THE LAST HUNDRED DAYS – Act I
"Moments lost though time remains
I am so proud of what we were
No pain remains, no feeling
Grant me wings that I might fly
My restless soul is longing
No pain remains, no feeling
-- VNV Nation, "Beloved"
First discovered in the third century Anno Domini, the Rite of Gilgul is still the most feared and reviled work of magick ever devised. The Head of House Quaesitor, who oversaw the research to codify the Rite, and who first performed the finished spell, was nearly executed, along with all of his apprentices, by a tribunal convened by the entire Order once the other Houses learned of the Quaesitori abomination. Ultimately, only the rising threat of the Nephandi stayed the Order's hand.
The prime effect of the Rite is to separate a mage from his Avatar, destroying it. Both the Order and, later, the Mystic Council have employed Gilgul as a weapon against the Nephandi, for by eliminating a Fallen Avatar, they remove all possibility of its Rebirth. Yet few wizards have ever been eager to conduct the Rite. Most recoil from the thought, as a willworker shorn of his Avatar, and therefore his magick, experiences torment worse than death or damnation.
Nor can the Rite ever be performed without consequence for those who would channel its terrible power…
Life had been too long.
A promise of glorious eternity replaced with unending nightmare.
The final hope, always visible, and always receding.
Nothing could be crueler than that promise broken, that hope unattainable.
Nothing more painful than an endless torture of the soul.
But then he looked upon an even deeper abyss.
Life had been too short.
Potential wasted on a mind disinterested in its own salvation.
Gifts squandered in service to an uncaring machine.
A hobby of enlightenment was no substitute for genuine wisdom.
Everything worth fighting for had been stolen.
And now he saw the corruption for which it would be used.
Life had been too shallow.
A thankless charge, to balance darkness with desperation.
Struggling always, unable to spare a thought for desire or self.
And never any chance for change.
Now he understood the true power of his will
Now he realized possibility of dreams.
And then it was over. And surely as Scyr had known that everything was lost, and lost for nothing, he knew he was still alive. He knew that he had persevered. He knew that he had succeeded.
The blood-red tinge that had washed over his vision faded, and Scyr brought his body back under control, stifling his cries.
He had not been the only one screaming. The nine pillars which had fallen out of the Umbra at his command stood in their circle, each one now charred black from an impossible heat. The target of their focused magick lay in the center. No longer a man, but a dark and crumpled, insectile thing. The bright ball of power nestled against its head, but the owner had no strength even to whimper.
The others nearby were equally paralyzed. The Rite had not been directed at them, but they had still felt the agony. The transgression had resonated within their souls. Some were voiding the contents of their stomachs even now.
Apart from the retching, silence gripped the ballroom. It was an awkward pause, a stillness that all involved knew was wrong. The enemy was visible, and the moment called for action. But in the wake of such horror, uncertainty reigned. Even Scyr hesitated.
One of the ruby-armored Imperial Bodyguards acted first. A werewolf shifted into crinos, and the merely decorative portions of his armor cracked and fell away. He launched himself, claws out, at the man who had felled his liege.
The motion prompted Scyr to act, too. And his response required only a thought. The werewolf exploded just a meter or two away from its quarry. Armor clattered to the ground, but Scyr flicked his eyes at the remnants. Bone and blood rose up and began to swirl around him in a protective vortex.
So much power. And it had always been there. He had just been afraid to understand.
More werewolves among the Bodyguard contingent expanded to their full bulk. But they only shifted their weight in place, uncertain.
And then another shook herself free of stupor. The tall woman who had sat beside the Emperor dashed forward and knelt by her husband's side. Vin Dane shivered once with some small sign of continued life, but did not get up.
"What are you waiting for?" the Empress shrieked. "Kill him!"
Scyr brought a hand up in front of his face and snapped his fingers. Three more tears in the Gauntlet appeared in the spaces that he had prepared. The machines which fell out shook the ballroom as they crashed against the floor.
The two giant metal dogs which Scyr had recovered from the entrance hall of the Traditions safehouse roared to life at once. Slightly larger than even a werewolf in crinos, they spewed dark smoke from exhaust ports at their hindquarters. They were not nearly so agile as a werewolf, but the intimidating profile, the shriek of metal from their gears and axles, and their sheer weight and power made them frightful weapons indeed. Both charged straight at the line of Bodyguards. The soldiers, however, scattered smartly, and werewolves quickly sprang back with swords and axes.
At the back wall of the ballroom groaned an automaton that Scyr had rescued out of Benjamin Lefebvre's dusty workshop. It looked almost like a suit of heavy power armor, but plated with brass and powered by a combustion engine, rather than a microfusion plant. And, of course, it had no actual space for a pilot. The yellow note Scyr found taped to its chassis had read "Brass Golem—better than a HITmark! needs new paintjob". Scyr was less sure of its programming than the dogs', so he placed it well away from himself. Still, the automaton seemed to be doing a fine job of smashing everything in its path with its heavy limbs.
With the Bodyguards thus occupied, Scyr stepped towards the fallen Emperor and the gleaming prize.
The Empress, however, growled at him. "Hell no you don't! Back!"
She waved an arm, and threw up a shimmering wall of light in front of Scyr. Scyr's own spinning shield of blood hissed and smoked as it pressed up against the barrier.
Scyr was not deterred. He opened a new breach, into a deeper realm this time, and worked his will over the substance within. An enormous clawed hand shaped from glistening, greasy fluid crept out from the portal and reached with sinister fingers over the top of the barrier.
A spear of lightning burst out from behind Scyr, and the conjured hand evaporated with a crack of energy.
Scyr snarled and turned around. An older man with a long white goatee stood calmly among the panic of the other guests. He met Scyr's eyes with his own hard glare, and sparks began to buzz around his wrists as he prepared to fling another lightning bolt.
Scyr redirected the flow of whirling material in his shield. Blood flowed into a single mass, and then lanced out to impale the old man through the throat. With a sneer, Scyr squeezed the old man's flesh, and then shredded the corpse to provide more material for the vortex that resumed its course around his own body.
When he turned back around, however, three more of the party's guests had joined the Empress within her bubble of light. Mages, expanding and reinforcing the barrier as the Empress dragged her husband up to a sitting position and struggled to lift him onto her shoulder. Angrily, Scyr flattened the blood he commanded into a blade and lashed out. He cut the head off one of the mages, but the other two adjusted their magick to compensate, and blocked Scyr off from another attack.
Meanwhile, the Bodyguard were quickly dispensing with his mechanized distractions. One of the dogs had had two of its legs wrenched off, and was now spinning uselessly in a wide circle. As Scyr watched, the second one was being battered into junk by werewolves swinging edged weapons and metal beams that they seemed to have ripped out of the walls. That left the big golem which was, less helpfully, backing a small cluster of frightened guests into a corner. A mage among the Bodyguard squad had detached herself to try to contain the automaton. And, after working several spells, she finally managed to sink the monstrosity's legs into the floor of the ballroom. With Scyr's machines all destroyed or neutralized, the Bodyguards wasted no time in regrouping and sprinting back towards their Emperor's side.
About to be overwhelmed, Scyr changed tactics. He lifted his chin and palms to face the ceiling, focused his mind, and ripped the roof off the ballroom. Then, sharpening his will like a knife, he rent a fifty meter gash across the night sky. The Gauntlet actually howled like a living beast whose flesh now writhed and parted along the tear. The light in the ballroom changed, now cast in the shadowy ambience of an Umbral night.
The stars which shone in those phantasmal heavens bore some superficial similarity to their counterparts in the real world. But they were not the same. Scyr reached out to them, touched the souls of their existence, and called them down to the world below.
Great columns of fire fell from above, filled the ballroom, and swept Scyr's enemies off their feet. Some five or six of the red soldiers were incinerated completely. But the rest managed to stay one step ahead of the furious storm, or weathered the flames behind whatever magickal protections of their own that they could call forth. The mages protecting the Emperor within the bubble of light grimaced, but held the crackling barrier together.
Scyr began to compress the columns of fire into a tighter, more intense beam to burn through the wall of light. But he had to drop his concentration and quickly refocus his effort as a rocket slammed into his own shield.
A military aerodyne was hovering just over the lip of the ruined building walls. Scyr caught another two rockets by whipping projectiles of bone from his shield. More aerodynes swarmed up behind the first, and began adding their own guns and missiles to the barrage. Scyr raised the angle of his whirling cloud to provide better cover.
Unfortunately, dealing with this new threat lifted the pressure off of the Imperial Bodyguards in the ballroom, and the ruby-armored cadre wasted no time in advancing through swirling ash and smoke. Scyr was forced to retreat several meters until he found a more favorable position that let him take cover from both the aerodynes and the Bodyguards. He began working the Umbral fire again. The Bodyguards' charge stalled, and Scyr was able to blast two aerodynes to cinders with a well-placed lick of flame.
Then a section of wall exploded, and dozens more troopers began to flood into the ballroom. All of them had weapons ready and unleashed an immediate torrent of plasma fire.
