Prologue — Never Walk Away
It was half past ten at night when Thomas de Giovanni drove home alone in his luxury hovercar from the meeting he had just attended at the Red Freighter Inn. The Red Freighter was located in the trader's borough of downtown Dynametro on Angel One, the principal settled planet of the Jennifer's Star system. The vampire wore a black business suit, with his black tie loosened and the top button of his white shirt unfastened. He reached around to the rear passenger's seat and gently felt the suitcase there just to reassure himself that it was still there.
"Thomas, why are you concerned?" asked a ghostly female voice from the passenger seat. For a brief moment a beautiful woman's face, head, and long black hair seemed to materialize out of thin air. The head looked at him with a razor thin smile, and said in a dry voice, "If something were wrong, I would tell you." The apparition faded away.
"Thanks Lisa," Thomas replied. Even when she didn't show herself he could always sense when she was near.
The wraith had been with him for over a century. Before her death, when Thomas was still a mortal, they had been engaged. Thomas had always sensed the joy that marrying him would bring to her. He had been deeply in love, too. She was very beautiful. However, one month before the wedding, she died in one of the most humiliating and embarrassing ways possible in a freak accident while they were visiting a park zoo on San Angeles. Years later, after Thomas became a vampire, he traveled to the Shadowlands with his sire, Antonio de Giovanni. There he met Lisa again, in the form of a wraith. For some inexplicable reason, she wanted to follow Thomas back to the Skinlands—what wraiths referred to as the world of the living—to be with him. Thomas accepted, and she had been with him ever since. Fortunately his sire seemed to welcome a new ally for his childer. He had two wraiths of his own.
Before, Thomas had been living on New Madrid. After the death of Claudius de Giovanni at the hands of the Sabbat on Wilke's Star his clan had been devastated. Their numbers were thin and the only surviving member with the hope of standing up to Mordred and achieving the rank and abilities of an antediluvian was dead. Without an antediluvian leading them, it would be nearly impossible for the Giovanni to regain their former greatness. To Thomas' knowledge there were less than fifty low ranking Giovanni vampires still operating in the Holy Terran Empire. His own sire, Antonio de Giovanni, had been a direct childer of Claudius for over two centuries, and that had given Thomas some hope. But his sire was not known for his physical prowess like the Brujah. His strengths were in other areas, such as necromancy and business. Since Claudius' death, Antonio had sired three other childer. Those three had set up profitable underground black market operations and sired childer of their own on other planets, while Thomas served as Antonio's personal agent and Bishop. He provided muscle and strength to the other Giovanni members when they needed it. But in 2269 he had been told that the time had come to establish a Cabal of his own. Thus he had moved to the relatively lawless Jennifer's Star system hoping to set up his new Giovanni franchise.
Vampires operated on a different time schedule from mortals. Setting up a new Cabal could take more than a decade. Upon moving to Jennifer's Star, Thomas had to establish a credible front and contacts so that his own presence would go unnoticed before he could embrace another individual and take the risk of being discovered by the local authorities or any Sabbat members that might be on the planet. He had to be very discreet. Part of the problem was that, despite his intelligence, Thomas was not the most experienced member of his clan when it came to creating or running the black markets and profitable criminal organizations for which the Giovanni were noted. On the other hand, his lack of expertise was compensated for by the fact the he was among the strongest of his clan. Over the decades he had diablerized more than his share of Brujah and Lasombra vampires, making him quite formidable in combat. Consequently, Thomas had decided to take his time and set things up slowly.
Thirty minutes later the car reached the gates of his estate. Thomas parked underneath a hovercar shelter outside the mansion, then walked up to the front door, unlocked it, and went inside. He walked through a large foyer and made his way to the back of the building, and entered a medium sized room with walls covered in shelves full of old books. Along the back wall was a desk topped with a computer terminal, while a round wooden table at the center of the room was surrounded by chairs and a chandelier above it. Seated at the desk was someone who appeared to be a man wearing a bathrobe and might have been in his mid-fifties. He turned to face Thomas, a pair of glasses resting on his nose.
"Did everything go smoothly?" the man asked.
"Yes," Thomas replied. "There was a mage I haven't seen before in a business suit named Douglas amongst the group. He told me someone working for him would like to meet me, and that I'd be contacted."
He placed the suitcase on the table and opened it. Numerous large clear plastic packets of blood lay inside. It was enough blood to supply Thomas for well over a month without needing to rely too heavily upon his human camels in the city. There were risks to that, even with his ability to manipulate the memories of the humans on the street. Sooner or later he would draw blood from a human affiliated with someone that could discover the truth. The chances of that happening were low, given that he checked the background of all his human sources, but Thomas preferred to take no chances at all. Making matters worse was that Thomas not only needed enough blood for himself, he also needed to supply his own blood to his ghoul servant: the man seated in the chair before him.
The ghoul at the computer got out of his chair, walked over to the table, and investigated the contents of the suitcase. "Hopefully none of this is contaminated. I don't want to know where they got it."
"It's too bad we can't use the blood from the Thames Medical Center, but with these shortages it would be hard skimming off the top without anyone noticing."
The ghoul closed the suitcase and picked it up, carried it over to a book case, and pulled back one of the books on a shelf. The case rotated, revealing a spiral stair going down. "After you."
The ghoul followed Thomas down the stairs to a furnished basement. Among its contents were more computer equipment, a table, storage containers, and a barber's chair with an IV stand next to it. Thomas went over to the chair and sat down while his companion placed the suitcase on the table and opened it. He took a packet of blood over to some medical equipment on a workstation along the wall. He poured a small amount of blood from the packet into a vial, then dripped a tiny amount from the vial onto a microscope slide, and put the rest of the blood from the vial into a small beaker containing a clear liquid.
Upon the blood's contact with the upper surface of the liquid in the beaker, a small red cloud formed and then dissolved into the water. After glancing at it, the ghoul removed his glasses and looked through a microscope at the drop of blood on the slide for a few moments. He put them back on and referred to chart of blood drops on the side before stating, "It's clean." He got up from the microscope, brought the packet of blood over to the IV stand, hooked it in, and attached some medical tubing with a needle at the end. He gently inserted the needle into Thomas' wrist, and the blood started to flow from the packet into his sire's arm.
Thomas leaned his head back on a headrest and relaxed. Minutes later the bag of blood was empty. He looked at the bespectacled ghoul and said, "Thanks, Gareth. It won't be long before this will no longer be necessary. Soon you will be one of us."
The ghoul named Gareth smiled and said, "Thank you, sir."
As if on cue, just after Thomas got up from the chair, his wraith friend materialized before him and said in a serious tone, "He is here."
"Who?" Thomas asked.
"Antonio." A few seconds later, they heard the buzz of the front door. Lisa floated over to a corner of the room and disappeared into a shadow.
Thomas got out of his chair and led Gareth up the stairs into the foyer. When he got to the front door, he could sense the presence of his sire on the other side, but checked the security cam at the side anyway just to confirm it, then opened the door. His sire stood before him.
"Hello Thomas," said the vampire in a thick Old Chicago accent. He was short and athletic with a body builder's frame, and wore a dark black suit. His hair was jet black, and he appeared to be of Italian descent.
"Welcome," Thomas replied. "Come
in. Follow me."
The man stepped into the foyer and Gareth closed the door behind him. Thomas led him through another series of dimly lit rooms, ultimately leading to a living room. A fire raged within a large fireplace along the far wall with a coffee table in front of it, surrounded by two overstuffed chairs and a couch. Along the other wall were cabinets with a small table in front of them, full book cases, racks of wine bottles, and wine glasses. A large oriental rug covered most of the wooden floor.
"Let me take your blazer," Thomas offered.
Antonio took it off, handed it to him, then loosened his tie and unfastened the top button of his shirt. Thomas then hung the blazer on a coat rack near the door before taking his own off and hanging it on the next peg. Meanwhile, Antonio sat on the couch while Gareth took one of the overstuffed chairs. Shortly afterwards, Thomas walked over to the remaining empty chair and sat down.
"So, what brings you to Jennifer's Star?" Thomas asked, looking serious.
