Episode Two — My Heart of Stone

Kalintos was on fire.  For a few moments after opening her eyes, Ascension Kalynn could make no sense of what she saw.  Great plumes of black smoke rose into a red sky.  The whole world seemed to be burning.  It was only when droplets of dark rain began falling around her that she understood.

The jungle around here was mostly tar trees.  The plants' thick bark could shrug off plasma fire, but their cores were filled with greasy black sap that ignited as easily as fossil petroleum.  Occasional lightning strikes turned individual trees into brilliant pyres, and farmers would sometimes cut and burn them for land or fuel.  But the tar trees could survive even the worst fires that periodically swept through the forest undergrowth.

House Francisco's orbital strikes had cracked the ancient trees open and set the jungle alight for kilometers in every direction.  They would not burn for long, but the devastation in the affected area would be absolute.

Ascension murmured something incomprehensible even to herself, and then propped herself up on her elbows.  The shock of the torpedoes' impact must have knocked her down as well as rattled her skull.

"Boss!" a voice said.  Footsteps padded towards Ascension across the dirt.  "You're up."

Ascension took a moment to puzzle out the voice and the image of the person who leaned over her.  It was Fiora.  She helped pull Ascension into a sitting position, then pressed in close to look in her eyes.

"Well, you don't look concussed," the guerilla leader said.  "But you were out for a few minutes.  I wish I could tell you to take it easy, but we've got some problems here."

"Huhnn?" Ascension asked.

"The fire's going to run right through this clearing in a bit; it'll kill us if we don't move."

"Guh," Ascension rubbed at her forehead.  Her hand came back wet.  "So let's move; are the cars still working?"  She turned her head painfully to see that the aircar she'd been about to climb into was sitting in the same place.  It was powered down, but looked intact.

"We can skedaddle, but I don't think we should.  The satellites have hit a few other places, too.  The smoke probably covers us a bit, but if they see vehicles moving out here, I think they'll try to plug us again.  I don't want to bet against their aim a second time."

"Where's Thorin?"  Ascension could see a few others running aimlessly about the camp grounds now, but they all looked like Fiora's men.

"Working the comms trying to get a handle on this mess.  The Francisco guards started shooting into the crowds at Loud Water, lots of people are dead."

Ascension swore.  "Brianne?"

"I don't know.  Thorin was shouting at somebody out there, but I'm not sure if it was actually her."

One of Thorin's men came running over towards them.  Ascension thought it was "Nori," but her vision was still fuzzy.

"Emerald Hollow just bought it," he announced to Fiora.  "The guard bugged out, and they hit it with torps right after.  Whole town got wiped."  He noticed Ascension.  "Boss!"

He started to kneel, but Ascension waved him off while Fiora muttered darkly about Countess Francisco's apparent madness.  "Tell Thorin I'm okay and to get ready to bug out."

Nori looked skeptical.  "Boss, the satellites—"

"I'm taking care of it," Ascension snarled.  She felt for her pockets.  "Where's my phone?"

Fiora handed her a communicator.  Ascension let Nori run back to report to his commander while she furiously looked up the contact she wanted and dialed in.

"Ascension!" the voice on the other end of the line sounded relieved.  "Oh thank god you're alive, I worried—"

"Crash the grid, Patrick!" Ascension barked.  "Crash it right now!"

"I—are you sure?  If I do it from here, it could take a while to get back—"

"Now, Patrick!"

"Right right right!" the panicked voice replied.  A sound of scraping metal came over the line.  "Okay, I'm doing it now.  It'll probably take them an hour to figure out what went wrong, good lu—"

Ascension shut off the comm and started to cough.  She wasn't sure if it was from the smoke and dirt that the wind was carrying to her, or just her nerves.

"Come on," she said to Fiora, gesturing at the car.

Fiora helped her to her feet.  Some of her men came running over, and one opened the door for Ascension again, then helped ease her into the seat.

"Someone inside the guards?" Fiora asked as she slid behind the aircar controls.

"Comm techie," Ascension said.  "A bunch of them, actually.  They should be able to erase the orbital network's control programming and disable any remote access.  The Countess will have to get up to the platforms and fire them herself if she wants to shoot at us."

"I don't like that caveat," Fiora said.

"Me neither," Ascension admitted.  "But I'd rather hold off on more desperate measures for now."

Fiora powered up the aircar and asked, "Where to?"  Two more bodyguards piled in, and Ascension saw other vehicles coming to life around them.  "I don't think Loud Water would be safe anymore."

"No…"  Ascension pondered for a moment.  Then she realized she was fiddling with the ring she still had in her pocket.  "Mosby's plantation," she said firmly.  "Let's go."



"I should have seen this coming," Ascension complained as the car sped through the air, just over the jungle canopy.  "I should have been prepared."

"Haven't been in many actual life and death situations before, I take it?" Fiora asked from the driver's seat.  "Seems to me you were prepared—better than most people would have been anyway.  You just need to relax, let your mind get back on track.  What matters most right now is your next move, not what you could have done better with your last one."

Fiora was right.  Both about Ascension's lack of combat experience, and about what she needed to do now.  Ascension leaned her head back against the seat and tried to calm down.  The bodyguard next to her had already bandaged up her forehead; it was just a small cut.

"We're almost to the farm," Fiora said.  "Once you're there, you can get out, breathe, and walk around a bit to clear… or not."

Ascension sat up and looked outside the windows.

Mosby's plantation was burning.  Not from an orbital strike, though.  Two aircars were circling and pouring plasma fire into the buildings below.

"Aww, hell," Fiora said as the aircars broke out of their pattern to fly in their direction.

She put their own car into a steep, twisting dive.  The other aircars zoomed past close enough for Ascension to hear the roar of engines through the thick windows, but their shots missed by a wide angle.  A House Francisco armsman leaned out of the smaller aircar with a plasma rifle, held in place by a tether.  The other aircar looked like an ambulance with gunports cut out of its sides.

"I think we need to land," Fiora said.  She didn't wait for a response, but plowed the nose of their car into a wheat field.  Ascension nearly bit her tongue as the car bounced and shuttered and scraped its way to a halt.  As soon as they were stopped, Fiora and her men leapt out into the field.  Ascension was still struggling with her restraints when one of them threw open her door, grabbed her by the back of her jacket, and dragged her out.

They scattered into the field as the Franciscan aircars looped around for another attack.  Ascension half-ran and was half-carried by one of Fiora's men.  The bodyguard only dropped her once the noise of the aircars' engines had risen to a roar again.  He planted his feet, raised his rifle, and filled the air with blinding plasma fire.

One of the guards struck home.  The front of the smaller aircar exploded with an unimpressive pop! and it careened into the jungle beyond the plantation.  The ambulance zoomed away and did not return.  Neither Ascension nor her companions had been hit.  Several more aircars of her entourage arrived and took up a holding pattern overhead while Ascension jogged towards Mosby's smoldering home.

He was dead.  From the smell of burning meat, so were quite a few other people who had been inside the big house and other plantation buildings.  Ascension stood several meters from the charred porch, fingering the ring in her pocket again.  She'd never gotten the opportunity to ask where Mosby had gotten it.  She hadn't had a chance to see him at all since before her last trip off-world.

The Countess and her men could not have known the extent of Mosby's relationship with Ascension.  If they'd known about the stuff he did, they would have known what Ascension was plotting, and would have moved against her long ago.  No, they'd attacked his plantation and killed everyone there simply because they knew he was Ascension's friend.  Ascension had spent the last couple years spreading rumors about just how brutal a monster Countess Francisco was.  Well, now it turned out she had been right all along.

"I'm sorry."

Ascension turned to see Fiora standing behind her, rifle slung over her shoulder, her face a mix of steel and sympathy.  Her comrades were poking at some of the ruins of the outlying buildings, but they did not look hopeful.

Ascension nodded.  "It doesn't look like they got the stores Mosby was holding for us."  She tried to visualize a map of the plantation, and then pointed towards two spots near the tree line.  "Containers eight and thirteen should be that way, and that way.  Thirteen has some SAMs in it, so we should probably dig that one up first."

Fiora started calling her people over the comm.



Thirty-six thousand people died on the first day of the revolution, most of them in the orbital bombardment.  Only a few dozen were House Francisco armsmen who got caught in a target area or were killed by retaliating citizens.  About three hundred were Ascension's followers.  She had thousands more, but it still blew a big hole in her organization.  The rest of the casualties were mostly-innocent civilians who simply had the rotten luck to live in the wrong town or be caught in the street when the Franciscans started mowing people down.

The only upside to the whole massacre was that House Francisco had immediately lost whatever popular support it still had among the population of Kalintos after ten years of corrupt, ineffectual rule.  The only people still on the House's side were the Francisco family themselves, a handful of close friends, and their cadre of hired thugs.  The rest of the "subjects" of Kalintos now only obeyed their House's commands under threat.

But the Countess made a poor military dictator.  Either she didn't have the stomach for a true reign of terror, or she simply didn't realize that was her only viable option for staying in power.  People weren't disappearing to be held hostage against their own families or tortured to reveal what they knew about the opposition.  The House's soldiers really were acting like petty thugs: they pointed a gun in their victims' face before making their demands.  But once they got what they wanted, they left well enough alone, and that victim was free to mutter and plot revenge.

Ascension had gotten more volunteers in the last week than in all the years she'd been building her network.  That gave her something to do with her time.  As far as House Francisco and the general public were concerned, she had died in the initial bombardment with so many others, and her insurrection was now being run by former subordinates.  Maintaining that deception meant Ascension spent most of her time sitting on her ass directing traffic.  She only moved under the strictest caution in order to prevent the Countess' forces from ever getting a bead on her organization's headquarters.

Most of the new recruits she turned away.  Both they and the revolution were safer if they weren't directly involved.  The ones she brought in deeper were those who could offer safe houses or other goodies.  Ascension was constantly hunched over a datapad and becoming ever twitchier.  Things were moving forward quickly, but it all felt so maddeningly slow when she was stuck underground, unable to take part directly.

