"His perfect kingdom of killing, suffering and pain

Demands devotion, atrocities done in his name. 

God is dead, and no one cares. 

If there is a hell, I'll see you there."


-- Nine Inch Nails, Heresy


"Twenty minutes until transmission, Marshal.  Comm reports a clear link, no sniffers."

"Acknowledged.  Colonel, get another status update on all your men, and then go to continuous updates every five minutes for the next hour and a half."

"Yes, sir."

"What's the status on that damn UFO crash?"

"Destroyer Skylark has the best geometry and is launching shuttles, Marshal.  They'll be on-site in thirty minutes."  A pause.  "Of course, I could still have our aircars there in ten."

"Not a chance.  The moment we start pulling assets away is the moment it turns out to be an intentional distraction.  We're staying geared up and bunkered down for the duration."

That drew a few significant number of the junior officers in the command center, all of whom quickly averted their eyes and returned to work.  Demar Palancia ignored the unspoken criticism.  They think I'm paranoid, and they're goddamn right.  I just hope I'm being paranoid enough.

Marshal Palencia had taken over command of the Emperor's security just a few hours after the attack on the palace.  The Empress herself had personally asked him to do it, and then Vin Dane had confirmed the order after regaining consciousness.  Neither Dane nor Miranda had chosen to share their reasoning with him, but they'd made it abundantly clear that they believed more attacks were forthcoming.  Demar was proud enough that they trusted him to foil those plots.

By the same token, Colonel Filipowski, the commandant of the Imperial Bodyguard, had to be feeling less than proud of himself just now.  Demar almost felt bad for the guy, as he was clearly a loyal soldier dedicated to his duty.  But Filipowski had blown it hard back at the Palace.  So now the Colonel got to relay orders while his subordinates watched Marshal Palencia run his command.

And Demar was taking zero chances with this little propaganda exercise.  It was the most exposed the Emperor had been since the attack on the Palace.  Three hours tied down in one place, with all sorts of active com equipment to let assassins pin down the exact location he was broadcasting from.  Demar didn't care how certain the tech people were that their lines were secure—nothing was untraceable.  And even if they couldn't crack the Emperor's actual transmission feed, the commo gear and physical presence of such a large concentration of the Bodyguard was plenty conspicuous.  Demar had arranged decoy deployments at three other sites around the planet to dilute the chances of detection that way.  But service in the TI and the Reptors had long ago taught him that no plan—and certainly no deception—could be made foolproof.  Not ever.

And when in doubt, load for bear.  Demar flexed the fingers of one hand inside their articulated glove.  He and every Bodyguard in the compound was outfitted in the heaviest power armor in the Empire's arsenals: late-model suits that hadn't yet made it into general service with the TI by the time of the Caal invasion.  The hardened exoskeleton was large enough to contain Demar's full crinos bulk, while the inner layers of armor and control surfaces consisted of a dynamic soup of nanofibers and free particles that could expand or shrink to accommodate his transformation.  It was like strapping on a heavy space fighter.  Indeed, the suits had been intended to be capable of serving double-duty as short-range fighters if some dire emergency called for it.

The Marshal had also commandeered every military aircraft the Imperial Guard had stationed in Avalon City and New Chicago to complement the Bodyguard's own fleet.  Most of those were on decoy duty, but he still had ten ground-attack aerodynes on an elliptical patrol around the spaceport, with fifteen more on the ground and prepped for launch.

If an enemy somehow managed to conjure up aircraft of his own for an attack on the bunker, then in addition to his soldiers' surface-to-air weaponry, he had command access to the Avalon orbital defense grid, which already had one battlestation and its associated contingent of weapons platforms positioned for surface strikes.  If that wasn't enough, the Navy had kindly lent him a light cruiser and two destroyers which had the fuel reserves to conduct close orbit operations for another four hours.

All Imperial Guardsmen and what few Army personnel had been stationed near the capital were hunkered down and ready to rush to Palencia's support should he call for it.  Keeping them frozen like that meant that the rioters who had already been tearing up the city were now having an even easier time of it, but Demar didn't care.  Until he had Vin Dane sealed back up and on the move, or in a black location somewhere, nothing was more important than keeping the Emperor alive.




In orbit over Nhur, Heth floated into the Avarice's cramped conference room where his fellow K'Nes co-conspirators were busy planning their counter-coup.  A holocast of Durmach Media's Midday Market Report played in the background, discussing Miao Mercantile's hypergate construction announcement and speculating on what it meant for the K'Nes economy.  "Well?" Miu asked Heth, not looking up from her work.  "How did it go?"

"It took a lot of convincing," Heth sighed, tired, "but the Miao Mercantile Executive Board agreed to invest the profits from the hypergate announcement into more K'Nes Llan shares."  He paused, frowning.  "Although we've got to be careful with the timing.  We don't want to alert Varrless to what we're planning."  He glanced at Miu.  "Found any weaknesses in Varrless Financial's assets that we can exploit to undermine their market value?"

"Several!"  Miu shot him the fanged grin on a tigress.  "Don't worry, I haven't done anything disruptive yet… but when the time comes to attack Varrless Financial's resources, I'll be ready and waiting."

"Excellent!"  Heth turned to his mercenary captain.  "What about Capital Hall's security team, Narrah?"

Narrah scowled—but then, he always scowled.  "Simple.  We neutralize them with our own team… but we're stretched pretty thin.  We'll have enough hunters to secure the trading floor of Capital Hall, but that's all."

It was Heth's turn to scowl.  "Assuming they can get inside at all—how do you plan to accomplish that?"

"The same way you did, cub—with camouflaged power armor," Narrah replied.  "You mate tells me our suits can be upgraded with the same advanced stealth suite in your prototype armor.  We'll pass through Urrin on our way to Purrfang, so we'll just stop long enough to upgrade the stealth suites, then continue on our way."

"I see…"  Heth nodded slowly, thinking.  "And how long will it that MIRADI's labs to do that?"

"For fifteen suits?"  Miu paused, calculating the timetable in her head.  "A day, maybe a bit longer."

Heth turned to his Ship's Manager.  "So do we have any chance of fighting McNeilly's Horadrim warship?"

Rameth shook his head, looking glum.  "Not really.  The best I can come up with is using freighters."

Heth narrowed an eye.  "Is… that a joke?"

"Oh aye, it's a joke alright, but I'm as serious as a surprise audit."  He shrugged and sighed.  "We can turn some freighters into makeshift gunboats by swapping out the cargo pods for modular weapon pods…but even then, they'll be unarmored, slow, and fairly lightly armed—probably nothing that'll hurt a Horadrim bioship much."

"Weapons with Impossibarium casings, don't forget," Miu added.  "MIRADI's been building up a small stockpile for the launch of our new military product line.  If anything will hurt a Horadrim ship, it's Impossibarium."

"Aye, it might… or might not," Rameth corrected, anxiously twirling a black braid around his paw.  "Basically, boss, we're talking about a fleet of eggshells armed with peashooters here… but it's all we've got."

Heth was silent.  He looked down and closed his eyes, fighting to keep frustration and despair at bay.  Their counter-coup would almost certainly fail unless they could neutralize McNeilly's bioship—but to have any chance, they'd need an actual warship with capital weapons.  But there were no more K'Nes warships left—eight years of human conquest and occupation had seen to that.  Earth Fleet had dismantled or destroyed them all…

All but one.

Heth's eyes snapped open.  "Rameth, we'll be passing through K'Laek on our way to Purrfang, correct?"

"Aye."  Rameth nodded, looking slightly puzzled.  "Why?"

"Make a change to our travel itinerary.  Plan a brief layover in K'Laek for some last-minute negotiations."

Miu looked up in surprise, and Rameth gave Heth a doubtful sideways glance.  "With Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP?  The Miao's political enemies in the K'Nes Llan?  But… why?  What are you…"  His voice trailed off as his eyes grew wide.  "Sky Father above… you want the Loophole!  Boss… you can't serious!"

Heth shrugged.  "Well, it is the only actual warship left in all of K'Nes space."

"Aye, and the personal property of Gurrmew K'Soth—who hates the Miao!"

"The rivalry between our clans runs deep, I admit," Heth conceded, nodding slowly, "perhaps even bitter.  But Soth is a patriot.  Ever since our liberation, he's been relentlessly pushing for K'Nes rearmament.  If we can convince him K'Nes independence is in danger, he might be willing to put aside clan rivalries and work with us.  I have to try, at least."  Heth sighed, weary, and rubbed his face with a paw.  His work was never done.  "So set a course for Urrin, Rameth.  I'll start trying to set up a meeting with Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP."



After much begging, pleading, and bribery, Gurrmew K'Soth and Yeomurt Na'Prria, co-LEOs of Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP, finally agreed meet with Heth and Miu—but in only person, in their home system K'Laek, and aboard Soth's ship, the KTS Loophole… probably in an attempt at intimidation.

And Heth had to admit, looking out the shuttle porthole as they approached the Gurrmew Construction Yards, that the Loophole was an impressive site.  Against his will, he couldn't resist feeling a surge of pride in his species as he gazed upon the graceful crescent-shaped craft gleaming in the light from K'Laek's distant star.  The central wedge-shaped body was bristling with a variety of weapon turrets, and the gently curving ventral and dorsal fins were packed with starfighter launch tubes.  The only K'Nes Tor Navy ship to survive the Human Occupation, it was the last of its kind—a K'Nes escort carrier.  Fighters has been the backbone of the Tor Navy—just as K'Nes hunters fought in flocks, K'Nes starfighters attacked in swarms.  There was a time when apes cowered at the sight of K'Nes battle carriers approaching.  The Loophole was a powerful symbol of past K'Nes glories—which, unfortunately for Heth, also made it an invaluable political tool for Soth, and one he was unlikely to risk losing in a hopeless fight against a Horadrim warship.

