excuse to change their mind. When was the last time you two were on leave?"
Bishop exhaled and had to think about it. "We haven't been on leave for over three years."
"Good. I want you off Midgar yesterday."
"How?" Michelle asked.
"I just spoke with General Smits. He understands the delicacy of the situation and agrees this would be a good time for you two take some time off. With the General's consent, I've contacted Robert Mason and asked him to arrange transportation for you two off of Midgar to Wilke's Star."
"Wilke's Star?" Bishop asked, anticipation and dread mixing in his mind.
"It's ideal. It's a neutral system outside of either the Federation's or Ministry's jurisdiction… and you've lived there before, so the visit is plausible."
"Always nice to go home," William groaned. "How long will we be on leave?"
"That depends. It could be thirty days, could be longer. I want you to take your communication equipment with you when you go. If you need anything or have to leave, I'm your first contact. Questions?"
Bishop thought for a second, but couldn't think of anything and shook his head.
"Your ride to the spaceport will pick you up in six hours. I wish I could get you out sooner, but that's your normal checkout time, and I don't want any red flags attracting the attention of Ministry investigators. In the meantime, I suggest you two get some rest. Discom."
Eight hours later, Bishop and Fisher were aboard a ship headed to Wilke's Star. They were surprised to find that David Marcus and Irene were both aboard the passenger liner as well. The trip took several uneventful days, so Bishop spent most of his time exercising, practicing his reading and writing, meditating, and perfecting his gifts.
The night before they reached Wilke's Star, Bishop received a very strong vision. He recognized the source; the Spirit of the Chameleon. Through him, William saw visions of his great ancestors, the Bastet Tribe called the Balam, seated around council fires, kings of the South American jungles and mountains. The vision moved forward in time, and he saw European ships coming, bringing men carrying guns, mages, and members of the European werewolf Garou Tribes. Next he saw images of them ruthlessly slaughtering his forefathers. The visions of the bloodshed and murder went for a long, long time. Then, just as quickly as the vision had come to him, it vanished.
Bishop eyes flashed opened to find that he was drenched in sweat. The intercom beeped and announced, "Passengers, we have jumped into the Wilke's Star system. In a few hours, we'll have shuttles departing for the surface. If this is your final destination, please have your baggage packed and paperwork in order for customs officials before departing the ship. On behalf of—"
William shut off the intercom, showered, dressed, and went to find Fisher. He found her at the shuttle bay along with David and Irene. David smiled when he saw the werepanther. "Ah, Bishop. About time. We're heading down to Calaunt."
"Where else?" William snorted. Calaunt was the only major city on the planet.
Once aboard, the shuttle brought them down to Calaunt's main spaceport. The pair of vampires led the two werecreatures through the perpetual cloudy gloom to an abandoned factory. Once inside, David led them down several flights of stairs and through an open door into a dimly-lit room with a lush deep red carpet. Tapestries hung from the walls next to a large fireplace with several overstuffed chairs facing it. At a large well-polished teak desk at the far side of the room sat a woman with white-blonde hair and pale skin—obviously a vampire. She watched the group closely as they filed into the room, then got up from the desk and walked over to them.
Turning to Bishop and Fisher, David said, "This is Archbishop Calihye Chembryl," then faced the pale vampire woman and said, "This is Michelle Fisher and William Bishop. They passed the competency test."
Calihye smiled—a smile that promised much and sent chills through their bodies. "I heard. I was expecting you. So, this is the infamous William Bishop? The werepanther who caused so much fear on the streets? My pleasure." She took his hand and stroked it before turning to Fisher. "And you must be Michelle. A wise woman of Gaia? You are respected here."
"Thank you." Fisher forced a smile through her lips.
"Now—unfortunately—to business," Calihye sighed. "You have both proven you have the talents to become involved with our organization… but that is not enough. Now you must prove your loyalty."
"Loyalty?" Michelle blurted out.
William cut her off before she could say more. "Of course, your grace."
Chembryl laughed. "Very well. Now, the test. There is someone that has fallen out of favor with our organization…"
"And you want us to kill him," Bishop finished.
The archbishop nodded. "His name is Jason LaFonte. We will go with you to his apartment to bear witness."
Bishop considered it. "If word gets out that I did it…"
"No need to worry," Calihye said, understanding. "He has no affiliation with any gang or guild on Wilke's Star. Any other questions?" When neither of the candidates moved, she nodded. "Let's go."
She led them out of the factory to the most poverty-stricken section of Calaunt, then stopped at the entrance of a run down, dilapidated apartment building and pointed to a broken front doorway barely held up by its hinges. Fisher pulled out her daggers. Bishop was concerned. He didn't know what to expect. Either they were putting them up against some who would be incredibly easy to kill, or someone very dangerous. He decided to hedge his bets by arming himself with a plasma revolver in his left hand and one of his swords in his right. When the werecreatures were ready, Calihye led them into the building, up some stairs, down a hallway, and stopped at the entrance of a nondescript apartment. David kicked door in, strode into the living room, and everyone followed.
A man and a woman came out of the kitchen, trembling. The man appeared to be in his early thirties and was very thin with muddy brown hair and several days of unshaven facial stubble. The woman looked like a homely housewife who might have been attractive had she not appeared so malnourished. Everyone could hear children crying further back in the apartment, down a narrow hallway.
Calihye glanced at the two werecreatures and said, "This is LaFonte. Kill him."
The man took a step back, and for an instant it looked like he was going to run for it. But then LaFonte heard his wife's sobs and his children crying, and realized he couldn't leave them to the vampires. "Please… a moment?"
Bishop glanced at Calihye, who nodded her approval. As the two would-be killers waited, LaFonte led his wife back into the kitchen, hugged her, and returned to the living room. With more dignity than Bishop would have thought possible, he asked, "All right, I obviously broke your rules. What did I do wrong?"
"What makes you think you did anything wrong?" Calihye chuckled, then glared at Bishop and Fisher.
The two werecreatures moved towards the LaFonte. Bishop was only a few feet away when he realized Fisher had stopped behind him. He looked back at her—and saw a determined look on her face. Michelle slowly shook her head: I can't do this. She turned to face Calihye and said, "I refuse. If this man has done nothing wrong, why do I have to kill him?"
"You don't know our ways." Calihye shrugged. "We are an army, and loyalty is everything. I told you to kill him. I expect to be obeyed. So kill him... now."
"Go to hell!" Before the Sabbat members could react, Michelle transformed lightening-fact into Crinos, ready to attack…
But Bishop anticipated her move. He shifted his stance, raised his plasma gun, and shot her twice in the back.
Fisher fell to all fours on the floor with a groan of pain. Without hesitation, Bishop fired once more into the back of her head. It was a gruesome sight for William to see his mentor's brains splattered all over the floor as her life force left her body forever.
Then, faster than anyone in the room could register, the werepanther whirled back toward LaFonte and shot him between the eyes.
After a short pause, David Marcus smiled with satisfaction. "I told you."
"I want him," Irene smiled, her fangs glistening in the poor light.
"So do I," said Calihye. "Very well, Bishop. You've passed the test."
The major took a deep breath and centered himself, pushing his conflicting emotions to the back of his mind. "There is one thing I don't understand—"
"DAMN you!" screamed LaFonte's wife at the top of her lungs, charging towards her dead husband on the floor. "You'll roast in hell for this!"
Bishop looked at Calihye. "Excuse me," William said, then pointed the plasma pistol at the woman and shot her in the face. Bishop watched impassively as her body toppled to the floor.
"You have a question?" David asked as if he hadn't noticed.
"Yes. Why bother with a loyalty test?" the werepanther asked.
David shrugged. "Surely you've faced them before?"
"Of course," Bishop answered. "When I grew up on these streets, all of the gangs had their 'loyalty tests,' but… I can't think of a single gang lord that took them seriously. They didn't ask about loyalty, because they expected none. They just wanted obedience."
"Correct," came another voice. The sound of it pounded down the apartment's hallway as if it were amplified. A vampire entered dressed in a black leather jacket with minute crimson symbols stitched across the front, followed by two other vampires. The man on his left had long black hair, wore a black trench coat, and carried a large glass and gold goblet half-full of blood. To his right was an athletic vampire woman with dark brown hair, clad in black leather clothing with two crossed swords fastened across her back and plasma pistols strapped to her thighs. She looked Bishop straight in the eye, and he instantly noticed she walked with the grace and confidence of a well-balanced warrior. It was clear to everyone in the room that she and Bishop were cut from the same cloth.
