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BLUE HORIZON, BOOK 2

— Episode 21

"The Heir Apparent: The Deaths of Gods"
by Steve Carter

 

Captain’s Journal:

The Lady of Dreams, volume III, section VI:  

Merlin Sinclair and his people have docked with my ship and we are currently recharging the Vault engines for another leap back to Argeia.  We have just received word that a massive firefight has begun there and from what we know of Kastani technology—especially their defense systems—we know that the envoys from other worlds are about to be wiped out completely.  They earned it, but I’d like to help avoid a wholesale slaughter if I can.

Four of the original ten Hammerdine Dreadnoughts are engaging the invading forces from other worlds.  I’m not terribly surprised that the Kastani own them, as they’re the only planet with the wealth to purchase and maintain them, especially with the efficiency and stealth they have.  They are, to the best of my knowledge: the Vindicator, the Starfist, the Prophetic, and the Triumphant.  The Lady of Dreams is, of course, a refit of the original Sylvan, which was decommissioned some years ago.  Of the five remaining ships, the Cibola was gutted and turned into a museum, the Colossus was destroyed in a failed attempt at hyper-drive, the Aristotle was self-destructed to keep it from falling into enemy hands, and the Olympic was apparently driven into a white dwarf by some idiot who wanted to effect time travel and didn’t know it was a binary system (too many Stellar Journey reruns, I’ll bet).  That leaves us with the thorny trivia question: what of the Super-dreadnought Atlas?

Where is that damned planet killer?

The Kastani will probably be jamming everything within the area, so we’re going to have to get Devon to contact one of the Hammerdines and get us a meeting with one of their officials.  I sincerely doubt they would be interested in intercepting any encoded files from us, even if it is the solution to the Cold Fire virus, which they managed to contain on their own through their own technological measures.

Whatever happens, I know we’re going to pull through this.  I just hope we don’t touch off a universal Armageddon in the process.  

*** 

i. fortuna plango vulnera 

 

“Under the tongue root a battle most dread,

and another raging, behind, in the head.”

-Cad Goddeau 

The tall vixen stood before the collected members of her crew and those of the Blue Horizon. “Okay,” she announced, “I want to make this perfectly clear.  We’re up against an enemy who can blast us to atoms in a microsecond, and intel says they’ll be engaging the aligned forces against them soon.  If we Vault into the firefight currently going on over Argeia, I want you to have expected anything.  I want contingency plans with redundancies for the redundancies.  I want all our weapons and power systems checked every ten minutes or as often as possible.  I want everyone accounted for at all times; we don’t know to what level they’ve developed their own Vault technology and I don’t particularly want to find out in any major hurry.”

She turned to her seconds. “Mr. Robbins and Mr. Sinclair, if Satan himself shows up—and knowing our luck he will—I want you to have seen it coming.”

Both men nodded.  “Ashe?” she asked.

“Weapons are ready for hand to hand if the situation gets to that point,” a lanky human, whose right hand had been replaced with a crude prosthetic one, replied.  He turned in the general direction of the Blue Horizon crew, waving with the prosthetic hand.  

*** 

Natasha sat behind her ornate desk, Jape Devon and Merlin Sinclair across from her.  The only object on her desk was an iron sculpture of the English letter E. She had once commented that no matter what happened, that particular paperweight would never be lost on anything she did; unfortunately, there were few who actually understood the reference.

“Okay, give me the bad news,” she said.

“We look like we’re in good shape,” Devon said, “but there are going to be some casualties on our side.  Do you want to know who they are?”

“No, I don’t want any prescience about that,” Natasha said.  “Are we going to win?”

“I can only feel life,” Devon added, “I cannot predict the future.”

“Uh—what?” Merlin asked, utterly confused.

Devon turned to face him.  “Do you remember when you and I first met?  I told you I was surprised about how close you’d been to death.”

Merlin nodded, recalling when he had absently dismissed that morning at the quarters on Argeia.

“A certain breed of my people, we” he spoke a word in his native language, “who have black eyes, can… I don’t know how you feel about metaphysics or religion or mysticism, but we can feel the presence of life and, sometimes, how close someone’s come to death.  We call it a lifeprint because no two are ever exactly alike.  Basically Captain Natasha wants to know what I saw at the crew briefing today.”

A curiosity entered Merlin’s mind, but he didn’t voice it.  Devon read his expression and replied, “Good idea; never ask a question you don’t want an answer to.” 

*** 

The Dennieran vessel Variant rocked in space, having been the first ship to fire against the Kastan fighters.  Ribbons of flame rose from structural splits in the hull, spreading out like cracking glass as the ship protested and succumbed.  The Variant was doomed before her captain even got to the helm, but instead of buckling and falling to her death in the thick shielding of the Planetary Defense Grid, its explosion lit space with a force five times what a freighter of her class would merit.  The entire cargo section blasted out in a shower of multicolored light as the combined-effects-munitions stored on the Q-ship ignited in a chain reaction.  Two Kastani fighters were slashed with shrapnel from the explosion, and the nearest Alliance vessels were physically displaced by the spatial shock wave.

On the planet surface below, Commodore Blanc observed the explosion and turned his head to face the Promagistrate.  No words were exchanged, only a hard stare from the Commodore to his boss.  The venerable head of state gripped the heavy silver stone on her breast and nodded:  if this was an armed invasion, all bets were off.

The Commodore turned to the only officer in the command center clad in a light blue uniform. “Mainor, Dennier and Earth,” he rumbled.

The officer turned to face a terminal, inserting an identicard and entering a series of codes.  He relayed the message on a quad-scrambled channel, directed at one of the darkest and least-explored areas surrounding the Planetary Alignment.  

*** 

Samantha sat on a recovery bunk in the Lady of Dreams’ medical treatment center, slumped over with hands clasped between her knees and her head hung low.  It was unimaginable, this thing that had happened to her master.

The door slid open and Cindy entered, sitting down beside her on the small bed.  The mouse said nothing, but allowed her friend to feel her company.  Samantha sighed heavily, rubbing her eyes and gulping down her anguish.

“It was such a shock,” she said.

“I know it was,” Cindy replied.

“They gave a description of the Kastan who did it.  Devon looked at it and said that he recognized it as one of those Hunt creatures that he told us about.  But he doesn’t know why they would do something like this because it’s out of their nature to attack aliens.”

“How do you feel about it?”

“Feel?” Samantha looked up, fighting off her own emotions—trying to stay in control.  “I want revenge.”

Cindy blanched, but didn’t pull back.  “That’s a perfectly normal thing to feel right now.”

“But it’s wrong,” the collie replied.  “Revenge is not a worthy goal.  It does my master no honor to disobey his teachings, but I just—” she clutched her hands into fists, grinding her teeth.

Feeling anger and wishing revenge is not the same as acting on them, nor is it dishonorable.  It’s a completely reasonable reaction to a totally unreasonable situation. You feel a lot of conflicting emotions right now?  Torn between what your gut tells you and what your discipline demands?”

“Yes,” Samantha snarled.

“You’re frustrated, and rightly so,” her counselor said. “You wish you’d been there when it happened because you’d have given your life to protect your master.”

Samantha’s face fell into her hands, and a flood of emotion overcame her.  Cindy wrapped a comforting arm around her friend, drawing her into an embrace.

“The best we can do for Master Tristan now is to be strong, and to be there if and when he needs us,” she soothed.