Scyr's position was rapidly becoming untenable. He could not maintain his magickal defenses for long against an onslaught of physical assaults from so many directions at once. And anyway, by pinning him down on defense, his enemies would quickly be able to close the distance to him on foot, where they would have an easy time tearing him apart with claw and blade.
So instead of continuing to fall back, Scyr gathered blood, bone, and unearthly fire around him in a single, dreadful sphere, and made a desperate charge for the Emperor's position. The Empress had finally managed to gather up her husband in a fireman's carry, however. She looked directly into Scyr's eyes through the light, smoke, and flame, and the cold hatred in her expression could have frozen suns.
The Empress stamped her foot once. The floor in front of Scyr cracked and rippled to form a low ridge just at the level of his ankles. He tripped, landed hard on one side, and barely wove his stuttering shield back together before a hail of plasma annihilated him. The Empress trotted off with Vin Dane over her shoulder, and the shining Orb in the crook of one arm.
Scyr wanted to scream again. Wanted to loose all his fury and frustration through his lungs and use their power to smite everyone he could see. But that was not possible. It was time to go. And unthinkable as failure was after coming so very close to his goal, his dream, he had planned for this too.
Instead of a scream, Scyr whispered a spell, calling to the last of the preparations that he had made.
Fifteen quarter-kiloton bombs fell out of the Umbra into various positions around the incomplete palace complex. Scyr wrapped the Gauntlet around himself before they exploded.
Despite Yasuyama Akihiro watching his son and brother being thrown across the room, he was incredibly calm and cool as he turned the captain's chair to face the Denim Man. "This time, I'm the one standing, it seems."
"Wanna keep it that way?" the Horadrim smiled. "I want my payment."
"I want my family," Akihiro answered. "That was the guarantee, wasn't it?"
The Duke of New Tokyo blinked. "When we have an exchange of hostages, they need to be present, don't they?"
"On your ship, surrounded by your men?" The Denim Man coughed out a laugh. "I'm not that stupid."
"Neither am I, mystery man." Akihiro's face was stone. "Speaking of which, we never got a name."
"I didn't give it," the Horadrim spat back.
The elder businessman nodded. "Fair enough. Frankly, I don't care who you are—but I do want my family back. Let's complete the deal."
"Give me the Device."
"It's on the ship," the elder Yasuyama stood up and faced his opponent. "Follow me."
"Father, no!" Takamitsu managed to stand up. Akira was already in his attack pose.
The Denim Man wasn't impressed; neither was Akihiro. "I've spent too much time alone, son. That ends now. I want my father… my wife, and my daughter back. Now." The duke looked over at the two warriors. "Do not interfere." Taka's father walked towards the hatch leading to the rest of the transport. The Horadrim followed… as well as Akira and Taka, but at a distance.
A minute or so later, Akihiro opened a door, and walked inside the room. The Denim Man's eyes went wide to see the Dooms Day Device. At first glance, it didn't look like much; it was a solid office desk-sized object, with three black boxes welded together, and an old fashioned flat screen console on top. But a closer inspection revealed the menacing lights, the frame of strange metal, and the strange glowing hum that increased when someone came close to it. The Demin Man walked over and stroked the device, then snorted and turned back to Akihiro. "It doesn't look like much."
"The Orb doesn't look like much either," the Duke of New Tokyo answered, "yet it's a galaxy in and of itself. Take it with you… I never want to see the thing again."
The Horadrim smiled. "What's the catch?"
"It's keyed to my biosignature," Akihiro explained. "I will reset it to yours when I get the rest of my family."
Akihiro's eyebrows went up. "You wanted more?"
Akira was outside the door. As the Horadrim's back was turned, he stepped closer… only to find a force field pushing him back. "What?"
"Do not interfere," the duke repeated. "Now, mystery man… my family?"
The Denim Man smiled again and a portal opened beside him. "All right. Come out!" the Horadrim called, and at his word, a woman, a girl, and an older man came through the hole in space/time. Taka stood there in disbelief. After ten years, his mother was right in front of him. "Mama…"
The Horadrim pointed to the 3D. "If you please?"
Akihiro bowed slightly, walked over to the menacing, humming machine, and tapped the screen. The humming increased and a program appeared. A few taps later and the duke stepped aside. "Step in front of the screen."
With apprehension, the Denim Man stepped in front of the screen, and a scanning light traced his body. The machine beeped with approval and the screen changed. "It is done?"
"The Device will now respond to your commands. Take it and be gone."
"Gladly," the Horadrim admitted, turning to the three family members, remaining still as stone. "I don't need you anymore. Go to him."
And in a rush, the missing wife, daughter, and father of Akihiro ran to the duke, and for the first time in recent memory, Akihiro cried with joy. Taka dissipated the force field spell and ran in, joining the embrace of a family reunited. Akira stayed outside, but weeping openly.
The Denim Man stayed there, playing with his new toy. Finally, in a fit of disgust, he turned to Akihiro and demanded, "There's no anti-grav!"
"Why would there be?" the duke answered with a smile. "Surely if you can throw me across a room, you can lift it and take it with you."
"I get the feeling you're not telling me something."
"The deal was for the Device," Akihiro explained. "Nothing more, nothing less."
"All right, how does it work?"
"Practically," the Denim Man glared. "How do I fire it?"
"Aki…" Taka's mother looked up at her husband.
The duke ignored her plea and faced the Horadrim. "The main screen allows you to aim the weapon at the nearest star. The frame is a one-time use transit beacon, which will require a major power grid to power it, such as this ship."
"Father…" Taka warned.
Akihiro ignored him as well. "The beacon will send all three warheads to your target and suspend them an alternate dimension parallel to the target. That is, until you give the command on the screen to release them into ours. That's the failsafe. I suggest you get away from the system as soon as possible once you do. You have about seven minutes before even hyperspace provides no escape. Even then, the ride will be… interesting."
"I did it three times, mystery man. Surely you can do it once."
"Any comm device built into it?"
"Why would I build one in?" Akihiro looked confused.
"To tell your opponent, one last time, what you did to him." The Denim Man glared. "To see the horror on his face that all his plans have come to naught. To let him know that no action in this life comes without a price."
"Buy a comm unit," the duke was singularly unimpressed, "but do it off my ship."
The Horadrim started to fade. "Gladly." He opened a portal, and with a serious effort, dragged the 3D out of time and space.
Once the portal closed, Taka turned to his father and demanded, "Why did you let him leave? He can now destroy a star system!"
"Taka," his father hugged him closer and chided his son, "do you know what happens when you operate a transit beacon without a counterspell?"
The possibilities went spinning through his head. In theory, an object or man transported through it would leave a paradox of absent space. One compensated by countering it with a spell that allowed the creation of matching air. Otherwise, it created an intense… "You mean?"
Akira laughed from his place in the doorway. "Oh… oh, you had me going there. I should have known…"
"Vacuum?" the young lord asked.
"On a large scale. You don't fuck with physics, son." Akihiro kissed Taka's forehead. "Now let's go home."
It was well past nightfall on Purrfang when Miu finally drifted up to a mid-level entrance of Capital Hall and deflated onto the wide ledge, followed by the most trusted member of her corporate security staff—a woman, of course. Spending over a week cooped up in a passenger liner cabin with a male escort would have been a very bad idea, given that it was the mating season and Miu's hormones were currently waging a pitched battle with her brain cells for control of her body.
She took a moment to smooth down her wind-ruffled fur, then tapped her claws on the clear plasteel door of Capital Hall, fluffy tail swishing with impatience. Inside, the bored security guard looked up in annoyance, but perked up instantly the moment he saw Miu, ears swiveling in her direction. Miu hid a small smile behind her whiskers, used to such reactions. She understood perfectly the effect she had on males—and during the mating season, she didn't even have to try.
The sentry crossed to the door and hit the intercom. "I'm terribly sorry," he said, being unnecessarily polite, "but Capital Hall is closed for business. Please return tomorrow, we open—"
"Yes, I know," Miu cut him off, courteous but firm. She was tired, jetlagged, and not in the mood to waste time. She pressed up her business card up against the transparent door. "I'm here by special appointment for a meeting with Varrless K'Purrfang K'Pirr, LEO of the K'Nes Llan. Feel free to verify that with him if you wish."
The security guard's eyes widened at her name-dropping. "Oh, you're that K'Nes! Yes, of course, one moment…" He unlocked the door to let her in, but held up a paw when her bodyguard tried to follow. "Sorry, sire, the LEO's orders are to admit only M. Prurr."
Miu's lithe escort hesitated, uncertain, then shifted her balance and glanced at Miu for instruction. Miu paused a moment, then let out a weary sigh and nodded. "It's alright, Hhatha. If I'm not safe in Capital Hall, I'm not safe anywhere. Just wait outside—I'll be back soon, this won't take long."