"Unfortunately," Antonio said, "New Madrid has become unsafe for our family. House Vendo and House Mallorea are at each other's throats. Duke Vendo has formed his own Crusader Teams to crack down against the vampires on the planet. The Duke is taking no chances with any vampires that could cause problems from within should House Mallorea try to invade."
Thomas nodded. "Is that why you came here?"
"Yes and no. It's taken you longer to get an organization established on this planet than I'd hoped. Since New Madrid is no longer safe, I thought I would come here and assist you before checking on the others."
Thomas nodded and tried not show his frustration. He'd welcomed the opportunity to establish his power base on Jennifer's Star by himself. He 'd hoped to build a strong enough organization that he might overthrow his sire and claim leadership of the remaining Giovanni for himself. But now, with his sire here watching his every move, that would become almost impossible.
Thomas was about to answer when a datapad in his pocket started to vibrate. It was a text message from Douglas on behalf of the organization Thomas had just met. It said that Douglas' subordinate wanted to meet the following night at midnight by the entrance of the science and engineering building at the Olin Industries University main campus in downtown Dynametro. Thomas thought about this for a moment before replying, "Yes."
"Who was that?" asked Antonio.
"Apparently, someone in the Fearless Jackals wants to meet me tomorrow night. I've been a customer of theirs for years. But I don't know why they want to meet now all of a sudden."
Antonio nodded and said, "There may be an opportunity here. Our organizations have much in common." He closed his eyes, apparently deep in thought, and opened them again before continuing. "They could make good allies. I'm curious to see what they want from you. But, for now, I'm interested in learning more about the operation that you've begun to establish here."
Thomas got up, made his way to a wine rack at the back of the room, and reached for the largest bottle at the bottom. It was unlabeled, but must have contained almost two liters of liquid. He reached into a nearby cabinet for three wine glasses, placed them down on the table before him, opened the unlabeled bottle, and poured a bright red liquid into them that gave off a slight glow. Clearly it was some type of blood. Once the glasses were half full, he sealed the bottle, set it on the table, and carefully carried all three of wine glasses to the fireplace area. He handed a glass to Antonio and to Gareth before sitting down.
Antonio raised the glass below his nose and smelled the drink. "Werewolf?" he asked as the canine teeth in his mouth extended to the length of fangs.
Thomas glanced at Gareth before replying and flashed a slight grin which also showed fangs. "Bone Gnawer." Antonio raised an eyebrow and smiled. Gareth laughed. Thomas could hear Lisa giggling in the shadows and macabre sound of other wraiths chuckling as well.
"I think you're going to like Jennifer's Star," Thomas said as he raised his glass in a toast, followed by Antonio and Gareth. All three took small sips before putting the glasses down on the coffee table in front of them. Thomas rolled up his sleeves and proceeded to brief Antonio on his organization, his contacts, and what he was planning. His sire leaned back in his chair and listened, occasionally asking Thomas and Gareth questions and making a few comments of his own. All three of them were up late into the night.
K'Nes weapons could probably sell themselves on Kalintos these days, but that did not stop Ascension Kalynn from taking her middlewoman's cut. She had more up her sleeve than just running guns, of course, but nobody would blame her for that. Now that Chalfont had fallen to the Jurvain, only the most well-connected of Kalintos' elite could still get messages out to the rest of the Holy Terran Empire, and even those roundabout lines were under increasing threat. Ascension reckoned that about half of all Kalintos' outgoing communications now passed through her network. But how much longer she could keep that up was an open question.
Passing messages was all right, of course, but the guns were where Ascension made her real money. Everyone was desperate to arm themselves for the day the Skinnies showed up. Even Countess Francisco was beating down Ascension's door for hardware; her House's armsmen were severely underequipped to fight against a real invading army. Ascension felt the corner of her mouth twitching up in a grin. She'd given House Francisco some of her stock—it wouldn't do to appear like she was holding out during a military emergency—but not even a tenth of what she could have, and none of the truly high-grade stuff the K'Nes were shipping into the system.
Her provisions were starting to run low, however. That alone would have warranted another meeting with her suppliers. But Ascension's gut also told her that the Jurvain would strike soon, and that meant the time had come to start running bigger plays, lest she lose the opportunity forever. Ascension just wished the stakes weren't quite so high. If someone else attempted a power grab while she was away, or if the Navy finally showed up, all of her hard work would go up in smoke. Even if nothing went awry on Kalintos, Jaeto's Chaebol could still decline her offer, in which case Ascension might never make it back home at all. That last was a point which former Tech Infantry Lieutenant Abe "Thorin" Eltyre had made more than once.
"Why the devil do you think you can trust those slender bastards?" he asked after the door shut behind him. They'd had to travel about three hundred kilometers up the Hydora River with nothing but hoverbikes and machetes to hack their way through the jungle before reaching the little bunker. No one without a map could have ever found the place, buried as it was beneath the aggressive plant life that dominated Kalintos. Ascension had barely located it with a map.
"I've been working with them longer than I've been working with you. Can I trust you?" She threw a smile over her should at Thorin. "Besides, it's Jaeto. He owes me more than one favor, and they'll all know that..." Of course they'd all know that.
Thorin kept pressing. "I don't understand why none of us are coming. Sounds to me like a great way to get yourself killed."
"Because if you're all here, the Countess won't realize I've gone." At least, Ascension hoped she wouldn't. "When I get back this time, I won't have to worry about the Franciscans anymore, and you can shadow me anywhere you'd like, deal?"
Thorin scowled, so Ascension stopped and waited for his shoulders to slump in acceptance before she continued. The top level of the bunker consisted of a small hangar just large enough to house a handful of aerodynes or one space-capable shuttle. Ascension's ship was not the prettiest thing to fly out of the Olin corp's yards at Minos, but it had served her well over the years.
She made it all the way to the ship's ramp before Thorin began grousing again. "What makes you so sure you are coming back? Or that I want to sit on my ass and play decoy?"
Ascension reached top of the ramp, then turned to face him. "As I understand it, sitting on your ass is your specialty." She laughed, then looked Thorin in the eye to give him a reassuring smile. "Like I said, it's Jaeto. Even if they don't like my plan, I doubt he'd just let them kill me. Now," she put her hands on her hips, "am I free to go?"
She got an exasperated sigh in return. "If you turn up dead, I'm seizing command of this little army of yours." He chuckled. "Though not before I drink every last bottle of your treasured whiskey."
"I wouldn't have it any other way." Ascension stepped inside the hatchway, then pointed a finger. But hands off the liquor until then. I don't want your drunken ass blowing this plan before I can even get out of the system." She sealed the hatch before Thorin could offer another retort.
Truthfully, she didn't want to leave him behind at all. But it couldn't be helped. House Francisco knew Ascension was up to something. If they knew she'd left the system, the Countess would take it as her cue to act. She didn't have a hope of rolling up much of Ascension's organization or digging up many of her supplies, but she could damn sure keep Ascension from ever setting foot on Kalintos' surface again.
This was the only way to throw the Countess off her scent. Everything was nearly in place, and if all went well with Jaeto, this agreement would put Ascension over the top. She just had to hope the Jurvain would come through for her.
Ascension activated her ship's communications suite and commanded the hangar doors to open. Then she started going through her pre-flight checklist. Somewhere outside, Thorin would be waiting to seal the bunker up again before beginning his long journey back to the capital.
Five days later, Ascension was shaking hands in the conference room of a Jurvain space station in the Ilbo system. The Meonhanuel Chaebol was actually headquartered in Laang, but Jaeto had convinced its representatives to meet Ascension in Ilbo so that she could be absent from Kalintos for as little time as possible. Ascension was rather grateful for that concession.
The Skinnies welcomed her warmly enough—warm for Skinnies anyway. The Kalynn family's legacy still carried some weight. Ascension's father had been the Federation overseer of Meonhanuel and later governor of an entire district of the Jurvain Quarantine Zone under the Five Acts. The Jurvain had resented most of their Federation overlords as cruel oppressors; but the Kalynns had always treated them decently, like they were almost Humans, even. The Jurvain remembered that kindness. At least, the ones who'd been in the Kalynns' district did.
"I would kill you on sight were you anyone else, Human," one of the Chaebol reps said. So maybe things weren't off to such a great start. "But I hold the memory of your father in high regard. I will respect that memory by hearing you out."
