Undocumented Features Forum Mini-Stories

Omnibus Edition, Volume Four

Table of Contents

  1. Excerpt from Get the Girl, Kill the Baddies (And Save the Entire Planet)
    pub. 2092
  2. The Honor of Mars
    August 12, 2174
  3. Travellers on the Shadowed Road
    April 12, 2292
  4. Our Man Bacon
    August 10, 2371
  5. The Final Simulation
    Stardate 8135.1
  6. Prescott's Bluff
    March 8, 2380
  7. Second Chances Are Illogical
    February 15, 2385
  8. Duet for Robots in E
    May 31, 2402
  9. The Art of Noise
    March 17, 2404
  10. A Walk in the Woods
    December 24, 2406
  11. Hello, Neighbors!
    August 23, 2407
  12. Like Civilized Men
    February 10, 2410
  13. Matalde the Red
    February, 2410
  14. The Sandero Affair
    Exact date unknown, 2410
  15. Before Victory Comes Honor
    December 23, 2410
  16. Reindeer Games
    December 30, 2410
  17. Omnibus Bonus Story: Mr. Midshipman Tenjou: For the Good of the Service
    June 27, 2411

excerpt from Get the Girl, Kill the Baddies (And Save the Entire Planet): 100 Years as a Galactic Do-Gooder
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Wedge Defense Press: 2092

Chapter 5: That's Great, But...

Without a doubt, the biggest pain in my ass in the first decade of the 21st century was figuring out what to do with the Air Force.

A little background is, perhaps, in order. In the middle of 2005, almost six years after First Contact with Salusia, the U.S. Congress decided that military responsibility for the suddenly widened frontier of space should be removed from the Air Force, the branch of service traditionally tasked with looking after space defense matters, and handed to the Navy. The rationale there was something to the effect of "Starships are ships, ships belong to the Navy, QED," but I think it had a bit more to do with the chairman of the Senate Committee on Interstellar Defense being an ex-sailor.

Anyway, that interesting maneuver stripped the Air Force of its responsibilities beyond Earth's atmosphere, which, with Earth's viewpoint exponentially widening in the aftermath of Contact, transformed it overnight from the country's most influential armed force to its least, and to say that it royally pissed off the Air Force brass would be to understate the point somewhat.

I don't know who initially had the idea - maybe the general himself, maybe a member of his staff - but in June of that year, Zoner and I found ourselves taking a phone call from the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, General John P. Jumper. General Jumper explained that he'd just stormed out of a meeting of the Joint Chiefs, having declared that if the United States government no longer had a use for its one and only Air Force, he was sure someone would be happy to have them. Us, for instance. How about it?

We were dumbfounded. Our first instinct was to suspect the caller was a member of the WDF - probably Mark Luchini - messing with us. There was just enough plausibility in it to make me wonder, though. We knew the thing with Congress and the Air Force had really happened, and we'd heard through the grapevine that the brass was pretty pissed about it. And I wasn't sure Haywire could pull off a Texan accent, or keep a straight voice long enough to make a stunt like this work.

All this ran through my head and Zoner's at about the same speed, and we silently agreed that we might as well play along. After all, if it was legit, an opportunity like that doesn't come along every day. We told our caller we were definitely interested, but would have to get back to him as to whether we'd be able to take him up on his most generous offer.

Then Zoner made a cordial signoff, hung up the phone, turned to me, and asked, "How did Haywire get Caller ID to say he was calling from the Pentagon?"

"That's a very good question," I said. "Eve, how did Haywire get Caller ID to say he was calling from the Pentagon?"

"He didn't," Eve replied promptly. "That call really did originate from the Pentagon."

Zoner blinked at me. "How did Haywire get into the Pentagon?" he asked.

"That's a very good question," I said.

Of course, we subsequently found out that our caller really had been General John P. Jumper, and that he was quite serious about offering us the USAF's services. Which left us with a bit of a poser:

There's an old saying that you don't look a gift horse in the mouth - meaning you shouldn't complain about stuff you got for free - which is fine, but supposing someone gave you 330,000 horses. The SDF-17 is a big damn ship, make no mistake, but not that big. Even if we let the 101st go back to regular service with the RSN, which we weren't eager to do, we'd only have had space for, at most, a tenth of the USAF's personnel before we started overcrowding the ship and reducing her effectiveness (to say nothing of comfort). It would require an enormous feat of logistics and management to find places for so many people to be, never mind things for them to do.

On the other hand, hey, free air force.

Except, of course, that it couldn't possibly be that simple. After we got back in touch with General Jumper and told him that, while many details would obviously have to be worked out, on the whole we thought we'd very much like to take him up on his offer, word got back to Congress and the shit really hit the fan. They might not have wanted to make use of the Air Force in space, but that didn't mean they were prepared to just give it away. Not without some sort of process. Not without hearings.

Zoner, naturally, ducked the Congressional hearings, telling me, "You're my executive officer - execute." To be fair, he was spending most of each day in conference with Lord F and our various allies working out where to put all these people, but still, I was less than entirely thrilled. Still, I put on my best uniform and went to Earth, appearing before a hastily assembled joint subcommittee that was, to my keen disappointment, not called the Joint Subcommittee on Giving Away the Air Force.

My chief interrogator, the chairman of the committee, was a senior senator from one of the southeastern states, straight out of central casting: silver-haired, expansively polite, and utterly without mercy, with an accent I could just barely understand. By the end of the first day, I knew that he and the ferret-faced Congresswoman from somewhere in the Midwest were going to be my chief nemeses in this thing. He was clearly incredulous that we were even having this conversation, while she apparently drew most of her satisfaction in life from insisting on fine points of order.

