"And then the orb will be destroyed

Will be taken by the flames and lost in history

So the world can carry on

And Calannor fares on and still lives on

And mankind will forget...."


                                                                                                                        -- Dionysus, "The Orb"

            The plasma bolt passed through empty space; William Bishop was already on the bounce.  The werepanther dived low to knock Malakait off his feet with his roll—but the Sabbat cardinal was already in the air, swinging his revolver around for another shot.  Plasma blazed after Bishop in a trail, while he kept rolling, finally twirling up to a loose pylon to get back on his feet.

            William spared a glance at Luther to see him… doing absolutely nothing.  Petridis and Giovanni were simply standing there, locked in glances.  There was a battle raging in that stillness, which Bishop had no time to consider, as a fresh wave of plasma bolts tried to fry his body.  Bishop was on the run, trying to identify the terrain fast enough to give himself options.  Finally, he found an upended floor panel, and perched himself precariously behind it.

            "Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitt-eee!" Malakait's voice rang through the smoking skyscraper.  "Whatever happened to the big bad cat?"

            Bishop's mind triangulated where the cardinal's voice was and acted.  Shifting into Crinos, he vaulted over his cover, jumping to slam his target…

            …only to have Malakait's hand grab his leg and drag him smashing into the rubble.  The cardinal moved fast, kicking, kicking, kicking into the werecreature's side, and then finally shoving the plasma revolver up Bishop's nose.  "Nighty-night."  Click.  "Shit.  The clip's emp…"

            Bishop slammed a punch into Malakait's chest.  As the vampire flew off him, William took a moment to get to his feet and shake off the bruises he was dealt.  The cardinal did a headstand before flipping back onto his feet.

            William drew his blades and twisted his wrist, extending them to their full length.  Malakait waited, standing there like a statue, as Bishop charged.  He varied his steps, dancing an irregular stride, while still rushing at full speed towards the vampire.  He extended his right blade for the decapitation, while keeping his left blade ready.  Bishop finally dashed, swung the right, and then pirouetted to cut the cardinal's back with his left.

            The blades simply bounced off him.

            Bishop's eyes went wide, but he still managed to fall into a defensive pose.  The statue that was Malakait finally moved, slowly at first, finally rushing up to full mobility.  He simply pointed his finger at William and started mouthing something inaudible.

            The werepanther didn't wait for the attack to finish.  Bishop was on the bounce, feeling vaguely dizzy and disoriented.  William shook it off, rushing to find shelter, to wait for the next opportunity.  Malakait wasn't simply stopping my attacks, the Templar realized, he's completely ignoring them!

            "Should of been, could have been / Would of been dead / If I didn't get the message / Goin' to my head!"  The Sabbat cardinal sang a song that only he knew… and then laughed maniacally.  "So disappointing.  That's what you mutts never learned.  A true vampire never has to fight… he simply has to wait.  We're good at waiting."

            And at shooting your mouth off, Bishop thought, wishing he could speak in Crinos form.  He moved slowly, trying to move into a position where he could ready his next attack.

            "You will eventually get tired, pad off to whatever cave you have, and I'll be waiting… to taste of your flesh and drain your blood.  I will think of you always as I reign as Priscus."

            Finally, Bishop got himself into position, right behind Malakait.  He leapt forward, blades ready to strike.  The cardinal shifted—blindingly fast—and conjured a blade out of midair.  The cardinal parried the first blade, jumped over the second, and tried to spin a kick at William's head.

            The werepanther was ready.  Finally within range, Bishop roared with delight, swinging his blades in a mesmerizing pattern, keeping Malakait on the defensive.

            If the cardinal was worried, he certainly didn't show it.  He simply conjured another blade—something crude, sharp, and primal—and parried.  Malakait kept giving ground to Bishop's attacks.  The two of them were calm throughout this display of fencing, waiting to see what the other would do next.

            Finally Malakait acted; his blades dissipated like fog and he jumped onto a pile of rubble.  As Bishop moved in for the kill, he felt the ground slip beneath him, and the werepanther rushed to regain his footing.

            The vampire pounced on him, punching him once, twice, three times, and then grabbing one of Bishop's swords before twisting away.  "Poor kitty.  I've studied fencing for centuries.  You'd do better with a gun for all your pitiful training will do you."

            William laughed; its echo through his transformed mouth sounded eerie in the ruined skyscraper.

            "And what are you laughing at, cat shit?!"

            Bishop twisted his wrist and suddenly Malakait's stolen blade flew from his hands into William's.  Bishop moved in for the kill.  That's when a broken office chair hit him.

            Then a block of fungicrete.  Then it felt like the whole skyscraper was rearing up to swallow him whole.

            Bishop ran.  He leapt from one unstable piece of rubble to the next, dancing from one uncertain surface to the next.  Meanwhile, a figure seemed to form out of the remnants of clearplaz and fungicrete.  Its eyes glowed with supernatural light before it roared from a mouth that could not speak a second before.

            An elemental?  What the hell…  Bishop barely had time to move, let alone think, as the rubble beast slammed its enormous fists right where he had stood a second ago.  This time, he was rapidly running out of hiding places, and the earth elemental wasn't giving him time to find them.

            "Why fight when others can fight for you!"  Malakait roared with laughter at his own joke, launching into another song.  "That old blood magick got you in its spell / that old blood magick that I weave so well…"

            Thaumaturgy, Bishop realized, vampire magick.  No one wonder I couldn't hit him.  He dodged another blow from the strong—but slow—elemental.  Well, two can play at that game.  Diving down a hole in the rubble, he rolled with the fall into a wrecked cubicle complex.  While the elemental reached in to rip open the ceiling, it gave William time to summon the Spirit of the Chameleon.  By the time the earth elemental reached inside, there was nothing but shadows for the summoned creature to find.

            "Playing hard to get, are we, Bishop?!"  Malakait's voice betrayed only the slightest hint of annoyance.  Instead, he released the elemental, causing the creature to fall apart, burying the floor beneath them in a pile of metal and stone.  "Dig yourself out of that, alley cat!  Now," the cardinal looked for Luther and Claudius and found them, "let's take care of the other nuisance."

            As Malakait walked towards the other two, locked in a battle of wills, Bishop slithered out of another hole and followed the cardinal silently.  The werepanther betrayed no sound, thanks to calling on more gifts to aid him in this dark fight.  The cardinal reached down, grabbed a broken pylon, and it shifted into an elegant blade in his hands.  Bishop followed, closing the gap between them, keeping as low a profile as possible before he made his strike.  After all, William realized, I'm only going to get one chance.

            Malakait reached his destination; within a sprint of Luther.  The cardinal knew he couldn't risk breaking the mental lock without weakening his benefactor, but he could get move to cut the enemy vampire down to size.  Bishop shadowed him carefully as Malakait lifted up his blade.

            William leapt… and the shadows he hid behind reached up to grab him.  The werepanther roared and sliced the dark tentacles off of him…

            …only to feel Malakait's blade sticking in his flesh.  The cardinal smiled with glee.  Bishop swung his right blade at the vampire's side, but Malakait summoned another blade and parried it easily.  Unfortunately, that left him open for Bishop's left blade to slice into his arm.

            The cardinal screamed, yanking out his blade from William to parry this new blow.  Bishop threw his right blade at Malakait while parrying with his left—

            --the vampire dodged it, swinging a kick to keep Bishop off balance

            --which Bishop saw coming and called the blade back, slicing along Malakait's other arm.

            "Aaaaagggghhhh!!!" the cardinal screamed.  "That is enough!"

            Bishop rushed forward.  Malakait blocked the first blade, blocked the second, but could do nothing to stop William's knee kicking into his chest.  The vampire leaned over from the force, which was just enough time for Bishop's blade to swing back and slice off Malakait's head.

            The two parts of his enemy fell from each other and Bishop breathed a sigh of relief.  Leaning on his blades, William breathed heavily, forcing himself to rise and face Claudius Giovanni.  Bishop knew he was weak, but with the elder distracted in a domination struggle, the werepanther knew he had a chance to wipe him out.

            Bishop was wrong.  Without even turning to face him, Giovanni twiddled a hand, and two specters arose from the rubble wielding savage weapons.

            Oh, come on! William screamed in his mind, which only came out as a savage growl from his lips.  Where's our damn wraith when…

            Then a ghostly blade slammed into one specter from behind.  The look of shock on the wraith's face was palpable.  As he dissipated, the other wraith found its fetters released, and suddenly disappeared into nothingness.  Hugh Montgomery appeared through the mist, sword in hand, looking awfully pleased with himself.  "Amateurs…" was all he managed to gloat, before he found his own fetters being yanked.

            Claudius' hand was outstretched, reaching to use another wraith where his own two had failed, but keeping two spells active was difficult.  The distraction was just enough for Luther Petridis to strike.  In one celeric motion, the claws on his hands punched right through the Giovanni's eyes, and Hugh found himself released.

            Bishop didn't wait.  As Claudius wailed, the werepanther sliced off his head with one blade, and then stabbed into the vampire's heart with the other.  With a twist of his sword, the threat to the Sabbat turned to ash.

            William slowly released himself back into Homid form, leaning on his blade, gasping for breath.  A few heartbeats later, he felt Luther's cold hand on his back.  "It's over.  Thank you."

            The exertions of the battle left Bishop weak.  When he could speak, he asked, "What… happened to…?"

            "He thought he could turn me," Petridis explained, blood sweat streaking down his own face.  "He was… almost right.  I've never faced a mind so powerful…"

            Bishop managed to stand erect.  "And Hugh?  Where did you come from?"

            Hugh snorted in disdain.  "A damsel in distress should not question his dashing knight.  Unfortunately, the only damsels here were the ones who brought me here."  The wraith looked behind him as Melissa and Irene stepped forward.

            "And exactly how long have you been here?"

            "Not long," Melissa Cortona explained.  "Once we saw the explosion, I tried to find a shadow to walk across, but it took time.  I released Hugh to help, knowing he would be faster, but…"

            "You bastard," another voice spoke.  Bishop turned to see Irene York, kicking the head of Malakait across the rubble.  "That was for David."

            Melissa closed her eyes and nodded.

            William twisted his hands, shrinking the blades to fit back into his scabbards.  "Now what?"

            "Now?" Cortona smiled.  "Now I think we need to find a good doctor."




