"We all were sea-swallow'd, though some cast again, / And by that destiny to perform an act
Whereof what's past is prologue, what to come / In yours and my discharge."

-- William Shakespeare, The Tempest (Act II, Scene I)

"Well, that turned out weird."

            The two old men sat there on the bench, watching the mostly vacant amusement park.  There were still enough patrons to run the rides, but with the old Federation ripped asunder and transportation more dangerous, there were no lines.

            The old man in the old-fashioned suit (with a bow tie large enough to swallow his body) looked over at his friend.  "What do you mean?"

            "I was expecting the world to end, Izzy," said the old man in flowing robes full of wrinkles and covered with dust.  "In fact, I knew it would."

            The paler of the two men smiled wisely.  "Sorry to disappoint you.  The rest of us rather like it here."

"No, that's not…"  The robed man groaned in frustration.

"Cheer up.  You old soldiers always expect the world to end."

            "An invasion of body snatchers?  Can't be killed, can't be stopped?  Hell, even the Horadrim fought them to a draw, and it took them ten thousand years…"

            "And now they're practically extinct."  Izzy D'Argent sighed, then laughed unconsciously.  "Guess humans are more clever than aliens."

            "Maybe.  But I'm guessing they had help," the old lieutenant decided.

            "From Vin Dane.  Everyone knows the story by now."

            "But who told Dane they were coming?"

Izzy sat there whistling, twiddling his thumbs to an old Disney tune he'd forgotten the words to.  When his companion turned his eyes towards him, D'Argent gave him a faded smile.


            The man with the bow tie laughed, then shook his head.  "No, but I had you going, didn't I?"

            The old lieutenant snorted out a laugh.  "That means there's another player in the game.  One I don't know about.  And that scares me, because I know everyone."

            "Lwan, when we met, you told me you wanted a nice green world to sit on and watch the end of the universe.  This," Izzy waved his hand around the park, "is it."

            "But the universe didn't end," Eddington pointed out, "so my work isn't finished."  Lwan looked at his friend's hand and started to see sky through it.  "Your resolution is fading."

            "Is it?"  Izzy looked at his body, noticed the discrepancy, then boosted the gain on the holoemitter.  Suddenly, D'Argent became brighter, the colors of his skin and clothes more solid.  "Damn, I'll have to get one of my people to fix that.  The weather around here is hell on electronics."

            Lwan turned his tanned face towards the sky.  "Didn't you terraform this moon?"

            "Just the immediate area.  The New Sparta ecosystem keeps trying to reclaim the park.  It's cheaper to repair the damage than to change the whole moon.  Besides, the increased moisture the park kicks out should turn the desert into steppe in another couple decades."

            The old lieutenant's eyes crossed and he shook himself back to the moment.  "I'm sorry, where were we?"


            Eddington stuck out his tongue playfully.  "I know the name of this place, Izzy.  And… it's amazing what's you've accomplished here."

            "I wish I could do more."

            "So do I."

            Now it was D'Argent's turn to stare.  "I know people who would worship you as a god, Lwan.  You're telling me you don't have the power?"

            "When one man alone tries to change the universe, he becomes the problem, regardless of his intentions.  Dane's about to realize that.  But if we find one good man…"

"…or woman," Izzy corrected.

"Man as in mankind, old friend."

"Sorry.  Old habit.  I lived through the millennium; everyone talked like that."

"Well, now we've got real problems.  So I figure we find a good man, we surround him with some more good men, and we set up a just and free civilization to last centuries, maybe even a thousand years."

"But not forever."

"No," Lwan sighed.  "Nothing lasts forever.  But if people remember 'the good ol' times,' we're more likely to have good governments in the future.  One good act can generate another.  And I don't intend to live forever."

"Speak for yourself."  D'Argent smiled widely, showing the fangs he normally didn't broadcast.  "But where do we start?"

The old lieutenant pointed at his friend.  "We pick sides.  We find someone in their faction, ally with them, and help them to win."

"And what does winning look like?" Izzy asked.

"If I knew that, I wouldn't be sitting here, would I?"  Lwan winked.

"But what if we ally with the wrong man?"

"Doesn't matter," Eddington explained.  "Once our side is winning, you can change the players, and mold it in our image."

"This is sounding needlessly biblical."

"We're creating a universe—what did you expect?"

"How would I even start?"  D'Argent looked incredulous.

"You've got the skills to infiltrate the entire net.  Once you pick a side… infiltrate.  Find your man and make it happen."

"And then?"

Lwan raised his eyebrows.  "That's not enough to start with?  Do you think this is going to be easy?"

"Nothing worth doing ever is."

"Couldn't have said it better myself."  The old lieutenant winked and stood up.  "Goodbye, old friend."

Izzy smiled.  "I'd shake your hand but…"

Eddington shook his head.  "Maybe later."  He then opened a correspondence portal and stepped through.  D'Argent's smile taxed the brightness levels of his holoemitters.  When a sunbeam passed by, Izzy disappeared.




            The square was crowded; at the center of Pampas, the second-largest city on the planet Rios, this was nothing unusual.  Today, however, it was filled not just with the usual crowd of buyers and sellers at the farmer's market.  Not even just filled with the usual crowd of buyers and sellers of black market goods and services.  Today there was a pressing throng of people… an angry throng of people, a worried throng of people.  It was a riot-in-waiting throng of people.

            It had been almost six months since the Caal invasion.  No one was trading their teenage daughter for a ticket on a starship going somewhere, anywhere, so long as it was away from the Caal advance.  No one was even offering to sell information on friends and relatives who might have somehow escaped the invasion—and after the loss of Jennifer's Star and Edo, the market was high.  Then the official lists had finally been released by the new Imperial government two weeks before, and a week after that, a smuggled copy was posted on the local news nets.  Those mourning or celebrating the news had long since gone home from the public square.

            It hadn't seemed possible.  The Caal had come through the same region of human space the Vin Shriak had come through the decade before.  It was hard to believe there were still over two billion people left in the four systems the Caal had cleared out before they gathered their possessed army and used their numbers to charge straight for the Federation's jugular at Avalon.  It was even harder to believe that the endless series of wars and disasters the Federation had gone through over the previous century had left enough active ships to transport two billion people at once.  But reanimated corpses don't need air or food or… after all, the no longer living didn't need living space.  The no longer breathing did not need breathing room.  With the Orb seemingly within their grasp, with billions of brand new, invincible, eternally youthful, healthy, and unspoiled bodies apparently within their reach, the Caal hadn't been worried about keeping these bodies around to last.  They needed to endure just long enough to get to Avalon and kill everyone there.  Then they would turn the planet's crust literally upside down—if that's what it took—to find the Orb... that would be plenty long enough.

            The Caal hadn't asked Argus McCall for advice.  Even if he'd been in the mood to provide advice to a race of genocidally-insane ghosts of an alien race, Argus was a good Christian and he knew his Bible.  Those kind of perfect bodies untarnished by the corruption of this decadent world may be promised in Heaven, but the Caal clearly weren't part of the Elect.  Whatever they'd done to be cursed in such a way meant they were eternally denied the rest of the grave, much less the glories of Heaven, God clearly wasn't in the mood to let them cheat and gain the rewards due only to the righteous.

            The Caal invasion fleet was blown straight to Hell instead, and although the human race wasn't going to be extinct before this weekend, it did mean that the man who'd defeated the Caal was getting the kind of adoration that only God himself was due.

            Argus grimaced.  Except the man who defeated them wasn't even a man… not really.  Vin Dane was something else.  Not the Living God that his new Cult of the Emperor claimed he was.  Not the Savior that billions more across the Federation had prayed would deliver them from this evil.  Not even the Boogeyman that others claimed; just another Godless alien heathen, a Horadrim who played at being human.  Underneath his skin, somewhere, lay a chitinous creature from another star, closer to Bugs than men.  He had been reshaped by science, magick, and nanotechnology into something almost—but not quite—impossible to tell from a real human.