The K'Laekians liked to claim theirs was the only K'Nes system that had never been conquered by the apes… although it wasn't exactly true.  They'd been occupied like everyone else, only they'd formed a resistance and launched a guerilla campaign.  Soth, a Tor Navy officer, refused to surrender and turned pirate with his ship, hiding in the massive K'Laek asteroid belt and harassing Earth Fleet forces.  The K'Laekians hadn't exactly driven the apes out so much as made it cost-ineffective for the Federation to occupy a bunch of rocks in space.  So the Federation withdrew and quarantined the system instead, trying to starve the K'Laek population into submission.

It would have worked, too… if the Miao super-freighters hadn't repeatedly run the Earth Fleet blockade to deliver desperately needed supplies (at exorbitant prices, of course).  Unfortunately, after K'Nes independence a year ago, Miao Mercantile and Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP both bought five percent of the shares in the K'Nes Llan—and were tied for the fifth and last seat on the Executive Board.  Then Soth began portraying his clan as K'Nes heroes while lambasting his former allies, the Miao, as thugs and black marketers—and it worked.  The seat went to Soth.  Heth had never seen Yawr so furious.

So yes, there was bad blood between their clans.  It was amazing Soth was willing to meet Heth at all.

After docking, an aide took Heth and Miu to the Loophole's boardroom by a long, meandering route… one that just happened to take Heth past bay after bay of fighter squadrons.  It was supposed to impress Heth… but it just worried him instead.  The fighters were well cared for and lovingly maintained, true, but they were old, dating back to before the Second Vulthra War.  Many had clearly been damaged and repaired.  Heth wondered how many actually worked.  He noticed they'd only passed half the fighter bays—and suspected the rest were empty.

Soth and Prria awaited Heth and Miu in the boardroom, both clad in scowls and business suits blatantly cut to resemble military uniforms—bright Tor Navy red for the stocky Soth, dark Tor Army blue for the lithe and lanky Prria.  Both were just as scratched and bitten as Heth and Miu were… it was the mating season, after all. 

Soth went on the offensive the moment they entered the conference room.  "You've got a lot of nerve showing your whiskers around here, Miao," the hefty calico growled, "considering you're about to knock our company off the K'Nes Llan Executive Board—or did you think I hadn't noticed Miao Mercantile buying up shares in the K'Nes Llan?"  He drummed his claws on the tabletop.  "Have you come to extort concessions, then?  Threaten us?  Or just to gloat and mark your territory?"

"I haven't come to piss all over your company, Soth," Heth said.  "I'm here to propose a strategic alliance."

"With what you're doing to our company?" Prria hissed.  "Why do you think we'd ever work with you?"

"For the sake of the K'Nes race.  Quite frankly, the Llan is in danger.  And we need heroes to save it."

"My, my… playing the flattery card so soon, are you?" Soth tsked.  "We weren't suckled yesterday."

"We're perfectly serious, I assure you."  Miu passed them a datapad.  "I believe this explains the danger." 

Soth and Prria leaned together and both read the Varrless-Vin Dane contract in silence.  Prria grew visibly angrier and angrier, while Soth became still as a rock.  "Varrless!  That clawless rat!" she hissed, seething with fury.  "Well, we're not unifying with the Empire.  Never!  We'll pull K'Laek out of the K'Nes Llan if we have to!"

But Soth had grown quiet.  His pompous, swaggering demeanor melted away and he became deathly serious.  "I see you weren't exaggerating the danger," he said softly.  "I'd wondered why Varrless tried cobbling together a Llan Army, but ignored the Llan Navy… now I guess we know why."  He looked up at Miu.  "So… what do you propose we do about this threat?"

"Oust Varrless," she replied.  "Shareholder challenge.  I'm all set to attack Varrless Financial's assets to devalue their stock price.  If we force them to sell off enough K'Nes Llan shares, Pirr will lose the LEO position."

"If that fails," Heth continued, "then we charge Varrless with breaking the K'Nes Llan Articles of Incorporation instead.  It clearly states that a contract-breaker isn't fit to hold office."

"And," Miu added,  "although Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP may be off the Executive Board by then, it will still hold the most shares among the lesser shareholders on the Board of Directors, making you or Prria the Chair of the Board.  Can we… count on your support as the new Chair for a shareholder challenge against Varrless?"

"Perhaps..."  Prria narrowed eyes at Heth.  "But who would be the new LEO of the K'Nes Llan?  You?"

"Certainly not!" Heth said, feigning surprise and indignation.  "According to the Articles of Incorporation, the next largest shareholder would assume that position—which, currently, is the LEO of Horrath Industries."

Prria paused for a moment, then nodded in approval.  "The former royal company of the K'Nes Tor."

"Exactly!"  Miu grinned.  "Can you think of anyone else all K'Nes would accept?  Follow?  Rally behind?  Or, for that matter, any clan you'd trust not to sell off K'Nes independence for personal profit, like Varrless did?"

"Besides," Heth added, "Horrath K'Urrin K'Meorr supports rebuilding the Llan Navy.  Given that Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP has the biggest shipyards, I imagine you'll be getting the contract to rebuild the fleet.  Invest the profits in more K'Nes Llan shares, and your company will be back on the K'Nes Llan Executive Board in no time."

But, strangely, neither profit nor power seemed to interest Soth at the moment.  He stroked his whiskers thoughtfully, staring at the Varrless-Vin Dane contract.  "Come now, Miao, you know Varrless won't give up power that easily, contract-breaker conviction or not.  If he's got the Llan Army and Holy Terran Empire backing him..."

Heth opened his mouth to make the counter-argument, but Soth's mate and co-LEO Prria beat him to it.  "The so-called 'Llan Army' is a disorganized jumble of mercenary companies with poor training and questionable reliability," she hissed in disdain.  "And as far as I know, they're currently spread out all across K'Nes space."

"And the Empire's troops can't reach us here," Heth added.  "The Federation's between us and them."

"Yes… but those Horadrim tunnel-drive ships can reach us," Soth objected.  "Which means we'd have to oust Varrless completely before any Horadrim warships could arrive to defend him—and that won't be easy."

"Uh… actually, that's the main reason we've come to you for help," Heth admitted.  "At least one Horadrim bioship is already here, hiding out somewhere in K'Nes space, waiting to support Varrless's takeover."

Soth leaned back on his perch, looking like he'd been kicked in the groin.  "Sky Father above…" he hissed.  Suddenly his eyes went wide.  "And you think I can fight it with the Loophole, is that it?" he asked, incredulous, then continued without waiting for an answer.  "You're very much mistaken!  The Loophole is a fine ship, but I'd do better fighting a mountain with a grain of sand!  Do you have any idea what those god-ships can do, Miao?  They're virtually invulnerable, and their energy beams can destroy entire cities from orbit!  One warship alone could hold the entire K'Nes population hostage—and the entire K'Nes fleet combined couldn't stop it."

"Soth," Prria said, exasperated, "are you sure those spacer legends are true?  If Horadrim bioships are that powerful, why didn't the Empire use them to crush the Earth Fleet and conquer the Federation months ago?"

"Numbers, mostly," Soth answered, shrugging.  "The Horadrim are a dying race.  They only had a handful of warships left, and most of those were destroyed at the Battle of Avalon stopping the Caal Invasion."  He hesitated, then added, "And if diplomatic gossip at Capital Hall is true, the Horadrim aren't exactly subjects of the Emperor—at best, they're just allies.  Only Horadrim personally loyal to Vin Dane would risk their ships for him."

"Unfortunately," Heth sighed, "that seems to include McNeilly—it's his bioship hiding somewhere out there.  If we can't find a way to neutralize it, any attempt to oust Varrless will end almost as soon as it begins."

"It's worse than that," Soth said, his tone dark.  "Unless you want that warship to kill hundreds or millions of K'Nes during the fight, we'll need to take it out fast, hard, and permanently.  The only weapon I've ever heard of that might be able to do that is a Gravitic Ram—and only human Star Control Ships are equipped with them."

"Actually, we have access to new weaponry that can harm Horadrim warships," Miu announced.  At Soth's surprised reaction and Prria's skeptical stare, she merely activated the boardroom's holoprojector and began her presentation.  "This is MIRADI's new line of Impossibarium military armaments…"

Soth and Prria listened to the speech silently, their expressions unreadable.  Afterward another whispered conversation, Prria looked up and asked, "How do you know Impossibarium will even damage Horadrim ships?"

"Well, it's never been field tested, of course," Miu said, "but we have extremely good reasons to believe it will."  She left out the part about Impossibarium being based on the same near-indestructible material Horadrim bioships were made of—that might raise uncomfortable questions about the legality of her Impossibarium patent.

Soth and Prria looked far from convinced.  They leaned together for yet another whispered conference.  Again, it was Prria who spoke.  "There's also the issue of… expense.  Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP simply don't have the resources to buy Impossibarium ordnance for all the Loophole's weapons, let alone for its starfighters."

