Episode One — Rotting on the Sea

            The Lord High Admiral Duke Viktor Molotok stared at his secretary, appalled.  "Is it that bad, Mandy?"

            "I'm afraid so, Viktor," Amanda replied.  "And it's getting worse by the hour."

            Admiral Molotok was seated in a briefing room for the first meeting of what only a committed optimist could call his command staff—all four of them.  They each wore what passed for the official uniform of the Fifth Fleet: an eye-offending neon orange one-piece jumpsuit with "FIFTH FLEET" stenciled in white across the back, followed by an inmate number.  Viktor's jumpsuit also had white rank insignias of an Admiral on the chest, collar, and cuffs.  It was a truly bizarre sight.  Someone in the Navy's quartermaster division clearly had a twisted sense of humor.

            Viktor and a handful of other convicts had arrived in the Arachnid Quarantine Zone a month ago, dropped off by a Horadrim tunnel-drive ship (which, under different circumstances, would have been a great honor) on the aging battlestation Barbarossa orbiting the primary planet of the P7 system.  They had been the first inmates to arrive, giving Viktor a chance to at least attempt organizing the obsolete warships and prison transports full of convicts as they arrived at the rendezvous point.  They began as a slow trickle that quickly grew into a torrent of men and material, as massive as it was unmanageable.

            Unfortunately, the Imperial Navy personnel manning the battlestation refused to turn over command to "Admiral" Molotok until they were officially relieved of duty—by which they meant once they had all been evacuated from the station.  Worse, they kept Viktor entirely in the dark about what was going on in P7; forcing him to gather any information he could by indirect means.  He was surprised to discover some sort of base on the Bug-infested planet below; but the Navy staff wouldn't tell him a single thing about it.  That information was classified, apparently.  It didn't matter that Molotok would learn everything about it the very moment they left; they had their orders, and intended to follow them to the letter.  Worst of all, the Navy men completely ignored the chaos growing around them.  Apparently it was "not their problem."  They locked themselves into the command deck and denied Molotok any access to equipment or station controls that might have helped him to contain the anarchy.  Overall, it was obvious that none of the bureaucrats responsible for birthing the Fifth Fleet had thought the exercise through, with predictable results.  At least the station has a decent name, Viktor thought.

            So it was only yesterday, when the last of the regular Navy personnel were transferred off Barbarossa and command officially fell to Admiral Molotok that Viktor finally had the opportunity to learn just how badly Fifth Fleet's situation had deteriorated over the last few weeks.

            "Alright, Mandy, give me the details," Viktor said.

            "Well, as far as I can tell, the Emperor mostly sent us prisoners that were on death row, serving life sentences, or else had sentences long enough that they're effectively for life—a hundred and twenty years, stuff like that."

            "In other words, we're not getting any teenagers serving five or ten years for selling narcotics or illegal software," Viktor interpreted.  "But we are getting are the hardened cons, the worst of the worst."

            "There does seem to be a disproportionately high percentage of inmates convicted of murder and other violent crimes, yes."  Mandy sighed.  "I'd say we can look forward to the homicidal, the sadistic, and the psychotic.  The really bad news—I hope you're not expecting anything good in all of this—is that we've also got the contents of several planets' psychiatric wards, asylums, and sanitariums in the mix.  Apparently, whatever bureaucrat was in charge of drawing up the guidelines for this experiment didn't think to exclude the criminally insane from the pool of ordinary criminals.  It looks like some less scrupulous public health officials noticed and took advantage."

            Viktor groaned, "Of course they did.  I'm sure they're saving millions of crowns on housing and treatment costs this way."

            "And ratcheting up our body count in the process," Mandy said.  "For the last month, prisons across the Empire have been dumping their inmates into the Fifth Fleet," she continued.  "Unfortunately, we aren't provided any prison guards; so it's pretty much a free-for-all on most ships: pure, violent anarchy.  We've only managed to maintain some degree of law and order here on Barbarossa thanks to Sexton O'Connor and his followers."  She paused to nod to the chaplain and grace him with a smile.

            "Glad to help," the Sexton returned the smile pleasantly.  "It's the least we can do in service to the Emperor."

            Viktor didn't smile.  He did not like O'Connor at all.  "So what's behind the deaths?"

            "Well, there's a rash of murders after every new transport unloads its prisoners," Mandy continued.  "My guess would be revenge killings, inmates settling old scores, stuff like that.  In most cases, a day or two later a series of big brawls break out, leading to more fatalities.  As near as I can tell, that's prison gangs fighting for control.  Once one gang wins supremacy the death rate drops back down."

            Viktor stroked his mustache and mulled that over silently.  He had no intention of letting the Fifth Fleet's ships be run by whichever gangs dominated them—but dislodging them might prove very difficult.

            "Not all the killings are necessarily murders, though," Mandy added.  "I'm sure many are self-defense, while others are clearly accidents.  There are several women who've killed their would-be rapists."

            "Wait—what?" Viktor asked, blinking in confusion.  "If there are no guards, then who—"

            Mandy cut him off.  "The transport crews tend to dump their convicts onto the nearest warship and run—they don't want to stay in Bug space a second longer than necessary."  She shook her head.  "Unfortunately, this has allowed inmates from both men's and women's penitentiaries to be loaded onto the same ships… with the results you'd expect.  We've had an epidemic of sexual assaults, including some rather vicious gang rapes.  Fortunately, many of the female convicts have joined prison gangs—or even formed their own gangs—for protection.  I'm also getting reports of brothels starting up on some ships."

            Viktor stared at her, wide-eyed and appalled.  "Fortunately?"

            "Judging by the bodies, I'd say some of the female murder victims fell prey to sexual predators… and sexual sadists.  I'm afraid we've got more than a few serial killers here in the Fifth Fleet."  Mandy shrugged.  "As brutal as pimps can be, they at least keep their boys and girls alive and relatively safe."

            "Alright…"  Molotok lowered his head and took a deep breath, then looked up.  "Alright, first chance we get, we transfer all female prisoners to women-only ships.  Unfortunately, that'll have to wait until we have something resembling an effective security force.  No offense, Sexton," he added quickly, turning to O'Connor, "but there just aren't enough of your Reformed Cons to secure the entire fleet.  But speaking of that, what's the current security status here on Barbarossa?"

            "The armory, larder, brig, and command decks are all secure," the Sexton replied, "although the brig is overflowing.  I'm sure some of the prisoners there are safe to release… but it's something of a judgment call."

            "I can look into their records, Viktor," Mandy said, "and brief you on the situation later."

            "My flock's been trying to maintain order throughout the rest of the battlestation… but there just aren't enough of us.  We're doing more reaction than prevention, responding to security alarms and reports of fights and thefts in progress."  The old man hesitated, then took the plunge.  "Admiral, keeping the peace would be quicker, easier, and safer for my congregation if they were given weapons.  There's only so much one can do with fists.  Haven't we proven ourselves worthy of your trust yet?"

            Molotok regarded Sexton O'Connor silently, eyes narrowed in evaluation.  Viktor did not trust the man.  As a general rule, he didn't trust fanatics, and especially not hypocrite fanatics.  Even so, O'Connor had a valid point.  Like it or not, Viktor owed him a debt of gratitude.  Without O'Connor and his Reformed Cons, Barbarossa would be lost in violent anarchy, too.  But giving the Cultists weapons



            When O'Connor and his people had offered their help three weeks ago, Viktor couldn't believe his luck at first; it was too good to be true.  And as it turned out, it was.  The first time the burly convicts approached him and Mandy, Viktor took an involuntary step backward and lowered his hand to the butt of his burp pistol.  Amanda had instinctively stepped behind him.

            But Molotok could tell this gang was… different.  Partly because it was led by a small, white-haired, grandfatherly old man in a red jumpsuit that indicated he was a Cult chaplain among the inmates.  And partly because the several dozen muscular, tattooed, and scar-faced thugs behind him all wore a red clenched gauntlet painted on their jumpsuits over their hearts, something Viktor recognized as one of the Imperial Cult's symbols—he thought it was supposed to be the Orb.

            "Admiral Molotok?" the chaplain asked with a serene smile.

            "Yes…" Viktor responded slowly, suspicious.

            "Sexton Boyle O'Connor," he introduced himself, offering an open hand.  After a moment's hesitation, Viktor shook it cautiously.  "These are my brothers and sisters of the Imperial Cult—humble sinners all, but reformed convicts in service to the Emperor.  We've heard…" he hesitated.  "They say… is it true… did you really meet the Emperor—personally?  Stand in His presence?  Speak with Him?"

            "Umm… yeah…"

            Instantly, the Sexton dropped to one knee before Viktor, fist over his heart, followed a heartbeat later by the thugs behind him.  "Praise be upon Him who saves us from the Caal!" they thundered as one.

            Silence reigned for a moment.  Viktor blinked in disbelief.  It never occurred to him that he could become a quasi-religious leader just by briefly meeting Vin Dane.  Viktor kept forgetting some people truly considered the Emperor a god. 

            "Please, get up!" Viktor urged, uncomfortable with the display of devotion aimed at him.  "I'm not the Emperor—I'm not even a Deacon of the Cult!"

            "No," O'Connor replied as he stood, "but you've been closer to Him than any of us have ever been—or ever will be, now."  He looked up at Viktor, reverence in his eyes.  "Tell me… what is He like?"

            "Uh… shorter than I expected," Molotok answered.

            Amanda kicked him in the ankle.

            Viktor backpedaled instantly.  "Aaand magnificent!  Stately and majestic!  Very wise, very powerful, very... uh…"  He was running out of adjectives.  "Words can't really describe the man, truthfully…"

            "I imagine not," the Sexton said.  "And… what did He say unto you?" he asked, eager and awed.

            "Well," Viktor began, uncomfortable with the religious terminology, "he spared my life…"  He could instantly tell that the Cultists liked that.  "Then he turned the Orb into a sword and dubbed me—"

            "He touched you?  With the Orb?" O'Connor gasped.  "What was that like?"

            Viktor hesitated.  He suspected they wouldn't like the truth, that it had been a rather unpleasant sensation.  "It was… indescribable," he finally answered.  "Unreal.  I've never felt anything like it before."

            "Yes… yes, I see…"  O'Connor said slowly, his eyes unfocused, as if contemplating some deep and mysterious wisdom.  Even the Neanderthals behind him nodded and looked thoughtful.

            "Anyway," Viktor said, eager to change the subject before they could ask more uncomfortable questions, "he dubbed me Warden of the Southern Marches, and ordered me to build the Fifth Fleet in the Quarantine Zone to protect the Empire from the Arachnids… and the Caal, too," he added as an afterthought, remembering that the Caal Invasion had come from this same general area of space.

