"Politics is uncertainty…  How you manage it shows how good you are, even if it's hard to stomach."


-- Antonio Villeneuve, Imperial Minister of Finance

The battalion briefing room on the EFS Sigourney Ridge was packed.  Squad, platoon, and company commanders from two regiments were squeezed into a space really only intended for half their number, but the larger briefing rooms had been hastily converted into bunk rooms for additional Light Infantry support troops transferred in from the former Ministry of Public Safety systems.  Lt. Colonel Moseley stood at the podium next to the tri-vid holoprojector and addressed his troops.

"Eight hours from now, our escorting warships will make hyper transition back to realspace in the St. Michael's Star system.  We in the troop transports will follow six hours later.  Assuming the warships have neutralized or are about to neutralize the Imperial space-based defenses, we should be making our drop a few hours after that, although obviously the exact H-Hour will be set shortly after we enter realspace and can assess the situation."

He clasped his hands behind his back and looked bleak.  "This is not Kalintos.  Kalintos was a small planet, only a little over a million people.  There are one and a half billion people down on St. Michael's Star.  Kalintos had remained loyal to the Federation and rose in revolt as soon as Imperial troops landed.  St. Michael's Star declared for the Holy Terran Empire as soon as it formed, and may rise in revolt as soon as we land.  We could not use heavy orbital bombardment on Kalintos because they were our own loyal citizens down there, and we didn't want to kill any more of them than we absolutely had to.  Even so, between the initial Imperial invasion and our own liberation, somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of the planetary population was killed or injured."

Moseley put his hands back on the top edges of the podium.  "That meant over a hundred thousand of our own citizens killed or wounded, despite the Imperials and ourselves both keeping the gloves on.  On St. Michael's Star... the gloves are coming off."  A murmur went through the crowd of assembled officers.  "Vin Dane's status as a God to his people depends on him protecting them from us, like he protected them from the Caal.  He can't lose too many battles, or too many worlds, or his own religious fanatics will turn on him.  We don't expect them to play nice on St. Michael's Star, so we don't plan to ourselves.  To simplify matters, we will be bombarding most of the smaller population centers and anything identifiable as a military installation from orbit as part of the initial bombardment.  Our ships will throw everything in the magazines at them, up to and including hundred-ton mass drivers."

The colonel stepped out from behind the podium and gestured to the holographic planetary map which appeared on the tri-vid.  "We don't have the troops to assault everywhere at once, so we're going to be concentrating on the planetary capital of Port Prosperity, here on the Harmony Peninsula, on the shores of Tranquility Bay."  He paused for a moment to chuckle at the names corporate colonization boards gave to features on new planets.  "Our troops will land on both sides of the city, surround it, cut it off from supply, and take it."  He gave a bit of a savage grin.  "We'll also be taking the spaceport at the end of the peninsula, to simplify our supply situation.  But the primary targets are the factories in the industrial belt on the city's western side.  Several of them specialize in parts for the freighter yard in orbit.  If we can take those intact, it will go a long way to keeping our naval advantage over the Empire intact for a few more months at least."

"Great," Windspeaker Durward whispered to Titus Vardan beside him, as Moseley went into more detail about which companies and battalions would be dropped where.

"Yep," Vardan replied.  "Another chance for us ground-pounders to get killed making sure Admiral Smythe has plenty of spare parts for his precious shiny little starships."

"I know you werewolves can step sideways into the Umbra and don't really need starships," Argus McCall interrupted them from his seat behind them.  "But unless you want to walk about… oh, forty trillion miles through the Umbra, we're gonna need starships.  We need to get Avalon somehow so we can end this stupid war."

Before either werewolf could growl out a suitably pithy reply, all three were shamed back into silence by Captain Soti shushing them like an annoyed schoolteacher.  They listened in sullen silence to the remainder of the briefing.




Under the Eastern Bloc it had been a resort.  An entire system blocked off for the exclusive use of the rich and powerful and their courtiers.  The Emperor had a palace on the most lush, temperate continent of the main planet.  It was the only structure on that continent; the rest was an "Imperial Garden."  During peak months, when the Imperial family was visiting, the system's population would rise to a maximum of about ten thousand.  The rest of the time, it was largely abandoned but for a few devoted caretaker staff and the Imperial Guards.

By the time Scyr's transport passed through the sole jumpgate into the system, Dalien's population was creeping up towards a million.  Only a bare hundred of those actually lived on one of the planets: Buddhist monks in a small monastery; one of the last surviving relics of the old Emperor's patronage.  Scyr had permitted them to stay so long as they gave up their one shuttle and all electronic equipment.  The ascetics probably wouldn't starve, but they wouldn't bother anyone else ever again, either.

Scyr had chosen Dalien for its isolation.  The lack of commerce and the single jump point meant he could keep a tight lid on the information and people who flowed through the system.  Scyr was one of the few who could enter expecting to leave again on his own schedule.  But even more valuable than Dalien's operational security was its strategic depth.  If word of Project BREWHOUSE in Dalien got out to the Terran Republic's enemies, then its headquarters would go right to the top of the priority list of military targets.  Dalien was at the end of the longest possible chain of hyperspace beacons from the Republic's borders.  Travelling along those beacons would give the Terran Navy plenty of advance warning of an attack.  Travelling off the beacons—if it were possible at all—would take too long… at least, too long for anyone to part with a fleet large enough to attack Dalien.

What had started as the base of operations for the Terran Navy's long-term expansion plans was quickly becoming a citadel for the Terran Republic itself.  Scyr had worried that he'd have trouble securing the funds he needed for the project.  And he was, for BREWHOUSE itself.  But the Executive Committee seemed more than happy to pay out for the expansion of system defenses and security, just so long as they had a nice little bunker set aside for their own emergency use.  Scyr had trouble comprehending the lack of forethought that funding strategy implied, but it had worked out to his advantage in the end.  He and Lieutenant Commander Roquefort had simply needed to work out the best strategy for siphoning funds from the defense infrastructure budget into Project BREWHOUSE.  In the end, Scyr had actually reorganized his own old Jennifer's Star holding company into a major construction contractor for the Terran Navy.  The amount of money which passed through its accounts, and which Scyr could have simply stolen if he were so inclined, was staggering.

His shuttle approached one of the many tethered asteroid facilities that had been assembled to serve as the navy's new primary shipyard.  In the distance, Scyr could actually see with his naked eyes the skeletons of the Terran Navy's first two oversized dreadnoughts.  Back when BREWHOUSE had first got underway, Scyr had been asked to select names for the two ships.  His subordinates had since learned not to seek his advice on such details.  The TNS Unicorn would be completed in another few months.  The TNS Rainbow was scheduled to follow her out of the yards by the end of the year.  The warships' designs had been based on Earth Fleet's Achilles dreadnoughts, but there was little resemblance left to that unfortunately-named class of ships after Scyr finished approving the modifications.  The Unicorn ran 3.8 kilometers along its longest axis, and the Rainbow was only slightly smaller.  The magick rituals needed to enchant a chassis strong enough to hold such a vessel together had apparently required weeks to perform.  Once they were commissioned, the two dreadnoughts would outclass any other human warship in existence except a star control ship.

And those were only the flagships.  Two of the new Pumpkin-class heavy cruisers and their four Immolator-class destroyer companions had already launched with training crews and were working up while waiting for final installation of their weapons systems.  The first round of Scyr's construction program called for five more of the six-ship squadrons to be built.  By its end, the Terran Navy would have a true battle fleet.  A small one, to be sure, but filled out with modern, highly-capable ships.  And more importantly, BREWHOUSE was creating at Dalien the construction and training infrastructure to continue building and crewing more and better ships well into the future.  If the Republic could just survive long enough, Scyr was giving it the capacity to defend itself as a genuine, viable star nation.

Considering that the next step in Scyr's plan to disrupt the Republic's enemies had just been severely delayed by his recall to this system, it was a big if.

The shuttle landed in one of the asteroid facility's big bays, and Scyr departed to make his way down the still shiny-new halls.  No base officials or marines greeted or accompanied the Assistant Secretary; Scyr's visit was very strictly low-key.  That turned out to be a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, it meant Scyr didn't have to waste time and energy chatting idly with any of his subordinates.  But on the other hand, he took a wrong turn in one of the corridors and had to waste time consulting his mental map of the base before he could correct his path.

