"My hands are tied / For all I've seen has changed my mind
But still the wars go on as the years go by / With no love of God or human rights
'Cause all these dreams are swept aside / By bloody hands of the hypnotized
Who carry the cross of homicide / And history bears the scars of our civil wars"


                                                                                                                        -- Guns'n'Roses, "Civil War"

In orbit above Cronos, Lord High Admiral Ramachander Pennyworth of the Imperial Navy sat on the bridge of his flagship, the Stalingrad-class battlecruiser Chevauchée, watching though satellite cameras as the Cialt Siege drew to a close.  Imperial troopers had finally broken through the walls of the Abbey and were swarming inside.  If they succeeded in capturing Governor Edwina Smythe—preferably alive—the Emperor would be quite pleased.  The credit would go to the Imperial General directing the siege, of course, and rightly so... but Ramachander wanted to be in the area when the final victory came.  A little glory-by-association never hurt, especially at the Imperial court.

"Admiral?" the sensor officer called out.  "I'm detecting a huge power spike in orbit... I think it's coming from that big alien cargo ship."

Ramachander nodded to his crewman, unconcerned.  "Anything dangerous, Lieutenant?"

"I'm... not sure how those alien ships work, sir.  It might be a systems failure… or it might just be routine."

"Find out what's going on, just in case," the Admiral said. "Open a channel to the ship, offer assistance."

"Yes sir."  The officer turned back to his console right as it beeped and a new holoproj display popped up.  "Admiral?  Etheral scanners are detecting intense magickal energy on the same ship.  It's something big, a..."  He double-checked the telemetry, puzzled by the readings.  "A… correspondence portal?"

Ramachander and his lieutenant exchanged glances.  "A transit antenna?  On an alien freighter?"

"Yes, Admiral.  As unlikely as it may be… that would be my best guess."

"Unusual...  Find the other end of that portal, Lieutenant.  Start with a scan of the planetary surface."

"Yes sir," the sensor officer replied as he brought up a different display.  "Etheral scanners are detecting another correspondence portal in the northern hemisphere… Titan Ridge… Hestia Range…"  The officer looked up at the Admiral, concerned.  "It's in the same area as the Cialt Siege, sir."

Ramachander narrowed his eyes in suspicion.  Whatever was going on, it merited further investigation.



"Heth!  BEHIND YOU!!"

Heth rolled over to see a huge armored werewolf swinging down a battle-axe.  Heth knew he was dead.

A fat flying cat slammed into the werewolf's helmet, spitting and hissing and clawing, bladed tail whipping.  The werewolf's axe swung wild, missing Heth by centimeters.  Heth scrambled for his rifle as the beast seized the cat, ripped it off its face, and hurled it away—but the armored cat fired his suit's retrorockets and bounced right back.

"Shoot it, Heth!" M'Rowr roared, dodging axe blows in midair as the werewolf swatted at him with growing frustration.  "Shoot it NOW!!"

Heth fired point-blank into the werewolf again and again, no longer caring how expensive each round was.  His first burst missed, ricocheting off the rock face behind.  His second burst hit.  Some slugs passed clean through the beast without detonating—but others struck home, the explosive tips bursting craters through armor and flesh… but the supernaturally tough beast merely flinched in annoyance, as if stung by an insect, hardly slowing down as it swung furiously at M'Rowr.

"In the HEAD!" M'Rowr yelled at Heth, "The HEAD!"  M'Rowr hit his suit's thrusters—but wasn't quite fast enough.  The enchanted axe sliced through his armor.  Helium under pressure in his air sacs shot out; M'Rowr flew away like a deflating balloon.  The beast turned to Heth with a snarl, licking its fangs.

Heth fired up at the monster's head… but his hands were trembling; he missed.  The werewolf swung its axe up for the final death blow as Heth squeezed off one last shot.

The Impossibarium slug crashed through the faceplate of the beast's helmet and out the back in a spray of blood and shrapnel—and took a chunk out of the rock wall behind it, too.  The werewolf collapsed to the floor, motionless.

It took Heth a terrified moment to realize he'd survived.  Then, slowly, he looked around for M'Rowr.

Was the fighting... dying down?  Heth shook his head, looked closer, and saw Imperial troopers retreating through correspondence portals, werecreatures shifting back into the Umbra.  He blinked.  Are we... winning?

The Abbot bleated in fury as the last enemy portal closed.  He slashed his blood-stained claymore against the stone wall in a burst of sparks, and shifted down to Glabro.  "Why?" he bellowed.  "Why are they leaving?  They have us!"

The room grew quiet.  The remaining Brothers and cats looked around nervously, suspicious.

Narrah looked up from a mauled body.  "Unless..." he said, absently flicking intestines from his claws.  "To save their troopers from... something else?"  He glanced at the Abbot; they locked eyes and realized the same horror.

"Bloody Hell!"

"SCAT!" Narrah roared.  "THROUGH THE PORTAL!  NOW!!"

Monks and hunters charged the portal—except Heth.  He raced around the cavern on all four, searching. His armor's radiological sensors suddenly lit up and continued growing, triggering a loud alarm in his ear.

"Hunter Heth!" Narrah roared, bounding toward him.  "We have to go, NOW!  THAT'S AN ORDER!"

"But... I have to find M'Rowr..."

"Leave him!"

"...but he's hurt!"


"No!" Heth said.  "He's—"  A cybernetic tail whipped around his throat, cutting off any further protests.

"There's a nuke incoming!" Narrah yelled, dragging Heth away.  "Run, RUN!"

Panic filled Heth.  He scrambled to his paws, racing toward the portal with the speed of blind fear.  They hit the event horizon of the correspondence portal flying… right as they heard a deafening roar above them.



Silence descended on the bridge of the Chevauchée as the crew watched the crumbling Cialt Abbey complex consumed in a nuclear blast.  This is bad, very bad, Admiral Ramachander thought.  The nuclear option was a last resort for the Imperial Army.  Either something went very wrong... or the rebels detonated it themselves...  "Lieutenant Hernandez!"  Ramachander turned to his communications officer.  "Contact the Imperial Army, find out what happened."

"Yes sir, as soon as I can.  The EMP and nuclear radiation is interfering with their comm systems."

"Understood."  Ramachander nodded.  "Let me know as soon as you get through."

"Admiral!" the sensor officer called out.  "That transit portal on the alien freighter just shut down."

Interesting timing, the Admiral thought.  "Any response from the freighter yet?" he asked the communications officer.

"Uh... sort of, sir," Hernandez replied.  "They've responded, but it's just a lot of garbled hissing."

Ramachander raised an eyebrow.  "Are the translators not working properly?"

"Yes, but they're not speaking their native language, sir," the officer explained.  "They're speaking English—but their accent is so thick that I can't make it out."

"Well, that's a new way to stall for time," Ramachander said, scowling.  "I don't believe I've seen that one before.  I also believe it's rather suspicious.  Helm, set a course for that big freighter.  Comm, try to keep them talking."



Heth and Narrah crashed onto a hard metal floor as the correspondence portal closed behind them.  Heth looked around, dazed, at the transit bay of the Avarice.  Kirrp, the K'Nes technomancer, stood at the control terminal, wide-eyed, fur bristled, and trembling.  Hostile military extractions were very different from clandestine cargo pickups.

All around Heth, people were shouting.  O'Reilly and Abbot MacAries were calling for their men to sound off, trying to figure out who had made it out alive, who was injured, and who was missing.  Heth noticed they were standing on the floor—and suddenly realized the crew must have turned on the artificial gravity.

"What are you orders, sire?" someone said in Heth's ear.

"Mom!  Dad!" a shrill voice cried.  Heth looked toward the sound in time to see Rachel O'Reilly slam running into her parents in a fierce three-way hug.  Heth heard someone call M'Rowr's name.  He looked the other way to see Surra and her three cubs searching the crowded beacon room.  "M'Rowr!  Sound off!  M'Rowr!"

"What are your orders, sire?!"  Claws slashed at Heth's face.  The pain brought him back to reality.  He shook his head and looked back to see Narrah shouting at him.  "We're still in enemy territory, sire—and I am not a sailor!  We need to get out of here, now!  So what are your orders, sire?"

"Yes... yes, of course," Heth said, coming back to his senses.  "We need to cross into hyperspace, right away.  Kirrp?  Kirrp!"  The wizard cat looked up and blinked at Heth.  "Has the crew powered up the gravity drive yet?"

"Uh... how in the stars should I know?!" Kirrp answered, seeming just a little overwhelmed.

Heth growled and switched his suit's comlink to the Avarice control center's frequency.  "Rameth! Report!"

"Director Heth!" Rameth exclaimed, relieved.

"Cross into hyperspace, now!" Heth ordered.

"Aye, we're powering up the gravity drive right now, boss," the Ship's Manger replied, "but it's still gonna take the capacitors a few minutes to charge up!"

"All right then, just cross over as soon as you can."

"Heth, that Imperial battlecruiser heading straight for us on an intercept course!  And an Admiral is hailing us!" Rameth said, sounding a little rattled.  "We've been trying to stall, but—"

"Understood, I'll be there as soon as I can!" Heth replied.  "Discom."  He raced out of the room, dropping to all fours for maximum speed, bounding along corridors and flying through shafts toward the Avarice's control center.

He arrived breathless. "Open me a channel to that ape Admiral," he ordered the Communications Administrator, "I'll try to buy us some time."  Heth suddenly realized he'd forgotten something important.  He looked down at his armor.  "Suit, human!"  The nanotech armor finished shifting into a black suit and tie just as the Admiral's image appeared on the room's central holoprojector.  Heth put on his most polite smile.  "Miao Mercantile Super-freighter Avarice, Senior Director Miao K'Rrowr K'Heth speaking.  I apologize for my crew, sire—their English is quite poor and their accents are just horrible.  Now, how can I help you?"

The holographic image of the Imperial Admiral was silent for a moment, eyes narrowed at Heth, studying him.  "Well, it looks like you've been in a fight recently, Director.  Care to explain those scratches on your face?"

Heth raised a paw to the cheek where Narrah had clawed him and thought fast.  He smiled and looked away in feigned embarrassment.  "Oh yes.  That.  Well... it is the K'Nes mating season, you know—and you wouldn't believe the claws this little kitten has!  That's why I'm late taking your call, know you humans prefer us dressed when we—"

Ramachander made a face and held up a hand to silence Heth.  "We detected your ship opening a transit portal to the Cialt Siege.  What were you doing?"