By the fifth day, we'd covered every point of contention at least four times, and the circularity of the proceedings was plain to everyone present. Some members of the press had actually not shown up for Day 5, presumably convinced that dying of old age would be more exciting. I'd been on my best behavior the whole time, thinking in the back of my mind that we should have sent Haywire - the negotiations would have been much shorter, but also much more fun to watch the tapes of later on - but after lunch it suddenly dawned on me what I had to do to break the cycle and maybe get the thing done.

So, instead of answering the next question (which was from the ferret lady), I addressed the chairman directly:

"Senator Cornpone [not his real name], let's get down to brass tacks. How much?"

For a moment, there was only silence. Rep. Ferret was even too startled to object to my flagrant disregard of the rules of order. Senator Cornpone raised one bushy silver eyebrow, regarded me for a long moment without speaking, and then said, slowly and in his most majestically chicken-fried tone,

"Mista Hutchins, is this committeh t'unnerSTAN that y'all are proposin' ta BAAH one of this countreh's AHHMED FOAHCES?"

"Well... yes, Senator, that is essentially correct."

Senator Cornpone stared at me for a few seconds, then relaxed in his chair, folded his hands across his middle, and smiled.

"Wayahl. Now you're fahn'ly talkin' mah language."

So the Air Force ended up not quite being free, but we did still get a pretty good deal on it. I talked them down a little from the figure Sen. Cornpone initially named, on account of it was used, and we had the whole thing ironed out by dinnertime. Zoner had to sign a bunch of stuff in which he promised not to use the Air Force against the United States, which, well, fair enough; in the unlikely event that we found ourselves having to take out the U.S. government, we'd do it without them.

We didn't end up having to find places for the entire 330,000-person complement of the Air Force, of course. A lot of them weren't interested in leaving Earth, and others were, but weren't comfortable doing so in what was effectively an outer-space foreign legion. As part of the transition, the Navy offered to take qualified pilots from the Air Force and train them on the new space equipment, and some Air Force pilots (grudgingly, one expects) took them up on that. Many more chose to retire or leave the service altogether. We ended up with about 100,000.

The people we did get, though, were a credit to any uniform. They tended to be the younger, more adventurous members of the service, though there was also a hard core of noncoms and staff officers who saw the whole thing as an opportunity or a bold strategic move. We cycled them through the SDF-17 in large groups, orienting them to the WDF's way of doing things and giving them one more chance to get out and go back, no questions asked, if they didn't find that it suited them. After that training period, they went on to a fleet of new ships, some built by our own Utopia shipyards, some bought from Corellian or Salusian yards, as we built our new acquisition into a semi-autonomous force in its own right.

We decided to do that - build a new force alongside the main WDF rather than absorb our new acquisitions directly into the WDF's own force structure - mainly to simplify administration, and to try and deflect accusations that the WDF was "expansionist", which had cropped up when we commissioned our second main-force capital ship, WDF Righteous Indignation, some time earlier. The new outfit would adopt a charter based on the WDF's, and would ultimately be answerable to our top brass (i.e. Zoner), but it would have its own staff, its own structure, and strike its own deals with prospective employers. And, to our considerable amusement, it would still be named "the United States Air Force", someone on Earth having carelessly omitted to trademark the name in the United Galactica.

(As an aside, in 2053 the United Nations hired the USAF to help an overstretched UN Space Command - the main constituent of which was, of course, the U.S. Navy - defend the Solar system against pirate incursions. Ah, if only Senator Cornpone had lived to see that day.)

Fig. A Service roundel of the U.S. Air Force, 2006-present

As part of the deal, we also received a lot of the Air Force's equipment. Much of it we didn't have much use for, and either sold off or donated to military museums around the galaxy. Among the things we kept were the first-generation transatmospheric aircraft the USAF had been in the process of gearing up with when the axe fell.

Supposedly, the cost of the parallel space-equipment programs for the Air Force and Navy was one of the motivating factors in Congress's decision to ground the Air Force in the first place. In fact it was quite an expensive proposition to redesign and retrofit existing aircraft, to say nothing of retooling new production, to operate in what we now call "the full aerospace mode". Of the two forces, though, the Air Force actually had a bit of a head start. Where the Navy was redesigning existing equipment and embarking on a huge retrofitting program, the Air Force had been in the process of developing a new front-line fighter when Contact changed the picture. The engineers at Lockheed and Northrop had to hit the pause button on the process and absorb all the new information coming their way, but once they had done that, they had a lot less work to do to make the F-22 and F-23 into capable first-generation starfighters.

Most of that work was done by the time we came along, leaving us with only the conversion work necessary to make the two fighters work with the starships we were commissioning to carry them - which is a lot less work than figuring out how to make an airframe work as a spaceframe. Our newly inherited vendors had already done that part. The only really tricky bit was finding a new name for the F-22, since we already had a Salusian-built fixed-configuration fighter in our inventory called "Raptor". And another one called "Rapier", which was the Air Force's second choice. We ended up calling it "Lightning II" after Lockheed's famous World War II fighter, the P-38 Lightning. This had the bonus benefit of annoying the Navy, who had been going to call their new starfighter under development that. They eventually wound up canceling the SF-35 anyway and developing the Cosmo Hornet instead.

By 2008, we had rotated most of the Lightning and Black Widow squadrons through orientation and sent them off to their new postings... and then things started getting weird.

I was in my office on Prometheus, conducting a strategic continental defense simulation - okay, I was playing Missile Command - when Daver stuck his head in the door and said, "The Air Force 75th Fighter Squadron is here to see you."

I paused the game and gave him a curious look. "What, you mean Major Campbell?"

Daver shook his head. "No... all of them."

I blinked. "Uh... I'll be right out."

