"They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
For trying to change the system from within
I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

I'm guided by a signal in the heavens
I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin
I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin."


-- Leonard Cohen, First We Take Manhattan


"EVERYONE GET OUT!" Izzy bellowed in the most frightening voice he could muster in his reduced and pathetic state, baring extended fangs… but no one moved.  Lilith stood between the mortals and the only exit, tossing the robot head back and forth in her hands like a basketball and grinning malevolently.  She was daring them to try to rush the exit.  It was clear what she was doing; the feast wouldn't begin without Izzy.

"He really is a vampire..." Stefan said with both disgust and fascination.

"There's two of them," Malai spat darkly.

"When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you..."  Izzy covered his head with his arms and closed his eyes tightly, trying to block out the delicious feast of humanity before him.  "If your heart is in your dreams, no request is too extreme, when you wish upon a star your dreams come true... oh God, it's not working...  Don't move, don't move, don't move... if you don't move, nothing will happen, no one will be harmed... it isn't real, pretend it's not real, it's an illusion..."

Every second was an agony of temptation as Izzy's muscles mended themselves and his body regained coordination.  Every second, he knew, was a greater chance he might lose himself and do something unspeakable.

"You should never have come here!" he lamented to his unlucky guests as he sank to a sitting position on the rough floor of the cave.  "I'm dangerous!  You must all stay in the periphery of the room, six meters around the stasis tube.  I can't go beyond that point without my holographic friend here attacking."  He waved an arm in the general direction of the tall, dark-winged and cheesy angel.  D'Argent could swear that it winked.

"Oooh!  Is that how it works?!" Lilith said gleefully, throwing the robot head hard.  With a metallic ring it hit one of the computers against the wall, sending a shower of sparks into the cavern like a sprinkler.  A holographic display lit up indicating the extent of physical damage.  "So all I have to do is break your toys, and you'll be free?"

Izzy laughed rather too giddily.  "Yes, Lilith, I'll be free."

"Warning!"  The angel of death smiled.  "Minor physical equipment failure in bank four, compensating."

Izzy scowled.  If he had built general vampire detection into this deathtrap, Lilith would have been destroyed the second she was dragged in.  At the time he didn't want to arouse suspicions of vampires, so he had only keyed the system to respond to himself.  He was regretting it now.

"What do we do now?" Tamara whispered to the group.  "Two vampires, and it's not like we have any weapons!"

Patty clung tightly to Victoria, as though her daughter might evaporate if she let go.  "Actually, you do... I am a mage, after all."

"When you get in trouble and you don't know right from wrong... give a little whistle... give a little whistle..."  Izzy had since run through the lyrics of When You Wish Upon a Star and started on less popular—yet still oddly appropriate—Pinocchio numbers.  "When you meet temptation and the urge is very strong... give a little whistle... give a little whistle..."


Gabriel sifted through the cracked server.  It was clear to him this unit was geared mostly toward serving up a virtual reality space, and operated best in that fashion.

"Let's see what secrets a vampire hides," Gabriel muttered darkly to himself as he brought the virtual world back up.  He found himself in a grassy meadow on the side of an alpine ridge.  The grassy field gave way to a cottage that could only be described as quaint, as though out of an old painting.  Looking around, blinking in the sudden cheery sunlight, smelling the fresh, crisp air with a hint of flowers, and listening to the birds chirp in the brush, Gabriel wondered if he had the right destination after all.  This certainly didn't look like a vampire's lair.  He double-checked just to make sure; there was no mistake.

Entering the cottage, he found the space to be bigger and more luxurious than it appeared from the outside, though no less warm and inviting.  A large grandfather clock ticked noisily just inside the door, with the living space dominated by a harp to the left and an open kitchen to the right.  The whole house smelled like... apple pie?  He went to the stove, an ancient brick wood-fired oven, and opened the door.  "Apple strudel?  Seriously?"

The hallway was peppered with photographs of Izzy, most of them depicting things that clearly pre-dated the invasion of earth by the Bugs: Izzy standing in the midst of laughably monstrous computer banks, a monochrome photo of Izzy smiling with a group of people, each wearing dark-colored yarmulkes with two round disks attached sticking up, next to a sketch of a cartoon mouse signed by someone with illegible loopy handwriting.

"Oh... mouse ears."  Gabriel looked back at the group photo.  Yes, they were mouse ears, like in the cartoon sketch.

He peeked into the first door he came to.  It was an old fashioned cinema.  The next room contained a bedroom, considerably less elaborate than the rest of the house so far, and matching the exterior of the house in its roughhewn country feel.  The room had no dresser other than a trunk at the foot of the bed, and off to the side was a disorganized desk strewn with cogs, springs. and miniscule instruments Gabriel couldn't even begin to name.  About the desk hung many, many clocks and watches, each beating their time in their own way, some with elaborate mechanisms.  There was water boiling in a heavy black iron kettle in the fireplace... suddenly it dawned on him: this wasn't a bedroom, it was the original interior of the cottage's exterior.

Gabriel gravitated towards the desk, sifting through the contents of the drawers.  Most of the contents seemed decorative, but one drawer contained schematics and plans for many of the devices and novelties Gabriel had seen in the amusement park.  As he pulled out files, the desktop reorganized accordingly into models detailing whatever project Gabriel was currently looking at.  He went through file after file, but they were nothing but plans for the park.  Gabriel began to wonder if their host was a vampire after all; in all the files, there was nothing at all that screamed "Vampire!".

It wasn't until he got midway through the P's in the filing cabinet that something unusual happened.  When he attempted to lift a file named "Poison Apple" from the cabinet, a hand stopped him from pulling it out.

"Password please."  A short, rather geeky looking angel with huge glasses whispered.

Startled, Gabriel swore at the sudden presence in the fashionably archaic way of netsters of his generation.  "Jiminy Cricket!"

"Accepted."  The angel removed his hand from Gabriel's wrist, adjusted his glasses, and disappeared.  Confused by what had just happened, Gabriel opened the file.

Inside were the most elaborate plans he had seen thus far.  It was a complex well beneath the surface of New Sparta, the centerpiece of which was a cavern containing a single... what was it?  A stasis pod?  A VR terminal?  A coffin?  It appeared to be all three.  Not understanding the medical side, he chose to look at the VR components first.  He found that the server he was currently working from was only at the surface of a network of mechanisms.  This was like no VR system he had ever seen before—this was a complete command center, perhaps for the entire planetoid, to be accessed from a virtual reality space in real time.  A near-perfect representation of an entire planet was terribly impressive number crunching, and it took several seconds of gaping in awe for Gabriel to pull himself away.  He could see now how their host had been interacting with them all along… but why?  Why had Izzy chosen to build himself a virtual reality when the actual reality was right above him?  Vampires emulated normal lives all the time, surely he was just as capable of faking it?  Why limit yourself to a world you can't actually touch or interact with in a physical way?

He brought up some of the more detailed schematics concerning the cavern.  It wasn't just an elaborate virtual reality hub—it also contained advanced holographic technology like Gabriel had never seen before.  But the holograms didn't make sense; the photonic frequency spread used was well in excess of standard for creating three-dimensional images.  There were the normal images of course, but mapped in frequencies that were not visible to the naked eye: UVA, UVB and above, infrared and below, a hint of microwaves, radio waves, and... 'replicated natural sunlight.'  Why on earth would a vampire want to replicate that?

He zoomed out to look at the conditions under which the special, power-intensive holographic technology would activate.  They were attached to subroutines labeled "Last Protocol."  Gabriel skimmed the code.

He put all the components together in his mind… but it still didn't answer the question of why.  "A vampire lives a half-life as a hologram, and sets it up so he can never leave?  That means he must have a mechanism to sustain himself, perhaps ghouls to bring victims."  Gabriel did a quick search for secret passages or other direct lines, but all routes leading to the cavern were protected by clever traps of all sorts.  "Why make it so difficult on yourself?  Unless..."  Gabriel turned to the more confusing medical section, but as near as he could tell it was rather low tech, and mostly designed to keep the body immobile yet still in a state of consciousness.  It looked like a fairly permanent semi-sleep.  There were no safety breaks like on a normal VR unit.  The only forced breaks he could find had to do with VR failure issues.  Issues such as the one Gabriel had caused in order to take control of the server...  "Elaborate Holographic presence...  Real Time VR representation...  Some sort of power hungry sunlight holograms..."

Gabriel frowned in realization.  "It's a gilded cage."  Previously, between the apple strudel and the cartoon mouse ears, he'd begun to have serious doubts about whether the vampire had actually taken Victoria Sylvest, that Izzy had been telling the truth all along when he told Gabriel that he didn't understand the situation and was making a mistake.  Now Gabriel was certain he had made one.

Gabriel didn't know more than the average person about vampires, but he had a hunch it had been a very long time since their benefactor had wandered around in the flesh, and was now either a terrible danger or a pile of dust in a cavern somewhere—neither of which was going to help find Victoria.  "I should never have knocked him offline."


"Flouncy, bouncy, trouncy, fun fun-fun fun-fun!" Lilith started singing, too, as she kept picking up the robot head and throwing it into the bank of computers that lined the room.  Unlike Izzy's little jingles, she had perfect pitch, which made her singing even more unnerving.  The holoangel Azrael just floated there, occasionally flickering from the power loss, but seeming to enjoy the moment even more than Lilith was.

Meanwhile, the rescue team found themselves more in need of rescuing.  Stefan whispered into Patty's ear, "Do something!"

"We're only gonna get one shot," the elder Sylvest reminded him, "and she's waiting for us to make it.  We have to wait for the right moment."

"And get two vampires?!" Tammy blurted out loud.  "Damn it, we need to…"

And then Victoria Sylvest stepped forward.

Lilith had made an incredible bounce shot off the last console, and now turned the ricocheted robot head towards Victoria.  "Don't leave now, the party's just started!"

"You big meanie," the young girl said, seeming to vibrate with anger.

Lilith chuckled.  "How perceptive.  I am the big meanie!  Now go stand over there like a good little appetizer."

"Let us go," Victoria ordered, her voice echoing throughout in the small cave-like room.  Lilith—and everyone else in the room—took a step back.  "We are going to leave.  Now."

Izzy's siress blinked a couple times before whispering, "Yes, of course, I never meant…"  Then the fire in her eyes roared.  "You?  You tried a spell on me?!  BITCH!"  With a well-placed kick, Lilith sent the little girl flying across the room, slamming into Tammy and knocking the dark woman down.

Patty reacted instantly to protect her daughter.  Throwing out her hands, Patty reached out to all the sparks and loose electrical wiring in the room, and chain lightning converged on the female vampire.  Lilith screamed for a moment as the energy flowed through her… then, inexplicably, danced out of the electric current to deliver a roundhouse kick to Patty's face.  The blow knocked the mother down, releasing the spell.