"Why, just dropping off cargo for the Imperial Army, Admiral, all according to contract.  They purchased a full distribution package for their shipment, you see.  This is a new cargo delivery solution Miao Mercantile is offering to improve customer service.  If you'd like, I'm sure I could offer the Imperial Fleet a discount coupon…?"

The holographic Admiral turn to someone off-screen.  "Hernandez, verify that with the Army encampment once you get through."  He turned back to Heth.  "I thought it was illegal for K'Nes ships to carry transit beacons."

Heth smiled politely, but let a chill creep into his voice.  "That was a restriction imposed on us under Federation rule.  The K'Nes have been independent for almost a year now, you know, and we began upgrading our merchant marine immediately.  Oh, I know you humans have military applications for transit beacons, but K'Nes find their commercial applications are far more profitable—especially when compared to the fuel costs of flying cargo shuttles out of a planetary gravity well!"

"And just what kind of cargo did you transit down to the Imperial Army?" Ramachander asked, suspicious.

Heth pulled out his datapad, stalling for time as he pretended to look up records.  He stole a glance at Rameth, who shook his braided head; the gravity drive wasn't yet ready to open a portal to hyperspace.  Heth had to keep stalling.  He turned back to the holographic Admiral.  "We delivered food, water, medical supplies, and… winter survival gear, I believe.  I hear its cold down there."  That should check out with our cargo manifest.  "I don't suppose the Imperial Fleet is in need of provisions?  We're currently offering a liquidation discount on Mungunwha algae.  Really, nutrition at that price can't be beat!  And isn't taste just a luxury, after all?"

The Admiral looked off screen again, listening to someone Heth couldn't hear.  His face darkened.  He turned back to Heth.  "We've just had word from the Imperial Army siege lines.  They destroyed the Abbey because the rebels were escaping—through a transit beacon!"

Heth put on his best look of shock.  "I'm sure there must be some sort of misunderstanding—"

"Power down your ship, prepare to be boarded and searched," Ramachander ordered.  "If you have nothing to hide, you'll be on your way soon."  The Admiral leaned back in his command chair.  "I've already ordered a blockade of the jumpgate to Proxima Centauri, just in case you were thinking about running.  Let me be clear: There is no way your freighter is getting out of this system until you submit to a search.  Now power down your ship."

Heth threw a desperate look at Rameth—the Ship's Manager nodded; the gravity drive was charged and ready to form a jump point.  Heth turned back to Ramachander, sighed and shook his head.  "I'd love to oblige you, Admiral, I really would.  But we have a tight shipping schedule to keep, and time is money.  We really must be on our way."



"Admiral!  Hyper footprint detected!  They're opening a jump point!  They... they have a gravity drive!"

Ramachander stared, stunned, at the holographic cat before him—who was now baring his fangs in what was supposed to be smile.  "It's been such a pleasure doing business with the Empire!"  The hologram winked out.

The Admiral's mind raced as he watched the huge freighter moving into the swirling void of hyperspace.  Lance torpedoes and fusion shells are too slow, our heavy grav lasers are in fixed mounts facing the wrong way, which leaves... "Starboard chemlasers, fire at will!" he ordered, jumping to his feet.  Twin beams of light shot out at the massive freighter, tagging one of its ion drives... then the jump point closed, and the ship was gone.

Silence descended on the bridge.  The Chevauchée was an old Stalingrad-class battlecruiser—it didn't have a gravity drive.  They couldn't follow the freighter into hyperspace... unless...  "Set a course for the Proxima jumpgate, full burn," Ramachander ordered.  "We can cross over into hyperspace there."

"Yes sir," the helmsman said, then added, "They'll have a multi-hour head start on our pursuit by then."

"Pursue them?  What for?" the Admiral said, stroking his chin as he thought out loud.  "No, we'll let them come to us."  At his crew's puzzled looks, he explained.  "They may not need a jumpgate to enter hyperspace—but they do need the jumpgates' navigational beacons to travel through it.  Now, the Cronos system has only three jumpgates—and one of them leads nowhere, the old Cronos-Avalon gate.  I suppose they could go through the military jumpgate to G2—assuming they could crack the security codes—but in terms of hyperspace navigation, the G2 system is a dead end."  He shook his head.  "No, the only way out of the Cronos system is along the navigational beam from Cronos to Proxima—where we've got a substantial Imperial picket to defend against a Fed invasion from Minos."  He turned to his communications officer.  "Lieutenant, notify the Promixa picket to locate and intercept that fugitive freighter, in realspace or hyperspace."

"Yes sir."  The Lieutenant nodded and opened a comlink to relay the Admiral's orders.

Ramachander was beginning to think this fiasco might be a blessing in disguise—for him, at least.  Governor Smythe may have slipped through the Imperial Army's fingers… but if he could bring her in, alive or even dead, the credit and honor would go to him, helping to secure his position and improve his standing at the Imperial Court.  "We'll still cross into hyperspace at the Proxima jumpgate," he instructed his helmsman, "and hide out on full stealth mode, just in case that freighter tries to double back into the Cronos system.  If they do, and we intercept them… well, we're a battlecruiser, and it's just a freighter, albeit a big one." 

Ramachander smoothed down the front of his uniform, feeling quite pleased with himself.  "Don't worry, they'll come to us, sooner or later.  They'll have to—where else could they possibly go?"



"The Cronos-Avalon jumpgate, boss?"  Rameth stared at Heth, dumbfounded.

"Exactly."  Heth nodded.  "I told you I had a contingency escape plan."

"But… the jumpgate on the Avalon side was destroyed—the Cronos-Avlalon gate leads nowhere!"

"Oh, that's all right," Heth said, going over a navigational map on his datapad.  "We're not going to Avalon.  Sky Father above, of course not!  That's the Imperial capitol—we wouldn't stand a chance there!"  He paused to open a comlink.  "Narrah?  Yes, please find Zinga… Chinjo… M. O'Reilly, and bring him to the bridge."  He paused for a second, listening, then rolled his eyes.  "Which O'Reilly?  The male one!  Fat, red pelt, fake eye, you can't miss him!  Just get him here!"  Heth turned back to Rameth.  "Don't worry, we'll just need to use the navigational beacon from the gate on the Cronos side of the Cronos-Avalon hyperspace lane for a little while."

"But boss!" Rameth protested.  "The other jumpgate's nav beacon on the Avalon side is gone!  We'll lose the beacon signal halfway there—maybe a bit more, if we're lucky—and then we'll be lost in hyperspace forever!"

"Not if we can get close enough to Avalon to detect the Avalon-Alpha Centauri beacon instead."

"The… the Avalon-Alpha Centauri beacon?" Rameth sputtered, confused.  "But… the gate on the Avalon side of that hyperspace lane was destroyed as well!"

"Only on the Avalon side," Heth corrected.  "The beacon on the Alpha Centauri side is still transmitting."

"I'm sorry, boss… I don't understand."  Rameth shook his head, braided mane swirling.  "What does the Alpha Centauri system have to do with anything?"

Heth sighed.  Apparently he was going to have to walk Rameth through it.  Heth entered a few commands into the navigational console.  A three-dimensional galactic map appeared on the central holoprojector, points of light representing star systems connected by lines representing the hyperspace lanes.  "All right, this is current star map—note that Avalon only has two digital gates now.  But this is the star map before the Caal Invasion."  Heth typed another command, and another galactic map came up—with several more hyperspace lanes surrounding the Avalon system.  "Avalon used to have seven hyperspace jumpgates in addition to the two digital gates," Heth explained.  "During the Caal Invasion, the Federation destroyed all the jumpgates in an attempt to prevent the Caal from reaching Avalon—but they only destroyed the gates on the Avalon side of the hyperspace lanes!  The gates on the other sides are still out there, still transmitting navigational beacons and tachyon beams."  Heth pointed a claw at two lanes around Avalon.  "Now, you'll notice these two old hyperspace lanes—Avalon-Cronos and Avalon-Alpha Centauri—come very close to each other, for quite a long distance.  Yes, with the gates destroyed on the Avalon side of those lanes, both navigation beacons will fade out before they reach Avalon… but if we can detect the Alpha Centauri gate signal from the Cronos lane…"

"Sky Father above," Rameth whispered, tail twitching.  "You want to jump the beam?  Seriously?"

Heth sighed.  "Oh, come on, Rameth!  We Miao are smugglers!  We know lots of ways to navigate commercial hyperspace lanes in… er, unconventional ways.  We jump between hyperspace lanes all the time!"

"True," Rameth nodded, "but we always do it near a star system, Heth, where the gate beacons are clustered close together!  We basically just cross from one lane to another in hyperspace instead of realspace—and we only do that to avoid customs checkpoints, not as a form of hyper navigation!  You're talking about jumping the beam in mid-lane, Heth!  Partial lanes!  With distant beacons!  You got any idea how risky that is?"

"High risk, high reward," Heth said.  "We only have two choices: jump the beam to Alpha Centauri, out of Imperial territory… or try to fight our way through the Imperial picket in Proxima Centauri.  Which do you prefer?"

Rameth was silent.  He stared at the map, unconsciously twirling a thick black braid around his paw in anxiety as he thought.  "From Alpha Centauri," he said slowly, "we'd have to go through the San Angeles jumpgate to reach Fed territory.  But that's a military jumpgate, and we don't ha—"

Heth cut him off.  "I secured a one-time activation code from Captain Gergenstein before we left New Madrid."

Rameth fished out his snuffbox, snorted a pinch of nepeta, then let out a long sigh.  "It's still a huge risk, boss.  If we fail, we'll be stranded in the middle of hyperspace forever."

"Yes, well… luckily, we just happen to have an expert at this sort of thing on board," Heth replied.  "He did it in this exact area of space, even—and in much less powerful ships than the Avarice, I might add."  Heth heard the hatch open behind him and turned to look.  "And here he is now."

Xinjao O'Reilly squeezed himself onto the bridge, hunched over under the low ceiling.  K'Nes freighters weren't really designed with human height or comfort in mind.  "Yeah, here I am.  Um… what am I doing here?"