"Priscus Santino." David bowed to the central figure, and everyone followed suit. David continued, "Bishop, the man to the Priscus' left is the right honorable Cardinal Malikait…" The cardinal snorted a laugh. "And to his right is the honorary Templar Melissa Cortona."
Long ago, when Bishop was living on the streets of Calaunt, a friend taught him how to address members of the Sabbat—just in case he ever had to misfortune to come across one. He looked at Cortona, made a respectful bow, and said, "Your lady." He turned to Malikait, bowed, and said, "Your eminence." Finally, he faced the vampire in the middle and said, "Your reverend," followed by a long, deep bow.
"You show respect," Santino said, mildly amused, "so I will respect your question. We take our tests seriously. Many centuries ago, the Sabbat were similar to a street gang, and the tests were begun. But we learned that in order to survive and prevail against our enemies, we needed more than obedience. We needed loyalty, just like you found in this very room. That man decided to defend his family rather than flee. We need that same loyalty from all of our members."
"So all of the members of the Sabbat are like a family?" Bishop was confused. "I still don't understand."
"That's because you've never had a family before," the Priscus replied, his voice soothing as he stared into William's eyes. "Your father died when you were only eight years old. Knowing your heritage, we watched you with great interest. We were surprised when you moved to Calaunt. Most of us did not predict that you would survive the winter. But life has a way of surprising us. Not only did you survive, you thrived. You became more feared and respected than… than some of our own members."
"I didn't know I was so… interesting," William answered.
"You were a hunter, a merciless killer on the streets. But… what would we expect from one of your kind? Especially one that had spent his childhood raised by a plague of were-rats? We watched you, and you watched us. And, with only one exception, you never broke the rules of engagement."
"My father never told me about the Covenant…"
Santino shrugged. "We punished you for it and let you go. Later, after you joined the Raptors, we were concerned when we learned you were hunting down awakened here on Wilke's Star. You could have led the Raptors and Crusaders Teams to our front doorstep. But you didn't."
"That was not my intention," said Bishop.
"Oh yes it was." Santino's voice echoed through a very rare smile. "You honored the agreement and showed us that you were trustworthy. But that was years ago… and, quite frankly, I couldn't decide how to return the favor. When Mordred and I learned from Fabian that you were willing to join our organization, we decided to give you a chance. We had to find out if you were serious. We provided you with the task of killing Aisha Ramirez, and you passed. Today you demonstrated your loyalty. You are worthy—and I invite you to join us."
William blinked a few times before asking, "What would my role be?"
"You shall be my personal Templar. Do you accept?"
Bishop noticed that Irene and Calihye sighed with disappointment. Finally, he nodded. "Yes."
The Priscus waved a hand to his left. "Cardinal Malikait, commence with the ceremony."
Malikait raised his glass and gold goblet. "William Bishop, you have been found worthy to join our most infernal order. In order to formalize your union with the Sabbat, however, it is necessary for you to partake in the Vinculum." He took a sip from the goblet and handed it to the next vampire, who took a sip as well and passed it on to the next vampire. The last vampire to receive the glass was Santino. He raised the glass and said a short prayer—in a language that Bishop didn't understand—and drank from the cup. Then he handed the goblet to Bishop. William looked through the glass at the remaining blood, closed his eyes, and drank it all. When he was finished, he opened his eyes and handed the cup back to Malikait. The werepanther didn't feel any different, but the other vampires seemed more relaxed.
"You are now officially one of our family," Santino purred. "Publicly, we will refer to you as William Bishop, but among us, your name will be Sicarius."
Bishop looked confused.
"It means assassin," Malikait answered, annoyed that he had explain it. "Tomorrow you will meet an old friend and be provided with your first task. Irene, take him to his quarters. Make him feel… welcome. He is one of us now."
Irene nodded with a smile and led Bishop out of the room. Bishop could not help but feel a cold stare from the Templar Melissa Cortona as he left. He knew what she wanted and why. He smiled inwardly to himself as he made his way down the stairs. He would grant her wish. He lived for it.
Late that night, after Irene had left his room, Bishop closed his eyes and tried to sleep. Even though he was not meditating, though, he received another vision from the Spirit of the Chameleon. It showed him more visions of his forefathers being slaughtered by mages, humans, and werewolves. He saw his ancestors slowly losing their numbers. Then he saw the last two hundred remaining were-panthers and were-jaguars seated around a council fire, all meditating. The Spirit showed Bishop the visions in their minds, and William could sense their connection to the spirits and elements starting to build and grow. After their meditation ended, he saw them get up and enter the forest, saw them blend into their surroundings using many of the same gifts that Fisher had shown him.
Bishop was able to make out the details of one of the were-jaguars: it killed a werewolf, then changed its form and appearance to mimic the dead Garou. Then it entered one of the werewolf camps, disguised, and conversed with the other werewolves. Suddenly, when the werewolves were least expecting it, the were-jaguar lashed out at the werewolves, slaughtering many of them.
Similar forms of infiltration occurred in many sites throughout the South American Jungles. Bishop witnessed visions of other gifts the Balam used to turn the tide of the battle against the Garou Tribes. Then the vision moved forward in time once again, showing the werewolves being slaughtered, humans running in terror, and mages being put to death by the Balam. Finally, Bishop saw a vision of were-jaguars and were-panthers alone, at the top, kings of the South American Jungles once again.
"No, we can't stop yet. We'll need to go deeper."
"Because there are things out here which are even worse than you."
"Maybe that's why I still do it. But I fear it's really because I am just a coward after all. I don't want to die, either. Pity the universe."
"There! This will do, so you can stop that, already! He's all yours again, and you're welcome to him. I'll just go back to waiting for the next time you both get us into trouble. No, no need to thank me or anything…"
He simply stood for a while. His mind had been shaken, but it was back in control now. Still, it required some time to reassemble itself and provide context to its existence. That required no great effort, but the mind had yet to recover its sense of urgency, so it proceeded slowly. Long, languid moments of mere perception and thought without action. All the while, he just stood.
His name was Scyr, he remembered. He still did not know the name's origin. By now, Scyr was almost reluctant to find out. The name was his identity, its meaning was himself. Questioning the name would be questioning himself, and that was hardly an enticing proposition.
A small breeze brushed at Scyr's cheek. Wispy thin blades of grass tickled his feet.
Shouldn't I be wearing shoes? he wondered. The curiosity was enough that Scyr bent his chin towards his chest and looked down at his feet. That first small movement reopened the door to more. Life returned to Scyr's body, and he began to think more clearly.
Scyr's feet were indeed completely bare. In a delightfully childish action, he wiggled his toes and enjoyed the feel of the carpet of grass beneath them.
"Okay, enough of that," Scyr said. His tongue tingled; it felt good to give a voice to his thoughts again.
He looked around, turning his head carefully, still uncertain of his own muscles.
"Hmm," he said.
The plain of grass stretched out as far as Scyr could see. Too far, in fact. His mind had trouble comprehending the scene properly. At first he thought he must be in some large basin or depression of the local geography, but even that wasn't quite right. The plain was on an actual plane, to all appearances both perfectly flat and infinite in scope; the inappropriately high horizon was formed by the actual limit of Scyr's vision.
"No discernible atmospheric haze, either," Scyr noted, "which probably has some interesting implications."
It probably said something about the degree of shock from which Scyr's mind was recovering that it focused on such trivial concerns first. The impossibly huge plain might have been impressive, but surely its contents were even more impressive.
"Hmm," Scyr said again. His eyes and attention wandered over to the enormous thing lying on the ground right beside him.
It was a beast of some kind. A great mountain of a creature, twenty times larger than Scyr at the least. Its legs were stout, as thick and tall as tree trunks. But it lay on its side, while its bulk rose and fell with shallow, raspy breaths. Its grey, leathery hide was pierced all over with long spikes of dark wood. Dozens of them shivered in waves as the creature breathed, and red blood trickled from the wounds where each spike had been driven in.
Curiously, Scyr raised his hands, and pressed them against the creature's back. Its flesh did not shift in the slightest; Scyr might as well have been pushing against solid stone.
"All right, internal dialogue," Scyr said, "I don't have any idea what's going on. What do you make of all this?"
"SSKKRREEEEEEEEEE!!!" said Scyr's internal dialogue.
