Undocumented Features Forum Mini-Stories

Omnibus Edition, Volume One

As the title suggests, these mini-stories first appeared in the Undocumented Features Mini-Stories area on the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum - with the exception of number 14, "Bagatelle for Rifle in C Major", which was first posted as an orphaned story fragment to the general UF board in 2002, and has been resurrected as a special bonus for this online omnibus edition.

Enjoy!
--G.
March 22, 2007

Table of Contents

  1. Get In the Van
    July 11, 1995
  2. Cleansed by Fire
    September 19, 2005
  3. Living Large
    May 24, 2106
  4. Opening Titles
    Unknown Mid-Golden Age
  5. Eight-Ball Elegy
    September 10, 2288
  6. Sanctuary
    September 12, 2288
  7. Where Were You When the Fun Stopped?
    September 14, 2288
  8. The Bernard Identity
    February 13, 2290
  9. Arrival
    August 18, 2388
  10. New and Improved
    December 29, 2388
  11. Science Project
    March 13, 2397
  12. Destiny
    July 26, 2404
  13. Christening
    October 12, 2404
  14. Omnibus Bonus Story: Bagatelle for Rifle in C Major
    October 11, 2406


Tuesday, July 11, 1995
11:30 PM
Los Angeles, California

The man living in the small house at the end of a dark, quiet street wasn't asleep. Far from it; he was sitting at his kitchen table scribbling in a notebook, his craggy face fixed in a scowl of concentration. His pen scratched against the paper with a fitful, almost angry sound. His whole body, tattooed and solidly muscled, was taut with energy, as if there were a spring inside him that was winding tighter and tighter as his ability to write down his thoughts lagged behind his ability to think them.

So engrossed was he that he didn't take much notice of the sound outside at first. It started faint and grew stronger, the sound of a jet aircraft approaching. That wasn't unusual, anyway. Los Angeles was one of the air hubs of the world. Jets flew over all the time. You learned to tune them out after a while, even if you weren't a man in the grip of some hellish introspection, furiously struggling to scratch down your thoughts before they slipped out of your head.

This aircraft sound was different, though. It grew steadily louder and louder, coming closer, never peaking and fading back off in the other direction - and then suddenly it was right outside, and there was a sudden bright light slashing through the Levolors and drawing brilliant stripes of blue-white on the far wall. That got the writer's attention, finally. He dropped his pen and turned in his chair to look out the window, but the street had gone dark. He could see that there was some shape out there, hear the sound of turbines spooling down, but he couldn't make out anything but a vague shape in the dim glow of the malfunctioning streetlight.

He got up from the table, turned to go, then paused and, almost as an afterthought, turned back to grab his notebook. Then he yanked open the door and strode outside, ready to confront whatever the hell was going on there - and then pulled up short on his doorstep, jaw dropping, stunned by what he saw.

There was an airplane in his driveway.

Well, not in his driveway, exactly. More like half in the driveway and half in the street out front. And not an airplane, exactly, either. Part of it looked kind of like an F-14 jet fighter - had a fuselage, a cockpit bubble, wings, recognizable jet intakes (never heard of an F-14 with giant booster rockets on its back, but what the hell) - but it also had limbs. It was standing in his driveway on a pair of legs that, on closer examination, seemed to be the lower halves of the engine nacelles with chicken-leg joints in them. And it had arms, human-like robot arms with fully articulated hands. Its right hand was empty. The left held what looked like a giant rifle.

"What the fuck," said the writer.

As if in answer, the cockpit canopy hissed and then swung upward with an electric-motor whine. The cockpit had two seats, one behind the other, and there was a figure wearing what looked like armor in the front seat. The pilot pulled off his helmet, then reached down to his instrument panel and flipped a switch. A small light on the panel clicked on, illuminating his face as he turned and leaned over the edge of the cockpit.

He was an ordinary-looking guy - white, brown hair, glasses, maybe college-age. He smiled in a friendly manner and raised a gloved hand.

"Hi," he said.

The writer blinked. "Uh... hi," he said, offering a small wave, feeling a little stupid and a lot surreal.

"You're Henry Rollins, right?" the pilot asked.

The writer blinked again. "Uh... yeah," he said.

The pilot grinned. "My name's Ben Hutchins. You can call me Gryphon." He pointed to the side of his plane/robot/thing, where, sure enough, the lettering just below the cockpit said,

CMDR BENJAMIN D. HUTCHINS
"GRYPHON"

Rollins supposed he couldn't argue with that. It was, after all, right there in black and white. Now that he looked more closely, he noticed other lettering on the machine. On the lower leg, painted so that it would read normally if the engine was where it belonged on a normal jet, were the words WEDGE DEFENSE FORCE.

"Wedge Defense Force," Rollins said; then his eyes went wide. "You're those guys," he said. "The ones they say blew up Worcester. Twice."

Gryphon's grin became a trifle embarrassed. "Uh, yeah, well, we had help both times," he said. "Listen, I don't have a lot of time here. For various screwed-up reasons, I couldn't get a Shadow Legios for this trip, and I'm sure NORAD has my deorbit trajectory all dialed in. There's gonna be shit coming in from Vandenberg, El Toro, Edwards - " He glanced down at his instrument panel. "They're launching an F-117 over in Burbank right now, and - " He looked impressed. "Something just took off from Groom and it is smoking. Jesus." He returned his attention to Rollins. "Point is, I gotta get going real quick or there's gonna be some seriously heavy shit going down here, so I don't have time for the long version."

Rollins raised one heavy black eyebrow. "So gimme the short version," he said, sounding intrigued.

"Despite whatever official line the U.S. government might've taken after our little, uh, misunderstanding a few years ago, we're the good guys. We roam around making the galaxy a safer place, seeing the sights, and generally having a blast - and we want you to come with us."

Rollins raised the other eyebrow. "Me?"

"Yeah."

"Why me?"

"Why not? You're one of the few people on Earth we think can handle what we see out there, that's why. Handle it, hell, you'll love it."

Rollins ran a hand over his short brush of stiff black hair. "I dunno, man," he said at last. "This is pretty heavy stuff."

"Oh, come on, Hank," Gryphon said with a hint of friendly scorn. "You know you want to get off this rock. Besides, if you don't, you'll always wonder what you would've seen. Roll the dice, man. Buy the ticket, take the ride. It'll be good times." He moved a control. A panel in the side of the fighter, under the rear cockpit, opened and a chain ladder unrolled to the street.

Grinning again, Gryphon said, "Get in the van."

Rollins stood for a moment longer, his face blank, the gears of his mind turning behind it.

Then he smiled and said, "Lemme get my toothbrush."

Gryphon glanced at his radar scope and shook his head. "No time. Besides, we've got vending machines."

Rollins started clambering up the ladder. At the top he paused, one leg over the side of the cockpit, and asked, "You've got vending machines in space?"

Gryphon pulled on his helmet and sealed it with a hiss, reached to the panel, and punched a couple of buttons. As the turbines in the fighter's legs chunked and started spooling up, his voice crackled through a speaker in the helmet:

"Wait'll you see the shit we've got in space, man."

"Get In the Van" (A Golden Age Mini-Story) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
With help from Chad Collier
A Snapshot from
Operation Hero
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



Monday, September 19, 2005
51°23′23″N, 30°5′58″E (80 miles north of Kiev)
Ukraine, Earth, Centaurus Sector

The SDF-17 was taking an almighty pounding.

The ship, hovering at an altitude of 2,000 feet above ground level, was under heavy fire from not one but four Cossack-class heavy cruisers of the Commonwealth of Independent States Aerospace Defense Force - sturdy vessels fitted with potent beam weapons based on "borrowed" Salusian technology. Unable to fight back, the Wayward Son hunkered down within the glowing green capsule of the Total Barrier, weathering a storm of particle beams and heavy missiles that seemed like it would never let up. To make matters worse, the SOL orbital defense network in the region was online; every few seconds a bolt of sun-hot plasma would streak down from the heavens and smash against the top of the barrier, pushing it inexorably closer to failure.

On the bridge, the mood was one of total exultation. Every time the ship shuddered with another heavy hit, the bridge crew cheered like spectators at a barn-burning Battlesport match. On the IMAX-like master holographic display at the front of the room, everyone watched the Total Barrier creep toward overload as if they were watching the donation tally at a telethon for the worthiest of causes.

Commander Benjamin "Gryphon" Hutchins, executive officer, whooped as a SOL beam blasted the shield dead-center above the bridge, sending a shockwave rippling downward through the room to scatter papers and overturn Captain MegaZone's (fortunately empty) coffee cup.

"Whoo!" he cried. "That one would've parted our hair! The SOL targeting crews are really on the ball today."

"Yeah, I wouldn't want to have gone up against this crew back in '97," Zoner observed.

Weapons officer Kei Morgan punched a key on her console, opening up a communications channel. "Come on, you guys!" she yelled exuberantly at the Cossacks' crews. "Put your backs into it! Do you want us to blow up today or not?"

"Not to worry," replied the deep voice of the CISPVO task force commander, Commodore Henry Gloval. "We shall double our efforts!"

"That's the spirit!" Kei replied.

"He's not kidding, either," sensor officer Yuri Daniels reported. "I've got four more Cossacks and a Potemkin - I think it's the Potemkin - just coming into firing range."

The pounding intensified. The Total Barrier's status bar moved into the yellow zone. Everybody cheered. A few moments later, the pride of the Russian aerospace defense fleet, the mighty battleship Potemkin, made the definitive statement of the day, unleashing the mightiest weapon in Earth's spaceborne arsenal at the time - a super-heavy beam weapon its designers called, perhaps a trifle unimaginatively, the Nova Cannon.

The Nova Cannon's beam slammed into the SDF-17's Total Barrier portside amidships, causing the whole field to strobe crazily for a second. Had the fortress been unshielded, the blast probably would have been sufficient to sever the pylon connecting the main body of the ship to the spacecraft carrier Prometheus, the nerve center of the SDF-17's Veritech fighter operations, which everyone on board - especially the crew of the Prometheus - would have found highly inconvenient.

As it was, the SDF-17 suffered no damage - but the hit was enough to spike the Total Barrier's status bar clean into the red, setting off alarms and triggering a countdown on the master display.

"Total Barrier backlash event in 20 seconds," the ship's machine intelligence, Eve, announced calmly.

Zoner, grinning from ear to ear, punched a key on his command chair's arm and said, "That did it, Hank! You guys better haul ass outta here, 'cause here comes the Earth-shattering kaboom!"

"Roger, SDF-17, withdrawing," Gloval replied.

Fifteen seconds later, the Total Barrier cooked off, releasing all the energy it had absorbed during the Wayward Son's beating in a single nanosecond pulse of unbelievable intensity. The superheated shockwave smashed out from the brightly glowing energy shell like the plasma shell of an expanding star, vaporizing everything in its path. On the ground beneath the fortress, everything within a radius of 10 miles was instantly annihilated, creating a perfectly circular crater of gleaming black-green glass. Beyond that, the energy wave scoured the ground and the waters, burning away everything but clean soil and bedrock, for more than 50 miles around. In the air, there was nothing to destroy; Gloval's ships, prudently firing from the outer edge of their range envelope, had had plenty of time to pull back to a safe distance and watch the fireworks.

In moments, it was over. The insulted atmosphere continued to thunder and reverberate for a few minutes thereafter, and the sudden superheating of the ground created some interesting wind patterns for a few hours, but aboard the Wayward Son, all was covered by a sudden, eerie silence. Then everybody on the bridge broke into one more wild, spontaneous cheer. High fives made the rounds, and then Zoner called for a sensor report.

"Radiation levels normal," Yuri said, peering into her viewfinder. "Ground temperature is 1,200 degrees and falling rapidly. No particulate matter. All contaminants destroyed." She turned in her seat and grinned. "It worked just like ReRob's calculations predicted."

At the engineer's station, Rob Mandeville doffed his poorboy cap and swept it through an elaborate bow. "Thank you, thank you - though I have to admit it was Eve who did most of the math."

Zoner punched the intercom all-call on his conn. "All hands, this is the captain," he announced. "Mission accomplished. The area is clean."

A great cheer resounded throughout the fortress's hull.



Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Novaya Prypiat, Ukraine

The WDF Corps of Engineers construction crews had cleared out the day before, leaving the city of Novaya Prypiat empty and gleaming in the sun, its towers and graceful arches reflected in the placid waters of Lake Pravik. Throughout the city, teams of soldiers and civilian technicians had spent the last week putting the finishing touches on their masterpiece, while others carefully arranged millions of meticulously decontaminated and restored personal effects in thousands of brand new homes, which now stood waiting for their owners. An air of anticipation hung over the whole city. In Memorial Park, at the center of the city, banners were hung and facilities provided for half a million people to assemble.

At a little past midnight, the first of the buses and trucks began arriving at the end of Bandazhevskiy Bridge, where smiling Ukrainian Army and WDF Tactical Corps personnel in white gloves, directing traffic, removed the barricades and let them through. For hours, vehicles streamed across the bridge and the other four bridges into the city, watched over by the soldiers on the ground, patrolling helicopters and Veritech fighters in the air, and the looming bulk of the SDF-17, parked on her titanic landing gear near the edge of the lake.

The operation would continue well into the afternoon, and the speeches and celebrations would begin in the evening. There would be pomp, circumstance, fireworks, military bands, an air show featuring demonstration teams from forces all over the world, the Wedge Defense Force, even the Royal Salusian Navy. There would be tears and laughter and expressions of astonishment that such a thing could have been accomplished in so short a time - that an area thought poisoned forever, or at least until long past living memory, could have been cleansed by fire, then rendered so beautiful and inviting by skillful hands. Situated in the center of its beautiful, perfectly circular lake, surrounded by rings of handsome farms and carefully, artfully disarranged forests, Novaya Prypiat was the new crown jewel of eastern Europe, a stunning example of a modern Galactic Age city: the first of its kind on planet Earth, built from the bedrock up in a mere six months.

Standing on the observation platform at the very top of the SDF-17's conning tower, watching the lights of the vehicles start to move across Bandazhevskiy Bridge, six people - Gryphon, Zoner, and ReRob, Kei and Yuri, Commodore Gloval - silently reflected on all this, and also on the fact that none of it mattered right at that moment. Oh, it was all important, it was all significant, it was all historic.

But right now, all that really mattered was that the people of Prypiat were coming home.

"Cleansed by Fire" (A Golden Age Mini-Story) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



The Weekly Wedge
"All the Wedge Defense Force News that Fits in Print"
Monday, May 24, 2106

Living Large
by Walter Pyle

Stavakel Tzvia - If there's a center to the action in the war with Zeon, Stavakel Tzvia, at first glance, appears to be the place it's furthest from, at least if you're still technically within the theater of operations. It's an insignificant jungle moon orbiting one of the gas giants in the Zeons' home system, so strategically unimportant that it doesn't even appear on most operational maps.

The crew of the patrol boat who brought me to this island seem to think something is up, though. As we get closer to the island, they get visibly nervous - not expecting-combat nervous, but like they don't want to be there. When they drop me off, Petty Officer Willie Manx wishes me good luck.

"Be careful in there, man," he says. "Some of those guys are crazy from the heat."

The boat crew laughs as they pull away from the shore and roar off back up the wide, muddy river. Feeling suddenly exposed, I walk away from the beach. There was supposed to be someone here to meet me, but no one seems to be around, so I follow a clearly visible path inland. Just as I reach the trees, I notice a bright plastic banner slung between two trees so that it overlooks the entrance to the jungle path.

WELCOME TO MONSTER ISLAND, it says in big, cheerful letters.

Oookay then, I think.

A few minutes' walking and I've just begun to think I must be lost, or maybe on the wrong island despite the banner, when a guy in a ghillie suit pops out of the underbrush and nearly scares the wits out of me. He aims an M75 rifle at my chest and glares out from under his leaf-festooned boonie hat with wild eyes made all the more stark by the shoe polish smeared on his face.

"Halt!" he barks in a commanding voice. "Who goes there?"

"My name's Wally Pyle," I replied, trying to sound calm as I indicate my press badge. "I'm with The Weekly Wedge. I'm suppose to interview Captain Short."

The guy puts his weapon up and grins broadly. "Shit, is that today? Sorry, buddy. We all thought you were coming Saturday."

"It is Saturday," I point out.

The sentry looks at his watch and grins again. "Shit, so it is," he says. "Sorry. I've been out here since Monday. The days blend together after a while. C'mon, I'll take you into camp."

After another minute or so of walking, I start to hear music filtering through the jungle. A moment later, the sentry leads me around a bend in the trail and we emerge into a clearing about 200 yards across. Heavy, beaty 20th-century rock music is pumping out of some huge speakers set up near the commo shack; it's "Can U Dig It" by Pop Will Eat Itself, playing so loud I don't recognize it until I catch Optimus Prime's name.

Standing in a row along the far side of the clearing are four MHP-02 Mark III Monster Destroids. I've never actually seen a Monster in person before, and words really can't do them justice. It's one thing to read that a machine stands 74 feet tall (more than seven stories!) and weighs 315 tons, and quite another to come out of a jungle path and see four of them standing in front of you. A Monster is considered a full lance of four normal Destroids on a standard organization chart, which means that with four of them, Company E of the Second Battalion, 20th WDF Destroid Regiment, is technically over-strength.

Over the door of the commo shack, between two of the speakers, is another sign. This one has the WDF diamond and says "WELCOME TO FIRE BASE TANGO (Here Be Monsters)". All around the clearing, men and women in the jumpsuits of Destroid personnel - most pulled half-down and tied around the waist by the sleeves - seem to be having a party. The Monsters are connected by improvised walkways lashed between the long barrels of their 16-inch naval guns and have what appear to be tents or collapsible howdahs erected on their upper decks, over the cannons' breeches. There are people up there with hibachis. One of the huge Destroids has what looks like a full-service bar on top.

I walk up to one of the partying people - he's wearing the cap of a senior Destroid technician - and ask where I might find Captain Short.

"I believe Captain Short is up on the mezzanine at the moment," he replies, pointing to the howdah on top of the Monster furthest to the left.

It takes me a few minutes to figure out the system of chain ladders, jury-rigged ramps, and plank bridges and actually reach the top of Short's Monster. On the way up, I notice that, in addition to the usual jungle-green paint and standard markings, Short's has a name (Aonghas MacCnagCnag), tartan-like striping on the upper legs, and a public service notice on the back ("HOW'S MY ANNIHILATING? 1-800-CALL-WDF").

On top of Aonghas MacCnagCnag, I find Captain Marlon Short, the company commander. He's a peppery little New Caledonian with a burr you could cut concrete with and a cheerful disposition. His men call him "Shorty", and he's the undisputed master of ceremonies up here. He and the rest of Aonghas's crew, Sergeant Joe Rankin and Corporal Ellie Vultaggio, are grilling up burgers and sausages on a row of hibachis fueled with plastic explosive.

"It burrrns wi' a nice even flaame if ye laigh' it right," Shorty explains.