"M. O'Reilly," Heth began, pulling out his datapad and accessing a record.  "The Federation provided me with your Earth Fleet personnel file before we left.  I understand that during your Third Civil War, you led a raid behind enemy lines in the Christian Federation, yes?"

"Uh…"  O'Reilly blinked, surprised, then nodded.  "Yeah, I did.  That was twenty-two years ago, though."

"And I further understand," Heth continued, pushing ahead, "that you remained hidden while travelling through enemy space, partly by continually jumping your ships between hyperspace lanes?"

"Well, yeah.  It wasn't easy, but…"  His voice trailed off as he saw the holoprog of the pre-Caal star map.  "Oh!  I get it!" he said, smiling.  "Escape Cronos by jumping the beam to Alpha Centauri, huh?  Smart move…"
            "If it works," Heth clarified.  "Can it be done?"

O'Reilly studied the map for a moment.  "Yeah.  I think.  Maybe.  But it won't be quick, easy, or safe.  We're gonna have to go real old-school for this one."  He looked down at the black cat.  "You ever hear of a lifeboat chain?"

"Uh… no," Heth answered.  "We K'Nes prefer to float over water than swim through it."

"Oh.  Right."  Xinjao nodded.  "Well anyway, you get a line of ships, each one locked on to the transponder signal of the one behind it.  How far that line extends and how much space you can search depends on the number of ships."  He looked at Rameth.  "So… how many shuttles do you have on this boat?"



From the Avarice, shuttles, drones, decoys, and anything else that could transmit and receive a transponder signal stretched in a long line across hyperspace towards where they thought the Avalon-Alpha Centauri beam was, each craft on the edge of communication range with the vessels in front and behind it.  All they could do was watch, listen… and wait.

After what seemed like forever, they finally detected the beacon signal from the Alpha Centauri jumpgate—weakly, but it was there.  Once found, the shuttles and drones maintained position while the Avarice headed across the line to pick up the new signal.  Once the super-freighter was firmly locked on to the Alpha Centauri beacon, the shuttles and decoys returned to the Avarice and docked.

The crew and passengers breathed a collective sigh of relief.  Sure, they were still in enemy territory, and wouldn't be truly safe until they were back in Federation space… but for now, at least the danger of being lost forever in the swirling void of hyperspace was behind them.




            Argus McCall and the two other surviving members of Sixth Squad broke through into the egg chamber to confront the searched-for Queen Bug, easily larger than the pinnace they'd come down in, her maglev-sized egg sac trailing after her for several hundred meters.  On either side of her were two equally enormous Guardian Bugs, standing five meters tall on their four rearmost limbs, their four forward grasping appendages crackling with energy as they prepared to throw balls of magickal fire at the three soldiers.

            Josie Davis reached out with her mind and spun the two Guardian Bugs around to face each other.  The surprised bugs were so focused on firing their magickal fireballs at the troopers that they fired anyways, frying each other.  Zinger put two lance cannon plasma bolts through the thorax of the left Guardian Bug and Argus put a pair of 15mm explosive-tipped railgun rounds into the cranium of the one on the right.  Both bugs were down for the count.

            The Queen behind them hissed her fury, and the ground beneath all three soldiers erupted in magickal blue flames.  The troopers dove apart, seeking cover and shelter from the flames that threatened to roast them alive in their power armor.  Zinger grunted his own rage and shifted into Crinos form, zooming off to the left with supernatural speed.  Davis hit her jump jets and bounced up towards the ceiling of the chamber, firing her plasma rifle at the Queen's egg sac.  Argus dove back through the hole in the wall he'd come through, switching ammo feeds on his rail gun.

            Zinger popped up from behind the cover of a clutch of eggs to fling a pair of plasma grenades at the Queen's distended abdomen.  Lightning crackled in the underground chamber as the Queen returned fire, but Zinger dove out of the way and continued his circling move around to the left.  Davis fired a burst with her plasma rifle, supercharging the energy bolts with her Forces magick, and blew one of the Queen's forelimbs clean off.  As the Queen turned to face this threat, Argus popped back around the corner and tossed in a plasma grenade of his own, also targeting the queen's enormous egg sac.  All three grenades exploded in quick succession, bathing the queen's abdomen in scorching fire, the blast wave of expanding ionized gas knocking her sideways and almost off her feet.

            Tied down to the egg sac, the Queen was a sitting duck, and she knew it.  With her guardians gone, she needed protection and distraction while she separated herself from her egg sac to gain the mobility to defeat her attackers.  Instead of another round of direct attacks on her foes, she teleported in one of the dozens of Warrior Bugs she was telepathically calling to converge on her location.

            The Warrior Bug materialized almost on top of Argus McCall, and immediately caught a burst of maximum-rate-of-fire incendiary railgun rounds that had been intended for the Queen.  The phosphorus-based ammo was designed to burn vampires and other magical creatures difficult to kill with merely kinetic attacks, but against a bug it caused a lot more pain than actual damage.  The white-hot flames of the bullets embedded inside the bug's carapace scorched its flesh and boiled its internal fluids, but did not kill it, and Bugs were notoriously difficult to distract.

            The weapon cradled in the Warrior bug's forelimbs spat scorching enzymatic acid all over Argus in return.  The fluid was not only on fire, it was a close chemical relative of the stuff bugs used to dig through solid rock, and Argus screamed in pain as the catalytic protein enzymes began eating his nanotech power armor off his body in an excruciatingly exothermic reaction.  He would have dropped his railgun if it wasn't physically attached to the gauntlet of his armor.

            The chamber wall to Argus' right vanished in a blinding flash of quintessence, the raw matter of the rock instantly decomposing into pure magickal energy.  Fifth squad came pouring into the chamber through the hole ripped in the very substance of reality by Frances Xavier, plasma rifles and chemlasers blazing away.  Air rushed and swirled in the chamber as the vacuum left behind by the vanished rock wall sucked air in through dozens of tunnels, chambers, and newly-blown holes in the walls.  The opposite wall blew inward in a spray of rock, gravel, and the slurry of arachnic digging acid, and a dozen Warrior Bugs poured into the chamber... only to be thrown back out by a titanic burst of energy as Xavier released the energy she had absorbed from the rock wall in a scintillating discharge of multicolored lightning and flame.

            Behind the four troopers of fifth squad came Captain Soti and her command squad.  The egg chamber was now a free-fire zone as lance cannons and rocket launchers clashed with plasma discharges and chemical sprays, laser beams crisscrossed with magickal lightning, and the very air crackled with the energy of paradox building up.  Soti saw Argus writhing in pain and with a wave of her hand the acid was neutralized and blown clear from his body, but his power armor was irreparably damaged.  Luckily for him, Chalfont did have an oxygen atmosphere, but in several places his suit was eaten clean away and the skin under it was blistered red with heat scalding and chemical burns.

            In the midst of it all, the Queen struggled against the dead weight of her egg sac.  Grunting and straining, she tore the glistening and hard-shelled forward portion of her abdomen free from the soft and transluscent flesh of the egg sac, tendons and nerves and blood vessels shredding and twisting in gooey strands between the separating halves.  With a roar she tore free, and turned to face her tormentors.  With her remaining forelimb she gestured in their direction and six troopers were thrown bodily back, thudding against the wall behind them, four of them stunned into unconsciousness, the other two bouncing back with their werewolf reflexes and returning fire.  Hundreds of Warrior and Soldier bugs were pouring into the chamber from three directions now, and it was all the surviving troopers could do to cut them down as fast as they clambered forward over the still-twitching corpses of the previous waves of their comrades.

            Argus summoned the strength to sit upright, and examined what was left of his railgun.  The outer casing was warped and melted, but the innards seemed more or less intact.  He struggled with the manual ammo selector lever, which was partly jammed by the chemical-scarred plastic of the outer casing.

            A matter mage from third squad slapped the floor of the chamber and wickedly-sharp stalagmites grew up from the rock beneath the queen, impaling her rear limbs and holding her in place... for all of about ten seconds before she overpowered the internal strength of the rock and sheared off the stone spikes, still embedded in her legs.  Nathan Lopez' sniper chemlaser burned a black and sputtering gash across the Queen's thorax as he too was flung bodily across the chamber by an invisible hand.  Damien Nicolai was physically torn in hallf as the queen's magical force threw his top and bottom halves in opposite directions.

            Zinger's move around to the left of the queen early in the battle had left him squarely in the path of one of the new openings in the chamber wall, out of which a seemingly endless stream of Warrior and Soldier Bugs was pouring like an avalanche.  He tried to cover his own retreat with fire from his Lance Cannon, but the recharge time between firing cycles of the heavy weapon made it impractical for sustained-fire applications such as this.  He soon dropped the cannon and, with a defiant squeal, leaped aboard the back of a charging Soldier Bug.  Grasping its head between two clawed trotters, he twisted it off the neck of the squirming overgrown insectoid.  A second bug charged at him only to be bowled over by a body tackle, Zinger continuing into a body roll and spinning back erect, grinning a tusked grin inside his helmet and holding the bug's torn-out nerve cluster in his right hand.

            And then a Warrior Bug hit him from the side and, with a snap of its mandibles, Zinger's now-headless torso thudded to the ground.

            Back at the front of the chamber, Argus had finally gotten his railgun's ammo selector lever shifted and he cradled it in his lap as he took careful aim.  A single specialized round was electromagnetically flung from its muzzle, slashing across the room to embed itself in the torso of the Bug Queen.  A small but powerful radio signal surged out from the bullet, and the Bug Queen was bathed in a shimmering white light.  The Transit Beacon flashed and the Bug Queen vanished from the chamber.  Five thousand kilometers above, it re-appeared in Transit Beacon Room Five of the EFS Poseidon, the chamber full of quick-acting knockout gas.  The Bug Queen had enough time to hiss once in extreme anger and confusion, and blast open the bulkhead in front of her with a blast of magickal energy, before the tranquilizing gas hit her nerve stem and she collapsed on the decking.

            It took two minutes for hardsuited xenobiology technicians to work their way through the three layers of similarly gas-filled compartments surrounding the transit beacon chamber and slap physical and technomagickal restraints on the Bug Queen, along with an injector harness to keep her sedated indefinitely.

