"Do you know what horrors lie beyond that wall?" 


(smile) "Then you go first."


--  Conan the Barbarian, old two-dee vid.

"The Chronicles and Discoveries of Augustus Giovanni by Claudius Giovanni—along with account numbers to many of their financial holdings," Melissa repeated as she held the book.  "Do you know what this means, Bishop?"

            "We are about to be very rich?"

Cortona just glared at him.

William smiled.  "I really don't know vampire history.  Bree told me a little about the Giovanni…"

            They looked up and saw Hugh floating towards them.  "You know my name, but you have not told me yours," the wraith interrupted.

            "Call me Melissa," Melissa replied.  "He's Bishop."

"That last encounter with… Bishop took more out of me than it might appear.  I feel tired and must rest."

            "Very well," said Melissa, holding up the book.  "But do you know what this contains?"

            "Of course I do.  I was with him when he wrote it."  Hugh seemed to puff up with pride, something odd to see on a wraith.  "I have spent over three centuries serving Angelo.  Most of the book is really about the life… and passing of Augustus Giovanni.  But the question you should be asking isn't what is in the book.  It should be about who wrote it."

            "What do you mean?" asked Bishop.

            "As Melissa probably knows, the antediluvian vampire Cappadocius founded the Cappadocian Clan.  They had a strong interest in understanding death, because they had a desire to meet and diablorize God.  They were known as the Clan of Death."

            "So?" said Bishop.

"In the early 11th century, Cappadocius embraced Augustus Giovanni, a Venetian wanting to increase his wealth.  However, he became obsessed with being able to manipulate death and master the art of necromancy.  He also started several bloodlines underneath him, and one of those that he embraced was Claudius Giovanni," Hugh answered.

            Bishop wasn't impressed.  "I'm waiting."

            The wraith sighed and roll his eyes.  "Eventually, Claudius was one of the organizers of the Conspiracy of Isaac when the Giovanni turned on Cappadocius.  During that struggle, Claudius diablorized Japheth.  Japheth was Cappadocius' most beloved direct childer.  Later, as some of us know, Augustus partially diablorized Cappadocius and became an antediluvian.  Cappadocius himself became a wraith and later a specter.  I actually met him once."

            "So Giovanni became an antediluvian," William answered, "or close to it, and Cappadocius became…"

"A specter.  Cappadocius still had his own followers that survived the conflict against the Giovanni called the Harbingers of Skulls—but without a living antediluvian leading them, they died out over the centuries trying to exact revenge on the Giovanni."

            "Giovanni is dead," said Melissa definitively.  "The Sabbat, Crusader Teams, and others defeated most of the Giovanni and killed their leadership.  Not too long ago, Augustus killed himself rather than be diablorized by Mordred.  Any Giovanni left have little influence."

"True," Hugh replied.  "But how could Claudius Giovanni, an extremely powerful and smart vampire, just one step away from becoming an antediluvian, have written about the life and death of Augustus Giovanni?  Unless he survived... food for thought!"

Before Melissa or Bishop could ask another question, Hugh's form became a thin cloud of vapor.  The vapor quickly floated towards Melissa and seemed to dissolve into the large sapphire she was holding in her hand.

            William spat.  "A better question to ask would be 'What the hell was Angelo doing on Wilke's Star?'  A Giovanni?  Undetected by Mordred, Santino, and the rest of the Sabbat?"

            "Great, I'm over here in pieces, and you two are enjoying a casual conversation," said David, lying on the ground about a dozen paces away from them.  He had just finished draining the blood from the dead were-liger, regained consciousness, and recovered his energy.  One of his legs, however, had been chopped off at the knee.  Bishop estimated that it would take a couple weeks for it to regenerate.

            Bishop took the book from Melissa and put it into one of the pockets of his coat.  He then walked over to David, picked him up, and said, "Let's get the hell out of here."

They headed towards the wide open entrance at the front.  They had barely taken a few steps when they saw a large speeder with dark tinted glass windows rapidly drive to where they were.  The passenger side door opened and out stepped a werewolf.  It looked like his body had been cut from steel, with a short black crew cut and wearing a black leather jacket.  The rear passenger doors opened and three vampires stepped out.  The werewolf grabbed a massive two-handed sword out of the speeder and sheathed it into a leather scabbard strapped to his back.  When his eyes met Bishop's, an air of rage and anger seemed to hover behind them.  He stared at the dead were-liger's corpse and then turned his gaze back towards Bishop.  The other vampires quickly walked over to Angelo's corpse and started to inspect the body.  One of them looked back towards the speeder and shook his head.

"Make your move," William stared the werewolf leader down.

A moment later, the driver's window rolled down, and a familiar face appeared.  Calihye said, "Get in."

Keeping his distance from the newcomers, Bishop put David in the driver side passenger seat, and then got into the back with Melissa.  Once seated, Calihye reversed out of the warehouse, sped out of the warehouse complex, and went further into the city.

            "Who was that?" asked Bishop once they were a block away.

            "That was Darius.  His family have been involved with the Sabbat for decades.  The rest were some members of his Pack," answered Calihye.  The speeder became quiet for the rest of the trip; the exhaustion of a successful hunt released.

An hour later, they arrived at another massive factory, with the stink of tanning chemicals and animal hides—but this one abandoned.  Calihye stopped the speeder in front, got out, and went in through the front door.  Melissa followed along with Bishop, carrying David.

            The door opened to a massive open area.  All of the previous factory machinery had been removed.  Covering the floor must have been a few thousand were-rats in rat form.  In the center of the floor was a large hole dug into the floor with a large ramp leading down to an underground sewer.

            "Follow me," said Calihye.  She went around the rats, leading them to a door leading to an office area at the back.  She opened the door, led them down several hallways, and eventually to a large room with a long conference table positioned in the middle.  Seated on either side were numerous Sabbat vampires, many of which Bishop did not recognize.  There were four empty seats at the middle of the table and several along the wall opposite them.  Bishop, Melissa, and David were directed to sit in those and waited.

And waited…

And waited.  Three hours went by before Santino, Magnus, Malikait, and Colby Bree entered.  Malikait snickered as he walked in.  "Sorry to keep you waiting."  The others took the seats at the middle of the table.

            Magnus looked at everyone in the room individually and said, "Our operations to eliminate the Ratkin's enemies on the streets have been successful.  There are still a few stragglers left, but most of them have been eliminated, or will be shortly.  Now that the Ratkin Plague's competition has been removed, we can proceed to phase two of our plan."  He looked over at Santino.

            "Our high-ranking allies within the Holy Terran Empire have secured us safe passage from here to the Van Diemen system with minimal inspections.  Officially, we will be transporting legal goods…"

"Like what?" Bishop asked.

Santino smiled.  "High quality leather products, made right here in Calaunt.  We will take them to Darwin, the main city on Van Diemen.  Along with our normal cargo, many of our ranks will come along, as well as large numbers of the Ratkin Plagues.  Isn't that right, Colby?"

            "True," Colby nodded.  "I've met with most of the Ratkin leaders and they've agreed.  Our involvement in your plans benefits us as much they benefit you."

            Santino continued.  "Our goal is not to take over Van Diemen, which would only draw Imperial attention, but to achieve a strong influence on the planet. That way, we assure our followers a safe haven off Wilke's Star."

"Strong influence…" Malakait rolled his eyes.

"Over time," the Priscus continued, "we may decide to take outright control, but for now, we want to simply turn the populace against the current administration.  This will allow us to elevate our own representatives into positions of power—who will ensure our increased presence will go unnoticed… or simply seem exaggerated."

            "Why do you need the were-rats, my Lord?" asked Melissa.

            Santino looked at Melissa and said, "Due to the extreme orbital tilt of the planet, Huxley—one of the two major cities on the planet—is located on a polar region that is currently experiencing nearly continuous daylight this time of year.  That city will be difficult for us to infiltrate.  Therefore, the were-rats will concentrate on that city while we focus on the other pole where Darwin is located.  Darwin is now experiencing almost constant in darkness."

            "What do you need me to do?" asked Bishop.

            "We need to make the local planetary government less popular on Van Diemen.  Your role—and others—will be to hunt down major government officials that are popular with the people.  This will ultimately result in the unpopular leaders ascending into higher positions, which will only make the government even more hated.  Eventually, that will enable our representatives to assume power."

"Straight forward," William nodded.

"Not exactly," Santino explained.  "We would prefer to use a scalpel rather than a machete.  The authorities must not believe we are connected.  So these assassinations will have ties to those that are currently in power… that are despised anyway.  The exact details will be provided to you once we reach the planet.  I will be leading other operations on the planet, some of which will be geared towards hiding our presence."

"Thank you, my Lord," said Bishop.

            Santino made eye contact with Bishop and said, "As the other leaders know, I checked in on you periodically during your mission to view your progress.  I paid particularly close attention to your confrontation with Cortona in the alley."  He leaned back in his chair.  "I see that my choice of you as my Templar was a good one."

Melissa was a little apprehensive when she asked, "Who else will be coming with us?"

"I will lead three Archbishops and many of their subordinates from Tantrus and other cities.  Cardinal Malikait and Archbishop Calihye will command another force with many members from Calaunt.  We are sending two transports.  You, Bishop, and David will take the first transport with several Packs from Calaunt and the Ratkin.  Malikait and I will follow you along with the rest of our members on the second transport.  Magnus will stay here and continue to keep an eye on our operations on Wilke's Star.  Cortona, you will report to me."

"When are we going?" William asked.

"Now," the Priscus turned and said, "Calihye.  Colby?  Escort them and the Ratkin to the transport."  Santino turned towards another vampire, one of those Bishop hadn't been introduced to yet.  She was a very short woman with long dark brown hair at the far end of the table.  "Rachel, get David a wheelchair."  She got up and left the room.  Nobody said anything and several moments later she returned with a wheelchair.  Bishop put David in it.
            Calihye nodded to Santino and escorted them to the main room of the factory.  All the were-rats were still there in rat form.  She led Melissa, Colby, and Bishop (pushing David) to the hole in the floor and down the ramp to the tunnel below.  Calihye led them in a direction that Bishop guessed was towards the spaceport.  After they had walked about a hundred paces, Colby whistled very loudly.

            Behind them in the factory, thousands of rats ran down the ramp in the hole in the floor of the factory.  Soon there was massive throng of rats covering the floor of the tunnel like a long thick carpet following them as they continued walking.

            They walked for a long time—time became meaningless in that tunnel—and eventually came upon a long flight of stairs going upwards.  Calihye led them up the stairs which went to a doorway at the top.  She opened the door, walked through, and everyone followed.  She walked down a very long hallway with numerous doors along the way and eventually opened a door at the end.  It led to the outside and a space platform with a massive space shuttle and a ramp leading up to a large open cargo area.  Colby walked up the ramp and the long wide trail of rats started following her up into the cargo hold.

            Calihye led them to a stairway leading to a door towards the front of the ship.  They entered a room with numerous seats with a few empty ones at the back.  Calihye motioned to them to take those seats while she went through a door at the front.