Scyr nodded. "Fair enough. But I should probably try to figure it out. What do you suppose this thing is?" He kicked at the beast, bruising his toes.
"It's an elephant."
Scyr glanced round at the starved-looking, skeletal old man who had spoken. He was sitting on the ground and poking at the grass with one finger. "An elephant, a pachyderm, an Earth creature," the skeletal man said again, though it was more like he was muttering to himself than addressing the others. Behind Scyr, his internal dialogue tugged and struggled against its chains.
"Okay, why is there an elephant here?" Scyr asked.
The skeletal man looked up at him, blinking. After a moment, he said, "Nice of you to notice I'm still here once in a while." Then he pointed a thin finger past Scyr at the creature. "Well, obviously it's not a real elephant. That's your ship, the Look At Me, I'm Evil! or whatever it is you named it."
Scyr turned back around to examine the elephant more carefully. "All right," he said tentatively, "I suppose I can sort of see the thing with the spikes. But, still… what???"
He turned once more to see the skeletal man rolling his eyes. "The elephant is a representation of your ship, its spiritual manifestation in this place. And yes, it is overwhelmingly stupid. But that's what happens when you're so attached to concrete senses like sight."
Scyr's internal dialogue growled and tried to gnaw on his shoulder, but he waved it away. "Uh huh, and what exactly is 'this place'? Where are we?"
The skeletal man dropped his head and started drawing circles with his finger on the grass again. "Deep Umbra."
Scyr looked around some more. A dragon flew overhead. It bled from a thousand pinpricks and snapped in vain at the tiny angels with clockwork wings which buzzed around it. Another breeze picked up and rustled through the grass and Scyr's hair.
"Awfully placid for hyperspace," he said.
The skeletal man shook his head. "Hyperspace hardly begins to describe the whole mystery of the Umbra. The realms are as infinitely diverse as they are infinitely large. Hyperspace is merely the most useful. And the least interesting."
Scyr opened his mouth to make a flippant remark, but then forced himself to close it again. With a sigh, he sat down on the ground, facing the skeletal man, and rubbed his forehead for a minute. "Okay," he said, trying to muster his patience, "if the elephant is the Brutality's 'spiritual manifestation', then I guess the dragon is the Imperial destroyer, the angels are my Shriekers, and…" he looked around for a few seconds until he saw some more large shapes, perhaps other elephants, lumbering in this distance, "…those are probably the rest of the carriers. So what does that make this realm? Metaphor Land?"
Internal dialogue let out a halting, shrieking cackle, but the skeletal man cracked a grin. "You'll find they're all rather metaphorical. The details may change, and certain presences grow weaker or stronger, but the ideas of existence itself remain constant."
Scyr frowned at him. "I… yeah, I don't know what that's even supposed to mean."
The skeletal man looked sad. "It means that you do not properly appreciate the power you can wield. And that we're all completely screwed, more likely than not."
Scyr resisted the urge to strangle him. He doubted that it would have even worked. "All right, fine, everything's a metaphor. Ridiculous, but I can deal with it." He started to get back up to his feet. "How far do you think it is to those carriers?"
It was a rhetorical question, but the skeletal man looked over his shoulder at the distant shapes and said, "I wouldn't try to go anywhere."
"Why?" Scyr asked darkly.
The skeletal man shrugged. "I can only perceive this place as you do, I can't sense its form. But it's clearly not going to be an intuitive point-to-point connection to reality like hyperspace. We went from open space to sitting in a field."
"Who cares what our path looks like relative to normal space? So long as we're moving towards one of the other ships in this realm, we're making progress."
"Assumptions like that will get you killed in the Umbra."
Scyr wanted to clamp his hands to the side of his head to contain the throbbing. "It's not an assumption, it's logic! Even if the light is reaching us through some twisted space distortion, we'll be following along by walking towards it. And space here is almost certainly not screwed up like that, or everything else would be jumping around wildly as it moved, rather than travelling in smooth paths."
Now the skeletal man looked worried. "You're thinking too hard about this."
Scyr stared at him. "Yes? I do find that thinking is usually the best method of finding solutions to problems. For instance, like how to get myself the hell out of here and back to somewhere both safe and elephant-free."
"No." The skeletal man shook his head urgently. "I mean that you shouldn't think too hard about how this place works. Thinking too much about the Umbra is generally a very bad idea. You can't understand it. The more you begin to think it makes sense, the less you do. The Umbra may be felt, if you learn to open your senses and let it wash over you, but that is not the same as comprehension. Attempting to rationalize and explain it is folly, it is dangerous." And now, he looked very pointedly over Scyr's shoulder. Internal dialogue snarled.
Scyr wanted to scream some more. He was usually content to ignore superstitious crap when it came from other people. Having it spouted in an attempt to restrain him, however, was not so easy to overlook. Combined with the suggestion that such nonsense was superior to true clear thinking, Scyr was hitting the limits of his patience.
But he knew that arguing this point with the skeletal man was counterproductive. Scyr was well beyond his area of competence. He was not so imprudent as to wholly dismiss the wisdom of experience, even if it was packaged in utter nonsense. Once more he swallowed his pride and forced himself to sit. He closed his eyes and focused on a few slow, deep breaths.
"Well, there may be hope for you yet," the skeletal man said.
Scyr's hand shot out to grab him around the throat. "Fuck you, old man," he hissed while the skeletal man gurgled and choked. He felt pathetically small and fragile in Scyr's grip. It felt like he could snap the man's head off with just a small turn of his wrist.
Scyr stood up again, lifting the skeletal man up as he did. "Don't think we don't know what you're hoping to do," he said. And now his internal dialogue had come gleefully around to claw at Scyr's helpless victim, though it could no more hurt the skeletal man than it could Scyr himself.
Scyr drew the skeletal man's face in close to his own, and squeezed. "You already lost your battle. You have had my mercy because you are useful. But when I have wrung every last drop of information from you, you won't even be that anymore. In the meantime, I suggest you do not convince me to expedite the process."
There was nothing more to say, but Scyr counted out a few more minutes, listening to the skeletal man sputter and sob. Then Scyr threw him to the ground, sending his internal dialogue scurrying away with a tinkling of its chains.
As the skeletal man gasped, Scyr turned around and put his hand on the Scalable Brutality's Umbral form.
"Now show me how to return."
Scyr tore his way through the Gauntlet and back onto the Brutality's flag bridge with demonic fury. His hands and eyes were aflame, ready to immolate whatever enemy stood before him.
But the two armored Imperial soldiers were already dead. The bodies of Lieutenant Dennis and half a dozen of Scyr's command crew were strewn about the ruined compartment. But Lieutenant Moyers and a dozen more crewmen in skinsuits and bubble helmets had finally cut the Imperials down with their own small arms.
The fight was already over. It felt so anticlimactic. Scyr's mystic aura began to fade, to be replaced by disappointment. The Terran Navy task force still needed to mop up the rest of the Imperial warships in the Wolf system, but that would be a battle of cold calculation. Scyr had been looking forward to sinking a bit of his fury into the warm flesh of a living victim.
Scyr didn't even notice the vacuum of open space on the bridge until an alarmed crewman shoved an emergency suit over his head.
"…unconfirmed reports of a battle between the Republican Navy and the Imperial Fleet in the contested Wolf system. K'Nes convoys in the Terran Republic are advised to detour through the commercial hyperspace lanes in the Wilke's Star Free State instead…"
Heth purred happily to himself, absently listening to Durmach Media's Evening Market Report in the background as he put the finishing touches on the meal for his "working dinner" with Miu. She would arrive any moment at his suite (in the most lavish hotel he could afford, of course), and he was equal parts anxious and excited.
"…and on to our top story: The Ministry of Public Safety has merged back with the Earth Federation."
Heth froze for a moment in shock; raw fish tumbled from his claws. Then he sped out of the suite's kitchenette to stare at the newscast holoprojection in the main room, horrified and fascinated.
"Fresh from victory in the Kalintos system, Federation Chairman Joseph Smythe announced today that he and Chief Minister Aisha Ramirez have signed a reunification treaty, bringing the Ministry systems back into the Earth Federation."
…meaning the Federation's resources just tripled, Heth thought. Oh, this is bad for us. Very bad.
