IN STONE WHERE FIRES BURN – Act IV
"One day we'll see our names
In stone where fires burn
The great who silent stood among you
Never praised nor never known
Our thoughts defined the passing days
Sensed the spirit, seized the age
After all these years to dream again
Like smiling children with their arms raised."
-- VNV Nation, "Procession"
"You will repeat my orders," the god-like mage replied, "or I will find a new admiral for your fleet."
Izzy knew immediately by the hairs that stood up on the back of his neck that this was a mage to be reckoned with, that the previous whispered mentions of his name and the fearful glances had not been misplaced. Just the mage's presence was oppressive, as though someone had opened an airlock and sucked all the living air out of the room. Izzy's defensive reflexes asserted themselves—he wanted to run so very badly, he could taste his own fear like electricity in his mouth.
A simultaneously terrified and defeated Qing opened the comm to amend his previous order to stand down, but Izzy clamped a hand on Qing's shoulder, partially to stop him, partially to steady himself. "Before you say anything, think. Think! Do you really want to throw away a whole fleet for a lost cause? Those are real live people out there in those ships, not just blips on a display. Can you honestly send them to their deaths for no better reason?"
"And who exactly are you, M. D'Argent? An entertainment mogul? Who are you to tell him what to do with my fleet?" Treschi asked icily—and indeed, Izzy felt a literal chill.
"Me? I'm no one. No one at all." Izzy found he could not meet the mage's gaze, but he pressed onward. "But it seems to me that you are very interested in frog-marching these lovely people here to their graves. One wonders why…" Izzy surreptitiously took up a position between Treschi and Qing. He didn't know if it would help Qing in the slightest, but it was the best Izzy could offer. That, and keeping the powerful mage focused on himself. He hoped the delay would be enough time for the fleet to act on their previous order of retreat, that Qing would be immobile enough to let the old order stand, and that Treschi would be too occupied to notice.
"Would I allow for such failure?" Treschi sneered, but his voice was suddenly soothing and buttery soft. "As I said, what one mage can exploit, another can correct. There is no danger to the fleet while I'm here. We will win this battle." Izzy could almost feel the pressure of fear seep from the room into deep space, replaced by a preternatural atmosphere of assurance. Clever, Izzy thought, why use mind control when you can get them to do what you want by making them feel invincible? Qing began to stir from his fear-induced stupor.
"This battle. Perhaps. But the next one? And the next?" Izzy fell back on his earlier speech to Qing. "The Terran Navy can't afford to suffer these heavy losses. At this point, any battle that does not have the potential to decisively win the war is not worth fighting, M. Treschi. Surely you see that." But Izzy was losing his own confidence in the haze of assurance which soaked the room. What was he thinking, launching an attack on Avalon? If he didn't believe this fleet could win this one battle, what made him think they could stand even for a second against Vin Dane's forces? All this talk of marching these people to their graves… would he be doing any differently? What a hypocrite he was!
So lost in self-doubt Izzy was that he hardly noticed Treschi approach him until the mage was right in his face. "I see no such thing, M. D'Argent. Now… stand aside."
All that fear that had so permeated the room previously had not seeped into deep space as Izzy had imagined. Treschi had been gathering it unto himself, concentrating it until it was a near-visible miasma. Now, Treschi poured this fear on Izzy like a bowl of God's wrath.
Reflexively, Izzy ran. Or tried to. Instead, he launched himself into Treschi, but neither one hit the deck. Instead they were suddenly spinning, weightless, the two locked in a grapple hold as the stars burned around them. Izzy caught glimpses of the two silently warring fleets displayed as though in virtual space.
But it wasn't virtual space, it was real space. In a snap decision, Izzy fastened himself to the mage like an anchor, trying desperately to hold him to real space long enough for him to lose consciousness. Treschi, terrified and angry, mouthed silent curses at the old vampire and attempted to flee into the relative safety of the Umbra. The two blinked out of real space, but Izzy held onto the terrifying feeling of airless weightlessness as though it were a lifeline, using it to tow them back. They flitted rapidly between dimensions, each fighting for supremacy over the other. The mage tore at Izzy's face with his bare hands in attempt to dislodge himself. Izzy bit him, hard. Through his vampire senses, he could tell the mage was rapidly weakening, his blood pressure dropping sharply despite the succession of trips into the Umbra slowing down the inevitable decompression. Though a hair's breadth from losing consciousness, the mage gave Izzy one good kick and sent Izzy spiraling backwards out of reach of the mind mage. Izzy watched helplessly as Treschi disappeared, weak and injured but apparently triumphant, into the safety of the Umbra one final time.
The adrenaline of the moment passed, and Izzy became aware of his own rapidly deteriorating condition. He quickly he found Qing's vessel, closed his eyes, and hoped he wouldn't splinch himself into a bulkhead.
Dr. John Tyler felt on top of the world—yes, he had lost his penthouse office, but in exchange for his freedom and the freedom of his new nation's people… eh, it's a small price to pay.
He walked into Le Coq Sportif, a rather exclusive bar hidden in the alleys behind the Central Business District. It pretended to be a replica of a nightclub on Earth That Was, but considering most of the young folk who frequented it were now on the sunny side of the planet, the booming music was turned off, and the privacy shields were left on. For him, it made the ideal temporary office to wait and enjoy the fruits of his plans.
John found his favorite table, tapped the order pad to give him a pot of tea, and started playing with his holoproj connection to the local Net. He was most annoyed when a strategically-shaved Scotsman suddenly slid into the chair opposite. "What the…?"
"Turn off your Net," the humorless stranger ordered in a lilt that reminded him of his own… with a trace of New Paris. "Now."
"I beg your pardon?"
"My netrunners were able to find you in ten seconds once you went online." The gentleman stared at the doctor. "Your coup has failed, which means that your former allies are now hunting for you. It's only a matter of time before they figure out what I already have." The Scotsman's eyes glared into the Englishman's. "Turn it off."
Dr. Tyler waved
through his holoproj, severing the connection. "And who the devil are
"My name is Douglas Munro. I represent the Jackal, M. Tyler."
The CEO's tea finally arrived and he poured himself a cup. "And the 'Jackal' would be who, M. Munro?"
"Your biggest shareholder."
The hot liquid spilled over Tyler's hand and he quickly put the pot down. "My biggest shareholders are two nice old ladies from Babylon, who are hardly in a position to question me, M. Munro."
"Felicity and Ambrosia Tenebrae. Mules." The Scotsman took out a datapad and started pressing buttons. "Them as well as Tomas Delarosa, Akkad Umayyad, and Andrew Wall are all employees of the Jackal. As you can see here, they've given me their proxy, equaling 63% of Olin Industries' shares. By the by-laws of your own Board of Directors, that means I could call them to meet now to discuss your actions."
John found over the years that pausing for a moment allowed him to avoid many embarrassing mistakes in his career. He covered with a sip of hot tea. "And why haven't you? Or is the revolution delaying your plans?"
Munro shook his head. "I have no interest in replacing you, M. Tyler. The Jackal simply wants your complete and unequivocal cooperation in anything he orders you to do from now on."
"Well, now," the doctor smiled, "I've had worse offers. But I refuse to move on the mention of a pseudonym. What is the good Jackal's name?"
Now John Tyler had to pause. "You have proof?"
"I have no need of proof, I have proxy. Ask yourself who else could have that kind of pull, M. Tyler, and I will deny them. For now, M. Treschi simply wants you alive. Your actions have threatened that situation."
"And what do you suggest to correct that, M. Munro?" The doctor took another sip.
"Return to your home—through the back door," the Scotsman pointed to the club's exit. "Say nothing, contact no one, until I contact you. The datapad blinked. "I'm afraid your former allies are now at the front door. If you choose not to follow my advice starting now, I'm afraid your cooperation will… no longer be required."
Hugh Montgomery slid through the door of the club in a wisp of smoke. Once he confirmed it was safe, he opened the front door, allowing Bishop to lead the way, followed quickly by Luther and Melissa. "What a shite-hole," the wraith announced. "People pay for this visual abuse?"
William Bishop leaned against a wooden pillar, decorated with some French rooster. "Where?"
Irene York stepped through the door, holding a datapad, adjusting it to take in the immediate environment. "Far end, third booth."
Bishop and Luther soon led the way across the empty dance floor, with Melissa covering the rear of the troika. A finger point from Cortona disrupted the privacy shield and the two warriors prepared to strike… only to find Dr. Tyler replaced with a similarly pale looking man. "Welcome, dear friends. I've been expecting you."
"Where is John Tyler?" Luther demanded.
"Safe," the Scotsman explained.
The paladin laughed. "Good—then I can kill him. I have right of blood!"
"I challenge your right, M. Petridis."
"You challenge me?" Luther puffed up, the blood boiling in his veins. "Who the hell are you?!"
"My name is Douglas Munro. I represent Dr. Tyler… and the Jackal, who is now placing him under his protection." Munro shrugged. "After all, we own most of the company that's making your conquest come true."
