"For the first year or so, a war is usually about something—a disputed territory, or a principle, or some other thing that people feel strongly enough about to fight over. But after it's been going on for a while, the war is about the war. The original cause, in fact, may be entirely forgotten: we just keep fighting because there's a fight... The war is about the war."


-- Salvatore Magundi


            "What the fuck was that?"

            The skeletal man glared at Scyr.  "Oh, are we asking questions again?  I hope we're asking questions again, because I've got a few myself."

            Scyr stopped his pacing to level one finger at the man.  "You have now exceeded the limit of my tolerance for sarcasm and evasion in this conversation.  Fuck with me again and there will be no more opportunities."

            Crouching beside them both, Scyr's internal dialogue chuckled evilly.  Scyr clenched his teeth, pivoted, and kicked it in the mouth with his new left foot.  It skidded backwards with a howl.

            "Don't think I have any more patience for you," Scyr snapped at it.

            He turned back to the skeletal man, still sitting cross-legged on the ground, obviously weary but trying to look indignant.  The ash-gray, featureless landscape curved away into an equally featureless, tarry horizon.  It had been more difficult than usual for Scyr to find a spot in the Umbra where he wouldn't be disturbed.  Apparently this close to Earth the spirit realms became rather complex and crowded.  But Scyr needed answers and time to think, so he'd kept on digging until he reached this near void.

            "Now answer me," he commanded the skeletal man, "what was that I could feel back there?"

            The man sighed, but then closed his eyes tightly as he searched his memory.  "It… did seem like a mortal presence."  He opened his eyes again.  "But the power behind it, you'd need to be shoveling planets into a quintessence furnace."


            The skeletal man put his fingers to his forehead.  "This is beyond hopeless," he muttered.  "Quintessence is a fundamental element of reality; it flows through everything and gives it form.  Some mages call it the power source of magick itself, but that's really a tragic oversimplification which will cripple your ability to understand anything if you think that way."

            Scyr felt himself becoming irritated, but waved it away.  "Forget it.  So, someone with overwhelming magick power?  But who, and why would someone want to mess with me like that?"

            The skeletal man cocked his head incredulously.  "You know exactly who it must have been, come on!  That was Vin Dane inside your head.  You must have tripped every magickal alarm he had the moment you jumped into the system.  Which is exactly what you should have been expecting to happen if you weren't so completely engulfed in whatever mad fantasy is driving you!  You are drowning inside your own mind and you don't even realize it!"

            "Stow it," Scyr fumed.  "How does Dane pull down that much power?  Can I do anything like that?"

            "Are you even able to tie your shoes in the morning?  Dane has the Orb, you can't touch that."

            "And so what is the Orb?"

            "It's… the Orb.  Excalibur.  God, if your sense of drama exceeds your imagination."  The skeletal man shook his head.  "Wielding it doesn't actually make you divine, but it'll sure as shit put you within shouting distance."

            Scyr nodded, hoping he looked more understanding than he felt.  "Fine.  How do I get past the notice of His Orbulence, the Emperor?"

            The skeletal man threw back his head and barked.  "Ha!  You don't.  Might as well ask a leech to survive taking a dive into a star."

            Scyr's expression darkened.  "That was not an optional instruction.  I'm going back and you're going to help me figure out a way to do it."

            The skeletal man looked like he had been saving up his smirk for years.  "No."  He wagged a finger at Scyr's chin.  "I'm so sorry you couldn't engineer an atrocity bloody enough to solve this one, but this time I can't clean up your mess.  You lose, mission not fucking accomplished."  He said these last words with a smile.

            Scyr's face, on the other hand, had gone blank.  He just watched for a minute as the skeletal man settled back into his meditative position, arms out to either side of his folded legs.

            "Okay," Scyr said at last.  "Come here."

            The skeletal man's eyes snapped back open to look at him suspiciously.  "What?"

            Scyr stepped towards him.  "You're done, come here."

            The skeletal man proved surprisingly agile as he uncrossed his legs and skipped backwards several meters away from Scyr in about a second.  "You can't be serious."

            "Fuck serious," Scyr said.  He grabbed the chain which bound the skeletal man to him and wrapped it tightly around the palm of his hand.  "I warned you a long time ago what would happen if you pissed me off.  It's over."

            The skeletal man clawed at the chain as it tightened around his throat.  "You don't want to do this, you need me."

            "I don't need you, I need your information, and that I plan to keep."  Scyr continued to walk forward, drawing in the slack on the chain.

            The skeletal man spat, "What about Wolf?  The penthouse attack?  Can you even remember how many times I've saved your ass?"

            "You were perfectly useful until you stopped being useful, and now it's time to end you."

            He jerked on the chain, but the skeletal man dug his heels into the dark ground.  It was pathetic, but he was still making Scyr fight him all the way forward.  Out of the corner of his eye, Scyr could see his internal dialogue circling around to watch.  The skeletal man tried to jerk his head towards it.

            "What about him?  Are you really going to choose him over me?  Are you really going to let him win?"

            "I can handle it," Scyr said.  And he licked his lips because he knew it would unnerve the skeletal man.

            "I hate you!" the man screamed.  Scyr pulled on the chain again, tugging with most of his strength this time.  It jerked the skeletal man off his feet, and he spun forward, collapsing against Scyr's shins.  "Please!"

            "Sorry, Doctor Jekyll," Scyr said with a shrug, "the experiment has outgrown you."

            He reached down and popped open the top of the skeletal man's skull with one thumb, and then pulled out the brain.  The rest of the man's body seized once, and then fell still.  Scyr released his grip on the chain to pitch the corpse aside, and it quickly dissolved into the ethereal substance of the realm.

            "Hmm," he held up the brain to look at, and rubbed his chin while he considered.  Then he snapped his fingers at a thought, picked up the fallen chain, and hooked it to the dangling brainstem.  He stepped back to consider his creation.  It floated in front of him like a ghastly, pinkish-gray balloon.

            "Doesn't look like all that much, does it?" Scyr asked.  His internal dialogue stayed quiet, but moved in closer to get a better view.  Scyr did too.

            He studied the brain for a long time.  There were few references in the Umbra by which to judge the passing hours, and anyway time probably behaved differently than in the normal world.  Still, it could easily have been days that Scyr spent doing nothing but standing in place and examining the brain, trying to comprehend its structure and plot it out within his own mind.

            Eventually, it did begin to make sense.  It was complicated like nothing else Scyr had ever tried to understand.  Tens of billions of pathways arranged in a network trillions of times more complex than the ODN software Scyr had rewritten above Babylon, and with infinitely more nuance.

            The complexity was so great that Scyr was almost afraid to alter it.  He waited far longer, and reviewed his understanding far more times than he really probably needed before making that first change.  Eventually though, he did.  Cautiously and with exacting precision, he reached inside and moved one neuron.

            It worked.  He needed a few seconds to be sure, but certainly the entire system didn't collapse; and once he reviewed the surrounding pathways, Scyr could see the improved efficiency.  More confident, he made another change, and it worked too.  And then, laughing, Scyr set to work for real.  The changes he wanted were small, subtle adjustments; he wasn't looking to reshape the whole structure.  But soon enough Scyr could feel the difference within him as he changed.  His thinking cleared, his worries eased.  And he had knowledge.

            It was patently impossible, of course.  The very idea that Scyr could model something as complex as his own mind with his own mind was absurd.  But Scyr didn't care.  The improvements were worth the effort, and he needed the information which the floating brain held.  He worked on.

            Some time later—the lack of a mobile sun or stars did have the advantage of limiting distractions—Scyr stopped.  He took a step back and stretched his arms above his head, feeling his spine crackle with relief.

            "That will suffice for now," he said.  Said to no one, it turned out, as his internal dialogue was still staring at the floating brain, enraptured and salivating at the sight.  Scyr contemplated it for a moment and then shrugged.

            "Your turn."

            His internal dialogue grunted in only the barest acknowledgment.  Scyr walked up to it and snapped his fingers beside its head.

            "Look sharp," he said.  "This whole fiasco was your idea, and it's time for you to cough up some answers."

            An incoherent mumble.  Scyr reached forward and flicked the side of its forehead.

            "HISSSS!" the apparition stood up to its full height and rounded on Scyr, baring fangs and raising its claws.

            Scyr only crossed his arms and looked into its dark eyes.  "Better.  Now Vin Dandy's apparently got Orb-pumped senses giving him blanket coverage of the entire Avalon system.  I need a way to get in undetected.  Tell me what you know."

            His internal dialogue growled and gnashed its teeth, still trying to appear menacing.  Scyr grabbed it around the throat and shook.

            "You will cooperate," he scolded, "because I'm not going to do a damn thing until you do."

            Internal dialogue howled and slapped at Scyr's forearms, but it could not harm him here.  Scyr had all the power.  He pulled his arm in, bringing their faces close enough for their noses to touch.

            "Tell me!"

            The fury in the spirit's eyes was palpable.  Its entire body shivered and smoldered from its rage.  But Scyr held its gaze without blinking, and his own eyes were hard as stone, unforgiving and unrelenting.  Eventually, his internal dialogue gave up.

            It opened its mouth, stretched its jaws as wide as their ghostly physical structure would permit, and then wider still.  Gray skin peeled back across the surface of its face to reveal the darkness within.  Eventually the whole head crumpled away and was swallowed up by the black void.  The void, in turn, began to spin impossibly atop the bare, dessicated neck.  As Scyr watched its rotation it began to take shape, sprouting bladelike wings around its circumference, still spinning like a too-fast clock.  There was no color, nothing visible inside the void which seemed to swallow all of the meager light in this place.  And yet Scyr could still almost perceive its nature.  It was like a single great, monstrous eye focused upon his face.

            "Vessel of my will," it said, "you try my patience."

            "Likewise," Scyr told it.  "Tell me what I want to know."

            "I have no interest in your desires.  Proceed to Avalon at once."

            Scyr shook its body by the neck again, its limbs flailed but the void remained centered and upright like a gyroscope.

            "I can't go to Avalon; Vin Dane will know the second I jump back in."

      "I do not care.  Proceed to Avalon."

            "If you want anything from me, you're going to need to step up with some help.  Otherwise you can expect to rot here forever because I am not just walking straight into certain annihilation for you."

      "You cannot threaten.  Already your bonds fail according to my design.  You will seek the center of light.  Proceed to Avalon."

            Scyr chuckled deliberately.  "I will do whatever I please, because these bonds are going nowhere as you can damn well tell.  So either cough up or get ready to rattle that cage from now through eternity."

            There was no immediate response, which Scyr took as a good sign.

            "Vin Dane's got the Orb," he said, "which is letting him keep an eye on the entire star system.  And apparently it's sensitive enough to go off the very moment I jump in.  So I need a way in that doesn't draw his attention, because I won't be 'proceeding to Avalon' without one."

            Another long pause, but this time Scyr remained silent.  He strained his ears to hear the whirring the void's spinning blades, but they seemed to suck in sound just as completely as the light.  At last it spoke again.

      "You will require a Life Mask."




            Far above the ecliptic plane of the St. Michael's Star system, the fabric of space itself was wrenched and torn asunder.  A shining blue funnel-shaped cone of plasma erupted.  Stray hydrogen atoms were accelerated to near light speed and then bent around in crazy loops and spirals by the intense gravimetric field along the frayed edges of reality.  Out of the calm center of this swirling storm came an immense starship, four miles wide, six miles long, and three miles tall.  Its twin hulls would each have been far larger than any ship in explored space.  The bulbous knob at the prow of each hull crackled with iridescent sparks of light as unthinkable energies swirled within the technomagickal machinery of two powerful Gravitic Rams.