The holoproj display switched to a slim, unremarkable ape in an Earth Fleet Admiral's uniform standing before a podium; clearly a press briefing. "I'm pleased to report," the Chairman began, "that Chief Minister Ramirez and I have peacefully resolved the differences between our respective nations. Although I will retain the Chairmanship, former Ministry military and government officials will maintain a full fifty percent representation on the reconstituted Grand Council once the Senate is restored on New Madrid. Together, a unified Federation can turn our full attention to our true mutual enemy, the so-called 'Holy Terran Empire.' "
Heth thought about Varrless's policies towards the Empire and its enemies. If we go that route, we'll lose trade and peace with the former Ministry systems, he thought. That'll be hard sell to the Executive Board…
The holoproj switched back to the fluffy K'Nes announcer. "Curiously, Chief Minister Aisha Ramirez could not be reached for comment, a move many have considered unusual. Diplomatic experts speculate she may be preoccupied with the pro-Imperial revolt in the former Ministry system of New Tokyo."
"Trading will be fast and furious in the markets tomorrow. Fear sells."
Heth jumped and almost yowled in surprise. He spun around in midair to find Miu floating silently behind him.
"Miu!" Caught off guard, Heth was reduced to incoherent stammering. "But… I, uh… how…?"
"I let myself in," Miu explained, casting Heth a disapproving glance. "I don't care how good the hotel security is, Heth, you should always lock your door." She looked back at the holo display, tail swishing pensively, and Heth saw on her face the same anxiety he felt. "Well… this changes everything for the K'Nes, doesn't it?" she asked.
"Yes… I'm afraid it does," Heth agreed, trying to recover his lost cool. "Until now, what's left of the Federation has been a concern, certainly… but only a distant threat." He tried hard to sound causal. "They had only half a dozen systems left—and they were half the galaxy away."
"Because the Ministry of Public Safety was between us and them," Miu agreed. "And the Ministry had no fleet to speak of."
"Oh, some troop transports and patrol corvettes, I'm sure," Heth clarified. "But invading us with a fleet like that would be cost-ineffective for the Ministry, given the orbital defense platforms our star systems 'inherited' when the humans withdrew after the Occupation." He shrugged. "Besides, we had a non-aggression contract with the Ministry."
"But now that they've reunified… the Federation is on our doorstep."
"Right across the border." Heth nodded somberly. "With the biggest fleet in the galaxy."
The news anchor continued. "Durmach Media will bring you updates on the Fed-Ministry merger as they develop. Meanwhile, on to sports news!"
"Ooh! Fedball scores!" Heth's eyes lit up at the welcome distraction.
"The Rios Cyborgs tied up with the Purrfang Cats at eight points each in the mid-season playoffs."
"Well, at least we didn't lose to the apes again," Heth sighed. "That's something, I suppose."
"Off!" Miu growled, and the holoprojection winked out. She turned to Heth. "Watch the sports holocast on your own time, Miao. I'm here for a follow-up meeting for the Impossibarium deal—or at least, I thought I was!" She flicked her tail toward the low candlelit table spread with dishes and cutlery. She narrowed her eyes at him. "What are your intentions, Heth? Business or pleasure?"
"Come now, Miu, you know I don't have time for pleasure," Heth answered, floating back to the kitchenette. "So I prefer to mix it with my business. Negotiations are more successful with a bribe… not to mention a full stomach."
"Good," Miu nodded, reassured. "Because I'm not in the mood for another clumsy seduction attempt."
Heth stuck his head out of the kitchenette. "Seduction? Who said anything about that?"
"I, uh…" Miu blinked at him, looking embarrassed. "No one. I just assumed… never mind, forget it."
That was odd. Heth stared at her for a moment, puzzled, then moved on. "My, my, you are in a dark mood, my dear. Another rough day in the office, I presume?"
"Something like that," Miu admitted grudgingly. "Not to mention a tough—and fruitless—negotiation with Varrless K'Pirr."
"Yes, I just had one of those myself. We both seem to be on Purrfang for the same reason," Heth observed, opening a refrigerator. "But money must be involved for you to be this bristly," Heth said, joining her at the table with two small bowls and a cold bottle of cream. "MIRADI must be having more financial problems. Dreadfully sorry to hear that, truly I am." He poured her a bowl of cream. "But for now, have a drink and relax."
Miu raised the bowl to her chin and took a few experimental laps. It was thick and tangy. "Buttermilk! Why, Heth… you're not planning to get me drunk and take advantage of me, are you?"
"No, not really." Heth shook his head. "Not worth the risk, my dear. Legal liability is far too great."
Miu's eyes widened. For an instant, she looked offended, maybe even a little hurt.
Heth backpedaled. "Of course," he purred, "if you signed a consent form, I wouldn't object to—"
"Ha! You couldn't afford it, Miao," Miu scoffed. She slinked down into a floor cushion and lapped some more cream. "Although I have to say," she purred, relaxing, "I do enjoy your negotiating style, Heth."
Heth lapped his own cream silently, confused. He's heard of females sending mixed signals, but this was more like a blender on purée. He wasn't sure what to make of it—so he ignored it and changed the subject instead. "Yes, I'm sure you'll find a meeting with me much more pleasant than one with Varrless. It was an investment discussion, I assume—Varrless Financial is one of MIRADI's primary stockholders, correct?"
"Was," Miu corrected, "not anymore… and I'm not sure why. Sky Father above, just a month ago Pirr was trying to buy a controlling interest in my company!"
Heth looked up sharply, surprised. "You didn't sell your majority shares, did you?"
"Please!" Miu scoffed, dismissing the idea with a wave of her paw. "I built MIRADI up from nothing, and I'm not about to sell it off now just because we're having a little financial trouble."
It was much more than a little, Heth suspected, but it would be in poor taste to inquire directly. He tried a more subtle approach. "I must say, I'm rather surprised to hear MIRADI is still having difficulties," Heth said. "I thought the Jurvain Impossibarium deal would keep you solvent well into the foreseeable future."
"Oh, it did… at first." Miu licked some cream off her nose. "But then Varrless—our biggest investor, no less!—pulled all his capital out and sold off his shares. And where Varrless Financial goes…"
"…everyone else follows," Heth finished, rising and returning to the kitchenette.
"Exactly," Miu nodded. "Investors have been running like scared kittens. Our stock price is down—a lot. I've been pitching MIRADI to Varrless all evening, but he's just not interested anymore—and won't even tell me why!" She paused, lapping her buttermilk. "He did offer to buy the Impossibarium patent, though… and for a very generous price."
Heth stuck his head out of the kitchenette again, alarmed. He had a financial stake in Impossibarium, too. "I assume you declined his offer?"
"Of course." Miu sighed wearily. "Frankly, the only thing keeping MIRADI afloat right now are the Jurvain Impossibarium sales. I'm not about to sell off our main source of income."
Heth turned back to the kitchenette, smothering a sigh of relief.
"But here's what I don't understand, Heth," Miu continued, gazing thoughtful at her cream bowl. "Why would a bank want an industrial metal patent in the first place?"
"Well, Varrless the Younger is rather unpredictable," Heth replied, returning to the table with a platter of food. "Perhaps he hopes to resell it for a profit later…?"
Miu stared at the white ovals with meat on top. "Heth… what exactly is this?"
"Fish and rice," Heth said. "It's an exotic human delicacy called 'sue-she.' Surprisingly tasty, actually."
" 'Sue-she'?" Miu repeated. "That's a rather… legalistic name for food."
"What can I say? There's an aggressive species." Heth reclined on a floor cushion across the table from Miu. "And do you know what they eat it with? Something called 'chop-sticks'… such a violent race." Heth flicked out his claws, picked up a piece, and held it out to her. "Good fish, though."
Miu stared at the alien food, skeptical. "Don't the humans cook their fish?"
"Not the 'Jap-knees,' apparently." Heth gave her a Cheshire smile. "They eat their fish raw!"
Miu sniffed the foreign delicacy, whiskers twitching. "It smells fresh enough…"
"I acquired the seafood from New Madrid myself," Heth assured her. "Trust me, you'll enjoy this."
"Oh I will, will I?" She smiled. "Prove it." Heth expected her to take it from him, but she surprised him by leaning forward and opening her mouth instead. What's going on? Heth wondered… but he went with it, reaching through her fangs to place it on her tongue—carefully; he wouldn't put it past her to bite him. She closed her eyes as she chewed.
"Oh my," she purred, "That is good! Really, Heth, what will you put in my mouth next?"