Malai took a step forward, but Lilith was instantly there, claws at her neck.  "Any more heroics?!"  Lilith looked over at Izzy—but could only see the angel Azrael grinning inanely.  "What are you laughing at?!?!"

"Power loss down to twenty percent of operating function," the holoangel said cheerily.  "Physical safeguards remaining on Bank Seven."

Releasing Malai, the siress picked up the robot head one more time and asked it, "Ready for the game-winner, Chunky?"  Whipping it around in an exaggerated circle, she pitched it hard, and it flew unerringly into the only remaining mainframe.  It exploded with a beautiful display of sparks; Lilith clapped her hands with delight.  "She shoots, she scores!"

Even the holoangel had to admit the shot was pretty good.  Azrael nodded in respect and opened his hands wide.  "All safeguards released.  Final protocol engaged."  With a final smile before he disappeared, the angel announced, "Have a nice afterlife!"

"What?" Lilith asked an instant before the following events made the answer painfully evident.  The only exit suddenly had a door where none had been before.  A nasty humming sounded from above them and around the sides of the chamber.  Then the light level in the room got brighter and brighter—everywhere but within the circle where Izzy stood.

The flesh on Lilith's perfect skin burned.  She screamed and ran… but there was nowhere to run to.  The siress became a blur, like a fly caught in a jar, buzzing to and fro, but to no avail.  The artificial sunlight got hotter and hotter as Lilith's cries grew louder and louder.  Suddenly, the elder vampire realized there was only one escape left—into the circle with Izzy.

She dove into the circle of relative darkness with her childe, scarred and burned from the sunlight.  The lights immediately dimmed and Azrael appeared again.  "I'm… not entirely pleased that you decided to return to the chamber, but I honor your decision.  Once the chamber is shut, final protocols will be deactivated… until the next time."  Another cheesy grin appeared on his simulated face.

"Listen here, you load of pixels, I—"  But Lilith's rant was suddenly choked off with the clamp of fangs around her neck.  Izzy, caught in the artificially-induced blood lust, no longer cared where the blood came from as long as it was there.  Lilith was too weak to resist, and after a moment, no longer wanted to.  He drank.  D'Argent could feel Lilith's soul seep into his own as the blood poured into his veins, strengthening him like he had never felt before.

As the last of Lilith restored Izzy to health, her desiccated corpse fell the ground, unwanted.  D'Argent stood up and kicked his siress out of the circle.  Azrael did the rest; sunlight penetrated and charred the corpse to ash.

Brushing the ash off his coat, Izzy looked at his guests with his own eyes for the first time.  "I guess I should tell you the truth…"

"No shit," Stefan cursed.




"And how is Ji-yoon-chan?"  Hikari's eyes were fixed on Takamitsu with a strange listlessness that seemed to indicate they were actually focused elsewhere.  His great-grandmother had been interrogating him on his childhood and the well-being of extended family for... who knew how long it had been?  All Taka knew was that they were now on their fifth round of tea.  He felt like he was about to give birth, and despite his proper form, he was quickly losing circulation in his legs.

Akiko sat in seiza next to Hikari and seemed even less present than her mother-in-law.  Aside from serving tea, Taka's grandmother had done little else, sitting silently with her eyes closed and occasionally sipping some tea herself.  The smell of the tea filled the small tatami-lined shuttle, and Akiko held her bowl close to her nose and breathed deep.  She seemed to be enjoying the scent more than she was enjoying the beverage itself.

 Takamitsu had been growing increasingly impatient with his grandmothers' questions, but this one somehow struck a nerve.  Respect for elders notwithstanding, he could finally take no more.

"あの...これはちょっと失礼ですけれども... aren't there more important things we should be discussing?  Don't you already know the answers to all these questions?"  He set his tea bowl down on the floor between them with finality, almost as a challenge.

"It's common courtesy to ask such things when you haven't met for a long time, and I have seen so many future possibilities that I have learned to relish present realities as much as I can."  Hikari's voice and face were emotionless, however, and at any rate indicated nothing like enjoyment to Taka.  "Also, knowing the future is not the same as knowing present mental states.  さらに..."  At this, Hikari's voice suddenly gave way, and her countenance changed completely.  Her eyes came to life, only to fade into a melancholic visage.  "さらに... your great-grandfather made me promise to ask about Ji-yoon specifically."  She paused for a moment to recollect herself.  "As for the rest," she nodded her head toward her daughter-in-law, "there is plenty of time for all of that."

"そうですか..." was all Taka could manage to reply.  He had clearly struck a nerve himself.

Akiko had drunk the last of her tea and set her bowl down on the floor.  Takamitsu watched in silence while Akiko performed her ceremony for the sixth time.  I seriously am going to explode, he thought to himself as he bowed to his grandma before receiving his sixth bowl of tea.  Taka knew that the ceremony was important for the effect Akiko was casting, but he couldn't help but wonder how the two older ladies could be so comfortable holding it in at their ages.

Hikari took a drink from her bowl, set it down, and stared silently into Taka's eyes.  She thought for a moment, and then relented.  "分かった君は質問がたくさんあるでしょう聞いてみましょう."

Taka's mind went blank for a second.  He had all kinds of questions, to be sure, but he didn't know where to start.  I suppose it's best to start by asking how—

Hikari suddenly interrupted his thoughts.  "We removed ourselves from the timeline for a few years and have been in hiding ever since."  She caught the look of confusion on his face.  "Some moments in time are less susceptible to change than others, and the closer you get to any moment, the less susceptible it is to change.  The questions you are going to ask and the order in which you will ask them are practically immutable at this point."  Hikari still seemed distant, but she now seemed slightly irritated with him, which was a strange combination to behold.  "The Vin Shriak invasion was unavoidable," she continued.  "It was possible to avoid the destruction of the Eastern Bloc, but it would have been difficult… costly... and ultimately unsatisfying.  This timeline was ultimately deemed preferable."

Hikari seemed a little choked up at this point.  She suddenly closed her eyes and whipped out a folding fan.  She opened it, revealing the old Matsubara family crest with the character for time emblazoned over it.  She took a deep breath and began fanning herself.

At this, Akiko came out of her trance and looked longingly at her grandson.  Before Taka could ask, she replied, "Your great-grandfather Akihiko was the one who chose this fate for us."  She glanced at Hikari.  "You must forgive her.  As his death grows nearer and more inevitable, she is more frequently overcome with grief, but afterwards, she will be fine.  I will answer your questions in her place.  You just have to ask them.  She can effortlessly read the near future, but that still takes me more effort than it's worth in a situation like this."

Takamitsu thought for a moment, and his blood began to boil.  "Okay, first of all, if you knew the attack was coming, why didn't you warn anybody?  Why not run?  Why just disappear?  Why hide yourselves from us for over a decade?"

Akiko's posture grew defensive.  "We stayed in contact when and where it was appropriate.  It was important, though, that your father believe that we were dead.  Otherwise, we would never have had our revenge on the Vin Shriak."

"Revenge?!?"  Taka realized he was shouting and tried to calm himself.  "That doesn't even make sense.  You could have avoided the whole thing!  Wait... what revenge?"

"Your father was one of the key figures in the development of the weapon that destroyed them all, but he would not have been so without a push.  He was always a peace-loving, delicate soul...  We just gave him that push, and now that he has made the weapon—"

"Why not just avoid the destruction of the Eastern Bloc if you were so fired up about it?"  Taka suppressed the anger that was swelling up in him.  Better to get the whole picture first...  "Why did you choose this timeline?"

"One possible outcome was that the Vin Shriak would have torn apart the Federation, creating a major power vacuum that would have eventually been filled by the Bloc.  However, there were major problems with that alternative.  The main problem Akihiko had was the use of Bugs for population control by Emperor Chiang, but of course, his mother was also—"

"Using Bugs for population control?"

"いいか?  We have a lot of time here, but we don't have enough time for me to explain every alternative universe we've seen."  Taka's grandmother suddenly had a very stern tone.

Taka reflected for a moment.  "This wasn't all just about getting revenge on the Vin Shriak, was it?  そんなことないでしょう."

"その通りです.  There's a lot more to it than that...  This is about the long-term security of our family."  Akiko took a long sip from her tea.

Taka couldn't let this one slip by.  "So where is our family?  There are a few people missing, don't you think?"

Akiko set her tea down and looked nervously over at her mother-in-law, who still sat fanning herself.

"Where are my mother and sister?" Taka urged, frustrated at being ignored.

Akiko said nothing as she began another of her tea ceremonies.

"Answer me!  Where are my great-grandfather and my grandfather?  If this is all to protect the family, then where the hell are they?  I've only seen you two and Uncle Akira so far.  What good is—"

"Not everything always goes as planned!" Hikari suddenly snapped, her eyes smoldering with anger.  "And don't you DARE question my commitment to the family, 餓鬼!  For your information, my husband is off trying to clean up YOUR mess, and he needed your mother's help to do that."

Taka sat in stunned silence.

"つまり," Hikari went on, "if you hadn't decided all on your own to publicly ally the Yasuyama family to the Empire, your mother would be sitting here with us.  It was bad enough that your father got so hot-headed that he decided to strike the Light Infantry base.  I tried to get a message to him not to do that, but it seems the simple pen and paper method would have been better.  It's actually less susceptible to interception these days.  Unfortunately, I couldn't determine everything well enough in advance to use that method any more, and we're quickly approaching a very critical, very flexible moment in time.  That's why I decided to surface now: I can't predict everything as clearly and as far in advance."  Hikari took a sip of the fresh tea Akiko had just finished preparing before resuming.  "しかし, you don't have any such excuse.  What made you think that openly siding with the Cult would be worthwhile?  You might not be a time mage, but you should have more foresight than that.  Did you even have any plan for dealing with orbitals?  Did you have some great strategy for handling Earth Fleet?  Or did you just get carried along with the energy of the crowd and think it would all work out somehow?"

The barb cut deep.  Taka looked down at the tatami mat in shame and shifted his weight.  My legs are totally asleep, he thought to himself.  "Your message was intercepted?" he tried to deflect after a moment. "いったい誰が—?"

"君に関係ない.  You have enough problems of your own to deal with."  Hikari stared Taka into submission, and he continued to look away.  Finally, she relented again.  "仕方がない.  You're in too deep to save yourselves, and we need you both for later.  Besides, your great-grandfather and mother are already in negotiations with the Yakuza by now—"

"What about Grandpa and Chian-fang?" Taka interjected.  "Where are they?"

"They are safe," she immediately assured him.  "Don't worry about them."