            Alongside the massive Star Control Ship, four Battle Carriers also erupted from hyperspace into realspace, each over a mile long themselves, looking like mere remoras following the shark-like profile of the EFS Poseidon.  The five warships reconfigured their gravity drives for maneuvering and fell rapidly towards the ecliptic.  They accelerated at rates that would crush the crew of a lesser vessel.  As they fell, their communications arrays pumped out a powerful but encrypted signal: hold on, I am coming.



            Down on the planet below, holding on was becoming increasingly difficult.  The Federation forces in Port Prosperity had been forced into the downtown sector and nearby neighborhoods.  But the Imperial forces were also losing steam, taking immense losses in the house-to-house fighting against seasoned veterans.  Most of their forces were Imperial Guard, and while the Empire did not segregate its awakened and unawakened soldiers like the Federation, the Guard was overwhelmingly made up of former Light Infantry soldiers and raw recruits.  Only a handful of awakened soldiers, mostly ex-Raptors, served as senior officers.  Their recruits were eager, even fanatical, but their courage mostly served to get them killed against the claws and spells of veteran Tech Infantry units.  Oh, the Fed had brought Light Infantry as well, but they were mostly gone by now.  The ones that survived were tough and skilled, and in their own way as fanatical as the Cultists fighting for their God-Emperor.

            Down in the former Sabbat hideout, Major General Nasrudin Carson directed his forces as well as he could, given the circumstances.  He didn't have a lot of options for maneuver, nothing you could really call a reserve, and if it wasn't for captured ammo, they would have long since run out of supplies.  Food wasn't a problem—this was a major city, and the inhabitants had mostly fled.  A couple of warehouses and grocery megastores had been stripped of their goods, and the food moved into basements and foxholes by work gangs of Federation-sympathizing civilians.  Not many of them were left either.

            But General Carson's big problem was that his hideout wasn't in downtown, and if something didn't change soon, he was going to be physically cut off from his men.  An underground vampire hideout should have had a back door, to escape if a Crusader Team came in the front door, but no amount of searching by a dozen mages and another dozen werecreatures had turned up so much as a hidden alcove.  Oh, there was a hidden panel in the rec room, but it only opened on a blank wall of raw dirt.  Many vampires could merge with the earth and swim through it like water, so the general consensus was that this was the "secret exit," useless save for a couple of the werewolf troops who could pull off a similar trick.

            So when Windspeaker Durward stumbled into the tavern at the top of the busted elevator shaft down to the hideout, his news that the last defensive line down the block had been breached was not greeted with anything but despair.  "It's mostly cultists, but as soon as we open up on 'em, those damn RABBIT batteries up the river start dropping on us," he reported to his platoon commander.

            "Using the cultists to draw fire and then call in the arty, eh," replied Captain Soti.  "Fate knows they've got enough of 'em."

            "Yeah, and they're pouring around the ends of our lines, too," interjected Titus Vardan, running up with what was left of his squad in tow.

            "Great," Soti grimaced.  "McCall, get your cyborg butt downstairs.  Tell the General we need to leave now, or he can stay here forever—his call."

            Argus nodded and leapt into the elevator shaft, grabbing onto the cables with his prosthetic arm.  He slid down the cables rapidly to the bottom, then yanked himself to a halt and swung into the hallway.  No one really wanted to stay in the room with the flesh tapestries—bits of them still stained the raw fungicrete of the walls, and the smell of scorched flesh lingered like rancid bacon.  So the General had set up his command post in the rec room.  Cables snaked out the door and up the elevator shaft to communications maser arrays concealed in the rubble above.  To avoid interception and triangulation, they bounced their tight-beam signal off the ionosphere.  By the time it reflected and scattered back down to the surface, it was diffuse enough to cover a wide area, and near impossible to track back to its source.  Even so, until today they had been sending the signal to a relay station on top of the last intact skyscraper before beaming it upwards, but that tower had taken a hit and collapsed overnight, and they hadn't been able to recover the relay and stick it somewhere else.

            As Argus jogged into the rec room, the room shook as artillery rounds crashed into the rubble above their heads.  General Carson was staring intently at a holoproj map of the city as it was before the invasion, with friendly and enemy forces marked in glowing blue and red.  There was a lot less blue than red.  He scowled and turned to Argus.  "I know why you're here, Lieutenant."

            "Sir, the captain sends her regards, and informs you that we cannot guarantee your escape route for much longer," Argus informed the Light Infantry officer.

            "You can't guarantee squat, soldier, not in this war," the General spat.  "And even if you did find me another hole to hide in, it wouldn't do any good, anyways."

            "Sir, we need to get you out of here," Argus insisted.  "The fleet could return at any moment, and..."       

            "...and Arthur Clarke might fly out of my butt, riding a Star Control Ship piloted by Erich Von Shrakenberg, and rescue us all.  Then we might crack Avalon open like an egg and dump Vin Dane and all his little Horadrim pals into the molten core," the General replied savagely.  "But it ain't worth planning a strategy around."

            "What are your orders, sir?"  Argus' voice was unnaturally calm, even for the normally unflappable Cyborg.  "Shall we withdraw in good order to await the fleet, or shall we make a last stand here and try to take as many with us as we can?"

            General Carson's eyes bulged out of his head.  "Last stand?  Merciful Allah, your circuits must be shorting out again.  We're in a hole in the ground.  All they gotta do is roll in some demolition charges and bury us alive."

            Argus' voice climbed to a shout.  "Then you might as well crawl into the next room and die.  There's even coffin racks in there," he replied, his voice dropping down towards its normal register.  "I'm afraid the leeches took the actual coffins with them, but I'm sure there's an empty ration box or something."

            "Secure that insubordinate mouth of yours, McCall," the General shouted.  As Argus shut his trap and straightened up in a mock salute, the General spat on the floor and then turned to his two remaining technicians.  "Send a message to all units.  Lay down arms.  There's no point for any more of us to be killed on this Godforsaken rubble pile.  Then see if you can reach some sort of Imperial commander and ask for his terms..."

            "...I can't let you do that, sir," Argus interrupted, his voice quavering in righteous fury.  "Our orders from Admiral Munoz were to hold, and we will HOLD!"  He was pointing his plasma revolver sidearm directly at the General's head.  His sniper railgun ran out of ammo two days before.  Cyborg snipers being a fairly rare commodity, they hadn't been able to scrounge up any more rounds for it.

            "They told me about you," the General replied, icicles dangling from every word.  "Chairman Clarke isn't around to pardon you for killing another commanding officer."

            "Good thing too.  He'd rip your head off and use it for a beer stein.  You'd surrender to the people who worship the monster who murdered him," Argus replied, a terrifying grin on his face.  "Now tell the nice radio lady to order the headquarters unit to fall back and link up with D company near the...."

            The General suddenly looked up in surprise at something behind Argus.  Argus had lost his last remote drone four days before and thus didn't have any eyes in the back of his head to see what it might be.  But before he could crane his neck around—without taking his gun off the General—an arm like a tree trunk swung down.  A plasteel pipe hit the general like a pile driver, pulverizing his skull to mush and smashing right through his rib cage before finally coming to rest on his pelvis.  The upper half of his body obliterated by the force of the blow, his lower body staggered and fell a second later.  The dead flesh and bone collapsed into a bloody heap.  Argus swung around but checked fire, somewhat shocked to see Bernard Dent standing there.

            Dent calmly lifted the pipe back up and leaned it on his shoulder.  The pose wouldn't have been at all threatening if the pipe didn't have a good portion of General Carson's brains splattered all over it.  "Now, is the nice radio lady going to order a fighting retreat?  Or are we gonna to find two empty boxes for the coffin racks?"

            As the terrified technicians moved to send out the orders, Dent turned to the still-speechless Argus.  "Hey, you killed one CO to save me and my men, I kill one to save you and yours," he said in a gruff and grizzled voice.  "Now let's get up there and go link up with D company, I hear they found a liquor warehouse that hadn't been bombed yet."

            "Sirs," interrupted one of the two technicians at the com gear.  "Incoming transmission on Fleet Channel Gold Alpha!"  Dent and Argus stopped in their tracks, and then Argus slumped against the wall.  The Fleet had returned after all.  The technician looked up excitedly.  "It's Smythe himself!  He's brought the Poseidon!"



            After falling towards the sun for a full day, accelerating all the way, the Poseidon and her escorts were plunging toward the ecliptic at over half the speed of light.  Most of the sensor and weapons platforms in the system had been destroyed in the initial fighting three weeks before, so the defenders didn't have much warning at all.  The Imperial Fleet task force hurriedly formed up and sortied from planetary orbit to meet them, but for all their numerical advantage in ships, they were at a serious disadvantage in tonnage and number of fighters.  Because falling into the system was not just a Star Control Ship, but four carriers, and the two thousand fighters and drones they had just launched.

            The fighters and drones were ahead of the capital ships in an enormous swarm, dancing and dodging, their formation constantly shifted to make life hard on the enemy tactical computers.  And they had another surprise for the enemy as well: instead of bringing along six battlestations and a few thousand weapons platforms, the Poseidon had brought along two hundred Light Attack Craft.  The older LAC-1054 class had been specially modified, removing their Lance Torpedoes and replacing them with extensive electronics, turning them into secondary command nodes embedded in the swarms of fighters.  Together, they linked the thousands of fighters and LAC's into one unitary organism, with a nerve system of communications maser links tying them together and allowing them to shift formations precisely and fluidly, reacting to events faster than any merely human pilot possibly could.  The pilots were still in their fighters, of course, as backups in case something went wrong.



And of course, something did.  Lord High Admiral Yin Hao Sirawatan sat on his command deck aboard the INS Terrible Swift Sword and smiled at the tactical plot.  "Oh, Smythe.  You finally managed to put your pet project in action, didn't you?"

"Sir?" his flag lieutenant looked over.

"My good friend, the admiral," the wrinkled man pointed at the fighter swarm.  "He talked about this for years, but could never get the funding for it.  Now he's Chairman; no more 'Dreadnought Admirals' pooh-poohing his fighter-centric theories anymore.  Ballsy.  Stupid, but ballsy."

"Then… what do we do about it?  Sir?"

Sirawatan shrugged.  "Signal the fleet.  Fire our Graviton Torpedoes into that swarm of fighters."

So they did.  They didn't have many of the expensive specialized warheads, but they were an effective area weapon against swarms of fighters in a way that mere nukes or laser heads could never be.  Although the dancing clouds of fighters and drones tried to shift their flight patterns to avoid the Graviton Torpedoes, they still tore gaping holes in the formation, holes that the Imperial fighters tried to exploit.  But the closing velocity was just too great, and the two fog banks of fighters passed through each other, firing as they went, but only a hundred or so fighters on either side were actually hit before the engagement range was too far once more, and none of the fighters had the fuel or the acceleration capability to turn around at that speed and make a second pass.

            The Imperial fighters flashed past the Federation squadrons and tried to engage the capital ships, but all five of them were coasting on ballistic trajectories with their gravity shields up.  Missiles, lasers, and railgun rounds stabbed futilely at the walls of tortured spacetime and were crushed and twisted by the gravitational fields, doing little damage.  The five bubbles of invulnerability fell onward, safe in knowing that the enemy had expended their graviton torpedoes on the wrong targets.  The Federation fighters flashed past St. Michael's World, their own lasers and missiles and railgun rounds seeking out the smaller Imperial vessels, the ships too small to mount a Gravity Shield of their own.