Miu was silent for a moment.  Heth glanced at her, holding his breath.  They'd discussed this possibility, and she knew what needed to be done… but it was still a big decision.  She hesitated, then dropped a paw to her belly, swallowed, and nodded.  "If you join the fight," she said slowly, "I'll give you all the Impossibarium weaponry you'll need.  You'll return all unused ordnance after the battle, of course... assuming we win, that is."

Soth and Prria exchanged a shocked glance.  "My, you are serious!" Soth said.  This triggered another brief whispered exchange between Soth and Prria, then Soth pulled out his datapad.  "Well, the Loophole can't hope to handle a Horadrim warship alone.  What other vessels do you have to fight this alien bioship with?"

"The three Miao super-freighters," Heth answered, "all with concealed weaponry and gravity drives.  And… uh… we also have some… cargo freighters with weapon pods, and… um… well, that's it, actually."

"Oh."  Soth scowled at this datapad, doubt etched across his features.  I'm losing him, Heth thought.

"You'll be Sky Lord of the fleet, in charge of all ships and strategy," he added, trying to sweeten the deal.

But titles and flattery did little to sway the experienced naval veteran.  "I'm sorry, Miao, but it's imposs—"

"And," Heth interrupted him, "I know exactly how to destroy a Horadrim vessel—where and how to strike it to cause maximum damage.  We just need warships of our own to carry out the attack."

Soth looked up, startled, and exchanged a glance with Prria, who looked far more skeptical and asked, "Really, Miao?  And just how did you come by such a closely-guarded secret of Horadrim technology, short-hair?"

"From a confidential source within the Earth Federation," Heth answered.  "We both have a mutual enemy in the Holy Terran Empire, after all—and no, I can't say who, I'm contractually obligated to keep my informant anonymous."  He watched them with a stone face but a pounding heart, hoping they'd believe his audacious lie.

Soth glanced at Prria.  She gave him a tiny shrug.  "Very well," Soth said, claws clicking over the screen of his datapad.  "First of all, you'll want to equip each freighter with only one weapon pod—that'll spread out the attack, letting us fire on the bioship from multiple directions and give the Horadrim multiple targets to deal with."

"Does… does this mean you'll join us in ousting Varrless?" Miu asked somewhat hesitantly.

Again, Soth paused long enough to glance at Prria, who gave him a single, tiny nod.  "We will," Prria said.  "After all…"  She took Soth's paw and smiled.  "We do have an investment in the future of our race, so to speak."

"As do we," Miu said, dropping her own paw to her belly.

Soth smiled fondly at his mate as his tail dropped below the bargaining table.  A second later Prria squeaked in surprise, then glared at Soth.  He chuckled, and Heth got the sudden impression that the couple would rather be in the bedroom that the boardroom.

"Very well then," Miu said, looking as embarrassed as Heth felt.  "I'll launch the financial offensive against Varrless Financial right away.  Once I do, we're committed; there's no turning back."

"Sky Father protect us all," Soth muttered, turning back to Heth and Miu.  "Well, we've got a lot of work ahead of us."  He cast an apprehensive glance at Heth.  "You sure you know how to destroy a Horadrim bioship?"

"Yes, I do," Heth lied smoothly.  He didn't, of course… but he suspected he knew someone who might.




            Scyr had never carried another living person into the Umbra before.  It was hard.  Bringing objects was difficult, too.  If Scyr didn't focus just right on transferring the reality of their existence, they tended to disappear.  But by now Scyr had practiced the transition so often that he rarely even lost his socks anymore.

            But transferring an entire person was something else.  The Gauntlet didn't seem to like Scyr trying to drag someone else across, too.  The wailing barrier reached out and tore at his hostage and her Avatar, trying to rip them away.  Scyr fought back against the semi-sentient spirit stuff.  He swore and kicked and pulled on his captive's arm, until at last, Agent Five tumbled out of the breach, which sealed back up behind her with a last, resentful moan.

            For a second or two, the woman just cowered in place where she had fallen, wide-eyed and shivering after the terrifying crossing.  Scyr took the opportunity to warp the ground like clay so that it rose up and curled around her arms and legs before hardening again.  His effort paid off almost immediately, because the woman blinked and then tried to rip herself free.  The molded spirit restraints held fast.  Scyr then turned his mind to his next, larger project.  An even larger area of the ground began to boil in a circle around them.

            "I'm already guessing that you're going to want to fight back pretty hard here," Scyr said as he worked.  "So I'm just going to tell you a few things to consider immediately."  The bubbling ground receded around the edges as the vibrations moved down and closer to Scyr and his prey.

            "The big one for me is that I need you alive: I'm not about to kill you… or anything."  He spared a moment to meet the woman's eyes.  Or tried to—she didn't seem very interested in looking at him.  Scyr continued.  "But what should concern you is that your condition beyond simply being alive is not especially important to me.  I have no particular desire to hurt you, but very little desire to restrain myself if hurting you would be convenient.  In summary, if you start putting up any serious resistance, my next step will be to tear your arms and legs off."

            The threat was sufficiently unnerving that the woman stopped struggling against her bindings and looked him in the eyes.  "What the hell?" she asked.  Her voice was more indignant than scared.

            Scyr nodded.  The rumbling in the ground was almost directly beneath them now.

            "And I know you're a mage.  The threat of magickal resistance means I'd also want to knock you out.  But I don't really have a good way of doing that other than physical ones.  So if you didn't just faint from the amputations, that means battering or smothering you into unconsciousness.  Or I guess I could just try lobotomizing you, but that's probably too risky."

            The woman's expression was visibly horrified now.  Scyr shrugged.

            "So if you'll save me the hassle, I'll save you the pain and crippling injuries."

            "Why should I believe anything you say?" Agent Five replied.

            "Nothing I can offer you to prove my honesty, sorry," Scyr said.  "It's a complete judgment call on your part.  Although I can point out that the only part you really need to worry about is whether you can believe that I won't kill you.  There's not really any reason for me to lie about the rest of it."

            "Unless you actually do need me fully intact as well as alive, in which case it's an empty threat on your part and I should resist as much as I'm able."

            Scyr grinned.  "Okay, I concede your point.  Still, I submit that deciding if you can believe that I don't mean you mortal harm is the more urgent question for you to answer.  Here we go!"

            The circle of ground trembled, then peeled away from the rest of the surface.  A thin, gray disc rose into the air.  Suddenly, it darted forward, causing Scyr to stumble.  He recovered, though, and let his feet sink a few centimeters into the flying platform he'd created.

            "Well, hallelujah," he said.  "I was afraid I was going to have to run all the way back again, carrying you over my shoulder."  He smiled down at the woman, still pinned to the center of the disc, but she didn't look at all pleased by Scyr's accomplishment.

            "Okay, while you're pondering," Scyr sighed, "care to tell me your name?"

            The woman's eyes looked incredulous for a moment.  Then, "No. I don't care to tell you my name."

            Scyr shook his head, fiddling with the Life Mask around his neck.  "Look, I don't actually even care if it's your real name.  I just ask because it's going to get awkward calling you 'Hey, Lady' this whole trip.  You can call me… oh, Osvald's probably still the best right now.  Maybe Ozzy if you'd like."

            "Like hell I'm calling you Ozzy," she muttered.  She tugged futilely at her solid restraints again, then growled in frustration.  "Fine, though!  Call me… Jane Bond."

            Scyr showed her a friendly smile, or tried to.  "Pleased to meet you, Jane."




            "Bertie?  Bertie?"

            "Oh gosh, Izzy," the wererat smiled through the pain, "do you always get this lovey-dovey in battle?"
            The vampire blinked.  "I don't know—I've rarely fought."

            Dr. O'Brien genuinely smiled.  "Lucky you."  With a massive effort, she managed to sit herself up.

            "Shouldn't you…?"
            "Oh, hush," the wererat corrected.  "Surely you don't think a shape changer would be put down with just a few broken ribs?"  She tsked, slowly getting to her feet.  "When Gaia put the 'were' into the rat, she knew they'd take a lot of 'wear' along the way."

            D'Argent was puzzled.

            The doctor felt sorry for her friend.  "Oh, Izzy, this is not the time to be sentimental.  The trail through the Umbra will get cold soon, and I don't feel like wandering aimlessly through Hell, do you?"
            Izzy glanced over at the rest of the crew.  "What about…?"

            "Oh, goodness gracious!" Dr. O'Brien clucked, stomping over to the pilot.  "Aussie, here."  She shoved a medkit in her hands.  "Can you use this?"

            "Yes, but…"

            "Then do it.  There's a nanoinjector in there—shove it into Twedt.  That should stabilize her.  If things get bad, call an ambulance, and throw yourself on the mercy of the Imperial Court."

            "He he he," Freak began, but lost interest.  "Hurrrr…"

            "We can't just leave them here!" the vampire argued.

            "We can't leave Five to that… whatever he was, either."  Roberta dismissed his complaint.  "They'll be fine.  Now be a dear and find me a still pool of water while I get the plasma revolvers."

            "A pool of…?"  But the doctor was already away, scouring the wreckage of their ship for any weapons.  Izzy did as he was instructed, looking around for a small puddle, its clear surface reflecting in the moonlight.

            Before he could return, Dr. O'Brien was there, shoving a scorched plasma revolver into his hands.  "Good, you did make yourself useful."

            "I don't understand…"

            "Then don't," Roberta said, grabbing his hand and dragging him into the pond with her.  The two of them disappeared through the hole in reality and into the Umbra.