The orbital defense network was still down—mostly.  The comm hack had worked beautifully; even a week later, remote function was not restored.  House Francisco had dragooned some spacers from a mining platform into taking manual control of two or three weapons platforms.  But they had only limited coverage of the surface, and without a direct link to any target tracking sensors to provide fire control, their accuracy was terrible.  Ascension's people were being extremely careful to limit their above ground operations outside of population centers, and so far they hadn't attracted any new strikes.  If things got bad enough, she still had some plans to take out the ODN primarily, but that would be a last resort.

Meanwhile, it was just matter of running out the clock on House Francisco's rule.  It was bitterly slow work digging up weapons caches and prepping heavy vehicles in secret, but they were doing it.  And all the while the Countess' forces were being whittled down: a vehicle bombed here, a patrol ambushed there.  Drake and Thorin oversaw most of the military preparations.  Fiora would have been out there, too, but she was too busy sitting on Ascension making sure her boss didn't leave her hidey hole to get herself shot.

The worst was when she had to watch video footage of House Francisco troops raiding her own home.  They tore the place apart, smashing and cutting up old heirlooms of Ascension's and her father's.  They emptied the small armory that Ascension had kept there, but which she'd always known was just a decoy.  But they also broke into her cellar and stole eleven barrels of Ascension's whiskey.  She watched some armsmen break open and drink a bottle of actual Scotch that Ascension's father had bought for an ungodly sum of money forty years ago.  Brianne—who had lost her left arm below the elbow to a gauss round outside the Francisco compound on the first day—had had the hopeless task of trying to console Ascension that night.

"It's not fair," Ascension told her.  "It was bottled on Earth.  Earth!"  As she said it, she clutched tightly at the ring still in her pocket.

Bri just rubbed her back with her remaining hand.

"I'm sorry," Ascension apologized after a few minutes.  "I know you've had it even worse.  You and everyone else.  Being stuck in here is just driving me bonkers."  She took a minute to calm down, and then asked, "How much longer until we're ready to kill these bastards?"

"Thorin says just another few days at the outside."

"Keep your head down until then."



True to his word, Thorin announced that they had reached D-Day just under a week later.

"I tried to come up with a reference to the Battle of Five Armies for the operation name," he told Ascension over a video comm, "but I just couldn't do it.  Even if the Francisco compound is looking an awful lot like the Lonely Mountain these days."

Ascension couldn't muster the strength to laugh.  "You're certain this is going to work?" she asked.

"I think you've learned by now that there's no such thing as certainty when it comes to military plans," Thorin told her.  "But I think we're as prepared as we can be."

She took a deep breath, and nodded.  "Well let's not wait for no reason, then.  Begin your assault."  Then in a quieter voice, she added, "I hope you get what you want in there."

Thorin smiled, and nodded back solemnly.  "I hope we both get what we want."

Ascension started to end the call, but thought better of it.  "Stay alive, Abe Eltyre," she said, putting aside the code names despite talking over a transmission.  "Uncertainty be damned, stay alive out there."

"Yes, ma'am," Thorin said.  The video link died.

Ascension said nothing for a while.  Then she sighed and stood up.  There was a truck waiting for her, but the driver wouldn't even think of taking Ascension into the city until the major combat had died down.  For now, she had nothing to do but wait, and hope.



The signal went up just after the end of the normal workday in Loud Water, when the greatest number of people were out on the streets or in cars travelling home.  It had been extremely difficult to persuade the K'Nes to give Ascension any rocket artillery; in the end she'd had to pay retail price for every launcher herself.  The pieces may not have been as powerful or versatile as RABBITs, but they were still probably the deadliest weapons on the surface of Kalintos.  Every rocket in the revolutionaries' arsenal was fired at the Francisco compound all at once, targeting the House's air defenses.  Lasers knocked down about a third of them, but the rest got through.

At the same time, armed vehicles emerged from their garages around the city and made a beeline for the compound.  Three heavy trucks sporting lance cannons crashed the gates, while aircars with tribarrels or gauss cannons took to the skies and started hammering the compound with suppressive fire.  On the streets, men and women ran into the compound, hollering and leaping over the broken gates.  None of them had power armor, but each carried at least a plasma rifle.

House Francisco's armsmen had been expecting some kind of confrontation for days, but they were caught off guard when it finally came.  Despite their surprise they responded with discipline and determination; and if they were under-armed compared to most of Ascension's rabble, they had armor and much better training.

Contrary to Ascension's direct orders, quarter was neither offered nor given to the Franciscan soldiers.  The people of Kalintos had been pushed too far since the first lance torpedoes came down; they were not in a merciful mood.  No armsman even tried to surrender, they fought to the death.

Ascension did not learn as much until after long after the battle, but before the compound fell, Countess Francisco tried to order its final bombardment from space rather than letting it be taken from her.  The mining technicians manning her few functional orbital weapons platforms refused to fire on the city.

Ninety minutes after the fighting started, Ascension got the call to the compound.  She strapped herself into the truck's cab and they trundled off.

There were looters out on the streets, hooting and firing into the air as they rampaged through Loud Water's small shops.  House Francisco's armsmen had been the only police Kalintos had.  Ascension wanted to stop them, but there was nothing she could do.  They would burn themselves out eventually.

When she got out at the compound gates, the people around began to cheer.  They whooped and shouted her name.

"Congratulations, Ace!" her driver said.  She didn't know his name, but apparently he thought they were familiar enough to use nicknames.

She stepped over wreckage and bodies and into the grounds.  She could still hear chattering gunfire throughout the city, but put it down to celebration, rather than heavy fighting.

She saw Drake running towards her, hopping over rubble and corpses.

"Ascension!  Over here!"

They embraced, and then Drake gestured towards the capitol building.  "Come on, Thorin and Bri have got the Countess."

"Really?" Ascension asked.  From the slaughter around her, she was surprised anyone had survived.

"Yep, she surrendered just a few minutes ago."

They jogged into the capitol, past numerous revolutionaries, some of whom stopped scavenging for souvenirs long enough to cheer their leader as she ran by.

"Thorin got hit," Drake said as they climbed a stair.

"Is he all right?"

"Yeah, I think so.  He's just gonna have a nasty scar," Drake said.  "Another one, anyway."

They found Thorin outside the Countess' office.  He was leaning on Fiora's shoulder, while one of her Faithful poked at a hole in his power armor.

"Thorin!" Ascension called.  "I thought I told you to stay alive."

He looked over to her, wincing at the movement.

"I've had worse," he said.  "Might have to take a break from our regular chats, though."  He coughed.

She put a hand on his armored shoulder and leaned forward to look into his eyes.  "Well, you hang in there.  No dying before I can show my gratitude.  You understand, you stubborn dwarf?"

He laughed weakly.  "I'll see what I can manage."

"You should probably check in with Brianne," Fiora said, grimacing as she did her best to prop up Thorin's bulk.  The old TI veteran coughed again.

"Right," Ascension said.  She stepped around the soldiers and pushed open the door to the office.  "Bri!  I heard you—"

She wrinkled her nose.  Countess Francisco was not alive.  Brianne was standing over her sizzling, freshly dead corpse, holding the plasma revolver Ascension had given her.

"Brianne?" Ascension asked in a gentler voice.

Ascension's loyal chief administrator turned around.  Her eyes were wide, frightened.

"Ascension.  I…"  She looked down at the Countess' body.  "I shot her."

"Yeah," Ascension said.

"She just…" Brianne trailed off.  "She surrendered… I was right outside that day.  When they were shooting at us."  She gestured with the stump of her left arm.  "And then she gave me that smug smile and I just…"  She shuddered.

"It's all right," Ascension told her.  "Come here, give me the gun, it's over."

She walked over.  Ascension took the plasma revolver from her, and pulled Brianne into an embrace.

"I'm sorry," Brianne said, and she started to cry.

"It's over," Ascension told her again.  "We won."

And who knew how many tens of thousands people had died in the process.  It took Ascension a moment to realize that she was crying, too.




Andrew Tremont was more imposing than his appearance suggested.  He was only slightly taller than an average man and plainly built, neither broad shouldered nor bulky.  He had pale eyes and gray hair that was beginning its final transition to white.  He was neither fat nor especially thin, but the skin of his cheeks and around his eyes had begun to droop with age.  He ought to have been a completely unremarkable septuagenarian.

Yet he was not.  Even at seventy-one years he sat with his back held perfectly straight.  His gaze carried an intensity and intelligence undiminished since the propaganda recordings he'd made during the civil war thirty years ago.  Each of his movements appeared perfectly calculated, and spoke of power that still lingered in his aging muscles.

Sato Ryoko had met many men who had some small touch of what resonated within Andrew Tremont.  She usually described them as "confident".  Tremont had something beyond confidence; he had conviction.  It was not something she had encountered before, and it was just a little overwhelming.

"Lady Sato," Duke Tremont said from his high-backed wooden chair, "thank you for seeing me."  His voice was just a little raspy, but it carried the same commanding force as his movements.  Ryoko felt a small shiver down her back.

She bowed deeply.  "Your Grace."

"Please do not call me that," Tremont said.  He stood up from his chair, and Ryoko straightened to watch him as he approached her.  He walked with a cane in his left hand, but it was hardly clear that he needed it at all, as his stride was still long and forceful.  "The Lord created us all as equals.  Whatever the peculiarities of our present government, we are all brothers and sisters in His eyes."

He stopped in front of Ryoko and held out his right hand.  She grasped it as firmly as she could with the disparity in the size of their palms, and they shook briefly.

"Pleased to meet you," he said.

"The pleasure is mine," Ryoko said, proud that she managed to keep her voice relaxed.  Tremont smiled.

"I hope you don't mind if we sit," he gestured towards a table with some smaller, though no less hard, chairs.  "My strength is not what it used to be these days."

"Of course."  They walked over to the table.  On a whim, Ryoko pulled out one of the chairs for Duke Tremont.

"Thank you," he said as he settled down.  Ryoko took the chair to his left.