One by one, they fell out of formation, laser-cut wounds in their hulls spewing atmosphere and debris into the vacuum of space.  A few vanished into clouds of plasma as their fusion bottles went up.  More disappeared when atomic missile warheads detonated in close proximity.  One destroyer was blown to dust when a damaged fighter careened into it at just over half the speed of light, the kinetic energy of the collision erupting with the force of several megatons.  Hundreds of fighters fell to enemy point defense, but then the surviving few hundred fighters flashed past and were out of engagement range again.  In their wake were almost twenty wrecked escort vessels dead or dying.

            Next, the capital ships entered engagement range.  The four Battle Carriers had older drives and could not fire while shielded.  Being carriers, they didn't carry much anti-ship firepower anyways, so they merely coasted past the planet.  The only immediate contribution they could make to the battle was as decoys, soaking up enemy missiles and fusion cannon rounds that might otherwise have been targeted on the Poseidon.  The Star Control Ship, however, was the first human-built ship to benefit from captured Jurvain shield technology, and it could open firing ports in its shield, fighting from relative safety.  The portholes were two-way, and enemy fire COULD theoretically penetrate, but they were such small targets on the vast ten-mile-wide bubble of distorted reality.  Such a hit was practically impossible.

            Incredibly, two lance torpedoes did make it through... but they were both detonated soon after by the Poseidon's Particle Phalanx point defense system.  They did not have their own firing ports in the grav shield and thus could concentrate on the tiny number of vectors incoming fire could possibly take through the portholes.  The ship's hundreds of Lance Torpedo tubes and dozens of Grav Laser and Hellbore mounts, however, did have firing ports, and they blazed out at the enemy capital ships.  The Hellbores were another alien technology, originally K'Nes in design, but also used by the Jurvain and now humans.  Other ships and ground defenses had mounted them before, but none so powerful as the massive batteries on the Poseidon.

One by one, they concentrated their fire on one enemy Dreadnought at a time, overloading even their gravity shields with titanic energies that they eventually collapsed.  Those Imperial ships which kept their shields down to fire their weapons attracted swarms of Lance Torpedoes and Fusion Cannon shells, overwhelming their point defense until X-ray laser beams from laser heads tore into them, gutting the great vessels like fish.

            Finally, after flashing past the enemy fleet, the Poseidon flipped end-over-end and dropped its gravity shield momentarily.  Just long enough to fire both Gravitic Rams, the miniature black holes they fired slamming into the intact gravity shield of an enemy carrier and causing catastrophic gravitic interference, burning out its gravity drive and causing all four of its fusion bottles to overload and explode.

Before the enemy could capitalize properly on the Poseidon's sudden vulnerability, the gravity shield was back up in place, and the ship sped on below the ecliptic.


On the Terrible Swift Sword, Admiral Sirawatan went pale from shock.  "L… Lieutenant.  Report."

"My lord, the Poseidon is out of engagement range."

Yin Hao whipped his hand back and smacked his flag lieutenant on the side of the head.  "I can see that!  Damn it, lieutenant!  What do we got left?!"

The rattled officer went to the plot and found the appropriate auto-generated report.  "We have two undamaged carriers, two crippled dreadnoughts, and a pair of slightly damaged battlecruisers."  Then he looked around and added, "And this dreadnought, fully functional… sir."

"We had three dozen warships!  Did none of our escorts survive?"

"Sir, none of our cruisers, destroyers…" the lieutenant hit a button, "or frigates have survived intact."  He checked the plot.  "Sir, the Poseidon has begun its deceleration for another pass.  What are your orders?"

The defeated admiral sighed and held his forehead with his hand.  "We can't survive a second engagement like that!  Pick up what survivors we can and set course for the Van Diemen jump gate.  May the Emperor forgive me… for I certainly will not."



            Admiral Joseph Smythe scowled in his flag bridge aboard the Poseidon.  It had been a one-sided victory even by the standards of his own illustrious battle record, but it was a hollow victory nonetheless.  Although the Poseidon could carry twenty thousand soldiers, he hadn't brought more than five thousand with him.  He wasn't here to reinforce the St. Michael's Star garrison, he was there to salvage what little he could from a battle already lost.  He was here to pull them out and take them home.




The wraith was more miffed than usual.  "If you're a busy looking into this little coup, when we get to Van Diemen, how do you two intend on carrying out your assassinations?"

            "We need to split up," Bishop answered.  "I'll look into this conspiracy, while you two carry out the hits.  Once I have the information we need, I'll contact you, and then we can go from there."

            "What about David and Irene?" asked Melissa.  "They should help you."

            "Good point.  However, if I have both of them help me, that could draw too much attention.  My first choice would be David.  But, he said it would take a week for him to get better… and that's after we get there."

            Melissa shook her head.  "Our injuries heal quicker when we drain werewolves.  He is too important to our mission to be stuck in an infirmary for a week.  Chances are Santino will have him drain a few captured ones we have on hand, just for a situation like this.  So take David.  Don't worry about me.  Just take care of yourself."
            Bishop smiled.  "You're concerned.  I'm touched."
            "No," Melissa chuckled, "I mean I can't afford to lose all of those account numbers!  Speaking of the book you're carrying, we've only scraped the surface of what it contains.  Hugh, translate it for us."

            "Look, I am growing damn tired of being spoken to like some bloody school boy!" Hugh screamed in a deep thick English accent.  "What do I look like?  Your bloody servant?!  I was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Marines.  I fought in wars all over the globe centuries before you were even born!"  The wraith raised himself up with as much dignity as his chains would allow.  "So from now on, you will refer to me as Sir Hugh!  And, when you ask me to do something, you will be polite!!!"

            Melissa rolled her eyes.  "Sir Hugh.  Would you please help us translate the book?"
            "It will be my pleasure, Madam Cortona," Hugh replied in a calm voice.

Bishop put the book on the desk and Hugh floated over to the chair and sat down.  He opened the book to the first page and started reading aloud.  As they listened, both Bishop and Melissa had to admit that the book had a great deal of interesting information, but most of it was about the history of Augustus Giovanni.  It described many of the powers he had acquired, but only a few of them sounded useful.  Nevertheless, Hugh's reading helped pass the time.  Several days later, they reached Van Diemen.

            Once the transport was in Van Diemen space, shuttles were sent up from the planet and docked with the ship.  Most of the crates on the ship were filled with leather products.  Dozens of others were packed full, mostly with were-rats in rat form.  They were sent down to Huxley, the major city in the southern polar region, which was experiencing nearly perpetual daylight this time of year.  Several hours later, specially marked Olin Corporation shuttles systematically docked with the ship.  Men and women dressed like tourists got out of the shuttles and boarded the transport.  Meanwhile the Sabbat, including Melissa, Bishop, and the remaining were-rats, were loaded onto those shuttles and transported to Darwin, the capital city within the northern polar region.  Due to the severe orbital tilt of the planet, this area of the planet was currently in almost constant darkness.
            They landed on a large tall building in the densely populated downtown.  The Sabbat members and were-rats were led into the building and utility supply rooms.  They shuffled down the building in service elevators to the basement, leading to an underground subway station.  A long high speed train was waiting for them, completely empty.  A little while later, they disembarked and walked over to a wide warehouse.  In the distance, they could see a huge alloy casting plant.

            Inside the warehouse was a very large room with a high ceiling.  Throughout the room were numerous humans seated at computer terminals; several massive screens along the wall, currently blank.  Tunnels extended from the sides of the room.  Many of the Sabbat and were-rats split up and went down them.  Others remained in the room and were greeted by several men and women in business suits.

            Calihye walked over to Bishop and Melissa and said, "Follow me."  She guided them down a tunnel which exited the room in one of the corners.  It led to a large room with IV stands and equipment, as well as several large thick metal doors.  Calihye walked over to one of them and opened the door, showing a very long and large walk-in refrigerator.  Countless clear plastic bags containing blood hung there.  Calihye grabbed one, walked out, and tossed it to Melissa.  After catching it, Melissa went over to one of the tables, attached it to one of the tubes, and started the IV and blood warmer.  Meanwhile, Calihye walked over to another refrigerator, got out a premade sandwich and soda, and gave them to Bishop.  Bishop took them, sat down next to Melissa, and started to eat.  "Wait here," Calihye ordered, then turned around and left the room.

They both sat there in silence.  Every few minutes, a vampire would enter the room to get blood, but eventually the stream of people stopped and they were alone.  Shortly after, Santino and an old man in a gray glen plaid suit entered the room, carrying a briefcase.  They walked over to their table and took seats across from them.

"Allow me to make the introductions," Santino pointed to the human.  "This is Dr. John Tyler, chairman of the board of directors for the Olin Corporation.  Unknown to the Empire, he is also the leader of a movement, wanting independence for his planet.  He has made arrangements to ensure that our presence here will go unnoticed.  Dr. Tyler, this is William Bishop and Melissa Cortona.  They are responsible for phase one of our plan."

Dr. Tyler put his briefcase on the table and opened it.  He withdrew a minicomp and a data pad.  Attaching them together, he pressed a few buttons and a holoproj of someone's face was projected a foot above the table.  "This… waste of humanity is Baron Chris Snyder, planetary governor.  He's popular among the people in a way that truly stupid people tend to gravitate towards.  Unfortunately, his economic policies will lead us to ruin."

He pressed another button and another face was projected.  "This is Jason Horner, Chief Minister.  A smart man, in the way a shark is smart, before he takes a bite of your hide.  The majority hates him, but should M. Snyder die, he would be next in line unless the Emperor replaces him.  Therefore, I want you to eliminate M.  Snyder in such a way that Horner's involvement will be suspected—but not proved—allowing him to take over."

"So you believe that killing Snyder and blaming it on Horner will cause unrest?" asked Bishop.

"No, not unrest, M. Bishop.  Outrage!  The general public considers Horner to be extremely corrupt, but he's closely tied to the Holy Terran Empire, so his position is well secured.  In turn, the Empire has lost much favor due to their high taxation and their system of government.  It promotes incompetent people based upon social status, rather than those who would be the most suited for those positions.  This can not continue."

"What's the plan?" Melissa asked.

"Patience, my dear.  I will show you."  Dr. Tyler pressed another button and a long elaborate plan was presented—it read like a tutorial.

Before William's eyes could glaze over, the holoproj ended.  "We want this assassination completed as soon as possible," said Santino.  "This operation will start off a cascading sequence of events, which will ultimately result in Dr. Tyler assuming leadership of this planet."

Cortona nodded.  "With us supporting his position?"

"Creating another free state that supports our kind," the Priscus replied.

Bishop and Melissa stood up from the table as the two leaders departed; they followed soon after.

They barely had taken several steps out of door when they were confronted by Irene and David.  "Where ya goin', guys?" asked Irene.

William smiled evilly.  "Melissa off to assassinate someone; I'm off to find Darius."

"Aren't you both supposed to go on that hit?" asked David.

"I can handle it myself," Cortona replied.

David raised an eyebrow.  "Everyone needs a hand.  Irene can help you.  I'll go with Bishop."

Bishop nodded.  "I could use some back up."  Bishop looked at Melissa.  "The good doctor's mission was designed for two people, so it makes sense that Irene should go with you.  You can introduce her to Sir Hugh."

"Agreed," Melissa replied.
            "Who the hell is Sir Hugh?" asked David.