            "Yes, of course."  The Sexton bowed to him.  "And we stand ready to assist you, in service to the Emperor, in any and every way you would use us to complete the task His Holiness has given you."

            "Uh… thank you," Viktor said, not quite sure what to make of that.  He looked over the brawny thugs, wondering how many of them could read or do basic math.  "And… what can you do, exactly?"

            "We can pray," O'Connor answered, "and we can fight."

            Well, Viktor wasn't sure how much help prayer would be.  But fighting…  "Well, I could use a security team to help keep order around here on the battlestation," he said slowly.  "Things are pretty rough around here right now, and it's only going to get worse as more prisoner transports arrive."

            "Just ask, and it is done.  We are yours to command, in furtherance of His holy mission."

            Viktor noted the conditional phrase.  "Well… I guess you're my new Security Chief then, Sexton O'Connor," Molotok said.  "Meet me tomorrow at—"

            Mandy cleared her throat, passing Viktor a datapad.  "You might want to read this first, Admiral."

            He took it and glanced at the display of a prisoner profile.  "Inmate #517352… O'Connor, Boyle Michael," he muttered.  "Sentenced to ninety-seven years in 2271, convicted of…"  Viktor's voice trailed off.  He froze, staring at the datapad, eyes widening in increasing horror as he read the long, long list of charges.  Slowly, he looked up and fixed the Sexton with a murderous glare.  "You bastard…"

            "I'm sorry, Admiral.  I…"  The Sexton looked down in shame.  "I was weak."

            "I have a daughter that age, you pervert!"

            Anger flashed across several of his Cultists' faces and one of then stepped forward—but O'Connor stopped him with a simple upraised hand.  "No no, he speaks the truth," the Sexton said.  "I have sinned, and such recriminations are my penance."  O'Connor folded his hands.  "But you should know, Admiral Molotok, that I have confessed my sins and been born again in the light of the Orb.  I am a new man… and celibate for these last five years, if you're wondering.  The Emperor forgives all."

            Given the purges that swept the Empire and Vin Dane's apparent paranoia, Viktor found that hard to believe.  "Well, he may, but I don't!"  He gritted his teeth.  "I'll accept your help, Sexton, because I can't afford not to… but I'm keeping an eye on you.  If you ever inspect anyone that thoroughly for Caal possession again—women or men, of any age—I will personally throw you out of an airlock myself!  Understand?"  When the Sexton nodded, Viktor added grudgingly, "Tomorrow, 0600 hours, my quarters, come alone."



            The Sexton took the threat surprisingly well and, weeks later, Viktor had to admit he'd lived up to his end of the bargain—at the cost of several injuries to his Reformed Cons, even.  Hell, O'Connor's men were by far the best-behaved, most disciplined convicts he'd yet met (although that was a rather low bar).  Still, the Admiral was hesitant to arm the Cultists.  What if they decided the Admiral hadn't been given a holy mission after all?  Or that he had, but Sexton O'Connor was better suited to carry it out?

            And yet they'd been invaluable so far, obedient, helpful, and courageous.  They followed their Sexton blindly, and O'Connor hadn't given Viktor any reason to doubt his loyalty—yet.  "Alright, very well," the Admiral conceded.  "But shocksticks only, no burp guns… at least, not yet."

            "Thank you, Admiral!"  The Sexton gave him another sunny smile.  "We won't disappoint you."

            "Alright, on to personnel."  Viktor turned to Mandy.  "What do we have to work with here?"



            Viktor wasn't entirely sure when or how Mandy had arrived in the Fifth Fleet, only that she was a godsend.  When the middle-aged woman with a blond buzz-cut first offered to help sort through the prisoner's personnel records, Viktor had been too overwhelmed to say no but too suspicious to say yes.  He'd learned the hard way, and in record time, that everyone in the Fifth Fleet was out for themselves and no one else.  Unfortunately, being surrounded by professional cheats, frauds, and con men made it hard for Viktor to tell who was trustworthy and who was just out to manipulate or swindle him.  But Mandy had been honest—and rather forthright—about her motivation for offering her services: working directly for the upper command staff provided at least some degree of protection from the violence, sexual and otherwise, that was beginning to rear its ugly head and would soon sweep through the fleet.  Figuring enlightened self-interest was an acceptable incentive, Viktor took a chance on her.

            The gamble paid off, and well.  Mandy turned out to be an administrative genius with an A-type personality and a work ethic that didn't know when to stop.  Viktor had to order her to eat and sleep on more than one occasion.  She burned through prisoner profiles with blinding speed, and had a knack for predicting which inmates were harmless and might be useful to the Fifth Fleet, and which were hardened cons who would be nothing but trouble and dead weight.  It wasn't long before she branched out into helping with the Fleet's organization and logistics as well.

            At first, Viktor was so grateful he didn't dare look a gift horse in the mouth… but as Mandy slowly emerged as his unofficial personal secretary and chief of staff, he decided he really ought to find out who exactly this woman was, just to be safe.  Hell, Viktor didn't even know her last name!  And when he found out…

            "Kait?" he asked her.  "As in Amanda Kait, former Chancellor of the Imperial Bureaucracy?"

            Mandy sighed, "In another lifetime, yes.  That seems so long ago now."

            Viktor frowned, confused.  "But I thought you survived the purges.  Didn't you retire three years ago?"

            Mandy grinned bitterly.  "Yes, I did."  She arched an eyebrow at Viktor.  "But you probably also heard that I disappeared a few months later."

            "Er… no."  Viktor looked down.  "I was in the Avalon Imperial Military Prison by then."

            "Well, I understand the news networks told everyone that I went into hiding after having made some powerful enemies during my term as Chancellor."  Mandy gestured to her orange jumpsuit.  "As you can see, that isn't exactly the case."

            "So you were purged after all."  Viktor nodded.  "Now that I think about it, it's not surprising."

            "Well, at least Vin let me live," Mandy sighed, and Viktor flinched at hearing his Holy and Imperial Majesty referred to in such a casual way.  "I suppose that's his idea of a personal favor to an old friend."

            Despite himself, Viktor found this new information made him re-examine Mandy's motives for helping run the Fifth Fleet.  She wasn't just after security—a woman like her was almost certainly after power as well.  Well, let her have it, Viktor thought, she's earned it.  He certainly couldn't think of anyone more qualified for the Fifth Fleet's second in command… as long as she didn't move against him, that is, and Viktor doubted Mandy was stupid enough to do that.  As capable and power-hungry as she was, Mandy didn't know the first thing about waging a war against the Bugs—and, thankfully, she knew it.  So for now, at least, Amanda Kait stuck to administrative work. 



            And so at their first official command meeting, she presented what she'd found through her analysis of the inmate records.  "Well, we have a very small number of inmates with naval experience," she began, "most are either low-level Imperial Navy officers who were purged for one reason or another, or ex-Earth Fleet rebels who were captured alive and on death row for treason.  Beyond that, we have a few dozen convicts with non-military space experience… but most of them are smugglers and pirates, not exactly trustworthy."

            "Hey!" the fourth person in the briefing room said indignantly.  "I was a pirate!  Well, sort of…"

            "You're a special case, Gretchen," Viktor assured her, even though she wasn't.  He had a sinking feeling these smugglers and pirates would become his warship captains.  "Please, Amanda, continue."

            "We've got about a hundred convicts with engineering experience, though not usually on starship systems," Amanda continued, "and a few hundred more with some factory or construction experience."

            Admiral Molotok sighed.  And there are my engineering and maintenance crews, he thought.  "Go on."

            "We've got a handful of white collar criminals who might make good administrators," she continued, "although, again, not trustworthy.  We've also got a lot of political prisoners—low-level politicians, professors, teachers, activists, protestors, that sort of thing.  Smart and capable, but they'll have to be completely retrained from the ground up.  Good news is they're mostly entitled middle-class elites who aren't used to prison—and should be fanatically loyal to anyone who'll keep them out of the general prison population.  Lots of potential there… eventually."

            "If Fifth Fleet survives that long, yes," Admiral Molotok agreed.  "And the rest?"

            Mandy sighed.  "Unfortunately, over half the convicts are just gangsters and street thugs, low-life criminals with no useful skills.  Good for menial labor like dockworkers, janitors, or cooks… but otherwise, more likely to cause trouble than anything else.  Worst of all…"  Amanda took a deep breath.  "Apparently, none of the Imperial bureaucrats stopped to calculate the convict-to-warship ratio.  In other words, we're overpopulated: too many inmates and not enough places to put them.  To be quite blunt, they're straining our supplies of food, water, and oxygen."  Amanda set down her datapad on the briefing room table.

            Viktor drummed his fingers on the tabletop, contemplating the information silently for a moment. Finally he turned to Gretchen, his tactical advisor.  "Any chance a gang could hijack a ship and escape?"

            "No," Gretchen said, sounding confident.  "All ships have the command and engineering sections under lockdown—I made sure of that.  Right now, they're more like floating flophouses than a fleet.  The critical systems are well automated and can probably survive without close monitoring for up to a few weeks… but I wouldn't want to push them any longer than that, especially since we're dealing with really old ships that aren't in the best of repair."

            "On the other hand, the fleet's full of professional thieves," Mandy pointed out.  "Many of whom probably have lots of experience getting around security systems.  They won't stay locked out forever."

            Gretchen's expression blanched; evidently that hadn't occurred to her.  "Well, even if they do break onto a bridge, where would they go?" she asked, somewhat defensively.  "There aren't any jumpgates around or any true gravity drives in the Fifth Fleet.  Even lowlifes surely know it'd take decades to reach the nearest system by ion drive.  And even if they still figured out a way to leave, their cortex bombs would kill the crew instantly."

            "Yes," Mandy agreed, an edge in her voice, "but in the process, we'd still lose a warship forever."

            "And we don't have any to spare," Viktor added, changing the topic before the tension between Mandy and Gretchen could escalate any further.  "What's the Fifth Fleet's current strength, Gretchen?"

            "Craptastic," Gretchen replied with her usual bluntness.  "It might be effective against the Bugs… but the Lord of the Fleet would weep, the Jurvain would laugh, and the K'Nes would sell it for scrap."

            Gretchen Von Shrakenberg was the highest-ranking naval officer Viktor had found so far—an Earth Fleet Lieutenant Commander who had captained a frigate.  Molotok wasn't surprised a Von Shrakenberg ended up in the Fifth Fleet; naval service had a long tradition in their family.  Unfortunately, most Von Shrakenbergs serving active duty had been killed in the massive Battle of Avalon that ended the Caal Invasion.  The remaining family split during the Ascension War.  The primary heirs sided with the Empire in order to protect their financial assets, but many of the junior branches had strong ties to Earth Fleet, and remained loyal to the Federation.  Gretchen made the mistake of choosing the losing side.

