"After six days of reflection, I decided to do evil by design—which is without comparison the more criminal course before God, but which is without doubt the wiser before the world:

Both because in doing so one always puts precautions in place to cover part of it, and because by this means one avoids the most dangerous ridicule that can be encountered in our profession, which is that of mixing sin with devotion at just the wrong time."


-- Jean Francois Paul de Gondi, The Memoirs of Cardinal de Retz


"Heth!  I'm pregnant!" Miu exclaimed, waving the positive test results at him.  "Again!"

Oh, thank the stars! Heth thought.  I wasn't sure I could keep this up for much longer!

He lay on a cushion covered in fur and blood, sporting a black eye, scratched face, bitten nose… and huge grin.  "Wonderful news, precious!"  He smiled at Miu as he sat up weakly, exhausted.  "How many conceptions does that make?"

"Three!  And in only five days!"  Miu shot him a wicked fanged grin.  "I'm impressed, Heth."

So am I, Heth thought, pleased with himself.  With K'Nes only able to reproduce once every eleven years, nature compensated for the fallow period by K'Nes females bearing whole litters of up to a dozen cubs.  With the mating season so short, once females began mating, they had a powerful biological drive to not stop until they'd achieved as many conceptions as possible in that brief window… there was a reason females were bigger and stronger!  The number of pregnancies usually depended on how well their males could keep up with them… some even went so far as to include a performance bonus clause in their Articles of Procreation.  Heth, the runt of his litter, was surprised by how well he was doing so far.

Thankfully, after each conception, females tended to calm down briefly.  Why?  No one knew for sure, but K'Nes physical anthropologists guessed the behavior might have evolved to give males a better chance to recuperate and survive the mating cycle.  Although it was rare, males had been known to be… well… mated to death.  This was only Heth's third chance to rest since the Avarice had left Purrfang for the Nhur system five days ago—and he needed it!

"So are you going to take a 'cat-nap,' then?" Miu chuckled.

Heth smiled at Miu's ironic use of the human expression.  "No, I'm afraid not," he answered wearily, although he dearly wanted even a tiny twelve hours of sleep.  "I've got work to do, deadlines to meet, and time is money."  He found his datapad and reluctantly went back to work.

"I know what you mean," Miu agreed with a happy sigh, picking up her own datapad and checking her messages.  "I pre-planned for a lengthy conception leave from MIRADI… but I still catch myself checking in with Aie whenever I've got a free moment.  I just can't help it."

"I really must remember to eat this time…" Heth muttered, more to himself than his mate.  He ran a paw over the scratches covering his body and the ugly scar in his side, a memento from his fight with McNeilly.  "I should probably bathe too, I suppose."

"Really?"  Miu grabbed a spray bottle of detergent and bounded over to him.  "Mind if I join you?"

Sky Father above, this kitten will be the death of me!  "Why of course, precious!" Heth answered.  He took the bottle, sprayed a little non-toxic cleanser on his tongue, and began licking Miu's long white fur clean.

"So by work," Miu purred, taking the spray bottle from him, "I assume you mean preparing for the Executive Board meeting of the Nhur Llan?"

"Astute as ever, my dear," Heth answered with a sigh, enjoying the soothing lap of her tongue over his pelt.  "Yes, I need to break the deadlock for appointing a new CEO of Miao Mercantile.  Varrless isn't done with us yet, I guarantee it.  It may take him a few days to realize McNeilly is missing—from what you overheard, it sounds like he usually wrecks Pirr's office during assassinations—and maybe another few days to realize the Miao are behind it.  But when he does, he will retaliate—and our clan has to be ready to defend our corporation together, instead of the different prides fighting amongst ourselves for control of the company!"

"And just how do you plan to accomplish that at the meeting?" Miu asked, spraying more soap on her tongue.  "You do have an business plan… don't you?"

"Well, the quickest way would be to throw in with one of the two major prides," Heth answered, "but Yawr carefully maintained a balance of power between them, and for a good reason.  Infighting and power plays are bad for corporate efficiency and productivity.  In a worst-case scenario, the disgruntled losing pride might even pull out their assets and spin off into a separate company."  Heth paused for a moment, thoughtful.  "Actually, that's probably what Varrless is hoping for."

"Obviously…"  Miu paused in her lapping, thinking.  "So what you need is an acting CEO who won't upset the balance of power between the two major prides—right?"

"Exactly.  I've proposed promoting a neutral third party to acting CEO in Yawr's absence as the most efficient and profitable business solution," Heth answered.  "The Executive Directors, while not thrilled, at least seem open to the possibility… if nothing else, it maintains the balance of power.  No winners… but no losers, either.  Besides, there's no point in a pride spinning off from the corporate clan when their pride might still get the majority share eventually.  K'Nes are nothing if not patient."

"But that will only work if you can find a neutral party all five Executive Directors can agree on and approve," Miu said, instantly seeing the flaw in his plan.  "So who are you nominating as the new acting CEO?"

"That's the problem."  Heth sighed.  "Anyone with enough wealth, power, and experience to be eligible for the position already allied themselves with one of the major prides long ago—they had to, to get promoted as far as they have!  I need to find an experienced administrator who's both unknown and unaligned—but there aren't very many to choose from, and I'm not sure any are qualified for the position.  Getting the Executive Board to confirm even one of them will be a hard sell."

"Then appeal to their greed," Miu said.  "Give them a financial incentive to approve anyone—quickly."

Heth frowned.  "I've thought about that, yes… but I don't think a simple bribe will work this time, Miu.  Not with these K'Nes, not when the stakes are so high."

"That's… not quite what I meant," Miu replied, narrowing her eyes.  "The Executive Directors are, by definition, Miao Mercantile's biggest shareholders," she answered.  "So if you can increase the profitability of the whole company, you automatically increase their profits too, right?"  She gave him a slow, mischievous smile.  "And from what you've told me, none of them realize yet that their corporate clan recently acquired a new hypergate.  Think of the leverage that gives you…"

Heth stared at her, his yellow eyes widening as the pieces fell together in his mind.  "Of course!" he exclaimed, then grabbed Miu's face between his paws and licked her thoroughly.  "Miu, you're brilliant!"

Miu smiled, pleased, and licked his face.  "Well, you always said I was a good investment."

"The best!" Heth agreed.  "You haven't stopped paying dividends since you came onboard!"

"Well, you owe me a lot of derivatives," she purred, running her claws lightly down his flank.  "Three is a good start, but I expect more.  Speaking of which…"  She glanced down, then flashed him a wicked grin.  "You seem to have another stimulus package for me."

"I can't help it!" Heth protested, but with a smile.  "You always increase my inflation rate."

"And just what do you plan to do with your growth industry?" Miu purred.

"What else?"  Heth grinned, running his claws through her long white fur and pulling her closer.  "Invest it in your private sector, of course!"

Miu growled in excitement, then pounced on Heth, pinning him to the ground and straddling him.  "Then stimulate me—NOW!" and everything after that was lost in purring and clawing and flying fur.

Unfortunately, before any assets could be liquidated, their merger was interrupted by knocking on their suite's hatch.  The young couple ignored it at first—but their visitor was persistent.  Finally Heth threw on a robe and angrily slapped the pressure patch to open the door.

"I said we were not to be disturbed until…"  Heth's voice trailed off.  Rameth, Narrah, and Kirrp the technomancer stood outside.  One look at their faces told Heth that something was very wrong.

"What?" Heth asked.  "What is it?  What's happened?"

"The Engineering Administrator cracked the encryption on McNeilly's datapad," Rameth said, voice grave.

"But that's good news," Heth said, mildly confused.  "Did you find out what he and Varrless were up to?"

"Aye," Rameth nodded.  "And it's serious.  Very serious."  He held out a datapad.  "You need to read this."

"So how did you finally hack it?" Heth asked as he took the datapad and looked over the open text file.

"Uh… actually, it was your mate who figured it out," Rameth confessed.

Heth spun around to look at Miu in surprise.  "You did?  How?  When?"

"While you were recuperating from the first conception, precious," Miu answered as she slipped into her own robe.  When Heth merely stared at her in dumbfounded silence, she shrugged.  "What?  I was bored."

