Episode Three — An Inferior and Unimaginative Mind

"You shot them!"

In ordinary circumstances Sato Ryoko would object—forecefully—to anyone grabbing her by the elbow and dragging her anywhere at a run.  Right now it seemed like the least offensive of many things that were happening to her.

"They pointed guns at you, My Lady," Sergeant Albert Guo said.  He was the one holding on to her elbow.  His other hand cradled a plasma carbine against his hip.  "That's what happens."

They were running along a broad, gently curving corridor carved out of the rock of St. Pierre Station.  Every few hundred meters they passed a hatch leading into another cargo bay like the one they'd left.  The doors weren't large enough to be used for passing cargo, but if the corridor was meant for personnel, it was weirdly empty.  Since stepping over the corpses of the Righteous Army soldiers Ryoko's bodyguards had mowed down, they'd passed no one and nothing except a few inactive cleaning robots.

"You don't know that they actually meant to hurt me," Ryoko said.  Keeping pace with the soldiers was difficult, and her legs were starting to ache.  At least she was wearing decent shoes.  "They probably didn't know what was going on."

"You may well be right," the Sergeant answered.  He glanced over his shoulder.  He only met Ryoko's eyes for a fraction of a second, but his expression was chilling.  "My duty to protect you takes priority over everything else," he said.  "That means I don't risk your life just to avoid a misunderstanding."

"But—" Ryoko started to protest before stopping herself.  She set her jaw and nodded.  "I understand, Sergeant."

Guo didn't say anything or look back again, but the way he squeezed her arm let her know he appreciated her words.

"So what's the plan?" Ryoko asked between breaths after another few minutes of running.

Guo blew out his cheeks.  "Immediate objectives are to stay alive and look for opportunities for a more permanent solution."

"You don't have a plan?!" Ryoko shouted.

He shook head sharply.  "This was not the sort of contingency we prepared for.  The Righteous Army was supposed to be our backup in a crisis.  But if this station, if this whole system is hostile territory, then we're in deep sh—we're in it deep."

"I don't believe that," Ryoko said.  One of the bodyguards at the front held up a hand, and the group shuffled to a halt.  The door to the cargo bay ahead was open, and people were milling about inside.  Fortunately, they seemed to be absorbed with inspecting some containers in a heavy shuttle, and did not notice Ryoko or her entourage stepping quickly and quietly on by.

"I don't believe that," Ryoko said again in a whisper.  "There's no reason to think the Tremonters knew about the Tegetthoff any more than we did."

"Someone killed your call to Ambassador Sauerborn," Guo hissed back.  "The Tremonters own the comms on this station and San Angeles.  They're the ones who could have monitored your connection and shut it down."

Ryoko frowned; that was very true.  "It could have been the cruiser," she said slowly, resuming her normal voice now that they were further down the corridor.  "Either they intercepted the comm or just assumed we might make one, and jammed the signal."  Did ships like that have jamming equipment?  Ryoko didn't know.

"Maybe," Guo said, in a tone that indicated he didn't really believe it.  "But I don't have a safe way to find out for sure, and I can't risk your life for maybe."

"Who's your Army liaison up here?"

"Captain Nazario.  But I can't just ask him if his people are on our side.  If they're not, and I comm him, then they'll be able to trace our location."

Ryoko muttered darkly.  Then she winced and said, "Wait," as a thought occurred.  She slid her datapad out of her dress pocket.  "If they can follow us from comms, then can they follow us using—"

A couple of her other bodyguards cursed when they saw the still-active device.  Guo reached for it with one hand, but Ryoko pulled it away from him, looking at the screen.  "Stop," she said.

She planted her feet; and while it must have surprised the guardsmen, they came to a halt almost in unison.

The datapad was saying that Ryoko had two missed calls from Simon Tremont in the last five minutes.  She hadn't even noticed the alarm or the vibration while running.

"We're about three hundred meters from a junction," one the guards reported to Sergeant Guo.  "There's a tram station and a food and shopping court, then paths out to short-term storage and another loop of bays."

Ryoko drummed her fingers against the side of the datapad as she tried to figure out what to do.  She nodded once to herself when she made up her mind.  "Sergeant, I'm going to make a call.  Can we hold tight here for a minute?"

Guo sucked in his lips as he considered.  Ryoko had to suppress a snort when she saw this.  Despite the seriousness of their situation and the grimness of Guo's own posture, the expression was remarkably cute.

"I think so," he said at last.  "If they were after us and had people nearby, they would have already been on top of us.  The station wasn't on alert, and the group we did run into was probably everyone from the nearest post.  We should have at least another five to ten minutes before reinforcements can get out to this area if they were scrambling."  A couple of the others nodded their agreement with this assessment, though no one looked especially happy about it.

"Good," Ryoko said.  "Let's see what I can find out."  She told the datapad to call Simon back.

The young Tremont's face appeared on the display seconds later.  His eyes were just as bright as ever, but his expression was strained.

"Lady Sato!" he exclaimed.  "Oh, thank the Emperor you're safe.  I've been trying—"

"Shove it up your ass, Simon," she cut him off.  One of her bodyguards covered an embarrassed cough with one hand.  Ryoko tried to make her face look as angry as possible.  "You lied to me."

"What?"  Simon blinked.  "I—"

"You're the ones behind the raids on Phoenix!  You and your grandfather.  It was a nice show you both put on for us, but how stupid do you think I am?"

"My Lady, I never—"

"Spare me your excuses, I don't care.  I just wanted to let you know you miscalculated—and to see the look on your face when you realized how badly.  Once the word gets to my cousin, your plan is vapor."

Simon's eyes narrowed.  "Please," he said.  "Ryoko.  Don't borrow trouble for yourself when there's no need.  You can have my ironclad assurance that we mean no harm to New Tokyo or House Yasuyama.  But you told me that you met Duke Savant yourself.  Surely you saw just how corrup—"

Ryoko killed the connection.

"Okay, you were right," she nodded at Sergeant Guo.  "They're in on it."

She flipped over the datapad and separated the device from its power source.  She looked at the blank screen one more time, then shrugged and slipped it back into her pocket.  If he lets himself get played that easily, he was never worth my time, she thought.

"You know, I'd kind of been hoping I was wrong," Guo replied.

"Yeah, me too," Ryoko said.  "Do we have a way to get off the station?  Or at least get a message to New Tokyo?"

He shook his head.  "We can try hijacking a computer terminal for the message.  But none of us is a technician; we won't be able to do much if it's locked down."

"We can try hijacking a ship," one of the bodyguards offered.

"Lots of problems with that plan," Guo said, "but it's the one I keep coming back to, myself."

"Do we even know what ships are docked?" someone else asked.

"That would be one of the problems."

"Another reason to hijack a terminal," Ryoko said.

"There is a third option."  Guo set one nanotech-gloved hand on Ryoko's shoulder.  "We could surrender."

She frowned.  "Explain."

The Sergeant nodded his head towards the pocket where she'd put her datapad.  "The Elder there did seem like he was willing to guarantee your personal safety, regardless of whatever you've discovered about his House's plans.  Like I said, my job is just to keep you safe.  Right now we're in an extraordinarily dangerous position."

Ryoko closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  She wanted to immediately reject the notion of giving herself up—for one thing, it would be demeaning to beg Simon for protection right after spurning him.  But she forced herself to seriously consider Guo's words.

"No."  She shook her head.  "I appreciate the advice, Sergeant, but no.  I am not turning myself into a hostage for these backward, balloon-headed, lying gaijins."  She took a deep breath.  "Not while I can help it."

Sergeant Guo actually cracked a smile.  "Yes, My Lady."  He saluted.  "We should probably get out of the docking ring, then."

They ran some more, Sergeant Guo and the seven other bodyguards keeping Ryoko surrounded in a small circle as they moved.

The premonition hit just as the corridor opened up into an intersection.  It was just an instant's flash, but Ryoko knew that she needed to duck, now.

She fell forward, just as a bolt of plasma seared between the shoulders of two of her guards on her left side.  It singed the top of her head, and struck another of her guards on the jaw.  The part of his head that wasn't simply vaporized was superheated and exploded; he toppled over so that Ryoko's nose was centimeters away from the soles of his boots.

The battle lasted only a few seconds as the rest of her escort shot down whoever had attacked.  Ryoko simply gaped at the corpse next to her, unsure if she'd ever even learned the soldier's name.

"Not that way," Guo said.  He grabbed Ryoko under the arm and pulled her to her feet for the second time that day.  "Into the market!"

"I just…" Ryoko said weakly, looking behind her while her feet seemed to move on their own.  "I ducked, and it killed him."

"It was what you needed to do," Guo told her, still pulling her along.

"No that's not… I just saw it…"

Ryoko was vaguely aware that they were running into a populated area now.  Faceless people shouted and dodged out of the way as they hurtled past.  Some more shots thundered behind her, but she didn't know if someone was shooting at them, or if her guards were firing back.

She needed to get a grip.  They were doing what Ryoko had decided they should: run and fight.  She'd known it was a deadly dangerous decision; Sergeant Guo had told her it was right beforehand.  Seeing someone die right next to her had just unnerved her for a moment, that was all.

No, it was the magick, the more honest part of her mind thought.  That shot would have killed me if I hadn't seen it ahead of time.  She felt that sinking sensation in her gut that she always felt.

No, she suppressed the feeling.  I can't be afraid of this right now.  Disturbing as her ability was, she was in a fight for her life.  The only reasonable choice was to use it.  Ryoko closed her eyes again and felt for her power like she had the few times she'd actually spent experimenting with the magick.

An image of herself crying while two enormous warships blasted each other from close range filled her thoughts.  It came with a feeling of such absolute despair that Ryoko gasped and forced the image away.

"My Lady?" Guo's voice asked.  "Are you all right?"

"Yeah."  Ryoko blinked rapidly.  "That was no help."

"Terminal's no good," one of the other guards said.  Ryoko realized they had stopped in front of a public information kiosk.  "I think the whole network's locked down."

Sergeant Guo muttered a curse under his breath.  Then the floor rattled beneath their feet and he repeated the curse out loud.

A Righteous Army trooper in heavy power armor had just stomped around a corner beneath a pointed sign reading "TRAM".  It spotted Ryoko's little band and swiveled to point the rotary cannon it had slung under one arm at them.

Ryoko didn't think.  She just reached out and touched the shoulders of the guards on either side of her, and sped up time in a bubble around them all.  The white-armored trooper's cannon flashed lazily, and pointed gauss darts began flying across the hall at mere walking speed.

"Suggest we move!" Ryoko said, since her companions still seemed dazed by the bizarre sight.

"Er—right!" Guo said after a quick shake of the head.  He didn't ask what had happened, but grabbed Ryoko's hand again and said, "Come on!"