The largest buildings in the House Tremont palace complex were, by necessity, the Cathedral and the Grand Hall, where public or state events were hosted.  Then there were a handful of large manor houses, similar to the Yasuyama delegation's accommodations, where senior members of the family made their homes.

The Duke's residence was much more modest.  Ryoko might have called it a cabin.  A big cabin, to be sure, but not any sort of grand mansion.  The furnishings were simple, the decorations minimal, and Ryoko had seen no sign of servants.

Andrew Tremont leaned his cane against the table and looked at Ryoko in the warm orange light.

"Thank you again for seeing me," he said.  "I was sorry that I did not have the opportunity to meet you or your companions earlier.  My health is not what it used to be these days, either."

"Your grandson and Minister Callahan gave us an excellent welcome, Your..."  Ryoko paused.  "Mmm, if not 'Your Grace', how should I address you?"

"I suppose simply 'Andrew' would be too familiar at this point," he smiled.  "You may call me Elder Tremont, then.  And shall I continue to call you Lady Sato?"

Ryoko smiled back.  "I may not be as humble as you are, Elder."

Tremont nodded.  He leaned forward, resting his arms on the table.  "I do not know your family well, My Lady.  I confess that I never paid much attention to the politics of the Eastern Bloc, or to New Tokyo.  When the Council suggested these negotiations, I was at a disadvantage."

"I hope we've made a good impression.  Nicholas—Ambassador Sauerborn—tells me things have been going well."

"That's my understanding as well.  I'm not overly interested in the technical details.  I would, however, like to know a little more about the people with whom we are building this partnership.  If you don't mind, would you tell me a little about your family?"

"I'd be happy to," Ryoko said, even as she sighed internally.

She spoke for a little while about the Yasuyamas; focusing on how her cousin Akihiro's connections to Anshin Heavy Industries brought him to New Tokyo and allowed him to survive the Vin Shriak invasion.  Duke Tremont asked a couple of questions, and eventually Ryoko tried to explain how her Aunt and her Aunt's mother-in-law had manipulated time to save much of the family, including Ryoko, from the Vin Shriak and helped guide their actions during the Ascension War.  She tried to keep it brief; even having experienced much of it directly, keeping the details of that story straight always made Ryoko's head hurt.

"And how do you feel about our Emperor's Holy Church?"

Ryoko felt herself tense up.  It was the question she'd been dreading, and one which none of her family members or their advisors had ever been able to come up with any useful advice for answering.

"I… I am not sure that I believe he is the reincarnation of Christ, as I understand you do," she said cautiously.

"Not too many do, outside our worlds," Tremont said.  His eyes were unfocused, looking beyond Ryoko.  "Even among those who recognize His divinity, those of us who follow the gospel are a minority."

"Our Cult—" Ryoko winced the moment she said the word.  Even if it was acceptable in the rest of the Empire to call Vin Dane's worshippers Cultists, she was not sure how the Tremonters would feel about the label.  But having said it, she pressed on, "—leaders on New Tokyo don't talk very much about specific doctrines.  We have many sects with different interpretations."

"There was a time when that would bother me—infuriate me, even."  Tremont chuckled, and he raised a clenched fist into the air between them.  "There was a time when I wanted to send an Army of the Faithful sweeping across the galaxy to bring the light of truth into every dark corner of humanity."

He opened his fist and let it fall back to the table.  "That time has passed.  Perhaps age has made me soft."

"Or perhaps it has made you wise," Ryoko countered.  Oh, I cannot believe I just said that.

The Duke gave her a sharp look, but did not call her on the flattery.  "If I don't use every tool available, including weapons in my arsenal, to bring heathens to salvation, is that truly wise?"

"Maybe it is simply merciful."

"Ha!" Tremont barked, and slapped his palm against the table, making Ryoko jump.  He grinned.  "Very clever, My Lady; it's no wonder Simon likes you."

"Well, there have been long stretches of time in my life of pampered luxury when I've had nothing else to do except work on sharpening my wit."

They talked for a few minutes longer, until the Duke had to excuse himself, and bid Ryoko goodnight.

She left the residence to find her bodyguards waiting by her groundcar, trading jokes with some Righteous Army patrolmen.

"And so?" Sergeant Guo asked once they were in the car and trundling away.  "Does Bad Andy deserve the name?"

"Oh yeah," Ryoko said.  "He was three meters tall, with horrible fangs and pincers for hands."  She wiggled her fingers near her mouth to demonstrate.  "He was eating babies when I came in."

"Hmmm, do you think we should be concerned about that?

"Nah."  Ryoko shook her head.  "I told him Akihiro's even taller and shoots lasers from his eyes and mouth.  He won't mess with us."

"Some days, it's worth the property damage to have your cousin protecting New Tokyo."

Ryoko managed to keep her expression steady for ten seconds, but finally she snorted and then laughed the rest of the way back to Villa de Tilos.



"If you're lost in thought, I could get you a compass."

Ryoko's mouth twitched.  "I don't think that would work up here."

She was in an observation lounge on St. Pierre Station, a large asteroid towed into orbit above San Angeles eight years ago to make up for its lack of natural satellites.  St. Pierre was now the hub of San Angeles' space economy, the first stopover for cargoes and passengers travelling to and from the planet's surface.  Its docking and repair facilities were still small by core world standards, but they were growing.  There was even a brand new construction yard producing shuttlecraft and other small vessels.

"A gyroscope, then?"

Ryoko turned away from the viewport to see Simon Tremont's round face and piercing eyes studying her.  "I was just admiring the ship," she said.

Simon glanced out the wide, thick windows.  The heavy cruiser INS Tegetthoff hung in space a few kilometers away, tied to the station by a handful of umbilical tubes.

"Forgive me if this sounds crass," he said, "but I haven't known many women to shown an interest in warships."

Ryoko looked around the lounge for a bench with some open seats, then made her way over to one and sat down.  Simon followed her.

"My father was an Admiral in Eastern Bloc's Imperial Navy," she told him.  "His flagship was a cruiser like that."  She gestured to the viewport.  "I got to go aboard a few times."

"Ahh."  Simon nodded.  "Nostalgia?"

"Natsukashii," she replied, and was surprised that she dug up the word so quickly.  "Similar, maybe a little less sad."

At this angle, light from the observation lounge was reflecting from the viewport window.  Ryoko could see the ghostly image of her and Simon's bodyguards standing watch behind them, encouraging other travelers to keep their distance.

"We don't have to see the ship," Simon said cautiously.

Ryoko turned her head towards him again.  He did not look very much like his grandfather.  He was shorter, thinner, his hair was blond, and his eyes were bluer.  But he carried himself the same way when he moved, and his expression was always alert and aware, even if his voice sounded relaxed.

"No, I'm looking forward to it," she said, and watched Simon smile in response.  "I miss my father, but the ship is a happy memory."

"Glad to hear it."

"Plus, as you pointed out before, it's not like I have much better to do.  I'm here to make friends with the locals, not argue percentage points on tariff rates."

"Well, there are other ways to make friends with the locals.  San Angeles has some interesting animal life; I could show you a lizard rodeo."

"Maybe another time."

They rode a little cart up one of the umbilicals to board the Tegetthoff.  They were greeted by Captain Ardeshir Klimm, a solid, gruff San Angeles native with a short black beard covering a square jaw.  He was a little patronizing at first, but his opinion of Ryoko seemed to improve when he found out about her father's and brother's naval careers.

The Tegetthoff was one of the rare new Imperial Navy warships not based on an old Earth Fleet design.  It was geared purely towards space combat, and did away with the bulky, boxy transit beacons and large hangars that most Earth Fleet ships had used to support ground operations against the Bugs.  Instead, its space was given over to powerful grav lasers, particle beams, and even a grav lance, but only sported two torpedo tubes and no fusion cannons.  Its gravity drive could not form a proper shield, but it sufficed to open jump points and propel the ship far more efficiently than ion drives.  Captain Klimm boasted that it was the equal of any Earth Fleet battlecruiser in a fight.

Ryoko was in the cruiser's boat bay admiring its lone flight of six fighters when Simon was called away.

"Ugh, Council business," he said, pocketing his datapad.  He was trying to sound put out, but based on the increasingly unfocused look in his eyes while they toured, Ryoko suspected he was not actually much of a warship nerd.  "I'll have to excuse myself."

"Anything serious?" Ryoko asked, looking over the nose cone of a fighter.

"Just PR stuff.  Looks like a province governor said something stupid to a reporter, and now we'll need to make sure he's the only one and that we don't also look stupid."

"Good luck."

"Thanks.  I'll see you on the surface later."  Elder Tremont gathered up his bodyguards and left the bay at a fast walk.

Sergeant Guo wandered over from where he'd been standing near a cargo shuttle.

"I don't think I like him," he said, nodding at the hatch Simon and his guards had departed through.

"You're just jealous."

The Sergeant looked at her, and raised an eyebrow.  Ryoko turned away quickly and ran a hand along the smooth, transparent material of the fighter's cockpit.

"How did you get your name?" she asked, hurriedly trying to change the subject.

"My name?"

"Your first name, Albert.  Kind of an odd one, don't you think?  Especially for someone who doesn't much like gaijin."

Guo watched her for a few seconds, then said, "It was my mother's grandfather's name.  He was apparently an English singer of some moderate fame."

"A singer?" Ryoko asked, amused.

"And I don't dislike M. Tremont because he's a gaijin," Guo said, ignoring the question.  "I dislike him because he always looks like he's thinking three different things at once, but will never tell you what they are."

"…so you think he's a liar?"

"I think he's a politician."

"Hmmph."  Ryoko pursed her lips.  "I was going to tell you to lighten up, but I suppose it's actually your job to be suspicious and unfriendly."

"Very true, My Lady."  He folded his hands behind his back and put an innocent expression on his face.

"All right.  Don't think I've forgotten about this celebrity ancestor of yours, though.  I will be prying that story out of you very soon."

"You should know that I've been trained to resist many torture techniques."