Admiral Joseph Smythe, Chairman of the Grand Council and supreme commander of the ever-fragile remains of the Earth Federation, found himself staring out a hotel window on New Madrid.  Sipping expensive scotch, he rarely had a moment to simply do nothing.  When he wasn't brow-beating his increasingly belligerent ministers into submission, he was placating the Earth Fleet and Tech Infantry that their roles in the Federation's restoration would be rewarded.  All of which let him avoid spending time with his mother… who always seemed to find him, no matter how confidential his location was.  So this moment of blissful boredom was a balm to his soul.

A balm interrupted by a noisy comm signal.  "Comm," Smythe spat at the deskcomp.  "I believe I left clear instructions that I was not available to take—"

"Joe, this might be important," a familiar voice replied.

There was only man who could get away with calling him that.  "What is it now, Captain Gergenstein?"

"Miao Mercantile."

The admiral sighed and slung back the last of his scotch.  "So why aren't you dealing with it, then?"

There was a pregnant pause before Herbert replied.  "She refuses to deal with me."

"She?"  Joseph's eyebrows rose.  "Haven't we always dealt with that scruffy male?… Heath, wasn't it?"

"Heth," the captain corrected.

"Exactly.  So tell her to go to hell."

"I would," Gergenstein replied, "but I'm not sure we should ignore someone who tried to buy three of my operatives just to talk to you.  Besides, she claims to have vital intelligence on Imperial military strategy."  The spymaster hesitated, then added, "Joe, these cats have never let us down."

"Fine—put her through.  Discom."  Smythe set down his glass and took a seat.  "Comp, accept call."

An image of a white K'Nes appeared, practically glowing in the holoprojector.  "Gainful day, Chairman Smythe.  Thank you for taking my call, and may I congratulate you on your recent victory at St. Michael's—"

"My dear lady," Joseph sighed wearily, "save the compliments, and explain to me why I'm talking to you."

She didn't even blink at his bluntness.  "I'm Prurr K'Aou K'Miu," the white cat explained, "LEO of MIRADI, and contracted mate of Miao K'Rrowr K'Heth, the new CEO of Miao Mercantile… and LEO of the Nhur Llan."

"Indeed?"  That got Smythe's attention.  "Little fellow has gone up in the world, hasn't he?"

She smiled brighter.  "He has.  He apologizes he couldn't contact you personally, but he's busy with—"

"As am I, madam," Joseph said stiffly, giving her a stern look.  "So please… do come to the point."

She blinked.  "As you wish.  Pirr Varrless is planning to seize power and unify with the Empire."

Smythe froze.  In shock, he blustered, "The LEO of the K'Nes Llan?!  But… how?  When?"

"We don't know the exact date, but soon."  She tapped her datapad.  "Here, I believe this will explain it."

A new holoproj appeared, scrolling a standard K'Nes contract.  The chairman skimmed it quickly, instantly seeing the damning possibilities of an alliance between Vin Dane and Varrless.  "How do I know this is genuine?"

"K'Nes use blood signatures for a reason, Chairman.  Unless Vin Dane has a twin or clone, he signed it."

Joseph took in a deep breath, acting calm and thinking fast.  "An unpleasant situation, I agree, but… well, forgive me, but the K'Nes Fleet—if there even is one—does not exactly threaten the Federation at the moment."

"Oh yes, you'd crush us, might even occupy us again," Miu agreed.  "But it would distract you, siphoning off crucial resources from your prime investment at a volatile time in the market.  Look, we both know the fate of my species doesn't concern the Emperor.  He just wants to take pressure off the Empire long enough to—"

"…finish off the Terran Republic and turn all their forces toward us," the admiral finished the strategic calculation, narrowing his eyes.  "So why are you warning me?  K'Nes rarely trade such information for free."

"Because we don't want another war with the Federation," Miu said firmly, looking him in the eye.  "I don't think many K'Nes do.  And I'm sure you don't need yet another front in this war you're losing."

Joseph bristled at the notion that they were losing—even if it was true.  "Then what do you want?"

"We both want to stop this merger.  We'll try ousting Varrless before he puts his plan into action—but to do that, we need your help.  Now."

"If you understand our situation, then you know I can't spare any ships or troops to help you just now."

Miu held out her paws in a very human expression.  "No offense, chairman, but the K'Nes don't exactly want Earth Fleet ships back in Llan space anytime soon… I'm sure you can understand why."

Smythe scowled.  "Then what the devil do you wan—oh."  His eyes narrowed. "You need money… right?"

"Not exactly..."  The K'Nes gave him a coy nod.  "I understand Varrless Financial was quick to collab… er, do business with the Federation after the Second Vulthra War.  I also believe they earned many lucrative government contracts with the Federation during the Occupation… under Clarke's reign, of course.  Correct?"

Joseph nodded slowly.  "Perhaps..."

"So the Federation still has a lot of capital tied up with the First Varrless Bank of Purrfang… correct?"

"It would make sense," Smythe said cautiously.  "It is the most secure bank in the galaxy right now, and the K'Nes Llan is—or was—politically neutral."

"Well, then helping us won't cost you a single credit!  You see, we don't need the Federation's money." The white cat grinned.  It wasn't pretty.  "We do, however, need you to put your money in a different bank."



"Smythe's agreed to our proposal!" Miu announced from her seat at the conference table.

"Thank the stars!" Heth muttered, looking up from his own work.  The Avarice's conference room was full of activity as they prepared for their showdown with Varrless K'Pirr.  Miu was well into her financial assault on Varrless Financial's assets, while Narrah and Prria planned to defend Capital Hall long enough for a shareholder challenge to be carried out.  Gurrmew & Yeomurt LLP evidently maintained their own mercenary company—although Prria preferred to call it her "Security Division".  Meanwhile, Rameth and Soth were desperately trying to pull a battle fleet of armed freighters together out of empty space, and plan a combat strategy for battling a Horadrim bioship… but they were still waiting for Heth to fulfill his end of the bargain—and getting impatient.

"Excellent work, Miu," Heth praised his mate.  "I don't know how you did it, but I knew that you could.  You talked Smythe into withdrawing the Federation's funds from the First Varrless Bank of Purrfang right away, yes?"

"Oh yes," Miu purred.  "When I pointed out Varrless was likely to freeze Federation accounts and liquidate their assets any day now, he couldn't withdraw it fast enough!  He's transferring their capital out of as we speak."

Heth grinned.  "A good old-fashioned run on the bank… that should distract Pirr!"

"And, if I've timed it right," Miu said, glancing at her datapad's chronometer, "they'll complete the withdrawal shortly before the closing gong at Capital Hall, giving shareholders all night to wonder why before the markets reopen in the morning."  She matched Heth's fanged grin with her own.  "With luck, that should start eroding Varrless Financial's stock price.  And how are you doing on reaching your own Federation contact, Heth?"

"Making progress, but slowly."  Heth took a whiff of nepeta.  "This is one ape who does not want to be found, and knows how to hide—he deals in secrets, after all.  But I've found him before... and I can do it again…"




            It was a night from which nightmares erupt; thousands of blood-crazed vampires burst out from all sides of the Ivan Sun Memorial Spaceport.  They were "shovelheads," the barely-functioning zombie-like vampires that had always been the footsoldiers of the Sabbat—and were hardly a match for the Imperial troopers waiting for them.  But in sheer numbers… you simply couldn't shoot them fast enough.

            The night became filled with the screams and whines of plasma fire.  Marshal Palencia watched the upcoming fray from his bunker.  Even fifty feet underground from where the action was, sealed in fungicrete and armor, the former sergeant felt the blood in his werewolf veins chill.  He forced his voice to give the orders to combat it, hoping beyond hope that his men and women would be reassured by the calm voice of command.  "4th Regiment, move to intercept. 7th Regiment, continue suppression fire.  2nd Task Force, fall back on the entrance.  Give the heavy guns a chance."

            Demar ignored the screams; I have to.  Despite the sheer terror outside, the Imperial troopers—his army—performed exactly as they should have.  They didn't break, they didn't run… slowly, ever so slowly, the wave of Sabbat footsoldiers began to thin out…

            "Sire," his aide barked, "vehicles approaching from the southeast."

            "Tell the 2nd Armored to stop and continue suppression fire."

            "Sire," the lieutenant corrected, "that's not the 2nd Armored."

            "What?"  Demar shifted the holoproj view towards the incoming vehicles.  They weren't military; they were heavy tow hovertrucks for space liners, mobile jetways—the standard maintenance equipment at any spaceport.  And behind them were several larger vehicles, fuel tankers…

            …and they were all unmanned.

            "Shit!"  Palencia surprised himself and bit down on his dentcom.  "2nd Task Force, back inside!  Heavy guns, target those…"

            And then the fuel tankers exploded.




            "So you see, Jane," Scyr finished explaining to Agent Five, "your presence makes my brilliant plan work."

            Five shut her eyes and tried to comprehend what he was saying.  "Okay, let me get this straight."  She counted off her fingers.  "You think I'm the 'chosen one' that the Orb told you about.  You think that if you get me close enough, the Orb will leave Vin Dane and fly over to me.  Once the Orb is in my hands, the Emperor can be destroyed, and the Empire will fall with him.  Then I get the Orb and we go on with our increasingly strange lives.  Is that right?"

            The man simply smiled—his shining white teeth more disturbing than comforting.  "It lacks a certain flair—personally, I think I said it better—but yes, that's the basics as I described."

