"The Torah given to Moses was written with black fire upon white fire, sealed with fire, and swathed with bands of fire.  While writing it, Moses wiped off the reed on his hair—thus he received the radiance that was to emanate from his countenance."


-- R. Simeon ben Lakish, Jerusalem Talmud, Shel. 6:1, 49d


"The intellect in the mind of the teacher is clear and brilliant like 'white fire.'  In order to convey a single concept to the student, the teacher must break down the concept into many words.  This articulation darkens… the original light of the concept.  In the eyes of the teacher, this condensation is like 'black fire'."


-- Shneur Zalman Baruchovitch of Liadi aka "the Alter Rebbe"

Private First Class Josie Davis fell screaming through the atmosphere of St. Michael's Star in the inner shell of her drop pod, wreathed in the incandescent plasma of her re-entry like an avenging Valkyrie out of legend.  Missiles, laser beams, and Hellbore bolts flashed past on all sides, the pod fishtailing back and forth as it fell, tossing out flares and chaff and expendable decoys to mask its path.  As she passed the twenty-five kilometer mark, she ordered the pod to activate its active sensors for a quick scan of the airspace between her and the landing zone.  Immediately after emitting, she triggered the fragmentation of the pod's inner shell into several pieces and began falling in just her power armor, calling up the scan results on her helmet display as she fell.  Almost immediately after jettison, the front chunk of the pod shell holding the phased array radar was vaporized by a heavy chemlaser beam which had tracked the signal.

Close one, Davis thought, then checked for the transponder signals of her fellow squadmates.  Dunston and McCall were on course and still transmitting, but… where was Sandburg?  She frantically ordered a backtrace and saw that his signal had vanished from the plot several seconds earlier.  Dammit, not Ryan!

She frantically tried to trace what had happened to him, but was unable to pick out his pod from the hundreds of decoys and chunks of falling debris plunging downward among the still-functional pods of her platoon.  Annoyed at the clutter, she cleared the signals of active pods from her helmet display, looking for the slim hope of a damaged pod falling on a purely ballistic trajectory.  If Corporal Sandburg's pod had indeed taken a hit, it was probably vaporized… but there was always the slim chance of a glancing blow knocking out the transponder but not quite killing the supernaturally tough werewolf inside it.

While she fell, she extended her arms behind her and the nanobots of her suit extended out to form winglets to let her glide in a controlled descent rather than plunging like a meteor.  As she gently pulled out of her parabolic arc and into an extended glide path, she frantically scanned the plunging debris.  She extended out her magical senses as well, searching for the soul-glow of a living person.

There.  A falling chunk of metal, with faint power and life sign readings, showing up clearly on infra-red from the heat of is passage through the increasingly thick atmosphere, but also clearly not on any sort of controlled descent.  No IFF signal, no transponder, but something was alive in that hunk of technology.  She turned towards its vector in order to close the distance, and reached out with her mind.  She used every ounce of her Forces Mage training, straining to apply a vector change to the falling suit of power armor, slowing its uncontrolled fall and directing it away from the Harmony Peninsula beach and towards the shallow waters of Tranquility Bay.  She strained with the effort of slowing its fall, but as she got closer, she tried to also feel for the suit's thruster systems to fix them.

She was so concentrated on her task that she strayed too close to the path of an interceptor missile.  The proximity blast knocked her sideways... and then a second blast knocked her in the opposite direction even harder.  Paradox Backlash!  She hadn't felt one this strong in years; she'd really overstepped her abilities with this one.  Josie struggled to regain control and suddenly realized just how low her altitude had gotten.  Extremely reluctantly she triggered her drogue chute and was jarred harshly inside her suit as the canopy flapped open and the sudden increase in drag jerked her almost to a halt.  A second later, she cut the chute and resumed plunging towards the waters below, hitting her suit jets at the last moment to drastically slow her descent once more and also firing a burst from her light tri-barrel to break up the surface tension of the water before she plunged into it.

As she came to rest on the seabed of the bay, she tried to regain contact with the damaged power suit she'd been trying to save earlier.  Her suit computer obligingly zeroed in on its predicted impact point in shallow water near the beach, so she swam over as quickly as her heavy suit would allow.  As she approached, her sensors spotted the immobile suit resting on the seabed, its occupant clearly unconscious.  No wonder—hitting the water at that speed without breaking up the surface tension first was like hitting a parking lot.  In the murky waters full of mud kicked up from the seabed by debris and troopers falling out of the sky, she couldn't quite see who it was, but she picked up the body and carried it as she walked along the seabed up the slope of the beach.

As she reached shallow water, she ordered the nanobots of her suit to extend a probe above the surface of the water and look around.  Other troopers from the invasion force were already on the beach, moving inland; it seemed safe to come out of the water.  She jogged up the beach and dropped the unconscious body onto the sand.  She cracked open the helmet without even checking the ID number or nameplate on the breast of the suit.  Please be alive, please be alive... Ryan you stupid dog, I'm gonna kill you if you die on me...

Argus McCall coughed as he regained consciousness.  "That really, really should not have worked," he managed to croak out.

Oh tanj.  "Dammit, I thought you were Ryan!"  Josie dropped her squad leader's helmet and looked around frantically.  Ryan may still be alive somewhere...

"Corporal Sandburg?  He's vapor," McCall answered weakly.  "Took a Hellbore bolt square on.  Saw it myself."  He coughed twice more and struggled to regain his feet.  "I'm sorry."

Josie began to mouth an angry protest, but closed her mouth and set her jaw in a determined expression instead.  "Tanjdammit.  Okay, we've got work to do."

She didn't wait for McCall as she strode off to the line of condos and beachfront hotels visible a few miles away along the coast highway.  The dull sound of muffled explosions in the distance told her where the fighting was.  McCall staggered to his feet and headed off to join her.



Sinclair Road had seen better days.  Far better days.  What had been a street lined with swanky high-rise condos backing onto a private beach on Tranquility Bay was now lined with their shattered skeletons, backed onto the shell-pocked beach littered with the debris of urban combat.  Wrecked hovercars and flitters, empty suits of bloodstained power armor, and discarded weapons alternated with bits of furniture and bags of clothing abandoned by fleeing civilians.  Someone decided almost too late that Grandma's sofa really wasn't worth the effort to save.

Argus McCall crouched below the basement windows in the truncated stump of what had once been a condo complex called the Granville Towers.  People expect snipers to hide on the top floors of buildings in a situation like this, he thought to himself.  Thanks to my remotes, I don't need to live up to those expectations in person.  Said remotes were stationed on balconies and rooftops of three different condo or hotel towers somehow still standing nearby, giving him a panoramic view of anyone and anything trying to move on this side of the Harmony Peninsula.  He'd already taken out half a dozen enemy Imperial Guardsmen trying to scout out Tech Infantry positions in the three hours since he'd been dragged up onto the beach by PFC Davis.  For her part, she was crouched nearby, protecting him in case someone managed to sneak close enough to try and take out the sniper.  His other surviving subordinate, Private Dunston, was positioned on a balcony halfway up one of the towers as a backup spotter in case the Imps showed any signs of being able to jam or intercept the control signals for McCall's remotes.  The rest of Soti's Slammers were scattered all along the peninsula, consolidating their hold on the area while they awaited either reinforcements or a counterattack.

One of McCall's remotes reported movement, and he focused his attention on that video feed.  Yep, another squad of Guardsmen in light power armor were trying to sneak in behind his position, this time using the alleyway behind a fast-food joint to try and shield themselves from the Sniper they figured was watching from the nearest remaining high-rise.  Instead they'd been spotted from the other direction, and since they didn't have any overhead cover, Argus didn't need a direct line of sight.  He calculated a trajectory and carefully elevated his heavy railgun to fire just shy of vertically.  He flung half a dozen 15mm rounds on a parabolic arc high into the sky.  He'd already finished firing and ducked back along the basement wall by the time the first round had nosed over at the top of its trajectory several miles up and began plunging back downward, the laser seeker in its nose picking out the invisible IR laser dot projected by one of his remotes onto the top of the helmet of the squad leader directing his Guardsmen through the alley.  One by one they fell out of the sky almost vertically, and five seconds later all four members of that squad lay dead in the alley, neat 15mm holes punched in the tops of each of their helmets.

Twenty seconds after that, 125mm RABBIT artillery rounds began impacting near where McCall was hiding.  Frack, they tracked my rounds, McCall cursed to himself as he fled back into the basement for protection from shrapnel.

"Time to move, sir," Davis remonstrated.  "They might start firing something heavier."

"Ya think?"  McCall grimaced as he agreed with her.  "You first."

"Age before beauty," Davis grinned back at him.

"Rank hath its privileges," McCall riposted.

"And one of them is going first," Davis concluded, before slapping Argus on the back and shoving him out the doorway—but she was hot on his heels as they both ran through the shell blasts to the relative safety of the next pile of rubble down the block.  Across the street, a tall ceramcrete-and-glass tower had taken a hit near the base and leaned crazily over, propped up by the nearly-identical tower next door.  The artillery fire died down, and Argus poked his head above the rubble for a look around, only to immediately duck back down as a barrage of plasma blasts and gauss gun fire peppered the rubble around him, coming from a five-story parking garage at the base of the leaning tower.

Before Argus could ponder the question of how the Imps had snuck some troops past his remotes, the sound of more firing split the air around them.  Someone was firing down from one of the balconies of the half-collapsed tower towards the enemy troops below.  Davis and Argus both popped back up to take advantage of the suppressing fire to add some suppressing fire of their own.  As enemy fire was returned, they ducked back down below the protection of the chunks of ceramcrete and plasteel.  Argus sent a quick series of commands to his remotes, repositioning them to find out where the heck the enemy had come from… and how many there were.

Davis extended a periscope up from her helmet to peer over the rubble in relative safety.  But before she could report on what she saw, a streak of light erupted from the parking garage as a rocket launcher fired towards whoever had been shooting at them from the half-fallen condo tower.  An apartment's worth of windows exploded outwards as the dark shape of a power-armored trooper burst out of the side of the building and began sliding head-first down the slanted wall, firing wildly in front of him as he slid down the ceramcrete wall on his belly as if it were a water slide at an amusement park.  As he reached the bottom, the trooper somersaulted onto the top deck of the parking structure, still firing wildly with both hands, before diving behind a wrecked groundcar for cover.