He finally got to his destination about twenty minutes after leaving the shuttle—a double pair of wooden doors at the entrance to an office marked "Vice Admiral Blair."  Lyla Blair had actually been a General in the Light Infantry and then the Terran Army, commanding the massive supply depot on Pyong before Commander Roquefort found her and arranged for her transfer into the Terran Navy in order to oversee Project BREWHOUSE.  Scyr opened one of the doors and stepped inside.  There was no one manning the secretary's desk, and Scyr walked up to the inner office door, pushing it open without knocking.

The lights were dimmed significantly, and Scyr paused just inside the door for the second it took his eyes to adjust.  The office was appropriately large for a flag officer, but not extravagantly so.  A formidable, heavy wood desk commanded the whole space from the center of the room.  Andrea Treschi sat behind it, hands folded on the surface and calmly watching Scyr.  Admiral Blair was standing beside him, wearing a blank-eyed, stupid expression on her face.  One arm was held out in front of her stomach, over which Treschi had draped his coat.  Scyr stood by the entrance a moment, taking in this scene.  Then the assistant secretary asked, "Have you ever considered seeking psychological counseling?"

Treschi's eyebrows might have twitched; it was hard for Scyr to be sure in the low light.  Regardless, the man was otherwise still and silent for a few seconds.  Then he leaned calmly back in his chair, reached up with one hand for the Admiral's belt, drew out Blair's plasma revolver, and shot Scyr in the leg.

Scyr yelled something obscene and collapsed.  Grease that had recently been part of his left thigh spattered and sizzled on the polished floor around him.  Plasma wounds were horrific, and Scyr's mind was telling him that the pain was quite intense.  Still, it wasn't bad enough to bother him; his shout had been more one of surprise, and he'd fallen simply because the leg gave out beneath him.  Now he was staring in mild shock at the charred, smoking hole in his pants and thigh.

Treschi replaced the pistol in the Admiral's holster, then walked out slowly and deliberately from behind the desk.

"I suppose," he said smoothly, "that your question provides me an opportunity.  I need to explain something you dearly need to understand."  He stopped a foot or two away from Scyr and clasped his hands behind the small of his back.  "My personality is not the consequence of any neuroses you think I have.  I cultivated them after considerable study… which included long consultation with a number of psychiatric experts.  A mage is the last person who needs emotional baggage."

"So you chose to be a psychopath?" Scyr shot back.

Andrea stared for a moment and hid a laugh.  "Close, but not quite.  Psychopathy entails certain advantages, I'll admit, but it's also disabling… and that is unacceptable.  I am quite healthy, you may be sure, every facet of me."  He leaned closer to his subordinate.  "After years spent in constant, deliberate control of my every move—every signal—you may be sure that your clumsy mental tricks are utterly transparent to me."  Treschi leaned forward so that his face hung above Scyr, looking down into his eyes.  "Simply put, M. Scyr, nothing you can say or do will ever fluster me."

"Yeah, whatever," Scyr craned his neck to look past Treschi's shin at Admiral Blair, where she was still standing, immobile and oblivious.  "I'm just saying that you have definitely got some serious narcissism issues.  I did look you up after our last meeting, you know.  One reference to your Raptor association?  The entire rest of FedNet scrubbed of your name?  Viruses in every search engine that run when your name is punched in?  They work, by the way; I had to buy a whole new cybermodem.  But that's not what you'd do if you actually wanted to hide or disappear.  You're just trying to scare anyone who's ever heard of you."

Treschi straightened up and crossed his arms in front of his chest.  "What are you doing, M. Assistant Secretary?" he asked, cool and unengaged.

"Lying on the floor because your completely mentally healthy self decided to one-up me with a plasma bolt."

"The next one goes in your throat.  I asked a question: What are you doing with the Sixth Fleet?"

"At the time you recalled me, preparing to assault and seize the Earth system."

"Then my information is correct."  Treschi nodded.  He held up a hand.  "Then you are either incompetent, treacherous, or insane."  He counted off his fingers as he spoke.  "Possibly all three.  Now tell me why I'm wrong."

Scyr locked eyes with Treschi.  "I can take it," he said darkly.

"Do you know what forces the Imperial Fleet has defending the Earth system?"

"No," Scyr admitted after a moment of hesitation.

"One active dreadnought, five battlecruisers, four cruisers, sixteen destroyers or frigates… oh, and a few thousand fighters.  The Avalon fleet—just the portion within an hour's travel of the Earth digital gate—comprises two more dreadnoughts, two fighter carriers, two assault transports, seven cruisers, and a dozen destroyers, each of those with full fighter complements."

Scyr's brow furrowed.  "Why don't I have access to that intelligence?"

"Because you don't need to know it.  No one in the Terran Navy needs to know it."

Scyr forwent objection to this and shook his head.  "Well, my plan doesn't call for a straight-up slugfest with the enemy fleet.  I can still do it—"

"You are wrong."

Scyr huffed.  "You don't think maybe you should extend me the benefit of the doubt?  After all, I cleared the Wolf blockade with what… seemed like an inadequately small force."

"I have no doubt.  Your performance at Wolf shows deficiencies of both experience and talent.  This conversation has confirmed my suspicions.  Even if my assessment is wrong, your plan goes well beyond the boundaries of your authority.  By invading Earth, M. Scyr, you would trespass on the conduct of the Republic's foreign policy.  I cannot tolerate that."

Treschi paused for breath and leaned back against the front of Admiral Blair's desk.  "If you wish to remain with the Terran Navy, you will be confined to this system.  I am quite pleased with the success of Operation SEASCAPE.  I see no reason, however, that you cannot continue your work from here, where you will not be able to threaten the work of anyone else."

Scyr had no immediate response to this.  He'd enjoyed his job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, more than anything else he could remember.  It was a constant and ever-shifting challenge and opportunity for new challenges that kept him thinking and moving and entertained.  But if Treschi now meant to lock him down in one isolated system…

"I don't think I would 'wish to remain' in my post under that condition," he said.

"I didn't think so."  Treschi nodded.  "However, you will recall my original dilemma, back when I found you on Babylon.  My assessment of your threat has not diminished."


"You can't run free without a leash, M. Scyr.  If you resign as Assistant Secretary, you will join the Terran Army.  At least you will be able to channel your energy into fighting the Bugs on P7.  They should be more than sufficient to keep you occupied."

"And if I say no?"

"Your only other option is to die."

Scyr actually felt sick; he was cold and starting to sweat.  Just leaving Wolf for Dalien for what he'd expected to be a short visit had been hard enough.  The thought of going even farther to the galactic south to Bug space, the thought of staying there… parts of his mind were in revolt.  No.  No, no, no, no no no.

"I…" he stammered.

I should just lie, he thought.  It was the obvious, easy solution.  Agree to stay in Dalien, then make his escape after Treschi left.  But somehow, he couldn't believe that would work.  Treschi would know if he tried; the man clearly had a preternatural sense that let him spoil Scyr's lesser deceptions.

He's a MIND mage, you idiot!  You couldn't figure that one out just by looking at Admiral Coathanger over there?

Scyr could just see the skeletal man in the Umbra rolling his eyes at him.  He snarled at the image to shut it up, but it gave him an idea.  Terrifying as Treschi's scenarios might have been, Scyr still couldn't find it in himself to fear Treschi himself.  The man was a little unnerving, to be certain, and frustratingly immune to Scyr's conversational jabs.  But scary?  Treschi couldn't do much worse than he already had with the plasma revolver, and Scyr was only marginally aware of the pain in his leg even now.  He was still lying on the floor, but he could probably have stood back up whenever he wanted.

Treschi still stood over him, and now Scyr felt his lips twitching, pulling back into their usual grin.  The damn man thought he was so intimidating.  Years, he said, he'd spent cultivating that perfectly detached and monstrous disposition.  Why?  So that there could be no doubt that he was the baddest of them all?  It was so pathetic Scyr wanted to laugh.