            Gretchen's postwar career had been somewhat less glorious.  Refusing Herbert Gergenstein's order for Earth Fleet to stand down, she continued resisting with her ship and crew, eventually joining up with the elusive pirate Aaron Roquefort—even, according to rumor, briefly becoming his lover (a rumor Gretchen steadfastly refused to comment on), earning her the somewhat derogatory nickname "Pirate Queen" in the process.  Rumor also held she was captured because Roquefort betrayed her to the Imperial Navy himself in a desperate attempt to get rid of the overbearing woman.  Outnumbered and outgunned, Gretchen once more refused to surrender, preferring death to dishonor… until her crew mutinied and turned her over to the Empire in exchange for their lives.  So sure, she was a somewhat incompetent Von Shrakenberg, but a Von Shrakenberg all the same.  A member of a family that had lived and breathed Earth Fleet for generations.  The name alone gave a measure of credibility to Viktor's efforts.

            Not surprisingly, Gretchen initially refused to fight for the Empire in any capacity.  Molotok had gradually brought her around with stories of Arachnid atrocities and the promise of captaining one of the fleet's larger warships.  Once she was on board with the idea of the Fifth Fleet, she'd thrown herself into the work.

            "Our flagship is the Juggernaut, the last Nicodemus-class dreadnought.  It's ridiculously over-gunned, can function as a drop ship, and has a spatial distortion accelerator—that's sort of an early version of a gravity drive—which can generate jump points.  It's currently the only ship in Fifth Fleet that can open a portal to hyperspace.  Commanding her was once considered quite an honor."

            "Yes," Viktor agreed, nodding, "a hundred and thirty years ago, when it was new.  What else?"

            "Well, no fighter carriers—which is just as well, since we don't have enough fighter craft to fill our other ships.  We do have two battlecruisers: an Arizona-class that's over ninety years old, and a Heinlein-class museum ship that's a hundred and fifty years old.  Good news about the Heinlein is that it was designed for fighting Bugs.  We've also got two heavy cruisers—an Akagi-class and a Barbarian-class, both a century old—and two light cruisers, a Camelot-class and a Beijing-class.  That last one's an old Eastern Bloc cruiser; I think they confiscated it from a planetary warlord in the Showa system after the Terran Republic fell."

            "They sent us Bloc ships?"  Viktor scowled and looked away, muttering Russian curses.

            Mandy looked confused.  "What's the problem?  I thought the Eastern Bloc built great warships."

            "They did," Molotok replied, "thirty years ago.  But the controls will all be in Chinese, none of our engineers will be familiar with the systems, and spare parts are going to be more of a pleasant fantasy than anything we're ever likely to see with our own eyes."

            "We've got about sixty light ships at last count," Gretchen continued right along.  "About two dozen are obsolete destroyers and frigates—and I mean very obsolete: Mandelas, Archers, and couple Rota-classes.  Then we've also got a Daikyu-class destroyer and two Amami Oshima-class frigates, but those are both more Eastern Bloc ships, obviously.  We've also got two old assault ships, a Boxer-class and a Veracruz-class.  Another two dozen light craft are 'gunboats'… and I use that term loosely," Gretchen said, disgust clear on her face.  "During the Ascension War, the Republic, Ministry, and Empire all padded out their fleets by bolting one-shot box missile launchers onto freighters and calling them warships.  We got all the leftovers.  Lucky us.  Finally, we've got about a dozen support ships: old freighters, fuel tankers, cargo shuttles, even a repair tug.  Oh, and a few armed passenger liners—I think they're supposed to be improvised troop transports.  Or maybe just a funny funny joke."

            "Disappointing," Viktor sighed, "but more or less what I was expecting.  How many fighters?"

            Gretchen made a face.  "Well, if you can believe it, we've got a full squadron of Wraiths—model C, just rolled off the old Harrington lines two months ago.  I'm ninety percent confident that's a shipping error, so I strongly suggest pretending we don't actually have them.  After that our best are two squadrons of Corsairs.  Those are a bit outdated, but overall still pretty good fighters."

            Gretchen tapped a datapad as she continued going down her list, "Unfortunately, it's all downhill from there.  The Navy seems have dug up about a dozen squadrons' worth of ancient Mavericks still packed into the storage crates in which they were mothballed a century ago.  We have the hulls of ten of the Eastern Bloc's Daimyo heavy fighters.  We do not have their engines.  Let's see… someone thought it would be a good idea to send us forty single-seat K'Nes fighters; good luck fitting a human pilot into their cockpits.  Oh, and then there's the grandest prize of all: something like three hundred Terran Navy Shriekers."

            Molotok looked up, incredulous.  "Suicide Saucers?"

            "Yup."  Gretchen nodded.  "The worst starfighters ever built, so bad even the Imperial Navy won't use 'em.  So they sent them to us, of course."  She looked back at her datapad.  "Oh, and we also just received an additional squadron's worth of mixed Bloc fighters from New Tokyo.  House Yasuyama has a raging hard on the size of a space elevator for any and all things Eastern Bloc, and they'd apparently been maintaining these fighters as museum pieces—officially, at least.  The good news is they're spaceworthy and well-maintained.  The bad news is the weapon systems have been decommissioned and need to be reactivated."

            Viktor sighed.  "And how are we set for ordnance?  How big are our stockpiles?"

            "Uh, nonexistent.  We don't have any."

            The Admiral stared at her, bewildered.  "What do you mean, we don't have any?"

            "I mean the Imperial Navy apparently heard about the chaos here in Fifth Fleet, and doesn't want to send us any ammo until they're sure we won't just use it to blow each other up—which, considering who's currently in charge of the warships, is not exactly a low-percentage scenario."

            Viktor couldn't decide if he wanted to laugh, scream, or weep.  How can I fight Bugs with this?

            "So, basically," Gretchen summarized, "we've got enough hulls for a solid task force, at least on paper.  Unfortunately, we've got to spread it across at least four Arachnid systems if we want to have any hope of staving off a Bug invasion of human space."  She set her datapad down, finished with her report.

            In the silence that followed, all eyes turned to Viktor, waiting for his judgment.  He stroked his mustache, thinking.  "Well," he said finally, "our first priority is security.  We can't accomplish anything else until I have complete control of the fleet."

            For a moment, there was silence.

            "Forgive me, Admiral," Sexton O'Connor said, "but even for the glory of the Emperor, we can't—"

            "I know, Sexton," Viktor cut him off.  "It's alright; no one's asking you to do the impossible.  And trust me, no one holds it against you, the Emperor least of all.  Miracles are his domain, not yours."

            "So then how do you propose to gain control?" Amanda Kait asked in an iron tone.

            "I can think of one possibility," Admiral Molotok said slowly.  "Believe it or not, there's some sort of settlement on the planet below—a fairly big one, too, looks like it's been there a while.  I haven't had time to thoroughly examine it… but as far as I can tell, it's a military installation."  He looked up at his command staff.  "Let's just hope they're friendly to the Empire."



            Without interruption, a normal transit from New Tokyo to San Angeles took a little less than a fortnight to complete.  House Yasuyama's mission to House Tremont was not able to avoid interruption.  Some sort of stopover in Phoenix was always going to be necessary: trade between New Tokyo and San Angeles was simply too minimal for the Imperial Logistics Corps to run transports on a direct route.  Fortunately, transferring ships was only a minor inconvenience.  Unfortunately, the Duke of Phoenix was not about to let the Yasuyama delegation through his system without throwing them a banquet, first.

            Phoenix had lately suffered from a plague of pirates.  Raiders had cost the system three months' worth of exports as well as a vital shipment of atmospheric processing nanobots from Avalon and their rush-delivery replacements.  An impending planet-wide wave of corporate bankruptcies had threatened House Savant's rule until Duke Yasuyama had personally intervened.  A series of loans on unusually generous terms and some even-more generous donations of equipment beat back the collapse.  So Duke Innokentiy Savant practically fell over his own feet in the effort to demonstrate his appreciation when he heard that a member of the Yasuyama family was travelling through his territory.

            Or maybe rolled over his own feet was a better phrase.  Duke Savant was the very essence of corpulence distilled into its ideal form.  The man was lucky to have been born into the 23rd century.  Modern medical technology made his eating habits seem like something less than a blatant suicide attempt.  Barely.

            At least the Duke was nice enough.  He'd been a perfectly gracious—if immobile—host.  He seemed to genuinely care for the well-being of his subjects, and was a clever enough administrator to make them prosperous.  They might have been even richer still, if not for the banditry outside of his control.  The Duke was polite, witty, and employed servants who put together a spectacular feast.

            "But then he tried to set me up with his brother," Lady Sato Ryoko said, giving the floor of her cabin an appropriately traumatized look.  She sipped at a glass of fruit punch with a straw.

            "Isn't Duke Savant like ninety years old?" Sergeant Guo asked from where he stood beside her door.

            "Sixty-eight, I think," Ryoko answered.  She set her punch on a table and then leaned back on the couch in the center of her cabin's living area.  "But his brother is a strapping young man of only fifty years!"

            "Is he…?"  Guo held his arms out around his belly and puffed up his cheeks.

            "No," Ryoko snorted, "he was quite fit."

            "Well then it sounds like a perfect match to me," Guo said with a straight face.  "Duke Yasuyama clearly wants to build an alliance with House Savant.  A royal marriage would wrap that up nicely."

            Ryoko glanced around for something to throw at him, but came up empty.  She simply shuddered instead.  "I'd have sooner married the Duke himself.  At least he had a sense of humor… and didn't stare.  Three hours that man sat next to me; I was ready to put my fork through his hand by the end."

            "That would be a faux pas.  Thank the ancestors your family paid for lessons in proper table manners."

            Ryoko gave him a sharp look.  "And where did you learn proper table manners, Sergeant?"

            "The NCO training school at Fort Yamagata, My Lady."  He bowed.

            She harrumphed.  "Well, it's a shame Lord Savant never attended."

            "Yes, My Lady."

            Ryoko shifted her weight on the couch and let her head rest against its well-cushioned arm.  She gazed quietly up at the ceiling for a few moments before asking, "Do you think House Tremont's people will behave better?"

            Sergeant Guo did not answer immediately.  After a little while, Ryoko turned her head to look at him.  He appeared to be mulling over the question.

            "I believe they will be different," he said at last.  "But I don't put much faith in the manners of any gaijin."

            Ryoko raised an eyebrow at that.  "Ambassador Sauerborn is a gaijin.  You seemed to get along well enough with him."

            "I met M. Sauerborn five minutes before you did, My Lady," Guo said.  Then he sighed, "But at least he has made an effort to learn our culture.  And he serves House Yasuyama well."