"I'll tell you later," answered Melissa.  "Bishop's right.  I could use the help.  Come on, Irene."  Melissa walked towards the warehouse exit and Irene went with her.

"So where are we going?" asked David.

"The Lodge of the Predatory Kings, where ever the hell that is," Bishop answered.  "Melissa found out that's where Darius is going."

David pulled out a data pad and pressed a few buttons.  "Huh.  It's not too far from here, in some suburb called New Schaumburg.  Follow me."  He closed his eyes, and within moments, he took the form of a raven.  Bishop did something similar and they both flew out of the warehouse area.

The surrounding area was a heavily populated continuous metropolis.  The only way they knew they were going further from Darwin was by the gradual decreasing height of the buildings.  Eventually, they reached an area away from factories, casting plants, or refineries, and found a land with numerous small corporate offices at the edge of small lakes and massive shopping malls.

David led them to an intersection in a less developed area.  On the corner was a large log cabin building with a large sign: The Lodge of the Predator Kings.  The parking lot was half full of speeders and there was some activity near the entrance.  Well, that was easy to find, William thought to himself.

Bishop and David perched on a roof across the street and waited.  And waited.  Finally, a flitter pulled up, and out came Darius.  He sheathed a large two-handed sword across his back and entered.  They didn't bother following him inside, but waited.

And waited… and waited.  Two hours later, he came out along with four others; Bishop and David could sense were werewolves.  Instead of getting back into the flitter, they walked along the street, further into the suburb's downtown district.  Once they were out of sight, Bishop and David turned back into their normal forms.

"Should we see where they go?" asked Bishop.

David shook his head.  "No, we need to stop them.  I want… I need to interrogate Darius."
            Bishop nodded.  He climbed down the side of the building and turned into panther form, David following him easily.  They moved quickly in the shadows along streets parallel to Darius and his companions, getting ahead of them.  They reached an alley that they knew Darius would have to pass.  Right where the alley met the street, David seemed to merge with one of the shadows of the building.  Bishop drew his swords, turned into Crinos, and positioned himself up against the wall.  He called upon the Spirit of the Chameleon and became invisible.

Moments later, Darius and the four other werewolves came into sight.  Right after they walked past, David and Bishop sprang into action.  With amazing speed, Bishop ran out onto the sidewalk and viciously slashed the back of the nearest werewolf's thigh with one sword, while impaling the other blade into his back almost to the hilt.  Meanwhile, David matched Bishop's speed and slammed one of his daggers deep into the back of the next closest werewolf, then reaching around to slash his throat.  As blood sprayed out of the open arteries in his neck, the werewolf brought his hands up to his throat to stop the bleeding and fell to his knees.  David wasted no time making several more stabs to the werewolf's back.

As if they had been expecting the attack, Darius and the remaining two werewolves instantly turned into Crinos.  Darius quickly drew his two-handed sword.  Darius faced off with Bishop while the other two werewolves engaged David.  Within the blink of an eye, Bishop lashed out in a series of offensive routines against Darius.  Amazingly, Darius was able to parry or dodge Bishop's attacks.  Bishop sensed that Darius was steadily getting stronger.  Meanwhile, David attacked the other two werewolves.  While he was significantly faster than either of them, they were wielding two blades each.  David failed to find an opening.

            Steadily, Bishop believed he was gaining an edge against Darius.  For some reason, Darius' swings were starting to lose their strength.  And, then when Bishop least expected it, Darius lashed out with an incredible amount of power.  While raising his blade, Darius deceptively put a tremendous amount of strength behind it, knocking Bishop's sword from his grasp and sending it flying out onto the street.

            Darius then initiated a lightning fast low-level swipe and Bishop had to quickly jump back to avoid getting hit.  The moment the swipe reached its highest level, Darius altered his footing so he was facing David's back.  Darius struck down into David's back while he was fiercely engaged with the other two werewolves.  The blade sliced down into David's right shoulder and came out through his left torso.  David's body fell in two pieces onto the ground.

            While Bishop stepped back he whipped out his empty hand towards the sword that was out on the street.  The blade rocketed in the air back towards him.  Meanwhile, Bishop quickly brought the sword in his other hand in front of him.  As William caught the other blade by the pommel, in one fluid motion he put both blades side by side and pommel to pommel, slightly altering his grip on the handles.  The blades and handles instantly merged and became a two-handed sword.

            Darius made a vicious swipe with his two-handed sword towards Bishop; he barely got his new weapon up in time to deflect it.  As the blades struck each other, Bishop fell into a subconscious battle rhythm.  While the weapons master's preferred form of combat was with two weapons, he realized he needed the leverage of the two-handed sword to stand up to Darius' powerful blows.

            Seeing David's dead body was on the ground motivated Bishop in ways he could not understand.  Anger and hatred started pouring forth from his body as he parried, defected, and dodged the strikes of his opponents with drastically increased speed.  Then in a blindingly fast sequence, Bishop lashed out with a series of attacks on Darius that resulted in a viciously deep slash to his chest.  Darius backed up and was clearly in pain.

            One werewolf rushed forward to take advantage of Bishop's focus on Darius.  He stabbed forward with a dagger in his right hand and made a lightning fast slash with the sword in his left.  Bishop anticipated this, and as his blade sliced through Darius' chest, he altered his grip in a special way which immediately separated the large sword into two, pivoting to meet his oncoming attacker.  As the werewolf struck, Bishop deflected the werewolf's sword with his own and narrowly dodged the stab of his dagger.  This put the werewolf off balance, so Bishop launched a vicious upward stab towards the werewolf's jaw.  The strike was so quick that the werewolf was unable to dodge Bishop's attack.  The sword penetrated the bottom of the werewolf's jaw and was impaled to the hilt.

            The other werewolf rushed forward, but Bishop quickly adjusted into a defensive position.  Darius recovered and returned to the fight.  Before they could engage him, Bishop put his blades back together and reformed them into a two handed sword.

            While this was happening, Bishop saw three werewolves in wolf form running down the street towards them.  Within moments, the wolves turned into Crinos and rushed forward.  Facing so many opponents at once forced Bishop to stop trying to completely dodge or deflect attacks.  Instead he focused on not taking direct hits.  And, in spite of his anger, he was beginning to tire.

            Out of the corner of Bishop's eye, he noticed movement down the alley.  Suddenly a massive black mastiff with blood red eyes and huge fangs ran at full speed into the fight.  Before the werewolves could react, it jumped up and viciously bit one of them in the throat, using its momentum and powerful claws to force him down to the pavement.

            At almost the same exact time, Bishop saw the figure of a vampire fall from straight above and land silently behind Darius.  The instant his feet hit the ground, he clenched one of his fists and made an incredibly powerful upper cut punch to Darius' back.  There was a loud crack and Bishop could see the vampire's fist go straight through his chest on the other side.  The vampire pulled out his fist and faced the remaining two werewolves.

            The werewolves seemed distracted by the newcomer and Bishop took advantage of it.  He focused on the werewolf facing him with the two-handed sword.  While keeping him occupied, the dog got up from the werewolf that it had killed, rushed forward, and launched itself at another werewolf.  The force of the impact caused the werewolf to lose his footing and fall to the ground.  The ravenous dog, hungry for blood, was able to quickly get his jaws around his throat.

            The vampire that had killed Darius stepped towards the remaining werewolf with the dagger, almost as if he was bored, while vicious looking claws extended from his fingers.  The werewolf rushed forward and stabbed him, but the vampire did not seem to care.  The blade bent to the side as it struck his body.  Almost faster than the eye could see, the vampire lashed out with his hand with claws and slashed his long claws at the werewolf's throat, spraying blood high into the air.  This was followed by an extremely fast punch to the werewolf's face.  The sound of the breaking of facial bones could be heard several feet away, and it looked like the fist penetrated deep into the werewolf's skull.  The vampire retracted his claws as he watched the werewolf's dead body fall to the ground.  He turned towards Bishop.

            While Bishop was relieved by assistance of the vampire and his hellhound, he was not about to lower his defenses.  He remained in Crinos.

            In a surprisingly soothing voice the newcomer said, "Relax.  William, I am not your enemy."

            For some reason Bishop started feeling a sense of serenity and inner peace.  He calmly shifted into human form.  "Who are you?"
            "Luther Petridis."
            "Why did you help me?"

            He shrugged.  "You were worthy."




Heth still had a few hours before his rendezvous with Rachel O'Reilly… and, unfortunately, he knew exactly how he needed to spend it.  There was a final job he needed to do, one he'd put off too long already, but… well, if he was going to complete this insane contract, he'd need to utilize every asset he had—and there was at least one that, until now, he'd never risked using.  Still… extreme jobs called for extreme tools.

Heth unlocked his carefully-concealed private safe (as opposed to his public safe, which he was pretty sure M'Rowr could pick easier than his teeth), removed the dangerous object, and flew it down to the opposite end of the officer's quarters.  He needed to use the ship's transit beacon—or more specifically, the K'Nes who operated it.  Her cabin, back a secluded niche (she'd insisted on that), was spacious and only slightly less glamorous than the Executive's Suite (in this case, Heth's berth), but… well, when you hired these specialists, they expected a certain level of comfort.  Besides, it was in her contract. 

Heth tapped a claw on the hatch's intercom and heard the faint chime inside.  When the occupant didn't pick up after a minute, Heth rang it several more times.

"Come back later!  I'm meditating right now!" a muffled but indignant voice called back.  "And unless there's an emergency, nothing takes priority!  The delicacy of Sky Mother's cosmic rays do not allow for—"

"Cut out the act, Kirrp," Heth growled through the hatch.  "You're on the clock, remember."

There was an obscenely long pause.  "Is that you, Director Heth?"

"Yes—your boss, remember?"  Heth hated dealing with wizards; the only thing bigger than their paychecks were their egos.  "I'm offering an extra consulting fee… but it drops every second the door's closed."

The hatch swung open.  "Yes, I suppose I could spare some time for that," purred Durrmach K'Hhak Na'Kirrp, a short, plump K'Nes dripping with jewelry, whose shiny grey pelt was slicked down with flying wax.  She wore a silvery blouse under a dark blue waistcoat, both embroidered with gold stars and constellations, and topped it all off with a ridiculous wide-brimmed pointed hat.  And, of course, she was carrying a wand.  What else?

"Thank you for squeezing me into your extremely busy schedule," Heth said, heavy on the sarcasm, as he floated into the light and airy berth and looked around.  The suite was stuffed with all manner of obscure arcane items: crystals and candles, ornate little boxes and bottles filled with Sky Father knew what, bizarre magickal tools and equipment whose purpose Heth could only guess at (if there was any at all), and books, scrolls, and parchments scrawled with mystical incantations... or is it just bad handwriting? Heth wondered absently.  How much of this is actually necessary, and how much is just theatre to inflate the price?

"So!" Kirrp began, whipping out her datapad.  "What sort of consulting do you need, Heth?"

"Analysis of a magickal artifact," Heth explained.  "What it is, how it works, the whole package."

Kirrp scowled at her datapad and sniffed derisively.  "I'm a technomancer, you know, not an artificer." 

Heth didn't know what the difference was.  "Well, yes, but… artifacts are, uh… sort of technomagickal…?"

The K'Nes mage rolled her eyes.  "If you mean that they both contain a magickal matrix for the funneling of quintessence, then yes.  But so does an everyday spell.  So does a non-magickal computer, for that matter!"  Kirrp sighed loudly, shaking her head at Heth's ignorance and muttering about the intellectual capacity of unawakened mundanes.  "So," she said, "where's this magickal artifact you have for me?"

