"Everyone who works here was chosen because they have compromised morals—except you.  You have no morals.  You have always treated people like toys.  This is not a judgment, though—you have always taken very good care of your toys."


-- Adelle Dewitt, Dollhouse

As Heth's transport docked in the Avarice's shuttle bay in the New Madrid system, Heth sniffed a pinch of nepeta, his mind racing.  He had some half-formed ideas on how to smuggle the pro-Federation resistance out of Imperial space… but he also had more details to work out than an economist in a recession.  Thankfully, it would take over a week to reach Cronos—so he had some time to fine-tune his business plan to perfection.

Heth felt himself relax a bit as he floated back aboard his own freighter, already underway for the nearest commercial jumpgate.  At least he had the best ship for the job—Miao super-freighters were quite literally built for a job like this.  HIf any K'Nes ship could get the refugees out of Cronos successfully, the Avarice could.

Thankfully, he had several hours of "shore leave" left before Narrah expected him back in hunter training.  Heth would have loved to catch up on his sleep… but he had so much to do, and no time to waste.  First things first.  Heth went straight to his executive suite and opened a secure communication channel to his LEO on Nhur, Miao K'Nhur K'Yawr, who had apparently been eagerly awaiting the call.  Not one to waste time with pleasantries, he cut straight to the point.  "Well, cub?" he demanded.  "What price did you claw out of Smythe?"

"Well, sire," Heth said, taking a deep breath.  "We got the jumpgate—if I can fulfill the contract."

 But the difficulty of the contract, however, didn't seem to interest Yawr, no matter how many times Heth explained the details.  The old cat was simultaneously ecstatic and nervous about the deal, and gave Heth a stern lecture about the bottom line and how important it was for Heth to do anything and everything necessary to fulfill the contract, reminding Heth constantly that the long-term profitability of his entire corporate clan now rested on him.  Then he promoted Heth to a Senior Director (of Human Operations—a position that Heth was fairly sure Yawr had simply made up on the spot), promised him a substantial performance bonus if he fulfilled the contract successfully (and put it in writing), and ended the call.

Next Heth balanced on his perch, opened his financial files, and did what he did best—make a profit.  He still had Miu's reproductive auction to win, after all.  He wasn't making any money directly off the Smythe deal… but he could fix that.  Heth took as much of his rather substantial net worth as he dared and sunk it into purchasing shares in the Nhur Llan.  If he fulfilled the contract and Smythe announced the building of the Nhur jumpgate, then those shares would skyrocket in value and Heth could sell them at a huge markup to financiers suddenly interested in investing in Nhur—and that should more than cover the cost of Miu's auction (he hoped).  If Heth didn't fulfill Smythe's contract… well, he'd probably be dead anyway, so it wouldn't really matter; just more assets for his next of kin to fight over.

Just then, the hatch of his suite rolled aside and a black K'Nes floated in amongst the swirl of his braided mane.  "You, uh… wanted to see me, boss?"

"Ah, Rameth, perfect timing."  Heth looked up at the Avarice's Manager.  "I need you set a new navigation course."  He explained their new contract's objective, requirements, and his business plan for completing it.  Rameth nodded, his expression neutral… but when Heth got to the part about jumping into the middle of a raging battle, the Manger began fidgeting axiously.  Frankly, Heth couldn't blame him.

"Alright, then…" Rameth replied absently, staring off into space as he turned the action plan over in his mind.  "I'll go lay in a new navigation course for the Cronos system right away.  Top speed, I assume?"

"Between New Madrid and Minos, yes."  Heth nodded.  "But once we enter Imperial space, only go as fast as the ion drive can take us."

Rameth scowled, confused.  "But, boss… if the humans need an urgent pick-up, using the gravity drive for acceleration will get us there a lot faster."

"Yes, I know," Heth admitted, "but getting there in time will do no good if we can't get the humans back out again.  The Avarice's concealed gravity drive is our way to escape from the Empire—so we can't risk letting the Imperial Fleet know our ship has one, or we lose that element of surprise.  You know as well as I do that no stealth suite can cloak gravity waves strong enough to propel a ship this size, so the only safe option is to power down our gravity drive until we do need to use it.  So between Minos and Cronos, stick to commercial jumpgates, regular hyperspace shipping lanes, and the ion drive."

Rameth hesitated a moment, thinking it through, then nodded slowly.  He may not have been happy about the decision, but he could see the logic behind it.  "If you say so, boss.  We'll power it down before we reach the Proxima system."  And then Rameth was gone, zooming down the corridors of the super-freighter.

Heth glanced a chronometer, checking how many hours of shore leave he had left, then turned back to his work with a sigh.  There was still so much left to do… Heth quickly itemized and organized it all his mind.  Top priority: find a legitimate reason for a K'Nes ship to visit Cronos, and preferably an excuse to be near the fighting.  Well, the Avarice was a freighter, and freighters made deliveries… now all Heth needed was a contract carrying cargo to Cronos—but that, thankfully, was an area where Heth excelled.

A military contract shipping supplies to the Imperial troopers surrounding the Cialt Abbey would be ideal.  Heth had no doubt Imperial supplies lines would be providing the military equipment, of course, but with the Holy Terran Empire currently fighting a war on two fronts—three, if you counted the Bugs—and their resources already stretched thin, Heth suspected the Imperial Army would be employing a lot of local civilian contractors to pick up the slack moving the more mundane merchandise, men, and material.

A little research proved his hunch correct—but the Empire outsourcing military contracts to aliens, even politically neutral ones who they were on good terms with, was a different matter altogether.  Heth quickly realized getting a contract directly from the Imperial Army was a long shot, especially on such short notice, so he focused his search on the civilian contractors the army employed instead.  Subcontracting a military shipment to K'Nes merchants could be profitable, but possibly risky and questionably legal.  Still… well, apes usually saw the floating felines to be useful at best, annoying at worst, and almost never a threat.  This time, Heth played that to his advantage.  There were times when being considered the punch line of a galactic joke had its benefits.

It took a long time, a lot of smooth-talking, and a little bribery (although Heth didn't know or ask why the man wanted a Freaky Felines video), but Heth finally found an Imperial supplier willing to subcontract a Cronos run to the K'Nes… for a considerable kickback, of course.  Heth had haggled—it would've been suspicious if he hadn't—but in the end, he let the ape negotiate a better profit margin than one would normally expect from tight-pawed K'Nes merchants.  Heth couldn't afford to blow the deal over a percentage; he needed the subcontract too badly.  Time was short, opportunities were scarce, the pressure was on, and it wasn't really about commerce anyway—it was about camouflage.

From that point on, it was a simple matter of filling out and submitting all the cargo manifests, travel itineraries, customs forms, tax documents, and billion and one other legal and diplomatic paperwork that needed to be prepared well in advance in order to slice through red tape faster than a tailor on a deadline.  But that was second nature to Heth by now; he could do it in his sleep (and had).  The bottom line was that when the Avarice arrived in Cronos with cargo holds full of provisions, medical supplies, and manufactured goods for the Imperial Army, the bureaucrats would be expecting them.

There was one small problem, however: Heth didn't actually have the cargo he'd promised to deliver.  He wasn't too worried about that, though; the Avarice still had two trade stops before reaching Cronos, and no species could scrounge quite like the K'Nes could.  Rameth, in particular, was a master of that art.  If necessary, he could find a Jurvain neuralware processor on short notice (and had—although the lawsuit was a headache; the cyborg in question had apparently been unwilling to part with it).

But that was a challenge for another day; for now, Heth's shore leave was up—and if he reported back late, Narrah's recruits would be treated to a quick pickup game of Catball (where Heth was the ball).  He had zero desire to repeat the experience—he'd had more than his fill of being kicked, dribbled, and spiked.  So with a sigh, Heth turned, inflated, and floated out the hatch toward the transit bay for another round of missing the target, losing sparring matches, and screwing up his armor's camouflage settings.

That was his life for the next few days while the Avarice sped towards Minos: training, planning the mission with Narrah, training, scrounging for cargo, extra training for the inexperienced hunters, and yet more training.  Finally, just when Heth thought it would never end, there was more training.

In what little down time Heth had, he tried not to fall asleep as he poured over the Federation intelligence reports on the Cronos Resistance and Cialt Brotherhood that Captain Gergenstein had given him, searching for any detail that would help him complete the contract successfully.  One thing looked useful: it appeared that the Resistance had been resupplied from off-world (at least before the Imperial Army defeated it).  It provided a possible way for Heth to contact or even infiltrate the Resistance—or rather, what was left of it.

Unfortunately, they had been waging a guerilla war against the Imperial forces, and using a widely-distributed cell structure to protect the group as a whole.  In other words, it was purposefully structured so that how much any one person knew about the organization was rather limited.  None of the refugees who had managed to escape to Federation space knew exactly how the Resistance was being resupplied, much less by who… and it appeared that the Imperial Army knew even less.

Finally Narrah allowed his hunters to sleep; not a fully eighty-four hours—only seventy-two—but it was enough to refresh and re-energize Heth just in time for the Avarice to arrive in the Minos system (which just happened to coincide with another eighteen-hour shore leave, thank the stars).  Heth needed it—he had a lot to do, and as always, not much time to do it in.  Minos was the Avarice's last safe port of call—but it was also a border system between the Federation and the Holy Terran Empire, and consequently very heavily fortified.  An entire task force of Earth Fleet warships patrolled the area, guarding not just the system and its commercial jumpgates, but the Fleet shipyards in orbit and the starfighter construction yards on the planet below.  Heth wasn't too worried—they were, at least theoretically, all on the same side.  This was Heth's best chance to scrape up enough cargo to fill the Imperial Army supply contract, and he threw himself into the job with an industrious zeal.  There were plenty of options to chose from—Minos was a highly developed, heavily industrialized planet,. 

Of course, the fact that the Avarice was departing Minos for Proxima and the Holy Terran Empire with several cargo bays full of supplies for the Imperial Army was a cause for concern.  Normally, that would have been a big issue with the Earth Fleet checkpoint, and a fantastic way for Heth to get his super-freighter and its payload impounded in record time.  But Heth had been assured that Captain Gergenstein, if not Chairman Smythe himself, would take care of that problem—and, sure enough, the Avarice was granted passage through the Minos-Proxima commercial jumpgate with no more than the usual bureaucratic delays.

With the crew's extra energy burned off by shore leave on Minos, the K'Nes calmed down quickly… perhaps too much.  The Avarice's crew went about their jobs, subdued but focused, and the mercenaries continued their endless drilling, but with a grim seriousness this time.  An unspoken tension lingered in the air.  Heth suspected he knew why: there were in the Holy Terran Empire now.  This was when the danger began.