“Yes,” a third voice added.  “He needs our strength to recover on his own.”  The two women turned together to see Jazz, the Lady of Dreams’ Silloni communications officer, standing in the doorway.  Samantha connected her face to a distant memory in a heartbeat.

“Laura!” the collie murmured, her voice laden with disbelief.

“Yes,” the lithe Silloni replied, entering the room with a slight shudder of humility.

“Our Master tasked me to find you,” Samantha added.  Cindy could feel an emotion between the two women, but also a wall of formality she could tell both were struggling to maintain.  She couldn’t decide if it was surprise, recognition or some unpleasant sentiment both were hiding.  But Samantha’s expression softened by degrees, so she allowed the scene to continue.

“Um…” Samantha turned slightly to face Cindy, “This is Laura, Tristan’s long lost daughter.”

The Silloni girl shifted uncomfortably, momentarily breaking eye contact with the others. “Among my crew, I am known to them as Jazz,” she murmured.

“I see,” Cindy replied.  “And you two know one another?”

“We trained together as children,” Laura added.  “We were one another’s partner, actually.”

“Cindy,” Samantha added, “Laura and I were raised together as sisters.”  

*** 

On the other side of the Alignment, a clutch of life pods floated listlessly in space, further and further away from the flaming hulk of two collided ships.  The Argonautia was destroyed, death was everywhere as dark pods drifted through frozen space, and Captain Ransdell’s face had fallen into a lifeless, ashen mask.  There were three others in the pod with him: a human woman from third class, a young feline girl in a party dress who had curled into a fetal ball and lay weeping on the floor, and a raccoon dressed in patched coveralls.  The raccoon had discovered a way to restore life support to their pod before the temperature dropped below freezing, but communication was still out. 

Captain Ransdell held a mirror, reflecting light toward the raccoon as he stared out the thick glass at the other pods floating aimlessly in space, their gray faces lit with orange in the blaze of the two lost ships.  Some had been affected by the shockwaves of other explosions, sending them hurling out into oblivion.  He began to feel an icy chill overcome him.

But one of the ship’s journeyman engineers, Jasper Porter, continued chewing his ever-present cigar, crossing wires and manipulating circuitry to get the pod’s communications up and running.  There was no way he was going to die like this, not after all he had survived up to this point.  

*** 

The Lady of Dreams appeared out of a slash of blue-white energy, out of range of the cloying ball of warring vessels surrounding the planet Argeia, the smooth gray wedge of starship moving toward the fray with incredible speed.  Two Hammerdine vessels appeared against the white pearl of the planet while the other pair was barely visible as gaps in the vista of stars beyond the battle.  The sheer size of the battleships ensured they could not be missed.  On the edges of the battlefield, damaged hulks of defeated ships listed slowly off to ignite in flashes of multicolored flame, or implode in showers of sparks. 

Standing at the bridge of the ship, Natasha, Merlin and Jape Devon watched as the scene played out before them.

“You were expecting this?” Merlin asked.

“Yes,” she replied.  “Years ago when I left Brandt—as a political exile—I came here on the advice of a friend.  The Kastani funded the refit of a decommissioned Hammerdine if I shared the nascent technology of Vault Drives with them.”

“You?”

Us, really,” she turned to Devon.  “What’s it look like.”

“You don’t want to know,” the black-eyed alien replied, observing the battle with cold indifference.  “You have about thirty seconds.”

Communications officer Jazz punched in codes on the communications monitor before her, entering the coded message Jape Devon had given her before the ship entered Vault.  She repeated the message several times, not receiving any response.

Suddenly one of the black Hammerdine ships ceased fire against the blockade vehicles, slowly turning on its axis toward the Lady of Dreams

“They know we’re here,” Natasha said, and the bridge lights went red.

“Incoming transmission,” Jazz commented.

“Receive,” Natasha barked.

The spherical holograph dropped its tactical display of the battle ahead of them and phased into the image of a grim figure.  Devon stepped forward and engaged the holograph in the eccentric, throaty Kastan language, speaking so rapidly that neither ship’s captain could keep up with what was being exchanged.  The dizzying, chattering noises wove a linguistic web that sounded more like code than speech.

“What’s he saying?” Merlin asked.

“I think he’s telling them that we have the Cold Fire virus solution, and that we’re here to help.  They know me and that I’ll do what I can to defuse the situation.  That we have one of their own on our side doesn’t hurt, either.”

In a sharp, crisp movement of his body, Devon ended the conversation with the figure, and the image faded before them.  He turned to his captain, “They will entertain a small envoy,” Devon replied, “but they’ll still hold off the blockade.”

Natasha turned to Merlin, “Take Devon and a couple of others and present them the solution.  We’ll watch things topside.”

Merlin nodded, leaving the bridge with a parting wave.  “Take care.”    

*** 

“Okay, when we get down there it should just be a simple matter to find someone in charge.  If they know we’re coming, they’ll no doubt have someone waiting at NIDAS to greet us.  This shouldn’t take long,” Devon said as the crew filed onto the Blue Horizon.  “The fact that this is the ship that brought a few tons of strawberries doesn’t exactly hurt our chances, either.”

“Are they really that much of a delicacy?” Merlin asked as he, Devon and Renny rode the lift up to the flight deck.

“Quite. You made a lot of friends just by bringing them.”

“That’s strange, considering how abundant they are on Earth,” Renny commented.

“You didn’t eat any of them on the trip, I see,” Devon grinned at the navigator.

“No,” the captain added as the two hustled toward the bridge, “we never touch the cargo except to inspect it for damage.”

“You brought a special breed of them to us; super-potent and genetically engineered to our physiology.  The regular ones that grow wild on Earth are poisonous to us.”

“And those we brought?” Renny asked.

“Were they in any other environment, explosive.  That’s why you had to transport them frozen.”

Merlin stared incredulously at him, “No one told us that.”

“What client sent you?”

“Victor Faltane.  He was helping broker the treaty with Argeia and he can be a pretty decent guy to deal with. He helped me out of a tight spot on Earth not long ago.”

Devon’s expression changed to disgust.  “I never cared for him, myself,” the Kastan growled, knitting his brow at the thought.  “Too much of a bleeding heart.”

“Well, we can worry about that later,” Merlin strapped himself in, as he and Renny readied his ship for departure. Devon left the launch to them and departed the bridge.

The others onboard were readying their weapons in the recreation area.  Ashe, from the Lady of Dreams, was polishing the barrel of his double-barrel shotgun.  Devon shot him a knowing glance, “You’re not going to need that.”

Ashe chuckled, “You use your weapons, pal. I’ll use mine.”

Devon shrugged and turned to Samantha and Jazz, sitting together, each with a steel katana across her lap.  “That’s not going to work,” he offered.  “If we’re going down armed, I’d recommend your bringing the Siilv katanas from my case.  You and Jazz know how to use them, right?” The Kastan crossed the room and withdrew a pair of katana blades, the blue-white glint of Siilv shimmering down their edges.  The two women reluctantly set aside their own weapons and took the two blades he’d offered.

“We do,” Samantha said.  “But wouldn’t it do much better to bring guns?”

“Not by any stretch of the imagination.  Trust me,” Devon advised, “the last thing you want to do is go up against a Kastan using anything other than Siilv.  The double-knitting of our physiology would bend your steel and repel your bullets.”