"Right here."  Heth pulled it out and, like an engineer taking out a nuclear warhead, carefully opened the small black box.  The gold ring he had taken as collateral from M. Wells sat there in a sea of black velvet.

Kirrp plucked it up with her claws and studied it closely in silence, examining the jewelry in great detail.

The silence stretched out until Heth began to grow impatient.  "Well?" he asked.  "What is it?"

"Worth about 500 credits," Kirrp replied.  "But the craftsmanship's superior.  I'll give you 750 for it."

"I need an analysis, Kirrp, not an appraisal," he replied, exasperated.  "And it's not for sale anyway."

"Nonsense!  Everything is for sale! Alright, alright, I'll go up to a thousand—but not a credit more!"

Heth rolled his eyes.  "It's being held as collateral against a debt that's already been paid in full," he explained.  "If I don't return it, Miao Mercantile stands in breach of contract."

Kirrp's face fell.  "So it really isn't for sale."  She looked at the ring.  "Well, in that case, it's priceless."

Heth suppressed a hiss.  He briefly contemplated using his new-found martial skills to claw Kirrp's throat out… but then calculated his financial liability for terminating a Paranormal Practitioner's Guild employee, and concluded he simply couldn't afford to.  "Yes, Kirrp, but why is it priceless?  What is it, exactly?  What does it do?"

"This?  Oh, it's a spikard."

Heth frowned.  "A what?"

Kirrp heaved the sigh of a long-suffering martyr.  Heth was getting really tired of that sound.  "I'll put this in layman's terms," Kirrp said, as if speaking to a child.  "It's a Ring of Power, an Energy Artifact, a Force Source.  But we in the Paranormal Practitioners' Guild prefer to use the more precise arcane classification of 'spikard.' "

Heth vaguely recognized those terms from K'Nes myths, legends, and magitech catalogs.  "What's it do?"

Kirrp rolled her eyes.  "It converts matter into energy.  You know, E=mc2?  Scat, even I know that!"

Suddenly it dawned on him—what the ring was, what it did—and Heth was too amazed to be annoyed by Kirrp's continued condescension.  "You mean that… ring can turn anything into nuclear energy?"

"Magickal energy," Kirrp clarified, holding up a claw.  "There's a difference.  It's not as much energy as splitting an atom, true, but it's still more than enough to—"

"No wonder it's so valuable!" Heth purred, still astounded at what he possessed.

"Rare, too."  Kirrp nodded.  "And dangerous as water demons on holiday."

"Really?"  Heth looked at the ring again with new eyes.  "Oh… yes, I can see how it could be."

"This artifact can channel enormous amounts of magickal energy," Kirrp continued, examining the ring.  "Spikards are rare because few mages are advanced enough to create them, to handle that much energy without destroying themselves.  They're usually the only ones who use such artifacts, too—it's too risky for the rest of us."

Heth felt his tail hairs begin to rise.  If he'd known M. Wells was a mage in that league, Heth would have thought twice about the aggressive bargaining strategy he'd used in their negotiations.  Suddenly, another nasty thought occurred to him.  "If it's that dangerous… is it safe to keep it on the Avarice?"

"Oh yes."  Kirrp nodded with absolute confidence.  "Only a wizard could even attempt to use this—and, to the best of my knowledge, I'm the only awakened K'Nes on the ship."  She looked over at Heth.  "Think of this as an atomic hand grenade—but only a pawful of people can pull the pin.  For you?  It's just a piece of jewelry."

"Well, that's something, at least," Heth said, relieved and reassured.  "But you could use it, right?"

Kirrp stared at him a long time before answering.  "Use it?  Yes.  Control it?  Possibly.  But I'm not stupid enough to risk trying," Kirrp finally replied.  "My metaphysical specialty is Correspondence, not Forces—that's why I'm a transit beacon operator, after all."  Kirrp sighed again (she was fond of sighing).  "Probably all I'd create is an elemental blast of magickal energy.  At best, I might be able to direct it at something.  At worst, I'd vaporize myself.  And you.  And probably a good chunk of the ship."  She looked up at Heth.  "Then again, I might be able to integrate this into a magitech device designed to handle that much energy—the transit beacon, for example, or a gravity drive.  But… well, this is a human magickal artifact.  The paranormal principles are the same, mind you, but the apes do things… differently.  Things get lost in translation.  And in this case, there is no margin for error."

"Alright…"  Heth scowled and scratched behind his ear as he attempted to summarize what he's learned.  "The ring's as dangerous as it is powerful, can only be used by a mage, and only safely used by a human mage."  Heth frowned.  "Unfortunately, that limits its usefulness to me…"  Then again, he thought, the Cialt Abbey is full of human mages.  Perhaps one of them could make use of it?  I'd better bring it with me, just in case…  He looked up at Kirrp.  "Well, thank you for your help and expertise, Durrmach K'Hhak Na'Kirrp.  I won't take up any more of your time."  He held his paw out to her.  When she didn't move, he clarified.  "Uh… the ring, please?"

"Umm… don't you think it should stay with me?"  Kirrp closed her claws around the priceless artifact and pulled her paw in close to her chest.  "One should leave magick in the paws of professionals, after all."

"Of course!" Heth replied sarcastically.  "Or the Paranormal Practitioners' Guild won't get it's cut, right?"

"Special work requires special consideration," Kirrp sniffed.  "It's best to leave magick to those who know what they're doing.  The Guild controls its own for a reason.  Sky Father alone knows what an average stockbroker would do with an artifact like this!"

Heth sniffed, suspicious.  "Didn't you just say you were the only one aboard who could make it explode?"

"Er… well, yes, but—"

"Then the safest place for it is as far away from you as possible."  Heth narrowed his eyes, rapidly extending and retracting the claws of his outstretched paw in an impatient gesture.  "Now, if you please?"

Slowly, reluctantly, Kirrp handed over the ring.  It seemed to require a conscious effort.



It wasn't difficult to swing past the New Israel colony and pick up Rachel O'Reilly on their way to the inner system—it was practically on their way from the jumpgate.  Although Rachel hadn't yet found a way inside the Abbey, she had developed a business plan to find someone who could, and had a presentation ready to go.

"Thank you for coming," Rachel addressed the assembled K'Nes hunters and crewcats floating around her in the transit bay of the Avarice, signaling that the meeting had begun.  "Our goal during the next few hours is to find any Cialt monks who might have been stranded outside the monastery when the siege began."  She went on to explain her reasons for believing undercover Brothers might indeed be hiding amongst the civilian population, and that such spies might know how to get the K'Nes hunters inside the Abbey without having to fight their way past the Imperial siege lines.  That got the hunter's undivided attention, at least.

"Obviously, any Cialt spy who's managed to avoid capture by the Empire this long will not be easy find.  But you K'Nes have one advantage over the Imperial Army: your superior sense of the smell, and the Cialt Brotherhood's rather stinky habit."  She opened a sealed bag full of dark green herbs and began passing the dried buds out to her audience.  "You see, the Cialt Brotherhood smokes this plant on a regular basis as part of their meditation and prayer services, supposedly to help them commune with God."  She smiled.  "As I'm sure you'll notice, it has a rather distinctive smell."

Around the transit bay, crewcats sniffed the dried leaves curiously, then recoiled, whiskers and noses twitching, and passed the bud on to the K'Nes next to them.  Even all the way across the room, Heth could already smell it faintly: a sharp, slightly acrid scent.

"The smoke smells a little different, though," Rachel continued, pulling out a half-dozen hand-rolled cigarettes from the bag.  "Since that's what you'll be sniffing for, I'll give you example."  She pulled out a lighter, puffed the cigarette a few times to get it lit, breathed out a cloud of smoke, passed the burning joint to the nearest crewcat, and continued walking around the crowd.  "Now, of course," Rachel continued, "any Cialt spy knows smelling like this is a dead giveaway, so after praying they'll probably bathe and change clothes to get rid of the odor."  She paused to light another joint and hand it out to another audience member.  "Luckily, the stink is nearly impossible to get out of your hair.  It'll be a very faint scent, though; humans probably won't notice it.  Even you K'Nes might not detect it outdoors, as Cronos is such a windy planet.  You'll have better luck inside buildings or vehicles."  She lit up yet another reefer, exhaled the smoke, and passed it out to the group.  "Do your best to memorize this smell," she continued.  "If you pick up a trace of it in the air, try to track it down to its source."

By now, the smoky stench was beginning to grow overpowering, despite the cavernous size of the transit bay; Heth hoped it wouldn't accidentally trigger the fire-suppression systems.  Many crewcats merely sniffed at the smoldering cigarettes, wrinkled their noses, and passed them on.  A few of the more curious K'Nes puffed on them experimentally, then either made a face or began coughing and spitting.  Most seemed puzzled why any ape would smoke such a foul thing, especially since it had no noticeable effect on K'Nes biochemistry.  Rachel was right about one thing, though: the heavy, pungent, sickly-sweet odor was strong and unmistakable.

"Keep in mind," Rachel continued, "not everyone who smells like this is a monk in disguise; lots of ordinary people smoke this herb as well.  You can weed out the civilians and by eliminating anyone who doesn't match the Cialt profile."  She began ticking off items on her fingers.  "First, ignore any women; all Cialt Brothers are men.  There is a Cialt Sisterhood, but they don't have any convents on Cronos.  Second, if the suspect seems overweight or out of shape, you can probably discount them as well.  Cialt monks believe in maintaining a pure mind, spirit, and body through—among other things—constant physical training, so any Cialt spy will be relatively thin and muscular.  Finally, if you find someone with the right smell, right gender, and right body type, survey them with an etheral scanner.  If it identifies their aura as an unawakened human, ignore them.  All members of the Cialt Brotherhood are Tech Infantry veterans, meaning they're either a mage or werecreature."  Rachel hesitated a moment, thinking.  "Well, or possibly a ghoul, I suppose, but those are pretty rare these days.  I mean, they haven't served in the Tech Infantry since the Battle of Wilke's Star, so any Cialt ghoul would have to be, like, eighty years old or something by now.  Of course, they're ghouls, so they wouldn't look eighty… and I suppose ghouls can live for—"

"As for ethereal scanners," Manger Rameth interrupted, cutting off Rachel's rambling, "I know some of you have 'em and some of you don't, so we'll double or triple up when we assign search teams, one scanner per team.  I managed to scrounge up another dozen or so, so hopefully we'll have enough to go around.  Got that?"

There was a rustle of nods and mummers of agreement.  By now, a smoky haze had filled the transit bay, the burning stench so strong some K'Nes were beginning to gag.  Heth suspected most of the crew just wanted the meeting to be over.  Curiously, it didn't seem to affect Rachel—or rather, the smell didn't seem to bother her.  Her behavior, however, had grown a bit… odd.  She was squinting and blinking a lot, and Heth noticed her eyes were reddening.  That's strange, he thought, she doesn't seem sad…

"Alright, we'll divide into search teams afterward."  Rameth nodded at Rachel.  "Back to you, M. O'Reilly."

"Huh?"  Rachel jumped, startled out of her silent meditation on ghouls and timetables.  "Um… what?"

"Er… your presentation, M. O'Reilly?"