Neither McCall nor Davis could see what happened next, but a series of explosions were visible above the top wall of the parking garage, then from the next level down, and then the level below that.  The trooper was blasting his way through the fungicrete floors of the parking garage, dropping down to the middle level where the enemy fire had come from.  There was a cacophony of weapons fire, and then several seconds of silence... followed by an even bigger explosion that collapsed the parking structure.  The lone trooper dove out the side of the third level, hitting the ground below in a swan dive, and skidding several dozen meters along on his belly once more.  He came to rest right where Argus and Josie emerged, blinking, from behind their pile of rubble.

"I'd say a Tah Dah! was in order."  McCall nodded approvingly.  "Is that who I think it is?"

The trooper stood up on amazingly short and stocky legs and turned his beaked face toward his two fellow troopers before shrinking from his three-meter height down to a more manageable size as he left Crinos form and returned to human shape.  "Baleful Bill Balogh, fifth squad," the trooper confirmed.  Even in his less fearsome form, the nanobots of his armor were not in anything one could call a normal camouflage pattern, with a bright white on his front, and dark grey tinged with black and orange on his back and limbs.  A Hachimachi headband was tied around his helmet and an oversized Katana was strapped to his back.  Argus recognized him as the werepenguin who was in Lt. Lopez's squad.  He had a reputation for being crazy, and had served in the Eastern Bloc's army at one point before its absorption by the Federation.

"All right, you crazy bird, let's get back under cover before that artillery starts up again," Davis admonished, her eyes scanning the skies for incoming threats.

"Lieutenant Lopez spotted the tubes when they fired," Balogh replied.  "Hopefully the air strike he called in has swatted them by now."

A shadow fell over them as a figure that reminded Argus of Lucifer before the fall swooped down to join them.  As the wereraven settled in to land, he also shifted from Crinos form and lost his wings, his nanotech suit shifting plates to compensate for the change in shape and size.  Lieutenant Nathan Lopez popped open his helmet visor and addressed his fellow squad leader.  "Lt. McCall, I'm afraid that air strike won't be coming."

"What excuse did the fleet pukes come up with this time?" Argus sighed.

"That they're temporarily withdrawing.  Apparently, the Imperial Navy brought in a task force too big for them to handle right away."

Davis was incredulous.  "Wait—we're stranded here?"

"Looks like it, at least until that pendejo Smythe can send some reinforcements to chase them back away," Lopez replied.  "We'd better find some cover."




Scyr had expected to knock Andrea Treschi to the ground, but the mind mage was both less stunned and much stronger than he looked.  He caught Scyr by the arms just as they collided, rammed a knee into the Assistant Secretary's groin, then pivoted to throw him sideways across the Umbral office.

Scyr bounced and skidded across the floor, but he kept moving despite the shock and pain.  He rolled up into a crouch, reached into his coat, and pulled his tiny holdout plasma pistol from its holster.  While Treschi was still recovering his balance from the throw, Scyr took a second to steady his aim with both hands, then fired.

Most handheld plasma weapons spat a packet of high-energy particles which glowed as bright as a star and took only a few microseconds to strike its target, where it would discharge energy and heat in spectacular fashion.  The beam from Scyr's pistol did not strike its target and vanish, however.  It hung in the air like a frozen bolt of lightning, just short of Treschi's waist.  Scyr stared at the phenomenon.  Treschi grabbed the beam with one hand and swung it like a ten-meter sword.

The beam crashed into Scyr, toppling him backwards, and burning a welt across the front of his chest and arms before the bolt shattered and dissipated.  The plasma pistol clattered to the floor, and Scyr found himself lying on his back, staring up into the wide eyes of the skeletal man who was squatting over him.

"Okay," Scyr coughed, "I think he's using magick.  How do I win a magick fight?"

"Surrender?  Beg for mercy?" the skeletal man suggested.  "Face it.  You're out of his league."

Someone else growled.

"Internal dialogue's right," Scyr said.  "If I give up now, all the cool kids will laugh at me."  He put his hands against the floor and pushed himself up to his knees once again.  Treschi was still on the other side of the office, looking thoroughly un-intimidated.  "Hmm," Scyr said, "how about…"  He thrust out his hands towards his enemy.  "Ninja umbrood death squad!  Attack!"

Something like a raccoon plopped out of a portal above Scyr's shoulder.  It chirped once and then skittered away from the battle.  Treschi cocked his head to one side, watching the creature go.  Then he raised his right arm and pointed a single finger at Scyr's face.

Nothing happened.  Scyr had actually tensed up, but after a second he let himself relax.  He glanced from side to side.  Both of his companions were also watching Treschi, but the mind mage really didn't seem to have accomplished anything with the gesture.

"Hey!" Scyr called.  "What are you trying—"

As Treschi scowled, he threw a fireball the size of his head at Scyr with his free left hand.  Scyr yelped, and ducked just in time; the flames only singed his hair.  Treschi began stomping towards him, shoulders hunched forward like a gorilla ready to tear him apart.  Scyr scrambled across the floor to grab his pistol again, but Treschi made another hand gesture and the gun turned into a cheap plastic toy.

"Oh come on!" Scyr huffed as water squirted out of the barrel.  Treschi was only a couple of meters away now.  Scyr threw the water gun at him, but Treschi easily bent his head out of the way to let it fly past.

"Up," Treschi said through clenched teeth.

A gust of wind lifted Scyr to his feet, then pushed him back against the wooden wall of the office.  Treschi grabbed his left wrist and made a flicking motion with his fingers.  Four dark spikes coalesced out of the air and then stabbed forward to nail Scyr's arms and legs to the wall.  Satisfied that his target was immobile, Treschi took a last few steps, then leaned forward to peer into Scyr's eyes.

"That's some powerful resistance you have," he said.  "But I presume… it has something to do with these?"  Treschi hefted the chains which bound Scyr's companions.  Internal dialogue hissed.

Treschi met its gaze calmly.  "I haven't dissected many umbrood," he said.  "Most of their secrets aren't that interesting."  He smiled darkly.  "But in this instance, it might be worth… indulging my curiosity."

Scyr's internal dialogue chuckled back at him: a low, broken, sinister noise.  Then it lifted one clawed hand to caress Treschi's cheek.

"Oh please, oh please, oh please," the skeletal man whispered excitedly.

"Hey, Treschi," Scyr said stiffly, trying to suppress the anger boiling up within him.  "Before you do anything you might—"

Treschi said something that sounded less like words and more like a hammer striking hot iron.  Scyr's jaw shattered with a horrific crunch.  It fell open like a useless flap of meat, dribbling blood and spittle down the front of his shirt.

Internal dialogue howled.  It recoiled from Treschi, pulling back its hand like it had touched fire.  Glowering at the mind mage, it stepped away and wrapped its arms around Scyr, embracing him.  Then it shoved a savage fist into the base of Scyr's skull.

Treschi blinked.

"Dammit," the skeletal man muttered.

"Aahhh," Scyr said.  His jaw was moving again, and he worked it around for a moment.  His internal dialogue stayed curled up around him, hand sunk up to the wrist inside his head like a puppeteer.  Scyr hacked a couple times and spat up a little more blood.  "That's better," he said, and grinned, showing off crimson-stained teeth.  "Anyway, I think I'll tell you a story."

Treschi stood up straight, brow furrowed, but didn't say anything.

"You see," Scyr went on, "once upon a time, there was this little overcrowded planet.  It was full of boring overfed people, ruled by a tiny band of assholes, who fancied themselves monsters and demigods.  But one day some real monsters attacked the planet, and came awful close to being able to kill everyone around.  Well—that scared the planet's rulers like nothing ever had.  They'd been fighting each other for a long time, but it had always been just a game.  Now… now they went to war against the monsters.  They channeled their power and their ruthlessness into destroying the enemy.  They built starships and scoured the galaxy in search of weapons."

Scyr's eyes acquired a distant look, losing their focus on Treschi.  "What you need to understand," he said, "is that these people had a peculiar way of looking at dangerous things.  Their primary interest was never to avoid the danger, but always to figure out how they might use it.  That was true of everything, even the monsters trying to kill them all.  What I'm saying," Scyr's eyes met Treschi's again, "is that they never met a cosmic horror they didn't try to weaponize."

"Hmm," Treschi muttered, simply taking the data in.

Scyr smiled.  "So about… oh, seventy years ago, our heroes chased the monsters to yet another of their planetary hideouts.  But as they started their usual extermination campaign, they encountered something hideous.  Scarier monsters.  Monsters that, rather than just tearing you apart, would crawl inside you, change you… remake you into something new and terrible."  Scyr's voice cracked as he giggled.  "Well, the soldiers were horrified, of course!  Wouldn't you be?  But to their leaders, it was an opportunity!  How might we use this, they asked themselves.  Can we make ourselves and our servants more powerful, more terrifying, more… monstrous?

"And do you know what?" Scyr asked.  His grin stretched the limit of his skin.  "They could."

Treschi rubbed his temple.  "And so… what?  You were a mule for the Black Hand?"

"What I am, M. Treschi, is singularly unimpressed with assholes who treat other people like toys.  You're too caught up in your own fanaticism… or megalomania… or whatever you got to ever bother taking notice of your pawns' feelings."

Treschi sighed.  "Well, as amusing as your hypocrisy would be, M. Scyr, I think I'll just kill you now."  A long silver dagger appeared in his hand.

"Nah."  Scyr blew out his cheeks.  "I'm going to be leaving."

Treschi tilted the knife towards Scyr's chin.  "Pardon?"

Grunting with effort, Scyr ripped his left arm forward, free of the spike pinning it to the wall, leaving behind bloody strips of skin and muscle.  Then he reached across to start tugging at the spike in his other arm.  Treschi was kind enough to take a shocked step back while he worked.