Ashe clacked his shotgun shut, pretending to aim at a target with a smug grin; it didn’t appear as if Devon’s warning meant anything to him. His shells were anything but normal munitions. They were fortified with steel-jacketed slugs propelled by high-powered explosives and he was prepared to see what they would do to that Kastani physiology.  

*** 

“Commodore,” a raspy officer’s voice stated.

Tabia Blanc rose from his command seat and moved to one side of the room, noting the officer’s screen.  “What is that?”

“That would be the Lady of Dreams, Commodore.”

“Doing what?”

“They’re sending an envoy to the NIDAS to bring us information.  It’s a gesture of goodwill, an attempt to curb the hostilities.”

“And they’re bringing it to us?”  The commodore considered it for a moment, and turned toward the door.  “Continue the assault, but keep watch on that Hammerdine. None of the others pose a threat, but Captain Natasha does.  If she interferes, stop her.”

The Promagistrate stepped forward, placing a hand on Blanc’s shoulder, “The Heir Apparent should be moved from this place to the stronghold.”

Tabia surveyed the scene before him.  His second could have things well in hand.  “I’ll take care of it personally,” he replied. 

*** 

The Blue Horizon dropped out of the Lady of Dreams cargo hangar, the ship’s engines engaging seconds after the abrupt departure and the freighter descended to the flashing wall of crisscrossing energy.  The planetary defense grid was a shield of negatively charged ions so powerful that it played havoc with any missile guidance system that was not keyed in to its specific frequency.  Merlin punched in a coded signal he had received from Devon’s communiqué with the larger Kastan ship, and a cat’s eye aperture appeared in the shielding, just large enough for the ship to pass through.

 Natasha looked across the field of stars at the eruptions of flame and energy from the ships around the planet.  The others were putting up a valiant fight, but four Dreadnoughts would soon make short work of them.  Nearly one third of the allied vessels had been destroyed, including two of the largest cruisers.  True to the articles of war, the Kastani had not attacked the medical frigate, but several of the smaller fighters were beginning to take cover behind its bulk, sniping at the enemy fighter swarm from there.  That protection wouldn’t last long, she realized.

 Then a particular vessel caught her eye.  It was a long, slender ship with a red Valkyrie on the side. It was the crest of the Hestran monarchy.  “What ship is that?” she asked.

Robbins tapped keys, “That’s the ArvaMonica, Ma’am.”

“Damn,” she growled, watching the nearest Hammerdine turn slowly toward the Hestran vessel.  “Move to intercede.”

The whole bridge fell silent, the crew turning as one to her.  Robbins spoke first, “Intercede?”

“Put us between the ArvaMonica and that Dreadnought,” she crossed the bridge to assume the center seat.  Robbins obeyed without question, but the others on the bridge sat in stunned silence.  The tall vixen looked around, “We’re just going to protect that ship, not engage anyone further.  The ArvaMonica is the flagship of the Hestran monarchy and they’re likely to have important technology that we dare not lose.”

The others began to work in earnest, some not entirely sure of this move.

“Take battle stations,” the captain said.  “Prepare to assume Combat Configuration.”

The bridge crew strapped themselves into their positions as the order was repeated throughout the ship.  

*** 

The captain of the Vindicator, moving to intercept the Hestran flagship, noted a flashing light on her dash.  Something unexpected was happening, and she turned her view screen to face the new threat.

In the distance, the gray Hammerdine with the bright yellow smiley-face was moving to intercept them.  The captain scratched her chin, concerned at this new event.  The intel she had just received was that the new ship was not a combatant, and yet it was moving to intercede.  She barked an order at her security officer and the tawny Kastan relayed it to a flight of six fighters returning from their last engagement for further orders.

As the fighters moved into a defensive formation between the two massive warships, something totally unexpected happened.  The Lady of Dreams slowed to a crawl, and the fore section split apart down a seam in the middle that ended where the huge smiley-face began.  In the weightlessness of space, the huge sections moved faster than the Vindicator’s commander expected.  Likewise, the aft third of the ship dropped visibly, the trio of engines flickering out one by one as the rear of the ship clamped against the bottom.  The split fore sections folded open, momentum spinning the ship so that it pointed down toward the planet.  The engine turrets of the ship now resembled legs, and two sections on the sides of the ship began to move outward as the conical bridge moved up to sit squarely on what was becoming a humanoid configuration.  It was a feature unique to the Lady of Dreams – the Kastani had helped create that particular aspect at Natasha’s request.

“Open fire!” the Vindicator’s captain shouted.  “All weapons!”  

*** 

It had always been easy before. 

“Dammit!” Natasha snarled, her ship rocking with the force of impact as another Hammerdine fired on them.  “Return fire,” Natasha ordered, “evasive!”

The bridge buzzed with activity as the front of the Lady of Dreams illuminated in a wall of green light and flame, slashing from and at her superstructure.  “Continue with the transformation.”  Suddenly the ship groaned with a sound like grinding metal, sending a shudder through the bridge.

“Ma’am!” a voice called, “the conversion circuitry has been damaged at a critical juncture at one of the cycler units and we can’t complete until it is repaired.”

“What?”

“The other ship… they’re more powerful than we anticipated.  They’ve pierced our shielding.”

Natasha glared coldly at him.  She wanted all contingencies planned for.  “Fix it,” she growled.

“It is… external, ma’am,” the crewmate gulped.

“You mean,” she rumbled as another titanic blast rocked the transforming ship, “that one blow has disabled our transformation processes?”

The crewmate nodded.  Natasha turned back to the viewer, “Last time I try experimental technology in combat.  We lost some psychological advantage, but we can still fight.”

Robbins leapt up from his terminal, “I have an idea.”  The cougar darted out of the bridge area and down the hall.

Natasha turned back to the crewmate, who sat transfixed.  “Well what are you waiting for? Get on with it!”  

*** 

The cargo bay yawned open in the open port, lit with low lights that bathed the formerly bustling area in blue.  Gravity, they noticed, had not quite been adjusted to their physiology and their bodies were sluggish.  Even Jape Devon, normally a whirlwind of activity in the slack gravity of the starships, slowed now that he was back in his element.  The Kastan departed the freighter with Merlin, Samantha, Jazz, Renny and Durant in tow while the others stayed behind to guard and watch over the ship.  Devon, prepared for anything, had the ring of scabbards—his Delta—on hand.  The place was deserted, save for a small, sleek ship that shone like chrome in the half-light of the hangar, and the violet staff cruiser belonging to Victor Faltane.

“We need to go this way,” he indicated a staircase in the deserted hangar dry-dock and the party swirled down the spiral stairs to the floor of the dry-dock area.  Renny noted that the three-ringed help desk was still active, but that it was also decorated with hieroglyphics he had not noticed before.  Strange, he thought, that he could remember all of the details that had been implanted into his mind at this location, but not the existence of those symbols.  The center ring also hovered above them, descending rapidly.

“Through there,” Devon pointed the party to a large door on the other side, around the customer service desk.

The center ring descended, and two bodies swathed in long cloaks, one snowy white and one light gray to match their body fur, stared back at the party.  The hoods draped back, revealing the faces of two black-eyed Kastans.

Devon took a back step, Merlin saw in the expression on his face that these two were not escorts.

 ”Conn Navarre,” Devon breathed.  As if receiving their cue, the two creatures unhooked their cloaks and allowed them to drop.  The gray-toned one was clearly female, her bosom pinned flat with a wrap around her torso.  Both of the new arrivals blanched at Jape Devon; having not expected to see him here.