Despite being stressed out and exhausted from trading on Minos, Heth barely had time to catch his breath before he was due back in the transit bay for combat training.  Narrah pushed his hunters harder and longer than ever, demanding nothing less than perfection (although excellence was occasionally tolerated).  In addition to the extra training for the younger hunters Heth was required to attend, Narrah even began giving Heth personal tutoring in the areas he needed to work on (which was pretty much everything).  Frankly, he wasn't sure if it was a privilege extended to the mercenary company's employer, or a punishment for being the worst trainee.

And when all that was over, Narrah joined Heth in his executive suite to plan their upcoming contract on Cronos.  Alone in Heth's executive suite, Narrah's demeanor changed completely—he was courteous and obedient, addressed Heth as "sire" and "boss," and even cowered politely.  It was a complete social reversal, and it put Heth off his game.  They occasionally argued over elements of their mission—but frankly, Heth was so sore and exhausted that he agreed to almost everything Narrah proposed, only taking the occasional stand when he thought Narrah was simply mistaken.  Heth, after all, had far more experience interacting with humans—at least, in ways that didn't involve killing them.

"And how exactly do you plan to get us inside the Cialt Abbey, sire?" Narrah asked.

"Easily."  Heth shrugged weary shoulders.  "This ship has transit beacon.  We teleport in."

"That's… not a good idea, sire," Narrah warned him.

Heth's whiskers twitched in annoyance and he had to swallow a hiss.  "Alright, why not?"

"Because it'll be detected, sire.  Instantly."

Heth cocked his head.  "Narrah, the Avarice has the most advanced stealth suite in the—"

"—which does an outstanding job masking physical and electronic emissions, yes," Narrah conceded, "but not magickal energy.  And transit devices are magitech equipment.  Do you realize how much magickal power it takes to generate a transit portal to a planetary surface from orbit?  And keep it open long enough to get an entire K'Nes swarm through?  Any Imperial patrol ship with ethereal scanners is bound to detect it."

"Oh… right.  I'd forgotten that."  Heth rubbed his face will his paws.  He was so tired he was beginning to slip up—and he didn't like that at all.  "We usually do our covert cargo pickups from middle orbit in isolated areas," Heth explained, "then use the gravity drive to generate a jump point and disappear into hyperspace long before any patrol ships have time to respond... but in this case…"

"Well, that strategy can still work, sire—for getting the humans out of the Abbey.  But if we use it to get us down to the surface of the primary inhabited planet in the system?  With Imperial patrol ships in orbit?  And then the Avarice hangs around in geostationary orbit right over the Cialt Abbey?  Even the apes could figure out something suspicious was going on.  Sky Father alone knows how long we'll be down there, sire.  Could be hours, could be days.  Either way, it's more than enough time for an Imperial patrol to—"

"Yes, yes, I see your point," Heth hissed with a wave of his paw.  It always irritated him when Narrah was right.  "Alright, so we'll have to get the mercenary company down to the surface some other way—but that shouldn't be too difficult.  We'll have cargo deliveries to make, after all."

"I agree, sire."  Narrah nodded.  "But my question was: how do we get inside the Cialt Abbey?"

Heth sighed, more weary than ever.  "Well, we'll have to sneak in, I suppose."  He paused as a thought suddenly occurred to him.  "And given it's surrounded by Imperial forces, I imagine that will be quite difficult."

"It may be harder than you think, sire," Narrah said.  "Do the Cialt Brothers even know we're coming?"

Heth's whiskers twitched.  He hadn't thought of that.  "I don't know.  All we know about the situation down there we learned from the refugees who managed to escape.  Given that the Imperial Army cut off communications to the abbey weeks ago... presumably they don't."

"Please, stop and think about this, sire," Narrah said.  "Imagine you're besieged, surrounded by your enemy, and you catch a bunch of alien mercenaries with guns and armor trying to sneak past your perimeter.  Would you stop and ask who sent them—or open fire?"

"Yes, I see what you mean," Heth said, narrowing his yellow eyes.

"What we need, sire," Narrah said, "is a contact on the inside who can get us in.  Some who knows you, maybe even trusts you.  You said you had a business contact in the system—right?"

"Yes, Rachel O'Reilly."  Heth nodded.  "And according to the Fed's intelligence reports, her parents are inside the abbey, true… but that means she's almost certainly inside there with them—assuming she's still alive at all, that is.  All of which means I can't reach her through the Imperial communication blackout."

"I admit it's a long shot, sire," Narrah said, "but succeed or fail, it costs nothing to try.  So why not?"

"Oh, very well," Heth sighed, too tired to argue the point with the old hunter.  So he opened a comlink to Rameth in the command center, who promised to have the Avarice's Communications Administrator try to contact Rachel O'Reilly through the interstellar network by any means possible.  Heth didn't hold out much hope… but at least it got Narrah off his tail.

So it came as quite a surprise when, the next day, Rameth informed Heth that the Com Admin had Rachel on the line.  For the first time ever Narrah, understanding the importance, excused Heth from training in the transit bay to take the call.  Heth had the comlink relayed to his datapad and, after double-checking that the line was secured and encrypted, opened the connection.  He searched his memory for the proper greeting.  "Uh... shalom, M. O'Reilly!"

"Gainful day, Miao K'Rrowr K'Heth!" Rachel returned the pleasantry.  She was an odd-looking ape—sharp features, long nose, narrow eyes, and brown hair with a tiny hint of red.  "So, what can Zivat Ram Agribusiness do for our K'Nes… uh…"  Her smile faded.  "Good Lord, Heth... what are you wearing?"

Heth hesitated, but only for a moment.  She certainly doesn't sound like someone who's trapped and desperate...  "It's, uh, power armor," Heth replied, suddenly feeling rather self-conscious.  "It's part of the contract I'm currently working.  That's why I wanted to speak with you, actually."

"Sorry, Zivat Ram already has a local security company under contract…"  Her voice trailed off as she leaned toward the camera, squinting.  It took Heth a moment to realize she was looking over his shoulder at Narrah roaring orders at armed K'Nes zooming through the air.  "And that level of security is more than we need, anyway.  Wow.  So... I guess you're not calling about the contract for next year's Pesach grain shipment, huh?"

"Not this time, no."  Heth shook his head.  "I'm, uh... well, I'm here to rescue you, actually."

Rachel stared at him.  "Rescue me?  From what, exactly?"

Heth sniffed the air, confused.  "Aren't you trapped in the Cialt Abbey, surrounded by Imperial troops?"

"Um… no."  Rachel cocked her head, puzzled.  "And thank God—it's under attack!  Besides, why would I be in the Cialt Abbey?  I'm Jewish.  That's on Cronos III, anyway.  I'm here on New Israel."

"Oh."  Well, Heth thought, that explains why I was able to get in touch with her.  He remembered the subterranean colony where Rachel lived and worked.  It was on a large moon orbiting Cronos IV, a superjovian gas giant in the outer system... and several million kilometers away from the Cialt Abbey on the primary inhabited planet of Cronos III.  "I'm sorry, Rachel… I just assumed you were with your parents."

Rachel blinked.  "My parents?"  Her brow furrowed in confusion.  "Heth, you're not making any sense.  What are you talking about?"

Heth was growing confused now, too.  "Rachel… you do know where your parents are, don't you?"

She tensed for the briefest of instants, the shook her head.  "No, of course not."  Her voice was easy, casual… perhaps a tad too casual.  "They ran off to Cronos and dropped off the grid months ago.  I haven't heard from then since."

She doesn't seem very concerned, Heth thought, puzzled—then it hit him.  She doesn't even know yet.  "Uh… but you do know that they're still on Cronos… right?"

"Maybe.  I don't know."  She rolled her eyes, exasperated.  "Look, my folks are both ex-Fleet hardcores and Federation loyalists—so of course they ran off to Cronos to join the resistance about half a freakin' second after the Imperial coup!"  She was trying hard to sound nonchalant... but Heth thought he detected a slightly guarded undertone.  "But I stayed behind on New Israel.  Hell, I'm no soldier, I'm just a businesswoman!  They went to OCS, I got a MBA.  So no, I don't know anything about their little crusade," she said, her tone beginning to creep towards the defensive.  "Well, other then what I hear about the Cialt Siege on the Imperial newsvids, obviously."  She glanced over Heth's shoulder again at the armed and armored K'Nes, then frowned at Heth.  "What did you say your current contract was for again?"

"Well, not hunting down traitors to the Empire, if that's what you're worried about."

"I'm not," she said, a little too quickly.  "Why would I be?  I've got nothing to hide." 

Heth cocked his head and narrowed his yellow eyes.  "Who said anything about you?"

For a split second, he saw the fear and panic in her eyes—she'd just slipped up, and they both knew it.  Then her face froze into ice as she leaned toward the camera.  "Look, I'm a busy woman.  What do you want?"

"I need your help, M. O'Reilly," Heth implored her.  "I need to get inside the Cialt Abbey."

Rachel burst out in (somewhat nervous) laughter.  "Sorry, I can't help you there, Heth."  She shook her head, grinning.  "I'm afraid I wouldn't know anything about that."

Heth decided to play on a hunch.  "Oh, but of course you would, Rachel," he objected, doing his best to sound warm and friendly.  "You've been funneling supplies to the Cronos Resistance for months, after all!"

Heth was bluffing, of course.  He had no idea who'd been supplying the Cronos Resistance, or how.  No one did.  But… well, given Rachel's connection to the Resistance through her parents and her mildly anxious reaction to Heth's rather innocent questions, his suspicion was aroused.  Besides, in matters of life and death where secrecy and trust are crucial, people tend to fall back on their clan.

When Rachel just sat frozen, staring at Heth unblinking and speechless, he knew he'd guessed right.

"Oh, don't worry," Heth assured her with a wink, "I made sure this line is secure.  You'll have to delete the logs on your end, of course… but I suspect you already know how to do that, right?"

Rachel blinked, suddenly seeming to regain her composure.  "That's an absurd and insulting accusation," she replied in a cold tone, narrowing her eyes.  "There's absolutely no evidence to support such a wild theory."

No, Heth thought, I'm sure you covered your tracks quite well… or you'd be in a cell right now, not an office.  But he gave Rachel what he hoped was a friendly smile—without fangs; humans tended to find them rather intimidating.  "I'm afraid you misunderstand, M. O'Reilly—if I wanted to turn you into the Empire for the bounty, I could have done that already!  No, I have no desire to reveal your actions to the Empire… unless you turn me in, of course.  One must cover their tail, after all."

Rachel cocked her head, puzzled but suspicious.  "Turn you in to the Empire for what?"

Heth took a deep breath and made his sales pitch.  "My current contract.  You see, Chairman Smythe has hired Miao Mercantile to extract the Federation loyalists cornered inside the Cialt Abbey and smuggle them out of Imperial territory.  And… I'm so sorry, Rachel, but... your parents are trapped in there, too."