Ryoko gave him a dark look, but his face betrayed nothing.

They finished the tour of the boat bay, and went on to inspect various other portions of the ship and systems.  Most were not very visually impressive, which was disappointing.  Ryoko remembered the reactors on her father's ships looking like terrifying mazes of wires, tubing, and mysterious humming components.  The power systems on the Tegetthoff were neatly bundled and hidden away behind access hatches and shielded compartments.  It was safer, and easier for the crew to manage, but it wasn't very interesting to look at.

Eventually, the grand tour came to an end, and one of the cruiser's junior lieutenants began to lead Ryoko and her guards back to the hatch where they'd entered.  But then Ryoko stopped abruptly.

"When I saw the ship from outside," she said, "there was one tube that was much bigger than the others, what was that?"

She had not thought of the question herself.  It had simply popped into her mind, and she felt the familiar, haunting sensation that came over her whenever her magick decided to fire.

"That's the cargo line," the lieutenant said, turning around.  "Brings in supplies and ammo, takes out trash.  Moves a little faster than a shuttle, uses less fuel."

"Can we go out that way?" Ryoko asked.  "I haven't been through your cargo bays."

The navy lieutenant shrugged.  "I suppose.  You'd come out at the station's freight docks, though.  Need to take a tram back to the habitat sections."

"That's all right; I haven't seen much of the station, either."

He shrugged again.  "Okay, then, follow me."

They took a lift down to the cargo decks, then followed a walkway that passed beside some rails for moving large containers of equipment, ammunition, and fuel.  Apart from larger corridors than most of the rest of the ship, it all looked pretty much the same.  They entered one of the cargo bays and saw crates of supplies stacked in neat rows.  Robotic forklifts buzzed as they moved slowly around the cavernous space, carrying pallets around according to some grand design.

They were nearly to the bay doors, where the umbilical tube was secured, when they passed a stack of silvery crates, which looked different from most of the others in the bay.  They were larger, and of much sturdier construction.  Ryoko paused to read one of the stenciled labels.

"Atmospheric processing nanobots," she read.  "Why do you have terraforming equipment up here?"

The lieutenant guiding them through the bay spun on his heels and followed Ryoko's gaze.  His mouth fell open.  "Uh…"

"Made on Avalon; does San Angeles need this stuff?"

"N—no," the officer stammered, "that's not—um…"

Ryoko's eyes narrowed.  "Hold on…"

The lieutenant fumbled for the communicator on his belt.  "Just a moment, I should really—"

She didn't notice Sergeant Guo moving up to her side.  The guardsman reached forward and clamped a hand onto the Imperial officer's arm, stopping him from grabbing his comm.  "No, I don't think you should."

"I think these are from the shipments to Phoenix," Ryoko said.  She turned her eyes to the lieutenant.  "The shipments that were supposed to have been intercepted by pirates."

Their guide opened his mouth and sucked in a sharp breath, but Sergeant Guo chopped him in the throat before he could call out.  Then he grabbed the young man's head, and pulled it down into his knee.  The lieutenant collapsed onto the metal deck, groaning softly.  The other bodyguards in Ryoko's detail quickly surrounded them, weapons readied and facing out.

"I suggest we get off this ship right now, My Lady," Guo said.

Ryoko's mind was still reeling, but she nodded.  "Agreed."

Guo took a moment to collect the fallen lieutenant's communicator, and then broke both of the man's legs beneath his boot and gave him another solid kick to the head.  Then he grabbed Ryoko's arm and started jogging towards the cargo tube.

A pair of spacers at the doors looked a little stunned to see a noblewoman and her bodyguards approach; one of them let out a low whistle, but they did not seem to suspect anything was amiss.  They helped get Ryoko and her guardsmen seated into a heavy cart, and then sent it rolling off towards St. Pierre Station.

"Okay," Ryoko said, shaking her head and trying to get her thoughts sorted out.  "Okay, so the Tegetthoff intercepted those shipments and stole the cargo?  Does the Imperial Navy have something against Phoenix?  Or did Captain Klimm just go rogue or something?"

"I don't know," Guo answered, looking anxiously up and down the tube as they crept along.  "I think you should tell Ambassador Sauerborn about this ASAP."

"Yeah…"  Ryoko had a datapad in a pocket of her dress.  She drew it out.  "Do you think I should tell the Tremonters, too?  They might be able to do something with the ship here."

"No," Guo said firmly.  "They could have something to do with it, for all we know.  I don't trust them."

Ryoko nodded.  She didn't really agree, but she didn't want to argue right now; she was already feeling a little nauseous from the excitement.  She managed to get a video call open to Nicholas Sauerborn.

"Lady Sato?" the House Yasuyama delegation leader asked with a curious expression.  "What is it?"

Ryoko tried to tell him what had just happened.  She stumbled over her own tongue in her rush to get it all out, but Sauerborn seemed to follow.  He looked taken aback for a moment, but nodded slowly.

"That's… very concerning," he said.  Ryoko wanted to shout something like no shit! but she knew the Ambassador was just trying to collect his thoughts.  "All right, I'll step out of this meeting and try to send a hypercomm to your family.  Don't go—"

The video image froze.  Ryoko tapped at the screen a couple times, but the connection had died.  She wasn't able to make another outgoing call, either.

"Uh oh."

Sergeant Guo said nothing when she told him what had just happened, but his face became decidedly grim.  They sat in silence for another few minutes as the tube cart continued to roll towards its destination.  Once the reached the station, the hatch was opened by another pair of Imperial Navy spacers.

"Hey, you folks are—ohshit!"  They dived aside at the sight of several plasma rifles leveled at them.  Three of Ryoko's bodyguards rushed through the door.  A few seconds later, they shouted an all clear.  Ryoko entered the loading dock to find that the guards had beaten the spacers into unconsciousness.  She grimaced, but did not criticize them.

"Okay," Guo said to the little group, "I think we need to get into the station and lose ourselves as best as possible.  My Lady, until we know who—"

"Hey!"  A hatch at the far end of the dock had opened up.  A squadron of Righteous Army soldiers in white delta armor rushed through.  They had their rifles out, and looked ready to use them.  "Stop right there and put your weapons—"

Guo's men shot them.  Ryoko was blinded by the white light of plasma fire.  Someone pushed her to the ground, and she might have screamed as she fell, but the thunderclap noise of the rifles drowned out the sound.  When the spots cleared from her eyes a little, she could see that all of the Tremonter soldiers had fallen.  Her own guards were running forward to secure the slagged hatchway.

Albert Guo grabbed Ryoko under the armpit and pulled her to her feet.

"You shot them," she breathed.

"My Lady," he said, "we really need to run now."





Life in the Fifth Fleet was superior to prison in many ways, but the one Viktor Molotok treasured most was unlimited access to the FedNet (the official name was now the "Imperial Hypercommunication Network", but everyone still called it FedNet).  Carried on the tachyon beams of hyperspace navigation beacons, it allowed Viktor to talk in real-time with his wife and children.

"I drew a picture!" little five-year-old Tatyana said, sitting on her mother Katya's lap and holding up a datapad with colorful scribbles on it.  "It's you at your new job!"  Squinting at the holoprojection, Viktor could barely make out a crude stick figure with a mustache—him, presumably—surrounded by stars and other shapes that might have been spaceships or Arachnids… or possibly clouds.

Tatyana, who was too young to really understand what was happening, was the most fun to talk to.  His son Aleksandr, like all fifteen-year-old boys, wanted to know all about the warships, guns, and how many Bugs his papa had blown up that day.  And Astra… well, she was a twelve-year-old preteen girl.  When she was willing to speak to Viktor at all, she demanded to know why he had ruined her life by killing all those people on Deseret a decade ago.  Didn't he know it was going to make her a social outcast at school?  How could he have done that to her?  All Viktor could do was nod, apologize, look ashamed, and hope she'd understand and see things in perspective once she grew older.

After he talked with the children, Viktor and Katya spoke privately.  Part of their conversation was no one's business but their own.  As for the rest, Katya kept Viktor informed of politics in the Imperial Diet, where she was relentless at drumming up support for the Fifth Fleet, essentially selling her votes in exchange for "donations" (which Viktor suspected were the source some of the fleet's more useless equipment).  Viktor updated her on the status of the fleet, including the overpopulation, lack of technical expertise, and near-anarchy.

Shortly after their call, Katya sent Viktor two text files with certain sections highlighted.  One detailed the legal authority of Imperial Admirals, while the other was the Imperial Diet's codification of the rights of the nobility.  Viktor kept forgetting he was a Duke now, too.  As long as the Houses recognized Vin Dane as their sovereign, paid their taxes, and obeyed the Emperor's few direct orders, planetary lords were permitted nearly complete autonomy over their fiefdoms.  They were free to set up any system of government they desired, from dictatorship to democracy, and exercised sole authority over all matters military, economic, legal, and judicial—Katya had highlighted that part.

Viktor had to read it several times before he realized what Katya was trying to tell him.



"This is Duke Molotok, Admiral of the Fifth Fleet, to P7 colony.  Respond please."

The fleet had been trying to contact the settlement on P7's primary planet for several days now.  Once, early on, they got an angry response, some guy yelling at them in a foreign language.  It turned out to be Chinese, and the translation software roughly interpreted it as, "I'll tell you when we have something, now stop nagging me!  And include more sake in the next shipment!"  No one had any idea what to make of that.  And other than that one puzzling response, the comm was silent.

Eventually it became clear that if Viktor wanted to find out what was on the planet, he'd have to go down there himself.  He took Amanda with him, figuring he could risk leaving Gretchen and Sexton O'Connor in charge for a few hours.  At least, he hoped he could leave Gretchen and O'Connor in charge for a few hours.  He also asked the Sexton's Reformed cons for four volunteers to escort them down to the surface—and was surprised when every hand in the room went up.  Viktor selected the four he thought looked like the biggest, toughest, and best disciplined.  The other cons alternately congratulated and cursed them for their good luck.  Finally, all six piled into an old Earth Fleet pinnace, and Viktor flew them down to the mysterious colony on the planet below.