Bishop grounded his sword. "What is your challenge, M. Munro?"
"Simple. I've come to negotiate for his life. In exchange, Olin Industries will continue to support the Sabbat and their interests on Van Diemen."
William looked over at Luther. "Do you have the authority to negotiate?"
Petridis snorted. "None of us do. Even if we still had David, he was only a Bishop. I say we torture him until he reveals where Tyler is."
Munro took out a stake from his voluminous coat. "That would be most… unadvisable, M. Petridis."
"Unnecessary, Luther," a voice boomed from the other end of the dance floor.
The club seemed to dim, just for the new arrival, and out of the darkness came a pale man with very long black hair, black pants, and a stark white button down silk shirt. All of the Sabbat suddenly bowed as Mordred himself walked towards the gathering. "I believe I still have the authority." The antediluvian smiled, and all around, the world felt a little happier.
Except for Munro. "Indeed, your Most Distinguished Excellency. My employer wanted to convey his regrets… and let you know that he had no idea of Dr. Tyler's private plans prior to your lieutenant's passing."
"M. Treschi felt it all the way from the Republic?" Mordred's voice had the hint of laughter.
"When he heard of Olin's involvement, he sent me to act on his behalf." The lawyer bowed his head. "I only wish I could have come sooner."
Mordred stepped closer and sniffed the air. "Hmmm. Life sphere?"
"Yes, your Most—"
The antediluvian cut him off. "May I assume that M. Treschi has control of his pet now?"
"Dr. Tyler is under my custody," Munro clarified.
"And you would prefer him to play a role in what's to come here on Van Diemen?" Mordred asked. Munro nodded. "Then what did you have in mind?"
"Tyler remains as the new President of the Van Diemen Free State, until such time as you no longer need him, abiding with the decisions of your Sabbat representative while he establishes the government. When the political situation is settled, we will press the new authorities in other governments to decrease funding Crusader Teams… or whatever they call them."
"In exchange?" Mordred's subtle humor made the entire room seem funny.
"Tyler's life, the continuation of Olin Industries…"
should I embrace such a viper to my bosom, M. Munro?"
"Once, M. Treschi did a favor for you, your Excellency. He said he would like a favor in return."
Mordred stopped breathing for a moment, finally laughing aloud. "That rascal. Done. Now leave."
"Of course, your Excellency." Douglas bowed to Mordred and quickly stepped out of the club.
"Now, that was a waste of good magickal training," Hugh muttered to himself.
"Luther," the antediluvian turned to the vampire. "You let your Priscus die?"
"I kept him alive for a century, your Excellency." Petridis was ashamed. "He grew too proud. He felt he no longer needed me and used me as a Templar…" Luther stared at William, "because he went through them too quickly."
"Remember that lesson, then." Mordred smiled. "I need a new Priscus. Luther Petridis, do you want it?"
Luther's relief was palpable. "With all my heart."
"Then it is yours. Melissa, he needs a more determined paladin. I will release you from Magnus' service, should you so desire."
"I do, your Excellency." Cortona bowed with gratitude with the promotion.
"Sicarus." Mordred at last turned to Bishop. "You avenged your Priscus well. Unfortunately, I can not promote you, but I can attach you to Luther's service. Is that acceptable?"
"Completely," Bishop nodded.
"Then we are agreed. Luther, I'm afraid I must test your ability immediately. Magnus can handle operations here, but I need you for another operation."
"Avalon," Petridis realized.
"Exactly. Take the transport, land in the capital, and find Fabian. Or better yet," Mordred smiled, "he'll find you. He will provide the details. When you return in victory, you will sit at my right hand."
"And if we don't?" Bishop had the audacity to ask.
"Don't come back at all."
The Hakuna Maru was already packed prior to departure, the key members of his family were on board, yet Yasuyama Takamitsu felt like he had forgotten something. And then he felt the reassuring thoughts enter his mind, Of course, Ji-yoon.
The woman he had always mistaken for a little girl came bouncing up the ramp, wearing a light coverall and a little cylinder containing all the clothes that could be expanded for a trip. "Ready?"
"We were just waiting on you," Taka lied. Actually, his uncle Akira wanted to leave an hour ago, but something kept nagging at Taka in the back of his mind. Now he was glad he waited.
"I'm glad you waited," Ji-yoon said. "Everyone's on board?"
"My father, my uncle, Wen, Shin, and of course, the Zeta Armor. And… well, the other thing."
"It gives me the creeps," Ji-yoon admitted.
"No option," Takamitsu admitted. "Without it, we might as well not go to Avalon."
"And how are we going to get there?" his girlfriend asked.
"Let me tell you once I close up the ship." Taka smiled and led her into the Hakuna Maru.
As soon as he did, the intercom erupted. "Are you aboard yet, Taka?" a voice yelled in Japanese.
"Good, hold on to something!"
Taka took one arm, held onto the safety railing, and took the other arm around Ji-yoon. As they left the atmosphere, Taka took her breath away with a kiss.
Wilke's Star's neutrality in the galactic conflict allowed for a convenient way to get around the fighting. The Hikuna Maru took two days to get from New Tokyo to Wilke's Star, and then they risked the military jumpgate to New Paris for another day of travel. Thankfully, the Imperial Guard asked questions first instead of shooting, and the Yasuyama's directive from the Emperor managed to get them into the system. From there, it was a simple matter to wait for the Digital Gate behind all the other traffic, and get ready to enter the Avalon system.
After three days alone with Ji-yoon, Taka no longer feared what awaited them on Avalon; he was ready to face the future with a clear conscience. Finally, everything was falling into place.
So it was inevitable that Akira would knock on Taka's berth door right as the young lord was suited for meeting with His Imperial Majesty. "How did you know?" his uncle demanded as he met his nephew in the hallway.
"There are no coincidences, honored uncle." Takamitsu bowed slightly.
give me that crap," Akira punched him in the shoulder. "I meant, how
did you know I was coming?"
"I didn't. But it seemed the most likely of scenarios."
"Ha!" the warrior barked. "You are your father's son. Now… where is your sword?"
"In my room," Taka replied, confused.
"Get it. I'll wait."
"The Emperor will not allow live steel in his presence."
"It's not the Emperor I'm wearing it for." Akira pointed to his own blade, the hilt an inch out from the scabbard. "We're about to enter the Avalon System. Someone's going to want to collect his payment."
A cold sweat ran down Taka's back. "I'll get my sword."
The two warriors walked to the bridge, Akihiro sitting confidently at the captain's chair, as if he belonged there. The real captain, a corporate employee named Shu, was sulking over at the navigator's station. "You look ridiculous," the Duke of New Tokyo announced to his relatives.
"So do you," Akira shot back, nonplussed at his brother's insult. After all, he had been on the receiving end of them for years.
"What possible use could you have for your katana…?" But just then, the universe changed, and the Maru was through the Digital Gate.
"Successful transition done, sire," Captain Shu announced. "Welcome to Avalon."
"Thank you, captain," Akihiro replied. "Now, set course for—"
A portal opened next to Taka. The young mage barely had time to register it before a boot followed it, knocking him to the ground, bleeding. The Denim Man saw Akira waiting for him, extended his hand, and knocked the warrior across the room.
"About time you got here!" the Horadrim yelled. "Now… where's my Dooms Day Device?!"
Heth had been floating down the Avarice's corridors for hours, lost in thought. He knew Varrless was up to something… he just didn't know what, or how, or why. He'd been going over and over what few pieces of the riddle he had in his mind, trying to figure it all out. What did Varrless want with Miu, anyway? True, she was a gorgeous kitten, but with Varrless's assets he could buy almost any female he wanted—or several!
Was it part of his offensive against the Miao clan? Unlikely… he'd already thrown Miao Mercantile into chaos by "disappearing" Yawr, after all. Was he doing it all just to punish Heth for strong-arming Varrless into submitting the Federation non-aggression pact to the K'Nes Llan Executive Board? Heth doubted it. Five million credits was a lot of money for petty personal revenge. The Varrlesses didn't become the wealthiest clan in the K'Nes Llan by being spendthrifts.
Heth remembered being threatened by Varrless to stay out of his way. Or what? Heth had challenged Varrless. You'll attempt a hostile takeover of Miao Mercantile? You're rich, but you're not that rich!
Varrless had given him a predatory grin. Who said anything about Miao Mercantile?
Was he talking about MIRADI? It was the only thing that made sense, but… why did Varrless suddenly want Miu's company? It was a complete reversal of his previous economic policy—true, a few months ago he'd tried to buy a controlling interest in MIRADI—but when Miu wouldn't sell her majority shares, Varrless Financial suddenly pulled all their investment capital out and encouraged other investors to do the same… only Miu had never understood why. Varrless never provided an explanation. And he would have driven MIRADI out of business completely if it hadn't been for the Jurvain sales of…
The more Heth thought about it, the more sense it made. It was the only thing Miu had that Varrless couldn't get elsewhere—MIRADI was the sole supplier of Impossibarium. And, now that Heth thought of it, it was after Varrless had pulled his funding for MIRADI that he offered to buy the Impossibarium patent from Miu—for a very generous price, yes, but it was still a strong-arm tactic. Heth remembered Miu wondering aloud why a bank wanted a material science patent in the first place… and it was still a good question. What did Varrless want with Impossibarium anyway? What made it so special?