"So you decided to crack a Horadrim encryption algorithm to pass the time?" he asked, incredulous.

"Time is money," she answered—then, for a moment, her lovely face darkened as she narrowed her blue eyes.  "That, and I do have an account to settle with that rat Varrless, you know.  Intercepting the plans with his Horadrim co-conspirator seemed like a good first step toward closing out that account—permanently."

Heth forced his fur not to bristle, and for an instant almost pitied Varrless—he had no idea what kind of ruthless, cutthroat competition he'd unleashed in Miu by betraying her.  Heth had been on Miu's bad side before, and it wasn't pleasant.  He shook his head in wonder, then turned back to the datapad and continued reading the file.  "You never cease to amaze me, my dear."

The compliment seemed to calm her a bit as she slinked up next to him.  "I also didn't exactly crack the encryption—not really," she admitted.  "I just… found a way around it."

"The digital security was pretty massive," Rameth explained.  "My Engineering Admin said if we tried to hack it, there's a good chance it might delete all the data as a final countermeasure.  But then Miu figured out the encryption was unlocked by a Horadrim's Soul Web—in this case, the one keyed specifically to McNeilly's DNA."

"And MIRADI already has a sample of McNeilly's blood and Soul Web nanobots in our labs," Miu added.

"Aye."  Rameth nodded, braided mane undulating.  "So we just waited until the Avarice passed through the Urrin system, stopped long enough to pick up the sample, and… it unlocked everything.  Gave us full access."

But Heth was no longer listening.  He stared in horror at the datapad, aghast at the details of the contract he was reading.  He wished it wasn't true… but knew it was.  "Sky Father above…  If this contract is genuine…"

"It is," Narrah growled, "signed by Varrless and Vin Dane himself, with the blood signatures to prove it."

"What does it say?" Miu asked, suddenly concerned as she looked over Heth's shoulder at the contract. 

Heth tried to summarize the complicated treaty.  "Well, there are many conditions and caveats, such as burying Impossibarium… but basically?  In exchange for Varrless bringing the K'Nes Llan into the Holy Terran Empire, Vin Dane will award Pirr the title of Duke Varrless… and grant him all six K'Nes planets as his fiefdom."

"In other words," Narrah growled, bionic tail twitching angrily, "the entire K'Nes Llan becomes his personal property.  No Executive Board, no Board of Directors, no shareholders votes.  Just Varrless and the Emperor."

"But… why?!" Kirrp burst out, confused and frustrated.  "Why would he do it?  Why surrender to the apes?  We just got rid of them!  They wrecked our economy—the Occupation was a horrible time to do business!"

"Not for Varrless Financial," Narrah hissed.  "Those clawless rats started collaborating with the apes before the war was even over—and got lots of exclusive government contracts with the Federation because of it.  The Varrless clan made tons of money during the Occupation!" he spat bitterly.  "Pirr probably sees this as a return to the 'good old days.'  I suspect he found Chairman Clarke's autocratic management style very… efficient."

"Well, it hasn't happened yet!" Heth reminded them fiercely.  Beside him, he felt more that saw Miu raise a paw to her belly, and knew they were both thinking of their cubs within her, of having to raise them under another human occupation of nobles and cultists… I can't let that happen…  "There's still time to stop this—somehow!  How far has their scheme gone?  How much do we know?"

"We learned a lot from McNeilly's files, boss," Rameth said.  "They had a business plan and a timetable for unifying with the Empire.  Originally, Varrless was going to do it gradually through the Board of Directors.  Y'know, starting off with Non-Aggression Contracts with the Ministry and Jurvain, then an alliance with the Empire, then a trade embargo against the Federation, stuff like that.  Apparently everything went according to plan until the Ministry unified with the Federation.  That derailed Varrless's agenda.  Without a big, neutral Ministry buffer state between the Federation and the K'Nes Llan, the Executive Board got nervous about antagonizing Smythe—especially since the K'Nes hadn't rearmed yet—and pushed for neutrality instead."

Heth nodded, remembering his negotiation with Varrless weeks ago over the Federation's non-aggression contract, how Pirr had opposed it and pushed for an alliance with the fledgling Empire instead.  It had seemed like an odd preference at the time; it made much more sense now.

"A bigger Federation also made the war more desperate for the Empire," Narrah continued, "so now Vin Dane wants the K'Nes to open a second front against the Federation to take some pressure off the Empire."

"A war with the Federation is the last thing the K'Nes Llan needs right now!" Miu exclaimed, exasperated.

"At any rate," Narrah continued, "from what we can tell from Pirr and McNeilly's correspondence, they've begun taking a more… direct approach to achieve their goals recently."

"Like making Yawr and Miu disappear," Heth said, "along with his other political opponents, presumably."

"I'm afraid that was just the beginning, boss," Rameth said, shaking his head with a swirl of black braids.  "Varrless is planning to openly unify with the Empire.  We're not sure when… but soon, very soon."

"Well, then we refuse to join!"  Heth scratched behind his ear nervously, thinking.  "Look, quite simply, this is an illegal contract.  According to the K'Nes Llan Articles of Incorporation, diplomatic treaties—like unifying with the Empire—must be approved by the Board of Directors.  This contract is simply… unenforceable!"

"Anything is enforceable," Narrah said, "with enough boots on the ground and ships in the sky."

Heth's eyes widened in shock at the idea.  "A military coup?!  He wouldn't…"

"Varrless is clearly planning a hostile takeover of the K'Nes Llan," Narrah snarled, "by force, if necessary."

"Force?  What force?  A corporate security team?" Miu scoffed.  "The K'Nes Llan has no war fleet, and as for the Llan Army… is there even a Llan Army?"

"Not an official one," Narrah growled.  "Varrless proposed cobbling a Llan Army together quickly by subcontracting it out to the new private mercenary companies that formed since the Occupation ended—but the K'Nes Llan Executive Board voted down funding it, said it was too expensive, inefficient, and disorganized."

"Not to mention unreliable," Rameth added, "since mercenaries sell their loyalty to the highest bidder."

"Some of those private mercenary companies are run by former colleagues of mine from our old Tor Army days."  The old hunter's face darkened even more.  "They tell me Varrless went ahead and hired them anyway—he simply had Varrless Financial pay for them instead of the K'Nes Llan.  Said it was a temporary stopgap measure until an official Llan Army could be formed.  Apparently the K'Nes Llan Executive Board went along with it because it saved them money… and was better than nothing."

Everyone stared at Narrah for a moment, stunned.  Finally Kirrp spoke, her voice trembling.  "You mean… Varrless has a mercenary army loyal to—"

"Varrless Financial."  Narrah nodded.  "Not the K'Nes Llan."

Silence reigned for moment as everyone absorbed that.  "Do…" Heth asked hesitantly, "do you think they'll actually follow Varrless order for a hostile takeover of the K'Nes Llan?"

Narrah sighed, shaking his head.  "The mercenary company chiefs signed contracts, boss.  Maybe a few will break them and refuse to follow orders… but definitely not all of them.  And it gets worse."  He pointed a claw at Imperial contract in Heth's paws.  "According to the Varrless's contract with Emperor Vin Dane, if the mercenary companies refuse to fight—or even if they do, but meet too much resistance from the population—the Empire will move in to support Varrless's takeover."

"Support him?  How?" Miu scoffed.  "The Empire's on the other side of the galaxy, and the Federation is between them and us!  They'd have to fight their way through a lot of enemy territory just to reach the K'Nes Llan."

"That's, uh… not entirely true," Rameth said with a scowl.

All eyes turned to the veteran spacer.  "Explain," Heth demanded.

"Horadrim ships," Rameth said, looking miserable.  "Emperor Vin Dane is a Horadrim, after all.  I'm sure he's got a few Horadrim warships in his inventory."

The other K'Nes exchanged confused glances.  Rameth may have been a former Tor Navy manger and a spacefaring expert—but they weren't.  "So?" Miu asked.  "They're still on the other side of the known galaxy."

"Not for long," Rameth replied, shaking his shaggy head.  "Horadrim ships are fast!  They have some kind of super-advanced propulsion systems called a 'tunnel drive'."  He spread his paws.  "Look, I don't know how they work—no one does—but the best guess is that they bypass hyperspace altogether, and just sorta… teleport from place to place."  He paused, narrowing his eyes, then shook his head again.  "Well, I know they don't really teleport, that's just what it looks like… but I don't know how else to describe it."