            Agent Five stared at the stranger for a moment.  "Well, Osvald,  I'll be honest.  That's either the craziest plan I've ever heard of, or the greatest idea ever."

            Scyr smiled wider—which seemed impossible to believe.  "Why can't it be both?"

            "Why not?"  She chuckled quietly to herself.  "You idiot.  You really don't know who I am, do you?"

            Scyr chuckled with her.  "No."  His chuckle erupted into a full belly laugh.  "I haven't a clue!"  His laughter echoed through the Umbra, creating a cacophony of sound…

            …which is why the man didn't hear the plasma bolt until it caught him in the arm.  "Aaaaah!" Scyr cried, turning to watch Izzy D'Argent unload the unfamiliar weapon right at the stranger's body.

            Scyr grabbed a wall of… nothingness and pulled it in front of him, absorbing the blasts of artificial fire.  Roberta wasn't going to stand for that.  In an instant, her body stretched out of all recognition, turning into the Crinos form of the wererat—all eight feet of snarling, clawed fury.  Like paper, she jumped right through the Umbral wall, and tackled Scyr, slamming him into the ground.

            The mage wasn't having that—before the doctor's claws could shatter his flesh, a ball of energy radiated out from him, knocking the wererat off him, flying through the void.  She quickly scrambled to her feet as Scyr turned to face her.

But Izzy wasn't going to give the stranger a chance to recover.  He took out the second revolver and blasted away, his plasma bolts slamming against the energy wall.

Scyr simply turned to glare at him.  "Enough of that, little flea."  He thrust his hand out towards Izzy. The plasma revolver melted in his hand.

Yet the pause was enough to let Roberta slam into Scyr again.  The shield only cushioned the blow, knocking Scyr off his feet, bouncing like a soap bubble in the breeze.  The mage flicked his fingers and the bubble burst, leaving Scyr hanging in the air.  He heard his inner dialogue speak to him from across the Umbral space.  "You cannot continue to fight these intruders for much longer.  Your frail form..."

"Tell me something I don't know!" Scyr yelled, snapping his fingers, bringing him instantly to the prison where he kept Agent Five.  Turning to her, he smiled.  "You see, Jane, I'm guessing they're here for…"

But Agent Five wasn't there.  In a panic, Scyr spun around and found her standing between Roberta and Izzy.  The vampire smiled and waved his fingers at the mage.  "Yoo hoo!" Izzy laughed.

Scyr could only scream in frustration as they disappeared from his Umbral trap.




Captain Herbert Gergenstein didn't like being disturbed any more than his boss.  But like his boss, only a few people had his comlink address, so he made sure to answer it.  When the image of a yellow-eyed K'Nes appeared in the holoprojector, the spymaster did little to suppress his groan.  "What do you want, Het—what the hell happened to you?"

"Eh?"  Heth raised a paw to his battered face.  "Oh.  Mating season."  He waved a paw.  "This is just a follow up courtesy call regarding our arrangement.  I'm sorry, but I've been rather busy since the Cronos contra—"

"The Phoenix jumpgate was moved to Andersvald," Herbert curt the cat off.  "Our business is concluded."

"Yes, but… well, you did receive the delivery of your 'merchandise' on Phoenix, yes?"

"Oh, that arrangement."  Gergenstein nodded.  "Yes, I received the delivery… and the 'freebies,' too.  I don't know how you managed to throw his wife and daughter into the bargain, but… I'm impressed."

"And how is Rachel?" Heth asked, genuinely interested.

"She and her mother are safe and sound."  Herb couldn't prevent a tiny smirk leaking from his lips.

Heth froze.  "And will be for as long as Zhin… M. O'Reilly does what you tell him to, I assume…?"

Gergenstein chuckled.  "You catch on fast."

Heth waved his paw.  "Please.  Using a mark's family as leverage is an ancient and honored K'Nes—"

"Let me ask it again, Heth.  What do you want?  Gonna charge for me extra for the family package?"

"Certainly not.  Consider that a kickback to a lucrative client.  Except… you didn't pay with cash, did you?"

"No… a favor."  Gergenstein looked off-screen at something and then sighed.  "Is that what this is about?"  When the K'Nes nodded, Herb leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers.  "Alright… I'm listening."

"I'd like to know how to destroy a Horadrim battlecruiser."

"So would I," Herb chuckled.

Heth glared at him, fur bristling.  "I'm serious, Captain."

"Me, too!"  Gergenstein continued to laugh.  "I think my persona's too good.  I've made everyone think I know everything!"  Herb had a belly laugh at his own joke.  "Come on, Heth, why do you think I would know that?"

"Because you used to command seven of them."

The captain's laughter stopped as abruptly as it began.  "Excuse me?"

"I talked with M. O'Reilly aboard the Avarice—those long convoys runs can get so boring—and the Battle of Mars came up.  He mentioned a… how did he put it?... 'particularly traitorous InSec mole' who betrayed the Federation to their enemies.  It turned out this mole was an old friend of his—one Herbert Gergenstein."  When the spymaster said nothing, Heth leaned forward and continued.  "He also mentioned that InSec—Internal Security—somehow had access to Horadrim battlecruisers… and studied them very thoroughly."

After a pause, the human blinked.  "That's some conversation you had."

"You have no idea, I assure you.  That wasn't even the main topic."

Gergenstein's mouth twitched.  "O'Reilly never did know when to keep his damn mouth shut."  He leaned forward.  "Look, that information is dangerous, Heth."  Herb narrowed his eyes.  "Not to mention, a state secret."

"If you don't find a way for me to destroy a Horadrim ship, neither of us will have states to keep secrets."  Heth tapped a button and a copy of the Varrless-Vin Dane contract appeared.  "This should explain the urgency."

"Yeah, Smythe already showed me this."  Gergenstein paused, looking off into the distance and thinking, then asked, "You really think Vin Dane would risk sending out one of his few remaining Horadrim warships?"

"On ship?  In exchange for all six K'Nes systems?  He'd be a fool not too!"  Heth smiled back at Herbert.  "So you see, granting my request is mutually beneficial to both of us.  Now, I need all the information you have on Horadrim ships—especially their vulnerabilities and weaknesses—and preferably a plan for destroying them."

Herb thought silently a moment, then shrugged.  "I'll see what I can do… but we're even now, got it?"

Heth smiled.  "Your signal is clear, Captain Gergenstein… oh, and just one more thing, if you don't mind."

Herbert didn't even try to hide his irritation.  "What now?"

"What can you tell me about Gravitic Rams?"

"Not much."  He shrugged.  "I know they're basically just weaponized gravity drives, but that's about it.  I'm not an engineer."  Heth started to ask another question, but Gergenstein cut him off with an impatient gesture.  "Look, I'll send you Xinjao O'Reilly's comlink, okay?  Ask him, he'll talk your ears off about 'em if you let him."

"Excellent!  Thank you, Captain Gergenstein, it's been a pleasure doing business with you.  Gainful day!"

"Discom."  Herb ended the call, then hesitated a moment.  He tapped an innocuous-looking bronze paperweight, then tapped some virtual buttons on the holoprojection.  It didn't take him long to find the files he was looking for.  Within seconds, the sinister black shape of the alien organic ship hovered and rotated in front of him.  "Comp, attach this to an encrypted comlink—dump it in the InterGlobal news feed to the Purrfang office."  He could rely on his agent there to get the information to Heth… without anyone tracing it back to him, of course.

"My God… it was you, all along…"  A redheaded woman stood in the doorway, dressed in a lacey nightgown, with a thick necklace around her neck.

"You should get some rest, Stephanie," Herb chided, standing up from the desk.

"You destroyed my megacorp," Stephanie Harrington said, glaring at him through exhausted eyes.  "You screwed over the Resistance… betrayed the Grand Council…"

"Hardly," Gergenstein groaned.  "I was the Commandant of Internal Security after all that happened.  I was stuck on a Fleet bucket for most of it, and I've been on the run ever since."  He gave her a tired smile.  "It's hard to keep a network of selfish spies in line with Clarke's Raptors one step behind you.  If you need someone to blame, blame Rashid King."  He shrugged.  "I just picked up where he left off."

"King didn't do this to me."  She pointed to the necklace, glowing briefly to contain the magick inside her from getting out.  "Why don't you just kill me and be done with it?"

Herb shook his head.  "You're far too precious to me."

"What more could you possibly want from me?  What’s left?"  Her voice was barely above a whisper.  " I gave you the backdoor codes to all the Harrington Industries computer networks.  I gave you all the money.  I even gave you my bod…"  Her chest heaved with sobbing.  "Please… let me die."

Gergenstein walked over and guided her back to the adjoining room.  "Come on.  Let's go back to bed."

"Please, Gergie…"

"Don't worry, my dear."  He ran a hand through her hair.  "I won't need you for much longer."




            Once his optics came back on line, shielded from the fireball blast of the exploding fuel tanker, Argus was impressed.  "Nice work, Regis," he said on his dentcom, activating his targeting sensors to find any troopers that might have survived the blast.

            Jason Regis was a mile away and linked to every remotely controlled object he could sink his Netrunner fangs into.  "Hey!  I came to make a bang!" the captain whooped with delight.

            "Bishop," Lieutenant Colonel Dent called over, "Wave Two."

            "Copy," William Bishop complied, looking over at Melissa Cortona.  "Release them."