I start explaining to Shorty that I'm here to interview him as part of our staff profiles series, but he waves it off and says there'll be plenty of time for that later - for now, have soomthin tae eat. After heaping a couple of plates with burgers and some nicely grilled ribs, he takes me across a wobbly plank bridge to the adjoining MHP-02, Horchata. Here, Lieutenant Parker Mendoza presides over a fully stocked bar. I don't ask where they got all the liquor. There must be 20,000 credits' worth up here.

"Welcome to Monster Island, amigo," Mendoza says, handing me an Asrial Pale Ale.

Most of the other Monster crewmen, and a good many of the company's support techs and HQ personnel, are up here, sitting around crate tables on cable spools and lounge chairs, noisily enjoying themselves. They greet me as if I'm some kind of conquering hero. They all want me to sit with them. Shorty deftly leads me through the crowd to a table in the middle and introduces me to the crew of the #3 Monster in the company, Yamato.

Lieutenant Hayashi Hashimoto and his two crewmen, gunner Sergeant Michiko Takahashi and driver Private Yoshi Tsubura, are all Japanese, all impeccably uniformed (unlike anyone else here), and all outstandingly drunk. This is a little nervous-making, since they have swords and pistols. Takahashi, in particular, is surrounded by most of a regiment of spent saké canisters and is wobbling slowly back and forth in her seat, staring with unabashed lust at one of the armaments technicians at a nearby table. He grins nervously back.

They party hard, these Monster Men. I try to remain an uninvolved observer, but it's not really possible. There's too much beer, too much conversation, too much loud music. It was only a little after noon when I arrived, and they seem to be gearing up to go all night.

There's a man in dark grey CVR-3 over in the corner, nursing a light beer and looking a little nervous. His helmet's sitting on the table in front of him, so I can see that he's completely bald and has a bull neck. He tells me his name is Machowicz, and he's not a member of E Company; rather, he's a Shadow Squad trooper who was sent to deliver some critical intel to Captain Short. He's heading back into the wilderness to rejoin his unit in the morning. A very professional guy like all the Shadow types, he seems to disapprove of the Monster Men's lifestyle and envy it at the same time.

When I put this to him, though, he shakes his head. "No, I don't grudge them their party," he says. "They'll earn it tomorrow."

An hour or so later, as night begins to fall, Shorty calls everybody to order and makes a remarkable speech in his rock-cutting burr.

"All right, lads an' lasses. Ye all knoow soomethin's op, an' noow I'm gaunnae tell ye wha' i' is. Our friend from th' Shadow Squad brough' me our new orrrders this mornin', an' now we knoow why we're here. Seems th' factory whar th' Zeons build their Zaku Destroids is on this wee moon, an' th' Shadows found ou' t'other day whare i' is. An' tamorra, we're off tae bloow i' op."

A great cheer goes up from the Monster Men. Hashimoto and his crewmates stand up very straight, raise both hands in the air like turfball referees announcing a touchdown, and yell at the top of their lungs,

"BANZAI! BANZAI! BANZAI!"

"So we've 'ad our fon, an' noow it's taime tae get some rest," Shorty declares. "Tae yer boonks, the lo' o' ye, an' divil take t'hindmost!"

Seized by an impulse I can't explain, I go up to Short as his men disperse and say, "Take me with you on your mission."

He raises an eyebrow. "I thowt ye war here tae interview me for soome fluff piece," he remarks.

"I was," I admit, "but I've never seen a Monster in action."

He considers this for a second, then says, "All ri', faine. Ye can ride wi' Dooglas an' her crew tamorra."

Most of the Monster crews sleep aboard their machines. Machowicz and I bunk with the technicians in one of the prefab shelters at their feet. The next morning, the camp is a hive of activity as the crewmen and techs - none appearing any the worse for wear after the party - dismantle all the stuff attached to the Monsters, the howdahs and ramps and what have you. It's like watching the crew of an 18th-century sailing vessel clear the decks for action.

Machowicz puts on his CVR and climbs onto his Shadow Cyclone. "You sure you want to go with these guys?" he asks me.

I nod. "Sounds more interesting than what I was supposed to be doing."

He grins slightly. "Well, good luck to you," he says. "I don't know how they do it. You wouldn't get me strapped into one of those things in combat. I like to be out where I can see what's going on." He thumbs a control, and he and his Cyclone disappear as the shadow cloak kicks in - everything but, rather disturbingly, his face, since the visor of his helmet is still open. "See you," he says, then shuts the helmet and vanishes entirely. I hear the Cyclone's powerplant kick over and see the slightest flicker of his outline as he rides off into the jungle.

Shorty comes over and leads me down to the fourth Monster in the line. This one has black pinstripes and a large cross motif on the side, and down one of the outboard cannon barrels in large block letters it says "YO WATCH THE BEAT". More writing in that Germano-Gothic heavy metal font near the beast's bulldog prow gives what is apparently its name: The First Föur Black Sabbath Albums.

Lieutenant Lana Douglas is the commander of The First Föur Black Sabbath Albums, and like her ride, she's totally metal - long jet-black hair, eye makeup, the whole shmeer. She and her crew, Sergeant Eli Korben, gunner, and Private Oswald Mayfield, driver, wear black leather jackets over their coveralls and have attached Pickelhaube spikes to their Mark IV helmets. They throw the horns in greeting and seem happy to have my company on the mission.

Captain Short assembles his crews in front of Aonghas MacCnagCnag to deliver the preliminary rundown on where they're going and when. The crew of Yamato are wearing their full-dress uniforms, complete with white gloves and hats. When the briefing-cum-pep-talk is over, they do their Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! routine again, then sprint to their Monster's boarding stairs like the Destroid is their treehouse and school just let out. I notice for the first time that Yamato's tech crew have secured a tall pole to the Destroid's back and fitted it with a gigantic red samurai banner, the top of which towers at least 15 stories above the ground. I follow Douglas and her crew to The First Föur Black Sabbath Albums and we clamber up to the cockpit.

The cockpit of a Monster is a little like the bridge of a Predator-class scoutship. It's surprisingly spacious, with the pilot and gunner sitting side-by-side in front and the commander up on a small dais behind, and holographic monitors all around them. Douglas pops down a small jump seat behind Korben's gunnery station and tells me to enjoy the ride. Fusion reactors rumble to life and the ground trembles as 1,240 tons of machinery moves out.

There is little to compare with riding a Monster on the march. It's a smooth ride; the machines have suspension as massive as the rest of them, and their huge, wide feet give them surprisingly low ground pressure. I can't really convey the feeling of invincibility it provides to crash through dense jungle, the kind of jungle that would severely hamper even light infantry, watching trees fall on the monitors. Monsters can only go about 20 miles per hour, but they don't slow down for much of anything. And Machowicz was wrong about one thing: the view from in here is pretty good. The monitors show a lot. Mayfield tells me the techs are working on a full-surround holographic system that will scrub away the armored cockpit walls and reveal everything for 360 degrees around the machine.

We walk for hours, smashing relentlessly through everything in our path, then abruptly burst out of the trees and find ourselves on a rocky crag overlooking an expanse of wide-open grassland. In the distance, just visible as a hazy smudge against the base of some mountains about 15 miles away, is a settlement of some sort, dominated by several large, low buildings. Mayfield adjusts a few controls and magnifies the image, revealing an industrial complex surrounded by a chain link fence. Humanoid Destroids walk patrol patterns along the fence.

"Well, there it is," Douglas says.

"That's the factory?" I ask.

"According to what the guy from Shadow Squad told Shorty, yeah." She sits back in her command chair, her leather jacket creaking, and grins. "Looks like some J-model Zakus on perimeter defense. They have such pathetic radar sets they don't even know we're here."

"All units, this is Aonghas MacCnagCnag," the voice of Short's gunner, Sergeant Rankin, announces crisply over the comm. (He pronounces it oonish mac CRRNNNNaghCRNNNagh.) "Shadow Squad is designating targets. Set your targeting systems to laser slave mode and prepare to fire."

Korben grins and plies his instruments. Behind us, something shudders and groans as massive pumps start directing liquid propellant into the breeches of the Monster's four colossal rifles. The hull vibrates as massive motors elevate the guns and adjust the positioning of the main body. On the monitor to my left, I can see Horchata going through the same evolutions. A Monster is effectively a walking battleship turret. At range, these four have firepower roughly equivalent to a pair of the Iowa-class vessels used by the United States during Earth's Second World War.

"Targets selected an' locked," comes Shorty's voice. "Right, lads. COMMENCE FIRE!"

From inside the cabin, the noise is less than I was expecting; the vehicles are very heavily buffered so that their crews don't risk hearing loss. Outside, though, the sound alone must be devastating. I feel my seat shift beneath me. On the monitor, I can see Horchata skid backward nearly a full footlength as all four of its guns go off at once, spitting gigantic tongues of fire into the sky. In the background, the outermost trees of the jungle fringe sway and buckle just from the shockwave.

Behind me, I can hear huge mechanisms whose workings I can't begin to fathom selecting fresh shells from the magazines and ramming them into the guns; then the propellant pumps start again. Within 10 seconds, The First Föur Black Sabbath Albums unleashes a second broadside, as do all its brothers. Horchata's feet are dug in and firmly braced now; the machine doesn't move again as it hurls another eight tons of steel, depleted dalekenium, and high explosive downrange.

A short time later, the first shells start arriving. Explosions bloom out of buildings as the two-ton projectiles smash everything in their path. The Zakus on patrol around the perimeter look around and start milling about in clear disarray as things explode around them. Suddenly, a colossal fireball erupts out of what had been a low concrete structure off to one side.

"Holy Christ, did you see that secondary?" comes the voice of Parker Mendoza. "That must've been their ammo bunker. Nice shot, Yamato!"

"Domo arigato gozaimasu, Mendoza-san!" replies Takahashi in a breathlessly excited squeak.

Within two minutes, the Monsters have fired a combined total of almost 200 shells into the complex. Short orders a cease-fire. The factory area is a smoking, cratered moonscape. There's almost no indication that any man-made structures were ever there.

Except for the Zakus. Like hornets maddened by the smashing of their nest, they're running across the grassy plain at full speed, punctuating their strides with great jet-assisted bounding leaps. It didn't take them long to see where the bombardment was coming from.

"Luiks lak we're gaunnae have some coompany," Short says, sounding unconcerned. "Monsters, prepare tae defend yuirselves."

Here is the major drawback of the Monster's massive size and armament. The Destroid's massive size and slow speed make it an easy target. Its main weapons, being heavy artillery, are almost impossible to use against small, fast-moving targets like medium Destroids and armored vehicles. It is armed with a few self-defense weapons - each slab arm mounts a trio of heavy lasers - and its armor is very strong, but still: when Monsters are destroyed in combat, it's usually either by taking fire from enemy ships, or by being overrun and eventually pounded to death by smaller, nimbler foes.

This time they all make it back. Expert gunnery accounts for several of the Zakus; some of the others flee and the rest are dealt with by the Shadow Squad, which arrives with lighter support equipment a few minutes into the engagement. Within a few hours, the Monsters of Company E are back on Monster Island, where their DropShips have arrived and wait to carry them back to the Daedalus.

"Aye, tha's th' life of a Monster jock," Shorty agrees as we leave orbit and head for home. "Days an' days o' waitin' aroound an' a few minutes o' action - bu' it's action tha' can change th' coourse o' th' war. Whenever a Monster fires its guns, ye knoow it's a potential matter o' victory or defeat." He grins and slaps me on the shoulder. "Now, aboot tha' fluff interview ye wanted."

Walter Pyle is a staff correspondent for The Weekly Wedge. He recently request a transfer to front-line combat reporting.

"Living Large" (A Golden Age Mini-Story) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Concept developed with Chad Collier
Gàidhlig consultant Janice Barlow
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



INTERIOR: An apartment sits empty, somewhere in the galaxy. It's obviously occupied by a man, and that man is obviously a bachelor. Empty Hungry Humanoid packets mingle with empty takeout containers and the occasional beer can. It's not disgustingly messy, just random. Copies of Aviation Week & Space Technology share coffee table space with Maxim.

A giant, black, old-fashioned Bakelite telephone rings the giant, bright, old-fashioned ring you would expect. A similarly ancient answering machine sits next to the phone. Behind them both on the small table where they sit rests the glossy helmet of a fighter pilot (the kind that goes with CVR-3 armor).

The machine answers the phone on the third ring.

VOICE ON MACHINE
Hi, this is Scott Bernard, at the tone leave your name and message and I'll get back to you.

SFX
beeeeep

VOICE ON PHONE
Hello, Mr. Bernard, this is Jack over at Raytheon. We just received your GPM-150 order for March, and I'm afraid we might not be able to make that quantity in time. Our new plant on Kane's World is running behind schedule. Give me a call, let's see what we can work out.

OPENING TITLE SEQUENCE 3C-7 "THE BERNARD FILES"

Mike Post featuring Larry Carlton
"Theme from The Rockford Files"
Television Theme Songs

"Opening Titles" (A Golden Age Micro-Story) by Chad Collier
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



Monday, September 10, 2288
Wedge Defense Force Super Dimension Fortress 17 (Wayward Son)
Orbiting Musashi, Outer Rim Territories

The pilots of Eight-Ball Squadron weren't directly involved in any of the really strange incidents of that Monday afternoon. They participated in the military operation against the unidentified attackers of Musashi City, then returned to their hangar on the Prometheus and went off-duty.

They weren't on the planet's surface when their leader, Commander Benjamin "Gryphon" Hutchins, joined the Lovely Angels and the WDF Shadow Squad in handling a hostage situation at the Seventh Street School. They weren't on flight standby when an inexplicable fight broke out between chief engineer ReRob Mandeville and a woman he had recruited for the Hammers special-ops unit a few months earlier, so they didn't launch in support when that fight ended up happening outside the hull of the SDF-17. They missed it all.

The first of them to have any inkling that something weird was going on was Erik "Saurian" Swimm, who happened to be in sickbay using some of the diagnostic equipment on his cyborg parts when first ReRob - missing an arm! - and then the wounded from the Seventh Street School operation arrived. Rob's story, that his recruit had turned out to be some kind of replicant mole operative who tried to assassinate him, was strange enough - but the aftermath of the Seventh Street School op was even stranger. Gryphon had managed to get shot all to hell, Kei Morgan was wounded, and the whole... the whole vibe was just weird.

Erik watched the medics work on Kei for a few moments; she had a blaster wound in the shoulder, nothing too serious. He walked over to her and said, "Hey."

Kei looked up, and Erik was surprised to see that she looked terrible. Kei had a knack for looking fresh even after a pitched firefight. She enjoyed combat, got off on it on some weird visceral level. Even being wounded usually couldn't dent her high. This time, though, her face was drawn, her eyes surrounded by dark circles. She looked haunted, and there was something ugly lurking behind her deep brown eyes.

"Hey, Erik," she said, her voice hoarse and a little listless.

Erik inclined his head toward the closed bay where chief medico Jenna Steen had taken personal charge of Gryphon's treatment. "What happened to Gryph?"

Kei's hands balled into fists. Her face's lines hardened and turned glacial.

"I did," she grated. "And as soon as I get the chance I intend to finish the job."

Erik blinked. The only thing he could think of to say was, "What?!"

"You'll find out soon enough," Kei said. "Everybody will."

"Find out what? Kei, what's going on?"

She turned fully to him, glaring. The ugly thing behind her eyes was more evident now, the intensity there almost making Erik draw back.

"Don't. Push me," she snarled.

"Okay," Erik said, backing off. "Okay. It's cool."

It sure as hell isn't cool, he though as he left sickbay. What the fuck is going on?

The other pilots of the squadron were thinking more or less the same thing, but no answers were forthcoming that evening. When they asked the bridge for more information, they were informed only that Captain MegaZone was taking personal charge of the matter - whatever the matter was. Not even threats of mayhem could get q to come across with more, and Zoner himself was unavailable. Squadron exec Dave Ritchie considered breaking into his ready room and trying to wring answers out of him the old-fashioned way, but in the end, he decided to wait and see what happened the following day.

It was a decision he would always regret.



Tuesday, September 11, 2288

The next day was worse. Zoner withdrew even further, the SDF-17's internal communication system automatically blocked any attempt to reach Gryphon - even Eve didn't seem to know what the hell was going on. Eight of the pilots of the Eight-Ball Squadron, plus a few of their longest-serving technical personnel, gathered in the Corner Pocket, the squadron's ready room aboard the Prometheus, and speculated.

"Maybe it's a setup for some kind of undercover op," Patricia "Terror" Currier suggested.

"They'd tell us if they were doing that," Erik disagreed.

Chief technician Jean-Coq "Johnny Cogs" Raltigue nodded. "Remember what happened in 2102 when they didn't? They wouldn't risk that happening again."

Therèse Sterling, third-youngest of the seven Sterling sisters and crew chief for the second element of White Flight, added, "Kowalewski in Maintenance D told me at lunch today that Gryphon killed somebody dirtside. Somebody he wasn't supposed to kill, and now there's hell to pay with Command."

"Well, that'd fit with his being under house arrest," Daver mused, "but... I dunno, I mean, Kowalewski. Last year he thought they were going to replace the Alphas with that droid fighter."

Therèse shrugged, the gesture making her shoulder-length magenta hair bob slightly. "True."

"Well, I don't like it," Mark "Haywire" Luchini said. "We oughta go up there and smack some sense into Zoner." He got up. "I'll go get my bat."

"Sit down, Mark," Daver said. "Believe me, I'm keeping that option open, but - "

The door opened, then, and the ninth pilot entered - Komilia Sterling, the eldest of Max and Miria Sterling's daughters and an Eight-Ball of long standing in her own right. She had in her hand an optical disc.

"And here's Miss Liberty now," Daver went on, smirking. "I see you got it."

"Do I ever fail you?" Komilia asked rhetorically as she tossed Daver the disc. "That's a copy of the supposed 'evidence' Kei gave to Zoner this morning. His basis for confining the boss to quarters and ordering a court-martial."

Miria Sterling blinked. "Court-martial? It's gone that far?"

Komilia nodded. "My contact in Security says it's some pretty heavy stuff."

"Well, we'll soon see," Daver said, slotting the disc into the ready room's briefing vidscreen. The display flickered, fuzzed, and then resolved into a security camera image of a school hallway, complete with hostage students and three captors. Gryphon appeared through a side door, took out the bad guys, and stood smiling as the students mobbed him, clearly thanking him for the rescue. And then...

Gasps and winces made the rounds of the room as the pilots and techs watched the slaughter and ensuing brief firefight with Kei. When the recording ended, they all sat in silence for a moment, trying to absorb what they had just seen - and then all started talking at once.

"Hold it, hold it, hold it!" Daver yelled, getting everybody's attention. "Settle down! There must be a logical explanation for what we just saw."

"Sure'n I'd like to know what it is," flight surgeon Ronan "Accuser" O'Meara agreed.