Telling her was a risk—Heth could quickly find himself in an Imperial prison (or, worse, his ship impounded)—but Heth's gut was telling him the gamble would pay off.  He watched Rachel's face closely, waiting for her reaction.

For a moment, Rachel just drummed her fingers on her desk.  "And you expect me to believe that?" she scoffed.  "I find it rather insulting you think me that gullible, M. Miao.  I know emotional manipulation when I see it—my mom was an expert at it.  Hell, guilt trips are practically a Jewish tradition."

"I don't expect you to take my word for it, no" Heth returned, "so I'm sending you a copy of the contract.  Hopefully that will convince you."  His claws tapped over his datapad as he sent her the file.  "You'll need to destroy that copy immediately after reading it, of course."  Heth glared at the camera through narrowed yellow eyes.  "Although if that contract should find its way to the Empire," he growled, "I can make sure the Imperial—"

"Ah, quit kvetching, you already made your point clear," Rachel replied, dismissing the thought with an irritated flick of her wrist.  "Nice to know you trust me."

"I'm afraid trust is a luxury in my business."

"In any business, really…"  Rachel's voice trailed off as she skimmed the document.  "Seems authentic, alright…"  She finished reading and looked up with a sigh.  "Looks like you're telling the truth."

"But of course!"  Heth cocked his head and smiled.  "What convinced you?  Smythe's blood signature?"

"No, the price tag."  Rachel sighed.  "A dozen K'Nes lives for a jumpgate?  Miao Mercantile would take that deal in a heartbeat."

"Why, thank you!" Heth purred at the compliment.  "We Miao pride ourselves making the hard but practical cost-benefit decisions.  Not all humans understand that."

Rachel rolled her eyes (although Heth wasn't sure why).  "Look, you said my parents are in the Cialt Abbey… but are you certain?" she asked.  "I mean, how could anyone possibly know that for sure?"

"From Federation intelligence reports," Heth explained, "of debriefed refugees who managed to escape the abbey before the Imperial Army surrounded it.  And according to them, your parents are still trapped inside."

Rachel shut her eyes for a moment, then looked away and hissed out a deep sigh.  "Yeah… yeah, I was afraid of that," she said, shaking her head.  "I'd hoped they'd jumped ship when the Cronos Resistance began to crumble… but they were always the stubborn types who'd fight to the bitter end, even if it's a lost cause.  'The captain goes down with the ship' and all that other Fleet crap… well, at least that means they're still alive.  That's something, I guess."  She looked back up at Heth.  "So how do you plan to get them out?"

"I'm… still working out the fine points of that particular action plan," Heth answered evasively.  He wasn't about to reveal the details to Rachel, even if he was fairly sure she could be trusted.  "But I think it's safe to say that getting everyone out and back to Federation space will be the easy part—well, comparatively easy, at any rate—and I'd give you a money-back guarantee on that!  But... it's getting in to the Abbey that will be difficult.  They don't even know we're coming."

"Yeah, I can see how that would be a problem."  Rachel nodded.  "They're probably hoping for Earth Fleet, or at least a Tech Infantry extraction team, not a bunch of ca—er, K'Nes."

"Exactly.  Rachel... do you know of any way to get us inside the Abbey?"

"Past an Imperial siege?"  The businesswoman looked down for a moment, thinking and frowning, then shook her head.  "Not off the top of my head, no."  Heth opened his mouth, but Rachel cut him off with a raised hand.  "No, honestly, I don't.  I've never even been to the Abbey—I've stayed away on purpose; it's safer that way.  But…"  She looked back up at Heth.  "I can work on that problem and get back to you.  On one condition."


"You take me with you.  I've got a lot of vacation days saved up I can cash in; I'll just tell Human Resources it's a 'family emergency'."

Heth hesitated.  "Rachel…" he cautioned, "look, this could be very, very dangerous…"

"What, you got another human who can vouch for you with the Resistance?"


"That's what I thought.  Besides, I wouldn't mind getting out of Imperial territory myself.  So swing by New Israel and pick me up on your way to Cronos III."

Heth got a sinking feeling.  He'd haggled with Rachel O'Reilly before, and knew when she'd made her final offer.  "Are you sure there's no way I can talk you out of this?"


Heth sighed.  "Very well; you have a deal."  Heth stroked his whiskers, thinking.  "To avoid any suspicion, though, I'd better come up with some legitimate business need for detouring to New Israel… just to be safe."  His face lit up as a sudden thought occurred to him.  "I don't suppose Zivat Ram Agribusiness would like to invest in some Mungunwha algae?  I hear it makes excellent hydroponic fertilizer!"

"No, thank you," Rachel countered, "but we've had an excellent citrus harvest.  Strawberries, grapes, and tomatoes all fetch a high price... assuming you can deliver them before they spoil."

…which Heth knew would happen long before his current contract was completed.  His ears drooped.  "That… sounds expensive..."

Rachel flashed the K'Nes her own predatory grin.  "It is."

Heth suppressed a growl.  He still didn't know if Rachel would be any help at all… but at least one thing was now certain:  One way or another, the Avarice would be leaving New Israel with a cargo bay full of fruit.




            A second week had passed since the Federation invasion force had been stranded on St. Michael's Star.  By this time, the TI and LI forces had given up on trying to hold or seize territory; instead, they had mostly gone to ground, hiding in the jungles or among Federation Sympathizers in the cities and towns of this lush and populous world.  The exception to this rule was Port Prosperity, where the largest concentration of Federation forces had been dropped during the initial assault.

            Port Prosperity had once been a tropical paradise, a thriving port city established near the base of the Harmony Peninsula, where the Tilapia River flowed into the clear waters of Tranquility Bay.  Now it was a blasted ruin, its skyscrapers mere stumps and its beaches littered with wreckage and bodies.  Most of the civilian population had fled or died in the crossfire as Imperial and Federation forces battled it out in increasing desperation.  The Federation had “liberated” the city on the second day of the battle, but their fleet was already on its way out of the system by then.  Fearing the Imperial fleet then entering orbit would bombard the city into dust, the Federation forces had pulled back and allowed an Imperial counter-attack to re-enter the city, believing that the Imps would not dare use weapons of mass destruction on forces engaged with their own in close combat.  The closer the two armies were to each other, the harder it was to just blast them from above.

            Halfway from the smoking ruins of what had once been the downtown business district at the mouth of the river, and the factories and warehouses clustered a few kilometers upriver, lay the ruins of what had once been a street of apartment blocks with storefront businesses built into their ground floors, in what had once been a working-class residential neighborhood.  Three dozen figures in power armor moved quietly through the rubble.  This area was many blocks behind what passed for the Federation's front lines, but there was still a danger of enemy snipers, infiltration squads, and even civilians who supported the Imperials.  These last were a mix of Cult of the Emperor fanatics and ordinary people more pissed off at the Fed for bringing the war to their doorstep than they were at the Empire for, well, being the Empire.

            These three dozen soldiers were all that was left of A Company, Tenth Legion, as well as what remained of Federation Field Headquarters.  After the attack on the old Drakat Communications tower a few days before, they had pulled out of the town just in time, as orbital bombardment leveled the area as soon as the Imperial commanders were sure that the infantry attack had failed.  They had been constantly on the move since then, stopping for a few hours at a time to set up their encrypted communications gear, receive a few status reports, send out a handful of orders, and then get moving again before the Imperials found them again.  Now they had finally retreated into the capital, to directly oversee the Federation's Last Stand on St. Michael's Star.

            They had snuck into the city through the maintenance tunnel under a Maglev commuter train line, which before the war had brought lawyers and accountants to their jobs in the downtown high-rises and back home again to their comfortable homes in the suburbs, whizzing past the fungicrete tenements and ramshackle slums of the less fortunate en route.  Now General Carson and his staff waited in the last intact section of the tunnel while scouting parties were sent out to search the nearest ruins for still-intact basements that might make better places to stash a General and his staff for a day or two.

            Argus McCall led his squad to the left as they exited the tunnel, and down the street towards a line of collapsed apartment blocks.  After the losses of the past two weeks, the five platoons of A company had been merged into two.  Argus had been comparatively lucky: aside from Ryan Sandburg getting blasted during the initial landing, his Sixth Squad was still intact.  Sandburg had been replaced by a tall and untalkative Wereboar from Second Platoon who went by the name Zinger.  Wereboars, like Life Mages, traditionally served as medics in the TI, as the Gaian spirits tended to gift them with all sorts of useful healing magicks.  But Zinger was far more interested in, and far better at, hurting people rather than healing them.  Argus knew more than to pry into why.

            Argus and his squad picked their way inside the first set of ruins.  Shattered Fungicrete slabs and bent lines of utility piping stuck up at crazy angles, and piles of rubble ominously trickled through the gaps between slab fragments as the troopers walked over them.  This place would not be safe to dig under.  The next building was a bit less damaged, and although the top floors had collapsed in upon themselves, the ground floor seemed mostly intact. There was a tavern built into the ground floor of this building, and the squad carefully picked their way inside through the blown-out windows in front.

            Inside, Argus was not surprised to see the liquor bottles behind the bar all gone, either looted or smashed onto the floor.  He followed Dunston and Davis as they worked their way to the rear of the tavern, where they found a small elevator shaft.  It looked like it had been hidden behind some kind of false paneling… but that was lying broken in half on the floor.  Argus smiled: lots of bars back on Minos had secret gambling rooms or brothels built under them, often linked with elevators like this one.  His uncle Grigoriy ran just such a place, of the gambling-hall variety.  Even if the elevator was completely non-functional, troopers in armor could easily climb the shaft in and out, it would probably make a fine place to hide the headquarters, provided no one else had already moved in.  He was about to order Dunston to lead the way down the shaft when the werewolf interrupted him. 

            “Sir, there's a very strong scent of Wyrm here,” Dunston informed his squad leader.

            Argus sighed.  “A city in ruins and you scent the spirit of destruction?  What a surprise.”  He gestured down the shaft with his plasma pistol.  “I don't care what you smell, get in there, you big furry oaf.”

            “Oy, mate,” Zinger interrupted them.  “Man 'ere knows what'uv he speaks.  I smell it too, dis place is bad business.”  The wereboar punctuated his remarks by shifting into Crinos, cutting further communication short.

            Argus sighed and turned to Josie Davis, who had by now joined them in the back room of the tavern.  “Signal Lopez in Fifth squad to come here, and bring Xavier with him, she's got experience with Leeches.”  As Davis spoke on her helmet's comlink, Argus turned back to the elevator shaft and started climbing down the cables.  “Follow me, guys.”  A vampire hideout is even better for a new HQ than a hidden brothel, assuming we can kick out the current occupants.  Or, better yet, find them already moved on.