"I can see why they built a colony here," Amanda commented on their way down, gazing out the viewscreen at the planet.  "Small and rocky, oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, plenty of water…"

"Mostly locked up in ice, though," Viktor qualified.  "At least our spacers won't die of thirst."

"Yes, well, it is at the outer edge of the star's habitable zone," Amanda agreed.  "Still, if it weren't crawling with Bugs, humans would probably have colonized it decades ago.  Barbarossa's database says the planet is a lot like old Earth during an ice age."

"Lucky us," the older man said.  "Let's just hope Gretchen doesn't get the urge to crash a moon into it."

The four Reformed Cons burst into laughter—even inmates had heard of her infamous Uncle Erich's exploits.  Amanda stared at Viktor, surprised.  "Why, Admiral Molotok… did you just make a joke?"

Viktor shrugged.  "It's known to happen occasionally… when I have something to joke about."

This kicked off a dirty joke contest between the Reformed Cons, and Viktor half-listened, mildly amused, as he studied the world they were approaching.  Huge ice caps dominated the northern and southern poles, the massive glaciers extending halfway across their respective hemispheres, leaving only about 70-degrees for an ice-free band around the equator.  As they flew closer, Viktor could make out mountain ranges, snow-covered plains with patches of forest, even small liquid lakes or seas.  The planet's axial tilt made it late winter or early spring at their destination.  Viktor wondered what it would look like in summer.

When they reached the small colony, Viktor circled above, examining it from the air with sensors and the naked eye before he risked touching down.  A large, fortified structure was carved high up into the side of a mountain, crusted in snow and ice.  The main colony was nestled in the foothills below.  It had the look of a makeshift settlement comprised of pre-fabricated barracks and storage huts, tattered tents, and crude wooden structures, like a temporary military field base that had been there far too long.  Thin wisps of smoke drifted from many of the structures.  There was no sign of movement or people.

"Infrared sensors are picking up heat sources in each building," Amanda said, studying her cockpit display.  "Judging by the smoke, my guess would be heating fires.  If there are any people in there, though, they're being drowned out by the fireplaces.  Other than that, just some tiny signatures in the forests outside the settlement—probably local fauna.  Doesn't look like Bugs, at least."

There was no obvious danger, so Viktor set the pinnace down on the outskirts of the settlement.  Still, he found something about this colony unsettling.  People at a low enough technology level to use heating fires can't be that dangerous, he thought.  But then how the hell have they survived the Bugs?

Their first taste of P7 was the cold air that flooded in the instant they opened the ramp at the back of the pinnace.  Viktor shivered in his thin jumpsuit; Amanda wrapped her arms around herself.  It was worse when they stepped outside into the wind.

But the four Reformed Cons beat them to it, running out of the pinnace with the excitement of children on Danemas morning.  One threw his arms wide, holding his face up to the sun, eyes closed.  "Oh, man…" he said, "I ain't felt the sun in… I don't know how long!  Or wind!"

"Smell that air, man!" another said, breathing deeply.  "This ain't that stale old recycled shit!"

Viktor suddenly realized why all of O'Connor's Reformed Cons had been so eager to volunteer to go down to P7: this was quite possibly the first time any of them been outside in years.  He may have just stumbled across another incentive to encourage good behavior among his convict crews.

Amanda managed a seventy centimeter standing jump with little effort.  "Gravity's a little light, and the air's a bit thin," she commented through chattering teeth.  "And it's fucking cold!  I'll be right back…"

The Admiral allowed the four Reformed Cons to enjoy their outdoor freedom for a moment.  He had to wait for Amanda anyway, as she had gone back inside the shuttle to retrieve a blanket from the emergency equipment.  Once the four inmates began a snowball fight, though, Viktor decided it was time to continue with the mission and herded them all towards the settlement.

It seemed utterly deserted, even though packed-down snow between buildings and clear boot prints suggested people did live here—lots of them.  Once, from the corner of his eye, Viktor thought he caught a glimpse of a child staring at him out of a window—but when he turned to look more closely, it was gone.  He frowned.  If this is a military installation, then what's a child doing here?

"Some scattered EM signals around here," Amanda informed him, studying a portable multiscanner in one hand while she clasped the blanket around her shoulders with the other.  "Little ones—probably small electronic devices.  According to infrared, we've definitely got people hiding inside."

"Then let's introduce ourselves," Viktor said.  He walked up to the nearest building and raised his fist to knock.

"That's far enough!" a gruff voice called out behind them.  "Drop your weapons!  Hands in the air!"

Viktor spun around in surprise and saw several troopers in whitewashed power armor pointing plasma rifles at them from behind buildings and snow banks.  Where the hell did they come from? he wondered—and instantly realized his mistake.  Military armor and weapons could conceal heat signatures and hide power emissions; Amanda's little multiscanner had little chance of detecting them.  And it hadn't.

Showing more courage than sense, the four Reformed Cons snapped into a defensive ring around Viktor and Amanda, shocksticks raised and crackling.  Viktor heard the door of the building behind him open, followed immediately by a sound he knew all too well: the whine of a charged plasma rifle.

Viktor winced.  It was a trap, and they'd walked right into it.

"Stand down!" he barked at the Reformed Cons.  When they hesitated, he snapped, "We don't have a chance!"  He lowered his voice, "And if they wanted us dead, we'd be dead already.  Play along, and we might survive this."  After a moment, the Cons reluctantly lowered their shocksticks and lifted their arms into the air.  Viktor and Amanda followed by slowly drawing their burp pistols and dropping them into the snow.

The next few minutes were fairly routine as such things went.  They were bound, gagged, and blindfolded.  Then they were marched through the settlement, slipping on snow and ice, until being thrust into a dark building and lashed to chairs.  Finally, Viktor's blindfold was removed, and he blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light.

They were in a long hall with a roaring fire burning in the center, which was the only source of light.  At least that meant the hall was considerably warmer than outside.  Standing before Viktor, silhouetted by the fire behind him, was a massive middle-aged man.  Viktor struggled to make out his features in the darkness.  The man had long blond hair streaked with gray tied back behind his head and a shaggy beard.  He wore a long fur cloak sewn together from pelts of some unknown animals.  Beneath that he wore black nanotech armor, its oily surface rippling whenever he moved.  The man looked Viktor up and down, then stood in silence for a long, long time.  Viktor thought it best to remain quiet himself—and he desperately hoped the Reformed Cons had the sense to do the same.  For a wonder, they did.

Finally the huge man spoke.  "I am Colonel Stefan Nikolai Bezrukov of the Terran Marines," he growled slowly, "and you are not welcome here.  For prisoners smart enough to escape the Empire, you've chosen a very stupid place to hide.  Now tell me," he said, cocking his head, "who are you, why are you here, and what do you want?"

Viktor blinked.  He recognized that accent—and the type of name.  "Vy Russkiy, iz Port-Artura?"

Bezrukov's eyes widened slightly, then narrowed.  "An easy guess.  Most Russians are from Port Arthur since Earth was evacuated."

"Ya Russkiy, tozhe, iz Port-Artura," Viktor told him.  "Ya Admir Viktor Molotok."

The Colonel raised an eyebrow.  "Oh, an Admiral?  Really?"  He smiled, amused.  "You seem to have lost your uniform, Admiral."

Viktor sighed, "This is my uniform," he said.  "It's… a long story."

"We have the time, and could use a new story," Bezrukov said.  "And you're not going anywhere."

So Viktor told him.  About the Fifth Fleet, junk ships, convict crews, cortex bombs… everything.

When he was done, the Colonel stared at him in silence for quite a long time.  "That's a good story," he finally said.  "Assuming I believed it, which I don't.  Not even Vin Dane is stupid enough to fight Bugs with that chepukha."

That prompted several angry accusations about the Colonel's mother from the Reformed Cons, who resented any and all insults to their God-Emperor.  They were quickly silenced by Bezrukov's troopers, who used the convicts' own shocksticks against them with little restraint and disturbing enthusiasm.

"Please forgive them, Colonel; they're good men, just a little zealous," Viktor said when the violence had died down.  "You can confirm the cortex bombs, at least."  He jerked his head at Amanda.  "She has a multiscanner.  You'll find we all have implants in the base of our skulls."

Bezrukov seemed amused by this, and perhaps a little curious, so he signaled for one of his troopers to do exactly that.  The soldier scanned them all, then showed the results to the Colonel.

"Looks like you were telling the truth—about that much, at least," Bezrukov said.  "You do all have implants… all except her."  He pointed at Amanda.  "So why doesn't she have one?"

Viktor turned to look at Amanda, surprised.  She looked back, just as shocked.  "I… don't?" she asked, puzzled.  "Maybe it broke?  Does—does that mean I can leave the Quarantine Zone?"  She looked to Viktor, who had no answer.

"I suppose this would also explain why you have 'Fifth Fleet' stenciled onto the back of your prison uniforms…"  Bezrukov smiled.  "If it is true—and I'm not saying I believe it—then the Empire did to you up there what they did to us down here.  The Imperial Navy's kept us grounded for more than a decade."

"Well now that I'm in charge," Molotok said, "that can change.  Unless you kill us, of course—then no one's likely to come down here again anytime soon."

"If the Empire's letting the prisoners run the prison now," the Colonel corrected, "which I doubt."

"You asked us why we came here and what we want," Viktor shot back, growing a bit bolder.  "Do you want the answers or not?"

He held his breath as Bezrukov glowered at him silently for a moment.  Grudgingly, the Colonel finally nodded at him to continue.

"Think about it," Viktor said.  "Four shocksticks, two burp pistols, and a pinnace?  This is not an invasion or a raid.  It's an exploration party.  We just wanted to find out what the hell was down here, make contact with the settlement, see if maybe we could help each other."

"Help!"  Bezrukov sneered and spat onto the floor.  "What makes you think we'd work with Imperial scum like you?"