            Sixteen kilometers was a long way to walk.  It felt even longer when carrying equipment that massed up to five hundred kilograms the whole way.  But, of course, sixteen kilometers was only the distance in one direction, the full round trip covered thirty two kilometers.  So when at least twenty-seven trips were needed, the result was quite a bit of work indeed.  Lastly, making the whole trek through the Umbra just compounded the entire ordeal, as it was difficult to be truly sure of direction and distance in the real world.

            Scyr tried to keep a positive attitude about the whole thing.  He grinned even as he leaned forward to offset the weight of the engraved stone pedestal strapped to his back.  It was the first of eight he needed to transport, so it wouldn't help to become discouraged just yet.

            "Next time," he said, just a couple of kilometers into his walk, "I keep iridium sewed into my socks.  Screw the weight."

            His original plan had been to purchase a heavy aircar and drag it across the Gauntlet to use as a truck.  But when he'd attempted to access his bank accounts for the first time in a couple months, it had been only to discover that they were gone.  Not cleaned out or frozen, just gone, as if he'd never been a client at all.  It was Treschi's doing, Scyr was certain, and really it was predictable after their last encounter.  Scyr had just been too busy the last couple months to worry about the consequences of Andrea Treschi's enmity for his own finances.  So now he was lugging a giant rock on his own back across a ghostly projection of Avalon City.  At least he wasn't being followed by a stabby preacher.

            "You're awfully quiet," Scyr said to the apparition walking alongside him.  His internal dialogue was picking through the floating brain like it was an old fashioned filing cabinet.  "Learning anything interesting?"

            The abyssal void which served as his companion's head lifted up.  "The more I clarify my understanding of the fundamental nature of this process, the more emphatic my objection to its implementation becomes."

            "Object until you turn blue," Scyr told it, "we're doing it anyway."

            "Entrophic forces are dangerous enough to those who wield them with absolute comprehension and care.  This usage is excessively clumsy and based on a weak understanding obfuscated by superstition."

            "Well, if you want to suggest ways to improve the chances…"

      "I suggest that you abandon this course of action entirely.  It is foolhardy… and odious."

            Scyr let out a single, solid bark of laughter.  "An ethical objection?  Well you're just full of surprises.  Anyway, I am so far beyond caring about offending anyone at this point, even you.  We have to do something extreme, big results require bold action."

      "Such actions are not necessary; you are only motivated by a reckless impatience produced by your limited perspective on reality.  Conventional means are preferable."

            Scyr shook his head.  "I wonder how you ever get anything done with that attitude.  You can't always just charge in and take what you want.  Having plans and contingencies—especially if they're unexpected—vastly improves the chances of actually succeeding."

      "I regret the probability of your destruction before you can realize and acknowledge the validity of my wisdom over yours," his internal dialogue responded.  It leaned back down to continue poking at the floating brain with its clawed fingers.

            "We'll see," Scyr said.



            Eventually, Scyr got the hang of keeping true to his course, even in the Umbra.  At first, he'd had to stop every once in a while and really concentrate on finding his location relative to the real world.  But after a while he was able to feel the way the two realms corresponded as he moved.  It was almost like he was splitting his mind into two to be able to perceive both sides of the Gauntlet as he walked.  That sense of direction helped tremendously, considering the way the Umbral projection of Avalon City warped and weaved in a manner that would have been impossible for the original.

            Scyr's pleasure at mastering that ability had given him confidence enough to branch out and practice other magick in order to fill the boredom of the journey.  That wasn't going so well.

            "Grr," Scyr growled in frustration as he waved one hand uselessly in front of him.  He was trying to summon an object into existence like he'd seen Treschi do during their fight, or like he himself had briefly replicated a short while later.  Barring something solid, even being able to fling balls of plasma like Dwight would be an extremely useful ability.  But Scyr was having no success at all, not even a fizzle at his fingertips.

            "I don't get it," he said after a moment, bringing his palm up to his face to study.  "I mean, clearly I can do some pretty heavy magick, and do it whenever I want."  He tore a vertical gash through the Gauntlet right there just to prove the point to himself.  A taxi speeding towards the hole blared its horn and swerved dangerously away before Scyr sealed the tear back up.  "And I've seen myself do other stuff—stuff that should be simpler.  But how come I can't do any of that crap at will?"

            His internal dialogue offered no comment.  It was paging through Sanctioned Rituals now.  Scyr had half worried that it might attempt to destroy the book, but he'd already memorized the parts he really needed.

            "I'm afraid it's going to be some sort of stress response," he said darkly.  "So that I'll be able to shoot lasers from my eyes, but only if someone's about to stab me in the face."  He turned to his other, hovering companion.  "And it's all your fault, isn't it?"

            The floating brain said nothing.  Scyr still glared at it for a minute or two.  Then he went back to attempting to work magick.  Once, he might have produced a small puff of smoke from his palm, but then he might not have, too.

            A short while later, Scyr realized they had reached their destination.  The new Imperial Palace complex was still under construction in the barren expanse of an old nuke crater, with the first few buildings only recently completed and occupied.  As a result, their Umbral projections were still wispy and faint, barely noticeable unless one was really looking for them.  Over time, as the reality of those structures imprinted itself upon the public consciousness, the projections would solidify and gain permanence within the Umbra as well.  For now, the faint translucence at least made it easier for Scyr to find his way over to the exact spot that he wanted within the target building.

            He was already loosening the straps which held the heavy pedestal on his back, sighing with anticipated relief, when he stopped cold.  Apparently the translucence of the walls here was at least partly an illusion.  They had entirely blocked the blinding white light emanating from one end of a large chamber until Scyr rounded a doorway to enter.  Scyr squinted and raised a shielding hand to his brow, but the light was actually coming from ground level.  Its source actually appeared to be another human, a figure standing at the distant end of the great chamber, glowing like a supernova.

            Scyr was just starting to wonder why the image felt so familiar when there was a plop and a faint rustle of paper behind him.  He blinked, and started to turn to investigate the noise when his better judgment kicked into gear and realized what was happening.  He only just managed to seize the silver chain in both hands before his internal dialogue vaulted all the way across the room.  The chain caught it short, though Scyr grunted as the mighty snap bruised his palms.  His internal dialogue fell back to the ground, and immediately began clawing at its restraint.

      "Release me!" it commanded.  "It is the center of light!"

            "No," Scyr said, wrapping the chains tighter around his forearms.  He glanced behind him; his internal dialogue had dropped the Sanctioned Rituals book only about a meter behind him, but Scyr would have to pick it up later.

            "It is here!  I will have it!"  It tried to rip the chains apart, and with such fury that Scyr could almost sense it tearing at his own soul.  But he swallowed the discomfort.

            "You're going to do nothing unless I say so.  And I'm definitely not letting you run amok until I know exactly what's going on."

      "You cannot deny me!" the voice boomed like never before, rattling Scyr's teeth and skull.  The apparition turned once more to the glowing figure and prepared to lunge.  But Scyr set his feet and tugged hard on the chain, toppling his internal dialogue backwards.

            "Bad doggy!" he snapped.  "Stay!"

            The creature bounced back to its feet and spun around.  Then it howled, and its old sneering, toothy face closed back over the swirling void of its head.  It marched up to Scyr and hissed, spraying gooey, ethereal spittle into the air; and then it raised both clawed hands to strike at Scyr's head.

            Scyr punched it in the mouth.

            "Shut up."

            His internal dialogue sort of spluttered wetly, once, and then slumped to one side.  Scyr prevented it from falling completely over, and then wrapped the long silver chain around its limp arms and neck.  Then, cautiously in case it began to move again, he reached backwards with one hand to pick the old book off the floor behind him.  He shoved that into his belt, and then took a moment to glance around the chamber again.  The bright, glowing figure was still standing at the far end.  He lifted an arm to wave at it, and it gazed incuriously back at him.  Scyr gathered up a fistful of chains and strode forward, dragging his internal dialogue with him.

            "Hi," he called when he was a few meters closer.

            "Fair greetings," it replied in a measured tone.  And once again, Scyr recognized the texture of that sound, even though he knew he had never actually heard it before.

            It was a woman's voice.  And once Scyr drew near enough, he could see the body to match it beneath the pure white light she emitted from every surface.  She had a lithe figure, and stood more than a head and a half taller than Scyr.  Her long, diamond-filament hair floated freely above her head, as if she was submerged in flowing water.  Her white eyes had neither pupils nor irises, and yet Scyr could tell that she was looking directly at him.  Or, rather, directly through him.

            She was also completely naked; and that realization suddenly made Scyr very aware that one of the many things he could not remember was the last time that he had had sex.  Definitely not since he'd gotten the penthouse on Jennifer's Star.  Which really ought to have been an excellent opportunity, now that he thought about it.  All that free time, free space, and plenty of money…

            He blinked, forcing himself to suppress that uncomfortable line of thought.  This was not really the time; the white woman was still staring into him.

            "Mind if I put this down?" he asked, jerking his chin towards the pedestal on his back.

            The woman shook her head.  Scyr crouched and undid the straps, finally letting the great weight settle onto the ground.  When he stood up and let his spine uncurl it almost felt like he was floating, his body was so light.  He rolled his shoulders with relief, then turned to inspect the pedestal.  All of the engravings were intact.

            Scyr sighed happily as he turned back around.  "Much better," he said, and grinned at the white woman.  "And I'm sorry about my friend's behavior, earlier," he nodded at his internal dialogue while he popped his back.

            The white woman turned her head slowly to look at the creature wrapped up in it chains.  She said nothing for a moment, and then, "If he had tried to possess me, I would have had to destroy you."

            Scyr snorted nervously.  "Well, I think I made the right call then."  He looked at her eyes for a few seconds, but ultimately found that he could not resist asking further.  "Um, but if you are actually still aware of us, why haven't you destroyed us anyway?"

            She met his gaze.  "I have not been instructed to take notice of any realms but my master's.  And I do not feel moved to exceed the boundaries of his instructions."  She shrugged, and appeared much more human for just a moment as the gesture pierced her alien aura.  "It has been a long time since anyone inspired me to greater heights."

            "Er, right…"  There was a tingling sensation in Scyr's chest, and he wasn't really sure what to say.

            "I do not believe that you would do so, either," she said, and suddenly her expression was sharp.  The tingling Scyr felt became a painful burning, and he started to choke on a reply.  But before he could manage one, the white woman continued.  "I know what you seek, but you are the same as so many others." 

            She looked slightly up and away.  "There may be one," she said.  "There usually is.  One, at all times, at least.  But rarely do we ever meet."