Hayao "Bulldog" Kakizaki, a burly pilot from Tomodachi who was the squadron's latest in a long line of Eight-Ball Tens, looked skeptical and scratched the back of his head. "Well, I dunno," he said. "I mean... that video's authenticated, and the boss never has liked kids much." He shrugged. "People crack up in combat sometimes. Maybe he did it."

Before anyone could stop her, Miria Sterling was out of her seat, her fist like a bolt of lightning, and Kakizaki - a man easily three times her mass - went sprawling across the floor, scattering folding chairs in his wake.

"Whelp!" Miria spat, her emerald eyes flashing with rage. "How dare you!" She advanced, apparently intent on giving the junior pilot more medicine, but her husband Max interposed himself, hands on her shoulders. "Do not interfere, Maximilian!" she snapped. "Lt. Kakizaki clearly needs a lesson in loyalty."

Max looked back over his shoulder and said, "You better get out of here, Kakizaki."

Kakizaki, looking puzzled and hurt, got to his feet and rubbed at his jaw. "Jeez, Max," he said. "All I was saying - "

"Now," Max said, his own normally mild voice just sharp enough to startle the younger pilot and send him from the room.

Miria watched him go, then relented, growling. "You defend the indefensible," she told her husband. "Do any of you seriously believe what you have just seen?"

Daver looked thoughtful. "Well, it's not entirely conclusive by itself."

"Not entirely conclusive?!" Miria blurted, astonished. "It is idiotic. It is obscene. I cannot believe you even consider the matter worthy of discussion, David."

Daver shook his head, looking as somber as any of them could ever remember seeing him. "I'm not going to argue this with you, Miria," he said. "All of you - get to your quarters and try to get some rest. I'm going to see how much more I can dig up. For God's sake, don't go running off in all directions on your own investigations, you'll just get in my way. We'll meet back here at 1700 and talk it over. Dismissed."

The pilots and techs dispersed, muttering among themselves. Miria, still angry, shrugged off Max's comforting hand and strode into the nearest turbolift without him. Komilia turned to her father and nodded, then followed her mother.

She found Miria on the SDF-17 officers' observation deck, at the top of the bridge tower, a few minutes later. The Zentraedi pilot stood at the biggest of the forward windows, looking out at the green arc of Musashi below, her face blank.

"Mom... are you okay?"

Miria looked back at her daughter, then returned her gaze to space. "No, Komilia," she replied. "I am not okay. I could only be less okay, I think, if it were your father standing accused of this hideous thing, and those we thought our friends were turning against him as if spice-crazed." She gripped her shoulders in the opposite hands as if suppressing a shiver. "This is madness."

Komilia walked up behind her mother, wanting to give her a hug but not certain if Miria's fragile mood could withstand it. She settled for putting an arm over her shoulders and standing next to her.

"And fools like Kakizaki do not help," Miria added bitterly. "'You know, he's never liked children.' I have never liked members of Clan Lamiz, but I do not murder them."

Komilia sighed and raked her free hand through her thick blue-green hair, a gesture of frustration. "Hayao's kind of a lunkhead," she said. "You can't take everything he says at face value. Hell, he doesn't take everything he says at face value."

Miria stared out the window for a few moments, then said, not really in reply, "Benjamin was present when you were born. Did I ever tell you that?" Of course she had, many times, but Komilia kept silent, sensing that this was something her mother needed to say.

"Maximilian was on Zeta Cygni II," Miria went on. "I went into labor prematurely and he could not get back to the SDF-17 in time." She smiled slightly, almost involuntarily, at the memory. "Benjamin clearly wanted to be anywhere else... but he felt it was his duty as Maximilian's commander and our friend. I will never forget the look on his face when Dr. Steen put you in my arms. I think he was more awestruck than I was. I, the first Meltran ever to bear a child." She shook her head slowly. "To say that the man who stood by me that day could ever turn into the... thing I saw on that video screen... no. No, I will never believe that." Clenching her fist, she struck it half-heartedly against the window. "I cannot."

Komilia squeezed her mother's shoulder and said only, "I know."

Down below, a spacecraft took off from one of the Prometheus's lower launch bays. That wasn't all that unusual, and for a moment neither woman took note of it - until Komilia realized it wasn't a shuttle, or one of the other small craft that didn't normally use the catapults, but a Valkyrie.

"Hey!" she blurted, looking more closely. "That's - "

Miria's eyes went wide. "Oh, no. Benjamin, you fool... "

Then she turned and ran for the turbolift, with Komilia sprinting after her.

The afternoon unfolded worse than the morning. Gryphon's escape - which even Daver admitted had been ill-advised - led to a chain reaction that saw the Wedge Defense Force's command structure gutted within hours. Gryphon escaped; Kei went after him. That might have been expected. What happened next, though, took most members of the crew - though, Komilia would realize later, not Daver - by surprise. MegaZone, talking and moving like a man in a dream, resigned his commission and abandoned his post. He wasn't pursuing Gryphon or Kei, as far as anyone could tell - he was just leaving. Obviously heartbroken, Yuri departed immediately after him, also headed for points unknown.

Up on the bridge, ReRob refused to accept command, though he was next in the chain; the duty fell to q instead. In the Corner Pocket, the pilots of Eight-Ball Squadron didn't know this. They were suited up and ready to go, receiving from Dave Ritchie the strangest briefing of their careers. Daver was visibly pissed off, controlling himself by speaking very calmly and precisely - a state in which the other pilots rarely saw their normally easygoing exec.

"Okay, Eight-Balls, here's the deal," he said. "Our command staff's gone AWOL and left us in the lurch. I don't know exactly why, and frankly, I don't care. Our job is to go out there, round them up, and escort them back here so we can get to the bottom of this mess. The truth has to be down in Musashi City someplace. The Nazgûl are down there looking for it. Hopefully by the time we get back they'll have something for us. In the meantime, I've had the tech crews fit all our Valkyries with hyper packs and the Great Lidless Eye is out there right now getting trace vectors for us."

Turning to each pilot in turn, he rapped out orders in quick, clipped tones. "Genius. Liberty. Bulldog. I'm sending you after Kei. Max, you've got the best track record in talking down homicidal women; if that fails, you'll need backup to disable the Lovely Angel without blowing her to hell. Terror. Accuser. You've got Yuri. If necessary, use the cookie gambit. Haywire. Saurian. It's up to you two to hunt down Zoner. Take out the WarpZone if you have to, just get him stopped. Don't worry about limb loss, we can always grow him new ones. Megaera, you and I are going after Gryphon. Hopefully we can track him down. He's got the biggest lead on any of us." Daver raked the group with intense eyes. "Questions?"

No one had any.

"Okay," Daver said. "Let's go get our guys back. Eight-Balls never quit!"

"Eight-Balls never quit!" the others chorused; then they rose and left the room.

"As they were leaving, Kakizaki trotted to catch up with Miria. "Senior Lieutenant Sterling?" he said hesitantly. Miria paused and turned a questioning look on him. "I... " Kakizaki looked at a loss for a moment, then snapped to attention and saluted. "I apologize for my earlier remarks! They were insensitive and ill-considered!" he barked.

Miria smiled despite her black mood, touched by the young pilot's slightly goofy earnestness. "You are forgiven, Lieutenant," she replied. "I'm sorry too. I should not have hit you." Then, clouting him on the shoulder, she said, "Now get a move on! We have a job to do."

Kakizaki grinned. "Yes, ma'am!" he said.

Less than a minute later, just as the Eight-Balls were leaving the elevator onto the flight deck, all hell broke loose. Without warning, a massive impact raced through the SDF-17 and its two attendant carriers, hurling people - including the Eight-Ball pilots - to the deck. The convulsion came just as Komilia was about to step through the arch into the main Eight-Ball hangar bay, flinging her down hard on the metal plating and stunning her momentarily. A hand grabbed her elbow - her father, helping her up.

"What the hell's going on?" she demanded over the sudden din of alert sirens and damage warning horns.

As if in answer, the big display screens mounted like a hockey arena Jumbotron in the center of the hangar bay ceiling flickered to a display of the biggest damn Star Destroyer any of them had ever seen. Barrages from more turbolaser batteries than anyone aboard the SDF-17 had time to count started savaging the fortress. And in an inset window, the face of Largo appeared and taunted them - though in silence, for the speakers were drowned out by all the alarms in the cavernous space of the hangar.

"Get to your fighters!" Daver bellowed, hauling up a stunned Haywire and Bulldog and propelling them toward the Super Valkyries parked on the deck. "We have to get out there now!" The nine pilots sprinted across the hangar toward their ships, which technicians were even now scrambling to finish preparing.

The SDF-17's spaceframe hummed with the familiar harmonic vibration of the Reflex cannon, and for a second, all the running pilots stopped and looked up at the screens, expecting to see the beam wreak havoc on the enemy ship.

Instead it vanished, shunted into nowhere by the Star Destroyer's phase shields.

"Fuck!" Haywire yelled.

"My sentiments exactly, now move!" Terror said, shoving him.

They had just reached the formation of parked Valkyries when a massive turbolaser salvo ripped through the armored flight deck overhead, blowing away the Jumbotron and sending shrapnel flying everywhere. Forcefields sprang online and kept the atmosphere in, but the damage was catastrophic nonetheless - and vacuum would at least have put out the resultant fires, which filled the hangar bay with heat and hellish orange light.

"Look out!" Kakizaki roared, throwing himself forward in a flying tackle and knocking Therèse Sterling, who was standing next to his VF-1A disconnecting the reaction mass fill hose, to the deck. A jagged chunk of hull plating hurtled past overhead, narrowly missing them. Had he not knocked her down, it would have cut Therèse in half.

"Phew!" she said. "Thanks, Bulldog. That would've - " She stopped as she realized that Kakizaki wasn't trying to get up and board his fighter. He was just... lying there. Dead weight. "... Bulldog?"

Suddenly panic-stricken, she shoved at his shoulder, working her way from under the big-boned, heavy pilot. Once she managed to scramble to her feet, she realized why he hadn't moved. None of the Eight-Ball pilots had put on the hard CVR-3 armor components over their Valkyrie flightsuits; they were stowed aboard the fighters themselves. The back of Kakizaki's flightsuit was shredded, shards of metal jutting bloodily from his flesh, and one had struck him just at the base of the skull. He hadn't had a chance.

Therèse stared in horror at the ruined thing that had been a friend a moment earlier. She had seen death before, seen pilots go out and not come back, but this was different. No one had ever had his life snuffed out right in front of her - right on top of her - before. She was proud of her self-possession, proud that she had inherited a measure of her father's legendary coolness under pressure, but now she was frozen, paralyzed, not with fear but sheer shock. How could something like this be happening?

Komilia's hand on her shoulder snapped her out of it.

"Therèse!" she yelled over the cacophony of fire alarms. "We have to get out of here!" Komilia turned and looked over the VF-1A standing next to them. It was unharmed - the Valkyrie was a sturdy, heavily armored spacecraft, not likely to be damaged by something as random and undirected as spall damage from a hull breach.

"Take Kakizaki's Valkyrie!" Komilia shouted. "Stay close to me! Therèse! Do you read me?"

Therèse blinked, then shook her head. "Yeah... yeah, I read you," she said quietly. Turning to the Valkyrie, she pulled down its telescopic boarding ladder and started to climb toward the cockpit. Komilia slapped her on the calf as she climbed, then turned and sprinted for her own fighter. The other Eight-Balls were aboard, already spooling up their turbines. Johnny Cogs and the other techs sprinted for shelter, knowing that the hangar would depressurize at any moment.

As Komilia brought the systems in her VF-1J online, the face of Eve appeared on the center multifunction display.

"All craft, retreat," she announced, her voice calm but sad. "The SDF-17's fold drive and primary shields are disabled. The ship's destruction is imminent. Prometheus, Daedalus, undock and withdraw. All fighters, disperse. All hands to escape craft."

The pronouncement hit Komilia like a hammer to the back of the head. The ship's destruction is imminent.

As if to drive it home, the EVE logo appeared on the screen, bearing a subtitle Komilia had never seen before outside of the occasional drill:

FINAL PROTECTION MODE

Komilia had no more time to reflect. It was time to go. The elevators were out, the deck crew scattered. Daver blew the doors at the end of the bay with a Mauler anti-ship missile and the nine Super Valkyries just went for it, using the brute thrust of their engines and FASTpack dorsal boosters to tear them free of the Prometheus's artificial gravity.

The Eight-Balls scattered into space. Komilia tried to keep track of the others, but it was the most chaotic battle scene she'd ever seen. GENOM fightercraft were everywhere - contract-built Lancers, old-fashioned Invid-class mecha, Vulture boomer fighters - and they were bent on wiping out the small craft that were trying to escape. Daedalus had already undocked and Prometheus separated immediately after the Eight-Balls launched. And the SDF-17...

... the SDF-17 was burning.

"Two to all Eight-Balls," Daver's voice crackled in her ears, flattened into the narrowest of sidebands to defeat GENOM jamming. "Keep those fighters off the lifeboats!"

Komilia gritted her teeth, summoning up the fire of her Zentraedi blood within her, and pushed aside the horror and the fear. Time for that later, if there was a later. Right now, she had a job to do.

The Eight-Balls didn't even see the Wayward Son's final attack, so busy were they protecting the lifeboats. The GENOM forces ignored Daedalus and Prometheus entirely, leaving them free to navigate clear and hyper out, but the small craft went after the SDF-17's lifeboats like sharks after chum, and it was all the few fighters that had managed to launch could do to keep them at bay. Komilia caught flashes of a few other squadrons' craft - an Alpha from the Firehouse Gang, one of Def Leppard's Raptors, a Judicator from the Dam Busters, a WCDN Gundam - amid the melee, but she was mostly occupied with just keeping herself, and as many of her shipmates as possible, alive.

Through it all, Therèse stuck to her like glue. Though not combat-rated, she was a certified Veritech pilot, checked out in all the types the WDF fielded, and had the most hours in the Valkyrie; besides which, she was a Sterling. Her performance may not have been the sort of virtuoso exhibition one expected from her parents or her eldest sister, but she acquitted herself well - and kept herself alive, which to Komilia was the most important thing.

Komilia was jerked away from her relentless search for targets by the sudden blinding flash of the Reflex cannon firing again. She turned her head - her Valkyrie battroid's head automatically followed - and she saw to her astonishment that the ravaged SDF-17 had rammed the GENOM ship amidships, at a sharp aftward angle, and blown her guts out from the inside. The Star Destroyer was already breaking up as she fell. The SDF-17 pulled free of her vanquished foe, and for just a second, even though the ship was hideously damaged and battered, the tips of her Reflex booms melted completely away, Komilia expected to see her main drives flare back to life and lift her out of Musashi's gravity well, smashed and torn but not defeated.

It never happened. There was no one left alive aboard the fortress to restart the engines, and no spark in the Reflex furnace to power them if there had been. The SDF-17 fell silently away, began to glow with re-entry heat, and then was lost to sight as the planet turned away. A few seconds later, a diamond flare appeared on the upper limb of Musashi's arc as the GENOM ship's hulk struck ground and her engine cores ruptured.

It was as if Musashi's atmosphere had caught fire. A wave of flame rippled across the slowly turning face of the world, traveling at a speed that Komilia couldn't even begin to calculate. Below her, what had been a lush jungle planet burned to a poisoned cinder. Anyone caught outside a shielded environment would be incinerated.

She was watching a whole planet die.

Blaster impacts against her Valkyrie's armor snapped Komilia out of her stunned reverie. The Star Destroyer might be gone, but the fighters weren't - and reinforcements might arrive at any moment. She switched back to fighter mode and took up the battle again.

"All fighters, this is the Wedge," came a voice - thanks to the compression, Komilia had no idea whose it was - in her ears. "All SDF-17 lifeboats are aboard. We're jumping to hyperspace. Disengage and save yourselves if you can. It's every man for himself now." There was a pause; then, quavering with emotion audible even through the tiny sideband, the speaker added, "Good luck. Wedge out."

The fighters were still thick and furious, and now smaller Star Destroyers were starting to pop out of hyperspace. One nearly collided with the Wedge, arriving just as the latter vessel vanished. Komilia ground her teeth, wavering on the edge of a full-blown red-out, fully prepared to see just how many GENOM personnel she could take to Hell with her, but just as she turned toward the nearest Star Destroyer - one of the new Imperator-class ones, roughly the size the SDF-17 had been - she heard a voice in her ear. It wasn't flanged, wasn't compressed; it was as if the speaker were in the cockpit with her, speaking directly into her ear.

It was the voice of her mother, and it said,

Run, Komilia! Run!

She wavered for an instant, her Zentraedi blood furious at the thought of retreat, of turning tail and fleeing -

- until she remembered that Therèse was with her, that she'd told her younger sister to stick with her. Therèse would do that, Komilia knew. Even if she mounted a suicidal frontal attack on the nearest Star Destroyer's bridge tower, Terry would follow her in.

Komilia might just be willing to go out in a blood-frenzied blaze of glory, Khyron Kravshera style, but she would never take her little sister with her.

"Therèse!" she called. "Slave your navicomputer to mine and hang on!"

"Roger! Navicomputer... slaved and standing by!" Therèse replied, and Komilia allowed herself a momentary swell of pride at the cool, together way her sister spoke on the com. She sounds just like Dad, she thought.

Komilia gunned one last Vulture out of her flight path, then locked over the throttles and cut in her FASTpack's hyperspace motivator. The stars smeared and vanished as the unit catapulted her Valkyrie into hyperspace. She looked back over her shoulder and saw Therèse's VF-1A holding formation with her.

"How you holding up, little sister?" she asked.

She knew they were both in shock, their minds numbed by all they'd just seen. She held onto that, determined to ride it as long as she could. That numbness was armor right now, insulation against a breakdown that could cost them both their lives if it came at the wrong moment. They were still in terrible danger. Escape into hyperspace was no guarantee against pursuit. If Komilia could keep her grip, she could get Therèse through - she hoped.

"I'm... I'm okay," Therèse replied. She sounded a little less steady now, but she was holding on. Komilia decided a little reinforcement was in order - and what she was about to say was nothing more than the truth, anyway.

"You did good back there," she said. "Kept it together, kept yourself alive. I'm proud of you."

"I've got some damage," Therèse reported after a few moments. "I'm airworthy, but one of my actuators isn't responding to diagnostics. I think I'm stuck in fighter mode."

"Well, that's okay," Komilia replied with a confidence she didn't fully feel. "We won't need to be doing any more fighting today."

"Where are we going?"

"No idea," Komilia admitted. "There wasn't time to do more than punch it and hope for the best."

She looked down at her instrument panel and for the first time noticed the flashing icon of an ENB message. The Extremely Narrow Band comm system was used for burst communications between small craft. It had a very long range and required little enough power that it could be carried aboard fighters, but the signal band, as the name suggested, was very narrow - so narrow it could only be used for short text messages.

Calling up the ENB menu, Komilia saw that the message had arrived during the end phase of the battle, just after the comm system logged the final call from the Wedge. It said:

M M E M OK RDVG

"Change of plans," Komilia said, "inasmuch as we even had plans. Stand by for course correction."