I had been thinking that 16 pilots wouldn't fit in my office, but that would've been the least of my problems. When I reached the hangar deck where Eight-Ball Squadron's Valkyries were parked, I saw that Daver had literally meant all of them. Every member of the 75th, from Major Kim Campbell to the most junior airmen in the headquarters staff, was assembled out there in a great curious crowd. It reminded me a little of those ads for Salusia Galactic Telecom - "It's the network."

"Major," I said, returning Campbell's salute (not a thing we insisted on in the WDF, but a lot of the Air Force people felt more comfortable with it). "What's up?"

"We got our orders to report for orientation," she said, "but there was nothing in them about our aircraft."

This was a little bit awkward, as Zoner and I hadn't actually figured out what to do about their aircraft yet. The 75th was an A-10 squadron, and unlike, say, the F-22, converting the A-10 into a starfighter was a dubious proposition.

Mind you, we both liked the A-10. We'd both been fans for years, since long before we ever got into the space hero business. I had one of those Blackbird neon-schematic T-shirts depicting one, a survivor from my college days. Hell, the computer in my office still had the old A-10 Tank Killer game on it.

The thing about it was, the A-10 Thunderbolt II (not that its pilots ever called it that; to them it was always the Warthog) was not only primitive, it was vehemently primitive. It had control surfaces operated with cables and big ol' air-breathing turbofans, wings straighter than Coyle's Narrow Path, and electronics from the early transistor era, when "Solid State" was still something you put on the front of a radio to impress people. Wonderful as my retro-loving soul thought that was, what possible use could the Wedge Defense Force (or a Wholly Owned Subsidiary thereof) have for such a thing?

I didn't say any of that out loud to Major Campbell, of course. She was a decorated combat veteran who had nearly gotten her Hog shot out from under her during the Post-Contact Wars and, like all good combat pilots, believed that the aircraft she flew was the best ever made. We all do that; it's in the blood. The late Donald Lopez - a veteran of the 75th in World War II - once wrote that a pilot assigned to fly a manhole cover would stand up before long and say nothing ever flew better, and he was absolutely right. I didn't want to hurt her feelings by saying the WDF didn't have a use for her beloved Warthog right in front of everyone in the squadron, but I thought it, and she knew I did.

What I said was, "Well... we haven't quite worked out what to do about - "

"Commander," Campbell interrupted me, "let us demonstrate for you why you need the Warthog."

In the movie, if there ever is one, the actor playing me will say something urbane and witty here. Actually, all I said was, "Uh... okay."

Major Campbell asked for six weeks to prepare her squadron for the demonstration, which would be held on Zeta Cygni II, near the WDF Academy's Destroid proving ground. I gave her eight, because the SDF-17's patrol route would take us through the home system for resupply and maintenance then anyway, and off she and her crew went.

Over the next few weeks, I caught the occasional glimpse into what the 75th was up to, mostly in the form of materials requisitions and memos from the technical staff. One of my pilots actually managed to get a look at their work in progress, observing some techs at work in one of the hangar bays for a couple of minutes before they spotted him and shooed him out.

"I don't know what to make of it," Max Sterling admitted when I grilled him about what he'd seen. "I mean, I think I understand what they're doing, but... " He shook his head. "Major Campbell's either a genius or out of her mind, I'm not sure which. One thing's for sure, though. The demonstration's going to be interesting."

When demonstration day came, I still had no real idea what was going on. The 75th covered their tracks well, and there were no further slips like the one that let Max get a peek at what they were doing. All I knew when Zoner and I arrived at the Destroid range was that they'd put the whole thing together with the connivance of the Armored Corps.

Lt. Frank Parker, the squadron's intel officer, greeted us when we arrived at the reviewing stand, which was where we usually watched combat maneuvers and the like from. He told us Major Campbell would be unable to join us because she was leading the demonstration.

For a few minutes, nothing much happened. This was usual; there was always a bit of a wait when we observed regular Destroid maneuvers, too, while they found their way into position. Eventually, a column of ground forces appeared, moving eastward across the proving ground in front of us: armor, infantry, a covering force of medium and heavy Destroids. They were painted in the dull grey that customarily signified the opposing force in one of our war games.

With a suddenness that always thrilled me, whether in war games or the real thing, a 101st Cav orbital drop strike force descended on the armored column. The 'Mechs arrived first, in their sky-blue and black 101st livery - Tomahawks, mostly, and Spartans, jettisoning their retropacks as they grounded and immediately engaged the opfor's Destroids. The Valkyries and armor dropships came immediately after them, along with a meteor-shower of Orbital Drop Shock Trooper infantry pods.

The defenders were good, though, and on the ball. They regrouped and counterstruck while the attacking force was at its most vulnerable, with the 'Mechs not quite organized, the ODSTs still getting out of their pods, and the tanks just starting to disembark from their transports. The Valkyries tried to provide air cover and run interference for the dropships, but they had their hands full with opfor fixed air assets that arrived moments later, streaking in from the west, no doubt summoned by an emergency transmission from the Grey Team command tank. Grey Team Destroids knocked out one 101st armor carrier, then another. A promising OD assault was on the verge of collapsing into an embarrassing rout.

And then...

Well, I'll tell you what. Since that day I've served over eight further decades as a front-line Veritech Fighter pilot, with occasional side trips into Destroids, starship combat, and even tanks, and I have still never seen anything quite like what happened next. Almost as suddenly as the original 101st orbital drop strike, 16 aircraft dove out of the sun and into the fray... aircraft like no one had ever seen.

They were the 75th's A-10s, all right, but they hadn't come from an airfield nearby. I'd made sure of that, not because I expected Campbell to pull a stunt, but because I knew she'd want me to be absolutely sure she hadn't. No A-10 had been anywhere on Zeta Cygni when this demonstration began; they were all up on the Wayward Son - well, Prometheus, if you want to be particular - with their wheels chocked.