            "I didn't know you were such a traditionalist, Sergeant," Ryoko said.

            "You've only known me for five days, My Lady."

            "I suppose so."  Ryoko leaned her head back to study the ceiling again.  "We arrive at San Angeles in nine days.  You shall have to talk about yourself some more."

            "Yes, My Lady."



            Most of the Imperial Houses had fashioned themselves elaborate heraldic arms in the ancient European style, which they used for flags and insignia.  House Tremont had not.  Their crest was a simple Christian cross inside a circle which represented the Orb.  It was far more elegant than a patchy mess of more elaborate symbols, and had the advantage of being immediately recognizable.  Somehow, it was also more intimidating.

            Actually, that may have had less to do with the House Tremont Arms than it did with the people who wore it.  The Tremonters' military was called the Righteous Army, and it was very much the spiritual successor to the old Christian Federation's forces.  An entire battalion of its soldiers had been brought to the San Pedro Spaceport to greet the delegation from House Yasuyama.  They had deployed in perfect, fearsome columns.  Their power armor was painted white, and sported the blood red Cross-and-Orb upon the shoulders and chest pieces.  The marauder suits were apparently quite obsolete these days, but they were nonetheless huge and deadly-looking.

            Ryoko forced herself to keep her eyes straight ahead as she walked through the center of their formation.  Nicholas Sauerborn strode beside her with his wife, Hiromi.  Behind them trailed Sergeant Guo and the two dozen members of Ryoko's and the Sauerborns' guard, followed by the delegation's secretaries and assistants.  The Yasuyama bodyguards wore second-generation Zeta armor or modern nanotech suits, which meant the House Tremont soldiers towered over them.  It was quite an impressive display, Ryoko had to admit.

            At the end of the formation were a handful of House Tremont dignitaries in much more reasonable clothing.  Ryoko recognized two of them from the profiles she'd forced herself to study: Simon Tremont, one of the Duke's grandsons, and Francis Callahan, House Tremont's Minister of State.

            "Welcome to the Northern Marches, brothers and sisters," Tremont said as the delegation approached.  He bent at the waist in a low bow.  "Lady Sato."  He straightened and then repeated the gesture twice more.  "Ambassador Sauerborn, Mistress Sauerborn."  When he stood up, he showed a wide, gracious smile.  His teeth were flawless white, and his eyes such a brilliant sapphire blue that they appeared to glow even in the daylight.

            "I am Elder Simon Tremont," he introduced himself.  "My grandfather, the Duke, asked me to convey his profound apologies for not greeting you in person.  He has not been well lately, but he looks forward to meeting you soon."

            Ryoko and the Sauerborns bowed in return.  "Thank you, Elder," the Ambassador said.  "Please convey our well wishes to the Duke.  We are honored by his invitation and his hospitality."

            When they straightened, Elder Tremont was still smiling.  "Of course," he said.  "Now, please allow me to introduce Elder Callahan, Minister of State, and his wife."  The Callahans opted for simple handshakes rather than bows, for which Ryoko was grateful.  "And this is Shield Colonel Vaughan, commander of our escort."

            "My congratulations to your soldiers, Colonel," Sauerborn said as he shook hands with Vaughan, "they make a most impressive sight."

            "Thank you," the Colonel said tersely.  Ryoko wondered if he'd been born with that scowl on his face.

            "Well, I suggest we be on our way," Tremont said once all necessary pleasantries had been exchanged.  "We have an estate prepared for your delegation near the palace.  It's not quite so grand as New Tokyo, but I believe you'll find it more than suitable for your needs and, I hope, at least moderately charming on top of that."  He gestured to a flotilla of groundcars idling behind him.

            "We look forward to seeing it," Ryoko said, and Tremont's eyes twinkled as he turned and led them towards the waiting vehicles.

            Colonel Vaughan barked an order to his men, and a single thunderous crunch shook the spaceport's surface as every one of the Righteous Army soldiers made a precisely coordinated about face turn.  Ryoko hoped no one noticed her flinch.



            Ryoko felt the juncture at dinner that evening.

            Simon Tremont and the Callahans had joined Ryoko and the Sauerborns for their first meal at Villa de Tilos, the rustic plantation house which had been provided for the Yasuyama delegation's stay.  San Angeles had a suburban atmosphere that reminded Ryoko of New Paris.  It was not quite so polished or avant-garde, but it seemed just as removed from the gritty urban character and fast-paced life of larger colonies like New Tokyo.  Most of the architecture was low-rise and surfaced with earthy materials like wood or clay rather than steel and glass.

            Dinner was a humble affair.  Elder Tremont said a prayer of thanks to the Emperor before they ate, during which Ryoko was politely silent.  The Imperial Cult had been slower to take root on New Tokyo than other worlds, despite the fanatics' key role in overthrowing the planet's Federation rulers.  Lately they had been gaining momentum, but were a long way yet from claiming even a majority of New Tokyo's citizens as converts.  Still, at least Ryoko was familiar with their rituals and beliefs.  The Tremonters were different.  They did not recognize Pontifex Villars' spiritual authority, and their syncretic faith placed much more emphasis on its old Christian roots than adopting new traditions of Emperor-worship.

            Fortunately, Ryoko needn't have worried about awkwardness.  The Tremonters were relaxed, friendly, and models of politeness as they dined.

            "Oh I'm quite lucky," Simon Tremont said after they'd finished the main, and only, course of dinner.  It was some sort of locally-bred turkey subspecies, and had been quite delicious.  "I don't actually have a portfolio on the Elder Council.  Grandfather just wanted someone from the family around to ensure things run smoothly and to keep him up to date with major events."

            "But aren't you a little young to be an Elder?" Ryoko teased.

            He was young, barely twenty-two, younger than Ryoko even after subtracting the years she'd skipped.

            "I'm afraid I and the other Elders on the Council have beaten you to that particular joke, Lady Ryoko," Francis Callahan said.  "Many, many times.  In another year or two, it may not even be funny anymore."

            "You're all very respectful when I'm around," Tremont said innocently.

            "Yes.  We are," Callahan replied.

            The conversation continued like that for a while.  Simon talked a little about his family, and asked Ryoko about the Yasuyamas.  Ambassador Sauerborn asked Elder Callahan some general questions about the sort of goods House Tremont was looking to purchase and what they might offer in trade.  The juncture happened while Simon was talking about the small picket the Imperial Navy had deployed to the Northern Marches.

            Ryoko did not like to use her magick; something about doing so was always deeply unsettling.  Sometimes, however, she had no choice, the magick simply happened.  It had been a frequent occurrence at school.  She would be listening to a lecture, believing she understood what was going on; but then in her mind's eye she would see a vision of herself asking her instructor a question.  And when she asked that question for real, Ryoko would discover that she'd been seriously misinterpreting some principle or operation.  It was a handy trick that saved her grades on more than one occasion, but she felt strangely uncomfortable every time it happened.  That feeling only got worse once she started learning about temporal physics and was able to intelligently ponder various conundrums of time magick, like where information she pulled out of the future could possibly have originated.

            Now she had another vision of herself asking Elder Tremont a question.  Ryoko knew she did not have to say anything as a result; it was just one possible future that she'd seen.  But it came with a feeling of excitement and adventure.  Something interesting would happen if she played along.  And so she did.

            "I understand the Imperial Navy has stationed a cruiser here in San Angeles?" she asked.

            Simon turned his brilliant eyes towards her.  "The Tegetthoff, yes.  It's in orbit now."

            Ryoko tilted her head and raised her eyes so that she looked a little wistful.  "We don't have a permanent Navy presence at New Tokyo at all."

            "Well, our orbital defenses are much less robust than yours.  And we're technically on a border here.  The explorers haven't actually found anything worthwhile beyond the frontier yet.  But the Empire keeps a few ships around just in case."

            "Hmm," Ryoko said.  She sipped at a glass of icewater.

            Now Simon inclined his own head.  "Would you like a tour of the ship?  I'm sure Captain Klimm would be delighted to arrange one."  He glanced towards the others at the dinner table.  "And I'm sure it would beat hovering over the diplomats while they hammer out the technical details of a trade agreement."

            Ambassador Sauerborn chuckled, and raised a glass in salute.

            Ryoko smiled.  "Why yes," she said, "that sounds like fun."




            The trail of dead planets ended at Jennifer's Star.  Empty worlds were nothing new to Scout's experienced eyes.  After all, the Caal took no prisoners: they became their prisoners.  To find a system with living inhabitants indicated one of three possibilities: the Caal had been stopped here, the Caal had stolen enough ships to bypass the system… or Scout had taken a wrong turn.

            Each of those explanations needed to be investigated.  In any case, the Supercharger Heaven needed refueling, while its crew needed resting, and so Scout made an executive decision to dock for a few days.  He paid the crew some of the money promised them and made his way to the surface.

            A chill crossed his camouflaged face as he stepped off the shuttle into Dynaport.  There were people moving about, but far too few of them for a settlement this size.  Everything felt… abandoned, just like the places he had visited before.  Perhaps the Caal were here, Scout thought, but could not finish the job.

            No one really noticed him at first—Scout sniffed their auras as he passed.  Human… definitely human, but he caught no scent of tainted souls.  Finding nothing especially interesting in the people, he took a moment to investigate the buildings around them.  Scout went up several buildings, tasted the soul fires echoing in abandoned hallways, but he found no trace of his blood enemy.

            There's a missing piece to this story, Scout knew.  I need to find someone who knows the tale.

            It did not take him long to find a gathering place of the few people he had seen. He followed the sounds of footsteps into a bar named The Last Stand.  All eyes turned as he entered the clean—but cheaply assembled—public house.  Scout walked proudly up to the bar and claimed a seat.

            "What's your poison?" the bartender asked.  His face was covered in so many scars one might think he collected them.  Some Vulthra did the same, preserving notches in their beaks earned during a warrior's training.  Scout nodded to this man respectfully.

            "I came for drink, not poison," he replied.  "What do you recommend?"

            The bartender just stared at him.  "Rotgut.  Brewed yesterday in an old bathtub."

            "Great. I will purchase one."

            While the bartender grabbed the nearest bottle, the man next to him just chuckled.  "You're a brave man to drink Lassiter's home brew."

            "I live for the adventure," Scout announced proudly, leaving his neighbor with a confused look on his face.  The bartender slammed a glass half-filled with a clear liquid in front of him.  "Thank you, kind sir," Scout said.

            "Sir?!" the bartender scoffed.  "The last time someone called me sir, plasma bolts were popping over my head!"

            Scout took a careful sip of his drink.  "Then you were an officer?"