Well… Heth knew that. Of course he knew. He and Miu were the only ones who did.
He'd struck a deal with Miu all those months ago—if he could provide her company with a revolutionary new material, she'd enter into a reproductive partnership with him. How else could a runt like him from a pariah trading house have gotten a brilliant and beautiful young kitten to merge with him? Miu didn't believe Heth could deliver, but MIRADI was struggling to stay in the black, and she was desperate for new revenue streams… so she agreed. Heth surprised her when, following rumors, he managed to hunt down a scrap of alien shrapnel at the site of an old space battle.
Miu hadn't invented Impossibarium. MIRADI had reverse-engineered it. From a sample Heth gave her.
And, now that he thought about it, that's when all his trouble started. For some reason, he'd been framed as a contract-breaker by the Holy Terran Empire—by McNeilly no less, the very Horadrim who was working with Varrless!—although Heth had never been able to figure out why. A memory suddenly floated back to Heth—something McNeilly had said in the spaceport. You? McNeilly had sneered at Heth. That was never about you, you egotist! But… how could ruining Heth's reputation possibly be about anyone else? If not him, then who?
Heth froze as the answer hit him like a plasma bolt. It was about Miu. It had always been about Miu.
Heth's mind began racing as all the pieces fell into place. Miu dissolved their merger because McNeilly framed Heth. MIRADI had spun off from Miao Mercantile back into an independent company—and was suddenly much, much more economically vulnerable than when it had been a subsidiary of sixth-richest clan in the K'Nes Llan. And that was when Varrless Financial began their clandestine campaign of economic terror against Miu and MIRADI. Despite having a rare and valuable new product, MIRADI suddenly began losing investors left and right for reasons that had never been adequately explained—until now. Varrless had wanted to bankrupt MIRADI—so that he could buy up their assets at barging-bin prices!
But Heth, by negotiating the Jurvain deal, had unwittingly foiled Varrless's plans. And a hostile takeover wouldn't work because Miu would never, ever sell off her controlling shares in the company she had painstakingly built up from nothing. So Varrless was trying a different strategy—to merge with MIRADI under the guise of a reproductive partnership—and all just to get his paws on Impossibarium. He didn't value Miu. He never had.
Which left two unanswered questions: Why did Varrless want Impossibarium so badly, and why in the stars was the Holy Terran Empire of all people trying to help him get it?
A chill washed over Heth as a nasty thought suddenly occurred to him. What if it's the other way round? Was Varrless helping the apes gain access to Impossibarium weaponry? If so, well… that would be catastrophic for the long-term futures of the K'Nes race. But why is the stars would the head of the K'Nes Llan help arm the apes? Varrless had more to lose than any K'Nes alive! It just didn't make sense. There was something else going on, some crucial piece of information Heth just didn't have to unlock the mystery.
Heth couldn't shake the feeling that Impossibarium lay at the heart of all this—or more specifically, the mysterious alien artifact it was based on. What was it? Where had it come from? Heth needed answers… and knew where to find them. The urban legend that led him to the alien shrapnel had been told to him by his business associate, Rachel O'Reilly. She, in turn, had heard it from her father—who, luckily, just happened to be on Heth's ship right now.
He needed to talk to Xinjao O'Reilly. Now.
It took Heth quite a while to find Xinjao O'Reilly. He had apparently never been on a K'Nes ship before, let alone a super-freighter like the Avarice. He was, at heart, an engineer, and was acting like a kitten in a fish market. He'd spent nearly all his spare time poking around the ship's systems and driving the K'Nes Engineering Administrator slowly insane (who had on more than one occasion demanded that Heth get the red-pelted ape out of his engine room before he gave the fat human a guided tour of the nearest airlock). So it came as no surprise when Heth finally found the old cyborg studying the Avarice's gravity drive system.
"M. O'Reilly, so glad I found you," Heth said. "I was wondering if you could help me with something?"
"Sure, whatcha need?" he said. "By the way, this gravity drive of yours? It some sorta Jurvain hybrid?"
"It's K'Nes technology, I assure you," Heth said, hiding his exasperation. "Although Emperor Horrath the Great did originally obtain hyperspace technology from the Jurvain, so I'm sure there are some similarities."
"That explains the differences." O'Reilly nodded, satisfied. "I've seen Jurvain drives before, y'know, but this is definitely different. If I didn't know better, I'd say some of the parts look like they came from a jumpgate."
"Yes… well…" Heth shrugged and changed the subject. "I was wondering what you could tell me about a battle from your Third Civil War."
O'Reilly glanced at Heth. His smile faded.
"I'd rather not. I did a lot of stuff I'm not proud of back then."
"I understand, M. O'Reilly," Heth nodded, "but I'm afraid this is rather important for me and my clan. Consider it a small price to pay for saving your life and reuniting you with your daughter."
Xinjao winced. He knew emotional blackmail when he heard it—but that didn't make it any less effective. "Alright, alright. What do you wanna know? Operation Foliage Gear? Battle of Phoenix? Task Force David?"
"Actually," Heth said, "I was wondering what you could tell me about the Battle of Mars?"
"Oh." O'Reilly shrugged, relieved. "Sorry, I wasn't in that battle. I was a bit busy in the Phoenix system at the time."
"Yes, but certainly you know of the battle," Heth said. "I'd appreciate you telling me what you do know."
Xinjao shrugged. "Well… not much to tell, really. Task Force 54 under Admiral Karl von Shrakenberg was destroyed by the Resistance fleet under Chuck Coppinger—even though their fleet was much smaller."
"Yes, I'm familiar with the basics," Heth said, "but how did the Resistance defeat the task force?"
"Fooled them with drones," O'Reilly answered. "Led them into a trap, then ambushed them." His face darkened. "Of course, they were only able to do that because a particularly traitorous InSec mole leaked the Fed's battle plan to the Resistance." Xinjao shook his head sadly. "And I used to consider that bastard Gergenstein my best friend! Can you believe that? Turned out he was just spying on me the whole damn time." O'Reilly sighed. "What can I say? He had me fooled. Guess you can never tell with some people, huh?"
Heth briefly wondered if that was the same Captain Gergenstein he knew, then dropped the thought from his mind and continued his questioning. "Yes, that's the official story, I'm sure… but it isn't the real story, is it?"
Xinjao shot Heth a suspicious glance. "Sure it is. The rest are just 'net rumors and conspiracy theories."
"Not according to your daughter Rachel," Heth said. "And she learned it from you, I believe."
O'Reilly rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Dammit, I told her to keep that in the family! That's dangerous information, man! What the hell was she thinking?"
"I don't believe she was," Heth explained. "We were celebrating, you see—well, she was celebrating, I was trying to sell her on an exclusive shipping arrangement with the K'Nes—and she'd had a bit too much wine. She'd just closed her first big deal between Zivat Ram Agricultural and Miao Mercantile, after all—a shipment of 'mat-za' for your 'pay-sock' holiday, I believe. I understand Rachel got a performance bonus out of it—and, eventually, a promotion. Quite impressive for an entry-level management employee, actually. You should be quite proud of your cub, O'Reilly." Xinjao's face blanched, then turned thoughtful, as if the idea had never occurred to him before. I'll never understand humans, Heth thought. "At any rate, she began telling some of her parents' war stories, including the Battle of Mars. She mentioned you had an… 'inside source,' shall we say?"
O'Reilly nodded his head sadly. "Erich von Shrakenburg, God rest his soul. Mars was the only blemish on his otherwise perfect battle record. Look, I know what people say about him these days, but it's not true—I knew him, he was a friend of mine. Okay, he got a bit… overzealous toward the end there, sure, what with blowing up Earth's moon and all that—but he was a good man, and a patriot." Xinjao sighed. "He was also one of the few survivors from the Battle of Mars. He told me all about it at the victory party after the Battle of Avalon." Xinjao chuckled, shaking his head at a fond memory. "I'd never seen him drunk before—but he was plastered that night! Anyway, he told me the Resistance were secretly controlled by Internal Security—and InSec brought seven battlecrusiers to the Battle of Mars. Powerful ships. Hell, Task Force 54 only managed to damage one of them before they were destroyed—and they had a Star Control Ship!" O'Reilly looked Heth in the eye. "Anyway, I'd keep all this to yourself if I were you. Trust me, the Horadrim worked pretty hard to bury this, and you don't want to cross them. Leave them alone, and they'll leave you alone."
"The Horadrim?" Heth's whiskers twitched, confused. "Why would they bother to cover this up?"
"Well, the Horadrim are very protective of their technology," Xinjao explained, "especially their ships."