Before my eyes, a squadron of straight-winged planes with air-breathing turbofan engines had just made a drop from orbit to provide close air support for a strike force dispatched from the same mothership. And in the moments before they took off their coats and started punching, I saw how they'd done it, and what Max had meant when he said he couldn't decide whether their plan was genius or madness.

That the aircraft had been retrofitted with deflector shield generators was obvious. They'd never have survived atmospheric entry without them. That alone took brass balls the size of cantaloupes; even hardened spacers hesitate to attempt planetfall in a ship that has to have its shields up to avoid Cosmonaut Flambé. But it was their solution to the "air-breathing turbofans" problem that really earned them the genius-or-madness trophy.

Like an ODST, each Hog had a backpack on.

Some maniacal genius of a mechanic had "requisitioned" 32 of the dorsal boosters commonly found in pairs adorning the backs of Super Valkyries, built some adapter collars, mated their thrust nozzles to the intakes of the A-10s' engines, and presumably done a lot of creative replumbing on the inside. Like scuba divers, the Hogs breathed from tanks on their backs on the way down.

Now that they were down where the action was, the A-10s jettisoned their aqualungs and attended to business. Leaving the Valkyries to handle the Grey Team's own aircraft, the Hogs turned their attention to the Destroids.

What followed was an embarrassing rout, all right, but not for the 101st. Some other maniacal genius had worked out how to mount the WDF's standard Hedgehog ground-attack missiles on the pylons originally meant for Hellfires, but neither the missiles nor the Touchdown gravity bombs they also carried were the stars of the show. With quick, precise, brutal efficiency, the A-10s of the 75th demonstrated that, even against the state-of-the-art remote-controlled Destroids of the Grey Team, the only weapon they really needed to bring to this fight was the one wedged into the grinning shark's teeth painted on their noses.

Zoner and I were also great fans of the Avenger autocannon, of course; Zoner had even "borrowed" the design to serve as the main gun of his personal runabout, the WarpZone. We knew quite well that, even in a galaxy full of phased and encapsulated plasma weapons, lasers, particle beam cannons, and Reflex missiles, it still packed a serious punch. Just how serious, though, we had never really understood until that afternoon.

Four minutes later, it was all over but the fires from the Grey Team's wreckage.

Zoner and I turned and looked at each other.

"Yeah," he said. "We need that."

Brilliant though it was, the "aqualung" modification to the A-10s was only a stopgap, something put together to enable the aircraft to participate in the demonstration and show us that it still had what the modern galactic battlefield required. Thus impressed, we threw some more formal engineering resources at the problem, and within a year or so, Armory Division had a model (A-10D) with proper transatmospheric engine capabilities ready for service. Other forces started showing an interest, and the ride is far from over. We're now two further revisions along, and the Royal Salusian Marine Corps, in particular, will buy F-model Hogs faster than Armory Division can crank them out.

There are aerospacecraft with heavier weapons out there today; there are more versatile ones; certainly there are faster ones. But to do that one job, to boom down from orbit in formation with the Destroids and the tank carriers and the ODSTs, and rip great smoking holes the enemy while our guys get themselves sorted out and ready to fight... there's still nothing better. There are alternatives that can make a bigger hole, but those are primarily strike vehicles. They're too fast to be as good as the Hog at close air support - and, as 101st Cav and Armored Corps troopers have told me more than once, when you're down on the ground with shit blowing up all around you, close air support is all you care about.

We rotated the rest of the Air Force's A-10 squadrons through orientation, got them in D-models, and attached them to USAF vessels that would be working closely with Salusian ground attack forces. The partnership went down in history as one of the galaxy's great team-ups.

As for Major Campbell and the 75th? After that demonstration, we kept them for ourselves.

Friday, August 12, 2174
Crown Colony of New Woking
Rigel sector, United Galactica

New Woking was one of the first non-Salusian worlds to have the misfortune of finding itself squarely in the path of the oncoming Covenant invasion, and of all those caught up in the initial surge of the alien attack, it was the most ill-equipped to cope. Unlike Salusian colonies, which retained ties of commonwealth to the homeworld and enjoyed the protection of the Royal Navy, the Crown Colonies had cut their colonial ties to Earth long ago, and so could only expect the aid of the United Galactica Navy, which did not maintain a significant presence in the area. Up until now, why would it have needed to? The Rigel sector was a safe, stable part of the galaxy, not the sort of place where defenseless planets found themselves subject to invasion. The chances of anything hostile coming to New Woking were confidently estimated at a million to one.

But still they came, and the United Galactica's forces were far away. As it happened, there were two military presences in the system at the time, apart from New Woking's own, woefully outmatched defense force. One was a Royal Salusian Navy cruiser that happened to be passing by on her way back to the homeworld for repair and refit. Though under no official obligation to answer the Earth colony's cries for help, the officers and crew of HMS Thunder Child responded anyway, knowing that a single Termagant-class cruiser could, at best, only slow down the Covenant onslaught for a time.

The other was a mercenary army which had no space assets at all, and which only happened to be on New Woking at the time of the attack owing to an unfortunate series of coincidences rooted in the massive disruption to hired transport timetables in the beleaguered sector. Lacking spacecraft of any description, they could do nothing at all about the Covenant assault itself, not even escape it... but, their leaders decided, they could surely make the Covenant regret choosing this world as a target.

That was the conclusion Colonel Vand Halvas reached as he stood at the top of a water tower outside the all-but-abandoned spaceport city of Torsbridge and observed the Covenant beachhead outside New Woking City, ten miles away, through electrobinoculars.