In the end, he was just another would-be dictator who'd managed to turn "would-be" into "is."  Argus McCall had seen it many times, even in his brief thirty-five years of existence.  Auntie Sarah, Bad Andy, Emperor Chiang, Chairman Clarke, Chairman Johnson, General Fabin...  Heck, Argus had lost count of the number of ambitious and unscrupulous men and women who had murdered and lied their way to the top.  And that was just in the last three and a half decades.

            But some people are always willing to give such monsters a boost—especially if it clears the path for them to follow after.  And one of those bootlicking, butt-boosting bastards was down in the middle of the square, haranguing the others and whipping them into a frenzy.

            Argus increased the magnification on his cybernetic eye.  "An Eye for an Eye," the Good Book said, but Argus didn't expect that to mean an Arachnid Warrior would chew off most of the left side of his face, way back on Constantine.  Thankfully, he soon got his missing eye replaced by one many times more sensitive and powerful.  Nor did he think "if thy right hand offends thee, cut it off' meant that the same blasted Bug would have first torn off Argus's left arm… although he supposed the plasma grenade he'd been trying to throw at the time might have offended the Bug in some fashion.  Now his arm was also fully cybernetic, as well as removable and interchangeable with half a dozen different models—depending on his purpose; right now, he had on his Shootin' Arm.

            With his eye zoomed in, he could make out every filthy hair in the scraggly beard of the manic street preacher below.  He couldn't quite hear him screaming at the crowd from way up on the rooftop; his cybernetic ear wasn't that directional.  But he had other gizmos for that; squatting on top of a nearby light pole was what looked like a slightly overgrown beetle.  It was actually a sophisticated robot drone, slaved to the computer shoehorned into the artificial half of his skull.  Argus could look through the drone's eyes through his own cybernetic one, but didn't need to.  Where he stood on the roof of one of the buildings ringing the square, he wasn't far enough away to need to do that.  But the drone also had an audio pickup, so Argus could hear every blasphemous, vitriolic phrase as soon as it was spat out of the street preacher's mouth.

            "We prayed for deliverance!  And deliverance we received!  We prayed for a Savior, and a Savior was given!  We prayed for a Messiah, and a Messiah was sent!  We prayed to our God," the preacher exhorted the crowd, capitalizing his words with spit.  "And our Living God answered in person!  The God-Emperor saved you!  And You!  And every one of you!  He reached out his mighty hand and smote the Demon Caal!  He smashed their ships, and gathered unto him the souls of every one of their poor victims, and lit their way to Heaven with the Caal's funeral pyres!"

            At least this one has a better sense of rhythm, the sniper thought.  A good sermon needs pacing, not like the other preacher did last week.  That guy wouldn't know a good parable if it bit him on the nose.

The new guy continued his rant.  "Our prayers were answered, but what did we do then?  When we were praying for salvation, we promised God everything!  We promised him that we'd go to church, that we'd stop drinking, that we'd stop yelling at our kids, that we'd give all our worldly possessions to the poor, if only God would let this shadow pass over us!  And pass over us it did—but did we hold up our end of the bargain?"  A few voices in the crowd answered back with shouts of no, but mostly there was just a low rumble of acknowledgement that yes.  Pretty much everyone had tried to bargain with God during those terrible two weeks as the Caal armada closed in on Avalon.

            A couple of more worrisome voices in the crowd called out, "New Paris!  New Passover!"  The Caal had flown right past New Paris without landing a single soldier or firing a shot, leaving the two and a half billion people there unharmed.  The local governor had gone crazy and issued an executive order demanding all citizens to fast and pray that the Caal would pass them by.  Although a politician and a hypocrite himself, he did not exempt himself.  He had been seen on the steps of the Orange Catholic Cathedral, mortifying his flesh with a barbed flail until the blood ran down his back and over the church steps into the street.  This had been held up as Vin Dane's first miracle, and the New Paris governor was now a high priest in his new cult.

            "But all the Living God asked for—all God ever really asks for—is our acknowledgement… that he is our God!  He doesn't need us to bow, to impoverish ourselves to feed the poor, or to sing his praises until our gums bleed.  He does need us to recognize him when he stands before us in the flesh!  The Living God stands before you on Avalon, and all he asks is your loyalty!"

            Okay, the trooper thought, the preacher had just crossed the line from "religious nutjob" to "fomenting revolt and treason."  Rios' system government had declared its continuing loyalty to the Earth Federation, and if Vin Dane had dissolved the old Grand Council… well, Admiral Smythe's reconstituted government on New Madrid would just have to do.  They wanted nothing to do with the new "Holy Terran Empire" under the God-Emperor Vin Dane.  Most of the people agreed with this move… but they could also read a map.  Systems that had declared loyalty to Vin Dane's new regime far outnumbered those loyal to Smythe and the old Federation.  "Living God" or not, Vin Dane had defeated the Caal when no one else thought it even possible.  Smythe might have more ships at the moment, but Vin Dane had far more troops, far more people, and far more factories and mines and shipyards and money.  And with all those people to feed, Vin Dane would probably love to have the farms and pastures of Rios under his control.  The people of Rios knew it was only a matter of time before the Imperial Fleet and Army came calling.  Some had already decided to embrace this foregone conclusion.

            But Argus knew there was really only one foregone conclusion in the Universe.  Even when the Devil himself ran loose and walked among men, eventually he would get tossed back into his pit for another thousand years.  With the Devil in chains, the true Living God would once more walk on Earth in the flesh.  Argus just hoped there'd be people living on Earth again in time to see him when he returned.  But for the moment, this blasphemous traitor needed to be dealt with.

            Down in the square, the preacher was starting to shift gears, talking about the kindness and mercy of his God-Emperor.  About how he would forgive our sins and blasphemies, how he would clothe the naked and feed the hungry and house the poor, how he would yadda yadda yadda.  Argus slapped a magazine of laser-seeking rounds into the receiver of his railgun, and carefully elevated the muzzle to nearly vertical.  One last check of the triangulated fix on his target from the three other drones he was controlling at various perches around the square, and he fired a single round high into the air.

            By the time the round fell back to the ground, neatly impacting the top of the rabble-rouser's skull and killing him instantly, Argus was already leaving the roof via the access door and heading down to street level.  Once the target was down, he recalled the drones to a rendezvous point a few blocks away, and the drones lifted off on wings and rotors to join him.

            The Light Infantry's "riot response squad" showed up a few minutes later, despite the fact that Angus had called as soon as he heard the preacher start into his rant.  Thankfully, the crowd had already gotten the hint.  The square was starting to empty out, so all that was left for the riot cops was to remove the body and call in a sanitation crew to hose his blood and brains off the flower planter that the preacher had been using as a pulpit.


            When Argus returned to barracks, an officer in Earth Fleet uniform was waiting in the ready room for him.  Argus hadn't seen him before, but the Commander's rank on his collar tabs sent Argus into an immediate salute as he snapped to attention.

            "At ease, lieutenant," the fleet puke ordered.  "My name's Commander Tibbets.  I wanted a word with you."

"Yes, sir."

The commander raised an eyebrow.  "I understand you have a talent, lieutenant."

"One shot, one kill, sir," McCall answered, hating this guy already.  Get to the point, commander.

"And you use this talent to kill clergy?"

            Argus almost managed to control his shock.  "Not quite sure what you mean there, sir.  I'm a church-going man myself.  I'd never kill a man of the cloth."

            "Oh?"  Tibbets smiled.  "I heard differently.  In fact, didn't you notch another such kill just today?  What's that for you now, six?"

            "Seven of them now, actually," McCall clarified, keeping his voice calm.  "They aren't proper clergy, they're just nutjobs who were too scared of the Caal to think about anything else.  Now the Caal are gone and they're too scared of the guy who beat them to think about anything else again."

"The Federation protected religious minorities…"

"Not if it's treason, sir.  That's in the First Act under Clarke."  Argus shrugged.  "With those idiots, it's half riot prevention and half putting a mad dog out of its misery.  Better that than jail.  Better that than taking a lot of citizens with them."
            Tibbets smiled again; it really creeped out the sniper, like he was the lobster being pointed to at the restaurant.  "Well put.  You weren't afraid of the Caal, were you?"