“You said Conn Navarre was something like a robot,” Merlin said dryly.

“No,” he replied, “it’s a two-person unit, Conn and Navarre.  Hunt always works in pairs.”

The two Kastans drew their weapons:  Conn a tri-bladed Delta and Navarre a wicked double-sickle, one blade hinged at the end of the other.  Samantha recognized the latter weapon as the one described by Tristan’s wife Guinevere, and the killer’s form was the collection of ashes thrown together in the body of a man.

A moment later, Merlin noted that a hand lay limp on the floor in a ribbon of black blood that spilled around the corner behind the bottom ring of the help desk.

Ashe looked across at the two black-eyed Kastans and their bladed weapons, and drew the shotgun from its sheath on his back.  He stepped forward with an arrogant swagger, weapon at the ready.  “See this?” the man beckoned the two figures, indicating his raised weapon.  “This is my Attitude Adjuster!”

The Kastans looked at one another skeptically, readying their metalloid weapons for an attack.

“Right,” Ashe said, and blasted at Conn, his weapon making a deafening boom.  The assassin swept out with one hand, clenching his fist a moment after the shot echoed through the hangar.  When he opened his hand, a clutch of smoking steel pellets fell to the floor, clinking uselessly against the metal and rolling away.

Ashe stepped back, whistling in astonishment.

“I’ll take care of these two,” Devon added, stepping forward with his Delta weapon at the ready.  He immediately found himself flanked by Jazz and Samantha, their Siilv weapons already drawn. 

“Okay, I guess we’ll take care of them,” Devon corrected.

Renny and Durant stood forward with them, “We’re with you,” the bear said.

“No, you’re with me,” Merlin barked, leading the rest of the pack toward a nearby portal.  The two assassins leapt from the center ring onto the middle in the beginning of pursuit, but were met there by the three other combatants.  

*** 

Tim hurled himself out of the portal, the grasping arms of his exosuit swinging him around to land heavily against the outer hull of the ship.  This would be dangerous, but it had to be done.  The young mouse immediately spied the damaged section of the ship and moved toward it with all the speed he could muster.  Space around him filled with flashing light from weapons, explosions, and crackles of energy rebounding against shielding.  Tim was glad for the electromagnets on the skin of his exosuit clinging to the surface of the Lady of Dreams as he knelt on the gray metal to make his repairs on the cycler unit. 

The panel was already fragmented, so the boy pulled it completely off.  The cycler was damaged, but salvageable; he got to work.  Suddenly a blast rocked the plate he rested on as a fighter swooped by, slashing at him on the ship as he tried to work.  Tim blanched, shuddering in the shockwave of the discharge before returning to his work.  He read in the onboard sensors that the ship was swinging back around for another pass.  It was trying to kill him!  Another barrage of fire lit the space around him, scorching the metal plate again and threatening to ignite his exosuit as well.  The flashing cascade of fire passed again, but the ship swung around for another attack.

Tim began to feel an emotion grow inside his gut; he ground his teeth and looked back at the approaching fighter.  This, he realized, is what adults must feel when they say they’re pissed off.   The boy saw shrapnel fly loose from the scored area and realized that the ship was firing depleted uranium slugs—he mentally calculated the weapon system onboard.

The boy moved to his left, popping the latch on another panel while covering the cycler unit with his body.  He retracted the hand unit from his left arm and snaked out the hard, thick transfer cable, jamming it into an open power socket in the ship.  Tim turned, locking onto the ship’s skin with the magnets on his boots, and retracted the right hand unit, replacing it with a cutting laser as the fighter swooped in close.  He ground his teeth, fully aware that he was going to die if this didn’t work.

Tim fired the slash of red laser in the approximate direction of the fighter, zeroing its tracer in on the forward turret.  Inside the barrel of the front-mounted repeater gun, the laser ignited the ammo cell, setting the shell off inside the barrel.  In a microsecond, the remaining rounds ignited and ruptured, and the fighter exploded in a blaze of yellow and green flame.

Tim sighed heavily, removed the transfer cable from the socket and returned to his work on the cycler unit.  

*** 

Tabia Blanc departed the command center and stepped into a shaft of white light in the atrium outside.  A collection of officials stood by, including the human Faltane, who stood near a small, crème-colored youth.  The Commodore faced a lavender-clad female standing with her hands on the child’s shoulders.

“There has been a change of plans; a new threat is involved now.  We must take the Heir Apparent to safety,” he rumbled.

“What’s happened?” one voice asked.

“Captain Natasha has arrived onto the scene.  She possesses the firepower and military competence to pose a threat.  I doubt she will, but she is still an alien and thus unpredictable.”

“I’ll take him,” Faltane chimed in, offering a hand to the youth.  “The peace process is better served with someone other than the Kastani handling such an important task.”

“No, you will not,” Tabia snarled, not breaking his gaze from the caretaker. 

“But I can help protect him,” Faltane urged.

“From what?” the grim warrior needled.

“From… whatever,” he added.  “Your defenses are strong, but there will always be the unexpected to deal with.  I’m well-known enough that any surprises might be short-circuited.”

“You exaggerate your importance and the possibility of the unexpected.”

“Did you expect the Lady of Dreams?”

Tabia considered it for a moment, and waved his hand.  “No, but there is no need for you to be involved with this matter beyond this point.  The Heir is entirely too important.  I’ll take him to the stronghold myself.”  The Commodore took his nephew by the hand and led him away, three other Kastan sentries accompanying them.

“I insist,” Faltane pressed.

The group of gathered bodies turned as one to face the human.  One just did not do that when Tabia Blanc had spoken, and the retreating backs paid him no heed.

Victor Faltane ground his teeth, angry and frustrated at this turn of events.  He couldn’t believe how quickly his plans were falling apart.  He started after the departing group, but hands restrained him as the Commodore departed the scene with his entourage and the youngster toward the hangar where the military commander’s private shuttle resided.  

*** 

ii. pictures at an exhibition 

Outside the planetary orbit of the Mainor, space blistered open with rings of blue-white energy.  The planetary defense grid immediately flared into life, the system alarming the remaining ring of military vessels surrounding the globe as a long wedge of starship appeared against the blackness of space.  Spread out before the defense vessels was a ship twenty miles long - easily five times the size of a Hammerdine Dreadnought.

In the front of the vessel, the triangular wedges split apart to reveal a concave disc, thick cables stretching from the main batteries to each of twenty focus points around the disc. Without preamble, ribbons of dense energy flashed across the face of the disc, concentrating into a glowing ember in its middle before focusing into a single stream, blasting out of the front of the Super-dreadnought with tremendous force.

The beam smashed into the planet, buckling the surface of a continent and blasting through the defensive vessels, scattering them like gnats.  Atmosphere seethed out from the contact point, clearing away from the blistering surface as a pulse erupted from the supergun, slamming into Mainor like a fist.  Half the world’s ocean flash-boiled, leaving a scorched plain in its wake.  The beam punched through the planetary crust, penetrating the mantle and sending ribbons of heat and energy into the core. 

The planet caved in around the impact point like a punctured ball, ribbons of magma spewing out of its hulk as a noxious cloud of poisonous steam began to spread out over the crushed surface.