            As he descended into darkness, Argus activated his infrared sensors and directed his remote drones to abandon their positions on top of a nearby rubble pile that had once been a building and fly to his location, he had a feeling he might need them down here.  The werewolf and wereboar followed him down the cables, dropping down beside him when they reached the wrecked elevator car, blocking the bottom of the shaft.  A thin crack of light leaked through the inner surface of the closed doors at the bottom floor of the shaft, the bottom half of which was blocked by the top of the elevator car.  Zinger grasped the two sides of the door and heaved, prying them open easily with his supernatural strength.

            McCall, Dunston, and Zinger entered the hallway to find a line of doors down each side, about twenty feet apart, and about three doors each side.  Coming up to the first door, he checked the lock—electronic and very fancy.  He turned back to see Davis coming through the elevator doors, having finished her radio call to Fifth Squad.  Argus merely stepped back and gestured to the door handle; Josie walked up, studied the lock for a moment, and then grasped the handle.  Something sparked, and the door swung open easily.

            Inside, row after row of desiccated, drained human corpses hung from the ceiling on meathooks.  Some of them still had clothing on, but most were naked, and their ages apparently ranged from older children up to the elderly, although of course it was hard to judge age when their flesh had shrunk around their bones, drying to the consistency of tobacco.  Along the side walls hung a wide variety of knives and saws, the sort you'd find in a butcher's shop, from U-shaped gut-pullers to skull splitters and rib spreaders.  Drains in the floor, and sinks along the back wall completed the picture.  It was a Vampire Abattoir, where fresh victims were drained of blood for storage and later consumption, and the remains of no-longer-fresh victims were chopped up for disposal or even sale.

            Argus looked up at the bodies with distaste.  “Any of you properly equipped for it sense any vamps hiding among the corpses?  Or can we ignore the sausage stuffing and move on to the next room?”

            “No, sir,” Dunston and Davis replied in unison.  Zinger just shook his head.

            They moved on to the next room.  This one had a security post of some sort, monitors mostly showing static from surveillance cameras around the building above, cameras now broken or covered with rubble.  A couple of the cameras still worked, but no one was there monitoring them.  A rack of weapons and radios stood next to a row of lockers, all abandoned, but abandoned neatly.  Whoever left had left in only a moderate hurry, and they clearly planned to return.

            The next room was a sort of oversized bedroom.  Dressers and closets lined one wall, but the other wall held rows of metal racks, the right size for coffins.  The coffins were gone, and the racks were empty.  So were at least some of the contents of the dressers and closets, although most of the clothing and makeup and so forth seemed to have been left behind.  Apparently this was where the low-ranking vamps of this group slept during the day, when they were here.  But they'd taken their coffins with them when they fled.

            The fourth room, the one at the end of the hallway, was the master bedroom.  And it was wallpapered entirely in skin.  Human skin.  Living human skin.  The walls had hair and nipples and even twisted parodies of faces scattered about, in what might have been a pattern, or might have just been how they happened to have been slapped up there when the Tzimisce ductus of this particular Sabbat Pack had fleshcrafted them together to decorate his sleeping chamber.  Obviously it had been too big to pack, but the surface undulated subtly as the tortured victims who composed it writhed in eternal torment, lacking the anatomical integrity to scream.  Several IV bags on metal racks were hooked up to the walls by needles and tubes, feeding the room and keeping it alive until its maker could return to tend it.  Several dozen pairs of eyes stared out at Argus and his shocked squadmates, in various states of terror, pleading, and resigned catatonia.

            Argus and company backed slowly out of the room and went to check the three remaining doors.  The one closest the Master Bedroom was another group sleeping chamber, this one a little nicer appointed and with only a couple of empty coffin racks, apparently housing the mid-ranking members of the pack when they were here.  The middle was a sort of activity room.  At first glance, it seemed like any rec room in any suburban house's finished basement: oversized Tri-D tank, video screens, some comfortable chairs, a couple of tables the right size for a foursome to play poker.  Then the eye noticed that the dart board on the wall had manacles built into the wall near it, so a victim (or vamp being punished for something or other) could be shacked in place to be used as a target.

            The last was just a storage room, the shelves mostly empty.  As the squad left this final room, they encountered Fifth Squad entering the hallway from the elevator shaft.

            “Wyrm,” declared Trooper Damien Nikolai, his helmet open and his nose sniffing the air.

            “I don't have to be a Fera to smell it,” Sgt. Frances Xavier intoned, her nose also crinkled up in disgust.  “This place reeks of dried blood and worse.”

            “Any leeches about,” asked Lt. Lopez, more to the point.

            “Not that we could find,” answered Argus.  “But give the place a good sweep.  Then burn everything in the rooms there and there,” he said, pointing at the abattoir and master bedroom.

            “Why should we... dear sweet Gaia,” exclaimed Bill Balogh, looking into the abattoir.

            “Frakking Sabbat,” agreed Xavier, checking the walls for more concealed doorways.

            “I think we can use this place as an HQ, once we get the unpleasantness cleared away and the ashes given a decent burial,” Argus stated.  “The owners won't like it, but I don't give a hooping funt what they think.”

            “Sir, they pulled out of here in a disciplined way, they might be coming back,” pointed out Josie Davis.

            “That's not what worries me,” Argus replied.  “What worries me is that they knew this attack was coming.  They had ample time to get out, including loading coffins on trucks… or something.”

            “Bugger,” intoned Zinger.

            Argus went to climb back up to the surface to call the General and his staff over to the new HQ location.  How did the Sabbat on an Imperial world know when and where the next Federation attack was coming?  As he pondered this conundrum, he heard the muffled roar of plasma grenades redecorating the Tzimisce Ductus' bedroom, and putting his horrid wallpaper out of its misery.





Melissa looked at David in the wheelchair, Irene standing behind him in the hallway, and shook her head.  “Why am I not surprised?”
            Irene pushed David into the room.  As the door closed behind them, Irene seductively sat down on the desk next to Bishop, leaving David near the doorway.  He wasted no time.  “At the fight in the warehouse, I didn’t call for back up.  So how the hell did you and Calihye know the fight was going down?”

            Bishop and Melissa exchanged looks, but the werewolf answered, “Coincidence.”

            “Coincidence?  Your timing was a little too perfect for both of you to show up at the same time.”

“Look,” Melissa answered, “we were also looking for the gang leaders,” she pointed out.  “That was our mission."

“And Calihye?”

Cortona shrugged.  “Your guess is as good as mine.  To my knowledge, they weren’t on this mission.”

            “Calihye never goes on missions,” David replied.  “Before I got sent to Midgar, I worked for her.  When she needs someone killed, she sends Darius.  For her and Darius to be there?  Something heavy was going on.”

            “Darius is also coming with us to Van Diemen”  Irene made eye contact with Bishop.

“So what?” William scoffed.

Irene York leaned closer to him.  “They say when he fights, he is stronger than a were-bear in Crinos, with the agility of a werewolf.”

            “’They say’, huh?”  Bishop stared blankly at her.  “Then why haven’t I heard about him before?”

            “He emerged on the streets a few years after you joined the Raptors,” Irene answered, holding out a slender finger in front of his face.  “Be wary of him… he could kill you.  He’s had years of training at Magnus’ feet.”
            The werewolf was unimpressed.  “Possibly.  But so could a schoolgirl with a plasma revolver.  Timing.”

            Melissa jumped in.  “It is clear that whatever Calihye is up to, Darius is also involved.  So we need to keep an eye on him while we are on Van Diemen.”  She looked at Irene and asked, “What’s your role in all of this?”
            “I’m going to be working on the political side of things under Santino,” York answered.  “Since I’m a ghoul, I’ll be able to meet certain leaders during the day… and under circumstances that might be less suspicious than at night.  I can be very persuasive when I want to be.”  She winked.

            “Then why would I trust you?”  Bishop glared at her.

            “Irene’s been with me since she came with me to Midgar,” David answered.  “I can vouch for her.”

Cortona snorted a laugh.  “Listen, David.  I…”

“I’m on your side.  You know that Calihye has no love of me or Irene.  If I should fall, Calihye would certainly kill her next in order to tie up loose ends.”  The male vampire leaned back in his wheelchair.  “I think it’s time to be honest, don’t you?  For starters, who was that vampire was that we took down?”

“You read the report,” Melissa answered.  “A rogue surviving member of the Black Hand.”

“I don’t believe that shit and neither do you,” David spat.  “Now who was it?”

            Bishop caught Melissa’s eye; she nodded her head.  So he said, “I suspect that he was Giovanni.”

            “Why?” asked David.

            “He had a wraith on his side.  The Giovanni specialize in controlling wraiths.” Melissa replied.

            “Makes sense.  The Giovanni are notorious for having too many servants.  That would also explain the presence of the were-liger.  I’d bet he dominated his ass,” said David.  “So if he was a Giovanni, then how and why was he involved with Calihye and Darius?”

            Bishop looked at the clock and said, “That’s a good question.  But I don’t have the time to answer it.”

            “Why?” Irene asked.

            “Two reasons.  One, I need to rest.  Two, I need to go over a few things with Melissa in private first.”

            “Very well, stud.”  Irene got up from the desk, giving a Bishop a quick seductive smile.  “Play coy.”

David waited until Irene got behind him.  “My leg should be better in about a week, after we reach Van Diemen.  I should be able to help more afterwards.  But until then, watch your back.”  And without another word, they left the room.

            As soon as the door closed, a small cloud of mist floated up from the floor, taking the form of Hugh.  The wraith looked at Bishop, turning its gaze to Melissa.  “So I take it that we are going to Van Diemen?”

            “Correct,” Melissa replied, “but, tell me more about you.  How did you come to be a wraith?”

            Hugh sighed.  “Once, I was a British officer in the Royal Marines.  WhiIe I was involved in the Anglo-Irish War, I was killed on the Bloody Sunday of 1920.  While lying on my death bed, I felt so much regret.  I had not fulfilled my rightful destiny in the British Army.  At the same time, my cousin Bernard Montgomery was rising in the ranks and later became a Field Marshal.  That should have been me.  As I died, I embraced an undying hatred towards him, receiving the recognition I rightfully deserved.”

            Melissa leaned back.  “And I take it that Angelo’s the reason you weren’t able to exact your revenge?”

            “While I was interfering with Bernard’s military movements during World War II, Angelo used his connections within the Giovanni, and discovered my tampering.  He captured me, and since then, I have been in his service.  Under the Giovanni, my passion has been unfulfilled.”

            “So why haven’t you fallen into oblivion?  Isn’t that what happens to wraiths that do not fulfill their passions?” Cortona asked.

            “My former passion has now been replaced—by pure hatred towards the Giovanni.  I will not rest until they pay.  They stopped me from following my destiny, and I will hate them forever for it.”