            "No, sir.  Had my fear surgically removed," Argus quipped, tapping the plastiflesh of his left temple.  "As the saying goes, fear God and dread naught."

            "Jackie Fisher," the commander noted, clearly impressed.  "I heard you were something of an amateur historian as well."

            "I've read some books, sir."

            "Ever read anything on the Great Patriotic War?"

            McCall looked quizzical.  "The… eastern front—World War Two?"

"That's it."

"Snipers earned their bones there, that's for sure.  It's safer on Fieras than that charnel house was."

"If it was so bad, why did they fight?"

Argus shrugged.  "Why does anyone, sir?  Survival.  Man next to you.  I don't know.  Maybe you're like me and you're just damn good at it… sir."

Tibbets explained.  "You ever hear the phrase, 'It's hard not to be a hero in the Red Army?'"

            "They shot the poor buggers who tried to run," the sniper replied, a chill going down his bones, "or if they didn't mouth the right slogans.  The first was useful, the second wasn't.  The Nazis had the right idea; shoot the Commissars first."

            The commander sighed, a little disappointed.  "You didn't think they were useful, lieutenant?"

"The Soviets won.  I guess you can justify anything that way."

"You're right, McCall, you can.  And it was necessary.  Just like it is now."

"You need me to shoot deserters, is that it?"  Now it was the sniper's turn to be disappointed; at least clearing street preachers saves lives… and souls.

"No, Lieutenant McCall.  I'm here to offer you a transfer out of the Light Infantry… and into the Tech Infantry."

            McCall would have looked surprised if his left eyebrow went up as far as his right these days.  As it was, he simply looked intrigued.  "But sir… I'm not awakened.  I'm just your ordinary non-magical human.  I don't qualify."

            "That's where you're wrong," Tibbets replied.  "Your cybernetic enhancements are such that you… technically qualify as superhuman."

"You want me to shoot mages?"

"This wouldn't be a transfer to an ordinary line unit, lieutenant.  The Federation spent too much on your surgery and reconstruction to waste you for plasma fodder.  No, we've got a rather special job in mind."

            "Smythe need a new Mustache Groomer?"

            The commander's face darkened for a moment.  "No.  But we find ourselves in a similar situation as the Soviets did three and a quarter centuries ago.  We have millions of soldiers and spacers who have friends and family trapped behind enemy lines.  As long as our enemies can threaten to harm their families, their effective loyalty is… questionable at best."

"Surely our enemies face the same problem?  Don't some of their troops have families here or on New Madrid or elsewhere in the Federation?"

            "Of course.  But they've got more populated planets than we do.  We're doing our best to smuggle out as many family members as we can, but that will take time.  In the meantime, we are forced to expand the role of the Raptors as a watchdog on the military, in addition to their formal duties in draft enforcement."

            Realization dawned.  "You want to transfer me to the Raptors?  To become a… what was it, a commissar and spy on our own troops?"

            The commander smiled like an alligator watching a drowning elk.  "No, Lieutenant.  I want to transfer you to the Raptors to spy on the commissars who spy on our own troops.  To be the watchman over the watchmen."

McCall's eyes narrowed.  "Sir, we're about to jump into a multi-front war against several enemies.  They've got more resources and population to draw upon than we do.  Why would you take me off the line to watch a bunch of Tech brats who got spoiled by Clarke?"

"Because we're relaxing the standards, extending enlistments, and rounding up every mage and werecreature we can find.  Compared to us, Clarke was a pacifist."  Tibbets relaxed.  "As you said, the Raptors were spoiled under Clarke.  They thought they were a…"  The commander struggled for the right words.

"Praetorian Guard, sir?"

The commander nodded.  "Exactly.  And Chairman Smythe—and the Fleet—doesn't want to see what happened to Auntie Sarah happen to him."  Before the sniper could reply, Tibbets interrupted.  "I won't force you, because I need someone dedicated enough to pull this off."

"I'm a sniper, not a spy."

"Which makes you the perfect choice; no one will suspect you.  Look, I can leave you here—you'll probably be able to take out a few hundred of the enemy here on Rios before they take you down.  You're good, but you're not invincible."  The commander leaned forward.  "Or you can come with me and make a real difference in ending this war.  We can't restore the Earth Federation unless we have people we can trust.  What do you say?"




            Silent as death, the panther crept along the top of a three-story building.  He kept to the shadows of a wall just below the roofline, blending with his urban environment.  He knew he shouldn't have bothered; it was midnight and pitch black, thanks to the street lamps having mysteriously sputtered out.  The animal could see as well as a normal person at night if there had been a full moon.  At a street corner just ahead, the target that the panther had been tracking slipped down an alley and out of sight.  The panther was sure it was the person responsible for the street light malfunctions.  After waiting a few moments, he moved into another dark shadow so no one could see the panther's physical characteristics change.  The tail shortened and merged with the body.  Legs and arms formed, the head changed, and finally a face emerged.  Jet black clothing appeared along with a gun on his left hip and two distinctive sheathed swords crisscrossed across back.

            The man whispered into a comlink he pulled from a belt pouch.  "Dent, this is Bishop.  Suspect has been seen entering the Iron District.  Gender confirmed as female.  Do you want me to pursue?"

"Negative.  Report back to HQ.  Good work.  Discom."

The man called Bishop changed back into a panther and made his way back to what his commander laughingly referred to as Headquarters.  It was nothing spectacular; HQ occupied the top floor of a three-level apartment building.  It had one redeeming factor, however; there was a bar and restaurant called Santiago's at street level.  It was located in New Bisbee, a mining city with a population of 1.5 million on a planet called Ashdown.

After the ascension of Vin Dane as leader of the Holy Terran Empire, there were a number of groups in the galaxy that had refused to play along.  Bishop had taken the side of what remained of the Earth Federation.  Only half a dozen or so planets had sided with the Earth Federation; Ashdown was one of them.  This seemingly insignificant planet was an important supplier of heavy minerals being used in the construction of Federation ship hulls.  Apparently, someone had objected to this, because for the third time in the last two months the senior engineer had been assassinated and some of the more poorly guarded mining equipment had been sabotaged.

Before the Empire, Bishop had been with the Raptors, specializing in enforcing the conscription of gifted individuals from Wilkes Star.  So it was only natural that he joined the Raptors siding with the Earth Federation.  But the role of the Raptors in this faction had been expanded—there was no choice; there were simply fewer personnel around.  So they became the internal security for these systems, using the limited number of individuals with magickal capabilities available.

The modus operandi of the attacks on the engineers and mining equipment was impeccable.  The saboteur did not hesitate to kill.  The suspects had never been identified or caught on the vid screens.  However, the lack of fingerprints, DNA, or auras, as well as the trajectory of the killing objects, pointed to only one possibility: telekinesis.  That meant mages were involved.  Due to the importance of Ashdown, the Red Talons, one of the elite units of the Raptors, was assigned to discover who was responsible for the assassinations and sabotage… and to stop them at all cost.

Bishop quickly made his way back to HQ and entered Santiago's.  As usual, the place was dead at this time of night.  There was a man on the other side of the bar sleeping, but William knew he was just pretending.  Even if Bishop didn't know that the man was a werewolf, the irregular breathing was a giveaway.  After giving a slight nod to the "sleeping" man at the bar, Bishop made his way to the stairs at the back of the restaurant.

Several members of the Red Talons were in the apartment when Bishop entered.  Regis, their unit's technology expert, sat before a holoterminal with a matrix of information flashing by so fast William could not even begin to interpret it.  Regis was a werewolf from the Glass Walkers Totem.  Among the werewolf tribes, the Glass Walkers embraced technology the most, and had a great aptitude for computers.

Bishop ignored him and made his way towards Bernard Dent, a mountain of a man with his head turned down at the wide table in the center of the room.  One could detect a large map of New Bisbee through Dent's thick brown hair.  As William stepped forward, Dent looked up, nodding at him to take a look at the map.  Bishop walked over and looked down.