The beam stopped, and the forward section of the Super-dreadnought slowly closed.  The Kastans practiced massive retaliation, and Mainor’s participation in the blockade and near-invasion of their world, according to their principles, signified an abdication of their right to live.  The planet would take weeks to cool and contract, disintegrating into a dead hulk of rock floating in space, and what population remained would almost surely die before help arrived.  With its Vault temporarily exhausted, the Super-dreadnought Atlas rotated on its axis toward Mainor’s sister planet and the next participant in the blockade, Dennier.  

*** 

With Tim back inside and safe, the Lady of Dreams had completed its transformation.  High above the atmosphere, the massive mechanoid form moved quickly to intercept the other Dreadnought, propelled on the ship’s thrusters in its leg sections.  The Vindicator, having no such configuration, turned the whole of its batteries against the new threat.

The transformed mechanoid shuddered under the barrage of laser fire, beaten like with the force of a tempest of flashing, surging energy as it pressed its advantage.  The huge mechanical hands slammed into the body of its opponent, rending metal and ripping the hull open down its lateral axis.  The ArvaMonica took the opportunity to turn in space, getting away as fast as it could from the battle raging before it.

The Lady of Dreams suddenly was blasted by a thick, green blast from the Triumphant, which had altered its battle stance to face them.  The dreadnought was taking damage from a nearby Mainoran battleship, and had turned its massive bulk into a planetary shield against the allies that now took advantage of the ship’s preoccupation with the giant mechanoid.

Natasha recovered from the shaking floor, raking her hand over a bleeding mouth.  “Oh no,” she growled. “They’re not taking us out that easily.”

Robbins, without command, moved from his engineering section to a gunner’s station.  “Preparing the Woofer, ma’am.”

“Draw back so we can get a clear shot,” she ordered.  The Lady of Dreams propelled itself back several hundred yards from the wounded Vindicator, which began to rotate up and away on its Y-axis from its opponent.  In its wake, a swarm of tiny fighters swooped forward, attacking the mechanoid with thousands of blasts of white-green laser fire.

“Mr. Robbins?” she stated.

Robbins was watching a red bar on his monitor slowly climb as a gentle hum filled the sparking, shuddering bridge.  “Almost there.”

“Almost isn’t good enough!” she called. The cougar’s right hand twitched over a wide, red pressure switch while the left clicked off toggle switches as the red bar rose.  Suddenly the bar turned white and he turned slightly in the seat.

“Grab something,” he ordered the bridge.  

*** 

For a moment, there was no sound on the ship-wide communicators monitoring the battle. The eruptions, explosions, and screams of wrenching metal all around were hushed in an instant, leaving only multi-colored flares and trails of thick smoke against the white pearl of the planet below.  Even the lights of the bridge dimmed slightly as the ship strained under the weight of its weapon.

Then, as if in answer, space rippled around the Lady of Dreams, a wrinkle in the fabric of space spread out from the center of its mass, spreading out like a cone and shooing the mass of fighters away like a sweeping hand.  The Vindicator shuddered, its great body trembling with heavy, ultra-low frequency vibrations as whole sections broke off, splintering first in slivers and then in massive blocks of rending metal.  The Dreadnought cracked in the middle, each of two sections twisting off in opposite directions.

Communication channels were suddenly filled with distress calls, earsplitting alarms that drowned out even the returned-explosions of the battle surrounding them.  The Lady of Dreams had been propelled back several miles from the force of their super weapon, but it was slowly moving back into position to face the Triumphant 

*** 

Below, the Promagistrate watched the screens displaying the battle high above them.

“Report,” she ordered to no one in particular.

“The Lady of Dreams has developed a weapon for which is presenting an unexpected threat to our Dreadnoughts.”

“I understand,” she replied, moving to another console.  The elegant leader inserted the heavy silver pendant into a slot and opened a console.  The keyboard moved away to reveal a wide, spiraled slot which spun open.  A heavy silver ball rose from the gap, displaying a projected image of Argeia above.  Movement in the command center halted as Promagistrate Bianca Nikata threw up a red crosshairs and placed it squarely on the Lady of Dreams.

“Warn our ships that we’re opening a conduit,” she purred.  

*** 

The pair moved like quicksilver, their bodies a blur in the flashing metal of their weapons and fluttering fabric of their tunics as Conn and Devon fought.  Back and forth, trading and deflecting blows with the precision of surgeons, trickles of black Kastan blood spattering their clothing from what winning thrusts each had made.  The males danced through the hangar area, bounding off walls and pillars in acrobatic movements that made the battle seem more a dance than a life-and-death confrontation, pirouettes of deadly grace as the pair moved serpentine around the deserted dry-dock.  Each of them fought to kill, each skilled in the combat arts of his people, each determined to outpace the other—neither gained or held the upper hand for long.  No words had been exchanged; it was poor form to speak to someone you are trying to kill.  Taunts, accusations and other such things were for amateurs and those who had watched too many vids.

For a moment the two broke apart, circling one another as they allowed their weapons to catch and scatter the light of the hangar.  Each appraised his opponent’s aura, neither able to read correctly through the haze of physical exhaustion.  A moment later, their battle re-engaged, the blue-white metal of their weapons creating an odd concerto of musical chimes.

On the widest ring of the help desk, Navarre found herself matched by two adversaries.  They fought like the Silloni magnate she had dispatched, and she wondered if the canine had been a student of that one, since the Silloni girl certainly had.  Their Siilv katanas slashed through the air, and the Kastan killer had to counter attacks from both sides at once with her wicked sickles. 

The Kastan moved toward the Silloni girl, engaging her more fiercely as the collie pulled back to catch a momentary breath.  The Silloni parried a flurry of blows before Navarre lashed out with a kick that sent her to the smooth surface of the ring.  She then moved back to whirl a glancing block up against the canine’s weapon.

Samantha brought down her blade with a fierce resolve, its razor point directly at the killer’s face as both combatants heaved in exertion.  A quick look backward confirmed that the Silloni was on her feet again, her weapon ready to come down if the Kastan dropped her guard. 

Navarre lashed out at Jazz with the double-sickle while slamming a heel into Samantha’s gut and sending her to the floor.  The collie fell backward, dropping the katana from heavy hands as the Kastan turned to face the Silloni.  The pair whirled their weapons in a tempest of flashing metal as Navarre feinted several blows to the girl’s spiral horn, a calculated psychological attack on her fear.  

*** 

The Triumphant had moved back, so had the Prophetic and the Starfist, leaving the planet protected only by its defense grid.  Captain Natasha felt a cold chill ripple up her spine as she watched them withdraw.

“Ma’am,” a young jaguar at a console said.  “There’s something coming from the surface of the planet.  It is very small, but it has a weird energy signature.”

“Show me,” she said, peering into the screen at a tiny white dot, sizzling up from the planet at them.  “Magnify,” Natasha ordered, and the image boosted up.

Slashing up from the planet’s surface, a tiny white ring—the size of a basketball—was hurtling toward their ship.  Against the white planet and its sizzling silver defense grid, it had been imperceptible.  “Let’s get the hell out of here…” she began. 

Too late, the transformed Lady of Dreams began to move its massive bulk away from the minuscule object hurtling at it.  But the white ring never got close enough to hit before it flared, creating an infinitesimal black spot, invisible against the dark of space, in the center of its diameter.