            About half an hour later, Bishop and Melissa could feel the ignition of engines and the thrust of the ship moving forward.  The shuttle took off, broke through the planet's atmosphere, and entered space.  Soon after, it docked at a small orbital space station.  Once there, Bishop, Melissa, David, and the other Sabbat members were led out of the shuttle down some wide and open hallways to a large transport that was waiting to take them to Van Diemen.  They were followed by Colby and the swarm of were-rats.

            Once aboard the transport, Bishop and Melissa were led to the ship's infirmary where they left David so that he could heal.  Then they were led to separate rooms.

In his room, Bishop found suitcases full of different types of clothes—they weren't his style, but he gathered they would be more suitable for Darwin than what he was wearing.  He changed clothes, grabbed the Giovanni book, and went to Melissa's room.

            He knocked on the door.  "Come in."

As he walked in, William was taken aback.  Instead of her normal slick leather clothes, she was dressed in a pale white dress… or what looked like a dress, but had pants.  It was one of those mysteries of women's fashion Bishop figured he was best off not knowing about.  Her allure was diminished by an IV stand draining blood from a plastic sack to her right.  She nodded to him with a wink and a smile.  Bishop closed the door behind him and took a seat at the side of her bed.  When the sack was empty she pulled out the needle and said, "After all the activity today, you must be hungry."

            Before he could answer, a message flashed across a holoproj on the wall.  It stated that the ship had detached from the station and was heading towards the jump gate.

            "I'm famished," the were-panther answered.

            "I'll call the mess hall."  She pushed an intercom switch and ordered food to be delivered.  Ten minutes later, a very large sandwich was delivered to them along with a couple beers.  Bishop wolfed it down.  Melissa waited calmly until he was finished.  Then she said, "I've been thinking about what you said before.  It does seem unusual that a Giovanni would be on the streets of Calaunt undetected.  And don't you think it was more than coincidental that Calihye and Darian showed up at the exact moment after we killed him?  Or… perhaps they were too late?"

            "I agree," said Bishop, "but I'm more curious about the book.  If I could read it, then I might actually start to understand the history of vampires.  I have a feeling… that to survive in the Sabbat, I can't afford to be ignorant about your history."

            "True," Melissa nodded, "but I can't read it either.  It was written in Renaissance Italian.  We could ask Hugh to translate it for us, but he could easily lie about what it says.  There would be no way for us to tell the difference."

            "Did you say Italian?" asked Bishop. "I do have an ability that will allow me to read almost any language.  I might be able to read ancient vampire script, but not consistently.  But if the book was in Italian, then I should be able to translate it."

"How long?"

"About an hour.  If I can get the general gist of what it says, then when Hugh translates it, we'll be able to tell if he is lying.  Or… read it again to verify if what he is telling us is true.  Do you mind if I could sit at the desk?"

            "It's all yours."  Bishop and Melissa exchanged places.  Once seated, Bishop opened the book to the first page and closed his eyes.  After a few moments of meditation he felt a connection to the Spirit of the Crow and moments later, he could almost visualize a crow perched on his shoulder.  Bishop looked down at the book and started reading.  Although he could not directly tell what the words meant, apparently the crow could, because he could hear it translating the text for him in his mind.  Bishop flipped through the pages rather quickly since he was perusing the text and not interested in learning the exact details.

            After about half an hour, Bishop slowed down his reading and said, "Holy shit!"

"What?"  He got Melissa's attention.  "What is it?"

"So far, what Hugh has told us is true.  But what he didn't tell us was that when Augustus diablorized Cappadocius, he also gained some of the abilities that many vampire scholars thought had disappeared after his death."

            "Interesting, but not terribly useful," chided Melissa with a smile.

            "There's more.  According to Augustus, Cappadocius and his clan were interested in the manipulation of death.  They believed that when a person dies, a shadow of their former soul remains in the body.  That shadow can be controlled.  Since vampires are technically dead, the most powerful Cappadocian vampires gained an ability to control the remaining embers of the soul left in their bodies.  They could take on a human… er, resemblance of their former selves.  They could feel thirst, hunger, and everything else, but were no longer hurt by sunlight.  It didn't last forever, but for quite a long time."

            "Sounds like a power I've heard of.  Body of the Sun?"

            "Not as powerful," Bishop corrected.  "But during the war with the Giovanni, Cappadocius and his most powerful vampires died.  So those abilities were thought to have gone away because no one in the Giovanni or others were able to use them.  But… when Augustus diabolized Cappadocius he also gained this ability, but it was kept secret.  Even most of his followers did not know, since he was not able to pass it along to his childer."

            "Wait, didn't Hugh say something about… how did it go, um, Claudius diablorizing Japheth, who was Cappadocius direct descendent?  Does he have that ability?"

            "It doesn't say," Bishop answered, and closed the book.  "I think we'll talk to Hugh.  Speaking of which, how long does he need to rest?"

            "I'm not sure," answered Melissa.  She pulled out the sapphire and held it tightly.  "Hugh Montgomery, I want to speak to you."  The sapphire brightened and a small vapor came forth from the stone, taking the shape of the wraith.  Just then they heard a knock at the door.  Bishop hid the book in one of the desk drawers as the wraith seemed to quickly to dissolve into the floor.  Melissa said, "Enter."

            The door opened and in the hallway was David in a wheelchair with Irene standing behind him.  David said, "Guys, we need to talk."




            The Lord High Admiral Ramachander Pennyworth marched into the medical ward of the Army training base like he was on the parade ground outside.  The gleaming jackboots of he and his entire entourage clacked crisply against the buffed fungicrete floor.  Two Imperial Guardsmen, an Army medical officer, and the base commandant snapped to attention as soon as the little procession drew within five meters of their position outside the locked door of a private care room.  Ramachander listened appreciatively to the sound of their heels clicking together, and then returned his own drill-perfect salute.

            Truthfully, the Lord High Admiral had little taste for such pomp and ceremony.  It was often boring; usually a waste of time, and his full dress uniform was always uncomfortably hot and itchy.  Despite that, Ramachander dared not dispense with a single magnificent gesture.  Such performances were essential to maintaining proper discipline and respect within his unit, which were in turn essential to maintaining his position and authority within the Imperial Fleet and the greater Holy Terran Empire.  Ramachander had neither family nor property; nothing and no one outside of the Fleet to support him against the dogs still running rampant through the Empire.  They would fall upon and devour him at the first sign of weakness, at the first glimpse of a crack in the armor of his prestige.

            Unless and until those dogs were collared, the Lord High Admiral's boots would stay polished and his salutes would continue to be executed with exacting precision.  Ramachander doubted a change would come anytime soon.

            "My Lord Admiral!" the commandant, a colonel, sang out.

            "At ease, gentlemen."  Ramachander paused while the soldiers folded their hands behind their backs.  Then he looked at the medic.  "Captain, how is the patient?"

            "Stable now, sir.  The bleeding's stopped, and I expect to see the swelling and infections clear in a day or two.  We removed the left leg, but were able to save the other limbs and the mandible, though he'll have a prosthetic holding his jaw together for a few weeks.  He's conscious, but a little feverish and having occasional bouts of mild delirium."

            Ramachander nodded, "Based on what I understood from my own CMO, then, you and your team have done a commendable job.  Good work."

            The medic allowed himself only a very slight smile, "Thank you, Lord Admiral."

            Ramachander nodded, then glanced between the medic and the colonel, "So, do you have any idea what happened to him?"

            The Army officers glanced at each other, and the colonel nodded for his subordinate to go ahead.  "Well, he hasn't been forthcoming with me yet, sir."  The medic pursed his lips.  "But based on his injuries, especially those to the lower legs and arms, I suspect he may have been tortured."

            Ramachander raised an eyebrow.  "Elaborate, please."

            "Well, the other wounds look like typical battle damage," the medic said.  "He took a plasma shot to the left knee, some other burn damage on his chest and biceps, and a physical impact to his mouth.  But then it's like someone drove nails through his shins and forearms.  The wounds are a little too clean for anything I'd expect a Bug to do, or even some nut with a spear.  I'm only speculating, but it strikes me as deliberate, calculated.  Actually, it makes me think of…"  The medic trailed off, snapped his mouth shut, and reddened.

            "Of what, Captain?" Ramachander pressed.

            "Of a crucifixion, sir," the medical officer murmured, and then coughed.

            The base commandant winced, but Ramachander let the comment pass without remark.  He had more immediate concerns than worrying about the ideological and religious reliability of officers outside his own chain of command.  So he only took a deep breath and turned back to the colonel.  "Have you learned anything at all since your initial report, Colonel Garant?"

            The commandant shook his head.  "No, my Lord Admiral.  As I reported, he collapsed almost immediately after claiming to be a defector from the Terran Navy.  He's been confined in here with the medics since then.  I have had base security keeping him under surveillance, and I'll be happy to release the recordings to you, but I don't believe he's said anything of note."  He shrugged.  "I'm only a training officer, sir, I thought it best to leave any interrogation to the higher-ups."

            The Lord High Admiral nodded.  "Much as I might wish I had more information, Colonel, that was the correct decision.  If his claims are plausible, I will most likely be taking him off your hands.  To that end, may I speak with him?"

            He looked straight at the medic, who started.  "Yes… of course, sir!  He is awake, and doesn't appear tired, though I would like to keep him under observation, if I may.  Um, and as I said, he's not been entirely coherent.  He may not be very responsive to questions."

            "I'll take the risk," Ramachander said.  He gestured to the door.  "Private?"

            One of the Imperial Guardsmen saluted, then unlocked the door and held it open.  The Lord High Admiral marched in, followed by his entourage of Fleet officers, Colonel Garant, and the medic.  Two more Guardsmen inside the door moved to attention as the group filtered in.  The room was windowless, with one spartan hospital bed and some minimal monitoring equipment.  Sitting up in the bed was a young-looking man—Ramachander might easily have mistaken him for a teenager—with short, platinum blond hair, bulbous wide eyes, and a silvery plastic and metal plate covering his lower jaw.  He watched the group of Imperial officers with apparent fascination as they encircled his bed.

            Ramachander was just opening his mouth to speak when the young man beat him to it.  "I have fake teeth!" he announced brightly.

            The Lord High Admiral blinked, and glanced at the medic.  "Er, we had to implant false lower teeth when we reconstructed his mandible," the captain said.  "I suppose that's what he means."

            The patient nodded in enthusiastic agreement.

            "I see," Ramachander said, "I was hoping you might—"

            "Your uniforms are different," the man in the bed said, squinting at him.  "Are you a Fleet boy?"

            "I am Lord High Admiral Pennyworth, commander of this sector," Ramachander said a bit stuffily.  The title sounded much more impressive than it actually was.  His "sector" nominally included G2, Cronos, and Proxima Centauri; but G2 was a strategic irrelevancy, and Cronos rated just barely above a backwater planet.  Proxima was somewhat more important, especially now that it was back on the front line with the Fed, but the Fleet's disposition hadn't caught up to that new reality just yet.  The Chevauchée, Ramachander's flagship, was a fine ship of war, but it was still only a battlecruiser.  It had only been a stroke of luck that he'd been in the Cronos system at all when their mysterious guest fell out of the sky.