            "I got stripes in three armies, friend.  Frankly, I'm glad to see the backside of them all."

            "You must have served with distinction in many battles."

            The bartender looked even more confused and decided to fill up Scout's glass.  "Most of it was just sitting duty, but it paid the bills.  Only one battle worth speaking of, and that was just outside this door."

            "Really?  What battle was that?"  Scout risked another sip.

            "Are you kiddin'?" his neighbor answered.

            The liquor burned Scout's throat with the power of rocket fuel.  It probably could be rocket fuel.  None of it had an effect on his metabolism, but it did upset his stomach.  "I fear I am new in town," Scout said when he finished.  "Was this during the Ascension War?"

            "The shebbing Caal," the bartender replied, then poured himself a drink to scare away the memory.

            "The Caal attacked here during the Ascension War?"

            "What kinda idjit are you?!" another voice grumbled down the bar.

            Scout thought that might have been an insult; but his grasp of English was imperfect, so he questioned the distant voice further.  "The kind that does not know your battle history, friend.  Tell me, where were you when this great battle took place?"

            A shadow detached itself from the bar and stepped into the light, forming itself into a rail-thin ghost of a man.  "Floatin' in a tin can off Avalon.  Saw the net feed, we all saw it, and it scared the livin' crap outta us."

            Scout completed the thought.  "And so you ran."  He lowered his head in sympathy for the poor fellow's shame.  The human must have been demoted to his present laborer's life, dishonored and torn from his race's warrior caste.

            Before the thin man could answer, the bar door swung open again, and three well-dressed men walked inside.  The bartender immediately bowed his head, prompting the rest of the humans to do the same… all except Scout.  Naturally, the three new arrivals gravitated towards him.

            "You gotta problem or somethin'?" the central one asked.  He wore enough gold chain to open a jewelry store, and stepped threateningly close to Scout.

            Scout was oblivious.  "No.  I was engaged in conversation in this fine establishment when—"

            "Hey," one of Gold Chain's bodyguards interrupted, "when Lord Lukas asks you a question, you say, 'No, Sire!' "

            "Unless it's 'Yes, Sire,' " the other bodyguard corrected.

            "Really?" the first bodyguard said irritably.  "Why you always shitting on my point, Hector?"

            "I'm not shitting on your point—I'm saying that it's not always the same ans—"

            "Shuddup!" Lord Lukas barked.  "Wha my loquacious friends is tryin' to say is my name is Lord Lukas.  I'm magistrate of dis side of Dynaport.  I say jump, ya gotta say how high.  Get me?"

            Scout didn't even blink.  "You are the local authority here?"

            Lukas put one sweaty palm on Scout's shoulder.  "I am… uh, blessed.  Appointed by Baron Wellington, who was installed by Duke Griswold, who was touched by the God-Emperor himself, praise be…"

            "Praise be upon Him who saved us from the Caal," everyone in the bar mumbled.  They lacked much enthusiasm, but the words rang like bells in Scout's ears.

            Lukas continued.  "And I was sent to put some frickin' order around here!"  The magistrate looked around at the crowd, and all the faces in it turned away as fast as they could.  "Now som-a-yous don't like my methods, but that's just too damn bad.  Dynaport's clean, the fightin's off where ya can't see it, and no one bugs me."  Lukas squeezed Scout's shoulder.  "You ain't gonna bug me, are you, sport?"

            "I am simply having a drink, Sire."

            "Well, ya shoulda asked me about som betta bars than da Last Stand.  Ya must be new in town."

            "Yes, Sire, but I am not planning to stay for long."

            "Ya got your ship in dock?"

            "Yes, Sire."

            "Then I suppose ya already paid my entry fee down at da station."


            Hector the bodyguard cleared his throat.  "All new arrivals to Dynaport are expected to pay a fee to Lord Lukas for transporting their goods through his domain."

            "So I guess that kinda slipped your mind?" the magistrate asked.

            "It was never discussed," Scout replied.  "I was more concerned with the disposition of my crew, and no one at the station reminded me of this—or any—local tradition."

            Lukas took his arm off Scout's shoulder and clapped his hands.  "Well, well, well… aren't we glad we run inna you then?  We can settle now."  The magistrate looked Scout up and down and pronounced, "You're a ship cap'n, you can afford our fee no problem."

            "I own the ship," Scout corrected, "I hire a captain."

            "Oh, you own the ship?  Well then… why don't ya hand over a thousand crowns?"

            Scout instructed his prosthetic face to move an eyebrow.  "A thousand?  That seems high for a fee."

            "Well, I take your fee or else I take your ship.  How ya wanna play it?"

            "Neither."  Scout narrowed his eyes.

            "Paris?"  Lord Lukas stepped back to enjoy the show.

            "Pay the money," the first bodyguard stepped forward, "or I gotta hurt you.  By the time we're through, you're gonna be begging me to take the access code to your ship."

            "You do not want to do this," Scout told him.

            Paris smirked.  "You don't know me at all, do ya?"  The bodyguard threw a punch at Scout's head, but the avian wasn't there.  He twisted his body at an angle quite unnatural for humans and let the punch sail by.  Paris quickly caught his balance and rushed Scout again, but Scout simply slid to the side at the last second, letting the bodyguard slam his fist into the fiberglass bar.

            "Son of a bitch!" Paris screamed.  "I'm gonna fuckin' kill you with my fists!"

            "Good," Scout replied calmly, "for you are not worthy of my blade."

            "Aaarrrggggghhhh!" Paris screamed and launched into a complicated series of moves.  The uninitiated might think it was martial arts, but Scout saw no pattern in the movements.  It was obvious to him that the human was simply flailing for effect.

            Scout wasted little energy dodging the ridiculous attacks, but his movements were walking him back towards Lord Lukas and the other bodyguard.  On Paris' next strike, Scout reached out with his mind and took away the friction between the human's boots and the floor.  When the bodyguard tried for a kick, he slid too far and completely lost his balance.  As he collapsed, Scout placed his own foot firmly on the bodyguard's neck.  Paris tried to get up, but Scout bore down on his windpipe.

            As Paris began to choke, Scout said, "I think that this is a poor way to settle our dispute."

            Lord Lukas took a plasma revolver out the waistband of his pants.  The whine of the clip charging was enough to make everyone in the bar run for the exits.

            "Whaddya say we make dis simple?" Lukas said.  "You throw me your credchit, and we go.  Ya make my muscle look bad.  But if I win, then we all win.  I keep my face, you keep your life, and Paris gets a headache.  But no one plays 'which part do I shoot off next.'  Whaddya say?"

            Scout slowly removed his foot as Paris lost consciousness.  "I think that if you let me depart in peace, no harm will come to you.  You are not the enemy that I seek."

            "But I's da enemy ya got, wiseass!" Lukas spat back.  Then he fired.

            Scout saw the muscles flex before the magistrate lined up his target.  He spun out of the way of the plasma bolt and jumped to perch atop the bar.  Lukas adjusted his aim, but Scout rolled off before the second plasma bolt struck him.  Then he hopped back onto his feet and ran for the opposite side of the room.  The second bodyguard, Hector, ducked as his employer aimed the plasma revolver in his direction.  Lukas shot three more times as Scout ran behind the cover of a disused netfeed holoamplifier.

            "We play dis game all night, asshole!!!" Lord Lukas bellowed, firing several more bolts into the holoamplifier.  The obsolete machine fizzled and sparked as the high energy plasma incinerated its housing.  But once the holoamplifier had been completely blown away, Scout was nowhere to be found.

            "Where da hell did he—aaaagggghhhhh!"  Lukas suddenly found his hand being crushed, as Scout gripped it between his own fingers, and the plasma revolved plopped easily from the magistrate's grasp into Scout's.  Scout spun the plasma clip, and then used his mind to weaken the battery's integrity.  He threw the revolver away before it ripped itself apart in a spectacular display of ball lightning.

            Scout dropped Lukas' hand, and the rest of the magistrate fell to the ground in pain.  "Hector!  Finish him off!"

            Scout turned to face his last opponent.  "Your Lord is unworthy.  Leave him to his shame."

            "Don't think so," Hector shook his head.  "Not if I want to be seen walking these streets again."

            "You know what I can do."  Scout gave him one more chance to back away.

            Hector shook his head.  "I fought the Victor-Sierras, I fought the Skinnies, I even fought the damned Vultures.  I've lived long enough to see the Caal run down, and the Empire rise up.  But I don't have a pension anymore, so I never back down from a fight!"

            Scout nodded and firmed up his stance.  "Then you are worthy, fellow warrior.  Come. Let us embrace each other in death."

            Scout launched into the kata of Stalking Mice: quick foot movements designed to rapidly close the distance to an opponent.  But Hector kept his distance, shuffling away and trying to get closer to his boss.  Scout reversed his movement and was rewarded by Hector hurtling forward and delivering a few kicks. They barely connected, but forced Scout to spin to one side.  The bodyguard maintained his low stance and planted himself solidly between Scout and Lord Lukas.

            That will not work twice, Scout told himself.  He started into Stalking Mice again as a feint, but then changed to Soaring Glide, launching himself into the air.  Suddenly, he felt the influence of magic.  The bodyguard was using the False Way to weave a pattern around Scout, increasing the speed of his flight.  Scout reached out and unraveled the pattern, but not before having to turn and bounce off the wall with his feet.

            Landing on the ground, Scout cursed the fact that without his wings, his katas were unbalanced.  He felt another pattern forming.  This time, instead of fighting it, Scout changed tactics.  He suppressed the universe's natural resistance to the False Way, strengthening the abomination being wrought.  By the time Hector realized what was happening, the wall of ice he summoned was already one meter thick and sturdy as iron.

            Part of Scout wanted to take the opportunity to leave.  But battle had been joined, and his opponent was worthy.  No, I must stay and finish the test of wills, he decided.  Putting a hand to his face, he deactivated the living web that was his camouflage and extended his wings and claws.  Scout kept his sword sheathed, however.  Hector had not drawn a weapon, and until he did Scout would fight with only his body and his mastery of the True Way.

            Reaching towards the ice wall, Scout felt for the polar bonds between the molecules and removed them.  Then he stepped through the hole where ice crystals had collapsed into a puddle.  Hector jumped at Scout just as he appeared on the other side, kicking him right back through the ice wall.  Scout landed on his back, but managed to roll quickly to his feet.  Hector kept up the attack: a kick to the left, followed by another to the right forced Scout to do a Hover Fall, leaping into the air and then quickly spinning around.  His kick knocked the human mage to the ground, but he, too, recovered almost immediately.  This time, Scout's Soaring Glide was flawless.  Hector barely avoided the Vulthra's talons before he turned to face Scout.