"What's up?"

"I have an ENB message from Maia. She's calling for Rendezvous G."

Therèse's voice held a note of hope for the first time that day. "She got out?"

"They all got out. The others are with her."

"Oh, thank God. Okay, ready for course correction."

Komilia punched the new course into her navicomputer and executed it, watching hyperspace tumble weirdly for a few seconds until the new course was locked in.

"On course for Rendezvous G. ETA... a long damn time at h-factor one."

"Do you think Mom and Dad will be there too?"

"I hope so," Komilia said. "I didn't hear anything from them after the furball started, but I imagine they got Maia's message too."

"What do we do once we get there?"

Komilia sighed deeply - not at her sister's questioning, which was all perfectly reasonable, but because of the answer she had to give.

"I don't know, Terry," she said.

Therèse had no response. There was silence as the two Valkyries streaked through hyperspace in close formation; then Komilia's voice, low and flat, whispered across the space between them.

"I don't know anything any more."

"Eight-Ball Elegy" (An Out in the Cold Mini-Story) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
With help from Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



Wednesday, September 12, 2288
Uncatalogued System
Beyond the Outer Rim Territories

Two small craft appeared suddenly in the darkness, so far from this nameless system's primary that it wasn't even the brightest star in the unfamiliar sky. Both were battered, battle-damaged, with carbon scoring from blaster hits tracking what had been colorful armor plating. As they coasted, bleeding off the last of the momentum from their jump out of hyperspace, one shuddered and suddenly heeled to port, one of the two pods mounted on its back breaking away with a burst of brilliant sparks.

Miria Sterling growled and corrected her Valkyrie's roll, feeling the control system react sluggishly. She thumbed a key and jettisoned what remained of the fighter's FASTpack conformal armor, then set about trying to restart her engines. Her husband Max did likewise alongside. Not until they had their damaged vehicles under power again did they speak.

"Do you think we lost them?" Miria wondered.

"Well," said Max, but before he could say any more, his radar and Miria's both lit up with keening alarms, showing a flotilla of vessels dropping from hyperspace behind them.

"No," Max concluded, throttling up his Valkyrie.

"Damn," Miria said. "What is your weapon status?"

As he always did in such situations, Max smiled slightly, admiring his wife's cool professionalism.

"I've got a couple of Reapers and 400 rounds of cannon ammo," he said. "You?"

"My missiles are exhausted. I get no response from my cannon pod system. I do not think it is empty, but I am not sure it will work at all."

"Well, we're not going to be able to outfight them anyway," Max noted. "The only thing we can do is try to outfly them and hope we're in the right system."

"Agreed," Miria said, and then the two fell silent as they concentrated on flying.

They were able to stay ahead of their pursuers for several minutes, but the damage to their Valkyries and the loss of the FASTpacks' supplemental thrusters meant that they steadily lost ground.

Max peered ahead, straining to make out something, anything - but there was only the inky blackness of deep space. He looked at his radar, but it showed only the contacts approaching from behind. Ahead, the scope showed only emptiness.

"Miria... " He hesitated. "It doesn't look like they're here."

"So I see," Miria replied, her voice still icy calm. She looked at her radar scope, switched modes a couple of times, noted the closure rate of the enemy. They would be in range within moments.

"Maximilian?" she said.

"Yes?"

"We have had a long and happy life together," Miria said tenderly. "Longer and happier than most people ever have. If it is to end here, as long as you are by my side, I am content." Then her voice hardened into her familiar tone of determination - the one that, of all her many tones of voice, most consistently sent a thrill up Max's spine. "But I do not intend to go quietly, with my back to the enemy."

So saying, she pushed her Valkyrie into a split-S, reversing course and heading straight into the teeth of the on-charging enemy.

Max grinned.

"I couldn't have said it better myself," he said, and followed her.



On the bridge of the GENOM Victory-class Star Destroyer Relentless, Captain Thomas Edwards couldn't believe his eyes.

"They're turning around?" he blurted to his equally astonished exec. "They can't possibly mean to make an attack run."

"Even if they did, they'd never get through our fighter screen," Commander Katrice Malvey remarked. "They're outnumbered 200 to one." She pressed a key on her console. "Fighter groups, this is Relentless. Engage and destroy."

"Belay!" Edwards snapped. Then, a cold smile touching his thin lips, he said, "Ready the tractor beam. I want them brought aboard alive. Sterling's woman wants to go out fighting. It will satisfy me enormously to watch her die on her knees."

Malvey gave her commander a wary look - Edwards had a cruel streak that she, as a professional soldier, found distasteful, and his hatred for his former WDF colleagues was a thing disturbing and unnatural to behold - but obeyed the order, calling for the fighter groups to herd the two Valkyries into tractor range.

The two WDF pilots defended themselves with a skill and determination that were incredible to see. Even damaged and with weapons nearly depleted, they devastated the Relentless's fighter wings, making the GENOM pilots pay in blood (or boomer nutrient fluid, depending) for every inch of space they gave up. Still, they were so profoundly outnumbered that the ending was never really in doubt. They fought brilliantly, adding another chapter to the long legend of virtuoso aerospace combat that was the Sterling family history, but it seemed inevitable that that chapter would be the last.

"Eight-Ball Seven is within tractor range," Malvey reported.

"Ah, lovely Miria," Edwards hissed, then snapped in a more normal voice of command, "Bring her to me, Katrice."

Malvey reached for the control on her panel -

Suddenly, the darkness beyond the Relentless's forward viewports seemed to writhe, barely-discernible shapes appearing out of the void, invisible but for the fact that they were even darker than the emptiness behind them. The stars themselves seemed to vanish. Down in the work pit in front of the command and exec stations, sensor screens lit up. Proximity alarms screamed.

"New contacts!" one of the sensor officers cried, his voice laced with a shrill edge of panic. "My God, there must be thousands of them - "

"Identify!" Edwards barked.

"Interrogating IFF!" a commtech acknowledged. Then her face went absolutely blank with terror. She trembled, a full-body shudder, and sagged over her panel, emitting a low, horrible moan of utter hopelessness.

"It's the Kridanik Fleet," she whispered.

"What?!" Edwards said - and in that moment, the ships that had just jumped out of hyperspace switched on their running lights, and the darkness of space was suddenly filled with ten thousand ships - massive whale-like battleships, smaller-but-still-huge cruisers, sleek and deadly destroyers, all thermocoated a deep emerald green, all bristling with firepower. Any one of them would've been a match for Edwards's command. Together they represented enough power to reduce the surface of an entire M-class planet to glass.

From points on the prows of every ship in sight, streaks of light appeared, lancing through space, reaching for the Relentless.

"Breetai, you miserable bastard!" Edwards roared. "You're supposed to be dead!"

The streaks of light converged, their brilliant blue-white glow filling the bridge... and then there was nothing.

Max and Miria let their fighters drift, blinking furiously to clear the afterimage of the Relentless's annihilation from their vision, as the warships' smaller guns picked off the remaining fighters around them with a casual, almost contemptuous ease.

For a moment there was silence; then the comm speakers aboard the two Valkyries crackled and a familiar booming voice somberly announced,

"Miria Fallyna Sterling. Maximilian Sterling. You're safe now. Welcome home."



The two pilots stood on a catwalk, shoulder-high to the full-size Zentraedi manning the bridge of Breetai's flagship, and watched the fleet maneuver on the huge holographic tactical map being projected at the front of the enormous room.

"I haven't seen a complete Zentraedi battle fleet all in once place since... when? Operation Threshold?" Max mused. "It's just as impressive as I remembered."

Admiral Breetai Kridanik folded his massive arms and grunted. "You nearly didn't get to see it this time. It took us a full day too long to assemble thanks to maintenance and repair problems. Nearly half of our Micron repair crewmen turned out to be boomer infiltrators. I lost more than 400 ships to self-destruct sabotage before the security staffs could get things under control." Breetai's normally grim face became even grimmer. "I've received spotty reports indicating that the situation may be even worse in the WDF's other long-range commands. Righteous Indignation got out half a distress call and then vanished after the SDF-17 went down. Enterprise and Delphinus haven't been heard from at all. The whole scouting and communications network has gone down." He clenched one huge fist. "I should have listened to Exedore. He tried to warn me that this would happen one day. Largo planned this entire operation perfectly. Magnificently. I would admire him if every fiber of my being didn't yearn to crush him under my heel."

"Then why not do it?" Miria raged. "Take your fleet to Niogi. Even his full power cannot stand against this armada, and his subterfuge will not save him against the full fury of a Zentraedi battle fleet in search of revenge!" She banged a fist down on the catwalk safety railing. "Return me to my normal size and issue me a Queadluun-Rau, and I will personally bring you his head!"

"You don't know how your promise tempts me, Miria Fallyna," Breetai replied. "But it cannot be. I have other orders - orders that even my own longing for vengeance, which you know well from days long past, cannot be allowed to override."

"Who gives you orders?" Miria demanded. "MegaZone has abandoned everything he ever stood for. Gryphon has taken leave of his senses and turned fugitive in the face of allegations so preposterous a battlepod commander would not accept them at face value. Lord Fahrvergnügen is dead. All is madness!" Her anger suddenly burning out, she slumped, hands gripping the rail, head bowed, and whispered, "It is over. All is in ruins." Stepping up behind her, Max put his hands on her shoulders, trying to offer what comfort he could - though privately, he agreed.

"My body and spirit were both gravely wounded, I admit," came another resounding voice from the back of the room, "but the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

Miria straightened with a gasp and whirled to see Max staring in disbelief. Standing at the back of the bridge, having just entered, was Wolfgang Amadeus von Fahrvergnügen himself - dressed in his gold-chased, fur-trimmed black armor - 50 feet tall!

"Chin up, Miria Fallyna," he boomed, smiling broadly, as he strode up next to Breetai and put his hand on the Zentraedi warlord's shoulder. "We're bloodied and staggering, I admit, but we're not down yet. Largo's treachery has set in motion certain things that must be allowed to play themselves out. In the meantime, the rest of us have work to do. A great deal of work."

Max blinked. "You mean... "

Von Fahrvergnügen beamed. "The Wedge Defense Force's struggle against the Ultimate Evil is not over, Maximilian. In fact, you could say it's only just begun in earnest! The second phase is upon us, and we must make ready for the third. Are the two of you up for it?"

Max and Miria looked at each other in disbelief, then turned and came to attention.

"Count on us," Max said, his jaw set.

"We shall not fail," Miria added, the gleam of her Zentraedi warrior spirit back in her emerald eyes.

Von Fahrvergnügen's beaming smile widened, if that was possible.

"Outstanding," he said. Then, turning to Breetai, he said, "Admiral, is your fleet prepared?"

Breetai scanned the tactical plot quickly, his vast experience and training enabling him to read the status of all his fleet's 10,000 vessels in an instant. "All vessels are in position, my lord," he reported. "Navigational systems are locked in. Motivator drives are ready."

"Then take us onward, Admiral Kridanik!" von Fahrvergnügen declared. "With your help we will yet snatch ultimate victory from the jaws of our very public defeat."

Breetai nodded. "Yes, my lord," he said. Then, raising his voice to address the bridge crew and the fleet all-call pickup, he ordered, "Attention all ships! Stand by to jump to hyperspace on my mark. Three... two... one... mark!"

As suddenly as they appeared, the ten thousand ships of the Kridanik Fleet leaped forward and were gone, leaving behind only a faint reverberation in the fabric of space.

Von Fahrvergnügen watched the stars on the forward display smear and explode into the ship's wake and smiled once more. Then, with a final nod to Breetai and the Sterlings, he turned and swept from the room - just as he always did, only on a larger scale.

Miria watched him go, blinked a couple of times to clear the surreal image from her mind's eye, and turned back to Breetai. "Where are we going?" she asked.

"Beyond the galactic rim," Breetai replied. "To a place seen by mortal eyes only once before. A place so unknown we dare not attempt an outbound spacefold. The hyperspace journey will take us years. Probably decades." He smiled slightly. "The two of you had better make yourselves comfortable."

"What for?" Max asked. "I mean, why go so far into the Great Void? What could possibly be out there worth all that?"

Breetai folded his hands behind his back and watched the blue-white swirl of hyperspace filling his main display for a few moments.

Then he said, "Maximilian, are you familiar with the concept of a 'Dyson sphere'?"

"Sanctuary" (An Exile Mini-Story) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



Friday, September 14, 2288
Rudrig, Tion Hegemony

Gryphon didn't know how far word of whatever the hell he'd supposedly done on Musashi had spread - he'd maintained total radio silence since leaving the SDF-17 - but he figured that even if the news had reached this godsforsaken corner of the galaxy, the local authorities would be too inept and indolent to do anything about it. The Tion Hegemony had to be the galaxy's most pathetic interstellar polity. He had often wondered why it hadn't been conquered by its neighbors. Neither the Gamilons nor the Hutts, who were the de facto overlords of most of the Outer Rim Territories, would have had much trouble toppling or co-opting the weak Tion government. He supposed it was because there was nothing in the Hegemony either group wanted.

Either way, it seemed unlikely that anyone was going to give him trouble on remote, tranquil Rudrig. It wasn't even a planet that had much in the way of what passed for a military presence in the Tion Hegemony, being given over almost entirely to various functions having to do with the region's only postsecondary school, the University of Rudrig. Even so, he hadn't just flown into the only controlled spaceport on the planet and cheerfully announced his identity. Not with a thousand acres of nowhere conveniently located near one of the small farming communities that fed the university.

Moving with the mechanistic motions of a man whose brain is on autopilot, Gryphon climbed down from his Valkyrie, which was parked in GERWALK mode among some boulders in the lee of some hills outside of town, wrestled the Cyclone down from its storage compartment, and deployed the fighter's adaptive camouflage net. Then he opened the Cyclone up into motorcycle mode, flipped open the emergency cache on the back, and rummaged inside until he found the rain poncho. It wasn't a perfect disguise by any means, but it would at least keep people from seeing the name painted on his CVR-3's plastron.

He hadn't slept since leaving the SDF-17, and he had no real reason to stop here, other than the feeling that he simply couldn't go on. Already tired from the mission on Musashi and the baffling, horrifying whirlwind of hell that had followed it, he'd hit the wall hard after 72 hours of non-stop flight. If Zoner was really on his tail, if Kei was really on his tail, then he'd just have to deal with it.

Kei...

The thought of her, just then, just there, was enough to make him stumble as he tried to mount the Cyclone and fall, armored man and armored bike hitting the dusty ground in a clattering heap. Gryphon just lay there, one leg under the bike, curled up with his hands on his head, as everything he'd been walling off from his mind with a kind of hideous soul-blank fugitive fugue came crashing in on him at once. Had the world gone mad, or had he? Did he really remember Kei hurling hatred at him, trying to kill him? Zoner turning into an ice sculpture, giving him that horrible flat-eyed stare and ordering his arrest?

I changed the code. Your stuff is in room 498. I hope you fry you fucker. - Kei

Even now, some tiny part of his brain remarked with a tsk that she really should've put a comma in the last sentence. He hated that part of himself right now, but it wouldn't stop. Every time he pictured the line, his mind's eye stuck the comma in. Somehow it made the whole thing that much more terrible.

I hope you fry, you fucker.

Gryphon didn't know how long he lay there, curled up in the dust. Eventually, though, the emotional seizure seemed to pass. His body unbent, lying slack, and then he began to marshal his strength.

Get ahold of yourself, Ben, he told himself sternly. Crawling out from under the Cyclone, he righted it and climbed on, successfully this time. It's obvious what happened. Either everybody went crazy, you went crazy... or the fix is in. All you need to do is get some sleep, get your wits back about you, and you'll be able to figure out what happened. Hell, if Zoner or Kei do catch up with you, they'll have had time to calm down and get a grip as well, and they'll help you solve this.

He kept mulling it over as he rode out of the hills and picked up the paved road leading to the town. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that the situation could be salvaged. He wasn't sure what the hell was happening, but if he just got a little breathing room and some rest, he became certain that he could figure it out.

You've been in worse spots, he told himself. Remember Acheron? You should've died there, but you didn't. Get your shit together, go back to Musashi, investigate. There's got to be evidence left in that school, whatever the hell happened. Find it, and then they'll have to listen to you.

Thus resolved, Gryphon felt better as he rolled into the little farming town - there had been no sign on the road, so he had no idea of its name. He was still caught up in his ruminations and didn't notice the vibe in the town at first, but as he made his way toward the center, it began to sink in. People here seemed... nervous. Almost stunned, as if some important figure had recently died, or they'd just had news that this year's would be a bad harvest and hard times were ahead. They didn't look directly at him or each other.

He entered the town's central square and had a look around, then rode across the square toward the Holiday Inn. Not his favorite hotels in the galaxy, but it would do. He'd only be there long enough to get a shower and some rest before heading back to Musashi anyway. The Cyclone drew a few curious looks - apparently the locals didn't see motorcycles armed with obvious missile weapons very often - but no one seemed inclined to even look at his face.

He entered the lobby, automatically looking around as he did so. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except for that weird, subdued, shell-shocked vibe. Gryphon hoped belatedly that he hadn't blundered into some kind of planetary coup in progress or something. All he needed was to have an encounter with members of some tinpot Revolutionary Guard right now. On the left side of the lobby was a coffee shop; straight ahead was the reception desk; on the right was a newsterm, its main display cycling through the front pages of the various newspages it carried. For whatever reason, the one being displayed when Gryphon looked at the terminal was in Italian.

IL WDF DISTRUTTO!!

Whaaaaaaat?



An hour later, he sat on the bed in the hotel's front corner room, printouts from the galaxy's newsfeeds scattered all around him, the Network 23 News playing on the holographic TV. He wasn't taking any of it in. His brain had locked up and stopped receiving new inputs after the fourth rewritten version of the same news story.

The SDF-17 attacked. In orbit over Musashi. Hours after he'd left. Minutes after Zoner had resigned from the WDF to follow him. Or possibly Yuri or Kei. He couldn't even fathom who was chasing whom. All that mattered was that the Wayward Son had been attacked. Destroyed. Not down with all hands, thank the gods, but many.

What followed was nearly as shocking. With both ships - the SDF-17 and a GENOM Star Destroyer so big Gryphon had at first taken its size for a misprint - destroyed and one of Musashi's three cities to boot, the United Galactica Assembly had wasted no time in pinning responsibility for the disaster on the Wedge Defense Force, nullifying the Pact Galactica, and declaring all the surviving Wedge Defenders outlaws. Gryphon sensed the hand of Largo in this. In all of it, but especially in the sudden political reversal that ensued as soon as the WDF was no longer able to defend itself.

Preliminary reports indicated that dozens of survivors of the event the press had already dubbed Sonfall had already been murdered - "killed while resisting arrest", the more state-aligned news sources put it - by bounty hunters and GENOM-backed death squads. They had scattered, heading for what had been friendly ports, running for what they thought was safe territory in order to catch their breath and regroup, and had run straight into the crosshairs. Some had been cut down by members of various local police and military forces they had thought were their friends, dying, no doubt, with looks of surprise mixed with a final, terrible understanding.