Hikari's face betrayed her lie to Taka just as soon as she told it.  "Why bother lying?  You knew it wouldn't work."  Suddenly, the pieces came together.  "You had help from someone, didn't you?" Taka realized out loud.  "You tried to back out on your deal, and whoever it is didn't like it.  でしょう?"

Hikari looked intently at him, and Akiko immediately quit her tea ceremony.  Taka felt the atmosphere in the room totally change.  "You didn't come to this realization on your own," Hikari remarked.  "There's something you're not telling us."

"Who was it that told you this?" Akiko demanded.

"Some dead lady named Fialla Spencer," the grandson replied.

Hikari and Akiko gave each other a quick glance.  "You should have said that first," his grandmother replied.  "How and when did you meet?"

That look... the tone of voice... is that fear?  "I thought you knew everything?" he averted.  He somehow couldn't help running through his conversation with the old Tech Infantry soldier in his mind...  "Anyway, who did you make a deal with?  What does this person want?"

Taka jumped a bit when rear of the shuttle opened with a whoosh behind him, and a middle-aged woman stepped in.  She removed her shoes and sat on the tatami next to Hikari, opposite Akiko.  She looked somehow familiar, but Taka couldn't put the face with a name.  Then a voice intruded into his thoughts.  안녕, Taka.  You've grown up nicely.  하지만... you need to have Ji-yoon teach you to keep your guard up.  That just now was almost effortless.  열심히 공부해.

Before Taka could even think anything, Hikari spoke up.  "This explains several problems we've been having.  Here I thought I was just getting old and losing my touch.  If that woman is involved, too..."  Hikari seemed to be speaking to no one in particular.  She turned to the Korean woman briefly, then to Taka.  "Fortunately, Akihiko was successful, but it looks like it's a little too late to avoid certain losses."  A coy smile played across her face.  "Hikaru will not be pleased, whenever he finds out...  He really liked that building."  Hikari seemed lost somewhere else again for a moment.

"すみません."  Taka tried to take advantage of the brief lull in conversation to find out who the newcomer was.  "彼女は—?"

"Akira?"  His great-grandmother simply ignored him.

"はい?"  His uncle appeared in the entryway with a bow.

"See to it that Taka meets with his father."


Taka wasn't budging.  "Wait, but I—"

"You will go to your father now."  The senior time mage clearly had no interest in discussing anything further.  "これは以上です."

Taka rose to his feet.  He'd been sitting in seiza for so long that he nearly fell as he stumbled off the shuttle.  걱정마, Taka, the woman's voice comforted in his head.  We will be seeing you again soon now that they've decided to come out of hiding.  I'd ask you to tell my daughter, but she'll know as soon as you see her.





Bishop woke up with a headache the next day in his quarters, a small windowless room with a bathroom, wardrobe, and crusty yellow wallpaper peeling off the walls in large sections.  He could smell the fresh scent of bacon.  Looking around, he saw a warm meal prepared for him on a small table across the room.  Getting up to look more closely, he noticed some fresh grapefruit and a large glass of orange juice on the side.  He wolfed it down.

  After a quick shower, his headache faded away completely and he was feeling better.  Much better.  For the second time in his life, William felt he had found a purpose.  Acting, not reacting; hunting, not just surviving.  He felt alive.

Opening the wardrobe, he found is stocked entirely with black clothing; a fashionable yet practical fit for a dark city like Calaunt.  A wide assortment of weapons hung on the wardrobe doors.  Bishop dressed, armed himself with his magical swords sheathed on his belt and a plasma revolver in a shoulder holster, then donned a black leather trench coat over them.  He left his room…

…and nearly ran into Irene York.  She wore her typical black leather and fishnets, although revealing a lot more pale skin than usual.  "Hey, newbie.  How you doing?"

"Good," Bishop answered with a smile.  "Real good.  So… where're we going today?"
            "Today you're going to meet Magnus."

"The 'Great One'?" William joked.

She didn't get it.  "Magnus is the Priscus Militant.  Think of him as a Secretary of War, a Field Marshal, and Chief Justice all rolled into one.  We have plans to expand… and he has an assignment for you."

"Makes sense he'd want me.  Lead on."

Irene guided Bishop down a series of long hallways, eventually leading him through an open doorway and down a steep staircase.  There were no lights or torches, and Irene didn't seem to care if William could see.  Before they reached the bottom, Bishop closed his eyes, summoned his gift of to see in the dark, and slowly opened his "cat eyes."  After descending several flights, they entered into a large tunnel stretching into the distance on either side with small stream of water running down the center.  They walked through the sewer tunnel for several minutes, then climbed a ladder leading up to a sealed hatch.  Irene knocked on the lid above her and waited.  A few seconds later it opened and a skinny man's face peered out, then waved her up.

After climbing through the hatch, Bishop found himself in large room, apparently another tunnel area where construction had been left incomplete and abandoned.  The Sabbat had taken up residence, and throughout the area were tables with holographic projectors displaying images of the various districts of Calaunt.  Standing around each table was at least one vampire surrounded by numerous people quietly whispering to each other, but who Bishop could tell from their smell were were-rats in human form.  At the center of the room was a massive table with a large holographic image of the entire city of Calaunt covering its surface.  

Irene led him towards that table and William recognized several faces.  One of the were-rats with short pale blonde hair was talking to a vampire that looked like an albino with long hair.  Although she had her back turned to Bishop, he could still tell from her voice who the were-rat was.

"It's been a long time, Colby," he said.  "I thought you'd left Wilke's Star."

The were-rat turned to him and blinked in surprise.  "Bishop?" Bree Colby responded in a dry voice with a minute smile.  "Bishop!  I heard you were coming, but I didn't believe it."

"You came back."

Colby nodded.  "Several months ago."

"When I contacted you about that saboteur on Ashdown, though, I—"

"I routed the comlink through a Net terminal."  Colby shrugged.  "Very few people know that I'm here, and I wanted it to stay that way."

Irene cleared her throat and pointed to the imposing vampire standing next to the holoproj.  William's eyes simply slid off the figure, as if his mind wanted to hide from the fact that the vampire was even there.  "Bishop, this is Priscus Magnus."
            The vampire stared at Bishop for a moment, then his dark image solidified before the were-panther's eyes.  Out of his voluminous—and moving—coat, a noble head emerged, silver hair tied back in a ponytail.  Magnus caught William's gaze and slowly nodded his head.  "Templar Bishop.  Greetings.  Santino speaks highly of you."

"I'm honored."

Magnus gave a small chuckle.  "You should be.  You've come into the Sabbat at the right time."

"How so?" William asked.

"Due to the current amount of conflict in the galaxy, we've decided to expand our presence.  This is not easy for us, Templar, since we have learned the value of remaining in the shadows."  The vampire paused.  "So we will remain silent, and as we move, we will not allow those in power to be aware of our presence.  Therefore, we have enlisted the aid of the Ratkin Plagues in Calaunt."

"Interesting," said Bishop.  "Is this an alliance?"

"Not exactly," answered Colby.  "We've simply come to terms."

Irene snorted a laugh; all eyes turned to her and she immediately shut up.

"We have a mutually beneficial arrangement," Colby continued.  "For years, the Ratkin Plagues in Calaunt have had to compete with numerous street gangs with werewolves in their ranks.  The underground and illegal markets here have always been awash in blood."

"I remember," William reminded her.  "And we had to hide from the Sabbat."  He looked over at the Priscus.  "No offense."

"I'd be disappointed if you weren't afraid," Magnus replied.  "But to answer your concerns, M. Colby's organization has our support.  The Sabbat has agreed to help them eliminate all their rivals in Calaunt."

"In exchange for…?" William pressed.

"Fifty percent control over the black markets," Colby answered, "and providing substantial financial funds."

"Huh.  You know, I had my own reasons for joining the Sabbat," Bishop said, "but you never mentioned any desire to work with them, Bree… at least, not while I was working for you."

"You've been gone a long time."  Colby lowered her eyes.  "When the Black Fangs got Losada, it wasn't the same.  Our rivals moved in, hit our stores, desecrated our totems…"

"You never hated them for…"

"Who don't we hate, Bishop?" Colby shot back.  "We hated the humans for their history of over-expansion.  When we moved into the cities, they tried to exterminate us.  When they failed, we hated the werewolves for nearly finishing the job and destroying one of our Totem Spirits."  The short blond woman calmed down.  "We have no love for the Sabbat, William… but we also don't have any conflicting interests, and could have a symbiotic relationship."

Bishop understood; when he left Wilke's Star, life went on for those he'd left behind.  The Ratkin had to survive, and as strange as it sounded, the Sabbat were the key to their survival.  "So… what's the plan?"

"We have been conducting a quiet underground war against the gangs in Calaunt for the past few months," Magnus replied.  "Together, the Sabbat and were-rats have eliminated most of the lower-end thugs, but several of the gang lords have evaded us."  He pointed to a section of the holographic map.  "We've secured five out of the six wards in Calaunt.  We know that many of the remaining gang leaders are located in the remaining Sixth Ward."

"Makes sense," Bishop nodded.  "Winding roads, lots of hiding places, good exits..."

"Exactly," Magnus agreed.  "I'm sending in three Packs under the command of David Marcus to search for them.  The Sixth Ward, however, covers a lot of area.  So in addition to the Packs, I am sending in a dozen Templars as well.  I want you to be one of them."

Bishop turned to Colby.  "It's been a long time since I've been here," he said.  "You're going to have to fill me in.  I need to know who's in control of what… and what they look like now."

"Sure." Colby said.  "Follow me."  She led him to one of the holographic projectors with several other were-rats surrounding it.  They spent over an hour going over all the changes on the streets since Bishop had left Wilke's Star: who was gone, who was still in power, and who the new players were.  Bishop was surprised by how many names he remembered.  He was also pleased that several were the same werewolves who had blown him off long ago when he was on the streets.  Together they reviewed numerous images until Bishop could recognize them on sight.  When they were finally finished, William walked over to Irene.

"Ready?" she asked.

"Absolutely," Bishop answered.

Irene led him to the hatch, down the ladder, and through a number of sewer tunnels under Calaunt, taking many turns, forks, and junctions.  After several hours, Irene finally stopped at an intersection with a ladder leading up to a manhole in the street above.  Irene nodded towards the hatch, then looked seriously at Bishop and said, "Show no mercy."

"I never do."

"Nice to know," she replied with a wink and a smile.  "I'll be waiting for you when you get back."

Bishop nodded, then climbed up the ladder and slowly raised the manhole cover, peering outside.  It must have been late evening; he could see the light of streetlamps.  Slowly he slid through the opening while looking around for any movement or activity.  Closing the hatch behind him, he darted in to a dark alley nearby.  Shifting into his panther form, William continued down the alleyway between the buildings, staying to the shadows, until he came to an area where the alley widened, the building perhaps just over a dozen paces apart, and dimly illuminated by a streetlight near the end of the alley less than a hundred paces ahead of him.