"So how long would it take a Horadrim warship to reach the K'Nes Llan?" Narrah demanded.

Rameth shrugged.  "No knows for sure—the Horadrim are real protective of their technology.  Could be days, could be minutes.  And the worst part?"  He pointed at the datapad in Heth's paws.  "According to McNeilly's files, at least one Horadrim warship—McNeilly's ship—is already here, hiding out somewhere in K'Nes space.  And when McNeilly's crew figure out what we did to him, they're not gonna be happy."

"Just one ship?" Miu asked, puzzled.  "How much of a threat can that be?"

"One Horadrim warship," Rameth clarified, "and those things are… terrifying."  He shivered as his fur bristled.  "Strong.  Fast.  Powerful.  Look, I don't know if it's true or not, but rumor has it they're some kinda… organic technology, bioships that can heal themselves.  People call 'em 'god-ships' for a reason, you know."

Heth and Miu exchanged a glance, each thinking the same thing: Impossibarium.  MIRADI reverse-engineered it from a shard of shrapnel from a Horadrim warship.  If those ships were made of solid Impossibarium-no, a far superior form of Impossibarium!-they would be difficult to damage and near-impossible to destroy.  Rameth's old spacer's rumors suddenly seemed very credible indeed.

"Besides," Rameth continued, "what are we gonna fight it with—freighters?  The K'Nes haven't rebuilt our war fleet yet… not that I'm sure it would do much good against a Horadrim ship…"

"It sounds like Varrless has all the competitive advantages," Kirrp said, sounding dismayed, "and the K'Nes Llan doesn’t have any of the resources it needs to complete with him.  Personally, I'd say to run—but I'm not sure there's anywhere in the known galaxy that's safe to go!"  She hesitated.  "Maybe we should just use our inside knowledge to negotiate for a good position in the new regime…?"  Her voice trailed off as the other K'Nes shook their heads and Narrah let out a low growl.

"It'll be the Occupation all over again!" Rameth hissed.

"Monopoly power will ruin the free market!" Miu spat.

"The K'Nes Llan must remain a self-regulatory organization!" Heth insisted.  "And the only way to guarantee that is to prevent this merger with the Empire!  No, we have to find a way to stop Varrless—and soon."

"But how can we?" Kirrp yowled.  "We're talking about Chairmen and LEOs and Emperors here, who control fleets and armies and whole economies!  How can we possibly stop people with that kind of power?"

"By being proactive," Heth answered, his voice firm.  "Once Varrless launches his takeover, it'll be too late to stop it.  But if we can oust him before he puts his business plan into action, we might have a chance—especially since eliminating McNeilly probably threw off Varrless's timetable."

"That's a good idea… in theory," Miu replied, skeptical.  "But how, in practice, can we remove a sitting LEO of the K'Nes Llan on such short notice?"

"To begin with," Heth said slowly, thinking, "we can get on the K'Nes Llan Board of Directors… or at least I can."  He looked up at the K'Nes surrounding him.  "I'm going to need your help with my presentation to the Nhur Llan Executive Board."



A day later, Heth stopped outside the door to the Executive Boardroom of the Nhur Llan, fumbling nervously for his snuffbox.  Even through the closed door, they could hear the Executive Directors roaring and hissing.  The meeting hadn't even officially started, and already negotiations were in full swing… and breaking down.  Heth sniffed a tiny pinch of nepeta, then looked over his shoulder at Miu and Narrah.  They nodded at him, ready.  They'd rehearsed Heth's presentation hastily but thoroughly, and knew their roles well.  Time for the attention getter, then, Heth thought.  "Suit, armor!"  His waistcoat morphed into a breastplate as Narrah snapped to attention and Miu wrapped an arm around Heth's shoulders and her tail around his waist, purring.  Then he hit the pressure patch to open the door and strolled into the boardroom.

"Don't worry, my treasure," Heth said in a deep stage whisper, just loud enough to be heard.  "This shouldn't take long, and then we can get back to our merger."

"Excellent!" Miu whispered back (loudly) with a smile.  "I can't wait!"  She rested a paw on Heth's cheek and licked his battered face quickly but thoroughly, scratching Heth's cheek with her claws as she turned away.

Heth heard the arguing quiet down as male noses twitched and eyes turned toward the young white kitten in a tight business suit.  Both males in the room—even M'Grrah, the elderly new First Patriarch of the Miao—turned to gaze at Miu.  Of the two female Directors, the older Frrou, the new head of the Nhur Llan, looked coldly amused, while the younger Aou shot a venomous glare at Miu and growled under her breath.

Then the Executive Directors noticed the runt in power armor… and the old scar-faced thug behind him.

"Who the scat are you?" Frrou demanded.

"Miao K'Rrowr K'Heth," Heth said, cowering politely as he slid up to the negotiating table.  "I apologize for my absence—I came home as soon as I could, but my last contract took me halfway across the known galaxy."

Turr, a plump orange tabby, blinked in disbelief.  "You're the fifth Executive Director?"

Frrou's eyes narrowed in suspicion, tail swishing pensively.  "And who are your… associates, then?"

Heth turned to Miu, grinning.  "May I introduce Prurr K'Aou K'Miu, my contracted mate and CEO of Miao Mercantile's newest subsidiary, MIRADI."  He paused long enough for Miu to drop a quick cower to the Executive Directors.  "She's graciously agreed to assist me in presentation to the Board.  And this…"  He turned and held a paw out to Narrah.  "…is Rror K'Gurr K'Narrah, my bodyguard."  He threw an apologetic look at the Executive Directors.  "I told him it wasn't necessary to escort me, but I'm afraid he takes his job rather seriously."

"Narrah?"  The elderly M'Grrah squinted at the battle-scarred old solider.  "Tor Chief Narrah?"

"Just Praetor Narrah now," he replied, cowering politely, "of the Miao Mercantile Mercenary Company."

Turr turned to other Executive Directors, dumbfounded.  "We have a mercenary company?"

"We do now," Heth answered, hopping up onto the only empty perch at the negotiating table.  "I had to assemble rather suddenly, at Yawr's request, for a confidential contract with the Earth Federation.  I'm happy to report that our first engagement was successful—and lucrative!  I've received confirmation from Chairman Smythe that the hypergate has been moved into orbit."

"Hypergate?" Frrou asked, confused.  "What hypergate?"

"The Nhur-Andersvald hypergate," Heth replied.  He paused for a moment to let that sink in.  The Executive Directors stared at him silently with wide eyes.  Everyone in that boardroom understood exactly how vital rebuilding the commercial hyperspace lane was to reversing the economic woes of their home planet and corporate clan.  "Yawr, I understand," Heth continued, "was keeping the contract a Miao trade secret until the deal was completed.  You see, in exchange for extracting Federation loyalists from an Imperial siege on Cronos—which I did successfully, I might add—Smythe moved the Federation's defunct Phoenix-Avalon hypergate into orbit in the Andersvald system.  Now that we can finally take this news public, I imagine stock prices for both the Nhur Llan and Miao Mercantile will see a considerable rise in value.  If we handle our assets carefully, we might even be able to beat out Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP for a seat on the Executive Board of the K'Nes Llan."

Around the table, the Executive Directors stared at Heth speechlessly, delighted but overwhelmed by the torrent of new information.  Turr turned to Frrou, incredulous.  "We have a mercenary company?  Really?"

"Now, according to the contract," Heth continued, "Miao Mercantile is responsible for rebuilding the hypergate on the Nhur side—it's only fair, considering we ripped the old one apart to build the gravity drives for our super-freighters."  He sighed. "Unfortunately, constructing a hypergate is a very expensive proposition.  Miu?"

Miu had already connected her datapad wirelessly to the holoprojector in the center of the boardroom table.  As she tapped a claw on her pad, the image of an itemized quote appeared floating over the tabletop.  "This is our latest estimate of the hypergate construction cost," she explained.  Around the room, eyes widened and jaws dropped at the staggering expense.  "Unfortunately, as you can see," Miu continued, "the price of certain components on the galactic market has been driven up due to the economic disruption caused by the ape's wars."