"At first, we thought the attackers were simply fanatics, like those we've seen from the… Vin Dane faction."  The large man growled, as if human language was inadequate for conveying his disgust.  "But more and more, it seems there's a new player in town.  If they were fanatics, they would probably have left graffiti and then left town."

"What do you mean?"  Bishop asked, confused, for the map revealed none of this to him.

Dent looked up and his eyes softened.  In a lower voice, he asked, "Bishop, have you been using those self-improvement vids I gave you?"

"Yes, sir," William nodded, thinking yeah, to keep my beer glass from sweating on the table.

"Your reading and writing skills need to improve or you're never gonna get far in this man's army."

"Hasn't slowed me down so far."

"That's not the point, Bishop.  We can always use your muscle in this group, but if you want to get the most out of your career, you're gonna have to improve your communication skills."

"I started reading my first novel, sir."

Dent snorted a laugh.  "Yeah, right.  Look at the map again.  See where the attacks are marked?"

"Uh… which ones are…?"

"The red ones, Bishop."

The werepanther concentrated and noticed it instantly.  "It's a pattern.  They strike at different places, but their paths are precise, leading to easy escape routes and to avoid being spotted."

Bernard Dent patted William's back.  "Good.  Now you see my problem."

"So it wasn't fanatics."  William shrugged.  "They're methodical, precise, and possess magick.  They could still be part of the Holy…" Bishop hesitated, seeing the shadow of anger pass over his superior's face, "…the Vin Dane faction."

"Yeah, they could.  But my contacts informed me that the lady you followed tonight arrived here not long before the string of bombings and murders.  She's not a local.  I'd say this is an awfully strange place for someone to take a vacation, don't you think?"

"Yes sir."

"The fact that this woman has been here this long without being caught on camera or seen by our patrols makes me nervous."

"She fits the MO."

"Precisely.  So tomorrow, your orders are to find out where she's staying and bring her in.  If she's well guarded, don't be the hero.  Call for backup.  We want her alive, to find out who she works for."

"Major, I have a picture!" Regis exclaimed.

"What?!" replied Dent.

"I just got an image from our hidden cam at the intersection of Gemstone and Iron View."

"Did you run it?" Bishop asked.

"Yes, sir.  I cross-referenced it with the Fed personnel database, but there was no match.  Take a look."

As they gazed at the monitor, Bishop thought to himself, that face is familiar.  But who is she?  He thought back in his past, but nothing came to mind.  I'm not sure who she is… but I do know someone who might.

Dent made eye contact with Regis, then shook his head.  "Bishop, I need to speak to you in private."

William nodded and followed Dent into his makeshift office in the back of the apartment.  "Yes, sir?"
            "I think we have a leak."

The werepanther shook his head.  "Impossible."

"Bishop, I was afraid there's a reason she's slipping past us, so I had Regis personally install a new network of cameras.  Their feeds are coming in through a confidential network.  Until then, the suspect either avoided or slipped past all of our other cameras unnoticed.  Get the picture?"

"Our unit's solid, sir."

"I'm not sure if it's our unit or not.  I'm going to assign McMichael, Greene, and Anderson to go with you when you track her down tomorrow.  Now that we have a face, I can place guards I trust at every exit off this rock.  She isn't going anywhere.  Take your time, and watch your back."

William nodded to Dent and left his office, had Regis send a copy of the woman's image to Bishop's datapad, then retreated to the privacy of his room.  No one was going to begrudge him a few hours sleep; this mission was taking long enough as was.

After entering his room and closing the door, Bishop retrieved his datapad from inside a desk drawer, pressed a few buttons, and a tutorial came up.  After watching it for a few moments, he slowly typed in a long sequence of numbers, hit enter, and waited.  A few minutes later, the small face of a blonde-haired woman appeared on the screen.
            "William?  Do you know what time it is here?" Bree Colby asked.

"Sorry to wake you, Colby, but I need a favor."

"You've asked a great many favors…"

"…and I've always paid them off," Bishop interrupted.  "And I need your help again."

His old were-rat friend sighed.  "What is it?"

"I'm tracking down some unfriendly people…"

"What else is new?" she scoffed.

Bishop ignored it.  "…and we came across an image of a woman.  I could swear I've seen her before, when I was working with you on Wilke's Star."

"Do you have a picture?"

"Yes, I'm forwarding it to you now."

"Okay, I received it," Bree said after a short delay.  "She… looks familiar, but I don't know who she is."

"Could you use your contacts to find out?" Bishop asked.

"Sure.  Why not?  I could throw in a pizza, if you'd like."

"Ten cheese, easy on the sauce."  William smiled.

"It won't be easy.  I left long before the vampire occupation, so I'll have to try a few different sources.  I don't know who's alive and who's dead anymore."  Colby blinked.  "I should have an answer for you in a couple days."

"Done.  If anyone starts pushing you around, then let me know."

The were-rat's eyes brightened.  "You can't always be my shining knight, William."

"Horses freak me out.  Nah, think of me as your backdoor man."

Colby rolled her eyes.  "You always were a charmer.  Discom."

Once the connection broke, Bishop lay down on his bed and slowly typed into his data pad.  Soon his novel appeared.  He started reading Where the Wild Things Are, picking out the words little by little.  He made it an hour before he fell asleep.




            Scyr woke up in the middle of the floor, surrounded by bodies.  He should have been more concerned, but it was the second time it had happened to him.  The first had been much worse; today there were only about twenty or so bodies.

            "Nngyuuh," he groaned, pushing himself up from the floor.  "I should really stop throwing these sorts of parties."

            Back on his feet, Scyr took a moment to brush dust and debris from his clothes.  Fortunately, there were no stains or tears that he could see.  His hands stung a little, and his palms were red and raw-looking, but did not seem to be seriously damaged.  Scyr decided to ignore them for now; he pawed at his head, banishing what he could of the dust from his hair.  What bothered him more was that he had no memory of what happened.

            Scyr stepped over a shattered suit of power armor and walked to one of his more lightly-armored bodyguards.  Sheila Farrier had a hole punched through the left side of her abdomen, removing most of a kidney.  Half of her face was covered in fur, the result of an unfinished transformation—possibly some kind of werecat.  Normally she would have reverted, he thought, so the attackers must have used some nasty weapons.  Scyr squatted above the corpse and peeled her fingers away from a plasma rifle.  Carefully, he hefted the weapon, switched the safety back to "ON", then checked its charge.  Almost full; Sheila had only fired one or two shots.

            It took him a moment to realize that he was in an interior dining room.  The main table was completely gone, as were most of two walls, messily opening up the space into a hallway and a spare bedroom.  The remaining surfaces and decorations were charred and broken.  No sign of lingering fire—for which Scyr counted himself lucky.  No sign of any fire suppressants, either, for which Scyr counted himself perturbed.

            Scyr blinked.  "Wait, does this place even have fire suppressors?"  It wasn't something he'd ever thought to check.  A glance at the ceiling did not reveal so much as a sprinkler.  Scyr became even more irritated, this time with himself.

            "Next apartment gets fire suppressors rated for industrial use," he said aloud.  "Especially if I'm going to be giving the guards plasma weapons."  He patted the stock of Sheila's gun.  "Now…"

            Only five of the bodies in the wrecked dining room were Scyr's bodyguards.  The rest were heavily armed troopers equipped with what looked like full Tech Infantry powered armor.  Scyr doubted the pilots were Tech Infantry; if they were, a dozen of them wouldn't have stormed his dining room at once.  They clearly ended up shooting each other during the melee.

            Scyr picked his way over to one of the attackers, looking for the most intact power armor.  All the while, he counted silently, constantly glancing towards all the various exits.

            Opening up the suit was simple enough if you knew what you were doing—and Scyr did.  A quick search of the corpse inside turned up nothing useful.  Scyr moved on to another suit, nearly-whole, while making sure to keep his head and eyes moving, watching.  The next corpse was rather pungent, partially cooked inside its armor, but Scyr managed to turn up an ID and personal credit chit.  He pocketed both, even though the credits were probably lost with the death of their owner.  Then he had an idea and ripped out one of the control chips from the power armor, too.