As Bishop approached the open area, something just didn't feel right.  He slowed his breathing and focused on his inner bestial energy, summoning the gift to enhance his senses.  He didn't hear anything unusual… but a strange scent drifted from further down the alley: wyrm.  Shifting back into human form, he whipped out his hunting knives and extended them to swords.

Seeming to emerge out a shadow at the end of the alley strode the Templar Melissa Cortona, clad in tight black leather clothing with plasma pistols strapped to her thighs and swords in her hands.  There were black stripes down the middle of the blades—the edges shimmered in the light from the streetlamp; possibly silver-plated.  She casually strolled towards the middle of the alley with well-balanced and graceful strides, all the while looking Bishop in the eye.  "What rock did they pull you out of?"

William saw she was ready to fight him.  Is she challenging me?  I don't believe this!  "We don't have time for this."

"Make time," she spat.

Bishop returned her stare as he slowly walked in her direction, stopping about ten paces away.  "What?  Did I steal your promotion?  Did you fail to suck the right—"

"A furball doesn't jump from recruit to Templar that fast.  No one does.  And no one becomes Santino's right hand without earning it first.  You didn't."

"Fine, you want the job?" Bishop asked with a small smile.  "Let's do this."

Cortona simply nodded.

They stood there facing each other for several moments, each waiting for the other to make the first move.  Then, as one, they sprang into action.  Bishop launched into a complex and insanely fast routine of thrusts, slashes, and stabs.  Incredibly, Cortona was able to anticipate them all with amazing precision, blocking them with equal speed.  Whenever their swords met, Bishop felt like he was striking a steel pole.  He quickly realized she must have used a vampire ability to dramatically increase her strength.

Bishop soon found himself on the defensive.  Cortona's strikes came in a blur.  William parried and redirected her blades with his swords and still had to twist and contort his body to dodge the blows that got through.  This went on for several moments, then Bishop attempted to take the offensive.  Melissa slapped aside his swords in a lightning-fast sequence of counters.   Somehow, for a split second, she got his blades separated.  In that brief moment as she held them apart, Cortona lashed out with a leaping heel-kick, striking Bishop square in the chest.  He flew across the alley, dropping his swords as his back slammed against the wall behind him.

Cortona casually strolled towards him with a deadly serious face.  Bishop snatched up his swords beside him, feeling his heart pumping incredibly fast.  He was in pain.  Some of his ribs were cracked, and at least a couple were broken.  He could feel his anger starting to mount.  Soon his entire body was simmering with rage as he shifted into Crinos.  The pain diminished.  

He slammed one of his swords on the ground as he got up and, when Cortona was just a few paces away, launched himself at her.  With his drastically increased strength and agility, Bishop's attacks and counters grew faster and faster.  Nevertheless, Cortona could still anticipate his moves somehow.  Despite Bishop's increased abilities, she was still strong enough to keep from getting overpowered.  Soon both warriors found themselves in a constant flow of exchanges, neither completely offensive or defensive.  The blades struck so fast they made an almost constant hum as sparks flew into the air.

Bishop's anger continued to mount, and he could feel his strength increasing even further—but he didn't immediately reveal this new-found energy.  A sudden flash of realization hit him: he couldn't rely upon the routines, or even combinations of routines, that he'd spent years perfecting.  Instead, he had to attack purely on animal instinct.

Suddenly Bishop released his surge of energy and strength in a long series of strikes and counterattacks that even he couldn't predict.  Cortona managed to block his onslaught, but was clearly being slowly overpowered.  In a sudden flash of blinding speed and surgical precision, William blocked her counterattack and struck straight out with a fist and the pommel of his sword, hitting Melissa square in the face and stunning her momentarily.  In that brief instant of opportunity, Bishop jumped into a powerful heel-kick, striking Cortona solidly in the diaphragm.

Cortona rocketed across the alley.  She slammed into the opposite wall and fell to the ground in a crumpled heap.  Slowly and painfully, Melissa rose to her feet—but it was clear she'd suffered a lot of damage from the impact.  Bishop moved cautiously forward across the alley, intending to finish her off, gathering his last burst of energy…


The sound of the incredibly deep, ghostly voice, devoid of any emotion, seemed to surround them.

Bishop had spent a lot of time around vampires recently.  He'd even become somewhat used to the smell of the wyrm.  But now the scent was so strong it almost made him dizzy.  The streetlight suddenly began to flicker as it seemed like a supernatural shadow was cast over them.  Thunder crashed, lighting struck the pavement, and the ground briefly shook like an earthquake.  A vampire with long flowing black hair came around the corner of the alley, wearing black pants and a stark white button-down silk shirt.

He gave Cortona a disappointed look, then turned to the were-panther.  "Templar William 'Sicarius' Bishop.  I've been waiting for you."

"Wh…who are you?"

"I am who you call Mordred."

Bishop's heart was pounding as he shifted back into human form.  It was only his discipline and warrior spirit that kept is voice steady as he replied, "It is a pleasure, your Most Distinguished Excellency."

Mordred's deep, resonant chuckle seemed to echo down the alley and out onto the streets.  "What do you think, Melissa?"

By now, Cortona seemed to have regained her dignity.  She nodded at Bishop, turned to Mordred, and answered, "He's a good fighter."

"Indeed.  But there are many good fighters, Melissa."  Mordred looked back at Bishop.  "What you have, Sicarius, is far more rare."  The ancient antediluvian's gaze fell like a cold sheet.  "Some of the vampires who witnessed your loyalty test would like to embrace you… but you must know can never happen."

"It will not, my Lord," Bishop replied.  "I haven't joined the Sabbat for personal gain.  It has a cause I can relate to and support."

"Does it?"

"I refuse to accept the lie of the Federation and humanity," William said.  "I live to serve the righteous."

"Brave words."  Mordred nodded.  "Hand me your swords."

Bishop didn't hesitate to turn them over.  After inspecting them, Mordred said, "I've seen these blades before.  Do you know their history?"

"Um… well, my father—"

"These were the weapons of Jalan-Aajav," the ancient one interrupted.  "He spent weeks forging them and still was not satisfied.  While riding with Genghis Khan, he communed with the spirit of the Grey Wolf, searching for perfection.  The spirit told him the secret he was seeking.  To fulfill it, he sank the red-hot blades deep inside royal blood.  The soul still inhabits them today."

"What happened to him?" Bishop dared to ask.

Mordred lined up the blades side by side, pommel to pommel.  "I loved him.  I embraced him.  In time, he became a powerful member of the Sabbat."  He directed Bishop's gaze to his grip on the swords, altering it slightly.  The blades and hilts came to life as the two swords merged together to become a two-handed greatsword.  Mordred altered his grip again, and the blade separated back into two swords.

"And then?" Bishop prompted.

"I killed him."  Suddenly Mordred hurled one of the swords across the alley.  It rocketed through the air and sliced through the concrete wall like butter, burying itself almost to the hilt.  He looked back at Bishop.  "What?  Would you wield his blades today if he were still alive?"  Mordred smiled.  "Now, if you snap your wrist just so…"  With a flick of his wrist, the sword shot out of the wall and twirled back through the air toward to Mordred.  He reached out, plucked the sword from air, and handed the blades back to Bishop, looking him straight in the eye; Bishop had to muster all his courage and fortitude to return the even gaze with a focused expression.  "You and your family have fulfilled your covenant," Mordred continued.  "However, there will be those who will resent your joining us.  Therefore, I will not seek retribution should you kill Sabbat members in self-defense, or for… whatever reasons you choose."

He turned to Cortona.  "Lovely Melissa.  You have nothing to be envious of.  You are the pinnacle of all I hope my children to be."  The lady vampire seemed to melt in his praise.  "But beware," he cautioned.  "Your ambition made you rise quickly over the few short decades you've been with us.  But already you are the target of many members that have been with us much longer, and you lack the allies necessary to hold your position."  He pointed to William.  "Guide Bishop in the upcoming weeks.  Not only will you find a strong ally, you will have someone willing to help you advance.  After all, it will be to both of your mutual gain."

With that, Mordred turned around and walked back towards the street at the end of the alley.  Before he reached the end, the entire area fell under a thick shadow of complete darkness.  For a moment, neither Bishop nor Cortona could see a thing.  Then, just as quickly as the darkness came, there was a flash of light.  When their vision returned, Mordred was gone.




In the Purrfang spaceport terminal, Heth and M'Rowr floated in a pub, lapping buttermilk and watching Midday Market Report newsvid as they waited for their shuttle to arrive.  Durmach Media was showing a special report on the Fed-Ministry merger—and its effect on the galactic commodities markets.

"And this breaking news just in…"  The fluffy announcer paused, glancing at something off-screen, then turned back to the camera looking slightly stunned.  "The… the Earth Federation has just announced that Aisha Ramirez, former Chief Minister for the Ministry of Public Safety, is dead.  She… she was assassinated just hours after signing the reunification treaty with the Earth Federation."

Heth froze in mid-lap.  M'Rowr's ears shot up in surprise.  The pub's background hum of conversation faded away as K'Nes turned to watch the news report apprehensively, wondering what, if anything, this new development meant for the future of K'Nes Llan.

"Chairman Smythe, meanwhile," the announcer continued, "has denied any and all involvement of the Earth Federation in the assassination."

The holoproj display switched to footage of the Earth Fleet Admiral at another press conference.  The Chairman looked subtly different this time; a little worse for wear, with a shadow of stubble on his face and dark circles around his eyes.  "I assure you, I am just as shocked and disturbed by tragedy as anyone," he pleaded in his crisp accent.  "Whoever is behind this terrible crime has jeopardized the peace and stability of half the galaxy!  Today, I vow to make finding those responsible and bringing them to justice my top priority!"

"After defeating the Holy Terran Empire, of course," Heth murmured.

"Smythe'll have his hands full trying to keep his merger together now, that's for sure," M'Rowr said.  "Scat, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the old Ministry systems try to pull out."

"Nor I," Heth agreed.  "But will Chairman Smythe let them go peacefully?  Or end up with another war on his hands—a civil war?"

"We can hope!"  M'Rowr took another swig of buttermilk.  "The longer the apes fight each other, the longer they'll leave us alone!"

"Or try to drag us into their war," Heth growled, less optimistic.  Still, he thought, an alliance is better than an occupationand we can always do comparison shopping among the human factions...