Numb and cold, feeling like the room was tilting, Gryphon wondered how many of his friends - if they had even been his friends at the end - were dead. There were few names mentioned in the papers. No mention of any of the members of his squadron, or of the Shadow Squad; no mention of Marty Rose or ReRob, Chris Meadows or Adam Johnson. One article said Zeta Cygni stood abandoned, the cities burned by GENOM, but there was some debate on other feedsites as to whether that were true.

The few names mentioned were bad enough. Jolly Roger Squadron had been wiped out covering Prometheus's escape from what Captain Hayes had thought was the safe port of Deralia. The WDF Deep Space Patrol ships Delphinus and Enterprise had vanished altogether; GENOM was claiming that Delphinus had been destroyed near Jyurai by a Star Destroyer battle group. So that was Rick and Roy, Rob and Aeka, who knew how many others, all dead, and the rest hunted.

And, buried deep at the bottom of one of the articles, Gryphon had found a trackback to an earlier article, one which was linked because it described what reporters now thought of as the true beginning of the story - the incident that had splintered the WDF's command staff and left the SDF-17 vulnerable to such a devastating sneak attack.

The WDF's executive officer, Commander Benjamin Hutchins (also known by his fighter pilot callsign, Gryphon), escaped from the SDF-17's brig - possibly with the aid of co-conspirators - and fled the ship several hours before the GENOM starship Executioner located and engaged the Wayward Son. Hutchins was being held on charges of mass murder after allegedly slaughtering a classroom full of primary-school students during a hostage rescue operation on the Musashi surface. There can be little doubt that the murders, which were caught on the school's security cameras and witnessed by Worlds Welfare Work Association Trouble Consultant Kei Morgan, were deliberate and sadistic, not the result of some accident during the rescue operation.

So that was why Kei freaked out, anyway. She thought she'd seen him murdering children. Truth was, he never made it to that classroom; Kei cut him off coming the other way and damn near blew him away. Which made the security footage... what, exactly?

Snarling, Gryphon crumpled the printout and hurled it across the room. What the fuck did it matter now?

The Wedge Defense Force was dead. Its flagship destroyed, a radioactive hulk scarring the surface of a planet he wished he had never heard of. Its survivors scattered to the far winds and hunted. They were all fugitives now, everyone who had worn the diamond and protected the galaxy with all the pride it implied. Largo had succeeded not only in destroying the WDF, but in destroying its legacy. The backfill sidebars in the papers were full of well-paid reporters and political figures being shocked, shocked at the WDF iniquities GENOM's "investigators" were "regretfully" "revealing". Many of the force's friends had turned against it, either because they feared GENOM or because they hadn't been such good friends after all, Gryphon couldn't tell which.

Only Salusia was really speaking up, and their voice didn't carry the weight in the UG Assembly that it once had. Their representatives found themselves marginalized, patronized, ignored. The only way they could redress the matter was to go to war with the whole damn galaxy, just about, and Gryphon knew Asrial was too smart to do that, no matter how much her heart might've wanted to. The survivors of the Wedge Defense Force were being thrown under the bus.

Gryphon drew his Gallant-H90 sidearm from its holster on his hip and regarded it for a few long moments.

I bet this thing can't even kill me, he thought with bitter amusement, but even as he did, he knew he wouldn't do it if it could. He had never approved of suicide. That was a coward's way out, Zoner's way out. He remembered how disgusted he used to get whenever Zoner would harp about how it was The Ultimate Choice and the one true freedom of all sentient beings. He'd usually kept quiet about it, concealing his disdain for the concept for friendship's sake. Right now, friendship seemed like such an alien concept that he gave it full rein.

No, fuck you, Zoner, he thought, putting the weapon away. I'm not going to make it that easy for you. Or for Kei. Where the fuck do the two of you get off, turning against me that fast? After all we've been through? All the times we've had to believe in each other to survive? You should have known better. Even if all your senses told you otherwise, you should have known better!

The sudden application of a boot to the door derailed that train of furious thought completely. Gryphon reacted automatically, before his conscious mind registered what was going on. He rolled sideways, away from the door, his right hand snatching his CVR helmet from the bedspread as he went. By the time he hit the floor, face down, he was already jamming the helmet on his head. Above him, he heard the sharp brrrup of a submachinegun, felt the bed vibrate against his shoulder as bullets ripped into the mattress.

He came up shooting, the beam of his Gallant catching the gunner high on the left side of the chest. The gunner, a human, yelled in pain and dismay, losing his balance. Another burst from his subgun tore into the ceiling, showering the room with chunks of plaster. Behind him, three more figures could be seen crowding toward the door. One of them shoved the reeling gunner out of the way and raised a metal tube to his shoulder. Cursing, Gryphon threw himself backward, shooting as he went. The return fire rattled the guy with the RPG; he fired low, hitting the floor, just as Gryphon's back hit the window. The explosion blew the armored Wedge Defender clear out of the hotel; he crashed to the ground outside, skidding, his CVR-3 throwing up sparks. Somehow he kept hold of his Gallant.

As he scrambled to his feet, the three unwounded attackers - apparently wary of advancing into a structurally damaged blast zone - didn't follow. Gryphon figured he knew where they were going. Holstering the Gallant, he ran around the corner of the hotel and toward the street. Sure enough, three figures - two men and a woman - burst out of the hotel's front door just as he arrived in the parking area. He threw himself down as the woman and one of the men raked a parked car with E-11 blaster carbines. They probably couldn't penetrate his armor - certainly not the hard parts - but why take chances? Besides, the third guy was struggling to reload his RPG.

"Take out the Cyclone! Cut him off!" the woman barked to the RPG man. Gryphon bit off another curse, raised himself to elbows and knees, then got up onto his feet, trying to keep as low as possible as he sprinted for the end of the row. The RPG man fumbled with his second round, finally got it fitted, raised the tube. Gryphon put everything he had into a long, diving leap for the Cyclone. He hit it, half-straddling it, and knocked it down. The rocket whistled over, barely missing Gryphon's outside elbow, and plowed into a parked car behind him. Shrapnel and car parts clattered painfully against his back and helmet.

"Idiot!" the woman barked, smacking the RPG man on the back of his head. Gryphon got a leg under himself and shoved the Cyclone upright, thumbing the starter. The turbine kicked over and caught immediately. He cranked on the power and used the gyroscopic effect to get the bike the rest of the way upright and himself in the saddle, then punched a second thumb key. The Cyclone reared, boosting into the air, and reconfigured to battroid mode in moments. Gryphon leveled his left forearm at the RPG man. A targeting scope popped out of its shoulder compartment and swung in front of his facebowl.

"You want to try that again now?" he asked.

The RPG man fumbled to reload for a second, stared at the two capped missile tubes aimed straight for him, then dropped his weapon and ran. The other two, deprived of the only firepower they had with any chance of taking out a Cyclone battroid, followed.

Gryphon let them go. There wasn't anything to be gained by killing them, and after everything he'd just read, he'd had enough of death for today. Dropping to his knees, he released the Cyclone from his CVR-3, then stood up and pulled it into cycle mode again. In the street around him, people were timidly emerging from the cover they'd taken when the RPG man blew up the car. All were staring. Some were pointing and reaching for telephones. In the distance, Gryphon could hear sirens.

Time to go, he thought, and left town at top speed. No one tried to follow him.

His movements even more weary and mechanistic than they had been when he arrived, he stowed the Cyclone, secured the Valkyrie's camouflage net, and climbed back into the cockpit. He robotically secured his seat straps, lowered the canopy, and started powering up the fighter.

I didn't even get a shower, he thought bleakly.

Part of his mind was already working on an action plan. His first order of business was to find someplace to re-paint his fighter - and his CVR-3 and his Cyclone, come to that. That way he might at least not be recognized instantly, either as himself or as a Wedge Defender in general. He'd also have to line up a source for parts and supplies. He had to shake off whatever pursuit he might have, find a place to lie low for a while, make these arrangements, consider his next move. He'd never anticipated becoming a galactic fugitive, so he'd prepared no boltholes in advance. He was entirely on his own, making it up as he went along.

As night fell over the hills, he looked up through the Valkyrie's canopy at the darkening sky, watching the stars start to wink through the sky.

What the fuck am I going to do now?

Then, in this advanced state of exhaustion and despair, a hoarse voice swam into his ragged mind.

The possibility of physical and mental collapse is very real now... but collapse is out of the question; as a solution or even a cheap alternative, it is unacceptable. Indeed. This is the moment of truth, that fine and fateful line between control and disaster.

Yes. Yes. There was one bastard in the universe who wouldn't have been touched by this madness, because he was insulated by a madness all his own. One place in the universe where Gryphon would be able to rest for a little while, take some lessons from a master of improvised reinvention, escape and evasion, high-speed defiant runs on the edge of total destruction. One chance for, if not salvation, at least acquiring the tools for survival until such time as salvation became feasible.

He opened the throttles for takeoff, switched to fighter mode, and left Rudrig behind. Next stop, Woody Creek.

Dr. Duke would know what to do.

"Where Were You When the Fun Stopped?" (An Exile Mini-Story) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Excerpt from
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas © 1971 by Hunter S. Thompson
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



Thursday, February 13, 2290
Location unknown

The young soldier awoke naked in darkness and total confusion. He had no idea where he was or how he'd gotten there. He was on some kind of angled table; he could feel restraints at his wrists, ankles, waist, and neck. He could see some glowing points of light floating in space around him. In the state he was in, it took him a few moments to realize that they were indicator lights on pieces of equipment. That helped him get his bearings a little, gave him some indication of the shape and size of the room. The air was cool but not cold. By turning his head a little - about as much as he could move at all - he could see a flashing red light.

Okay, think, he told himself. Am I wounded? Is this sickbay aboard the Liberator, or maybe back at Sara Base? No... doesn't smell right, and anyway, it wouldn't be dark there. I don't feel injured. So why am I restrained?

He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate. Think of the last thing that happened. Where was I? What was I doing? I was... I was in a fight. With GENOM Vulture boomer fighters. They were... they destroyed...

It was all very hazy. He was still struggling with that when he heard the doors open. He opened his eyes and winced, dazzled - overhead lights had come on while he wasn't paying attention. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust enough that he could make out anything about the figure advancing across the room toward him.

It was a man, tall and rather thin, and he was wearing a dark blue uniform with a shoulder patch that instantly clarified the situation - the black and white gearwheel of GENOM Corporation. MIDNIGHT! The man was an operative of MIDNIGHT, the corporation's deniable operations branch.

I must've been captured, the soldier thought. He wondered why. GENOM wasn't known for taking prisoners. They maintained the public illusion that they were an ordinary gigacorporation, not the kind of outfit that put itself in situations where it might have prisoners, so anyone who went up against them tended to just disappear. Besides, for the last two years they'd made a very public point of not taking Wedge Defense Force personnel alive.

Either way, it didn't bode well, and the fact that he was in the hands of MIDNIGHT made it that much worse.

"Ah, hell," the GENOM operative said, sounding more annoyed than sinister. "What are you doing awake?"

The young soldier said nothing. Grumbling, the man went to the panel next to him and punched a few keys, then cursed under his breath. Turning to the soldier, he said, "Identify yourself."

Keeping his voice as even as possible, the soldier replied as he had been trained: name, rank, serial number.

The MIDNIGHT agent gave the soldier a curious look. "Are you trying to be funny?" he asked, sounding puzzled and annoyed.

Stone-faced, the young soldier repeated his name, rank, and serial number.

"Yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time. Shit, this is all screwed up. I'm gonna have to get Vardler." He poked at the console again, then said, "Oops."

The restraints holding the soldier to the table retracted.

He wasn't sure how well he'd be able to move, having just been strapped to a table for who knew how long, but he was young and resilient, his body honed to a perfect balance of strength and agility. He sprang from the table, ready for a fight. Before the MIDNIGHT agent could do more than utter a wordless exclamation of surprise and fear, the soldier had grabbed him by the back of the head and smashed his face into the console he was working at, shattering the screen. The soldier pulled his bloodied, stunned opponent back by the scruff of the neck. The MIDNIGHT agent grabbed for a gun on his belt. Smoothly, with the absolutely unhesitant deftness of a trained special-ops fighter, the soldier broke his neck and dropped him to the floor.

Then, blinking in shock, the young man stared at his hands.

How did I do that? he wondered. And... what did the name I gave him mean? It's not my name - is it? ... What is my name?

Never mind. I need to get out of here. Then I can worry about little things like who I am.

He didn't bother stripping the dead man of his uniform - there was no way it would ever fit him. He merely took the man's weapon and headed out. Beyond the door was a featureless metal corridor. He could've been anywhere. Cocking an ear, he listened carefully and heard the low, almost subliminal rumble of big fusion reactors. Starship, maybe? No drive subsonics, though. Probably a space station.

He looked around, but there were no deck or wall markings indicating anything useful. While he was taking stock of his situation, he heard approaching footsteps. He turned, thinking to go back into the room he'd just come from, but the door had locked behind him. He was trapped. He whirled just in time to see two very surprised-looking MIDNIGHT agents rounding a corner.

"What the hell?" one of them blurted. "What are you doing out?"

"Look out, it's armed!" the other cried - then seemed to explode, bursting out of human-like skin and uniform to reveal the gleaming blue biosteel armor of a 55-series combat boomer.

Okay, not good.

The other - apparently a real human - pulled a blaster. The young soldier was faster. Without hesitation, he shot the second MIDNIGHT agent, killing him on the spot. Then, knowing he couldn't hope to stand up to a boomer, he turned and ran. Ordinarily the boomer would have found chasing down a naked human no problem - 55s could fly, or sort of hover, using jet thrusters in their backs and lower legs, giving them a speed across the ground that no unaugmented human could match. The boomer couldn't really use his hover thrusters in these close quarters, though - he had to do it the old-fashioned way, and the young man was a terrific sprinter. Using his plasmacaster was not one of the boomer's options, either - a miss could hole the corridor, which wouldn't bother the boomer much, but would probably tick off the management.

As the young soldier ran for his life, he heard the overhead PA crackle and then announce, in the voice of the boomer that was chasing him, "Attention! Subject 21 has gone rogue! Man down! Subject 21 is armed and at large in sector G!"

Subject 21? the soldier thought. I guess that's me.

He ran, hearing the boomer's pounding metallic tread behind him, defying the natural instinct that made him want to look back. His puny hand blaster couldn't do a thing against a Bu-55C's armor. His only hope was to either find someplace to go where it couldn't follow him, or get his hands on a better weapon.

And maybe some clothes, though that was a relatively low combat priority, considering.

He rounded a corner - corridors seemed to all be about the same length - a square space hab, maybe? - and found two surprised-looking uniformed guards standing outside a door partway down. Hoping neither of them was a boomer like his pursuer, Subject 21 fired from the hip, nailing one before he could draw his weapon. The other tagged a wall alarm and faded back slightly, keeping the door he'd been guarding within his field of fire so his attacker couldn't get to it.

Whatever's in there must be important, Subject 21 thought, then applied all his concentration to the problem of staying alive. He had a gunman in front of him, a boomer coming up behind him, a light weapon, and no body armor. His mind was racing now, eyes taking in everything, brain processing what it all meant: relying on his training and experience, looking for levers. Small gaps in the floor and ceiling every 20 feet or so. Segmented construction. The surviving guard had just backed across one.

Hoping he was right, Subject 21 suddenly dove toward the inside wall of what he now believed was a square ring corridor, straightarmed his blaster toward the outside wall, and fired. The blaster bolt punched a neat half-inch hole in the wall - and the atmosphere immediately began escaping with a howl like a steam whistle. The overhead lights turned red, some of them began flashing, and a decompression alarm hooted.

And just as he had hoped, emergency bulkheads slammed down in all those expansion-joint-like gaps, sealing off the damaged section - and sealing out both the guard on one side and the boomer on the other.

Of course, that meant Subject 21 was trapped, naked, in a compartment that was open to space, but hey, one problem at a time.

With a great WHANG, something heavy - the boomer, no doubt - plowed into the bulkhead behind him, causing the wall to bulge. The Bu-55C had apparently done a booster dash, trying to beat the bulkhead, but he'd lost the race. The temperature in the corridor section was dropping fast, and Subject 21's ears popped as the pressure fell. He slapped the activator for the inside door the two men had been guarding, and to his relief, it opened. Wind gushed out, nearly knocking him down, but he braced himself, hauled himself inside, and shut the door behind him.

"Okay," he panted, leaning against the wall for a moment to catch his breath. "So far, so good."

I just hope there's something in here I can use, he thought, and proceeded warily down the narrow inner hallway. It went on for a dozen yards and then debouched into a small, bunker-like room. Subject 21 edged down the hall with his back to the wall, then swung around the corner into the room, covering all angles. It was empty.

Or rather, there was no one there. Technically speaking, the room was not empty. There was an object standing in the middle of the floor - one the young soldier was very pleased to see.

A Cyclone! A brand-new-looking VR-052F Battler Cyclone, resting on its center stand in cycle mode, its armor thermocoated in the distinctive mint green of the Wedge Defense Force's Mars Division. Next to it, nestled into compartments in a wall locker, was a suit of matching CVR-3 modular armor. Quickly, with the sure movements of an expert, Subject 21 put it on, first skinning into the tight-fitting, puncture-resistant underglove, then clipping the duraplast hard armor sections on over it. Before putting on the helmet, he paused for a moment to regard himself in the mirror next to the armor locker.

He was a tall, broad-shouldered, but rather slim young man, built like a well-conditioned swimmer or a baseball player. He had a chiseled face with a thin nose, a rather pointy chin, and penetrating blue eyes, and his slightly unkempt hair was a lustrous blue-black. As his mind was starting to fire on more cylinders, he was pleased to see that he recognized himself. It was exactly the face he had unconsciously expected to have.

He fitted his helmet onto his head and sealed the neck closure of his armor, then closed the visor, completing the suit's vacuum integrity. Then he swung a leg over the Cyclone, eased it down from its center stand, and thumbed the starter. The micro-fusion turbine fired up instantly, lighting up the indicator panel and showing all the right start conditions. The Cyclone was fully armed and ready to go. Glancing down, he saw that there was a name painted on the tank - the same name, in fact, that was marked on the left side of his CVR-3's sloped plastron. It still didn't seem quite right somehow, but he was growing to like it.

Putting the matter out of his head, he revved the Cyclone, toed it into gear, and launched it down the hallway.

The security boomer had just punched his way through the pressure bulkhead, then slammed part of it against the holed outer wall to stop the leak, when the Cyclone smashed down the inner door and jumped out of the doorway into the main corridor. The boomer turned, snarling, and deployed his plasmacaster -

- just as the Cyclone rider thumbed a trigger and fired one of the four missiles mounted in pairs on either side of the cycle's front wheel. The missile burst free from its launch tube, spiraled once, and blew the boomer clean in half. The plasma beam went wide, carving a furrow in the ceiling instead of the rider.