            The vampire nodded and,  with a soundless whistle, the previously innocuous freight containers suddenly opened, releasing a horror on the spaceport that few had ever seen before.



            "What the hell is that?!"  Someone in the Imperial bunker yelled, but Demar didn't need any explanation—he could see the strange piles of flesh marching towards them.  Their unearthly forms were fast, without legs, covered in quills and teeth and things that defied description.  They were the true walking nightmares… and they were coming straight for them.

            "Vozhd," Palencia cursed as he named the horrors facing them, then bit down on his dentcom, forcing a calm into his voice that he himself didn't feel.  "The Sabbat are coming again.  6th and 7th Regiment, fall back to the entrance.  All other units, suppression fire."



            The Marshal's Own Imperial Artillery sat there impotent, watching in terror as their fellow troopers were being slaughtered in the terrible battle that was happening right next door.  They couldn't open up without specific coordinates, for fear of hitting their own troopers.  So until the order came through, they sat there under their camo nets, watching the sensor data that looked increasingly desperate.

            So they all jumped when someone walked into their encampment, and would have shot him dead with their rifles, if he hadn't been wearing a general's uniform in the style of the Imperial Guard.  "Sire!  We…"

            "Secure that shit, major," the general barked back at them, forcing them involuntarily to attention.  "His Holiness is in trouble and you're just sitting here?!"

            "Sire," the major's lower lip wobbled, "we can't open fire without exact coordinates…"

            "Use your sensors, man!"  The general pushed past the line of artillerymen and grabbed one of the datapads.  "There!  AB Two-Seven-Six-Two, Four-Eight-One-Three!"  When no one moved, the general barked again, "Move it!"

            The Imperial troops ran to their armored artillery platforms, firing up the RABBIT units with a speed that spoke volumes to their excellent training.  The major plugged into his machine and became one with it.  "Sire," he said, opening a comline to the general.  "We're going to need refreshed coordinates as the situation changes."

            "Then I'll be your forward observer.  Link your targeting comps to my pad."

            "Yes, sire."

            "It's time to do your duty, men.  Praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal!"

            "Praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal!" echoed back on the com, their hearts filled with pride.

            So they should be, Titus Vardan thought, walking away from the artillery unit, dressed in the general's uniform, targeting the converging Imperial troops on the bunker entrance.  They think they're going to save the Emperor.  He thanked the Spirit of the Alpha and shrugged off his Mastery gift.  Save yourself from this, Vin Dane.



            Explosive fire suddenly blossomed all over the spaceport.  Troopers and Vozhd died everywhere.  The Imperial Guard didn't run, didn't break… but they all died.  Anyone left on the surface near the bunker suddenly found itself on the receiving end of a terrible and quick death.

            In the command bunker, the walls rumbled with effects of close-range artillery strikes.  Demar's aides were useless, but the Marshal didn't need them to tell him what he already knew; his own artillery was shelling their position.  The officers screamed over the rumble.

            "We lost our holoproj link with the stadium!"

            "Where's our air support?!"

            "What's happening?!"

            "They're dying!  My God, they're dying!"

            Palencia didn't run, didn't break—he simply activated a virtual keyboard, entered in his authorization, and sent a narrow-beam commline into orbit.  Lord High Admiral Brodbeck, initiate Operation Clear Horizon.  Target coordinates AB…



            Adorinda Alinejad involuntarily jumped when the priority call came in from Imperial Army Command.  Brodbeck simply shifted it down to her, conveying his authority, and telling him to convey his comms to the fleet to fire down on their own forces.  She felt her breath speeding up, her heart racing, and even her long years of manning the CIC on board the Cyrus betrayed her.

"Comm!"  Lieutenant Commander Alinejad squeaked, "contact the fleet.  Give them these coordinates."  She punched a button and conveyed the Marshal's orders.  "Commence fire.  Sensors, we'll need up-to-the-second results so that we can know when to stop firing."

"Yes, ma'am," Norman Orenstein replied instantly, feeling more than a little jumpy himself.  This is what it all comes down to, he realized; this is the day everything changes.  As he had planned, Orenstein pressed a sequence of buttons, and then took his position at the sensor cone.  The sequence activated a virus which was sent along with the comm to the orbiting ships.

            It is finished, Orenstein knew, and let himself relax as he watched the Imperial Fleet power up their weapons.  When dealing with terawatt weaponry, it was so easy to overload the power lines leading from the fusion bottles that powered the ships.  Which is why there will several safeties to prevent too much power being pulled from the engine core; all those safeties, the virus just disabled.  It also disabled the firing ports, so when the switch was turned to fire, all that energy hit the hull of the ship and burst it.  The weapons incinerated soon after, opening the ship's insides to vacuum, but the safeties that would have cut the power supply to the defunct weapons were also disabled, demanding more and more power to rip apart bulkheads and crewmen.

            When the fusion bottles burst on the destroyers in orbit, it was an anti-climax; they were already dead.

            There was silence in the CIC for half a minute.  They all felt, rather than heard, the whirr of the engines as the Cyrus began to fly towards orbit.

            By the time we get there, Orenstein allowed himself a smile, it would all be over.




            The three of them jumped through the Umbra, corresponded to the other side of the planet, jumped into the Umbra again, and finally ended up somewhere in the capital city.  Agent Five found herself exhausted but alive; Roberta and Izzy less so.

            "Who… the…?" Izzy gasped after they made their last jump into an abandoned café, half-drunk coffee cups and sugary pastries left half-eaten as the former patrons ran when the artillery barrage began.

            "Said his name was Osvald."  Five rolled her eyes as she tried to get her bearings.  "And even if you believe that, I'm not sure what he was."

            "A mage, silly goose," Dr. O'Brien chided.  "A spirit mage with—"

            "No," Agent Five corrected, "that was not a mage.  I'm not even sure it was a man."

            Roberta huffed.  "Well, he had all the right parts in all the right…"

            "Nephandus," the young woman shot back.

            They suddenly went quiet… until a distant artillery blast woke them up back into reality.  "A fallen mage?" Izzy remembered.

            "If only," Five shot back.  "Nephandi gave themselves to chaos, utterly devoted to destroying the fabric of reality.  That's probably why he wants me to steal the Orb.  Once he gets rid of that—and me—I'm guessing that he's guessing that will tear the whole Gauntlet apart and leave Avalon ripped out of existence.  Without the capital system… God only knows what'll happen to the rest of the galaxy."

            "That's a lot of guesses," Izzy pointed out.

            The young woman turned on him, shouting, "It's not like he was gonna tell me his entire evil scheme!"  Huffing through the anger, she finally admitted, "But… he told me part of his evil scheme!  I mean… oh, hell with it!"  In frustration, she threw herself onto the nearest comfy sofa, weeping.

            Roberta looked over at Izzy and gave a wan smile.  "The poor dear's been through a lot."

            The vampire sighed and walked over to the couch.  "Agent Five…"

            "My name's not Five," she yelled back, tears streaming down her cheeks.  "After all this time, Izzy, don't you even recognize me?!"

            The vampire took a careful look at the crying woman.  The cheekbones were familiar, as was the hair, but it was the eyes that… "Vicky?  Victoria Sylvest?!"

            With a speed that amazed him, Victoria reached up and hugged Izzy with all her might.  D'Argent did the same—as much as he could without hurting her—and reveled in the simple joy of their… reunion?  Realization?  Izzy didn't have the words to properly describe what this was, but it was so glad to know at last.

            After a short eternity, Vicky let go of him and stood up, wiping the tears from her eyes.  Streaks of blood ran from Izzy's eyes as well.  The young mage took one of the napkins off the table and dabbed at his cheeks.  "Silly vampire.  Getting all weepy…"

            "I'm so glad to finally see you," Izzy admitted as Victoria cleaned him up.  "But I don't underst—"

            "You haven't lived it yet," Victoria explained, "the next twenty years.  The Empire triumphant, the Cult on every corner… the Inquisitions, the Gymelfs…"  She sniffed.  "My mother was killed in a pogrom against the unbelievers when I was fourteen.  I found you, you found us.  Team Golden Ticket, you called us.  It took me years to find out why."

            "Ronald Dahl."  The vampire smiled.  "Still one of the classics."

            "We founded the new Resistance.  We fought back, brought down two houses, three more were ready to fall… but the Emperor was always one step ahead of us."

            "What happened?" Roberta managed to ask.

            "What do you think happened?  We died."  Vicky sniffed.  "They found us, followed Gabe's hacked signal the one time he forgot to cover one repeater satellite.  They killed everyone… even Steve."

            "Steve?" D'Argent asked.

            The young woman stared coldly at Izzy.  "Stefan Quattone.  My husband."

            "But you lived," O'Brien corrected.

            "Thanks to him," the mage pointed to Izzy.  "You and your obsession with escape routes.  I was half dead, and after Steve… I didn't want to live any longer."

            "There's always hope," D'Argent replied.

            "You weren't there!" Victoria yelled back.  "You don't know what life was like!"  She sniffed, then said, "So I vowed, before the universe and any gods who would hear me, that I would give my life to stopping that bastard from ruining everyone's life and bringing the Empire to crush us under its heel."  The young woman smiled wanly.  "And do you know what happened?  Someone listened.  The Denim Man found us and he accepted my offer.  He showed me the possible futures, I picked one, and I tried to get you to go along with it.  But we lost the fleet, lost the surprise attack, and now…"

            "…is my cue."