They'd run about ten meters when Ryoko realized not everyone was with them.  She glanced over her shoulder to see two of her guards still standing, frozen, back at the kiosk.  She hadn't made her bubble large enough.  She was just opening her mouth to shout when the hypersonic slugs reached them, gouging great bloody holes through their bodies in slow motion.  Ryoko clenched her teeth instead and turned away.

Sergeant Guo led them around another corner, and down an escalator that was not visibly moving at their speeded-up pace.

"That's you doing this, right?" Guo asked her once they reached the bottom.

"Yes," Ryoko said tightly.  The strain of maintaining the bubble was starting to wear on her mind.

"Well thank you," he told her.  "I think we were dead otherwise."

"I'm sorry I couldn't—I'm sorry about—" Ryoko stammered and then exhaled forcefully as she lost her hold over the magick.  The spell dissipated.  She hadn't noticed how quiet it had become until the normal buzz of the station returned.  Suddenly, she felt quite dizzy and swayed on her feet.

Guo caught her with one arm and held her up until she regained her balance.  "You did what you could, and we're alive because of it," he said, showing a sad smile.  "Combat's like that.  Dwelling on it will just make you sick."

He was right.  She thought about what she'd just seen, and felt a rising pressure in her stomach.  Guo grimaced, and quickly stepped to one side as Ryoko leaned forward and retched.  "Like that," he said.

A loud clanking at the top of the escalator recalled them to the present.  Guo tugged at her arm again.  "We have to keep going."

They ran into some wide tunnels with rails laid down the center and roll-up doors along the walls.  "Warehouses," Guo explained.

"What's the plan, Sergeant?" the bodyguard at point asked.

"See if we can find a good place to cut through to lose them.  Which direction is the surface?"

"Um…"  The bodyguard pointed.

"All right, try to stick to the outside as much as possible."

"You want an airlock?"  The point man glanced at Ryoko.  "We could put the Lady in an emergency suit."

"Last resort," Guo said.  He looked at Ryoko.  "More options in here when things go wrong."

"No complaints," she told him.

They turned down side passages seemingly at random.  The bodyguards seemed to have at least the general layout of the station memorized, but their pursuers had the complete map.  And this level seemed to be laid out in a simple grid, anyway, so she wasn't sure how much evasion was actually possible.  They occasionally checked inside the warehouse units as they went, finding most entirely empty.

Finally, they rounded a corner and collided with a unit of Righteous Army soldiers in light armor.

"Crap!" Guo's point man shouted.  He tackled the lead trooper and broke the Tremonters' nose with the butt of his rifle before the others shot him.  Sergeant Guo dragged Ryoko back around the corner while two more of her bodyguards poured on suppressive fire.

"This is not how I expected this to go!" Ryoko yelled as they charged back the way they'd come.

"No," the Sergeant grunted.

The soldier in the heavy armor which had driven them down the escalator appeared at the end of the hallway.  Guo skidded to a halt, tore open a warehouse door, and shoved Ryoko inside.  Another of his men dove in after them right before the soldier's gauss cannon opened up again.  The two guards who had covered their retreat a moment ago did not follow.

"Don't suppose you have any grenades, Sergeant?" the remaining guardsman asked.

"Sorry," Guo said, checking the charge of his carbine.

The guardsman sighed.  "Guess I'll make do."  He dragged a couple of bulky metal crates in front of the door and then took up position behind them.  "Might be time to explore some backup plans."

"Right," Guo nodded.  He took Ryoko's arm again.  "Good luck."

"Probably just buy you a minute or two, move fast."

Ryoko wanted to protest as Guo started leading her away from the last of her squad.  Instead, all she could manage to say was, "Thank you."

"Honored, My Lady," he said back.  Then he activated the camouflage circuit of his Zeta armor and seemed to disappear.

Sergeant Guo led her through a side door into a second warehouse compartment.  They were almost across it when the shooting erupted behind them.  Ryoko winced, but kept running.

"What do we do?" she whispered as they cut through the next unit.

"Keep moving."

The sound of plasma fire stopped and was replaced by the scraping of heavy metal objects being pushed around.

"I have magick," Ryoko said.  "Maybe I could—"

"Just keep going," Guo told her.

The next warehouse they walked into was the last in the row, the only way out was back into the main hallway.

"Oh," Ryoko said softly.  It was a defeated noise.  "Well, I guess that's it, then."

"No," Guo said.  He led her around some stacked containers to a cleared area.  A large, circular metal hatch was set into the wall.

Ryoko grimaced, "I don't know that trying to walk around outside is really a good—"

"Not an airlock."  Guo stopped her.  He pointed to painted red labels above the hatch.  "Escape pod, in case the station's attacked."

"Ahh," Ryoko said, feeling her spirits lift again, just a little bit.  "Well that might work."

Guo was just about to break the glass over the hatch's emergency control lever when the door through which they'd entered the warehouse unit was torn off its hinges.  Over the tops of the cargo containers, they could see the whitewashed metal hump of the Righteous Army soldier's heavy power armor.

Guo just stared at it for a second, dismay plain on his face and in his eyes.  Then he punched out the cover of the control panel and pulled the lever.  The escape pod's heavy hatch hissed and started to open.  The armored soldier at the far end of the warehouse began to move all too quickly towards them.

Then the commander of Ryoko's bodyguards, and the last survivor of her escort, turned to his charge and kissed her on the cheek.  "Go on, My Lady," Albert Guo said.

Ryoko started to sputter, but Guo had already turned away from her.  He dropped his carbine and crouched on the floor.  For a moment, the black soup of his armor looked like it was boiling.  But the rippling surface was simply expanding with its wearer as the small-statured Sergeant Guo transformed into something hulking and grotesque.

In full Crinos form, the werewolf leaped over the top of the cargo containers to land on the soldier in the heavy suit, claws ripping downward.  For a fleeting second, Ryoko thought Guo would be able to tear his enemy apart and return, but then the room started to flash with plasma fire.  Guo's roar was loud enough to hurt her ears.

Ryoko whirled and ran into the escape pod.  It was almost as large as a shuttle, built to hold more than a dozen people.  She scrambled up to the panel at the front.  The instructions were printed in large, clear letters, but Ryoko had trouble reading them.  Finally, she twisted and pulled the lever that should seal the hatch and separate the pod from the station.

A small display panel lit up with the words "NO LAUNCH—COMMAND OVERRIDE."

Ryoko shook her head and tried the controls again.  But the same notice flashed on the display.

Behind her, Ryoko could hear Sergeant Guo howling in pain.  Plasma shots were still being fired at him, and he was still crashing around, trying to buy Ryoko a few more seconds to escape.  She tried the pod controls again, but it was no use.  She'd been locked out; the station's control center could probably stop escape pod launches if its commanders wanted.

Ryoko collapsed into one of the cushioned seats of the pod.  She held her head in her hands, her eyes wide and watery.  It was just so amazingly stupid.  She was going to die here, uselessly.  She had gotten eight people killed right in front of her, probably more elsewhere.  They'd died fighting to save her, and it had just been wasted effort.

If only she'd never asked to tour that stupid ship.  Or even if she hadn't been so full of idiotic bravado as to tell her hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned bodyguards to fight their way off a hostile space station.  And why?  Because she didn't want to give Simon Tremont the satisfaction of beating her?  Only fools let vanity drive them.  Well, Ryoko was apparently quite vain.

She felt her right hand travelling down to her neck.  She pulled on the cord around it and clutched at the old amulet her aunt Akiko had given her the last time she had visited Ryoko's mother.  The silk was worn and faded, and the paper inside completely disintegrated.  Ryoko didn't know why she'd kept the stupid thing.  Maybe it was just a reminder of a time when she'd been so much happier.  When she'd had a real family.

"I'm sorry, Auntie," she said.  She was probably only imagining that she could hear herself over the guns still firing in the warehouse behind her.  "Thanks for saving me back then, but…" she closed her eyes and shook her head.  She could still feel all the resentment she'd held over the years boiling within her, but it all seemed so pointless now.  "…but I guess that was never what I really wanted."

Ryoko sat there, rubbing the amulet between her thumb and fingers and waiting to die.  She didn't get up or turn around when the shooting finally stopped.  Nor did she move when someone knocked on the metal ring of the escape pod's hatch.

"Are you Ryoko Sato?" a voice asked.

Ryoko lifted her chin.  A mauled version of her name was not really the last thing she'd anticipated hearing before dying.  She shifted to look around the back of her seat.  A man was standing outside the hatch, leaning his head in and looking at her curiously.

"I… yes," Ryoko said.

"Hallelujah!" he said, and rolled his eyes.  His brown hair was stuck up at the front in a stupid cowlick.  "Praise be upon him who saves us from his own raving lunatic worshippers!  Now let us rejoice and depart from this forsaken place.  And then let us never, ever come back."


In the warehouse behind him, Ryoko could see three men carrying an assortment of heavy weaponry.  They wore ancient suits of power armor painted Tech Infantry blue.

The man jerked a thumb over his shoulder.  "My ship's docked just down the hall.  I'm supposed to rescue you and then transport you to New Tokyo.  The, uh, the rescuing was the part we just did, I think.  Now all that's left is the transporting."

Ryoko stood up from the escape pod chair.  She barely felt her legs as she walked towards the hatch, like she'd become a ghost.

The man held out a hand as she approached.  "I'm Captain Welthammer.  Jim Welthammer.  I have to say, you don't really seem as excited about this whole rescued-from-mortal-danger business as I expected."

Ryoko punched him in the mouth.  It hurt her fingers, but the pain felt good.




It took some time for Ascension Kalynn to get used to her new position managing an entire star system.  It was not an easy task, meeting all the needs of the people of Kalintos while trying to repair the damage of the battle between House Francisco and her own revolutionaries that people were now calling—probably inevitably—"Ascension's War".  At least they weren't actually blaming Ascension for their suffering.  She was baffled at just how poorly the old House had administered the planet.  Even with the blockade, Kalintos' economy should have been booming, not languishing.  At least it was recovering briskly now.  Still, Ascension couldn't help but look at the big picture.

Right now the big picture was changing.  Ascension knew that her actions wouldn't escape the notice of the God-Emperor for long.  She had toyed with the idea of sending a personal letter to Vin Dane apologizing for her actions and trying to justify them as a necessary response to Countess Francisco's mismanagement, but she'd held off on the idea.  Ascension didn't really want to swear fealty to anyone, as the Emperor would certainly insist, but maybe she wouldn't have to.  As long as the Jurvain held Chalfont against the Imperial Navy, the Empire could not touch Kalintos.  Maybe, just maybe, there was a way for Ascension to come out of this with both her life and her principles intact.

Jaeto had contacted her earlier in the week to ask if she would meet again with representatives of Meonhanuel as well as a few other Chaebols which had become interested in the deal she had arranged.  Ascension wasn't just trading on her father's reputation anymore; she was making her own contacts among the Jurvain, building up trust.  Much depended on the impression she made, and whether the Jurvain thought she was useful.  Ascension paced nervously as she waited for Brianne and Fiora to arrive with the latest updates.