"I won't."  He said it easily now, through smiling, shining teeth.

Treschi pushed himself back up to standing again.  "Remember what I asked you in that bar?  Do you think turning me down is a good idea, Scyr?"

Scyr rocked slightly from side to side, still lying on his back on the floor at Treschi's feet.  He could feel that tingling, buzzing sensation strengthening once again, and he stretched out his arms and legs like a big, furless cat.  All the while he held Treschi's gaze.

"I really do," Scyr said.  Then he giggled.

Treschi's face twisted into an expression he probably practiced in a mirror to display just the right combination of disgust and self-assurance.  "Very well," he said.

And Scyr moved sideways into the Umbra.

Instantly, the office ceiling became a swirling liquid.  Dark clouds rose up behind Treschi's head as he faded away, and deep purple sparks crackled between them and the vortex above.

Scyr took one last long look, trying to fix the image in his mind permanently.  Then he rolled to one side, shivering with manic laughter.

He lay there for a few seconds until his chuckles had finally died down.  This Umbral version of Admiral Blair's office was actually much brighter than the real one.  Soft amber light bathed what had now become warm wooden walls, rather than cold plastic and metal.  It all looked rather rustic and quaint.

Scyr stretched again, letting out a big yawn.  "Well, internal dialogue, that was a fun little adventure we had, wasn't it?  Now I suppose we should see about finding a way out of here."

Scyr pushed his palms down against the floor and climbed to his feet.  He could actually hear the cracking and scraping of his exposed left knee joint as he did so, but he paid that no mind.  He was too amused trying to imagine Treschi's expression as the man realized his dramatic plan had just fizzled.

His relief was short lived.  Scyr was just lifting his foot to turn and look around the rest of the office when Treschi popped into the Umbral realm right in front of Scyr, looking rather irritated.

"For fuck's sake," the mage cursed, losing his practiced cool.  "Do you think I never learned Dimensional Science?  I can count on one hand the number of people who…" Treschi's voice trailed off.  He was staring at a point just past Scyr's head.  "Holy shit, what—"

Scyr took the opportunity to leap forward and tackle Andrea Treschi.




It had been a long, long voyage, but Heth was finally back on his native Nhur colony.  Sure, it was a dark, lifeless snowball in space… but it was home to the Miao corporate clan.  And although It wasn't as vibrant or thriving as Purrfang, for Heth the rough subterranean caverns and tunnels held the comfort one only felt in the place they'd been born and raised.

When Heth was stressed out trying to manage the Jurvain Impossibarium convoys and coordinate smuggling Fed families out of the Empire, he'd take a break, sniff a little nepeta, and gaze out silently over the ice floes that stretched to the horizon.  With his promotion had come an office… with a window!  Sure, it was the one with the least desirable view, but Heth didn’t mind.  Most K'Nes would find the vista of the dark, abandoned spaceport and habitation dome unpleasant, a constant and brutal reminder of the consequences of economic failure.  But for Heth, the view just motivated him to work harder, faster.

When Heth looked out over ice fields, he didn't see a vast, barren wasteland—he saw money.  The Miao literally owned this planet and all its resources—and for space-faring civilizations, water was a very precious resource indeed.  Humans, K'Nes, and Jurvain all needed water to live, not to mention oxygen to breathe and hydrogen to fuel their ships.  Strategically located along the trade routes between the Earth Federation and the capitol of the K'Nes Tor on Urrin—back before the K'Nes Llan was formed and Varrless moved the capitol to Purrfang—Nhur had lots of customers passing through.  Over the centuries, the Miao had grown Nhur from a simple refueling station to a center of travel, trade, and treasure.

But then the Second Vultra War happened.  And the humans came.

In the tragic Battle of Andersvald where the K'Nes Tor was defeated, the Earth Fleet secured their flank in the Andersvald system from K'Nes counter-attack by destroying the jumpgate to Nhur… and just like that, Heth's home went from being a shipping nexus to an isolated iceball in the middle of nowhere.  It was a blow that Nhur and the Miao never fully recovered from.  First the customers left, then the businesses… then, during the dark days of the Occupation, Nhur's main export became people, emigrating to find more profitable lives on Urrin.  The Miao soldiered on, but exporting water was more expensive than having customers come to you—costs rose, profits shrank, and stock prices fell.

That was when their LEO Yawr made the decision that saved the company.  With the humans plundering the K'Nes economy to fuel the Federation's war machine, the supply of consumer goods plummeted—but demand held steady.  For the first time in K'Nes history, a huge black market emerged—and the Miao quickly cornered it.  An iceball in the middle of nowhere, with little strategic or economic value, was of little interest to the Federation… but perfect for smugglers.

They just needed a way to jump in and out of the system without being detected—but Yawr found a solution for that too.  The Nhur system still contained its jumpgate to the Andersvald system… but with the gate on the other side destroyed, the remaining gate in Nhur was all but worthless.  Yawr had it dismantled, and the parts rebuilt into gravity drives for the Miao's three super-freighters—concealed, of course; they were illegal for K'Nes ships under the Human Occupation.  Freed from having to use the jumpgate network (and human checkpoints) of the commercial hyperspace trade lanes, contraband flowed in and out of Nhur like water once had.  The Miao provided the K'Nes (who could pay) with smuggled scarcities and illicit luxuries.  Scat, they'd even supplied the Gurrmew and Yeomurt clans' little guerilla war against their human occupiers in the K'Laek system… back when their clans had been allies, that is.

The new business strategy worked… sort of.  It stabilized Nhur's economy, at least, but Miao Mercantile remained a shadow of its former self.  Economic growth would be more difficult.

Their long-rang corporate strategy was to rebuild the jumpgate to the Andersvald system.  Unfortunately, jumpgates were hideously expensive not just to build, but to maintain.  The power requirements alone were staggering; four hundred nuclear reactors at least.  Miao Mercantile might have enough assets to rebuild the gate on the Nhur side—but it'd be useless without the other jumpgate being rebuilt on the Andersvald side… which was, of course, in human hands.  And with the Earth Federation locked in a life-or-death struggle with the Holy Terran Empire, Heth imagined rebuilding a commercial hyperspace lane to K'Nes space was rather low on their list of priorities.

Which was why, of course, the Miao were trying to foster goodwill with the Federation, hoping to convince them to build it anyway.  It was ironic—of all K'Nes, the Miao had the best reason to hate the Federation… and yet they were the strongest supporters in the K'Nes Llan of a non-aggression contact with them.  Heth smiled.  The merging of business and politics sometimes led to strange offspring…

That was where Heth was floating, what he was thinking, when he got the call that changed his life.

Heth answered it by activating the holoproj .  "Miao Mercantile, Director Heth speaki—oh!"  Heth stared at the image of a uniformed human; he'd assumed it was a K'Nes calling.  "Er… Captain Gergenstein!  Gainful day!"

The Earth Fleet officer held up Heth's clearplaz business card.  "You said to contact you if we needed anything."

"But of course!" Heth purred, eager to accommodate such a powerful human.  "How can I help you?"

"Time is short, so I'll get right to the point: Get to New Madrid as soon as possible, Heth.  Joe wants to talk to you."

Heth kept his face neutral, but behind his tail twitched in irritation.  "Joe?  Who the scat is Joe?"

"Joe Smythe."

"Chairman Smythe?"  Heth blinked in disbelief.  "And you're sure he wants to talk to me… not our LEO?"

"You.  But not over the comm channels, no matter how secure.  Face to face."

"You do realize that I don't have the authority to speak for the Nhur Llan, let alone the K'Nes Llan, right?"

Gergenstein tried to stifle a smirk, but failed.  "I'm afraid you misunderstand, M. Miao.  This isn't about diplomacy.  Joe wants to hire you for a specific job that requires your… skills."

"Of course, M. Gergenstein.  I'll dispatch one of my best ships and crews to New Madrid right away.  I've been promoted to Director, you see… I'm afraid I don't actually do runs in person anymore."

"The Chairman wants you," Gergenstein said firmly.  "That's part of the deal."

"Really?"  Heth cocked his head in confusion.  I'm not that important, he thought.  "But… why me?"