            The three of them turned to see Scyr sitting on the counter, clapping in applause to what he thought was the end of a great story.  "No wonder the Orb has chosen you.  A time travelling starsoul with powers unmatched and one hell of a body.  Mmm, mmm, MMM!"




            "Now, Reid!" Colonel Dent's voice calmly ordered.

            Diana Reid closed her eyes and saw the members of the two strike teams in her mind's eye.  She could have brought them in from anywhere on the battlefield, but with having to break past the magick wards and Umbral defenses, it was better to have everyone at the same place, preferably holding hands.  Reid reached out and found the crack in the insanely tough boundaries.  She touched the break in the bunker's walls, opened a portal, and slid the strike teams through.

            They jumped through into one of the underground barracks, which shocked the hell out of the troopers who were there.  The Sabbat attackers didn't hesitate.  Like buzzsaws, they flew out into the shocked faces of the Imperial Army.  The Fed troopers were only two heartbeats behind them, blasting away at anything that didn't face the wrath of the vampires.

            The firefight was over within seconds.  Bishop sheathed his blades with pride, surrounded by a sea of blood and bodies.  "Clear."

            "Clear," replied the living troopers and standing vampires.

            "Send the signal," Dent ordered.

            A tingly sensation was felt through all their bones.  "No need," Reid replied.  "Our support team is strengthening the Gauntlet as we speak.  Besides," the major said, putting a fresh charge into her plasma rifle, "there's enough shielding in this bunker to withstand a nuclear bomb.  We couldn't send a signal if we wanted to."

            "No exit, either," Regis noticed.

            Bishop started walking towards the door.  "The only way out is the front door."

Luther Petridis smiled.  "Time to start walking."

            "You heard the major."  Bernard Dent smiled.  "Whoever kills the Emperor gets free booze for life!  And I, for one, get tired of buying!"



            No matter how much shielding there was, Demar could hear the fighting getting closer to the command bunker.  "Internal sensors?" the marshal asked.

            "Sire," one of his aides answered, "sensors indicate the enemy has spread out.  They've cut-off the 1st Regiment, and with the continued shelling…"

            "No one else is coming through," Palencia realized.  "Which means the only thing between them and the Imperial Family is us."  Demar reached underneath his desk and pulled out an elegant sword.  It seemed to glow in anticipation—of course, that could have just been the reflection of the ceiling lights.  "Signal the evacuation.  We have to buy His Majesty time to escape."

            "Praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal!" his aides cried out, powering up their plasma revolvers.

            Demar grasped the sword Kuar in both his hands.  "Yeah, but who's gonna save us?" he muttered.



            The armored hatch burst open with one big shove from Melissa Cortona.  Using it as a shield, the vampire took the brunt of plasma fire, while she rushed in, forcing a hole through the Imperial troopers defenses.  The rest of the TI/Sabbat team came right behind.  The gunfire stopped quickly as they reached point blank distance.  Then it came down to blades.  The attackers were good, but no one was as good as Demar Palencia.  Using the power of Kuar, he danced through the TI troopers' fire, slicing a bloody path through them.  One of the Sabbat tried fencing with him, but after dancing two steps, Kuar swung around and sliced off the vampire's head.

            But Demar didn't expect an armored hatch in the face.  The marshal was slammed into the wall as Melissa drew her own blade.  Palencia sliced the hatch in two, shifting into Crinos form, and facing off with the vampire.  A minute had passed, and after the initial fight, only Cortona and Palencia remained standing.

He couldn't speak in the full werewolf form, but Demar could wink.  Melissa feinted to his right, and tried to slice to the left—

—but Demar wasn't there.  He leapt up to slash at her head—

—Melissa ducked, parrying the thrust, and then counterattacking where he was going to land—

—but the marshal parried the attack, swung again as a feint, before swinging again—

—the whirling blade attack failed to connect with the vampire, already kicking to knock him off balance—

—Demar took the kick, held his ground, and drove Kuar right into her belly.

Cortona stepped back, letting the blade fall out of her, and went back into a guard stance.  She could swear the werewolf was chuckling, rattling in a disturbing way through his enlarged skull.  "Luck.  Pure luck."

Palencia smiled and threw Kuar at her.  She parried it easily and thrust towards Demar—

—only to find him behind her, impaling her again with the magickal blade.

She tried to pull away, but Demar twisted Kuar, sending waves of excruciating pain through her body.  Melissa swung her sword to attack, but Palencia grabbed the flat of the blade, yanking it away from her grasp.  As the marshal twisted Kuar in her body with one hand, he bent her blade into useless piece of metal, watching with glee as panic spread through her eyes.

"Let her go, Field Marshal," came a calm voice through the doorway.  Palencia twisted the blade for good measure and saw William Bishop standing there, with Irene York pointing a plasma revolver at his head.

Demar shook himself and returned to human form.  Keeping the writhing body of Melissa between them, the commander of the Imperial Army took a look at his new opponent.  "Do I know you?"

Bishop nodded.  "Vienna."

Palencia smiled at the memory.  "Of course."

William pulled out his double blades.  "Your fight's with me, sergeant."

"Is it?"

"You wouldn't want it any other way."

Demar twisted the magickal blade again to keep Melissa immobilized.  "On any other day, trooper, you'd be right."  He pulled a device out of his pocket and flicked it on with a chirp.  "But… my friend, today is no ordinary day."

Bishop shook his head.  "You don't have to die for that bastard."

"Who said anything about dying?"  And in one smooth movement, he pulled Cortona close to him, stuck the incendiary grenade in her mouth, and pulled Kuar out.  Bishop roared as Palencia dove through the only other exit, but Irene yanked the werepanther back through the entrance as the grenade went off.  Melissa's head exploded in an eruption of plasma fire, cascading a mini-volcano of flame, incinerating the command bunker in a wave of flame.

            By the time it cleared, Demar was long gone, and what was left of Bishop's friend could have been picked up by a dustpan.

            "NNNNOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" Bishop roared—and, before York could restrain him, he morphed into Crinos form and dashed through the flaming debris after Palencia.




            Izzy hissed, Roberta prepared to shift, and Scyr got ready to attack.  Just then, Victoria yelled, "STOP!"

            The other three stopped their impeding fight in that abandoned café and turned to her.

            The young woman huffed in disgust.  "Really?  This is what it's come down to?  Two boys fighting over the girl?  Come on… this is the 23rd Century!"

            "Excuse me?" Scyr blinked.

            "This is so cliché."  Victoria rolled her eyes.  "The evil mastermind kidnaps the beautiful girl and the great and noble heroes have to rescue her in the fortress of power.  Time… out!"

            Izzy shrugged and looked at Scyr.  "She has a point.  It'd be The Princess Bride if you had killed my father."

            "What?" Scyr asked.

            "'My name is Inigo Montoya,'" Roberta quoted, "'you killed my father, prepare to die!'"

            "We don't have to fight," Sylvest pointed out.  "You want the Emperor dead, yes?"

            "I want to take the Orb from him," Scyr admitted.  "That generally means killing the man who's holding it."

            "Why?" Victoria demanded.

            Scyr closed his eyes and turned his head slightly, as if fighting against himself to say the answer.  "The Orb is the key.  Take the Orb and the Emperor is just a man.  Or an alien.  Whatever.  When he dies, the Empire dies with him."

            "Then our mission is the same."  The young mage stepped closer to Scyr.  "We can work together."

            "What about the Orb?" Izzy demanded.  "What happens after you get it?"

            "Not me," Scyr corrected, "her.  The Orb wants nothing to do with me."

            "Oh, come on!" the vampire scoffed.  "You expect us to believe you're going through all this for nothing?"

            "Not nothing."  The stranger smiled as he glared at Victoria coming ever closer.  "Whoever holds the Orb will be the new power in the universe.  Better to be at the right hand of God than in her path."

            "Then we're agreed."  Victoria smiled as she held out her hand.  "We face the Emperor together."

            Scyr smiled.  It couldn't be this easy, could it?  "Agreed."  And he shook her hand.

            Once he let go, Victoria reached up and grabbed the intricate amulet around his neck, pulling it off him with a yank.

            "What are you…?"

            "Scream in hell, nephandus!"  Vicky cried, dropping the Life Mask, and crushing it with her foot.




            The artillery pounding continued to echo through the narrow hallways that led to the deeper levels of the bunker.  The Imperial Bodyguard carried the Emperor on a stretcher (despite his pleas that he could walk just fine) with the Empress Miranda walking beside him holding the Orb.  She wasn't sure what she was supposed to do with it, or where the hell they thought they were going.  Personally, the former trooper-turned-scientist wondered what good an escape route would be from an assault this determined.  If the entire Imperial Army couldn't save us, and Vin can't use the Orb, what's the point any—

            Just then, the Orb twitched.  The glowing sphere rippled with anger—it practically radiated rage, begging its wielder to go fight it.  "What… what's going on, Vin?"

            The Emperor stared into the device that he could no longer wield.  His face went white with shock.  "Caal."

            "Caal?!" Miranda repeated.  "The Caal are here?"

            "That explains everything," Dane nodded.  "The attacks, the collapse of our defenses… the last of the Caal have come to destroy humanity… and they need the Orb to do it."

            "But I can't wield this thing," the Empress whined, "and you're too weak to use it now."

            "We don't have to.  The Orb knows my mind.  It knows what to do.  Let it attack."

            "Without a wielder?"