            Down on the planet, Major Diana Reid teleported into the chamber the Bug had been kidnapped from.  Frances Xavier created a fullerene-mesh barrier for the troopers to shelter behind for the several seconds it took them to grab their dead and wounded and dive through the correspondence portal that Reid opened up back to the surface, to a flat bit of land thirteen kilometers away where the Hercules assault transports had landed for pickup.  The most critically injured, Argus included, were transit-beaconed up to Beacon Room Two in the opposite hull of the Poseidon, and taken from there to sickbay.  As the last trooper escaped from the underground battle zone, Reid teleported in a Fusion Cannon warhead and left it to explode as she teleported herself directly back to the orbiting Star Control Ship.

            On the Flag Bridge of that immense battlewagon, Admiral Smythe received the news that the operation had been a success with a characteristic ghost of a smile, and he gave the order to depart the system immediately once the shuttles and other small craft were back in the landing bays between his flagship's twin hulls.



            Argus McCall awoke in a bed in sickbay.  This is getting to be a habit with me, he thought to himself.  He looked across the room and saw Josie Davis sitting up in a bed opposite his, reading something on a datapad held in her right hand, while her left arm was held aloft by a support frame as a nanobot-filled sheath worked on healing the plasma burn she'd gotten near the end of the battle in the Egg Chamber when a ball of Bug bioplasma had torn through her bicep.

            She looked up as she felt his eyes on her.  "Welcome back to the land of the living," she said to him in a resigned tone.  "You were only unconscious for," Josie looked at the chronometer, "thirty hours or so this time."

            "Well, that's good news," Argus replied, grunting with the effort of speaking.  "Last time it was a week."

            "Yeah, this time nothing managed to chew on your face, but you managed to find some other spectacular way to get put back on the light-duty-only list."

            As memories of the mission came to McCall's groggy mind, he realized there was something worse than his own injuries for him to deal with.  He'd gotten through the entire Kalintos campaign without losing anyone.  Even on St. Michael's Star, where 200,000 Federation soldiers had landed on the planet but only 15,000 had survived to be taken off at the end, he'd only lost one person from his squad, and that during the initial landing when there was nothing he could do about it.  But one quick little side-trip raid on a Bug Hive, and half his squad was dead and the other half injured.

            Writing the regret-to-inform-you letter to Ryan Sandburg's father had been one of the hardest things Argus had ever had to do.  Finding out later that Sandburg's father had been killed in the Fleet's opening bombardment of St. Michael's Star when a Lance Torpedo took out the Imperial Guard hovertank depot he'd been forced to work in as a mechanic hadn't made it any easier.  Sandburg had been born on St, Michael's World, and he died trying to liberate it.  The Hellbore bolt that had taken out his drop pod hadn't left anything you could call a body to bury, and the planet may have been technically liberated, but it would take several decades to rebuild the cities destroyed in that process.  Argus wasn't even sure if it was all worth it any more.

            Sure, he was thinking this in the sickbay of a Star Control Ship which had taken five years and the total labor of something like three million people on a dozen or more planets to build all of its parts and assemble them in orbit over Avalon.  Another ten million or so people's entire tax bills had gone to paying the salaries of those three million while they built it, and maybe another few million to mine, pump, and grow all the raw materials used in its manufacture.  A united humanity could afford that sort of effort, even afford to build a whole class of such ships, and a fleet of escorts and fighters to fight alongside them, to train the tens of thousands of people it took to crew it, and the twenty thousand soldiers it could carry into battle and land on a hostile planet.

            It took that sort of effort to clear a planet of bugs so humans could terraform and colonize it, or a similarly-scaled if slightly less dangerous effort to explore uncharted space to find a suitable planet the bugs hadn't already gotten to first.  And even if humans didn't need to constantly expand to find new living space and raw materials, they would still need a similarly-sized fleet and military just to keep the Bugs and other aliens from clearing planets of human infestations so they could xenoform and colonize them in turn.

            But if humans were divided up into a couple dozen squabbling petty kingdoms run by warlords and oligarchs, they couldn't individually afford the kind of military needed to protect themselves from outside threats, even if they weren't wasting their time fighting each other.  The Federation had expanded steadily for two centuries before three rounds of civil war halted that expansion, and only the unity imposed by Clarke had shown any hope of resuming it.  Breaking humanity up into smaller states would be a death sentence for the species... but unity under an alien God-Emperor like Vin Dane was a spiritual death sentence even if it wasn't a physical one.

            So the war HAD to be fought, no matter the cost, because the alternatives were worse.  But how much longer would that continue to be the case if every world we fought over was either blasted into rubble like St. Michael's World, or left wide-open for alien invasion like Kalintos?  He and his troopers had fought and bled to save that world from the Empire, only for it to be snatched up by the Jurvain a month later.  And as awful as the Empire was, at least they were humans, mostly, and interested in ruling the citizens of Kalintos, not working them to death as slaves or simply killing them out of hand as a dangerous nuisance, unable to join the hivemind of the Jurvain Commonality and thus not capable of assimilation into Jurvain society as anything but dumb slave labor.

            And now he had two more letters to write to the families of Sean Dunston and Wilbur "Zinger" St. James.  Telling them how brave their sons and brothers had been would be easy; telling them that the war they gave their lives to help win was worthy of that sacrifice was becoming increasingly difficult.

            Argus was thus lost in depressing thought when his platoon leader came into the sickbay.  "Ah, there are my brave boys and girls," Captain Soti began.  "Congratulations, we captured a Queen.  She's sleeping in chains over in the other hull while the brain boys poke and prod at her."

            "Been there, done that, got the scars on my neck to prove it," Argus grumbled to himself.

            "Well, I thought you'd like to know the mission was a success, albeit a costly one," she continued.  Took the words right out of my mind, Argus thought to himself.  I thought you were an Entropy Mage, not a Mind Mage.

            "Anyways," Adelisa Soti continued, oblivious to her squad leader's internal monologue.  "The docs tell me you'll both be fit for duty in a couple of days.  I sure hope so, because rumor has it we've got a big mission coming up soon.  Something hush-hush.  But in the meantime we're all just passengers."

            "You mean, unless they need us to capture some other supersecret prototype starship again, right?"  Josie was not smiling as she said it, but Argus sure hoped it was just a joke.  As Soti laughed it off and left the sickbay to return to her other duties, Argus began praying that it stayed just a joke.




            Scyr followed Dwight down rough stone steps that curved down in a spiral with a diameter nearly as large as the sanctuary's full width.  The staircase was wide and well-lit, but the unfurnished stone walls still made it feel like Scyr was descending into a dungeon, or perhaps a wine cellar at best.  Cooler, damper air enveloped the two men as they moved deeper.

            After what Scyr estimated to be two full rotations around the spiral, the staircase ended.  A small hallway peeled off right and left, but Dwight stepped forward through a pair of large double doors which opened into a much bigger chamber.

            "Right," he said, "here we go."

            The room did not look like a library, not at all.  It was about fifty meters square, and most of the walls were lined with large machinery.  In the center was a circular metal platform raised a few centimeters off the floor.  This was surrounded by a few heavy armatures suspended from the ceiling.  Scyr could speculatively identify a bank of whirring servers, power generators, and some hydraulic apparatuses among the machinery, but most of the rest of it was a mystery.

            "Just step into the center there," Dwight said, pointing lazily at the platform in the middle of the armatures.  He himself walked over towards the control console hooked up near the computer bank.

            Scyr stayed right where he was.  After a few seconds at the computers, Dwight seemed to notice that something was wrong.  He looked back over his shoulder to Scyr, and gave a lopsided grin.  "What is it, man?  Don't trust me?"

            Scyr glanced up towards the armatures—which were beginning to hum and vibrate—for a second or two, then back at Dwight.  "Not so much, no.  What is this?"

            Dwight chuckled and waved him off with a hand.  "Just our way in.  Almost there."  He fiddled with the control panel for a few seconds more.  Then turned and actually skipped over to stand in the center of the huge, thrumming device himself.  "Coming?"  He raised his eyebrows.

            Scyr kept a deadpan stare for a moment, then allowed his shoulders to shrug as he sighed loudly.  He walked up onto the platform to stand next to Dwight.  And as soon as he stepped on, the hanging armatures began to slowly whirl around them.

            "Hang on; you're going to love this!" Dwight chirped.  He pointed at the control panel, and snapped his fingers.

            A sphere of brilliant light consumed them.



            "BAM!  It's a digital gate!  Ha ha!"  Dwight howled with delight.  "Virtual Adepts, baby!  We are so totally the ones who invented these things.  I mean it's just exactly our style, you know?  Ben said it used to take, like, five correspondence mages to run a portal out here.  I think my way's a hell of a lot better, don't you?"

            "Where are we?" Scyr asked.  They were on a platform apparently identical to the one they had just left.  The armatures were winding down from their spin.  The room was different, though.  It was carved out of a different sort of rock, and the machines were arranged in successive rows, rather than a single ring.

            "Told you, didn't I?"  Dwight brushed off the front of his shirt, as if it might have gotten dirty on the trip.  "Zürich.  Or actually, like twenty kilometers below where Zürich used to be, but close enough."

            "We're on Earth?"  Scyr looked around.  It was the sort of stupid question Scyr hated to have people ask him, but it came out anyway.

            Dwight didn't seem to mind, though.  "Yes indeed, my friend!"  He hopped down from the gate platform, and Scyr followed more slowly.  "Council had this place—and a few others—built in case the Technocracy ever started lobbing nukes at 'em.  Kind of overkill for just a nuclear shelter, but it came in handy against the Bugs and Admiral Shrakenbastard."

            "That's… most impressive," Scyr said.

            Dwight laughed.  "More so than the mansion, huh?  Yeah, I can see that.  Come on, the library's out here."

            He led Scyr out of the gate room and around a corner.  The place was well-lit, and Scyr wondered where the power came from.  Probably geothermal, he figured, if not something outright magickal.  They passed a stairwell leading further up into the complex, and entered a cylindrical chamber about as wide as the one with the gate, but significantly taller.  The walls were lined with bookshelves, with ladders provided to reach the uppermost sections.  More shelves projected out towards the center of the room, subdividing it and creating smaller nooks, some of which were furnished with tables or elaborate—though dusty—armchairs.