"An immediate investigation was launched into the assassination," the announcer reported, "and Ministr… er, Federation officials on Midgar have already apprehended two suspects in the murder, both werecreatures and members of a human criminal organization known as the 'yakuza.' "

The announcer continued, but Heth and M'Rowr stopped listening; they glanced at each other in surprise, the same thought running through their minds.  M'Rowr was the first to say it out loud.  "The Yakuza?" he spat.  "That don't sound right…"  As smugglers and black marketeers, the Miao had business contacts in the underground economy throughout the galaxy—including the yakuza clans.  "Ain't they clear on the other side of the galaxy, in the Terran Republic?  Y'know, on the old Eastern Block systems?"

"They are," Heth agreed, perplexed.  "Although I believe one of their clans has a foothold on New Tokyo… and that's a former Ministry system…"

"New Tokyo…"  M'Rowr scratched an ear.  "Ain't that the system where that pro-Imperial rebellion is goin' on?"

"Yes…"  Heth nodded.  "Yes, I believe so."

"Well, that explains it, then!" M'Rowr declared.

"I… guess so," Heth reluctantly agreed, although he still wasn't convinced.  It made a sort sense, he supposed… but it just didn't feel right; the details didn't fit.  "But criminal or not, M'Rowr, the yakuza clans are ultimately businesses.  And you and I both know extralegal enterprises are most profitable when they operate in the shadows.  Why would the yakuza draw unnecessary attention to themselves with a high-profile political assassination that might or might not help out a revolt that could still fail?  It's a poor allocation of resources…"

M'Rowr threw his paws in the air.  "Why do the apes do anything, Heth?"

"Oh.  Yes, good point."  Heth turned his attention back to the newscast.  Some security camera footage of the assassination had been released the media, and now the two cats watched the choppy black-and-white 2D film.  The image was blurry, the camera shaken by hurricane-force winds and splattered with rain, but one could still make out the assassins escaping in the distance, leaving a trial of fire behind as they arced through the air.

Heth scowled.  "That look like a werewolf to you?" he asked M'Rowr absently.

"Nope."  M'Rowr shook his head.  "I fought the Fed's Tech Infantry back in the 2nd Vulthra War, an' I never seen a dog who could do that!  Gotta be a mage.  Probably TI."  M'Rowr lapped his cream, then continued.  "Y'know, I betcha the Fed might be behind it.  First merge with the Ministry, then knock off their leader.  Leaves Smythe unopposed as dominant male.  Scat, it's what I'd do.  And it wouldn't be the first time a merger ended that way."

"That's… possible," Heth mused, "but very dangerous.  The assassination will cause Smythe enough trouble even if he's innocent—and if the truth ever got out that he was behind it?  The whole Ministry would definitely secede again.  Probably go to war with the Federation, too, leaving Smythe with a war on two fronts.  Besides, Smythe was already keeping the chairmanship under the terms of their merger—so why take the risk?"

M'Rowr shot Heth a sideways glance.  "Alright, short-hair… who do you think is behind it?"

"The Empire," Heth answered.  "Emperor Vin Dane probably found out about the Fed-Ministry merger and tried to stop it.  Almost did, too—apparently the assassins were just a few hours too late… unfortunately..."

The newscast switched back to the fluffy female announcer.  "On a related note, Durmach Market News brings you coverage of the continuing debate in the K'Nes Llan over the Non-Aggression contract proposed by the Federation, and introduced to the Board of Directors by First Patriarch Varrless."  Both cats at the bar fell into silence, watching with great interest.  "Executive Director Gurrmew K'Laek K'Soth, LEO of Gurrmew & Yeomurt, LLP and a former officer in the K'Nes Tor Navy, opposes the non-aggression contract," the announcer continued.  "Long the most ardent voice on Executive Board for K'Nes rearmament, he claims the contract just offers false security."

The holoproj switched to the bargaining floor of Capital Hall.  Shareholders milled around waving datapads and roaring negotiations.  The Executive Directors stood in a raised central kiosk running down the hall, and at the podium floated a stocky calico in a bright red waistcoat that bore a striking (and deliberate) resemblance to an old Tor Navy uniform.  "Apes have no respect for the sanctity of contracts!" Gurrmew yelled amidst cheers and jeers.  "This so-called 'non-aggression' contract is nothing more than a backdoor to re-occupation by the Federation!  It lulls us into a false sense of security!  We no longer have the big, fleetless Ministry between the K'Nes and our former occupiers!  The Federation is now right across the border—with the biggest fleet in the galaxy!  While we just float here, tempting them with our factories and freighters and finances—and nothing to protect them with!  The K'Nes must rearm, and rearm now!"  His speech was met with both boos and applause, the occasional shareholder bellowing "Here, here!" or "Rubbish!"

The holopoj switched back to the announcer.  "On the other side of the debate, Director Miao K'Nhur K'Yawr, LEO of Miao Mercantile, supports the contract, claiming the K'Nes have nothing to lose by signing it."

Once again the holoproj switched to the bargaining floor, the camera zooming in on the fat black cat in the purple waistcoat and silver jewelry, pointing defiantly up at the Executive Directors in the raised kiosk.  "This debate is pointless!  We've already signed a Non-Aggression contract with the Ministry—and the Federation has agreed to honor it as part of the terms of their merger!  Signing the Federation contract now is just a formality—it changes nothing!  But refusing it is an insult and a challenge, inviting unnecessary ape aggression at a time when the K'Nes can least afford it!"  Yawr turned to face his fellow shareholders.  "Of course we must rearm!  But that will take time!  Now is our chance, while Smythe is busy fighting the Empire—not to mention the pro-Imperial revolt on New Tokyo!  For now, peace with the Federation is more than just a wise investment—it's a matter of survival!"  Yawr's words were met with the usual mixture of boos and applause—but, Heth thought, more cheers than jeers.

The holoproj switched back to the announcer.  "Coming up next, the Terran Republic's recent successful liberation of the Wolf system from the Holy Terran Empire—what does it mean for the galactic economy, and how can the K'Nes profit from it?"

"Tsk, tsk," a voice behind and above them said.  "And here I thought the Miao were supposed to stay out of international politics from now on.  Guess your LEO didn’t heed our warning.  Such a bad kitty…"

Heth recognized the voice in an heartbeat.  His reaction was visceral and uncontrollable.  He spun around, deflating in an instant to land on all fours, back arched, fur bristling, claws out, ears back, and hissed—loudly.  The slim, dark-haired ape in the black business suit looked supremely unimpressed.  "I'd say it's a pleasure to see you again, Heth, but… well, frankly I find lies require too much effort."

M'Rowr deflated, landing between them.  "Hey, calm down!  Heth, what's going on?  Who is this ape?"

"Zechariah McNeilly," Heth hissed.  "The Imperial sales rep who bought the power armor."  He was the one who had sabotaged the suits by infecting them with Horadrim nanobots, sending Heth's career into a tailspin.  It meant McNeilly was almost certainly a Horadrim—and very, very dangerous.

"Oh."  M'Rowr glared at McNeilly through narrowed eyes.  His claws were out now, too.  "That ape."

"You cost me my position, my assets, and my mate, you rat!" Heth growled as he slowly stood.  "Why did you do it, McNeilly?  How did you profit from ruining me?"

"You?" McNeilly sneered, then rolled his eyes.  "That was never about you, you egotist.  My, you're such a typical cat—vain, selfish, and stupid."

Now M'Rowr was growling as well.  "What are you doing here on Purrfang, monkey?" he demanded.

"The Empire has other business associates in the Llan besides the Miao, you know," McNeilly scoffed, then shrugged.  "Besides, my boss won't let me work with humans anymore.  I have a bad habit of killing them."

All at once the pieces fell into place in Heth's mind: he suddenly knew exactly who those "other" K'Nes associates were—and who the empty chair in Varrless's office was for.  Heth swallowed hard, but narrowed his yellow eyes.  "Let me guess, McNeilly—you're here to warn the Miao to stay out of Varrless Financial's way again… right?"

"Oh, no, it's far too late for that."  McNeilly shrugged.  "You were warned, you didn’t listen, and now you pay the price.  But I'm getting ahead of myself."  He took a step forward, towering over the two cats.  "I'm here for a more… personal reason."

Heth's heart was pounding, but he glared back up defiantly at the Horadrim.  "What do you want, McNeilly?" he spat.

"Y'know, a funny thing just happened," McNeilly began casually with an undertone of sarcasm.  "I contacted Miao Mercantile about another smuggling run for the Empire.  Turns out they won't deal with me anymore.  Oh, the Empire, sure—just not me.  Something about breaking a contract, sabotaging merchandise, litigation pending, blah blah blah.  Didn't know what they were talking about at first, let alone they thought I'd wrecked some cargo… but then I remembered."  He leaned down and narrowed his black eyes at Heth.  "You still owe me a suit of power armor, cat.  I'm here to collect my property."

Heth knew exactly what he was talking about—and why he wanted it.  "My property, I believe you mean," Heth retorted.  "According to the settlement agreement, that sixteenth suit is mine!"

"Then I'm changing the agreement," McNeilly said, low and dangerous.

"I'm afraid it's too late for that!" Heth spat.  "You already signed the contract!"

McNeilly sighed and looked bored.  "Is that supposed to mean something?"

Heth growled, and M'Rowr had to push a restraining paw against his cousin's chest.  "Why do you even want that suit?" Heth challenged the Horadrim.  "It's broken, worthless!"

McNeilly merely smiled, smug.  "If it's so worthless, then why are you so determined to keep it?"

"Because I don't deal with CONTRACT-BREAKERS!!"  Heth bellowed the words.

The pub suddenly grew quiet.  All the cats turned to stare at McNeilly.  Twice as tall as any K'Nes, he already stood out on Purrfang—but it was the accusation that drew attention.  For humans, the word "contract" meant words on a page, nothing more.  But in the K'Nes language, the meaning was closer to "oath."  Being an oath-breaker was serious—it meant you had broken the underlying principles that K'Nes society was built on.  You could never be trusted again, especially when money was involved.  And on Purrfang, everything involved money.

The bartender began drumming his claws against the countertop, ears back, eyes narrowed at McNeilly.  He glanced uncomfortably around the pub, then leaned toward Heth.  "You are trying my patience, cat.  I want that suit, and I want it now… or there will be consequences."

"Like what?" Heth shot back.  "You'll kill me?  Here?  Now?  In front of all these witness?"

McNeilly shook his head again.  "It's always about you, isn't it?"  He gave Heth a devilish grin, a little too deep and wide to be human.  "I understand you're trying to get your mate back, Heth… it would be such a tragedy if anything were to happen to that cute little kitty…"

Heth yowled in rage.  He sprang at McNeilly, claws slashing, yellow eyes filled with hate.