The Lady of Dreams shuddered, wrenched with an attack rivaling the force of thousands of weapons.  The whole ship protested with an ear-splitting scream as the limbs lurched forward, stressed metal splintering off at its weakest junctures.  The tiny ring drew matter greedily toward its center, where smaller ships disappeared in a space the size of a pinprick.  The Dreadnought and several of the surrounding allied vessels were ripped apart in an instant, the legs and arms of Captain Natasha’s mechanoid disappeared into the tiny, black event horizon.  An instant later, the weapon imploded into a whorl of dust, taking whole starships and deformed, wrenched metal within its tiny wake before disappearing altogether.  What remained of the Lady of Dreams twisted haphazardly in space, spinning out of control without its propulsion systems, sucked away with the legs of the massive mechanoid form.  

*** 

Merlin didn’t know quite what to think as he stood before the tall, slender figure of Bianca Nikata.  The Kastan Promagistrate was not beautiful per se, but her bearing and the quality of her presence radiated a magnificence he couldn’t quite put his finger on.  She was flanked by two very tough-looking guards, one male and one female, and Victor Faltane stood behind her with an expressionless face.  The Blue Horizon’s captain could tell that this was an awkward scene for him.

“I understand that you have some information to give me?” she purred in unaccented Standard.  The Promagistrate didn’t bother looking at Renny or Durant as the two put up a front before her two bodyguards.  Merlin could feel the four warriors sizing each other up with a sensation like electric current.

“Yes,” Merlin replied, slightly comforted that there was no language barrier.  “We were able to decode the Cold Fire virus using a keycode provided to us by the one who wrote it.”

“Wrote it?” Faltane interjected.  “How do you know who wrote it?”

Merlin sighed heavily, unwilling to implicate his brother, despite their troubled relationship.  “The author of the virus is apparently being kept as a prisoner somewhere by the terrorist group behind all these attempts to disrupt the Kastan inclusion into the Planetary Alignment. He embedded the keycode antidote within the virus itself and we were able to extract it.”

“And this keycode,” Nikata added.  “You have it?”

Merlin produced a thin crystal from his jacket pocket.  Another Kastan appeared from behind the Promagistrate and snatched it from his hands, disappearing as quickly as she had come.

“I understand that you recently transported a shipment of strawberries?” Nikata added, in the tone of light conversation.

“Uh… yes,” Sinclair wondered about the battle raging in the sovereign space overhead, “Will there be a cease-fire on the events going on right now?”

“Of course, business still.  Yes, there will be a cease-fire,” she replied.  A moment of pregnant silence followed, broken by the reappearance of the Kastan who had taken Merlin’s crystal.  The lackey arrived more slowly, with an air of satisfaction.  There followed a short, sharp conversation in the Kastan language that Merlin couldn’t follow, but it appeared that they were satisfied with what they had found.  However, he made out the words Dennier and Earth in the cacophony of clicks and hisses.

The lackey disappeared again, and Nikata smiled warmly.  “Under the circumstances, Argeia will be withdrawing from the Planetary Alignment.  We are grateful for your contribution to this matter, Captain Sinclair, but your presence here is no longer appropriate.”

Merlin sighed in relief — he hated tense situations and the loss of this new world would be a scar on the Alignment, but he was neither politician nor diplomat, and he was glad that the end was in sight. 

However, from the corner of his eye he noticed Faltane flinch.  The look crossing the human’s face was hard to read, but Merlin got the distinct impression that he had somehow stolen the diplomat’s thunder.  He shot what he hoped was a conciliatory look in Faltane’s direction, which fell flat when the Promagistrate turned with a dismissive gesture in their direction and departed the scene.

Moments later, Merlin Sinclair and Victor Faltane stood alone in the atrium, the archers’ bow arc of light glancing off the citadel in a large window behind them.  Renny and Durant shrank back, unsure of what to do next.  

“You’ve…” Faltane said slowly, “just saved an awful lot of people.”

“Yeah,” Merlin replied dryly.  “Sorry about that.”

“No fault, no penalty,” Faltane said.  “Sometimes diplomacy fails and action wins.”  The human smiled, clapping a hand on Merlin’s shoulder.  “I’m just glad that this is resolved.”

Despite the man’s amity, Merlin could feel a tension in the grip of the hand on his shoulder.  Things had clearly not gone the way Faltane had wanted them to.

“I need to get back to my crew,” Merlin added.  Faltane nodded.  

*** 

Natasha ground her teeth as a plume of flame boiled up from the body of the Lady of Dreams.  That blow was fatal… her heart sank as the weight of that fact sunk in.  This ship, in which she had devoted the last decade of her life and most of her investment money, was everything she had lived for.  All the technology she had created and commissioned, all the advances she had made, all the memories that these walls held were going down.  It was a dream, and it was her dream that was dying before her eyes.  Ship systems were sparking, ribbons of electricity snaking across panel boards as her bridge crew fought to keep control of the faltering mech.

“Crew,” she announced, her voice choked, “abandon ship.  There’s nothing else we can do at this point — and I’m not going to let them take me.”

The others didn’t move—stunned to hear those words from their captain.

“Move it!” she shouted.  There followed a stampede of bodies, gathering what they could and darting down the hallway.  In a few seconds, only Robbins, the boy Tim, and the quartermaster Jacob remained.

“Why am I not surprised,” she rumbled.  “Jacob, take Tim to a life pod.”

“I’m not leaving,” Tim said, bluntly stating a fact not open to debate.

“Do as I say, boy,” she growled.  Jacob took the youth by one hand, but he pulled away, closing the space between himself and his captain with a determined grimace.

“I’m not leaving,” he begged, his voice on the edge of tears.  “I love you.”

A moment of tense silence filled the bridge, and the captain sighed.  She knelt down before him, taking the boy in a tenacious embrace.  “I love you too, kiddo.  But you have to go on without me,” she soothed.

“But I don’t want to!” he protested, emotion overcoming his voice as he clutched her closer.  The two stayed like that for several long seconds, each drawing strength from the others’ embrace as explosions continued to fill the doomed bridge.

“Tim,” she purred, “I need you to forgive me.”

Tim tensed, “For what?”

She drew him closer, hugging tightly—too tight.  Bewildered, the boy tried to push away before he realized she had opened the battery pack on the belt of his endosuit and cut the power to the relays.  In another instant, the boy sagged in her arms, the technological exoskeleton no longer giving him the power of movement.  She allowed him to fall away, and their eyes met.  The look on his face carried one word:  Why?

Natasha couldn’t find a reply, but rather slid another object into the battery pack on the rear of his suit.  She lifted her face, “Jacob.” 

The quartermaster stepped forward and hefted the boy into his arms, then turned down the hall.  Tim squirmed mightily with a will that could have moved a mountain, protesting in a sob-wracked howl.  Captain Natasha ground her teeth, fighting not to hear his frustrated screams echoing down the hall.

“Robbins,” she added.  He was at her side in an instant.  “Let me know when all the life pods are deployed.”

“Of course,” he replied, taking a position at a functioning console.  “Watch out for that smoke.”

“Thank you,” Natasha said, moving away from a trickle of fumes at her ankles, swallowing absently and rubbing the tears from her eyes as the first flock of life pods launched from the body of the faltering hulk of the Lady of Dreams 

***

Jazz leapt up and across to the next inside ring, taking a moment to catch her breath before the killer followed her in a somersault meant more to confuse than impress.  Still, the Kastan backed away from her opponent, hands apart in a deliberate gesture of challenge.