            "Well, you should attack the Republic right now if you're ever going to," the patient said.  "They're terribly vulnerable, but your advantage is going to start draining rapidly from here on out."

            "Is that so?"

            The man nodded.  "Right now there's a little under… two thousand fighters in Wolf, with maybe a hundred and fifty converted merchant freighters—think thin-skinned missile frigates and gunboats for those.  Any real fleet could gut the whole thing in a few hours, now that I'm not there to command it.  Don't even worry about reinforcements, either, the Governor of Copernicus has a light cruiser up his sleeve, but that's the closest real warship.  Hadrian's in an even poorer position.  Still, it's a dynamic situation.  Even if they stick to my plan, your opposition in Wolf is going to increase by about a hundred fighters every few days, and I'm sure the Navy's going to shake some things up now that I'm gone."

            Ramachander shook his head against this little flood of information and commentary.  He would remember it all for his own report, of course, but the details weren't exactly relevant to his own command.  "So this is what you came here to tell us?" he asked.

            The man in the hospital bed snorted.  "Heck no!  I came here to avoid getting stuck with a particularly hefty restaurant bill.  This little intelligence coup is just a happy side effect—for you, anyway.  I'll be happy just as long as I can get a strong drink in the near future.  But I'm absolutely willing to buy it by disclosing juicy state secrets."  He grinned wickedly.

            Ramachander fought down a sigh.  "Well, if it turns out you do have useful intelligence, I'm sure you can be appropriately compensated, M…?"

            "Scyr," the man said.  He turned his head to Colonel Garant.  "Didn't I tell you that already?  Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Terran Republic, et cetera.  I'm sure you're able to access Republican news sites and look up my picture."  He frowned suddenly.  "Or, hmm, maybe you aren't, considering…" he rubbed his chin, "…and if he can do that, it'd be the greatest counter-intelligence operation ever, and probably explain a great deal."

            Ramachander cleared his throat.  "M. Scyr?"

            "Yes?"  The man looked up.  Then he snapped his fingers right under the medical officer's nose, causing the captain to jump backwards.  "I know!  This is the Empire, right?  Vin Dandy—Dane—and all that, yes?"

            Every Imperial in the room straightened.  "Praise be upon he who saves us from the Caal," Ramachander said loudly.  The others whispered their agreements.

            "Yeah, yeah, praise him," Scyr said, waving dismissively, "great guy, shake his hand if I could.  Anyway, I know something you're really going to want to hear.  It's outside my department, but the Terran Army?  They've been doing some… experimental research."

            "Are they?" Ramachander asked a little wearily.

            "Yes they are," Scyr said.  He met the Lord High Admiral's eyes and held his gaze for a few seconds, grinning widely again.  It was a foul expression.  "It seems they've figured out a way to pacify Bugs… and open them up to possession by the Caal."

            Scyr's eyes twinkled, and the silence stretched on for a long time.


            Several hours later the door to the Lord High Admiral's office aboard the Chevauchée chimed softly.  Ramachander put down the computer tablet that he hadn't been paying much attention to anyway, stretched his arms up over his head, then got up out of his chair and brushed down the front of his coat.  Then he faced the door and raised his voice slightly, "Come in."

            The door slid open and another Fleet officer walked in.  His uniform was less gaudy and a little more worn than the Lord High Admiral's, but he carried it well and there was nothing shabby about his salute after the door was shut behind him.

            Ramachander returned the gesture.  "Commander Esposito, I thought you would probably be coming to see me.  Please have a seat," he indicated the chairs on the other side of his desk.

            Lincoln Esposito strode forward obediently and silently.  The man was only slightly taller than Ramachander, but lean and powerfully built where the Lord High Admiral was more heavy-set.  He had black hair, almost-black eyes, and even darker skin than Ramachander.

            Once Esposito had settled into his chair, Ramachander resumed his own seat.  "I assume you're here to discuss this Scyr?"

            "Yes, my Lord Admiral," Esposito said.  The Commander had never been anything but respectful and obedient to Ramachander's rank and authority, but the Lord High Admiral had never been comfortable working with the man, even so.  Esposito had connections.  He probably had more political influence than anyone else in the entire Cronos system right now—and to Ramachander's eyes, that made him dangerous.  Ramachander didn't believe that Esposito wanted his job… but one of the Commander's friends might, which meant the Lord High Admiral had to be cautious not to expose himself in any way.

            Ramachander held out one hand, palm-up.  "Please go ahead, Commander."

            Esposito nodded.  "Sir, when we transfer the defector to Avalon, I request the duty of escorting him myself."

            Ramachander raised one eyebrow, and hoped he wasn't about to offend the other man.  "I take it you'd like to introduce the former Secretary to some of your associates?"

            There was no hesitation to the Commander's reply.  "Yes, Lord Admiral—to my family.  I'm sure you understand why they would be very interested in what M. Scyr has to say.  And they can see to it that the Imperial Court hears the rest of his intelligence in a timely manner—and responds appropriately."

            Ramachander nodded; he did understand.  The Paolo Family—to which Commander Esposito was related and owed perhaps even more loyalty than to the Imperial Fleet—was one of the so-called "great families" which vied for influence at the Emperor's court, though it was far from the largest or most powerful family.  The family owned significant manufacturing and financial assets on Avalon, and had a large band of relatives and agents slotted into important bureaucratic and military posts throughout the Empire.  Plus they had been recognized by the Emperor as the political controllers of the Charybdis system, which was currently hanging on by a thread against an invasion of Bugs.

            "I suppose I can grant that request," Ramachander said after a moment, "considering your circumstances.  Though I'll hate to see my best operations officer leave."  The Lord High Admiral even meant that, even if not for the reasons he implied.  Esposito was dangerous, certainly, but he was also capable and apparently loyal.  His replacement could easily be an ambitious office-seeker.

            Esposito smiled.  "I'm sure an excellent flag officer such as you will have little trouble finding someone to take up the slack until I return.  Thank you, Lord Admiral."

            Ramachander tried not to look too relieved.  Maybe Esposito would even view the leave as a personal favor.  It couldn't hurt the Lord High Admiral Pennyworth's career to be in the good graces of one of the great families.

            "I'll arrange a transport for you when we reach Proxima," he said.  Then he held up a hand again.  "If there's nothing else, Commander, you are dismissed."

            "No, my Lord Admiral," Esposito said.  He stood up, saluted again, and walked back out the office door.

            The Lord High Admiral Ramachander Pennyworth blew out his cheeks in a sigh after the Commander had gone.  He picked up his tablet again, fervently hoping that nothing else unusual would happen in his sector for a long time to come.




By the time the Avarice approached the New Madrid system just nineteen days later, Heth's body ached with the pain and fatigue of a lifetime.  Heth was sore in muscles he didn't even know he had, stressed to the point of breaking, and too exhausted to care… and, technically, the Smythe contract hadn't even begun yet.  To add insult to injury, Narrah made it abundantly clear that a mere twenty days was woefully inadequate to turn Heth into a real hunter—and the old cat showed no sign of letting up on them anytime soon.  Narrah pushed his hunters hard, true... but he also got results.

Heth didn't particularly like having his mane cropped, and felt positively naked without his jewelry.  But as Narrah drilled them endlessly, Heth slowly learned the basics of paw-to-paw combat, how to rip out a human's throat with his armor's fore claws while simultaneously disemboweling them with his hind claws.  At least, he learned the theory... in practice, his various training partners still kicked his tail every time.  And, lest Narrah's troops forget what they were going up against, their Captain bombarded them with horror stories of human wartime atrocities.  Heth would never forget the lurid tale of Alistar "Dead Boy" Dimiye, who ate the raw hearts of K'Nes he killed in the Second Battle of Midgar.

When Narrah eventually got around to giving the mercenaries their rifles, they were missing the power cells.  First, they had to learn close combat techniques for when their rifles ran out of energy.  Heth stumbled through learning to use the half-oval blade mounted under the barrel, part spear and part axe, to stab and hack at his competitor.  When Narrah finally gave them the power cells for their weapons, Heth gradually learned how to operate and fire a gauss rifle—although his aim was still pathetic.

Finally, Heth learned to use his power armor—sort of.  Long practice improved Heth's skills with the suit's maneuvering thrusters… but he still lagged behind the other hunters, who were more brushing up long-dormant skills rather than learning them anew.  Worse, the details of the suit's technology utterly baffled Heth.  K'Nes weapons and armor were designed, above all else, for stealth.  They were cats, after all—they stalked their prey, silent and invisible, then pounced.  Their cloaking technology went far beyond mere nanotech camouflage—it sent out an inverted-phase mirror image of the armor's electronic emissions, thus canceling them out and making it near-impossible to detect on sensors.  It could even imitate the background emissions of its environment.  Unfortunately, this meant the armor also had a bazillion settings and options.  Heth was hopelessly lost, and simply didn't have the time to master them.  He just hoped he could muddle through the contract with the default settings and come out alive.

And when the training sessions were done, it still wasn't over for Heth.  Narrah worked him and the other younger K'Nes overtime, giving them extra training in the areas they needed, all the while drilling them endlessly on military basics—rank, structure, jargon, standing orders, basic tactics... it never ended.

Until now.  It had to—for Heth, at least.  Once the Avarice arrived in New Madrid, whether Narrah liked it or not, Heth would need to skip training to attend the negation with Chairman Smythe.  As Heth was psyching himself up for the uncomfortable conversation with his mercenary captain (and hoping he'd survive it with a minimum of scarring), Narrah preempted the discussion by suddenly and unexpectedly granting Heth an eighteen-hour pass for shore leave.  Heth was delighted.  He seriously doubted the meeting with Smythe would take that long (although such marathon mediations were not uncommon in K'Nes culture), which meant Heth might be able to sneak in a few extra hours of sleep.

By the time the New Madrid commercial jumpgate generated an immensely powerful gravity field to tear open a portal into the fabric of spacetime for the Avarice to cross over into realspace, Heth was in the super-freighter's command center, rested, licked clean, and in his best business attire, waiting to open a comlink to the biggest customer of his life.



If this is the leader of half the galaxy, Heth thought, I hope the other half is wealthier.

The K'Nes was supremely unimpressed with the… admiral?  Er, chairman?  Did he have an official title?

Joseph Smythe sat in an overstuffed armchair, nursing a scotch as he watched a tri-d newscast on the riots sweeping the former Ministry systems.  He was dressed in a simple tunic and breeches, his graying brown hair trimmed quite short in an unsuccessful attempt to downplay a deeply receding hairline.  In short, he looked like any number of people on the streets of the Earth Federation.  There was no sign of authority, rank, or any wealth whatsoever.  In fact, the chairman didn't even seem to notice when Captain Gergenstein led him into the windowless officer's mess aboard the small warship EFS Bandar Abbas.

“My apologies for the deception, M. Heth,” Smythe didn’t look at the visitors as he spoke.  His accent was stranger than most humans, more clipped and formal than Heth had dealt with before.  "But it was necessary."