            Hector finally had a moment to realize what he was up against.  "Holy shit!" he yelped.  "You're one of the Vultures!"

            Scout took advantage of his opponent's confusion and slammed a fist into the human's chest.  Hector tried to get back into his fighting position, but Scout kept up his rain of punches.  The mage seemed about to lose the fight, when he reached out to the ice wall and superheated the remaining ice.  A blast of water knocked Scout backward, forcing him to look to his footing.  That bought Hector enough time to recover his stance.

            Scout took advantage of the water vapor.  He reached out and took away most of the droplets' momentum, ensuring a fog would hang in the air, and cover Scout in a shroud of mist.

            The maneuver did not work.  The cloud of water vapor dissipated almost immediately.

            "Hah," Hector laughed.  He was panting for breath, but a half-smile had formed on his lips.  "You Birds had the drop on us with that messed up magick of yours.  But we got your number by the end.  All it takes is a little bit of concentration, and you can't change anything, can you?"

            Scout sensed it now.  The bodyguard was setting the power of his False Way directly against Scout's mind.  It was like a cage that prevented him from touching the universe, from seeing the hidden nature of its structure and weakening the bonds.  Scout could overcome it—the human mage was not half as strong as he imagined—but it would take perhaps a minute of concerted effort.  He could already hear the other bodyguard, Paris, coughing back to consciousness.

            So Scout took a simpler course of action.  He charged his enemy, feathers bristling to expand his apparent size, and screaming a battle cry.

            Hector was sufficiently startled by the attack to cease his magic, and Scout quickly applied the Way to reduce the power of the man's inertia.  Scout broke the human's hasty guard with one arm, then with the other he drove the full weight of his muscles and momentum into a punch to the side of the bodyguard's head.  Hector rocketed backwards into the wall, and then slumped to the floor.  Scout kept running forward.  He grabbed the battered human with the talons of his feet, and flew towards the exit.  Hector was too terrified even to cry out as he was dragged roughly along.

            When Paris finally coughed himself awake, he found Lord Lukas standing still and white-faced in a puddle of water.

            "What happened?  Where's Hector?"

            "Shuddup!" the magistrate ordered.  "Let's get the hell outta here.  Then we're gonna lock down every ship in this port.  I want that man dead!"



            In an aft storage room of the Supercharger Heaven, Scout reassembled his camouflage while he waited for the mage to wake up.  Although his prey already knew his true form, he was afraid his crew might return at any moment.  The questions he already had to ask left him little time to answer those of others.

            Hector's eye blinked back awake.  He sat there, looking at the opponent who had fought and beat him not long before.  "You're not really human," he said, nodding at Scout's once-more camouflaged appearance.

            "True.  But what you would call a giant bird could not go idly down a street without attracting attention."

            The mage looked for restraints but found none.  The storage hatch was closed, but not locked.  Scout was not the least bit concerned that his prisoner would escape.  Even if he hadn't been exhausted from fighting, he must have known that Scout could counter any possible escape attempt.

            "What is that thing?" Hector asked.

            "What thing?"

            "That… mask you hide in?"

            "You are familiar with the Horadrim?" Scout asked; Hector nodded.  "It is similar to their Soul Webs, although its function is limited to disguise.  It is an unpleasant tool, but necessary for my task."

            "Your task?"

            "To scout human space and determine whether it is necessary for the Vulthra to invade."

            "Necessary to invade?"  Hector looked confused and dismayed.  "I don't get it…"

            "It is not necessary for you to understand."

            "Then why am I even here?" Hector asked.  "What do you want with me?"

            Scout leaned forward and stared through optic receptors that simulated eyes.  "I want to be told everything you know about the Caal."




            The following night at a quarter to eleven Thomas drove away from his mansion towards Dynametro in his hovercar with Antonio in the passenger seat, both wearing black business suits. Downtown Dynametro was organized like a large pie with a major river slicing through the middle.  The trade borough occupied the center of the city and the other five boroughs extended outwards.  They headed towards the Olin Industries University main campus located on the fringes of the trade and industrial boroughs along the Wellington River.

            Little was spoken between them as they travelled.  Thomas concentrated on the driving along numerous busy skylines and near ground level streets, while Antonio seemed preoccupied with a datapad on his lap.  Antonio used a variety of programs in order to gain as much information he could about the city and its layout.  Both vampires agreed that Dynametro would be an excellent location for a future Giovanni Cabal.  It would take a long time to build the Giovanni clan back up to its former greatness, and they had to start somewhere.

            It took about an hour to reach the university from Thomas' mansion.  The school more closely resembled a large casting plant than the more traditionally elegant architecture one might expect at a place of higher learning.  Its campus covered over a hundred acres.  Large buildings ran along the side of a wide quad, each containing classrooms and administrative offices for the smaller colleges that made up the university.  Several residential dormitories were located behind the largest of the buildings, which housed the college of science and engineering.

            Even though the university had lamp posts and other lights distributed across the campus, plentiful shadows were still cast by a wide variety of plant life decorating the grounds.  Most were a sort of tree native to Angel One, which looked roughly like a purple fir.

            Thomas found a relatively quiet parking lot located on the far side of the quad from the science and engineering building.  A handful of other cars were there, but other than that it was almost deserted.  Upon parking and opening the car door, Thomas felt a stiff wind behind him as the wraiths accompanying him and Antonio flashed past and dispersed into nearby shadows.  Moments later the lights surrounding them darkened and the breeze picked up.

            Thomas and Antonio made their way across the parking lot towards the science and engineering building.  Thomas concentrated on his surroundings so that even the slightest sounds and minute smells became perceptible.  While he could not physically see anyone nearby, he knew they were being watched.  As he walked, he closed his eyes very briefly and heard Lisa's voice in his mind.

            "We are not alone.  Garou.  Beware."  Thomas focused more closely upon the shadows and saw three wolves following them.

            Antonio appeared less concerned about his surroundings than Thomas.  He also seemed more physically imposing than before, his shoulders were back and the tone of his muscular build had become more pronounced.

            After a few minutes, they reached their destination.  Standing at the front door was a man wearing a dark gray pinstripe suit, cream white shirt, and a striped royal blue tie.  He looked to be in his mid-fifties and carried a black briefcase.  Thomas recognized him as the man he had met at the Red Freighter Inn the night before, the one named Douglas.

            When the Giovanni were several steps away, he raised his right hand and said, "Stop."  Thomas and Antonio came to halt and waited.
            "You did not come alone," the man said, looking at Thomas.

            "Neither did you," Antonio responded angrily.  "And just who the fuck are you?"
            "My name is Munro.  Douglas Munro, attorney at a law.  I have requested an audience with Thomas on behalf of a client that requires his services.  Who are you?"

            Thomas answered for them.  "This is Antonio.  He oversees my activities in this system.  Would you prefer to speak in private?"

            "That will not be necessary.  Follow me."

            Munro turned to the door of the building, opened it, and stepped inside.  Antonio and Thomas followed.  They were led up a flight of stairs and along a long hallway with classrooms doors on either side.  After a few moments they reached a door at the end of the hall that Munro opened to reveal a large lecture hall.  St the back of the room was a stage and an animated holographic image.  The hologram depicted a pyramid covered in complex mathematical equations and chemical formulas.  It rotated in the air and, as it turned, the equations on the sides shifted and changed as well.

            Seated center stage in front of the hologram and beside a table facing the door was a man who seemed about a decade younger than Douglas.  He held a datapad in his hands and wore a white button-down dress shirt, a thick black and red striped colloquial tie, a brown vest, and dark brown pants.  On either side of him were two huge soldiers: werewolves in Crinos form covered by some sort of reflective metallic armor.  Each held a long spear with a head engraved with glowing symbols.  To the far right of the stage sat another man wearing a white shirt, black vest, and grey tie.  Thomas recognized him as Miles Kane, magistrate of the third borough.  He was flanked by two more men in normal street clothes, each holding a plasma rifle at his side.  Despite appearances, Thomas sensed a strong magickal nature about them.  Kane nodded respectfully towards Thomas.

            As Munro led his guests through the room, the man at the center of the stage put his datapad down on the table and said, "It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Thomas de Giovanni."  He offered a somewhat smug smile.  "My name is Dr. Morris, and I'm involved in some plans that could benefit us both."  He glanced to Thomas' side and said, "You must be Antonio de Giovanni."

            "How do you know my name?" Antonio asked.

            "That's not important," Dr. Morris replied.  "But, if you really must know, your arrival from New Madrid was not a total surprise.  What with House Vendo reforming Crusader Teams, its territory must no longer be a safe haven for your kind.  It makes logical sense that you would seek refuge here as well."

            "Why would the Fearless Jackals be so interested in my activities?" Antonio demanded.

            "Why indeed?"  Dr. Morris got up from his chair and pressed a button on his datapad.  The holographic pyramid disappeared.  "When dealing with a potential associate such as Thomas, the Fearless Jackals take certain precautions to learn more about those with whom we might work."  Dr. Morris paused and looked in the direction of Kane.

            "I've been aware of Thomas' presence in this city for quite some time and have spoken with him on occasion," Kane said.  "He's contributed substantial financing towards Baron Wellington's personal treasury, for which my lord is quite grateful.  For this and other reasons, the Baron has ensured that any unusual activity which might otherwise be traced back to Thomas goes uninvestigated by the Blue Guards."  He shifted his weight within his chair.  "So far Thomas has demonstrated excellent discretion.  But, sooner or later, even he will make a mistake."

            Antonio scoffed, "What do you want?"

            Kane smiled.  "You are not the only ones that would like to use this city as a safe haven.  The Fearless Jackals lack a central headquarters.  They seek to take advantage of the lawlessness here to coordinate their activities without attracting the notice of other powers.  The Baron is willing to grant them safe harbor… for an exchange of favors."  He turned towards Dr. Morris.

            Morris inclined his head in acknowledgment.  "Both of our organizations specialize in taking advantage of the demand for black markets, crime, and other illegal yet highly profitable activities," he said.  "Therefore, if we are both operating in the same system, it is not merely possible but likely that our interests will come into conflict.  Unnecessary conflict.  I believe that it would benefit both of us to coordinate our operations instead.  The Jackals have been a crime syndicate for many years, but the Giovanni excel in other areas where we could use expertise, such as white collar crime."  He tugged at his own shirt collar.

            Antonio nodded and said, "I've thought about this.  Both of us do share much in common, but have no conflicting interests.  For your help in hiding our numbers from the Sabbat and other enemies, I'm sure we could find ways to assist the Jackals in return."

            "Exactly," Douglas Munro said.  "However, in order to determine the seriousness of your offer to work with us, we will require a demonstration.  Specifically, we need a member of your clan to perform an assassination.  One that will tilt the balance of power on this planet in such a way as to ensure our mutual security."