Heth blinked at Miu, totally aroused and utterly confused. Her behavior had completely reversed from the last time they met. Even when they were merged, Miu never acted this way. It simply wasn't like her to think about procreation over profit… unless… "Actually," Heth smiled, "I believe it's my turn for a little nibble." He leaned forward and opened his mouth.
"Oh, of course," Miu purred, picking up a piece of sue-she.
As she leaned forward to place it on Heth's tongue, he discretely sniffed her. He smelled Miu's perfume, much stronger than usual, with something else beneath it… and there it was, almost drowned out by the heavy floral scent—the tiniest aroma of something musky and intoxicating. Miu was beginning to go into heat.
That explains it, Heth thought. Her behavior wasn't intentional. She might not even realize how she was acting—this was her first mating cycle, after all. And it wasn't personal. Miu probably acted this way around every male—and it would only get worse as the mating season progressed. The thought clawed at Heth's gut. I'm running out of time.
"Try the shrimp, my dear," Heth suggested. "As for MIRADI, I've been trying to steer some more business your way," he explained as he fed her another piece. "I spoke with the LEO of Miao Mercantile about upgrading Nhur's planetary defenses with Impossibarium weaponry. I don't suppose he contacted you?"
"He did," Miu nodded, "and placed a small order." She ran her tongue over her teeth. "He wanted more, actually, but we don't have much to spare." Heth leaned forward as she picked up another piece. "It takes almost our entire production capacity just to fill the Jurvain order."
"Why, then you'll simply have to expand production to meet demand, precious."
That broke whatever spell had been cast over Miu. She looked at Heth like he was pissing on her carpet. "Are you serious? You know what that involves, and that we don't have the capital for it!"
Heth was one of a pawful of people who knew that Impossibarium wasn't so much forged as grown... sort of. The details were hideously technical and Heth didn't come close to understanding them, but he grasped the business implication: there was a limit on how fast new Impossibarium could be produced. Expanding production to fill demand, although profitable in the long run, would be difficult and expensive right now.
"I believe you underestimate the value of Impossibarium, Miu… especially in military applications."
"Impossibarium is far too expensive." Miu waved the idea away. "It wouldn’t be cost-effective for military production. No offense, Heth, but convincing the Jurvain to armor their fighters with it was a lucky fluke."
"It might be too expensive to armor warships with, yes," Heth said, refilling her bowl with buttermilk cream. "But by now I'm sure you've figured out the Jurvain found other military applications for Impossibarium that require much smaller amounts."
"Casings for missiles, yes. And torpedoes, and fusion shells," Miu said, accepting the full bowl of buttermilk and lapping thoughtfully. "It was a good idea, I admit. Impossibarium would make excellent shrapnel."
"And I'm sure you could find some use for it in power armor, too," Heth agreed. "Has MIRADI considered adding a line of military products?"
Heth…" Miu sighed. "You know we just got done retooling for the industrial and consumer markets!"
"Yes… but the galaxy is at war, my dear, and war means war profiteering. MIRADI was originally a military contractor for the Federation during the Occupation, I believe. Your company is in an excellent position to re-enter the weaponry market."
"And sell to who, exactly?" Miu lapped at her cream. "The Jurvain are already buying all they can, and selling advanced weaponry to the apes—any faction of apes—would just be suicidal for the K'Nes."
"I completely agree." Heth nodded. "I was thinking of selling to K'Nes customers, actually."
"Yes," Miu agreed, but sarcastically, "and if K'Nes preferred warships than cargo freighters, that might work. But we don't."
"I'm not so sure about that," Heth replied. "Varrless and the Executive Board have been dragging their tails on rebuilding the Llan Fleet—balking at the expense, I imagine—and that's making a lot of K'Nes nervous. Now that the Federation is at our doorstep, I imagine many corporate clans will be looking for quick, simple, and comparatively cheap ways to increase their defenses—and Impossibarium weaponry is perfect for that goal."
Miu looked away, thinking. "Perhaps… with the right marketing campaign…"
"But personally?" Heth picked up another piece of sue-she. "I'm far more interested in building goodwill with the Federation apes at the moment. You see, I've signed a contract with the Federation to smuggle their relatives out of Imperial space—a lot of relatives, for a lot of money, on a regular basis. I'm overseeing the whole operation, actually."
"Really?" Miu leaned forward to let Heth feed her again. "And just how did an Assistant Vice Director manage that?"
"Oh! Yes, sorry, forgot to tell you—I got promoted. I'm managing the refugee convoys now," Heth said casually. "Try the eel—it's delicious."
Miu picked it up and sniffed it. "I thought you were overseeing the Jurvain Impossibarium convoys?"
"Oh yes, I'm managing those, too."
"Multiple convoys? That would make you a… Director, yes?"
Heth nodded and indulged in a smug smile.
"A leapfrog promotion? I'm impressed." Miu gave him a look that boiled his blood. "And how did you manage that… after breaking a contract?"
"Quite simply because I didn't break the contract. The Empire cheated me. I told you that at the time, of course, but now I can prove it. So the Miao gave me back my old management position. Oh, and my ship too, the super-freighter Avarice… one of our best ships, actually." Heth struggled to keep his tone casual; there was a fine line between pride and boasting. "I've also managed to earn back all my assets in the last few months. I suppose Sky Father must have shined upon me."
Miu stared at him with wide blue eyes, perfectly still and utterly silent. They were both thinking the same thing, something both of them were too polite to mention openly—his stock in life was back up, but hers was down. Miu looked a little sad. With any luck, Heth hoped, she was beginning to wonder if she'd made mistake by dissolving their merger.
Miu looked down at the eel in her claws, they held it out toward him. "You never fail to surprise me, Heth," she said, feeding it to him and somehow managing to "accidentally" brush her paw against his whiskers, sending a shiver down his spine. "So tell me… how did you do it? How did you prove the Empire cheated you?"
They fed each other exotic seafood by candlelight while Heth told her the story about the faulty human power armor, about how he discovered it had been infected with foreign nanobots, and how he was able to trace the nanos back to the Empire sales representative, Zechariah McNeilly. "That's actually what this business meeting is really about, Miu," Heth finished. "I need to employ MIRADI's services—discretely, of course."
"Of course," Miu echoed, setting her paws on the ground and stretching languidly, arching her back. "So… what do you want? Other than the obvious, that is. What do you need, and what can I do for you?"
Heth did his best to ignore all her double-entendres (and failed). "I need to extract the foreign nanobots from the power armor," Heth answered. "Miao Mercantile doesn’t have the right equipment or personnel… but I believe MIRADI does?"
"We do," Miu purred. "As you said, we are a former military contractor. But it will cost you."
Oh, would it. Heth's heart was pounding. He could tell this negotiation was going to go badly for him… and he was going to love every second of it.
"You'll be compensated handsomely, I assure you," Heth said, refilling their bowls. "You can keep a few of the nanobots."
Miu narrowed her eyes as she lapped her cream. "I would say that's a ridiculous offer… but I suspect you know that. There's something you're not telling me, isn't there? Come on, Heth, out with it."
"Your business instincts are as sharp as ever, my dear." Heth lapped from his own bowl. "You're right, there was a little detail about the nanobots I neglected to mention—they're Horadrim." Miu's eyes widened and she opened her mouth to speak, but Heth beat her to it. "And yes, I'm sure—they're partly organic and extremely advanced."
Miu's mouth closed. She looked away as her eyes lost focus; Heth could practically see her mind running through the same chain of logic he had, and arriving at the same conclusion. She had a look of awe—and naked greed. "Sky Father above," she whispered. "Horadrim technology!"
"And not just any Horadrim technology," Heth purred. "I'm almost certain the nanobots came from a Horadrim Soul Web. I was watching McNeilly when he inspected the armor prior to purchase. We used K'Nes diagnostic tools, so he never had the opportunity to implant them with a device. I can only assume he transferred the nanos through his hands while touching the merchandise, meaning—"
"Soul Web nanobots!" Miu's fluffy tail began swishing. "Can you imagine how much those are worth?"
"No need to imagine," Heth said, "I've already looked it up. On the black market, a single Horadrim nanobot can sell for hundreds of thousands—more, for a Soul Web nanobot; they're hardly ever available at any price. And if MIRADI can replicate them, even partially? We're talking millions. Depending on production volume… possibly billions. That should keep your company solvent, I imagine."