The corner of Gergenstein's mouth twitched with impatience.  "Look, I had a hard enough time convincing Joe to use the K'Nes for this job, and he only agreed if he got to chose which cat to hire, someone who'd proven themselves… you know how military types are.  And he's pretty impressed with how many loyalist refugees you've managed to smuggle safely into Federal territory so quickly.  So he chose you."

"I see."  Heth nodded slowly, flattered and thus wary.  "And what exactly does this new job entail?"

Gergenstein shook his head.  "I'm afraid I can't tell you that.  Not over the comm channels."

Heth was liking this less and less.  "And what is the Chairman offering as compensation?"

"Sorry, I can't tell you that, either."

Heth glanced out the window at the iced-over runway, then back at the Federation Captain.  "M. Gergenstein, I'm sure you don't really expect me to abandon my job duties and run halfway across known space without knowing what I'm being hired to do, or how much I'll be paid for it.  For all I know, it might not be enough to cover my expenses… and that's simply bad business.  No, if you want me to work for the Chairman, I'll need to know significantly more before about the job before accepting it."

For a moment, the Captain stared at Heth in silence, surprised and perhaps a little offended that anyone would refuse an order from the head of the Federation.  Apparently, the thought that Heth might decline the job offer had never occurred to him.  Gergenstein seemed to turn it over in his mind for a moment, then nodded.  "Alright.  Once Joe explains the job to you, the two of you can negotiate the price.  But off the record?  Joe said that…" Gergenstein took a deep breath.  "He said you could name your price."  The Captain winced as he said it.

Now it was Heth's turn to lapse into shocked silence.  Offers like this came along once in a lifetime.  Here it was: one more job to do, and Heth could guarantee he'd have enough assets to win the auction for Miu—and that meant he'd take this job no matter what.  Still… Gergenstein didn’t need to know that. 

"Yes, I see," Heth said, concealing his excitement.  "That's a fair offer… alright, I'll head to New Madrid right away—assuming I get approval from my LEO, of course.  Is there anything else I should know about this job?"

"Yeah."  The Captain nodded.  "Come in the best smuggling ship you've got.  Preferably one of those special cargo ships you Miao have... super-freighters or whatever you call them.  The ones with gravity drives."

Heth narrowed his yellow eyes.  "I wasn't aware the Federation knew about those."

"We didn't.  Not for sure, not until now."  Gergenstein gave Heth a predator's smile.  "It was just an educated guess… but thank you for confirming it."

Heth silently cursed himself; in his excitement, he'd made a rookie's mistake and let himself be tricked into revealing too much information.  He made a mental note never to underestimate Gergenstein again.  Heth attempted a nonchalant shrug and said, "It makes little difference now.  As we're no longer subjects of the Federation, it's no longer illegal for K'Nes to possess gravity drives… luckily for you, in this case.  Now, is there anything else you can tell me before I depart for New Madrid?"

"Yes…"  The Captain hesitated, looking for the right words.  "This job could be… dangerous.  That's why it pays so well… high risk, high reward.  I understand K'Nes mercenary companies have formed since you guys broke away from the Federation?"

"It's a free market," Heth said evasively.  "I believe Varrless is trying to organize them into a Llan Army…"

"And do the Miao have any mercenary companies?"

"Perhaps…" Heth nodded cautiously.

"Good.  We'll need to hire one of those, too… just in case.  Strictly for your own protection, of course."

"Of course."  Heth gave the Captain an empty smile as a chill ran down his tail.  A million bad possibilities ran through his mind.  Is the Federation trying to drag the K'Nes into their war?  Are the K'Nes being hired for a black operation that will earn the aggression of another faction?  Heth didn't like this… but the money was just too good to turn down.  "Even with our fastest ship, it will take several days to reach New Madrid, you know."

"Understood.  Just get here as fast as you can.  This is a… time sensitive operation."

They exchanged the usual parting pleasantries and ended the call.  For a moment, Heth just floated at his desk, thinking.  There was one small problem: the Miao had no mercenary companies.  They were a small clan on a sparsely populated world.  Their labor force was stretched too thin to waste in combat.  Still… Heth thought of McNeilly, and Varrless… maybe the Miao should get involved in the arms race, too… for our own protection.  Unfortunately, Heth was a merchant.  He knew nothing about the military… but he knew someone who did...

He opened a comlink, but it went unanswered.  Heth tried again.  And again.  Finally, when it was obvious to the caller that he wasn't going to stop until he got an answer, the video pickup finally blinked on.

"What?...  Oh!  Hi, boss!" M'Rowr said.

"It's about time!" Heth snapped.  "You're on-call, M'Rowr!  Do I have to explain the exact nature of… um…"  Heth stared at M'Rowr.  His face and chest—all that Heth could see through the camera—were covered in bites and scratches, and M'Rowr was panting.  "What happened to you?  Have you been in another fight?"

"Sort of.  Don't worry, I'm fine.  Whatcha want, boss?"

"I need you to get down to my office, now.  I've got an important task for you, and a tight deadline."

He glanced at something off-camera with a pained expression.  "I'm a little busy right now… can it wait?"

"No, it really can't, it's far too important.  Do I need to remind you of the terms of your contract?"

"Look, I just need a few more—gurrk!"  A fluffy brown tail wrapped itself around M'Rowr's neck and yanked him out of the way.  A brown tabby looked at the camera—Surra, M'Rowr's mate, also scratched and bruised.

"He said he's busy, short-hair!  And so am I!"  Heth saw her paw reaching forward to disconnect the call.

"I'll give him a raise!  If he gets down here now!"

Surra narrowed her eyes and growled at Heth for a moment.  "Alright, fine!  But it better be worth it!"

She disconnected the call.  What was that about? Heth wondered… then pushed it from his mind; he had too much to do, and time was money.  First, Heth contacted Yawr, his LEO, for permission… but didn't mention mercenaries, just an increase in crew size.  The old cat approved Heth's excursion, but gave him a stern lecture about making sure to charge Smythe through the nose for… whatever it was he wanted.  The next part, getting the right vessel, was no problem—Heth's own beloved ship, the Avarice, was one of the Miao's super-freighters.  It was simply a matter of clearing its schedule—reassigning other freighters to do its shipping runs, transferring the cargo to other vessels… the usual paperwork.  He was still at it when there was a knock at his office door. 

"Get in here, M'Rowr!" Heth snapped.  "It certainly took you long enough!"  Heth looked up as M'Rowr floated through the door.  "Stars above… what have you been doing?  Are you alright?"

"Told ya, I'm fine!"  M'Rowr looked even worse than before; one eye was swollen shut, he was missing patches of fur, and his clothes were unkempt and rumpled—but he was also sporting an enormous grin.

"What… did you and Surra get into another argument again?" Heth asked.

"What?  Oh, no."  M'Rowr waved the idea away with his paw, smiling.  "Just the opposite, in fact."  When Heth just stared at him, confused, M'Rowr elaborated.  "Well… heh, heh… it is the mating season, you know…"

"Oh… oh!" Heth said as it clicked in his mind.  "Sorry, I didn't realize mating was so… uh… aggressive…"

M'Rowr's grin faded.  "What… you mean you never…"  When Heth looked away, his tail twitching uncomfortably, M'Rowr actually frowned.  "But… you merged with Miu!  Didn't you two—"

"The mating season was still months away at the time," Heth interrupted, "and she was so busy running MIRADI… I don't know, I guess I just figured I had to be… you know… patient."

"Yeah, but… what about before that?  The last mating cycle?"

Heth shrugged.  "That was just after the First Vulthra War, remember?"

M'Rowr nodded somberly.  K'Nes space, stuck between the warring humans and Vulthra, became their battleground.  Although the K'Nes had managed to successfully avoid getting dragged into that brief conflict and avoid most of its destruction, it had caused quite a bit of chaos and upheaval.

"You and Surra were in the Tor Army together," Heth continued, "but civilians like me were too busy trying to stay neutral, alive, and our assets safe to worry about negotiating reproductive mergers.  By the time the dust settled, I'd missed the mating window."