"You think we like the Empire?" Amanda spoke up, angry for the first time.  "After what they did to us?  The only reason we're fighting for them is because the Bugs will kill us if we don't.  We're both just trying to survive here.  You said it yourself, Colonel—the Empire did the same thing to us that they did to you."  She paused a moment.  "Uh… what exactly did they do to you, though?  I mean, who are you guys and what are you doing out here on a Bug-infested planet?"

Bezrukov started at Amanda a moment, taken aback by her passion.  Then he chuckled and grinned.  "I like your she-wolf, Admiral," he said to Viktor.  "She's got balls! ...well, ovaries.  Whatever.  As for your questions," he said to Amanda.  "That, too, is a long story."

"As you said yourself, we're not going anywhere," Viktor pointed out.

"True."  Bezrukov shrugged.  "Eh, why not?"  He pulled up a chair, sat down, and began to tell his story.

"When Dane killed Chairman Clarke and formed the Empire, my Tech Infantry division and I declared for the Terran Republic.  They sent us and two other divisions of the Terran Army here to clear the Bugs off this planet and expand the Republic's territory… at least, that's what they told us at first.  I got transferred back out pretty quick to help form a marine corps for the Navy.  Then the Empire smashed our fleet at Epsilon, my men and I barely got out alive, and I made my way back here to try to evacuate the Army from this hellhole before the whole Republic fell.  We only managed to lift one division before we lost contact with everyone off-planet."

He looked away, haunted by the memory.  "The Empire left us out here to die.  We were stranded, cut off from supply, in the dead of winter.  Lots of us froze or starved, and most of the rest have been killed by the Bugs.  There were over 20,000 troopers stuck here ten years ago.  Only a few hundred of us are left, and we've only held out this long thanks to the Bughouse."

Viktor frowned.  "The… Bughouse?"

Bezrukov looked up at him.  "You saw that that fortress up in the mountains on your way down here, yes?"  When Viktor nodded, he continued, "That's the ARC, Arachnid Research Center.  We call it the Bughouse.  Apparently the Eastern Bloc set it up decades ago after the Third Civil War with some insane idea about taming Bugs and controlling them to use as weapons against the Federation.  When the Bloc fell, the Federation took it over.  When the Fed fell, the Republic took it over.  That's the real reason the Terran Army was out here, you see: to support and defend the ARC, hold a Bug-free zone around it, capture live specimens for them… you get the idea.  All top secret, very hush-hush."

Viktor wasn't sure he could believe what he was hearing.  Who would be insane enough to experiment on Bugs?  He turned to Amanda, a former top official.  "You ever hear about this, Mandy?"

"No."  She shook her head, looking just as amazed as the Admiral.

"Well, if she had, it wouldn't be top secret, would it?" Bezrukov smiled.  Apparently he didn't recognize Mandy… but Viktor supposed they didn't get much Imperial news out here.  "So my surviving troopers made a deal with the Bughouse: we'd keep defending them and bringing them live subjects in exchange for supplies, access to their power grid, and some of their little toys to help keep the Bugs at bay—repellent spray, tunnel detectors, Bug camouflage, stuff like that."

Viktor's mouth dropped open, his mind reeling.  Bezrukov had just rattled off three technological impossibilities in one sentence, and looked completely casual as he said it.

"Eventually, a few years later, the Empire rediscovered us out here," the Colonel pushed ahead before Viktor or Amanda could ask any questions about the ARC's anti-Bug technology.  "We thought we were rescued, but…  Well, the Empire took control of the Bughouse, of course.  But since we were already trapped down here defending them, why fix what isn't broken?  They declared us traitors to the Empire who could serve out life sentences here.  They drop us supplies from time to time, but that's it.  They won't even talk to us.  We don't have long-range communication equipment anymore—couldn't power it even if we did—and they won't give us any.  They pass us messages through the Bughouse—assuming those yeblya mad scientists are telling us the truth.  When they tell us anything at all."

"So that's why you didn't respond to our hails," Amanda said, nodding.

"Oh, did you try to contact us?" Bezrukov asked, mildly interested.  "Those assholes haven't said anything about it to us.  Of course they haven't."

"If you have access to the ARC's reactor," Amanda asked, sounding slightly suspicious, "then why are you using fires for heat?"

Bezrukov's face darkened.  "The stingy bastards only let us have enough power to charge our weapons and armor.  I think they're afraid we'll turn on them... and they're not completely wrong."  He loosed a barrage of Russian profanity which only Viktor understood.

"Well," Viktor said, "you've certainly got quite the story yourselves… if it's true, that is."

The Colonel looked simultaneously puzzled and offended.  "Why would I lie?"

"Why would we?" Viktor countered.  "We're in the same boat, Colonel.  Let's help each other."

"I see…"  Bezrukov narrowed his eyes, suspicious.  "And what 'help' do you need from us?"

Viktor took a deep breath, and then explained about the Fifth Fleet's abysmal security situation and the near-anarchy on the warships.  "But your soldiers are armed, armored, trained, and disciplined," he concluded.  "With the help of you and your men, we could bring the Fifth Fleet under control within days."

"Really?"  Bezrukov said, amused.  "Why would we risk our lives to help you?  What's in it for us?"

"Supplies," Viktor said.  "Long-range communication equipment, to begin with.  Power generators, medical supplies, whatever we can spare.  And the Bughouse would have a lot less leverage over you."

The Colonel clearly liked that idea, but held out for more.  "A good start.  What else?"

Viktor hesitated, not sure what else he could offer—the Fifth Fleet wasn't exactly oversupplied itself.  It was Amanda who saved him.  "When was the last time your troopers talked to their families?"

Bezrukov turned to her, surprised.  "We've been trapped here over ten years.  What do you think?"

"We can give you access to the FedNet," Mandy continued.  "Secure our ships for us and your men can have all the bandwidth they need.  Do you think your troopers would be willing to fight convicts in jumpsuits armed with shivs for the chance to talk to their loved ones, Colonel?"

For the first time, the other troopers in the room spoke without the Colonel's leave—encouraging him to accept the offer and volunteering for the mission.  Bezrukov held up a hand to silence them.

"It appears this is an offer I cannot refuse.  Fine."  He stood up and pointed to the Reformed Cons.  "First, you leave these four as hostages.  Next, you bring down a secure long-range communicator, something the Bughouse can't jam or intercept."  He picked up a jug and two small wooden cups.  "Finally, you send down transport shuttles—pilots only, unarmed—to take us to the orbital battlestation."  He poured a cloudy yellowish liquid into the cups.  It smelled like turpentine.  "At the first sign of betrayal, we kill your pilots, take your shuttles, and never work with you again.  Those are my terms.  Do you agree?"

What choice do I have?  Viktor gave him a single sharp nod.  "Agreed."

"Well then, Viktor Molotok," Bezrukov said, handing the Admiral a cup.  "We seal our new alliance the old way, Russian to Russian."  He held up his cup.  "Na Zdoróvye!"

"Na Zdoróvye!" Viktor toasted, then threw back the shot.  It was the worst kind of swill: high-proof and burned all the way down to his belly.  Viktor struggled not to cough… and failed.

"It's alright, it takes some getting used to," the Colonel said, sounding a little hoarse himself as he pounded Viktor on the back.  "We make it from some local insect larvae.  Smells bad and tastes worst."

"Right," Viktor squeaked, his head already beginning to spin.  "Remind me to bring you some Stolichnaya for sealing any future deals.  And I'll have the communicator sent down to P7 in a few hours."

"P7?"  Bezrukov looked puzzled for a second, then nodded.  "Right.  Of course."  He chuckled.  "We've been down here so long; I forgot that the rest of the universe just calls this place P7."

"Why?" Viktor asked, curious.  "What do you call it?"

"What else, Admiral?"  He grinned.  "New Siberia."



Once Admiral Molotok rearmed Bezrukov's troopers with burp guns to avoid breaching hulls, the New Siberians swept through the warships of the Fifth Fleet like a tidal wave: as unexpected as it was overwhelming.  Although they met some resistance from the more stubborn prison gangs, most inmates immediately realized a sharpened toothbrush would do little against power armored soldiers wielding actual guns, and surrendered quickly.  Thankfully, only about two dozen convicts were killed in the fighting, while Bezrukov's troopers suffered one minor injury from a cleverly improvised bomb.

Despite the ease with which the troopers secured the ships, there were a lot of warships in the Fifth Fleet, some quite large, and the sweep took a while.  Thankfully, this gave Molotok time to plan his next move: what to do with all the prisoners.  He struggled with it, but finally made his decision.

"Mandy, I need you to run a new filter on the inmates' profile records," he told his chief of staff.

"Of course, Admiral," Amanda Kait said, tapping on her datapad to bring up a new query for the personnel database.  "What parameters would you like?"

"Make a list of all the inmates with a death sentence," Viktor instructed her.  "Then remove anyone convicted for non-violent offenses—prisoners of war, political prisoners, and the like.  Finally, lose anyone with skills sets that would definitely be useful to the fleet.  Basically, I'm looking for a list of all the useless, violent troublemakers on death row."

Amanda peered up at him, mildly curious.  "That's still a lot of people, Viktor."

"I'm aware of that, Mandy," he replied, nodding.  "That's why I'm transferring them to the dreadnought, the biggest warship in the fleet."  He held up a hand to forestall any more questions.  "Just do it, Mandy, and let me know when it's done."  He turned to go, leaving a puzzled Amanda in his wake.



A day later, almost every prisoner yet delivered to the Fifth Fleet was stuffed onto the Juggernaut.  It was hard for Amanda to get an accurate headcount, but her best estimates put the fleet's population at over 20,000 convicts, a few thousand more inmates that the fleet actually needed to crew its ships.  The dreadnought could hold them all—barely.  Designed for a crew of nearly 8,000, plus a full division of 10,000 marines, it had the room, although it was crowded and the air recyclers where pushing into their safety margins.

The prisoners from Amanda's list of death row inmates had all been packed into the largest boat bay, the only space large enough to hold them all.  Viktor gazed through the window of the hatch into the bay to see it filled to overflowing with over three thousand convicts, their hands all secured behind them with zip ties.  They sat or stood around idly, talking and gossiping, shouting and fighting.