            "There you are," Dwight said with satisfaction.  "Ten thousand years or more of knowledge, right there.  There's even some sort of entropy ward on the shelves so that the books don't decay.  I don't know how that's maintained; I just try not to mess with it.  Not really my field, you know?"

            Scyr nodded silently, his eyes scanning the shelves from afar.

            "I haven't read too much of it.  Or any of it, honestly.  Books ain't really my field, either."  Dwight tapped his spectacles.  "Maybe I might work on digitizing it all.  This stuff'd be even safer on the Net than it is down here."  He shook his head abruptly.  "Anyway, this is just this floor.  There's a couple more levels, maybe a dozen book rooms.  I don't really know how this stuff is organized, but I can help poke around for you.  We looking for a book or, like, a scroll?  Stone tablet?"

            "I'll know it when I see it," Scyr told him.

            Dwight looked disappointed for just a moment, but then shrugged.  "Right, well I'll head on up and see if I can spot anything that looks like Dreamspeaker stuff, how's that?  Just shout if you need me, I'll hear ya."

            Scyr nodded again, politely.  Dwight shrugged once more, and then scampered off, leaving Scyr alone with the books.

                "Kill him now," his internal dialogue said.

            "Hush," Scyr told it.  He contemplated the shelves.  Thousands of tomes beckoned in silence, tempting him with secrets both trivial and powerful.  Scyr would need to control his curiosity.  Not an easy task, but one at which he was getting better of late.



            He found it some untracked hours later.  One floor up, in the third chamber he examined.  The binding and pages were well-preserved, but the images and the fanciful style of its lettering spoke to its age.  The cover read: Sanctioned Rituals and Ritual Sanctions of the Hermetic Order—Including a Rhetorical Defence of Quaesitori Practices and the Unforgiving Rebuttal by Chorister Amalia.  It was precisely what Scyr had been looking for, and he had been absorbed in the text for some time when someone crept up behind him and spoke almost directly into his ear.

            "Hey, whatcha got there?"

            "Gyah!"  Scyr leapt into the air, almost throwing the book against the shelves.  When he came back down and spun around, he found Dwight grinning at him.  The stocky little mage had a half dozen more volumes and a scroll gathered up in his arms.

            Scyr rubbed his forehead, "I forgot you were there."

            "No problem, man!"  He craned his neck towards the book Scyr was holding again.  "Order of Hermes, eh?  Creepy bastards.  Last wizard I met, about ten years ago, wore this necklace with a bottle of blood as the pendant.  Guy cooked really good barbecue, though, go figure.  So, learn anything interesting?"

            "Here, take a look," Scyr held the book up in front of him with his right hand, spreading the pages flat.

            Dwight leaned forward to squint over the top of his glasses.  As he focused, Scyr raised his left hand and shoved two fingers deep into the other man's eyes, feeling the soft organs tear against his nails.  Dwight's shriek was high-pitched and hideous.  As he recoiled, Scyr closed his hand around the man's spectacles, and crushed the lenses in his palm.

            Dwight dropped the books he'd been carrying and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyesockets.  Blood quickly began to flow around them, and Dwight sobbed and wailed as loudly as he could.  As the man staggered backward, Scyr stepped forward two paces and swung his fist down like a hammer against the side of Dwight's neck.

            Dwight fell forward and rolled onto his side, curling up and still screaming pitifully.  Scyr lifted one foot and then stamped at the wounded man's neck for the killing blow.

            But instead, his boot passed right through Dwight and struck solidly against the floor.  Scyr tried again, but got the same result.  He tried to kick the man in the kidneys, but his leg swung free, like Dwight wasn't even there.  Belying that theory, the man continued to cry pitiably at his feet.

            And then Scyr realized what was happening.  "Aww crap," he said, "correspondence magick?"

            Dwight said nothing—at least, nothing intelligible.  But he did stretch out one arm to point at Scyr, extending his thumb and index finger.  Scyr just cocked his head for a second at first.  But then some faster-thinking part of his mind convinced him to spin out of the way just as a solid bolt of plasma fired out of Dwight's finger like the barrel of a gun.

            When Scyr recovered, Dwight was getting back up to his feet.  He was still crying, but instead of tears there was literal smoke coming out of his ruined eyesockets.  He pointed his hand once more, which was all the motivation Scyr needed to run for it.  He dodged around the side of a bookcase as three more plasma bolts blasted its shelves and set the contents on fire.

            Scyr quickly evaluated his options.  "Mmm," he said, "yep, time to go."

            Repeating a gesture he had now practiced many times, Scyr rent open the Gauntlet with one hand.  Then, whistling as he prepared to escape, he stepped through the portal.  Unfortunately, just beyond the tear, a three meter tall, glowing, golden lion was drinking from a sparkling crystal pool.  It raised its massive head and turned to look Scyr in the eye.  Nor did it seem to like what it saw.

            "Defiler!" the lion roared.  It lowered its stance and lurched forward in a charge.

            "Oh you are kidding me!" Scyr muttered as he hopped backwards and closed the portal, sealing the lion away on its own side.  "Hey, after we're done with all this crap, internal dialogue, remind me to go exterminate all of the Umbrood.  They're just getting on my nerves now!"

            "That is unwise," his internal dialogue said, echoing inside his own mind.

            "What the hell is wrong with you?!" Dwight shouted before Scyr could argue.  The pudgy man had made his way around the bookcase, and was now standing even closer than the lion had been.  He stretched out his blaster-finger again, but Scyr leaned back quickly enough that the plasma only singed his nose.

            Scyr sprung away again, but Dwight managed to track him perfectly, pivoting on one foot and keeping up a rapid stream of fire.  Scyr was only barely staying one step ahead.

            "How are you doing that?" he demanded.

            "I can feel space, dickhead!" Dwight screamed back.  He fired two more bolts, forcing Scyr to roll further away.  "Sure, the specs helped with the complicated stuff.  But I memorized how to hack plasma when I was thirteen!"

            Apparently determined to prove this point, Dwight curled his gun hand into a fist, then gritted his teeth in furious contemplation.  After a second or two, a meter-long beam of plasma extended from his fist, crackling and burning with an intense green light.  Dwight tilted the energy sword to point at Scyr's face, and smirked in self-satisfaction.

            "Okay," Scyr said.  "I know you can't see anything, so you're just going to have to imagine.  But I've got my own sword now, and it's at least twice as badass as yours.  So how about you just back off now?"

            Dwight yelled a war cry that wasn't half bad, and charged forward.  Once he was in range, he swung the saber in a wide, clumsy arc.  Scyr easily sidestepped the danger, and then put out his right foot so that the last step of Dwight's charge came down on top of it.  When Scyr jerked his leg back again, Dwight toppled over.

            "Mind over magick," Scyr said.  Unfortunately, the Virtual Adept's energy sword had flickered out of existence before its wielder could actually land on it.  Still, even the lesser victory was enough.

            "What did I ever do to you?" Dwight whimpered from his belly, apparently giving up.

            "Nothing," Scyr replied.  He tried for another kick at the mage's head, but apparently the correspondence shield was still up.  He shrugged.  "Congratulations, though, I don't feel like sticking around here long enough to figure out a way to actually kill you.  You don't seem to be able to actually teleport without your eyes, so probably if I was going to, it'd involve sucking all the oxygen out of the room."  Scyr looked around, but the various fires Dwight had set with his plasma fire were already dying.  The wood shelves apparently weren't actually that flammable, or maybe that was the entropy ward at work.

            Scyr checked to make sure the copy of Sanctioned Rituals he was holding was still undamaged.  It was.  "So there's a weakness you can work on solving while you find a way out of here," he went on.  "I mean, if you're actually interested in surviving any future encounters with people like me.  By the way, I am going to have to break your gate when I get back to the mansion.  I suggest not trying escape back there and, well, finding someplace else to live entirely."  He began walking towards the hallway.

            "Th—that's it?!" Dwight choked out.  "You're not even going to tell me why?  Who are you?"  He groaned painfully after shouting the last question.

            Scyr said nothing, just grinned to himself and began whistling as he walked towards the doorway and into the hall.  Only after he was well out of earshot and descending the stairs towards the gate room did he allow the pretense to slip.

            "I'm Scyr," he said.

            "You are an impromptu construct, necessarily flawed and volatile.  When your pattern collapses your personality will be subsumed and your identity destroyed.  This is inevitable."

            "No," Scyr shook his head.  "I'm Scyr.  And I am in control."




            The third time Akira slammed his bamboo swords into Taka's knuckles, his patience for his uncle's training technique was waning thin.  "When are you gonna quit hitting me?" Yasuyama Takamitsu demanded, sweating in his Kendo armor.
            "When you get around to blocking me," Akira smiled through his own mask.

            Taka panted and leaned against his practice weapon, point down.  "Hey!  You've been a mage since puberty, I've been one for a couple of months.  Why don't you start me out easy?"

            His uncle put his bamboo sword behind his head.  "Try telling that to the Imperial Army.  I'm sure they'll give you a fighting chance before they blow your head off."

            "But what's the point of hurting me when I can't shebing get what your teaching me?!"

            "You dare speak to your elders like that?" Akira puffed up.

            "I'm sorry, honored…" without warning, his uncle's 'blade' cracked against his side.  "What?!"

            "I'm tired of your politeness," the veteran spat.  "You are a warrior.  It's time to leave that for business meetings and formal dress.  This is war.  You do not apologize to your opponent when he faces you.  Honor is only good if you're still alive.  Now—come at me!"

            Instead of moving into his formal stance, drilled into him by years of Kendo training, Taka stood up and slid his sword's point across the floor.  "No.  I need to know why we're training so I can learn.  If I don't know…"

            Akira made a thrust at his masked head, but Taka knew it was coming, and dived for Akira's feet with his point.  The uncle didn't expect that and spun in the air, knocking his nephew's sword with magickally enhanced force.

            But instead of taking the parry, he used the force to spin himself around faster, slamming his sword towards Akira's chest—

            —but his uncle wasn't there, having already jumped past his extension distance to land on his feet—

            —which gave Taka time to use the sword as a lever, lifting himself up for a kick—

            —Akira saw the kick coming, dropped to knock Taka's sword out from underneath him—

            —but Taka resisted gravity and simply lifted his sword… and tapped his uncle on the chest.

            His uncle took a step back.  "Ha!" Akira cried with delight.  "You get it!"