"Aw, tough luck, cuz!"  M'Rowr gave him a sympathetic pat on the back.  "Don't worry—from what I saw at the Purrfang spaceport, you'll get Miu back.  And remember, Surra's a trained fighter—I'm sure Miu won't be as rough on you!  Besides, you may be the runt, but… scat, the way you stood up to Varrless?  Ya got spirit, Heth!"

For the first time, it occurred to Heth that there was a reason being the runt of the liter was considered a drawback.  His size never seemed to matter in the office… but to survive the mating season… that was different.

"Well, speaking of Surra," Heth said, changing subject.  "Congratulations!  How many conceptions so far?"

"Oh, none," M'Rowr replied.  "Surra won't even be fertile for a few more weeks."

"But… then why…"

M'Rowr gave Heth a lecherous grin.  "Said she wanted some practice.  Can you believe that?  'It's been eleven years since the last mating cycle,' she says, 'and I've gotten rusty!'  I tell ya, Heth, I wasn't about to argue!"

Heth suppressed a surge of envy.  "Yes… I can see why you merge with Surra every time.  What is this, your third merger in a row?"

"Fourth.  And we already got three liters!  I swear, those cubs are gonna bankrupt me!"  M'Rowr deflated, settling onto a guest perch across from Heth's desk.  "Speaking of which… you said something about a raise?"

"Indeed.  I supposed congratulations are in order."

"Congratulations, Heth!" M'Rowr said.  "What, you get promoted again, you lucky rat?"

"No," Heth said, "you did.  I'm promoting you to a Project Manager in the Miao Mercantile Security Division.  And, as I'm sure you know, that includes a substantial salary increase."

"Wow!  Thanks, cousin!"  M'Rowr suddenly froze.  "Wait a minute… what project?  What are you up to, Heth?"

"Your first job responsibility will be to organize a Miao mercenary company, complete with weapons and armor.  Recruit only Miao personnel—we need people we can trust.  Keep this to yourself, and organize it with the utmost discretion, M'Rowr… I want to keep this in the family."

"Uh… alright, sure."  M'Rowr nodded, a little puzzled.  "How many hunters you need?"

"As many as you can recruit in one day.  That's when our ship departs."

M'Rowr's eyes bulged and he raised his head, ears straight up.  "One day?"

Heth cocked his head.  "Should I give the promotion to someone else who can handle it?"

"No!" M'Rowr said quickly.  "No, I just… one day… Sky Father above… and you want power armor?"

"If anyone can acquire old K'Nes Tor power armor in a day, the Miao can.  Black market goods are our specialty.  If anyone in the company gives you any trouble about acquiring it, refer them to me.  Oh, and I also need you to find someone to command this mercenary company—the best you can find, given the deadline.  Don't let money be an obstacle.  No offense, M'Rowr, but you were never more than a cloud supervisor.  I assume you have some old Tor Army contacts?"

"Yeah… I do…" M'Rowr said slowly, thinking.  "Don't know if any of them are looking for work, though…"

"Then find someone who is," Heth ordered as he stood up.  "This is your chance to prove that business runs in your blood, M'Rowr.  You're a Miao, after all.  You've got one day—now go make it a gainful one."

"Yes sire!" M'Rowr said, jumping to his paws.  "I'll get right on it.  Already got someone in mind…"  M'Rowr inflated and sped out the office door with a blast of oxygen.  "Stars above!  Wait'll Surra hears about this!"


It was almost a day later, and the Avarice was almost ready to sail.  Although he hadn't seen M'Rowr, Heth knew his cousin had been busy; Heth had been approving personnel transfers all day, and was constantly fielding calls and arguing with Miao gun runners on M'Rowr's behalf.  Incredibly, the last-minute mercenary company was beginning to come together.  Of course, no other creatures in the galaxy could mobilize a bureaucracy quite like the K'Nes could.  Still, Heth worried about the quality of this particular product.  He could only hope M'Rowr was recruiting veterans; there wouldn't be much time for training during the voyage.  And… well, K'Nes has never been all that good at warfare. 

Heth didn't even know who was commanding the mercenary company yet—although M'Rowr claimed to have found a good candidate.  Heth trusted M'Rowr's judgment in military matters, but… well, Heth still wanted to interview the applicant himself.  Choosing the right executive officer was crucial for the success of any company.

Right on time, the pair of cats floated into his office.  "Finally!" Heth sighed in exasperation.

"Sorry, boss.  Narrah just arrived from Urrin.  He came as soon as he could, but it's still a day's voyage."

Heth turned to look at the newcomer… and his face fell.  The K'Nes was small and old… sixty-six years if he was a day.  His yellow fur was graying, his face was scarred, and his left leg and tail were clearly cybernetic—synthetic fur had never been able to convincingly imitate the real thing.  His clothes were old, faded, and threadbare.  This cat didn’t look like he could command a dead fish to stink, yet alone a mercenary company.

M'Rowr began the introductions as the pair deflated and landed on their paws.  "This is Director Miao K'Rrowr K'Heth, our boss," he said to the job candidate.  Heth stepped forward and extended his tail to the stranger.

"Gainful day, sire," the grizzled old K'Nes looped his bionic tail around Heth's.  It felt… wrong.

"Heth," M'Rowr continued, "this is Rror K'Gurr K'Narrah.  He was the Praetor of my ujon in the Tor Army."

Heth froze.  He dropped the fake tail.  "Rror?" he asked M'Rowr.  "He's not a Miao?"

"Well, no, but—"

Heth narrowed his eyes and turned to Narrah.  "What planet are you from, then?"

"Urrin, sire," the old cat answered, "but I was born and raised in K'Laek before I sold myself to the Tor Army."

"I see… one moment, please."  Heth grabbed M'Rowr, pulled him aside, and dropped his voice to a whisper.  "K'Laek is Gurrmew & Yeomurt territory—the Miao's enemies in the K'Nes Llan!"  Heth hissed in M'Rowr's ear, whiskers twitching angrily.  "I told you to keep this in the family, M'Rowr!  We need someone we can trust!"

"Heth, I'd trust Narrah with my life—I have!" M'Rowr hissed back.  "Look, Heth, you said you wanted someone good—and Narrah's the best!"  M'Rowr leaned closer and dropped his voice even lower.  "And he's not cheap, either…"

"Oh, he's expensive, is he?" Heth asked, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

M'Rowr shrugged.  "Hey, quality costs."

"Well, that settles it, then!"  Heth turned and spoke to Narrah.  "Thank you for your time, but I'm afraid you don't fit the job requirements.  Gainful day!"  He turned back to M'Rowr and hissed under his breath, "Get him out of here.  Find someone else."

"We haven't got time for that, Heth!" M'Rowr pleaded.  "Come on, you haven't even seen his resume yet!"

"I don't need to!" Heth spat.  "He's not a Miao!  Besides, just look at those clothes!  He clearly hasn't led a very profitable life!"

"There weren't a lot of job opportunities for hunters after the Tor Army was disbanded," the old K'Nes spoke up in a deep, raspy voice.

Heth spun around, surprised and embarrassed that he'd been overheard.  Narrah may be old, but apparently his hearing was still superb.

"Under the Human Occupation," Narrah continued, "no employer wanted to risk hiring a K'Nes whose only skill was killing humans."  The old K'Nes looked down, uncomfortable and perhaps a little ashamed.  "I've been working as a security guard at Horrath Industries for the last eight years.  It was all I could get… until I got M'Rowr's call yesterday, that is.  Then I quit and came straight here."

"You hear that, Heth?" M'Rowr asked.  "He quit his job for you!  You can at least give him a job interview!"

Heth sighed.  "Oh, very well!"  He pulled out his datapad and glanced at the chronometer.  "Alright, Narrah, I'll give you exactly thirty seconds to convince me to hire someone outside our own clan.  Let's hear your sales pitch."

"Well, I was a Praetor in the K'Nes Tor Army, and commanded—"

"There were many Praetors in the Tor Army," Heth interrupted, "many with no greater qualifications than being wealthy enough to afford their commissions.  You'll have to do better if you want this job.  Twenty seconds."

The old hunter switched tactics.  "I commanded all the ujons in the Second Battle of Midgar during the K'Nes War of Expansion—that was the human's Third Civil War.  Second Midgar was a K'Nes victory."