"No way out for us this time, eh, Vand?" asked his towering lieutenant, Krath Kalvor. Grim-faced as always, Kalvor folded one pair of his arms across his massive chest. The others were occupied with drawing and fingering the edge of a fighting saber.

"Doesn't look that way, Krath," Halvas replied. "If the reports of the invaders' technology I've seen are accurate, we may have the edge on them, but only just, and they outnumber us enormously. The prospects aren't good. Still, we can't just let them take the whole planet unopposed, now can we?"

Krath's lip curled above one of his gleaming tusks. "Indeed not," he said. "We must make them pay in blood for every one of us they kill. A ten-to-one ratio, I should say, will ensure that the honor of Mars is satisfied."

Halvas smiled grimly. "I fear your estimate is too ambitious, my friend, but we shall see." He raised the electrobinoculars again. "They're heading this way. Tanks first, infantry behind, with air cover. They don't seem to have anything like Destroids."

Krath grunted. "Small favors." He left off fingering his saber and drew his atomic pistol with his right lower hand, simultaneously making ready his portable deflectors on both upper forearms. "I'm off to take charge of the ground troops, then. Try not to get killed until the end, eh? I won't save you a seat on my boat down the Iss forever."

The thin-faced Red Martian officer chuckled. "I've no intention of going quietly either, I assure you," he said, touching his holstered pistol. Then, keying his wristcomm, he said, "Captain Hroth. Report."

"All destroyers in position," Hroth replied in a thin, reedy whisper. "The enemy doesn't seem to have noticed us yet."

"We'll remedy that soon enough," said Halvas. "Xesk, report."

"Air unit reporting," another voice, almost indistinguishable from Hroth's, responded. "We are hull down 1.27 vars from Captain Hroth's position. Main energy systems dormant. No signs of our discovery either."

"Good. Await instructions."

For five minutes, Halvas observed the Covenant army's approach, noting their strange combination of discipline and sloppiness. Their ranks were perfectly organized, their battle order superb, but they plowed straight ahead without paying any heed at all to their flanks, as if the entire army suffered from target fixation. They were bearing down inexorably on Torsbridge, giving no thought to anything but their goal. Chances were good that they had no idea Halvas's force was there.

He wondered vaguely whether the Covenant would even know who they were. Few armies, even with a numerical advantage and a superior strategic position, would march blithely into a bare-faced frontal conflict with the force that Colonel Vath Halvas commanded - but it was entirely likely that the Covenant intelligence network had never learned the legend of the Martian Legion.

Halvas put away these ruminations as the Covenant forces slowed for the bottleneck that the empty village of Torsbridge presented to their advance on the spaceport. They were all in the space Halvas had decided would be their battlefield now, all within the limits of the town - the attack perimeter of Hroth and Xesk's units.

"Captain Hroth, Captain Xesk, commence your attack." The briefest of pauses. "Good luck, my friends."

Xesk, busy powering up his craft, did not reply. Hroth acknowledged only with the stock phrase that was the only recognizable vestige of what had once been the religion of his species, the oldest of Mars's many sentient races.

"To life immortal, Colonel," he said, and then, in the higher-pitched, much louder, ululating tones of his own language, he commanded his troops, <Lancers of Mars, raise your machines!>

The Covenant forces' surprise was total. From grassy hillocks and hidden pits all around the perimeter of the village, and from behind buildings within the village itself, metal shapes reared where none had been a moment before, shapes as unfamiliar to the Covenant attackers as those of their own alien war machines had been to the first humans and Salusians to watch them swoop down on their worlds. Some of them - Captain Hroth's forces - stood atop three stiltlike legs ending in three-toed feet, their gleaming alloy main bodies equipped with articulated tentacles, a centrally mounted arm tipped with a lensed box like a giant camera, and a coppery hood that surmounted the whole thing like the head on a Destroid's body. The others - Xesk's squadron - were levitating above the ground with no legs at all. These flying-machines were sleeker, almost bird-like, in shape, their lighter alloy a gleaming copper color, with sinister "heads" on articulated necks and glowing green crystalline structures at the tips of their wings.

Before the Covenant troops had even figured out what they were confronted with, the camera-like boxes on the tripod fighting-machines and the gooseneck "heads" of the flying ones both began to glow with a portentous orange light, then poured forth streams of brilliant sparks with an earsplitting shriek. Where these streams touched anything - the ground, Covenant soldiers, the hulls of their tanks - they left only flame behind.

The Covenant forces were momentarily staggered by the onslaught, but they soon regained their poise. Under the fierce direction of their officers, the reptilian creatures flagged "Elite" by the Salusian forces that first encountered them, their infantry rallied and sought cover while their tanks turned to face the enemy and their air cover swooped down to back them up.

The latter found themselves intercepted by the Martian fliers, which soon showed themselves the Covenant fighters' equal in agility and, arguably, firepower as well. This left Hroth's fighting-machines to deal with the Covenant ground forces.

Halvas stood at the peak of his command post and watched the battle impassively through his electrobinoculars. The fight was a mismatch, but not decisively so. The Covenant initially made the common mistake of thinking the Martians' machines clumsy because of their stiltlike legs and awkward-looking tripedal gait. It seemed their deflector shields were not as strong as the Martians' either. Their infantry soon lost cohesion, the smaller troops scattering in terror as the Martians' sparking beams scythed through their ranks and left flame and ash and devastation in their wake. As to weapons, the Covenant plasma cannons were powerful, but their gunners hadn't taken the fighting-machines' measure yet.

The Covenant had numbers, but the Martians had the Heat-Ray, and in three hundred years, no enemy of Mars had ever had a definitive answer for that legendary weapon. Even the fungoid invaders from beyond the Oort cloud, with their terrible disintegrator beams, had fallen or fled before the savage intensity of the Heat-Ray.