The hatch rolled aside and Molotok stepped into the bay, followed by two dozen New Siberians, armed and armored, rifles at the ready.  Viktor raised an air horn and blew a long blast.  The noise echoed around the cavernous bay until all convicts had grew silent, glaring at him in anger or sullen resentment.

Viktor took a step forward, back straight, arms behind his waist, peered around with hard gray eyes, and spoke.  "I am Duke Molotok, Admiral and Warden of this prison fleet, and the sole civil and military authority in this system.  You have all been 'paroled' into my custody, but don't let the word fool you.  You will never leave the Arachnid Quarantine Zone again—not without your head exploding, that is.  You're here for the rest of your lives… but how long your life lasts, and how fulfilling it is, is up to you.

"Instead of rotting and dying in prison, you've been given a second chance.  You can have a new life out here, a real life, as frontiersmen, soldiers, and guardians of the Empire.  I think you'll find that life in the Fifth Fleet is far superior to prison.  Here you'll have a cabin instead of a cell.  You'll have a career and a purpose instead of a pointless life of endless boredom.  Behave well and you can call friends and family through the Net.  You can have shore leave on the planet below.  You can have sex, fall in love, and even get married if you want.  You can have children and raise a family.  You can—"

"Get killed by the Bugs!" someone yelled—and then the bay roared with angry protest.

Admiral Molotok blew the air horn again until the bay quieted down, and then responded, "Yes.  We'll be fighting the Bugs—that's the price you pay for your relative freedom in Fifth Fleet.  How long the fleet holds out against the Bugs depends on how well you do your jobs.  I know I find survival to be an excellent motivator to work hard and perform well."

He paused to look around the bay with cold eyes.  "This is your last chance.  If you want what the Fifth Fleet offers, if you are willing to follow orders and work for your survival, then leave the shuttle bay now.  Anyone who refuses to comply and stays here will be discharged from the Fifth Fleet."

"Hey, works for me!" another loudmouthed troublemaker spoke up.  "I'd rather die in prison on Avalon than be eaten by Bugs in the ass end of space!"  There was a general grumble of agreement, and then the bay was once again filled with chatter, discussion, and arguments.

Viktor waited, giving them time.  He understood it wasn't any easy choice.  Gradually, convicts began leaving the bay, small groups at first that gradually became a stream of several hundred exiting through the hatch, herded away down the corridors by New Siberian troopers.

Well over a thousand prisoners remained.  Viktor looked them over, hundreds of scarred and tattooed faces glowering at him with expressions ranging from cocky defiance to pure loathing.

Molotok nodded slowly.  "Very well, then," he said, and left the bay, the two dozen troopers following him out.  As soon as the last trooper had cleared the hatch, Viktor closed and sealed it.  Then he turned to the control pad next to the hatch and opened a comm channel to the PA system inside the bay.

"By my judicial authority as Admiral of the Fifth Fleet and Duke of New Siberia," he said, overriding the safety protocols for the boat bay doors, "I hereby authorize your death sentences to be carried out immediately."

The inmates stared in shock, looking around in confusion as what the Admiral said sunk in.  By the time full panic took hold, Viktor had already opened the launch bay to the vacuum of space.

There was a short, horrible roar as atmosphere rushed out of the bay, carrying most convicts out into space in a swirling vortex of hundreds of bodies.  Inmates spewed blood from their mouths as their lung tissues ruptured.  A few inmates managed to cling to something and hold on long enough for all the air to exit the bay, then stood and ran to pound on the airlock door, choking as they tried to breathe in air that wasn't there.  They would have begged and screamed if they had been able to speak.

Viktor stared back at them through the airlock window, his face expressionless, and watched.  In less than a minute the surviving convicts passed out, unconscious, their bodies convulsing as they suffocated.  Finally, all lay still, their bodies slowly swelling as the vacuum let water vapor form in their blood and muscle.  Viktor closed the bay doors.

"Find the hardest cons you can and have them clean out the bay," the Admiral ordered, turning around to face his command staff.  "Make sure they understand what happened here… and why."  He paused, and then added, "Extract the cortex bombs from the bodies, too.  Save them for later analysis."

Everyone stood motionless, staring at him in mute shock.  Even Bezrukov looked appalled.  Amanda Kait alone merely looked grim; perhaps she'd guessed what the Admiral had been planning.  Gretchen's mouth hung open in horror.  "Mein Gott, Viktor, what…" she stammered once she found her tongue again.  "What did you do?"

"I discharged them," Viktor answered simply, then turned and walked away, leaving his stunned staff behind.

From that moment onward, the threat of being discharged from Fifth Fleet made even the hardest cons straighten up and salute their Admiral.




"…so after the battle group passed over New Paris, they ran into everything that Clarke could muster at Avalon.  From what I hear, that wasn't much."

Scout crouched down gently in the aft storage hold of the Supercharger Heaven.  After an hour of conversation, the human Hector, lying on his back, had finally reached the part of the story that interested Scout.  The Vulthra's intense glare shifted every time the captive human moved—which told Hector that the alien was ready to counter any move he made to escape.

"Where was Vin Dane?"

Hector shrugged.  "He just barely got off Jennifer's Star alive.  He went to Avalon to find the Orb.  He knew that was what the Caal were after."

"How did he know that?"

"Not sure; depends on who you talk to.  Lots of people say he's a god and fashioned the Orb himself.  Some say he just ran into it before in the past.  Then some even say that it was his wife who figured it out instead."

"Why did the Caal want the Orb?"

"Hell if I know."  Hector closed his eyes.  "Maybe for the power.  I heard that it once cut a moon in half."

Scout cocked his head.  "So could sufficiently concentrated graser fire from a battle fleet.  No.  The Caal do not care for technology, no matter how advanced.  It would be a tool, not their goal."

"The Orb's not tech," the bodyguard corrected, "it's magick."

"No difference."

"It's alive, you dumb bird.  It thinks.  It reacts.  You can't destroy it…"

"Perhaps you could not—" Scout started to say.

"Look, you don't get it.  People have tried to kill this thing, hide it, drain it," he said as Scout heard the hatch open behind him, "and it kept coming ba—Karl?"

Scout shifted slightly, keeping a firm eye locked on his prisoner.  "You are early, Captain."

"They shut the bars early…  Sergeant-Major Hotchkiss?"

"How are you doing, Karl?"  The ex-bodyguard smiled.

"How the…?"

"I did not ask for your presence," Scout interrupted the confused reunion.

"Yeah, but someone's asking for yours.  We've got an alert from House Griswold traffic control that all vessels are required to stay in orbit and be searched."

"Break orbit."

"Right…" Karl said.  "You see, the problem is, they have these defense satellites…"

"Prepare for departure," Scout said.  "Plot your course between the high orbitals and the planet."

"Boss, forgetting that this tug wasn't designed to ride atmosphere, that's just going to make us an easier target."

"Karl," Hector Hotchkiss interrupted, "the Blue Guards aren't going to fire down towards the planet.  The defense grid's pretty pitiful, too.  If you hug your heat shield, I'll bet you can find a hole in the defense screen, and then ride that out of here."

Scout cocked his head back towards his prisoner.  "Thank you."

"It's my ass too, now."  Hotchkiss shrugged.  "Lord Lukas isn't the 'ransoming' type.  You embarrassed him—he'll want to blow you out of the sky."

"All right…" Karl said.  He pointed at Scout's prisoner.  "Can I ask…?"

"You may not."  Scout turned away, and the captain reluctantly walked back through the hatch.

"Since I helped you," Hector asked, "can I sit up?"

"Can you?"

The former soldier sat up and faced his captor.  "And they say Vultures have no sense of humor."

"And if I was such a flying animal, I am certain I would not," Scout said.  "You said your False Artists have tried to destroy this Orb?"

"They're called mages.  But yes, if what I've heard is right, they tried.  Like a bad penny, it keeps turning up, and if you can wield it… well, you rule the galaxy."

"Strange," Scout said, "an artifact immune to your tainted magic sounds like it might be a construct of the True Way.  But to build something with the Way is…" Scout wanted to say unheard of, "…unusual."

Hector screwed up his eyes.  "Um, sure, whatever you say.  It's the part where people say it's alive that weirds me out."


"I don't know if that's true, but I do know the thing changes shape into whatever its wielder wants.  It's been a sword, a ring, a glove…"

"Changing shape, indestructible…" Scout thought aloud, and then he stood up suddenly in realization.  "Of course!  The Caal would seek power like that above all.  Where is this Orb?"

"On Vin Dane's hand."

"What star system?"


As if the Emperor himself had heard them, the Supercharger Heaven suddenly shifted violently; both Scout and Hector just managed to avoid tumbling over.  Scout immediately left the cargo bay and ran towards the bridge.  The ship bucked twice more before he reached it, but he didn't even break his stride.

"Report!" Scout barked once he reached the merchant ship's bridge.

"I told you, boss!"  Captain Karl shook his head.  "This tub doesn't stream atmosphere."

"Have we been attacked?"

"Not in the normal sense, no."  Karl rolled his eyes, and then activated the comm.  A string of threats and obscenities rolled out the speaker.

Scout hit the reply button.  "Lord Lukas, I presume."

"How dids I just know that crate was gonna be yours, scumbag?"

"Through the use of your simplistic reasoning ability."

"Simple?!"  The voice got higher.  "I'll show you simple, you affisme seffque!  Our guns is ready to blow you outta da sky.  You stop now, maybe I spare your life, got it?"

"It would be foolish for me to stop when your guns cannot aim at me."  Scout pointed at the astronavigation panel; Karl activated it.

"You think I's can't take a pot shot at you when you're over the ocean, dumbass?!"

Scout drew a line with his finger, linking the holoproj between Jennifer's Star and Wilke's Star, the first leg of the long trip to Avalon.  "You will have a fifteen second window to fire, sire.  I suggest you make the best of it.  Discom."  Scout punched the comm button and stared at Karl.  "Break orbit and activate the gravity drive.  Your destination is locked in."