"HETH!  NO!"  M'Rowr flung an arm around Heth's waist and slammed him to the floor.  "He'll kill you, cousin!" M'Rowr hissed in a whisper.  "You'll get him, yeah—but not here, not now!  You're a suit, not a soldier!"

He's right, Heth thought.  I'm a merchant—and I need to find a way to flip this situation for a profit.

"Alright, alright," Heth said, calming down.  M'Rowr helped him up.  "Very well, McNeilly, you win," Heth said, dusting off his waistcoat and breeches.  "The power armor for Miu's safety—is that what you're offering?"

"More or less."  McNeilly smirked at Heth, smug and self-confident.  Heth wanted to claw his throat out.

"Very well, then."  Heth reached inside his waistcoat.  McNeilly tensed for a moment, then relaxed when Heth pulled out a datapad, not a pistol.  "You'll understand that I don’t have the armor with me, of course.  I live on Nhur, after all, not Purrfang," Heth explained as his claws clicked over the screen.  It was technically true.  The armor was with Miu now—but he wasn't about to tell McNeilly that.

The Horadrim scowled; apparently, it hadn’t occurred to him that floating cats don't normally lug human power armor around with them.  "Huh.  Well, how soon can you get it to me, then?" he asked. 

"I have a very busy schedule, I'm afraid.  Things to do, places to be, and time is money."  Heth held up his datapad.  "This states that I will return the armor to you at the soonest convenient time and place compatible with my calendar.  I'll contact you at a later date to arrange the transfer."

"Yeah, alright."  McNeilly nodded.  "But make it soon, cat.  I'm not a patient person."

You're not a person at all, Heth thought, you're a monster masquerading as one.  "Understood," Heth continued aloud.  "In exchange, neither you nor your associates will go near Miu or interfere with her company.  Do you agree to abide by these terms?"

"Yeah, sure."  McNeilly didn't even try to hide that fact that he was lying.

"Then it's a deal."  Heth held to datapad out to him.  "Sign."

McNeilly sighed.  "Is that really necessary?"

"Certainly you don't expect me just to tap tails and trust a contract-breaker like yourself, do you?" Heth asked.  "I certainly don't expect you to trust me, for that matter.  You know how K'Nes feel about contracts.  Besides, if the contract says I'll return the armor to you, then you know that I will.  A deal is a deal.  Now sign."

McNeilly rolled his eyes in exasperation.  "Oh, very well!"  He reached down and squeezed the corner of the pad.  There was a muffled click as the pad drew their blood signatures.

"Thank you," Heth said, replacing the datapad inside his waistcoat.  "Oh, and McNeilly?"

The Horadrim looked down at him.  "Yeah?"

"If you even try to harm Miu… then I will have your head.  Do you understand?  Your head."

McNeilly smirked, more amused by the threat than anything.  "Whatever.  Now get out of here, runt, before I drop-kick your furry ass into orbit."  With a final hiss, Heth turned to leave, M'Rowr following behind.

"Stalling?" M'Rowr asked as they left the bar.  "That's your best move?"

"Of course not!" Heth snapped, pulling out his datapad again.

"But… why'd you make him sign a contract?  He's not gonna follow it!  I mean, you know he's still gonna go after Miu if he wants to… right?"

"Oh yes, I fully expect him to," Heth said, opening a vidphone connection on his pad.  "But that wasn't the point, M'Rowr… come on, pick up… pick up…"

The display winked on to show Miu's face.  "MIRADI, Prurr K'Aou K'… oh!  Heth!"

"Are you still in the Purrfang spaceport?"

"Yes, but my shuttle's departing for the orbiting passenger liner in a few minutes.  Why?"

"Which terminal?" Heth demanded.

"Thirteen B.  What's this about?"

"Money… and my life, too, I suppose.  I'll be right there."  He disconnected before she could respond.

Heth and M'Rowr raced through the concourse, dropping to all fours to increase their speed.  They got there just in time, finding Miu floating in line to board the shuttle.  Heth yanked her out of line.  "Thank goodness I… caught you…" he panted, out of breath.

"Make it quick, Heth," Miu said and she deflated and landed softly on the floor.  "They don't hold up these shuttles for anyone, you know."  She finally noticed Heth's companion.  "Oh!  M'Rowr!  Gainful day!"  The change was subtle and instantaneous.  Her back straightened, her hips shifted, and she gave M'Rowr a coy smile while brushing some fur out of her face.  "I haven't seen you in… forever!" she giggled.  Her voice was higher, more musical, and it sounded like she'd lost about ten IQ points. 

It took Heth a moment to realize what was going on… and when he did, he wanted to bang his head against the floor.  Oh, for… Sky Father above, not again, not now!

"Gainful day, Miu!"  M'Rowr returned the smile.  "Good to see ya again!"

Miu stepped forward to tap tails.  "How are you these days?" she asked, "accidentally" flicking the tip of her tail under M'Rowr's chin. 

M'Rowr looked slightly puzzled now, too.  He figured it out when he saw the murderous glare Heth gave him.  "I'm doin' great!  Working for this furball now," he nodded at Heth.  "Oh, Surra and the cubs are fine, too."

"Right… Surra…" Miu took a step back, and her voice returned to normal.  "Well, give them my best!"

Heth sighed in relief at M'Rowr's quick thinking.  In a way that Heth had never fully understood, females seemed to have some sort of universal but unspoken set of rules amongst themselves regarding their males and property rights.  Breaking this code could quite literally cause a cat fight.  Apparently, Miu didn’t want to get hurt—M'Rowr's mate, Surra, was something of a bruiser.  She and M'Rowr had met in the K'Nes Tor Army, after all.

Heth glanced at the rapidly shrinking line of boarding passengers.  He was running out of time.  "Look, Miu, I need to commission MIRADI for a special project."

Miu turned to him as the calculating capitalist booted the bimbo out of her brain and reasserted control.  "Another special project?  That's be expensive, Heth.  How much of a development budget can you afford?"

"I'm planning to barter," Heth said, "with something priceless."

"Oh yes?" Miu asked, simultaneously skeptical and intrigued.  "Like what?"

Heth looked around for eavesdroppers, then pulled Miu aside.  He pulled the datapad from his waistcoat, leaned close, and whispered, "Horadrim DNA sample.  Blood."

Miu's eyes lit up as she grabbed the pad.  "How in the stars did you—"

"It would take too long to explain," Heth said, glancing at the shrinking boarding line again, "and believe me, I wish I'd never met the beast.  What I need MIRADI to do is… uh… Miu?"

Miu was staring at the pad.  "You're bargaining for my life…" she mumbled as she read the contract, shocked.  "Who's Zechariah McNeilly?"

"A… Horadrim?" Heth answered.  Miu's blue eyes widened; Horadrim were exceptionally dangerous—and now they were after her.  Heth cursed himself silently; he'd completely failed to anticipate that Miu might actually read the contract on the datapad—yet alone how she'd react to its terms.

"What have you gotten me into, Heth?" Miu demanded, continuing to read the contract.  "What the—!"  Fury flashed in her eyes.  "Only one suit of ape power armor?!"  She glared at Heth as her fur began to bristle.  "Is that all I'm worth to you?" she growled.  "Well, I'm glad to see you value me so highly, Heth!"

Heth got a sinking feeling; this was going from bad to worse.  "It was the only thing McNeilly wanted," he pleaded with her, "so of course I agreed!  It's the same suit that I hired you to extract those alien nanobots from!"

"Oh… that armor," Miu said, suddenly realizing the value of the exchange.  It wasn't the suit McNeilly wanted back, but rather his own Horadrim nanobots inside it.  Somewhat reassured that Heth valued her in the millions of credits after all, she began to calm down—slightly.  "But… you can't give him that suit, Heth!  MIRADI had a deal for twenty-five percent of those nanobots!  And besides, didn't you want us to modify that suit for you?"

"I'll give McNeilly whatever he wants if it'll keep you safe," Heth replied, "including that suit—after we extract the foreign nanobots!"

Miu wrinkled her nose in confusion.  "But… isn't that why McNeilly wants the suit back in the first place?"

"Yes, of course it is.  But that's not what it says in the contract.  It also doesn't state when, where, or how I'll return the suit to him."  Heth shook his head, disappointed.  "He really should have read that contract before signing it.  Besides, that new special project I'm commissioning MIRADI for?  If it works—if—it should give you a way to defend yourself if McNeilly does come after you.  I know it's not much, but it's the best I can do on short notice."

Miu stared at him for a moment, perfectly still.  "You're doing all this… for me?"

"Why yes, of course," Heth said, mildly surprised.  Isn't that obvious?  "I protect my investments."

Miu was silent.  Her blue eyes softened, glistening.  She placed a paw on Heth's chest, then sunk her claws into his ascot and pulled his face up to hers.  She sniffed at his nose, breathing hard, enveloping him in the scent of her perfume and musk.  "Congratulations, Heth," she said.  "You just made it into the top three on my list of bidder."  She leaned forward and gave the fur alongside his face two quick laps.

Heth raised a paw to his cheek, speechless.  This was the first time she licked him since their merger was dissolved.  He wasn't entirely sure what he'd done to deserve it, but he wasn't about to object either.

"Alright," she said, stepping back with a shiver, trying to get a grip on her emotions and collect her thoughts.  "This special project… what is it?"

"Um… well," Heth said, still a little euphoric, "basically, once you've extracted the foreign nanobots, I need to you reprogram a small batch of them."

"Reprogram them to do what, exactly?"

"Exactly the same thing they did to my power armor shipment—infect all the other nanobots to shut the whole thing down!"

"Yes, but these aren't power armor nanobots, Heth," Miu objected.  "You said they were from a Soul…" her voice trailed off and her eyes widened as she suddenly understood.

"A Horardrim Soul Web!"  Heth bared his fangs in a vicious grin.  "If McNeilly does come after you, and you can shut down his Soul Web… well, he'll be a lot less dangerous, possibly even harmless!"

            "Clever."  Miu shot Heth her own fanged grin.  "Very clever."

            "Can you do it?"

            Miu hesitated.  "Perhaps.  I'll need do more research first.  But I can honestly say I've never had an incentive quite like this before."  She looked back over her shoulder at the last passenger entering the boarding ramp.  "Sorry, Heth, I have to go before I miss my shuttle.  Stay in touch."  And then she was gone, fluffy tail whipping behind her as she bounded away.

            You bet I will! Heth thought… and took a moment to enjoy watching her leave.