            "Get what?"

            The old Bloc soldier chuckled.  "You understood magick, how to manipulate forces, but you were still stuck in the eight striking motions that your sensei beat into you.  There are no rules…"

            "…in a fight to the death," Takamitsu finished.  "You mentioned that before."

            "But you didn't believe me," the uncle tapped his sword against his head.  "Now you'll remember."

            Taka took off his helmet and stared at his uncle.  "What good is a sword against plasma weapons?"

            "At range, none.  But at close distance, most people can't hit a wall within three meters.  Not in combat, anyway.  Panic sets in, the animal brain tries to flee rather than fight.  I saw it happen all the time during the war.  But the trained mind…"  Akira hopped with joy.  "The trained mind can perceive patterns before they happen, adapt, and…"  His uncle flipped his sword against Taka's unarmored head, but Taka's blade was there to meet and stop the blow.  "…prevail.  How did you know I was going to attack?"

            "You were moving.  You were trying to distract me," his nephew answered.

            "Good.  You have just identified my pattern, at least for the moment.  How long do most sword fights go for?"

            "Seconds," Taka answered.

            Akira nodded and took off his helmet.  "An eternity can happen in a minute; in combat, doubly so.  You have skills, magick, but so do they.  Fight each opponent one at a time…"  His uncle shrugged.  "Or if you can not, force them to fight you one at a time.  Or run."

            "No rules."

            "Not in war, not in love, nor in life… save those we make for ourselves."  Akira walked over to his nephew and put a hand on his shoulder.  "But that doesn't mean we don't respect the rules that others make.  Your father made certain rules…"

            "My father had his reasons."

            "Yes, he did," Akira nodded, "but they were not mine.  Aki is a scientist.  An academic.  Now a businessman.  He lives in a world of rules that were imposed upon him.  He never chose them.  He imparted those on to you, because in his mind, they were the only way to survive and thrive.  He was wrong."

            Taka bristled.  "My father is an honorable man."

            "I never said he wasn't.  But you have to know when those rules apply."

            "What are you trying to tell me?"

            Akira sighed.  "You're being offered several choices, none of which you like.  Deliver an ungodly weapon to a monster, or lose your mother and sister.  Support the Empire, or lose your company.  Love your friends, but love your family more."

            "You're saying I can't love my family?" Taka asked.

            "I'm saying… stop playing by their rules.  You want it?"  Akira slammed his gloves together.  "Take it."



Takamitsu took a long shower.  With things becoming normal again, it didn't take long to find a matter mage to repair the damage done to his apartment.  A few plasma burns and broken windows were nothing that hard to fix.  Of course, the view from his bedroom was now a lot better, now that some neighboring skyscrapers had been smashed by orbital bombardment.  Can't fix that as easily, Taka admitted to himself.  Count yourself lucky.

Taka, where are you? came a familiar voice in his head.

"Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap," the young mage muttered like a mantra, quickly shutting off the shower, and grabbing a towel.  "Just a minute!"

Taka?  Kim Ji-yoon's mental connection clicked.  You're in the shower?  In the afternoon?

Takamitsu came out of the bathroom, wrapped in a bathrobe with a towel underneath.  "Yes.  You get a little sweaty when your uncle is throwing you across the dojo mat."

The woman chuckled.  "I see."

"Why are you here?"

"I… came over to… say I'm sorry."


"For… being rude to you earlier."

"You slapped me," Taka reminded her.

"Yes, and you didn't deserve it.  My mom…"  She sniffed and blinked away the tears.  "My mom explained it all.  Explained the reason, the time shift, and… your mom is still with that horrible man."

"And my sister," he added.

"So I didn't mean to hurt you… never wanted to hurt…"

"Apology accepted," Taka nodded, and waved over to the couch.  "Take a seat.  You want something to drink?"


"You know where everything is," the young manager smiled.  "I'm going to get dressed."

A minute or two later, Takamitsu came out of the bedroom, dressed in his Aoyama Gakuin University sweats.  Ji-yoon sat there, Yangtze Cola can in one hand, playing with her comm's holoproj feature with the other.  It looked like she was pulling wires out of virtual blocks.  "How can you drink that stuff?"

"Yangtze Cola?" she lifted the can up.  "Easy."  Ji-yoon took a sip and sat the can down.

"All that sugar's going to rot your teeth," Taka answered.

She rolled her eyes.  "My uncle bought me fluoride implants when I was ten.  So did your father."

"When you're around a family that's been out of the time stream for years, old clichés keep coming back."  He sat down next to her.  "What are you working on?"

"Redesigning the planetary Net.  The bombardment blew out a lot of repeaters and choke points.  We've got download/upload degradation across all users.  If the Empire wants to prove that it cares about its citizens, we have to make sure everyone gets their daily dose of vids."

"But if the connections are broken…?"

"That's why the choke points are there.  They focus all the wireless through a few livewire connections, increasing speed with the other parts of the network… and then the junctions, the terabyte meters, and the megaservers that connect everything to the hyperspace beacon, which gives us the rest of the Net."

"You lost me there."

"Okay, the livewire…"

"Stop."  Taka held up a hand.  "Not my field, don't really care."

Ji-yoon did a complicated wave and the holoproj disappeared.  "Well, if you don't ask…?"

"You could have waited until I got to the office."

"Which office?  The one at the bombed-out Anshin headquarters?" she asked.  "I was just supposed to be here for an internship.  Now I'm coordinating Imperial infrastructure projects.  I've forgotten to check in with school… might not even be enrolled any more.  Not sure if I even care."


"I… just need one place where I know where I stand.  Okay, Taka?  I didn't want this war."

"Neither did I."

"But you're the second-in-command!"

"You think I planned this?"  Taka shook his head.  "You know me better than that."

"I thought I did."  Ji-yoon bit her lip.  "But everything's changed.  My eomma was dead, now she's alive.  I served the Federation, now the Empire.  I ask myself—when this whirlwind ends, will I even be here at the end?  Will anyone remember my name?"

Taka leaned closer.  "I will."

"I haven't seen you in days.  You probably forgot me entirely."

"Never."  The young manager could hear his uncle's voice in his memory.  You want it, take it.  Now he understood.  Without a further thought, he moved in and kissed her; it didn't take her long to respond in kind.




            "This changes nothing!" the improbably named Wilfred Saito-Sato yelled.

            "It changes everything," Admiral Qing Mengyao answered calmly.  "And if you will excuse me…"

            In a flash, Izzy D'Argent blocked his path to the exit.  "Think for a moment.  Think about what you're doing.  It's not too hard."

            "What in…?"

            "Just think for a second."  D'Argent waved his finger in front of the stretched-skin face.  "What happens what you walk out this door?  Hmmm?  You join the fight against the Empire.  You might win, you might lose, but what does it accomplish?"

            "Victory.  Survival of the Republic."

            Izzy leaned closer and very carefully replied, "Does the Republic deserve to survive?"

            Mengyao blinked.  "This is my duty."

            "That's not an answer to my question."

            The admiral sighed.  "What was I before the Republic?  The Vin Shriak took everything.  I was half-dead, mining some asteroid, praying for death… and then Scyr found me.  Rebuilt me.  And now I have purpose.  If thousands must die for the Han to live again, then that's what I'll do."

            "What if I offered you another way?  A way to create a better universe.  Would that be worth it?"

            "Betraying the Republic?"

            Izzy stared at his ancient eyes.  "Save… the… universe."

            Qing looked over at the governor and asked, "You believe this… man?"

            "As much as it shames me… I'd rather take the risk than face the Imperial Fleet with what you got out here."

            The admiral sighed.  "Return to your ship.  I'll give you a day.  If you can prove the risk is worth it, I will reconsider."



Izzy stood in a field of gentians, mirroring the vast plane of stars above him that shone brightly against a moonless, clear sky.  In the starlight, something shimmery and multicolored flashed weakly, like opal fire on the horizon, but it was too dark to make out from this distance.  Was it the very cusp of dawn in an alien sky?  He should have wondered where he was, and why, and how he had gotten there, but none of those things crossed his mind.

            He began to walk towards the source of interest and kicked something solid and heavy in the underbrush near his feet.  Bending down to pick up the object, he found it was a well-worn trade paperback copy of the Complete Lord of the Rings Saga subtitled Including the Silmarillion and The Hobbit.  Though it should've been too dark to see anything, even for a vampire, Izzy took a moment to thumb through the perfectly legible cheaply bound copy of the venerable fantasy epic.

            While he was thus occupied, he continued automatically towards the visual anomaly on the horizon.  Were those hoof beats?  He pocketed the tome inside his long purple duster.

            "Ho!  Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!"  A voice broke the stillness, coming from all directions, or perhaps no direction at all; a cheerful, hearty sound that repeated in song the words Izzy had just been reading.  "By water, wood and hill, by the reed and willow."  Izzy tried to locate the voice, but the field was flat and he could see no one in any direction.  "By fire, sun and moon, hearken now and hear us!  Come, Tom Bombadil, for our need is near us!"

            "Hello?" Izzy ventured a call.

            "Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow.  Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.  None has ever caught him yet, for Tom, he is the master; His songs are stronger songs, and his feet are faster."  The voice seemed to gather itself a few feet away from Izzy; it belonged to what looked to Izzy like a traveling tinker.

            "Hello," Izzy repeated when the tinker had finished the verse and had taken to whistling to himself.

            "Oh, hallo there.  Good night for a moonbow."

            "A … what?"  Izzy should have wondered about the oddity of the Tinker appearing from nowhere, but it seemed to Izzy like it was the most natural thing in the world.

            "Moonbow, son.  A rainbow at night."  The tinker pointed to the shimmering in the distance.

            "Oh.  That's where I was headed … I think."

            "Uh-huh.  Good Luck."  The Tinker adjusted his knapsack on his arm and continued his whistling.  "Funny thing about rainbows is you never can reach 'em… pretty, though…"

            Izzy couldn't help but feel like he should know him from somewhere, but couldn't place the face.  "Listen, do I know you?"

            "Tom Bombadil.  See?  I got the coat and boots and everything."

            "Tom Bombadil is a fictional character."

            The Tinker shrugged.  "S'never stopped me before."

            "What does that mean?"

            He shrugged again.  "Dunno … 's'your dream."