The sentry waved a paw at the walk-through weapon detector. "Please step this way, M. Prurr, this should only take a moment." True to his word, the security check was quick and cursory; it might have been even faster had the guard been able to keep his attention (and eyes) on the task. It wasn't surprising; she'd worn her best (and tightest) business suit for the occasion, her fur was freshly brushed and braided, and she was marinating in floral perfume in an attempt to drown out the musk of the mating season… unsuccessfully, evidently, given how the sentry's whiskers twitched as he sniffed the air, enjoying her scent. Miu was more amused than offended—besides, he was rather attractive, and… she quickly pushed that thought out of her mind; she was here to sign Articles of Procreation with Varrless, after all.
"I'm sorry, M. Prurr," the security guard apologized, "but I'm afraid I'll have to inspect your briefcase, too."
"Yes, of course," Miu agreed, gracing him with a mischievous smile. "What's next, a strip search?" She winked at him, and enjoyed watching him squirm, growing even more distracted with that mental image in his head as he sifted through the contents of her briefcase. Suddenly he pulled out a pneumatic syringe and examined it. "Uh… what exactly is this, M. Prurr?"
"Oh!" Miu said, slightly surprised herself. She'd carried around the anti-Horadrim device Heth had commissioned her to build to defend herself against McNeilly for so long, she'd almost forgotten she still had it. It was, technically, a weapon—but the sentry didn't need to know that. Miu thought fast. "Well, er… this is a little embarrassing, but…" She lowered her eyes and her voice. "It's my birth control. Pirr contractually obligated me to a limited number of conceptions, to ensure his assets aren't spread too thin among his cubs when they inherit on his death."
"Oh. Yes, I see." He gazed down, tail twitching in mild embarrassment. He promptly replaced the syringe in the briefcase, closed it, and handed it back to Miu. "Top floor executive suite, M. Prurr. The First Patriarch is expecting you."
"With any luck, I'll be expecting soon, too!" Miu flashed him a brilliant grin. "Gainful day." She continued on her way, hearing the faint longing sigh from the sentry behind her, quickly forgotten.
The ancient stone halls were all but deserted as she made her way toward Pirr's penthouse office. Despite the meeting's importance, Miu just wanted to get the contract signing over with as quickly as possible and get some sleep. She was exhausted. Still, although scheduling the conference so late after the close of business was inconvenient, she understood the need for it: markets were volatile, information was valuable, time was money, and money never slept. Timing was crucial for Miu's company to get the best bump in its stock price.
Pirr had made a compelling argument: they needed enough time for Varrless Financial's legal department to process the Articles of Procreation, but not so early that the news could leak and the markets react before Pirr and Miu's press conference the next morning—right before the markets opened, of course—announcing their reproductive merger. And what better time to sign the paperwork than when half of Purrfang was asleep? Miu found such reasoning hard to argue with.
Miu floated silently along the venerable stone corridors until she reached the waiting room outside of Varrless's office. His secretary was gone, but his office door wide open. She hesitated a moment, then drifted into the ornately decorated room and deflated. "Gainful day, Pirr!" she greeted him, cowering politely.
A holoproj display winked off the second she entered. Varrless looked up from the perch behind his desk. "Ah yes, Prurr K'Aou K'Miu. It's about time. Good to finally meet you." He was silent a moment, undressing her with his eyes, whiskers twitching as he sniffed her scent. "My my, you are a cute little kitten, aren't you?"
That made her slightly uncomfortable, but Miu forced a smile anyway. "Why thank you!" she purred, looking away demurely—and suddenly noticed they weren't alone. A black-suited human sat in a chair—an actually chair, not a cushion or perch—tapping on a datapad. "Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't realize you had a guest in here. This is the witness for the contract signing, I assume?"
"Uh… yes, right," Pirr said. "May I introduce Zechariah McNeilly, an envoy from the Holy Terran Empire."
Miu froze at the name—but only for an instant. She'd been through enough hard negotiations to know how to suppress surprise—or fear. "A pleasure to meet you," she said courteously—but instantly thought of the syringe in her briefcase, and wondered how quickly she could get to it if she needed to. For his part, McNeilly mere gave her a quick disinterested half-glance, a grunt and a nod, then went back to tapping on his datapad.
"Well… shall we get down to business, then?" Miu asked Pirr, pulling a datapad from her briefcase. "I have the final Articles of Procreation draft here. I've made no more changes, but feel free to check if you want."
"I do," Pirr answered, grabbing the pad. Their lawyers had haggled over the details and exact wording for weeks, but Varrless scanned the text anyway, just to make sure Miu hadn't tried to slip anything in at the last moment. Finally he nodded. "Everything seems to be in order." He held the datapad out to her. "Shall we sign?"
"Absolutely." Miu reached out, grabbed the corner of the datapad, and felt the brief sting as tiny needles drew their blood signatures. "Congratulations, Pirr. I'm looking forward to our new reproductive partnership!"
"Finally! It's about time!" McNeilly sighed as he stood, sliding his datapad into the inside breast pocket of his jacket. "Alright, Pirr, let's get this over with," the Horadrim said, stretching and cracking his knuckles. "So, what do you want to make it look like this time? Accident? Suicide? Natural causes? Or just make her disappear, like we did with that fat old cat a few weeks ago?"
Miu froze and looked up, alarmed. "Pirr? What's he talking about?"
"No, no disappearances this time," Varrless said, packing up his briefcase. "After all, if I'm to inherit, I do need a body." Pirr put his hat on and headed for the door. "Otherwise, feel free to use your discretion."
"A… a body?" Miu's fur began bristling in fear. "Wha… what do you mean, Pirr? What's going on?"
"I'll be leaving now, McNeilly. I find your work necessary, but… distasteful," Varrless said. "Oh, and try not to leave such a big mess this time. Cleaners who ask no questions and forget what they see are terribly expensive."
"You're going to have him kill me?" Miu gasped, backing away from the grinning alien. "But… you just invested five million credits in me, Pirr!" she said, trying to talk him out of it. "If I die, that money will be wasted!"
Varrless paused, then turned back to her. "Quite frankly, M. Prurr, you're worth far more to me dead than alive. Oh, don't look at me like that! This is just business—it's nothing personal!" With that, he turned and left.
Miu stared after him in shock, her heart pounding. Not personal? My death is as personal as it gets!
"Okay, you cats like deals, right?" McNeilly stepped closer, towering over Miu. "Alright, here's one: you don't struggle, and I'll make this quick and painless. But you cause me any trouble… and all bets are off. Got it?"
Miu tried to stay calm, her mind racing. She had at least one chance to survive. Heth—somehow—had seen this all coming, and made sure she was protected. She just needed to get to the syringe. Miu straightened her back and looked McNeilly in the eye. "Fair enough." She nodded. "Given that I have little to bargain with, that seems like a fair offer—on one condition: you give me a few minutes to put my affairs in order. Deal?"
"Aw, you still have your pride. That's so cute." McNeilly shrugged. "Eh… sure, why not? It's not like you can call your bodyguard for help—or anyone, for that matter. Pirr blacked out communications when he left. We've done this a few times before, you know."
A chill swept through Miu, but she casually opened her briefcase and pulled out a datapad—and palmed the pneumatic syringe. She tapped the screen, stalling, pretending to work until McNeilly grew impatient.
"I gotta admit," he said, suspicious, "you seem pretty calm for someone who knows they're about to die."
"It's simple cost-benefit analysis," Miu replied. "I know when a negotiation is lost. My chances to fight or escape successfully are slim to none, given that you're Horadrim. The best way to cut my losses is cooperation."
McNeilly narrowed his eyes. "How the hell did you know that I wa—"
"Please, M. McNeilly," Miu cut him off. "K'Nes are greedy, not stupid." She crossed to him and held out the datapad. "Please give this to Pirr." The second he grabbed it, Miu stabbed the syringe down on his hand.
She might as well have been stabbing stone. The syringe glanced off with a clink. It didn't even discharge. Miu stared, shocked and horrified. She wasn't expecting that—and she had no backup plan.
"Oh yeah," McNeilly said with a nasty grin. "I can turn my skin to armor at will. Didn't I mention that?" Suddenly he swung with incredible strength, knocking Miu clear across the room. She yowled in pain as she crashed into the far wall and collapsed to the floor. It was all she could do to keep hold of the syringe.
The Horadrim strode toward her, one hand morphing to a black insectoid claw. "Bad Kitty!" he sneered, then swung down, sized her neck, and yanked her off the ground. She thrashed about yowling, biting and clawing at his arm uselessly. His other hand shifted into a shiny black blade. "Congratulations!" he said, enjoying himself. "You just won a free upgrade from natural causes to suicide! It'll still be quick, but it's gonna hur—GGRRK!"
Lighting fast, Miu rammed the syringe through his mouth into the back of his throat—where he wasn't armored. She heard it hiss as it discharged. McNeilly instantly dropped her, yanking the syringe out of his mouth with his claw-hand. The instant Miu's paws hit the ground, she sprinted on all fours out of the office to the waiting room outside. She could hear McNeilly running behind her as she reached the door, seized the knob, twisted, and yanked—but it was locked. Of course it is. Miu spun around, looking wildly for any way out. There was a large picture window—but McNeilly strategically placed himself between her and it, cutting off her only escape.