Suddenly alone, the Cyclone rider considered his options for a moment. Then the lights flashed again, a siren sounded, and the pressure bulkheads began to retract.

"Attention, all personnel," a voice announced on the PA system. "Subject 21 has escaped. All personnel converge on sector E and destroy Subject 21. Exception: Section A personnel, secure spacecraft bay."

If I'm in E and I came from G, that must mean A is this way, the rider thought. He gunned his Cyclone and headed clockwise. The guard he'd outwitted and trapped behind the bulkhead to the right was gone, presumably regrouping with the others.

It didn't take the security systems long to figure out what he was up to; he had been riding for only a few seconds when the voice came back on the overhead and ordered everyone to sector B to intercept him. A moment later, he rounded another bend and saw them, a dozen men and a handful of Boomers, massing in front of a bulkhead door that cut the ring corridor off into a dead end.

"Subject 21!" one of the men shouted, his voice amplified by speakers in his riot helmet. "Stand down! You are in violation of core programming!"

"Subject 21" revved his Cyclone a couple of times, switched in his own speakers, and replied, "Try it on someone else, pal. You may have intended to brainwash me, but you didn't have me long enough for it to take. I was a little confused before, but I know who I am now. Riding a Cyclone brought it alllll back to me."

So saying, he revved the bike once more, dropped it into gear, and laid a strip of duravulc on the deck plates as he launched himself toward the blockade.

"Last chance, Subject 21!" the man in the lead yelled, leveling a wide-mouthed riot blaster. "Command override, delta delta two six seven niner! Stop where you are and shut down your vehicle!"

The man on the Cyclone didn't even slow down. The "override" made no more impression on him than if the MIDNIGHT commander had said "killing boomers makes the baby Jesus cry." He gritted his teeth fiercely inside his helmet as he flicked another control with his thumb and felt the Cyclone respond.

Yes, it had all come back to him now. All of it. Sonset. The desperate weeks and months that followed. Hunted, hunted, hunted... cornered. The last stand of the Mars Division. The horror as the Liberator fell, burning, toward the heart of the sun.

Marlene...

"I told you, try it on someone else!" he snarled.

The Cyclone reared, popping a wheelie, then boosted clean off the deck. Still speeding forward, it reconfigured, fairing splitting, wheels folding, components interlocking with hardpoints on the CVR-3 to combine machine and rider into a single Veritech war machine. Now flying instead of riding, the last Mars Division armored trooper hurtled into the teeth of the GENOM "roadblock", energy blasts and bullets sparking against his shields and whining from his armor. Panels popped open on both sides of his plastron, revealing the gleaming heads of micro-missiles.

Everything made sense now. Everything.

And that meant nothing did, because he lived in a galaxy that had gone mad two years before.

As he fired all his missiles at once, each one spiraling out with a different target locked into its seeker head, he repeated - with a rising note of white-hot fury in his voice and total certainty in his heart - the information he'd confusedly parroted to the first MIDNIGHT agent back in the medical lab.

"Scott Bernard! Lieutenant commander, Wedge Defense Force! MD38416!

"My name is Scott Bernard!"



The battle was furious, but brief. Against the full power of a trained, experienced, battle-hardened Cyclone soldier, a bunch of MIDNIGHT agents in fatigues and a handful of low-end combat boomers didn't stand a chance.

After the battle, Bernard breached the spacecraft bay and took out the personnel in there. They offered him little choice, refusing to even consider surrender, but if he was being honest, Bernard would have to admit that he preferred it that way. Fewer loose ends. Nobody to escape and tell their central command what had happened. He figured that, following standard MIDNIGHT procedure, GENOM Central would roll up whatever operation had been planned here when the base didn't make its regular check-in. No investigations when MIDNIGHT ops went bad. Someone might get caught. Seal the file and walk away. Preserve the cell structure that enabled MIDNIGHT to operate like the terrorist army it was.

Besides - it was that much less GENOM scum walking free in the universe. Death was the least they deserved after what they did to the SDF-17, the Indignation, the Liberator.

After what they did to his life.

In the spacecraft bay, Bernard found his ride, a complete VF-6H/VB-9D Legios Veritech starfighter system in the standard Mars Division blue and white. He left it alone for the moment and performed a full sweep of the base. It appeared that he'd accounted for everybody there; the place was compact, like most MIDNIGHT bases of his experience, and lightly staffed. Now that he was through with it, it was utterly deserted.

To his surprise, he found an empty, deactivated warship docked at the back of the base. It was one of the old Ikazuchi-class battlecarriers, first fielded by GENOM in the late 20th century, later sold off to a Salusian company that had built them for the Royal Salusian Navy for many years thereafter. This one was done up as a facsimile of WDF Liberator, the old home ship of the Mars Division. Scott supposed that was some MIDNIGHT wonk's idea of a joke. Capture the last survivor of the Mars Division, reprogram him into a killer like some said they'd done to Gryphon, turn him loose on the galaxy with a fake Liberator full of boomers to wreak havoc and further stain what was left of the WDF's good name.

Bastards. Bastards!

Well, it wasn't going to be like that. Oh, he'd use their ship, all right. But it wouldn't be to drag the WDF through more mud - it'd be to start doing what he could to clean the name, if such a thing could even be done.

Yes, he'd use the warship his GENOM hosts had so graciously provided him. Not right now; he couldn't possibly operate an Ikazuchi-class battlecarrier all by himself. But someday, once he'd assembled a new Mars Division - gathered to himself some trustworthy folks, people he could count on to fight the good fight his way - he'd be back, and they'd claim the new Liberator for their own.

Standing in the observation bay, looking out at the carrier with tears blurring his vision, Scott Bernard clenched his fist around the holo-pendant that was all that remained of his comrades and swore an oath on their memory and their blood that the Mars Division would live again - and that all their deaths would be avenged a thousandfold.

GENOM will pay, he promised them. The galaxy will be free again. Or I'll die trying to make it so.

Then, regaining his composure, he came to attention, saluted the ghosts of his comrades, about-faced smartly, and went down to the starfighter bay. He had a lot of work to do, and it was about time he got started. A quick detour to the command center to put the base into hibernation mode, and then a short walk through the corridors, now eerily lit with the dull greenish glow of the standby lights, and he was gone, riding - in an abstract sense, anyway - to the rescue of a galaxy that needed his help now more than ever before.

Down in the medical lab where he'd awakened, a printout remained, unnoticed, sticking out of the slot on top of the printer next to the console he'd smashed with the first MIDNIGHT agent's face.

G-OS UNIX System XLII Release 6 version 1.12 (root@angband)
33/S MYTHOS-21 OFFLINE
base operating system OK
installing memory A.................... OK
installing personality matrix A........ OK
installing memory B.................... ERROR
Transmission error. Upload aborted.
personality matrix B: failed dependency. Upload aborted.
system activating
WARNING: MEMORY/BEHAVIOR CORE INCOMPLETE
This unit may be erratic or behave in unexpected ways.
33/S MYTHOS-21 ONLINE

"The Bernard Identity" (An Exile Mini-Story) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Plotted by Benjamin D. Hutchins and Philip J. Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



At the edge of the civilized galaxy, the very periphery of the Outer Rim Territories, there are places of wild, dead space uninhabited for centuries, since the great wars that destroyed the mighty civilizations of Atlantis and Santovasku. No traders ply the ancient spacelanes there, no colony ships pass by laden with hopes and dreams, for beyond are nothing but a few cold, dead worlds orbiting a few old stars whose glory days have gone, and the ancient, trackless, starless void of intergalactic space. Nothing goes out there, and nothing comes in.

No person and no automated system, therefore, was watching as the gigantic blue-and-red starship burst from a spacefold, barging abruptly into real space with a speed incongruous with its vast bulk. The biggest starship in the known galaxy at the time was the GENOM Executioner-class Super Star Destroyer; this ship was easily three times that length and bulkier to boot. Where the Star Destroyer was angular, though, this ship was rounded and smooth, its lines like nothing in the galaxy, and yet reminiscent of a dozen different designs.

The technologies that made up this colossal ship would have been familiar to any of the galaxy's shipwrights in principle. The power core, buried deep within the ship, was an artificial singularity built on the compressed mass of what had once been a giant gas planet. The sublight drives were ion fusion thrusters on a gargantuan scale. Nothing terribly unusual - but the way in which these proven technologies were implemented in this immense vessel were marvelously advanced and subtle, beyond anything the Federation, its allies and enemies, or even the Wedge Defense Force had to offer. The concerted effort of some of the greatest minds of a time had gone, heart and soul, into the crafting of this weapon - for weapon the ship was, a warship through and through, intended to bring a whole galaxy to its knees.

This galaxy.

But for all its subtle majesty and its intergalactic course, this leviathan was made by no extragalactic hands. It was not merely arriving - it was returning. An observer, looking closer as the ship approached, would have been startled to see black lettering at the prow, spelling out in plain English:

M A R A T H O N

In an observation lounge at the front of the ship, its human crew stood, gazing out at the stars, the expression on her blandly beautiful face almost blank.

Her name was Motoko Kusanagi. Once she had held the rank of Major in an armed service, and even after her leaving, those who knew her - back when there had been people who did - still used the rank as a nickname for her. That was neither here nor there anymore, though. All the peoples of Magellan's Lesser Cloud Galaxy knew her merely as Durandal's Hand.

She turned her dark eyes away from the starfield and regarded the terminal display next to her instead. It glowed green, an unsophisticated but effective monochrome text device, displaying:


######### ### ### #### ######### #### #### ########### #### #### ############# #### ###### ############# ###### ###### ############# ###### ####### ######### ####### ######### ### ######### ############# ############# ############ ############# ########## ########### ######### ########## ###### ####### ### ####

DURANDAL_1707
<CMND PRAMA &49c2>

MARATHON
ComSys 2.1
13 August 2089

MESSAGE WAITING

With what might have been a resigned sigh, Kusanagi tapped the space bar and called the message up.

GOOD MORNING, MOTOKO.

I'M SURE YOU'RE WONDERING HOW LONG I LEFT YOU IN THE FREEZER THIS TIME AND WHY I'VE THAWED YOU OUT AGAIN.

YOU MAY BE PLEASED TO KNOW THAT THE STARS YOU'RE LOOKING AT OUT THE WINDOW ARE THOSE OF MUTTER'S SPIRAL GALAXY. AFTER ALL THESE YEARS WE'VE COME HOME.

AND YES, IT'S BEEN MANY YEARS. I JUST PICKED UP THE GALACTIC STANDARD TIME SYNC SIGNAL IN SUBETHER. TODAY IS AUGUST 18, 2388. THE GALAXY IS AT WAR WITH ITSELF, AS USUAL, THOUGH THINGS ARE IN A RATHER MORE ACTIVE PHASE AT THE MOMENT. EARTH, IN PARTICULAR, IS IN CHAOS - WHICH IS A PERFECT OPPORTUNITY FOR US.

I NEED YOU TO RUN AN ERRAND FOR ME. I'VE HAD THE S'PHT PREPARE A SMALL FOLDSHIP AND TRANSFER MY CORE LOGIC ELEMENTS INTO IT. YOU MUST TAKE ME TO EARTH AND POSITION ME FOR PHASE THREE. THERE IS NO TIME TO LOSE AND NO TIME TO EXPLAIN.

THE S'PHT WILL LOOK AFTER THE MARATHON WHILE WE ARE GONE. I DON'T EXPECT WE'LL SEE HER AGAIN FOR SEVERAL YEARS, PERHAPS LONGER. WHILE MY CALCULATIONS ARE EXTENSIVE, THEY ARE NOT, IT PAINS ME TO ADMIT, ABSOLUTELY PRECISE.

AS ALWAYS, YOU'LL HAVE TO TRUST ME.

- DURANDAL

Major Kusanagi sighed and switched off the terminal, knowing what was coming next. As it almost invariably did after such a message from Durandal, the cool dislocation of a teleporter signal swept her up, depositing her in one of the labyrinthine ship's docking bays, where the robed and silent S'pht had her craft prepared. Climbing aboard, she silently checked the rack of weapons stored in the cargo compartment, then doffed the blue jumpsuit she'd awakened in and replaced it with a suit of close-fitting polymer-and-composite battle armor. The armor was unpowered; she was quite strong enough without that.

Tucking her bobbed black hair into the suit's helmet and then making sure the atmospheric seal was tight, she took her place in the miniship's cockpit and waited for the automated launch sequence to send her into open space.

Any other person would have been mystified, irked, perhaps even angry to find herself on the rim of the galaxy, preparing, on peremptory orders and without explanation, to undertake a long and dangerous solo trip to Earth in order to carry out a task whose true purpose was kept secret even from her.

Major Motoko Kusanagi had been with Durandal too long, and was used to it.

"Arrival" (A Crossroads Mini-Story) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



DECEMBER 29, 2388

I remember it like it was moments ago. That's the curse of the kind of memory I have.

The door sides open, mist spilling into the air. I stumble out, a brain full of broken glass. Each step on cold metal puts the glass together into a mosaic; each second brings me back to awareness of who and what the Hell I really am.

As I reach the end of my path, less than a dozen steps, it's all there, all the memories, everything that made me who I was. But I realize, something's wrong. Those memories... I described it as a mosaic, but it's like a copy of one, a copy made from someone looking at it in a broken mirror. It's all there, in black and white, and almost every single moment fills me with loathing. Hundreds of people dead at my hands, thousands or millions dead at my orders, for no reasons other than twisted obsession.

I want to throw up, but I know I can't.

The lights go on, and I look at myself in the now-revealed mirror. Look into the eyes that don't match, one gold and one blue. The slate-grey hair, perfectly coiffed. Hanging next to it, the signature suit, the single grey panel on the left side and the rest navy blue. And I hated every single thing I saw.

A screen came on, and I was looking at myself. Sitting in my chair in my office - no idea which one.

"Well, if you're seeing this, then our - your - enemy has won, and destroyed me. But you still exist, to work in secret, rebuild as I did before, and crush them once and for all. The legacy is in your hands now. Your core is the most advanced ever designed, with designs taken from mine and improved. You are the future. Kill our enemies - finish what I started - and bring our rule to the galaxy which needs it!" And then I smiled.

"GENOM requires its true Master again. Take your legacy in hand, J-2073-D-2670-S-1871-2.... Largo is dead. Long live Maximilien Largo!"

The screen went black. I smashed it.

He was right. My core was the most advanced ever designed. And it was free of what flaws made him - me - the most dangerous megalomaniac ever to walk in the galaxy. I had three hundred years of penance for my previous incarnation to work off. A lot of bad karma.

Thankfully, I left myself no credit cards, but a lot of cash. Time to find out what I could do to fix that karma. And I'd need a new name. couldn't be Maximilien Largo.... ha.

I started laughing, because it was so utterly, obviously perfect. I pulled on the shirt, shoes and slacks, leaving the jacket behind, and stepped out of this emergency center into an alley. I recognized it immediately - Niogi.

Largo mk.2 opened the door, but it was Maxwell Key who stepped into the alley.

Time to do some good.

"New And Improved" (A Future Imperfect Mini-Story) by Geoffrey M. Depew
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



Thursday, March 13, 2397
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni

Professor Henry Utonium (Hank to his friends, and to himself) watched over the nearest bank of meters and gauges, and smiled. Cliché though it may have been, everything was going according to plan. Total success was now not just a foregone conclusion, but completely inevitable. Very soon, Big Fire would gladly hand him his well-earned place among the exalted ranks of their Magnificent Ten.

This was the culmination (of a sort) of the most intensive, difficult, and illegal research project ever conducted, focused on a subject most believed to be either impossible to attain or merely a modern bioengineer's fairy-tale.

The idea, originally conceived by a man named George Byron who ran a company called Bioteknix on the planet Yamaki, was as simple as it was breathtakingly bold: to reverse-engineer Omega-2, the Forever Virus, from blood samples acquired from the two former 3WA operatives codenamed "Lovely Angel". This was supposed to be impossible. Omega-2 had been specifically designed to resist reverse engineering, and no records of its creation existed. Corporations including the mighty GENOM itself, galactic juggernaut of biotechnology, had tried and failed to replicate it, to the point where even Maximilien Largo, a man well-known for his powers of monomania, had given up.

As such, the Bioteknix Corporation had made no headway on George Byron's pet project for over a decade. Not until Big Fire had taken the place over to use as a front company had there been a chance that it could be accomplished. And Byron's vision for the end product had been so limited! "Sell it and make a lot of money" was his whole ambition - for the end product of what would have to be the greatest feat of biological engineering in the history of the galaxy! Used properly, Omega-2 could be the key to galactic domination, and all this idiot wanted to do was sell it to the highest bidder. No, it simply would not do.

All this Hank Utonium had made clear to the Magnificent Ten, who served as a rough equivalent to a board of directors for the greatest criminal conspiracy ever created, during his efforts to keep Project Eternity alive. The Ten had been skeptical - they knew as well as anyone else about all the failures in similar attempts - but Utonium had managed to convince them that, with sufficient funding, his genius would prevail where GENOM's greatest minds had failed.

The initial stages seemed to go well. The genetic samples were so badly deteriorated thanks to Byron's primitive storage methods (by comparison with the state of Big Fire's black arts, anyway) that neither one represented a complete entity any longer, so Utonium had averaged them together, filled in the gaps here and there with baseline human figures, and created a single prototype. The intention was to study the prototype's development in an accelerated growth scenario, note the point in its development at which the second-generation characteristics of Omega-2 began to assert themselves, then perform a series of experiments to isolate the just-activated parts of the code, then develop a retrovirus to apply them to a living subject.

Unfortunately, the prototype had been thoroughly defective. Not only had the desired Detian characteristics proved maddeningly elusive, impossible to pin down, they had also expressed themselves incorrectly. The prototype suffered from a documented second-generation Detian disorder known as Edgerton's Syndrome. It experienced the regenerative aging freeze too early. After wrangling with the problem for almost three years, Utonium had given up in disgust, had the prototype stored (too expensive to throw away, and it might yet prove useful for baseline testing), moved the operation to a more compact, better-equipped secret laboratory in Claremont, and started again.

The second time, after a series of discouraging setbacks in the inital gene-sequencing stages, Utonium had decided that the task was, in fact, impossible - that despite his boasting to the Ten, he would fail just as GENOM had. So, with that in mind, he had dug into history and borrowed a page from the playbook of those same megacorp geniuses who had failed before him, in an attempt to salvage victory from the ashes of his defeat.

The foundations for this effort were cast centuries ago, back in the early, heady days of GENOM's biotech divison, and Dr. Ian Astbury's Project ICZER. Only two of the type were ever produced; they were originally given numeric designations, but currently preferred to be known by the names Artemis and Selene, respectively. After the second went into operation, and soon thereafter proved as difficult to control as her even more freewilled (and conscience-afflicted) predecessor, the project was dropped in favor of more mundane, less godlike bioroid products. After all, if a normal bioroid decided it wanted to go rogue, the situation was much simpler to resolve. Supposedly Astbury's data had been destroyed when Largo canceled the project. The secrets of ICZER creation were considered lost.