"It's a significant investment, no doubt," Heth said, "but still well within reach of Miao Mercantile's assets—and with an excellent rate of return!  The faster we get it built, the faster the money will start pouring in." 

Miu tapped her pad again and different chart popped up on the holoprojector.  "This is our initial ten-year profit projection," she said.  The Executive Director's eyes widened again, but this time for a very different reason.

"This is all assuming, of course, that Miao Mercantile stays intact," Heth added.  "If rival prides spin off into separate companies, none of them will have the enough capital to build a hypergate."  He narrowed his eyes and glared at the other Executive Directors.  "Let me be clear: It is in the interest of everyone's portfolio for Miao Mercantile to stay intact and coordinate our resources toward a joint investment."  Heth folded his paws on the table.  "Now, I understand our best chance of doing that is to retain the balance of power within the clan by appointing a neutral Miao as acting CEO of the company, one not aligned with either of the two major prides."  Heth sighed.  "Unfortunately, despite exhaustive research, I haven't had much luck in finding a qualified candidate who meets that criteria.  Do any of you have a suggestion?"

Once again, the shareholders stared at Heth silently.  Frrou turned to Turr, hissing, "Who is this K'Nes?"

Turr poked at his datapad.  "A K'Rrowr… a minor pride of a cadet branch of the clan… Junior Director of Transit, then Senior Director of… Human Operations?"  He looked up at Frrou, bewildered.  "He's… nobody!"

Frrou bared her fangs at Heth in a predator's grin.  "He's perfect!"

Inwardly, Heth smiled in satisfaction.  Outwardly, he kept his face innocent.  "Perfect for what, exactly?"



Heth and Miu collapsed into the cushion, panting, bleeding, and blissful. It took Heth a moment to recover.  "I wish I could always celebrate a promotion like this," he sighed.  "Talk about an incentive to perform!"

Miu curled up around Heth.  "Well, it looks like I entered into a reproductive partnership with the CEO of major corporate clan after all," she purred, still panting, "and I much prefer you to the CEO of Varrless Financial!"

Heth grinned.  He loved hearing her say stuff like that.  "Yes, well… it's still a downgrade for you, I'm afraid," he teased her.  "Pirr was LEO of the K'Nes Llan, after all.  I can't claim a title nearly that illustrious."

"You also didn't try to have me killed for power and profit," she reminded him.  "I consider that an upgrade, thank you very much."  She nuzzled up against him and gave his neck a quick, reassuring lick.  "Besides, Miao Mercantile may not be on the K'Nes Llan Executive Board, but it is on the Board of Directors.  And, since it holds the most K'Nes Llan shares among the lesser shareholders, that makes you Chair of the K'Nes Llan Board of Directors—in addition to CEO of Miao Mercantile.  That's not exactly something to sniff at, Heth."

He shrugged, exhausted, aching, and euphoric.  "Comes with the job.  I only hope I'm a worthy successor to Yawr.  I got lucky at the Miao Executive Board meeting, I suppose.  I wasn't sure our plan would work."

"Oh, I knew it would," Miu said.  She held up a paw and began ticking items off on her claws.  "Let's see… you show up in power armor with a war hero as your personal bodyguard and a beautiful young kitten on your arm who you've clearly just mated.  Then you announce a contract you've negotiated with one of the most powerful apes in the galaxy for a hypergate that will drastically improve the entire clan's profits.  And finally, of course, there was the implication that you had a battle-proven mercenary company under your personal control."

"Yes, a little fear does lead to more favorable terms," Heth mused, "as long as it's not taken as a threat."

"So," Miu said, "you entered the boardroom and established yourself as dominant male within seconds."

"Yes… yes, I suppose I did, didn't I?" Heth said, sounding mildly surprised with himself.  "I guess I hadn't quite thought of it that way…"

"Well, I did."  Miu gave Heth a lecherous fanged grin—then her tail whipped around Heth's throat and yanked him over on top of her.  "And I have to admit… I like it!"  Her claws began digging into Heth's fur.

He wasn't sure he had the stamina for another round so soon… but it simply wasn't polite to keep the lady waiting.  Besides, Miu wasn't the type of person who took no for an answer.




            "Take them!  Take them and bring them here!  We should make an example for all heathens!"

            Scyr slumped on a park bench as he watched the small, seething mob drag a man and a woman across the grass towards a little gazebo.  The couple had made the mistake of attracting the mob's attention by attempting to flee towards a Christian cathedral at the edge of the park the moment they caught sight of the angry crowd on the sidewalk.  Two dozen jeering, spitting thugs had blocked the pair's way, then tackled and wrestled them to the ground.

            "These infidels give shelter to the traitors and demons sworn to destroy our homes and devour our souls!  We must root out and purge them all!  Our Emperor and our God demands it!"

            The mob had started out relatively amorphous and leaderless, but now one cultist seemed to have taken charge with a strong voice and some exhortations possibly cribbed from low-budget holodramas.  If Vin Dane had ever demanded that his worshippers carry out any sort of pogrom against non-cultists, this was the first Scyr had heard of it.

            "Show them the price of treason!"

            Scyr considered killing the leader and perhaps some of the other cultists.  He could do it.  He could conjure flame and fury to smite every one of them.  Or he could banish them to another realm to starve in impotent isolation.  Or he could simply pick up the steel bench and hurl it into their ribs.  But it would accomplish little.  The mob tied the crying hostages to the pillars of the gazebo and began tearing off their clothes.  Saving them from a brutal end would bring Scyr no closer to his goal.  Indeed, if the Imperial Guard took notice of his actions, it might push him even further from it.

            "Who has a knife?" demanded the fanatics' chief.

            Scyr lay still where he was and studied the man's glow.  Everyone had a glow now, every person, every creature, plants, and more than a few dumb objects.  The aura was not as disconcerting as it might have been, given that Scyr now felt like he was constantly seeing double.  Indeed, there was a familiarity to his new sight that made him suspect he had always been able to see this way, and had simply blocked the vision from his conscious awareness.  No more.  He could see the souls of everything around him plain as day.  Little good though it did him.  At least it was mildly amusing to compare the brightness of some individuals' essences against others.  Several of the shouting rioters had souls no brighter than that of the dog peeing on a tree at another corner of the park.  Scyr wanted to laugh at that, but the thought only made him angry.  He could see no trace of light within his own self.  Instead there were only the two figures bound to him by silver chains.  Always present now, no matter what he did or how he tried to close his mind to their sight.

            A glint of light that was genuinely physical and not ethereal caught Scyr's eye.  Something was moving in a small pile of trash a few meters away in the grass, upsetting a metallic wrapper that caught the sun for just a moment.  Ordinarily, Scyr would have dismissed the disturbance as a small animal or large insect picking about for food.  But whatever this was lacked even the dim mystic aura of the squirrels and birds around the park.  Something odd had crawled into the trash, and that warranted Scyr's attention.

            He felt the Gauntlet shiver as he forced his body across its surface once more.  Then he forced his reluctant limbs to drag him up off the bench.  The realm here, very near to the material world, shaped itself readily in response to the focus of Scyr's mind, removing unnecessary details and distractions.  He walked forward, and could easily see the shadow of the thing creating the disturbance within the mound of litter.  It looked like an insect, albeit a huge one, with long, spindly legs and a multitude of other small appendages protruding from its body.  But it was built of metal and plastic, not organic tissue, and painted with one subdued matte color.  Here in the Umbra, Scyr could see the fine threads of purpose and data which emanated from the device like puppet strings extending into the foggy distance.  The little machine adjusted its position once more, coming to a rest facing the cultist mob.

            Scyr reached thumb and forefinger past the Gauntlet and plucked the thing out of its realm and into his own.

            "Little bug," Scyr said hoarsely.  "Won't you tell me who your master is?"



            Argus finished reconfiguring the deployment of his sniper drones and then issued the new instructions.  The loss of one of the remotes irritated him, probably more than it ought to.  It was true that being on a covert mission so far behind enemy lines meant that he could forget replacing any of the complicated pieces of hardware anytime soon.  But on the other hand, if this mission hadn't wrapped up within the next few days, it would almost certainly mean Argus and his fellow soldiers had much bigger problems.