            Next stop was his home office.  Scyr risked moving through the hallway, visible to the penthouse's windows, rather than blasting through the walls.  If his enemies were smart enough to be watching the windows, he should already be dead.  They would probably send someone to check up on their fallen troopers, so he had to move quickly.

            From the office, Scyr tried to contact the rest of his bodyguards.  According to protocol, they should be at a ready station in the building.  He got no response; apparently the bad guys weren't quite that stupid.  Sighing, he checked the building's emergency alerts.  Nothing internal, but the city police were on their way as of five minutes ago.  Apparently someone outside had seen an entire floor's windows being blown out.  If anyone inside had noticed, they either hadn't cared or weren't able to do anything about it.  Police probably wouldn't try to hold Scyr, but he didn't want to be around to find out for sure.  Not that they would be in a tearing hurry to get here, but Scyr knew his time was short.  Emptying his pockets, he quickly instructed the computer on its next task.

            The ID was a wash, no good match from his search of the public net or Federation archives, not even his own personal files.  But the control chip left Scyr patting himself on the back in self-congratulation.  Part of Scyr—the amateur criminal part—worried constantly about leaving a "paper trail."  But now his data-hoarding instincts had paid off.  The serial number of the suit of power armor had come from a batch that Scyr himself had "salvaged" and sold.  The purchaser was an agent for Kazimir Vitek… the Chairman of the Terran Republic.  Scyr mentally shrugged.  Obvious in hindsight, really.

            Scyr whistled happily, and ordered the building computer to bring his aircar up to the roof of the tower.  Then he paused for a minute.  Scyr felt like he ought to be rifling through his personal belongings, looking for stuff to bring with him.  Something beyond the clothes on his back, his comlink, and Sheila's plasma rifle; but really, he could think of nothing.  There were a few items he wanted, but he decided to buy them on the way to the spaceport.

            "Next skyscraper I buy gets an armory near every exit," he noted with a shrug.  Then he jogged for the rooftop stairs.


            The Dynametro urban core had the same spectacular skyline of gleaming, awesomely tall skyscrapers as all of the former Federation's master-planned "suburban" colonies.  It was the capital district of Jennifer's Star and also boasted a pristine beautiful waterfront—Dynabeach—which was highly touted.  After all, only… seven or eight planets could claim the same for their capitals.

            Scyr noticed none of it as his aircar sliced through the morning sky on its way to the planet's primary spaceport (labeled Dynaport, but usually called "Deport").  Not that he would normally have drooled over the scenery, even if he could appreciate its aesthetic on some level.  But right now, Scyr was busy recording a video message for Jennifer's Star local robber-baron, warlord, and representative on the General Assembly of the Terran Republic, Governor Wilfred Saito-Sato.

            "Hello, Bill," Scyr said to the car's comm unit.  "I thought I would let you know, Kazzy tried to have me killed today.  As you can see, I survived.  But I've decided to go ahead and flee the planet—flee the entire Republic, even.  You should probably tell the good Chairman that you've renounced all ties with me, and maybe consider even throwing in with his faction.  I'll be out of the picture now, so there's no need to borrow trouble on my behalf anymore.  I suppose I'm even sorry to have put you in the position of defending me in the first place.  It was a pleasure doing business, Bill.  Goodbye."

            With the recording finished and sent off, Scyr allowed himself a moment of gazing out at the scenery.  The aircar had left Dynametro entirely behind, while Deport still loomed off in the distance.  That left only the clear blue ocean to admire.

            It took less than five minutes for the comlink to buzz.  Scyr activated it without a word, and turned a passive face towards the ruddy, bull-cheeked image of Governor Saito-Sato.

            "Scyr!" he cried, as if he were greeting an old friend.  "Are you all right?"

            Scyr responded with a gesture that was part-shrug, part-nod at his intact self.

            "Scyr… I'm appalled, simply appalled that Vitek would do such a thing!  You're certain that he's behind it?"


            Wilfred shook his head in an exaggerated display of sympathy.  The act was utterly transparent and the warlord must have certainly known it himself.  Still, Scyr thought, there's something disarming about his manner that must have proved profitable over the years.

            "Scyr, I hate to see our partnership ended so abruptly… so morbidly.  If there's anything I can do—"

            "Bill, you should take my advice and abandon me to my fate.  It's what you would have done anyway… it's the smart thing to do, Bill, and you're not stupid.  You have my permission to not feel the slightest shred of guilt over doing it."

            That actually seemed to pierce the warlord's façade.  "Where we will you go?"

            Scyr smirked and bounced the plasma rifle he was still holding against his shoulder.

            "Obviously I can't tell you specifics, Bill.  But I'm thinking a Public Safety world would be best.  I don't trust the Empire, and I'm not convinced that Kazzy couldn't reach into the rump Fed or an independent system after me."

            "Well…"  Wilfred seemed to lose his words for a moment, and he stroked at his beardless chin.  "Well, you're clever enough not to need my advice, Scyr, but watch your back anyway.  It was a pleasure doing business with you."

            Scyr gave the camera a tiny smile, but Wilfred had already closed the connection.  So instead, Scyr let his face twist all the way into a grin.  His eyes lit up and his teeth sparkled wickedly.  "Good doggy!"




The wall of darkness drew relentlessly closer, consuming everything across the face of the planet.  If only Takamitsu Yasuyama could use magick like his father could, he might have fought back against the darkness himself, even now, with his mother's gentle voice calling to them, "Come back for us."

Takamitsu was completely powerless.  Worse still, his mother's calls fell on deaf ears with Takamitsu's father, Akihiro.  A moment ago, Takamitsu had been a grown man… but when his father took his hand and began to drag him away to the transport ship, Taka became that little six-year-old boy again, weeping uncontrollably as his father picked him up and threw him over his shoulder.  As Akihiro walked toward the shuttle, Takamitsu watched his mother continue to call to them, calm and composed, slowly shrinking in the distance with Takamitsu's baby sister Chian-fang in her arms, the darkness closing in on her.  "Come back for us."  The call echoed in his mind, and Takamitsu's eyes began to burn as they filled with tears at the sight of his mother and sister being swallowed by the darkness…

And then he woke up.

Taka sat up sweating on the couch in his sixth-story flat overlooking the city of Shinjuku on New Tokyo.  For a moment, he thought the dream was the cause of his perspiration… but then he realized that Ji-yoon must have covered him with a blanket, even though he had insisted on being fine.  He took a deep breath and calmed himself.

The first time Takamitsu had awakened from this recurring nightmare years ago, it had been a huge shock to his system.  Even though he'd now grown accustomed to waking up in tears every other week or so, he still never recognized that he was dreaming until he awoke. 

Of course, the dream was nothing like the way things had actually transpired.  When Takamitsu had left Showa with his father, there had been no warning of the imminent Vin Shriak invasion that virtually annihilated the entire Eastern Bloc.  When Taka said goodbye to his mother that day, there had been no sense of urgency that it would be for the last time.  His father Akihiro was simply taking a business trip at their grandfather Hikaru's request to inspect some of the new facilities on New Tokyo.  Man-wen, Takamitsu's mother, had suggested to Akihiro that he take Takamitsu with him so he could spend some time with her sister's family who lived on New Tokyo.

By the time news reached Taka and his father of the Imperial Navy's sudden defeat by Vin Shriak onslaught and the bombardment of Showa, there was nothing either of them could have done.  No infinite pool of financial resources could have saved their family from what happened next.

The Vin Shriak took no prisoners.  Ji-yoon had lost almost all of her family—except her uncle—when their battle fleet rolled through the Eastern Bloc.  Takamitsu had lost everyone except his father… but sometimes he wondered if he hadn't lost him, too.  Akihiro was a changed man after the Vin Shriak invasion.  Before, he had been a well-known, peaceful humanitarian, not only in the Eastern Bloc, but also in the Federation.  It was largely because the agreeable Akihiro was pegged as heir-apparent to the venerable Anshin Heavy Industries that the Earth Federation had allowed Anshin to build facilities on New Tokyo at all.