"Oh, Heth… I just love it when you talk money to me!" Miu shivered in excitement. "I have to admit, though, that I'm surprised Miao Mercantile is willing to share such valuable technology."
"Oh, they're not—but as only MIRADI and I will know how many nanos were extracted… well, I'm sure if a few bots went missing, no one would be the wiser."
Miu leaned forward, eyes bright. "How many?"
"Heth…" Miu pouted. She slowly walked around the table on all fours, fluid and graceful, and sat down next to him. "Cut a little kitten a break, won't you?"
"Well, perhaps…" Heth planned to draw this out as long as he could. "What did you have in mind?"
"Fifty percent of the nanobots."
Heth smiled. "Surely you don't really expect me to agree to that, do you?"
"Of course not," she said, playfully batting him in the face with her tail. "But it's a good place to start negotiations. I'm willing to… go down… from there."
Heth was breathing deeply now and struggling to think straight. "Alright… ten percent, and a favor."
Miu gave him a Cheshire grin. "What kind of favor?"
Oh, Heth was tempted, sorely tempted… but he had a few more objectives to achieve in this negotiation. He pulled a datapad from the breast pocket of his waistcoat. "My remaining suit of human power armor… I need MIRADI to reprogram it to these specifications. As soon as possible, preferably. It could be a matter of life and death—my life, specifically."
"Alright, not the request I was expecting…" Miu said, "but I'm flexible." She glanced over the schematics for a moment in silence. "You want the suit retrofitted for a K'Nes. I can do that, yes, but… why? Who's it for?"
"Me." Heth smiled.
"You?" Miu looked skeptical. "You're a haggler, not a hunter. What do you need power armor for?"
"Insurance, so to speak." Heth's last trading voyage through human space had involved more potentially dangerous situations than he cared for. "The apes have always been a rather aggressive and unpredictable race—doubly so, now that they're at war with each other—and many of the Miao's human business partners contain a certain criminal element that are even more prone to violence," Heth explained. "Some extra protection seems like a wise investment, just in case negotiations with one of our less savory associates break down."
Now Miu just looked amused. "And you don't think arriving in power armor will start the meeting off on the wrong paw?"
"You'll note I have rather specific requirements for camouflage parameters and stealth suite."
Miu cocked an eyebrow, curious, then examined the schematics closer. "Why Heth, you devious little K'Nes… yes, it can be done," she nodded, "for forty percent of the nanos."
"Twenty percent," Heth countered, "and another favor."
"Another? Perhaps…" Miu's paw slid forward to touch his. "What did you have in mind?"
"That list of yours… the bidders on your reproductive auction…"
"Put me on it."
Miu smiled, amusement in her eyes, and suppressed a chuckle. "Make it twenty-five percent of the nanos and you've got a deal."
"Sold." They tapped tails on the agreement. Well, Heth tapped… Miu didn't let go.
"You know what, Heth?" Miu purred, wearing a smug and mischievous smile. "I just hustled you… chump!"
"Oh really?" Heth frowned, confused. "In what way, exactly?"
Miu reached up and ran a single claw lightly behind Heth's ear and down his neck, clearly enjoying watching him squirm. "You were already on my list of bidders. You just cut me an extra five percent for nothing."
Heth stared at her, stunned but delighted. He could care less about the nanobots. "Wha… when…"
"Shortly after the Jurvain contract," Miu answered. "I didn’t think you could close the deal, but… you surprised me. It ended up saving my company." She leaned closer to him. "I've also lost bidders as my stock has fallen, so you're currently in a very competitive position." Her voice was low, soft. "And at the rate you're building your assets… you might just win the auction."
"Miu…" Words failed Heth. He could see it in her eyes—part of her wanted Heth to win her reproductive rights. Heth couldn't stand it any longer; he had to touch her. He lifted a paw and stroked behind her ear. She leaned into his paw, purring, and leaned closer. They were face to face, nose to nose, sniffing, drinking in each other's scent…
"Miu!" her datapad squawked, "Miu, it's Aie! We've got an emergency!"
They froze. Miu dropped her head on Heth's shoulder and let out a huge sigh. "I'm sorry, Heth… I have to take this…"
"I understand," Heth squeaked out, his voice tight. "Business before pleasure."
Miu pulled out her datapad and opened the video call to her executive assistant. "What is it, Aie?"
"You need to get down here. We just had another investor pull out—Horrath Industries!"
"What? Why? I'll be right there!" And then Miu was off, inflating like a balloon as she jumped out the window.
Heth quietly scratched double claw marks in the wooden tabletop. Screw the security deposit. He had a sudden image in his mind of two enormous gas giants—with solid blue clouds.
A white blur.
A white blur and muffled voices.
A white blur and muffled voices coming from indistinct shapes moving within the blur.
A white blur and "—ould wake up soon, I'm sure this whole mess will b—"
Blackness and void.
A seeming eternity passed, or was it but a moment?
Horizontal slits of light split the void, indistinct grey tentacle-like shapes seeming to pry apart the darkness to let in the searing, blinding light. Low murmur of voices, screams of pain, electronic beeps.
No scent of sulphur and brimstone, though, just... disinfectant?
Argus McCall opened his eyes wider until his view was no longer obscured by his own eyelashes, magnified by his cybernetic eye. It was not hell, after all. Not even purgatory. Just a recovery room in either a hospital or the sickbay of a starship big enough that he couldn't immediately tell he wasn't on the ground. He tried to speak, but nothing came out. His mouth was dry, and there was something wrong with his throat.
He shifted his head and could feel a thick bandage below his chin, covering the front of his throat. He tried to lift his left arm, the artificial one, but nothing happened. He tried his right arm, the meat one, and could feel something holding that one down. At least he could feel that something, which was more than could be said for the left arm, which seemed to not even be attached. He shifted his body and couldn't feel the heavy prosthetic moving in response. But his ankles seemed similarly restrained.
"Boy, are you lucky the old legends turned out not to be true," came a voice from the corner of the room. Argus focused his view on that area and noticed for the first time a balding, mustached man in Earth Fleet uniform sitting there, his hands clasped on his lap. "Lycanthropy can't be transmitted by a bite after all," joked Commander Tibbetts.
Argus tried to talk, but nothing came out, not even a grunt. Tibbets frowned sympathetically. "Yeah, don't try to talk. A werewolf tore out your throat last week. The docs here say you'll make a full recovery, but the whole area's anesthetized while the nanobots put the pieces back together. Well, the pieces we recovered from Colonel Knowles' snout and stomach, anyways. The rest they had to grow in the lab here, or from miscellaneous bits taken from elsewhere in your body. A tendon's a tendon, after all."
While Argus contemplated how in blazes he was gonna request a pen and paper to write messages to others when he couldn't even move his hands, the door to his hospital room opened and a familiar face walked in. "Ah, Captain Hicks," Tibbets greeted the newcomer in a relieved tone. "I heard you came in with the Light Infantry occupation forces sent to relieve us."
"Yes, and when I heard my favorite test subject had managed to get his face chewed off yet again, I had to come and see." Dr. Icarus Hicks turned to Argus and frowned in mock disapproval. "I told you that your LI medical benefits didn't cover the cost of biosculpt to turn you into a male model, no matter how much of your old face you find a way to get bitten off. All we're allowed to do is give you as much of your old one back as we can manage."
Argus tried to growl in annoyance, but even that needs vocal cords that aren't chemically paralyzed. Icarus's facial expression softened a bit. "Don't worry, I brought the diagnostic unit with me," the doctor reassured his patient as he reached into the bag slung over his right shoulder and produced a metal box with wires sticking out of it. He turned to the Fleet Intelligence officer to explain. "We used this to test the functions of his cerebrocortical processing unit while we were installing it. The patient refused a traditional dataport interface, something about not wanting to risk direct connections with strange computers."
"Makes some sense," the spy offered. "A shatter star sneaking into your own head could be very bad news."
"That's what he said," Icarus replied as he finished attaching the small metal box to McCall's forehead. "So instead of any clinic or hospital in the galaxy being able to just plug in and run a diagnostic program, we've got one box, this one, which can use transdermal magnetic signals to communicate with his implant." Hicks straightened back up and gave his handiwork a once-over. "Let's hope he never gets another head injury when I'm seven systems away and can't come running to patch him up."
Tibbetts eyed the wires training from the box taped to the sniper's forehead, which Icarus was now busy plugging into some sort of datapad. "So, what, this box lets him talk like Stephen Hawking?"