            Really, what bothered him more was just that he'd been careless to lose the drone.  There'd been no military need for him to get such a close view of a mob atrocity.  The need to keep a low profile meant he certainly couldn't do a damn thing about what they did to those poor people, either.  These cultist types just pissed Argus off, and he took a kind of unholy pleasure in feeding his anger at them.  Like some kind of masochistic voyeur.

            He shook his cybernetic head in a silent sigh.  The drones' new configuration was much more functional, even if it would be less fun for Argus to watch through their distant eyes.  Life was sacrifice, after all.

            Argus' enhanced senses allowed him to quickly perceive and understand the several things which happened abruptly and in rapid succession.  First, his vision was sharply curtailed as much of the non-visible spectrum in which he had grown used to seeing went dark.  At roughly the same time, the thinly upholstered bench of the pub booth in which he had been pretending to lounge while nursing a beer disappeared from beneath him… as did the rest of the pub.  Slightly less than a second later, and before he landed on his tailbone, something wrapped around both his ankles and hoisted Argus into the air with a jerk.

            This last event proved embarrassingly disconcerting to the remaining flesh-and-blood portions of Argus' mind and senses, badly disorienting him and preventing him from responding immediately to his situation.

            "It may interest you to know," rasped a voice from behind Argus, "that these remotes seem to form a weak spiritual connection with their controller."

            Argus craned his neck around, and whatever held his ankles in the air spun slowly until he could see the source of the voice.  Which was apparently a teenager in a rather beat-up tuxedo.  A blond-haired, blue-eyed kid sporting an intense expression like he'd just finished modeling for a 20th century Nazi propaganda poster.  Argus queued up the anti-personnel rounds in his railgun.

            "Or maybe it's the controller that forms the connection with the remotes."  The kid tilted his head slightly, without taking his eyes off of Argus.  "I really haven't had the time to conduct a thorough study."

            A quick glance around.  The thing holding Argus up looked like a pair of oily-black tentacles erupting from the ground to ensnare his feet.  The ground itself was similarly dark and unnatural looking… and seemed to extend as far as Argus could see in all directions, bearing no landmarks and shrouded in a dimly luminescent gray haze.  That could not be a good sign.

            The kid in the tuxedo reached into his coat pocket and flicked something at Argus.  A sniper drone tumbled in the air a moment before fluttering its insectile wings and clutching onto Argus' lapel.

            "Master!  Master!" it buzzed in a tiny monotone.  Which was truly astonishing, since the drones had neither the programming nor the hardware to produce speech of any kind.

            "Stubbornly loyal thing, for a machine," the kid in the tuxedo said, and then harrumphed.  "Not the least bit grateful to be given its own mind and will.  But I suppose you can be proud."  His already grim expression fell further.  "Or, you know, not.  Since it means I'm interrogating you now."

            Subtly as he could while hanging upside down, Argus brought his left arm to bear on the kid.  Without knowing where he was or what exactly was going on, he was reluctant to actually shoot just yet.  But he was definitely more reluctant to be "interrogated."

            "I have backup, you know," Argus said instead.  "They'll know I'm missing and be after me in minutes.  If you put me down right now, I might ask them not to kill you."

            The blond kid just leaned in.  "I'll give you that threat for free. After all, you have no idea what you're dealing with yet."  He reached up with his left arm to pinch at what looked like empty air.  "But let me show you the last person who exhausted my patience."

            The air above his shoulder began to darken, and Argus squinted to make out the shadow of some kind of round object emerging from the gloom, and which was trailing a rope or cable that tuxedo kid was holding between his fingers.

            Before the image could solidify, however, Titus Vardan appeared behind Argus' captor.  In his left hand, the werewolf held the elbow of Frances Xavier, who had both of her hands pressed to her forehead in concentration.  Titus' right hand was on the shoulder of a very pissed-off looking Josie Davis.

            Tuxedo boy didn't even have time to turn around before Josie grabbed him with both arms.  There was a sound like the boom of a bass drum, and the kid flew twenty meters through the air before skidding and flopping along the ground.  Whatever illusion he had been shaping vanished into fog.

            Titus looked over Argus' predicament with a tight-lipped frown, then drew his sword and cut the tentacles which held Argus in a single casual swing.  The fall probably wasn't long enough to seriously risk breaking Argus' neck, but it was still long enough to be painful.  The cyborg soldier hissed his thanks through clenched teeth.

            "Are you all right?" Josie asked, stepping up and offering Argus a hand, while still keeping a sharp eye on the kid she'd just blown a good distance away.  "You dropped out of contact right after reporting the drone; we thought you might need some help."

            "We thought you might have given us away to the enemy," Titus added haughtily.

            "I'm peachy," Argus muttered as he pulled himself to his feet.  Then he turned around and raised his left arm, genuinely ready for business this time.  "Not sure what happened yet, but I know who to ask to find out."



            Scyr pushed himself up from the ground as calmly as he could.  His suit was scuffed up even more now, but he didn't seem to have any broken bones from the impact or his rough landing—one advantage to working inside a realm whose shape and substance adjusted to his thoughts.

            His captive and the three interlopers were advancing cautiously but rapidly on his position.  Scyr sat up properly and brushed off the front of his jacket to greet them.  The large man among them was holding an impressively large sword with the point leveled towards Scyr's throat, while the guy Scyr had first plucked into the Umbra was pointing with just his empty hand.  The women were armed, but had their weapons holstered for the moment.  More interestingly, they were both accompanied by shimmering, translucent figures.  Each moved on its own, but stuck closely enough to almost resemble the women's shadows.  And they were both looking warily at Scyr's internal dialogue as they approached.  Fully awakened Avatars, which meant the two women were mages.

            "All right, kid," said the original captive.  "Time to tell us—"

            "Whoa, shit!" one of the women interjected, the one with the purple hair.  "Babyface?  Is it—yeah!  What in the hell are…?"  She trailed off, mouth gaping slightly.

            Scyr smoldered at her look of recognition.  Of all the stupid, damnable coincidences...  He glanced up to where the floating brain was hovering near him.  The two Avatars followed his gaze, though others still seemed unable to see anything.  The brain opened to his own mind.  Scyr had been avoiding looking any deeper into its store of memories, avoiding any further knowledge or understanding.  Now he could feel a hint of self-righteous satisfaction as the information poured out, which he squashed as quickly as he could.  Reversing his whole approach to these memories in the space of a moment simply because someone recognized him was obnoxious.  But Scyr had little choice if he wanted to produce a credible response.  With more warning, he could have at least taken care to limit his exposure, to extract only those details he needed.  Now he was diving in wholly unshielded.  As best he could, he ignored all the miscellanies flooding into his consciousness, looking for the few pieces of data he needed, but that was difficult to the point of impossibility.  He needed so little, but there was too much to sort through, and once Scyr knew any of it, he would not be able to forget again.

            So much for suppression.

            "Ah," Scyr said after a second.  The inflection of his voice had changed, becoming more subdued, while his tone dropped an entire octave.  "Corporal Xavier.  You seem to have done well for yourself."

            "It's sergeant, now, actually," she said.  Then she shook her head abruptly and her expression hardened as she seemed to become aware of the situation once more.

            "Do you want to share?" the red-headed mage who had knocked Scyr around hissed.

            Xavier nodded, and waved one hand towards Scyr.  "This is Babyface Dixon.  Uh, Major Osvald Dixon, TI.  Everyone called him Babyface because he looks like a kid.  He was a tracker for my battalion in the Crusader Teams."  She glanced around with narrowed eyes.  "Spirit mage."

            Scyr smiled.  It was harder than it used to be.  "Pleased to meet you all," he said.

            "This man reeks of the Weaver's influence," the werewolf holding the sword said.

            "Pardon?" Scyr asked.  He noticed both of the mage's Avatars nodding, and he raised a perplexed eyebrow.

            "Weaver?" the man Scyr had briefly captured and quickly lost asked.  "I'm not up to date on canine cosmology; does that make him like an anti-vampire?"

            "I have never seen a Drone before," the werewolf said.  "But I would not take their powers lightly."  He advanced one pace towards Scyr, adjusting his grip on the sword.  "Nor would I trust their intentions."