"Thanks," Ascension said, smiling as brightly as she could muster. She decided to focus her persuasive efforts on the other Jurvain, the ones who weren't barely restraining an urge to murder her, or at least were too polite to admit it.
"Well," one of them said once they were all seated at their table, "tell us about this proposal of yours, please. We hope to waste as little of our time as possible on humoring you."
A really great start, Ascension thought. She tried to catch Jaeto's eye, but her old friend was looking as impassive as the rest. Only one thing for it, then. Ascension took a deep breath, and launched into an explanation of her plan. Her Korean was a little rusty, but she'd practiced this speech beforehand, and looking into the Skinnies' faces helped her to remember the occasional twists where their language did diverge slightly from its Human twin.
She was only sweating a little bit by the end. She clasped her hands behind her back and tried to look confident, relaxed, and respectful all at once. The Jurvain remained quiet for a good few minutes. They were probably talking amongst each other in their heads. The whole psychic thing could get pretty unnerving if you weren't used to it.
"Was that it?" one the representatives asked at last. His tone was flat, but Ascension didn't think she was wrong sensing incredulousness behind it.
Before she could answer, the Jurvain who'd mentioned killing her added, "The K'Nes already supply our fleet and army. What more could you give that we do not already have?"
Ascension kept her calm; she'd expected this. "You say the K'Nes supply you, but your weapons and equipment are actually coming from Horrath Industries, correct?"
"Our contract is with the Urrin Llan itself. We also have one with the Nhur." That was Jaeto. He sounded impatient, but he was actually helping Ascension make her point here.
"Right," Ascension nodded. "My associates are based in the Maibach and Hhak systems. They've been complaining to me that Horrath Meorr has been abusing his position as LEO of both the K'Nes and Urrin Llans. He's restricting K'Nes trade with the Jurvain only to companies in which the Horrath family has an interest. The Nhur merchants may give the appearance of competition, but they are much too small to be any real threat to Horrath's monopoly."
Some subconscious instinct told Ascension to immediately bite her tongue rather than continuing on. The Jurvain did not have many visual cues to indicate what they were thinking, but she thought she could tell they were once again debating something in their heads. Reading Jurvain body language was of the very, very few perks of a childhood spent among aliens.
After a moment, one of the reps asked, "What are you trying to say?"
"I'm trying to say that you're being taken advantage of. It may look like you're dealing with a number of independent companies, but ultimately they all share the same owners. You're paying triple price or more for substandard equipment. I can get you better."
"As a rule, fantastic promises are almost always just fantasies."
Ascension held out her hands. "Meet with my suppliers; hear it from them directly."
"What benefit would you get from an arrangement between us?" one of the shrewder reps asked.
Ascension smiled. "Even if my suppliers sign a direct contract with you, they'll need a route to you that doesn't transit the Urrin-Shu gate. That's me. We've already worked out a secure route for delivering small cargoes to Kalintos. If you become a customer as well, I'm confident that my system will be the transshipment point."
Another silent pause. Had they caught the underlying thread of Ascension's scheme?
"And in return?" the murderous representative asked. "What do you want from us in order to arrange this meeting?"
Oh yes, they definitely figured it out. Well, no point in being subtle about it, then.
"The Jurvain are preparing to invade and conquer Kalintos," Ascension told them. They did not immediately deny it, which really could mean anything. "In return for my help, I want you to leave the system alone."
Fortune favors the bold, Ascension told herself. Oh please, let that be true.
Another five days, and Ascension was calculating a flight plan back down to the jungle world she called home. The Chaebol representatives had made her wait in a separate room while they discussed the offer among themselves and with the rest of the Commonality. Ascension had dearly wished for one of her whiskey bottles during that little wait. She'd made do by imagining all the many horrible fates that could await her if the Jurvain said no.
They hadn't, in the end. Jaeto had told her that every one of Meonhanuel's directors had ultimately stood behind her proposal when interrogated by the rest of the Jurvain. Ascension could not really imagine what it must be like withstanding the questions of a few billion judgmental, suspicious people in your own head; but it sure sounded harrowing.
Compared to that whole experience, Ascension's meeting with her K'Nes contacts had been a piece of cake. She hadn't exactly been lying when she said they were looking for the opportunity to make an agreement with the Jurvain. Her suppliers had occasionally muttered about Horrath's monopolization, while Ascension was in earshot. But the whole thing had been entirely her own idea, and she had not known for certain whether her contacts could access and move the volumes needed to supply an entire star nation like the Commonality.
Fortunately, they had pounced on the opportunity the moment she mentioned it. The actual negotiations wouldn't take place for another few weeks, not until the K'Nes could fetch one of their higher-ups to represent them at such an important meeting. Ascension would not be part of that discussion. But the Jurvain were pleased enough to accept her initial condition. Kalintos was safe, for now. If the K'Nes did indeed move their shipments through the system, then Ascension was well placed to reap some tidy profits as well. But the most important achievement was simply keeping Kalintos in Human hands.
Right now, those Human hands still belonged to Countess Francisco and her retainers. They would hang Ascension in a heartbeat if they learned where she had just been and who she had talked to. They'd hang her even though her deal had likely just saved their whole planet and population from subjugation or even extermination.
Fortunately, that deal was not the end of Ascension's plans for Kalintos. She'd merely gotten the ball rolling. She had momentum, but she needed to keep it going.
In the viewport of her ship, Kalintos was an opalescent jewel of rich blue and green.
In light of the heavy losses suffered by the Saint Michael's Star Division while engaged under my command against the Arachnids above Deseret on 20 June 2265, in addition to the damage and loss of life on Deseret itself following my orders to bombard the settlement of Youngstown and other points on the planet surface, I formally request that the Imperial Navy convene a Board of Inquiry to judge the correctness of my decisions. I accept full responsibility for the conduct of my subordinates and the actions of every unit of my command during the course of battle. I am confident that the Board will clear me of any wrongdoing and find my orders were both appropriate and necessary given the extraordinary circumstances of the 20 June engagement.
In service to the Emperor,
Commodore Viktor Molotok
Acting Commander, St. Michael's Star Division, Imperial Navy
Viktor jerked awake, trembling and sweating from the nightmare—or was it a memory?—and sat up on his prison cot. He ran his hands over his face and through his stubbly grey-blond hair, breathing deeply as he calmed down. It took a moment for him to realize the pounding wasn't only in his head. He looked up through the thick, clear plasteel wall of his cell in the Avalon Imperial Military Prison. Two military policemen stood outside, one holding a plasma rifle while the other banged on the door with the butt of his shockstick.
"Come on, sleeping beauty, it's time to go. Move it!"
Viktor looked back down at the bare fungicrete floor. It was the moment of decision. Should he go to his death meekly like a sheep, but with dignity? Or should he die fighting, taking these two with him? No, they don't deserve that, he thought. And they might have kids. "My execution," he said, "is not until the day after tomorrow."
"And when Thursday comes, that'll happen. But for now your attorney's here to see you, so get dressed."
Viktor's head snapped up, surprised, but pleasantly so. "Katya? Katya's here?"
"I dunno." The MP shrugged. "She that hot MILF who wears the skirts?"
Viktor stared at them a moment, trying to decide if he should feel complimented or insulted.
"Come on, Viktor, you know the drill," the one with the rifle said. "Turn around, hands against the wall."
He shrugged into his bright orange prison jumpsuit and did as he was told. They had reason to be cautious around Viktor Molotok. He was a huge muscular man; so tall and broad and hairy he'd been mistaken for a werebear on more than one occasion. After patting him down for a shiv, they cuffed his hands behind his back to the waist restraint, led him through the halls, chained him to a stall in the visiting room, and uncuffed his left hand.
Katya was a sight for sore eyes, especially an inmate's. She sat on the other side of the clear plasteel barrier: a pale, elegant, middle-aged woman whose beauty was not diminished by the streaks of gray in ink-black hair pulled back in a tight bun, nor the wrinkles invading the delicate features of her face, nor even the fullness of her figure after delivering three children. Yet today her lovely face was hard and cold, her non-nonsense demeanor brusque and businesslike. As Viktor sat down, she lifted the receiver off the hook and held it up to her face.