"Yeah," Scyr said.  "I could be wrong; you've kicked my ass quite thoroughly.  But still, I get the impression that you're not actually so great with all this spirit magick."  Scyr pulled out the second spike, and then made a sweeping gesture around the Umbral projection of Admiral Blair's office before going to work on his legs.  His internal dialogue had now climbed up to ride on his back like a small child.  "So I think what I'm going to do is leave and then close the door behind me, so to speak.  I'll bet I can keep you in here a whole hour if I'm lucky."

Andrea laughed.  It was just a few slow barks, but the noise surprised Scyr enough that he stopped yanking at the spike in his right calf.  Then Treschi shook his head.  "If nothing else, I find your determination admirable, M. Scyr.  It will be such a shame not to have you around for the completion of my work."

Scyr finished tugging out the last of the spikes, and then spent a moment leaning back against the wall, catching his breath.  "Just a bit of parting advice," he panted, "but you do know that attitude is what's destroying the galaxy, right?  Every fourth guy and his dog has some grand plan for how to do everything better, and he's willing to kill anyone else who also has a plan in order to do it."

Treschi leveled his dagger at Scyr's nose… and smiled.  "Who ever said I want to make things better?"

The assistant secretary blinked.  "Whatever.  Just remember, no one's plan ever gets finished."

"That's what makes it fun," Andrea answered, then stabbed Scyr.  Or tried to stab him; the dagger suddenly shattered against Scyr's neck, the pieces drifting like they were weightless.

The shock on Treschi's face lit up Scyr's eyes.  "Umbra, remember?  Dreamworld, shadowlands, hyperspace, whatever you call it… either way, physics is fucked!"  Then he slammed his fist into Andrea's chest.

Treschi flew across the room with unnerving speed; he suddenly stopped before slamming into the opposite wall.  Hovering in the air, he compelled the water pistol to fly into his hand.  Squirting it at his foe, a line of fire flew at Scyr; the secretary had only a moment to duck out of the way.  Suddenly, the fire sprouted a head and became a flying salamander.  Scyr kept running, dodging the attacks of the fiery beast.

"We had a saying in the Tech Infantry," Andrea laughed as Scyr ran out the door.  "Don't fuck with physics!"

The assistant secretary ran down hallways of half-digested dreams, his legs screaming with pain as he dodged the salamander.  His internal dialogue screeched back at the beast, but couldn't offer any better suggestions.  Finally, Scyr summoned the pieces of the broken silver dagger to his hand—in the Umbra, it didn't matter that it was two buildings away—and formed them into a small silver shield.  Scyr swung it around right into the salamander's face.

The fiery beast wasn't ready for that.  Then Scyr set the shield spinning; when the salamander came back, the magickal saw sliced it in half.  "Sic a myth on me, would you?"

The assistant secretary felt rather good as he kept walking down the hallway… until he was clothes-lined by Treschi.  Scyr fell to the floor as Andrea formed a glowing ball between his fingertips.  "I was going to let you go, Scyr," the mind mage said, "but you're just too troublesome to let live."

Scyr prepared his exit spell.  "Do you practice these lines, or do they come naturally?  You know that gloating only gives your opponent time to—"

Treschi threw the glowing ball of energy at him; Scyr put up his silver shield to deflect the shot, but instead of dissipating, the ball went around the shield, threatening to envelop him.  "No, no, no!" Scyr screamed, his internal dialogue shrieked, and the skeletal man was nowhere to be seen.  He couldn't drop his concentration to create another spell without opening himself up to the strange ball trying to kill him.  So the assistant secretary did the only thing he could do; he released his exit spell.

The Gauntlet parted for Scyr once more right as the ball exploded.  The tremendous force of the blast threw him right through his own gate, speeding out of control, flying out of that Umbral dimension… and into another.



The parade ground was a sea of red.  The newest recruits for the Imperial Army on Cronos had finished their (abbreviated) boot camp and were ready to head out to fight the enemies of their God-Emperor in spanking new (and cheaply made) red uniforms.  Colonel Garant, their training commandant, held a smile and hoped that their equipment in the field would be better than the crap they had to use.  If only they can get their hands on TI leftovers, I'll call that a victory.  He tried not to think about what happened to his boys and girls when they left his care.  The pro-Federation Resistance on the main planet had cost the local armies greatly… and now he was sending more young people into the meat grinder: the Cialt Siege.

In the end, Garant wasn't a fanatic; he'd never attended a Cult mass, and he certainly didn't care who was Chairman, Emperor, or Lunatic-in-Chief.  But they needed someone to train future troopers.  After a disappointing career in the Tech Infantry, and now lacking a pension, former Sergeant-Major Garant wasn't about to turn down a job.

He was giving the same speech he always gave, hardly paying attention to what he was saying.  "…and in that spirit, you are blazing a future.  A trail to be followed by all those who serve the Emperor, and those who will light a new tomorrow in—"

Then the air ripped apart in the sky, interrupting the commandant's speech (which frankly, was something of a relief to everybody there).  In a ball of flame and lightning, a man suddenly flew out, landing face-first into the flagstone-paved courtyard.  He stood up—which seemed impossible, as he was dripping blood and looking like he had just walked through a blender.  "Hi!"  He waved to the crowd.  "Where am I?"

Colonel Garant got off his pedestal and stomped towards the mysterious stranger.  Once he reached spitting distance, he demanded, "Who are you?"

"I asked first."  The bleeding man smiled.

"Men!" he barked, and suddenly every plasma rifle was charged… and pointed right at the stranger.

The bloody man sighed and shook his head.  "My name is Scyr, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Strategic Operations for Terran Republic."

The former sergeant-major blinked, realizing for the first time that some things were far above his pay grade.  "What was…  I mean, how the…"  He shook himself.  "This is Cronos!  What are you doing here?!"

"I'm here, colonel, because I'm carrying critical intelligence… critical meaning you need to know.  I know the Terran Republic's military disposition, their plans, everything the Emperor wants to know."  When Scyr saw the field of confused faces, the former government official kept to the obvious.  "I wish to defect."




Bishop slept for over ten hours.  After a life on the bounce in the Tech Infantry, his body felt refreshed with the luxury of extra sleep.  After a quick shower, he was pleased to find that Melissa had prepared a small breakfast and enjoyed a calm meal.

Afterward, he went to the living room, cleared a small area on the carpet, sat down cross-legged, and closed his eyes.  He slowed his breathing and could feel his heart rate decrease.  Once in this calm, relaxed mental state, he began to meditate.  In that no-space beyond time, he communed with the various spirits who'd granted him the gifts Fisher had taught him, the Spirits of the Wolf, Cat, Mouse, Serpent and Shapeshifter, Raven and Fly.  He communed with the Spirit of the Chameleon most of all.  Despite all that had happened, all that Bishop had done—joining the Sabbat, allying with the Wyrm, betraying Fisher—the Spirits had still not abandoned him.  The Wyrm and the Wyld were linked.  The Spirit of the Chameleon told William the gifts he'd been granted were his birthright.  The Spirits would try to guide him, but ultimately, how Bishop chose to use his gifts and talents were up to him.

When Bishop finally opened his eyes, it was dark outside.  Melissa sat across from him in an overstuffed armchair, looking utterly bored.  "How long was I out?" he asked.

She looked over at the wall clock.  "Eight hours.  I could have killed this entire neighborhood while I waited for you to wake up.  Next time, I won't bother waiting."

"It was necessary," he grunted, then stood and made eye contact with Cortona.  "I feel much better.  Thanks for breakfast."

"You need dinner now?" she asked with a hint of sarcasm.

"Not quite yet."  He shook his head.  "Right now, I think it's time you told me what I need to know about the Sabbat."

"You mean who's going to betray us?" Melissa replied.  "I don't know.  I've only been a vampire for three decades.  In vampire terms, I'm merely an infant—the memories of my mortal life are still fresh in my mind."

"You have to know something…"

"I was first sired by one of Magnus' childer.  After some covert actions against the Black Hand, I managed to increase in rank, and finally replaced Magnus' personal templar after he died on a mission."

Bishop frowned.  "So you haven't been involved much in Sabbat politics?"

She nodded.  "I'm pretty sure that I can trust Magnus… but Santino?  I don't know.  I'm not sure about Calihye and Malikait either… and frankly, I'm suspicious of Irene, too."

"Do you trust anyone?"

"I trust you."  Cortona stared at him… then blinked.  "As much as you trust me, that is."

Bishop glanced at the clock; it was nearly nine o'clock.  "Let me grab a quick dinner; then we'll head out."

"What am I gonna eat?"

"Oh," William said as he went to the kitchen, "I'm sure a nice juicy gang lord will whet your appetite."

"Sounds tasty."  Melissa followed him.  "Where should we begin our search?"

Bishop grabbed a Yangtze Cola and began making a sandwich.  "My guess is that David's going to focus his search on the South Side of the ward.  There's a lot of abandoned warehouses there.  Lots of hiding spots."

"A mere gang lord won't stand a chance against David and a pack of Sabbat."

"Don't be so sure, Melissa."  William waved a finger at her while he took a drink of carbonated goodness.  "The gang lords are tougher than shit.  They need to be to survive the harshest city in the Federation."

"What used to be the Federation," she corrected.

"Don't count the Fed out yet," Bishop added.  "Somehow, they keep turning up… like a bad centcred."

When they left, heading for the South Side on foot, William transformed into panther; Cortona blended into the darkness so well that even Bishop couldn't say for sure where she was.  Nevertheless, he could somehow sense her following him as they silently made their way through the shadows of dark alleys and side streets.  Unlike the previous evening's night life, tonight the streets were deserted; William guessed word had reached the streets of the Ratkin-Sabbat's war on the gang lords, and everyone had cleared out.  Bishop saw no indication their stealthy movement was being followed.

Two hours later, they reached the warehouse district of the South Side.  The entire complex was surrounded by a tall chain-link fence topped with razor wire.  Every hundred paces or so were small guard towers with bright spot lights aimed in fixed directions—but the lights were off and the towers appeared to be vacant.  Cortona emerged from the darkness, and together they approached the fence through the shadows.  Melissa drew her swords and made several quick, strong slashes, the blades easily slicing a hole in the chain-link fence large enough for both of them to fit through.  Bishop shifted back into human form, drew his swords, and they walked through the fence into the warehouse complex.