"I'll admit to some confusion, yes…"  The cat floated closer to Joseph.  "I'm surprised to find you here.  I was told to leave my ship at the hyper limit and take this… er, destroyer?... to meet with you on the Poseidon."

"Exactly."  The admiral took a sip.  "And since we broadcast that on an open channel, no one would suspect that I'm actually on this destroyer."  Joseph looked up at the K'Nes, evaluating him with cold eyes for a moment before continuing.  "Terribly sorry, I'm such a rude host.  Would you care for a seat?"

Heth took a glance around—there was no other furniture in the room.  "Well, yes, of course, but…"

Smythe tapped some buttons and the furniture grew right across from his armchair.  As the object formed before them, Heth couldn't suppress a pleased smile when instead of a human chair, it took the shape of a traditional padded K'Nes perch.  Once it solidified, Heth deflated and landed on it with uncommon pleasure.  He had to discretely knead the stuffing with his paws; this was a business negotiation, he had to look professional.  "Why, thank you!" the K'Nes purred.  "That's quite thoughtful of you."

Joseph shrugged.  "I've found it useful to never stay in any one place longer than twenty-four hours," the chairman explained, "so I've come to rely on nanotech for the ordinary creature comforts."

"A wise investment," Heth replied, "for one in your position."

"Indeed.  Many of my contemporaries have found their careers unexpectedly ended by relying on routine."

"Even if it annoys the hell out of his staff," Captain Gergenstein muttered openly.

Joseph shot an icy stare at his subordinate for a moment.  "Yes, I'm sure it does, Herbert."  Returning to Heth with a smile, he continued, "May I offer you anything to drink?  Eat?  Sniff?"

Heth was growing impatient with these pleasantries; they seemed designed to put him off his edge, so he took a more direct approach.  "No offense, M. Smythe, but I'm currently juggling two major shipping operations, my upcoming nuptials, and a threat to my life.  I didn't come all this way at top speed to engage in idle chitchat."  The K'Nes took in a deep breath.  "Now, with that in mind… what can Miao Mercantile do for you?"

Joseph stalled by taking another sip of scotch.  "Yes, I suppose we should dispense with the pleasantries.  After all, time is not on our side."  Leaning forward in his seat, he said, "You'll be happy to know you come highly recommended.  Captain Gergenstein here has informed me of the volume of Federation refugees you've managed to smuggle out of Imperial space in the last few months.  Quite impressive."

"Why, thank you, sire," Heth purred at the compliment.  "We Miao take pride in our customer service."

"I could use a man—er, person—with your talents just now, M. Heth."  Smythe leaned back in his armchair.  "Gergenstein tells me you have some commercial contacts in the Cronos system?"

"Indeed I do."  Heth nodded.  "Rachel O'Reilly of Zivat Ram Agribusiness on the New Israel colony—though we haven't met since the Caal Invasion."

"I see.  And tell me, M. Heth… what do you know about the… uh, political landscape of Cronos?"

The K'Nes took out his datapad and quickly found an encyclopedic entry.  "Let me see… previously a Federation core system—after the Caal Invasion, a coup by the Cult of the Emperor overthrew the Federation planetary governor, Edwina Smythe, Agrarian Democrat fro—wait…Smythe?"  He looked up at the chairman.  "Is this a member of your clan?"

"Worse."  Joseph grimaced.  "She's my mother."

"I see…"

"I don't believe you do, M. Heth," Joseph interrupted, looking up at Gergenstein.  "Herbert, kindly tell our furry friend our little problem."

The captain seemed pleased to finally be included in the conversation—unlike Heth, Gergenstein had nowhere to sit.  "His mother is still on Cronos," he explained.  "Shortly after the Imperial coup seized power, a resistance movement sprang up and launched a guerilla campaign against them."

"And… your mother is in the middle of that?" Heth asked.

"She led it," Joseph answered with a touch of bitterness.  "The old bat's always been uncompromising…"

Gergenstein ignored the interruption and continued.  "The fighting on Cronos escalated and got ugly fast.  It lasted for months before the pro-Fed resistance was finally defeated a few weeks ago—that's when we called you.  Currently, the last of the Resistance's members and leaders are being hunted down by the Imperial Army."

"So the job is quite simple, M. Heth."  Smythe's eyebrows rose.  "Since you're an accomplished smuggler, you just need to smuggle my mum—and the Resistance, of course—out of Cronos into Federation territory."

"It doesn't sound that simple to me," Heth spat back.

"It never is."  Joseph smiled.  "But we're ready to compensate you handsomely for your trouble."

"Profit is no use to the owner if they're dead!"  The K'Nes fur bristled in frustration.  "You drag me out here, offer me the moon—then promise me a quick death!  No.  No deal."

"And yet I don't see you leaving."  Smythe crossed his legs.  "What did the great Praetor Urrkkak say?  'Damn the cost-benefit analysis, surely my credit rating is good enough for one more assault'?"

Heth's eyes widened.  "You know K'Nes history?"

"Fascinating little culture you have, M. Heth."  Joseph smiled.  "Though I have to admit, your military exploits are not exactly the stuff of legends… but I suppose even merchants need heroes."

Heth's tail twitched at the backhanded compliment.  "With all due respect, M. Smythe, what's your point?"
            "Even Praetor Urrkkak didn't charge the Heights of Rrarow Meeor without knowing the risk.  Yet he did it."

"Only because he knew his portfolio would collapse if the rebellion against the first emperor Horrath the Great wasn't crushed," Heth explained.  "I don't even have a cost-benefit analysis—or time to get one, I suppose."

"Just hypothetically," Gergenstein asked, "if you were to pull this off… what would you need?"

"More information," Heth spat back.  "A lot more!  Who are my contacts?  The drop-off and pick-up points?  You're asking me to go to the heart of Imperial space, steal Public Enemy Number One, Two, and Fifty-Three, and get back... and you haven't even told me where in Cronos they are!"

Herbert shrugged.  "Well… that's where it gets interesting.  You ever heard of the Cialt Brotherhood?"

"Should I have?"

"Not really."  Gergenstein shrugged.  "They're a small religious sect spread through the… old Federation."

Heth was puzzled.  "What's so special about this particular sect?"

"They're not your typical monks."  Gergenstein rolled his eyes and shook his head.  "To begin with, Saint Cialt believed in drug-induced meditation to 'commune with God on the spiritual plane'… or something like that."

" 'Our Lady of Junkies,' you might say," Smythe added, chuckling at his own joke.  "I wouldn't say that to their faces, though."

That only confused the K'Nes more.  "What does any of that have to do with this contract?"

Gergenstein held up a hand.  "I'm getting to that.  All the Cialt Brothers are also Tech Infantry veterans—mages and werecreatures and the like—as was Saint Cialt himself.  He also believed daily physical and military training was essential to promote a healthy spirit, mind, and body.  So, due to the Religious Protection Act of 2237, not only is the Cialt Brotherhood allowed to legally grow their own narcotics for religious ceremonies... but also to posses military-grade firearms.  Their abbeys are built like defensive fortresses, too."

Heth's eyes went wide again.  "Old Chairman Clarke allowed that?"

"Arthur Clarke often drank with the Father General."  Smythe chuckled.  "Werewolf constitution.  Heh."

"The point is," the Captain explained, "there's a Cialt chapter on Cronos—and they've steadfastly refused to acknowledge Vin Dane as a living God.  It wasn't that big of a deal at first… but the issue got thornier as the fighting between the Imperial Army and the Resistance grew nastier."

Joseph smiled.  "To quote an ancient human leader, 'you're either with us or against us.' "

"However," Gergenstein continued, "since the Cialt brothers basically contained themselves voluntarily within their abbey—and as they won't fire until fired upon—Imperial forces more or less ignored them.  They even allowed the monks to evacuate Cronos for an abbey on another planet," Gergenstein explained.  "Until a few days ago, that is.  I got reports that with the Resistance smashed, Imperial forces are targeting the Cialt abbey next."

"But why?" Heth replied, wondering where this was going.  "I fail to see what relevance this has—"

Joseph interrupted.  "The Imperial Army recently discovered that the Cialt abbey on Cronos has now evacuated more people than the abbey has members… yet there still seem to be just as many monks as before."

"But then who…"  Heth stopped, then blinked.  "Oh.  I see.  The Resistance… including your mother?"

"Among other pro-Federation refugees, yes."  Smythe nodded.  "According to our intelligence," he glanced over at Gergenstein, "the Empire is planning to raid the abbey any day now.  It may already be too late."

Heth cocked his head.  "Attack it?  What for?  Wouldn't a single nuclear bomb destroy it in an instant?"

"They want to capture Edwina Smythe alive," Herbert answered.  "The mother of the Federation Chairman, their prisoner?  The propaganda value alone would be priceless."

"More to the point," Joseph took another sip, "it forces me into a terrible quandary.  Either I launch a pointless and doomed attack on Cronos to rescue her… or the press," he nodded at the holoproj, "demonize me as a heartless, cowardly villain who's willing to abandoned my own mother to my enemy.  Neither is acceptable.  That's where you come in."

"But why me?" Heth asked, perplexed.  Didn't he just say K'Nes hunters weren't the stuff of legends?  "Surely, your Tech Infantry are far better equipped for a rescue mission—"

"The Empire won't allow Edwina Smythe to leave the system alive," Gergenstein explained.  "They'll kill her if they can't capture her.  The second a Federation warship or even a Fed freighter approaches Cronos, they will drop a nuke.  Now, a K'Nes cargo ship appearing… for a routine delivery?  That wouldn't raise any red flags."

"So in other words," Heth spat, "you want to outsource the risk—to me."

Smythe's brow rose.  "Isn't that the point of hiring mercenaries?"

Heth winced; the chairman had a point.  "This is all assuming I can get there in time," he objected.  "Even at top speed, it will take my ship well over a week to reach Cronos.  What if we don't arrive until it's too late?"

Joseph shrugged.  "That is a possibility," he admitted, staring into his scotch as he swirled it in his glass.  "And if that's the case, then our contract is canceled and you leave Cronos uneventfully."

"Still, we've got good reason to think the fighting will still be going on by then," Gergenstein said, sounding fairly confident.  "Between the Brother's fortifications, firearms, training, and discipline—not to mention their general level of fanaticism and more than a healthy dose of paranoia—we're fairly certain the Cialt Abbey can hold off an Imperial assault for a quite a while.  Several days, at least.  Possibly even weeks."

"Sky Father above…" Heth hissed softly.  It's not just a military raid, he realized, it's a full-fledged battle!  I'm floating into a siege!

"Hopefully long enough for you to extract them, that is," the Chairman added, "if you can do it.  Can you?"

Heth hesitated, scratching behind his ear with a hind claw to buy some time as his mind raced.  Something was wrong with this situation; it didn't feel right.  Suddenly it all clicked into place: the siege, the rescue… it was all too big an investment for such a small return.  For both sides.