Viktor grabbed his own receiver with his clumsy left hand. There were no advanced digital electronics to be hacked or scrambled, just a simple analog telephone line on a closed circuit. Sometimes, simplicity was the best security.
"Dobroye utro, Katya."
"Dobroye utro, Viktor."
"What's the news?" he asked
"The appeal to commute your sentence to life imprisonment went all the way to the Lord of the Fleet. He ruled against it, but did raise the option of an Imperial Pardon, and referred the case to the Emperor himself."
Viktor nodded, unsurprised. "Admiral Pennyworth always did prefer to pass the buck on political decisions. Cherta, that's probably why Ramachander survived the Purge at all."
"I sent a brief to the Emperor's staff outlining your position and offering a counterproposal," she continued, brushing a stay wisp of hair behind an ear. "I also submitted a request for a temporary stay of execution until the Emperor makes an official decision either way… but the Navy hasn't approved it yet."
That's a bad sign, Viktor thought. An Imperial Pardon was a long shot at best. If the Navy wouldn't issue a stay of execution, it meant they expected the Emperor to deny a pardon—if he even bothered to look at the request at all.
There was a lull in the conversation. Viktor filled it. "And how are the children?"
"All things considered, quite well," Katya answered. "Aleksandr is being brave… but a mother can tell."
A thin smile escaped Viktor's face. "That's my boy."
"Astra's not handling it well. She's being teased at school. She's twelve, so school's the whole world."
Self-loathing swept over Viktor. He knew why Astra was being bullied. It was his fault. He said nothing.
"And Tatyana… doesn't understand what's happening. She asks every night if you'll be home for dinner."
"Still? After all this time?"
"She's only five, Viktor."
He struggled for the right thing to say. He failed. "Hug them for me. Tell them Papa loves them."
"I do. Every night."
Viktor nodded, blinking, and swallowed the lump in his throat. "Thank you, Katya." Slowly, he raised his hand and placed it against the barrier separating them. "I… I miss you. More than you know."
Silently, she pressed her palm against the plasteel across from his hand. For a moment, it was almost like touching her. Almost. Viktor spoke in Russian, giving them, for the briefest instant, a tiny degree of privacy.
"Ya lyublyu tebya, Katya."
"Ya lyublyu tebya, tozhe, Viktor."
Viktor's execution was scheduled for 0600 hours. When the MPs awoke him in the middle of the night, hours before dawn, he knew something was going on. When they gave him back his Imperial Navy Commodore's uniform to wear, he thought he knew exactly who he was being taken to see.
Two huge Imperial Bodyguards threw open the doors before him, and Viktor saw the Imperial throne room for the first time. It was a huge, cavernous space, designed to fit the entire Imperial Court with room to spare. Right now it was empty and eerily silent. It was dark, too; the only light came from a lone spotlight at the far end of the hall, illuminating a raised dais that held the thrones. It felt like a cathedral. Then again, Viktor thought, that's probably the point. If the architect who designed this was trying to create an atmosphere of intimidation, he succeeded.
…or he would have, if His Holy and Imperial Majesty Vin Dane had not been sitting casually atop his massive throne, legs crossed, leaning on an armrest, looking supremely bored. His cheek rested against his left hand. On his right was a shiny metal glove—the Orb, the most powerful magickal artifact in the universe, and the primary source of the Emperor's power.
The smaller throne beside him remained empty, as it had for a decade now, as it would forever.
Viktor swallowed and stepped forward, flanked by the two Bodyguards, their footsteps echoing in the darkness. He fell to one knee, pounded his right fist over his heart, bowed as low as physiologically possible, and proclaimed, "Praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal!"
A terrible silence was the only answer. Viktor held his position, head ducked, for what felt like several minutes. Eventually, when he could take the tension no longer, he hazarded a glance upward. One corner of the Emperor's mouth was curled up in apparent amusement. Viktor was not at all sure what to make of that. The silence persisted for another moment more, and then the Emperor spoke.
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"I asked the lieutenant who delivered your pardon request what he thought of your case. He told me that his parents were in Youngstown when you ordered the city destroyed with mass drivers. He told me that he made plans to attend your execution in a few hours." The Emperor rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Do you think that his superiors deliberately selected him for the task of carrying your request?"
"I… don't know, Your Majesty." Viktor wasn't sure that there was a safe answer to that question, but that seemed the safest.
The Emperor nodded. After a moment, he said, "Eleven years ago, you killed almost two million people on Deseret."
He paused, and Viktor realized the Emperor was waiting for a response. "Yes, Your Majesty," he said.
"When your flag captain tried to stop you from killing almost two million people on Deseret by relieving you of command, you killed him too."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
"Do you like killing people, Commodore Molotok?"
Viktor flinched. He almost started to babble an angry objection, but got his tongue under control and managed to say simply, "No, Your Majesty."
"Then why did you shoot your flag captain and then order the obliteration of two million of my subjects?"
"The Bugs had landed hive ships, Your Majesty. It was the only way I could destroy them and save the rest of the colony."
The Emperor laid both hands on the arms of his throne and leaned back. "Do you think that decision was worth it, Commodore?"
Viktor couldn't meet his liege's eyes. He took a deep breath. "Yes, Your Majesty."
"So, then," the Emperor said. He turned up the empty palm of his uncovered left hand. "On one hand, you are a Hero of the Empire, the man who stopped the Bug invasion." The Emperor turned up his gloved hand. "On the other hand, you are a war criminal, a mass murderer of loyal Imperial subjects."
He smiled again, his too-wide lips just barely hinting at his inhumanity. "This is a political dilemma for me. Half of my Court still wants me to give you a medal. The other half wants me to give you a bullet in your brain." The Emperor shifted upon his throne. "I could split a baby in two and simply do both. But I like that solution even less than I like the metaphor."
Viktor didn't know where this was going. Katya had shared with him whispered rumors that the Emperor had grown increasingly eccentric since the death of the Empress ten years ago. From what he could see here, there was some truth to the suggestion.
The Emperor continued, "I'm sure an execution would be a waste of talent. Your Navy dossier is just chock full of victories over the Bugs. But even more importantly, I value a man of your… conviction." Vin Dane smiled. "A man willing to make brutal but necessary decisions is a man that might do his Empire some good. My staff has recently received an… interesting proposal about how to put such a man to use. How do you feel about exile, Commodore Molotok?"
It's better than being executed in two hours, Viktor thought. Before he could say anything, however, the Emperor resumed speaking.
"The Bugs and the Jurvain have both been encroaching upon Imperial territory. Their attacks are a threat and an insult that have both gone unanswered for too long. Regrettably, the Imperial Navy still does not have the strength to repel both and monitor the hyperspace trade." The Emperor raised his fist and pointed one long, gloved finger at Viktor. "So I am promoting you to admiral. The assignment of your fleet will be to hold the Bugs at bay long enough for the Navy to defeat the Jurvain, so that they can then return their full attention to exterminating the Arachnids."
Viktor's jaw dropped. He could not believe his ears. "You're… you're promoting me? To admiral? In command of a fleet?"
"Hmm," the Emperor tapped on the armrest of his throne. "I suppose so, yes. Technically. Really, it's more like I'm turning you into a speed bump for the Bugs."
That statement did not parse for Viktor, but he didn't worry about it. "T-thank you, Your Majesty! Thank you very much!"
"It was your wife's idea, thank her."
Viktor smiled to himself. Oh, Katya, Katya… you could talk the devil into setting himself on fire!
"The Fifth Fleet is being assembled in the P7 system just beyond the southwest frontier," the Emperor told him. "You'll be put on the first prison transport heading for the Arachnid Quarantine Zone."
Prison transport? Viktor thought—but then something else occurred to him. "Wait… did you say the Fifth Fleet?"
"If you can call it a fleet, yes."
"How many fleets does the Navy have now?"
"Operationally? Well, let's see, there's Home Fleet," Vin Dane pointed a thumb at the ceiling, then he started counting fingers, "there's the Logistics Escort Command and the border pickets, then there's… no, that's it. Yours will be one of two formal "fleets" constituting the Imperial Navy."
"Why call it Fifth Fleet?"