            Scyr was sweating when he realized that she had stopped speaking.  He just watched her impassive, disinterested face for a minute.

            "Okay," he said at last, weakly.  "Well, I have a few more trips to make," he started to take a step backwards as he spoke, but realized what he was doing and checked the motion.  "So I suppose I'll see you again, later."

            She nodded without looking back at him.  Scyr waited for a moment more before grabbing hold of his still-stupefied internal dialogue again, and striding out of the room, trying not to look like he was fleeing.

            Only after he was well away from the chamber and the palace did he tear open the top of his shirt to look at the spot where the Life Mask's amulet had burned a smoking, painful mark into his chest.




            The briefing room on the EFS Poseidon was much larger than the room on the EFS Sigourney Ridge where Argus McCall had been briefed prior to the drop onto St. Michael's Star.  It was far larger than the dinky little one on the EFS Aegis Fist he'd been briefed in before landing on Kalintos.  He'd been briefed in this one before the Queen Hunt on Chalfont, but that time there had been a lot more people in the room.  Now there were barely a dozen people here.

            In the audience were several soldiers from the Slammers, including Captain Soti herself, as well as a few from other units.  Titus Vardan and Windspeaker Durward were sitting by themselves off in a corner.  Frances Xavier and Bill Balogh from Fifth Squad were sitting together a few seats away.  Josie Davis and Argus were sitting a couple of seats from each other in the middle.  Behind Argus was Jason Regis, the Glass Walker technician Argus had met while convalescing after the bombing of the Bikiin Palace Restaurant on Kalintos.  They struck up an odd friendship, one mostly centered around the fascination the tech-savvy werewolf had for Argus' cybernetic enhancements.  Two rows in front of them were the three highest-ranking officers in the audience, Captain Soti flanked by Majors Diana Reid and Larry Kabila.  Way in the back was a soldier Argus didn't know, a werelizard with "Malik" on his name badge and a First Lieutenant's rank tabs.  He also wore Medical Corps insignia, so Argus guessed he was the team medic… for whatever operation the big brass had planned.

            And they didn't come much bigger or brassier than Admiral Joseph Smythe himself, who apparently was going to be giving part of the briefing in person.  Next to him on stage were Commander Tibbetts and the recently-promoted Lt. Colonel Bernard Dent.  Lt. Colonel Moseley had died on St. Michael's Star, and Dent had taken over as commander of all special forces units in the 10th Legion.  Not that there was much left of the 10th Legion…

            Smythe stood up, took his place at the podium, and everyone in the audience snapped to attention.  "At ease," he began, as the audience sat back down again.  In his crisp, clipped accent, he explained.  "As you are aware, this ship completed a series of raids along the Federation's southern border. This should slow down the advance of both the Bugs and the Jurvain."

The admiral allowed himself a smug smile. "Once those Skinnies had a taste of a real fleet, their toys weren't so special, were they?  On Chalfont, we chased away a Jurvain task force, and thanks to you, captured a Bug Queen.  We then proceeded to wipe out a small Jurvain supply convoy in hyperspace, hit another Jurvain convoy at Kalintos, and bombarded their foothold on that planet.

"But… as much as I've enjoyed swatting these flies, they've been an unpleasant distraction from the real war.  So I've been forced to send a small task force to deal with the Jurvain at Sarma, while we return home."  He sighed.  "We're now en route back to Rios via Ashdown."

            If we all know this already, why's he starting off by repeating it? wondered Argus to himself.  But the Admiral went on.  "Once we reach Rios, this new special strike group now assembled here will disembark from the Poseidon and transfer to the EFS Alistar Dimiye.  I believe several of you are familiar with that ship."

            "Damn straight," muttered Davis under her breath.  She'd been with Argus on the bridge of that ship when they'd captured it.  It had been her Forces Magick preventing the signal from the deadman switch in the Captain's hand from detonating the ship's scuttling charge and killing the entire platoon and everyone else on board.  Her jerk of a squad leader McCall hadn't bothered to ask, and probably still thought it was a miracle from his precious God.

            "Speaking of toys, you seized one of the Imps' best at Kalintos.  After studying it stem to stern, repairing some slight damage," the Admiral continued as Argus remembered causing that slight damage himself with his plasma grenade on the bridge, "and re-commissioning it back into Earth Fleet, we've wiped the Imperial taint from its name.  But I must ask you fine fighters to perform a higher task… wiping the Imperial taint from the Federation." 

            A low murmur rumbled through the audience.  "You are going to use the advanced drive on that ship to penetrate Imperial-controlled regions of hyperspace, and land on Avalon itself," the Admiral continued, as the murmur increased in volume.  "Then you will find this so-called God Emperor, the former Colonel Vin Dane, and kill that usurping, apotheotically-insane, son of a bitch."

            Several audience members began to talk at once, but the Admiral held his hands up for silence.  "We have no choice.  It is distasteful to me as well, but after recent losses, and the Arachnid and Jurvain invasions of our southern frontier, we no longer have the strength in men or materiel to win.  But..." Smythe held up a finger, "with their living god dead, and no clear successor, the Empire will fall apart.  We can end this war... now."

            "We're all behind you on that, sir," interrupted Major Kabila.  "But who else is going to be in this strike group?  Vin Dane is the most protected person in the Galaxy."

            Commander Tibbetts stood up to field this question.  "He is at that.  He's got about a regiment's worth of ex-Raptors in his Imperial Bodyguard, around the grounds of the Imperial Palace.  About a platoon worth accompany him everywhere in an assault aerodyne, never more than a minute away from his person.  Plus about a squad on foot as his immediate protection, always in the same room with him.  But while these are some of the finest soldiers in existence, they are in the end… just soldiers.  His real protection is The Orb."

            The murmurs that had almost died down rose up again as people commented to their friends and neighbors, or to themselves, on that much-rumored magickal artifact.  Tibbetts continued, "The Orb is perhaps the strongest magickal artifact in existence.  Stolen from the New Tokyo Depository in 2244 by one Xavier Pollos, it is believed that Vin Dane located Pollos, killed him, and took the Orb sometime late last year… sometime during the early stages of the Caal Invasion.  It is further believed that the Caal came to the Federation specifically seeking The Orb in the first place, and that Vin Dane used its power to assist in the defeat of the Caal Armada over Avalon.  Vin Dane has the Orb with him at all times.  With the Orb, he can crush entire fleets of starships to dust with a wave of his hand.  With the Orb, he has effectively rid Avalon of Federation sympathizers and destroyed our spy network there.  With the Orb, he comes terrifyingly close in power to the Living God his deluded followers believe him to be."

            "So… how are we supposed to kill him?" asked Windspeaker Durward.

            "Xavier Pollos was possessed by the spirit of a thousand-year-old Mage, and held the Orb for twenty years.  He knew its secrets, and was a powerful mage and fighter, before he obtained the Orb.  Vin Dane beat him and took the Orb with two medium-powered mages and one werewolf," interrupted Bernard Dent.  "The Orb is a powerful artifact, but it does not make him invincible.  We've got the tools, the team, and the training to beat him, and a workable plan to do it."

            "So let's hear the plan," Titus Vardan interrupted, inpatient with the speeches.

            Admiral Smythe spoke again.  "The EFS Alastar Dimiye has an advanced drive system.  It's based upon—but not identical to—the Horadrim tunnel drive system.  It will enable you to jump into the Avalon system and out again before the defense network can target you.  Once in realspace near Avalon, Major Reid here will open a correspondence portal and teleport the entire team down to the surface.  Sergeant Xavier will assist in hiding this spike in reality-alteration from prying eyes… hopefully even Vin Dane's.  Maybe."

            "So to make sure they aren't looking for such a spike," Tibbetts interjected, "the Dimiye will be launching a sneak attack on the construction yards in orbit.  There are two uncompleted hulls there, Poseidon-class Star Control ships."  A quiet filled the room; considering what just one SCS could do, two in the hands of their enemies was unthinkable.  "Both were damaged in the Caal attack, but we believe that completing the Wotan and the Thor is a high priority for the Imperial Fleet.  They are getting uncomfortably close to finishing them.  The Dimiye will destroy them in dock with fusion warheads, simultaneously taking out the only Imperial-held docks big enough to construct such ships."

            "Leaving the Imps with the distinct impression that this is what the Dimiye came to Avalon to do," confirmed Admiral Smythe.  "It will jump into space near the docks, fire, and then immediately jump out again.  Just like a fox among chickens.  Few mages are powerful enough to open a portal that far and that quickly, but your Major Reid is.  And having a Prime Mage on board to shield such powerful magick should reduce your risk of detection.  The hen house would never know it's missing a few eggs."

            "So once we're down on the surface, where do we go?" Captain Soti asked.  "If all your spy networks and safe houses are gone…"

            "True," Colonel Dent answered, "and because of that, we've sent Major William Bishop.  Maybe some of you have heard of him?"  There were a few nods in the audience.  "He's already in Imperial Space.  You will meet up with him, and he will bring you to our new allies in the Sabbat.  They will take you to a Sabbat safe house where..."

The outcry from the audience was too much and he had to trail off.

"Our new allies in the WHAT?!"

            "We're allies with those blood-sucking scum?!"

            "We're supposed to trust a bunch of fracking leeches?!"

            "SILENCE," roared Admiral Smythe, and he was instantly obeyed.  "Yes, we have signed an alliance with the Sabbat.  Perhaps you truant students weren't paying attention before, so let me make this clear… we are losing this war."  Joseph closed his eyes, as if to hide his face from the truth of it, anger escaping his lips.  "If I can't crush them on the ground, I will pound them from the skies, and I will not stop until we have victory!"

The admiral sighed, regained his composure, and then continued.  "Vin Dane is our mutual enemy.  They have the advantage of being a lower priority than we are, so Vin Dane hasn't shattered their support network on Avalon… yet.  So I will use that advantage.  They are the only ones with the manpower and resources to scout out Vin Dane's defenses, subvert his subordinates, and infiltrate his organization.  They already have safe houses and escape routes established, which ladies and gentlemen, is the only chance any of you will survive.  Support for this joint mission was a prime condition of our alliance."

            "What else is part of that agreement?" demanded Frances Xavier.  She had served in the Crusader Teams before the war, and had a well-known grudge against vampires.  "What did we have to promise them in order to get this so-called support?"