Izzy's eyes flew open with a start.  He found himself on the bridge of the Legacy, looking around quickly, and was relieved to see no one had noticed him dozing.

            Well… almost no one.

            "Come with me," Five whispered rather too imperiously for Izzy's tastes, and Izzy followed her out of the room.

            She said nothing the whole way to the part of the docking bay that had been retooled into a rather adequate medical bay.  It had turned out the excessive baggage toted along by Dr. O'Brien had been filled with medical supplies and equipment.  Izzy wondered if there was anything even left inside the clinic back on Jennifer's Star, but the doctor waved him away insisting the supplies were at least half his anyway, on account of his rather generous donations.

            Agent Five went to the small minifridge, rummaged for a second, and drew out what looked like a transfusion bag and tossed it at Izzy.  "Drink it.  You're looking a little off, and we don't need you going all crazy on us in the middle of a firefight or something."

            "You know, you could possibly just try asking nicely, instead of throwing... or stabbing things at me all the time.  I'm starting to think you might not like me."  He looked sulkily at the bag of blood.  There was nothing more disgusting than processed dead blood.  It was worse than the cardboard-flavored dehydrated potato flakes you could buy.  I wish it was warmed at least.  In the surprisingly organised clutter, he found a hotplate and filled a beaker halfway with water and threw the bag of blood in.

            "You didn't hire me to be nice," she said finally.

            "Well, the tough girl act isn't fooling me.  I bet on the inside you're as squishy as a jelly baby."

            She snorted darkly.  "You'd better hope not."

            Izzy raised his eyebrows at that, but removed the warmed blood from the burner.  "To jelly babies."  He saluted her with the bag and then bit into it.

            It was subtle, but he noticed the faintest hint of disgust cross her face.  He turned away politely.




Santino kept his eyes closed a few moments while seated at the desk in thought.  He slowly opened his eyes and leaned forward while turning to face the comp.  He pressed a button and said, "I want to speak to Jim."

Several seconds later the holoproj of someone's face and head was displayed to the left of Santino about a foot above the surface of the desk.  The person was wearing thick glasses.  It appeared he was going bald with what was left of his hair combed across the top of his head.  "Greetings Priscus Santino.  How may I be of service?" Jim asked.

            "I believe we have retrieved the passwords to the Giovanni accounts we seized in a book written by Claudius Giovanni.  I want you to use them," Santino answered.  "Analyze and determine if there has been anyone in our organization that may have been receiving payments from one of those sources."

            "It would be easier for me to read passwords directly from the book.  Can I see it?"
            "It will be delivered to you by Luther and William Bishop.  They should be at your office soon.  Stay where you are."

            "Of course.  Discom."
            He looked at Luther and William.  "I have been Jim's sire for over three centuries.  He was a CPA, and I met him towards the end of his career, back when he was in Old Chicago.  Some vice president of finance… his talents, wasted.  You see even we, the Sabbat, need accountants.  Once I explained to him the benefits of becoming a ghoul, I offered him the gift of immortality.  He happily accepted and said something about how he would finally be relieved of very sharp pains… the result of a hip replacement, I believe…"

"Can he be trusted?" Luther Petridis asked bluntly.

"Were you not listening, my paladin?  Yes, he can be trusted.  You never want a greedy lawyer or a dishonest accountant, and he's been in my employ long enough for me to tell the difference.  Take the book to him to be analyzed.  Melissa, Irene, and… the wraith, I need you to track down Calihye.  Tell her that I want to speak to her personally.  If she resists… kill her."

            "My Lord, you want both me and Luther to deliver the book.  Is that necessary?" Bishop inquired.

            "Yes.  We must ensure that it is delivered safely and protected.  We cannot count on apprehending Calihye, especially in the chaos that is about to ensue.  And Calihye must know by now that Darius is dead.  She will anticipate that we will pursue her.  So we must, in the hopes that it will make her believe we do not have another source of information.  We will do that by sending Melissa, Irene and the wraith after her.  To my knowledge, she is not aware that Luther is now involved."

"And me?" William asked.

"Most likely, with Melissa on her trail, it will not occur to her that Bishop should not be on her trail as well."

            "Understood.  Thank you my Lord."

Santino withdrew a small remote from one of the desk drawers, pointed towards an area near the fireplace, and pressed a button.  Within moments, a crack formed in the floor and a large section mechanically fell downwards followed by the rising of some sort of modified medieval cast iron coffin.  Once it was a couple feet above the stone slabs in the room, the space beneath it closed.  The coffin remained, levitating above the floor.  "Now I must rest—that I may have the strength to initiate Phase Three tomorrow."

"But what if…?" Luther began.

            His superior cut him off.  "I am confident that whatever you find can wait until then.  But don't waste time.  In a few hours the streets are going to be filled with protestors, and the second phase of our plan will commence."  Santino gently tossed the book to Bishop.  "Leave me."

            Without a word, everyone nodded towards Santino, walked over to the elevator, and got in.  They took it to the basement.  Once there, they went back to the underground parking garage.

            Bishop looked concerned and faced Melissa.  "Good luck."

            "Thanks, Bishop," Melissa answered with a smile, "but we can take care of ourselves."  Melissa and Irene got in the flitter and drove away.  Meanwhile, Luther led Bishop down a wide side tunnel that was mysteriously deserted.  The tunnel continued for several hundred yards to eventually open up to a wide stairway leading down to a subway station.  There was a train waiting for them.

            As soon as they were seated, the train took off.  It didn't take long to reach the South Olin Industries Casting Complex.  They got off the train and entered the Sabbat Headquarters, carefully hidden under some nearby warehouses.  As they made their way down the stairs, many vampires and were-rats were headed in the opposite direction.  When they reached the main room, the huge screens that dominated the north wall were active and showed various areas of the city, such as the Imperial Guard barracks, parks, police stations, and main intersections.  Pro-independence crowds were rapidly starting to form.  Near the main government building a crowd of a thousand people had assembled and was rapidly increasing.  They were being held back by a barricade wall of plasma shields formed by Imperial Guard soldiers, along with a much smaller number of pro-Imperial supporters.  So far no shots had been fired, but it was clear that the pro-independence crowd was starting to become increasingly hostile.

            Luther guided him down one of the side tunnels to an office area.  On the walls of the hallway there were glass windows through which could be seen large rooms filled with cubicles.  Along the back wall of the rooms were offices.  Luther opened the door to one of these rooms and led Bishop to an office in the far corner.

            Standing by the door was a ghoul that was not very tall, slightly overweight, and simply screamed accountant.  He waved to them as they approached.  They all entered his office and the ghoul closed the door.    On the far side of the room was a desk that was covered in stacks of papers, large packed three-ring binders, and a large holoproj suspended in terminal mode.  Along the opposite wall was a couch facing a coffee table with a large coffee maker, creamers, and a stack of styrofoam cups on top of the surface.  Nearby there was a small refrigerator.  Luther went over to a large window that allowed them to view the room with the cubicles, then lowered some blinds and closed them.

            "You must be William Bishop," said the ghoul.  "Call me Jim.  The book?"

Bishop nodded in reply and handed the Giovanni book to him.

            Jim walked over to his desk and typed in his password.  As he skimmed through the pages, he pulled out a notepad and quickly started transcribing the numbers written in the margins of the book.  William snorted.  "You have state of the art technology, but you're using a notepad and binders?"

"Call it ghoulish," Jim smiled at his own joke, "but if something works, why fix it?  Besides, I've worked for the Sabbat for three hundred years, and no one's ever complained."  He looked over at them.  "Look, this is going to take a while.  Why don't you guys make some coffee?"  He made eye contact with Bishop.  "And there's some food in the refrigerator, if you're hungry."

            Bishop went over to the refrigerator, opened it, and chuckled.  He pulled out a premade sandwich wrapped in plastic.  He removed the plastic while taking a seat on the couch and then started the coffee maker.  Luther walked over to Jim and stood by him as he worked.

            Once Jim had finished transcribing the passwords on to his notepad, he started typing on his virtual keyboard at an incredible rate while flipping through numerous screens.  As he cycled through the screens, he entered in the passwords in a variety of sequences.  Each time he finished, he hit enter and received a "password denied" message.

The werepanther stretched out on the couch as time flew by.  Suddenly, Jim came across the correct order, and the screen changed.  They were presented with a long list of accounts with "password accepted" messages next to each of them.  The change piqued William's interest, but not for long.  Jim methodically went through each account, checking their balances and account transaction histories.  Occasionally, he would cross reference data in the account history with Sabbat account files and archives.

It took another half hour before the accountant said, "Take a look at this."  Bishop got up from the couch, moving next to Luther, who hadn't moved from Jim's shoulder since they started.

            "This account currently has over seventy billion credits, most of which accumulated over the past two centuries since it was first created.  That's the beauty of compound interest."

            "What about recently?" Luther muttered.

"It appears that there were numerous and very large deposits from other accounts that began about sixty years ago.  My guess is that this represents the bulk of the former Giovanni liquid assets," said Jim.

            "That makes sense," said Luther.  "That was when the war against the Giovanni was starting to seriously go against them.  They must have been consolidating their funds from the accounts that were less secure to keep them from being seized by us or the Crusader Teams."

            Jim nodded, tapped a few buttons, and the screen changed again.  "Steadily, the activity decreased until about twenty years ago… when the account became relatively dormant."

"When Augustus Giovanni was defeated along with most of his followers," Luther added.

"However, the account activity picked up a little over the last decade," Jim explained.  "The most notable transactions went towards the purchase of some real estate in Calaunt and Tantrus on Wilke's Star."

            "That also makes sense," said Bishop.  "That was probably Angelo purchasing safe houses and hiring gang members to work for him.  Anything else?"
            "Absolutely," the accountant replied.  "About three months ago there began bimonthly credits of fifteen million credits.  Just over an hour ago there was a major credit of ninety-five million credits."

            "Can you tell if the funds were sent to any of our members?" asked Luther.

            "I've cross referenced the account number where the funds were being sent, and it didn't match up with any of the known account numbers our members use.  Judging by the number, the funds were being sent to the United Swiss Bank on Avalon.  The password for that account is encrypted."
            "Can you break into it and determine who the account belongs to?" asked Bishop.

            "I am an accountant.  The password for that account is nearly as tough to crack as the Giovanni ones."