Takamitsu had gathered this much simply by perusing old news articles while he was still in high school.  What they didn't reveal was how Akihiro, ever since the Vin Shriak "Holy War," had been something of a recluse, even to his own son.  The old man (who really was still only in his mid-forties) spoke with Takamitsu more often now that his son had finished college and was working for the family business… but even now, Akihiro seemed much colder than the father who had taken Takamitsu to New Tokyo all those years ago.  Not only that but, to add insult to insanity, Akihiro had developed a strange preoccupation with snail mail lately,.

Presumably, it all had an effect on Takamitsu, too.  Aside from the recurring dream of his mother, Takamitsu's Aunt Xiao-han, his mother's sister, had been such a good substitute mother for him.  He hardly felt the loss anymore.  His uncle, Myeong-song had likewise filled in the gap where his father had been distant, and his cousin Wen was one of his closest friends—and he was undoubtedly one of her closest.  Ji-yoon had also grown up with them.  Her dad was Myeong-song's brother—and she had happened to be staying with her aunt and uncle while her parents went on a little vacation.  They were trying to repair their marriage when they were caught up in the lightning Vin Shriak attack.  Myeong-song and Xiao-han were parents of meager means themselves, and they were effectively raising two children who were not their own—but thanks to Takamitsu's father, they never lacked anything that they needed.

Taka threw the blanket off, stood up, and stretched.  He glanced at the clock.  Still a few hours before sunrise, he mused, weighing whether to stay up or try and go back to sleep.  Ji-yoon was still sound asleep—in his bed, no doubt—emotionally exhausted from the fight she'd had with her boyfriend that had lad to their sudden breakup.  She'd come to him for some comfort in the aftermath—Taka and Ji-yoon been friends since childhood, after all.  Crazy girl, he'd thought to himself at the time.  Going to a guy's place at midnight in that condition...  You're lucky I'm not the sort of guy to take advantage

I know you're not, she'd said in Korean, bypassing mere words and speaking directly into his mind telepathically.  That's why I came to you.

Freaking quit doing that! he'd snapped back in Korean in his mind.

"Sorry," she said aloud.  "Sometimes I can't help it."

Takamitsu was glad the mind mage was asleep at the moment.  They knew each other well enough that they could practically read each other's thoughts… but it was still annoying that she actually could read his thoughts.  It was even more annoying when she still didn't listen.  Like the blanket.  Or the ex.

Takamitsu pulled some genmaicha and senbei out of the cupboard, got some water boiling, and went over his mental to-do list for the day.  As the head of R&D for his family's company, at the top of Taka's list was the development of the chameleon circuitry used in the new Zeta Light Armor they was planning to pitch to the Ministry of Public Safety.  The Ministry had asked them to produce something for special ops use: stealthy, maneuverable, extremely lightweight, but still able to provide protection.  Anshin Heavy Industries had done its best to comply.

As Taka stared out from his little balcony at the city lights, a sudden rapping on the door in the pre-dawn silence jolted him out of his tea-induced trance, spilling some of his green tea on himself.  Ow, that's hot!  Who in the world is knocking on my door at this hour? he wondered, turning to go back into his apartment.  He set the tea cup down on the kitchen counter and held the last rice cracker in his teeth so he could change his tea-stained t-shirt.  The knocking came a second time, just as he pulled the shirt down over himself and he walked up to the door.  He glanced over at the door monitor and saw it was his cousin Wen.  "I'm coming, I'm coming," he called out in Chinese.  Figures.  Who else would come at this hour?

No sooner was the door cracked a bit than Wen barged her way through, deftly removed her shoes in the entry way, and flopped down on the couch in one smooth motion.  Despite Takamitsu being her superior at work and senior in age, she was always terribly informal with him.  With anyone else, he might have had an issue, but he had long ago made an exception for her.  Taking one last gulp from her water bottle and pulling a datapad out of her bag, she tossed it to him.  "Your dad woke me up with this.  How was your little date night?"

"Ni hen ji che," he shot back, irritated.  "You know we've never been like that.  I don't know why she didn't just go over to your place and spend time with you.  You're actually her cousin, after all."  He started scrolling through the pad, but he was hardly reading the information in front of him at that point.

"I'm not the sort of person to give her any comfort, though.  You know that."  Wen grinned as Takamitsu scrolled listlessly through the information on the datapad.  "Besides," she continued, "I told her that you needed the company since you broke up with Keiko.  And I was busy with work."

"Wait... WHAT?!?"  Takamitsu suddenly realized what he had been reading and wasn't listening to a word Wen said anymore.  "Dad wants us to do THIS?  ...TODAY?!?"

"You know as much as I do."  His cousin shrugged.  "But he wants us up at the orbital station in an hour."

"Which orbital?" Taka demanded.

"The big one.  Battlestation Yamato."

"Wait… isn't that—"

"New Tokyo Planetary Command?  Yup."  Wen smiled.  "After all, that's where the top brass for the Light Infantry are, right?"

"Uh…"  Taka had a bad feeling about this.  "Are we sure the Ministry's going to let us setting off explosions in space near their orbital command center… especially just for a new power armor demonstration?"

"Hey, they're the customers.  If they complain, just give 'em a discount on the new Zeta armor."

"We're meeting with them today?  How am I…?"

Wen gave him a tired look.  "Everyone's schedule is being bumped today.  Don't worry about it.  General Wagenecht and her bureaucrats are probably just going to make us wait an hour anyway…"

Takamitsu groaned.  "At least an hour…"

"So what's wrong with making them wait?"

There's all manner of reasons, Taka thought, not the least of which is that the Ministry has the power to shut our company down.  "All right," he accepted.  "I assume you've got a shuttle waiting?"
            "Shinsuke's driving.  He's downing the coffee beans as we speak."

Takamitsu's eyes widened.  "You're bringing his security team along?"

"Of course," Wen replied.  "What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing—if you're expecting a firefight."

"Can't be too careful."  Wen laughed.  "Besides, it's not like it's our orbital."  She looked him up and down.  "Welcome to the big time, Takamitsu.  Better wear a suit; I don't think your dad wants to see your jammies."




Heth was bored.  Bored and frustrated.  I used to manage a super-freighter.  Now I'm cutting barroom deals with drunken monkeys.  Heth floated above his barstool, not really paying attention to what the short human's opinion was on the various beer choices.  Heth's beer glass sat in front of him untouched, a straw protruding from the golden liquid, while the ape across from him blathered on about the lack of proper yeast from Earth hybrids.  Personally, the fermented liquid did nothing for Heth's metabolism… except make him feel he'd paid too much for an alien delicacy.

Then again, Heth thought, glancing over the apes crowding the spaceport tavern, considering we're on a human space station, I suppose I'm the alien here, aren't I?  Heth was K'Nes, a species of floating felines who (to human eyes, at least) looked like the bastard offspring of a bobcat and a blimp.  Under his business suit, Heth sported solid black fur, betraying his lineage as a member of the Miao corporate clan.  Not that this idiot could tell the difference, Heth thought.  Scat, I can't tell the difference between human pelts either.

"…if you ever had a good porter," his potential customer insisted, his movements exaggerated and a little tipsy, "you would know.  It's the quality of the hops that makes all the difference.  Take this Guinness, for instance…"

Sky Father above, make it stop!  Heth was not terribly impressed with his client—what little reputation the merchant had was sketchy, he appeared either inexperienced or simply incompetent, and his sloppy negotiation style bordered on the vulgar.  Overall, he was a poor business prospect—which, sadly, was what Heth had come to expect after his demotion.  The only jobs he got recently were the leftover ventures too unprofitable or risky for any reputable K'Nes to undertake.