            Xavier shook her head slowly.  "I think you're misreading him."  The werewolf gave her a sharp glare, but she met it with a shrug.  "Weaver's stasis, right?  I think he's just got a static resonance," she looked back at Scyr, "and he's absolutely drowning in Paradox.  What the hell have you been doing, Babyface?"

            Scyr leaned back on his elbows, grinning broadly but preparing his magick for an escape.  "Well, my schedule has been pretty light this morning.  But I suppose I got quite the workout a couple days ago when I blew up the Imperial Palace and tore Vin Dane's soul in half.  And I truly hope for your sake that you're not thinking of stopping me from finishing off the rest of him, Sergeant."



            "You people cannot be serious.  You cannot be serious!"

            Bernard Dent turned his massive head towards Josie Davis.  "And why is that, Corporal?"

            Josie was incredulous.  "Are you nuts?  Ex-TI creepy loner mage who just happens to find us and wants the same thing we do?  There's no fucking way we can trust him!"

            "Like we trust the Sabbat?" Argus asked idly.

            Josie glared at him.  "He tried to torture you!"

            "Actually, he just said he was going to interrogate me in an ominous voice.  You showed up before I got to see if that meant torture," Argus pointed out.  "Thanks, by the way."

            "The Lieutenant makes a relevant observation," Major Reid said from over near the door of the small abandoned apartment she had located for the TI soldiers.  "We wouldn't be meeting like this if we really trusted the Sabbat as allies."

            "Forget trust," Jason Regis chimed in.  "They've been no kind of help at all since we got here, especially now that the riots are tearing up their safehouses."

            "Riots which Frances' friend caused!" Josie protested.

            "Not my friend," Xavier muttered.

            Dent looked over to her.  "What is your opinion, Sergeant?  You're the one that knows him, and I need a definitive judgment, here."

            The prime mage closed her eyes and sighed.  "I don't believe he's a spy," she said.  "Not a spy for the Empire, at any rate.  And I really didn't know him well as a Crusader, but he's definitely changed from back then.  A lot.  Babyface was quiet, didn't crack jokes, never even smiled.  This guy…"  She opened her eyes and shook her head firmly.  "I'm with Lieutenant Vardan.  I don't know what it is for sure, but something is seriously wrong with him.  We shouldn't trust him."

            The werewolf Titus nodded with self-satisfied grace.

            Jason Regis raised his hand.  "I think I'll say this again: forget trust for a moment.  Can he actually help us?  I think the chaos with Vin Dane's security is actually a good thing.  But if we don't get any sort of momentum towards a plan, we're going to miss that window."

            "As just another mage in the fight, he adds little marginal utility," Argus said, and he ignored almost everyone else in the room rolling their eyes.  "So what really matters is whether he can give us any more useful information, or otherwise help create a plan in the first place.  Or maybe if he could perform some specific special task, like de-mage-ifying the Empress, too."

            All the mages in the room twitched.  Captain Soti spoke up in a stern but quavering voice.  "The Rite of Gilgul is not something to speak of lightly.  Even in the best of circumstances, it is a tactic of last resort, used only on Mages whose souls and avatars are so dark and twisted and... inverted... as to be an extreme danger to reality and existence itself.  It is not a weapon you pull out and use to settle disputes, even major ones, nor is it one you can use without cost to yourself.  Extreme cost…"

            "It's the magickal equivalent of using a cee-fractional strike on your own capital city to take out a minor street gang," chimed Diana Reid.  "He's lucky to still be conscious, let alone in complete control of himself."

            "Assuming he is," interrupted Soti, looking at the door to the room they'd locked "Babyface" in with a disturbed expression on her face.

            "And given that Vin Dane was not a natural-born Mage, but was awakened in a Technocracy lab, I'm surprised it worked at all," Davis interjected.

            "Hmmph," Soti replied.  "It's for removing inverted avatars from Nephandi.  Whatever dark ritual they used to graft an Avatar onto a Horadrim soul might have been related in some way to the Caul ceremony that can invert an Avatar in the first place."

"I don't care what sort of Runehead ritual crap was involved," Vardan cut in.  "Did Vin Dane really lose his mage powers, and can he wield the Orb without them?"

"Yeah, without the Orb and the ability to warp reality to his whims, killing him will be a whole lot easier," Argus agreed.  "Heck, little old non-magickal me can do that on my own now."  He glanced at the awakened spy drone still clinging to his lapel.  "Okay, mostly non-magickal me," Argus amended.

            "Killing him!  Kill the Emperor!" buzzed the drone.

            "I still don't trust that thing, either," Davis griped.

            Jason Regis shrugged.  "I can't find any alterations to the programming or hardware.  It's the same as all of the Lieutenant's other remotes, it's just got a minor spirit now, too.  A bloodthirsty one, it seems."

            "Enough!" Dent raised both hands in exasperation.  Once the room had quieted down again, he looked over his shoulder.  "Major Reid, can you see any critical use for a spirit mage on this operation?"

            Reid crossed her arms and lowered her chin for a moment in thought.  "Many," she said.  "Spirit summons for support or distraction, tracking, maybe alternative covert transport if I were incapacitated or unavailable.  I think it does come down to a judgment of trust, not usefulness."  She raised her head again to look the werebear lieutenant colonel in the eyes.

            "Fine," Dent sighed.  "I'm accepting his assistance on a very tentative, very limited basis.  We find out what he can contribute, but share no operational details except any which directly involve him.  And either Titus, Irfan, Jason, or myself will need to keep an eye on him at all times.  Maybe Bishop, too."

            He pressed on before the grumbling could gain steam.  "And speaking of the Sabbat, Captain Regis is correct, further delay is unacceptable.  I'm going to put my size-thirty foot down at the meeting this sundown.  We will scratch out at least a preliminary operation plan tonight and we will execute it this week.  Whatever price we might pay in blood will be nothing compared to what the Federation will pay if we can't pull this off, and soon."

            "Well, until we start the Blood Tithe again, anyway," Xavier said darkly.

            No one said anything to argue.



            "You're absolutely sure that the Empress is using the Orb now?" Scyr asked tersely.  He was not smiling.

            The big stony-faced werewolf looked offended to even be speaking with him.  "That is what the leec—"

            "What our allies," corrected the brunette mage at the table.  For some reason, all the mages assigned to this operation appeared to be female.  Scyr wondered if that had been intentional.

            "What credible intelligence sources have informed us," finished the cyborg.  He appeared to be looking down at the table, but since learning of the man's enhancements, Scyr no longer trusted any such appearances.

            He lifted both his hands to rest on the table.  "Well, truly your operational security standards are a wonder to behold.  But I don't actually care who your allied intelligence whatevers are, as long as what they say is believable.  So if the Orb's got a capable user again, then I'm probably going to have to change tactics."

            The brunette's eyes were unimpressed.  "With all due respect, M. Dixon, but your role in this operation is not to decide tactics.  To neutralize the Orb, we're going to replicate the method used by Vin Dane against Xavier Pollos.  You will be assisting me, and possibly Sergeant Xavier, in suppressing the, ah, 'unreality' of the Orb long enough for our other operatives to eliminate the Empress—or whoever its wielder might be."

            "You want me to tell the Orb that it's not allowed to reshape reality?"

            "Well I think you're actually supposed to use magick," the cyborg said, eliciting a grunt from the werewolf.

            Scyr shook his head.  "That plan sounds hazardous to my well-being."

            The werewolf leaned forward.  "Do you know what would be more hazardous than obeying the Captain?"

            The mage captain ignored all of them.  "The very instant we move in, we'll need to begin the suppression field.  It's not clear yet whether we'll be going in conventionally, or if Major Reid will..."

            Scyr leaned back with a sigh and tuned out her voice.



            Several hours later, he saw it.  Light like a second sun, enough to wake him up in the dank, ill-lit room where the Federation assassins thought they had him secured.  He looked around.  The big werewolf, Vardan, was watching him again, and the shapechanger sneered at Scyr's glance.  He didn't seem to have noticed anything, though, which was good.

            The light was a few kilometers away, but not that far, not even past the horizon.  After the hikes Scyr had made several days ago, it almost seemed like no distance at all.  Close enough that Scyr didn't even think twice about playing the hunch.