Jazz didn’t take the bait, but stepped back toward the fallen collie nearby.

“Sam?” she shouted, never taking her eyes off the killer.

“I’ll… be right there!” the collie gasped, gathering herself together again.  Her katana had fallen over the side of the desk, and she fumbled for it.

In a lightning move, Navarre was across the circular desk and before her, lashing out with the pole arm.  The Silloni matched her, pressing forward.  The move surprised the Kastan, and she found her ankles tangled in the length of her own weapon.  Jazz thrust forward, her blade finding purchase in flesh as a ribbon of black liquid spat out of the contact point before Navarre tumbled off the perch and back onto the outer ring where Samantha had finally gathered herself.  As she fell, Navarre made a sound unlike anything they had ever heard before, the front of her tunic now mottled with her own oily blood. 

The exclamation caused Devon and Conn to flinch, their own black eyes darting to the scene below for an instant.  Conn’s countenance fell for a fraction of an instant, but long enough for Devon to know that the scene below bothered him. 

Devon moved forward, pressing his momentary advantage, drawing one of the three blades back into its scabbard to give himself more maneuverability with the weapon.  Conn followed suit in an instant, the two killers’ weapons flashing, whirling still as they moved serpentine across the polished floor of the open NIDAS hangar.  They were moving closer to a large, heavy gate sealed shut with an exotic whorl on symbols across its face and a bracer.

A moment later, the hangar filled with an audible rumble at their side.  Both the males started at the sound as the gate slowly rose, and Devon suddenly saw a noticeable black halo instantly flashing behind Conn.  He dropped, lashing a swirling leg out at Conn’s ankles, tripping the killer up in a tangle of limbs before dashing to the side to seek cover behind a pillar, his weapon retracting into a sharp snak! as he almost flew through the air.

And there, on the other side of the gate, was Commodore Blanc, the Heir Apparent, and the small entourage that followed them.  The Commodore’s eyes fell on the black-eyed Kastan lying winded on the floor before him, its tunic mottled with black blood, and his face turned up in a sneer.

Jape Devon had never seen another like himself panic.  Conn, the cold-blooded assassin who had seen and caused enough tragedy to steel himself against seemingly anything, began to wail and crawl backward in a desperate scramble to put distance between himself and the uniformed warrior before him.  He threw his hands up before his face to ward off any attack.  There was a terrifying hiss as Tabia Blanc drew from a pocket a small, sharp object that shimmered in the half light of the hangar.

Seek,” the Commodore commanded the tiny device, and it flashed out of his hand under its own power, leaving a blue-white trail in its wake.  In an instant, it bored through the assassin’s up-thrust arms with an impacting boom, burrowing into the viscera of his neck.  Conn struggled on the floor for an instant, his body wracked with spasms as the tiny object burrowed through his neck and into the skull, then erupted from the top of his head as thick black blood churned out in torrents to spill over the polished surface of the hangar floor.  The assassin’s body lay in a crumpled heap, spasming and twitching as the Commodore approached it.

The entourage led the child to the silver ship as Tabia shielded the grisly scene with his cloak.  Jape Devon stood completely motionless behind the pillar, hardly daring to breathe as the group passed by him, moving toward the sleek silver vessel parked nearby.  There was a sizzling sound, as a laser cutting flesh, emanating from beneath the draping leather cloak as the party ushered the youngster into the vessel. Tabia whirled around to follow, pocketing the silver weapon as the assassin’s dying discharge slowly faded into the fabric of his black clothing. 

Tabia stopped, looked around to see a Silloni female and some sort of canine near the help desk, resolved that they must be attached to that group of aliens bringing them the Cold Fire solution, and then turned to walk toward the ship.  Less than a minute later, the ship lifted on repulsors and slipped out of the NIDAS in a whisper of engines.

It took a moment for his heart to stop pounding, but Jape Devon slowly moved from around the pillar to note the neatly severed body of the assassin Conn lying in a pool of slippery, thick blood, the flesh of his face sheared neatly off and the underlying tissues spreading his face out in a rictus grin.  Devon’s eyes flitted to the other side of the hangar where Samantha lay in a pool of blood, Jazz attending her as a gray shape moved from behind the help desk, stealthily stalking around to them.

He moved without thinking.  With a burst of energy from reserves he didn’t know possessed, Devon lashed out with his Delta, hurling the weapon at Navarre as the three blades slashed out of their scabbards.  The deadly projectile whirred across the hangar, slamming into the help desk between the assassin and her prey.  Jazz turned, fumbling with the katana as her muscles ached with exhaustion.

Navarre’s face jerked toward Devon, falling on the ruined body of her partner as it pulsed black blood onto the metal floor.  

*** 

No going back now.

The Lady of Dreams buckled in the vacuum of space, its spine broken and the massive hulk slowly spiraling toward the planetary defense grid below, trailing thick columns of smoke and noxious fumes as the great ship expired.  Life support had sparked out a few seconds before and what air and temperature remained on the bridge was disappearing fast.  In the center of the massive area, Natasha sat on the broad center seat with the huge cougar who had been her second for years.  The two shared a bottle of the captain’s best brandy, holding hands as the fore section of the ship snapped, groaning under the weight of release as kilometers of metal twisted and screamed.

As the gleaming orb of Argeia’s white star appeared, splitting over the horizon like a crescent, the cities below glittered like jewels beneath the chromatic defense grid.  The two smiled, looking into each other’s eyes.  “We never had to take any of it seriously,” Natasha said, and pressed her mouth to his.  Robbins seized her in his arms and drew her close, dropping the bottle to the carpeted floor of the bridge as a maelstrom of electric sparks erupted around them.

The ruined hulk of the mighty ship descended further, its body convulsing as a living thing in the spasms of death, before striking the planetary defense grid of the planet below.  The Lady of Dreams glanced off the energy shield, igniting brighter than a solar flare, filling space like the flash of a star, and then sizzled out into a cloud of thick, gray smoke and debris.  

*** 

Navarre pointed the double-sickle weapon at Devon as the black-eyed Kastan crossed the hangar for them.

“Oh no,” Jazz snarled, “you’re mine, bitch!”  She launched at the killer, the blue-white metal of her Siilv blade stabbing through the spaced between the extended blades of Devon’s Delta.  Navarre blanched and fell back, swooping under a blade and knocking the fatigued Silloni girl down.  Samantha was getting to her feet again, and the assassin’s lip curled.  There was no way she was going to be able to handle three foes at once, especially another Kastan.  Better to take care of these two and beat a hasty retreat.

The killer lunged to one side, caught herself as Jazz moved to compensate, and slashed her blade wide, aiming at Samantha’s middle.  The blades slashed through space, the end of the second blade finding purchase in Samantha’s body, sending her to the floor with a weak scream.  Navarre stopped, taking a moment to watch the prey fall, just as she had watched her master quiver in agony after his horn had been severed.

It was so easy to kill these off-worlders, she thought, that a sense of satisfaction was barely palpable.  Navarre turned to face Jazz, and found a heavy fist slamming into her gut.  Jazz had recovered quicker than she had thought, and the assassin found herself tumbling backward, her lurch interrupted by a searing pain stabbing in the back of her abdomen as her descent ground to an agonizing stop.  She glanced back to see that Samantha, her hands clutching at her middle as blood coursed over her fingers and onto the Japanese tunic beneath her jacket, held the grip of the katana that now stabbed forward out of her gut.  The wicked double-sickle clattered to the floor beside the assassin.