"Who?" Hicks asked.
"The ancient physicist? A Brief History of Time?"
Icarus glared at Tibbetts. "Physics, commander? I'm interested in science that I can actually touch." The doctor sighed. "Anyway, this device doesn't have a voice option. This is mainly used as a boot disk."
Now it was Tibbetts time to look confused. "A what?"
"It makes upgrades to his implant's firmware, runs diagnostics to pinpoint malfunctions…" When the commander's confusion wasn't cleared up, the doctor tried again. "It debugs code when the thing is already installed. And it lets him send text messages—although that was a feature we put in mostly just to test the interface."
SOMEBODY TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED BEFORE I TEST THE INTERFACE OF THESE RESTRAINTS TO THE BREAKING POINT, blinked the first message on the screen of the datapad.
"It works," the doctor burbled happily as he gestured Tibbetts over to read it.
"What's the last thing you remember?" the spy asked, suddenly all business again.
I WAS WATCHING KNOWLES AND DENT TALK IN ALLEY, the screen blinked. USED MY RECON DRONE. DENT REFUSED TO JOIN WHATEVER SCHEME KNOWLES WAS PLANNING.
"So either Dent's loyal or he guessed you were watching," Tibbetts concluded. "Kinda sloppy of you to risk getting caught that way."
NEVER SAID I WAS A GOOD SPY, flashed on the screen. I RECALLED THE DRONE AND THEN THE ROOM BLEW UP.
"Cult of the Emperor fanatics tried to crash the party," Tibbets told him. "A car bomb, and then two suicide soldiers charged in with gauss guns blazing."
The screen quickly blinked out ANYONE ELSE HURT?
Hicks snorted. "A restaurant full of werewolves and mages? Full of Raptors? The only reason you survived at all was that Captain Soti threw up some sort of magickal force field—and since she was between you and the blast, whatever she did to protect herself saved your non-magickal butt too."
"Entropy effect," Tibbetts clarified. "All the shrapnel decided to miss her and embed itself in the floor and ceiling instead. Captain Petz managed to stop part of the car's mud guard with his forehead, so he was the only KIA from the actual blast. Most of the rest of the officers were werewolves, and the fire singeing their fur pissed them off more than anything else. The shrapnel effects hurt, but healed quickly."
THAT'S A RELIEF.
"A Captain Regis from Dent's unit took out both of the shooters. Got a bit shot up himself, but he's already back on duty," Tibbetts finished.
"He also got burns to 75% of his body. He killed them both while actually on fire," Hicks said in wonderment. "Took the docs here four days to heal him—only two for your much less severe burns. Fire's one of the few things werecreatures can't heal in minutes, and they don't respond well to some of the treatments that work far better on mere mundanes like us."
HOW BADLY WAS I HURT? Argus asked through his electronic box.
"From the blast, nothing we couldn't fix in a jiffy," Dr. Hicks answered. "Although when Colonel Knowles came back into the restaurant a few seconds later, that changed. He started screaming about how you were a traitor and one of the cultists, and then he and a couple of his werewolf buddies jumped on you while you were still stunned by the blast."
IF YOU SAY THE WORD DOGPILE, I'LL FIND A WAY TO SCREAM, WORKING THROAT OR NOT.
"Major Reid had been invited to the party as a guest of Major Kabila, even though she's not in the Raptors herself," Tibbetts continued. "She and Captain Soti flung the werewolves off of you with their… er, mage powers, and then Major Dent stood over your body to protect you. Told everyone to go chase the real cultists outside. Of course, any cultists outside had already fled, and Knowles was in full angry-werewolf mode and kept trying to finish you off. Major Kabila joined Dent and the mages in protecting you, and between them they managed to subdue Knowles."
THANK GOD FOR SMALL FAVORS. AND BIG BEARS.
The commander continued. "Captain Soti then put you in some sort of suspended-entropy field and kept you alive long enough for a Life Mage field medic to get to you. He stabilized your condition. Then they scraped together whatever miscellaneous pieces of you they could find and brought you here with the rest of the wounded. As a precaution, both you and Colonel Knowles were put in restraints while we investigated, just in case one of you actually was some sort of cultist or traitor."
SINCE I'M STILL RESTRAINED, I TAKE IT YOU HAVEN'T FINISHED THE INVESTIGATION.
Tibbetts laughed. "Oh, no, when you can send Time Mages to bug the room retroactively, investigations don't take as long as a whole week. The restraint's so you don't stupidly tear off your own neck dressing and ruin the doc's good work here."
SO CAN YOU SADISTIC FRAKS UNTIE ME ALREADY?
"Half the patients here are werewolves wounded in combat, and a werewolf wounded badly enough to need a hospital tends to be even angrier than usual when they wake up. I think the nurses here just tie everyone up out of habit," Icarus apologetically explained while unfastening the restraints.
THANK YOU. SO WHAT WAS KNOWLES UP TO?
"No good," Tibbetts replied. " Admiral Smythe was worried some of the werecreatures used to being Clarke's top dogs wouldn't take well to being housebroken under a merely human master, and he was right… as always."
"Bet that gets annoying," the doctor muttered.
"We probably didn't get all of them," the commander continued, "but investigating Knowles got us a couple more conspirators already, and we think we've got enough of them to at least delay their coup attempt."
WHICH WILL GET YOU TIME TO GET THE REST, IS THAT IT?
"Of course, my boy!"
SO WHO DO YOU WANT ME TO SPY ON NEXT?
"No one, for a while," answered Doctor Hicks. "You're gonna be here at least another week."
"And even then, an undercover agent, once revealed, ceases to be a useful agent," Tibbetts replied. "So you're off the hook."
AND YOU'VE GOT A JUMPGATE IN THE AVALON SYSTEM TO SELL ME AS WELL?
"Scout's honor," Tibbetts answered with a laugh, before sobering up quickly. "But seriously, we don't have a specific assignment for you. Of course, you should keep your eyes and ears open, even your remote-controlled ones. Disloyalty in those around you is a threat not just to the Federation, but to you personally and everyone else around you."
"That's a bit of a stretch," Dr. Hicks snorted.
"Doctor, we're at war, and I don't care if you like the Admiral or not. But if you try to bump him off and replace him with someone else—even someone better—it's just gonna get a whole lot of people killed. Worse, it'll fatally weaken the Federation to the point that we'll lose the war."
"So win the war first, worry about who's in charge later?"
"Exactly. Besides, at the very least, a coup means fewer reinforcements available at the front, and you'll need all of those you can get. And pretty soon, too."
SO WE'RE SHIPPING OUT AGAIN? COUNTERATTACKING?
"With half their forces on the southern rim smashed here on Kalintos, and the other half desperately trying to fight the bugs in the Charybdis system? Damn straight we are." Tibbets turned and made his way out of the room, calling over his shoulder, "You'll probably have to finish your recovery in the sickbay on board your transport."
AT LEAST I WON'T HAVE TO SHARE A CRAMPED STATEROOM WITH WINDBREAKER DURWARD AND TIGHTASS VARDAN.
"Who?" asked a bewildered Dr. Icarus Hicks.
OR MAYBE IT WAS JUST THAT SQUAREHEAD MAGE AND ALL HIS SMELLY FISH SNACKS, Argus ranted to himself via the screen. HE SEEMED THE KIND OF GUY TO FART AND BLAME IT ON THE DOG. OR DOGS. BUT OVERLOADED OR NOT, THAT TRANSPORT'S AIR RECYCLING SYSTEM DEFINITELY NEEDED ADJUSTING.
"I get the feeling that your strength is recovering faster than expected. Maybe we won't have to keep you here all week," chuckled the doctor. Or maybe we'll just turn off the screen so we don't have to read your inner monologue, he mentally added.
Virtual Gabriel's halo attack expanded outwards, vast, deadly, and inexorable as the pressure wave of an atomic explosion. He was flooding Izzy's server with data. There was no outcoding it, not right away, and definitely not from here. This server was, at least temporarily, toast.
A small part of Izzy was actually enjoying himself, the detached professional in him practically glowing with pride over having chosen Gabriel. This man was not simply a netrunner, but a gifted hacker, perhaps even a prodigy. This part of Izzy would have clapped amidst the figuratively flaming wreckage of his server and invited Gabriel to talk business, and perhaps, if he was interested, a permanent position on Izzy's staff.