"Oh!  Right, right…"  Rachel cleared her throat and continued.  "Okay—and this is real important, guys, so listen up—if you do find someone matching the profile of a Cialt spy, DO NOT approach them!  We don't want to spook them.  That, and, uh… well, if they think you're about to blow their cover or something, they might… you know, kill you and stuff.  So anyway, just report the suspect to your supervisor instead.  They'll pass it on to Senior Director Heth, Manager Rameth, or Captain Narrah, and they'll tell me.  I need to be the one who initiates contact—it's probably best if a fellow human and Cronos Resistance member approaches them first, not an alien from a species notorious for selling their loyalties to the highest bidder."  Rachel looked around, sighed, then wrapped up her presentation.  "Okay, we've got a lot of territory to cover, and not a lot of time to do it in.  Senior Director Heth's gonna explain how the search'll be organized."

Heth glided over next to Rachel.  "As I'm sure you all know," he began, "officially, we're here to deliver provisions and supplies for the troopers besieging the Cialt Abbey.  Now, normally we'd just offload the shipment at an orbital transfer station and let the client haul the freight to its different destinations—but in this case, I've offered the Imperial Army a substantial discount on a full distribution package for cargo delivery.  For a small additional fee, we'll distribute the merchandise to the different locations for them, saving them time, personnel, and a lot of work.  Well, of course the Empire jumped at the deal!"  Heth saw some furry faces in the crowd begin to smile and nod; they knew where this was going.  "This, incidentally, also gives us a perfect excuse to discretely scout the planet for a Cialt spy."  Heth bared his fangs in a wicked grin.  "In other words, not only do we get a free pass for a thorough search of Cronos, the Empire is actually paying us to do it!"  The transit bay burst into hissing chuckles and roaring laughter; even Narrah had a hard time keeping his ever-present scowl in place.

Heth raised his paws for quiet, and the laughter died down (except for Rachel, who was now giggling uncontrollably and showing no signs of stopping anytime soon).  "The Miao Mercantile Mercenary Company, in civilian dress, will transport and unload any cargo heading for military installations, while the Avarice's dockworkers will make any deliveries to civilian areas.  The rest of the crew—as many as we can spare—will be sent on shore leave to different marketplaces so we can simultaneously cover as much territory as possible.  When the dockworkers finish unloading their cargo, join the others on shore leave.  Go ahead and do your usual trading, but keep your eyes, ears, and nose open for Cialt monks in disguise."  Heth paused a moment, looking over the crew, trying to drive home the seriousness of what he was about to say.  "When and if the Mercenaries begin actively working the extraction contract, everyone needs to get back to the ship immediately and stay here!  I don't care how close you are to closing the deal of the century—the Avarice will have to leave Cronos in a hurry, and we don't want to leave anyone behind… but we will if we have to.  Understand?"  When only silence greeted him, Heth nodded.  "Very well, then.  See Manager Rameth for your work assignments."

It took Rachel almost an hour to stop giggling.




            It was a cold dry rock in space orbiting a dying red star.  Yet the old Federation had considered it a "core" planet, colonized centuries ago when humans were first expanding into space and willing to bear the hardships of terraforming any halfway-habitable rock they found.  Heth couldn't think of a more worthless place to bother colonizing, let alone fight so fiercely over.  Still, to the small population of just under a quarter million humans, it was their home.  Some families had been there almost two hundred years. 

The mining boom towns had long since come and gone, their veins of ore played out, and cold dusty winds blew through abandoned settlements across the planet.  The only people who remained on Cronos—so near to the bright lights of the Federation capitol Avalon—were the die-hards who would never leave come hell or high water.  The Cronosites had somehow managed to fertilize and farm the dry desert soil, planting winter crops imported from old Earth during the few months when it was warm enough for water to flow in a liquid state—well, at the equator, at least.  The rest of the planet was rock, sand, and dirt under endless clouds of windborne dust.

Heth hid their search for a an undercover Cialt Brother carefully.  None of their customers realized they were being surveyed.  Humans generally didn't consider K'Nes either threatening or dangerous—and this time, it worked to Heth's advantage.  No one suspected that some of the K'Nes crewmen unloading their cargo shuttles were all trained killers.  Heth could only wait and hope someone's nose found something.

Through subtle questions worked into the idle chitchat with his customers, Heth gradually pieced together a basic picture of what had happened in the siege of the Cialt Abbey so far.  The campaign, nearly everyone admitted, had been a disaster from the start.  With all the experienced Imperial troopers fighting in systems like St. Michael's Star that bordered the Federation, the only soldiers left for internal operations—like putting down the Cronos Resistance—were green recruits fresh out of training.  Worse, the Imperial Army had underestimated how well armed, trained, and disciplined the Cialt Brotherhood was.  The monks, all Tech Infantry veterans of many, many wars, easily repulsed the initial Imperial assault—and inflicted severe casualties on their attackers.

After that, the Imperial Army withdrew, surrounded the Abbey, cut off their water supply, and tried to starve them out… but the Abbey must have been well-stocked with provisions, because weeks of siege had no apparent effect.  That was partly why the supplies the K'Nes delivered were so welcome, Heth discovered; no one had expected the campaign to take this long—and there was no telling how much longer it might last.

But now they were running out of time; Emperor Vin Dane was growing increasingly impatient and frustrated at how long the battle was taking—for a supposed God-Emperor, the inability capture the Abbey was not just embarrassing, it was dangerously subversive.  Field Marshal Palencia had recently ordered the Cronos Imperial Army to abandon the siege in favor of renewed assaults on the Cialt Abbey, and it was working… sort of.  They were slowly chipping away at the Abbey's defenses, but it was taking way too long and costing far too many lives.  Although Heth was relieved to hear the Abbey had not yet been taken, it worried him that it might fall any day now to the Imperial onslaught.  His window of opportunity to complete Smythe's contract was rapidly closing.

It was M'Rowr who finally sniffed out a Cialt monk in disguise—perhaps he'd smoked so much nepeta that he had a natural instinct for fellow stoners.   Unfortunately, he was found in a frightening location—behind the Imperial Army's siege lines surrounding the Cialt Abbey.  Luckily, Miao Mercantile had one more delivery of rations and medical supplies for that location, and Heth made sure he and Rachel were on that final cargo shuttle.

It wasn't until getting permission to fly into restricted airspace around the siege that Heth got his first glimpse of the Cialt Abbey from the air.  It was carved into the rocky side of a mountain, constructed from either stone quarried locally, or ceramcrete designed to look like stone.  It looked tiny compared to the mountain behind it—but that was just an illusion.  As Heth drew closer, he could tell it was a massive, imposing structure.  Tall walls reached high up into the sky, lined with extremely narrow cross-shaped windows—with the stained glass blown out.  Much like the arrow slits in castles of old Earth, these windows made excellent sniper positions.  Heth guessed the Brothers designed them with that exact scenario in mind.  The Imperial Army had apparently guessed this, too, as several of the window embankments had been blow out by explosives—probably from light missiles or artillery.  A tall bell tower rose up from the center of the compound.  It, too, must have made an excellent sniper's nest, given the fact that the top had been blown off.  The Imperial Army was massed far from the Abbey—modern weapons had an incredible range—but they had it completely surrounded.  The assault on the Abbey had clearly already begun.  The sandy stretches between the Abbey and the siege line was littered with scorched craters, shrapnel, bodies and blood. 

            Heth's shuttle was granted permission to land well behind the siege lines to deliver the last batch of rations and medical equipment to the Imperial Army—or rather, to the independent contractors supporting the Army—and the mercenaries-turned-deckhands began unloading the cargo.  Heth kept his eyes, ears, and nose wide open, but tried desperately to act casual, by all appearances just another K'Nes merchant in a black human business suit.  No one detected his suit was disguised power armor—perhaps they hadn't even bothered to look.

M'Rowr led Heth and Rachel in the direction where he had picked up the scent of a possible Cialt spy earlier—one of the volunteer civilian field hospitals that had popped up well behind the siege lines.  As they approached, Heth pretended not to notice as they strode past a line of corpses laid out in a row and struggled to keep his tail from bristling.  Judging by the number of wounded carried about on stretchers, the recent assault on the Abbey had not gone well for the Imperial troopers.  If they wanted to take the Cialt Abbey by force and capture its defenders, it was clearly going to be costly.  Heth was just beginning to wonder how the Brothers had wrought so much havoc with only small arms when he overheard the explanation.

"How did this happen?" asked a stunned medic.  "All the monks were supposed to have was rifles and pistols!  Maybe some explosives!  A platoon in power armor should have been able to take the Abbey!"

"I guess it depends on your definition of 'small arms,' " answered his partner as they worked the triage lines through the blowing sand.  "Rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-fired missile launchers... judging by the plasma burns at that range, they might even have some lance cannons in there."

"I can't believe old Chairman Clarke allowed that!"

            "He didn't," her partner replied.  "He also didn't do audits, apparently.  Besides, maybe the Cronos Resistance got some Light Infantry hardware and brought it with them when they holed up inside... I don't know."

The conversation drifted out of earshot as Heth, M'Rowr, and Rachel kept moving.  So far, Heth hadn't picked up the scent of the disguised Cialt Brother that M'Rowr had found—possibly due to all the other powerful smells drowning it out: the chemical stench of plasma fires, the occasional acrid whiff of gunpowder, the tangy, metallic stink of human blood and gore... and more than a few unwashed human bodies.  The pair of cats walked around delivering supplies, discretely sniffing the air, until Heth finally picked up the scent on the dusty breeze—burnt cannabinoids and carbonized tetrahydrocannabinol.

They tracked it to its source: an old white-haired surgeon in a blood-stained lab coat, apparently on break as he sucked down a cigarette and dictated his patient's medical notes into a digital recorder.  Even if the human had washed his skin and laundered his clothes, the smell of marijuana still clung to his hair and military-style moustache.  The odor may have been too faint for humans to pick up on it... but not for K'Nes.

Rachel said nothing, just raised her eyebrows in question.  Heth discretely pointed out the doctor with a casual wave of his tail.  She nodded, and they approached.  As they drew closer, Heth discreetly survey the man with his datapad's built-in ethereal scanner, then glanced at the analysis of the doctor's aura.  There was no doubt; the man was definitely a mage—and a powerful one.  That made sense; if he really was an undercover Brother, that meant he was former Tech Infantry.

Rachel introduced herself and her business associate Heth to the surgeon, using the pretense of needing a doctor to sign off on some paperwork acknowledging that the medical supplies had been received in full.  The man was amicable enough, if clearly stressed and exhausted.

            "Thank you," Rachel said with a smile, then casually dropped the passcode that would identify her as a member of the Cronos Resistance.  "So, you follow sports?  Fedball?  I bet the Ashdown Werecats will beat the New Tokyo Managers this season ten to seven."

            The doctor looked up and met her eye, hesitating only a moment before replying, "Only if the Rios Cyborgs beat the Purrfang Cats in extra time."

            Why do humans always disregard the Purrfang Cats? Heth wondered, annoyed.  If they'd just change the Fedball rules to accommodate airborne species, we'd carry the field every time!  It's simple speciesism, that's--

            Oh.  Right.  They weren't really talking about sports, were they?

            The doctor narrowed his eyes as he lit a new cigarette.  "What did you say your name was again?"

            "Rachel.  Rachel O'Reilly."  Heth couldn't tell if the doctor recognized the clan name, but he nodded just the same.  "By the way," Rachel continued, "I was wondering if I could get some advice on cutting through some medical red tape.  You see, Uncle Joe wants to get Grandma Edwina out of the hospital and into a nursing home."

            "Mmmm," the doctor nodded and took a drag off his smoke.  "Security around the hospital is pretty tight.  Grandma's pretty much trapped inside.  Getting her out won't be easy."