            "What are you doing?" Vardan asked, getting up out of his own seat as Scyr climbed to his feet.

            Scyr winked at him.  "Wish upon a falling star," he said.

            Then he was gone across the Gauntlet, laughing and running towards the blazing light.



A moment after the Denim Man closed the portal around himself, there was a kind of pop-crackle noise immediately followed by the deafening sound of the rending of metal.

"The hell?"  Five drew up the forward display and was greeted by a layer of flame and smoke force-blasted over the contours of the vessel.

"Is... is that.... are we in atmosphere?"  Izzy attempted to squint through the virtual display as though he could see beyond the fire.

"That bastard!" Five exclaimed as she punched the air angrily.  The Denim Man reappeared in the halo of an incongruous universe.  "What the hell did you do!?"

"Trust me, I'm doing you a favor," the Denim Man replied calmly.  "If I had teleported you into Avalon orbit, you would've been destroyed before I could close the portal, and no one wants that.  It was far simpler to get you in under the radar, so to speak.  I've teleported you into Avalon's atmosphere.  Judging by design specs…" the horadrim glanced out of the hole in space-time, as though he could tell the make and model by just that, "your craft can handle a little atmo."

"You could've damn well warned us first!  Aussie!?"

"Already compensating for atmospheric sheer.  Buckle up, kids," Aussie said as she punched feverishly at the controls.  The inertial dampeners did an admirable job of masking their deceleration, but there was no way this was going to end smoothly.

"Don't worry so much, I've set you on a trajectory that takes you through a—relatively—unpopulated area… well, for Avalon, anyway.  You should have a soft landing."

A worried-looking Freak appeared on a display.  "Crash boom!  Crash boom Boom BOOM!"

"Two seconds ago we were going through space, we weren't traveling at atmospheric velocities, you moron!" Agent Five yelled at the Denim Man.  "We'll be pancaked before you can say breakfast time!"

Izzy's fingers and mind flitted over the controls.  Yes, the craft was designed for atmosphere, but it had never made the transition quite so suddenly.  Izzy worked madly to convert the ship to deal with added atmospheric strain.

With a shrug, the Denim Man mended the hole in space-time shut.

Agent Five traced arcane symbols through the air.  "Not really my field, but every bit counts.  Gonna do everything I can to slow us down."

"Use the force, Luke!" Izzy encouraged her.  She shot him a look.

Through the fiery haze they could intermittently see a far off horizon through a bank of clouds.  Between the fire crackled Five's magic.  The metal of the ship groaned and strained under the various pressures.

"A British tar is a soaring soul, free as a mountain bird," Izzy sang without warning, "his energetic fist should be ready to resist a dictatorial word!"  His voice was jaunty, but his face a grim mask of concentration.  Five knew better than to deny him his Gilbert & Sullivan at this moment.

"His nose should pant—"  Five continued.

"And his lips should curl—" Izzy answered,

"His cheeks should flame—"

"And his brow should furl—"

"His bosom should heave—"

"And his heart should glow—"

"And his fist be ever-ready for a n-n-n-n-knock down blow!" Freak finished.

The flames had begun to die down, though the ceramic and metal smoked, they were coming in fast and hot, but at least they probably wouldn't be vaporized on impact.   Everyone checked and double checked their harnesses between adjusting the ship's course.

"Brace for impact!" Aussie cut across the impromptu Gilbert and Sullivan review.  "5... 4... 3… 2…"

The ship howled as it connected with the earth, leaving a long smoking trail in the planet.  The ship spun as it smashed and snagged into vegetation and skidded across concrete until it piled up in great flakes in front of them.

Just as quickly as it had begun, it was over.  The yellowish emergency lights flickered intermittently and the Legacy tried its hardest to filter the smoky control room to no avail.  The hologram AI Izzy had abandoned since acquiring his crew wavered and malfunctioned uselessly halfway out of a bulkhead.  The ship's fire suppressant systems sprang to life halfheartedly.

Izzy was the first to regain his bearings as he took stock of his poor little Legacy in its death throes.  "Everyone all right?"

There was a slight cough. "Present!" Agent Five answered.

"Still alive," Bertie's voice came out tinny and crackling through the damaged com system.  "I'll be right up to assist with evacuation."

A groaning sound from the other side of the room caught Izzy's attention.  Twedt lay slumped over her chair, her eyes half open yet sightless.  Underneath her, the console emitter was shattered.

"Larry?" asked Aussie, who was already on her feet clearing a path.  "I'm going to go check for Larry and Freak."

Izzy nodded to Aussie, then opened the comm.  "Doctor, Twedt is in shock.  She's still alive—her heart is still beating—but it's erratic.  Please hurry."

"Right."  He could almost hear the Doctor's nod in her voice as she snapped the com connection shut.

Agent Five worked to manually clear a path to the outside.  Though there was plenty of breathable atmosphere outside, the ship was still sealed for spaceflight, and the air was quickly becoming contaminated with smoke and chemical fumes.  Five took stock of her location and began cutting away at the no longer functional bulkhead door, sending a shower of blue sparks arcing across the hall and burning little noxious holes in the carpeting.  As soon as the Doctor arrived to tend to Twedt, Izzy took up a position next to Agent Five.  After making a good dent in one of the bulkheads Izzy stopped suddenly, a mixture of realization and disgust written on his face.  "Actually, I have a better idea."  Without warning, he grabbed Five by the shoulders and teleported her outside.

Next was Doctor O'Brien and her patient Twedt, then Aussie, who had found both Larry and Freak, both shaken but in relatively good condition.  They were teleported outside last.

Once they were far enough away from the smoking hulk of a wreckage, they found themselves on the outskirts of a city.  Off in the distance, a black column of smoke rose into the sky like an ephemeral skyscraper.

"Is... that's not the palace, is it?" Bertie gawped at the black plume.

"Come on," Agent Five urged them.  "We need to keep moving.  Authorities will be here to investigate any minute now."

"I'll carry Twedt," Izzy offered.  "Let's go."

            With silent nods all around, they scurried into the city.  Only after they'd crossed the first five blocks without appearing to attract any attention did someone ask, in a loud whisper, "Okay, so, now that we have arrived... what exactly are we planning to do?"
            Izzy gave Agent Five a sidelong glance, raising one eyebrow.  But she only shook her head.
            "It's your party, O glorious leader."
            "But..."  Izzy knitted his brow.  "Well, I don't know!  It's not as though these things come with instruction manuals: 'For toppling governments, turn to index three...'"
            "Heh heh," chuckled Freak, "boom!"
            Izzy flinched.  "I hope not so much 'boom' as, 'Hail, Dorothy, the Wicked Witch is dead!'"
            "Um, if your plan was to drop a house on the witch, I think we just missed," Agent Five said acerbically, gazing back towards their crash site.
            "Well," Doctor O'Brien said, peering at the woman Izzy was still holding in his arms, "if no one else has any suggestions, how about we find a hospital for this poor dear—OOF!"
            Roberta doubled over and nearly fell off her feet as a small man in a black suit seemed to appear out of thin air and swung a piece of steel rebar into her ribs.  Then he lifted the bar over his head and brought it down on her shoulder with a krunch that sent the doctor sprawling onto the sidewalk.
            "Bertie!"  Izzy nearly dropped Twedt to reach out and grab his friend, but caught himself with a quick stagger.
            "Nothing personal," the attacker said in a dark voice.  He let the piece of metal drop from his hand onto the ground.  "I just don't have the patience to allow anyone to follow me right now."
            "What..."  Izzy bit his tongue as the stranger turned to face him.  Something about the man's blue eyes almost made his skin crawl.
            "Anyway, someone once told me that it's easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission."  He reached out a hand and clamped it around Agent Five's elbow.  Five gasped, and grabbed at the holster on her waist.  "So, please, forgive me," the stranger said.
            "Alphonse!" Five gasped, a helpless expression affixed on her face as she and her captor simply disappeared once again.



            "Good.  We don't need him," Fabian Cortez opined upon hearing that the mysterious "Babyface" had fled so deep into the Umbra that not even the TI werewolves could track him.  "As useful as he could have been, he was also a major threat to our plans."