"Relax, Ace," Thorin told her.  "I'm sure everything will be in order.  You weren't half this nervous when you went out to meet the Skinnies alone.  Maybe you should have a drink."

Thorin had made a full recovery by now, and sat behind her desk patting the very last barrel of her whiskey.  Only one had been recovered, and it was half emptied when they found it.

"This is a little bit bigger than an arms deal," Ascension said.  "What if I have to leave the system and the Navy shows up while I'm gone?  I'll never be able to land here again, and I doubt I'll live long as a refugee in Jurvain space."  She checked the time.  "Shouldn't they be here?"

As if on cue the door buzzed.  Ascension turned to the door.  "Open it, Abe."  He obliged.

Brianne and Fiora entered with Drake and a couple others.  They were smiling, which made Ascension all the more nervous for a moment.  "We have great news!" Drake almost shouted.  Fiora glared at him and Brianne laughed lightly.  It was good to hear her laugh again after everything.

Ascension half relaxed.  "What have you got for me?"

"Well, we've polled the majority of the population, and you have overwhelming support.  Most businesses are making progress towards restoration, and we got you a little present."  Brianne looked at Drake.

"Bring him in," Drake said to the two guards.

Ascension's eyes went wide as they brought Fredrick Davidson through the doors.  He wasn't bound, and had a smile on his face as well.  She stood like stone staring into his eyes.

Davidson walked right up to her and held out his hand.  "Congratulations, Miss Kalynn.  Or is it not too early to say Countess Kalynn yet?"

"You have a lot of nerve," Ascension said through clenched teeth.

He did a good job of looking hurt.  "I would think you'd be more grateful, considering I'm the only reason you're still alive, My Lady."

Thorin growled beside her, and Ascension said, "You think selling my location to House Francisco constitutes saving my life?"

"I think fudging the coordinates saved your life.  If I had provided your actual location, they would have dropped those torpedoes right on top of your head."

"They did drop them right on top of my head!"

Davidson rolled his eyes.  "Please, eight kilometers was more than sufficient to provide a safe buffer."

Ascension flexed her fingers as she contemplated strangling the man.

"I meant what I said before," Davidson went on.  "The Fearless Jackals had an arrangement with House Francisco; but now that you have eliminated them, I am completely free to negotiate a new agreement with you.  In fact, my superiors are quite curious to learn how you were able to move so much hardware into Kalintos."

"Are they?" Ascension asked darkly.

"Oh yes."  He nodded.  "The fall of Chalfont choked off our supply network just as much as it did regular commerce.  The Jackals would pay handsomely for the sort of backdoor you seem to have found."

The room was silent for a moment or two as Ascension pondered.  She did not trust Davidson, and she trusted the Fearless Jackals even less.  But they could be a useful—if fickle—ally, and they were certainly a dangerous enemy to have.

"I might—might be willing to discuss a business arrangement," she said after a while, "but not right now.  In the meantime, I suggest you think about what the Jackals can do to convince me of their good faith after nearly getting me killed."

"Of course."  Davidson dipped his head in imitation of a bow.  "You will be pleased to know that we've kept the news of your—ah—revolution from reaching Avalon just yet.  We can help you shape and release the story in a way that will make it more palatable to the lords and ladies of the Court, not to mention the Emperor himself."

Ascension shook her head, and waved for the guards to escort him out.  Drake leaned in towards her as they left and said, "I'll give you a half crown if you let me shoot him later."  Then he winked and helped drag Davidson away by the arm.

Brianne and Fiora stayed behind after the door closed.  "I suggest playing along," Fiora said flatly.  "The longer the Empire stays in the dark the better.  We've got the ODN mostly restored, but it still couldn't fend off more than a destroyer or two if the Navy came knocking.  Of course, that's only the Empire…"  She gave Ascension a curious look.

Fiora had mostly concerned herself with military affairs before the revolution, so she knew very little about the full scope of Ascension's dealings with the Jurvain.  But Ascension didn't really feel like explaining in detail right now.

"Yes, I agree," Ascension said.  Then she shook her head and looked at Thorin.  "I'd better get back in touch with Jaeto; there's just no way I can afford to leave Kalintos right now.  There are just too many things I need to keep an eye on."

Thorin nodded, and Ascension glanced back at Brianne and Fiora.  "How about the rest?"

Her lieutenants started working through the rest of their report on the situation in the system.  Ascension decided to take Thorin's earlier advice as they spoke, and filled a glass from her last whiskey barrel.



"In short, there is just too much going on here for me to lift anchor just now, could we meet maybe in a few weeks instead?"  Ascension shrugged apologetically to her Jurvain friend, uncertain if he even understood the meaning of her movements.

"No," Jaeto said over the video link.  "They are quite keen on meeting you, so they will come to you."  Her eyes widened, but Jaeto continued, "If the government of the system is in your hands, I see no reason this cannot be arranged."

Ascension needed a moment to process this.  "You want to bring the directors of four Jurvain Chaebols to Kalintos?"  She wondered how the human population would respond to such an event.

"Your K'Nes contact has already agreed to meet us there as well…  You do have control of the system, yes?"  Ascension nodded and the Jurvain went on, "Truthfully, the arrangements have already been made, asking you was something of a formality.  I assumed this would satisfy the concerns you expressed earlier about not being able to leave the system."

"Wait, the K'Nes are coming as well?"  Ascension blinked.  "…I guess I'm not really in a position to refuse.  When is this meeting supposed to occur?"

Jaeto was silent for a moment, and Ascension suspected he was communicating with other members of his Chaebol.  "Six days from now.  Is this enough time?"

"I guess I'll just have to make it work as best I can."  Ascension breathed deep.  "Any special preparations I should make?"

Gosh, you seize control of one little star system, and suddenly industrial conglomerates from two alien species and a major crime syndicate all want to break bread at your table.  Ascension was almost as frightened by the developments as she was excited.



Six days of going out in public without fear of Franciscan snipers taking off her head had Ascension feeling pretty damn good about herself.  All the same, it had not been easy to sell the idea of hosting two potentially hostile alien races in a summit to a frightened population that had just lived through a devastating rebellion.  Ascension's popular support had tumbled quite a bit, but overall most people realized that she was the one keeping the peace in the streets and getting their home world back on track.  As final preparations to receive the Jurvain directors and some unknown number of K'Nes trade representatives, Ascension was once again nervously pacing in her office.

"Drink."  Thorin held a glass out to her.  "You keep pacing like that and I'll try to hit you with an interdiction strike."  He was still wearing the same smile he'd developed since Brianne shot Holly Francisco.

"That's fitting," he'd said when Ascension told him about the Countess' demise.  "I would've liked to kill her myself, but the poor girl deserved it more than I did.  Francisco didn't kill me, after all, just one of my men.  And I got to kill plenty of her men."  He'd been smiling ever since; the first time Ascension had ever seen him look so happy.

His men had volunteered to help out as police during the restoration, but Thorin himself had opted to stay close to Ascension.  The two of them no longer shared a common goal, but Ascension was still happy to have him nearby, especially now that his old gruffness was fading.  Occasionally he called himself her personal bodyguard, but they would both laugh at the idea, and he usually referred to his primary duty as "sitting on my ass."

She took the glass from his hand and downed a quick drink.  "You know, I'll have to surrender if they choose to attack… and I'll have spent the last week lying to every citizen of Kalintos."

"Drink," Thorin commanded again.  "It's far too late for second thoughts, just relax."

It wasn't her whiskey anymore; she'd finished off the last barrel.  Now she drank rum: a gift from Davidson.  It had been tested extensively, despite the Jackal agent insisting that any poison he might want to use would be undetectable.  He had delivered the barrel along with the weapons he'd owed Ascension as part of his down payment for a new alliance.  Ascension had not yet agreed, but at least the rum was pretty good, and there was plenty of it.  And since it hadn't killed Thorin in the past two days, Ascension was willing to gamble it was safe at this point.

"How long do we have?" she asked after another sip.

"Maybe two hours, probably less," Thorin answered, and then drank his whole glass.  "Your bodyguard is planning on spending the negotiations largely out of commission, I should warn you.  If they do decide to attack, I hope to be drunk enough not to notice the orbital bombardment."  He raised his empty glass in his hand to a salute.

"Hardly the time for jokes," she half snarled at him.

"It's exactly the time for jokes.  Why, don't you trust these people?"  He chuckled to himself.  "We conquered a star system, Ace, what the hell isn't possible after that?"

"I'm still just a pawn to them, though.  They didn't even really ask to come here, just decided to."

"Relax, if shit hits the fan we can just hop in that ship of yours and lay low in K'Nes space or something."  Thorin laughed.  Then he stood up and set his hand on her shoulder.  "If they were coming to kill you, I don't think they'd give you their itinerary."

"I hope not."  She finished her drink as she pushed his hand of her shoulder.  "I think maybe you've had enough for today, can you go make sure Brianne and Fiora are ready?"

"Well, if you're going to cut me off I don't have anything better to do."  He winked and moved toward the door.  The smile he was still wearing somehow made her feel more at ease until the door closed behind him.

When the Jurvain popped out of hyperspace, Ascension could almost feel the whole system holding its breath alongside her.  But then she exhaled.  It was just one transport, not an invasion fleet.  She was just starting to relax again when Jaeto contacted her on a video comm.

"Ascension," her alien friend said, "we must meet quickly.  Shortly after we departed, the Empire somehow snuck a fleet into the Ilbo system and shattered its defenses.  Our forces in Chalfont are withdrawing here to resupply for a counterattack.  They will arrive in two days.  We do not have much time to negotiate."

This is what I get for wanting to focus on the big picture, Ascension thought with a sigh.




Thomas sat at the head of an enormous oak table in his mansion's dining room.  He wore black slacks, a stark white button down shirt, and a charcoal gray-and-black striped tie that had been loosened around his neck.  Along the wall to his left, a fire roared in the walk-in fireplace.  Packed bookshelves dominated the walls.  Antiques were scattered throughout the room, covering a large blood-red oriental rug.  Behind and to his right large double doors opened to the rest of the house.

Three other men and a woman were seated at the table with him.  To his right sat Magistrate Miles Kane, wearing light gray slacks, a dark gray vest over a white shirt, and an untied black bowtie.  Next to Kane sat a man of Italian descent with jet black hair who appeared to be in his late twenties.  He was wearing the uniform of an officer of the Royal Blue Guards.  To Thomas' left sat Gareth wearing a dark red silk bathrobe.  Next to Gareth sat a woman with long dark brown hair dressed in business attire, apparently in her late forties.  A wine glass sat before each guest, filled with dark red liquid that could only be blood.  Scattered about the table in front of them were numerous active datapads and manila envelopes.  Several datapads showed video images of select individuals at various locations at different times of night, most wearing leather jackets and sunglasses, sporting plentiful tattoos and piercings, and with outrageously spiked hair.