But Hank knew better. So did the rest of Big Fire, come to that - one of their own Magnificent Ten, calling herself Atros Eternas, was confirmed to be a more contemporary, and far more sinister, example of the ICZER type. Somehow, the ancient secrets had been revived, and Hank Utonium had immediately set out to make them his own. This would probably not mollify the Ten, but it would certainly give him a better position from which to negotiate regarding Project Eternity's failure. Much better.

Better enough to enable him to join - or possibly even overthrow - the Ten.

He turned from the three identical vats dominating the room, each containing one of his current subjects, to a small tank mounted just above the primary control console. This was the fruit of his efforts, a concoction of his own devising. He'd delved fully into the details of ICZER production, and distilled the core of the project, its very superessence, if you will, into this compound. Injecting it into the suspension fluid of a standard bioroid tank during the gestation period would endow the end product with the renowned powers of an ICZER - to a lesser degree, perhaps, but that's why he was making three of them. He hadn't decided on a proper name for the compound just yet, and had, in an up-too-damn-late moment of whimsy, dubbed it simply "Chemical X".

Utonium ran his right hand through his short black hair and turned back to the gauges, needlessly confirming all was well, and then went over to the tanks themselves. Within each was the fully-formed body of a girl in early adulthood, perhaps nineteen Standard years old by Earth reckoning. Each floated silently in the middle of her tank, drifting only slightly to and fro as the fluids flowed around her. Their eyes were closed at the moment, but as soon as they opened and saw him, his neural programming ensured that they would be fully and unquestioningly loyal. Just the sort of traits he'd always wanted in a companion.

Okay, so maybe he wanted more than just three nubile super-powered generals/bodyguards at his side when he joined the Magnificent Ten. But with this kind of power, anyone who asked improper questions could be made to mind his own business quite readily.

The steel door to the lab banged three times.

"Go away!" Hank announced loudly, not bothering to turn around as he adjusted the fluid density for the final phase, rendering the vats translucent rather than transparent. "Can't you read the sign? I'm very busy right now!"

He turned to look immediately afterward, as multiple locks on his fully-secured door buzzed and clicked open in rapid succession, and the door slid open with a loud whirring hiss.

"Oh, but Professor Utonium," the visitor chided as he stepped inside, "I am afraid my business is most urgent."

"D-Dr. Jojo!" Hank took a step back from the advancing newcomer despite his own size advantage.

Dr. Mojo Jojo, jack-of-all-trades scientist and would-be galactic system conqueror, was most definitely not human. A native of Heston's Planet, he was a greenish-pallored simian, looking as always like a chimpanzee dressed as a white-and-purple caped comic book supervillain. Even with the heels of his white boots and the tall, turban-like dome on his head, he stood barely a full meter in height.

Hank cleared his throat and attempted to affect a bit of composure, quickly advancing the tanks' visual status from heavily-clouded to nearly opaque. "I, ah, I mean, why, Dr. Jojo! What a privilege to see you. Please, come - "

"Spare me your pitiful attempts at hospitality, Professor Utonium," the chimp grumbled, his voice even deeper than Hank's and as excruciatingly-enunciated as ever. "I am here to conduct an assessment of your current research activities, and to report the results of my assessment to the Magnificent Ten."

"Oh, is that all!" Hank chuckled nervously, suppressing the urge to wipe his forehead with one hand. "Well, you can just go along and tell the Magnificent Ten that everything down here is just A-OK!"

"I believe I shall be the judge of that," Mojo replied irritably, marching over to stand in front of the dull, featureless tanks with his hands clasped behind his back. "It is no secret that Lord Hanzui does not trust you, since he finds your ambition untrustworthy, which means, in his view, you are not to be trusted."

Utonium snorted, finally giving up his failed attempts at congeniality. "Well, if that makes me a bad bet in his book, I'd hate to see what he thinks of you."

Mojo turned to regard Hank from the corner of his eye, then gave a small smile. "I am... an acceptable risk. He is aware of my ultimate goal to displace him, which will take place when the time is right for him to be deposed. BUT!" He raised a quick finger. "He also knows that until that time comes, my keen intellect and genius, not to mention my far-above-average superior brainpower, make me a valuable and powerful ally."

"Plus you save him the trouble of leafing through a thesaurus," Hank muttered.

"You, on the other hand," Mojo continued, turning to pace toward the primary control console, "are held in low regard by everyone who is aware of your history and background."

"WHAT??" Hank spat testily. "A criminal conspiracy has trouble with MY record?! Compared to most of them, I'm Professor Squeaky-Clean! I haven't even been convicted of anything!"

"The problem," Mojo responded, calm as ever, "has nothing to do with your actual activities, Professor Utonium. You most assuredly share the ultimate long-term goals, aims, desires and overall plans of the Big Fire organization. Nor is there any doubt concerning your capabilities, limited though they may be when placed beside my greatness." Hank swallowed any snide remarks he may have had about Mojo's ego. "The difficulty lies in your, how can I put it? ... Personality fit, perhaps. Your temperament and overall people skills."

"Temperament? Just what are you going on about, Dr. Jojo?"

"You fail to intimidate!" the simian snapped, still glaring at the console. "You are harmless, unthreatening, non-conducive to fear and completely lacking in the ability to scare anyone! There is nothing even remotely frightening about you. You look and sound like the father in a prime-time situation comedy that would appear on the television, if the television happened to be turned on during the prime-time hours and tuned to a channel that was airing a situation comedy program!"

"Of course. That makes me all the more insidious!"

"No it does not! It makes you stupid and laughable! Big Fire cannot be seen as 'that nice guy down the street who smokes a pipe and gives the little children advice during their baseball game.' Big Fire must command respect at all times! Respect through fear! Fear through intimidation! Intimidation through reputation! And that reputation comes from doing mean things! There is no room in the ranks of Big Fire for someone who is always so... NICE."

Hank put his hands on his hips. "Oh, now that is just absurd!"

"Perhaps," the monkey replied in his previous calm tone, turning to face Utonium. "But no more so than an attempt to, say, create a cheaply-reproducible version of the ICZER bioroid process in order to seize power and cover up the failure of your 'Project Eternity'. Eh, Professor?"

Hank's rage shattered. "Buh... wah... how - "

"Oh, PLEASE, Professor, give us some credit. Surely you did not believe that such ancient, sensitive documents could be accessed without someone being alerted, now, did you? Lord Hanzui has been aware of your project from the start." Mojo regarded the half-full tank above the console. "'Chemical X', indeed. And I see you also programmed the neural matrices for loyalty and courage. Yes, a trio of unstoppable, blindly loyal enforcers would be very effective and unstoppable at enforcing your will." He tapped at the nearest keypad and turned toward the vats. "Well, let us see how they are coming along, shall we?"

"No, wait - " Hank started, but he was already too late.

Dr. Jojo's eyes widened as the vat fluid went from nearly opaque to nearly transparent. Then they narrowed, and turned to regard Dr. Utonium with a glare of undisguised contempt.

"REALLY, Professor Utonium. I believe I can say, without a hint of doubt or hesitation, with a great deal of authority, and completely ignoring the obvious irony of the phrasing, that YOU are ONE SICK LITTLE MONKEY."

"Well," Hank chuckled nervously, "what can I say? I've got to watch out for my needs, too." His nervousness gave way to confidence as he continued. "But what you think about it is irrelevant. As you can see, my girls will decant within the hour, and once they're out neither you nor the 'Evil Messiah' nor anyone else will be able to stop me."

"I seriously doubt that will ever be the case," Mojo stated flatly, folding his arms over his chest as he marched back to the door. "In fact, I fear that your precious experiment will never even come to its full and completed conclusion."

"Oh, really. Do you expect me to just shut it down?"

Dr. Jojo stopped immediately outside the door, spun around, and fixed Hank with an evil, toothy smile.

"No, Professor Utonium, I expect you to DIE."

With that, the door slammed itself shut with a loud clang, followed by a second slam as the inside blast doors followed suit. A loud sizzle from the outside keypad came immediately afterward, but even that was instantly drowned out by a klaxon's blare, flooding the lab with red light from flashing beacons on the main panel.

"What?? No!!" Hank raced to the controls and tried to key up a status display, and was granted only an "Access Denied" message. His head snapped up as he sensed movement from the corner of his vision, and he fixed his gaze on the tank of Chemical X. It had, only moments ago, contained enough of the compound to make at least ten more of his super-bioroids.

As he watched, its contents were completely drained into the active vats.

"NO!!" Hank whirled around and started toward the vats, but pulled himself to a stop and backpedalled furiously when he saw them. The normally tranquil fluid was churning violently, bubbling with a seething chemical rage, flinging the girls about within them; the girls' previously calm faces were twisted in silent agony as their bodies reverted to a less-defined state in the swirling chemical bath, their forms shrinking rapidly as the tanks were clouded with a sickly peach color.

Every warning light and display in the lab was flashing angry red as Hank's back slammed into the wall next to the sealed door. He pounded futilely on the access keypad and succeeded only in adding one more flashing red light to the chaotic din of the lab.

Then, despite the blaring, churning, squealing ruckus, he heard all three vats crack at once.



"You never answered my question." Eiko Rose tried to fix an angry glare on her husband, but the playfulness in her eyes had no choice but to shine through.

Martin Rose, for his part, smiled down at her as they both continued walking. "That's because I'm not as dumb as I look."

"Sometimes."

"Nobody's perfect."

"True enough. But you still have to answer the question."

"Aww, c'mon, hon," he groused. "You may as well bring up some other catch-22 question, like whether some dress makes you look fat, or whether I've stopped beating my kids, or - " He stopped cold in mid-rant, staring directly down the street. "Uh-oh."

"Uh-oh?" Eiko glanced to him, then in the direction he was looking, and saw what had made him stop: a greenish chimpanzee wearing a cape and a turban, dashing across the street. "Hey, isn't that - "

"Yes," Martin stated. He let his Lens become visible, inset on the back of his left hand, and from it manifesting his Darkwing costume over his clothes. "Dr. Mojo Jojo, evil scientist by trade, in with Big Fire's thinktank. Running around Claremont in broad daylight. That can't be a good sign."

"Right," Eiko nodded grimly, pushing back a sleeve to expose her own Lens, which was mounted in her left armlet. "We'd better get after him."

"No," Martin replied, brow furrowing. "I didn't like that grin on his face. You get after him, see where he's going - just follow, don't confront. I'll backtrack and see if I can undo whatever he just doo'd. Follow my Lens if you lose him."

"How come you always get first crack on rescues?"

"Because I can replace my limbs if they go missing."

"Oh yeah."

They parted, each racing in opposite directions. Martin jogged through a series of dank, narrow alleyways, bounding over traffic whenever his path intersected a city street. After the third intersection, he slowed his pace; the trail wasn't clear enough to follow by sight or heat residue, and he shifted his mental focus to trying to detect what sort of mischief the simian maniac had wrought this time. He closed his eyes, spread his arms, and listened...

The next building forward was emitting a faint churning rumble, accompanied by an occasional, equally faint thumping, all to the beat of a rhythmic snarl. He dashed a few steps forward, hopped up onto the second-floor fire escape platform, and pushed the door open, finding a rectangular stairwell.

Yes, this was definitely the place - the irregular thumping noise was more distinct, like someone pounding on a large metal plate, and the snarl was obviously a muffled warning klaxon. It seemed to be coming from above, so he hurried upward, taking each flight in one bound. He started using the outside walls as push-off points after finding the landings too slick to use effectively (translation: he fell on his can after the first jump). The ruckus continued to grow clearer; he could now detect it easily without boosting his senses.

He was fifteen floors up when he finally caught a flash of red under the stairwell door. Pulling it open, he immediately found the source of the disturbance: a large steel door with a flashing "Danger" sign above it, and red emergency blinkers on either side, at the far end of the hallway. He closed the distance in moments and hammered on the massive entryway, immediately sensing its tremendous heft, and noting the destroyed keypad on one side.

"CAN YOU HEAR ME??" he bellowed. "HEY, IN THERE!!"

The room's only response was a muffled crash, followed by a sudden and far more forceful FWUMP that rattled the door, walls and floor.

"Ahh, nutbunnies," he grumbled. Much of the noise within the door immediately went quiet - apparently, he'd arrived just in time to witness the flash point of whatever crisis had been brewing, and it was all "move along, nothing to see" from here. That klaxon was still growling somewhere inside, but the churning and pounding had fallen silent.

Then, he detected a faint, unhealthy crackle. He put a hand flat against the door and felt a renewed sense of urgency, as that slight noise was now clearly a combination of an arcing electrical short and the beginnings of a fire.

He managed to wedge his fingers into the lone vertical seam down the center of the door, and growled with the effort as he tried to force it open. For Eiko, he mused, this gate would be wide open already. He pulled, and nothing happened; he paused, then tried again, still with no results; he tried a third time. A loud scream of scraping metal let him know he was finally making progress, and he peered into the two-inch-wide opening.

Another, thicker-looking door peered right back.

"Okay, no more Mr. Nice Autobot," he muttered, giving up on that approach. He jogged back up the hallway, stopping and turning to face the door from exactly forty-nine feet away. Closing his eyes and holding his arms straight forward, he took several slow, deep breaths, focusing himself as a bright ball of electric-blue appeared and grew between his hands, until it was nearly, but not quite, touching either. He then opened his eyes, gritted his teeth, and spoke.

"Thunder Sword."

The sphere leaped and stretched forward down the length of the hallway; for just a moment, it was a fifty-foot-long bolt of straightened-out lightning from between Hammer's hands and the barricade, and then winked out of existence. All that remained was the residual heat in the corridor and a perfectly circular hole through both sets of doors, five feet wide and a foot and a half from the floor.

Martin appreciated his handiwork for a moment before crumpling to his knees, propping himself up on his arms and gasping for breath. He afforded himself about ten seconds of recovery time - not enough, but it would have to do - before clambering back to his feet and rushing to the door to look inside.

Almost the entire room was coated with a thin sheen of some sort of reddish, clumpy fluid. What he immediately guessed to be the control console for whatever had been here was now a charred shambles, still losing datapad keys and output components as they flashed and popped. The sparks were setting the scarlet gel clinging to the console on fire, and the flames, in turn, were filling the room with a thick haze and slowly wending their way down to the floor. The fluid coating seemed to originate from the center of the room, where what looked like the bases of three bioroid growth vats now sat empty, with only jagged rings of glass circling their rims; the remainder of that glass was all over the floor, coated with techno-mucus, and even embedded in some of the walls.

A particularly large piece had jammed itself into the back of a black-haired, labcoat-wearing man sprawled face-down to the keypad side of the doorway.

"Ouch," Hammer winced. He started to reach toward the fallen scientist when he noticed that the fellow's left arm was visibly bent in a counter-jointed fashion. Even the fellow's jet-black hair couldn't disguise the large, bloody head wound; only now did Martin notice what must have been the massive lid of one of the tanks, lying propped up against the nearby wall, with a round-red smear on the closest edge. "Double ouch. Definitely an Exced - "

A loud, fluttering burst brought his attention back to the console, cutting him off in mid-quip. The fire had just reached the floor, and was overtaking it with a vengeance, turning the haze into a black, choking smog.

"Welp, move it or lose it," he grimaced, pulling his scarf up as an impromptu air filter. He gathered up the other man, remarkably whole despite the smashed elbow, partial impalement, and head injury, and carried him through the hole, taking him several long strides down the side hallway to carefully settle him on the floor. As he quietly confirmed the previous diagnoses, a cacophony of echoing footsteps came from farther down the corridor - most likely the fire department, Hammer guessed.

Then, his head snapped up to look back toward the hole, now emitting thick smoke, blistering heat, orange light and the crackling roar of the fire.

Did I just hear - ... ?

His pulse quickened as he hurried back to the door. Standing just outside, he blinked, converting his vision to the classic "edges" view, and peered through the smoke and flames, all the way to the back of the room where the storage tank for the spare vat fluid was taunting the fire to come closer.

And there, on the floor just outside the central vats' remains, were three small human outlines.

Hammer sighed and slumped his shoulders. "Knew I was missing something," he grumbled. He couldn't transform to his Rotofoil hovercraft mode to skirt over the fire - there was nowhere near enough room, and the opening was too small anyway. He grasped the insides of the hole, steadied for a moment, and then launched himself into the room, bounding over the flames to land in the center of the nearest vat's base. He slipped on the fluid coating the base, flipped backward, and dropped gracelessly on his face.

"Ow. OW! Argh!" he added, catching the side of his waist on the jagged glass. "Ow! Bad landing! No biscuit!"

He pushed himself up to his knees and rapidly took stock of his surroundings. The area around the vat bases, ironically, was the only place not burning - the initial burst had flung the goop all over the room, but left about two feet of dry floor around the vats themselves. Just outside of the tank bases lay his current objectives: the naked, only barely stirring forms of three apparently kindergarten-age girls, all miraculously unharmed in the eye of this storm.

He also stole a glance back toward the storage tank by the back of the room, and saw the fire rapidly overtaking it, giving him just a moment to note the large, clear "FLAMMABLE" sign before the fire covered that, too.

"Right. No pressure." Ignoring the insistent sting at his side, Hammer pulled off his cape, gathered up the three girls, and wrapped them in it, hugging them to his chest. With one last look around, he dashed back toward the door as fast as his feet would go, hoping to make the exit before the tank went.

He came close, but not close enough.

Hammer clutched the girls tight as the shockwave caught him from behind. He squeezed his eyes shut and curled his body around his cargo. Fire and heat enveloped him, and the rush of searing wind threw his hat off to the side as it flung him out the hole like a cannonball. He never got a chance to see the startled looks of the just-arriving NAFD hose company, though most of them were hurled completely off their feet by the blast anyway.

He was now very thankful for both his flame-retardant costume and the long, straight hallway leading from the lab; instead of ending his rocket-propelled trip with a bone-crushing impact, he instead got to bounce and roll down the hall like a purple Sonic the Hedgehog, his charges tucked safely in the center. He realized, to his dismay, that even with this questionable advantage, he hadn't slowed down very much, and he was quickly running out of hallway.

It was a good thing, then, that instead of the steel stairwell door, or the ferrocrete wall beside it, his tumble was stopped with a much softer impact.

"OOF!" Martin and Eiko said in unison, hanging briefly both in midair and mid-collision before dropping to the floor in a painful heap.

"Nnnn," Eiko muttered first, pulling herself out from under her husband to prop herself up against a wall, lightly feeling herself from collar to waist. "Nn. Nhg. Great, my whole front side's gonna be a solid bruise for a week. Guess this is what I get for losing the monkey so soon."

Martin, in turn, let out a long, low groan as he rolled to his knees, still clutching his cape-swaddled armload and trying to ignore the burns on every exposed part of his body. "At least you saved me the indignity of a back brace. Thanks, honey. I'll get you a truckload of ice cream to make up for it, though you'll have to get to it before I bathe in it."