Provided either of them survived this encounter unscathed, though. Just before Gabriel's halo attack hit, Izzy folded his two pairs of virtual wings protectively around himself like feathery firewalls, and his own halo of many eyes—a viral vaccination widget—expanded to encompass himself, gyrating rapidly with the motion of a failing top.
Despite these precautions, it felt like hell on earth. Izzy's sensory data was instantly jumbled and confused with raw information. As Izzy's neural interface tried desperately to sort and interpret the onslaught of information, a rush of sensations vied for his attention in rapid, unceasing succession: extreme all-pervading heat, sharp pins and needles, the coldness of a tile floor, the color red, the number 11, sensation of delight, the earthy smell of petrichor, strains of Ode to Joy on a hang drum, light as bright as staring into the sun, something soft and furry crawling against the tongue, a sickening unidentifiable sweet taste, euphoria, the sound of a bell, bitter bile, a feather being lightly scraped against the back of the mouth, a stubbed toe, the rush of air, gravity swinging wildly and varying in intensity, then coldness and utter blackness, the sound of shattering glass, sharp needle-like pains, the screaming of lungs gasping desperately for stale air, the trickling of lukewarm blood, convulsions so intense they threatened to shatter bone and tear ligament, the fragrant smell of blood, and above everything else… hunger. A deep, gnawing, all-pervading hunger.
"Oh god..." Izzy's painfully cracked lips mouthed as he awoke, but no sound came from the long-unused throat and still convulsing lungs. "...no..."
"Good morning!" A cheery hologram of a tall lanky man in priestly vestment appeared, leaning over the partially-shattered transparent material of Izzy's stasis pod. "As I'm sure you undoubtedly remember, I am the last protocol, Azrael, designed to either guide you back to your virtual sleep or deliver you swiftly to your eternal one. Which of those you'd prefer is naturally up to you, but I'm sure we both agree you can't go running amok on an empty stomach like the last time." The hologram smiled pleasantly while its subroutines analyzed the situation.
All Izzy could think about was tearing that hologram to shreds, and perhaps he would have tried it (earning himself a swift death in the process) if he had been able to move in a coordinated fashion—but every movement, even breathing, felt like being bombarded by thousands of infinitely sharp needles.
That small, still-rational part of Izzy's mind that had been considering job openings for Gabriel simultaneously congratulated himself for building the perfect prison, and laughed bitterly at his awful sense of timing. In any other situation he would have been perfectly content to self-destruct in his own diabolical contraption, but right now he had to live. Victoria would surely be killed the moment Lilith found his dusty corpse.
Victoria... At the thought of her, his pupils dilated in bloodlust. What sinking teeth into such soft, tender flesh must be like!
Desperately, Izzy closed a hand around a shard of transparent paneling and squeezed until it cut into his skin. The pain cleared his head enough for him to stop thinking about Victoria as breakfast, but not enough to sate the hunger that was growing sharper as his vampiric senses, dulled by years of disuse, began to reassert themselves. Even through the miles of cave, he could swear he could hear the very heartbeats of the many lives milling above him. That cornucopia was so tantalizingly close, yet so very far, it made him ache with single-minded gluttonous desire.
"Bell?" the young Victoria leaned over the dormant synthetic cat, simply sitting in the middle of the underground corridor. She felt relieved to get out of the Lilith's clutches, but the darkness and the cold made her shiver. "Izzy?"
No answer from either the feline simulacrum or her benefactor. Looking around, the little girl was simply scared, and hoping for any way out. Finally, she called out as loud as she could, "Hello?!"
"Vicky!" Patricia Sylvest heard her daughter's voice; the ductwork carried her call through the cavernous underground vault. Breaking away from her pack, she rushed to the nearest ventilation grill. "Vicky!!!"
"…Mom?!" came back. The other three following Patricia rushed over to the vent as well.
"Yes, baby! It's Mommy! Where are you?!"
"…don't know… It's dark, and Bell stopped… the iron men…"
"We're coming for you, Vicky! Don't worry! Mommy's coming soon!" Patty turned to Stefan Quattone. "Can you get a hold of your dad from here? We need to locate her!"
"What do I look like?" the teenager spat back. "Captain Chaos? Look, my comlink is dead—there's too much shielding down here to get a signal. And these emergency panels," he pointed to the items that Malai Prattabong had been using to navigate, "only give us a map. We're running blind here."
"Then… what are we gonna do?" Tammy Chakravarty asked.
"Keep with the plan," Malai Prattabong answered definitively. "We're close to Izzy's lair. Even if he doesn't have Victoria, he'll find her for us."
"Stay still, baby!" Patty called down the vent. "We're coming for you!"
Unlike the robotic cat, the robotroopers knew exactly where they were going because they operated on the last command given: Take her to the Poison Apple. Lilith was immobilized as the horde of B-movie robots took her into the deepest part of the labyrinth—right as Izzy was waking up.
"Ah…" Lilith stood there, latched by the metal arms enfolding her. "I was wondering when we'd find each other."
The thirst inside Izzy D'Argent was raging through his veins. "You shouldn't have come here, Lilith."
"Oh, but what fun we had!" She grimaced at the heat of the metal arms keeping her in place. "These ol' stars aren't the same without you. You remember what it was like? The blood, the screams... oh, the anticipation…!"
"SHUT UP!" Izzy howled, his bloodlust slowly taking over his screaming synapses. Fighting the thousand pinpricks of unused muscles, he stumbled closer to his siress.
"Warning!" The way the guardian hologram said it made "warning" sound like they'd won a new hovercar. Azrael floated there, beautiful with his wings, looking more like a game show host every second. "You are only allowed three meters of movement from the chamber. Any further past that point and… well, the Last Protocol will be implemented. It's important for you to return to your chamb—"
"I don't have a SERVER!" D'Argent screamed at the ersatz angel. "How am I supposed to return if the chamber isn't HOOKED UP!"
This particular subroutine hadn't occurred to Azrael—probably because Izzy hadn't written it. So the hologram went with the default response. "Listen, argue you all you want, but I think you know the answer. Because you wrote them all!"
"Sometimes," Izzy held the side of his clammy head, "I really hate myself."
"Israfel," Lilith chuckled, "look at yourself. See what you've turned yourself into. A sad, middle-aged vampire, pretending to be Walt Disney. Pretending to be human." She leaned forward, ignoring the pain inflicted by her effort. "Is this really what you want? Just say the word, and I'll free you from your shackles. And then we will feast. We'll dance across the galaxy while it burns. You'll love it!"
Of course, Victoria didn't take her mother's advice. Staying with a mechanical cat in a dark hallway was not Vicky's idea of a safe place to wait. Meanwhile, all around her, things snapped and hissed; it was the base material of many of her nightmares.
Then again, she didn't know where to go. But then some clanking that was bothering her right eardrum stopped, and she heard voices instead. In desperation, she called out, "Mommy?!" When she heard a mumbled reply, Victoria raced after it, leaving the robot cat behind.
Izzy couldn't have timed it better—or worse—if he had scripted it. Suddenly, Patty Sylvest and her three fellow ticket winners burst into the server-lined cave behind the robotroopers holding Lilith captive. Victoria appeared through another opening at the same instant and screamed with delight. As mother and child embraced, Lilith saw her opening.
Easing back into her restraints, the robot gripping her saved energy by reducing its pressure. The vampire immediately used her protean strength to kick backward, throwing the robot—and her—into the walls behind them. Izzy's siress continued her assault as the robot tried adjusting its systems to continue its last command. Finally, the machinery failed, and Lilith was free, bowling into the remaining robotroopers. The other five mortals fled to the far side of the cave while the vampiress took endless enjoyment in ripping apart her childe's animatronic creations.
Satisfied, she took one of the robot heads and held it. In a mocking voice, she used it like a ventriloquist dummy. "Man, what a dump!"
"Oh, Chunky," Lilith laughed in her own voice, "be nice to the good people. They came all this way for lunch."
"There's no food!" the disconnected robot head complained.
"They are the food!" Lilith smiled, then threw the head away. "Boring conversation, anyway. Well, Izzy? What do you think? Shall we rule the universe as… um, mother and son?"
"Your stand-up act needs some work," D'Argent critiqued.
"Not really my forté." The siress shrugged. "My! All that made me thirsty! Let's have a drink… together!"
END OF ACT ONE
Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home - trying to logically analyize the Deep Umbra can result in insanity.