The EFS Sigourney Ridge was the lead ship of the first class of troop transports built in Chairman Clarke's expansion of the Earth Fleet after the Third Civil War.  And it was one of the few ships of her class that had survived the many wars since then.  A follow-on to the Passchendaele class of heavy assault transports, it too had two large, squared-off hulls separated by a multi-deck landing bay for small craft such as assault pinnaces, a design concept morbidly called "The Double Coffin" by the troopers carried from planet to planet within her.  The biggest difference was that while the Passchendaele's had been expected to contribute to fleet battles and thus mounted several Lance Torpedo launch tubes and other heavy antiship weapons, the Sigourney Ridge mounted a purely defensive armament and left the ship-to-ship combat to warships built for that purpose.  It limited the flexibility of the class, true, but Erich Von Shrakenberg had actually taken one of the Passchendaele's into combat in the Battle of Avalon at the height of the Third Civil War, and Clarke hadn't wanted to risk his ground pounders in a space battle when their job was to die on the ground in pools of their own blood, not vaporized into plasma in the cold emptiness of space.

At least Smythe had managed to scrape together a decent escort fleet for the Sig Rig (as the crew nicknamed her) and the other two dozen transports and commandeered freighters of the Federation task force headed towards St. Michael's Star.  The obvious next target would have been Chalfont, likely stripped of ships and soldiers for the Imperial invasion of Kalintos which had so spectacularly failed.  But much like Kalintos, Chalfont was a nothing system, strategic in location but barely inhabited by the standards of the Core Worlds.  It would be easy to take, but not worth even that much effort if it could be taken without fighting.  It could be safely left to wither on the vine for a while.  But St. Michael's Star was a heavily populated colony world founded by the Harrington Industries megacorp, with a billion and a half people living on a lush planet filled with fascinating Drakat ruins.  Factories, cities, mines, farms, and even a small commercial shipyard for building and repairing freighters made St. Mike's a tempting target, a worthy prize for any conqueror.

Especially since heading there meant taking the fleet back through Ashdown, where they could rendezvous with the additional reinforcements needed to take on such a large planet.  Most of those reinforcements were Light Infantry troops, either from the former Ministry of Public Safety's forces or Federation troops whose previous postings had been taken over by replacements from the Ministry.  But Argus McCall had until recently been an LI trooper himself, so he was the last person to disparage their fighting abilities.

Titus Vardan, on the other hand, was one of the first.  Argus could hear him shooting his mouth off about the LI from clear across the Officer's Mess, from the moment Argus limped off the chow line with a tray full of... "Meat Stir-Fry and Pasta" seemed deliberately vague, but perhaps deservedly so.  The "Meat" part was clearly vat-grown and the "pasta" part seemed to have been made from dough that was at least half raw Fungicrete pulp mix.  But at least it indeed seemed to have been stir-fried... in that it had been heated as cheaply and fuel-efficiently as possible.  They would still be pink in the middle if the pieces weren't paper thin and had been cut from an actual animal with blood running through its veins in the first place.

As Argus approached his table, Vardan was holding forth to a group of younger troopers on the merits of the Light Infantry.  He didn't think there were many.  "They're supposed to be garrison and police forces, not front line troops.  Those frakking mundanes are too weak and slow to stand up to real troops, let alone Bugs," Vardan pontificated.  "You'll never see an LI go down a bug hole and come up again, unless it's in the belly of a Bug Warrior."

There was a chorus of snorts and snickers from the werecreatures and mages at the table, but cut off as Argus plopped his tray down at an empty seat and sat down.  "You're absolutely right, Lieutenant Vardan," Argus said with a cheerful smile.  "We mundanes don't get sent down into Bug tunnels with the Mutts and the Magic-users.  Instead, we get to guard the tunnel entrances to keep you furballs from getting trapped by a Bug counterattack."

Vardan barked out a laugh.  "Hah!  Fighting the Bugs on the surface is a picnic compared to going into one of those tunnels."

"Of course it is," Argus agreed.  "Except that in a tunnel, you only face a handful of Bugs at a time.  On the surface, thousands of them can shoot at you at once."

Vardan was unimpressed.  "And you can shoot hundreds of them at once, instead of having to fight them by hand one at a time as they come at you out of the walls, too close for heavy weapons—which would collapse the tunnel you're in anyways and crush you to death.  Or just immobilize you while the Bugs melt through the dirt and rock and bite you in two."

"They pull a similar trick on the surface, coming up right below you and dragging you down into the dirt, or just biting your legs off under you," Argus riposted.  "Or they don't even bother to show themselves, just tunnel right below you and place a mine directly under your feet while you're busy shooting a hundred of their buddies."

Titus wouldn't back down.  "If a hundred bugs are coming at you, and you're still stupid enough to stand still long enough for them to pull that trick on you, then you deserve to get blown into Worker Kibble," Vardan teased.

"While if you're dumb enough to be jumping around like a dog catching frisbees with a hundred Bugs blasting hot plasma in your general direction, you deserve a face full of Bug bioplasma," Argus replied.

"You'd know all about a face full of Bug plasma, wouldn't you," asked one of Vardan's admiring throng.

"Plasma?  No," Argus answered, running his flesh hand over the line dividing the natural and artificial-skin halves of his face.  "Mandibles, yes."

"No Bug that ever got close enough to me to breathe in my face ever lived to tell about it," Vardan jeered.

"Nor did this one," Argus smiled.  "I would have beaten him to death with my own severed arm, but he'd swallowed that already, so I had to settle for stabbing his nerve cluster with my entrenching tool."  A couple of the younger werewolves were looking at Argus with something almost approaching respect.  "Not the easiest thing to do with a mandible in your ear and another one in your eye socket."

"So how'd you frak up that badly?" Vardan asked.  "Or did you try to head-butt a Bug in the mouth?"

"Well, the other fifty members of my Lance were already dead on the ground around me," Argus replied in an even tone.  "And I was the last one holding the mouth of the Bug Tunnel where a couple hundred TI troopers were fighting below, keeping the Bugs from sneak-attacking them from the rear.  I was out of ammo, and trying to fight Bugs in hand-to-hand combat without the supernatural speed and strength of you nut-lickers is a losing proposition, but it was all I had left."

"You only call us that because you're jealous you can't reach," one of the younger werewolves said.

"Agreed," Argus replied, smiling again for a brief moment.  "Sleeping nose-to-anus is probably the only way to really get comfortable in these crappy transport-ship bunks as well, but my spine ain't that flexible."  Argus got serious again.  "But my troops and I held off the Bugs long enough for another TI unit to come in and take our place, and the regiment down in the tunnel made it back up mostly in one piece."

"And they promoted me to Major for leading them back up mostly in one piece," spoke a voice that rumbled like tectonic plates grinding together.  Bernard Dent sat down at the table next to Vardan's group.  He nodded toward Argus.  "Sent his puny ass to OCS and Sniper School, figured they might as well cram some training in there while his skull was conveniently all open like that."

"I was wondering why a respected Fera like you would stick your neck out for a damn Two-Legs like this idiot, and attack your own commanding officer to do it," Vardan mused, referring to the incident back on Kalintos with Colonel Knowles.

"Figured it was only fair," Dent said around a mouthful of vat-grown meat of indeterminate species.  "Argus shot his own commanding officer when the spineless worm tried to pull his men off the tunnel mouth to save themselves, then threatened to shoot anyone else who ran and abandoned my men down below."

"And he got away with it?" asked an incredulous younger werewolf.  "How the hell did he manage that?"

"Someone sent a message to Clarke himself, and he barged in on my court-martial hearing," Argus sheepishly replied.  "Someone told him I'd killed a mere human coward to save a regiment of Raptors, and he stomped into the courtroom demanding to know why I wasn't being given a medal and a promotion instead of a trial."

"That shut the judge up pretty quick," Dent smiled.

Vardan was growling quietly to himself now.  He'd looked forward to a nice session of teasing and belittling this little pipsqueak of a human, and instead it had suddenly turned into the Argus McCall Appreciation Society.  Argus decided to declare victory while he could and gracefully exit the field.  He looked down at his tray of barely-touched food.  "They say I need to eat plenty of protein to help my neck heal, but this slop would probably do more harm than good anyways."  He saluted his fellow officers and took his tray over to scrape its contents into the organics recycling bin.


Three hours later he was sitting in the ship's firing range with a pair of virtual reality goggles on his head and his railgun in simulator mode.  His gun's enormous rounds were too big for the live firing range on the ship, so computer simulations had to suffice.  He blazed away with virtual 15mm rounds at a variety of targets, but even though his opponents in the coming battle were going to be depressingly human, he still preferred to spend his simulator time mostly blasting away at holographic Bugs.  He crawled through simulated tunnels in a virtual hive, looking for the egg chamber and the Queen.  Even his oversized railgun would take several shots to take one of those out, but watching a graphical representation of a Bug Queen writhe in agony as he pumped round after round into its exoskeleton was the closest he was likely to get to satisfying revenge for his wounds.

Concentrating on his stealth and camouflage skills in the virtual tunnel crawl, he actually managed to hear the click and hiss of the door to the VR chamber sliding open, even through the earphones built into the goggles.  He gave no sign of hearing anything, however.  Sniper school was excellent at training someone to set a trap and bait it.

Suddenly, his goggles went black as the plug was yanked from its socket with enough force to strip the fiber-optic cables from their connectors.  Powerful hands immobilized him and clamped over his mouth to prevent a scream.

Hot breath brushed against his natural temple and stirred the fine hairs where his sideburns could have used a trim.  "The colonel sends his regards," the voice hissed, followed by a sound much like several dozen knuckles cracking at once as the werewolf shifted into Glabros form, the better to rip Argus's head off with bare hands.

Argus felt a sudden impact, transmitted through the flesh and fur of his attacker, as his trap was sprung.  Private Dunston sprang out of his crouch in the corner of the room, where he had been sitting motionless and meditating so as to appear invisible to all eyes and sensors, magical or technological, and jammed a silver dagger into the base of the would-be assassin's skull.

Over two hundred pounds of flesh, bone, and fur collapsed onto Argus, until Dunston could pry the dead body off of his squad leader and help Argus to his feet.  "Are you all right, sir?"

"Yes, Sean, I'm fine," Argus replied.  While he untangled himself from the wrecked VR equipment, he saw Dunston kick the body over onto its back.  It was still in Glabros form, the facial features bestial and unrecognizable.  "I don't suppose you recognize him?"

"Nope," Dunston replied.

"I mean, I know I don't recognize that ugly mug, but can't you sniff him or something and know who he is?"

"It's a big ship," Private Dunston replied in a nonplussed tone of voice.  "I don't recognize everyone on it by scent yet.  There are over ten thousand people here, after all."

"Ah well.  And I'm sure he's not carrying any ID," Argus sighed.  "If he's on this ship, he's in the service, and his DNA will be on file.  Call in the security guards."