Halvas watched for many minutes as the two armies clashed, the Martians with all the fury and tenacity for which they were rightly famed, the Covenant with their trademark implacable, mechanistic brutality. No quarter was asked nor given. Here the Heat-Ray swept a whole rank of the Covenant's panic-prone cannon fodder from existence, taking only a few seconds' more bombardment to overwhelm the shields of their towering officer and vaporize him with his men. There a Covenant tank gunner got his eye in and blasted one of the legs from a fighting-machine, causing it to fall with a pealing cry from its emergency siren (its plaintive Ulla! Ulla! sending an involuntary chill up even Halvas's rigidly professional spine). Here one of Xesk's fliers unleashed its mighty secondary weapons, the disintegrators Martian scientists had derived from the fungoid invaders' beams, and swatted a Covenant aircraft from the sky. There a pair of Covenant pilots teamed up, using their craft's powerful fusion torpedoes to overcome even a Martian flier's stout shields and send the machine down in flames.

"Colonel!" cried a familiar voice, and Halvas turned to see his adjutant, Els Thaven, running toward him, brandishing a fieldcomm printout. "The evacuation flotilla is away in hyperspace. Surface-to-sky sensors show that Thunder Child has been destroyed covering their escape."

"Transmit my condolences to Salusian High Command if you can get a clear frequency," Halvas said. "Assure them that the Legion will do its utmost to see that their brave sailors are avenged."

"As you command, Colonel," said Thaven, saluting smartly. She turned and ran back toward the makeshift communication post.

Halvas turned his attention back to the battlefield - and saw to his horror that a ship, not a Covenant vessel but a human-built freighter, was rising from the ruins of New Woking City's spaceport off to the southwest. What delayed its crew during the initial evacuation, and what possessed them to try to raise ship and run for it now, Halvas couldn't say. All that he knew was that the ship and everyone aboard it were doomed if the Covenant spotted them - which of course they did.

"Let them go, they can't do you any harm," Halvas muttered, watching as the ungainly vessel strained for altitude, the scream of its thrusters audible even from thirty miles away or more. For a few seconds, it seemed as if the Covenant had heard him and decided to ignore the unarmed civilian ship...

... but then bright plasma beams lanced upward from their main beachhead in the capital city proper and sliced the vessel in two, sparking a fireball that briefly cast the broken towers of New Woking City in silhouette.

Halvas clenched a fist at his side. A coward's act, he thought, deserved a coward's death.

"Captain Hroth!" he snapped into his wristcomm.

"Here," Hroth whispered.

Halvas stood for a moment, the muscles at the corners of his jaw working beneath his bright ruddy skin. Then, still staring at the embattled Covenant army with eyes like chips of stone, he barked,

"Let them have the Black Smoke!"

The Black Smoke: most terrifying of all the weapons in the Martian arsenal, a poison gas so inimical to organic life, so near to universally lethal, and an agent of such agonizing extinction that its use was banned by every convention of civilized war in known space. Just the fact that the Legion kept it in its arsenal was looked at askance by most of the galaxy, but tradition was tradition, and though no Martian force had used it in anger since the abortive Earth invasion of 1904, no Martian commander would strike it from his manifest either... because you never knew.

Hroth made no response to this order, though he must have been at least slightly shocked that his commander had reached such a pitch of fury against the invaders. The passions of the Barsoomites and the Tharks were often quite beyond the comprehension of the Sarmaks' coolly logical minds.

They were not entirely emotionless, though, those least humanoid of the many peoples of Mars, and it could not be said that, having witnessed the Covenant's craven murder of a shipload of refugees, Captain Hroth did not feel a certain sense of satisfaction as he touched the controls that would unleash his squadron's most potent weapon.

The Covenant didn't initially know what to make of the shells that came from the fighting-machines' firing tubes, which landed among them without exploding. The smaller troops scattered, fearing they were unexploded bombs, but the Elites ignored them... until they began to burst, and the oily clouds of the Black Smoke spread through the ruined streets of Torsbridge, and the Covenant soldiers began to die.

The little ones were wearing environment masks, designed to shield them from a Standard environment that was already toxic to their systems, but it didn't matter. Such was the Black Smoke's pernicity that it ignored such obstacles almost entirely, destroying seals, penetrating respirators, and wreaking its havoc upon the metabolism of every creature it touched. Only the tank crews, sealed within their armored shells, and the aviators, flying above the Smoke's stubbornly ground-hugging vapors, were safe.

The fighting-machines pressed the attack, cracking the tanks' hulls with their Heat-Rays and letting the lingering Smoke do the rest of their work for them, and soon the battlefield was littered with the wreckage of what had once been an entire Covenant ground army.

What happened in the wake of the first attack force's rout reminded Colonel Halvas of a human saying he had once heard: The nail that sticks up furthest gets hammered hardest. By crushing the first force sent against them, the Martians had drawn the Covenant commanders' attention, and before long three further attack waves were converging on Torsbridge from multiple directions. Hroth and Xesk redistributed their surviving machines to cover as many angles as possible, but it was a futile effort, and they knew it. Even the Black Smoke couldn't kill that many Covenant quickly enough, and the supply eventually ran out.

By sunset, only Hroth's own fighting-machine and one other were left, pushed back almost to the doorstep of Halvas's command post. Even with their backs literally to the wall, the dispassionate Sarmaks' defense of their commander's final strongpoint was not easiy overcome. They fought until their Heat-Ray projectors glowed white, until the green steam pouring from their fighting-machines' cooling systems roiled almost as thick on the ground as the Black Smoke had done, until the Covenant managed to mass enough armor to combine fire and bring first one, then the other down.