"M. Smythe," Heth began slowly, "surely you don't expect me to believe the Imperial Army would go to such lengths, commit such resources, risk so many lives… all just to capture one old lady who might be worth some minor propaganda value?"  He narrowed his yellow eyes at the chairman.  "Or, for that matter, that you would go to such trouble, risk, and expense just to avoid some potentially bad publicity?"  Especially since you don't seem terribly fond of her, Heth mentally added.  "Besides I'm sure your propaganda machine could spin your mother's death as a 'noble and selfless sacrifice for the good of the Federation' or whatever such nonsense you ap—er, humans are always going on about."

For an instant, Chairman Smythe looked irritated.  He shot a quick look at Captain Gergenstein, then turned back to regard the K'Nes silently, thinking.  He sipped his drink and said nothing.

"Why are Empire and the Federation fighting so fiercely over this woman?"  Heth cocked his head.  "There's something important you're not telling me.  I need to know what it is."

"I've told you all you need to know," Smythe replied evenly.

"No, you've told me what you think I need to know," Heth corrected him, "and if you're wrong, it's my personnel who might die—including myself!"  Heth shook his head.  "No, I can't risk undertaking this enterprise unless I have all the information you do."

A long silence drew out as the Chairman and the Captain exchanged another glance.  Finally Gergenstein shrugged.  "Might as well tell him."

Joseph cocked an eyebrow.  "Can we trust him?"

"No," Gergenstein replied bluntly, "but we can trust that he'll follow the contract to the letter."

Smythe considered that a moment, took another nip of scotch, and gave a single nod.  "Fair enough, then."  He turned to the K'Nes and leaned back in his chair.  "What you need to understand about my mother, M. Heth… is that she is an insufferable busybody and gossip, forever sticking her nose in other people's business."

Heth blinked, puzzled.  "And?"

"Such women tend to learn a lot of secrets about a lot of people.  Especially important people.  Mummy dearest utilized this talent of hers to… promote her political career, so to speak."

It took Heth a minute to realize what he was saying.  "Oh. You mean she blackmailed her way to the top?"

"Well, into a planetary governorship, at least.  Oh, she has a dozen tasteful euphemisms for what she does, but… yes, I believe you've summed it up quite nicely."  He paused for another quick swallow.  "Edwina also had a habit of collecting proof of her gossip, and keeping it on hand—'political insurance,' she called it."  The chairman let out a dry, humorless chuckle.  "My dear mother's collection is rumored to be quite extensive—even I don't know for sure how far her tentacles reach."

"However," Gergenstein interrupted, "given how far the Empire is going to capture her alive, I think it's safe to assume Edwina took her files with her when she abandoned the Cronos governor's office and went into hiding.  And even if she destroyed the evidence, she still knows the skeletons in everyone's closet."

"We'd prefer that information not fall into Imperial hands," Smythe said firmly.  "As you can imagine, M. Heth, the possibility of many Federation military or government officials being incriminated and discredited—or, worse, compromised by the enemy—could have a rather disruptive effect on the Federation.  And lord knows it's fragile enough as it is, especially with the current unrest in the old Ministry systems."

"Of course, we could make use of Edwina's files too—against the Empire," Gergenstein added

Heth turned to Gergenstein and widened an eye in surprise.  "She has evidence on Imperial officials too?"

"Keep in mind," the Chairman said, his voice still a little stiff, "it was only last year, after Vin Dane stopped the Caal Invasion and declared himself Emperor, that half the human systems declared their allegiance to him.  Before that, the Empire was the Federation.  And mummy's been hoarding these juicy little secrets for decades."

"They won't bring down the Empire, true," Gergenstein admitted with a shrug… but his smile had an unmistakably hungry look to it.  "But they might buy us some time to get all the riots and revolts under control."

"And just in case you're considering using mother's files for your own profit," Smythe added with a glower, "you can be sure we'll be adding an airtight clause to the contract preventing that.  Break it, and we'll inform the head of your corporate clan of your treachery.  Your career will be over.  That, and I'll hunt you down and kill you."

Despite his best efforts, Heth couldn't keep his fur from bristling slightly.  Luckily, the humans didn't seem to notice.  "You have nothing to worry about on that count, Chairman.  We Miao have a motto: A deal is a deal.  We live and die by it—and I assure you, I'd much rather live by it.  It's far more profitable than the alternative."

That drew an unexpected chuckle from the chairman, and the tension in the room eased a little.

"So…" Heth continued, taking advantage of the moment.  "Officially, this is a rescue mission.  Unofficially, it's stealing a particularly insidious weapon from your enemy to use for yourself.  Correct?"

"That's about it, yes," Joseph answered, with another nip of his scotch.  "And our best chance of accomplishing such a covert mission is through a neutral third party—such as yourself."

"And all I have to do," Heth summarized, with a touch of sarcasm, "is sneak into the heart of Imperial space, pluck your mother, the Resistance, and the Brothers from the middle of raging battle, and bring them all back to New Madrid alive and well.  Correct?"

"Exactly.  The only question is…"  Smythe leaned closer to Heth.  "Can you do it?"

A strange calm came over Heth; he felt as if this was a crucial moment in his own life, the one decision that would affect every other that followed it.  The risk was enormous… but so was the payoff.  So he asked the only logical question.  "What are you drinking?"

Smythe blinked and looked at his glass.  "Springbank, ten years old."

"May I have a glass?"

The Chairman of the Earth Federation shrugged, reached down, and pulled the bottle and a glass out from the other side of his chair.  He poured and handed the K'Nes a drink.  Heth took a sip and, from long practice, acted calm while pretending not to gag.  "I have an idea how it can be done.  But the price will be high."

"How much?" Herbert asked.  "A million?  Two million?"

"Please!"  Heth took another sip; the shock of the alien liquor keened his business instincts.  "This is not a matter of money.  Members of my own clan might be killed.  As a student of K'Nes history, I'm sure you know how expensive a proper funeral is.  Not to mention lawyers for wills, pensions for the widows, life insurance riders…"

"I get your point."  Smythe was growing annoyed.  "How much?"

"A jumpgate."

"What?"  Both of the humans practically jumped.

"A jumpgate.  Specifically, the Nhur commercial jumpgate that you humans destroyed during the Battle of Andesrvald.  We want it rebuilt."

Smythe's eyes sparkled with conflicting thoughts.  "No.  Too much."

"I'm not asking this just for myself, but for my clan… and for you as well," Heth answered.  "In addition to saving your mother and her files, you'll simultaneously remove the Federation's biggest enemy in the K'Nes Llan."

Joseph's brow furrowed, confused.  "Explain," he ordered.

"The new jumpgate—to the Miao-owned system—would raise our stock price.  Miao Mercantile's LEO would use the money to buy more shares in the K'Nes Llan. We only need 1% more to replace Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP on the Executive Board."

"They're the Fed's most outspoken critics," Gergenstein elaborated.

"Call the new jumpgate a gesture of goodwill," Heth smiled, "of peace, and economic cooperation between the Federation and the K'Nes.  It would go a long way not only with the K'Nes, but with the former Ministry worlds… who I'm told don't quite believe the yakuza had Aisha Ramirez mur—"

Smythe held up a hand.  "A jumpgate is a serious drain of money and resources.  During a war…"

"The Miao, of course, will finance building the jumpgate on the Nhur end of the hyperspace route.  That would cut your costs in half."

Joseph sighed, then nodded… reluctantly.  "It should be possible, then.  Speaking of history—despite what K'Nes think, the jumpgate on that side was already gone by the time our fleet arrived in Nhur."  He narrowed his eyes, suspicious.  "We had nothing to do with its disappearance... I don't suppose you know who did?"

Heth suppressed a smile and repeated his clan's official story.  "Yes… in the chaos following the human invasion and collapse of the K'Nes Tor, I'm afraid looters dismantled that gate and sold it for scrap.  A tragedy, I'm sure you'll agree."

Herbert smiled.  "And the fact that Miao Mercantile now owns several freighters equipped with hidden jump drives is… what?  Just a coincidence?"

"A shift in the market," Heth replied—and decided to let his claws show.  "Much like the one that suddenly doubled the value of the Sukhoi-Grumman Corporation after the Earth Fleet's liberation of Minos.  You own stock in that company, don't you, M. Smythe?"

Joseph lowered his scotch and glared at Heth.  "You K'Nes would sell your own mothers for a profit, wouldn't you?"

"Certainly not.  We would, however, sell your mother—and the price is quite high.  Shall we draw up the contract?"



            It took hours for the exact terms and wording of the Cronos contract to be hammered out.  Although it was fairly quick by K'Nes standards (whose contract negotiations had been known to drag out for years), it was clearly much longer than Smythe had anticipated; he was cranky and exhausted by the time the datapad finally drew their blood signatures to close the deal.  The chairman departed soon after for his flagship, while Gergenstein returned the K'Nes to his super-freighter.  Heth thought it was strange that the Captain was escorting him to the shuttle bay—a much lower-ranking officer could do that.  He wants something, Heth thought.

"There another high-value target I'd need you to get out of Cronos safely," Gergenstein said.

I thought so, Heth thought.  "Certainly, Captain," he said, pulling out his datapad.  "I'll modify the contract immediately.  I'm sure the chairman won't mind signing it again…"

"That… won't be necessary," the Captain said quickly.

"Yes, I thought as much," Heth said, narrowing his yellow eyes at Gergenstein.  Whatever he wants, he doesn't want Smythe knowing about it.  "I can draw up a separate contract if you'd like…"

"I'd… prefer there was no written record of this transaction, M. Heth.  I'm sure you understand."

Interesting…  "No offense, M. Gergenstein, but I'm not sure I trust you enough for a tail-tap deal."

"No offense taken," the Captain replied.  "I'd think less of you if you did,"

"If you want me to take such a risk, I expect to be proportionally compensated.  What are you offering?"

Gergenstein was silent a moment, thinking.  Finally he sighed.  "A favor, called in whenever you need it."

Heth raised an eyebrow.  "Are you sure?  Such a vague, unspecified payment could easily be abused."

"I'm not sure what else I can offer," the Captain said with a shrug.  "I haven't got another jumpgate shoved down my pants, you know."

Heth considered it a moment, then nodded.  "Your terms are… acceptable."  After all, a favor from such a powerful human could be quite useful in the future.  "Who is this high-value target?"

Silently, Gergenstein transferred an Earth Fleet personnel file to Heth's datapad.  Heth stared at the strange name.  He prided himself on his English… but couldn't even begin to pronounce it.  The clan name, though, looked familiar...  "O'Reilly?"  He looked up.  "Is that the same clan Rachel O'Reilly belongs to?"

"You could say that."  Gergenstein nodded.  "He's her father."

"I see.  And what exactly makes M. O'Reilly so high-value?"

Gergenstein hesitated a moment. His face betrayed the hint of an internal struggle. "He's… an old friend."

"Indeed?"  Heth didn't believe it for an instant.  "I didn't think men like you had friends."

"I don't—too much of a liability."  Gergenstein scowled at the K'Nes.  "But there are always exceptions."

"And I suppose it's just coincidence," Heth said, glancing over O'Reilly's Fleet profile, "that this 'friend' of yours has an impressive battle record… and that's just the parts of his dossier that aren't classified."