            The admiral's eyes flashed from the insubordination, but he blinked, and calmly replied.  "It's a fair question.  If you remember your history, the Black Hand once fought with us… and the Sabbat will again.  They will provide ghouls for the Tech Infantry, greatly restrict their activity in Federation territory, and assist us in our war against the Empire.  In return, they will operate openly in Federation space, so long as they accept Federation law, and that includes murdering our citizens.  In exchange, we acknowledge their authority as a nation of their own.  Back then, it was the Kingdom of Enoch, now, it's the Wilke's Star Free State… and maybe another system."

            "With all due respect, sir," Argus McCall interrupted, "the Kingdom of Enoch was colonized by Vampires and Ghouls they already had when they fled Earth.  It wasn't an entire world, or two, of humans being handed over.  And they're Sabbat, who are by any criteria you care to name much worse than the Black Hand."

            "Wilke's Star is already a de facto vampire kingdom under the Sabbat," Tibbetts pointed out.  "Two major TI invasions of the place couldn't change that.  And the new treaty requires them to allow any human who wishes to leave, to leave for Federation space, and gives them five years to get the hell out."

            "Is the other part of the old treaty coming back?" asked Larry Kabila.  "What about the Blood Tithe?"

            "Unfortunately, yes," Smythe replied, with a visible slump of his shoulders.  "The current voluntary system of blood donations will become mandatory again.  Every Federation citizen will donate one liter of blood per year.  First call on this supply will be for medical needs, especially for the military hospitals and field clinics.  Anything not needed for medical or scientific research purposes will be handed over to the Sabbat, to feed their vampires in Federation space.  This will keep them from feeding off of unwilling victims any more.  Anything left after that—and there will be—will be shipped to Wilke's Star to feed the rest of them."

            "They'll never live up to it," insisted Sergeant Xavier.  "Vampires can barely stomach the taste of dead blood, as they call it.  They won't live on bland rations, not with yummy humans all around them."

            "Of course not," Tibbetts agreed.  "But the bite of a vampire produces a stupefying euphoria.  Many of their victims are quite willing.  The treaty specifically allows such feeding on willing victims, so long as a signed statement of consent is produced beforehand, and only in designated zones.  Similar consent forms and court approval will be needed before they can create a Ghoul or a Childe.  I'm sure they'll find plenty of people willing to sign a consent form in exchange for eternal life and youth, even if it means working for a Vamp."

Xavier simply spat on the floor in disgust and sat back down.

            'What about the Crusader Teams?" asked the werelizard in the back, who until now had stayed silent.

            "They will still be around," Dent explained, "but with Sabbat members on their teams.  Their job will be to hunt Camarilla, Black Hand, and other Anarch vampires not willing to submit to the Sabbat and the treaty.  Vamp police," the werebear shrugged, "something new everyday."

            I'm starting to get the picture, here, Argus thought to himself as the others continued arguing.  Smythe and Tibbetts know the Sabbat will never entirely live up to their end of this bargain, but it LOOKS like we're bending over backwards to be accommodating.  Meanwhile, any efforts the Vamps make to look like they're being accommodating, will simply let us know who and where the Vamps are on our worlds.  That's the real purpose of all this legal consent-form and licensed-Ghoul nonsense.

The debate was getting heated, but McCall was watching their faces, not their words.  Vamps not willing to make such an effort, he realized, and thus not likely to be caught, get concentrated on Wilke's Star, where we can always 3D them into oblivion like we did with Enoch.  Which we will, as soon as we get rid of our other enemies and can turn on a Sabbat who will by then have annoyed us enough with their flagrant disregard of the treaty that we can declare them in violation and wipe them out.  He leaned back in his chair with a smug grin.  Which we'll finally be able to do, what with our handy lists of licensed vamps on our planets and the rest of them quarantined on planets free of innocent-victim humans, just vamps and their willing herds of food animals and ghoul fodder.  He turned back to the stage where Smythe was getting impatient with the Sabbat-treaty questions.

            "I've heard enough," Smythe announced.  "This mission is too important.  If the Sabbat disgusts you that much, you are free to not volunteer for this mission, and stay behind.  I want no one risking our victory on petty bickering."

Bill Balogh and Larry Kabila walked out, refusing to work with such Wyrm-ridden filth.  So did Windspeaker Durward, but to everyone's surprise, Titus Vardan stayed.  Soti had pointed out that the mission was a chance for him to test his skills with a blade against Vin Dane, who would be wielding The Orb in the form of the sword Excalibur.  The honor-craving Silver Fang could not resist such a challenge.

            To even more surprise, Frances Xavier agreed to stay as well.  "I hate the vampires more than the rest of you put together," she explained.  "And I know in the core of my being that this treaty is doomed to failure.  But the rest of you won't survive five minutes in a room with a Sabbat Bishop without me to watch your necks."

"Thank you, Frances," Titus groaned.

"Yes, lieutenant," Xavier continued, "and I want to be there when they turn on us, to save the mission from their inevitable betrayal.  So I'm coming along… because if I don't, this mission will fail, and the war will be lost."

            With the team whittled down to a few fewer members, Smythe dismissed the assembled team and strode out of the room in a fog of annoyance.

            As Argus and Davis walked out of the room together, Argus turned to his lone surviving squadmate.  "You were pretty quiet in there.  What do you think of the treaty?"

            "I don't give a crap about the treaty," Josie replied.  "The previous vampire alliance ended in disaster and we nuked their capital a few decades later.  The new one will be no different.  At this point, I just want to get through this war alive.  I've got my retirement to think about."  Davis had been part of the unit that captured the K'Nes Tor crown jewels at the end of the Vulthra War.  Ransoming them back to the K'Nes had made her a rich woman indeed, and everyone knew she planned to retire to a life of luxury.

            "So what's the problem?" Argus asked her.

            "I still can't decide."

"On what?"

Josie smiled.  "On what's more likely.  Either a quick end to the war will make it more likely that I survive, or that going on this mission will get me killed."




Even after finding the beacon signal from the Alpha Centauri jumpgate, the Avarice still had several days' travel ahead of them before they reached that border system between the Empire and the Federation.  Under different circumstances, it would have been a time to celebrate a mission completed and a contract successfully fulfilled… but no one felt like partying.  The K'Nes were too busy licking their wounds and fleeing for their lives (and cargo).  They still weren't quite safe yet—the worst of the danger was behind them, true, but they were still in enemy territory, and the nervous tension lingered in the air.  So instead of celebrating, they spent the travel time regrouping, repairing, recuperating... and mourning.

The price of victory had been high: four K'Nes hunters dead and five more wounded; a full half of the Miao Mercantile Mercenary Company had become casualties.  Narrah assured Heth it was an acceptable loss, well within the expected twenty to thirty percent depreciation rate of unit value—it was just the cost of doing the business of war, nothing more.  Somehow, that didn't make Heth feel any better.

When the Avarice finally reached the Alpha Centauri system a couple days later, everyone relaxed—a little.  Technically, Alpha Centauri wasn't enemy territory… but it wasn't exactly friendly territory, either.  The star system wasn't neutral so much as simply empty.  A frontier colony way out on the edge of explored space, whose entire population had been wiped out by the Sakras Plague decades ago, held little strategic or economic value.  Consequently, neither the Federation nor the Empire had bothered to claim it.

According to the most recent intelligence reports Captain Gergenstein had provided to Heth, a few Earth Fleet patrol ships had been stationed in Alpha Centauri for decades, enforcing the quarantine of the infected planet by chasing away looters and scavengers.  Shortly after war broke out, the Empire sent a few gunboats of their own to guard the jumpgate to the Earth system… but, curiously, no one had fired a shot yet.  The two tiny pickets merely eyed each other suspiciously, watching warily for any signs of a "back door" invasion of their respective factions through the backwater star system.  Heth suspected both crews were more than content to wait out the war in Alpha Centauri, far from the front lines.

Heth, however, had no opportunity and even less desire to verify his hypothesis.  Rameth didn't even risk entering the system.  The Avarice never left hyperspace, merely jumped between hyperspace lanes instead—a much simpler task now that the signal beams were so close together.  Although the Alpha Centauri-San Angeles spacelane was only for military use and the beacon signal encrypted, Captain Gergenstein had provided Heth with a single-use access code.  Thankfully, it worked, the super-freighter locked onto the San Angeles beacon signal, and they were on their way.  A few more days, and they'd finally reach Federation space and safety.



Or so they thought.

Revolutions, quite frankly, were bad for business—and the San Angeles system was no exception.

When they arrived, Heth was surprised (and alarmed) to discover the Avarice was in another political no-man's land.  Apparently, while Heth had been busy on Cronos, San Angeles had fallen victim to the "Red Spring" riots that Chairman Smythe had mentioned.  The local population had rebelled and declared independence, that much was clear.  What was not clear, however, was who was in charge now.

A loose alliance of Cult of the Emperor fanatics (wanting to join the Empire), Tremonties (wanting to resurrect the Christian Federation), and former Ministry of Public Safety patriots (wanting an independent, secular San Angeles) had been unified by the common goal of ousting the Federation.  Once it was gone, though, the uneasy union began to unravel.  For now, open conflict between the factions had been avoided by forming a coalition "provisional council" to organize a plebiscite to determine future plans… but whoever won the election, Heth doubted the losers would peacefully abide by the vote.

The Avarice had maintained radio silence to avoid detection while in Imperial space, and although it was probably safe now for routine communications with San Angeles Port Authority and the orbital transfer stations, Heth hesitated to contact either Chairman Smythe or Miao Mercantile to report their contract successfully fulfilled—not while there was a chance the message could be intercepted by the Cult.  And, considering his cargo, Heth wanted to get as far away from Imperial sympathizers as quickly as he could—especially if there was any possibility they might seize power.  For once, his K'Nes crew didn't object to skipping the customary trade stop.

Unfortunately, the Avarice got caught up in territorial infighting within the government bureaucracy.  Each faction wanted the income from the cargo tariffs and jumpgate tolls (they were no longer bound by the Ministry's free trade agreement with the K'Nes Llan, which had been honored by the Federation)—and the Avarice carried a lot of cargo, worth a lot of money.  The delays dragged on and on.  Heth had trouble finding the right palm to grease—Cultists were notoriously immune to bribes, and Tremonties downright hostile to them—but eventually he found an old Ministry official grandfathered into the new government, who was simply trying to survive the turmoil alive and welcomed the extra gold Heth offered for a green light to leave San Angeles for the Phoenix system… and, finally, safety.  All that was left to do was drop off the cargo and collect their payment.