"Yes, but a victory everyone tries to claim credit for," Heth said, unimpressed.  "Try again.  Ten seconds."

Narrah hesitated, unsure.  Then he narrowed his eyes.  "You ever hear of Alistar Dimiye?"

"No.  Should I have?"

"Look him up."

Heth sighed.  "Alright, but I'm not sure this is most efficient use of your remaining time."  Heth's claws clicked over his datapad.  "Dimiye, Alistar.  Human.  Tech Infantry.  Third Civil War.  Rose from sergeant to brigadier-general in... six months?"  Heth's eyes widened as he read.  "Defeated the Eastern Bloc… hero of the Federation… decorated for valor… ship named after him…"  Heth looked up at Narrah.  "I fail to see what relevance this ha—"

"I'm the only one that ever defeated him," Narrah said.  "And captured him.  And tortured him.  Look it up."

The room was silent as Heth pulled up the records.  He froze.  Heth looked up at Narrah.  "You're hired."

"Well now, I didn’t say I'd take the job yet, did I?"  Narrah bared his fangs in a grin.  "My price is pensions, life insurance, and full medical coverage for myself and my hunters."

"Agreed."  Heth modified the contract and held the datapad out to Narrah.  "Welcome to the company."




A few moments after Mordred disappeared, the streetlight stopped flickering.  Cortona and Bishop were left alone in an empty alley, staring at each other.  Cortona turned and began walking toward the street.  Bishop noticed she favored her left leg—she was clearly in pain.

"You alright?" asked Bishop.

"I'm fine," she sighed, "but that fight took a lot out of me.  I need to feed."

"I know."  William nodded.  "I'm no spring chicken either."

"No, you don't look Drakat…"

Bishop rolled his eyes.  "I mean I'm exhausted, too.  You need to feed, I need to meditate.  It's too dangerous to do them alone."

Melissa cocked her head as she stared at him, sizing him up.  "Every instinct I have says to leave you… but He said…"

William shrugged.  "Look, I know it won't be easy for us to work together, but… well, I just started, and you're running out of options, if I understood Mordred correctly.  Right?"  Cortona nodded.  "Then you've got to start trusting me."

"Only a shovelhead would trust the Sabbat," Melissa scoffed.

"Then trust my ambition," Bishop shot back, then looked around, getting his bearings.  "How familiar are you with this district?"

She shrugged.  "I know the streets fairly well.  Why?"

"It's been a while, but I'd bet things haven't changed much since I lived here."

"That's why we like Wilke's Star."  Cortona smiled.  "For those who are immortal, change is depressing."

"Whatever."  Bishop shook his head.  "If I'm right, there's a small tanning factory not far from here, with a bunch of residential neighborhoods within walking distance—anyone working there can't afford a vehicle, and public transportation in this city sucks."

Melissa raised an eyebrow.  "Weaker prey?"

"After the fight we just had, I don't think either of us are any shape to take on a gang lord," Bishop replied.

"Agreed."  She nodded.  "But the streets are dangerous.  I'll take the form of a bat, fly ahead, and warn you of potential ambushes."

"Unnecessary."  William shook his head.  "I can also turn into a bat.  We'll fly there together."

"Impressive…"  Cortona smiled, then closed her eyes, and within moments her body contorted, decreased in size, and transformed into a large bat.

Bishop followed suit, closing his eyes, and feeling the strength of the spirits within his body—his connection to the Spirit of the Shapeshifter was as strong as ever.  I grew up on this world, and where there are vampires, there are bats—even wild bats...  With that image in his mind, he tapped his rage, shifted into Lupus form… and transformed into a bat.

Together, they flapped up above the street lamps, out of the alley, and into the street.  About a half-mile beyond, there was noticeably more night life.  Apparently, even a major turf war was not enough to deter people from their nightly pursuits.  Eventually they reached the tanner factory; the neighborhoods surrounding it were much quieter.  For Calaunt, it was an upper middle class neighborhood; anywhere else, it would have ranked right above ghetto.  These were homes for working families—and, considering the dangers of doing business on Wilke's Star, there were precious few employers.

Cortona followed Bishop's lead.  He led her down a street of brick apartments with the occasional wooden house.  William landed and hung upside-down on a high tree branch near a two story house with deep blue metal paneling, Melissa hanging beside him.  Through a half-open window, he could see a light turned on behind thin, closed blinds.  Bishop tapped his spirit energy and concentrated on expanding his senses of hearing and smell.  From inside the house, he overheard a heated argument between a couple, as well as the sobbing of a child.

Bishop and Cortona hung there for over an hour, listening, waiting until the man closed the window well after midnight.  They waited an additional hour until William could hear the couple snoring, even through the closed window.  He glanced at Melissa.  As one, they flew to the far, poorly lit side behind the house and landed in a tiny backyard with small square patch of grass and a vegetable garden along the perimeter.  In the shadow of a single hovercar garage facing a back alley, they both shifted back to their natural forms.

Whispering, Cortona asked, "Are you crazy?"


"A house like this?  Here?  It's probably got alarms and quick-response security, not to mention that everyone in the neighborhood will hear their screams.  We can't afford to draw attention to ourselves right now."

"I agree."  William winked.  "But I can disable the alarms and keep their cries silent.  We won't be able to hear each other either, though, so stay close."

Cortona looked simultaneously impressed and skeptical, but she nodded.  "Lead the way."

Bishop led her up onto a small wooden porch extending from the back of the house, then peered through a glass pane in the door.  He quickly spotted an illuminated security alarm pad along the wall.  A second, more thorough inspection revealed the red blinking light of a motion detector.

Thinking back to what Jason Regis had taught him on Ashdown, Bishop felt for a connection to the Spirit of the Gremlin, then tapped his rage and shot a glare of hatred at the security systems.  He envisioned hungry gremlins ripping and chewing on the metal circuits and wires in the security pad and the motion detector.  He could almost see them… and within the a few brief moments, the red light of the motion detector switched off and the illuminated security pad turn dark.

The back door looked fairly solid.  He'd have to break it down—quietly.  William closed his eyes, concentrating on forming an imaginary spirit goblet in his hand, then visualizing all the sounds around them being sucked down into its depths.  Once the absolute silence settled over them, Bishop stepped back a few feet, shifted into his Crinos form, and slammed his full weight into the door.  After smashing into it twice more, it crashed inwards… but gave off no sound.

William returned to his human form as he and Cortona stepped into the house.  They passed through the living area (with a surprisingly large holoprojector in one corner) and towards the stairwell.  Melissa suddenly grabbed Bishops' wrist, halting him.  He watched her close her eyes for a brief moment, and when she reopened them, the shadows in the room seemed to contort and darken—drastically.  Suddenly William couldn't make out any distinctive lines of Melissa's figure, only a slight shadowy impression of her body.  She led Bishop silently up the staircase to the master bedroom, slowly opened the door, and beckoned him inside.

A man and a woman lay fast asleep in bed.  Cortona let go of Bishop's wrist and moved to the husband's side of the bed while Bishop positioned himself on the wife's side.  When William glanced up at Cortona, all he saw was a slightly deformed shadow, a distortion of her face with noticeable fangs.  Bishop felt the bed vibrate slightly as the husband trembled and shuddered.  It awoke his wife lying next to him, but William instantly grabbed her and held her down.  She screamed at the top of her lungs—but made no sound.  After several minutes, the husband stopped twitching, and seconds later Bishop could feel Melissa's body next his.  He could almost make out her dark form as she leaned over the wife and began draining her blood as well.  A few minutes later, Bishop felt a hand on his wrist and a small tug towards the door.

Cortona dropped her shadow form for some reason, and Bishop was able to see her in the darkness again.  She led him out and down the hallway towards the child's bedroom.  As the vampire opened the door, they saw a young boy lying in his bed—awake, his eyes wide open in terror.  William nodded to Melissa.  She walked over to the child with a friendly smile and gently grasped the little boy's arms.  When he didn't seem to resist, he leaned over, bit his throat, and began drinking his blood.  After a few minutes, she pulled her mouth away from the child's neck, streaks of blood running down her throat, flashed Bishop a pleased smile, and laid the little boy's body back down on the bed.