            The sitting room in the Sabbat quarters deep beneath the Black Beetle Bar had been converted into a sort of information center for collecting leads on the whereabouts of Vin Dane.  Sabbat members, their ghouls and henchmortals, and the handful of remaining active Federation spies on Avalon were all searching for him.  It should have been easy—someone as much of a public figure as the Emperor would normally be easy to track down.  But after the destruction of his palace, he'd gone into hiding.  Rumors swirled around the Capital that he was dead, he was comatose, he had ascended to become a purely spiritual being, or that he had left the planet entirely to lead his armies in person at last.

            William Bishop longed to be out in person himself, making use of his abilities to pass unnoticed in a dense urban environment like Avalon City or New Chicago.  But for the moment, he was stuck here, playing messenger boy between his supposed masters in the Raptors and his actual ones in the Sabbat.  Or was it the other way around?  It depended on his mood at the moment, he supposed.  And his mood at the moment was foul.  As was that of Cortez.

            "Why in hell would he think he could just waltz into the Palace and attack Vin Dane single-handed?" the Werepanther mused.  "Even Mordred would bring backup."

"Don't be so sure about that," Cortez replied.  "My Master could do it all by himself.  But he doesn't need to.  That's what we're for."

"So why won't he be joining us?"

"Because he is needed on Wilke's Star, keeping the factions in line while we set up the government of our new independent state.         He's focused on the future while we deal with the present."  Cortez grimaced as his eyes shifted to peek at the enormous Werebear the Feds had sent to lead their part of this mission, as he went over the latest reports with Cortona.  "And the past that doesn't know it's already history."  What idiot sends a Werebear to stomp around Avalon with those enormous feet of his when any fool can see that this sort of mission requires subtlety?  Stealth.  A delicate touch.  He remembered Mata Hari saying something to him about how the best assassin was never the fittest soldier but the weakest woman… or was that Lucrezia Borgia?  The past was always a blur, and his own most of all.

Speaking of women, but definitely not weak ones, Cortona came over to Cortez with a flexi in her hand.  "The nets are reporting that the Emperor will make a live net address to his people tonight," she informed the Ghoul.  "To put to rest these rumors and clarify what happened at the palace."

"A net address?" asked the Werebear.  "Think it'll be a fake one, a VR simulation, or just a recording?"

"None of the above, apparently," Cortez replied with a raised eyebrow, reading the rest of the dispatch as it scrolled across the electronic paper.  "It will be a live broadcast of a speech he will be delivering in person to a crowd in O'Reilly Stadium."

"Where the Avalon Aristocrats play," Bishop remarked.  "Too bad they spent this season relegated, I woulda liked to see them play the Purrfang Cats."

"So we hit him there," Dent mused.  "We can probably get Argus up to the roof..."

"No, the stadium appearance is gonna be the fake part," announced Vanessa, entering the room with a swish of her cape.  Today she was wearing a rather fetching ensemble in red and black velvet, with an onyx tiara.

"What makes you say that?" Bishop asked.

"Because no one who's just survived an assassination attempt sticks themselves someplace with sight lines to that many good places for a sniper to hide so soon after the event," the Sabbat Cardinal replied.  "If I was him, I'd have a body double or hologram up on the podium, keep the cameras back enough it wasn't obvious, and be giving the speech from a bunker someplace safe."

"It would be easier to fake an image based on a projection of him actually giving the speech, rather than fabricate it wholesale," mused Cortez.  "So all we gotta do is figure out where he's actually giving the speech and hit him there instead."

"Gotta be somewhere close," Cortona pointed out.

A werewolf who had been working on fixing a broken terminal put down his tools and spoke up.  "Get me to the stadium, and I can trace exactly where the signal is coming from."

"Sounds like the first part of a plan."  Dent nodded in satisfaction.  "Regis, get yourself to the stadium.  Take Bishop and Cortona here, they can sneak you into anyplace and back out again.  Report back once you have a location, and we'll get there by portal if we need to."

The three headed out, leaving Dent and the Sabbat leaders to make contingency plans for assaulting whatever fortified bunker of a studio the Emperor was transmitting from.



"He's where?" 

            "Middle of the Round Table," Jason Regis repeated.  They were in a cable trunk in the basement of O'Reilly Stadium.  The huge circular landing ground popularly known as the 'Round Table' had gone through several name changes over the years, as heroes fell in and out of favor with successive administrations.  Its current official name was Ivan Sun Memorial Spaceport, after a fighter pilot who'd died heroically at the Battle of Avalon against the Caal.
            "Makes some sense," Bishop mused.  "Big open field, you can see attackers coming from any direction.  And with space traffic still shut down, no one will notice if you close the airspace above it."

            "And we're sure of this?" the voice on the comline crackled.

            "Definitely," Regis confirmed.  "That's where the signal is coming from.  The trace bounced off three satellites and four ground stations, and no fewer than seven proxies, but you can't hide an IP from a Glass Walker."

            "We'll pass that on to the strike team," the voice concluded.  "Return to base to join them."



            O'Reilly Stadium, like all modern sporting arenas, was named for whichever megacorp had bought the naming rights last.  O'Reilly, Inc. had barely survived the Daughters' War and the subsequent throttling of the economy by Clarke's Five Acts, but survive they had.  Twice they'd come close to being forced to sell the naming rights back, but they'd parlayed their association with the Capital City's own Fedball team into a surefire way to get an "in" with the powers that be.  What with all the high officials they'd wined and dined in their luxury skyboxes, their Ferret Works subsidiary had made out well under the Fed, and was making out even better now that the Empire was, if anything, even more desperate for arms and ships.  And a new regime meant a new crop of bureaucrats and procurement experts who were not yet jaded by long exposure to such corporate tactics of currying favor.

            Those skyboxes were now full of Imperial Guard troopers in power armor, and a slightly smaller number of officials and leading citizens.  The Emperor wanted to be sure that everyone who doubted his survival was about to be proven wrong, especially anyone whose position left them capable of acting on those doubts to spread rumors among other people who really counted.  The original plan had been to fill the cheap seats by simply opening the stadium gates and inviting the faithful to stream in, but the number of people desperate for the privilege of telling their grandchildren that they once saw their Living God with their own eyes had proven higher than even the Cult of the Emperor's inner circle had hoped for.  In the end, they were charging twenty credits per head to be let into the stadium, with all proceeds supposedly going to charity.  And perhaps a few credits would end up funding genuinely charitable causes.  Miracles had been known to happen, after all.

            After the performance of the new Imperial Anthem and a couple of other patriotic songs in singalong fashion, and following an Invocation by the Archbishop of Avalon, the huge holotank suspended over the playing field showed an enormously enlarged 3D view of the small podium that had been set up near the visiting team's dugout.

            Stepping out of the dugout and up to the podium was a small figure of a man.  The dozen or so rows of seats near the dugout had been cordoned off by a human chain of security troops, so no one was close enough to see his face clearly.  But on the gigantic holotank, the smiling visage of the emperor was plain as day.  He stepped up to the podium to raucous applause and cheers.  In the stands, women fainted and men screamed themselves hoarse as a hundred thousand people each seemingly tried to start their own chant.  After a few minutes of incoherent white noise, the crowd's accolades settled down into a simple rhythmic chanting of VIN DANE, VIN DANE, VIN DANE.

            Finally, the man at the podium held his hands up for silence and began to speak.

            "My children, my subjects, I stand before you alive and well," he began.  "The dastardly terrorist attack on a peaceful celebration did not succeed in killing me, in killing your hopes for the future.  No matter how low our enemies stoop..."  A flicker of static glitched across the projection area of the holotank.  " matter how vile the tactics they employ..."  Another flicker danced across the tank, and a few gasps were heard from the crowd as a few people noticed the glitches weren't only in the tank, but were visible in the physical space around the podium itself.

            Suddenly the holotank went blank and the figure simultaneously disappeared from the podium.  A hundred thousand voices screamed again, but this time in surprise, shock, and fear, rather than in jubilation.

            In the nosebleed seats high atop the third tier of seats, the few people whose eyes were not riveted on the podium below looked out across the top of the holotank projectors and saw a fireball rising on the horizon from the direction of the spaceport.  The attack had begun.




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, no matter how cute you think awakened robotic insects might be.