Heth waited until the Avarice was over halfway to Phoenix before he risked contacting Chairman Smythe on a secure channel, informing him the contract was fulfilled and his "cargo" was ready for delivery.  Time was money, after all, and the sooner this job was completed, the sooner news of the Nhur-Andersvald jumpgate's construction could be made public—and that meant Heth's shares in the Nhur Llan would have more time to accumulate value.  Heth suspected he'd need every credit to pay off the auction on Miu's reproductive rights.

But the call did not go as expected.

"What… do you mean... you're not building… the jumpgate?" Heth growled, his claws scratching into the console surface as he glared at the holoprojection of Joseph Smythe in full admiral's uniform aboard his flagship, the Poseidon.

"You misunderstand me, Heth old boy," Smythe said.  "We will build the jumpgate, just… not now."

"We had a CONTRACT!!" Heth roared.  He'd been able to hold it together, after the battle on Cronos, after M'Rowr's death, but this… this sent him over the edge.  "Construction was to begin IMMEDIATELY!  You agreed to that!"

"May I remind you," Smythe said, clearly struggling for patience himself, "that the contract was signed before the Jurvain invaded the Federation, before the Red Spring robbed us of four systems, and before another wave of Bugs swarmed in.  The situation has changed.  Instead of a war on one front, the Federation is fighting a war on three fronts!  We simply can not spare the resources to begin construction on a jumpgate at this time."

"Not my problem!" Heth spat.  "Sky Father above, K'Nes died rescuing your mother and her blackmail files!  Four of my hunters!  Five wounded!  All from my clan!  M'Rowr…"  Heth paused, struggling to keep his voice steady and his eyes dry.  "My cousin M'Rowr died.  He had a family.  Two of them!"  Suddenly, Heth's pain and rage exploded.  "And he died for a jumpgate—not an empty contract with a treacherous APE!!"  He took a deep breath, trying to recover his compsure, while Smythe poured himself a scotch and watched Heth coldly.  "Now, we had a contract," Heth continued, "a K'Nes contract—and it doesn't matter when it was signed, or how the situation has changed.  A deal is a deal.  I want that jumpgate built, and I want it built now!"

"Yes, well… unfortunately, we are not in K'Nes space, are we?" Smythe replied, swirling the scotch in his glass.  "We're in Federation space, and the Five Acts supersedes any and all previous legal contracts regarding the allocation of resources for the war effort—including jumpgates.  I'm afraid your contract is… well, simply unenforceable."  Heth understood the subtext perfectly: Oh yeah?  And whadaya gonna DO about it, huh?

And the worst part was… Smythe was right.  Heth slowly realized that as he ran through his options in his mind.  Yes, he could threaten to throw Smythe's mother out an airlock—but from what Heth had seen of their relationship, the Chairman might almost consider that a bonus.  Heth could threaten to throw all the refugees out an airlock… but Smythe was an Admiral as well as a Chairman, and no stranger to sacrificing lives.  Heth could keep Edwina's secret blackmail files for himself, or threaten to sell them to the Empire… only Smythe had made it clear that if he couldn't obtain the files himself, he'd be content to destroy them—and there were a lot of Earth Fleet warships between the Avarice and K'Nes space.  The super-freighter wouldn't make it far.  Besides, right now the Empire was as likely to shoot Heth as trade with him.  No, he had no way to force the issue, no leverage.

But he'd been in this position many times before—negotiating with obstinate bureaucrats exploiting legal loopholes, while having no bargaining advantage himself—and the solution was always the same: Offer a bribe.

But what could Heth possibly offer a man this powerful?  What was valuable enough to tempt him?  Impossibarium?  NO! Heth thought instantly.  That must NEVER fall into human hands, or they'll just reconquer the K'Nes—it'll be the Occupation all over again!

But what else did Heth have?  For that matter, what could the ruler of half of human space possibly want?

The answer struck Heth like a thunderbolt: The other half.

"Tell me, Joe," Heth said slowly, enjoying the flash of irritation in Smythe's eyes.  "How would you like a weapon that makes Horadrim—like Emperor Vin Dane, for example—much, much easier to kill?"

Smythe paused in mid-sip, then leaned forward slightly, interested.  "What sort of weapon?"

"A bioweapon… sort of," Heth replied.  "Once injected, it shuts down a Horadrim's Soul Web.  No more masquerading as human, or turning their skin into armor and hands into blades.  They'll revert back to their natural form—whatever that is—and a knife could kill them."  He paused for dramatic effect.  "Interested?"

"I see…" Smythe leaned back, sipping scotch, thinking.  "And… how much would this weapon cost me?"

"The Nhur-Andersvald jumpgate."

Smythe's face twitched, annoyed.  "I've already explained that right now, we simply can't afford to build—"

"Then don't build it!" Heth spat.  "Just replace it!"

Smythe scowled, confused.  "What the devil are you talking about?"

"During the Caal Invasion, Vin Dane destroyed all the Avalon jumpgates—but only on the Avalon side!"  Heth held up his claws.  "There are currently eight useless jumpgates floating in human space.  Simply move one of them to Andersvald—that shouldn't cost you much.  The Miao will build the jumpgate on the other end in Nhur."

"Yes…"  Smythe nodded.  "Unfortunately, all those 'spare' jumpgates are within Imperial star systems."

"All but one!" Heth hissed.  "In Phoenix!  Just a few jumps away from Andersvald!"

Smythe paused, then nodded.  "Phoenix.  Yes.  The former capital of the Ministry of Public Safety—half the population of which distrusts and hates me, and the other half is in open revolt against me.  I imagine moving a Phoenix jumpgate away—even a useless one—would be a rather politically unpopular move at the moment."

"As I said," Heth growled, his fur bristling in anger, "not my problem.  Besides, none of that will matter if the Federation loses this war, we both know that.  I'm offering you way to defeat the Holy Terran Empire—by cutting off its head!  This is a one-time offer, Smythe.  Take it or leave it, now—before I change my mind."

Smythe bought himself a few more seconds to think by taking a sip of scotch.  "If I agree… how soon could I receive this weapon?  Where is it?"

That last question was a tad too casual, meant to sound like an afterthought, but Heth caught the significance right away and narrowed his yellow eyes to slits.  Oh yes, you'd like me to admit I have it with me, wouldn't you? Heth thought.  Then you'd send one of your little warships to board my super-freighter and take it by force.  Well, I wasn't suckled yesterday, you louse!  Aloud, Heth said, "It's in the K'Nes Llan—but I can have it shipped right away.  A week, ten days at most."  Heth leaned in closer, barring his fangs.  "But you won't receive it until I get confirmation that the Phoenix jumpgate has arrived in Andersvald—and not a second sooner!"

" Hmm…"  Smythe rubbed his chin, thinking.  "And you will send me my mother's secret files, then?  And drop off the rest of your passengers at Phoenix?"

Heth had almost forgotten about them.  He nodded.  "Of course.  A deal is a deal."

Smythe sighed.  "You drive a hard bargain, M. Heth—but you're right, I need this weapon."  He tossed back the last of his scotch.  "All right, then… agreed."

"Very well.  Let's just skip the pleasantries of signing a contract then, shall we?" Heth growled.  "Apparently, they don't mean anything to you!"  The cat slammed his paw down on the console, ending the call.

For a moment, Heth just sat on his perch, drumming his claws on the console and fuming.  Then he sighed, shook his head, and went back to work—it would help get his mind off things and clam down, at least.  He began setting up the exchange with Smythe, sending instructions for Miao merchants in Andersvald to let him know when and if Earth Fleet delivered the jumpgate, then made arrangements for the speedy delivery of the bioweapon to the Federation when the time came.

There was only one slight problem: Heth knew that the weaponized Horadrim nanobots included an organic component, one that contained Zechariah McNeilly's DNA… and that worried the little black cat.  Would the nanos even work on Emperor Vin Dane's Soul Web?  Perhaps only partially?  Not at all?  In the end, it was a moot point; even if Heth could get a sample of the Emperor's DNA, Miu would have no time to create a new batch of nanos.  No, he'd just have to give Chairman Smythe what he did have and hope for the best.

And if the bioweapon didn't work?  Well, we didn't sign a contract, did we?  Heth smiled to himself.  You should never have defaulted on a K'Nes contract, SmytheWe know how to handle contract-breakers.

Once Heth felt he'd calmed down enough, he turned his attention to the next task on his to-do list: he needed to contact Yawr, Miao Mercantile's CEO, to let him know the Smythe contract was successfully completed (although the compensation had changed slightly) so that Yawr could finally go public about rebuilding the jumpgate for the Nhur-Andersvald commercial shipping lane.  Yawr would most certainly not like that the Miao would now be getting a second-hand used jumpgate instead of a brand new one… but on the other paw, an operational jumpgate would be in the Andersvald system in a matter of days, rather than taking months to build.  Investors would definitely like that.

As soon as he could establish a secure connection, Heth opened a comlink to the Miao corporate headquarters on Nhur.  Strangely, it took a while for Heth's call to be answered—and even then, he didn't get Yawr on the holoproj, just his executive assistant.

"Miao Merca—Heth?  Stars above, where have you been?  We've been trying to contact you!"

"Cronos," Heth answered, weary.  "Look, I need to speak with Yawr.  It's important.  Trust me, he'll want to hear the good news right away—although there's been a slight change of plans.  Is Yawr in a meeting?"

"You don't know?"  The executive assistant gave Heth a strange look.  "Heth, Yawr is… well, he's gone."

"Yes, I can see that," Heth growled, growing impatient.  "So go find him!  Tell him the contract with Chairman Smythe was successfully fulfilled.  The Federation is moving the jumpgate into position as we speak."

"Jumpgate?"  The secretary cocked his head, confused.  "What jumpgate?"

"Yawr didn't tell you?...  Oh.  I see."  Heth nodded in understanding.  "He probably kept it secret until he was certain the deal would go through.  Fair enough.  Going public with the news too early and having to retract the press release later would play havoc with the Nhur Llan's stock prices.  Wise move.  When will he be back?"

"That's what I'm trying to tell you, Heth," the secretary protested.  "We don't know.  Yawr's gone—I don't mean busy, I mean missing!  He went to Purrfang for K'Nes Llan negotiations in Capital Hall over a week ago and never returned!  No one's seen or heard from him in days—and not for lack of trying!  It's like he just… vanished!"

Heth's fur bristled as shock and fear swept him.  He knew who was behind this.  "Varrless!" he hissed.

" Pirr Varrless?  Head of the K'Nes Llan?" the secretary asked, confused.  "What's he got to do with this?"