            Bishop’s eyes went wide.  “So… what were you doing in Calaunt?”

            “Angelo kept me in the dark, as far as his plans.  I played the role of messenger, bodyguard, and enforcer… along with Thomas, the were-liger you killed.”

            Bishop yawned.  “Great.  Now I know so much more.”


“Sorry, Melissa, but I must get some rest.  Let me know if you learn anything new.”

            “Will do.  See you tomorrow.”

            Bishop took the book out from the desk drawer, bringing it back to his room, and hid it under his mattress.  After all of their activity that day, the walk to the warehouse, the fight, and the walk back to the space port, he felt exhausted.  He set the alarm clock, undressed and crawled into bed.

            As soon as he closed his eyes, he saw a bright flash.  Suddenly, he viewed himself looking down on a camp fire from a small ridge at the edge of some thick jungle.  Seated in a circle around of the fire were a dozen were-jaguars.  One of the were-jaguars was seated in a ceremonial seat; to his right, sat a were-jaguar with long jet-black hair.  On the other side of the clearing was a werewolf in a cage, a spear leaning against a tree stood just beyond his reach.  Bishop looked to his side and saw the Spirit of the Chameleon standing next to him.

            At first, Bishop was concerned that the were-jaguar with black hair sensed his presence.  In fact, he smelled the air and looked in Bishop's direction.  But soon he was satisfied that they were alone and turned his gaze back towards the captive were-wolf.  He got up and walked over to the cage, looking closely at the werewolf, and finally, closing his eyes.

            Suddenly, another image of the Spirit of the Chameleon appeared next to the next to the were-jaguar and put his hand on his shoulder.  Slowly the posture and facial features of the were-jaguar changed.  His clothing, weight, and height changed until the point that he looked and smelled identical to the werewolf in the cage.  The were-jaguar in the form of the were-wolf walked over to the were-jaguar leader.  He spoke with a strange Spanish type accent and in a European language that Bishop could not determine.

            The were-jaguar leader nodded.  Then the were-jaguar in were-wolf form went over to the side of the cage, grabbed the spear, and disappeared into the jungle.

            The Spirit of the Chameleon put his hand on Bishop's shoulder.  He saw a flash of light and opened his eyes—finding the alarm clock buzzing like an angry bug.  He swatted it, then went into the bathroom.  He felt like having a hot shower so he turned the faucet to extra hot.  For some reason, the fan in the bathroom wasn’t working properly, and steam quickly filled the room.

While he was washing, he thought back to the dream.  He thought about the black haired were-jaguar, wondering if he was one of his direct ancestors.  Then Bishop thought of his own father.  He remembered his face when he came home from his missions when he was in the Special Forces for the TI.  Eric Bishop always had a serious and intense expression.  His eyes seemed to see through a person when he looked in his direction.

            After about fifteen minutes, Bishop got out of the shower.  He grabbed a towel and started to dry himself.  Noticing that the mirror was completely fogged over, Bishop used the towel to wipe away the mist.

            Bishop was so shocked by what he saw reflected in the image that he nearly tripped over himself as he tried to back up.  Reflected in the mirror was an image of his father.  Bishop made a few motions with his hands and quickly realized that he was looking at himself with his father’s features.  In a soft voice, Bishop said, “What the fuck?”  But the voice was his father’s.

            He took the towel and wiped his face attempting to return his own facial features, but it didn’t seem to work.  Bishop started to become concerned.  Now he had the physical features of his father, but he wanted to return his own appearance.

            He slowly closed his eyes and when his lids closed, he saw another bright light.  When he reopened them, he saw the shadowy ghostly images of the Spirit of the Chameleon standing on his left along with another Spirit standing on his right that he had not seen before.  It was the Spirit of the Jaguar.

            The Spirit of the Chameleon put his hand on Bishop’s shoulder.  An image of Bernard Dent in uniform flashed into his mind.  Within moments, his physical features changed and soon he saw Bernard Dent wearing his uniform reflected in the mirror.  On top of that, Bishop noticed that he smelled like him too.

            Now Bishop understood.  He closed his eyes and brought forth an image of General Smits and soon he had the physical features and outfit of Smits.  He closed his eyes again and brought forth an image Melissa.  He reopened them, but he was still in the form of Smits.  He looked to the side and saw the Spirit of the Chameleon slowly shake his head.  Bishop then tried to change his form to David, but again failed.  He then tried to change his form to mimic Irene, but failed once more.  Bishop then closed his eyes and envisioned his own image.  Soon he saw himself reflected in the mirror.  He felt his face and was pleased to find that it had returned to normal.

            So I guess I can mimic humans and garou, but not creatures of the wyrm? he thought to himself.  Both of the Spirits nodded to him.  How long can I mimic someone?  For some reason, an image of the dream from a previous night of meditation entered his mind.  He saw one of his ancestors use the same ability before going out to hunt were-wolves.  The image he saw focused on the movement of the sun, but was in fast motion.  He saw it rise and set three times.  After that, the were-jaguar was forced to change back into his original form.

            For some reason, Bishop sensed that the Spirits were satisfied that he had learned this new ability.  The Spirit of the Chameleon removed his hand from his shoulder and vanished, but the Spirit of the Jaguar remained.  He put his hand on Bishop’s shoulder and an image flashed into his mind.  It was an image of the were-jaguar with black hair from the dream he had during the night.  He saw an image of him stabbing the spear that he had taken with him into the jungle into a were-wolf shaman’s heart.  As soon as the spear penetrated, there was another flash and Bishop found himself standing in the bathroom.  He looked to the side and saw that the Spirit of the Jaguar had vanished.

            Bishop left the bathroom and quickly got dressed in the clothing that would be appropriate for Van Diemen and a leather coat.  He grabbed the book and put it into one of the inside pockets.  For some reason, he went back into the bathroom.  He thought about the conversation that he had with Melissa and the others from the day before.  He remembered what Irene had told him about Darius.  Bishop closed his eyes and concentrated on the image he had of him in his mind.  He slowly opened his eyes and saw the image of Darius in the mirror.  Bishop then sniffed himself and noticed that he also had Darius's scent.

            Bishop left the room, walked down the hall and knocked on Melissa’s door.

            Through the speaker Bishop heard Melissa ask, “What do you want, Darius?”
            “I need to speak to you.  Now,” Bishop answered with Darius’ voice.

            “Fine.  Come in,” Melissa replied.

            After a few moments, the door opened and Bishop walked in.  Melissa was standing towards the back of the room.  She had her swords sheathed across her back.  Bishop closed the door behind him and said, “Melissa, it is me.  I’m Bishop.”

            “I hope this is not some kind of joke,” Melissa replied.

            Bishop closed his eyes and brought forth an image of himself in his mind.  His physical features started to change and within moments, he was back to his original from.  Melissa blinked her eyes a few times and said, “How did you do that?”

            “Oh, just an ability that I picked up,” Bishop replied.  “I just wanted to make sure it worked.”

            “Right…” Melissa replied.

            “So after I left last night, did you learn anything new from Hugh?”
            From the wall to his right, a cloudy vapor seemed to appear.  It took the shape of the wraith.  “Nothing.  I went to Darius’ quarters and spied on him.”

            “What did you learn?” asked Bishop.

            “He spoke to Santino and Calihye.  Apparently, they were the ones that reported Angelo was a rogue member of the Black Hand.  Santino is concerned that the Black Hand might know about your little operation and will seek to oppose you.”

             “I'm not surprised,” said Melissa.  “I can see why Santino would believe him.  Van Diemen has an ideal environment for vampires.  They are not going to be too happy when they see us trying to take over the place.”

            “Did Darius say where he will be going when we reach Van Diemen?” asked Bishop.

            “He told Santino that he was going to the Lodge of the Predator Kings.  I gathered from the conversation that it is a favorite establishment for former TI Red Talon werewolves.  Darius told Santino that if anyone knows how to find the other vampires on Van Diemen, it would be those guys,” Hugh answered.

            “Why do I get the feeling that’s not the reason Darius is going there?” asked Melissa.

            “We should go there and see what he is up to,” said Bishop.

            “Why do I also get the feeling that’s not why you want to go there?”

            “OK.  I admit it.  I like killing werewolves.  It runs in the family.”





The Legacy, Izzy’s personal vessel, was certainly not as gaudily opulent as Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, but no one could rightfully call it austere or utilitarian either.  It was clearly designed as a personal vessel, and Izzy had nothing else if not personality.  The ship had accommodations enough for up to eight crewmembers including Izzy, plus the mobile version of Poison Apple… if he got desperate enough to want to start picking off the crew.

            For now, however, the ship was empty save himself.  My first stop, he noted mentally, is going to be to hire myself a crew.  The ship did well enough on autopilot, and even better when Izzy linked himself into the virtual controls, but there was nothing like good old fashioned sentient experience.

“Long time, no see,” the southern drawl of the computer continued.  “And this place is in such a state! Sake’s alive, that layer of dustbunnies is threatenin’ to do just awful things to the recyclin’ units.  I’ll get the maintenance bots on that right away.  You know, you really should have given me a little old warnin’ first, Izzy dear.”

“Sorry, I was somewhat detained, and this was… unexpected.”

“Well, you know I can’t stay mad at you for long, sugar-pie, don’t you worry your pretty little head over it.”

“Don’t worry, I wo—”  Without warning, the vessel took off.  Izzy toppled over a chair and found himself sandwiched between a bulkhead and acceleration.  “What the deuce do you think you’re doing!?  I didn’t tell you to take off yet!  I’m not even sitting down—well… now I am.  But I wasn’t before!”  Acceleration leveled off and he was able to peel himself away from the wall as artificial gravity and inertial dampeners took over.

“Well, I know you didn’t dear, but your co-pilot gave the word, and what’s a girl to do but oblige?”

“Co-pilot!?  I have no co-pilot!”  Izzy stumbled to the forward command center of the ship.  How could Roquefort know of this place so quickly!?

“Weefle Runner…” Izzy muttered under his breath, recalling Gabriel’s taunt.  “When I have some time I’ll taking up hacking again, then we’ll see who’s the weefle runner.  So what if I use a mouse and key board… they’re ergonomic!”

The central corridor opened up into a room dominated by a large viewing screen, around which were arranged sleek consoles in a semi-circle.  The arrangement made it look more like a board room than the hub of a star ship.  A quick glance around told Izzy that all the chairs were empty, save navigation.

Even as Izzy swiveled the chair around, he knew it couldn’t be Roquefort.  The silhouette was clearly female, clearly young, and clearly expecting him.  Unfazed, the young woman stared back at him, one hand still poised on the virtual console controls now behind her back.  “You want us to crash back into Sylvania, or should I maybe keep my eyes on the road?”