It took a second to click in Heth's mind—then his jaw dropped. "You mean those InSec ships were—"
"Horadrim battlecruisers," Xinjao nodded. "So Rachel left that part out, huh? Good girl. Anyway, yeah, for reasons I've never been able to figure out, the Horadim let Internal Security use some of their ships. InSec tried to study them, of course, but there was a limit to how much they could learn. Later on the Fed used their research to try building a tunnel drive ship during the Vin Shriak War, but apparently it wasn't even close to…"
O'Reilly blathered on about hyperspace accelerator rings, but Heth had stopped listening. This shocking new information turned everything he thought he knew on its head. If he'd know the alien shrapnel he'd hunted down over Mars was Horadrim biometal, he'd have thought twice before giving it to Miu to reverse-engineer into Impossibarium… but what was done was done.
More importantly, why was Varrless helping the Holy Terran Empire—led by a Horadrim—acquire Impossibarium? They already had it! And a superior product at that! Impressive as Impossibarium might be, it was only, at best, a crude imitation. So why did the Empire want it?
Because, Heth suddenly realized, they don't want anyone else having their technology… even cheap knock-offs. Heth began pacing, tail whipping as his mind raced. The Empire wasn't trying to obtain Impossibarium—they were trying to bury it! But Impossibarium was the only thing keeping MIRADI afloat, and Miu, owning controlling shares in her company and the Impossibarium patent, would only let them have it over—
Over her dead body.
Heth froze. Miu had no living relatives. She'd never known her father, her mother had sold her cubs to the Tor Army before overdosing on nepeta, and Miu was the only one of her littermates that had survived the Second Vulthra War. She had no kittens, so if she died, her assets would be inherited by… her mate.
"Sky Father above!" Heth whispered as the horror dawned on him. "Varrless is going to kill Miu!"
O'Reilly paused in his lecture about liquid neutronium coils. "Huh? What? Who's Miu?"
But Heth had dropped to all fours and was sprinting down the corridors to the Avarice's control center, his mind and body racing. Miu's life was in danger—and she didn't even know it. But Varrless won't kill Miu until after they sign their Articles of Procreation on Purrfang, Heth thought, which buys me some time… He inflated and flew along the shafts and corridors, freeing his paws to yank out his datapad and open a comlink. "Rameth! How fast can we get to Purrfang?"
"Purrfang, boss? I thought we were headed for—"
"Purrfang!" Heth roared. "How soon!?"
"Uh…" Rameth paused to run the numbers. "Eight days, give or take. Why?"
"Lay in the course, now!" Heth cut the connection before Rameth could argue. He deflated and continued sprinting toward the control center, calculating travel times in his head. Miu left for Capital Hall tomorrow, and from Urrin it'd take seven days to reach Purrfang… but it would take Heth eight days to get there.
All Heth could do now was race to the K'Nes homeworld…and pray he got there in time.
But, curse the stars, he still had cargo to deliver.
When the Avarice finally arrived in the Phoenix system three days later, Heth ordered Rameth to use the gravity drive to jump into the Phoenix system right outside the hyper limit of the main colony on Phoenix II—he didn't care who knew about the super-freighter's capabilities anymore, he only cared about shaving as many hours off their travel time as possible.
But Heth wanted to bang his head against the wall in frustration when he discovered that Phoenix, too, was infested with Red Spring rebellions. It shouldn't have surprised him, in retrospect—Phoenix was the former capitol of the Ministry of Public Safety, and its population didn't take well to Chief Minister Ramirez being assassinated mere hours after reunifying with the Federation. Thankfully, these rebels were Ministry patriots wanting independence, not Cult of the Emperor fanatics wanting to join the Holy Terran Empire. Even better, Chairman Smythe had recently negotiated a cease-fire on Phoenix by promising to hold new elections for the Federation Senate… although Heth suspected the rebels had agreed to the truce more because of the small flotilla of Earth Fleet warships, fresh from a victory against the Jurvain fleet in the Sarma system, heading toward Phoenix to support the Light Infantry battling the insurgents there. The bottom line was that Phoenix was as safe a place as any to drop off his cargo of Federation refugees. Heth would have been perfectly happy to put the humans in pressure suits and shoot them out the airlock in the general direction of the planet without even slowing down the super-freighter… but he had to settle for the transit beacon. Its operating energy may cost more than shuttle fuel in this particular case, but a transit portal made for a much, much faster delivery. He simply couldn't spare the hours it would take for shuttles to ferry humans down to the planet below and return.
There was some good news: Heth was pleasantly surprised to see the Phoenix-Avalon jumpgate was already gone, presumably already on its way to the Andersvald system. Evidently, Chairman Smythe really was serious about getting the anti-Horadrim bioweapon as soon as possible—which was convenient, as Heth had the perfect means of delivering it to him.
"Little Joey has mismanaged this war from the beginning," Edwina Smythe declared to Heth as the refugees milled around in the transit bay, waiting for Kirrp to open the correspondence portal. "But I'm afraid that doesn't surprise me. Oh, Joey's an excellent little soldier, to be sure, but he's not a politician. Still, now that I'm here, I'm sure we can turn things around. I already have several ideas to set Joey working on straight away."
Heth was suddenly glad he wouldn't be around to witness the family reunion—he suspected it would not be a pleasant one. "Do give him my best wishes, Edwina. Oh, and please be sure to give the Chairman this as soon as you can." He handed her a clearplaz vial of saline solution containing the microscopic reprogrammed Horadrim nanobots. "Not only did I promise it to him, but it's in our contract."
"Oh yes, of course," Edwina replied, apprising the vial with a practiced eye. "Uh… what is it, exactly?"
"A sample of H'Iss Nepetorrah, one of the rarer and more expensive liquors in K'Nes space, made from fermented and distilled nepeta." Heth had the lie ready and waiting; he knew an opportunist when he saw one, and he trusted a pyramid scheme more than Edwina Smythe. "I warned your son that humans think it tastes like soap," Heth said with a sigh, "but he's fond of his scotch, and is apparently a collector of spirits."
"One of Joey's vices, yes," Edwina agreed, nodding. "He inherited it from his late father, I'm afraid."
Heth excused himself as soon as diplomatically possible to go harass Kirrp about opening the correspondence portal as soon as possible. Finally she managed to get the transit beacon established with a bright flash, and the hundreds of humans began moving through the shimmering disk. The second the portal closed, Heth opened a comlink to the Avarice's command center. "Charge the gravity drive, Rameth. Cross into hyperspace as soon as we can. Set a course for Purrfang."
The next five days were torture for Heth. His mind and body screamed at him to do something, anything… but all he could do was wait. Eighty-four hours of much-needed sleep helped to pass the time.
Heth did everything he could think of to cut their travel schedule. He ordered Rameth to push the Avarice as fast as it would go through hyperspace. They bypassed realspace completely, saving time by jumping from one hyperspace lane to the next at each system. They didn't stop to trade at any point along their route—much to the displeasure of Heth's crew.
He tried to warn Miu, tried to reach her in any way he could—by every communication channel, through every mutual contact, using every smuggler's trick he knew… but, true to her word, Miu didn't respond. She knew him too well, knew all his tricks, and was prepared for them this time. Heth didn't know if she was actually blocking his messages, receiving but ignoring them, or getting them and refusing to reply. Heth hoped it was the last option—that way she'd have some warning, at least. Then again, Heth thought, if I heard a bizarre story from a desperate ex-mate involving secret technology, alien spies, and government conspiracies… would I believe it?
By the time the Avarice crossed through the jumpgate into the Purrfang system, Heth was in the super-freighter's command center obsessively pouring over the itineraries of every passenger liner traveling from Urrin to Purrfang, trying to figure out which one Miu might be on and when she would arrive.
"Boss?" Rameth nudged him. "We're half an hour from geosynchronous orbit over Awuon on Purrfang."
"Yes… an hour late and a credit short." Heth scrapped his claws against the console, frustrated. "All the flights from Urrin to Purrfang have already arrived; the last one docked a few hours ago. Unless Miu missed her flight—which I doubt, she's far too punctual—she has to be planet-side by now… and probably has been for hours." He didn't know when Miu and Pirr were scheduled to sign the Articles of Procreation. Perhaps they already had… and Miu was already dead.
"Aye, true." Rameth shrugged and nodded, his black braids swirling. "I know Awuon's a big city, boss, but maybe you can still catch up with her. Which spaceport did she arrive at? Horrath Memorial is the biggest…"
Heth's ears tuned Rameth out; he was all too aware that he had no idea where Miu was. But he didn't need to; he knew where she was going: Varrless's office, inside Capital Hall. If Heth could just get there first, maybe—maybe—there was a chance he could intercept her. He turned to Rameth. "What time is it in Awuon?"
"Locally?" Rameth adjusted the ship's clock from Commercial Standard to K'Nes time. "Uh… 108:73."