"He warned us he wouldn't tolerate Miao interference in Llan politics anymore," Heth said, shaking his head.  "And McNeilly said we'd pay the price for ignoring the warning… but I never dreamed they'd go this far!"

"Look, Heth..." the secretary said hesitantly.  "There's absolutely no evidence Varrless was involved in—"

"Of course there isn't!  He's not that sloppy!" Heth spat, growling.  "I'll bet Varrless sent Zechariah McNeilly to do the dirty work for him—to make sure Yawr's fate couldn't be traced back to Varrless Financial!"

The executive assistant blinked at Heth, utterly bewildered.  "Zechariah McNeilly?  Who's that?"

"Varrless's Horadrim lapdog!  And this is more his style—blunt, heavy-handed, bloodthirsty…" Heth's voice trailed off.  Or was it? he wondered.  They hadn't found Yawr's body yet… but it'd be a lot simpler if they had.  Yawr held multiple offices.  He wasn't just the CEO of Miao Mercantile, but also First Patriarch of the Miao clan and LEO of the Nhur Llan, their system's planetary government.  If Yawr had simply died… well, his assets would be inherited, making his eldest cub the new LEO of Nhur… the First Patriarch title would pass to the next-oldest Miao male… Miao Mercantile would appoint a new CEO… and business would continue as usual, with only a slight and brief disruption.  But with Yawr being missing instead… well, that legal limbo effectively paralyzed their clan, their company, and their planetary government.  It was an excellent opening move, albeit a brash one.

"Alright," Heth sighed, "if Yawr's gone, I'll need to speak with whoever's in charge of the company now."

"Well… that's the problem," the secretary said.  "We don't know yet.  Yawr didn’t leave a clear succession plan.  The Nhur Llan Executive Board will appoint a temporary acting CEO as soon as all the Directors can meet.  That's why I'm so glad you finally contacted us, Heth—we didn’t know where you were or how to reach you!"

Heth sniffed the air, slightly confused, and twitched his whiskers.  "Reach me about what, exactly?"

"Why, the time and place of the Executive Board meeting, of course!"

Heth rolled his eyes.  "Do I really have to attend?  I'm rather busy right now, you know.  I've got Articles of Procreation to sign on Urrin, and then… well, it is the mating season!  Besides, I'm sure the Executive Directors can choose a new CEO without me—it's not like I'm on the Executive Board, after all!"

"But… you are on the Board!" the secretary exclaimed, puzzled.  "We need you here to make quorum!"

"No, you must be mistaken."  Heth shook his head.  "I think I'd remember if I was an Executive Director!"

"But you are!"  The secretary consulted a datapad.  "Yes, you own eleven percent of all Nhur Llan shares, right?  That makes you the fifth largest shareholder, and thus the fifth and final member of the Executive Board."

Heth stared at the secretary blankly, wondering what in the stars he was talking about—and then it all clicked into place in Heth's memory.  Right before leaving for Cronos, he had sunk all his assets into Nhur Llan shares so he could sell them for a massive profit when the jumpgate project went public and the shares skyrocketed in value.  He'd been so preoccupied planning the Cronos operation that he'd never stopped to check what percentage of Llan shares he owned now—let alone whether or not it qualified him for the Executive Board!  Besides, he hadn't been trying to make a bid for power in the Nhur government—just a temporary reallocation of liquid assets designed to win Miu's auction for her reproductive rights.  What have I gotten myself into?

"Yes, you're right," Heth sighed, suddenly feeling very tired.  "I don't suppose I can abstain with my vote?"

"Uh… not really, no," the secretary answered.  "You're not just the fifth vote, you're the tie-breaking vote."

"Let me guess—the different prides of the Miao clan are fighting for control of the company, right?"

"Exactly."  The executive assistant nodded.  "If Yawr's assets are inherited, then his eldest daughter Frrou from the K'Nhur pride will become LEO of the Nhur Llan—but Yawr's cousin M'Grrah from the K'Ssaah pride is next in line for First Patriarch.  Both sides want the CEO position of Miao Mercantile—which, as you know, includes being Chair of the Board of Directors in the K'Nes Llan—to go to their pride.  Or, more specifically, they don't want the other pride to get it.  Of the other two Executive Directors, one is Miao K'Hess K'Aou, who's allied through a reproductive partnership with—"

"I get the picture," Heth cut him off, shaking his head in dismay.  The Miao prides were playing right into Varrless's paws.  Well… at least now Heth was in a position to do something about his corporation's predicament.  "Alright, alright… I'll head straight to Nhur.  I can be there in…"  He paused to access the navigational computer and calculate the travel time.  "…eighteen days.  Longer, if I get delayed at customs.  Gainful day.  Discom."  Heth closed the connection before the secretary could bombard him with more information.  Heth needed some time to process all this, to research the political landscape of the Miao clan… and to let Miu know that their merger would be delayed—again!  He hoped she'd understand.  Business came before pleasure, after all.  Well… technically this was government, not business, but for K'Nes it was one and the same.

Strangely, it took him a long time to reach Miu.  He placed several calls, but all he ever got was her executive assistant Aie.  He sent messages, but Miu never got back to him.  Heth figured Miu must be terribly busy—it simply wasn't like her to leave a business associate hanging.  It did briefly cross his mind that Miu might be avoiding him… but if so, he couldn't fathom why.  Finally, slightly desperate and acting on a hunch, Heth masked his call by routing it through Durmach Media—an old smuggler's trick for hiding communication with unsavory characters from the authorities.  He hoped it would fool MIRADI as well.

It did.  This time, the call was answered right away, and Miu's image popped up on holoprojector.  "Miu Institute of—oh!  Heth!"  She seemed startled to see him, then at a loss for words.  "Uh… gainful day."

"Gainful day, Miu!"  Heth smiled.  "I apologize for the deception, but it appeared that Aie wasn't passing on my messages.  I suppose we did too good a job of hiding our business relationship, didn't we?"

"Uh… yes, I guess so.  Well, I'm glad to see you're alive and well, Heth."  She sounded unusually formal.

"Yes… thanks to you, Miu.  I found the Impossibarium railgun rounds you left in my power armor, you know.  They saved my life.  It was an excellent investment—I returned!  And we'll yield many dividends together."

Miu smiled at him, but shifted uncomfortably.  "Yes, well… consider it a kickback to an excellent business associate of MIRADI."  She smiled—weakly.  "Look… Heth… I'm afraid I have some bad news for you…"

"Me too, Miu.  I'm terribly sorry, but we're going to have to delay our merger for a few more days.  I've got to swing by Nhur first—there's been some turnover in upper management, and we need to appoint a temporary head of Miao Mercantile.  It shouldn't take more than a day or two, then I'll head straight to Urrin for our—"

"Heth!" Miu cut him off.  Once she had his attention, she looked down, her eyes slipping away.  "Look, I'm sorry, I didn't want to tell you this way, but..."  She took a deep breath and looked up at him.  "You were outbid."

Heth stared at her, perfectly still and silent as the wave of shock and horror rolled over him.  He'd been so sure he would win her auction, he hadn't bothered checking to make sure.  Not again… he thought, Sky Father above, I can’t lose her again  "But… but that's impossible!" he sputtered.  "I know I couldn't attend the auction in person—the Smythe contract was time-sensitive—but I set up automatic bidding with a one million credit limit!  That was twice the highest bid when I left!"

"I know."  Miu didn't sound happy either.  "Look, we can always try again during the next mating cycle."

"But… but that's eleven years from now!"  Heth looked down, at a loss.  He felt numb.  This can't be happening.  He looked back up, but Miu wouldn’t meet his eyes.  "I... I don’t understand, Miu.  What happened?  I… I thought you… don't you value me anymore?"

"Yes, of course I do!" she said, growing uncomfortable.  "But… look, it's just business.  It’s not personal."

"Not personal?!?" Heth echoed, aghast.  "How could this possibly not be personal?"

"I'm sorry, Heth," she said, "but MIRADI needs this influx of capital to stay solvent, you know that!"

"Capital?  How much?" Heth asked, seeing a glimmer of hope.  "Maybe I can top the winning bid?"

"It was five million," Miu answered, sounding hopeful herself.  "Can you top that?"

"Five million?" Heth repeated, shocked by a vast price he could never hope to beat.  "All that… for you?"

Miu's back stiffened and her face darkened.  "And just what the scat is that supposed to mean?"

Oh scat, Heth thought.  "N-Nothing!" Heth stammered, backpedaling.  "I just meant… well, I know last-minute bidding always drives prices up, but… well, you must admit eight times the previous high bid is unusual!"  He changed the subject before she could respond.  "Who placed the winning bid?  Who values you that highly?"

"I'd… rather keep that information confidential, Heth."  Miu's frosty demeanor was returning.

"Please, Miu!" Heth pleaded.  "After all I've done for you… all the deals I've negotiated to keep MIRADI afloat, all the enemies I've made, all the risks I've taken—scat, I nearly died on Cronos!—and all just to earn enough to be worthy of you, Miu!"  She winced and looked away, and Heth could tell he was getting through to her.  "The least you can do is tell me who could possibly value you more than I do!"

"Alright, alright!"  Miu held up a paw to silence him.  "I suppose I owe you that much…"  Miu took a deep breath and looked Heth in the eye.  "Varrless K'Pirr."

Miu watched Heth's face carefully as he silently absorbed the news.  For a moment, he was perfectly still and silent.  Then he leapt off his perch with a yowl, hooked his claws into the padded perch, and hurled it across the room with a roar.  "Varrless!" he hissed, stalking back and forth.  "That rat!  I should have known he'd do something like this!"

"See, this is why I didn’t want to tell you until after I'd signed the Articles of Procreation, Heth!" Miu snapped, frustrated.  "I knew you wouldn't take the news well—and frankly, you're acting like a spoiled kitten."

Heth spun around, looking at Miu on the holoproj.  "You haven’t signed the deal yet?" he asked hopefully.

"Of course not!" Miu snapped.  "You know how long it takes to draw up a reproductive contract, Heth!  It's taken our lawyers weeks to negotiate the exact wording."  She shook her head, tail swishing in exasperation.  "But I'm leaving for Purrfang tomorrow to sign the Articles of Procreation in Capital Hall—it's an excellent location for the press conference afterword, and…"  Her voice trailed off as she saw the desperate look in Heth's eyes.  "You're… not going to do anything rash and stupid, are you?"