The Emperor cocked his head. "Propaganda? Counterintelligence? Maybe I needed a new lucky number."
"I'm not sure I—"
"Admiral Molotok, considering my responsibilities as the God-Emperor of billions of people scattered across fifty different star systems, how much free time do you think I have to discuss the merits of non-consecutive numbers?"
Viktor took the hint. "So… you're dividing the Imperial Navy into two fleets, Your Majesty?"
"Oh no! Of course not." The Emperor shook his head. "The Navy will need its full strength to handle the Jurvain's advanced warships."
Viktor blinked, puzzled. He opened his mouth to speak, but the Emperor beat him to it, silencing him with an upraised hand.
"The wonderful thing about Bugs is that their ships are vastly inferior to ours. Even our outdated, obsolete trash can handle them—which is exactly what you'll be using. The Fifth Fleet will be made up of whatever leftovers we can dig out of warehouses, repair docks, junkyards, museums… anything that can fly, really. Or fight. Ideally both, of course, but we can't always have everything we want."
Viktor's mouth dropped open in shock. So that's what he meant by speed bump! "Am I correct to assume, then," he stammered when he found his tongue again, "that I'll only be given sufficient Navy spacers to man these… ships… with skeleton crews?"
"No, I'm afraid we really can't spare any," the Emperor answered.
Viktor's brow furrowed in confusion. "But then who—"
The Emperor cut him off. "Our prisons are stuffed to overflowing. I'll be paroling most of the population into your command. We might as well make use of that labor pool."
Viktor stared in disbelief. "How many… do any of them have naval experience?"
The Emperor shrugged. "I'm sure some of them probably do. Training the rest will be your job." He sat up straighter in his throne. "Make no mistake, Molotok. You're not just the admiral of the fleet—you're also the warden of the prison… and an inmate as well. Oh, and that reminds me…" He gestured to one of the Imperial Bodyguards behind Viktor.
An armored hand seized Viktor's shoulder and rammed something cold and hard against the base of his skull. There was a hiss and a click, an instant of pain, and then they released him. Viktor slapped a hand to the back of his neck and felt hot wet blood. He looked up at the Emperor, bewildered.
"Cortex bomb," the Emperor explained. "I am sawing the baby a little in half. All of the other inmates will have them, too. Once it's activated, it will explode should you ever leave the Quarantine Zone. Taking your head with it, of course."
Viktor blinked at him, at a loss for words.
"Yes, Admiral, I'm afraid this is a one-way ticket," the Emperor continued. "You are being exiled for life, after all." He stood up from his throne. "Lastly…"
The Emperor walked down the dais and towards Viktor, stopping just a step or two away. A sickly sweet odor turned Viktor's stomach. It was like meat left soaking in water for much too long. Viktor held his breath and tried not to flinch as His Holy and Imperial Majesty lifted his right arm…
The Orb blazed with light and flowed off the Emperor's hand like molten gold before expanding and hardening into a shining sword. The Emperor raised up the blade, and Viktor squeezed his eyes shut, the smell instantly forgotten, waiting for the blow to fall and praying it wouldn't be fatal.
Instead, he felt the flat of the blade tap him on each shoulder. Despite the intensity of the light, it did not burn. "I hereby dub you Duke Molotok," the Emperor's voice proclaimed.
As the sword touched him, it began to hum. Unawakened though he was, even Viktor could feel the pulse of magickal energy. It seemed… it felt… almost hungry. Viktor could not hope to explain the sensation that washed over him.
"Shh…." the Emperor whispered as the sword turned back into his glove. "Patience… patience…" For a single insane moment, Viktor thought the Emperor was talking to the Orb.
Viktor was so confused, his mind almost didn't know where to begin. He tried the obvious. "T-thank you, Your Majesty! But… Duke of what, exactly?"
"The P7 system in the Arachnid Quarantine Zone," the Emperor said, now fiddling with the fit of his glove. "Clear the Bugs off it and it's yours. I think I'll have the Diet proclaim you Warden of the Southern Marches, too. They'll like that."
He's granting me a high noble title… over a Bug-infested planet? None of this made any sense. "Thank you, but, please… why?"
"So your wife can be a Duchess, of course."
Viktor shook his head at the Emperor, totally lost. "I… I don't understand, Your Majesty…"
The Emperor sighed. "I suppose subtlety is not for everyone." He gave Viktor a look that he might bestow upon a particularly dense child. "As Duchess of P7, your wife will represent you at the Imperial Diet. She and your children—your whole extended family, if you want—will take residence here on Avalon and appear at Court. Do as you're told, and your family will live out comfortable lives of prestige and privilege. But…" The Emperor bent at the waist so that his head hung directly over Viktor's. Then he displayed the devil's own grin. "Should you ever misbehave—try to escape or rebel or let the Bugs through out of spite. Well… my Bodyguards will never be more than a kilometer away from your precious children."
He straightened back up, still smiling as Viktor's eyes widened. Then the Emperor's expression fell abruptly. "No, that's right, subtlety, sorry. I mean that if you screw up, I will kill your family. Understand?"
Viktor nodded vigorously. "I—I won't disappoint you, Your Majesty. Never!"
"That shows good forward thinking on your part, I'm glad. Now go catch your transport."
The Bodyguards grabbed the back of Viktor's coat, hauled him to his feet, and marched him out of the palace. As he walked, he wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. It was certainly the strangest second chance he'd ever received. It came with unpleasant threats that Viktor would surely brood over in the future. But for now… he'd been rescued mere hours away from death by the cunning of his wife and the mercy of his Emperor. How could he feel anything but joy?
"You're a lunatic!"
The man in the dark cloak never took his eyes from the viewport. "I have been called worse, honored captain," he said.
The system named Edo was just a broken shell of its former self. Fragments of old space stations, knitted haphazardly back together, were beginning to bloom into organic factories. Ship hulks sprouted from their surfaces like giant turds. Each one seethed as workers crawled over one another to slot themselves into place, becoming the living components of greater machines.
"Ready the shuttle," the man said. "I will descend to the surface. You will remain in orbit until I return."
"That's my point, M. Scout," replied the captain of the armed merchant freighter Supercharger Heaven. He pointed at the viewport, "That is a Bug world. If you go down there, you won't be returning. Not unless you're hiding some assault carriers and a legion of infantry in your pockets."
Scout cocked his head back at the captain, and at such a painfully unnatural angle that the bridge crew flinched. "Your caution is well placed. I have no legion and no fleet… and yet I must go. Prepare the shuttle."
"What about us? I didn't sign on to get burned down by a Bug ship!"
"Do not permit that, Captain Karl," Scout finally turned to face the other man, sweeping his cloak behind him. "I need this ship to continue my mission. I expect you to evade."
"Sure. I think I'll evade my way right back out of this system!"
"Inadvisable. I have placed a lock on the gravity drive."
"What?" the captain fumed.
"You will not be able to use the gravity drive," Scout repeated. "Should you attempt to break my lock, there is also an explosive on this ship that will activate forty-eight hours from…" he checked his chronometer, "…carry the two… forty-seven hours from now."
Captain Karl gaped at him for a moment. Then he threw up his hands, "That's it! I want off of this loony bin!"
"I will be sad to lose you… when I return in forty-seven hours."
"And what are we supposed to do if you die down there? When you die down there?"
"In that scenario it would be in your best interest to find and disable the lock and the explosive before forty-seven hours have passed." Scout walked off the bridge, "Though I expected you to try anyway."
Scout smirked in disgust. The abandoned streets of Edo held few remaining clues to the information he sought. Little remained of the streets at all, in fact. This city's skyscrapers and ornamental gardens had mostly been absorbed back into the planetary surface. There should at least be something, he thought. It has only been eleven years, and invasions are inevitably sloppy affairs, no matter how careful the invaders.
Scout reached a hand out from his cloak and felt the spiritual energies around him. He grabbed at the wisps of lingering spirits and, focusing all his mental efforts, removed the barriers thrown up by time and belief. The power and thoughts released by this action rocked Scout back upon his heels, but he rebalanced his weight and held his stance. When he opened his eyes, he could see it. There, glowing on the walls, were the imprints of souls burned by the false fires of the last war.