Shocked into submission, Izzy let go of the chair.  “Who the devil are you?!  And… what are you doing on my ship?”

“I’m Agent Five.  I’m here because you employ me.”  She worked the console expertly, a look of intense concentration on her face.

Izzy fell into the command chair next to navigation, pulling up his own virtual display and glancing sidelong at his crewmember… or possibly kidnapper.

Not looking up from her display, she shook her head.  “You’re not going to find anything.”

“I beg your pardon—”

“You’re trawling the networks for info on me, but you won’t find it, because that’s how good I am.  I’m willing to bet you don’t even remember hiring me.”

“Well… no… not really.  No," he admitted begrudgingly.  Maybe I really am going senile, he thought to himself.

            The corners of her mouth quirked up slightly in what might’ve have been a smile.  “Good.”

Izzy rubbed the back of his neck where he had smashed into the console on takeoff.  “Some pilot you are… not even observing normal safety procedures.  Maybe I should fire you; you could’ve killed me!”

She rolled her eyes.  “Please.  Like you can’t take a little inertia.”

“Wait.  You know…?  How do you—”  There were very few people he would’ve told about his ‘less than human’ condition, and this woman was definitely not on the short list.  Who was this woman?

She turned in her seat to face him, annoyance emblazoned across her face.  “Look, that man Roquefort is looking for you this very minute.  I wanted to take off before the end of the Equatorial Holographic Sky Parade so we might slip by unnoticed, giving us a head start.  The large scale holograms confuse the sensors and visually cover our tracks.  You were taking your sweet damn time like it was a pleasure cruise rather than an escape.  If I had waited for you to get all nice and comfy, you would’ve gotten a bit more than a bump on the head from that Roquefort guy.  Now at least we have a fighting chance.”



After a couple days in hyperspace and too many questions left unanswered by his new co-pilot, they jumped out the gate into…

“Hector System?” Izzy asked.

“It’s not like this crate has its own jumpdrive,” Agent Five shrugged.  “So we’ve got to use the standard gate system.”

“Pyong would have given us…”

“And run into the Republican Fleet?  No thanks.  Did you forget who Roquefort works for?”

“I was barely introduced to the gentleman,” D’Argent explained.  “I mostly remember him sticking a plasma rifle in my face.  Hurt my feelings.”

“I’m sure the feeling’s mutual,” Agent Five smiled.  “But that’s too close to the Bug border for my taste.”

            “So instead, we’re in a sparsely populated system, and being tracked by seven different types of sensorbots," Izzy said.  "We’re an obvious target!  We’re a surrey with a fringe on top!”

            To answer, the mysterious woman broke out into song.  “O…..klahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ off the plain…”

            “And the wavin’ wheat,” Izzy continued.

            “Can sure smell sweet,” replied her sweet alto.

            Then they joined perfectly on the duet, “When the wind comes right behind the rain!”  Then they laughed, enjoying the afterglow of a musical that hadn’t been sung in centuries.

            As she set the autopilot, he asked again, “Who are you?!”

            “Short answer?”


            She gave him a careful stare.  “I’m a paradox.”

            Izzy paused.  “Can I have the long answer?”

            “Not really.  In a couple hours, we’ll reach planetfall and pick up the rest of your crew.  Before then, I need to nap, shower, and put on my game face.  I can’t do all that while I’m talking to you.”

            “Give me something.”

            “Fair enough.”  She took his hands and held them.  “You hired me in the future to save your bacon in the past.  I just had to wait until you finally hit the point in your timeline where you needed me.”

            “And how did I do that?”

            “You asked the jigsaw man to turn around the world with the skeleton hand.”  She smiled, but the smile dropped when the vampire’s face looked confused.  “Come on!  You lived in the 20th Century!  You never listened to White Zombie?”

            “I was rather fond of musicals at the time.”

            Agent Five sighed.  “Figures.  Besides, the lyric doesn’t really work.  His hand was black, not skeletal.”


            “No.  Black.  Like jet black.  When he wasn’t pretending to be human.”  With that, she walked to her cabin.



            Hector was a nice planet… if you were fond of Montana.  The land was flat, except for mountains that poked out of the plain like rocky spikes, and like Montana that was, there was hardly anything there.  Herds of cattle roamed nearby, and Izzy could see another herd of bison a mile away in the moonlight.  The ship landed next to a tiny town that seemed to have been grown rather than built, and the houses lived in rocky mushrooms covered with shiny radiation panels.

            Agent Five was dressed in a red evening dress and combat boots, leading him to what was clearly the only bar for five hundred miles.  D’Argent looked at the sign.  “The Jade Flower.  Hmph.  You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.  We must be cautious.”

            “I’m always cautious.”

            “And well-dressed.”

            “Thank you,” she smiled.

            “So much for being inconspicuous.”

            “As you explained on the ship,” Agent Five put on a pair of sunglasses, “we’re already an obvious target.”

            “And the dress?”

            “It’s from my prom.  Do you know how little I get to dress up these days?”  She looked him over.  “And you should talk.  Willy Wonka is out of place everywhere.”

            Izzy seemed hurt.  “I would say that good taste is always in style.”

            “Then you’re ready to meet your crew,” and she stepped into the bar, Izzy following.

            The bar was rather empty, so as with any newcomer, all eyes turned to the incongruous pair that stepped in the door.  Agent Five was oblivious to the stares and made her way to the back of the bar; D’Argent reluctantly followed.  Finally, she reached a table with four people around it, playing a hologame involving catapults and what looked like chickens.  “Izzy, meet Agents One through Four.”

            The four faces turned as one to the visitors.  “We have names, you know," the dark-skinned woman huffed.

            “They do indeed,” Agent Five answered.  “This is your new pilot, Aussie DeVille.”

            “Aussie?”  D’Argent’s eyebrow raised.  “As in Australia?”

            “As in Austerity,” the pilot shrugged.  “My parents grew up poor in money… and imagination.”

            “This,” pointing to the man playing with his butter knife, “is your engineer, Larry.”

            “Just ‘Larry'?” Izzy asked.

            Larry pointed the knife at D’Argent and turned it.  The vampire’s bowtie suddenly twirled around… until Izzy grabbed it.

            “Larry doesn’t speak much,” Agent Five explained, “but he knows his tech.  And this is your navigator, Danielle Twedt.”

            The grandmother nodded through her mane of flowing grey hair.  “I also cook a mean spaghetti.”

            “And finally your tactical officer, uh…” she looked at the messy man with too many pockets.  “What is your name, again?”

            “Just call him Freak,” Aussie answered for him, “’cause that’s what he is.”

            “Heh, heh,” Freak answered, “you got excitement?  Heh, heh, heh… I’m your m… m… man.  Heh, heh.”

            Izzy looked over at his co-pilot.  “And you hired him for…?”

            “Tactics,” she explained.  “Freak is the best shady ops man in galaxy.”

            “Then why is he here?”  Aussie rolled her eyes.

            “Because no one else will hire him.”  Agent Five smiled.

            “And you say I hired this crew?” the vampire asked.

            “No, I did.  Face it, the ‘saving the galaxy’ business is booming.  You’re lucky I found anybody.”



            You’d think with all the teleporting I’ve been doing, Yasuyama Takamitsu mentally grumbled, we could have just opened a portal to the surface.  Taka sat in the co-pilot’s seat of the same shuttle he blasted into combat only the day before.  This time, his father wasn’t piloting the shuttle; Akihiro had bigger issues back on Battlestation Yamato.  Once they had control of the command deck, it didn’t take long for them to force the surrender of the rest of the Light Infantry still on the station.  All his father had to do was starting venting atmosphere and they put down arms.

            But that wasn’t why his father was still there.  “I thought we won,” Taka said out loud.

            “We did,” Sergeant Ise Chen replied, piloting the craft.

After the battle for Sisko Barracks, he was glad to have at least one security officer that he recognized.  With the appearance of what he called “the Denim Man,” Taka sometimes felt that his grip on reality was slipping.  I guess that’s why I’m not a time mage, he smirked.  “So why am I being sent down to negotiate with the Light Infantry?”

“Not with the LI, sai,” Chen clarified, “with the Cult.”

“But… they’re on our side!”

“Not my place to say, sai.”

Kuso kurae no shin, kusateru oyaji!Takamitsu cursed, dropping all politeness.  “I’m tired of people not telling me what’s going on!  So if I’m going to negotiate, I need to know.  Otherwise, I’m going to get the 3D, get it to Avalon, and end all this!”

“The what?”

The young manager glared at the grizzled old sergeant.  “Tell me.  Why am I negotiating with the Cult?”

The sergeant sighed as they rumbled through the heat shield.  “Boy, I left the Tech Infantry because of kurae like this.  Revolutions make people feel good; nothing like sticking it to those who were sticking it to you.  But then you win.  Revolutionaries don’t know how to run things, they know how to kill things.  So they kill each other.”  Once they were in atmosphere again, he hit the autopilot, and turned to face his superior.  “You’re going down so that we don’t kill each other.”

“And how do I do that?”

Sergeant Ise smiled.  “Don’t know.  Above my pay grade, sai.”  He leaned back in the command chair and stared at him.  “Any other burning questions, M. Yasuyama?”

Taka blinked.  “Yes.  Did you ever meet a Colonel Fialla Spencer?”

The pilot’s shock barely registered on his face.  “The 86th Platoon?  That Spencer?”

“I really don’t…”

“Yes, I’ve met her,” Chen answered.  “What did you do to piss her off?”

Now it was Takamitsu’s turn for shock.  “Who said…?”

“Colonel Spencer fought the Caal, boy, and paid the price for it.  If you ran into her, then you must have done something awful.  She doesn’t have time for social calls.”  The sergeant chuckled to himself.  “Time.  Ain’t that the kintama.”  He looked over at his superior.  “Sai, keep it simple.  Deal with the Cult, then deal with your family, then deal with Spencer and the kurae you stepped in.  It’s too hard to do it all at once.”

It gave the young mage a lot to think about, and it was a short trip, so Takamitsu kept his mouth shut.



“Thank God!  Taka!”  Shinsuke practically tackled him the second he stepped off the shuttle.  They landed near at one of their factories outside the city of Shinjuku.  As they approached, Taka could see the massive damage that had been caused when the LI retook the city.  Now he could see them being disarmed, their weapons and armor being handed over to the Cult… who weren’t enthusiastic to bowing to the Yasuyama family.

“Hey, Shin,” he hugged him back, glad to be distracted from the whirlwind of information he tried to make sense in his head.  “How are things?”

The werewolf gave a wry grin.  “Well… let's just say that I’m glad you’re here.”

Taka leaned slightly and saw Kim Wen standing a few feet behind them, dressed impeccably in a new blue business suit.  “Ah, now I understand.”  He detached himself from his friend and shook her hand.  “Glad to see you made it, Wen.”