"He'd be useful to the Federation war effort, yeah," the Captain nodded.  "And he's got no love for the God-Emperor Vin Dane, I can tell you that.  He's Jewish, you see."

Heth didn't.  Jewish?  What's that?  Probably something valuable, if it's useful to the Federation…

"He's also stubborn as a mule," Gergenstein continued. "You'll need to sweet-talk him into doing anything.  Oh…"  He shot Heth a disturbing grin.  "And the latest issue of Kinky Kittens might help convince him, too."




When three dozen Imperial Warships suddenly popped through from hyperspace at the edge of the system, Vice Admiral Munoz and her task force were huddled in orbit around St. Michael's Star's primary world. They were busy dropping troops and supplies down onto the surface, as well as fighting the few remaining defensive platforms in orbit.  Realizing she was outnumbered and outgunned, Munoz did the only thing she could do: dump as many troops as she could and get the heck out of there.  Back at Kalintos, the Imperial task force had stood and fought, banking on their fancy tunnel-drive prototype ship to even the odds—and they'd lost every ship they'd brought with them.  Munoz was not about to make that same mistake, not when an advantage in ship numbers was the only real card the Federation had to play.  Better to come back in a week, she calculated, reinforced by the escorts for the convoy of Light Infantry forces.  They're good for occupying the planet once it fell, and whatever other forces I can scrape up.  That way, I'll have a good chance of winning this battle, rather than risking losing my entire force in a battle with superior enemy forces.

So she'd escaped with her fleet intact.  As pragmatic as that decision had been, it didn't endear her to the quarter million troops she'd stranded on the planet.  Not only were they cut off from reinforcement and supply, but they were subject to kinetic bombardment from an enemy fleet, once they held the high orbitals.  The original Federation ground forces commander on St. Michael's Star had been killed when his assault pinnace got tagged by a missile during the initial assault.  The next TI officer in the chain of command had been aboard one of the transports in orbit for a command conference when the fleet was forced to pull out.  The next guy in the chain of command was killed the following day by an artillery strike, and his successor died the day after that when his field HQ was hit by a mass driver from orbit.

That left command of the Federation forces stranded on the planet in the hands of Major General Nasrudin Carson, who had been the commander of one of the ex-Ministry Light Infantry legions prior to all this.  Confusion caused by the frequent shifts down a rung of the chain of command had already cost quite a few lives, so despite the lack of confidence many of the awakened TI soldiers had in a merely human commander, keeping him alive was a fairly high priority.

            That didn't keep Soti's Slammers from being annoyed at being dragged off the front lines to guard some REMF who hadn't even stayed loyal to the Federation when Clarke went down.  They were more used to seeking out and killing enemy commanders than playing guard dog to one of their own.  But as the old adage said, setting a thief to catch a thief is one of the oldest tricks in the book; so the logic made at least SOME sense.  Or at least that's what Argus McCall told himself as he waited patiently in his perch in a ruined Drakat communications relay tower.  The tower had a spectacular field of view over the lush river valley below, and of the small factory town nestled in a bend of the river near the tower's base.  Those factories built molecular-circuitry components for the guidance systems of lance torpedoes, which made them too valuable a target to plaster the area with nukes or cee-fractional bolides.  Which meant if the thrice-damned Imps were gonna take out the new Field HQ hidden in the basement of one of those factories, they'd have to either do some sort of precision airstrike, or actually bring in troops to do it the old-fashioned way.

            The anti-aircraft systems installed on the hills surrounding the valley made the airstrike option slightly less likely, so Argus and the rest of the Slammers were keeping alert for any signs of enemy troops or infiltration teams.  If I was gonna attack us, how would I do it, Argus asked himself.  Transit beacon in a whole company?  Nah, Major Reid supposedly cast some sort of protective spell blocking Correspondence Portals in the area.  Which… ironically, means they can detect it.  Then they know there's something worth protecting here.  Airlift them in?  Might as well just bomb us if you can get aircraft that close.  Pod Drop?  Nah, we'd evacuate before they landed.  They ain't Bugs, so they won't be coming from underground—not without us hearing them coming, at least.  So that leaves good old fashioned infiltration, he concluded.  Which makes this stupid birds-nest of a tower rather pointless.

            Argus checked the time on his suit's helmet display.  At least he'd managed to get his suit's nanobots replenished since he'd fried half of them with a plasma grenade after his drop pod got fried during the initial landing.  Plenty of dead suits around, friendly and otherwise, to scavenge nanos from.  It was a week since the fleet pulled out, it was a miracle the ground troops were still holding out at all.  But if the fleet pukes didn't come back soon, they probably wouldn't last much longer.  I guess the generals were right when they thought the Emperor couldn't afford another big loss after Kalintos, Argus ruefully mused.  Or at least the Emperor also realized he couldn't afford another big loss and was throwing everything he could spare into blunting this latest thrust.  Or maybe the enemy fleet was just on its way somewhere else—they sure had arrived quickly, and they hadn't seemed to bring many troops with them when they did.  If they had brought a major ground force with them, we'd be toast.

            Argus shook himself out of that line of speculation and back to the problem at hand.  Roads and rivers and aircar corridors left plenty of ways to sneak troops into this area, but which one would they choose?  And when they did, would they try an open assault on the HQ?  Just try to blow it up?  Sneak in a lone assassin?  Or what?  Argus flipped mentally through the feeds from his remotes but saw nothing unusual, as he'd seen nothing unusual since taking his post a couple of hours ago.  He got up to stretch his legs and strode over to the exterior railing on the access walkway around the top floor of the Drakat communications tower.

            The tower had been built something over a hundred years before, but the Drakat built to last, using some superstrong ceramic material that wasn't worth the effort to dismantle.  So the human colonists had stuck their own communications relay gear in place of the Drakat systems they had dismantled for scrap, and otherwise left the tower pretty much structurally intact.  The view was a nice one, and Argus was mildly surprised that the tower hadn't been turned into some sort of tourist attraction—but the small factory town at the base didn't have anything else to attract tourists; it probably wouldn't have been worth the investment.  There were hundreds or thousands of similar towers elsewhere on the planet, many even taller than this one, which itself stuck nearly a kilometer up from the valley floor, so Argus guessed this one simply didn't make the cut.  Too bad, it really is a nice view... I can probably see the Imps coming from kilometers away if they come at us openly...

            The massive explosion at the base of the tower cut Argus's thoughts short.

            ...or, they could just blow the base of the tower and drop this ceramic monster down onto the field HQ and squash it flat.  Oh frack.  The tower shuddered and began to lean over towards the factory town, one half of the base shattered by the smuggled-in explosives.  With nothing but a lone sniper up there of any military value, and the Imps jamming the communications systems of the tower anyways, there had been no point in guarding its base.  As the top of the tower slowly but inexorably collapsed sideways, the intact half of the base snapped under the strain and the entire structure groaned and shook as it all came down.  Argus leapt over the edge of the railing, extending his arms behind him and activating the nanobots into assuming the winglet form normally used for the terminal phase of a drop pod insertion.  He mentally kicked himself for not having replaced the parachute damaged when his pod had taken a hit, but he hadn't expected to be BASE jumping today, even though the Drakat tower was a perfect place to do it from.  As he glided away from the falling tower, he looked back at it over his shoulder.  Okay, I'm not gonna get crushed in the collapse of that thing, that's one problem solved.  Now to not get killed in the landing without a parachute...

            The tower collapsed onto the town below, but Argus watched as it missed the riverside factory where the field HQ was located.  At least that part of their plan didn't work...oh, wait.  That's not their plan at all.  This is just a distraction!  He could see the dark figures of power-armored guardsmen bursting up from their hidden approach along the riverbed and charging the factory with the field HQ in the basement.  Heh, guess I get to be the sniper in the sky after all, he grinned to himself, as he broke form to take aim with his railgun and squeezed off a couple of shots, plummeting several hundred feet towards the river as he ceased to glide and simply fell.  Two of the guardsmen fell dead with 15mm rounds in their backs, but Argus couldn't afford to fall any further and hit his suit's jump jets to slow his descent, falling feet-first into the river and instantly sinking to a hard landing on the riverbed.

            Argus flipped on his infrared goggles built into the helmet of his power armor, and looked around through the water.  He could barely see a couple of enemy guardsmen still on the riverbed, trying to climb the banks, and tried to fire at them.  But even his railgun could not fire through that much water, and the bullets—slowed to a halt by water friction—failed to hit their targets.  One of them fired back, but their plasma bolts fizzled out short of their targets as well, so Argus instead hit his jump jets again and rose out of the water.

            He fired twice more, hitting a third guardsman as he climbed the riverbank, then flung a plasma grenade over where the still-submerged guardsmen were.  The explosion effect was amplified by the incompressibility of water; both swimming soldiers were knocked unconscious by the blast wave.  Argus fell back into the water briefly, and was buffeted a bit by the blast of his own grenade, but not enough to hurt.  He boosted back up out of the water and landed on the bank, just in time to see several soldiers disappear inside the factory through a hole blasted in its side.

            As Argus jump-ran to follow them inside, he bit down on his dentcom for the emergency frequency.  "Code Red, Code Red, Imps have penetrated HQ!"

"We figured that out already, lieutenant," Captain Soti angrily cut him off, "thanks for nothing!"  He heard her next on the platoon frequency.  "All squads, converge on home.  Danger close."

Argus grinned again and ducked inside the factory.  He emerged into the main assembly line hall, where several terrified civilian workers were running about, and others were lying dead or dying on the floor in pools of their own blood.  Argus sped past mangled machinery and spilled boxes of computer parts and headed for the stairwell down.  He leapt down the stairs, dove past a door hanging off its hinges, and into the basement hallway that led to the series of storage rooms commandeered as office space for the field HQ.

            A wild melee fight was already underway, and no sooner had he entered the hallway than he physically collided with an Imperial Guardsman in full power armor.  The guardsman was a werecreature of some sort in Crinos form, a full meter taller than Argus, and several times stronger.  He immediately swatted McCall's oversized railgun aside, ripping it clean off of the left arm of Argus' power armor.  Ill-equipped for melee combat, Argus tried to draw his plasma pistol sidearm but that too was swatted out of his grip.  Argus tried to grapple his opponent with his left artificial arm, but he was instead tossed physically against the wall and felt a stabbing pain in his chest.  Argus looked down to see a sword of all things pinning him to the wall, clear through even the tough exoskeleton of his nanotech power armor, and embedded at least twenty centimeters into the fungicrete wall behind him.  Damn werecreatures and their fetish for magic swords... ow....

            His opponent mooed at him, his horned and inhuman head incapable of regular speech, and turned back to the general fight.  Argus' eyes goggled at having been beaten by a werecow, but could only watch the fight unfold.  He was in little danger of dying—his suit nanobots had already stopped the bleeding and sealed his wound—but he doubted that any sword capable of skewering him through his suit was made of a material that the nanos could break down in a reasonable timeframe to get him unpinned, and trying to extract himself otherwise risked tearing him up further and undoing what little healing work had already been done to his wounds.