It quickly grew very dark beyond the chain-link perimeter; all of the security lights were off.  With a quick effort will, Bishop invoked his gift to see in darkness; he figured Cortona must have a similar ability since she had no trouble walking beside him.  As they approached the closest building, William paused to tap his spiritual energy and concentrate on heightening his senses of hearing and smell.  Although the pair searched the complex for nearly an hour, they found no sign of either the gang leaders or David's Sabbat team supposedly searching the compound from the opposite direction.

They were about to leave when Bishop picked up an unusual scent: a werecreature… but unlike any kind he had smelled before.  He signaled silently to Melissa .  She nodded, following him as he followed the scent.  It led them to one of the smaller warehouses on the other side of the complex.  As they approached, William caught the strong odor of the Wyrm.  Cautiously and silently, the vampire and the werepanther circled around the perimeter of the warehouse, searching for the source of the strange scent.  Suddenly, rounding the corner of an alleyway between buildings, they found themselves staring at the corpses of a dozen dead Sabbat vampires.

It wasn't the number of dead that made Melissa gasp; it was the sheer variety of ways they'd been slaughtered.  Some had been ripped apart, some perforated from dozens of blade stabs and slashes, others beheaded or even chopped in half, and a few had even been diaborized.  "What would…?"

"Shhh!" William warned her, then pointed down the alley.  Across the way, they could see the double doors of another warehouse being yanked open to reveal an interior illuminated by erie dark violet florescent lights.  To either side of the entrance crouched a half dozen Sabbat members, including David Marcus.  At a hand signal from him, both teams of vampires charged inside.

"We should help them," said Bishop.

"Agreed…"  Cortona narrowed her eyes.  "But let's find a different entrance and join the fight from another direction."

William nodded.  "Good call."

The pair quickly moved around the warehouse, found an unlocked back door, entered, and followed some short hallways ending in a door to the main storage area.  Through the door, they could hear fighting, plasma shots, and screams.

Bishop turned to Cortona.  "Ready?" he whispered.  Melissa nodded, once again fading into the shadows as William shifted into Crinos form.  He slowly opened the door, entered the main storeroom… and his jaw nearly dropped to the floor.

David's Sabbat weren’t fighting street toughs and gang lords—they were fighting other vampires and one gigantic… thing.  It was some kind of were-creature, that was clear—but Bishop had no name for it.  The beast was half werelion, half weretiger, and in Crinos form it stood nearly twelve feet tall while wielding a massive double-bladed battle axe.  Three dead Sabbat lay strewn on the floor around it, and it was engaging two more.

On the far of the room, another vampire in a long black trench coat swung a two-handed greatsword at David Marcus, who could only match him with a pair of daggers.  While he moved much faster, the long reach of the other vampire's greatsword kept David at bay.

William glanced in Melissa's direction, nodded towards the vampire swordsman, then turned to help his fellow Sabbat against the werecreature monstrosity.  Bishop had barely taken two steps before he heard a shrieking cry in the back of his mind that made him cringe.  He looked around to see a ghost streaking towards Cortona like liquid gas, cutting her off from sneaking up on the vampire in the trench coat.

Bishop couldn't believe his eyes.  He had heard of wraiths while on the streets of Calaunt, but had never actually faced one before, and had no idea what to expect.  He rushed forward to intercept it before it could cut off Cortona.  Before William knew it, the wraith was upon him, attacking the werepanther with two long hunting knives in a blur of slashes and stabs.  Bishop was caught off guard at first and had to dodge and parry quickly, but he steadily shifted the fight to a series of offensive routines.  He finally fought through the wraith's defenses and managed to stab the wraith again and again… yet each time he struck the wraith, it turned to vapor, and his blades hit nothing but air.  But while those strikes didn't kill the wraith, they did keep it from counterattacking.

From the edge of his peripheral vision, Bishop kept an eye on the huge werecreature fighting the two other Sabbat.  It wielded the huge, heavy battle axe with amazing ease.  Despite this, the vampires armed with daggers and swords managed to keep it at bay—and the werecreature was slowing down, exhausted.  The two vampires, thrilled with the coming victory, moved quickly to finish it off.

In a sudden burst of speed, the beast revealed its former sluggish actions to be only a ruse; with a fluid movement, it slammed the head of the axe into the face of one vampire, altered its grip on the haft, swung to chop off the legs of the second, and completed the circuit with an upward strike so fast that the first still-stunned vampire was caught completely off guard.  The axe blade chopped into his groin and continued straight up into his chest.  The were-creature kicked the dead vampire off his axe contemptuously, then glared in Bishop's direction.

Strangely enough, just at that moment, William began to wonder just where the hell Cortona had gotten to.  The vampire with the greatsword was beginning to get the upper hand in his duel with David… and Bishop still hadn't figured out a way to defeat the wraith.

The huge werecreature rushed towards Bishop at full speed.  It made a wide swipe with its axe that William easily dodged, but that attack was followed by a strike from the wraith that he had to evade as well.  Bishop fell into a defensive kata, flowing with the dance of combat, shifting between the two opponents until he could find an opportunity.  While he did occasionally manage to get through the wraith's defenses, he couldn't keep it at bay long enough to take an offensive against the were-creature.

On the other side of the room, David was slowing down.  He tried to take the offensive against the vampire in the trench coat, but somehow, his attack was anticipated.  The vampire slammed the pommel of his greatsword into David's face, then made a circular side swipe, slicing off one of David's legs at the knee.  He collapsed to the ground in pain.

The vampire swordsman looked up at Bishop, then started walking in his direction.  He'd barely taken a few steps forward when Cortona appeared behind him in a flash, armed with her double swords.  She impaled the vampire from behind on one of her blades, stabbed the other through his thigh, then let go of the blades and grabbed the back of his arms in a vise-like grip.  Her long fangs extended and she bit into the back of the vampire's neck, forcing him face-down into the ground as she gulped down his blood.

The eyes of the huge werecreature blinked several times in disbelief at the sight.  It stepped back from the battle with Bishop and slowly lowered its weapon, although it kept its axe ready in a defensive position.

The wraith also stopped fighting Bishop and turned to face Cortona.  It started to move in her direction as she drained the vampire's blood, but seemed to be making only a halfhearted attempt to stop her.  When it was only a few feet away from her, she jumped to her feet, grabbing what appeared to be a fist-sized sapphire from the pocket of the vampire's trench coat, and faced the wraith.  How she knew the gem was there was anyone's guess; Bishop knew vampires had their own types of gifts.

"For countless years you have served your master," she said.  "Now he is dead—and I command you to serve me."

The wraith made a loud scream that must have been heard a mile in every direction.  "No!  Release me!"

The whites and irises of Melissa's eyes seemed to turn blood-red as she said, "You will obey me or I will destroy this."  She held up the sapphire.  "If I destroy this, you will be lost to the land of the living, and never be able to fulfill your obsession.  You will succumb to the eternal storm of the Tempest and stand on the brink of oblivion!" Cortona shouted.  "Will you obey me?!"

"I will follow you… for now."  The wraith nodded slowly.  "But be wary—I will not suffer incompetence!"

"Fair enough," Cortona replied calmly.  "Tell me your name."

"Hugh Montgomery," the wraith answered in a resigned voice.

Bishop tried to follow the conversation, but he was distracted by the huge werecreature standing across from him.  They made eye contact, slowly nodded to each other, then both shifted back into their human forms.  Bishop returned to his normal six-foot height, but the werecreature next to him was nearly seven feet tall, heavily muscled, and had peppered blonde hair.

"Just what the fuck are you?" asked Bishop.

"A were-liger."

"A what?"

The blonde man leaned on his axe.  "You ever hear of Project Dawkins?"

William's eyebrows went up.  "The orgy program?"

The strange werecreature sighed.  "During Clarke's administration, there was a lot of interbreeding experiments with werecreatures.  One of them was a cross between a male werelion and a female weretiger.  Most of the attempts failed… but as you can see, some of them succeeded.  You could call me a wereliger."

Bishop let out a long sigh and looked over at David lying motionless on the floor.  Cortona walked over and inspected the body.  "He's alive," she answered.  "Just unconscious."

But with a wound like that, he'll need blood, William thought, lots of it, soon… but from where?  He looked back over at the wereliger—and realized the answer was literally right in front of him.

"So…" Bishop said, trying to sound casual.  "How did a… whatever you are, end up here in Calaunt?"

"Ten years ago, I was part of a Crusader Team assigned here," he answered.  "That's when I met Angelo."


"The vampire your friend just diaborized."  The wereliger gestured at the corpse.

Bishop frowned, puzzled.  "So how did a vampire-hunter like you end up working for him?"

"He killed off my team while he trapped me with Hugh."  He pointed to the wraith, looking infinitely smug with itself.  "After that, Angelo gave me a choice: Serve him or die."  He shrugged.  "I served."

"Former Tech Infantry, huh?"  William nodded slowly.  "Well… I can leave this part out of my mission report, I suppose."  When the wereliger looked up at him, confused, Bishop elaborated on his bluff.  "I'm Major William Bishop of the Raptors."  He gestured at Contona.  "The ghoul is my partner, Captain Michelle Fisher," he lied smoothly.  "We're on Wilke's Star for a special mission to take out Angelo's operation.  As his accomplice, I really should bring you in, too…"  The wereliger stiffened, gripping the haft of axe tighter.  "…but I can claim you escaped," Bishop continued.  "That'll give you a head start to get off-planet before the Raptors or the Sabbat find you."

The wereliger blinked at Bishop, not quite believing him, but wanting to… and too exhausted to think clearly.  "But… why?"

"Because I know that no Crusader would work for these leeches voluntarily.  But Angelo's dead now.  Your nightmare's over."  Bishop gave the wereliger the slimmest wisp of a smile, then jerked his head at the door.  "Go on, get out of here, before our backup arrives."

The wereliger nodded.  "Thanks.  I owe you one, Major Bishop."  With that, he turned for the door…

…and William lunged forward lightening-fast, slamming the pommel of his sword down on the back of the wereliger's head.  He toppled to the floor unconscious.