            Dane put a hand on his wife's arm.  "The Orb is the most ancient of artifacts in the universe.  If anything can kill a Caal, it can.  Let it do its job."


            The Emperor smiled at her.  "You know how.  You just… let go."

            Holding her breath, Miranda held the sphere up to her eyes, and simply took away her hand.  The Orb simply floated there.  When she released her breath, the mystic artifact disappeared.

            "It's done."

            "It sure is!" came a voice out of nowhere.  The Imperial Guardsmen reacted, dropping their charge, and surrounding him in a defensive wall of power armor.

As if things couldn't get stranger, a portal opened in front of them and the Denim Man stepped out.  The Imperial Bodyguard was about to blast him into a new incarnation, but the stranger jumped into the air, kicking the nearest guards into the wall.

The Bodyguard was fast; the Denim Man was faster.  They tried to react, but the Horadrim was there, slamming them down the hallway.  Miranda tried a spell, but to her shock, nothing emerged.  She was soon rewarded with a foot to the chest.  Vin Dane managed to scramble to his feet, wobbling on two weak legs, and soon him and the stranger were the only two standing.

"Hey, Dane."  The Denim Man smiled as he glared at Vin.  "Remember me?"

            The Holy Terran Emperor blinked through the pain and stared at the stranger.  "Miro… Creed?"

            The unmasked Denim Man smiled with undisguised glee.  "That's right, you bastard!  You dragged me through time to suck out my soul!"

            "What?" Vin demanded.  "I never did shit to you.  What are you talking about?"

            "You haven't done it… yet," Miro explained.  "And now you never will."  He reached through the portal, stretching his Soul Web to touch the screen on the Dooms Day Device.  "Enjoy oblivion—I know I have!"

            "Wha…" was all the Emperor could say before the three boxes, containing the atomic weapons, vanished through the transit beacon.  There was a sudden WHOOSH of air as the paradox backlash of the artificial correspondence portal tried to compensate for the missing space.  Miro, Vin, and everyone grabbed the walls to hold on.  Creed watched in horror as the 3D frame was crushed and compacted into the size of a baseball.

            "NO!" Miro cried in outrage, watching his plans for revenge fall apart.  "NO!!!"

            The Emperor reached out his hand, extending it like a tendril, and swept his fellow Horadrim into the wall.  The Imperial Bodyguard managed to rush back to him, and with undisguised glee, quickly pinned Creed against the corridor, immobilizing the alien.

            Vin let go of his tendril and walked over to Miro.  "Next time, hire a mage, yyorrrattt."  With a smile, he turned to the soldiers.  "Guards, collar him and leave him here.  I'm sure someone will finish him off."




            It didn't take long for Bishop to catch up with Palencia.  Three levels down in the bunker he chased him, far outpacing his support team, the blood pounding through his body.  The signs on the walls indicated that it was an emergency traffic control center, built for the worst of all possible scenarios—which for the Empire, it was.  William could smell his prey, the Rage inside him burning a path towards his inevitable battle.  He dove down stairwells like they weren't even there, distance was meaningless; only one thing had purpose in William's universe—revenge.

            Kuar swung through the air as he tried to hurdle the third stairwell.  Bishop barely had time to parry, having to roll with his fall down the corridor.  Demar didn't give him a chance to breath.  Summoning Kuar back to his hand, the marshal was on the attack, punishing the fungicrete wherever the werepanther's body had been.

            Finally, Bishop tried the same trick, throwing one of his blades at Palencia.  He dodged, which bought William time to get to his feet.  Flicking his wrist, the blade came back to him.  As the marshal got into a guard position, the werepanther joined his blades together into one.

            "The fabled blades of Jalan-Aagav," Demar growled in Wolf.  "Impressive."

            William snarled back in Panther—in Crinos, only their Gifts allowed them to understand each other.  "How do you know…?"

            "I don't."  Palencia winked.  "But Kuar does.  They've fought before."

            "Who won?"

            "Why don't you find out?" Demar replied, feinting for his chest, then jabbing for the head—

            —Bishop parried easily, sliding his blade down Kuar for the disarm—

            —which Palencia flicked off easily, trying for a draw cut—

            —that Bishop kicked away, thrusting for an attack—

            —Demar blocked it with contemptuous ease—

—but failed to notice the wrist flick, and the second blade went into the marshal's thigh.

Palencia roared and gave a roundhouse kick with the uninjured leg, sending Bishop flying down the corridor.  William rolled onto his feet and ran to reach extension distance.

Demar spun Kuar on his finger, creating a whirling shield that Bishop uselessly bashed against twice, three times, until he finally fell back into a guard position.  In the distance, both of them could hear the sound of pounding footsteps landing on the floor above.

"You're running out of time," Bishop growled at his opponent.

"You don't get it," Palencia snarled back.  "I'm just stalling you, trooper.  All I've got is time!"

"You don't have to die for that bastard," the werepanther reminded him.

"You haven't seen what I've seen," Demar reminded him.  "Without the Empire, without a united humanity, we're all dead!"

"The Federation—"

"Think!  Finish that sentence in your head and tell me if you really believe it!  The Federation is history!  We need an Empire, and like it or not, Vin Dane's what we've got."

Bishop stepped forward and pointed his blade at him.  "Then you've got a poor imagination."

"You want to know what happened the last time Kuar fought your blades?"

            "No," the werepanther answered, and charged towards the werewolf.  Their blades caught in the air and became a blur of motion.  After a while, both of them noticed that they weren't the ones wielding their weapons; the blades were fighting an ancient grudge that dated back centuries.  Their current wielders were simply vehicles.

            So Bishop let go of his blades, extended his claws, and jabbed both right into Palencia's beating heart.

            The marshal fell and Bishop rode his body to the ground, continuing to rip the organs out of his chest.  William's mouth feasted on the blood of his fallen opponent.  Demar died in agony and Kuar fell to the ground—limp, enraged, and impotent.

            As the marshal's body shifted back into human form in death, Bishop shifted back as well, exhausted and aching everywhere.  Even with a werecreature constitution, fighting for so long left him drained.  The spirits that served him were aching silent, and all Bishop could do was slump to his knees.

            The footsteps of the attacking squad reached him.  "Bishop," a familiar voice barked, "report."

            "Field Marshal Palencia is dead, sir," the major answered.

            "The Emperor?" Colonel Dent asked.

            Bishop shrugged.  "Somewhere below us."

            The werebear smiled and patted Bishop on the shoulder.  "Good work.  Come on."

            "No, sir," the major breathed heavily, "I can't go anywhere."

            "Understood.  Ghoul girl!"

            "My name's Irene…"  The lady in black leather stepped forward.

            "Stay with him.  When he can move, get him out of here."  Dent charged his plasma rifle.  "The rest of you, with me!  We've got a king to kill!"




            Scyr stood there in horror as four blades appeared around him, and just beyond his perception, he could feel the glowing lady—the Lady of the Lake—wielding them with unearthly precision.  "It can't end this way," the man argued pointlessly against the injustice of the universe.

            The vampire, the wererat, and the mage only watched in terrified amusement as the blades dived towards the stranger.  Scyr tried to dive away.  He tried to open a rip into the Umbra, but reality stayed firm.  He tried to summon a blade to fend off the attacks, but no blade came.  Reality strangled him even as unreality came to kill him.

            "Why can't I cast?!" Scyr yelled, right as one of the blades slashed his chest.  The mage didn't scream—he hardly felt it—and continued to grab chairs, tables, anything to stop the whirling mystic blades of the Orb.

            But nothing stopped the Orb.  The blades punched through the cheap furniture of the coffee shop and kept after Scyr.  In a last ditch effort, he tried running for the door, but one of the blades dashed into him, puncturing his stomach.  Scyr didn't even notice, except he had to dodge away from the door.  That allowed another blade to pin his shoulder to the wall.  A third blade cut off both his legs; he remained 'standing' against the wall, held up by the other two blades.  The fourth blade stabbed into his heart… and now Scyr felt something.  Loss.  Failure.

            He looked over to his side and saw the spirit-thing shackled to him.  "Save me," Scyr pleaded.  "You have to save me."

            The thing smiled—or would have if it had teeth—and answered, "No."

            The third blade came around, the edge pointed right at Scyr's neck.

            "Why?!" the man demanded.

            "Because," his internal dialogue replied, "I'm afraid I don't like your sense of humor."

            The last thing Scyr saw was the Orb slicing his head from his body.



            Izzy, Roberta, and Victoria dared not move as the four blades dissipated, reforming into a perfect glowing sphere.  The sphere hovered closer to them—the three of them held their collective breath.

            Unconsciously, Vicky stepped forward and held out her hand.

            "Victoria," Izzy asked quietly, "what are you doing?"

            "It's calling to me," the young woman replied, "it says I'm worthy."

            "Worthy of what?" the doctor asked.

            "Of this," and with a smooth movement, she reached out and grabbed the Orb in her hands.  The Orb formed into a shining bracelet, wrapped like a silver snake firmly around her wrist.

            "Wait," the vampire complained, "I thought that belonged to the Emperor."

            "He let it go," Vicky answered, matter-of-factly.  All of a sudden, she shuddered.  "Whoa, what a rush."

            "Are you…?"

            "I'm fine… Izzy."  The young woman smiled at him.  "Absolute power's gonna take some getting used to."




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home.  For that matter, don't try any of this ANYWHERE.  Just... don't do any of this, anywhere, EVER!