  The apparitional form of Lisa floated in the air near one of the book cases.  She held an open book and appeared to be in deep concentration reading it, oblivious to everyone else in the room.  Every few moments she would place a book back into the bookshelf and retrieve another.

It had been three weeks since Thomas had met with Baron Wellington.  Thomas had used the time to increase the ranks of his followers.  Magistrate Kane had, of course, requested his place in the new Giovanni Cabal.  Thomas had agreed, but only on the condition that Kane prove his loyalty first.  In the meantime, Thomas had only allowed Kane to become a ghoul.

The Blue Guard officer was the one Thomas had begun tracking before meeting the Baron; his name was Julius.  After discovering his openness to bribes, both Thomas and Lisa had followed him to discover more about his behavior and activities on the streets.  Once satisfied Julius would not only be a valuable member but could keep his mouth shut, they made their offer.  Thomas "persuaded" Julius to come to the mansion, where Julius met with Gareth and Miles.  The three of them explained the opportunity for immortality that followed becoming ghoul and, eventually, a vampire.  Julius turned out to need very little convincing, and had readily accepted.

Not much in Julius' life changed as a ghoul.  So long as a he took blood from Thomas, he aged more slowly and gained dramatically increased strength and reflexes.  But he was still able to perform his duties as a Blue Guard lieutenant without anyone noticing the difference.  At Miles' and Thomas' request, he had collected data from his department on suspected vampires in Dynametro.  Eventually, through investigation and inquiry, he'd identified a group of Sabbat operating in the city.

As for Gareth, Thomas finally gave him the promotion that he always wanted: embracing the ghoul as a vampire.  Gareth had proven his loyalty repeatedly over the past few years, and Thomas needed a lieutenant within the Giovanni Cabal to oversee the new ghouls he'd be creating.

Still, the downside to Gareth becoming a full vampire was that he could no longer perform his daily tasks as an executive for the Thames Medical Center.  Fortunately, Gareth had developed a strong relationship with one of his own staff members: a senior manager named Caroline Jones.  Over the years, their relationship had verged upon becoming romantic, though Gareth was unwilling to push too far lest he allow Caroline to learn his true nature.

With Thomas' consent, Gareth had invited Caroline over to the mansion after his embrace and offered her the gift of immortality, too.  In addition, Gareth had assured Caroline of her promotion to executive after his resignation.  Of course, just as Gareth had to prove his loyalty to Thomas before he could become a vampire, Caroline needed to prove her loyalty to him.  So for now, her position in the executive office of the Medical Center was only temporary.  She had accepted for a number of reasons, but the most obvious was simply that she was in love with Gareth.

Thomas took a sip of blood from one of the wine glasses and set it down on the table.  He placed the video images of the vampires that Julius had obtained from Blue Guards' Department of Secret Intelligence into a pile and started to look through them slowly.  After a few seconds, he settled upon one taken two days ago of a man just over six feet tall with a large Mohawk and wearing a black leather jacket standing outside the Lizard's Lounge night club—someone the authorities believed to be a vampire and member of the Sabbat.

Thomas sighed, looked at the Magistrate and asked, "So is there any possibility that the Duke will visit the third borough where these Sabbat have been identified?"

Kane smiled.  "That's the borough Lukas owned.  It's where his body turned up.  The Baron has insisted that an immediate replacement be found to restore order in the area.  The Baron has already selected a replacement, but Duke Griswold wants to meet him personally.  They'll meet in the third borough within the next few weeks.  That should give us enough time."

Gareth nodded.  "True.  In fact, it will be well more than enough time.  My sire has a useful ability he took from a Nosferatu some decades ago."

Caroline looked curious and said, "I'm still learning the history and descriptions of all of these vampire clans."  She looked at Thomas and asked, "Could you explain?"
            "The Nosferatu are visibly deformed and hideous vampires," Thomas answered.  "Forty years ago, while in the service of my sire, I fought and diablerized one of them.  From him, I gained several abilities.  One helps me to duplicate the appearance and mannerisms of another person or vampire."

"What's the catch?" Caroline asked.

Gareth answered for him.  "The catch is that he must first have physical contact with the person that he wants to mimic."

"On top of that," Julius said, "in order to pull this off, we'll need to kill the vampire that we intend to frame."

"And make sure his whereabouts are unknown prior to the murder," Magistrate Kane added.

Thomas handed the datapad with the video image of the vampire with the mohawk to Julius and asked, "Who is this?"

"You have a good eye."  Julius nodded.  "According to our information, John Rabe there is the Sabbat Archbishop of Dynametro.  From what we know, his leadership is unquestioned.  He may look like a common thug, but he's quite dangerous."

Thomas picked up the picture and looked at it more closely.  "Lisa.  Could you please come over here?"

Lisa looked in their direction and placed her index finger across her lips.  "Shh…"

"Lisa, please."

Lisa frowned and replaced a book she was reading back on the shelf, then floated over to him.  She looked down at the datapad Thomas was holding.  "Do you need my assistance, dear?"

"This man is dangerous and a threat to us.  He must be found.  We believe that he is located somewhere in the western Dynaport borough."

Anger flashed across Lisa's face.

"Find him!  And when you do, let me know where.  We do not have much ti—" before Thomas could finish the statement, Lisa floated into a shadow in the corner of the room and disappeared.

Thomas looked back to the others at the table.  "Once he is located, his movements will have to be traced by Lisa.  I'll need to strike when he's alone, but I will take care of him."  He looked at Kane.  "I'm going to need the details of the Duke's visit to the borough.  His itinerary, the composition of his bodyguard, everything."

"I think that can be arranged," Kane replied.

Thomas looked away.  Then he folded his hands upon the table.  "Good.  Within one week, the Duke will die, the Baron will take custody of this planet, and hopefully our Sabbat competition in Jennifer's Star will be eliminated."  Once again he glanced at Kane and asked, "Is there any chance you might be promoted to Baron of Dynametro after Wellington takes over the Duchy?"

Kane's smile was tremendously satisfied.  "That is quite likely."





Chip Desmond licked the pink bubblegum off his lips and continued chewing.  His feet were propped up on his desk.  He was using a pencil to annotate the copy of the Imperial scriptures that he had open and resting on his knees.  Chip thought he might have found some new support for Pontifex Mallan To's sermon on divine selection within the Emperor's words.  He looked forward to sharing his interpretation with his chaplain, and perhaps even publishing his own circular.  He started blowing another bubble while he scribbled.

A shadow darkened the doorway beside him.  An Imperial Navy lieutenant stood there.


Pop!  "Yeah," Chip said.

"Someone just jumped into the system."

Chip looked up from his scriptures.  "When you say 'jumped in'…"

"Not through one of the digital gates," the lieutenant clarified.  "They opened their own jump point."

Chip took his feet off the desk, carefully closed his scripture book, and set it down.

"So who are they?"

"They're way out at the edge of the system.  From the hyper sensors and the size of the jump point, Home Fleet's best guess is that it's just one or two small ships, but they're not really sure.  We won't have any lightspeed sensor reads for another several hours."

"But I'm guessing they're in our sector?"  Chip stood up and stretched.

"Technically," the lieutenant said.  "Like I said, they're out in the Kuiper belt."

Chip blew another bubble and let it burst while he thought.  Then he shrugged.  "Let's send the tunnel drive frigates after them.  The captains have been itching to do something more than practice."

The lieutenant saluted.  "I'll cut the orders, sir."

"Cool."  Chip sat down and picked up his scripture book again.  "Let me know what happens."



"Told you so," Hector Hotchkiss said.  He leaned against a bulkhead on Supercharger Heaven's bridge, looking terribly smug.

Perhaps General TirWah should have sent a true Warrior after all, Scout thought.  A Spaceborn would surely not make these errors.

The Avalon system was swarming with ships, and according to the traffic control plot on the holoprojector, two-thirds of them were Imperial Navy vessels.  According to the Supercharger Heaven's gravitic sensors, over a hundred of them had powered up gravity drives within seconds of Scout's jump into the system.  There was simply no way that their freighter could sneak in undetected.

"Reverse course," he ordered.  "Reactivate the gravity drive."

Captain Karl rolled his eyes, but activated his astrogation panel.  "You heard the boss, Park," he said.  "It'll take a few minutes before we can activate the drive, M. Scout.  Where are we going?"

"I need to reach Avalon," Scout declared.  "How can we approach it without alerting their defenses?"

Karl shrugged.  "Well, if we're lucky, they won't be able to register our ship profile at this range."

"How lucky have you guys been lately?" Hector asked.

"Shiba geu eoneu ttae museun il-i iss-eoss seubnikka?" Park chimed in.

"So Earth is out," Karl agreed.

"And that leaves New Paris," Hector completed for him.  "But not on this crate.  You'll need to take the shuttle like everyone else."

"Shuttle?" Scout asked.

"Commuter shuttle," Karl explained.  "New Paris is basically one big suburb for the Imperial Bureaucracy.  It's cheaper than living on Avalon, but with the digital gate, it's just a thirty-minute shuttle ride."

"We will need to orbit the planet.  However, if you are incorrect, and we have been identified, you will need to keep the ship disguised.  Then I can take this shuttle in to the space station."  Scout turned to Karl.  "Is that possible?"

"Nothing easier," the Captain nodded.  "Sneaking into New Paris has a long and glorious tradition—it's the closest you can get to respectable and still be a smuggler."

"Then I will honor your tradition."  Scout stood a little straighter, and connected Avalon with New Paris on the holoproj.

Before he could finish the gesture, the projection changed, and an alarm blared.

"What the—" one of the bridge crewman shouted, "—that's a couple of frigates, hundred klicks away and painting us with target lasers."

"Unidentified vessel!" a strange voice buzzed over the comm system.  "Power down your systems immediately and—"

Captain Karl muted the speakers.  "Were they stealthed?" he asked no one in particular.

"At a hundred klicks?" someone else said.  "Our sensors aren't that bad!  And there was a big gravity spike right when they showed up."

"What the hell kind of ship—"

Hector interrupted, "Maybe figure that one out later, Captain?"

Karl winced.  "Right.  Are we clear?"

"Jeoldae andwaeyo!"

"Great, punch it!"

They were once more swallowed up into the safety of a jump point.



Scout could not help but admire the dedication that New Parisians put into their lawns.  As he sat outside the transfer station, waiting for the next shuttle to Avalon, he admired the carefully designed and genetically engineered grass.  It was perfect.  He picked a blade, tested the crush pressure that it could take, and, with his armorer's eye, watched as it came beautifully back into place.  Could the grass be an emergency landing strip?  Designed to recover quickly after crash landings?

Captain Karl had been true to his word, they had reached New Paris without difficulty.  Scout told the human to wait two days with the Supercharger Heaven for his return.

"If we meet again, I hope to honor you like the warrior you are," he'd said.

"…right," Karl had nodded.  "Um, good luck."