"I regret that I have failed," said Hroth over the static-soaked comm. Then, in a virtuoso display of piloting ability, he forced his fighting-machine to its feet despite its missing leg and, even more astonishingly, set it moving, lurching toward the Covenant vanguard in a hideous, terrifying gait that was half run, half a series of barely-arrested falls. The Covenant gunners, their expectations entirely thwarted, fired wildly, but accomplished nothing as Hroth's fighting-machine plunged into the very heart of their formation.

<To life immortal!> Hroth wailed, his keening deathsong amplified to deafening volume by his fighting-machine's PA system, and then he actuated the self-destruct, obliterating the entire forward element of the Covenant army in a green-tinted fusion fireball.

"I think Hroth had the right idea," said Krath Kalvor with a Thark's fatalistic laugh. "Better to go out spitting in their faces than make them come in here and drag us out from under our bunks!"

"I quite agree," said Vand Halvas, nodding with a faint, dry smile. He drew his atomic pistol and turned to address the Legion's infantry.

"My friends, there is no escape for us. Our resistance has only stoked the Covenant's fury, as we thought it would. They take few prisoners under the best of circumstances, from all accounts, and we have made them pay so dearly for this world that they would never take any of us alive, even if we were willing to be taken. But are we?"

"NO!" came the unanimous response.

"No," Halvas agreed, "because we are Martians. We surrender only to Death herself. This is not our world, but we have made the Covenant pay for its taking, not because we have any stake in what becomes of New Woking, but because any injury visited on the Covenant serves the greater good of all the galaxy. We have made the Covenant regret that they ever chose to cross swords with the peoples of Mars!"

Turning, he faced the regrouping Covenant, now stripped of most of their armor by Hroth's final charge, and raised his saber, crying,

"Forth Barsoom!"

"Barsoom!" the rest of the Legion bellowed as one, and they charged.

Half an hour later, it was all over. The Martian Legion was no more, wiped out to the last. The last to fall were Vand Halvas and Krath Kalvor, who fought back-to-back at the end and took more than a hundred Covenant with them to eternity.

As he entered the tumbledown spaceport building for which his forces had paid such a hideous price over the course of this incomprehensible day, Field Master Vetro 'Kavanree wondered what in all the universe could have been so valuable to these creatures that they would stand for so long in defense of it.

As it happened, there was one still alive for him to ask. If the red-skinned infidels among this force were analogous to humans, and it appeared that they were, this one was a female, and fairly young. She lay slumped against a large metal canister in the central room of the structure, one of her legs gone from just above the knee, a makeshift tourniquet around her thigh preventing her from bleeding to death - or at least from doing so quickly. Her weapon lay near her, smashed by the explosion of a plasma grenade, and when she looked up at Vetro, only one of her eyes focused. By any estimation, she didn't have long to live.

Vetro hunkered down before her and, wondering whether she spoke the infidels' standard language, asked her simply,


Els Thaven did her best to smirk at him with the half of her face that still worked.

And then she pressed the manual release on the canister against which she rested... the last of the Legion's Black Smoke rounds.

As the Smoke flooded the building and Vetro 'Kavanree fell to his knees before her, clutching at his throat and staring at her with bulging eyes, she told him with her last breath,

"For the honor of Mars."

The Martian Legion's unexpected resistance to the Covenant assault on New Woking disrupted the Covenant's invasion plan for the entirety of the Crown Colony region of the Rigel sector. Between their near-annihilation of Field Master Vetro 'Kavanree's Twelfth Army and HMS Thunder Child's successful ramming of Fleet Master Atav 'Temwanee's flagship, the Shadow of Righteousness, the Covenant forces lost more (and more significant) personnel in their ultimately successful assault on the New Woking system than in any other single engagement of the war to that date. The losses blunted their offensive in that area irreparably, causing the Covenant to turn their attention back almost exclusively to the Salusian Empire. They never again posed a significant threat to the Crown Colonies.

The heroic stand of the Legion was not fully understood until after the war, when the battle recorders of several of the Martian fighting-machines and the fieldcomm observation logs of the command post were recovered from the wreckage of Torsbridge. A replica of Captain Hroth's fighting-machine stands in the rebuilt city center of Torsbridge today, and beneath it stand statues depicting Colonel Vand Halvas, Krath Kalvor, and Els Thaven. Nearby is a model of Captain Xesk's flying-machine, along with a plaque commemorating the Legion's last stand and noting that Torsbridge is twinned with Helium, the Legion's home city on Mars.

The Martian Legion has never been reconstituted.

"The Honor of Mars" - a mini-story of the First Covenant War by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Tuesday, April 12, 2292
Location unknown

A Shadow Legios starfighter with generic civilian markings (a peculiar combination, to be sure, but the galaxy had seen stranger) prowled an uncharted asteroid field, its two-woman crew fully engaged in the delicate business of searching for something without drawing attention to themselves in turn.

In the cockpit of the two-part starfighter's Beta component, Miranda Sterling sat at the sensor console, frowning at her readings. Then, reluctantly, she keyed her intercom and addressed the pilot up in the Alpha.

"I'm not getting anything, Maia. No energy readings, no propulsion traces, and certainly not any coded comm traffic on the signal band your guy specified. If there is a resistance base here, the recognition protocols we were given aren't in force." She sighed. "I hate to say it, but I think we've been had."

"Well, hell. So much for that," Maia Sterling muttered. She began the Shadow Legios's power-up cycle, keeping her actions cool and professional in order to stifle any further frustration on her part.

Truth to tell, she'd never put much stock in the old spacer's story; she'd only let herself believe the tale of a secret cell of Wedge Defense Force survivors operating from a secret base in these asteroids because she wanted so much for it to be true. Now, of course, it seemed perfectly obvious that the whole thing was nothing but a scam. She could have tried to summon up some anger for the old man, but it wasn't in her. He was just trying to survive. No, in this instance Maia could only be angry with herself.