Scout worked quickly, running over to the walls to taste the flickering soulfires. He could feel agony, hopelessness, cold fear, and… there. There was the hate. The very moment Scout touched those thoughts the spirits erupted with rage. It burned Scout to come so close to them, but he recognized that presence immediately. Any of his people would.
Edo had been touched by the Caal.
"They were here," he whispered. Scout drew back his mind before it could burn him further and the soulfires calmed and dimmed. He relaxed his efforts, allowing the barrier to the other world to reform. Once the ghosts were silent, Scout bowed his head with gratitude. Then my long journey has not been in vain. I am on the right track.
Wrapping his cloak around him once more, Scout made his way back to the shuttle. He was halfway there when he heard it—the hissing sound of dissolving earth beneath his feet. An army was on the march. Towards him.
Scout held his ground, shifting his body only slightly so that he could reach his weapon, though he did not draw it yet. The street in front of him melted and hundreds of Bugs boiled up from the chasm. They were drones: simple-minded but vicious, and each nearly as tall as Scout. They ran at him in a huge, screeching swarm. Unworthy, Scout sighed, and he scratched a circle around him with one foot. He stomped once to stabilize the ground under him. Then he reached out for the force holding the creatures to Edo's surface, and removed their gravity.
The drones all lost their footing, toppling over one another as they were propelled into the air. But the swarm retained its forward momentum as Bugs cartwheeled towards Scout. He shook his head in reproach, I must be out of practice. Connecting himself with his circle, Scout concentrated on the surrounding air. Even fickle gasses had a solid presence in this universe; Scout felt for it, and then eliminated it as best he could. The catastrophic drop in pressure brought winds rushing in. Without gravity the tiny cyclone tossed the swarm of drones around like leaves. They skipped across the road and against building sides, breaking limbs and cracking shells. When they flew beyond the range of Scout's spell, they tumbled back to the ground, crushing many beneath their own weight.
With his immediate surroundings cleared, Scout dropped his magic once again and breathed a sigh of relief. His little storm had covered him with dust and detritus, and he did his best to brush most of it away. Then a plasma beam seared past his head.
Scout's cloak whirled about him as he rolled out of his circle and stepped into the nearest building. It was just a hollow shell; the interior had been cleaned out by fires, looters, or the Bugs. A slight smile crept onto Scout's face.
A few more beams raked the building he was hiding in, but Scout simply waited, confident that handheld plasma weapons couldn't burn through the thick fungicrete façade. After a minute, the plasma fire stopped, and he heard the skittering clicks of Bug movement. Scout risked a look outside.
Warrior Bugs were approaching, moving to take him from the obvious attack vectors along the street. His opinion of their tactics improved when he looked up and saw more warriors hopping across the rooftops, covering the vertical vectors of attack. "Better," escaped his lips, before he called out, "I mean no harm to your—!"
Plasma beams raked the building again and Scout took cover deeper in the empty building. He quickly found some stairs and made his way upwards. He knew the warrior Bugs would have that direction covered, but there wouldn't be as many of them up there as on the ground.
By the time the warriors rushed into the ground floor, Scout was already five floors up. As the crashing started beneath him, he slowed to a walk, listening carefully for the ones above. He stepped off the stairwell onto the floor, and then checked the sight lines of the level. There was little to hide behind: a few boxes, some desiccated desks; most of what might have been here before the Caal emptied this world had turned to dust. Instead, Scout placed himself in the center of the room and waited for his opponents.
He did not have to wait long. One Bug burst through the ceiling, whipping out its plasma gun in one smooth motion. Scout shifted himself to the side and the plasma cut through the air he had just vacated. The warrior's gun contained highly volatile reagents which produces plasma and an ingenious biological electromagnet to contain and expel that plasma at high speed. Scout held out one hand, expanded his mind, and removed the magnetic field from existence. The weapon erupted into a fountain of power. The warrior Bug emitted a death song of agonized clicking as it was incinerated.
Scout stepped forward to admire his handiwork and focused on the charred shell of the dead creature. The swirls on the shell were ornate, grown like a tree over time, and had a familiar shape. I've seen this before, he thought, but where?
The clicks of incoming warriors brought him back to the present. He removed gravity once again and pushed himself up through the hole the dead warrior had made. Scout made it up two floors before he felt his spell's strength being eaten away. He pushed himself to one side before gravity grabbed hold of him again; then he pushed himself to his feet.
"The False Way?" Scout inquired aloud, tasting the power that had disrupted his spell. He did not like the implications of that fact. The Caal used their corrupted magic to dominate the souls and bodies of their foes. Are these their creations?
But the Caal did not use other beings as their weapons. They didn't have to. The Caal inhabited whatever life forms suited their needs. And when those beings were no longer wanted, the Caal discarded them. The blood enemy of Scout's people did not create—they only destroyed. No, he admitted to himself, these are not the tools of my enemy. So what are they?
Plasma fire suddenly roared up through the hole he had passed through. Scout admired the Bugs' persistence. They are using flames to flush me out, like burning the nests of vermin. Scout wrapped his cloak around his face and proceeded patiently up the stairs, nearing the roof.
Another warrior Bug sensed his presence and dropped onto the stairs ahead of him. It couldn't take out its gun in the confined space, but it didn't have to. Instead, it simply barreled down the stairs towards Scout.
Scout finally made the connection as he watched the creature skittering. The chitinous, green-black shell over an angular exoskeleton. The warrior had eight legs, of course, but if it had been bipedal… Horadrim!
Scout hopped back down the stairs and jumped to the side to avoid the Bug's mad charge. Before it could swing around, Scout squeezed his mouth in an unfamiliar way and shouted, "Keeeeeeaaaaaalllllllloooooo!"
The Bug halted in its tracks at the landing of the staircase. Scout repeated his call in the Horadrim language a second time. It was a simple command—Stop!—that also implied peace, or a non-threatening intent.
The warrior turned its pointed head towards Scout, letting him see both of its huge black eyes. Scout smiled and raised one hand in a friendly, palm-out gesture. Perhaps they can tell me—
The Bug got its weapon around the side of its body and fired.
Scout barely jerked out of the way of the plasma beam. It went through his cloak and badly singed the side of his arm and neck. An angry red warning flashed in front of Scout's eyes.
Or perhaps not, he thought as he sidestepped further away from the warrior's field of fire. It quickly began working its body out of the stairwell to draw another bead on Scout. Still, if they are related to the Horadrim, then they deserve respect. And my Camouflage will need to recover anyway.
"Very well," Scout said. He stepped into the center of the room and bowed to the warrior which was now ramming itself through a doorway slightly too small to accommodate its bulk. Scout straightened his stance, then reached up to his face and pulled his Camouflage aside.
The cloaked man immediately melted into a much taller figure. His arms became wings, his head formed a beak, and his boots grew large talons. New, shimmering clothes covered everyplace that brown feathers did not.
"Your species is worthy of my blade," Scout said. "Your death will be exquisite."
The warrior Bug needed no further prompting; it charged at its avian foe. Scout waited until its claws were dangerously close. Then he stepped aside and unsheathed his sword directly into the Bug. Its monomolecular edge sliced effortlessly into the warrior's exoskeleton and straight through the rest of its body as Scout continued his swing. When the Bug tried to stop and turn back towards its opponent, its top half kept going forward. The warrior collapsed in two pieces, dead before its brain could process what had happened.
Scout raced back up the stairs and onto the roof. The Bugs had already scaled the surrounding rooftops and were leaping onto his building. Blade in hand, Scout stepped into his kata. He danced his way towards the nearest Bugs, fluidly evading their shots and claws as he moved. One warrior tried to charge him, but Scout spun away from the clumsy tackle and danced onward. He adjusted his steps and leapt into the air, letting his wings catch the wind. The other Bugs seemed to hesitate between raising their weapons or lunging at Scout with their pincers and claws.
Scout took advantage of their mistake. He dropped his wings and fell back to the roof like a javelin. He flicked his sword between the barrels of the Bugs' crude weapons and sliced off a head. Then he darted to the left and swung a perfect circle that disemboweled a second warrior. He followed with a forward lunge to jab a third through its mandibles. The warrior coughed once, and then slid sideways onto the floor at Scout's feet.