"Nighttime?" Heth asked, puzzled. "But then Capital Hall's closed…" He paused a moment, thinking. When the orbiting moon Purrfang passed behind the massive gas giant Sky Father, it blocked out all sunlight, plunging the moon into total darkness. The long, long nights lasted over eighty-six hours. Dawn wouldn't come to Purrfang for another sixty-four hours—over two Commercial Standard days later. Heth scowled, puzzled at the timing, then froze. "Sky Father above…" he breathed. "I've got to get to Capital Hall, now!" He spun around in midair and flew out the hatch to the maze of corridors and shafts beyond.
"Boss! Wait!" Rameth shot after Heth, easily catching up with him. "What's the hurry? Why not just wait until Capital Hall reopens in the morning?"
"Because Varrless and Miu won't wait!" At Rameth's baffled expression, Heth let out an impatient sigh and elaborated. "If they were going to wait until the usual business hours, Miu wouldn't have caught such an early flight—time is money, and she's far too busy to sit on her paws waiting for two Standard days! No, if she left Urrin when she did, it was because they're scheduled to sign the Articles of Procreation shortly after she arrives on Purrfang. Yes, it's nighttime, after business hours, but it's not too late yet—there's still plenty of time for Varrless to do some after-hours dealing in his Capital Hall office without drawing suspicion… but when it's officially closed, and there are no witnesses! That's why I have to get there as soon as possible! And I might already be too late!" For all Heth knew, Varrless had killed Miu by now.
"But boss!" Rameth protested. "If Capital Hall's closed, how are you going to get in there?"
"I'm still working on that part of the business plan," Heth replied. "I've got half an hour to figure it out!"
"THIS IS A FISH-STINKING, SCAT-BRAINED, WORTHLESS ACTION PLAN!" Narrah bellowed into Heth's face. "YOU ARE GOING TO GET YOURSELF KILLED, RUNT! AND THEN I'LL BE OUT OF A JOB!"
"And if you try to stop me, you will be out of a job—instantly!" Heth said, hearing steel in his own voice he didn't know he had. "I'm sorry, Narrah, but you can't talk me out of this. You won't."
Heth was half-expecting Narrah to claw his throat out for such insubordination, and was relieved when the old hunter merely glared silently at him instead. "And what will you do if McNeilly's there, eh?" Narrah finally asked. "Scat your pants and die? You've never fought a Horadrim before, cub!"
"Have you?" Heth shot back, squirming into his K'Nes power armor in its recharging station. When Narrah remained silent, Heth pushed on before the old veteran could think of a comeback. "That accursed Soul Web of theirs makes every Horadrim a living, breathing suit of power armor. Going up against one without a suit of your own is pointless—and suicidal!" Heth sealed the breastplate; the suit automatically activated, powering up. "That must be why Varrless is having Miu meet him in Capital Hall," Heth continued. "Next to the Varrless Vault, Capital Hall is the most secure location in K'Nes space—and having Miu meet him to sign a contract after business hours in the First Varrless Bank of Purrfang would raise too many questions. No weapons are allowed inside Capital Hall, let alone power armor! Miu will be completely defenseless—she won't stand a chance!" Heth's armor finished initializing and he stepped off the charging station. "Besides, Narrah, I need you and your hunters here, just in case of a hostile extraction. Have you briefed them on the action plan?"
Narrah glanced over at the Miao Mercenaries, climbing into their armor, loading weapons, and not-so-discretely placing bets on whether or not Heth would survive to see the dawn. "Not yet—haven't had time—but don't worry, boss, they'll be ready when you need them."
"Hopefully I won't need them," Heth said, pulling a gauntlet over his paw and locking it in place on the cuff of his armored sleeve. "It's just a precaution—but I need to prepare for every possible way this could go wrong. And if you fail to plan, you plan to fail." He looked up at Narrah. "Remember, plasma revolvers, not railguns—something that can burn, not just pierce. The more damage, the better."
Just then the transit bay hatch rolled aside. Heth looked up as Kirrp the technomancer floated in amid a swirl of sparkly robes. "Ah, Kirrp, good! Power up the transit beacon, I need you to form a portal to Capital Hall."
"Wha—? Sorry, Director Heth, I can't. I'm good, but not that good!" Kirrp scoffed, amused, then launched into a patronizing lecture. "You see, Capital Hall's security includes a state-of-the-art magitech transit shield around it to prevent corporate espion—"
"I'm aware of that!" Heth growled, pulling his second gauntlet over his paw. "But I don't have time to take a shuttle! Just get me right outside Capital Hall and I'll take care of the rest! Now!"
"If they don't allow armor in Capital Hall," Narrah said, "then how do you plan to get inside wearing that?"
"Because my suit might—might!—be an exception." Heth slipped the helmet over his ears and locked it into the place on the collar. "Suit, K'Nes!" His helmet folded back into the collar; the gauntlets softened into imitation-leather gloves, and the black nanotech armor bubbled and shifted into a colorful waistcoat and breeches. "Miu specifically designed my armor's stealth suite to conceal its energy emissions, to disguise what it really is… just in case, you know, negotiations with some of the Miao's less reputable business partners broke down or something. As long as Capital Hall security isn't specifically scanning for it, I should be able to bluff my way past. I just hope Miu did a good enough job engineering the stealth systems—for her sake."
"Let me wear it," Narrah growled, "or another hunter with more experience, not an entry-level mouse!"
Heth was running out of patience with Narrah's objections. "I'm the runt of my liter, remember? I assume you do, since you never stop reminding me of it!" Heth spread his arms and flicked his tail, looking up at the old veteran. "Who else could fit in this suit? No one! And we can't spare the time to adjust it!" Heth spun around before Narrah could reply, pointing a claw at his paranormal consultant. "Kirrp! Sky Father above, don't you have those coordinates locked yet?"
The technomancer peered up at Heth from under the brim of her goofy pointed hat. "Yes, yes, almost ready," she hissed, waving an annoyed paw.
Heth inflated, rising to the center of the Avarice's transit bay, and took a deep breath. For all his determination, he was still frightened out of his fur. "I'm an Executive Director of Miao Mercantile now," he mumbled, more to himself than anyone. "With a little luck, that'll be enough to get me past the door…"
"Alright, I'm going to open up a portal to the lower troposphere, right above the building," Kirrp said. "You should be able to float down to one of the upper entrances to Capital Hall… in three… two… one…"
A blast of light swirled into a shimmering disk. Heth was through it before it even finished opening.
Things in the Avalon system had actually been fairly quiet since what the wags in the officers' mess called "The Ragamuffin Ragnarok". Lieutenant Norman Orenstein was still tenser than usual, however, and so were most of the staff in the CIC. Despite the good news from the front with the Terran Republic, the old Federation was stubbornly locked in a death struggle with the new Empire that had replaced it. Orenstein marveled at how they could hope to stand against someone who could seal a breach in reality from half a star system away without even standing up from his throne. True, it had been the team of Mages, Demon Hunters, and Garou Shamans who had dealt with the... things... that had come through the rip in existence—the ones that destroyed the transport ship Ragamuffin—but the tear itself had been sealed by Vin Dane long before the first shuttle of experts had arrived. Those experts had exorcised the toothed and tentacled horrors back to the Beyond, and now only a slight wobble on the gravitic plot betrayed the scabbed-over wound in the skin of the universe.
Oresntein's boss, Lt. Commander Adorinda Alinejad, happened to be standing behind a young ensign who was operating the gravitic plot. So she looking over his shoulder when a sudden buckle in that same fabric flashed out from the holotank of the display.
"Contact," sang out the Ensign automatically, in an age-old tradition that persisted, despite the fact that this information was flashing on the screens of everyone in the room. "Bearing 273 mark 15.2, range 43 light-minutes!"
Far out of weapons range from here, the short and balding man thought to himself. But that bearing... that's inside the system pickets! The inner system was mainly defended by unmanned sensor and weapons platforms, but the outer system had too much volume to seed with such expensive toys, so it was patrolled by manned starships like the INS Cyrus and her escorts. Although a ship with its own gravity drive could easily jump right into the inner system, the unauthorized jump point forming would be picked up by the sensor network, and missiles would already be on their way before the ship emerged from the vortex. If it was a friendly ship or some other bizarre mix-up, they could be remote-detonated short of target, but the threat alone was enough to make most attackers jump into realspace far out into the Oort Cloud and try to come in with either a slow and stealthy approach, or blaze in at relativistic velocities for a hit-and-run cee-fractional strike with minimum engagement time.
This was something else. The usual conical vortex of a jump point did not form. Instead, a thin tube-like distortion of spacetime blinked in and out of existence in less than five seconds, a signature the sensor team on this ship had seen once before. They'd been here at Avalon for the defeat of the Caal Invasion, they'd seen the Horadrim Tunnel Drive in action. This was both like and unlike the Tunnel Drive... different frequencies of the gravitic waves, different blueshift spectra for the emerging vessel and the pocket of hyperspace it brought with it... as the intelligence analysts had feared, the Federation had brought back into service the prototype transport they had captured at Kalintos. The INS Alistar Dimiye was back in Earth Fleet's hands, and it had come a-calling.