"David!" Bishop called out, sheathing his swords.  "Diner is served!"  Cortona helped him drag the wereliger's body over to David and positioned him so that the wounded vampire could feed.  While David drank the wereliger's blood, Melissa and William searched through Angelo's clothes more thoroughly.

Within a secret inside pocket of the vampire's trench coat, Bishop found a small book with a leather cover… which, upon closer inspection, turned out to be hardened and layered human flesh.  The text was penned in a dark red ink that could only have been made from blood.  Many pages contained long series of numbers written in the margins.

William couldn't even begin to decipher the writing—hell, he was still struggling to read English.  He handed the book to Melissa.  "Any ideas?"

Cortona was at a loss at first, but then a look of recognition crossed her face.

Bishop noticed.  "What does it say?"

"This book is a series of Chronicles and Discoveries of Augustus Giovanni, written by Claudius Giovanni."  Cortona flipped through the pages and.  "The Giovanni were always known to be from Venetian traders.  My guess would be that these numbers are Federation bank accounts and passwords.  This book could be worth a fortune in addition to the knowledge it contains."

"Great, money's always nice.  Now let's get the hell out of here.  I'll help you with David."




The supply shuttles took off for the Avarice as soon as it arrived in orbit over Nhur.  Heth was in the first wave of transports hauling equipment, supplies, and personnel up to the massive cargo ship, eager to once again take command of his former freighter.

"Scat…" M'Rwor mumbled next to him, staring wide-eyed as the ship grew larger as they approached it.  "I never been on a super-freighter before, y'know?  I mean, I knew they were big, but… Sky Father above…"

"Big" didn't do the Avarice justice.  Well over a kilometer long and half as wide with four million tons of cargo capacity, Miao Mercantile's super-freighter class were the largest civilian starships ever constructed in K'Nes space—and quite possibly the known galaxy.

"Well, gravity drive systems are enormous," Heth replied, "so they require an equally large ship to carry them—especially if they have to be disguised, like on our super-freighters."

"We're taking that into battle?" Narrah growled, skeptical.  "It's big, yes… but it's still just a freighter."

"Oh, the Avarice has fangs, alright," Heth said, unable to keep a hint of pride from creeping into his voice.  "It's got a full particle phalanx point-defense grid and a one-meter chemlaser."

"That's not much," Narrah growled, narrowing his eyes at the big cargo ship.

Heth did his best not to roll his eyes.  "The Avarice isn't a warship, Narrah, it's a smuggling vessel!... well, and a commercial freighter, obviously.  Instead of armor and starfighters, it's equipped with advanced navigation and sensors, decoy drones, and the most sophisticated stealth suite money can buy!  Trust me, the K'Nes have never built a better blockade runner... and certainly not with this much cargo capacity!"  When Narrah still look unconvinced, Heth sighed and continued.  "You see over there?"  He pointed a claw at the tips of two huge prongs recessed into housings embedded in the front of the ship.  "Those are disguised to look like Vulthra long-range communication antennae—when they're extended, of course, they're retracted at the moment—but they're really the antennae for a transit beacon, yet another thing banned under the Human Occupation.  Oh, it's expensive to use and a terrible power hog, of course, but so long as we're careful when and where we use it, it's extremely effective at covert cargo pick-ups and drop-offs.  No shuttles ferrying cargo in and out of orbit to tip off planetary security—we can just teleport the payload straight into the transit bay and continue on our way."

"Or deploy hunters onto the surface unnoticed…" Narrah mused aloud as he contemplated the possibilities, looking a bit happier.

"Now you're thinking like a Miao!"  Heth nodded in approval.  "I have no idea what Chairman Smythe is hiring us to do… but I'd much rather do it with stealth and smooth-talking than skirmishes and shoot-outs.  If we play the market right, hopefully we'll avoid combat altogether.  The Avarice has never failed on a smuggling run."

"Well… so long as I still get paid, that's fine with me."  The graying old cat stroked his whiskers slowly and gazed out at the retracted transit antennae.  "Infiltration.  Covert operations.  I can work with that..."

Heth couldn't help feeling deeply satisfied as their shuttle entered the launch bay and docked with the Avarice.  Heth hadn't felt his career was truly restored until he floated back through the airlock onto his old super-freighter.  The only thing left to win back now was Miu.

"Gainful day, Director Heth!  Welcome aboard"

Heth turned to see a furry black gorgon extending a tail to him.  He grinned.  "Rameth!  Delightful to see you again!"  He had no problem remembering the name of the Avarice's manager—he was a hard K'Nes to forget!

K'Nes males, generally speaking, were rather proud of their manes.  Unfortunately, zero gravity tended to turn long manes into an embarrassing rat's nests of tangles and mats, so K'Nes spacers tended to shave them off, or at least crop them short.  Rameth, a former K'Nes Tor Navy officer who had apparently had his fill of military manes, had opted for a different strategy.  He wove his long mane, along with gems, jewels, and other treasure, into thick black braids.  Give him enough buttermilk, and he'd tell you where and how he'd acquired each trinket (whether you wanted to hear it or not).  In zero-G, however, the heavy braids floated around his fluffy face like a school of eels.  It was definitely a sight that stuck in one's memory.

"Glad to have to you back, Heth," Rameth said, then shook his head.  "Believe me, it has not been the same without you—or as profitable!"

"Indeed?"  Heth glanced at Rameth, curious.  He could tell this wasn't the usual sycophantic flattery.  Rameth almost sounded… relieved?  Heth inquired, "Who was the Avarice's Executive after I was transferred?"

Rameth narrowed his eyes in disgust.  "Miao K'Nhur K'Yoomi."

"Oh.  I see..."  That explains it, Heth thought.  Rival prides.  From the outside, the Miao corporate clan was one big family, one big company.  Inside, however, different factions—usually organized by family prides—vied for profit, power, and prestige.  In Heth's absence, Rameth had the misfortune to fall under the command of a powerful (and aggressive) rival pride.  No wonder he was relieved to have Heth back as the ship's Executive.

Himself, Heth was a K'Rrowr—a pride too small and unimportant to be much of a power player in pride politics, so they pursued a strategy of friendly neutrality instead.  It made navigating the complicated corporate clan politics dreadfully difficult at times, true, but also gave them a degree of social mobility other prides lacked.

"Terribly sorry to hear that, Rameth," Heth said, all sympathy.  "That must have very difficult for you."

"Eh, that was last quarter," Rameth said.  "What's done is done.  Point is, you're back, and I hear we're on a very profitable run!  I don't know the specifics yet, though…?" Rameth's voice trailed off, clearly fishing for details.  He spun around in midair amid his swirling mane.  "Scat, you can tell me all about it on our way to the control center.  Don't worry, I'll have the crew deliver your baggage to the Executive's suite."  With that (and a loud blast of oxygen), the pair of cats flew down the corridor, Rameth's braids streaming behind him.

"The truth is," Heth began, "I'm afraid I don't even know what the job requirements are yet.  Only that it's very risky… and very profitable.  But we need to get to the New Madrid system as soon as possible, to negotiate the contract.  How soon can we depart?"

"As soon as the shuttles finish unloading."  Rameth grabbed a pawhold on the corridor wall to stop his forward motion, spun himself upside down in a swirl of black braids, then flew down into a shaft descending to the heart of the ship.  Heth followed, albeit less gracefully than Rameth.  The Avarice, being one of the few K'Nes ships equipped with a gravity drive, was one of the fastest Miao Mercantile owned—but also one of the few ships capable of artificial gravity.  The K'Nes crew seldom used it, though—for a species that spent much of their lives floating, zero-gravity wasn't a big change.  Besides, artificial gravity used a lot of energy, and energy cost money.

"Do we have a technomagickal consultant on board to operate the transit beacon?" Heth asked.

"Uh… aye.  An expensive one—Durrmach K'Hhak Na'Kirrp," Rameth answered.  "She's on the Avarice for a six-month consulting gig.  Got three months left on her contract."

Heth winced.  "Kirrp?  Oh dear…  If I remember correctly, she's an arrogant little rodent."

"She's a wizard," Rameth chuckled.  "Aren't they all?"

Heth sighed.  "Well, at least if she's certified by the Paranormal Practitioner's Guild, we know she's not a fraud.  It's money well spent, I suppose," Heth said, trying to persuade himself more than anyone.

They stopped at a sealed hatch.  Rameth pressed a paw to the pressure path next to it and, after a quick scan of his paw-print, the door rolled away and the two cats drifted into the Avarice's control center.  The circular room's walls were lined with control consoles surrounded by floating K'Nes operating the various ship's systems.

"Alright, team, turn your ears this way!  Now, most of you probably remember him from last fiscal year..."  Rameth waved a paw at Heth.  "But for those of you who don't, this is Miao K'Rrowr K'Heth, one of our previous—and most profitable!—ship's Executives.  Well, he's back—and he's already got a lucrative run set up for us!"

A loud purr of approval reverberated throughout the control center.  Heth couldn't help but smile.

"The contract is indeed very profitable," Heth sighed, "but unfortunately it's also time sensitive—if it takes us too long to get there, we'll miss the window of opportunity, and this lucrative offer will be withdrawn.  So we'll be heading straight for New Madrid, meaning we won't be making trade stops at every passing star system."

A loud hiss of protest reverberated throughout the control center.  A benefits of working on the Avarice was the tiny section of cargo space reserved for each employee.  An enterprising crewcat with money to invest in low-bulk, high-value commodities could wheel and deal their way to a tidy profit on top of their salary.  Of course, that required stopping frequently to buy and sell merchandise.  Heth knew convincing them to forfeit their Retail Rights was a hard sell—it would result in lots of lost profits, and mutinies have started over less.  Heth did his best to look apologetic, and narrowly averted a rebellion by promising performance bonuses (and putting it in writing).

Once the growling crewcats turned back to their displays, Rameth brought up a three-dimensional galactic map on the central holoprojector and began calculating distances and timetables, trying to determine the quickest route from Nhur to New Madrid.  "There's still fighting in the New Tokyo system—that pro-Imperial revolt is lasting forever—so we can’t take the route through the Wilke's Star Free State…" Rameth mumbled to himself.  "But the fighting in the Kalintos system is over now, and that's in Fed paws now…"

Heth floated off to the side and waited silently.  As ship's Executive, Heth directed the super-freighter's commercial enterprises, but Rameth managed all the day-to-day details of running a spacecraft.  Heth had learned long ago that a good Executive, while keeping an eye on the Manager (and especially their efficiency reports), otherwise stayed out of the Manager's way and let them do their job.