            "Who's the target?" Thomas asked.

            "Someone that could be an impediment to our goals," Kane answered.  "Someone that the Baron feels is not fit to rule Jennifer's Star… Duke Griswold."

            "Why us?" Antonio asked.  "Why don't you just kill him?"
            Munro answered, "Baron Wellington wants to take every precaution that the Duke's death cannot be traced back to him.  Which is why he requested our assistance," Munro continued.  "But we have our own reputation to maintain.  We would like the assassination to be handled in such a way that it points to someone else entirely."

            "Who?" Thomas asked.

            "Our mutual enemy, of course," Dr. Morris said immediately, "the Sabbat."

            The lecture hall was silent for a few moments before Antonio nodded and remarked, "Hmm… if we're to work together, I'd like one of my clan to represent us within your organization… Thomas will speak on behalf of the Giovanni."

            A smirk crossed Thomas' face.  "I'll do it," he said, and looked pointedly at the Jackals' leader, "but I expect to be compensated greatly for this."

            "Of course," Munro replied.  "You'll have access to the Fearless Jackals' resources to carry out the operation.  If you're successful, we may employ you for future business."  He grinned.  "By sowing uncertainty and conflict within and among the Houses, demand for the Jackals' services ought to increase quite nicely.  We shall all profit by this."




            "Ascension.  You're looking delightfully orange, as always."

            Years of practice at controlling her reactions were the only thing that prevented Ascension from yelping like a startled dog when the shuttle hatch opened.  She still jumped a little and took a second or two to recover and respond.

            "What's wrong, Drake?" she asked, ignoring the comment about her complexion, as she always did.

            "Can't ever get anything past you, can we?" Drake sighed.  Ascension had known him since grade school.  Back then, he'd had a reputation as a playground bully, but he'd always been kind to Ascension.  She was willing to forgive a bit of needling from him.

            "You're supposed to be back in Loud Water keeping your unit out of trouble.  So, yeah, meeting you here was a bit of a tip-off."

            "Maybe Thorin just sent me here to check that you made it down all right."

            "What is wrong, Drake?"

            He stuck out his tongue at her.  "Relax," he said, "Thorin didn't tell me anything except that you were landing here today.  He's had his hands full keeping our noble Countess off your trail.  She's been trying to get hold of you again for the last three days."

            Ascension closed her eyes and exhaled.  Countess Francisco's impatience was a nuisance, but not a crisis.  Thorin had made the right choice not to come himself if there was a chance he would be tailed.  Ascension walked down the ramp to the hangar floor and gave Drake a moment's hug.

            "I have to go back to the capital and meet her now, don't I?" she asked.

            "Only if you don't want her getting wise, arresting your friends, and interrogating them about where you've been, I suppose."  Drake patted her back gently.

            "Let's go then," she said, releasing him and brushing herself off.  "There's not a one of you I trust not to rat me out if you're threatened with so much as cold bacon for breakfast."



            As she walked through the door to her estate house, Jacob Jeffreys motioned Ascension off to the side of the hallway.  Jacob was a werewolf, another TI veteran, and he towered over even Ascension's merely average frame.  His code-name was "Gloin".  Ascension wondered if she was the only one who understood the irony of the naming scheme Thorin had chosen for his squad.

            "Is she here now?" Ascension asked.  Gloin nodded.  "What does she want?"

            "Just more guns, we think.  But she's said she won't talk to anyone but you.  She's been here for an hour.  Thorin's got her stalled in the conference room."

            Ascension nodded.  "Have you got an alibi for me?"

            "You went up to Mosby's plantation to retrieve this."  He handed her a thick envelope.  "He's playing along, sent it by fast courier.  When the Countess commed, he verified that you were there.  Of course, that was yesterday, so she's a bit angry that you still haven't gotten back to her."

            She nodded.  "Anything special in the packet?"  Stig Mosby was a peculiar man.  Ascension was more curious about what he'd sent her than she was worried about House Francisco.

            "I don't know."  Gloin shrugged.  "I suppose you'll find out later."  He led Ascension along the hall to the conference room.  As the door swung open, he gave a stiff salute and said loudly, "Here you are, M. Kalynn.  Shall I have that package delivered to your quarters?"

            Ascension kept her face stern as she handed back the envelope.  "Yes, please do."

            She walked into the room, where Thorin and Countess Francisco were both seated and waiting.  "Sorry to keep you waiting," Ascension told Kalintos' ruler.  "My bike broke down twice on the way home, and I had to wait for replacement parts.  How may I help you?"

            Countess Holly Francisco was a truly enormous woman.  She was nearly as large as one of the werewolves Ascension hung around.  In their Crinos form.  Ascension had heard jokes about bodybuilders or other fitness freaks wrestling with bears.  Countess Francisco actually wrestled bears.  Ascension had seen video footage.

            She also had beady little black eyes that were so buried in the musculature of her face that Ascension always thought she looked like a bad caricature.  Right now those eyes were glaring at Ascension in what the Countess probably thought was a threatening expression, but actually just made her eyes look even more cartoonish than usual.

            "I think you know exactly what I'm here for, M. Kalynn…" she growled.

            She wanted weapons.  House Francisco had "determined" that Ascension was still holding out, and needed to turn over more of her stock to the House's armorers rather than selling it for profit to scared plantation owners and farmhands.  There was no real intelligence behind it, just more of the usual thuggery.  Ascension let her have a dozen more plasma rifles, and then haggled like a K'Nes up for promotion over a single tribarrel.  She only relented when the Countess threatened to have her arrested for the illegal armament and interfering with authorities in a military emergency.  Ascension grumbled darkly, and the Countess walked away believing she'd deprived her subject of the crown jewel of her private arsenal.  Ascension's people had at least thirty more tribarrels mounted on vehicles and buried in the vicinity of Loud Water.

            Thorin sat with her in her office after the meeting.  He looked at her grumpily as she poured two glasses of whiskey.  "The things I do for you..." he said, and finally smiled as she handed him a glass.
            She sighed softly and raised her glass.  "Here's to a bullet dodged."
            "Hear, hear!"  Thorin raised the glass to his mouth and drank the whole thing at once.  "That's the stuff," he hissed.
            He poured himself another glass, "So, business then?  Are we all going to die?"
            Ascension swallowed a slug of her own drink.  "The Jurvain accepted my proposal," she said, swirling what remained in her glass a couple times.  "We may all die, but hopefully not until we're all old and grey."
            "Well that's good then," Thorin said.  Then he grinned wickedly.  "Just like the old wizard Gandalf.  You disappear in a moment of crisis, but return just in time to save the day, and with good news to boot."
            "No, please."  Ascension rubbed her temple.  "Not with your book again, Abe."  She absolutely refused to call him "Thorin" when they were talking privately.  "We have to deal with House Francisco.  I really can't have her showing up here every couple of weeks to do this all over again.  Not at those prices, anyway."

            Thorin looked at her as if he was sizing her up.  He drank the remainder of his second glass in one gulp.  "Do you mean what I think you mean?"
            "Yes," she said simply.
            "I've been waiting for this request for some time, as you well know.  But are you sure that this is the right time?"  He set the glass down and leveled his eyes at hers.
            "I don't feel compelled to repeat myself on this matter."  Her eyes drove right back into his with the kind of absolute certainty usually reserved for simple mathematical identities.
            "Alright, but I'll need more than just my boys.  How many competent fighters can you scrounge together besides Drake?"  He grabbed the decanter again.
            Ascension finished her whiskey and licked her lips.  "Drake can get you all the extra men you require, but I don't want an open war, here…  I'd like it to be as quiet as possible."

            "Well, you know we're better trained than those monkeys with guns Francisco has with her all the time.  We'll figure it out."
            "Good, keep me in the loop."  Ascension considered the decanter on the table, but she could feel her eyelids getting heavy.  "Why don't you go ahead and take that one with you, I've had a long trip, and a long day."
            Thorin looked at her for a moment.  "Right, of course."  He slammed back the rest of his whiskey and set the glass down.  "Mosby's sure is far away."  He chuckled and bid her goodnight.
            Mentioning Mosby perked Ascension up a little, and she went into her room with the packet Gloin had given her.  She sat on her bed with the envelope and tried to act calm as she opened it.  It was full of documents about Mosby's plantation, including some blueprints for structures there and the plantation's supplies and production estimates, which managed to hold her attention for barely two seconds, before she went rifling through the stack of papers looking for something special.  She found it near the bottom of the pile.
            With all the solemnity of a religious ceremony, Ascension pushed everything else off her bed and set the tiny white envelope she'd extracted down in front of her.  She had known Mosby since shortly after they met at her father's funeral.  He had been a friend of her father's and only moved to Kalintos after the funeral, but nowadays he said that he couldn't imagine being anywhere else.  The mainstay of their relationship was plain white envelopes with pretty little surprises in them.  For a few moments she tried to imagine what might be inside. Then she picked it up, tore it open, and pulled out the letter inside.

            It was short and sweet, like always: "A pretty prize for a pretty girl." 

            There was a ring inside the envelope.  Ascension picked it out, admired it for a moment, and then set it on the end table next to her bed.

            "Where does he get these things?" she wondered out loud.
            Sighing, Ascension set herself to going about her bedtime ritual.  When she at last hit the pillow of her oversized king bed, she fell almost immediately asleep.



            "Ace, could I borrow you for a minute?"  The morning routine was somewhat different with Thorin and his men working on their special assignment.  Having some of her lieutenants fill their daily roles for a month or so was proving to occupy more of her time than she would've liked.  They were into week two and things were finally coming together, but Ascension was still regularly being asked for "a minute or two of her time".

            Ascension smiled and turned to face her questioner.  "Sure, Brianne, what can I do for you?"  She'd known Brianne long enough to not show too much exasperation.  Especially since Brianne could almost have been the brains behind their movement herself, instead of Ascension.  She was probably one of Ascension's most valuable lieutenants, and had done a lot to help get her organization to where it was today, including by making more than one rather dangerous meeting in Ascension's place.  She tried not to think about those days as she smiled at her comrade.

            "Well, I have two things, actually.  Shall we?"  She motioned to Ascension's office.

            Thorin's whiskey glass still sat on the table, and Ascension could not help but wonder how things were going on his end.  The door shut and Brianne took a seat opposite the imposing desk behind which Ascension used to sit at on a daily basis before everything began going up in flames.  Ascension almost reveled in the opportunity to sit at that desk again, and breathed a brief sigh of contentment as she took her seat.

            "So, what have you got for me?"  She fingered the ring in her pocket that she had received from Mosby.