“No thanks to you,” the young woman groaned.  “We were bouncing on the back of a hover truck while you went off to save the galaxy.  What?  No space on the secret train to Tokyo Three?”

“It wasn’t my call!” Takamitsu smiled.

“Sure it wasn’t,” she rolled her eyes, and then reached out and hugged him.  “I’m really glad you’re here.”

The manager’s eyes went wide.  “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” he said, pushing himself away from his cousin.  “What’s going on?”

Her eyebrows furrowed.  “I’m here to debrief you on the situation with High Priest Robertson…”

“No, I knew that,” Taka answered.  “I mean, what is going on with you two?”

Shinsuke groaned loudly.  “Let’s just say it was a long truck ride.  Come on, we don’t have much time before the meeting.”

His friend and bodyguard half-walked, half-pushed Taka down the road into the factory.  After an uncomfortable silence, Taka asked, “So what is the situation with the high priest?”

“After Battlestation Yamato was taken, our forces were able to direct the orbital bombardments directly on the Light Infantry positions.  The Federation commander realized that not only was his support cut off, but that his communications were compromised.  After a few hours, he surrendered, rather than let his men be killed.”

“Okay,” Taka nodded, “that explains the Fed.  What about the Cult?”

“The Cult control the surface, we control the skies,” Shinsuke summarized.  “Robertson wants your father to relinquish the orbitals to him—and your father wants a planetary government in place before he does.”

“Robertson not happy about it,” Kim Wen explained.  “I managed to convince him to meet with us here.”

Takamitsu straightened his rumpled clothes.  “Fine.  Let’s talk.”



“…the glory of his countenance will not permit ANY but his chosen few to work towards establishing his reign throughout the galaxy, bringing about what some have called the Messianic Era, the Nirvana, the glories…”

The High Priest hadn’t stopped preaching for ten minutes.  His public speaking wasn’t that inspired, Takamitsu thought, although that could have just been because he had a trash can on his head.  Wen, you listening? the manager concentrated and thought loudly.

I stopped listening just as soon as he started, his cousin answered back.  Mind magic didn’t come easy to either of them, but they had grown up around each other, so the mental connection was stronger than most.

All right, Taka thought, while we’re waiting, why don’t you explain what happened between you and Shin?

She audibly groaned before returning to her poker face; Robertson was on such a roll, he didn’t notice.  There we were, in the middle of nowhere, just him and me in the back of this packed hovertruck.  It was cold.  All I wanted was a little body heat…

Whoa! the manager thought.  Are you saying that you guys…?

No.  A flash of confusing images followed from Kim’s mind.  I wish.


Grow up, Taka.  Wen shot a quick glance at him.  We were together for three years in the Tech Infantry.  On the firing line, you’ve got a lot of time on your hands… when you’re not scared out of your mind.

But you didn’t do anything this time.  Did you?

There was a mental pause before she answered.  He kept saying that he had someone he cared for now, and that what was past was past and…

You’re rambling, Wen.

I love him, Taka!  Why can’t he see that?!


Both of them suddenly focused on the red-faced, red-suited high priest, glaring at them from the other side of the table.  Robertson Sun-Yat leaned on the conference table and panted with exhaustion.  One of his aides put an arm on his shoulder and calmly said, “You’ve made your point perfectly clear, Your Holiness.”

Takamitsu suddenly realized that he recognized the aide.  “Sexton Hu?”

Bishop Hu now,” the Buddhist turned military leader smiled beatifically.  “The Emperor takes away my fear, the Emperor returns with blessing.  Praised be upon Him who saves us from the Caal.”

“Praised be upon Him who saves us from the Caal,” was intoned by everyone there, although the Anshin suits took a moment longer.

“I’m glad to see you well,” the young manager answered.

“Yes, the fight was harsh, but thanks to your help, we prevailed.”  Hu smiled wider.  “I still don’t know how you stopped that hovertank.”

“Years of kendo training,” Taka couldn’t help but smile back, “and a really sharp sword.”

“Maybe they teach that in the advanced class,” the bishop laughed, “but His Holiness’ point is valid.  We honor your contribution to the cause, but those who serve the Emperor bled and died on the streets.  This planet is the Emperor’s, and it should be turned over to the Emperor’s highest representative.”

Yasuyama nodded.  “I concede that the Cult will have a place in the high order, but religion and governance are often… a bad combination when placed together.”

“What in the name of all that is Holy is…?” Robertson erupted again.

Bishop Hu placed a hand on his shoulder again, instantly silencing him.  “Your Holiness, please.  I don’t believe that M. Yasuyama was speaking of removing you.  He was just… concerned?”

“Yes.”  Taka knew a cue when he heard it.  “Certainly I think all members of the future government would be loyal servants of the Emperor, and by extension, members of the Cult of the Emperor.  You would have massive influence over their actions.”

“But…?” Hu intoned.

“But the Cult must be separate from the government.  Not in the chain of command.”

There was some grumbling from other side of the table.  Finally the high priest replied, “And who holds the chain of command, M. Yasuyama?  You?”

“Certainly not,” Taka smiled.  “But there’s only one man who supported you, who made all this possible.  My father, Yasuyama Akihiro.”

The explosion of outrage from the Cult side of the table erupted.  Taka just sat there and faced them, waiting for the wave of anger to pass out of them.  Shinsuke was nervously fingering his chair, probably wondering how to turn it into a weapon, while Wen tried to think of ways to create a force shield.  Takamitsu simply waited until it was his turn to speak.  “Can you think of anyone better qualified to rebuild our world?  Balance the needs of the Emperor with his subjects?  Save us from the inevitable Fed retaliation?”

“We did it before,” Sun-Yat spat back.  “We’ll do it again… without your help!”

“We could easily let the Fed assault force in,” Taka answered, feeling smug.  “I’m sure that you would have eventually defeated the LI, but the Tech Infantry?”  He gave an exaggerated shrug.  “You’re going to need some mages.  Who do you think hires the most technomagickal specialists on the planet?”

“This is getting us nowhere,” Robertson moved to leave.  “I will not relinquish my glory to satisfy a man who feels he can buy his way to salvation!”

“You say you serve the Emperor?!” Takamitsu shot back.  “Why not ask Him?!”

The table went suddenly silent.  Bishop Hu was the first to break the silence.  “You mean…?”

“Surely a star system’s future is worth His attention?”  The manager smiled.  “I’m sure our netrunners can break through the Fed scrambler bots and get a comm to His Holy Majesty.  Will you accept His decision?”





            The cabin door hissed open.  "We're nearly there," Lincoln Esposito said.  The Imperial Fleet commander and two Imperial guardsmen filtered through the doorway without further formalities.

            Scyr counted to five in his head before turning away from the little porthole at the back wall.  "I know."

            Commander Esposito seated himself on a couch, leaned back, and put his boots up on a coffee table.  The cabin was actually one of the larger staterooms on the transport liner Ragamuffin.  The Fleet had booked the room for Scyr not out of generosity, but because the cabin's isolated entrance at the end of a hall was easy to secure.  The door was locked at all times, with two guardsmen posted outside, and a platoon of backup available in the next stateroom over.  Scyr had trouble taking advantage of the luxuries, anyway; getting in and out of his wheelchair unassisted had proved an infuriating chore.

            "Have you ever been through a digital gate before?" Esposito asked amiably.  He had been rather short with Scyr for most of their trip to Avalon, but now either his mood had improved substantially, or he was trying to convince Scyr to let down his guard.

            "Could never afford it before the war," Scyr told him.  "Afterwards…" he shrugged, and displayed one of his smaller grins.  It was probably just his own imagination, but somehow Scyr's smiles just didn't feel quite right without one of his fancy suits to provide a jarring contrast.  His last one had been thoroughly ruined, and the Empire hadn't thought it important to let him acquire a new one just yet.  So Scyr was still dressed in the simple red t-shirt that he had been issued from the Army's stores on Cronos.

            "Well you won't hardly notice anything at this velocity," the commander said.  "Little flash, maybe a bit of a shake, over before you know it's happening," he snapped the fingers of his left hand.  "If you ever get the chance to go through at a slower speed, though, now that's an experience.  Can get a little disconcerting watching that wave coming at you, dematerializing everything."

            "Yes…"  Scyr let his gaze drift back up to the porthole.  There were only stars visible outside, but he could imagine looking at the behemoth structure of the Earth-Avalon digital gate.  A feeling of regret tugged at his conscious mind for a moment.  Operation WAISTCOAT would have been a truly spectacular thing, but he'd never see it bear fruit now.  Such a shame that Treschi—

            "But I'm becoming excessively sentimental here," Scyr apologized to his internal dialogue.  After all, he didn't need WAISTCOAT anymore.

            "Pardon?"  Esposito blinked at him.

            "I'm an incurable romantic," Scyr chuckled, "my heart simply melts when I think about the wonders of life in space.  And ponies, but that just goes without saying.  So apart from letting me know that we're approaching the gate, what brought you to my quarters, Commander?"

            Esposito blinked a few more times, then shook his head.  "As soon as we've made the transition to Avalon, we'll be taking a shuttle to the planet.  I've gotten word from my cousin that he'll be at the family tower this evening, so you'll meet with him today."

            "Is your cousin also in the military?"

            "No.  You will probably need to be interviewed by some high command people at some point.  But the family will handle those arrangements."

            "All according to official procedure, I'm sure."

            Esposito ignored his prodding.  He pulled a datapad and an identity chit out of his jacket.  "Before we can go to Neue Pankow, though, we'll have to go through entry screening.  Everyone landing on Avalon does these days, no exceptions.  Michael's provided some credentials so we can move you through without wading through a day's worth of paperwork at each of three different security agencies and military commands.  So for the rest of the day your name is Cincinnatus Oldman, you're visiting—"

            Scyr cut him off, "You're kidding?"

            "I am not," Esposito said with bubbling frustration, "and if you can't—"

            "Sure, sure, no problem," Scyr waved a placating hand.  "It's just an astounding coincidence.  Go on."

            The Commander did, holding up the datapad again as he read off notes about M. Oldman.  Scyr only half-listened, he could commit the information to memory easily enough, but his thoughts and the rest of his attention wandered off again.

            The gate was out there.  All the anticipation that had been bubbling up within Scyr for the past months was about to be fulfilled.  Scyr still didn't know why he should be so excited, did not know the source of his compulsion.  It had been with him since that first dive into hyperspace aboard the Scum Sucker as it departed Jennifer's Star.  But it had only been whispers, then, a vague satisfaction with the journey.  Only later had it begun to strengthen and grow into something more, becoming a mission, a purpose.  And the more he travelled, the clearer it became that the feeling, the voices, the compulsion, were all pointing to a single destination.  Avalon was the goal, the center, the heart of it all.  Reason didn't matter, Scyr had to reach it.