Seconds later, Adorinda hit the comm. "My Lord, we have a—"
"I see it," Lord Admiral Brodbeck cut her off. "Relay my orders to the Fleet. All ships, shortest time intercept to Avalon. Flank speed."
"Yes, sir." Lieutenant Commander Alinejad nodded, cutting the comm. "You heard the man. Do it!"
With the INS Cyrus clearly out of engagement range, it was up to the defense platforms and the other ships in near orbit over Avalon to deal with the intruder—but it was still the responsibility of their Dreadnought and its escorts to come about to cut off any normal-space escape route for the intruder. Norman didn't have anything useful to do, so he muttered, "Guess that little Javanese-Dutch Admiral wants to rescue his reputation…"
"Secure that mouth, lieutenant," growled his boss, not having much to do either. "The Ragamuffin Ragnarok took place on his watch. He's sweating over losing his place at court."
"Look," Alinejad pointed out the lidar, "he even ordered the launch of two fighter wings to broaden the net. No one's going to accuse him of being unprepared this time."
"Even though we're out-system from the intruder?" Orenstein felt necessary to point out.
But less than a minute after the ship appeared, it disappeared with another buckle registering on the gravitic plot. Blackhawk and Taichi Missiles closed in on empty space, and the prototype spec-ops transport re-appeared a moment later even deeper inside the system. It popped back into existence less than a light-second from the massive construction spacedock at the L-2 point opposite Avalon from Vega. The ship yawed back and forth like a dog shaking a rat, and four Lance Torpedoes erupted from off-axis launchers on either side of the hull amidships, the staggered salvo of eight total projectiles taking less than a minute to cross the quarter million kilometers between the launch point and their target. A follow-up salvo of slower Fusion Cannon rounds ended up not being necessary, as two of the torpedoes made it through the thoroughly surprised Point Defense systems on board the spacedock and their proximity fusion warheads shattered the massive structure.
Twenty megatons of thermonuclear fury erupted less than a kilometer to either side of the Number Two construction dock, where the gigantic hull of the nearly-completed Star Control Ship INS Wotan was less than a month from launch. Caught between the twin temporary suns, the outer layers of the structure were vaporized in an instant, their expansion from solid to plasma shredding the inner structure into so much shrapnel. As the jagged pieces of plasteel and durachrome tore through the starship's innards, one chunk the size of a gravlev train car smashed through one of the ship's fusion reactor rooms, the fusion bottle within which had been undergoing operational testing when the attack began. Unable to shut it down in time, the technicians monitoring it from the bridge had exactly seventeen microseconds to fail to notice their impending doom, before the collapsing grav-bottle released the miniature sun within, and a third and even brighter star was born between the twin suns which had midwifed its birth.
The neighboring spacedock where the INS Thor was only six weeks from launch had until this point been lucky. All four torpedoes targeted on it had been successfully intercepted by point-defense thanks to an especially alert and eager trainee technician manning the console that duty cycle. But when its sister ship lost fusion containment, mansion-sized chunks of starship hull and spacedock support framing were thrown violently into the warship's hull at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour. Armor designed to shrug off near-miss nuclear blasts in the vacuum of space was battered, dented, and ultimately breached in four places. Further waves of white-hot plasma and merely couch-sized chunks of metal and ceramic-composite were blasted into the gaping wounds in the Thor's hull. Waves of actinic flame and destruction washed down exposed interior corridors, mercifully incinerating helpless un-suited construction crew before they could be sucked out into the vacuum of space.
Even though the basic interior framework of the INS Thor somehow managed to retain structural integrity, the catastrophic damage to several interior decks and the exterior plating on the ship's starboard hull meant that it could not possibly be repaired well enough to enter service for at least another year. Most of the weapons mounts on that side of the ship were smashed beyond repair, and the only construction dock in the Empire capable of working on such a project as repairing the ship was currently in ruins around it.
"Emperor save us…" the lieutenant muttered, watching helplessly from the lidar screen.
Its mission apparently accomplished, the intruder began spooling up its drive for escape. But it had jumped in too close to a chemlaser-armed defense platform. It took several dozen seconds to power up and achieve a lock-on, but its stealthy systems and speed-of-light beam made it impossible to dodge or intercept. The beam cut into the little ship just forward of the starboard shuttle bay and burned a jagged gash diagonally across the hull to aft and port. A one-meter wide beam measured in terawatts of power output designed to slice deep into the guts of dreadnoughts cut through the skinny little transport ship like a cigar cutter slicing a hot dog. Control lines and power conduits severed, and the two halves of the bifurcated starship tumbled apart, propelled by the reaction thrust of atmosphere escaping from vaporized bulkheads and sliced-open compartments. Bodies and equipment tumbled out into the unforgiving vacuum of space.
One edge of the beam had nicked the forward Jump Accelerator Rings and scorched the heavily-reinforced hull. The weakened section bulged, buckled, and split, and liquid neutronium was released from its technomagickal confinement. The degenerate matter instantly expanded and exploded, the tortured nuclei fissioning apart into far smaller and more stable elements. The resulting energy release vaporized both halves of the ship, all the flotsam and jetsam that had escaped through the shredded hull, and everything else within a 100,000-kilometer radius. The flash of light was seen down on the night-side surface of Avalon, two million kilometers away, and it was bright enough to cast shadows deep into the skyscraper canyons of the megacities that covered much of its surface.
Back on Board the INS Cyrus, the sensor techs in the CIC stated at their displays in shock mixed with a tiny smidgen of elation. The elation came from the fact that the enemy intruder had been destroyed; the shock from the fact that this came victory came too late. The two most powerful ships in the Imperial Fleet would likely never get a chance to join that fleet in the first place. One was vapor, the other a shattered hulk. As the initial shock turned to grim determination, Adorinda turned to her CIC and barked, "Stop gawking! Comm techs! Begin coordinating the rescue and salvage of any survivors."
"From what, ma'am?" one of the officers had the audacity to ask.
"The spacedock… or the merely-crippled Star Control Ship. We have to see what's left. Weapons, stand down your mounts down. Begin post-battle recalibration and maintenance." There was little need, considering that the Cyrus hadn't fired a shot.
"And us, ma'am?" Orenstein asked.
"I'm surprised I have to order it," the lieutenant commander grinned. "Go over sensor logs, see what we might have missed."
"Yes, ma'am," Lt. Norman Orenstein replied, quietly flipping his electro-optical sensor display from the large viewscreen to private goggle mode. The VR goggles let a user see the battle with even better illusion of depth than a holotank, and enabled computer-reconstructed viewing angles other than the single perspective of the sensor optics on board the dreadnought. Once in the synthetic virtual view, he zoomed in as closely as possible on the intruder vessel. He called up data from every networked sensor platform, space station, and starship in the system who might possibly have had a sensor of any kind pointed in vaguely the right direction. It was quite a haul, but the system was designed to handle it, and soon the side angles and rear surfaces of the ship which had been hidden from the view of the Cyrus were filled in by data from a dozen different sources. So Orenstein was able to call up high-res imagery of the ship from multiple angles, thanks to the complete version of the recognition silhouette file. Or at least, Orenstein hoped it was the complete version—he'd hate to think of the needless friendly-fire deaths even this level of paranoid security was likely to cause.
Not that Orenstein was particularly concerned with holes in Imperial Fleet security doctrine. Or Earth Fleet security doctrine, for that matter. His true loyalty lay with the Technocracy. They had hidden in the shadows for long enough, the chaos of this insane civil war, insane even by the atrocious standards of Federation History, was exactly the sort of environment that the Technocracy needed in order to stage a comeback. If helping the Rump Federation defeat the Holy Terran Empire was a necessary stage in that restoration of power, so be it.
As Orenstein carefully manipulated the sensor logs to paste imagery of the retractable Transit Beacon antennae in their retracted position over the real data clearly showing them extended, he reflected on what Herbert Gergenstein had told him when he placed him in this position. The idiot sleepers really don't expect us to pull the same trick twice. Gergenstein himself once pulled this same "oh, I'm just a weak mage, let me serve in the Fleet as a sensor officer rather than just get eaten by some big bad bug" trick—and on Erich Von Shrakenberg of all people! The mundanes never saw the trap being set, they only saw an obedient little lapdog of a mage, eager to please, almost apologetic that his magic wasn't always up to their expectations of power. They feared our power when we exercised it openly, but so long as we seem subservient, they are as eager to exploit us for their own ends as they are resentful when we exploit them for ours. Even the Sabbat, past masters at ruling from the shadows, are vulnerable to this tactic. They love having "pet" mages even more than the mundanes do.