            "Well, Davidson has agreed to meet with you later tonight.  He asked me to convey his 'absolute support' for you, and his willingness to help out however he could."

            "Good, do you have a location and time set?" Ascension asked.  She wanted to get this squared away before Brianne moved on to her second point of business.

            "We do.  He said it would be best if you came to see his existing operation.  I thought that was probably a good idea, but of course I wanted to verify that with you since I didn't know exactly why you wanted to meet.  He's standing by on location in case you change your mind, but he said sometime around 1500 works best for him, and no later than 1700."

            "Seeing his facility would be great."  Ascension nodded.  "Go ahead and let him know we can meet there, and contact Thorin and let him know I'll need his team with me between those times.  What else did you need?"

            Brianne took a deep breath.  "Well, I'll be frank.  I think the Countess is getting ready to move against you.  I know some people on her staff, and they've reported that she's been saying some rather pointed things about you lately."  She lowered her voice to a whisper.  "One of them is actually a very close personal friend of mine.  He said that he overheard her mention something about getting the rest of what she wanted once you were gone."

            Ascension gave her lieutenant a reassuring smile.  "I've been aware of this, but I appreciate you letting me know.  I'm already working to resolve our differences with House Francisco."

            Brianne looked relieved.  "I was just worried, since you have your personal guard away from you for a couple weeks.  On that point, I wondered if you would consider taking a couple bodyguards from our own better trained combatants.  Just as a temporary precaution."  She pushed some portfolios across the desk.

            Ascension held out her palm.  "I trust you enough to pick a protection detail for me.  Though I would still emphasize trustworthiness over competence for the moment.  Try to be sure they're actually in line with our ideals and all."

            "Yes, of course, Ma'am!" Brianne chirped.  "Thank you for your trust in me!"  She really did sound quite pleased at the show of confidence.  Ascension smiled at her kindly; she knew Brianne had been tried and tested well enough to give such an assignment.  "How many should I assign to you?" she asked.

            "I wouldn't think more than ten, but less should be fine if you can find good people among those we trust."  Ascension thought for a moment, then opened a desk drawer and drew out a pair of plasma revolvers she kept there in the event of truly desperate emergencies.  She slid one of them towards Brianne.  "You'd better start carrying this with you, too," she said.  "I need you now more than ever, so don't let yourself get caught in a bad situation."

            Brianne looked stunned, but picked up the weapon delicately.  "I don't have much training with these, you know?"  She turned the pistol over a few times, examining its construction.

            "Point and shoot is about as much as you really need to know if things ever go far enough South that you actually have to use it," Ascension said grimly.  "Hopefully you won't, but like I said, I want you to stay alive…  I want all of us to stay alive."

            Brianne nodded solemnly.  "I'll let Davidson know to expect you, and contact Thorin immediately after."  She stood and thanked Ascension again.  "I'll notify you when your detail is ready."  With a final nod, she made her way out of the office.

            Ascension still had a few hours until she needed to meet with Davidson, but they weren't exactly free.  She spent most of that time continuing to settle her lieutenants into their temporary assignments.  By 1300, however, most of them were pointed in the right directions, and she took that as her cue to get something to eat and get ready for her meeting.



            "I think this facility will do nicely for what I had in mind.  Can we find someplace quiet to discuss the details?" Ascension asked as Fredrick Davidson finished the final stretch of his tour.

            Davidson had developed weapons for the Federation and then briefly for House Vendo before suddenly packing his bags and moving all the way out to Kalintos.  Now his little workshop was well equipped to put him back into business, though it showed little sign of actual work.  Ascension signaled Thorin, who nodded and dismissed his squad before coming alongside her.

            "Yes of course," Davidson said, "right this way, we can use my office."  He led them down a corridor, and the three of them left the rest of Ascension's guards outside Davidson's office.

            Once inside, they sat down to talk.  "So, what is it I can do for you, Miss Kalynn?"

            "I heard through the grapevine that you have some experience in weapons engineering and development," she said in a hushed voice.  "How would you like to get back into that field?"

            "I might be enticed to take up my old hobbies," he said coyly.  "What exactly would I have to work with?"

            "Well—" Ascension started, but Thorin nudged her.

            "I think he already knows what we want," the TI veteran said.  He turned a pointed eye towards Davidson.

            Davidson smiled and shrugged apologetically.  "Your hired gun is right, I'm afraid.  I apologize; it was not my intention to mislead you.  I simply thought it would be more… polite to let you make your pitch first."

            Ascension was less than amused.  "Mages and their mind games," she grumbled.  Then, "So can you do it?"

            "Bring me the weapon and I'll know for sure within the week," he said.

            Thorin unstrapped one of the two K'Nes-made rifles on his back and held it out to Davidson.

            The techie blinked.  "Oh, I see," he said.  He took the rifle carefully and spent a few minutes examining it.  "Well now, this is a fine weapon.  Most of the K'Nes equipment I used to work with was over-engineered: powerful, but much too delicate to make serious soldiers' weapons.  This, however, looks like a refinement of one of the later K'Laek designs, much more practical."

            "It's a plasma rifle," Ascension said.  She was a seller of weapons, not a connoisseur.

            Davidson chuckled.  "Indeed."  He set it down gently.  "I might be able to assist you, M. Kalynn.  I'll need some help, however."

            "Imperial crowns aren't enough?" Thorin growled.

            Davidson smiled.  "I'll need a supply of Iridium."

            Ascension closed her eyes.  "There's only one asteroid facility in the system that mines it right now.  It's a House Francisco concession."

            She opened her eyes again to see Davidson giving her a sympathetic look.  "And they won't sell to me," he said.  "I feel some of your associates' pain, M. Kalynn."

            "We'll work things out with the Countess," she said, and not a word more.

            "Well then, I suppose the only thing left to do is save the planet from certain annihilation by the Jurvain, isn't it?"

            Ascension eyed him suspiciously.  "I think I liked it better when you were leading me on," she told him.

            "Alas, regrets," Davidson replied.  He patted the plasma rifle on the desk.  "For now, I'll see what I can do with this.  I should have something for you by the end of the week."

            "Thank you."  Ascension and Thorin both stood up.

            "You're quite welcome.  It was a pleasure meeting you, M. Kalynn.  I look forward to our working together."



            The following week was mostly quiet, but that was good right now.  Ascension's lieutenants had stepped up their game, and she had begun to think about their positions once everything was finished.  The locals had a more personal touch than Ascension's band of mercenaries.  And using them left Thorin and his gang free to devote all their attention and efforts towards the reason they had joined up with Ascension in the first place: getting even with House Francisco.  For that matter, the Countess herself was also much easier to appease when she wasn't dealing with people who held a grudge against her.  She had already come knocking once again, and this time Ascension had been able to send her away with only another handful of sidearms for her armsmen.  But the time was fast approaching when the extent and quality of House Francisco's armaments would be a very real concern for Ascension.

            Towards the end of the week, she met with Thorin to get briefed on his plan.  It seemed pretty solid.  She made a few adjustments on some minor details that Thorin had overlooked, but complimented his people for saving her a great deal of work on the issue.  She left them with a bottle of wine she'd picked up on her way to meet them and told them they should try to put the plan into action within the next few days.

            "This is it, gentlemen.  I know you have all been waiting for this, but do try to keep in mind that this is a big play for me as well."

            Every one of them thanked her for her support before she left their little lair in the jungle and rejoined the security detail Brianne had assigned her outside.  They weren't ex-TI, but they all seemed plenty competent in their own right.  Plus, Ascension was actually allowed to call them by their real names.  Brianne had done well.

            Fiora Amos was waiting with Ascension's bodyguards.  Ascension hadn't known Fiora as long as most of her lieutenants, but was more than happy to have her.  Even before getting Ascension's help to equip her revolutionaries, Fiora could have wreaked severe havoc with House Francisco's control of Kalintos.  Her fighters seemed to have an instinctive understanding of guerrilla tactics, and even the few who didn't were still the sort who could make their own homemade bombs, hack banking terminals, or build an encrypted radio transmitter out of three pieces of tinfoil and a potato.
            Ascension had been ecstatic the day Brianne told her that Fiora's Faithful had learned of their organization and asked to join up.  It wasn't every day Ascension got to add a few hundred armed and trained fighters to a revolutionary movement.  And as their name implied, every one of them was fanatically devoted to their leader, while Fiora herself, despite her initial caution, had come to view Ascension and Brianne as the brightest possible future for Kalintos.

            Fiora smiled and waved Ascension over to an idling aircar.  "Ready to make your grand entrance?" she asked.  "Brianne tells me the crowd outside the Franciscos' compound is already up to eight thousand, and still growing."

            Ascension grinned.  "It's been a long time coming."

            One of Fiora's soldiers opened the aircar door for Ascension.  Before she could climb in, however, the datapad in her pocket buzzed for attention.  Grumbling, she pulled it out.

            Frederick Davidson's face appeared in a video comm.  He did not look happy.  "M. Kalynn," he said, "are you at your mercenaries' jungle camp right now?"

            Ascension's eyes narrowed, but she resolved to find out how he knew so much about her operation another time.  "What do you need, Davidson?  Do you have those rifles ready for pickup?"  Drake should have already been on his way over to the workshop.

            Davidson shook his head while fiddling with something just out of the camera's view.  "I'm afraid I won't be able to provide delivery after all."

            "What?"  Two of Ascension's bodyguards and Fiora turned their heads in concern, but kept their distance.

            "The Iridium you secured, as well as your surplus stocks, has been most useful.  Unfortunately," Davidson showed her his palms in a gesture of helplessness, "my employer has agreed to an even more lucrative offer that must take precedent.  I'm very sorry."

            "What are you talking about?" Ascension demanded.  "Who—?"

            But Davidson cut her off.  "This was not my decision, M. Kalynn, for whatever that's worth.  If by some happy stroke of fate we should ever meet again, then I'm sure the Fearless Jackals would be more than happy to reconsider a genuine partnership between our—"

            Ascension dropped the datapad as she realized what was happening.  Her eyes bulged and her stomach felt like it had dropped down to her ankles as she whirled to Fiora and started to scream, "Go!"

            Six lance torpedoes fired from House Francisco's orbital defense platforms struck the jungle around Ascension and Thorin's lair at velocities in excess of twenty kilometers per second.



End of Episode One



The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,

And nothing stirred within their silent depths;

Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,

And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropped

They slept on the abyss without a surge—

The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

The Moon, their mistress, had expired before;

The winds were withered in the stagnant air,

And the clouds perished; Darkness had no need

Of aid from them—She was the Universe.

—Lord Byron, Darkness


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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 Miao Mercantile, Volkskrieg Overdrive, and the letter Æ.  Do not try ANY of this at home—just pay the damn transport fee instead!