Finally Rameth locked in a route and turned to Heth with a sigh.  "Nineteen and a half days, Terran Standard Time.  That’s the best we can do.  New Madrid's halfway across the known galaxy, after all."

Heth wasn't thrilled with the estimate, but knew there was nothing to be done about it.  He just hoped the Avarice got there in time for Chairman Smythe's offer to still be valid.  "We'll be passing through the Urrin system on the way out of K'Nes space, correct?"  Rameth nodded.  "Make that twenty days, then," Heth answered.  "I need to make a quick stop on Urrin."



So, apparently, did Narrah.  The old hunter picked up a few more recruits for the Miao Mercenary Company there.  Narrah wasn't sure which clans they came from, and didn't particularly care—he sent out the call, they came, and that was good enough for him.  It was not, however, good enough for Heth, who made them all sign confidential non-disclosure agreements before coming on board.

            Urrin was also the home of MIRADI.  Heth had merchandise to collect and a very special person to see.

            "I'm not sure power armor suits you," Miu said, looking him over with an appraising eye.  "I think I prefer you in a waistcoat and ascot.  Much more dignified."

            "I'd have to agree," Heth nodded—or tried, rather.  The sleek black K'Nes power armor felt stuffy and uncomfortable, and his movements were clumsy and awkward.  "But then, one doesn’t wear armor as a fashion statement," he added.  "It's… functional."

            "Taking the nanobots from your ape power armor suit and reprogramming them with K'Nes armor specs was the easy part," Miu said.  "Integrating them with the suitcomp from some old K'Nes armor was a bit trickier, but we found a way to do it.  We've even managed to emulate the monofilament vibro-blades.  Try testing them."

            Heth raised his paws and gave the verbal command.  "Claws."  The black blades popped up along the gauntlet knuckles and boot tips.  Swishing his tail in front of him, Heth nodded in satisfaction at the wicked spear blade on the tail tip.  "Vibrate."  The blades moved too fast for Heth to see, but he could hear the faint hum as they vibrated thousands of times per second.  "Retract."  The blades snapped back down into the armor.  "I like it," he purred.  Heth inflated, the nanobots stretching the armor as his body swelled and he rose off the ground.

            "We've managed to emulate the directional thrusters of K'Nes armor," Miu said, "but fuel is more limited."

Heth tried out the directional thrusters.  After bobbing around the office like a drunk in the wind, he decided the thrusters would definitely take some practice to get used to.

            "The only thing we couldn't really adjust the ape armor for," Miu continued, "was the helium tank on the back.  There was just no way the nanobots could disguise that convincingly, given the camouflage requirements you gave us.  So we left the tank off. You'll have to inflate internally.  I figured you'd prefer stealth over flight time."

            "And you were right."  Heth smiled as he deflated and landed softly on his paws.  "Speaking of camouflage…  Suit, Human!"  For a few seconds, the armor seemed to bubble and shift, changing color as it morphed into a black human business suit.  "Suit, Jurvain!"  The armor morphed into bland gray coveralls.  "Suit, K'Nes!"  The coveralls shifted into the colorful, multi-layered corporate clothing of the K'Nes.  "Truly amazing.  You've outdone yourself, Miu."

She smiled at the compliment and licked her nose.

"Given the job I've just been hired to do," Heth continued, "this might save my life."

            "If I'd known that," Miu purred, "I would have charged you more."

            "And how's our other nanobot project going?" Heth asked, changing topics.

            "Successful so far, but time consuming," Miu sighed.  "Reprogramming the Horadrim nanobots was tricky, but we figured it out once we cracked their coding language.  But it's the organic components that are taking time.  We're having to grow new ones containing Zechariah McNeilly's DNA, then graft them to the nanobots."

            "Well, I'm afraid it is necessary," Heth sighed.  "If the nanos aren't compatible with McNeilly's biology, they might not work at all—and then you'll be left completely unprotected if he comes after you."

            "With any luck, I won't need to use them anyway," Miu said.  "I've had the security systems in MIRADI's headquarters upgraded, and if I need to go out on business I take a corporate security escort with me.  But what about you, Heth?" she asked, concerned.  "What exactly is this new job you've been hired to do?  And why do you need power armor for it?"

            "I'm afraid I don't know yet," Heth sighed.  "Chairman Smythe has hired me to do… something.  I won’t know the details until we meet for contract negotiations.  But I can tell you this much: it's going to pay a lot.  A lot!"

            Miu licked her fangs.  "How much?"

            "Enough that I can guarantee I'll win the action for your reproductive rights."

            "Oh, is that so?" Miu teased.  "The top two bids are quite substantial.  How many credits do you have?"

            "How many credits do I need?" Heth returned.

            "A quarter million."  Miu paused, waiting for Heth's reaction.

            "Is that all?"  Not too long ago, Heth would have balked at that number—but now he just shrugged it off.  "I can’t help but think that your assets are severely undervalued, Miu."  The white cat looked down with a smile, flattered and perhaps a little touched.  "Still, just in case my competitors are low-balling your worth, I'll make sure I have an extra twenty percent for last-minute bidding wars.  With luck, I should return a few days before the auction closes… but I'll set up automatic bidding too, just in case this job takes longer than expected.  You might want to draw up the Articles of Procreation for our reproductive joint venture."  Heth smiled.  "Again."

            "Well… I can’t say that I'm disappointed to hear that," Miu purred.  Then her whiskers twitched and she looked away, frowning.  "Assuming you come back at all, that is.  Just how dangerous is this job going to be?"

            "I don't know that yet, either."  Heth scowled—he hated dealing in uncertain markets.  "Captain Gergenstein didn’t go into details… but he did make it sound like weapons and armor were just a precaution for our own protection.  With any luck, we won't need them.  We're K'Nes, after all—we prefer negotiating to fighting."

            "Well," Miu said, stepping closer, "just in case you do wind up in danger…" she purred, whipping her tail around Heth's waist and pulling him closer, "here's a little motivation to come back safe and sound."

            She wrapped her paws around his neck and covered his face in soft laps as Heth swam in her glorious scent—and, for the first time since their merger was dissolved, she let Heth lick her, too.  Yes, Heth thought, some things are worth risking your life for.



As much as Heth would have loved to draw out his meeting with Miu, he had things to do, places to be, and not much time for either.  So as soon as Miu's staff had his nice new (well… pre-owned) armor packaged up and loaded onto his shuttle, Heth was on his way back up to the Avarice in orbit.  Shortly after that, the super-freighter crossed over into hyperspace and their long, boring journey to New Madrid began.

At least the down time wouldn't be wasted.  Narrah had made it abundantly clear that he planned to spend it all working with his mercenaries, drilling them into a cohesive military unit for… whatever it was this contract would require.  The shabby old cat didn't waste a spare second, either; the last recruits from Urrin had barely stepped off the shuttle before Narrah informed them, loudly and in no uncertain terms, that the Miao Mercantile Mercenary company's first team meeting would be as soon as the ship transitioned to hyperspace.

With a sigh of apprehension, Heth floated along to where Narrah had scheduled the meeting in the transit portal bay.  The large, open chamber was good choice for a training area, Heth had to admit.  But then, it wasn't the real estate that worried Heth—it was the personnel.  Well, there's no point in delaying it any longer, Heth thought.  Time is money… and it's time to evaluate my labor force.

When the hatch rolled back and Heth floated into the room, he felt the familiar weight of artificial gravity pulling at him; Narrah must have dialed it up in the transit bay for some reason.  Heth silently surveyed the recruits for a moment with an appraising eye… and an increasing frown.

He was right to have been worried.  What he saw when the hatch rolled back disheartened him.  Over a dozen K'Nes, both males and females, floated and lounged about the empty bay, chatting, flirting, scratching, laughing, exchanging business cards and comparing bank accounts.  The only ones he recognized right away were M'Rowr and Surra, growling and clawing each other in a corner (as if no one could see them).  These recruits were more or less what Heth was expecting: veterans.  In other words, none of them had seen any action since the humans disbanded the K'Nes Tor Army eight years ago.  Most of them had let themselves go, devaluing what was most likely their only asset—their bodies.  They certainly didn't look like a very profitable bunch.  The disorganized crowd was a motley mob of faded clothing, shaggy fur, and untrimmed whiskers.

"You call this a mercenary company?" Heth announced, shaking his head as he floated to the center of the room.  "Well I assure you, I certainly wouldn't be investing in this company unless I absolutely had to—no matter how many credits I had to spare!"  Heads were turning to look at him now as some of the chatter died down.  "Alright, gather around," Heth said beckoning to this disorderly crowd with his paws.  "I've do have some of the job requirements for your positions on this contract, so listen up."  For a moment, the room was quiet, and for a split second Heth thought he'd successfully established himself as dominant male.

"Who the scat are you?" someone said. 

"I," Heth said, "am your employer!"

A chorus of chuckles ran through the room.

"Narrah's our boss!" another cat called back.  "Now get outta here, runt!  Tell the Captain we're waiting!"

"How dare you!" Heth snapped.  "I am your superior!  One more word like that, and you're fired!  Do you hear me?  Terminated!"  If anything, Heth's tongue-lashing only invited more laughter.

"Uh, boss?" M'Rowr said as his inflated, spherical form floated over to Heth.  "That, uh, might not be the best management strategy for this bunch of K'Nes… know what I'm saying?"

"Rubbish!" Heth said, hearing the door behind him slide open.  "I sign their paychecks, I give the orders!"

"Uh… that's not exactly how the military works …"  M'Rowr glanced over Heth's shoulder, who turned to see Narrah stalking toward them, limping on his bad leg, wearing black power armor and a blacker scowl.

"SWAAAAARM-HUP!" he bellowed.  The gathered K'Nes looked up and began milling around in something mildly resembling haste.