The moment stopped, as if suspended in space, the two women staring into one another’s faces.  Devon’s footfalls stopped as Navarre coughed up a burst of oily black blood and Jazz stepped forward with her katana upraised.  

*** 

Promagistrate Nikata returned to the underground complex beneath the jade bunker.  The elegant Kastan found her staff assembled there, including Jean Blanc, Tabia’s brother.

“It has been brought to my attention that Commodore Blanc has slain a member of the original Hunt in the hangar,” she began.  A murmur of disbelief spread through the room, but quieted when she spoke again.  “He did not have time to search for its counterpart.  In addition, the solution to the rancid Cold Fire computer virus—which has caused the Alignment no end of death and tumult—has yielded more information than Captain Sinclair advised us of.  It contains a trace code back to Hunt equipment.  We now know that it was merely one link in a long chain designed to disrupt our world and usurp our power.  The acts of terrorism which we thought random were to purpose, and the slain Hunt was their architect from what information we now have.  This is the legacy of that cult, and all the more reason why they need to be stamped out.”

She turned to the boyish Jean, “We will not be re-establishing diplomatic or trade relations with the Planetary Alignment, but please extend our thanks to Jo Chan for all her efforts.”  Jean bowed graciously in acceptance.

“The Heir Apparent is to safety now,” she continued.  “We can only wonder what would have happened if the Hunt had gotten access to him.”

There followed a general noise of agreement from the collected voices.  

*** 

Merlin entered the hangar of the NIDAS to a sight he knew he would dread.  At one end of the open area lay the twisted and broken corpse of one assassin.  No one else was visible.  The captain, Renny and Durant looked at one another, and then moved forward into the hangar.

“Samantha!” Merlin cried.

“Here!” came Jape Devon’s voice from the other side of the help desk.  The captain ringed the desk at top speed, skidding to a stop before a broken husk of a body.  The other assassin lay before him, her body slashed repeatedly and expired.  Laura had sustained a number of cuts and probably had a broken arm, and Devon was mottled with black bloodstains and cuts of his own.  But what held his gaze was the sight of Samantha lying in Laura’s lap.  She was bleeding from the middle, and bore several other, smaller wounds.

Merlin fell to his knees before Samantha, drawing her into his lap with quivering arms, overcome with anguish.  He was awash in emotion and a pain he never knew he could feel.  It was as though the viscera of his breast were torn out, but much moreso than he had felt when he had thought Taro lost.  His mind wracked with all the things he should have said, all the things he should have done, but never took the time.  The wolf threw back his head in a howl of anguish, jostling her body in his pain and frustration.

Samantha groaned, one hand clenching involuntarily at her middle as her captain shifted her.  She was alive, but unconscious from fatigue and loss of blood.  He pressed a hand over her middle, feeling the lateral slash across her flesh.  It was not deep, and there were no exposed organs.

“My people can get her fixed up,” Devon offered. “She’ll live.”

“We have to get her to the Lady of Dreams!” Merlin barked.

“No…” Devon said quietly, “we can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Because,” his voice trembled slightly, “there is no more Lady of Dreams to take her to.”

Stillness filled the hangar, oppressive and weighty at the words Devon spoke.  Renny, Durant and Ashe stood in silence as Devon strode over to the help desk and tapped keys on a glowing panel.  “They’ll be here shortly.  They’ll take care of her.”

But Merlin drew Samantha closer, placing his hand over her bloody middle and keeping the pressure on it.    

*** 

iii. forces of nature 

Samantha was taken to a medical facility in Donisia, the center of the capitol city and only a few miles from the NIDAS.  Physicians saved her life, making a devastating discovery at the same time.  None of them spoke Standard, so they related their findings to Jape Devon, who explained to Merlin that there had been complications, but that everything would be all right.  Samantha would have to undergo physical therapy and take it easy for a few months, but she would live.

Devon left it to Samantha to tell him the rest of the story.

The white pearl of the planet Argeia slowly slipped out of sight as the Blue Horizon drew away.  What remained of the blockade of ships still sizzled and sparked as hulls collapsed and the occasional explosion lit the black of space around them.  Rescue ships had arrived and recovered most of the survivors, and more ships were arriving now to remove the blasted hulks of the destroyed vessels.  The Hestran flagship had gratefully collected all of the life pods from the Lady of Dreams, and Jazz—as their ranking officer—had taken the time to make sure they were all right.  Each of them would later be processed and sent back to their respective homeworlds, but she took custody of the emotionally devastated Tim herself, having special plans for his future. Merlin Sinclair looked out the observation window, his emotions a maelstrom inside.

Samantha was doing better, but would need weeks of rest and during that time, they would have to—he stopped… who did he think he was kidding?  He wanted to hold her and stay by her side, but he needed to be strong now for the rest of the crew.  She was resting quietly, healing with all the support that Tanis could give her.  Merlin sighed, remembering how welcome Natasha had been when they had crashed after vanquishing Sagan.  But that chance was gone now.

When Merlin had returned to his ship, a news flag had been waiting.  The luxury cruiser Argonautia had been rescued in deep space, following a collision with another ship, and his former chief engineer Patch had been aboard.  Patch had made it to a terminal and sent a message to his brother, and Pockets had asked that they meet him at a rendezvous point.

Victor Faltane strode up to stand beside Merlin before the observation window, the long drape of his traveling cloak trailing behind.  He found his presence comfortable, even though the human’s composure had been tense and guarded, like a thin sheet of muslin stretched tightly over broken glass.

“It’s a shame,” Faltane began.  “There were such great things that we could have been to each other, but greed had to get in the way and now they’re all but lost to us.”

“History,” Merlin began, hoping that some deep, cosmic comment would reveal itself to him, “is full of such events.”  The canine suddenly felt as though it wasn’t much in the line of deepness, but then he realized that he was too tired to make any such statements.

“As it ever will be,” Faltane responded, unfazed by the comment, staring out the window as the last vestiges of the white orb passed out of sight. 

“It’s a pity that we lost the Lady of Dreams, too,” Merlin mused.  “Vault technology would have been an incredible boon to us all.”

“Vault technology has more applications than most people think.  Natasha had an incredible idea, but limited herself to applications of travel across only distance.  Strange, considering that she was such an inventive venture capitalist.  It would be interesting to see what might have happened if other developers could have gotten access to that.” 

Faltane turned to face Sinclair, extending a hand.  “Thank you for escorting me back to Earth.  My staff and I are quite grateful.”

Sinclair took the offered hand, “It’s the least we can do to help you.  Your assistance in brokering this, even the way it ended, will be something I at least will remember.  We’ve lost so much, from Senator Ferry and all those poor people who died in the terrorism, to Captain Natasha.  So many important and influential people… it’s like all the gods have been snuffed out.”

Faltane sighed with a shrug.  “True, and we will mourn for all of them now that this is over. On the other hand I wouldn’t say it was a total loss.   We now have a fresh supply of Siilv back on the market.  You know, it’s like my father taught me, and what I’ve taught all my own staff members.”

“What is that?” Merlin asked.

“That in pain, there must be gain.”  The human smiled, drew the hood of his pale cloak over his head, and returned to his tiny ship in the Blue Horizon’s cargo hold.  

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Unless otherwise noted, all material © Ted R. Blasingame. All rights reserved.