They silently left the child's room and searched the entire house for anyone else who might have been there.  Once satisfied they were alone, the pair retrieved the dead bodies and unceremoniously threw them in a pile on the floor of the basement.  William looked at Melissa, she nodded, and Bishop finally released the imaginary spirit goblet, ending the absolute silence.  They made their way to the kitchen, where Cortona went to the sink to wash the long streaks of blood off her cheeks, chin, and neck.

"Better?" asked Bishop.

"Much better, thank you," answered Cortona.  "You need to feed too."

He shrugged.  "I can wait."

Melissa shook her head.  "No need.  We're safe for now.  Let's see if I can make you a sandwich… or something."  Without objection, she looked through the cupboards while Bishop opened the refrigerator looking for meat.  Luckily the family had apparently just gone grocery shopping, and the kitchen had plenty of food.  William grabbed a beer while Melissa made a sandwich.  She sat down across from him at the kitchen table and watched him eat.  If Bishop was disturbed by that, he didn't show it.

After waiting patiently until he was finished, the vampire said, "I prefer to work alone."

"So do I.  The only one you can really count on is yourself."

"Then why are we here… together?"

Bishop looked up at her.  "You're a tough fighter.  Even Mordred doesn't fight alone, that's why he has the Sabbat.  I'd sure like to have you on my side in a battle."

Melissa nodded.  "I feel the same way.  Mordred's right, if we don't work together, our days are numbered."  She leaned back in the chair.  "Sure, I'll admit, I've risen quickly in the Sabbat.  It only took me three decades, but there are some members that have been in the organization for centuries—and would love to taste my blood."

"The strong survive."

"Agreed.  But on top of our usual scheming, the Sabbat is about to enter a war of expansion.  Wars often favor the lucky, so even among the strong there'll be casualties.  Who will notice if I happen to be among them?"

"True." Bishop nodded.  "But I don't see how that's my problem."

She shrugged.  "It isn't.  But you'll soon start to realize another problem.  You're Santino's Templar.  It's a great honor, but the Priscus has few loyal followers.  That's because when he sees a problem, he eliminates it.  When you go on assassination missions, they'll be simple at first, but over time…"  Melissa let the words dangle there.

"They'll be more difficult?" William finished.

"Santino gets no loyalty because he gives no loyalty.  He only wants to be feared.  He'll push you harder and harder to further his goals, seeing how far his new pet will go.  Ultimately, you'll be given a suicide mission, one you know has no hope of success.  When that day comes… will you have the respect and authority among the Sabbat to say no?"

Bishop put down his beer.  "I hadn't considered that."

"Nobody is truly secure in the Sabbat; that's by design.  I was pissed that Santino appointed you as his personal Templar, so I fought you to take your place."

"And now?"

"Now I respect his choice.  But like me, there are many in the Sabbat who'd kill you to prove to Santino that they're more deserving of the position."

"If it's such a suicidal role, why would they want it?"

"The prestige.  The power.  When a vampire takes the role, it becomes a stepping stone to becoming a bishop themselves and getting their own Templars.  You don't have that option.  Unless you become Magnus' or… God forbid, Mordred's templar, this is as high as you can go."

"It's good to start at the top for a change," Bishop chuckled.  "So I need you and you need me?  Is that it?"

"Exactly.  It's in neither of our interests to betray the other.  You help me rise in rank, I help you increase your prestige.  Between that and your alliance with me, you'll be able to make your own choices.  You'll gain the true respect a great warrior like yourself deserves."

"What's the alternative?"

"The Sabbat may not be loyal, but we do expect to be obeyed.  I'm sure you'll enjoy being ordered around by Calihye—or David, or Irene, or any other of Santino's clique—until the day you die."  She paused, then said, "You asked me to trust your ambition.  Will you trust mine?"

Bishop thought about it for a few moments, wishing he had another beer, but finally decided.  "It's a deal.  But there's one condition."


"If we're going to be allies, I need to know all about the Sabbat—our potential allies and our foes."

"Done.  Shall we start now?"

Bishop shook his head.  "Tomorrow.  I need to rest now.  Then I need to meditate, commune with spirits to restore my strength."

"And our hunt for the gang lords?" Cortona asked.

"Just twenty-four hours," William answered.  "Give me a full day, and we'll be able to sweep them all."

Cortona nodded.  "I'll keep watch while you sleep."

Bishop sighed, turned around, and left the room.  He went upstairs to the master bedroom, lay down on the large bed where they'd just killed the owners of the house, and fell asleep.




As "Corporal" Liu led the two Yasuyama men through several portals back to New Shinjuku, Yasuyama Hikari's accusation was still ringing in Taka's ears: What made you think that openly siding with the Cult would be worthwhile?  ...did you just get carried along with the energy of the crowd and think it would all work out somehow?  Taka had come up short on every opportunity to prove himself in combat, and the one thing he'd been so proud of now turned out to be a mistake in his great-grandmother's eyes.

"Here's where we part for now."  Akira gestured for Taka to go through the next portal.  "I'll be meeting up with you soon, though.  For now, Liu and I are supposed to go help with seizing some planetary defense battery.  Those two old ladies are keeping me busy.  Think you can find your way to corporate headquarters from your neighborhood without our help?"

"Sure."  Despite all those years of kendo and martial arts, Taka reflected, I'm no soldier like Uncle Akira.  I can read five moves ahead in chess and twenty moves ahead in Go but can't even read a few steps ahead in real life, unlike my grandmothers.  Now I'm going back to Father... I can develop light armor, but I can't destroy solar systems.  Taka couldn't help but let out a deep sigh as he walked through the portal.  Nothing is ever enough.

Taka found himself on the streets of New Shinjuku not far from his apartment.  He could hear plasma bolts in the distance and a military flitter flew above him.  There's no red paint on it, the young mage realized instantly.  That's not one of ours.  The Ministry is back.  Yasuyama immediately activated his comm, calling his father on his private link; nothing but static.  He tried Ji-yoon next, followed by Shinsuke; same result.  Of course, Takamitsu mentally slapped himself on the head, the Light Infantry's jamming comm signals.

Not trusting his skills in driving his aerodyne through a war zone, he proceeded to run.  With a little mental effort, he decided not to break the laws of nature, just bend them a little.  The air parted for him, allowing him to pick up speed.  Another spell gave his inertia a little push, giving Taka the feel like he was running on a trampoline.  If anybody noticed him, they didn't notice him for long.  The mage thrilled in being a blur in everyone's sight.

Then the building in front of him exploded.  The kinetic shock wave was enough to throw off his balance and fly him the opposite direction.  Thankfully his spells were still active, so instead of slamming into the cremecrete-paved street, he simply bounced, and found himself back on his feet in no time.

Shoving the obvious question—Where the sheba did that come from?!—to the back of his head, he focused on the more pertinent How do I avoid the power-armored platoon coming towards me?  Back on the bounce, he charged down a nearby alleyway and avoided a grenade that dropped where he had been a few seconds ago.  Red-painted guys ran past him towards the danger, holding new plasma revolvers in their hands, and old athletic equipment with mirrors taped to them as improvised armor.

A few more minutes passed by before Taka, his body and magick exhausted, reached the Anshin Heavy Industries headquarters.  Men and women in suits were quickly moving guns, equipment, and even emergency rations into nearby hovertrucks, and taking off as soon as they were full.  Many of his father's employees were jumping into the trucks as well, but there were plenty who stayed behind to continue the evacuation.

Takamitsu walked in unopposed.  Trying the intercomm, the landline quickly reached his father's location.  "Moshi moshi," Akihiro replied.

"Tousan, what's happening?"

"What are you doing here?  I thought you were off at Fort…"

"Something came up," the young manager dodged the question, "where are you?"

"Sub-basement five.  Come quickly, we don't have a lot of time here."

The younger Yasuyama quickly took the lift down to the supply storage of the corporate headquarters.  There he found the normally packed rooms virtually empty.  Several employees were packing away the last of the supplies into a tiny maglev train.  One of them was actually wearing old Eastern Bloc heavy power armor.  The suit turned toward him with the visor up, revealing Akihiro's face.  "Tousan…?"  Taka had never seen his father in power armor before.