Scout had left the Heaven's shuttle and headed straight for the transfer station.  The final stage of his quest stretched before him.

He was absorbed in his thoughts when a presence chilled his consciousness like a winter wind.  Scout jumped to his feet and quickly scanned the area around him, dividing it into quarters, eliminating threats, and focusing on finding the origin of the sensation.  Scout didn't dare call upon the True Way for fear of warning his target.  He walked calmly away from the station towards a cluster of buildings on the other side of the park.  Scout forced his muscles to relax as he pretending to be just another civilian whose only care was to catch the shuttle to work.

He could taste magic, but its power was faint, and strange.

Every Vulthra learned about the two paths of magic from hatching.  The False Way twisted reality into an unnatural mockery of itself.  It was the easier path, powerful and tempting, but it corrupted both body and soul.  Although the False Way could create wonders, in the end they were nothing but hollow illusions.  The First Father had shown the Vulthra the True Way, the path of understanding.  It was harder, more dangerous, and required iron discipline.  But the First Father had seen into the inner workings of the universe itself.  By following his Way, a Vulthra could unmake the fabric of reality.  Nothing in existence could challenge a genuine master of the Way, because everything existed only on the master's sufferance.

The paths were incompatible.  What the False Way built up, the True Way destroyed.  What a follower of the True Way tried to unmake, an accomplished False Artist could attempt to hold in stasis.  Joined together, the magics either cancelled, or one overwhelmed the other.  They did not mix.

Yet as Scout followed the presence, he could taste the aura of both Ways on his target.  He did not know what that meant, and it put him ill at ease.

The source was on the roof of an apartment building.  There were hundreds here, built for commuters near the transfer stations, perfect for the young bureaucrat with no kids, but far cheaper than similar living on Avalon.  Scout took the stairs to avoid detection by the lift's cameras.  He ran up the steps hoping to sneak up on his prey, but remaining on his guard.

Scout opened the rooftop door a crack and peered out.  There was no sign of his target.  He risked stepping out of the door.

His right side jerked as a short blade thrust through Scout's flesh, nailing his arm to the outer edge of the door frame.  Immediately, Scout grabbed the sword's hilt and tried to pull it out, but it might as well have been a rivet fired from a pneumatic hammer for all that it budged.

The door slammed shut beside him, and Scout knew he had no time.  He turned all the force of his mind toward the sword pinning him, and the blade dissolved into constituent atoms.  Scout's arm fell free again.  For a wonder, the wound did not hurt.  Yet.

"Clever tricks will not help you," a voice said.  Scout darted away from the sound, and whirled.  A dark-haired man wearing a long black coat was leaning against a condenser unit, arms crossed as he glared at Scout.

Scout took away the air around the man's head, and concentrated on maintaining a bubble of vacuum.

The man furrowed his brow; then he stood up straight and made a show of inhaling deeply.

"Neither will less clever tricks," he said.  "You are not welcome here."

Annoyed with himself, Scout dropped his efforts to asphyxiate the man.  "I believe your presence is just as prohibited," he replied.

The man smiled.  "Do you think I can't see through your disguise?  You only pretend to be human."

"As do you."

The smile faded away.  "Your taunts are wasted.  You are the one He is looking for, I am certain now."

Scout's ill feeling continued to rise, but he fought down the anxiety, remaining composed and focused.  He needed information, and if his opponent was willing to simply volunteer it…  "Who is looking for me?"

"My God," the man said, without the slightest note of reverence in his words.  "He told me that someone tried to sneak into Avalon.  Naturally, the attempt failed, but it was simple enough to anticipate the next step.  All I had to do was observe the shuttle crowd for someone who didn't fit the normal pattern.  Someone like you."

Scout realized now just how clumsy his steps had been.  His dismay must have showed on his face, because the man noticed.  "I see that my intuition was correct.  My instructions are to capture you, demon.  So why don't you save me the trouble of kicking you across this rooftop and just surrender now?"

"That will not be possible, Caal."

His enemy laughed.  "I hunt Caal, fool.  I am a priest and holy warrior of the Emperor, praise His immortal name."

Scout adjusted his stance and sniffed again.  There was something very wrong with the man's aura, some ember of the True Way clearly burned within him.  But it was weak, buried, and the power which contained it was unmistakable.  "The perfect disguise," Scout said.  "I commend you.  But I know Caal when I smell them."

"Your nose fails you, then.  Perhaps I'll do you a favor and cut it off."

The man drew another short sword from beneath his coat, and then lunged at Scout with such speed that it might have been magic.  But Scout had seen the move telegraphed and was already rolling away.  The dark man changed directions in an instant and swung his blade at the Vulthra's feet; but he missed by a hair, and Scout was already running back around the door for cover.  He reached out with his mind to destroy his enemy's weapon…

…only to feel the False Way harden around his target and shrug off Scout's efforts.  "Nice try," the Caal taunted, "but I've hunted far more elusive quarries."

Scout knew he needed every advantage he could get against the blood enemy.  He slid off his disguise, ignoring the stinging in his right side as he stretched out his wings.  Then he drew his sword.

"Huh," his opponent said.

Scout leapt into an attack.  The dark man shrugged, and then lifted his own sword in a parry.  Scout channeled all his power into the swing.  Metal shrieked and sparked for an instant, and then the Caal's shorter, broader blade gave way and fell in two.

"Nice sword," the enemy sneered, then kicked Scout full in the chest.

Scout staggered backwards, but planted one foot and redirected his momentum into a spin, swinging his sword high.  By the time he came around, however, the dark man had two more of his small blades in hand, and he caught Scout's weapon upon both.

"You know," the Caal said, "the only other actual swordfight I've had was against a werewolf.  You don't look half as tough."

Scout disengaged from his opponent's catch.  He feinted ramming forward with right shoulder, but only took one step forward then swept his left leg forward to catch the enemy's feet.

The dark man stumbled, but regained his footing fast enough to hop backwards before Scout could take off his head.

"I am sorry that this 'werewolf' did not have the opportunity to duel an honorable opponent," Scout said.

"Your sympathy is wasted," the dark man said.  "He was a nasty piece of work, Black Spiral something or other.  But in the end I put him to the fire like any other demon."

He raised one sword to his mouth and licked the flat of the blade.  Scout snarled in disgust at the gesture, but then his enemy flicked his weapon to catch the reflection of the sun and direct it into Scout's eyes.  Scout blinked, but he had the presence of mind to dodge to one side, and he heard the thrown sword whip just past the side of his head.

Scout opened his eyes again to see his enemy charging, already twirling another new sword to replace the one he'd thrown.  Scout dropped into a defensive crouch, holding his longer blade in front of him to parry the oncoming blows.  But just as the dark man came into range, Scout reached out with his mind.  Using the Way, he removed enough material from the rooftop to form a half-meter deep hole just beneath his enemy's descending foot.

The dark man's leg sunk into the roof past the knee, and as his torso jerked, Scout darted forward.  One upward swing of his sword was enough to cut off his enemy's right arm at the shoulder.  The Caal howled as his severed limb flopped uselessly beside him.

Scout brought his sword back down in an arc, aiming for his enemy's neck.  But the dark man dropped his own remaining weapon, and caught Scout's blade in his left hand.  Scout's swing was stopped as surely as if he'd struck stone.  Blood squirted, but his enemy's hand did not simply come apart as it ought.  The Caal wrapped his fingers around Scout's sword and wrenched it forward.  Scout was sufficiently surprised that he stumbled, and his enemy brought his head forward to collide with Scout's beak.

Scout reeled with pain, but he did not fall, nor drop his sword.  His sword was his charge as a warrior; to lose it would be far worse humiliation than defeat in battle.  When his vision cleared, the dark man had broken free of the foot trap… and somehow had both of his arms again.  He was advancing on Scout, two blades raised, hatred boiling in his eyes.

They locked swords again.  The dark man's strength seemed to have doubled, but there was no finesse to his attacks, just brute force.  Scout parried and dodged and sought a new opening.

"You are a pestilence upon these stars," Scout said.  An angry enemy sometimes lost focus; Scout knew the tactical advantages to taunts, even if he was not the best at wielding his words.  "We are the cure."

"Decent line, I'll have to use it myself some time."

The enemy pressed Scout with a series of rapid blows.  Scout blocked, but allowed himself to be driven back.  Once his back pressed against the boxy rooftop condenser, Scout leapt up and extended his wings to their full span.  His feathers caught the wind at the top of the roof, and he rose into the air.

Only for his enemy to grab him around an ankle and swing him into the condenser like a club.  The thin metal skin of the machine crumpled, and Scout's unseemly squawk was covered up by the screeching noise as the condenser's innards were crushed.

The dark man loomed over him, grinning wickedly.  But he had dropped both of his weapons when he grabbed for Scout.  And Scout, of course, still held his own sword fast in one hand.  He undoubtedly had several broken ribs, but the pain did not cloud his mind or dull his reflexes in the slightest.  He took advantage of his enemy's moment of weakness, and thrust his sword straight through the dark man's chest.

"Guh," the Caal said, more in surprise than pain.  He coughed, and blood speckled his lips and chin.

Scout did not relax; he forced himself up and forward with his free left arm, and used the leverage to push his enemy down.  Leaning into the hilt of his sword, he pinned the Caal to the rooftop.

His enemy reached into the flaps of his coat, and Scout saw the glint of more metal within.  Injured as he was, Scout did not have the agility to continue parrying attacks.  So he took the expedient step of simply standing on the fallen man's arms.  His enemy grunted, but could not get enough leverage to lift Scout's weight.

"Going to kill me?" the dark man spat.  "It won't end well for you."

"Not yet, Caal."  Scout reached down and closed his talons around the dark man's throat.  Then he focused his mind.

Their soul fires met, and the Caal screamed.  Scout felt the pain, too, but he did not cry out.  He held his face and body still, determined.  When it was almost too much, he stopped.

"Tell me of the Orb," he rasped.

"The Orb?"  The dark man's face was a mix of confusion and pain.  "The Orb is worthless.  A lie."


The Caal said nothing, just gave Scout a defiant glare.  Scout concentrated his energies again, and touched the monster's twisted soul.

He barely heard its screams this time.  The pain was so great; it tore at Scout's very existence.  The Way allowed the Vulthra to resist the Caal's possession, but not without consequence.  The Caal were consummate beings of the False Way, their magic was just as poisonous to a Vulthra as the Vulthra's was to them.  Pit one against the other, and eventually one or both would be overwhelmed, and feel their soul destroyed.

Scout had to stop again.

"Explain," he commanded a second time, through shallow breaths.

"We can feel it," the Caal whispered, "across the galaxy, always.  We removed our entrophic nature, our curse.  The singularity, your Orb, should have had the power to restore us."

"Why did it not?"