"We can't open a jump point this close to a planet!"

Scout stared at the navigation plot.  He was not Skyborn.  He was trained as an Armorer; he knew the lay of the land and balance of ground combat.  Although his katas tried to instill some of the three-dimensional awareness necessary to make full use of his gliding ability, his mind was not trained to process the complicated patterns of space warfare.  So he deferred to his Captain, but pointed to one of Angel One's tiny moons.  "Can we use that as a shield?"

Karl looked at the projector a moment.  Then he gritted his teeth and turned his head to the helmsman.  "Park!  Time to earn your pay.  Break high and get us behind that rock!"

"Neo micheo seh oh?!"

"Don't give me that crap, Park, just do it!"

Hector came stumbling onto the bridge just as the ship banked sharply, throwing the former sergeant-major against the wall.  Even Scout had to grab hold of the nearest panel; everyone else on the bridge was belted in.

"Ohhhhhh, Captain!" another member of the crew yelled.  "I think we're about to get tagged!"

Karl looked at his plot.  "Time to the moon, Park?"

"Mol lah yo!" the helmsman called back.

"Works for me," Karl answered.  "Hang on!"

As the only weapons satellite in range spun itself into a firing angle, the Supercharger Heaven increased speed.  Ion engines flared almost as brightly as Jennifer's Star as they reached maximum acceleration, straining the ship's inertial compensators and the crew decks' gravity plating to their limits.  The defense satellite actually fired once, but missed its target in the particle bloom.  Then the freighter slipped into the shadow of the moon—really just a captured asteroid—escaping the satellite's field of fire.

…and into the field of fire of the missile launchers installed on the moon.

"You know, I really should have seen that coming," Karl said, as a dozen blips appeared on his sensor plot, each one marking an anti-ship missile.

"Do we have countermeasures?" Scout asked.

"No," Karl said.  "But remember when I said we can't open a jump point this close to a planet?"

"Uh oh," Hector said from where he was sprawled against a bulkhead.

"Yeah, I've changed my mind."  The Captain punched a control.

For a moment, the bridge went completely dark as every watt of power was drained from the ship's reactor and batteries by the gravity drive as it fought to counter Angel One's steep gravity well.  The drive managed to tear a small, jagged hole in reality just before the strain caused it to explode.  The jump point's interface destroyed the incoming missiles and shattered part of the lumpy moon from which they had been launched.  Supercharger Heaven tumbled through the portal just as the universe angrily sealed itself back up.

Dim light was restored to the bridge as the ship's systems began to reboot.  They drifted in silence for a few moments before Scout looked to Captain Karl and said, "Your skill as a Skyborn must have made you a formidable warrior."  He gave a short bow.

"Uh, yeah, what you said," Karl said.  He exhaled slowly.  "Well, it's nothing without a good crew. Park is the best damn boat driver in the known worlds, ain't that right?"

"Geuneun naega malhagodan-eoleul ihaehaji anhseubnida," the helmsman answered.

"See?" Karl smiled, and then leaned to whisper in Scout's ear.  "But between you and me, I don't understand a damn thing he says.  I can only hope he understands me."

"Then let us hope for a smooth journey to Avalon."

"Right now I'm just hoping we can repair the grav drive in order to journey anywhere."

"The trip isn't what you should worry about," Hector called, pulling himself off the wall.  "It's when you jump out.  Avalon's the most protected system in the galaxy."

"We will face our fate with determination and strength.  But I must get to Avalon."

Hector shook his head in disbelief.  "That's such a bird thing to say."




A week had passed since Thomas and Antonio had met with the leaders of the Fearless Jackals and Magistrate Kane.  The Jackals had smuggled Antonio out of Jennifer's Star to the Babylon System.  Apparently, Thomas' sire was satisfied with the situation on Jennifer's Star and wanted to investigate the mysterious disappearance of one of his childer on Babylon.  While Thomas could have used the resources of the Fearless Jackals for the job, he preferred to work alone.  He would make every effort to use only his own personal resources for the assassination of Duke Griswold.

Realizing, of course, that the Jackals might see a benefit to his own death, Thomas did not fully trust his ostensible partners just yet.  Fortunately, a Nosferatu vampire he had diablerized half a century ago had given him an ability that would be quite useful for this operation.  It allowed him to mimic the appearance of any person or vampire, which would be helpful for framing the Sabbat for the assassination.

Another blessing was that he had been given no fixed deadline.  The Fearless Jackals and Kane had recognized that Thomas would need time to plan and execute the murder.  And, since Thomas anticipated a major crack down on vampires after the assassination, he could not be totally assured that he himself would not be caught in the cross fire.  Not to mention that any remaining Sabbat members in Dynametro would undoubtedly become aware that another vampire was at large in the city and seek revenge.

Therefore, Thomas decided he needed to recruit someone into the Giovanni that was involved with law enforcement.  During his time in the city, he learned a lot about the Royal Blue Guards operating in his borough.  One young lieutenant of Italian descent had gained his attention.  Thomas was aware that he was taking bribes from a local gang, and decided he might be interested in the gifts of becoming a ghoul and perhaps, eventually, even a vampire.  Two days ago, at Thomas' request, Lisa had left to learn more about this officer, his recent activities, and what he was like prior to making contact.

One early weekday evening Thomas and Gareth, his ghoul ally, were lounging in the living room enjoying wine glasses of Bone Gnawer blood when Thomas noticed that his datapad on the coffee table was blinking.  He leisurely reached forward and pressed a button.  There was a brief flash followed by a miniature holographic image of Miles Kane displayed about a foot above the table.

"Hello, Thomas?"


"This is Miles.  Is this line secure, and are you alone?"

"It's safe.  I'm with Gareth, and we are quite alone."

A smirk made its way on to the Magistrate's face.  "The Baron has learned about your involvement in our little operation.  He would like to meet you personally."

"Is that wise?" Thomas asked.  "I'm not sure we should be seen together."

"I know.  But the Baron is in my borough visiting prominent businessmen and key members of the public."

Thomas tried not to roll his eyes.

"We've added an appointment to his agenda for him to meet Gareth.  Since Gareth is one of the executives working at the Thames Medical Center, such an arrangement shouldn't draw too much attention."


"Now.  Are you available?"


"He looks forward to seeing you," the Magistrate replied.  "We'll be there in twenty minutes.  Discom."

After the image winked out, Thomas sighed.  He and Gareth finished their glasses of blood and went to changed into more formal clothing.  Shortly after there was a knock at the front door.

They went to the front foyer, looked through a security cam, and saw Miles Kane and Baron Wellington on the other side.  Several more men stood waiting by their groundcar in Thomas' driveway.

"Gareth, I think you should answer it," Thomas said.  "I'll be in the living room."

Gareth nodded.  While he went to open the door, Thomas made his way back into the mansion and waited for his guests by the large fire in the living room.  Moments later Gareth entered with Miles and the Baron at his side.

"Baron Wellington, greetings Your Lordship," Thomas said.

The Baron nodded.  "And you must be Thomas Giovanni.  It's a pleasure to meet you."

"I can assure you that the Duke will be dead by the end of the month," Thomas began.  "But I am curious as to why you wanted to meet."

The Baron looked up, but before he could reply, Miles interjected.  "He wanted to discuss with you the reason for the murder, and why my plan—"

"My plan!" the Baron bellowed.

Kane paused before continuing, "The plan."

"Duke Griswold may be a bumbling buffoon, but that could eventually lead to the downfall of us all.  The Lords of the other Houses are aware of his idiocy, which could make us targets for invasion.  They see the lawlessness in our system.  It's only a matter of time before another House seeks to take advantage."

"But why now, Your Lordship?" Gareth asked.  "Why is this so urgent?"

"I have secured assurances from my allies in the Imperial Diet that should the Duke die now, as he is unmarried and without an heir, I would be recognized as the new ruler of House Griswold," the Baron answered.

"We cannot afford to wait much longer," the Magistrate continued for him.  "Duke Griswold has many ladies seeking to wed him.  And it is, of course, always possible that he will simply conceive a child illegitimately.  In that event, the matter of succession might become… contentious."

Thomas nodded.  "I could use as much information about the Duke as you have available.  When he'll be visiting Dynametro next, what his escort will be like, and his agenda while he's here."

The Baron nodded.  "It will be arranged."

The Magistrate looked at the vampire and said, "You'll be compensated for this, Thomas.  Already, I'm putting pieces into place that will assure your safety, if all goes according to plan.  In fact, I've received permission from the Baron to join your Giovanni Cabal myself… with your consent, of course."

Thomas managed not to roll his eyes or frown.

"There is one other matter I'd like to dispense with while I'm here," Baron Wellington said, saving Thomas from having to reply to Kane.  "I think a small demonstration of your abilities would be appropriate."

"My Lord?" Thomas asked cautiously.

"It's time for one of my vassals to retire.  I'd like your help delivering the message.  Send him in, Miles."

Kane tapped at his datapad, and a moment later one of the men who'd been waiting outside entered Thomas' mansion and walked into the living room.  His suit was expensive, but poorly cared for and wrinkled.

"Yer Lordship," he dipped his head to the Baron.  "Is this the man you wanted me ta meet?"  He looked at Gareth, who rolled his eyes.

"This is M. Giovanni, Lukas," Baron Wellington said, gesturing to Thomas.

"Ah," Lukas said, and bowed.  "Always a pleasure ta meet a friend of my Lord."

"Think of it as a gift," the Baron said to Thomas.

"I see."

"Huh?" Lukas asked, as Thomas walked up to him.

He made a poor chaser to the Bone Gnawer blood.



End of Episode Two



This creature softened my heart of stone.  She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.

—Joseph Stalin, at the funeral of Ekaterina Svanidze, his first wife.


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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 Olin Industries, Yangtze Cola, and the letter Ψ.  Do not try ANY of this at home unless you have complete judicial authority over an entire star system.