"Yeah, but you broke them," Luther said.

"Because I had the passwords, just not the sequence.  Even if we brought some tame netrunners with us, hacking the Swiss is way beyond my abilities.  I could dedicate my entire staff to the task, and it could take weeks."  Jim took a deep breath, exhaled, and leaned back in his chair.

            The room became very quiet.  Then Bishop suddenly said, "Get up.  I need to use the computer."

            "What?  Can you hack into the account?" Luther asked, surprised.
            Bishop laughed.  "No… but I know someone who can.  I'm still a major in the Raptors, remember?  Let's see if we can get those jackals to work for us for a change."  Jim stood up and Bishop took his seat while pulling out his datapad.  He pressed a series buttons on the pad and a long number was displayed.

            Even though Bishop was not a computer expert, neither was Jim.  Jim's computer was designed to be user friendly.  Bishop fumbled through a few screens and accessed a program that would allow him to make an outbound encrypted call.  He typed in the number from his datapad into the computer and pressed enter.

            Moments later a face that Bishop recognized was displayed in a sub window on the monitor.  It was Jason Regis, his old comrade and co-officer in the Raptors.  Regis was a Glass Walker werewolf.  Glass Walkers were known for being savants and having special abilities that enabled them to manipulate technology in frightening ways.  And Regis was exceptional when it came to using computers, even by the lofty standards of his own race.

            "Is that you, Bishop?" asked Regis.

            "Yea.  How you doing, Regis?" answered Bishop.

            "Fine.  Man, when was the last time you shaved?"

            Bishop chuckled.  "Quite a while, I guess.  Look, I'm on a special mission, and I need some backup."

"Copy that.  We served together for ten years.  I got your back."

"I need you to hack into a United Swiss Bank account on Avalon.  Can you do that?"

            Regis whistled.  "What kind of shit you in, pal?  I mean, sir?"

"I need this done, no questions asked.  Can you do it?"

Jason thought for a moment, finally admitting, "Yeah, I can probably do it, but I'm not sure how long it will take.  First, I have to get permission to deactivate the scrambler bots from Command.  Second, hack into the planetary Imperial Network on Avalon.  Oh… and then hack into the bank account itself."

            "This is urgent," Bishop said.

            "What isn't?"  Regis smiled.  "Come on, send me the account number."

            "One moment," said Bishop.  Jim leaned over next to Bishop while accessing the virtual keyboard.  He flipped to another screen with the account number and sent it to Regis.

"Got it… give me a sec."  The comm window with his face was replaced by a symbol of the Glass Walker werewolf tribe and the sound of strange 20th century heavy metal music could be heard in the background.



It was three hours later before his friend's face reappeared.  Bishop had gone through every kata and martial form he knew just to keep the boredom at bay.  "Done.  Bishop, you still there?"

He walked over, wiping the sheer of sweat off his face.  "What do you got?"

Regis shrugged.  "Getting past the scrambler bots was a cinch.  Turns out that freelancers had been punching holes through the firewall for months now—the scramblers can't cover all the exits."

"What about the account?"

"Patience, puma.  Appreciate the craft," Jason smiled.  "Turns out the Imperial network wasn't as hard as I thought it would be.  Signed up for a guest account, traded it with a dead man's avatar, and I was in."

            "The bank account, captain?"  Bishop was getting impatient.

            "The Swiss are usually so good with their security," Jason sighed.  "They are, expect that I recognized the style of coding they were using.  It's just someone's handwriting, you can't miss it.  They hired some top programmers from the TI Net HQ; I knew those guys for years, man.  They were good, but… sloppy.  Their mojo could deflect most weefle runners, but my ICE is supreme.  I had the skills, the software, so all I had to do was jack in between the holes in their code."

            Bishop sighed, lost in the wilderness of techspeak.  "So what did you find?"

            "The account belongs to someone named… let's see, Dr. John Tyler.  His Net footprint tells me he's high up in Olin Industries—whatever that is—and living on Van Diemen."

Luther's jaw seemed to drop to the floor.  "What else?" Bishop asked.

            "I saw a lot of withdrawals coming out from the account.  What stood out was recent movement of fifteen million credits to Maax Industries.  It is a megacorp, known for supplying specialized military technologies, formally to the TI… well, now the Imps."

            "Could you hack into their network and find out what he purchased?" asked Bishop.

            "Already did.  Megacorps' networks are some of the most heavily encrypted in the galaxy.  That's why I took so long.  Had to find some friends."  Regis smiled.

            "What did you find?" asked Bishop.

            "You sound like a scrambled feed—patience, sir, I know everything.  They shipped a special type of high explosive—Quanta—in huge quantities to Van Diemen."

"Quanta?!"  William almost jumped out of his skin.  The Raptor knew it well; Quanta was a special anti-magic very thin liquid chemical.  It was see-through plastic, nearly impossible to detect, and usually detonated by a high frequency encrypted radio wave.

            "Yep.  My guess is that they shipped enough to blow up something large… oh, say maybe a building."

            "How large?" asked Bishop.

            Regis shrugged.  "Don't know.  A big one."  Luther made a hand signal to Bishop to end the call.

            "Look, Regis, I gotta go.  But can you send me the password for that account?" asked Bishop.

            "Not a problem, Bishop.  It's on its way."

            Seconds later, a message was received by Jim's computer.  Jim checked and confirmed that it was the password.  He looked at Bishop and nodded.

            "Thanks, Regis," Bishop said, "I owe you one."

            "Not a problem.  Things have gone to hell since you've been gone.  Take care of yourself.  Let me know if you ever need anything else.  Oh… and buy yourself a razor.  Discom."

            As soon as the screen went blank, Luther said to Jim, "Call Santino."

            Jim pressed some buttons on his computer.  "That's strange.  The lines to the upper floors in the building are dead, and the lower levels are not responding."
            "And Santino is asleep," said Bishop.

            Luther stabbed a finger at the accountant.  "Jim, contact Mordred.  Tell him what we know."

"Mordred?  Are you nuts?!"

"We need him in downtown Darwin as soon as possible!" said Luther.

            "Why don't you call him?" asked Jim.

            "There's no time!" Luther exclaimed.

            "What are you guys doing?" Jim demanded.

            "Trying to save Santino's life," Bishop replied with frustration.  "Tyler intends on blowing up the building where Santino is resting, while most of his followers are out supporting the revolt."

            "Why be a puppet when you can be a king?" Luther cursed.  "Let's go."

            They hastily made their way out of the offices and into the main room.  They could see on the big screens that by now a full all-out riot had broken out in the city.  Shots were being fired by both sides, and for some reason many of the pro-independence civilians were better armed than the Imps and loyalists might have anticipated.  All of the flitter airways had been shut down by the Imperial Guard.  Bishop and Luther had to assume that the subways and other normal routes had also been cut off as well.

            They hastily ran out of the warehouse.  It was still dark and had started to rain.  Without a word, Bishop turned into a raven.  Interestingly, Luther also turned into a raven, but with uncharacteristically white feathers.  They both took off and flew at full speed towards the city.  At their altitude, they could clearly see the downtown in the distance was brightly lit.  Suddenly there was a long string of heavy explosions along with large plumes of flames and clouds of smoke from numerous places throughout the city.  Bishop surmised that the were-rats and Sabbat had prepared for this occasion by placing hard to detect bombs near or underneath Imperial government buildings and installations.  It took them half an hour to reach the city.  Below them they could see huge crowds with tens of thousands of protestors filling the streets.  Moments later, they could clearly see the tallest skyscraper in the city; the place where Santino was resting.  Both of them knew full well that Santino was on the top floor.

            Soon they were a few miles away, and to their relief, the building was still standing.  Then as they got closer, a massive explosion BOOMED out of the upper portion of the building.  Shattered glass, chunks of concrete, numerous metal beams and other debris blasted out in all directions, accompanied by huge red, orange and yellow balls of flame large and bright enough to be seen throughout the city and miles beyond.  A large plume of smoke rose high into the sky.  The flames quickly diminished and they could see the flaming interior.  It didn't take long for the upper concrete and steel framework of the building to bend and crack; followed by the top levels giving way.  The upper floors came crashing down.  They came to a rest, forming a jagged layer of wreckage four dozen floors below the original height of the building.  The entire structure was shaking.

            They kept flying, hoping beyond hope that their leader could still be saved.  Then slowly, a section of the rubble and concrete started to move, and from underneath it someone crawled up to the surface.  Even though the person was covered in dust and ash, Bishop and Luther were relieved when they realized that it was Santino.  Once his body was above the rubble, he attempted to stand, but immediately fell down.

            By now, the flames on the surface had died down; there was a small area of shadow and darkness formed by walls still standing at one of the corners.  Out of that shadow stepped Malikait and another vampire.  The newcomer was a fat Buddha of a man; bald and heavy-set.  That much was obvious since he was shirtless, as was his dark gray skin.  Malikait walked briskly over to where Santino was lying on the ground.  The Priscus attempted to get up by rising to all fours, but it was clear that he was too badly injured to stand.

            Bishop and Luther flew towards the building as fast as possible, and by the time they got close enough to land they saw Malikait quickly pull a plasma revolver out of a holster in his coat.  Malikait pointed the pistol at Santino's back and fired several times.

            Santino fell back down.  As Bishop and Luther landed, Malikait fired several more times in rapid succession.  Santino's body twitched slightly several times and then went still.  Within moments his body turned to ash and blew away in the wind and rain.

            Bishop and Luther turned back into their normal forms and cautiously stepped forward.  The shirtless vampire saw them instantly.  He turned turned towards them and said, "Good evening, friends."

"Who are you?"

"I am Claudius Giovanni, the new leader of the Sabbat."  The Buddha's muscles suddenly rippled, contracting his body into a more lithe form.

"Like hell," Luther spat.

"Let me keep this simple, bravos.  You have a choice.  Serve me or be destroyed."

            Bishop quickly drew his daggers and extended them to swords, while Luther flexed his hands and long razor sharp claws came forth from his fingertips.

            "How disappointing," Malikait shrugged.  "What a waste of talent."  The cardinal pointed his plasma revolver towards Bishop and pulled on the trigger.




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home.  Attacking mages with 10,000 years of magickal research at their disposal is generally a very bad idea.