The man writhed, pinned to the fungicrete roof by Scout's sword.  Scout dug the talons of one foot into its arm.  "That fool Horadrim," it hissed.  "So many of us trapped, our salvation floating in sight but out of reach.  But it didn't matter…"

It trailed off, and something in its eyes twitched.  Scout prodded his captive again.  "Continue."

"…didn't matter," it said again.  "But maybe…"  It was looking directly into Scout's eyes.  "…maybe you have what we need."

The Caal surged up along the blade of Scout's sword, jaw opened as if to bite his arm.  Scout redoubled his grip on its throat and forced it back down.  He sensed the wraith trying to leave its body, and he set the power of the Way against it once more.

The Caal shrieked and shuddered, but it kept fighting.  Scout simply did not have the mastery that he needed to contain the horrid thing forever, much less destroy it.  He could cause it pain; maybe he could even do some kind of permanent damage.  But if he kept this up, it would snuff the flames of Scout's soul in moments.  Yet he had no choice, he could not let the ancient enemy escape, could not give up the fight while the Caal survived.  If he did, it would be free to wreak more evil in the galaxy; perhaps it would even try to use Scout's own burned-out body against his people.

For lack of anything better to do, Scout lifted his sword and stabbed down again, punching new wounds into the Caal's host body.  He snarled, ignoring the pain while the Caal continued its wretched screaming.  Its body was actually starting to smolder.

And then its black eyes actually ignited, and light began to pour out of them like sunbeams.  Scout had forgotten about the other presence he'd sensed within the Caal.  The paradoxical fire of the True Way which the Caal had surrounded and suppressed.  Scout's battle with the monster seemed to have released it now, and it burned like righteous fury.  It had none of Scout's discipline and training behind it, but so much rage that it was nearly as powerful as the force Scout was directing against the Caal.  It was enough to destroy the monster.  Caught between two fires, the Caal wailed one last time, and was consumed.

Scout fell to his knees, leaning on the pommel of his sword for support.  His energy was drained, and his body ached from exertion and injuries.  He gulped down air, ignoring the pain of his broken ribs and the foul smell of his own singed feathers and his enemy's flesh.

"Y—you killed it?" a tiny voice asked.

Scout glanced down in shock.  The Caal's host was still alive.  The human's eyes were smoking ruins, and his voice was weak and wheezy from punctured lungs.  But he was still moving.

"You killed it," Scout told the man.  He was quite impressed.  "I did not know any Humans followed the True Way."

"If my faith had been stronger…" he began to choke on the fluid in his lungs.

Scout put a hand on the man's forehead.  "I am sorry," he said.  "I will remember you as an honored warrior."

"…hnnnh, no, wait!" the human gurgled.  "I can't—you must stop them!"

"The Caal?  I intend to."

"So many of them," he said, his voice barely audible now.  "I think they're taking over the Empire.  Tell the Emperor…  He must know…  He'll be able…"  The man's lips kept moving for a few seconds longer, but he said nothing more.  Scout sensed his life finally drain away.

Scout stayed kneeling in place for a few minutes more while he recovered his strength.  He mourned for the human warrior whose name he did not know, but who had given his life to help defeat the Caal.  Scout hoped his own death one day would be as worthy.  But he could not allow himself to be killed before completing this mission.  Already, there was too much that he had to report.

The air around him rumbled, and a shadow swept across the rooftop as something briefly obscured the sun.  The shuttle to Avalon was landing.  Scout stood up, winced at the pain in his chest, and reactivated his camouflage.




Admiral Molotok's mass execution proved to be a turning point for the Fifth Fleet.  Between Colonel Bezrukov's heavy-handed security presence and fear of the Admiral "discharging" them from the fleet, the inmates slowly fell into line, and something resembling order took hold within a few days.  Ships were designated all-male or all-female, which cut the rate of sexual violence reports by more than three quarters overnight.  Rules were drawn up, monitored diligently, and violators punished quickly and harshly.  The New Siberians' discipline may have been brutal, but there was no denying it was effective.

Viktor had expected the system's FedNet bandwidth to be choked by New Siberians calling their relatives for the first time in a decade.  But sadly, less than a fifth of them were even able to find their families.  The Caal Invasion, Ascension War, and ten years of pettier conflicts had all left deep scars in human society.  Viktor's own family stayed remarkably close together, and even they had been pulled halfway across the galaxy and back amid the turmoil.

Complicating Fifth Fleet's improving discipline was Viktor's former security team of Cultists, who did not at all appreciate being replaced.  Although Sexton O'Connor had reacted to his demotion with outward grace, his Reformed Cons were not so magnanimous.  Having fought and bled to keep the Admiral and his command staff safe for over a month, they grumbled that being brushed aside so casually was disrespectful if not downright insulting.  Amanda Kait, born politician that she was, urged Viktor to get in front of the anger before it grew uglier.  The Admiral had learned to trust his chief of staff's instincts for political survival.  And so, for the next daily briefing, Viktor instructed most of his command staff to meet early.  That gave them time to discuss the situation before Sexton O'Connor arrived.

"My troopers and I won't be up here forever," Colonel Bezrukov said in a tone that brooked no argument.  "Many of them have homes and families down on New Siberia to protect, not to mention the Bughouse."

"Families?" Gretchen looked up in surprise.  "What idiots would be stupid or cruel enough to bring children into the world on a Bug-infested planet?"

Viktor kept a stone face, but cringed inwardly.  Only Gretchen would insult a battle-hardened werewolf to his face.  He could not decide if Gretchen Von Shrakenberg really was that arrogant, if she enjoyed being that rude, or if she was simply too socially inept to realize how her abrasive personality rubbed people the wrong way.  Whatever the reasons, they added up into a woman with all the tact and subtlety of a plasma grenade.

Bezrukov narrowed his eyes at Gretchen, debating whether or not to take offense and chew her out.  He seemed to decide that she wasn't worth the effort, and he just shrugged.  "People have needs.  Needs create babies.  It's human nature."

Mandy raised a fist to her mouth and let out a cough that sounded remarkably like "Roquefort."

As Gretchen's face blushed redder than a Chinese lantern, Bezrukov turned back to Admiral Molotok and continued.  "I can keep my men up here for another few weeks, maybe a couple months at the outside.  After that, most of them will be eager to return to the planet.  We should be prepared to transition the bulk of responsibility to whatever security force you have set up by then."

"That's what I called you here to discuss," Viktor said.  "Forming fleet security teams with convicts seems to be a lose-lose proposition."  He held a hand out toward Amanda Kait.  "Mandy, you said you had an idea."

"I think it's safe to say no one in Fifth Fleet would pass the background check for any security position," she began.  "If we give that kind of power to criminals, we're inviting corruption at best and rebellion at worst.  The only inmates even remotely trustworthy are Sexton O'Connor's Reformed Cons."

"I'm not comfortable handing security over to the Cult of the Emperor," Viktor interrupted.  "That, too, would invite a rebellion—just a different type.  Security must answer to the Navy, not the church."

"I'm with the Admiral on this," Gretchen said.  "Fanatics and power are a dangerous combination."

"On the other hand," Amanda continued, "the Reformed Cons already resent being replaced by the New Siberians, even as a temporary move.  Booting them off security completely will pretty much guarantee the Cult turns against us in record time—and that's almost as dangerous.  So either way, we're taking a big risk."  She paused.  "Our saving grace is that even if we let the Cultists back into the security force, there simply aren't enough of them to secure the entire fleet—and even the Reformed Cons know it.  So we'll have to let lots of secular prisoners into the force, too.  That will at least dilute the Cult's influence."

"It still takes us back to square one, though," Viktor said.  "Can we trust prisoners to run the prison?"

Amanda tapped her datapad.  "I've compiled a list of inmates who might make reliable security personnel: former Light Infantry, Imperial Guards, corporate security, et cetera.  And…" she hesitated for a second before taking the plunge.  "…I propose appointing one Reformed Con to each warship as Master-at-Arms."

"You want to make one them chief of security on every ship?" Gretchen exclaimed as she stood and slammed her palms down on the table.  "You want to give your enemies more power?  No wonder you got ousted as Chancellor!"

Amanda gave Gretchen a glare that could turn her to stone, and then counted off reasons on her fingers.  "First, they'll be back on security and promoted to positions of responsibility and authority, so they'll stop grumbling.  Second, they'll answer to the Admiral, not the Cult, so they'll have a reason to follow orders and be loyal to him.  Third, with one Reformed Con per ship, they'll be separated and have a much harder time coordinating a mutiny, especially since we can monitor their electronic communications.  Fourth, I imagine they'll be so busy trying to keep their warships and security teams in line they won't have time for conspiracies!  Fifth, they're disciplined, principled, experienced, and more trustworthy and less corrupt than the other convicts.  And finally…"  She took a deep breath, and then continued.  "Well, quite frankly, we owe them.  They volunteered for a dangerous job, did it well, and were surprisingly reliable… I'm not sure it's wise to throw away an asset like that.  No, Gretchen, I don't trust the Cultists—but I trust the rest of the inmates even less.  They're not ideal… but they're all we've got."  She gave Gretchen a smile colder than the planet below.  "Of course, if you have a better idea …?"

Silence followed in the wake of Amanda's tirade.  Gretchen opened and closed her mouth wordlessly for a moment before finally sitting back down and grumbling, "Well, I still think it's a bad idea."

"It may be," Viktor said, nodding slowly.  "But it's the least bad option we've heard so far."

Bezrukov nodded too.  "At the very least, it should fail the slowest."

Gretchen sighed in exasperation.  "I swear, you Russians are so pessimistic!"

"What did you expect?"  The werewolf grinned.  "Have you read our literature?"

"It's simple pragmatism," Viktor explained.  "Expect the worst, and you'll never be disappointed."

Gretchen rolled her eyes and shook her head, but said nothing.

The Admiral turned to Amanda and nodded his approval.  "Da, we will the make the Reformed Cons Masters-at-Arms… but I want them overseen by a secular security chief for the fleet."

"I figured you'd say that," Amanda sighed, rubbing tired red eyes.  "I've searched the inmate personnel records and found a few possible candidates you can choose from.  All of them are indisputably more qualified to fill the position than Sexton O'Connor, which should help quell any protest."

"Which raises the question of what we do with O'Connor," Gretchen said, narrowing her eyes.

"He's too old and small to be a Master-at-Arms himself," Bezrukov said.  "He only kept his Cons under control because they chose to follow him—another inmate security team would eat him alive."

"And we can’t just cut him loose," Gretchen said firmly.  "A fanatic with lots of free time and no direction is dangerous.  We need to strap down that loose cannon before he blows a hole in the hull."

"On that, Gretchen and I agree,"  Amanda turned to Viktor.  "I've got an idea about how to dispose of the Sexton, Admiral, but it will need your approval and… well, I don't think you'll like it."

"Tell me," Viktor said.

She did.  Viktor didn't like it.  But as he had nothing better to propose, he was reluctantly forced to agree.  By the time Sexton O'Connor arrived for the official start of the daily briefing, the trap had been set.  Viktor would make an offer the Sexton simply couldn't refuse.