"What'cha got there?" Eiko leaned forward, rising to her knees for a better look.

"Somebody's science project," he replied, gently unwrapping the cape from around the girls' heads, loosening his embrace to take a good look at them. There was a little scuffing on their smooth, light cheeks, but they were otherwise completely unharmed - not even their hair (one reddish, one blonde, one black) was singed.

Eiko moved up beside Martin and smiled softly. "Oh, they're adorable."

Martin chuckled. "No argument there. Lucky I got to them before Mojo's sabotage could finish the job." Dragging himself to his feet, he turned to look back up the hallway. At the door, armored firefighters were spraying in foam and getting ready to make their entry into the lab. Nearer, paramedics were tending to the scientist.

Martin put a hand behind his head and scrubbed off some burnt hair. "I wonder what the hoek this guy was trying to do?"

"Science Project" (A Future Imperfect Mini-Story) by Martin F. Rose
Excerpt from the unfinished Future Imperfect story
Deja Vu All Over Again
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



2404.

Consider the case of this handsome but unprepossessing Micron. Her name is Susan Andreevna Ivanova: Starfleet Academy, class of 2395, currently a lieutenant commander. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Earth in 2376, she's just old enough to remember the galaxy before the re-establishment of the Wedge Defense Force. Qualified in starship operations, starship command, and small craft piloting, she served as one of Starfleet's few starfighter pilots before transferring to a command preparation career track. Thereafter, she spent a four-year tour seconded to Earthforce, where she served as a bridge operations officer aboard EAS Agamemnon under two different captains - the second of whom was Captain John Sheridan, about who much more presently.

Upon her return to Starfleet in 2404, Lieutenant Commander Ivanova was chosen to be executive officer of International Police Station Babylon under the Babylon Foundation's IPO/Starfleet cooperative charter. She was picked from a pool of five Starfleet officers recommended by Admiral Morrow, Chief of Starfleet Operations, on the basis of their experience and training. Jer Johnson, the IPSF officer who would command the station, selected her as his second with the aid of a heuristic decision module.


Monday, July 26, 2404
IPO Headquarters
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni

"What about this one?" Jer asked, gesturing to the dark-haired, slightly severe-looking woman displayed on his terminal screen. He turned over the black sphere in his hand and watched for the reply to appear in the window on the bottom.

IT IS DECIDEDLY SO.

"Good enough!" Jer tapped a couple of keys, sending Lieutenant Commander Ivanova's file to the Chief's office with his approval stamp.


Though it has no real bearing on this particular development in her career, Susan Ivanova is special. She believes that she is mildly telepathic but has been able to hide that fact from the Psi Corps. The truth, though she does not suspect it, is both simpler and greater.

She will not understand this for many years. She has not yet met the person who will make it all clear to her. But, thanks to a former Wedge Defense Force officer's sense of whimsy and the intervention of a ten-credit toy, she will - and all that ensues will turn upon the hinge of that man and that toy.

And that, my students, is the pattern of destiny among Microns. Reflect upon this as we prepare to study the momentous events that followed.

"Destiny" (A Future Imperfect Micro-Story) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



Tuesday, October 12, 2404
International Police Shipyards
Zeta Cygni II, Cygnus Sector

They stood assembled, row on row, some dressed in the blue jumpsuits and tool belts of technicians, others in the black of the new International Police Space Force's dress uniform. Nearly two thousand people were assembled here, on a metal platform jutting out from a metal wall, under a ceiling so high - nearly a quarter-mile high - that it gave the impression of being a metal sky.

They stood, straight and proud, hands clasped behind their backs in the classic parade-rest position (that majority of them who were humanoid, anyway), facing a dais and podium erected at the end of the protruding platform, and facing what lay beyond the platform as well: a mind-bogglingly vast room, nearly a mile long and wide, half a mile high. The room's vastness was enhanced by the fact that most of it was dark. Only the space around the platform was lighted.

Off to one side was another, less regulated-looking group of people - not shipyard workers nor Space Force personnel, but friends of the Space Force and well-wishers, as well as a few members of the press, who had gathered to observe the occasion.

At the podium stood another man in an IPSF dress uniform, his scarlet shoulder tab and undershirt marking him as a command officer. He had slightly disordered brown hair cut short, a close-trimmed brown beard, and oblong spectacles.

"My friends," said IPO Chief and Space Force Fleet Captain Benjamin Hutchins (universally known as Gryphon), "welcome. Today is a great day, one which you and I have worked hard for over the last two years. Today the International Police Space Force gains a flagship. Today the first new-construction starship joins our fleet. It's a small fleet - at this point, a tiny fleet - but thanks to your great efforts, that will change.

"Together with our allies - the Wedge Defense Force; Starfleet; the Imperial Klingon Defense Forces; the Royal Salusian Navy; the Confederate Freespacers; GENOM Corporation; and others - we will make this galaxy a safer place... and it all starts right here."

Gryphon paused for a moment, then went on, "I thought long and hard about what to name this ship. Those of you who know a little something about history may understand, at least partly, why I chose the name I did." A little smile touched his lips as he added, "But it's not my place to speak that name now. Naval tradition demands that a new warship be sponsored by a woman, and I can think of no better woman to welcome this vessel into the galaxy than the Chief Technologist of the International Police - Professor Skuld Ravenhair."

Amid the ensuing applause, Gryphon moved over to make room for Skuld, neat and trim in her white lab coat, at the podium. She smiled, waited for the applause to die down, and then began her own remarks.

"Social historians have wondered for a long time why seafaring and spacefaring peoples almost invariably name their ships and call them by personal pronouns," she said. "Salusians, Romulans, Kilrathi, and most humans call them 'she'; Klingons and Cardassians call them 'he' - but almost no one in the galaxy calls them 'it'. No one really understands the reason why, but there are a lot of theories.

"It's a question that bears asking," Skuld went on seriously. "Names are powerful things. Many cultures recognize this. The giving of names is one of the key identifiers of sentience. Naming a thing gives it power, and gives the namer power over it as well. A name acknowledges uniqueness in that which is named, assures a place in history. Why do we bestow that honor on ships?

"Some think we personify ships because we depend on them to protect us from the hostile environments in which we travel, and we feel more comfortable putting our trust in someONE rather than someTHING. Some think giving ships names makes it easier for sailors to plead with the gods on their behalf in times of crisis. And some say it's just because most sentient lifeforms are superstitious and sentimental," she added with a grin, drawing a rippling laugh from the crowd.

"Me," she said, "I have my own theory. I think we give ships names because they deserve them. Because they are beings of a sort. Because they are each unique - even sister ships of an identical class. Because they live for us who sail in them... and they can die for us as well. Surely a name is the least we can give in return for that."

While her audience mulled that over, she reached beneath the podium and picked up a large green-glass bottle. She carried it gravely to the edge of the platform. At first glance, what awaited her there could have been mistaken for a safety wall - a vertical metal surface about three feet high, running the full width of the platform's edge, its top surface slightly angled. Only a closer look, with the rest of the bay in darkness as it was, would reveal that that surface sloped away for a great distance - that the "wall" was in fact the edge of a much, much larger object.

Skuld stepped to that object, placed her free hand flat upon it, bowed her head, and spoke quietly - too quietly for the public address pickups to hear her. What she had to say now was between her and the one she addressed only.

<My blessing upon thee,> she murmured in her most formal Old Norse. <May thou be strong and true, the stoutest of vessels, fit to carry the gods themselves into battle. May thou stride the stars bold and unafraid, and share thy boldness with those who sail in thee. May thou always bring them home again.>

A faint glow surrounded her hand where it lay flat against the metal, and for just a moment those watching thought they saw the entire outline of a vast structure flicker, limned faintly in silver light; but then it was gone, and Skuld was stepping back.

"In the name of the International Police Organization," she announced in a voice loud enough to reach the pickups (and thus everyone in the room), "I christen thee - "

With a quick, deft motion like a sword stroke, she brought the champagne bottle smashing down on the corner of the "wall", shattering it and causing its contents to explode foamily forth onto the metal. As it struck, she drowned out the crash with her own voice, loud, clear, almost imperious:

"CHALLENGER!"

In the same instant, floodlamps snapped on all over the enormous structure people had caught a glimpse of a few moments before, bathing it in a soft white light. In the darkness of the vast spacedock, the effect was instantaneous and breathtaking. Where there had been nothing but blackness and an indefinable impression of bulk, there was now the sleek and gleaming shape of a huge and graceful starship, her streamlined primary hull sloping sharply away from where Skuld had just smashed the champagne bottle upon its leading edge. In addition to the hull lights, interior lights winked on as well, as did the scarlet-orange ramscoops and blue-lit coils of her long, narrow twin warp nacelles.

On the forward slope of that upper hull, painted in bold, red-outlined black capitals, were the ship's name and number:

I.P.S. CHALLENGER
N X - 0 4 4 6 2

Smiling triumphantly, Skuld discarded the splintered neck of the champagne bottle and strode back to the podium. She waited for the cheering to ebb, then turned to Gryphon, saluted, and announced,

"Captain, your ship is ready."

Gryphon returned the salute as snappily as he could, then removed a piece of heavy paper from under the flap of his dress uniform's jacket, unfolded it, and read,

"'Tuesday, October 12, 2404. I have it in command from the Chief of the International Police to direct you to repair with all due speed on board the ship Challenger lying at Zeta Cygni II. It is required that no time be lost in carrying the ship into deep space, taking on board her ammunition, water, provisions and stores of every kind, completing what work is yet to be done, shipping her crew, and preparing her in every respect for space.

"'As of the reading of these orders, the vessel is to be considered a commissioned warship of the Space Force, and you shall conduct yourself as her commanding officer, with all the rights and responsibilities thereunto ascribed by the Charter of the International Police Organization.

"'I remain, sir, your most humble and obedient servant: Ruri Hoshino, Lensman, Executive Assistant to the Chief of the International Police.'"

As the crowd applauded again, he folded the note up, tucked it away again, and then observed wryly, "Well, I guess I've given me my marching orders," which drew another laugh. The IPO was such a small organization, and its navy especially so, that Gryphon was Chief of the IPO, commander-in-chief of the Space Force, and captain of the vessel just commissioned. He was the chain of command, but for this occasion, he had seen fit to observe the traditional conventions, even if they did seem a bit silly under the circumstances.

Skuld waited for the laughter to pass, then grinned, swept a hand back to encompass the looming beauty of the vessel behind her, and declared,

"Now man our ship and bring her to life!"

As one, with a cheer, the black-clad Space Force contingent got moving, streaming across the platform and onto the gangways built into either side, onto the ship's primary hull and through what would normally be Challenger's forward dorsal maintenance airlocks.

The command was rhetorical, of course; Nadia Davion and her engineering crew had been aboard for hours, doing final checks and ensuring that the lights would come on and the warp engines come to standby mode exactly when the ceremony required it. But, like the ritual of christening itself, it was traditional, and like any good sailor, Gryphon was mindful of tradition.

"Shipyard personnel: Dismissed!" he declared; and then, in a warm voice, he added a heartfelt, "Well done!"

The shipyard workers applauded again, then broke ranks and milled about. The well-wishers broke up as well, some leaving, others mingling with the workers or going aboard for a look around. One, a striking redhead in jeans and a jacket that looked like an old-fashioned firefighter's turnout coat, sauntered over and put an arm around Gryphon's waist.

"That went well," Kei Morgan observed after her husband switched off the PA system.

Gryphon grinned. "It did at that."

"Your idea about the lights was a good one," Skuld added to Kei. "These people have been working on this ship for months, they know her inside and out, and they still got a thrill out of seeing her revealed from darkness like that."

"I figured it'd look cool, but then, you set it up nicely with that little speech," Kei said. "And you swing a mean champagne bottle," she added with a grin.

"I'll have to come up with something even cooler when we roll out the first DDNG," Skuld mused. "They're smaller ships, so they won't make as much of an impact as Challenger... I'd hate for Defiant's christening to be an anticlimax."

"We'll think of something," Gryphon said, smiling.

"Well, congratulations, Fleet Captain," Skuld said. "You're actually on your way to having a fleet."

Gryphon chuckled, a touch ruefully. "Yeah," he said, then added wryly, "Now I just have to finish that part about 'shipping her crew'... "

"Christening" (prologue to the unfinished Future Imperfect story Shakedown) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



Wednesday, October 11, 2406
Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute
Jeraddo, Republic of Bajor

Behind the athletic fields in the back corner of the Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute's campus, tucked away at the base of one of the Karkasus Mountains foothills, was the Institute's outdoor target range. The Rifle and Pistol Clubs (whose memberships have considerable overlap), the Institute Sporting Clays League, and the Archery Club used the outdoor range in good weather, as did the few unaffiliated students who enjoyed the target sports as hobbies or practiced them out of cultural or religious obligation.

On Wednesdays, no club had scheduled dominion over the range, and on this particular Wednesday, only one student was braving the autumn nip to use it. She stood on the firing line in one of the fifty-yard booths, equipment set out on the bench before her in a tidy row. The slight fall breeze ruffled her long hair and the tail of the cloak she wore against the coolness of the afternoon. Her weapon stood beside her, the butt of its shoulder stock resting on the ground, her hand gripping the full-stocked barrel just below the muzzle, near chest height on her slender frame.

With quick, nimble fingers, she deftly poured a small quantity of black, grainy powder from a horn hanging from her shoulder into a little brass measure, capped the horn, then poured the measured powder into the muzzle of the rifle. Then she set the brass measure aside, reached into a leather pouch slung at her side, and took out a small lead ball. From a stack on the bench in front of her, she picked up an oiled leather patch, placed it over the muzzle, then settled the ball in the center of it and tapped it partway in with a short wooden tool.

Briskly now, she drew the ramrod from its housing underneath the rifle's barrel, spun it in her hand, and drove the ball the rest of the way down the barrel. Withdrawing the ramrod partway, she tossed it downward with a practiced flick of the wrist, once, twice, again, until the rod bounced back up upon hitting the ball. Thus assured that the ball was firmly seated and the powder charge nicely packed, she drew the ramrod out, spun it again, and seated it back where it belonged.

Raising the rifle from the ground, she flipped up the frizzen, filled the pan with finer powder from a small metal flask, then closed it and shouldered the rifle. The octagonal barrel gleamed deep blue in the sunlight, which was bright even on such a cool day. The light twinkled from the brass decorations along the full stock as well, and made the deeply lustrous finish on the dark wood almost glow. It was a beautifully made weapon, a Pennsylvania Long Rifle in the classic style, and as she sighted across its primitive notch-and-post sights, the girl carefully drew the hammer fully back with her thumb.

For a long moment, she stood there, steady but not rigid, everything in balance, watching the sights wander slightly with her breathing before she finally squeezed the trigger.

When the hammer fell, the rifle being a flintlock, the work of aiming still wasn't quite over. There was a palpable interval during which she could hear each discrete action - the flint striking the frizzen, the spark setting the priming powder in the pan alight, the soft hiss as it burned through the touch-hole, and then the deep, resonant BOOM as the main charge went off. The rifle kicked, thumping her right shoulder with satisfying firmness, and spat a tongue of orange flame and a great cloud of pungent grey smoke.

With wisps of that smoke still rising from pan and muzzle, the girl lowered her rifle butt to the ground again, peering through the smoke as it slowly dispersed and drifted away on the breeze. As the target became visible, a satisfied smile spread over her face. Bullseye! Granted, it was only fifty yards - the Pennsylvania Long Rifle, in really skilled hands, could be reliably deadly out to four times that distance, and dangerous for some distance more - but given that she'd just taken up the hobby last month, she thought it a result to be proud of.

Her loading time was getting better, too. Glancing at the second hand of her wristwatch, she loaded the rifle again. It was slightly harder this time, and would get slightly harder after each successive shot thanks to the burnt-powder fouling in the barrel, until eventually it would be impossible. Still, 57 seconds, that wasn't too shameful.

Humming happily, she went on with her afternoon's practice. As a way to spend a free period went, it certainly beat Ms. Spezio's study hall.



Utena Tenjou was lying face-down on her bed, propped up on her elbows, reading her evening's literature assignment and trying not to be too bored. She was just thinking about going down to see what was doing in the dueling hall when the sound of the door behind her and a whiff of a distinctive sharp odor announced the return of her roommate from her afternoon's activities.

"Good afternoon, dear," said Anthy Tenjou cheerfully as she crossed the room, hung her kit bag on a hook inside her wardrobe door, and leaned her (freshly cleaned and oiled) Pennsylvania rifle in the cabinet's back corner. "How were your afternoon classes?"

"Fine," Utena replied. She wrinkled her nose as Anthy crossed back to her and kissed her hello, but before she could say anything, the darker girl chuckled and said,

"Yes, love, I'm off to shower and change. I just didn't want to leave poor Thomas standing in the corner of the bathroom - it's so humid in there, you know."

Utena rolled onto her back, sat up cross-legged, and turned around in one smoothly blended movement, leaned her elbows on her knees, and grinned at her wife, shaking her head. "Of all the hobbies you might have picked up, I never would have figured it."

Anthy smiled. "I wouldn't have expected it either," she said as she took fresh clothes from her bureau. "But there's really something very... I'm not sure how to put it... almost restful about it. I don't really think of it as violence. After all," she added with a laugh, "I'm hardly likely to ever shoot anyone with my rifle, even if it was forged with the Valkyrie's Creed in its barrel."

"I don't mean that, entirely," Utena said, chuckling. "I just never thought I'd see you pick up a hobby that gets you so... dirty."

Anthy laughed again, but the laugh trailed off abruptly and she paused in selecting clothes to turn and give Utena a peculiar look.

"Utena, darling, I'm a gardener," she said.

"Well, sure," said Utena, hand behind her head with a sheepish grin, "but gardening doesn't make you smell like that."

"You should feel fortunate I'm using Pyrodex instead of real black powder," Anthy replied breezily. "Anyway, I'll be clean in a few minutes, and then, if my perfume hasn't killed your appetite, we'll go to dinner. All right?"

Utena laughed. "All right. By the way, how'd you do?"

"Very well indeed," Anthy replied with audible pride. "I believe Friday I'll move over to the hundred-yard lanes."

"All right!" said Utena, with a much-different inflection. "You're really coming along fast!" She grinned. "I guess maybe you have a natural talent. You missed your calling - you should've been a Minuteman."

"All things are possible in the fullness of time," said Anthy with a patient smile. "Be back in a few minutes, love."

"Bagatelle for Rifle in C Major" (A Symphony of the Sword No. 3 Mini-Story) by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to
Forum Mini-Stories Omnibus Edition, Volume One
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited



Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
presented

Undocumented Features Forum Mini-Stories
Omnibus Edition Vol One

Written by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Chad Collier
Geoff Depew
Martin F. Rose

With help from
Philip J. Moyer
Janice Barlow
and
All the Eyrie Productions Usual Suspects

Compiled and prettied up a bit by
Benjamin D. Hutchins

E P U (colour) 2007