            "Once inside the hospital," Heth said, "I guarantee we'll get Grandma out.  And her Brothers. And friends."

            The undercover monk cast a glance at Heth and said nothing.

            "Oh, don't worry," Rachel assured him.  "He's a friend of the family."

"If you say so," the doctor replied.  Suddenly, Heth felt an uncomfortable cloud come over his mind, as if he wasn't completely alone inside his own head.  Heth's flesh crawled at the knowledge that the mage was scanning him for truth and lies, and Heth had to fight hard to keep his fur from bristling in revulsion.  It was a complete violation of Heth's intellectual property rights... but now probably wasn't the best time to bring that up.  Besides, given the stakes, he could understand the Brother's need for caution.

Thankfully, the mind mage seemed satisfied with whatever he found.  He turned to Rachel.  "So you hired the cat to get Grandma out of the hospital?"

            "Uncle Joe hired me, actually," Heth clarified, "and paid well.  We Miao have a motto: A deal is a deal."

The doctor grunted and nodded, then took a long pull off his cigarette, thinking.  "Well," he said at last, "there is a back door to the hospital—a small one—but your little floating friend here might be able to squeeze through it.  Security's lighter there, too.  Here, give me your datapad—I'll point it out on a map."

            "Of course," Rachel said, handing it over.  "Oh, by the way... we will need a doctor's note to convince the hospital staff that we're there to move Grandma.  Think you could write us one?"

            The doctor grunted and nodded again, scribbling on the pad with a stylus. "There you go.  Should check out with the staff."  Handed it back.  "Be careful with that.  Not everyone understands... my handwriting.  Got it?"

            "You have my personal guarantee," Heth said, nodding.  "Oh, and... you will call ahead to let Grandma know that my family and I coming to see her, right?"

            The doctor took another puff.  "How many relatives?"

            "Eighteen, including myself."

            The doctor let out a low whistle.  "Big family."

            "Grandma is very loved."

            "Well," the doctor sighed, "I'll try to call... but the comlinks have been patchy since the siege began."  He dropped his cigarette butt and crushed it out under his boot.  "Good luck."  He headed back into the surgery tent.

            Heth and his crew finished unloading and distributing their cargo—they didn't want to draw any suspicion, after all.  Just as they were finishing up, Heth's keen K'Nes ears overheard another crucial piece of information.

            "Gather the troopers, Sergeant.  I just got word that we're launching another assault at nightfall."

            "Another?  So soon?  But... why?"

" 'Cause the brass wants the high-value target now.  Look, this order came from the top.  Understand?  The very top."

Heth heard a gasp, then the click of boot heels coming to attention.  "Praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal!"




"You know, I would have appreciated you telling me yourself about the kind of dirty work you were sending me down here to the surface for," Takamitsu concluded his report to his father.  The negotiations with the Cult of the Emperor were on recess while Anshin techs worked on getting in touch with Emperor Vin Dane.  "I can see why you decided to have me do it rather than doing it yourself, though.  They're not the easiest people to deal with, these... Emperor Cultists."

"I hate Emperor Cultists," Akihiro interjected over the comm.  Takamitsu had a feeling that his father's contempt went so far that he would kamikaze into the lot of them if he didn't have need of them.  Of course, they could just bombard them from orbit… but Akihiro would probably kamikaze if he had to.  "Hopefully, the Holy Terran Emperor will be more reasonable than his followers.  I do not want New Tokyo run by religious fanatics.  It's bad for business.  Make whatever offers and threats you deem appropriate to make sure they are not our overlords."

"Otousan, the Emperor is one of the most powerful men in known space," Takamitsu replied.  "Or should I say he's the most powerful being in known space?  He's not exactly human...  Anyway, I don't think it is wise to threaten him."

"Perhaps not," his father conceded.  Akihiro's magick and intellect had grown over the years, but his people skills had only shrunk.  He turned away from the comm for a moment and entered some data into a terminal to his right.

"Why do you dislike them so much?" the son inquired.  "I don't see how we could have made it this far without them.  After the attack on Hawke Barracks, there was no way that the Ministry would hav—"

"I do not tolerate ignorance," Akihiro interrupted, turning back toward the comm so that it looked like he was staring straight into Taka's soul.  "Or insolence."

Taka stiffened up nervously and lowered his gaze.  An awkward silence fell.  The young manager felt that he had been growing much closer to his father lately, but he had clearly overstepped himself again.  Taka had actually suggested against attacking General Wagenecht openly, but Akihiro had been adamant.  In the end, Taka went along with it.  His eagerness to test his newfound powers and prove himself in battle to his father had, in truth, gotten the best of him.  Dad sure is scary when he makes up his mind about something, though, Taka thought to himself.  Meanwhile, his father had resumed entering data into the terminal on his right.  After a moment, Taka looked back up at the volumetric display of his father.  Is that a smile on his face?

"I'm sending you a list of our bargaining chips," Akihiro stated as he entered a final command on his terminal.  "I'm also sending you our demands."

Requests, Father, Takamitsu corrected in his mind, not demands.  It's best not to make demands of an Emperor.  The message arrived on his datapad, and he took a second to scan through it.  "Received," he confirmed.  "I will do my best to make these negotiations favorable to us—to our family."

"Tanomu, (to entrust to or to rely on) " Akihiro replied.

"Please leave it to me, otousan."  Taka heard the doors slide open behind him and could feel the light streaming into the darkness of his little conference room.  "Dewa, shitsurei shimasu, (excuse me)" Taka swiftly concluded, cutting the transmission and turning to see who had entered.  Before he could finish turning around, however, a voice spoke into his mind that he hadn't heard in a while.

It's good to see you two getting along so well for a change, Ji-yoon began.

Taka had not seen or talked with her since... well, now that he thought about it, since he first left with Sexton Hu—now Bishop Hu—to attack one of the outlying Light Infantry bases, an attack which had brought him face to face with his formerly-presumed-dead relati—

"Mother?" Ji-yoon interrupted in a hushed voice, her eyes tearing up as she covered her mouth with her hands in shock.  "I can't believe it..." she whispered in Korean, her voice trembling and cracking as the tears began to run down her face.

Taka quickly connected the dots in his head and rushed over to her, catching her just before her legs gave out beneath her.  As he pulled her close, he couldn't help but go over the memory of the conversation with his grandmothers again and again, particularly focusing on the Korean mind mage who had entered the shuttle at the end of their meeting.  For some stupid reason, Taka hadn't put two and two together until now, and now he held a very emotional daughter in his arms.  The memory played over and over in his head, faster and faster, and it was becoming more than he could bear.  "Please, Ji-yoon, I can't..."

"Mother…" Ji-yoon whimpered again.  At this point, the girl was weeping uncontrollably, and Taka fell to the ground as he was assaulted by waves of emotions that were not his own, taking Ji-yoon down with him as he fell.  The fall broke her concentration, giving Taka a momentary relief from the involuntarily shared mental anguish.  They sat there, huddled on the floor together in silence, until the thoughts, emotions, and questions that were running through Ji-yoon's mind and into Taka's boiled down to one: Why?

"Ji-yoon, I really don't know what's going on, but we're going to figure it out soon."  He brushed the tears off of her cheeks.  "I didn't see your dad, but my guess is that he's probably alive, too, and we're going to find him.  We'll find everyone.  I promise."  Honestly, though, he thought to himself, a mind mage really shouldn't lose control like this.

Ji-yoon smacked him.  You cold-hearted bastard, she chided, pushing his hands away from her face.

"C'mon, give me a break!" Taka defended.  "It really isn't fair that I can't filter anything out before you hear it."

At this, Taka caught a slight smile on the girl's face behind the sleeves she was now using to wipe away her tears herself.  "Mom did say I need to teach you how to keep people out of your head, didn't she?  We'll have to work on that."  She sniffled again, wiping her nose on one of her sleeves.

"You know, that's kind of gross," Taka remarked.  She glared at him.  "At least you're not wearing makeup today," he continued, dabbing her left eye with his left sleeve.  "Then you'd really have a mess on your hands."

"Oh, shut up," she muttered under her breath.

"It's good to see you, though."  And it was, Taka realized.  It was really, really good to see her.  He picked himself up off the floor, then helped her up, too.  "We should probably get back to work or something... Geuchyo?"

"Ne," she replied.  "We can discuss all this later.  I actually came in here to say... they succeeded in getting through the Fed scrambler bots when I came.  You should probably head back to the meeting hall."



It ended up taking longer than expected to actually reach someone in the Holy Terran Empire who meant something, but once they got in touch with someone, they quickly climbed the chain of command pretty high.  The higher up the hierarchy they got, the more clear it became that the command structure was hardly sacred, and of course, as it turned out, the Holy Terran Emperor Vin Dane wasn't even a true Terran to begin with.  The higher up the ladder they got, though, the more it became clear that Emperor Vin Dane was the only one with ultimate authority.  At least they got the emperor part right? Taka mused to himself.

Suddenly, the wallpaper disappeared, and sitting there in all his virtual glory, was a holoproj of the man who held the Orb.  The Cultists in the room immediately dropped to the floor and started mumbling what could have been a prayer, but what could have been the latest stock market readings to Taka.  Not to be outdone, Taka gave a low bow to the Emperor himself, denoting the highest respect he could give and still save face.

When he looked up again at the holoproj, the Emperor seemed… wrong.  Underneath a giant jacket full of medals—most of them recognizable as Federation awards—Vin Dane looked… off center.  His eyes were a little too wide and so was his mouth, so much that his skin looked stretched, and his slicked-back black hair seemed more like tinted skin than follicles.  Of course, he's not really human, is he? Takamitsu reminded himself.  That doesn't make him any less dangerous.

His Holy and Imperial Majesty seemed impatient, like there was something off-proj he'd rather be doing; we have that in common, Taka thought.  Finally Vin Dane smiled—too widely to be natural—and said, "Thank you, my subjects—we were quite pleased to hear of your victory against the Ministry… now Federation.  Your example has sparked a host of imitators.  You have been the great light that has lit the galaxy towards peace at last."

The Cultists dropped to the floor again.  "Praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal!"

At that moment, while everyone else's eyes were down, Taka and Vin looked at each other.  Dane made a brief glance upward which spoke volumes, but mostly what it said was, I'm so tired of this shit.

Once everyone rose again, the Emperor continued.  "Now, we must apologize for the delay.  You should know that we hold New Tokyo in the highest regards."  He made a quick look off-proj.  "But the needs of the Empire are many, and the servants few.  Now, I understand there is a question of… leadership?"

"Lord of Lords, Greater than All," Robertson Sun-Yat stood up, "your loyal followers have wrested control, paying in blood and pain to win this world from the unbelievers.  We have built a temple of bodies to the sanctity of Your name!  Surely your holy cult must be the one to keep this world pure for your restoration!"

Vin took in a deep breath, pausing to take in all that the high priest had said, but his eyes flashed in shock before recovering his composure.  "All change is violent, good and faithful servant.  But even we could not defeat the Caal alone."

"Praise be upon the Orb who tilts the universe!" the Cultists intoned.

Vin lifted up his right hand, and for the first time, noticed there was a dark glove on it.  Suddenly the glove dissipated and formed into a glowing sphere, pulsating with light.  Then with a flick of his wrist, the Orb reformed onto his hand.  "Yes, this gift is great, but we were speaking more of our soldiers, our fleet… and our friends."  The Emperor turned to look at Taka.  "Who are you, friend?"