Orenstein smiled, safely hidden under his VR goggles. Gergenstein was playing the Sabbat, the Federation, and now the Empire against each other. And who would be left standing at the end? The Technocracy, back on top where they belonged. His smile faded. Not that we're anywhere near the end just yet, sadly. Still, his part in the grand game was played. Anyone else accessing these records, on any of the ships he'd tricked into interfacing with his more-than-it-seemed computer system, would now see that the Transit Beacon antennae remained retracted on the Dimiye right up until its destruction. Clearly it had merely been here on its suicidal yet ultimately successful attack on the construction docks, not beaming any covert strike group anywhere else in the system. Orenstein turned to the backdoor he'd set up previously into the Ethereal Scan database, to make sure the reality-warping signature of the Transit Beacon in operation hadn't been detected... and if it had, to make sure no records of it existed.
Down on the surface of Avalon, Argus McCall looked up at the sky with his cybernetic eye. Whelp, we knew going in that this trick was unlikely to work twice. Through the telescopic optics, the expanding cloud of plasma that five minutes earlier had been a starship with him on it seemed close enough to touch. Our mortality is always close enough to touch, but we so rarely get to see it so clearly, and in such beautiful yet terrifying form, he thought to himself.
He turned his gaze from the sky to the fellow strike team members around him. They were on the quad of a college of some sort, apparently the one Major Reid had been attending in her freshman year, when she awakened as a mage and got shipped off to the TI instead of whatever vital civilian career she had previously been deemed worthy of a draft deferral to pursue. Emotional connection to places made correspondence magic over long distances a lot easier, and without some connection to her past, even the Major could not have gotten them off that ship in one piece, at such a great range, and with so little preparation time. Luckily the local time was almost 4:00 AM, so even the drunk fraternity guys had stumbled home to sleep it off. Mostly. What little activity remained was enough to camouflage their presence, but not unduly risk discovery.
Still, Argus felt naked without power armor or weapons. Those would be harder to hide than the strike team themselves, so a heavily stealthed cargo container full of such gear had been left floating in space at the initial location where the Dimiye had jumped into the system to get last-second sensor readings on the realspace coordinates of its supposed primary target. Major Reid would teleport the equipment down to their Sabbat safehouse once they made contact with their new... allies was too strong a word. Co-belligerents seemed to about cover it. If Churchill and Stalin could get along, if Cardinal Richelieu could ally with the Protestants... we can easily end up paying for such short-sighted measures as surely as they did in the end.
Argus sighed. He'd once attended a college much like this one. Laziness and a lack of discipline when it came to homework assignments had cost him his deferment scholarship and landed him in the LI. He knew just enough about history to be pessimistic about the future. But he still had just enough faith in God's plan to remain optimistic in the end. After all, on the rare occasion that even God's plans hit a stumbling block, he was just omniscient enough to see a way past the obstacle. Argus hoped whoever dreamed up this plan knew what he was doing, or at least had enough wisdom to know they didn't know what they were doing.
Scyr emerged from the Umbra, flopped down on a couch in the Traditions safehouse, and considered never getting up ever again. The whole chore had taken eighteen days. A full week of that was spent moving three pieces of equipment which had proven far less mobile than Scyr had believed. Two more days were consumed hiding from a pack of werewolves which had once camped out right in the middle of his path. But eventually, after much painful waiting, Scyr had managed to haul everything into place and make his final preparations.
His joints and muscles ached. Normally, pain never bothered Scyr much. But after so many days without rest, the aches had become maddening. He longed for stillness, for time to sleep and recover. But if the pain was bad, the scratching in his mind was now worse than ever. He knew what he was after, and it was so very close. Each time he arrived at the shadow palace, he had seen the white woman, but they had never spoken again. Still, even just the sight of her was a terrible memory of a crushing, inescapable fear. Scyr was almost too frightened to go on. The only thing more frightening was to stop.
So he did not fall asleep on the couch. He took a few slow, rejuvenating breaths, calmed his heart, and then crawled back to his feet. He did not know the precise location of his next destination. But Dwight almost certainly had an active net connection somewhere. Scyr should be able to access it without much difficulty. And then it would be no trouble at all to find out where he was going.
The apartment complex in the Neue Pankow "suburb" of Avalon City was even nicer than the one Scyr had bought out on Jennifer's Star. It had an entire eighteen-hole golf course, a botanical garden, and a simulated beach inside its gated grounds. It had an underground parking garage with a well-obscured entrance that held an entire fleet of luxury aircars for the residents. It had a five-star gourmet restaurant staffed by chefs from the very finest culinary schools on New Paris. It had a contract with a private security company to keep a team of thirty-six guards with police accreditation and top-of-the-line military equipment on call at all times.
The complex did not have a uniformed doorman monitoring its front entrance with an open comm to that security team in case of unwanted visitors. Not anymore. This was because the last doorman employed by the apartment's managers had turned up his nose at Scyr as he walked through the doors, and attempted to escort him right back out. Scyr had broken the man's neck and shoved the body into the Umbra. Subtlety and restraint required effort that Scyr was no longer willing to expend for such minor stages of his plan.
Scyr knocked on one of the apartment doors. From the rich thudding noise his fist made, he guessed that it was made of actual, solid wood. Only a minute or two later, the door opened. Behind it was a pale-skinned woman with unkempt amber hair that had been tied back in a hurry. She wore a light, brightly-colored dress with skirts that came down just past the knees and thick, dark boots which covered most of her calves. She was only a centimeter or two taller than Scyr, and she looked at him with tired, bloodshot eyes.
Scyr got as far as saying, "Hi, I'm—" before several things happened which prevented him from continuing.
The first was a knee to the groin. This was not actually as painful as Scyr might have expected, the simple shock robbed him of his breath. Then the woman swept a foot into his ankles, knocking his legs out from under him so that he fell backwards. She went down, too, landing with a knee on his sternum, possibly cracking a few ribs and winding him even worse. Somehow, as he fell, she also managed to grab both of his arms with one of her hands to be able to pin them down to the floor. She had to do it with one hand, because in her other she had a long, curved knife held in a reverse grip and pressed against Scyr's throat.
"Any reason I shouldn't kill you right now?" she asked in a low, forceful voice.
"Um," Scyr said softly. The blade was already cutting into his neck, and speaking threatened to push his Adam's apple harder against the edge. "Could I know what the reason to kill me is, first?"
"Assistant Secretary Scyr, Terran Navy," she said, glaring as if she wanted to burn a hole in his face with her eyes. "Lost aboard the transport Ragamuffin along with all other passengers and crew due to an unexplained magickal event destroying the ship just after it emerged from the Earth digital gate. Your passage aboard the Ragamuffin was entirely legal, M. Secretary, but several less-than-noble members of our new nobility still used that event to destroy my family."
"I don't know who—"
"Rina Paolo," she introduced herself. "This is my brother's apartment."
"Ah," Scyr said. "I was just coming to see—"
"Michael hasn't been outside of a bar for two months, since we were stripped of our title." She twisted the knife slightly and pushed deeper, allowing Scyr to feel the blood run down his neck. "Our grandfather killed himself."
Scyr furrowed his brow. He hadn't expected this to be an easy sell, but apparently the recent past was even more inconvenient than he had realized.
"I'm sorry," he said. "But I'm not sure why that means you want to—"
"Because I'm more interested in finding truths than political opportunities. There was exactly one registered mage aboard the Ragamuffin: A five-year-old boy who couldn't have conjured up even a stiff breeze. You, however, teleported yourself into the middle of an Army base on Cronos from at least five light years away. That tells me you've got magick ability to spare. And the fact that you've survived to knock on my brother's door two months later strikes me as excellent confirmation.
"So I think you destroyed that ship and killed those people. I think you probably wanted to sneak onto Avalon without the Imperial Guard keeping you on a leash. Which means I think you're ultimately responsible for us losing our Duchy. So I think I'm going to kill you in order to satisfy my own personal desire for vengeance. And then I think I'm going to bring the Emperor your head."
Scyr took a deep breath, slowly. "Okay," he said, and he sighed, trying to make it seem like one of relief. "I think we can come to an agreement, then. Go ahead and bring my head to the Emperor. Just, please, still attached to the rest of me. And alive. I was actually hoping your brother Michael would be able to arrange a meeting."
For the first time, Rina relaxed her pressure with the knife somewhat, and her eyes shifted as she considered his request. "Why do you want a meeting?"
"Same reason I came here in the first place: I have information. Possibly quite vital to the Empire."
The knife pressed down again. "Why the long gap, then? Why blow up the Ragamuffin?"
"That wasn't me," Scyr explained. "Actually, neither was the teleport on Cronos, you were wrong about that. But I am a mage. And—I'm sorry, I really am, but it took me that long to be sure that I was safe again. There are some really terrible powers at work, and the Emperor needs to know about them."
The woman spat just to one side of his face, though she still sprayed his ear a little. "The Caal controlling Bugs again?"
Much as he could without slicing his throat wholly open, Scyr shook his head. "Not the Caal—at least, not really. The Terran Republic. A man named Andrea Treschi."
Rina's eyes widened at the name, even her pupils dilated. She lost focus on Scyr's face, looking past him for several moments.