"Well, what do you think?" Amanda asked Sexton O'Connor, waving a hand at the tiered rows of chairs.  "It's not much, I know, but I'm afraid it really is the best we can do right now.  Enough seats for four hundred, but we can squeeze in a lot more if we rebuild or take them out entirely.  I suppose it'll need to be redecorated, but I'm sure you can handle that."

"It's the largest amphitheater we have on the Barbarossa," Viktor added.  "And it's yours.  Use it well."

"Uh..."  The Cult Sexton looked around, appearing somewhat confused.  "Well, thank you for your generosity, Admiral, M. Kait… but my current cabin is quite sufficient.  I don't really need this much room."

"…what?"  Amanda blinked at him, momentarily puzzled, then she clarified, "No—Sexton, this isn't for your living quarters.  It’s for your church!"

"Oh!"  O'Connor looked around at the space with new eyes and his serene smile returned.  "A… a church.  Yes.  Thank you.  This will be fine."  The gesture had clearly caught him by surprise, but he was visibly pleased.  "More than fine, actually—I'm afraid I can't even come close to filling this many seats."

"Not now, perhaps," Viktor said, stroking his mustache.  "But you will eventually… and perhaps quite soon.  Now that we've restored some order to the fleet, we've found a few other Sextons on other ships, each with their own congregations—although all much smaller than your flock, maybe a half-dozen followers apiece.  Unfortunately, the other Sextons are all self-appointed.  Since you have actually been ordained, you're the obvious choice."

"To perform Cult services?" O'Connor asked.  "Oh, yes indeed, Admiral, I could do it in my sleep."

Viktor shook his head.  "Far more than that, Sexton.  Someone has to administer the Imperial Cult out here on the frontier.  Mandy submitted my request to the curia in Avalon that Pontifex Villars recognize you as Bishop of the Southern Marches."  Although this detail was a crucial part of Amanda's ploy, Viktor doubted whether it was true—he didn't know when Mandy could have found the time!  Then again, he wouldn't put anything past his multitasking, workaholic chief of staff.

"The Pontifex refused," Viktor continued.  "He said that appointing someone with your criminal history to high ecclesiastical office would be 'inappropriate and detrimental to the reputation of the Imperial Cult'.  I'm… sorry, Sexton."

O'Connor looked disappointed, but nodded in understanding.  "No, I'm afraid he's right, sir."

"Perhaps," Viktor folded his arms.  "Still, it is within my authority as Admiral to name you Chaplain of the Fifth Fleet.  You'll coordinate all the ships' chaplaincies from here on the battlestation," where I can keep an eye on you.  Viktor had instantly grasped Amanda's clever little trick: O'Connor now owed his position to the Admiral, not the Imperial Cult—and Molotok could yank it away and give the title to a rival Sexton if O'Connor misbehaved.  Viktor fixed his piercing gaze on the little old man.  "This is all if you can handle the job, of course.  Can you?"

"If that's what you require of me, Admiral, then I'll do the best I can in service to the Emperor."  The pious old man was trying to sound modest and humble, but he was obviously quite pleased.

"It's a big job, Chaplain, and it won't be easy," Viktor warned him.  "With the last arrival, the fleet's headcount is back over 20,000 souls.  All of them in need of rehabilitation, and most of them calloused, jaded, and cynical."

O'Connor sighed as his ever-present smile faded a bit.  "I'll do my best, Admiral, but… well, converts are notoriously scarce in prison ministries.  I don't imagine I'll be filling this chapel anytime soon."

"Oh, we might be able to help you there," Amanda said, giving him a mischievous smile.  "Now that the ships have been gender-segregated, your services will be one of the few regular opportunities for the inmates to socialize with members of the opposite sex."

"In a safe, controlled, chaperoned environment," Viktor said sternly, "and it'll be your job to ensure no one takes advantage of the situation, Chaplain… including yourself."  In truth, Viktor wasn't too worried about the old man.  There were many young and attractive men and women in the Fifth Fleet, but O'Connor's own sexual proclivities were… different.  And, thankfully, there were no children onboard.

"Anyway, 'Come for the flirtin', stay for the sermon,' as the saying goes," Amanda continued.  "I'm sure some of the attendees will eventually take your message to heart.  And, of course, every additional co-ed faith-based rehabilitation program you set up will attract more potential converts… and, incidentally, make the Fifth Fleet that much more stable."  Amanda smiled.  "You can coordinate with my office to get new programs set up—although the Admiral will have the final say, of course."

"We'll give you all the support we can, Chaplain," Viktor said, nodding.  "Within reason, that is."

"Yes, of course, of course…" O'Connor said almost absently, looking around his new church.  Viktor could almost see the plans forming in the old man's eyes.  He looked equal parts delighted and overwhelmed.  Finally, Fifth Fleet's new Chaplain let out a long, slow breath, "Well, it looks like I've got a lot of work to do, Admiral.  Thank you."



Day by grueling, agonizing day, the Fifth Fleet was slowly hammered into a shape resembling an actual military organization.  Inmates were matched to jobs fitting their skill sets.  They learned their duties and equipment right along with their instructors, reading from technical manuals and watching instructional videos copied from the Imperial Naval Academy's database.  Viktor himself was holding a weekly seminar on Command for his soon-to-be senior officers.  Gretchen had made a joke about demanding obedience from subordinates at gunpoint.  The stare Viktor gave her in return left her visibly shaken for days afterwards.

The support ships were the fastest to get up and running.  A handful of convicts were former pirates, smugglers, traders, and dockworkers: people already familiar with commercial cargo ships, tankers, and passenger liners.  They had an easier time adapting to the simpler systems of Fifth Fleet's support vessels than they did with the more finely-honed and finicky warships.  But neither Viktor nor his crews wanted to try fighting Bugs with unarmed civilian vessels.

The "gunboats" were the first battle-worthy ships to be brought fully online.  They weren't really warships, just freighters with torpedo box-launchers bolted onto their hulls.  Their crews just needed to be trained to target and fire the missiles, and they would be ready for battle… on paper.  Viktor still had his doubts about their actual combat readiness, but at least it was good enough to convince the Navy to finally start sending the Fifth Fleet the ammunition it needed.  For the time being, Viktor had tasked the gunboats with patrolling the P7 system and watching for any Arachnid activity.

Meanwhile, every prisoner who could fly a cargo shuttle had been dubbed a fighter pilot whether he liked it or not, and gotten shoved (sometimes literally) into a Shrieker suicide saucer.  The pilots were learning to operate the ships surprisingly quickly.  Apparently, the Terran Republic had consciously designed the Shriekers as simple, bare-bones fighters that could be quickly and cheaply mass-produced.  The lack of complex controls and features severely limited the fighters' combat abilities, but also streamlined pilot training.

Which was just as well: Fifth Fleet was technically operating within enemy territory just by being stationed inside the Arachnid Quarantine Zone.  A Bug attack could happen at any moment.  Admiral Molotok just prayed he'd have enough time to get his fleet battle-ready before the inevitable assault came.

And, if at all possible, he wanted to acquire new weapons to fight with.  The Bug-fighting technology the New Siberians had already obtained from the Arachnid Research Center left Viktor speechless, especially since most of the tech appeared to be the scientists' castoffs, not the focus of their research.  If the Bughouse had something—anything—that might help the Fifth Fleet survive a Bug attack, Viktor wanted it, now.

Unfortunately, getting his hands on the goods proved surprisingly difficult.  Whoever was in charge of the Research Center was not cooperative.  Simply making contact with them had devolved into a battle of wills.  Every attempt Viktor made to communicate with their leader—or anyone, for that matter—was received, but ignored.  The only times the Bughouse contacted the Fifth Fleet was when they had demands to make.  Those demands came in audio format only, were usually angry, and always in Chinese.  It took only a few rounds of that nonsense to exhaust the Admiral's patience.  Viktor simply did not have time for petty power games!

He briefly contemplated forcing his way into the Research Center… but the Bughouse was too heavily fortified (understandably so), and Viktor lacked sufficient combat troops.  Or at least, he lacked combat troops with sufficient training, not to mention loyalty.  Colonel Bezrukov firmly refused to take part in any such assault.  The shaky alliance between the Bughouse scientists and the New Siberians was not only crucial to the safety of their colony, but also strained and fragile enough as it was.

So the Admiral used the only leverage he had left: he withheld all supply shipments to the Arachnid Research Center… and waited.

It did not take long before someone from the Bughouse contacted the Barbarossa, spewing demands and insults in some rapid-fire Chinese dialect that even the station's computers had trouble parsing.

"I'm sorry," Viktor said after just a minute or two of the incomprehensible tirade, "but I'm afraid I don't speak Chinese."  His voice was courteous but cold.  "Please call back when you speak English… or Russian, I suppose.  Have a nice day."  He killed the connection, cutting off the voice on the other end in the middle of its rant.

"Now," he said, turning to the inmate running the comm station, "who was that?"

"Uh," the convict ran a finger down the text transcript on his console's display, "computer says he called himself... 'Research Director Doctor', uh, 'Xi-ao-min Shau-kong'?  Damned if I can pronounce that right, Admiral."

The comm stayed silent for the rest of the week, and Viktor kept the Arachnid Research Center's supplies in impound.  He didn't know how long the Bughouse could hold out without them.  He had ordered the packages examined.  Most contained simple food stores, only slightly better than Navy rations.  One held equipment, mostly spare parts for some electronic components and a nuclear reactor, but nothing too bizarre.  The shipments came on a Logistics Corps transport like most of Fifth Fleet's supplies, but had no point of origin recorded.  Viktor had asked Mandy to look into who in the Empire was overseeing the ARC, but so far she had turned up nothing.

Finally the Bughouse called again, and this time the woman on the line spoke faltering but understandable English.

"Ni hao, Admiral Molotok," the woman's voice said when Viktor transferred the comm to his console.  "I being Tsung Jiao, Director Xiaomin assistant personal.  He wanting know when supplies come, ah?"

Viktor already liked M. Tsung better than Director Xiaomin; at least she was polite.  Unfortunately, that didn't change what he had to demand from her.

"You will receive your supplies once I have been given complete access to your facilities, research, personnel, and equipment.  Until then, I will continue to interdict all shipments."

He could almost see the woman's pained expression.  "I need be asking Dr. Xiaomin," she said after a moment.  "I calling you back, ah?"

The response came a day later.  Dr. Xiaomin had agreed to the Admiral's terms—reluctantly, and under protest, but he had agreed.  Viktor ordered a pinnace fueled and readied for launch immediately; he was itching to see this place.

"Aww man, right now?" Amanda said when Viktor told her.  "Chief Nieves just asked me to meet with her to talk about personnel assignments.  She has concerns."

"Well," Viktor said, wincing, "you have fun with that."