M'Rowr hesitated.  "Sorry, boss," he whispered, "I gotta go!  I'll talk to ya after—"

"DID YOU NOT HEAR ME, RAT?" Narrah roared into M'Rowr's face, robotic tail swishing angrily.

"Yes sire, I was just talking to the boss and tellin' him—"

Narrah swung down with expert aim.  M'Rowr rotund form bounced off the floor and into the wall, ricocheting off towards the ceiling before deflating with a loud belch and landing in a pile of fur on the floor.

"WHEN I GIVE AN ORDER I EXPECT IT TO BE FOLLOWED!" Narrah seized M'Rowr by the scruff of his neck and, with more strength the Heth would have ever have guessed the old cat had, yanked M'Rowr to his paws.  "DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME, RAT?  NOW SWAAAAARM-HUP!"  He threw M'Rowr in the general direction of the recruits.

And then… Sky Father above, Heth had never seen anything quite like it!  If Heth could have motivated assembly line workers to move that fast, he'd be a quintillionaire.  But even that wasn't enough for Narrah, who stalked around the room, bellowing orders and cracking heads until the K'Nes floated in three cloud formations.

"You call yourself K'Nes hunters?" Narrah spat.  "Bah!  You're rats!  No, rats are too big—you're mice!  A bunch of fat, puny rodents!  Sky Father must have scat in the black when he created your sorry tails!"  Narrah stalked through the formations, glaring into each set of eyes.  "Now get this through your thick skulls—until this contract is over, I am Sky Father here!  I dominate your worthless lives!  I separate light from dark, heat from cold—and if any of you kittens prove yourselves valuable, I might just keep you alive, too!  I am going to beat your flabby pelts into shape—or you will DIE!  You will eat when I say you eat, scat when I say you scat, move when I say you move!  You will train until you drop, then beg me for more!  And the first and last words out of your fish-stinking holes will be 'Sire!'  DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME, MICE!"


"I am your GOD here!  And when I say he is," Narrah jabbed a claw at Heth, "then this runt is too!  When he speaks as boss, you listen!  Do you understand that, you creditless scat-heads?"


Narrah turned to Heth.  "You have the air, boss."

"Why thank you," Heth said, floating forward.  He looked over the faces of the mercenaries, noticing for the first time that a few looked too young to have served in the Tor Army.  "We stand at the brink of a great financial opportunity," Heth began—then stopped, staring at some of the younger cats. "M'Rowr? Surra? A word?"

M'Rowr hesitated, casting an nervous glance at Narrah.  "Sire!  Permission to leave formation, sire?"

"Granted," Narrah nodded.  "But make it quick, recruit!"

M'Rrowr and Surra flew over to where Heth floated.  Heth turned his back to the mercenaries and hissed in a whisper, "M'Rowr, Surra… some of those recruits are your own cubs!"

"Well… yeah," M'Rrowr nodded, dead serious.  "You said to keep it in the family."

"Yes, but I didn't mean your pride!" Heth said, anxious.  "M'Rowr… you know this contract is dangerous.  K'Nes could get hurt, might even die…"

"They knew the risks when they volunteered, Heth," Surra grunted.  "Besides… they need the money."

Heth simply reached out and gripped their fur, speechless for a moment.  "I can't thank you enough," he said.  "If there's anything I can do…"

"Well, actually…"


"I was able to get the power armor from one of our warehouses… but it wasn't free, y'know.  The recruits had to buy their own suits.  Most of them had to take out loans to do it, and the interest rate's pretty high.  Look, my cubs don't have a lot of assets…"

Heth nodded, silently calculating the credits in his head.  "Understood.  I'll buy out the loans and refinance them to your cubs at five percent interest."

"Five?" Surra growled.

"Very well, three percent.  Final offer."

"Thanks, boss!" M'Rowr grinned.  "Trust me, apes with guns don't scare 'em half as much as a twenty-six percent interest rate!"  With that, the two cats sped back to their assigned positions in formation.

Heth resumed his speech to his mercenary company, briefly sketching out their business plan for the Smythe contract, and how it was a great investment for the long-term futures of their corporate clan.  He spoke not of courage, but of high-risk investments yielding greater returns—not of danger and noble sacrifice, but the cost-benefit analysis and the profit-to-loss ratio.  It… didn't seem to be having the desired effect on the mercenaries.  Strange, Heth thought, that approach usually works quite well in the boardroom…  Finally, he turned to Narrah.  "You have the air, Captain."

"Outstanding!" Narrah barked at him.  "Now get in formation!"

Heth looked around, not sure who Narrah was talking to.  All the recruits were already in formation.


"Wha—me?  Oh, don't worry, I'll leave you to your duties," Heth said with a dismissive wave of his paw as he floated toward the door.  "Please, carry on."

In a flash, Narrah sank his claws into Heth's tail and yanked him back with a yowl.  "YOU FALL INTO FORMATION!  NOW, RUNT, BEFORE I PISS ALL OVER YOUR BALANCE SHEET!!"

Heth stared at Narrah, appalled.  Such language!  "B-but I'm not a soldier!" Heth protested.


"Uh…"  Heth wasn't used to such insubordination.  "Well, yes, that is the general idea…"


Heth was openly cowering now.  "But… but I'm your boss!"

"THEN YOUR PUNY TAIL CAN FIRE ME AFTER WE GET OUT OF THIS CONTRACT ALIVE—ASSUMING YOUR USELESS PELT DOESN'T GET US ALL KILLED!  UNTIL THEN, I AM IN CHARGE!"  Narrah's cybernetic tail whipped out and wrapped around Heth's throat—tight.  Narrah yanked Heth's face up to his and hissed in a low growl, "Don't ever contradict me in front of my hunters again!  You understand that, boss?"

Boss?  Heth stared at Narrah, choking and confused.  Then, suddenly, he got it—he was in the middle of a pissing contest for dominant male.  Professionally, he was still Narrah's boss… but in all things military, Narrah was in command.  Heth had known that, agreed to that, when he signed the contract—he just never thought Narrah would demand that Heth be part of the mercenary company!  At the moment, though, Heth was running out of air.  He couldn't speak, so he just nodded vigorously; he understood.

"GOOD!  THEN GET IN FORMATION!"  With a snap of his tail, Narrah threw Heth into the swarm of floating mercenaries.  Heth bowled into them, scattering the formation.  Narrah stalked up in front of Heth as the rest of the K'Nes hastily reformed into clouds.  "NOW DROP AND GIVE ME FIFTY, YOU FLEA-BITTEN, FISH-STINKING, POVERTY-STRICKEN CAT!"

For a moment, Heth only stared at Narrah, confused.  It seemed like an odd request… but Heth wasn't about the challenge the grizzled old cat over it.  So Heth obediently deflated, sat down on his hind quarters, pulled out his datapad, and transferred fifty credits to Narrah's account.

He had a lot to learn about the military.




Tokyo Three was about to explode.  Or it would have, Takamitsu thought, if someone hadn't turned on the air conditioning.  Underneath a quiet little retreat full of rice paddies and blissful ignorance was an underground maze that would make a survivalist wet himself with delight.  Power armor, plasma rifles, aerodynes… there were even a few assault shuttles.  Everything that Yasuyama Akihiro could squirrel away over a decade for the day—which he hoped would never come—that the family would need all the armaments it could get.

It was also hotter than hell.  Since they had been firing up the suits and the shuttles, no one had bothered to activate the ventilation system in the cool, buried facility.  So by the time someone figured out that all that machinery kicked out heat, they almost had to abandon it… until the air conditioners kicked on.

Even with climate control, the heat was still difficult to walk around in.  The moldy hallways and the poor chemlamps made it look like a scene out of cheap horror vid.  "How did the Fed never…?"  Taka whispered.

"We overpaid our taxes," his father said, leading him through the labyrinthine hallways.  "We were a major defense contractor and the books were always in order.  Even Clarke's 'ministers of production' weren't stupid enough to kill their only golden goose.  As long as the armor and equipment kept flowing, and everything looked in order, I was able to build this little empire."

"But you would think the Raptors…"

"The Raptors went where Clarke pointed them," Akihiro clarified.  "I convinced him to point somewhere else.  Not surprising, since the Federation was busy conquering all of known space."

His father was nervous, antsy, not quite himself.  Takamitsu could have chalked that up to the fact that the planet he was standing on was under bombardment, but he knew his father better than that.  He had watched him stand up to Fed officials, TI generals, and even cult leaders without a flinch.  No, his son knew, there was something on his mind.  Finally, he said, "Ask me."

Akihiro stopped for a moment, looked at his son carefully, and then shook his head.  "No.  We're almost at the shuttle.  Wait until then."

It didn't take long until they hit the shuttle bay.  Four obsolete shuttles mixed in with a squadron of fighters so old that they should have been in a museum.  And our security officers are climbing in them, Taka realized.  More corporate security teams were filing into the shuttles as his father led him to the front.  He pointed to the co-pilot's seat (although Taka had no idea what he would do if he actually had to fly it) as his father took the lead position.  "We have to take out these orbitals if our little… endeavor is to survive."

The younger Yasuyama looked through the clearplaz window and saw nothing but rock above them.  "How are we going to fly out of here?"

"We're not," Akihiro corrected, and then activated the com.  A holoproj of a man's face appeared before his father—a face strangely familiar to Takamitsu, but he couldn't say how.

"Ah, my old friend," the man said in Japanese.

"Kazzy, do you have the coordinates?"

"So formal?  What happened to pleasure before business?"

"Shinjuku is being bombed from the sky, and troopers are ruining both our businesses.  I think pleasure should be the last thing on your mind."

Kazzy chuckled.  "You would let such a little thing keep you from the simple joys."

"The last simple joy you took me for was orbit diving, and after I almost blacked out—then we skiied down the tallest mountain on New Tokyo."

"I don't remember you complaining at the time."

"I still have the bruises!" his father shouted back.

"But we had such a great massage afterwards, eh?"

Both of them suddenly burst out laughing.  Taka's eyes went wide; who was this person?

"The coordinates?  Please, Kazzy?"

"All right," the man rolled his eyes and pressed some buttons.  "They should be reaching you soon."