"Shit," she breathed at last. Then, louder, "Shit." She pushed down hard with her knee, but this time it was only so that she could stand back up.
"All right," she said, still looking away from Scyr with a distant expression. "I'll get you your audience. How soon can you go?"
"I—right now, if that's possible," Scyr blinked. He hadn't actually expected anything to happen for at least a week, but all his preparations were ready.
The tip of the knife pointed down at his eyes from above. "Take a shower first," Rina told him, "you smell absolutely putrid." She turned to look back into the apartment. "This will take some doing."
Scyr did bathe, in Michael Paolo's bathroom, which had a bathtub as large as the swimming pool in Scyr's old apartment building. Scyr had once considered himself part of the aristocracy, but Avalon's rich were apparently in a class all their own.
At least he discovered the source of his stench, and Rina Paolo had not been kidding. Scyr's left leg was rotting. The flesh had become swollen, purple, and moist. Placed under the force of jetting water, the outer layers sloughed off and threatened to clog the shower drain as mushy slime. Scyr just stared for a while, amazed that he hadn't even noticed. After a few minutes, he shrugged, and began tearing the rest of the rot away with his fingers. It was too much for the shower, but the meat and skin had decayed enough to flush easily down the apartment's powerful toilet. Then, after washing the rest of his normal bits, Scyr tied several towels around the bare bones of the leg to simulate the old bulk before putting his pants back on. When he slipped into his shoes, he was pleasantly surprised to find that the lack of flesh on his heels actually improved his stance. The stolen leg had been slightly too tall.
When he emerged from the bathroom, Rina shoved a different bundle of clothes into his arms and said, "Here, put these on." Scyr barely glanced at the crisper, cleaner, outfit, though. Rina herself had somehow already washed up and changed into a much more formal dress than her previous—and one much tighter and more revealing. "Right now," she said, unamused.
When he came back out the second time, there were a dozen more people in the room. Imperial Guardsmen wearing Delta armor and large, fortunately holstered, weapons. Scyr's eyes bulged.
"This is Sergeant Mandela," Rina said, either oblivious or ignoring Scyr's expression. She indicated one of the guardsmen out in front of the group. "He's our escort to the palace."
"We're Lady Paolo's escort," the guardsman clarified. "We're here to kill you if you do anything she doesn't like."
Scyr forced himself to look the man in the eyes and nod solemnly.
Without further dallying, the whole lot of them marched off for the large groundcar that the guardsmen had brought to the complex. A pair of maids was poking around the doorman's kiosk near the entrance, looking puzzled, but M. Paolo paid them no mind as she brushed past with her entourage. The guardsmen placed Scyr in the middle of a seat in the center of the vehicle, where they could best keep their eyes and weapons on him, and then the car trundled away.
"I'm technically no longer permitted official access to the palace," Rina explained as they drove. "And no one would dare invite me to an Imperial reception like tonight's anymore. But I've called in enough favors among the servants to actually get in. The only thing the Emperor hates more than bad news is court society, so he'll at least take your message, while I'll get the credit for bringing you in." She grinned hungrily. "And all the other noble dogs will be right there while my family's name is restored."
"I'll, uh, try to put in a good word for you," Scyr said, trying to sound slightly worried. It seemed like the appropriate reaction, but in truth he was far too excited to be worried. It was all coming together now.
The new palace was being built in a section of Avalon City that had been conveniently cleared of buildings by a nuclear bomb back during the Earth Federation's 3rd Civil War. Ten months into construction, and the overall layout of the complex was just becoming apparent. The groundcar rolled up to a checkpoint outside one of the few completed buildings: a smaller, residential compound. Sergeant Mandela chatted with some armed guards through the window, and was eventually directed towards a low-profile garage. More guards met them as they parked.
"We'll have to stay with the car, my Lady," the sergeant said to Rina Paolo, who nodded. Mandela turned to look at Scyr. "The Bodyguard commander knows you're coming, I've told them to keep an eye on you."
Scyr smiled. "Well, you can never be too cautious," he said.
The Bodyguard squad leader gave M. Paolo a polite salute as she exited the car. Rina returned a gracious nod, and then offered up the knife she had brandished before. Scyr still wasn't sure where she kept it. The Bodyguard leader passed this on to a subordinate without comment. Others of his squad, meanwhile, examined Rina and Scyr with handheld ethereal scanners. They tried to be unobtrusive about it, but it still meant waiting a couple minutes before being allowed out of the garage. Eventually, the two guests were escorted across a gorgeously landscaped garden pathway towards the palace building.
Once inside, they were met at the doors to a ballroom by an usher who seemed to know Rina, for he bowed deeply and said, "My Lady Paolo, welcome. I hope everything goes well for you tonight, I've been praying for you and your family."
"Thank you, Seamus," Rina said, and the usher beamed. He didn't even seem to notice Scyr.
Seamus pushed open the doors to the ballroom, and bowed again as the two shuffled through. Scyr immediately recognized the atmosphere of an affluent society party; he had been to his fair share back in Dynametro. The Jennifer's Star crowd, however, had been somewhat less… stuffy, Scyr decided it was. It probably had something to do with the difference between the republican versus aristocratic affectations of the two societies. Here, the guests hovering and mingling about the ballroom were dressed in attire which was much more formal and more restrictive, but also much more ostentatious. Having met their equivalent in the Republic, Scyr certainly wouldn't have called these denizens of the Imperial court more pretentious, but they were at least less subtle about their pretensions.
A hundred or more guests stood around tittering and drinking in clumps about the large ballroom, while music tinkled out of one corner, performed by a little band of men wearing white jackets with flutes and violins. It was like someone had taken the concept of a cocktail party and tried to scale it up to the level of a formal ball. Scyr did not think the attempt had worked very well.
Rina Paolo ignored the clusters of her former noble colleagues and made a beeline for one end of the big room. Scyr stepped quickly to stay in her wake. As they moved, more and more people began to notice them. The more socially conscious among these continued their conversations while keeping track out of the corners of their eyes. But most just fell silent and stared as the ex-'Lady' Paolo brushed by.
Except for those used by the band, the only other chairs in the entire ballroom were at the far side, towards which Rina was making relentless progress. One of them was occupied by a tall, graceful woman presenting a bemused expression towards the entire party as her eyes gazed about. Still, she at least seemed to be enjoying herself as she leaned over to murmur in the ear of the only other seated person in the room. His smile was stony and immobile, an assumed façade to placate the courtiers hovering around him, as if hoping to gather influence by sheer proximity.
His Holy and Imperial Majesty Vin Dane was obviously resigned to participating in this necessity of court political life, and possessed both sufficient intelligence and self-control to play whatever part his immediate onerous circumstances required. But he just as clearly would have preferred to be almost anywhere else, were it only possible.
Rina Paolo planted herself just a meter or two in front of the Emperor's seat, entirely unconcerned by the twenty-four Imperial Bodyguards arrayed behind him in polished, ruby-colored power armor. Vin Dane's eyes flickered for a second as he recognized her. This seemed to be the signal for the entire rest of the ballroom to fall into utter silence. And yet, despite this, a bit of genuine pleasure seemed to crack through Vin Dane's smile.
"Ahh!" he said. "Lady Paolo, it's a pleasure to see you again." He lifted a glass of some dark liquid towards her in a gloved hand, implying a toast, and took a small sip. "But I seem to recall," he went on, "that your grandfather was relieved of his Dukedom, and your family banned from this court. Whatever could you be doing here, tonight?"
Rina bent at the waist in a low bow. "I beg you to forgive the impropriety of my actions, Emperor. But I have brought someone that I believed you rather urgently needed to see." She stood back up and half-turned to hold out a hand towards Scyr. "This is—"
But Vin Dane was already rising from his own chair. His amused expression had died and been replaced with… something far more terrible. He was looking past Rina, directly at Scyr, and fire might have been pouring from his eyes for all the intensity they contained.
"Shoot them now!" the Emperor snapped.
His Bodyguards could not have been expecting that order. But there was absolutely no hesitation to their compliance, neither from shock nor disloyalty. The long barrels of their plasma weapons were lowered and trained on their targets in less than a second, even before the first one of the Emperor's guests screamed.
Rina Paolo's reflexes were almost as good, and she dove to one side and rolled along the floor just as the firing began.
Scyr stayed exactly where he was, showing his best grin to the men with guns. He did close his eyes as the shooting started, but only so that he wouldn't be utterly blinded by the burning light. The streams of plasma simply splashed off of him.
He'd been right. When it came down the moment that he really needed it, the magick was easy.
Scyr opened his eyes again, and let the light spots fade. Vin Dane was rising from a crouch, and did not look especially surprised to see that Scyr had come through the plasma barrage unsinged. The Emperor stretched out a hand, and then closed his fingers around the long, glowing sword that suddenly appeared there.
Scyr raised his own right hand, high into the air. He held up two fingers, brought them together, apart, and then together again.
"Snip snip," he said.
END OF EPISODE FIVE
Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, no matter how good you think you are with a sword.