As Dunston flipped open his comlink to call the ship's security detail, Argus shook his head in silent contemplation.  Which Colonel sends his regards?  I've pissed off several, starting in basic training.  Only a couple want me dead this badly.  I hope.

It was a fairly bleak hope.




"Well, you came through all right.  Ordinarily, even a few seconds' exposure to vacuum would have some unpleasant consequences.  But… I suppose whatever magick you were working did its job, not so much as a nosebleed."

The Scalable Brutality's physician finally stopped poking Scyr with his instruments and shrugged.  Scyr blinked a few times to clear the light spots from his eyes.

"I suppose," he said, noncommittal.

"I would like to do something about your hands, though, M. Secretary," the doctor said.

Scyr held them up.  The swelling had gone down, but his fingers were purple-black and scabby.  He could still flex the joints just fine, even so.

"Later," he said.  "I need to meet with the Governor."

"Sure," the physician said, though he looked doubtful.  "Just don't wait too long, necrosis isn't any fun."

"I'll get a pair of gloves or something," Scyr muttered, which wasn't really a response.  He hopped down from the little exam table and made for the door.  "Thanks, doc."


Lee Chaudhri, the Governor of Wolf, was the strangest-looking man Scyr had ever met.  His skin was jet black and hairless except for a dyed-purple mohawk down the center of his scalp.  The large copper ring through the septum of his nose completed his punk image.  Anyone who didn't know his history might have found it hard take him seriously.  He also stood over seven feet tall, which made it difficult for Scyr to meet the Governor's eyes, given his own below-average stature.

"Thank you, M. Secretary," Chaudhri said, taking care not to crush Scyr's gloved right hand in his enormous paw, "on my own behalf, and on behalf of the people of the Wolf system."

"I'm sorry we couldn't get here sooner," Scyr told him.  "But the Emperor won't be able to discount the Terran Navy anymore, not now."

The Governor clasped his other fist around Scyr's hand, and the two of them smiled while the assembled crowd of journalists from Wolf's local media recorded holos for their news reports.  Scyr wondered about what impression on public opinion the height differential between the two men would make.  If Scyr had been a serious politician himself, he might have worried about being perceived as the smaller, and thus weaker, person in the image.  On the other hand, it could be bad news for Chaudhri if it looked like he had to have his ass rescued by a runt like the Assistant Secretary.  Popular opinion could be so inane like that.  Just thinking about it almost made Scyr giggle while the cameras were rolling.


"We were greatly disturbed to hear about the Chairman's death," Governor Chaudhri said sometime later, in the privacy of Scyr's cabin on the Scalable Brutality.  "Have you figured out who was responsible yet?"

Scyr shook his head.  "No, and I'm afraid I can't really give you any more information than that.  It happened right before my appointment.  Besides, the investigation has been outside my own portfolio."  He drew a bottle of moderately expensive liquor and some glasses out of his desk.  "Did you know the Chairman yourself, Governor?"

Lee Chaudhri had been one of Kazimir Vitek's most effective—and most dangerous—allies in the Resistance.  After Vitek inherited command, Chaudhri had been in charge of security and counterintelligence for the rebel group's leadership cells.  It was no exaggeration to say the man was personally responsible for the Resistance's survival as an effective, united organization in the final years of Clarke's Federation.  After the formation of the Terran Republic, Vitek had rewarded his security chief with the governorship of Wolf—arguably the most valuable star system in the Republic—despite Chaudhri having zero history with the local political establishment.  The Governor had been isolated by the Empire's blockade during the recent upheaval within the Republic's government.  But now that Wolf was liberated, he stood poised to assume control of much of Vitek's political organization.

And he'd surely known of the Chairman's personal grudge against Scyr before the Babylon Massacre brought it to an abrupt finish.  If he was suspicious about Scyr's subsequent promotion… well, Scyr just hoped he wouldn't have to kill the Governor, too.

"He was a good friend," Chaudhri said, casually enough.  He accepted the glass Scyr had poured for him.

"I'm sorry.  I'll admit I never thought too highly of him myself.  But he did bring the Republic together.  It's a shame he didn't get to see the project finished."  Scyr tried to look thoughtful a moment, then raised his own glass.  "To absent friends?"

Governor Chaudhri graciously raised his glass to the toast.  But the way his sharp eyes watched Scyr as he drank was little comfort.


Mopping up the rest of the Imperial ships in the system had been easy—ridiculously easy, even.  The Imperials had underestimated the Republican ships even more than Scyr underestimated them.  Their error was the less damnable, however.  Scyr had had excellent intelligence from weeks of sensor logs gathered from the jumpgates.  The Imperials had had less than a day's warning when their own sensors detected an incoming fleet through the jump point.  Their failure had been to assume the fifty converted freighters were all of the Terran Navy's warships.  Even with the surprise of two-hundred and fifty extra fighters, the trap they'd laid had nearly annihilated Scyr's forces literally right out of the gate.

The blow to the Imperials' morale after the first destroyer went down had been too much.  The dozen armed freighters had surrendered without fighting.  The second Imperial destroyer, caught in the outer system and too far from the Earth gate to flee, had fought, and fought valiantly.  But even with half his task force blown away, Scyr still had more than enough combat-capable ships to outmatch the lone enemy.  This time, with several hours to prepare his strategy, it had only cost him nineteen more Shriekers to disable the second destroyer.

Which left the "frigate" the Imperial Fleet had brought along, and that had been… interesting.

"It's a graviton cannon," Rear Admiral Hoedemaker, the commandant of Wolf's orbital defense network, said.  "Or it started out as one, near as we can tell.  Best guess, they dug it out of a scrapyard at Earth.  It's modified to fire low-power, wide-dispersion pulses, like the mother of all minesweepers.  First shot took out thirty of my platforms and a battlestation.  Second shot blew out their grav plating and killed almost everyone on board."

"Do you think we could get any use out of it?" Scyr asked.

"I don't know."  The Admiral rubbed at the back of his neck.  "It was never really a practical weapon to begin with, and it's been torn apart a couple of times now."  He shrugged.  "Might be good for clearing away all the space debris we've created, but I wouldn't want to take it into battle."


Admiral Qing showed up a week later with the rest of 6th Fleet in tow.  One hundred and eleven armed carrier ships hauling almost a thousand Shriekers would keep Wolf system well secured until the system's new fortifications could be built.  If they stayed in Wolf, Scyr told himself.  He was already feeling anxious to move on.

"Hmm," the admiral gave a cagey murmur after reviewing Scyr's battle reports.  They sat together in the governor's conference room on Wolf.  Scyr had already transmitted them to the admiral in Elysia, of course, but that was hardly the same as a personal briefing.

"Oh, you can go ahead and say it, Mengyao," Scyr said impatiently.  He was pacing at one end of the room, unable even to sit still.  "It was a stupid, amateur mistake, and I'm lucky not to have gotten the whole task force killed."

Qing brushed at his nose.  "It is… probably fortunate that you had the entropy mages already working when you reached the jump point," he allowed.  "Perhaps we should reconsider specialist ships with their own hyperspace jump point generators, at least until BREWHOUSE bears fruit.  At the very least, I think we must always ensure that fighters are deployed before making a transition."

Scyr nodded, though not happily.  "It's going to put a crimp in our ability for rapid operations if we have to recharge before moving in-system each time, but I agree.  About the Shriekers, that is.  How quickly do you think we can make the conversions for jump drive ships?"

"We could probably arrange some one-time brute force systems in just a few days.  Dedicated reusable designs will likely take weeks, at least, even if we rush.  Do we have an urgent need?"  The admiral tilted his head, curious.

Scyr met his eyes with an intent stare.  "I want to press forward as quickly as possible while we still have momentum and the advantage of surprise.  As soon as we've regrouped and rigged up the hyperspace jump point generators, 6th Fleet will depart for Earth system."

Decades of practice had given the admiral superb control over his expressions; only the barest twitch of his eyes betrayed his shock.  "I'm… not sure that's wise, M. Secretary," he said slowly.  "We have scant intelligence on the Empire's forces beyond our own worlds.  Earth is sure to have significant defenses, better than most of their systems, not to mention the potential for rapid reinforcement via the digital gates.  6th Fleet's current assets are not really optimal for true offensive operations given—"

"I'm aware of the risks!" Scyr cut the Admiral off with a sharp wave of a hand.  He balled a fist and savored the creaking of his leather glove.  He still needed to have a doctor take another look at his hands.  "But the Empire won't be prepared for a new assault so quickly.  They don't have good info on our forces either, so they won't be expecting a new force triple the size of the one they think they managed to cut in half.  Just listen… if we can get the drop on the Avalon gate first thing…"


Scyr was pacing again.  The lights were off in his cabin and the metal floor much colder than the bed he should be sleeping in right now.  But Scyr still had too much adrenaline to sleep.  The jump drive conversions were complete, and the fleet would be deploying in just a little more than a day, once it had finished a last round of training maneuvers and tests.  Scyr was holding a datapad in one hand, reading through the statistical data generated in the last set of exercises for the third time.

An alert blinked at him; a new message from the Secretary's office.  Scyr's nominal superior knew better than to interfere with his operations, but the fat old man still passed along occasional notes.  Usually they were Executive Committee meeting minutes which might have implications for the Navy.  Scyr opened the message, eager for a moment's distraction.

It was the usual vapid commentary interspersed with pathetic, probing questions, attempts to find out Scyr's latest plans for the Navy so that the Secretary could feel in the loop, letting him continue convincing himself that he was really in charge.

Sighing, Scyr was about to punch out of the message, when the whole screen of the datapad flickered.  For a moment, he wondered if it was some external interference playing havoc with the datapad's electronics, but then the whole message began to rearrange itself.

Scyr blinked as he watched it happened.  The message had contained some rogue bit of code, and now whatever it was had begun to unpack itself, hijacking the message which had carried it.  No, it was going even farther than that: the whole screen image began to melt away, pixels dancing about to recombine elsewhere.

Scyr was more intrigued than concerned.  He watched curiously as the whole datapad was taken over by the virus.  It would have to take some seriously clever programming to utterly rewrite the device from an e-mail.  Scyr could almost imagine how it might be done: some sort of ultra-lightweight AI created from a simple emergent behavior process; but you would have to know the exact architecture of the target device and all its operating software at the precise moment it was activated in order for it to function properly.  The amount of work which would have to go into something like that was staggering.

The program finally finished its rewrite of the datapad's programming, and the display image coalesced into a face that Scyr recognized immediately, though he had only seen it once.

"Hello, M. Assistant Secretary," Andrea Treschi said.  "I would like you to meet me in my office at Dalien, if you please.  Now."

The screen went dark; the datapad's innards had been utterly fried.





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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home no matter how obnoxious your multi-ethnic family is being, unless you have a bladder the size of a water tanker.