            So Argus could only hang there, where he had a front-row seat as he watched Baleful Bill the werepenguin and Titus Vardan the werewolf furiously fought half a dozen Imperial Guardsmen in the hallway.  With storage rooms either side of the hall, it had been built wide enough for powered carts to pass each other, so there was plenty of room for fisticuffs.  But three-meter-tall werecreatures in Crinos mode wearing bulky power armor suits took up a lot of room, so despite the space, they were cramped anyways.

            Bill Balogh's oversized katana was already embedded in the body of one dead guardsman, so instead he was instead swinging around some sort of nunchuck-like weapon.  It was made up of two glowing green rods connected by a flexible chain, and sparks flew whenever he hit someone with them.  Argus watched as he stunned one opponent with the shock-chucks, then reached behind his back and produced a shuriken the size of a dinner plate and flung it at a second opponent, neatly decapitating the Imp before embedding itself into the wall behind.  As Bill moved onto a third opponent, Vardan traded sword blows with two others, moving with a power and grace that even Argus had to respect.  Vardan shuffled back and forth in perfect fencing posture, looking for all the world as if he was in a high-class salle d'armes back on New Paris, rather than in a down-and-dirty fight to the death in a factory basement out on the ass end of space.

            Argus watched as Vardan forced his two opponents back, but this gave them more room and they separated to try and attack him from opposing sides.  This movement brought one of them into reach of Argus, and he stretched out his artificial arm and popped his head like a grape, startling his companion enough for one of Vardan's thrusts to find the join between helmet and body and slash open his throat, spraying blood across the walls as he crumpled to the ground in a heap.  Vardan growled at Argus and moved on to another opponent, too busy fighting to either curse the cyborg for stealing his kill, or compliment him for helping out.

             Meanwhile Balogh had dropped the stun-chucks and was battling the werecow who had pinned Argus to the wall like a butterfly.  Argus watched as the werecow lowered its head and charged, steel-clad horns aimed to try and disembowel the werepenguin.  Bill dodged off to one side, then bounced off the wall while he triggering the jump jets built into the feet of his power armor.  He propelled himself forward at astonishing speed, taking the overextended werecow from the side, karate-chopping him repeatedly with armored flippers.  The werecow staggered under the blows and dove off to the side to avoid being tackled.  The Penguin blasted clear past him, tobogganing down the hallway on his belly and colliding with and toppling over the latest unfortunate man to sword-fight Titus Vardan.  Vardan took advantage of the stumble to run the Imp through, then abandoned his sword in the body and turned to fight the recovering werecow in pure paw-to-hoof combat.  As Vardan and his opponent grappled with each other, another TI trooper entered the basement from the stairwell.  With a preemptory hand gesture she picked the guardsman up and magickly threw him into the wall.  As soon as Vardan was no longer in the line of fire, she blew the guardsman away with her plasma rifle.

            Argus looked around, and seeing the hallway was now clear of living enemies, turned his head to face the newcomer.  She in turn glanced around and, seeing no enemies left, let her helmet fold into her suit.  Inside was a woman, purple-highlighted black hair framing a tanned and beautiful face.  "Titus," she chided, "what did I tell you about bringing a sword to a gunfight?"

            Titus shifted out of Crinos and opened his own helmet.  "That guns are useless within the extension distance of my blade."

"Funny," she cocked her head, "that doesn't sound like me."

Vardan gestured to where Argus was still pinned to the wall.  "No, it doesn't, Xavier.  Ask the cyborg how good his not-overcompensating-for-anything-honest hand cannon did him once he was in sword range of a shifter."

            "I have learned my lesson," Argus said with mock seriousness.  "I will never eat beef kabobs ever again.  Now will someone please call for a Life Mage, and maybe check on the General while we're at it?"

            "Just hang in there," the purple-haired mage quipped.  "We'll find someone to help you out."

            Hanging is all I can do at the moment, Argus thought to himself, coughing up a little blood as he did so.  I really hope we don't have to go looking for another general; we're getting in short supply of them down here.  And of everything else.  For the eighth time that day, Argus silently prayed that the fleet would come back soon.




"My name is Aaron Roquefort," the young officer replied, "and you're under arrest."

Izzy sat twisted in his seat with his head lying on his arms, which were folded across the back of the park bench.  "Oh.  Am I?  How very interesting!"  He smiled pleasantly.  "For what exactly am I being arrested?"

Izzy knew he should have put more effort into being worried, but he was so enjoying the cool of the night after the numberless virtual ones—not to mention the strain of the recent trying events—that he found himself very pointedly unconcerned.  He looked up at the young, rather rumpled officer and wondered if he also had a trying day.

"As I said, treason."  The officer hefted his plasma rifle in a motion to draw Izzy's attention to the fact that it was pointed squarely at his head.

"Forgive me… I'm going rather senile, I'm afraid… what have I done that's so treasonous?"

"Conspiring to form your own militia against the government—"

"Well that doesn't sound like me at all!" Izzy interjected, indignant.

"And I haven't even gotten to the kidnapping charges…"

"See, that I can explain—"

But his voice died in his throat—from down the park a ways, Izzy's sharp ears detected two pairs of footsteps, both running towards him as fast as their legs could carry them.  One, clearly the quick steps of a child, Izzy recognized immediately as Victoria's fleet feet.  The other pair Izzy didn't recognize, but the voice he did.

"Victoria Jane Sylvest, get back her right now!"

Victoria jumped a short wall easier than her mother could, putting greater distance between the pairs of steps.  "Alphonse!  Run!  Run, get out of here!" Victoria shouted between breaths and over her mother's continued stream of orders and corresponding punishments for disobedience.

"M. Sylvest, I said to wait back at the hotel!"  Roquefort craned his head back and shouted at the people sprinting towards him, "It's too dangero—mmphf!"  There was a crunching noise as the barrel of Roquefort's plasma rifle found itself connecting with the bridge of his nose.  Roquefort took several steps back, disoriented by the sudden pain.

            Izzy, rifle in hand, perched delicately on the back of the park bench before stepping gracefully off.  "I'm so very sorry.  If you had asked me a week ago, I might have gone quietly, M. Roquefort.  But I've had something of a midlife crisis recently—so I'm afraid I simply can't go with you.  At least, not without at least attempting an escape.  What do you think?  Are my chances any good?"

"Add resisting arrest and assaulting a military officer to the list of your crimes…" Roquefort sniffed in a vain attempt to stop the blood issuing from his nose.  Izzy shuddered and averted his eyes, instead concentrating on disabling the plasma rifle before dropping it onto the park bench.

He caught sight of Victoria, who was still shouting and running towards them, trailed by her mother.  Izzy knew he needed to intercept her before she was close enough for Roquefort to comprehend what Victoria was shouting about.  Suddenly, Izzy found himself mere inches from the running Victoria.  That's new' Izzy thought.  So that's how Lilith's windy thingy works!  Point and think, just like the 'net'!  How exhilarating!  He could hear Roquefort closing in somewhere behind him now, but much less an immediate threat.

Recovering his bearings, Izzy scooped Victoria up as they collided.  "I appreciate the help, but please be more careful, Victoria.  A house divided cannot stand, and right now, your mother needs you more than I do," Izzy tisked as the two rematerialized a few feet in front of Patty Sylvest.  The woman screeched to a halt, a look of terror in her eyes as though Izzy was about to eat her and her child for betraying him.  Izzy set down Victoria and, as he walked past Patty, said with genuine sadness, "I really thought we could work together for a better future.  I'm so… disappointed in you."

As Aaron Roquefort reached the two humans, Izzy had long since evaporated into the dark.


            "Running, running, running…"  Izzy found himself crossing the length and breadth of New Sparta effortlessly, a blur to anyone else passing by.  Normally, he would have gone back to his lair, his crystal coffin, where he would have access to his direct escape route.  But D'Argent was simply having too much fun with his new celeric agility.  He knew that he was probably burning Lilith's blood at an accelerated rate, but there was too much to explore, too much to discover in the real world!  He wasn't about to stop.

            Eventually, he reached the Magic Kingdom—Cinderella's palace, that Izzy had shamelessly lifted from the great theme park he had worked for on Earth.  "Walt, eat your heart out.  I would have done it for you, but your jokes were funny."

            He walked into the castle, found the glass case that held the obscenely decorated and expensive sword—a nouveau-riche detector—and knocked on it.  "Shave and a haircut…"

            The case knocked twice, swinging open before he got to "two bits."  Inside was an elegant lift, which Izzy stepped into gracefully.  Smoothly, it took him up to the highest point in the castle.  When the lift opened, D'Argent gently moved off the lift to see his private yacht, ready and waiting in launch position, disguised as the top of Cinderella's castle.

            And a man and a boy stood between him and the main hatch.

            "I hope you haven't come to arrest me, Gabe," Izzy smiled.  "I already made a mess of that poor man's nose.  I'd hate the same thing to happen to both of you."

            "Patty was stupid," Gabriel Quattone answered.  "We were supposed to discuss your offer when that idiot Navy boy came in the door.  When he asked what was going on, Vicky spilled the beans, and then Patty explained the rest.  We didn't mean to betray you."

            "Then… why are you here?"

            "To let you know," Stefan shrugged, "that we're on your side."

            "Come again?" Izzy asked.

            The netrunner smiled.  "I was able to connect to the Net again once I went in to find you.  Turns out there's no Ministry to go back to.  The way I figure, I've got nothing to lose."

            The vampire sighed.  "Is that all?"

            "No.  I think the rest would agree… all you need to do is call us.  We're there for you… whatever you end up doing."

            Izzy beamed.  "You don't know how delighted I am to hear that!  But… one question?  How did you find my secret escape plan?"

            Gabe snorted.  "Your firewalls suck, weefle runner."

            "I beg to differ!" D'Argent feigned indignance.  "I'll let you know I was coding generations before you were even born."

            "Yeah, I bet you still used a mouse and a keyboard."  The elder Quattone rolled his eyes.

            D'Argent smiled widely, and before they could object, gathered both of them in for a big hug.  "You don't know how much I appreciate this!"

            "Izzy," Stefan squeaked, "you're crushing me!"

            "Sorry," Izzy apologized and let them go.  "You'll forgive me, but I gotta beat it before the fuzz puts me in the whosgow."

            "The what?" the teenager shot back.

            The vampire ignored him, went to the yacht, and inputted his secret code.  "867-53-oh-ninneee…"

            "Verbal authorization, sugar?" the comp demanded in a sweet Southern drawl.


            "Come on in, honey-pie!" the comp answered before opening the hatch.

            "Stay well," Gabriel said.

            "TTFN," D'Argent beamed.  "Ta ta for now!"  And the hatch shut.




            The space around New Tokyo's primary planet erupted into a blaze of grazers and nuclear fire.  Yasuyama Takamitsu felt himself tensing as the shuttle he was in dove into the cat's cradle of insanely hot artificial stars.  His father seemed as cool as an iceberg.  "Taka, it's time to cast shadows."