"What the hell was in this, bitch?" he demanded, holding up the empty syringe—and, for the first time, sounding less that perfectly confident. When Miu didn't answer, his face contorted with rage. "Oh, forget suicide, you're gonna have a nasty accident!" he swore, waving the syringe at her for emphasis. "They're gonna find you in pieces! I'm gonna—" He stopped short, staring in wide-eyed horror at his hand. It was beginning to deform—the fingers too long, the knuckles too bulbous, and patches of pink human skin giving way to shiny black chitin. McNeilly turned a murderous glare on Miu. "What the hell did you do to me, bitch?" Suddenly he snapped his arm out into a needle-sharp black spike that buried itself with a crash into the wall next to Miu's head. She screamed in terror. "Okay, whore, this is how it's gonna work: I'll cause you pain—a lot—until you tell me—"
McNeilly stopped abruptly, turning to look at the door to the hallway. The knob was rattling, followed a second later by a knock and a muffled voice. "Hello? Miu? Is that you? Are you in there? What's going on?"
McNeilly turned back to Miu and cocked an eyebrow. "Expecting someone?"
Miu was just as confused as McNeilly—and didn't care. "HELP!!" she screamed. "HELP ME!! PLEASE!!"
Whoever was outside began pounding on the door. "Miu!" the muffled voice called. "Miu, I'm coming!" The door shook as someone threw their body weight against it… but the thick wood held fast.
"Just walk away, pal," McNeilly barked, "this doesn't concern you!" He snapped out his other arm into a black spike that punched through the door. "You come in here, and you ain't goin' out again. You didn't see or hear anything—got it?"
The pounding stopped. There was a pause, then a muffled voice cursing and yelling something that sounded like "sue armor clause," then paws bounding away. Miu's last flicker of hope gave way to utter terror.
"I'll give you cats this," McNeilly nodded, "you know when to look the other way. Now, where were we?"
Suddenly the door shattered with a loud crash as an airborne K'Nes hunter burst through it. He slammed into McNeilly with rocket-assisted power armor, knocking the psychotic Horadrim back and sending him sprawling across the floor. The hunter instantly deflated, landing in a crouch between Miu and her would-be murderer, claws out and humming, bladed tail swishing. The soldier's helmet visor slid back as threw a look over his shoulder at her. "Miu, run! Now!"
Miu scrambled to her paws—then froze in disbelief. She blinked. Between the armor, military-cropped mane and no jewelry, it took her a second to recognize the small black cat with yellow eyes. "Heth?!"
"Heth, eh?" McNeilly jumped to his feet. "A two-for-one deal? You cats really do know how to bargain!"
"I'll hold him off as long as I can!" Heth hissed to Miu, sliding his visor back down. "Get outside, you'll be safe! GO! NOW! RUN!!"
Miu sprinted for the door.
"You're not going anywhere, bitch!" McNeilly sneered, charging after her.
Heth roared and launched himself at the Horadrim.
It was about now that Heth realized he had no idea how to kill McNeilly—but he didn't need to. He just had to survive long enough for Miu to escape to building—if she could just get outside Capital Hall's security correspondence shield, then Kirrp could transit her back to the Avarice and safety. Then Heth could try to escape himself—and hope McNeilly didn't chase him. But if he did… well, Heth had a contingency plan for that, too.
Heth inflated and gunned his suit thrusters, trying to body-slam the alien again—but McNeilly anticipated the move, snapping out an arm into a long black spike to skewer Heth. It struck his armor, glanced off the cat's inflated spherical body—and sent Heth spinning off sideways like an airborne billiard ball.
"Too easy," the Horadrim scoffed, then charged out the door and down the stone hallway after Miu.
It took a second for Heth's suit thrusters to stabilize him out of the spin, but then Heth shot after NcNeilly like an arrow. He closed the distance in seconds, dive-bombed McNeilly's legs, and slashed at the alien's ankles. The monomolecular claws clanked against the Horadrim's armored skin—then ripped through in a spray of black bile. McNeilly stumbled and fell. Heth pounced. Suddenly McNeilly's body burst into a sphere of spikes—and Heth hit his thrusters barely in time carry him over and past the alien. At least Heth blocked the path to Miu now.
"Ow! That hurt!" McNeilly exclaimed, more in surprise than pain. "How the hell did you do that?" The spikes shot back into the Horadrim's body as he jumped to his feet—and staggered. He clutched at the wall for balance, looking shocked, then shot a glance at his ankles. "What th—that should have healed by now!"
Miu injected him with the nanobots to shut down his Soul Web! Heth realized—and couldn't help baring his fangs in a vicious grin. I might just survive this! "Never cheat a K'Nes, McNeilly!" Heth snarled at the Horadrim. "We know how to deal with contract-breakers… like finding a new use for those nanos you left behind!"
McNeilly's face contorted in fury. His arms morphed into wicked blades. "What the hell have you done!?" he bellowed as he rushed Heth, black blades flashing as he swung. Heth shot up across the ceiling, over and past McNeilly's head. Caught off guard, the Horadrim only managed an awkward backhanded upward swing, his blades grazing Heth but lacking enough force to penetrate the cat's armor. McNeilly cursed and ran after Heth.
That's right, you crook! Heth thought. Chase me! Not Miu—me! He rocketed down the hallway, back into the waiting room outside Varrless's office where he had much more room to maneuver. "Not so tough without your precious Soul Web, are you?" Heth mocked McNeilly, trying to keep him angry and prone to mistakes.
The Horadrim burst into the room, screaming and cursing as he attacked, swinging hard and fast but wild. McNeilly fought fast and ferociously, alternating between slashing blades and stabbing spikes… but the little flying cat seemed always just beyond his reach. Heth zoomed around the room at top speed, bobbing and weaving in the evasive patterns Narrah had drilled into him, roaring taunts and insults and at the enraged Horadrim.
"Stop… moving… dammit!" McNeilly yelled in frustration. The more the Horadrim used his Soul Web, the faster it seemed to break down. The alien's face grew less human, his body quickly deforming into a hunched, elongated skeletal form, his pink skin cracking and melting into a glistening black insectoid carapace. His spikes grew blunt, his blades dull—even when he landed glancing blows on the cat, he couldn't pierce Heth's armor.
Maybe he can't heal anymore either, Heth thought—and suddenly veered toward McNeilly, hoping to strafe the alien's face with his claws as he sped by. He watched the Horadrim closely as he closed the distance, knowing he could dodge a swing or stab—then gasped in horror when McNeilly's arm shifted into what could only be described as a gigantic black paddle, swinging down with all his strength right at Heth's face.
Only the cat's armor saved his neck from snapping. Heth was slammed back across the room, then ricocheted off the wall right back at McNeilly—who thrust his arm out, not into one big spike, but several…
One spine struck at just the right angle to pierced the cat's armor—in one side and out the other. Heth screamed like a little kitten as pain exploded through his side and he was slammed back against the wall. He heard the crunch as the spike buried itself in the wooden wainscoting behind him, pinning Heth in place. A tiny part of his brain noted it was only a flesh wound—clean through his air sac, hitting nothing more vital than hydrogen—but the rest of his mind flooded with agony.
McNeilly snickered in insane joy. He looked only vaguely humanoid by now, some sort of nightmarish insect-lizard-thing in a black suit and tie. He morphed the other spikes back into the one that had pierced Heth, making it wider, the wound deeper. Heth screamed and screamed, wondering if he would pass out from the pain. He scratched weakly at the spike with his metal claws—but the Horadrim's inhuman face contorted in effort as he concentrated on healing whatever damage Heth managed to do. McNeilly slowly raised his other arm up as it transformed into a huge black hatchet—and smiled. Heth looked up at him through a haze of pain… and froze.
If there was one thing Heth knew how to do, it was to keep a stone face—he'd had countless hard deals to practice. And he could not—could NOT—let McNeilly know that at that moment, Heth was watching Miu float silently back into the room, paws up, claws out, sneaking up behind the Horadrim. If Heth gave McNeilly any reason to look over his shoulder—any at all—Miu would be dead in an instant. Heth had to distract him…now.
Heth stared McNeilly in the eye. "Your S-soul Web! Wanna f-fix it? Kill me, you'll n-never find out how!"
McNeilly tilted his head. Suddenly his jaw bones ripped away from his face into a huge pair of black mandibles, clicking and hissing. "Hhhhhhhrrrrrrrooooooosssssssffffffffff rrrrrrrrraaaaaaatttttttthhhhhhuuuuuuuu—"
Miu slapped her paws over McNeilly's eyes, sunk her claws in deep, and ripped them away. The alien let out a high-pitched, ear-splitting screech. The spike pinning Heth to the wall shot out as McNeilly slapped his arms against his wounded eyes, blinded. A second later he spun around, swinging his hatchet-hand out blindly behind him—but Miu was long gone, flying down to Heth and deflating. She grabbed his arm and yanked. Heth staggered to his paws as she dragged him toward the only other exit—the big picture window.