The little black cat smiled politely at the human while his paw fumbled for the snuffbox in his pocket.  Nodding at the ape and pretending to listen, he flicked the lid open with a claw, raised a pinch of nepeta to his nose, and inhaled sharply.  Within seconds, he felt a relaxing calm settle over him, even a tiny euphoria.  Suddenly, floating across the table from an intoxicated bald primate didn't seem so bad.  Besides, Heth thought, if it weren't for the apes, we would never have discovered this wonderful herb!  Not every human delicacy is worthless…

Heth suddenly noticed the human businessman had ceased his incessant blabbing about beverages, staring at Heth's snuffbox instead.  The ape glanced around nervously, then leaned towards Heth and muttered softly, "Uh… isn't that stuff illegal?"

"Not on any human planet," Heth replied, returning the snuffbox to his pocket.

"Well, yeah, I know that… but isn't it illegal on your planets?"

"Not since the human occupation of K'Nes space ended six months ago."  Heth gave the ape a polite but frosty smile.  "Now?  The K'Nes Llan is independent, and… well, it is a free market.  Nepeta's been legalized… everything's been legalized, for that matter.  K'Nes positively abhor government regulation of private enterprise, you know."

The merchant stared at Heth for a moment, then broke into a grin and chuckled, shaking his head.  "You cats'll do anything to turn a profit, huh?"  He tossed back another sip of his own intoxicant.

Heth suppressed a hiss and managed to keep his fur from bristling at the racial slur.  The unfortunate resemblance of K'Nes to a Terran species of domesticated house pet had earned them the somewhat derogatory nickname of "cats" among humans… but Heth needed this job too desperately to risk jeopardizing negotiations over a little insult, so he ignored it.

"Actually," the human continued, "that's why I arranged this meeting.  I'm sure you didn't come all this way to talk about beer..."

At last, something we can agree on!  With a muffled gurgle from his belly, Heth inflated a bit more, keeping his lift gas up.  "Indeed, M. Chambers.  I believe you had an interest in some… convoy services, was that right?"

"Yes… and no…."  The human took another sip of his foul-smelling liquid.

Aha!  The cat hid a smile behind his whiskers.  Now we get to the real reason I jumped the border to the Andersvald system!

"I do need export shipping, yeah," the tipsy ape nodded.

Heth was a little disappointed.  That was easy… which meant it wouldn't pay much.  Of course, that was probably why Miao management has given him this assignment.  Still, Heth thought, if I'm ever going to get out of this rat-scat mouse hole my clan shoved me into, I'll need to take every opportunity I can get.

"Here's the deal," the human continued, "the Jurvain will pay handsomely for the ore I can supply… provided I can get it out before the Ministry can impound it."

"Yes…"  Heth's ears perked up, business instincts alert; this was interesting.  "I can see how that might be problematic… depending on why the Ministry wants to seize your merchandise..."

"Oh, they don't.  They just don’t want the Jurvain getting it."

"I see…"  Heth stroked his whiskers.  "And just what do they fear the Jurvain will do with the ore?"

The ape took another sip and glared at Heth.  "What do you think?"

Oh, Heth knew.  Like the K'Nes, the Jurvain had only recently regained their independence, exploiting the chaos of the Earth Federation's collapse to finally overthrow their human occupiers.  Unlike the K'Nes, however, the Jurvain were rebuilding their navy with breakneck speed.

Which meant this ape was betraying his own species.  For profit.

Heth shrugged, indifferent.  It was just business, nothing more—although he'd have to be wary of a double-dealing customer.  Besides, Heth had learned long ago that humans were a treacherous and excessively warlike race.  What was important, however, was that this convoy job would put Heth in direct contact with a Jurvain military construction supervisor to fling sales pitches and business cards at—and that meant Heth would take the job no matter what.  Still… this drunken human didn't need to know that.

"Yes…" Heth said, nodding.  "I think I understand your interest in hiring Miao Mercantile for this particular shipment."

"Yeah."  The ape nodded.  "The Ministry ain't worried about you guys getting the ore—I mean, the K'Nes want peace, right?"

Well, that wasn't exactly true… the K'Nes had every intention of conquering the galaxy—just with finances, not fleets.  So Heth gave an evasive answer.  "Well… First Patriarch Varrless recently submitted a Non-Aggression Contract to the Ministry of Public Safety, yes…"

"Exactly.  Now, I can't ship the ore directly to the Jurvain—but I can ship it to the K'Nes!  So… I'm hoping you guys can send it on to the Jurvain for me…?"

So, Heth thought, he sells it to us, and we sell it to the Jurvain… with a modest middlemerchant markup, of course.  All above board and legal—barely.  It was definitely a grey market transaction; not technically illegal if he did the paperwork right, but exploiting technical loopholes to sidestep the law tended to make customs officials cranky.  Still, it was a job, and Heth needed the money.

"But of course, sir," Heth said, pulling his datapad from the breast pocket from his blazer and opening a blank contract template.  "My cargo ship, the Bountiful, can be fully loaded and ready to fly in seventy-two hours.  How many tons of cargo will we be transporting?  Will I need additional freighters?"  Thus began the nuts and bolts of business negotiations: departure and delivery destinations, shipping routes and timetables… and, of course, haggling over the price.

"Fifteen percent of the profits?"  The ape dismissed the quote with a wave of his hand.  "The going rate's ten."

"And for owner-operators and tramp steamers, that's correct," Heth nodded.  "But Miao Mercantile offers a much higher quality of service.  I'm sure you know that piracy has risen sharply since the Federation collapsed.  Miao Mercantile freighters are not only armed and armored—for defensive purposes only, of course—but are also equipped with the latest in stealth technology.  You can rest assured that once the convoy is assembled, your cargo will reach its destination intact and safe."

"Well, yeah, sure…"  The ape sipped his beer.  "But your price is still a little high for that kind of service."

The little black cat approximated a human shrug.  "You could go with one of our K'Nes competitors, of course, but none of them currently provide insurance against loss… for an additional fee, of course.  And as always, we'll refund your fee if your convoy fails to get through.  That's how strongly we believe in the level of our security."  Heth smiled behind his whiskers.  There isn't a cub born who refuses an extended warranty plan, he thought.  Extra-legal shipping is troublesome at best.  High reward, but high risk—anything to reduce that risk, and the mark jumps at it.

"Alright, alright, fifteen percent," the human agreed with a grimace.  "But I want the insurance option!"

"Of course, sir, right away," Heth answered, adding it to the electronic contract.  Finished, he placed the thumb of his paw over the pressure patch at the bottom of his datapad and held it out to the merchant.  "If you would care to sign?"

"I… uh…"  The ape stalled by sipping his beer.  "I'd prefer that there were no written record of this…"

Heth narrowed his yellow eyes.  "Oh, but there must be a contract, sir," Heth said politely… but let a bit of iron slip into his tone as he stared the drunken ape in the eye.  Everything else in the deal was negotiable; signing a contract, however, was not.  "To do otherwise would simply be bad business," he explained.  "You can destroy your copy if you wish, but we need a copy for our corporate records.  But don't worry," Heth added, "we take the confidentiality of our clients' records very seriously."  Technically, that was true… although it was less about consumer privacy than preventing competitors from poaching Miao customers.

Fortunately, the intoxicated businessman seemed to sense this was something K'Nes merchants wouldn't budge on.  It didn't stop him from grumbling about it, though.  "Oh, alright.  But… can't I just sign my name with a stylus?  I don't see why you cats gotta do this whole blood thing…"

"Because handwriting can be forged, sir," Heth explained with icy courtesy.  "DNA, however, is the perfect signature.  Everyone knows exactly who's agreed to what—and unless someone has a twin or a clone, there's no denying it in court."  Heth shoved the datapad closer.  "Now, if you would?"

Muttering under his breath, the ape reluctantly placed his thumb over the pressure patch on the opposite corner of the datapad from Heth's.  The human flinched as tiny needles drew their blood samples with a muffled click.

It was a contract signed in blood, and Heth was honor-bound to abide by it.  A deal is a deal.

Especially for Heth.  He'd already broken one contract—albeit unintentionally—and was lucky he wasn't terminated on the spot for his failure.  His professional reputation simply couldn't take another hit like that.  Heth would clear his name someday—but for now, he had to focus on rebuilding his assets first.