A volley of plasma fire filled the air, so Scout ducked and swung wide, chopping off several legs and dropping their owners to the roof. Two Bugs tumbled off the side of the building, but several more took their place.
Scout danced away from these newcomers, giving them a chance to collect on the roof. The Bugs clicked and hissed with rage, thirsty for blood, and they scrambled towards him with razor-sharp claws outstretched. Scout allowed himself the satisfaction of cutting off the nearest bug's arms before dispatching it with solid thrust from the chest, lifting the blade up and forcing it through the bug's head. The dead warrior made a perfect shield for Scout. Keeping the corpse between him and the other Bugs, Scout swung his blade in a high arc, removing the head of another warrior.
Scout was quickly running out of room on the roof as many more warrior Bugs climbed up to join the fight, their mandibles snapping with excitement for the coming kill. Repeating his earlier feat, Scout reached out with his mind and located their plasma guns' containment fields. Then, as shuffled towards the edge of the roof, he called out, "In the name of the Vulthra, I honor your deaths!"
He took away the magnetic forces which kept the plasma under control.
Scout jumped off the roof as plasma fire erupted around him, consuming the packed warrior Bugs in a giant funeral pyre. He dropped two storeys before opening his wings. The abandoned building began to collapse, but Scout was already several blocks away, gliding to his shuttle. The Bugs were still marching, but now they were moving in the wrong direction, and Scout wasted no time vacating the field of battle.
As he sheathed his sword, Scout felt regret at fleeing a fight. But fighting the Bugs was not his task. He sought the Caal. Wherever the blood enemies of his people were, he would find them. Then he would return and lead his people to victory… to exterminate them all, finally and forever.
Scout powered up his shuttle.
The airlock cycled, and Scout stepped back onto the metal deck of the Supercharger Heaven. His camouflage was back in place; but even with the nanobots adjusting his frame, he had to duck under the low hatchway. He had bought this ship from the K'Nes, who were not known for their size, nor for giving discounts just because a client wished to walk comfortably through his own ship. And Scout had had neither the credits nor time to wait for a customized hull.
"Welcome back," Captain Karl walked around a corner. "Catch!"
Scout easily snatched the ring of metal from the air and then turned it around in his once-more camouflaged hands, "You found the drive lock. You did not find the bomb."
"There is no bomb. You just said that to freak us out."
The ship's captain leaned against a bulkhead, brushing his long black hair out of his face. He took a deep breath, "I haven't been sailing with you very long, M. Scout. But if I've learned one thing about you, it's that you're a lousy liar."
"I did put a lock on the drive."
"But explosives would have been detected by the internal scans. The Cats may be crap at soccer, but they can sure build a ship. Spectroscopic sniffers sensitive down to the molecular level, embedded throughout the hull? Hot damn!" The captain chuckled, "I could pinpoint every one of those flying rats scurrying in the cargo bay. The Cats must keep them as pets… or food."
"Impressive," Scout agreed. "Do you know why the K'Nes have such impressive scanners?"
Karl frowned, "I sincerely hope it's not because they regularly have to ferry around nutjobs that try to sabotage their own ship."
Scout shook his head, a motion which his camouflage could not prevent from looking awkwardly jerky. "The K'Nes place great cultural emphasis on the unbreakable nature of contracts, but they also regularly transport cargo of immense value. Under those circumstances, they feel it is foolish to expect their crews to resist the temptation of thievery without any kind of monitoring."
"Are you saying you don't trust us?" Captain Karl stood up straight again.
"I am not a K'Nes, Captain," Scout said. "I expect you to do your job, and to do it well. Your crew met those expectations today, I am pleased."
"That's not what I asked." Karl pointed at the drive lock Scout still held, "You didn't just tell us to do a job, you threatened to blow us all up if we didn't."
"And yet even when you discovered there were no explosives, you stayed. Above the hostile world that you feared. I am honored, Captain." Scout bowed to the Human.
Karl opened and then closed his mouth. He had an odd, pinched expression on his face that Scout could not interpret.
"I don't like leaving a man behind," he said at last. "I did that too many times during the war."
Scout watched him closely for a moment. He suspected a strong soul lay within the captain, which was why Scout had chosen the man's crew from among all the Human refugees that littered the transfer station at Hhak.
"I understand, honored captain. Now set course for Khmer, let us leave this star system."
"You're the boss," Karl turned to go.
"Then come have a drink with me," Scout said, hoping that was the correct invitation, "and tell me all about your war. I am certain you were a fine warrior. Unfortunately, I missed too much of the news while I was away."
"Away?" The Captain turned and gave Scout a look of utter disbelief. "You missed the Ascension War? It was fought all over the galaxy—how the hell did you manage to miss that?"
"It is a long… and probably boring story. I am certain you will be doing much of the talking."
Karl rubbed the side of his head behind one eye, "Well as long you're buying the booze, I'll tell you everything ya wanna know."
Scout gave a knowing smile. "Yes, I am certain you will."
"You're always causing trouble. Never come here again," Ryoko heard her mother say, and watched her disguise the edge in her voice with a polite bow to their guest. Ryoko's mother was normally the epitome of civility; but, for whatever reason, she never seemed to get along with Auntie. Her tone of voice was not so surprising, insofar as it expressed the usual latent animosity. The finality of the words, however, came as a shock.
Usually whenever Ryoko was in the room, both women pretended to be cordial. Apparently not this time. Perhaps they haven't noticed me?
"Hai, as you ask, we will never see each other again," Auntie replied. She tended to be the more level-headed of the two sisters-in-law, so this sudden concession was quite the shock as well. Ryoko stopped in her tracks when she heard it, allowing the tea cups on the small platter she carried to clink against each other.
Mother and Auntie glanced over at Ryoko and tried to restore some of their composure. There was brief, awkward silence before Auntie said, "I've been intruding." With that, she quickly pulled herself out from under the kotatsu table, stood up, turned, and walked toward the genkan in the entry hall.
"Eh?" Ryoko could not keep silent at this, even if Mother and Auntie both were. She moved toward the kotatsu and set the tea things down on it. "Mother! Don't say such rude things to Auntie!" Her mother began serving herself tea. She gave her daughter a sharp look that said cease-and-desist, reminding Ryoko just how unreasonable her mother could be at times.
Ryoko quickly shifted her efforts to Auntie. She left her mother in the living room and moved into the genkan where Auntie sat, slipping on her shoes to leave. "Auntie, don't go! Mom didn't mean what she said!"
With her shoes on, Aunt Akiko stood and turned to face her twelve-year-old niece. Auntie's eyes had welled up with tears, which made Ryoko's do the same in sympathy. They hugged each other for what seemed like forever before Akiko whispered to Ryoko, "I have something for you." They finally let go of one another, and Auntie reached into her kimono to pull out a small amulet, an omamori that bore the Yasuyama family crest. "Don't let your mom know about it," she continued in a hushed voice. "She will take it from you if she knows you have it. She's even more stubborn than your father."
Auntie's eyes welled up with tears again, and she held Ryoko for another long period of time. "As long as you have this, Auntie will keep you safe."
"This is stupid," Sato Ryoko muttered to herself, twenty-six years later.
She was sitting at the top of a hill outside New Tokyo City. The grass beneath her legs was neatly trimmed, soft, and engineered not to stain her clothes. Even though the cherry tree planted beside her was not yet blossoming, it still crowned the hill with graceful elegance. Somewhere in a New Tokyo museum was the huge watercolor mural that the terraformers had used for inspiration when designing this hill and the surrounding landscape.
Ryoko had placed several small holographic portraits on the grass beneath the tree's shade, one each for her mother, father, and brother. In front of them was a smoldering incense stick that Ryoko had struggled to light with ordinary matches even in the gentle breeze atop the hill. The incense irritated her nose, which was the only reason Ryoko's eyes were tearing up.
There was probably some sort of traditional prayer Ryoko was supposed to be saying or thinking right now, or maybe some sort of ritual prostration or gesture. All of these items probably had special names, too. Ryoko couldn't be bothered to keep track of such things anymore, not the way she used to. Her family would be horrified to discover that, if any of them ever cared to find out. If any of them had been alive to care.