"Miu?" Heth asked weakly, disoriented and confused. "What are you… you were supposed to—"
"I'm salvaging a valuable resource!" Miu snapped. "Jump! NOW!"
Heth leapt into the air and they crashed through the window together, glass shattering around them as they plunged into the night sky. Miu instantly inflated into a sphere to fly away—but Heth had a pierced air sac, he couldn't inflate, and his weight was dragging them both down. He looked down at the ground far below, rushing up at them far too fast, and opened a comlink to the Avarice. "Kirrp! Transit portal! A hundred meters below my position! NOW!"
"Sky Father above!" Miu gasped. "He's following us!"
Heth looked back up; sure enough, the obsessed Horadrim had leapt out the window after them. He was trying to morph his limbs into winglets to glide, but wasn't having much success—he was only managing a controlled fall at best. And he was falling faster than they were, gaining on them… he'd reach them in seconds.
"Miu!" Heth yelled. "Deflate! Now! Just trust me on this!" Thankfully she did, and the air whistled past them as they fell faster, picking up speed. Suddenly a bright flash lit the night. Heth looked down to see the transit portal rip open beneath them. Heth looked back up. McNielly was almost on top on them—with a shocked expression on his black alien face, scrambling madly to change his trajectory some way, any way, before—
Heth and Miu flashed through the portal and rolled across the hard metal floor of the Avarice's transit bay. McNeilly crashed through a second later, landing in a crumpled heap close behind. Miu scrambled to her paws to run. "No! Miu! Get down!" Heth tackled Miu and threw his armored body over hers. He knew what was coming.
McNeilly staggered to his feet and squinted around through barely-healed compound eyes, trying to make out where he was—and saw over a dozen cats with power armor and plasma rifles surrounding him. He froze.
"Fire!" roared Narrah. Plasma crisscrossed the room, converging on the Horadrim's waist. He twitched and jerked as the inferno of fire ripped into his body; there was no way his Soul Web could heal that much damage that quickly, even if it had been working perfectly. "Cease fire!" Narrah yelled. The plasma died down; McNeilly swayed for a split second, then collapsed. Narrah bounded over, kicked a clawed boot into the Horadrim's face and sent him sprawling. "Pin him!" he ordered. K'Nes mercenaries pounced on the alien. Rifles were raised into the air, then slammed down, the blades mounted under the barrels stabbing through the Horadrim's limbs and into the deck plates below. Narrah nodded in grim satisfaction. "Sire!" he said, turning to where Heth still lay on the floor, shielding Miu with his body. "The prisoner is secured. You may proceed."
Heth slowly struggled to his feet, holding a paw to the puncture wound in his side. His armor's medical nanobots were already sealing the injury closed, but that just meant it itched and hurt. Heth's helmet folded back into his armor's collar as he stalked toward where McNeilly lay, pinned spread-eagle to the floor. "Narrah!" Heth held out his paw. "Give me your rifle." The old hunter handed it over without question.
Heth stood over the Horadrim, fury burning in the cat's yellow eyes. The alien stared back with hate-filled compound eyes, breathing raggedly. "I warned you, McNeilly," Heth growled, running his paw along the curved blade mounted under the rifle barrel, part spear and part axe. "I promised that if you tried to harm Miu… I would have your head." Suddenly Heth swung the rifle up, light glinting off the blade. "And a deal is a deal!" The blade flashed down. Heth swung again and again in a spray of ichor, hacking away until the creature's head finally rolled off its body. Heth lowered the rifle, panting with exertion. The room was utterly silent.
Finally Heth raised a paw. "I accept full legal liability for these actions. Do any of you need me to put that in writing?" When no one spoke, Heth passed the rifle back to Narrah, then reached down into the alien's corpse and pulled a slime-covered datapad out of the jacket's breast pocket. Amazingly, it was still intact—the short K'Nes hadn't bothered aiming that high. "Well, now," Heth said, "let's see what you and Varrless were up to." He tapped on the screen for a few seconds silently. "Encrypted and password protected. Of course it is. Surra!" He handed her the datapad as she stepped forward. "Take this down to engineering and get them to work on cracking it. Tell them it's very important, top priority. Narrah!" Heth reached down, yanked McNeilly's head off the floor, and held it out to the mercenary captain. "Have this shipped to Emperor Vin Dane, first class. Include a message. Tell him… tell him the K'Nes will happily maintain friendly diplomatic and trade relations with the Holy Terran Empire—but we will NOT tolerate any more attempts to interfere in our internal affairs!"
Narrah rested the ichor-splattered rifle on his shoulder and took the severed head almost casually. His mouth peeled away from his fangs in his own savage grin. He snapped a salute to Heth with his tail. "Yes, Sire!"
"The rest of you," Heth said, turning to his hunters, "take McNeilly's body and burn it. I have no idea if a Horadrim can grow a new head and come back to life—but I wouldn't put it past them! Observe full hazmat procedures, I want nothing left but ashes!" As his hunters carried away the dead alien, Heth finally turned to Miu.
She hadn't moved, still sitting on the floor where they'd landed, watching the scene before her play out. Heth strode over and held out a paw. "Miu, my dear… it's alright, you're safe now, I promise. Are you hurt?"
Miu merely stared at him silently for a moment, her huge blue eyes glistening. Then she took his paw and rose slowly. She stretched experimentally, then smoothed her fur down, running her paws along the curves of her body. "No," she finally said softly. "No, I think I'm alright… just a little battered and bruised, that's all."
Heth sighed in relief. "You have no idea how glad I am to hear that, Miu!" he said.
"No…" she said, placing a gentle paw alongside his face. "No, I think I do…" Suddenly she pulled Heth into an embrace and gripped him tightly. She'd been strong as bedrock during the fight for their lives… but now that the crisis had passed she was left shaken and trembling. Heth wasn't sure what to do or say… so he just held her silently until she calmed down. Gradually her breathing slowed and her shivers subsided. She looked down at Heth, then licked the fur alongside his face. "Thank you," she whispered in his ear. "You saved my life."
"And you saved mine," Heth replied with a smile. "We always did make a good team."
"Yes, we do, don't we?" Miu smiled back. "Certainly much better than Pirr and I… that treacherous rat…"
"Varrless…" Heth hissed. "I'm so sorry, Miu. I tried to warn you, but you wouldn't take my calls, so I got here as fast as I could, but the Avarice was still over five systems away when I figured out what Varrless was—"
"Heth!" Miu cut him off with a paw across his snout. She smiled. "You did just fine. More than fine, actually. You were… pretty magnificent…" She stared silently into Heth's eyes… and began to breathe faster.
"Why… thank you…" Heth frowned. Miu had a rather intense look on her face, was almost panting… and her scent had changed. "Well," he said, "maybe we should get you up to the infirmary anyway, just in case..."
"No." Miu shook her head, and Heth heard her claws scraping on his armored shoulders. "No, there's something I need to do first… You!" Miu spun around and pointed a claw at Kirrp, who'd been cowering behind the transit beacon console the whole time. "Get out. Now." Kirrp scurried out of the transit bay, leaving them alone. The hatch hadn't even rolled shut before Miu started clawing at Heth. "I changed my mind—you do look good in power armor. But you need to take it off. Now." She powered down his suit and began working the seals.
"I'm fine, Miu!" Heth assured her. "It's just a pierced air sac, a flesh wound! The suit's medical nanos—"
"That's not what I meant." Miu grabbed Heth's paw, hooked the claws of his gauntlet into the top of her blouse, then yanked his arm down, ripping it wide open. "Getting the picture yet?" she asked, licking her fangs.
"Oh… OH!" Heth's eyes lit up with joy. "But… wait… aren't you still under contract to Varrless?"
"I think trying to have me killed qualifies for Nullification under the Domestic Abuse Clause, don't you?"
"Wonderful! Excellent!" Heth exclaimed, overjoyed. He fumbled for his datapad, barely managing to pull it from an ammo compartment before his breastplate clattered to the floor. "I've still got our Articles of Procreation saved on this," he said, trying to access the file with paws trembling with excitement. "If you'll just sign on th—"
"Heth!" Miu hissed. Heth paused, staring at her. "It can wait. And don't worry," Miu said, shaking her head. "I'm not going to change my mind this time." She ripped the datapad from his paws and hurled it across the room. "Now shut up and mate me!"
It was worth the wait.
For a spectre, Hugh Montgomery was not used to being spooked. He was on a transport, bound for Avalon, wandering alone through the corridors looking for someone to annoy. When you don't have a living body, Hugh realized long ago, conversation was the only thing that you had left.
Montgomery stopped and looked around. He was alone in the large spacecraft. He felt a little lighter since they left Van Diemen; his fetters to the sapphire were weaker. Hugh knew it wouldn't take much to break the last chain and free himself to the void. But he was scared; he had been in this unearthly existence for centuries, and despite the years of servitude, the last few weeks in the Sabbat had been… fun? But now, he had had his revenge on the Giovanni, so really, the only thing holding him in this world was…
If the spectre had a body, he would have jumped out of his skin. Standing in front of him was a man with wizened white hair, draped in a black robe, holding a skull. "Good evening."