Mandy glowered at him.  Lauren Nieves was Fifth Fleet's new Chief of Security.  She had run her own private security company on Minos until the day she murdered her husband, her husband's mistress, and the mistress' two children with her bare hands.  She was eminently qualified for her job, but none of the Admiral's command staff liked the thought of being in a room alone with her.

To Viktor's surprise, he found Colonel Bezrukov waiting by the pinnace when he reached its launch bay.

"I've never actually been inside the Bughouse," the Colonel explained.  "Just the tunnels underneath the mountain, where we bring them captured Bugs and they pay us in supplies.  As for what actually goes on inside their laboratories and workshops?  I know as little as you do, Admiral."  He flashed a grin.  "But I'd love to find out what they're hiding!"



The pinnace drifted gently down onto a metal landing pad perched on a rocky outcrop a few hundred meters below the peak of the mountain.  On external monitors, Viktor could see half a dozen plasma turrets tracking their descent.  Light snow swirled around the pad, cutting off the view of the New Siberians' camp further below.

"You think they're going to let us in?" he asked after a minute of watching the huge armored doors which led into the compound remaining stubbornly shut.

Bezrukov shrugged, and tapped two fingers against his temple, "Talking to these people, you get the impression that they're not quite right in the head, Admiral.  Of course, you have to be a little mad to experiment on the Bugs."  He sighed and shook his head, "You know the story of Chernobyl?  Sometimes I think this place is just another disaster waiting to happen."

"You really capture live Bugs for them?" Viktor asked.

"Only a few times, when they refused to trade with us until we did."  The Colonel looked angrily at the center's doors.  "Lots of my men died each time."

"The Bugs can dissolve steel.  How do they keep them contained?"

"I do not know."

Finally, the armored doors rolled open, and a small figure waved at the pinnace from inside.  Admiral Molotok, Colonel Bezrukov, and the pinnace pilot exited the small craft and hurried through the frigid wind to the entrance.

"Ni Hao Admiral Molotok, Colonel Bezrukov," Tsung Jiao said.  She was a squat, middle-aged woman with short, spiky hair and a white lab coat wrapped tightly around her against the cold.  "Come, come," she said, gesturing as the armored doors began rolling shut behind them.  "You being follow me, please."

Despite the cavernous entryway, the Research Center's interior quickly became cramped.  They walked along narrow tunnels carved out of stone, reinforced with metal and ceramic supports, strung with bare cables and piping, and lit by harsh white lights.  The feeling of creeping underground reminded Viktor of old Federation war documentaries depicting Bug tunnels, and he wondered if the facility here was simply a reclaimed Bug nest.

Jiao talked a little about her work as they walked.  She was actually Doctor Tsung, with her own small department of the research center, despite calling herself Dr. Xiaomin's "assistant".  She was the inventor of the tunnel detector Colonel Bezrukov had mentioned before.  Apparently it just used ordinary seismometers and ground-penetrating radar, but then ran the results through some novel algorithms to better locate burrowing Bugs.  If she had finished her invention fifteen years ago while working for the Federation, she would have been hailed as a hero and buried in medals.  Viktor wondered if anyone in the Empire would notice when he reported her findings up the chain of command.

Dr. Tsung hesitated at a branch in the tunnels.  "I think maybe we not be seeing Director Xiaomin," she said.  "He is very angry, still."

Bezrukov folded his arms, but Viktor nodded, "We can talk with him another time, then."  Dr. Tsung looked relieved, and began leading them down another path.  "Perhaps you can tell me about his work?" Viktor asked.

She was all too happy to oblige, and launched into a lengthy explanation of Xiaomin's research.  Viktor doubted he would have been able to follow half of it even if the woman had spoken perfect English, he just didn't have the right education.  It seemed that the Research Director was attempting to crack the biochemistry of the Bugs' pheromones in the hopes of controlling the creatures.

"He say, 'If Horadrim was doing it, I can doing it!" Tsung said, trying to imitate her boss' haughty voice.

Viktor wasn't sure of the wisdom of trying to recreate the Horadrim's control methods to tame the Bugs.  After all, the Horadrim had lost control of their creations, and humanity had paid the price.  Apparently, though, Dr. Xiaomin was absolutely convinced that the original receptors were still hard-coded into the Arachnids' DNA.  Tsung said he'd had some mixed successes: his formulae worked on some Bugs, but not all, and not always with the same reactions.  The only agent that did seem to produce consistent results seemed to be some kind of Stop! Danger! signal that led Bugs to avoid an area.  The New Siberians used it as a repellant spray.  Colonel Bezrukov did not look happy to hear Dr. Tsung say that Director Xiaomin was expecting the Bugs to evolve a resistance soon.

Instead of Xiaomin, Tsung took them to the laboratory of one of the center's Assistant Directors.  Inside they met a foggy-eyed woman who introduced herself as Doctor Phyllis Coppinger-Bong.  Viktor did not think the plants and mushrooms growing on the shelves of her laboratory had anything to do with her research.

"I've been studying the Arachnids' hive mind," she said after shaking hands, all but confirming Viktor's hypothesis.  "They communicate with tachyon signals, not completely unlike a hyperspace beacon."

"So… you know how to talk to the Bugs?" Viktor asked incredulously.

"Yes!" Coppinger-Bong raised her hands excitedly.  Behind her, Dr. Tsung rolled her eyes.  "Well, no, actually," the Assistant Director continued, "they use some dimensional pathways and quantum encryption that I have not quite deciphered; not to mention the problems of the language itself, if they even have one.  But that is the end goal!"

"Talking to Bugs," Colonel Bezrukov said flatly.

"Arachnids," she corrected him gently, " 'Bugs' is a racist slur, you know.  But yes, I realized during my Infantry service that if we could only devise a way to speak with the Arachnids, then this whole conflict would be unnecessary.  Without communication, understanding is simply impossible, and so the solution was obvious!  When the Republic's Science Secretary heard about my work—"

"We had a Science Secretary?" the Colonel asked.

"Yes, of course."  Coppinger-Bong blinked, and her gaze became even more distant, "You know, I can never remember his name.  Or what he looked like."  She shook her head.  "But he was most excited about the project, which is how I got my assignment here.  And with what Dr. Xiaomin had already learned about the Arachnids'—"

"Excuse me," Viktor said.  The datapad in his uniform pocket was buzzing with a comm request, and he was eager for an excuse to get away from the wackos for a moment.  He left Colonel Bezrukov to keep listening to Dr. Coppinger-Bong's rant while he stepped out into the hall.  The pinnace pilot was there, humming to himself.  He stepped away to give the Admiral some privacy.

The comm was a video call, flagged as urgent.  Viktor frowned, and accepted.

"Go ahead—Chaplain?"

On the screen, Chaplain O'Connor's face looked deeply troubled.  He wouldn't meet Viktor's eyes.

"Admiral," he said, and fidgeted, "there's…"

"What is it?" Viktor asked, a little exasperated.

"There's no good way to say this, I suppose," the Chaplain sighed, and then nodded firmly.  "Forgive me, Admiral, you should know that I would never dare to question the Emperor's wisdom in selecting you for this holy mission.  But over the past two months, it has become clear to me that you have been receiving increasingly bad advice."

Viktor's eyes were slowly widening.  "What's going on, O'Connor?" he growled.

The older man looked pained at the Admiral's tone of voice.  He went on, "My brethren and others among the faithful have told me of the casual blasphemies of some of your staff, especially M. Kait and the pirate Von Shrakenberg.  I wanted to believe that their reports were exaggerated, or at least that someone touched by the Emperor and the Orb could easily resist temptation even when it was so close."  He shook his head, "I should have recognized my duty to treat such poison sooner—"

"What did you do?"

"I am sorry, Admiral."  He took a deep breath, and finally gazed straight into the camera and Viktor's eyes, determined.  "I know that my life is likely forfeit.  I will surrender myself to you as soon as I have dealt with the traitors and heretics.  Praise to him who saved us from the Caal."

The connection ended.  Viktor just gaped at the datapad for a second.  He'd never trusted the Sexton, but as much as he and the staff had worried about his reliability, he'd never seriously expected O'Connor would go off the deep end like this.  He tried to contact Mandy, but she didn't answer her personal line.  Neither did Gretchen.  Finally, he tried calling the Barbarossa's control center directly.

Gretchen appeared on the other end of the video link, looking harassed and angrier than Viktor had ever seen.

"Admiral!" she said through gritted teeth.  "Well I guess they couldn't get to you at least!"

"What happened, Gretchen?"

"Boyle fucking O'Connor and his Reformed fucking Cons are shooting up the fucking battlestation!"


"Fucked if I know!" she spat.  "They hacked the lockout on the armory somehow.  I've got them barricaded out of the whole command deck, but they're just going to cut through the doors, and we don't have a lot of guns in here."

"I couldn't get a hold of Mandy," Viktor said.

"Yeah, me neither," Gretchen shook her head.  "I know she was going to meet with Lauren, but Nieves' quarters are right by the church.  By the way, brilliant idea letting O'Connor bring all of his—" her head suddenly snapped to one side.  "Stand by, Admiral."  She walked away from the console.

Viktor used the pause to push open the door into Dr. Coppinger-Bong's lab and point to Colonel Bezrukov.  "Come on," he said.  Bezrukov looked relieved until he saw the Admiral's expression.

The big werewolf stooped under the doorway, "What's going—"

"Admiral?" Gretchen was back on the line, her face looked grim.

"Go ahead, Gretchen."

"ODN's reporting multiple launches from the planet surface, opposite hemisphere from your position."

"What kind of—?"

"Also, deep system sensors have two large bodies inbound from the fifth planet, and we've lost transponders on two gunboats patrolling that volume."

"No, no, no, Gretchen," Viktor said, almost pleading, "don't do this to me."

"The Bugs are attacking, Admiral."  She looked at him stiffly for a moment, then turned her head, "I'm sorry, I need to deal with the situation here.  Let me know if you can come up with anything to help.  Discom."

The hall outside the laboratory was silent for a moment.  Doctors Tsung and Coppinger-Bong both followed Colonel Bezrukov out to surround Viktor, looking curious.

And then red lights in the hallway started flashing and a klaxon began to blare.

"Oh my," Coppinger-Bong said, looking around somewhat mystified.

"Uh, Admiral?" it was the pinnace pilot.  The kid had flown cargo shuttles until he'd been arrested for assaulting a well-connected Cult priest.  "I think we have a problem."  He showed Viktor his own datapad, which was displaying an external video feed of the pinnace.

The icy landing pad was crawling with winged Bugs.  The research center's plasma turrets were blasting them as fast as the guns could pivot, but more were flying in, and shooting back.

"Admiral?" the pilot's voice said.  It seemed to come from a long way away.  "What do we do?"



End of Episode Three



The professional military mind is by necessity an inferior and unimaginative mind; no man of high intellectual quality would willingly imprison his gifts in such a calling.

— H.G. Wells, The Outline of History

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