"We're leaving," his father stated bluntly.

"Where are we going?"

"The farm."

Takamitsu was confused.  "The farm?  Our vacation home?  But… it's just rice paddies!"

The elder cracked a smile; the first his son had seen in a long while.  "I'm afraid I've deceived you, Taka.  The rice paddies provide thermal cover for Tokyo Three."

"Tokyo Three?"  The young mage knew he had heard that name before.  "Our data backup?"

"Oh, it's far more than that," Akihiro stopped as Kobayashi Yosuke caught his attention.  The werefox waved him towards the train, indicating that the preparations were complete.  When Taka's father turned back, he held him around the shoulder and nudged him in the same direction.  "Let's take a ride."

"What is this?"

"A bolthole," his father explained.  "After the War, I never wanted us to get caught off guard again, so I made an escape route in case of… God knows what."

"And this train takes us to the farm?"

"No, just to the subway system.  From there we can reach the docks, where a boat is waiting to take our supplies to the farm."

"What's there… exactly?"

"As much weapons and power armor as I could gather without attracting Clarke's attention.  Most of it is surplus, but I had to gather it slowly through proxies in order to avoid detection.  The Raptors were very good at their jobs.  Tokyo Three is where we can rearm our…" he wanted to spit in disgust, "allies."

"Why not make a stand here?"

"Because the Ministry… well, I guess it's the Federation now… has decided to start bombarding from the orbitals.  It is only a matter of time before they traced the weapons and supplies that the Cult is using back to us, especially since they keep coming back to our headquarters.  We need to leave now.  I have shielded this building pretty well against targeting, but they won't even need a direct hit once they decide to take it out."

Taka and the last of them shuffled onto the packed maglev train and it immediately took off.  It whooshed down the track and he could feel the shift as they transferred onto the subway line.  Thankfully they shut the subway service down for wartime, which meant the lines were free for their escape.  There was a bright flash behind him, and the young mage knew he had lost his office forever.  "Did everyone make it out safe?" he whispered to his father.

"Saa..." Akihiro shrugged his shoulders.  He could tell his son wouldn't be satisfied with that answer.  "Ji-yoon and Wen should be at the docks.  Shinsuke and his men—minus Yosuke here, of course—are off helping the Cult in urban areas where the Ministry is less likely to conduct kinetic interdiction strikes."

Taka breathed a slight sigh of relief.

"Now, what happened with your mission?" his father asked.




The pod insertion launchers on the EFS Sigourney Ridge spat over a hundred pods per salvo down onto the planet below, corkscrewing around on its long axis to fire alternate salvoes from the launching banks on the outer surface of each hull.  Every thirty seconds, another salvo went out, another three platoons of troopers fired like bullets from a gun towards the planet below.  Almost half of the pods were unoccupied, crammed with decoy jammers and penetration aids rather than power-armored soldiers.  Almost half of the soldiers in the occupied pods were veterans of Kalintos, and many of those were also veterans of up to a dozen previous combat drops.  They had dropped onto worlds occupied by the Bugs, or the Jurvain, K'Nes Tor, Vin Shriak, Vulthra, or the all-too-human rebels of a dozen different factions.

Argus McCall had invaded worlds before, but usually he'd ridden down in a shuttle, or stepped through a transit portal.  The Light Infantry didn't do first-wave assaults; they were mostly support troops.  This was only his second pod drop against a defended target.  Kalintos had been scary, but in the end, it had been easy.

But this was not Kalintos.

Kalintos had been bombarded by the Imperial Navy during their invasion, and again by Earth Fleet prior to landing the relief force.  And Argus hadn't really been in the first wave that time, thanks to the delay of capturing the INS Alastar Dimiye.  Other forces had been on the ground for hours before Argus even made it back into his pod.  Most of the planetary defenses had been smashed by one side or the other, and very few were left to shoot at him as he plummeted towards the base of the Loud Water falls.

But this was not Kalintos.

This was St. Michael's Star.  Almost as close to the frontier of human space, and far more heavily populated, St. Michael's Star was heavily fortified.  Most of the space-based defense platforms had been cleared away by the escorting warships before the transports reached the middle orbitals over St. Michael's Star, but many of them had been purposefully left inactivated and difficult to detect during the defense—the better to tear apart an invasion fleet once it reached orbit.  Many of the ground-based laser and missile installations had been hit with mass drivers or grav lasers.  But many had not.  Many of the starfighters stationed on the planet or at its orbital battlestations had been destroyed in the fighting already.  But many had not.  Many things were going exactly to plan in this invasion, but many were not.  Many of the troops in the drop pods would reach the surface... but many would not.

Clarke's conquest and occupation of the Jurvain and K'Nes homeworlds had added new tricks to the human arsenal, and there were even a few Hellbore batteries down below, belching hellish bolts of searing-hot plasma from their maws, quite literally with the force of a nuclear explosion.  Missiles arcing up from the ground could be intercepted by point-defense lasers in some of the decoy pods, and beam weaponry could be attenuated by clouds of "dust," tiny clear plastic beads scattered like buckshot ahead of the pods to act like tiny lenses, scattering and weakening the beams of lasers that passed through the clouds.  But a plasma bolt from a Hellbore Cannon blew right through missiles, dust, pods, and decoys alike.  They were even capable of targeting orbiting starships from the ground, although starships usually mounted particle shielding that offered at least some protection from the charged plasma of a Hellbore bolt.  Drop pods were too small for such systems, and sometimes half a dozen would be vaporized by one lucky Hellbore shot.

Argus McCall and the rest of Soti's Slammers fell towards the ground at fifty thousand kilometers an hour, their pods jinking and corkscrewing in complex patterns to try and fool the targeting computers and lidar trackers guiding missiles and beams towards them.  Inside Argus' pod, he could see a tracking display of the other pods in his platoon as they fell in an increasingly ragged formation.  One pod vanished from his display, and then another.  Argus cursed as he realized that Ryan Sandburg from his own squad was one of the pods that was no longer transmitting a recognition signal.  He turned his attention back to the ground display map as the countdown timer ticked closer to one of its milestones, the separation of the inner pod into pieces and the ejection of his power armor out into the bare atmosphere.

Suddenly he felt the wind being knocked out of him, despite his acceleration harness and inertial dampers.  The outer edge of a Hellbore bolt had grazed his pod, frying electronics hardened against atmospheric re-entry temperatures that would vaporize most materials.  The pod itself was knocked sideways like a baseball being knocked out of the park for a home run.  Argus passed out for a few seconds, but his suit pumped adrenaline and amphetamines into his bloodstream to revive him.

Great, his suit was working, but he was still in the pod several seconds after it should have ejected him, and he was still falling out of the sky.  Only now he was falling blind, as the external sensors of the pod were as fried as the ejection systems.  The pod's retrorockets and ribbon chutes had already been deployed, so even if they were working there was no fuel or parachutes left to work anyway.

Oh tanj, Argus thought.  They trained us for this situation, but dear God in Heaven, I apologize for laughing at what they told us to do.  Argus was out of time, and he yanked his arm out of his acceleration harness and grabbed a plasma grenade from the belt of his suit.  Setting it to one second delay, he released it inside his own pod and prayed as fast as he knew how.

For the second time in less than a minute, Argus knew what it must feel like to be a hockey puck in a slap-shot contest.  The plasma grenade going off in the enclosed space shattered the inner pod and tore Argus and his suit out of his acceleration harness, and when he was shocked back into consciousness by another dose of drugs and a jolt of electricity for good measure, he was tumbling end over end at less than ten thousand meters above the croissant-shaped Harmony Peninsula.  He tried to trigger the auto-stabilization feature on his suit jets, but nothing happened.  He fought the controls and managed to stabilize himself face-down, but his suit's built-in parachute didn't respond either, and the plasma grenade had fried too many of his nanobots to extend his armor into winglets for even a little bit of a glide.  A beautiful white-sand beach was coming at him like a flyswatter.




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, even if you DO have a plasma grenade.