"What the devil?!" Hugh barked out of reflex.
"Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Montgomery, Royal Marines, I presume." The robed figure looked slightly amused. "I've been waiting for the opportunity to speak to you."
"And who the devil are you, sir?"
"You would know me as Cappadocius."
Hugh looked around quickly, just to make sure he was seeing this. A spectre going mad, he wondered, who would notice? "Cappadocius was… diablorized."
"Funny thing happened on the way to nothingness," the robed figure said, stroking his skull. "I found my soul going spare and I found a use for it. I spent my entire unlife learning about death. When I actually passed beyond, I saw no reason to continue my studies. Naturally, my studies were improved with my physical passing."
"Surely," Hugh raised an eyebrow, "but none of that explains why you're here. Now."
"Hyperspace is simply an expression of the Umbra, colonel. The Umbra contains much madness, including the Shadowlands, of which I am an honored citizen. I'm surprised I haven't seen you there before."
"Been rather busy. Being enslaved and trapped in a sapphire for two hundred years leaves you little opportunities for holiday."
"Yes, I see." Cappadocius' eyes lazily blinked. "Now you find yourself drifting, don't you? No home, no purpose…"
"No fetters," Hugh admitted. "I have had my revenge."
"I would hate to see such a talent pass beyond. I will give you new purpose, colonel, if you let me."
"I'm still attached to the Sabbat…"
"Good," Cappadocius smiled, "we both were betrayed by the Giovanni. Them and all those Camarilla bastards deserve to know what it feels like to be on the low end of the totem pole."
"So you believe they're still out there."
"I know they are," the former antediluvian-turned-wraith smiled, "and the Harbringer of Souls needs to make sure they never rise again."
"The Harbringer of Souls?" Hugh scoffed.
"Such a dramatic name, I know." Cappadocius played with his skull, bouncing it from hand to hand. "But when one's existence is but shadow, one finds oneself attuned to the dramatic."
"So I've discovered."
"Hugh," the former antediluvian smiled warmly, "I want you to join us. Keep warm against the cold of nothingness. And maybe, just maybe, find yourself again."
"Call yourself ambassador, if you wish. It's not the first time that Mordred has dealt with dual loyalty."
The colonel didn't have to consider long; already, he could feel the fetters slipping from his soul. "Done."
Cappadocius smiled, and immediately, Hugh felt his grip on reality grow stronger. "Then welcome to our brotherhood. When you reach Avalon, I will introduce you to your new allies."
"If we reach Avalon…"
"You will," the former antediluvian smiled… and disappeared.
"Give me one reason why I shouldn't blast you."
The woman on the other end of the comm was not in a happy mood, although it was hard to tell, since the lady had a poker face that matched Luther Petridis' own. "We have proper clearance to Avalon, Commander…?"
"Lieutenant Commander Alinejad," she clarified, as if anyone could say her name. "Yes, it's not your clearance that's in question, M. Petridis. It's your methods. Your transport managed to get through a locked Digital Gate. I don't suppose you would care to explain that to me?"
Luther showed no shame, nor any indication of William Bishop's presence, standing off to the side out of camera range. William was the one who managed to get the codes through his contacts in the Federation. "We simply wanted to avoid difficulties. Count Moon provided us the codes as a courtesy so that we could reach the capital in the minimum amount of time."
"How convenient that the Minister without Portfolio is currently unavailable." The CIC commander was not used to playing traffic warden, but Avalon Traffic Control was automatically subordinated to the Imperial Fleet when a planetary emergency was declared—and their leadership was at the Imperial Palace when it was attacked. Therefore, no one had the authority—or codes—to do anything until the emergency was lifted. And the Lord High Admiral had better things to do than talk to merchant ships who broke the rules. "I don't know if you've been following the news, but we're in an emergency. I need you to stop your ship now and wait until the emergency has been lifted."
"That is simply unacceptable, Commander. I'm honor-bound to report to the Emperor…"
"Who's currently under attack by forces unknown," Adorinda explained. "I think His Holy Imperial Majesty will understand the delay."
Bishop had an idea and mimed making a comm with his fingers; Luther took the hint. "Then please allow me to contact my principal on the planet. I'm sure he'll be able to clear up the confusion."
"All comm traffic has been shut down due to the emergency."
"Which is why I'm asking for an open line." Petridis smiled.
"You haven't convinced me that the risk is worth it."
William mimed rubbing his fingers together. Luther answered, "Perhaps I could donate to your charity?"
"Excuse me?" Alinejad's poker face broke.
"A charity of your choice, I'm willing to donate fifty thousand credits to alleviate this concern."
"Are you trying to bribe me?"
"Yes," Petridis admitted. "For a simple comm, the price is generous."
"Do you know the penalty…?"
"None," Luther interrupted her, "the Imperial Fleet exists in the mind of the Emperor and nowhere else. There are no Earth Fleet regulations for you to follow, no Court Marshal to find you guilty. If you please your superior, you are rewarded. If you fail, you die. How, why… these details are not important. Now imagine I contact Count Moon and he discovers you have been impeding his official representative to assist him." Petridis paused. "I imagine your career will cease to exist, no matter how honest you are. Am I correct, commander?"
The conflicting emotions on her face were impossible to read. "Hold, please." Then the Imperial Fleet screensaver appeared.
Luther looked at Bishop. "What do you think?"
"You'll get your comm."
Her face came back on the screen. "You have your comm line. Make it count."
"Thank you, commander. Please relay the frequency to my ship. Discom." The new Priscus waited a few beats, then found the frequency waiting for him. He pressed in the Net address he'd been given and waited for the thing on the other end to pick up.
The thing wore a business suit, perfectly sculpted hair, and a winning smile… but he certainly wasn't a man. "I can't even get a signal out today. Imagine my surprise when I got a call."
"M. Cortez, I am Luther Pet…"
"…Petridis, our new Priscus, yes, I know. Rumor travels faster than starships, juicy rumor doubly so. Everything is prepared for your arrival."
"One problem," Luther corrected. "There's a young lady on a dreadnaught who doesn't believe I have the authorization to land. If you could send fifty thousand credits to her account and provide her the appropriate legalese, we'll be there shortly."
"Could you haggle next time, sire?" Fabian teased. "I've only been on planet for a month…"
"I'm sure Mordred will reimburse you," Petridis answered.
"I'm sure he will—it will be done. Discom."
Lieutenant Orenstein felt the jiggle of his personal com; the one he wasn't supposed to wear on duty. He pressed it, letting the coded message appear seamlessly as an extra window on his holoproj. Great, he thought of his on-planet contact, how am I supposed to pull this off? Norman started tapping away, finding the appropriate templates, and then completing the "official" comm. With a little effort, he slid it into the ship comm system, tagged top priority. He only had to wait a few seconds for the system to recognize the new message.
Adorinda suddenly noticed the new message sitting in her in-box, glaring at her. As she opened it, she gasped, and quickly called the illegal transport. "M. Petridis, I just received approval of your flight path. You must have friends in high places."
"I do—thank you, commander. My generosity is boundless."
"One question. How did you get Field Marshal Palancia to approve it? How did you know he wouldn't be at the Palace?"
"Simple," Luther ad libbed, "you don't bring a werewolf to a formal party. Not if you can help it." He smiled at Bishop. "Thank you for your cooperation. Discom."
"Does that count for werepanthers?" Bishop smiled.
"Of course not." Petridis smiled back. "Cats are always fashionably dressed."
Fabian Cortez quickly found them as they arrived on planet. "About time… Your Excellency."
Luther was gratified to have fungicrete under his feet again. In the dead of night in New Chicago, they were the only ones at the spaceport. "All right, Fabian. Where are we going?"
local cardinal is a singularly decadent lady named Vanessa." Cortez
licked his lips. "She offered her house, her bar… anything, really… to
the new Priscus, but I simply asked for her cooperation. And account
information." The ghoul shrugged. "I have a safe house rented for
you. Only I know the location. And dawn is soon approaching."
"I can feel it," Luther admitted. He looked at William Bishop, a step behind him as the rest of their crew collected their belongings and equipment. "I need you to contact your people in the Federation. They should have their strike team here already. I assume Gergenstein…"
"Yes," Bishop nodded. "I know what to do."
"Bring them to the Black Beetle," Cortez suggested. "Vanessa's hospitality will be sufficient for them."
With another nod, William took off into the night.
"An abandoned warehouse?" Captain Soti complained. "I mean, how cliché is that?"
Titus Vardan shrugged. "There's plenty of them, and no one goes in them. Where else do you suggest we hide an armed platoon of troopers?"
"I wish that damn contact would come. There's only so long no one's going to notice Argus smoking a cigarette on the corner."
"His lungs are armor-plated, I'm sure," Vardan snorted.
Just then, the cyborg came in with another man, sleek and rugged at the same time. "Are you our contact?" Soti asked.
"He better be," Argus shrugged. "He's got all the proper codes."
"Major William Bishop," the newcomer explained. "Glad you all made it."
"Likewise," Soti nodded.