"Yasuyama Takamitsu, Your Majesty, speaking for my father, Akihiro, head of Anshin Heavy Industries."

"And you dispute High Priest Robertson's claim?"

"We do."

"On what basis?"

"The fact that without our weapons, logistical support, and finally, our seizure of the high orbitals, the Light Infantry would have wiped out your followers within weeks."  Taka bowed slightly.

"That is supposition!" Sun-Yat bellowed so loudly that the trash can on his head fell over his eyes.  Adjusting it so he could see, he yelled, "Truly, we appreciate their help, but loyal subjects of Your Throne should know their place!  Our victory was sanctified…"

"Enough," the Emperor intoned, and even across the light years, the silence it conveyed was palpable.  With a sigh, he continued.  "It is obvious to us that you must each make your case to us in private, before we render judgment.  You," he pointed, "M. Yasuyama, stay.  The rest, leave."

Mumbled prayers and thanksgiving followed as everyone else in the meeting hall departed.  Vin Dane was impassive until the last person left his vision.  He waved to someone off-proj on his side of the transmission; Taka heard a door closing, and then Vin took out a little disk, pressed it, and lights flickered on it.  The holoproj also flickered for a second, but then restored.  "Do you have a privacy shield on your end?"

Taka realized what he was doing, so he took out a scrambler from his briefcase, and activated it.  "The walls are soundproof.  They won't be able to hear us, Your Majesty."

"Thank God," Dane shuffled off his giant coat to reveal a black jumpsuit.  "You're not a believer, are you?"

"I… believe you're powerful," Yasuyama delicately phrased it.

He smiled.  "Okay—then we understand each other.  Look… what do you go by?"


"What should I call you?"

"My friends call me Taka."

"Okay, Taka, let me make this clear.  I've got a major crisis on my hands here—something ugly jumped into the system and I've got a pretty good idea what it is.  I also can't seem to kill enough monks to capture one elderly woman.  And then I get your call.  So my day started off badly… and this is on top of all the usual shit I deal with every fucking day.  I can't delegate this shit enough.  So I'm going to wrap up your little argument here and then get on with saving the galaxy… from all the other crap I can't control.  Are we clear?"


"Good.  Here's the problem.  I want New Tokyo.  I can't get it without Robertson, so I'm not going to tick him off.  But I don't get New Tokyo without you either.  You I can tick off… because you realize this is a negotiation, not a prayer service.  I can give you legitimacy... so what are you willing to give me for the system?"

The bluntness made Takamitsu pause.  "Well, our company will provide support for the Cult Army…"

"Which you would disband or place into reserves the second I name your dad Duke.  Do better."

"New Tokyo has vast industries to support your war machine…"

"Which I could get from Robertson and give you nothing.  Do better."

"But who's going to run them?"  Taka raised an eyebrow.  "Yes, you could nationalize the industries, but without the engineers, the administration, the logistical infrastructure of the factories, they would would collapse, giving you nothing.  You need us."

"The engineers need jobs, so sooner or later they would come back to me.  I'm sure we'd hit or miss for a few months, but we'd figure out the supply chain sooner or later."

"You don't have a couple months."

Now it was Vin Dane's turn to keep silent.  "Good point.  So how about this?  I make Robertson Duke, but I put limits on his house to ensure that your company has legal autonomy, answerable only to me.  You'll be a state within a state.  I'll even throw in a patent of nobility, if your dad wants to be… oh, Count or Daimyo or something."

"That gets you the factories," Taka answered carefully, "but no more than that."

"Is there more than that?"

The young mage paused.  "Before the collapse of the Ministry, we were developing a new Delta armor.  Lightweight, EVA tested, limited nanotech to provide chameleon circuits, and stronger than the standard model."

The emperor stared at him, unimpressed.  "Sounds like Mark 30 power armor."

"Yes… but at one-tenth the cost."

Now Vin Dane was impressed.  "And you're ready to put this into production?"

"The testing was… delayed," yeah, Taka thought, by the Ministry trying to blow me into space, "but the alterations to our existing production lines would not take long once testing is complete.  After all, we are—were—the Federation's exclusive producer of Delta armor.  We could start cranking them out in a couple weeks."

He leaned on his gloved hand and thought.  "All right, I'll make your father the new leader of New Tokyo, but I want a division's worth of these suits, on Avalon, in the next two months.  You can bring your dad with you for the formal investiture."  Dane leaned forward.  "No suits, no title.  Since a god can't be wrong, if I don't get the suits, I'll have to claim your family are all apostates, and I'll throw you to the wolves.  Do we have a deal?"

Taka felt his hand shaking nervously, so he shoved it to the table to still it.  "Deal."

"Good.  Now call those yahoos back in here," Vin said as he put his jacket back on.  "I've got a lot of bullshitting to do so Robertson doesn't turn on me—and you—after we make this deal.  I don't got a lot of time."




Izzy looked over his crew as they settled into their positions aboard the Legacy.  Freak fidgeted at his tactical station, smiling to himself a little creepily for Izzy's taste.  Twedt at navigation sat with half-lidded eyes in feigned inattention, Larry drummed with his fingers at his engineering station, very quietly beatboxing to a song only he could hear, Aussie sat tense and ready to roll in the cockpit, and finally Agent Five took her seat next to Izzy's own captain's chair.

"By the way," Izzy whispered to her, "I know you said I hired you to 'save my bacon,' but what exactly is your job description?"

            "Glad you asked that."  She reached into the inner pocket of her flight jacket.  "That gives me a chance to clear something up.  Listen up everybody!"  All eyes turned to her.

            Without warning, the blood froze in Izzy's veins and burning pain radiated from his chest as he found himself completely immobilized.  Agent Five held what appeared to be a compact crossbow gun in her hand.  Izzy was pretty sure he knew where the crossbow bolt was.

            "I want to make something perfectly clear," she continued her address of the crew.  "Our employer, M. D'Argent here, is a vampire.  To settle any doubts you might have regarding your personal safety aboard this crew, he has hired me, a fully trained vampire hunter, to watch his back and yours.  You can think of me as the first officer and internal security on this ship.  As such, I have immutable and binding orders to put him down like a rabid dog if he even attempts to make anyone dinner, and don't think for a moment that I would hesitate to kill him.  Now, if anyone has a problem with this arrangement, now's the time to back out with your tail between your legs."

            Other than a manic giggle from Freak, the room was utterly silent and no one made any attempt to go anywhere.

            "Right.  Didn't think so."  She pulled the bolt from Izzy's chest and he gasped as his blood seemed to melt.  All eyes were on him now, warier than they had been even back on the planet.  He pretended not to notice.

            Well, there was no point denying it now, the best I can do is go along with it.  "As Agent Five has made amply clear in her… ah… demonstration, she is quite good at her job, so I wouldn't worry!  If you have any questions or concerns, don't hesitate to ask, I don't bite… much!"  Agent Five rolled her eyes.  "Sorry… a little… vampire humor there… to, you know… lighten the mood—Anyway!"  He changed the subject rapidly.  "You all seem like a fine crew to behold, and I'm sure this voyage will prove prosperous for everyone involved, so good luck all, and cheers to the many… adventures ahead of us."


A little while later, with the crew dispersed to arrange themselves in their quarters, Izzy found himself wandering the ship, but he found he wasn't the only one.

            "Shouldn't you be unpacking?"  Izzy kept a fair distance from Agent Five, who he found staring out at the dusty planet below.  He didn't want to get another chestfull of crossbow bolt.  The wound had healed almost instantly and bled even less, but that didn't stop it from being a rather vivid, unpleasant, and degrading memory.

            "Already did, about a week ago, when I camped myself up here waiting for your timeline to catch up."  She didn't turn around but continued to study the planet's horizon, where it touched the background of stars.  In her fingers she absently twirled something long and thin.

            The question of who she was surfaced again in his mind, but he knew better than to ask.  Instead he took up a position next to her.  "You must be someone I trust highly," he concluded after a while of studying the dark spaces between the stars.

            She didn't reply right away, but her hand stopped its absent twirling and clutched the object instead.  "Yes..." she said uncertainly, "I think you must…. Trust me, I mean."

            After another moment, he murmured, "I wonder if I know anyone now that I trust so much as that…."

            She said nothing, but took up twirling again; after a moment, she turned abruptly, making her way to leave the room.  "I wonder…"  She tossed the long thin object at Izzy, who caught it without even thinking about it.

It was a crossbow bolt, or rather, the long, thin wooden stake she had shot him with earlier.  It surprised him a little how light and brittle it was, and the wood was frayed on the back end, hardly the standard vampire hunting equipment.

            "I do seriously hope you have better equipment than this… this probably wouldn't have held me for very long, you know."  But she had already left the room.



            Four days later, the disturbing swirl of hyperspace made way to the bright yellow star that was named after Jennifer.  "Some colonists had a real lack of imagination," Twedt remarked, locking up their position on the virtual system map with the known electronic beacons.

            "We can't all be Walt Disney," Izzy shrugged, feeling absolutely useless on the bridge.  "Is there any particular reason we ended up further into the Terran Republic?"

            "Have you been following the news lately?"  Agent Five didn't look up from her holoproj, scanning through lists of names.

            "Current events was never…"

            "Bugs, bugs, BUGS!  Heh, heh…" Freak interrupted, bouncing up and down excitedly.

            "He's right," his undesired first officer answered.  "Charbydis is Bug territory now, so if you need to get to the rest of the galaxy from Hadrian, you have to go through Jennifer's Star."

            "So what do you recommend, number one?"

            "Number five," she corrected.

            "No, it's a…"

            "Yeah, yeah, I get it," Agent Five waved him off, "but I recommend we follow your plan."

            "My plan?"

            "Yes, captain," she answered, hitting some buttons on the holoproj in front of her.  Suddenly, a new flat screen holoproj appeared, looking like a piece of ragged parchment.  On the ersatz paper, it read:




            I know this is terribly cliché, but I'm you, writing you from the future.  Not terribly original, but the man who's helping us won't give me the time to make a full-feature film.  Something with bunnies.  It would have been great.  Time—you would think those who could manipulate it would give you all the time you need… but I digress.

You brought your team together for a reason.  You picked your winners from a list of successful—but not too successful—people from all the factions.  Unfortunately, your timely escape put you ahead of the helping hordes.  You found your good women and men… now it's time to help them rise to power.

I know the look you will have on your face, since it was on mine too, but time is not on your side.  If he took my agent to the right timeline, Admiral Qing and the Republic's 6th Fleet should be fleeing Elysia.  You need that fleet.  To get it, you need connections in the Republic, and Babylon will fall to the Imperial Fleet before you get there.  So go to Jennifer's Star, make your connections, and find a way to get that fleet.  Strategy is not your strong point, so let me make this clear: all the factions are playing checkers—you need to play chess.  It doesn't matter if you lose your pieces—checkmate the king and the game ends.

I could tell you more, but this timeline's already untangling, and even I don't know what you'll choose.  He says time is possibility, not reality, and if I don't see you in the mirror in this timeline, we will meet in another.


All your dreams will come true,



"Now I'm even more confused," D'Argent exclaimed.

"I'm not," Agent Five announced, touching a few more buttons.  "I just made you an appointment with Wilfred Saito-Sato."

"Gesundheit," Aussie replied.

"Wait a minute… I know that name," Twedt held up a finger, "he's the governor of Jennifer's Star."

"And… what am I supposed to talk with him about?"  Izzy raised his eyebrows.

"What else?  The fleet."




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, no matter HOW much you want to stab your boss with a wooden stake.