The little black cat tucked his datapad away in a breast pocket.  "Thank you, M. Chambers, it's been a pleasure doing business with you.  Now, unless there's anything else Miao Mercantile can do for you—"

"Actually…"  The ape looked up from licking his thumb.  "Well, yeah… there is."

"Indeed?"  Heth widened an eye, intrigued.  He hadn't been expecting a two-for-one sale.  He rolled a paw at the human, encouraging him to continue.  "Go on…"

The merchant looked around, perhaps a little too obviously thanks to his intoxication, then lowered his voice.  "Well, I've heard that your company… well, some of you, at least… occasionally dabble in… other interests?"

"I see…"  Just say it! Heth's mind screamed.  He knew exactly what the ape meant, of course: smuggling.  It was more dangerous, true, but also far more profitable… and Heth needed all the money he could earn.  He nodded slowly.  "Our company specializes in being discreet, M. Chambers.  It's one of Miao Mercantile's best-selling services, actually."

The inebriated businessman seemed confused by Heth vague answer.  "So then… you guys do… y'know… right?"

It took effort for Heth not to sigh in exasperation.  "M. Chambers… humans make distinctions between ethics and economics.  K'Nes do not.  We live and die by our contracts, nothing more and nothing less."  Heth puffed up slightly.  "A deal is a deal.  That's the Miao motto, and we leave others to worry about the morality… or legality.  Now, animal, vegetable, or mineral?"


"The cargo, M. Chambers.  I assume you need us to transport something outside of… regular channels, correct?"

"Well…"  Chambers looked around the room again before leaning in and outlining his plan in a low voice.  "Okay, not me, exactly, but… I've heard the rump Federation's paying big money—and I mean big—to get the families of their Tech Infantry troopers out of the Holy Terran Empire and back into Chairman Smythe's hands."

Animal, then, Heth thought, but it smells like bad fish.  "Interesting… my company hasn't heard about this, and we usually keep our ears in the air…"

"Well, yeah, the Fed wants to keep it quiet, real quiet.  After all, it wouldn't take much for the Empire to use the families as human shields against the Fed when Smythe makes his move."

"Well, yes… assuming Hunter K'Rrir recognizes Old Grandkitten K'Rrin tied to the raft."

The human blinked, confused.  "What?"

"Sorry, old joke.  What I meant is that it's not the most effective plan.  Now, who's your contact for this job?  Someone in the Federation administration, I assume?"

"Yeah, an Earth Fleet officer I know.  We served together back in the Three."

"The what?"

"Third Civil War."

"Oh."  Heth had to concentrate to keep from rolling his eyes.  Whenever humans ran out of aliens to slaughter, they had a bad habit of fighting each other—such as right now.  Heth could only assume it was their enormous military trying to justify its alarmingly expensive existence through the continual hostile acquisition of new real estate.  Or possibly just boredom.  "Well, at any rate," Heth continued, "why involve the K'Nes in this venture?  The Federation—what's left it, anyway—has plenty of resources to launch such an enterprise itself."

"Yeah, but you guys got a better chance of pulling it off," the tipsy ape insisted.  "I mean, the K'Nes Llan's neutral in the war, right?  And you're on good terms with the Empire, too.  Besides, you're aliens.  Hell, not just aliens, K'Nes!  The Empire's never gonna suspect you… well, not as much, anyway.  They don't… well, you know…"

...take us seriously, Heth completed the thought.  It was sad, but true.  The Jurvain, at least, humans respected as formidable rivals... but they considered the K'Nes, at best, merely the punch line of a galactic joke.  It had only taken the humans three months to conquer all of K'Nes space, after all.

Still… the merchant had a good point.  If anyone could do the job, the K'Nes could.  Heth was curious enough to fish for more details.  "Alright, M. Chambers, I'm listening.  What would be the shipping route of this… transaction?"

"All you gotta do is get 'em across the border from St. Michael's Star to Ashdown."

Heth whipped out his datapad and pulled up a political star map.  Just six months ago, almost every known planet had flown under an Earth Federation flag… but then the Caal Invasion wrecked interstellar civilization, the Federation collapsed, and no less than four new human factions had risen from the wreckage.  Fighting immediately broke out, of course—they were humans, after all—between the two biggest factions: The remains of the Federation, holding only a few planets but an impressive war fleet, and the nascent Holy Terran Empire led by their God-Emperor Vin Dane.  The Imperial system of St. Michael's Star was right on the border between the two, separated from the Federation system of Ashdown only by a short commercial hyperspace shipping lane.  The merchant was right—the smuggling run might not be easy, but it would be short and fast.

"And your friend would work out the details?" Heth asked.  "Assembly areas, drop-off points… I'm not going to hunt all over a planet to find a handful of humans.  I'm afraid they all look rather the same to me."

"Oh, sure, sure…"  The ape took another drink.  "Well, for the first run, at least."

The first run? Heth noted.  Interesting…  Apparently, this could be an open-ended, ongoing transaction… and potentially quite profitable.  But would the reward be worth the risk?  The little black cat pondered it as he inflated more and floated higher.  The weight of his jewelry often dragged him down faster than normal—gold was valuable, but heavy.  "Did your contact say how much this job pays?" he asked.

The businessman nodded.  "Yeah, he said the Fed's paying five grand per person.  Half up front in St. Michael's Star, half on delivery in Ashdown."

Expensive for a ticket, Heth thought, working out the math, but hardly worth the danger… unless I can drive the price up.  "Well, I have an idea how it could be done, yes," Heth nodded with a casual wave of his paw, "and I suppose I could swing through St. Michael's Star on my return voyage from Jurvain space…. but I'm afraid the risk is too great for that little money."

The ape scowled.  "How much you need?"

"M. Chambers…"  Heth set down his datapad, folded his paws over it, and fixed the ape with an unblinking stare.  "I wasn't suckled yesterday.  Chairman Smythe is not going to spend that kind of money for the families of troopers."  The K'Nes hovered closer to the human's bloodshot eyes.  "I'm betting that the first ones out will be the families of VIPs—senior officers, government officials, and the like.  Correct?"

"How the hell should I know?"  The merchant shrugged, annoyed.  "He don't tell me stuff like that!  Just asked me to pass on the job offer, that's all."

"Well, tell your contact the price for moving such valuable merchandise across an active war zone is ten thousand credits per head."

"Ten…?"  Chambers stared, flabbergasted.

"For the first couple runs, at least," Heth added quickly, backpedaling.  "Once we establish the transit pattern, of course, I could turn the human trafficking over to a subsidiary of ours.  Naturally, as our agent with the Federation, you would take a standard finder's fee of five percent on the first shipment… but as we are taking the risks, as well as the initial expenses, Miao Mercantile will take the lion's share of the profits."  Heth chuckled quietly at his own ironic use of a human expression.

Even the most dense monkey mind would salivate over a five hundred credits a head.  The businessman struggled with his own greed.  "I don't know… I mean, I can't speak for the Fed, y'know…"

"Well, why don't you talk it over with your Federation contact."  Heth tucked his datapad away in a breast pocket.  "If they're still interested, have then contact me to negotiate the details of the contract.  I'll be in-system for another few days while I organize your convoy to the Jurvain Commonality.  I'll consider the offer open until then."

The ape downed his beer.  "Yeah, I guess I'll do that."

"Good."  Heth took out a business card and dropped it on the table (humans didn't like shaking paws with K'Nes; they found claws intimidating).  "Here's my contact information—plug it into any holophone and I'll respond.  In the meantime, I'll be in touch.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with a botanist."

Heth floated out of the bar, mind spinning with cost projections and profit to loss ratios.  The convoy's detour through K'Nes space would take him through the Urrin system, where a very special little kitten kept her corporate headquarters.  If he could get her attention with the right bribe, then… well, Heth planned to make her an offer no businesscat in their right mind could refuse.




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Text Copyright © 2011 by Marcus Johnston.  All Rights Reserved.
Do not try ANY of this at home, no matter how annoying street preachers might be.