A new set of numbers filed into the navcomp.  "Got 'em.  Bless you, Kazzy."

"Kick some Fed ass, Aki."

"It's Ministry ass."

"Watch the news sometime.  Ministry became Fed like… a week ago."

His father sighed.  "Been busy."

"Hey, me too.  Let's have a drink again sometime."

"With any luck.  Discom."

Takamitsu was silent as his father inputted instructions into the navcomp.  Finally, only when he finished, did Taka dare ask, "Who was that man?"

"Surely you know who Iizuka Kazuya is, my son."

"Iizuka… the head of Yakuza-Iizuka?!"

"The same.  One of his firms helped build the orbital defense grid around New Tokyo… so he just happens to know where the gaps in their sensor arrays happen to be," his father explained.

"How do you know such a criminal?"

Akihiro shrugged.  "We were childhood friends back on Showa.  We chose different paths, but even then, it was obvious fate chose us for greatness."  He stared at his son.  "As they chose you.  Accept it, Taka, that I have my secrets… and so do you.  Buckle up, we're about to launch."

"Launch?  How?"

And then Takamitsu saw the lights at the end of shuttle bay.  Transit beacon, he realized, but it has to be a huge system to jump…

Suddenly, they were hovering behind the shadow of the second moon, right above New Tokyo.  Akihiro hit the comm button.  "Have we been detected?"

"Negative, sai.  We are in position to strike the orbitals."

"Then begin.  You have your orders.  Success!"

A cheer rang out throughout the shuttlecraft.  Akihiro hit the controls and away they went, zooming through space towards their targets.  After a tense minute, his father turned to his son and asked, "Now speak.  Is my… is your mother?  Your sister still alive?"

"Yes, but I did not see them."

"What do you mean?" Akihiro asked.

Takamitsu paused before answering.  "They… they said they were being held.  As hostages, until they paid their debt to… someone."


The young manager shook his head.  "The grandmothers did not tell me who.  But they jumped ahead a year with his help."

His father thought about what he had said.  "This is why they did not talk to me.  They wanted to protect me from the pain."  He sighed.  "One would assume that the greatest time mages of the Eastern Bloc should have been able to…?"

"I suppose," Taka replied, "it was too hard, even for them. One, perhaps, but certainly not the whole clan."

Akihiro turned away.  "Except us."

"Father, what had to be done was done for the good for the family.  Someone had to build a future that the Yasuyama could live in.  That was us."

His father was silent for a while as he fiddled with the lidar.  "We're coming upon our first target."  He glanced at his son.  "I can only hope the stealth systems still work on this crate."




"Do you know, I didn't think that would actually work!  Oh, my giddy aunt, I'm not sorry to see her go!"

Izzy grinned as he surveyed the room with freshly revivified eyes.  The afterimages of the artificial sunlight still stained his retinas, but he blinked them away to focus on his guests.  "I'm relieved to see you are all still alive.  Well done, everyone!"

They stared back at him, clearly not sharing his enthusiasm, but he hardly noticed.  Izzy didn't know himself why he felt so… pleased.  Perhaps it was the fact that the witch who had haunted the back of his mind for all these years was finally and irrevocably destroyed.  Perhaps it was an effect of the diablerization.  Or perhaps it was simply because he was in his own flesh-and-bone body again—and not only that, it was not screaming for blood at the moment.  His mind was clear, and he felt almost human.

"Look at you all!  Working together!"  Izzy paced his circle of safety, working himself into a mania.  "And you!"  He turned to Victoria and scooped her up before anyone could object, twirling her around.  "You were brilliant!  I hope you were paying attention, Lwan old friend, because these people are the future of the universe!"

"Put my daughter down!" Patty Sylvest ordered, ignoring the fact that Izzy could have broken her in half.

Still smiling, D'Argent put the little girl down, and kept dancing within the ring of movement he had.  "A far better outcome than I could have dreamt possible!  Well… no, I could have probably dreamt of less, ah… painful and traumatic ways to get from A to B…"

"What do you mean?" the teenage Stefan asked the twirling vampire.

"I never meant for things to get so out of hand—and trust me, this hasn't been a romp in the park for me either, but nevermind!  No one was seriously injured, and that's the important thing!"  He stopped suddenly and looked at the battered group as though seeing them for the first time.  "Er… no one was seriously injured… right?"

The group scowled back at him, bruised but having sustained no really permanent damage, at least that Izzy could see.  It was apparent to him that Lilith had been going easy on them, merely corralling them so that he could go in for the kill.  "Regardless," Izzy continued, "you will, of course, be tended to by the best doctors Sylvania has to offer—really a top notch bunch, I assure you."

Malai scowled.  "What, you're going to just… let us go?"

"Yes, of course!" D'Argent burst out.  "Why wouldn't I?"

Patty joined the scowl-fest.  "You tortured my daughter…"

"No, no, no!"  Izzy waved his hands like he was conducting a symphony.  "Lilith was simply trying to use Victoria to get to me.  Lilith wasn't part of my plans—oh, was she never part of that—but look at the result!"

"What was the plan?" Tamara finally piped up.

D'Argent forced himself to sit down on the broken casket, practically bouncing with delight as he faced them.  "Oh, the plan… an old friend of mine came by for tea one day.  Unfortunately, I couldn't offer any, since I was just a hologram, but that's fine, because he could levitate—"

"The plan!" Chakravarty bellowed, repeating it to keep him on task.

"And… and we started talking about the universe.  The Caal, former Chairman Clarke, the collapse of the Federation… and that's when it hit me.  Er, us.  Well, maybe it was both of us."  Izzy let loose a restrained giggle.  "We needed to pick someone.  A man.  A good man.  Someone who could guide the universe to a better tomorrow.  Something other than the Federation, Empire, or any of these failed plans.  Something good.  Something that would give the most benefit to the most people.  Not chocolates in the streets, mind you, but maybe some nougat.  Or some celery.  Or…"

Victoria cut to the chase.  "Why are we here?"

"I thought that was obvious!"  D'Argent launched himself off the casket and landed on his feet.  "You.  All of you!  You are the good men.  The good women.  The good… er, beings, if we count the cat—uh, K'Nes.  You have the chance to change the galaxy!"

"What?!" Patty exploded.

"Yes!  I thought it was just going to be little Vicky here—but no, it's all of you!  The galaxy is the biggest show on Earth… oh dear, I really must update my references… but we need a group.  A council—not a Grand Council, no, never that—but a team.  You've proven that you're a team, and frankly, one could not have asked for a better, smarter, most happy… happiest?  No, that's not right…"

"Wait…"  Malai stepped forward, staring to Izzy's eyes.  "How are we supposed to lead the galaxy if we are not in position to do that?  I'm a shipbuilder, Patty's a coordinator…"

"And I'll be starting fourth grade!" Vicky piped up.
            "Arthur Clarke didn't start off as a Chairman, silly, silly girls… and boy.  I mean… er, Clarke was an ordinary trooper who made it big—big, I say!  Already, you're all in a position to make this happen, if only you worked together."  Izzy did a happy little jig for a second, then posed.  "And so you have!  Imagine what you could do if you kept working together?  Hmmm?"

"Um…"  Tammy raised her hands.  "I don't know if you know this, but there are already some pretty big rollers out there.  They're not going to like us messing up their plans."

"Well, obviously it won't happen overnight, my dear.  But it can… and I can help you, if you let me."

Malai shook her head.  "You have a lot of faith in people you just met.  What makes you think we're going to keep quiet about any of this, vampire?  One word to the… how did you phrase it?  The, uh, 'big rollers,' and they'll flatten your planet.  I mean, moon."

"Oh, I doubt very much you will keep quiet about it.  And I accept the consequences."  D'Argent bowed.  "But I ask that you talk it over amongst yourselves, think about what I'm offering.  Together we change the universe… for good!"  He closed his eyes.  "These moments don't come that often, my dears."  When he opened them, he pointed out a doorway.  "To the right is a lift, it will take you back to the surface.  Meet with your team.  Decide what you want to do."

"And where will you be in all this?" Patty demanded.

Izzy looked over sadly at the holoproj angel, still smiling.  "I'll be right here."

Suddenly, Azrael blinked.  The smile dropped from his visage and suddenly the angel started to dissipate.  Azrael only had a few seconds to look panicked before the program was replaced by a new angel—one that was very familiar to Stefan.  "Dad?!"

"I broke through the final barriers!"  Gabriel laughed, triumphant in his holoproj.  "That vampire can't stop us…"  He looked over at D'Argent and blinked.  "Oh."

Izzy looked around at the defunct light emitters.  Carefully, he stepped past the forbidden line… and was unscathed.  "Thank you, M. Quattone.  You have successfully removed the final protocol.  I'm grateful."

Gabriel didn't seem that pleased.  "Uh, do you four need to run?"

Patty shook her head.  "No, I think we need to talk.  Unplug, Gabe, we'll meet you back at the hotel."  The mother looked over at the vampire.  "Unless you plan to eat us now?"

"No."  D'Argent shook his head.  "I try never to eat more than a light dinner.  It gives me gas."


The glow of the planet overhead was beautiful on New Sparta, and for the first time in many years, Izzy sat on his park bench and enjoyed the view with his own eyes.  Breathing in air he didn't need, D'Argent enjoyed the night, realizing that despite the amazement of his virtual world, it was just a shadow of the real thing.

The park owner heard footsteps behind him.  "I'm sorry, Lwan," Izzy said, not looking back.  "I couldn't find your one.  But I found many—a whole team!  You wouldn't believe how amazing they are!  I think they're the right ones to rule the universe.  No more Federations or Republics…"

"That's good," a voice replied, punctuated by the charging of a plasma rifle.  "I'm glad I didn't waste my time waiting on that orbital.  Turns out you're all traitors to the Republic."

D'Argent finally turned around and saw a young man in a naval uniform, looking disheveled but determined as he pointed the weapon at the vampire's chest.  Izzy looked at the weapon, then at the face, and had to smile.  "And who are you, friend?"
            "I'm Lieutenant Commander Aaron Roquefort, Terran Navy," the young officer replied, "and you're under arrest."




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, no matter how sexy that female were-tiger looks.