            Closer.  He still couldn't see it, and yet he could.  Not with his eyes, but with his mind, stretched beyond the Gauntlet where it could touch the soul of space itself.

            Closer.  The taste of time and distance on his tongue condensed and morphed into a sweetness like nothing else in the universe.  It was here, it was here!

            Tears of joy watered Scyr's huge eyes, and he had trouble keeping his breathing steady.  I am there.  I am home.  I will have everything and myself all over again!

            The transport ship Ragamuffin entered the transitional zone of the Earth to Avalon digital gate.  At its present velocity, the entire ship crossed the boundary in less than a thousandth of a second.  But that was still enough time for Scyr realize the moment and to think one last victorious thought before he and everything else aboard were dematerialized and transferred five light years in an instant.  Yes!




            Commander Esposito nearly dropped his datapad with a start as Scyr kicked off the ground with his one leg, nearly falling out of his wheelchair as he sent it reeling and crashing into the rear bulkhead of the cabin.

            "What the—?" he blurted.  "Are you okay?"
            "No!  Nononononono!"  The Terran Naval Secretary had clamped both hands to the top of his head and seemed to be attempting to dig through his own scalp as he shouted.

            "M. Secretary?"  Esposito stood up and took a half-step towards Scyr.  The two guardsmen had started forward as well, looking equally bewildered.

            Scyr convulsed, pitching forward and shouting into his lap.  "Itknows itknows itknows!"  Then he jerked up again and Commander Esposito could see the sheer animal terror in his eyes.  "HE CAN SEE ME!"

            "The hell?"  Esposito furrowed his brow, and then beckoned for the guardsmen to help him as he leaned in towards Scyr.  "Look, whatever's—"

            "Nooo!" Scyr shrieked and recoiled from Esposito, smacking his wheelchair back against the bulkhead a second time.  He slashed out with his left fist, but the commander bent at the waist and the punch swung wide.

            Instead it tore a hole in the air of the cabin.  Heavy wind rushed out as the fabric of reality shuddered and split open.  And Lincoln Esposito froze where he was standing.

            The creature which stepped out of the portal had no eyes.  It had no nose, no ears, and no hair.  It had no arms and hardly any body at all.  It was a mouth with legs, and drool poured out from its meter-wide lipless jaws, dripping down off of bare teeth.  It had lots of teeth.

            Commander Lincoln Esposito barely had time to open his own mouth before the creature snatched him up in its jaws and bit down.  His scream died with a crunch of splintered ribs.  But before it could take a second bite, the otherworldly horror keeled over and fell to one side, with the commander's corpse still locked in its jaws.  Blood sprayed out of its tiny chest as its organs exploded in their new low-pressure environment.

            Scyr paid no attention, he just kept screaming, kept clawing at his head to relieve the terrible pressure inside.  He had to escape it, that dread attention, before it could be certain, before it could come for him.

            The Imperial guardsmen had been stunned for a few moments by the tear in the Gauntlet and Esposito's death in the jaws of the Umbrood.  But once they saw it was dead, they recovered quickly, drawing their sidearms and starting again towards the frantic Secretary.

            Scyr opened another portal.  Not because of the guardsmen, but because he needed to draw attention away from himself.  He needed to, and this was the only way.  His only hope of survival.  A swarm of wormlike creatures flew out of the new realm.  They collided with one of the guardsmen, burrowing into his eyes and mouth.  The man collapsed, writhing and gurgling and choking to death on his own blood.  The remaining guardsman began firing his plasma pistol at the swarm, vaporizing Umbrood by the score.  But something else slammed into his knees and started chewing at his abdomen and soon he, too, was dead.

            It wasn't enough.  It wasn't enough.  Scyr opened more portals, and more Umbrood leaped out to fill the cabin with cacophonous howls as they began to fight one another.  The Gauntlet was being ripped to tatters inside the stateroom and still it wasn't enough.  Scyr lurched forward out of his wheelchair and began dragging himself forward across the floor with his palms.  Portals continued to open, and the din grew louder as the Umbrood began to smash against the walls.

            Then the skeletal man was there, standing over Scyr, and the horror on his face was absolute.

            "What the hell are you doing?" was his appalled demand.  "Have you completely—"

            Internal dialogue tackled him, cackling and shrieking.  And the two apparitions rolled away in a tangle of chains and limbs.

            Scyr didn't even notice.  He reached the door to the cabin and threw himself upon it.  Abandoning all discretion, he forced his fingers into the gap between the two sliding plates, skinning them to the bone.  He pulled, straining muscles against the strength of its mechanical lock and drives.  Around him, the portals kept opening.



            Lieutenant Commander Adorinda Alinejad swiveled smartly towards the central holoplot as the distress signal chimed in the CIC of the Imperial Fleet dreadnought Cyrus.  The signal was coming from a mid-sized transport which had just made the transit through the digital gate from Earth.  That put it squarely within the field of space for which the Cyrus was responsible, which meant that Captain Finnin would want more information, which meant it was the job of Commander Alinejad's CIC to get it for him.  Adorinda was not the best command officer; she had few friends and did not inspire exceptional loyalty in her subordinates.  But she ran an excellent CIC.  Her assessment was ready by the time the bridge requested details five seconds later.

            Not that there was much to share.  The passenger liner Ragamuffin was sending a transponder request for assistance.  Its thrusters cut abruptly during a course adjustment, leaving it adrift and rapidly leaving its pre-filed flight towards Avalon orbit.  The crew was not responding to communication requests, but there was no sign of external damage that might have disabled its comm gear.  Captain Finnin thanked Adorinda for her report, causing her to swell with pride even though the Captain remained as stern and expressionless as ever.  Lord Admiral Brodbeck dispatched a destroyer and two fighters from Cyrus' contingent two minutes later.  Adorinda settled into her chair once more, but kept an eye on the beleaguered transport's holoplot icon.

            So she was the first to notice when its pressure hull began to explode.



            Scyr continued to crawl on hands and knee across the bare metal floors of the Ragamuffin's lower decks, oblivious to the chaos surrounding him.  No one had tried to stop him since the guardsmen outside his cabin door.  The few people he did come across may not have even noticed his existence at all.  They were too busy hiding and fleeing from the monsters tearing through the ship and slaughtering them like the spawn of Hell itself.

            Scyr was naked, and a streak of blood trailed behind him.  A horde of Umbrood was just too much for most people to accept, and the paradox had taken his clothes, most of his fingernails, set his hair on fire, and once caused the floor beneath him to turn to sand.  But finally, well after Scyr lost track of how many times he'd torn through reality, the presence he'd felt in his mind had turned away.  The distraction had worked.  And after being so terrified, Scyr was giggling with relief as he crawled.

            He reached the door he wanted, a double-wide set at the very bottom of the transport: the boat bay.  Scyr scrabbled up the side of the frame to slap a bloody hand against the control, and laughed again as the doors swished open for him.

            A plasma bolt sizzled over his head, striking a meter above the doorway.  Scyr threw himself at the floor.

            "Oh shit!" someone yelled.  "I'm sorry!"

            A greasy man in a crew uniform staggered towards the door from inside the boat bay.  His hands were shaking, and with them the giant plasma revolver that he'd scrounged.  "I thought you were one of them!" he said as he got closer to Scyr.  "I'm sor—holy shit, pal!  Are you okay?  You'd better come in here, I've got—"

            Scyr sprang up to grab the crewman by the front of his shirt.  The man yelped, dropped his gun, and was born to the floor with Scyr on top of him.  As soon as they slammed down, Scyr sank his teeth into the man's throat.  The flesh was both tougher and more slippery than he imagined, but Scyr opened his mouth and clamped back down again.  Then, straining his neck, he rent upwards, tearing out a gory chunk of the crewman's windpipe.

            Spitting and coughing to clear the dead man's flesh and blood out of his mouth and teeth, Scyr scrambled around.  He tore off the crewman's blood-sprayed overalls, planted his knee into the corpse's abdomen, and grabbed its left leg.  It required several minutes of tugging and tearing, but finally the leg came free.  Scyr rolled onto his back and pressed the limb onto the stump at his own hip.

            Then he stood up.



            "Oh my God," someone breathed.  In the silence of the CIC, it was still loud enough for everyone to hear.

            Adorinda turned toward the speaker, one of the officers who helped maintain the tactical plot.  In ordinary circumstances, she might have warned the man over his religious purity.  But these were not ordinary circumstances.  A giant red serpent, like some sort of ancient sea monster, had just launched itself from the transport Ragamuffin and wrapped its body around one of the Imperial fighters performing a close inspection.  And Commander Alinejad thought she detected something more than simple shock in her officer's voice.

            "Do you know something, Lieutenant?" she asked.

            Lieutenant Orenstein looked at her.  His eyes were wide and his mouth slightly open, just like most of his comrades in the CIC.

            "It's an Umbral incursion," he said.

            "Explain," Adorinda commanded.  Orenstein was a mage.  Not a very good one, which was why he was in the Fleet and only a lieutenant, but his knack for sensing did give him an edge at keeping track of a battle space.

            "There's some nasty things living in the Umbra," he said.  "If you screw up trying to talk to them, or trying to go through yourself, sometimes they can get out.  Most of them can't survive very long on our side.  But some can, and…" he closed his eyes for a moment.  "Jesus, there must be hundreds of portals out there."

            "What do you do when this happens?" Adorinda asked, trying to keep the lieutenant focused.

            He shook his head.  "Uh, you get some mages and hunt the spirits down, kill them.  Then you seal the Gauntlet back up."

            "Could you do that?"

            Orenstein blinked, looking horrified.  But his expression sobered up quickly.  "I… probably not, no.  I've never even heard of someone opening up multiple portals to the realms.  Just one is dangerous enough."

            On the holoplot, the destroyer which had been dispatched to the Ragamuffin opened fire on the serpent and the fighter it was crushing.  Both exploded neatly.  But now there were more things breaking through the transport's hull and squirming outside.  At this rate, the entire thing would break up in a few more minutes.

            "Emperor help us," said someone with more religious sense than Lieutenant Orenstein.

            A shuttle broke free of the transport's bay and began making a hard burn back towards the digital gate.  The creatures from the Ragamuffin ignored it, but it didn't respond to comm attempts any more than the transport had.  The destroyer and remaining fighter made no move to intercept it, deciding to let Earth's garrison handle it.

            "Whoa," said a petty officer at the comm station.  "You may get your wish."

            All eyes turned toward him, and the crewman pointed at his console.  "The Lord Admiral just accepted a comm from the Imperial Palace.  I'm betting we're about to see some divine intervention!"




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home.  Besides, Tzimisce fleshpaper is too high-maintenance to be practical for interior design anyway.