            "I am… concentrating on shifting their passive lidar reflections back several kilometers," Akihiro explained, "to throw off their target locks.  But… if their EW officers are any good, they'll shift to infrared.  You can't hide heat in vacuum."

            "So shift the heat back a couple kilometers?"

            His father nodded; Taka closed his eyes and reached out to feel the heat of the thrusters, the hydrogen-oxygen mix igniting and causing the thrust.  He accelerated the exhaust of their shuttle, shifting it back far beyond where they were, and then reached out to the rest of their pitiful fleet and did the same.  When he opened his eyes, they sparkled with pride.  I can do it, his mind shouted for joy, but his mouth only whispered, "It is done."

            "Hold the spell for as long as possible.  Move it around if you have to."  He pressed a few buttons.  "I've automated the ship's ECM to do the same.  Between the three of us, we should reach the target."

            "Which target?"  His son waved at the multitude of targets.

            Akihiro touched the clearplaz and lit up a holoproj around a space station.  "That one.  Battlestation Yamato, the home of New Tokyo Planetary Command.  It's their primary orbital defense center.  We hold the auxiliary command on the planet, so if we can get control of that, then we can stop the rest of the automated platforms."

            "But what about the other battlestations?"

            "Automated," his father dismissed.  "According to Kazzy, they've had to strip most of the personnel from the orbitals to fight the threat on the ground.  Yamato is the only manned facility."

            "But isn't it…?"

            "Overbuilt, overpowered, and insanely tough?" Akihiro smiled.  "Yes, of course it is.  But there's a lovely word in the English language.  It's called hubris."

            Takamitsu's eyebrows knitted on his face.  "Wait.  Didn't you build it?"

            His father gave a wide grin and hit the comm.  "All units, when we reach Navpoint Two, execute Plan Himiko."

            "Hai!" came back the call.

            Their ships were surrounded by the graser and laser fire when they suddenly shifted their attack trajectory.  Moving at right angles in space, their axis's shifted dramatically, and they were on target for the planetary command center.  If you ignored the danger of the light show encircling the planet, it was quite beautiful.  "If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky," Akihiro began quoting, "that would be like the splendor of the… crap!"


            "We just lost a fighter," his father answered.  "We didn't shift our shadows.  Quick, adjust your spell to shift their fire."

            Taka closed his eyes and concentrated again, shifting the exhaust heat out from their ships again, casting it out like their ships were fleeing the defensive fire.

            A new series of tracer fire erupted from the Yamato.  "Point defense batteries," Akihiro explained, "we're close to insertion."  He activated the comm again and zoomed in using the clearplaz's holoproj.  "Squadron Jingu, focus your run on punching through the Yamato's defenses…" he touched a point on the battlestation, "here.  Discom."  Taka's father then looked back into the shuttle and yelled, "Insertion in one minute!"

            The corporate security troopers charged their plasma rifles, clamping on their Delta armor helmets, and readied themselves for the upcoming fight.  Takamitsu looked around him and pulled out the pilot's plasma revolver.  His father put a steadying hand on his shoulder.  "No, son.  This time, you're not going in with the first wave."


            "When we land, we will need your magic far more than your gun," Akihiro clarified.  "After all, our fighting force needs to breathe."

            "What do you…?"  But Taka's question was cut off by the sudden acceleration of the shuttlecraft.  Their fleet rushed forward, the obsolete fighters concentrating their fire on the area they were flying right towards.  The shields rippled with the energy pelting it.  Just as Takamitsu feared they would slam into the shields, they broke off.  The Yasuyama's fighters continued to fire, punching through what appeared to be a landing bay, punching through their weak atmospheric shields as well.  Akihiro led the shuttles into the expelling air blast, as any unfortunates waiting in the landing bay were expelled out into orbit.

            The shuttles landed gently into the landing bay, now unopposed, and their escorting fighters went off to cause more havoc.  "Now, Taka!"

            His son knew what to do.  Closing his eyes, he reached into the expelling oxygen from the shuttles and condensed it together, causing a temporary shield to form an air bubble around the shuttle.  Then he mentally blew into the bubble and it expanded further, until the lost atmosphere was restored in the bay.

            The troopers were ready; jumping out of the shuttles, they immediately secured the airlocks, overrode them, and were into the battlestation at last.  It was only then that Akihiro nodded to his son and they left the shuttle.

            As the two of them took up the rear of the advancing column, the sounds of plasma fire erupted ahead of them… but no one slowed their pace.  Takamitsu could see the blackened bulkheads and smashed suits of the LI marines as they proceeded towards the command center.

            "Sai, they sealed the command deck," came over his father's comm.  "We're not getting in there without a couple cutters and time."

            "We have neither," Akihiro responded, "and we don't need them.  Have you secured the passageway?"


            "Then we're coming forward."  He tapped Taka on the shoulder and they ran forward, through the mass of white Delta-armored troopers, covering the entrances and exits approaching the command deck.  As they approached the front, they realized the problem.  Facing them was a massive bulkhead, sealing off the command deck from the rest of the battlestation.

            "Sai," the sergeant stepped forward, "our sensors indicate that all enemy marines are converging on this location.  It's only a matter of time before…"

            "Fine," Akihiro cut him off, "Taka, let's concentrate on weakening the door.  We can accelerate entropy…"

            Takamitsu shook his head.  "No, I've got a better idea."
            His father's eyes went wide.  "Explain."

            The young manager turned to one of the troopers.  "Give me a plasma grenade."  One of them was placed in his hand.  "Let's go."  Taka walked over to the far end of that section of hallway.

            "What are you…?"

            Takamitsu pointed to the bottom of the door.  "Accelerate me."

            "You can't punch through triple-thick plasteel!" his father complained.

            "No, but I bet we can break the hinge," Taka smiled, priming the plasma grenade.  "Now!"

            The young mage ran full speed towards the door, shedding friction and drag as he eliminated the restrictions of physics to his advantage.  As he prepared to drop, he shifted his mass, magickly enhancing his force to his feet.  He could feel his father's spell increasing his speed to insane levels.

            Finally, Taka jumped, punching his feet towards the bottom of the hatch, feeling his feet become ultra-dense battering rams.  Upon impact, the hatch folded before him, allowing the young mage to slide under the gate.  Once Taka slid to a halt, he didn't bother taking in the looks of the shocked command staff.  He simply threw his plasma grenade, scurried back under the broken hatch, and threw himself against the relatively safety of intact bulkhead.  The grenade went off and screams were quickly cut off.

            "Now!"  His father retook command and troopers ducked under the broken hatch.  Plasma fire erupted into the formerly secure command deck, until troopers began to disappear, continuing to secure the room.  Once it ceased, a helmet reemerged underneath the hatch and waved them in.

            The command deck was a wreck.  Dead bodies littered the deckplates, and their corporate troopers had control.  "Sai," the sergeant announced, "they didn't have time to secure their comps!  We have access to the whole station!"

            "Good," his father nodded, and made his way towards the central console.  Akihiro started punching buttons on the holoproj, until he got the image he was seeking; the orbital defense grid.  "Give me a few minutes and I'll have control."

            The sergeant shook his head.  "Sai, within a few minutes, their marines will have us completely surrounded.  Can't we just blow up the command deck?"

            "We need the orbitals, sergeant," Akihiro growled.  "Otherwise, we'll have this fight all over again if the Fed sends a fleet."

            "We can't hold this position!"

            "We must!"

            Takamitsu tried to think his way out of this situation when a hand came around his neck.  "Shut up!" came a voice behind him.  The Light Infantry fatigue's arm was stained with blood.  "You're going to leave, now, or I'm gonna blow this man's fucking head off!"

            "No!" his father screamed, one of his troopers holding Akihiro back.

            "You heard me!" the hostage-taker yelled back.  "Leave!  This station's is ours, not yours, and…"

            Taka kept waiting for the next line, but everything stopped.  Everything, except him and his father.  Akihiro managed to pull his arm out of the frozen trooper's and raced over to his son.  He dragged Takamitsu from the frozen hostage-taker, still caught in the process of yelling, plasma revolver in his hand.  Taka looked to his father.  "Did you…?"

            "This is time magick," Akihiro explained, "not forces.  Did the family intervene?"

            "Your family," a new voice boomed through the room of frozen people, "are the most useless pieces of shit I've ever had to work with."

            "Who are you?" Taka demanded.

            A crack in the air appeared in front them, fire tracing a jagged edge in time and space.  Once it got big enough, a man stepped out of the gap.  He was a white man with black hair, staggering in a way that only the cocky or the disabled walk, and dressed in a denim jacket and pants with a black shirt.  If he hadn't made time stand still, one would think that he was either a rock star and a historical reenactor.  The last time anyone wore something like that, mankind was still limited to their own solar system.

            "I ask for one… simple… thing!"  The time mage held out his hands in frustration.  "And what do I find your family doing about it?  They wait a decade," he said, counting off complaints with his fingers, "they build this massive conspiracy behind the scenes, they write you letters," he pointed to Akihiro, "and when Vin Dane actually bothers to show up…?" he shrugged.  "I find you two messing around with armed rebellion.  Really?!  Why the hell do I bother?"

            "Who are…?" Taka repeated.

            "Fuck you," the man shoved his finger in the manager's face, "that's my name!  We had a deal.  You want your damn family back, you better honor it."

            Akihiro stepped in front of his son.  "I don't know who…"

            The mysterious man swung his hand over to the father.  It reached out, changing shape, stretching through some sort of black tentacle that grabbed Akihiro, lifting him off the floor.  "Shut up, grandpa!  Your parents should have talked to you instead of dealing with me."  He threw him over to the other side of the command deck.

The tentacle reformed into a human hand and resumed pointing in Taka's face.  "But no… they wanted to be rich after the Vin Shriak fucked up the Bloc, not just fucking refugees.  So that's where I come in."

"What do you want from me?" the young manager stalled, trying to think half a dozen spells to get an edge against this stranger.

"We have a creed among my people—and so does your clan.  A deal's a deal."  The time mage sighed and just stared at Takamitsu.  "You know, I kinda see Akira's point.  You are destined for something."


The stranger smacked him upside the head.  "Time magick, dumb-ass!  There's a whole lot of probabilities, and all of them point to you!"  The denim wearing man looked up and huffed.  "Let me make this very clear.  Tell the family.  Play time's over.  I want the 3D.  I want it in Avalon.  Or…"  He smirked, took out a framed two-dee picture, and handed to Taka.  "Well, oblivion is rather lonely."

Takamitsu saw the picture of the two women in his hand and growled.  "If you even touch…"

"You'll do what, man of destiny?!  You're…"  The man suddenly looked up at the ceiling.  "Shit!  She found me!"  He pointed back at Taka.  "3D.  Avalon.  You got that?!"

Taka nodded.

The man spat and then ran back into the rift in time and space.  Time suddenly returned to normal.

"…we're gonna keep it!" the Light Infantry officer finished shouting.  It took him a moment to realize that his hostage was fifteen feet away.

And in that moment, Takamitsu took out his plasma revolver and shot him dead.




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home unless you have powered armor with winglets and jump jets.