The werepanther looked around and saw all the troopers. "I'm here to take you to the Sabbat."
"As allies or as food?" Frances Xavier grumbled.
Bishop blinked. "How about pizza?"
Roscoe Village was a fashionable neighborhood on the North Side of New Chicago. In the boom and bust cycle to which urban neighborhoods are susceptible, it was well past the "too many poor people and criminals are driving property values down" stage and well into the "hip young college graduates are moving in to take advantage of the cheap rents while just getting started on a career and/or family" stage. Soon enough it would be into the stage where the abundance of upwardly-mobile young adults and the eclectic businesses and restaurants they attracted started making the neighborhood so popular that property values would skyrocket, the young people would move out in search of larger housing with more room for their growing families and growing piles of possessions, and the long process of urban decay could start anew. But for the time being, it was pleasant enough.
The industrial buildings and warehouses that had moved in at the trough of the rent cycle had been converted into lofts and studio apartments, the residential buildings were going condo, and the bars still had the seedy décor that gave them that touch of authenticity that imbued them with character and charm, but had lost their former seedy clientele, who would have been horrified at some of the recent additions to the menus of their old hangouts. Mango goat-cheese pizza and fruit flavored sparkling mineral water, even spiked with THC, would not have been big sellers back before the last Civil War.
Newer businesses reflected the wave of young people currently moving into the neighborhood. Since the Five Acts had made conscription universal for unawakened as well as awakened citizens, nearly everyone spent the five years between their sixteenth and twenty-first birthdays in the military. Those with top grades in high school could defer their enlistment until after graduation from college, but by the age of thirty, they too were mostly veterans. Used to the deprivations of military life, many were determined to live life to the fullest now that they were out of uniform. After five years of having your food, housing, and clothing paid for by the Federation, even a modest military salary had often become a nice little nest egg, and generous subsidies for Veterans meant those with talent had little trouble finding jobs. As a result, the bars and nightclubs of the neighborhood tended to be packed, and competition to be the hippest and most happening place was fierce.
The Black Beetle was not winning that particular war, but it was still a reasonably busy place this particular evening. Young software engineers, lawyers, statistical analysts, and other professionals filled up about half the tables and booths. Others kept the dance floor reasonably crowded. Still others filled most of the seats at the long bar. The décor's theme was, of all things, Ancient Egypt, with plenty of scarabs and falcons and pyramids carved into the railings and ceiling moldings. A keen observer would notice, however, that there was not a single Ankh to be seen anywhere in the joint. A spiked Ankh being the emblem of the Sabbat, Crusader teams might have come snooping around if they'd had any. But few Crusader Team members were students of Ancient Egyptian art motifs or religious imagery, so the absence had not attracted suspicion.
Which was the point. Because if you went into the last stall on the left in the large, unisex bathroom, a hidden panel could be opened into a small, closet-like space. Once the panel was closed back up, a trap door would open in the floor, and drop a visitor down a six-story shaft where elevators had once operated, several renovations of this building ago. An artificial gravity field at the bottom would cushion your fall—or be reversed to smush you to a thin paste, depending on whether a Sabbat operator viewing your entrance through hidden cameras thought you were welcome or not. Or depending on whether the Sabbat operator was feeling in a particularly cruel mood that night.
Argus McCall landed on the bottom and looked warily around. His civilian shoes did not stick to the floor, so they must have mopped up since the last time someone had been converted to a pizza topping by this particular method of entrance. A black-uniformed Ghoul at the security post in an alcove off the chamber beckoned him to enter through a doorway. In the room beyond he found the rest of his team already assembled. Major William Bishop, the Raptor operative who had contacted them upon their arrival here on Avalon, was over in one corner, sharing some sort of joke with Colonel Dent. Sergeant Xavier was looking around with a look on her face that suggested the scent of the air in here did not agree with her. The beefy blond guy and skinny brunette Sabbat members who had accompanied Bishop were in another corner, talking with a gaunt, stringy-haired vampire from the local Sabbat pack.
Once McCall had arrived, Captain Soti interrupted Colonel Dent in mid-anecdote to tell him the squad was all here. The enormous werebear scowled at the interruption, but then bellowed out for everyone's attention. The squad formed up and followed him and Major Bishop into the Audience Chamber of the Cardinal of New Chicago.
Said Cardinal, like many elder Vampires, went by only one name: Vanessa. This particular Vampire leader was a Toreador Antitribu, a tall, leggy brunette with impeccable makeup and an apparent thing for skintight black leather outfits. Argus McCall used his cybernetic eye to store images of her for later perusal, but for the moment he and the rest of his squad were all business. They rather pointedly ignored the blindfolded and leather-clad human male suspended from the ceiling of the audience chamber by a few dozen fish hooks which pierced the skin of his arms, back, and legs.
Vanessa stood up from her lounging couch/throne and addressed the squad. "My Lord Mordred has ordered me to assist you. I think your mission is a foolish and futile one, but My Lord speaks, and I obey. Before your arrival, we had inserted agents into the Imperial Palace staff and had begun formulating a plan to get your people inside and the security systems deactivated, the guards distracted, and the Emperor isolated." As several of the soldiers nodded in grudging admiration, her smile tuned back into a frown. "Unfortunately, you were not the only people to think this a good day to try assassinating someone easily mistaken for a Living God."
A murmur went through the crowd. "Details are still sketchy at this point," the Vampiress went on. "All of our agents within the palace are either missing or confirmed dead. But from what we can gather, someone or something entered a party in the Palace and confronted the Emperor. The resulting series of explosions in the low-kiloton range has wiped the Palace off the map."
"I suppose it's too much to hope for that they got the Emperor," interjected one of the soldiers.
"Early reports did suggest that possibility," the Cardinal answered. "But the Emperor definitely survived." The Empress, we're not entirely certain about, but it seems likely she lives yet as well."
"And the attacker," asked Diana Reid. "What happened to them?"
"Unknown," Vanessa replied. "Imperial media claim he was killed. They have no body or ID on the attacker, and the explosions mean they wouldn't find a body even if he is dead."
"So what do we do now?" asked Argus.
"You're the big bad soldiers," snarked the stringy-haired vampire. "You figure something out."
"Our best agents went up with the Palace," said the Cardinal in a soothing voice, before the soldiers could get all huffy over her subordinate's disrespect. "And it will take some time, even for us, to insert new ones and formulate a new plan. Marcel here is right, you soldiers are probably more suited to come up with that new plan than we are."
"With the Palace gone," mused Titus Vardan out loud, "the Emperor will need a new residence and headquarters, yes?"
"Perhaps one with hastier security arrangements," the big blond Sabbat guy picked up the thread.
"Luther is right," Bishop finished. "This may work to our advantage after all."
"And we do have one other advantage there wasn't time to inform you of," Dent interjected. "Some Cat scientist claims to have invented some sort of nanobot weapon that will shut down Vin Dane's Horadrim Soul Web."
"Hmmm, and you have this weapon?" asked Marcel, the Cardinal's underling with the stringy hair.
"That we do," Argus replied. "Although to get close enough to use it, just about any other of our weapons should kill the guy, Soul Web or no."
"But every little bit will help against this guy," Dent continued. "Speaking of which, about those Mages we requested..."
"Two of our pet reality-warpers were among the agents lost in the Palace," Vanessa sighed. "But we have replacements en route from Wehrenberg. They should be here in the morning."
Not that you'll be awake to greet them, Argus thought to himself. Who is gonna keep you warm in your coffin tonight? The skinny guy with the French name and the dire need for a shampoo? Or the bondage gimp strung up on your ceiling? Maybe the slab of blond beefsteak that came in with this Bishop guy? Or would you prefer one of his lithe little leechettes? Or both?
Argus tore himself away from that disturbing yet arousing mental image to pay attention to the new battle plan being formulated. They probably would have more information to work with tomorrow night, but they were already speculating about possible tactics and strategems. In the meantime, much like their vampire allies, the soldiers would be sleeping during the day, to be rested and ready for an attack the following night, if a plan could be agreed upon in time.
Argus just hoped they would have private bedrooms in whatever Sabbat safehouse they slept in during the next day or two. It would be hard to properly... examine the stored images of the Cardinal and her leather-clad form without a modicum of privacy. Privacy also helped with his prayers, and since he felt sure he'd be praying for forgiveness for a few new impure thoughts, sacking out on a floor with three other soldiers didn't sound like a convenient arrangement.
"—think he's coming to!" The unmistakable happy screech of the excitable Doctor O'Brien came through a gauzy muffled veil of soundlessness. "Honestly, I didn't think he'd make it out of that one alive."
"He was never alive to begin with. He's not even alive now." Agent Five's matter-of-fact tones contrasted sharply to the Doctor's enthusiasm.
"Walking, talking and mucking about, oh, you know what I mean," the doctor said in exasperated tones. "Look, you mustn't be impolite to the living impaired, I thought your parents would have raised you with better manners."
"Parent. And she raised me just fine. Thanks," Five said sourly.