"But Varrless doesn't value you, Miu!" Heth insisted.  "He just wants your company for… something!"

"Oh, so you're saying I'm not valuable enough for the richest K'Nes in the Llan, is that it?" Miu retorted.

"That's not what I meant, Miu, and you know it!" Heth shot back, frustrated at how she twisted his words.

"Look, there's no point in discussing this any further," Miu said, impatient.  "I have to go now, I'm busy."

"No!  Miu, wait!"

"Goodbye, Heth.  Don't try to contact me again—I won't respond anyway."  She winked off of the holoproj.

Heth stared at the empty holo silently, simmering with rage, grief, and the terrible pain of rejection.  He had done too much, come too far, to give up on Miu now.  Varrless had crossed the line this time.  He was up to something, and if Heth could figure out what it was, then maybe—just maybe—he could stop Miu's merger.

"M'Rowr!" Heth said, spinning around, "I need you to…"  Heth's voice trailed off.

The room was empty.

M'Rowr was gone.  Yawr was gone.  And now Miu was gone too.

Heth had never felt so alone in his life.




            Takamitsu had a smile chiseled so deep on his face, sonic pulsers would take days blasting it off.          Ever since he left his apartment, he was walking on sunshine.  Suddenly the world was a much nicer place, skipping through the debris in the streets; ruined skyscrapers felt more like opportunities, rather than burdens.  Suddenly the walk to the temporary government headquarters felt optimistic, rather than a chore.  Life was beautiful.


            All his thoughts centered around Ji-yoon, the curve of her chin, the taste of her lips; he could see her hair in the way the climate control blew against the window's Roman blinds.


            How beautiful my name sounds, Yasuyama Takamitsu thought, the warmth of her breath, the lilt of her…


            The young lord suddenly shot awake in his chair.  His father and grandmother were staring at him strangely, sitting there amidst the senior members of the clan.  Reunited in real time, they were planning for the future—and Taka had daydreamed through most of it.  "Hai, tousan?"

            "Your honored great-grandmother asked you a question," Akihiro reminded him.

            Taka looked over at Hikari and nodded.  "My apologies, matriarch, I… did not sleep… last night."  The mage desperately tried to keep his thoughts from leaking all over the place.  "What was the question?"

            A slight grin curled on one side of her mouth, but Takamitsu could have imagined it, because all humor was lost when she asked, "You've met this… Denim Man.  You spoke to him.  Do you think he would actually use the Dooms Day Device?"

            A whirr of confusion appeared across his brow.  "Wait.  Didn't you speak to him, too?  He brought you all forward in time."

            "That duty was left to my husband," Hikari closed her eyes, trying not to betray the pain of her loss, "and my son, Hikaru.  We hardly saw the man.  He certainly did not speak to any of us."

            "All he told me was told in anger.  The Denim Man I met would kill anyone, if it suited his purpose."

            "I see," she replied, "then we cannot give him the bomb."

            "And leave my father in limbo?" Akihiro challenged.  "My wife?  My daughter?  No."

            "But Fialla's warning…" Taka interjected.

            "Sheba!" his father cursed.  "What does this gaijin care of our family?!  She has her own plans, ones that don't involve us.  Let her rot in her timeless pocket and leave us in peace."

            "She said the Orb was the key to this universe.  We can't let him get the 3D and risk destroying it."

            His father leaned closer towards his son.  "Give me an alternative that doesn't mean killing your mother."

            Taka felt the wind knocked out of him.  In that uncomfortable silence, the matriarch replied, "Very well—we will follow your orders, Akihiro, but do not leave for Avalon without my… or Hikari's approval.  We may be able to see alternatives before then."

            "Alternatives," Akira moaned, bored out of his mind at the end of the table, "you time mages are worse than fortune tellers.  At least they'll give you a straight answer."

            "You show disrespect, brother," the Duke of New Tokyo answered, menace in his voice.

            The old soldier sat up in his chair.  "That's because I'm the only one willing to speak the truth.  You want alternatives?  I'll give you one.  Taka, you say that this Fialla told you the Denim Man was not a mage, correct?"

            "Yes, uncle."

            Akira smiled as he turned to his brother.  "Aki, you're the only one who's ever used these weapons, right?"

            "Except for Enoch.  I don't know who used the 3D there."

            "Well, I'm going to guess that the Denim Man doesn't either."  Akira slammed his palm on the conference table.  "So who do you think he's going to want to press the button, hmmm?"
            Akihiro gulped.  "You think that…?"

            "Who else would the Denim Man have to run his infernal machine?"

            "You, Taka, or our father, which I have to remind you, he still holds.  Since a forces mage built the device, it requires a forces mage to use it.  Any mage of a certain power could accomplish it, if he understood forces."

            "Then the solution is simple."  Akira finally leaned back in his chair.  "We kill him."

            Hikari tsked.  "Naughty, Akira.  He who lives by the sword…"

            "…lives one day longer than those who don't.  I'm sorry, Mother, but I've seen too many generals paralyzed by overthinking a situation.  Like a blade, it only cuts one way."

            "And do you don't think the Denim Man knows this?" Akihiro challenged.  "Noo chugle leh?!  He will be prepared for us…"

            "…then we need to be prepared for him.  Taka, the Denim Man doesn't know we know Fialla, right?"

            "I suppose…"

            "Then get her in the fight.  We can stop him—but only with her help."

            Taka looked at his uncle quizzically.  "It's not like I can call her…"

            "We've got time.  The Zeta Armor is being loaded on our transport to Avalon as soon as it gets off the assembly line.  The 3D is almost done, right?"

            "Yes," Akihiro rubbed his eyes, wondering how his conference got hijacked by his brother.

            "Then Fialla's our dragon in the cave," Akira cheerfully announced.

            "Ace in the hole," Taka corrected,

            "Whatever."  Akira waved him off.  "We will find a way to rescue our family and save the universe."  The warrior smiled.  "And if that doesn't get me free drinks for life, nothing will!"



            Observing Anshin's Shimonoseki Works was like watching an anthill in chrome.  Takamitsu's eyes could hardly take in the slick motion of the production line, watching the robots precisely match the plates to the framework, the nanotech to the plates, and the finished product wrapped up and shoved into the waiting transport ship with nanometers between the products.  Two divisions worth of Zeta Armor was materializing before his very eyes.

            To add to his wonder, a warm presence entered the room behind him.  Taka forced himself not to turn around, but he couldn't help the grin on his face getting wider.  He heard her giggle behind him.  I don't have to read your mind anymore to know what you're thinking, she spoke in his mind.

            He turned to face Ji-yoon, somehow making a simple business suit look elegant.  "Am I that obvious?"

            "Yes," she smiled, "and I'm grateful."

            "So am I," the young lord walked forward, catching her in a warm kiss, and absorbing the blessed warmth of her.  "I didn't expect you."

            "That's why I came," her cheeks dimpled.  "We finally discover each other and you have to leave.  When?"
            "Days, the suits are almost ready," Taka sadly admitted, "so all we're waiting for is my father."

            "And your uncle, and Wen, Shin, and… is there anyone you aren't taking, except me?"
            "It's not safe…"

            "And New Tokyo is?  If you don't come back, Taka, Archbishop Hu will take over.  And who do you think will be his first target?  The people who now run Anshin Heavy Industries."

            "Ji-yoon," he cupped her chin, "I know Hu.  He's not…"

            "You don't know him.  You've only met him a handful of times.  He might be the saint he pretends to be, but if he's not…?"

            "Mei mei, what are you saying?"

            "I want to come along, too."

            Taka's eyes turned hard.  "No."

            "You selfish…"

"I don't want you in harm's way…"

            "And what about you?  Do you think I feel any differently?" Ji-yoon sniffed.  "How do you think I feel, sitting here on New Tokyo worried that you'll get thrown through time, or… or worse!"

            "Ji-yoon," Taka interrupted, "you're right.  You can come in the ship."

            "I can?"

            "Yes," the young lord nodded.  "I'm not sure how it's going to work, but…"

            "That's odd," Ji-yoon stated.

            "Look, just because I'm the heir-apparent, doesn't mean I can…"

            "No," the mind mage answered, "that's not what I meant.  The buzzing.  It stopped."

            Taka looked at the hum of robotic operation going on in the plant, continuing to produce its endless line of suits.  "Seems perfectly fine to me."

            "No, the buzzing… in the dark.  You haven't heard it before?"

            "Mei mei, I have no idea what you're talking about."

            Ji-yoon looked around, found an open comp, and activated the holoproj.  For the past few months, there's been a buzzing… in the back of my perception, that hadn't been there before."  She started activating public chat screens, with a flurry of activity hovering around in thought bubble form.  "I thought it was just me, but other mind mages started posting in the Net that they heard it, too.  No one could identify it, so we thought it was a product of the war, the Caal Invasion… someone blamed a mutation in pickles."  She started perusing the thought bubbles.  "They felt it, too.  The end of the buzzing."

            "That's a good thing, isn't it?"

            "Maybe…" Ji-yoon prevaricated, "maybe not.  I had a different theory."

"Mages were eating bad sandwiches?"  Taka threw up his hands in frustration.

"No.  When the buzzing started, the Bugs attacked."

Taka couldn't help thinking of his recently departing great-grandfather; his final words were about the Bugs.  "You think something was controlling them?"

"Someone.  Or a few someones.  Powerful.  It probably took a lot of concentration to keep that up."

"And now they've stopped?" Taka smiled.  "Good.  Maybe the Bugs will go back home."

"Or maybe… without control, they're more dangerous than ever."




Izzy closed his eyes and allowed the familiar sensation of cyberspace to coalesce around him.  The virtual reality system on the ship was nowhere near as elaborate as the one on New Sparta, but it still managed to evoke nostalgia in the old vampire.

            In the blank space around him hovered a holographic representation of the 7th Fleet.  Alongside were several 2D windows suspended in midair listing various statistics on the fleet.  He found it easier to think while having the data right in front of him.  Izzy knew he didn't really have a head for military tactics; though he had participated in the various wars over the centuries, a certain disinterest kept him from climbing particularly high in the ranks.

While he was attempting to grasp the situation, a tone sounded indicating a message, and Izzy punched it through.  A virtual presence materialized amidst the fleet.  Izzy hardly had to wait for the purple clad figure to appear before he knew who it was from.  "Greetings!  From the world of tomorrow!" the message intoned overdramatically, while swatting the 7th Fleet ships out of the way.

"Yes, yes, yes, what do I want now?"  Izzy waved the virtual messenger from the future to get on with it.