It was her cousin Akihiro who'd suggested Ryoko come out here like this. Ryoko had wanted to roll her eyes and tell Akihiro to butt out of her life. But when your cousin was the Duke of New Tokyo, you didn't get to tell him to mind his own business. You bowed politely and followed his advice, no matter how asinine or meddlesome. There were expectations of your family, appearances had to be maintained. The worst part was that Akihiro had genuinely been trying to be comforting. He'd never know how much Ryoko resented it.
"Well, what do you want me to say, Mom?" Ryoko asked, addressing the portraits. "You got your wish. Aunt Akiko didn't come back until after you were dead. You were dead, and the Vin Shriak were rolling in, and you didn't want to listen to her either, Dad!" She ripped up a little blade of grass and threw it at her Father's portrait. Then she had to take a moment to calm her breathing. "That worked out real well for you and Hikaru-kun, didn't it? That's okay though, I'm sure you both upheld the honor of the Imperial Navy. Aren't they proud of you now?"
Ryoko clenched her teeth and seethed for a moment again. Then she turned to her brother's portrait and shook her head. "Nothing against you, Hikaru-kun, you were just an idiot. It's not your fault."
Ryoko sighed. She didn't know why she bothered. She'd already done this once before, back when she first emerged from the bizarre time vortex Auntie and Grandmother Hikari—Ryoko hated calling her Grandmother—had contrived. The whole Yasuyama clan had stood with her in mourning for her family, and for their own losses. Ryoko had cried then. She'd been young and confused and sad back then. Now she was just angry.
"So it's just me now," she said. "But I'm doing all right, I'm doing well. Graduated college last year. University of New Paris. Do you know what I wanted to study? Literature and writing. Do you know what I got my degrees in? I studied materials science for undergrad, and then got my master's in high energy physics! Duke Akihiro wanted someone else who could keep an eye on Anshin for him. Oh, did you know he's a Duke now? Yeah. Eurgh." Ryoko rubbed her forehead with the fingers of one hand.
After that, Ryoko sat quietly for a long time. The wind flowed gently around her and through the branches of the cherry tree. Eventually, the angle of the sun brought the shadow of the city's tall buildings creeping towards the hill.
"I miss you," Ryoko whispered.
Tears were rolling down her cheeks now, but it was just her eyes reacting to the burning incense.
Ryoko was not sure what to expect when she walked into the executive office at Anshin Heavy Industries' headquarters the next day. Whatever this meeting was about, she would have given better than fifty-fifty odds that it would be a waste of her time.
Two men leapt to their feet as soon as Ryoko opened the door and bowed while she walked in. One was fair-skinned and tall, with sleek black hair. The other was small and wiry, with a tension in his posture that screamed soldier. Ryoko raised an eyebrow before returning the gesture with a smaller inclination of her head. Behind the office's large desk, Ryoko's cousin Takamitsu winked and showed her an easy smile.
New Tokyo's crown prince had been born seven years after Ryoko. Thanks to her little detour through the timeline, that meant he was now her elder by around six years. He acted like it, too. Ryoko had memories of him toddling around in diapers, and now he treated her like a child in need of babysitting. She didn't blame him in particular for it. That was how his whole family treated Ryoko.
"Gentlemen, if you'll give us a few minutes alone?" The crown prince gestured to the other men in the office.
"Yes, Lord," the taller of the pair said. They bowed to Taka, and then to Ryoko a second time. "My Lady," the shorter man said before they both stepped through the office door and shut it behind them.
Takamitsu chuckled once it was shut. "I'm not sure I'll ever be able to take these noble titles seriously. Have a seat if you'd like." He waved to the array of comfortable chairs and sofas in front of his desk. "How are you, Ryoko-san?"
"Busy," Ryoko answered as she plopped down onto a nicely squishy sofa. She thought for a second, and then shrugged. "But bored. I've found all your employees to be very well trained and dedicated. You should be proud… my Lord."
That made him laugh in earnest, and he held up a hand while lowering himself into his own seat. "Oh please don't call me that—not when it's just family at least. I'm just Taka."
Ryoko nodded, but said nothing.
He smiled again. "Well I suppose I'll get right to the point. How would you like to go to San Angeles?"
What? Ryoko blinked. "I'm… not sure," she said guardedly. "Why would I be going there?"
"Duke Tremont's looking for some new equipment suppliers for his military retainers and engineering corps." Takamitsu swiveled his chair to face sideways and leaned back. "His contractors on Avalon apparently can't keep a schedule, and the Vendoese charge more than the Northern Marches can really afford. It looks like New Tokyo, and Anshin especially, might be in the best position to provide the materials and production licenses they need. We're sending a delegation to hammer out a treaty."
"And you want me to be part of it?" Ryoko was frowning in confusion.
"M. Sauerborn will be chief of mission—he's the gaijin you just met." The crown prince picked up a stylus from his desk and pointed it to the door. "He's a good man; solid diplomat and loyal. Even so, Father wants someone from the family to go along."
"You're my pick," Taka said, chuckling again. "Father loves having you around here, but I get the impression you can't stand the management stuff. I thought you might like to get out for a while."
"I…" Ryoko wasn't exactly sure how to respond to this. "A change of scenery might be nice," she said after a moment. "But I don't know anything about diplomacy."
Taka waved off this objection. "Nicholas can handle the diplomacy, Ryoko-san. But he can't represent the family. Having one of the Yasuyamas there will add weight and prestige to the delegation."
"I'm not a Yasuyama," Ryoko reminded him. "I'm a Sato."
Taka rolled his eyes. "You're Grandmother Akiko's niece. Duke Tremont's household includes the adopted children of second cousins. They'll be able to work it out. So would you like to go?"
"Yes," Ryoko said, more abruptly than she probably should have.
"Excellent!" Takamitsu grinned. "I'll call them back in."
"Wait!" Ryoko said. "Who's—"
But the crown prince had already touched a control on his desk, and the office door opened to readmit the two men who'd been in before. Ryoko stood up quickly to greet them again.
"Lady Ryoko has agreed to accompany your mission, M. Sauerborn," Takamitsu said.
The chief diplomat smiled and bowed deeply. "I will be honored to have you along, my Lady. Your presence should help everything go much more smoothly than I could arrange on my own."
"Thank you," Ryoko told him.
The other man—Ryoko thought his features looked Han Chinese—watched them with a slightly stern expression. Once Sauerborn had straightened up again, Takamitsu gestured to him.
"Lady Ryoko," he said, "this is Sergeant Guo Albert, from the Household Guard. He'll command your bodyguard on the trip."
"My Lady," Sergeant Guo said again, stepping forward and nodding.
Ryoko wasn't exactly sure what made her do it, but as she said, "Sergeant," in acknowledgment, she held out her hand slightly. Guo took it in a more graceful motion than his muscled build would have suggested were possible, and brought it to his lips.
Takamitsu grinned wickedly. "Uncle Akira selected the Sergeant for this job personally," he said.
Ryoko's cheeks were burning as she regained possession of her hand. Even so, she tried to look daggers at her cousin. The effort washed right over him. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Sauerborn struggling to keep a straight face.
"My squad won't let you down, Lady Sato," Guo said. Then he stepped back against a wall and stood like sentry.
"All right," Taka said, and gave them a lazy wave. "I'll let M. Sauerborn walk you through all the fascinating details in his own office. You won't leave for a few days yet, so you should have plenty of time to pack or go shopping or whatever you'd like in advance."
Ryoko started to say something snappy, but thought better of it. She bowed instead. "Yes. Thank you, Lord Yasuyama."
He winked at her again. "Thank you, Ryoko-san. Have fun."
End of Prologue
You can't live without the fire
It's the heat that makes you strong
'Cause you're born to live and fight it all the way
You can't hide what lies inside you
It's the only thing you've known
You'll embrace it and never walk away
Don't walk away
—Within Temptation, Iron
Anthology edited by Lorpius Prime, 2013. No copyright intended or implied. Text free for non-commerical use under General Public License. Brought to you by Horrath Industries, Megadodo Productions, and the letter J. Do not try ANY of this at home, even if you're a mass-murdering Japanese vampire samurai birdman smuggler.