"I'm not dead yet…" Izzy thought he might have mumbled through the pounding in his head, "just a'pinin' for the fjords…" He needlessly sucked in a breath… it hurt something fierce, but it was a good kind of pain, the kind that felt constructive, as though part of some kind of vampiric healing process. It felt rather like stretching one's legs after vigorous exercise the day before. "I think I'll go for a walk…"
"Oh no, you will not!" Something pressed down firmly on his aching chest, holding him in place. "The last thing we need is a repeat of yesterday!"
Izzy didn't know what she meant by that, but he giggled. "I feel… happy…"
"Well, good for you, dear." Someone, presumably the doctor, patted him on the head like a puppy.
The Doctor's voice shifted focus. "Well! At least he's in a better mood today! Thought he would tear our faces off yesterday… That's something!" She said cheerfully.
"Something? Something is not enough," Five said. "After Treschi vanished, that sniveling toady of a politician tucked his tail between his legs and ran off. The upshot is, we have no fleet. And have you listened to the news? The Net is buzzing about a disturbance at the Imperial Palace. We're already too late. We don't have a prayer's chance in hell of getting within a parsec of Avalon now. We've lost. In my case, twice now."
"Lost? No, I don't believe it for a second. And if I know Izzy, he wouldn't believe that either."
"Him? No, of course he wouldn't, I've never met anyone so devoid of common sense," Five said acerbically. "He would keep on fighting even if he was just a torso with a head."
"I'll bite your legs off…" Izzy mumbled.
"I'm sure he would try and call it 'Idealism'. I call it 'idiocy'."
"I think the universe needs that kind of idiot," the doctor said thoughtfully. "Perhaps not in charge… the universe destroys those kinds of thinkers without so much as a backwards glance—but it gives all of us practicing cynics something to aspire to. Balances us out."
Five snorted. "Hate to break it to you, Doc… you're hardly a cynic."
Izzy was vaguely aware of the mattress sinking down near his feet as the doctor perched herself near the end of his bed. "Do you know, I don't think I ever told you how I became a doctor of medicine…" There was the scraping of a chair. "Sit down, this won't take long."
There was movement and the chair scraped against the floor again. The occupant of the chair sighed.
"I don't know what sorts of awful rumors you've heard about us ratkin, but they're very probably mostly true. As I might have mentioned, I grew up in a spacer colony, one of many descendants of the Plague Lords—no, don't look so surprised dear, surely you guessed that bit already—but I'm lucky, you see, because being one among so many allowed me to pursue my own goals without a lot of scrutiny. It lent me a certain amount of anonymity in my family for a time. By the time anyone noticed I had my own ideas of what 'mastery over disease' meant, I already had my own ideas of what 'mastery over disease' meant, you see?
"Oh, of course, they tried to shape me into a good little plague rat; Seeing my aptitude with biology, they molded me into quite the little chemist. Oh I made all sorts of poisons and bioweapons. But to me that's just sloppy. Anyone can make poison, just look under your kitchen sink, or in your icebox, or your nearest fast food restaurant. Making poisons, causing disease… that's easy. It's curing them that's hard. Anything we could make just pales in comparison to that grand apothecary called nature. Nature is always fighting against life, trying to extinguish it in the most efficient and creative ways possible. And to have mastery over that, well… there's a feat worthy of my time and efforts." O'Brien sighed and Five said nothing.
"I guess what I'm trying to tell you is this: I'm not as idealistic as our dear vampire friend thinks. I'm not even a doctor out of some altruistic need to save sentient lives… I am a doctor because nature is powerful and huge, and when, I as a doctor subdue it, I too feel powerful and huge." The doctor shifted on the bed. "But sometimes, when he looks at me with that honest expression, as though he's more proud of me than he has ever been of anyone ever on the face of the universe, I can see it. I can see a glimpse of the universe through his eyes. And in those moments, I can see myself reflected and magnified as so much more than I really am… and… I feel as though that really could be me."
The bed suddenly became lighter. "I think that's exactly the kind of idiocy the universe needs."
When Izzy finally got his legs back underneath him, thanks to a copious supply of stored blood by Agent Five, he found his way to the bridge of the Legacy. For once, the control center of the tiny ship was rather empty, save for Aussie manning the controls from the pilot's chair. The vampire plopped himself in the opposite chair. "Stars," D'Argent began to sing, "in their multitude, scarce to be silent, filling the darkness…"
"Do you have to sing?" Aussie moaned, flicking a couple of virtual switches.
"Life needs a soundtrack, Austerity." The vampire smiled. "And clearly, you're not a fan of musicals."
"No, I like them just fine, but Freak's been rolling through the entire score of HMS Pinafore the last couple days. It took that long because he keeps stuttering."
"And I missed it?!" Izzy's eyes went wide.
The pilot turned to him and smiled. "You're not the only one who likes to tell jokes."
D'Argent was seriously disappointed. "So I suppose he's off… oh, analyzing fleet movements or something."
Aussie waved her hand in front of the starry viewscreen. "Do you see any fleet, sir?"
"Filling the darkness with order and light… so we're still in Epsilon?"
"Hell, no. Wilke's Star. Once you kicked Treschi into another dimension, ol' Stretch Face told us to beat it. He kicked his cruiser into high gear and went to join the battle."
"Even after we got rid of him."
"The way he figured," the pilot explained, "even if you won now, Treschi would get back at him when he came back. So Mengyao muttered something about giri and told us to get lost."
Izzy translated. "Did he win?"
"I didn't stick around to find out. Besides, naval combat isn't my specialty."
"Then who gave me the specs when I was on his ship?"
"Danielle," Aussie explained. "Turns out she was an admiral once. How she ended up in the Eastern Bloc cooking at a noodle shop is anyone's guess." A light started flashing to the pilot' side. "About time. Gabe, you got my codes?"
The viewscreen changed to show Gabriel Quattone, looking insufferably smug. "Did you ever doubt it?"
"No, but I was getting worried. I'm almost to the jumpgate and I don't have a way in."
"Transmitting now." The netrunner turned and noticed Izzy sitting there. "Oh, you made it, weefle runner."
"I've been coding since before you were born!" the vampire said, pointing an accusing finger at the screen.
"Then you better brush up." Quattone shook his head. "You're out of this business six months, and you're ancient history."
"So what's the story, morning glory?" Izzy asked.
"I just gave your valiant crew the access codes for the military jumpgate. In a couple hours, you'll be smooth sailing into New Paris."
"New Paris? Wait! What happened to the old one?!"
"Asteroid," Aussie explained, and then turned to the screen. "Thanks, Gabe."
"Any time. Turns out I'm out of a job, no Ministry and all that. I figure once I get done raiding the abandoned mainframes there, I'll need a new job. Keep me posted when you've got an opening."
"Bless you, kind sir." Izzy smiled.
"Discom." Gabriel winked and the viewscreen returned to stars.
"So… why are we heading to the improbably named New Paris?"
"Because New Tahiti hasn't been built!" came a familiar voice behind them. Izzy turned and was not surprised to see Agent Five come through the door.
"I really need a squeak on that door," D'Argent tsked.
"In your… absence, I've had to make some decisions around here," Five explained. "We're heading to Avalon."
"Without the fleet?"
"That would have been nice, but I've got another idea."
"To kill Vin Dane." Izzy shook his head. "There's got to be another way."
"Give me one," Five shot back and leaned against a console. "For now, we're heading to Avalon."
"And how are we getting through when security's bound to be tighter than a drum?"
"Simple. We take a short cut."
Once they reached New Paris, the lanes to the digital gate were jammed. The digital gate had been taken off-line on account of a planetary emergency. Every pilot's ear was tuned to the Net, trying to glean a nugget of information from the river of commentary. "This is your short cut?" Izzy demanded.
Five snorted and walked back into the main room. The vampire followed. She stopped in the middle of the room and started punching the air with a finger, like she was touching buttons. But D'Argent knew for certain that there was no holoproj there; I ought to, he thought, I am the expert in that type of coding.
A strange portal opened up, unlike any correspondence portal he had ever seen, and a strange man in denim was standing on the other side. What was even stranger was the menacing-looking, loud humming device he had behind him. "How did you do that?" the stranger asked.
"You're not the only one stuck out of their timeline," Agent Five answered. "I need a way to Avalon."
The Denim Man stroked his machine lovingly. "I don't need you anymore."
"Are you sure? Remember how well your last plan went? I think you need a backup."
"And what can you possibly offer me this time, little girl?"
"Keeping Fialla off your back."
The Horadrim stepped closer to the portal. "What did you…?"
"She's been looking for you." Five smiled. "I bet whenever you stopped to get that… thing behind you, she'll know what timeline and system you're in. Then all she needs to do is wait until you pop back out, then stop whatever your evil plan is. It would help to have a backup then, wouldn't it?"
The Denim Man sighed. "What do you want me to do?"
"Simple. Portal the ship into Avalon orbit. We can do the rest from there."
"It's your funeral," the Horadrim nodded, and closed the portal.
END OF ACT ONE
Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston. All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, even if you CAN somehow gain access to fifteen quarter-kiloton bombs.