"Okay, okay, no need to be rude…  Was I really this rude when I was younger?  Goodness… so tetchy."  The virtual messenger from the future shook his head.  "Anyway, the message is: Do not involve the Sylvests at this time."

Izzy gave the virtual hologram an incredulous look.  "I… wasn't planning on it."

            "Right then," the hologram replied briskly, "that's good!"

"… but now that you mention it…"

"Oh no…"

"…it is rather time to include my Golden Ticket winners, now that I have procured a fleet to back them up."

"… But you mustn't include the Sylvests," the futuregram reminded him.

"And why not?"  Izzy had considered those two to be the most competent among the group.

"Well, for one thing, one of them is…" the hologram checked his wristwatch, "eight, and the other is her mother."

"Point taken."  Izzy wondered why it was so hard for him to remember the age thing.

"Well anyway, I've delivered the message you programmed me for, so I'm off!  See you… in the future!"  With that, the hologram disappeared in an unnecessarily dramatic puff of purple smoke, leaving behind burning foot prints on the virtual plane.

"People come and go so quickly around here," Izzy muttered to himself, reorganizing the ships that had been scattered like marbles in zero-G.  But the hologram was right, it was time to call in the crack team he had assembled what felt like ages ago.

Just as he set his mind to give Gabriel Quatttone a call, another hologram materialized, once again scattering the fleet.

"Am I coming through?"  The elderly-looking hologram waved his hands in front of his face as though brushing away a particularly annoying beaded curtain.  "I never did like virtual space."

Izzy grinned.  "Lwan, old friend!  How good it is to hear from you!"  Izzy clapped the old man on the back.

            "Ah Izzy, it is you.  Finally."  The wrinkles at his eyes crinkled.  "I tried to call on you the other day, but I think you were asleep.  And dreaming.  I may be an Oracle, but Mind magick never was my specialty."

"Ohh…"  Suddenly that dream he had the other day made much more sense.  "That was you…  You would be Tom Bombadil."  Izzy laughed.

"Or Gandalf… I'm really not that sure.  I never was a fan of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien."

            "You really should appreciate the classics, old friend."

            Lwan shook his head.  "Too much fantasy in my life already.  I wasn't expecting to contact you in that part of the Umbra.  Things tend to get a bit… symbolic and abstract there.  So I decided to come back later when you were awake.  And here I am."  He opened his hands.  "So… how are things?"

"I think things are going fairly well, though… at least so far.  We've managed to assemble a fleet, and of course there's the contest winners... plus my new crew.  Right now, we're setting up to make a mad dash for Avalon."

Lwan nodded thoughtfully.  "You and the rest of the universe."

"I can't really believe we're going to march right into the heart of the Empire and single-handedly defeat Vin Dane."  Suddenly Izzy looked ill.  "Lwan, I don't think we're ready for this."

"As I was trying to tell you the other day… when things get difficult, I want to help, too.  I've spent too many years trying to stay out of the way—but the universe has a way of dragging me back.  I'm tired of being dragged around."

"Me, too."  D'Argent looked pointed at his friend.

Lwan hung his head.  "Yes, I'm afraid I have been rather rude.  Dragging you into my affairs.  But are you going to be the coffeehouse activist who talks a great game, but never bothers to even vote?  Or do you want to actually do something?"

Izzy raised his eyebrows.  "You already know my answer, Gandalf."

"Then don't forget—the whole reason we've even gotten this far is because of my meddling in your affairs.  If it weren't for my meddling, you'd still be sitting comfortably in your hobbit hole, Mister Baggins."

"It was very comfortable," D'Argent smiled, "had a roaring fire, with plenty of breakfasts and eleven'sies."

"Virtual fire," the old lieutenant corrected.

"Which begs the question…"  Izzy dragged the 7th Fleet back into view.  "What am I going to do about that?"

"He's moving a lot faster than I figured."

"Come again?"
            Lwan shook his head.  "Never mind.  You need to convince the admiral…"

"Tried that," Izzy countered.  "He's too afraid.  And darn tootin', too.  I'm afraid.  Why should he come on my crusade?  He's busy with his own bucket of bees."

The elderly avatar raised its eyebrows.  "Bucket of bees?"

D'Argent blushed.  "Okay, I made it up, but added a lovely cachet to the conversation."  He poked a finger into his friend's chest.  "You didn't answer my question, though.  How do I convince Stretched Face that I'm right?"

Lwan Eddington thought for a moment.  "Maybe I need to help others move faster, too."



The Imperial Fleet burst out of the jumpgate, their point defense weapons opening up in the wave of missiles that rushed towards them, fired by the Republican Navy.  The first ships swatted them rather efficiently, and provided a shield for the rest of the Empress' Own Squadron to keep coming through into the system.

Admiral Qing Mengyao had to keep all of his fingers still, avoid the overwhelming desire to tap them angrily against the chair arm, as the holoproj relayed the embarrassing performance the Terran Navy was showing.  I must remain still, the admiral reminded himself, peaceful as the mountain lake.  My calmness is reflected through my fleet like a stone thrown into that lake.

But even Mengyao had to admit, this was a bad sign.  Two fleets worth of ships and fighters bearing down on them, and they haven't even flinched.  It was as if they knew exactly where we'd be and who they were facing.

But that's impossible, the admiral concluded.  Even I didn't know about the 7th Fleet until yesterday.

His flag bridge was calm, collected—his staff moving efficiently through the motions, relaying his adjustments to the long-range fire.  Qing's mental balance had worked…

…until a comm chirp disturbed his serenity.  Preventing himself from stabbing at the icon, the admiral simply touched at the holoproj symbol.  "Flag."

"Admiral," the explosion of purple cloth made his ancient eyes ache, "I believe we have…"

"Not now, M. D'Argent."  Qing moved to discom.

"Wait!" Izzy implored him.  "I can prove to you…"

"This is hardly the time," the admiral explained.  "We are in combat.  I no longer have the…"

"Where are the Imps focusing their fire?"

Qing shook himself.  "What did you…?"

"I said, where are the Imps focusing their fire?"

"Sir," his flag lieutenant turned towards him, "the enemy has begun returning fire."

Mengyao blinked at the timely status change.  "What are their targets?"

"Unicorn and Rainbow."

"All of their fire?"

"Yes, sir," the lieutenant confirmed.

"Shift Half Crescent and Governor Moonbeam into Blair's datalink.  That should bolster their point defense."  As the lieutenant ran to relay his orders, Qing looked back at his comm line.  "How did you know?"
            "I really can't explain here, if I could…"

"Get here.  Now.  Discom."  The admiral cut the signal and looked in amazement at the changing lidar track.



            Izzy hustled and bustled his way onto the command deck.  Qing sat there, looking inscrutable and unaffected by the thunderstorm of space combat pounding the 7th Fleet.  At first, the admiral didn't seem to notice him, but his right hand pointed towards the vampire, then pointed to the space next to him.

            "Captain, I mean Commod… no, that's not it."  D'Argent fumbled over his words as he came up beside Qing, lost for a context to place them in.

            "Speak quietly."  Qing didn't look at him, keeping his eyes on the lidar plot.  "I don't want my crew to hear."

            "Oh, yes, golly," Izzy whispered.  "It's not really the thing you want…"

            "Be silent," Mengyao muttered under his breath.  His command was palpable even at the lowest decibels.  "Now, tell me what you know."

            "The 7th Fleet is doomed," the virtual showman repeated what he had been told.  "You and Blair didn't have the time to coordinate your ships.  You're too far away from each other to assist.  So the Imps are going to focus on them, and then come after you."

            "Our numbers are superior…"

            "If those ships were fully functional."

            Qing put his hand lightly on Izzy's wrist, but its vise-like grip was a threat enough.  "Rainbow?  Unicorn?"

            "Months away from completion.  There are several structural weaknesses, which…"

            "…the Imps know about.  Why didn't you tell me this yesterday?"

            "I honestly didn't know yesterday!" Izzy stressed.

            "But you know now.  How?"

            "I've got friends in low places, where the whiskey drowns, and the beer chases…"  D'Argent's whispered singing voice was cut short by a pain to his wrist.  "Obviously you're not a fan of the Grand Old Opry..."

            "Have you been sending classified information to the enemy?"

            The admiral's tone—however quiet—was enough to make the vampire pause.  "Not… personally, no."

            Qing leaned closer to his guest.  "Do you know the penalty for treason, M. D'Argent?"
            "I'm sure it's painful, yes," Izzy explained, "but the fact is that you didn't know that information either.  So how could I have passed that onto the Imps?  Hmmm?"

            "Passive lidar."

            "We've been inside your ship since the fleet arrived.  How could we detect anything?"


            "Check your comps.  You won't find anything," since I covered my tracks, Izzy mentally added.

            "Then why are you telling me this?"

            "Even without this knowledge, you were going to lose.  Look at the raw data," the vampire nodded towards the lidar readings.  "By tonnage, by tech, by training, you have lost.  You knew that when you ran from Eden.  Even if you won, the Terran Navy would be so weak, the Empire… or the Federation would eventually steamroll their way through the Republic."

            "Since when have you become a naval expert, M. D'Argent?"

            "I'm not—but I've some good folk who are," Izzy admitted, glad he had remembered all the talking points.  "Now are you going to go down in a blaze of glory, for your honor and duty—all laudable goals—or do you want to take a chance and actually change the universe?"

            Admiral Qing looked at the readouts for several beats and realized all that Izzy had been saying.  "I don't stand a chance here?"

            "Not here," the vampire replied, "but in Avalon."

            Mengyao blinked… and then spoke up.  "Lieutenant, signal the fleet.  We're withdrawing to Jennifer's Star."

            Qing's eyes flashed with indignation.  "I said, we are…" and suddenly, the admiral's voice was trapped.

            "…going to fight on!" another voice came out of the darkness.

            Izzy turned to see a shape appear out of the shadows.  Light bent and turned into the shape of a man.  A well-tailored, manicured, middle-aged man who stank of power.  "Admiral, I'm afraid you were about to make a terrible mistake," the newcomer said.  "Now.  Tell the fleet to go flank speed towards the enemy.  What one mage can exploit, another can correct."

            Admiral Qing's face was a mask of terror as he turned towards the mage.  "Andrea Treschi…"

            "You will repeat my orders," the god-like mage replied, "or I will find a new admiral for your fleet."




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home unless you have Lwan Eddington to back you up against Andrea Treschi.