In the Beta's cockpit, Miranda sensed her sister's agitation and sighed again. While they had made some progress in their plans since leaving Cybertron, she knew that Maia's irritation with the rate of that progress was slowly rising. Fortunately, it wasn't being directed at her, just at the universe in general, but she still wished there was something she could do to help the situation.

The Legios finished its warmup, and Maia nudged the throttle, propelling it out from behind the asteriod they had parked behind. For the moment, she kept the fighter's movements slow; the spaceborne rocks in the area were annoyingly clustered.

They progressed this way for about a half-hour. It was a testament to Maia's skill that they managed to avoid any impacts. Not that the Legios couldn't withstand them, even without its shields up, but damage took credits to repair.

But as the fighter reached a somewhat clearer area, their luck ran out. The Legios trembled slightly as a piece of debris smacked against the top side of the Beta, startling Miranda out of her mild doze.

"What the... What was that?" she wondered, and began to ply her sensor controls. She kept them in passive mode, but she was skilled enough to get decent readings with them anyway.

"What was what?" Maia shook her head. "Eh, probably clipped one of the little rocks. Sorry. Go back to sleep."

"No, I don't think it was that. There would have been more debris cast off after impact." Miranda frowned, panning one of the Beta's cameras along and above the Legios. "Wait... I think I've found it..."

She blinked as the cameras focused on something that was so incongruous that at first glance she didn't register it correctly. Miranda shook her head, took a second look, and saw that it was the same as it was several seconds before.

"... looks like half a blown-up boomer out there."

" - Wha?"

"And not a Vulture fighter, either. Turn us around and get the spots on it, I need a closer look."

Maia considered this, and did as she was asked. The Legios pivoted around, and lights snapped on, piercing the blackness. Both of them could now see the debris more clearly - it was half of a GENOM Corporation BU-55C security boomer, its waist and legs missing, arms slack and skewed at its sides, power core dead.

"Well. That's not something you see every day," commented Maia.

Their curiosity piqued (and reacting to an unvoiced desire to avoid boredom), the two Sterlings began to canvass the asteroid field, using the Beta's powerful sensors, looking for anything else that could be considered out of the ordinary. They found more cast-off boomer parts, looking like they had been in an explosion in the distant past... and more disturbingly, human bodies, desiccated, frozen, and very much dead.

"Ych. Whatever happened out here, it wasn't pretty, Mir."

"What do you think caused it?"

Maia shrugged. "Who the hell knows? Hull breach, pirate strike, shipwreck, could be anything..."

"True..." Miranda hrmed, and tapped some more controls, plotting the locations of the boomer parts and dead bodies on a generic map of the area. The plot formed a rough oval, the majority of anomalous items arranged about its long axis. "Well, for what it's worth, I've got an approximate vector to follow, if you want."

Maia considered this, and replied with an affected nonchalance, "Eh, sure. It's not like I've got anyplace better to be this afternoon."

With that, she goosed the Legios' throttles a little more, and the fighter continued on its way through the asteroid field.

Another hour passed.

The amount of biped debris had tapered off about fifteen minutes prior, and now they were just flying straight on, dodging asteroids and seeing where their path would lead. The asteroids in this area were larger than the ones they had encountered earlier. Even the smallest was the size of a starfighter, a fact that Maia kept in mind as they flew. But she didn't see any signs of a pirate attack or a shipwreck - just more rocks.

Just as Maia was about to suggest to her sister that perhaps this wasn't going to pan out as she had hoped, her intercom beeped. "Yeah?" she answered.

"Got something, I think. I'm reading a noticeable gravity variance on one of the asteroids. It's definitely got a stronger local field than the others in the area."

"So what? So do a lot of other asteroids, especially if they're big enough. Mascons can cause all kinds of weird variations."

"Yeah... but at one Standard gravity?"


"I figured that would get your attention."

"Okay, this is just getting god-damn peculiar. Plot me a course, Mir. We'd better check it out."

Smiling slightly, Miranda did as she was asked.

Several minutes later, they arrived at their destination.

At first glance, it didn't appear to be much. About the size of a medium space station, the asteroid floated serenely among the other rocks. Its surface was dark, pockmarked with craters from lesser impacts. There were no outward signs of artificial structures or active habitation.

The Beta's powerful active sensors scanned the asteroid in the distance, searching for any clue (aside from the abnormal gravity) that man had once been here. Slowly, an image began to form what what few clues radar and sensors could extract. It detailed a rough square shape, laid out atop one plateau on the asteroid, surrounded by blocky compartments on either side of the central square.

Miranda hrmed and considered the information presented. Recognition sparked in her mind. She performed some verification scans, and they confirmed her suspicions. "Maia?"


"... I think this is a MIDNIGHT base. Or at least, was one."

"... that'd explain a lot. Any reaction from them?"

"Doesn't look like it. They could be hoping we'll ignore them, though they'd have to have noticed our sensor sweeps."

"Well, we'll sit here for ten, and if there's no reaction, we'll move in. We still have enough missiles to handle anything they throw at us if they retaliate."

Miranda nodded. "All right."

As they waited, Miranda continued to study the readouts, and refreshed in her mind what she knew about GENOM's deniable operations branch. As members of the Black Riders, she and Maia had experience in many sorts of covert operations; the swift strike and crippling of the Kilrathi Ghorah Khar Shipyards was just one noteable example. But out of them all, their missions against MIDNIGHT had been some of the most challenging. Operating with a cell-like structure, each project center was isolated from all the rest. Rumor had it that only Maximilien Largo knew the true scope of their operations, and even then, the WDF's intel division had never been quite sure that some opportunists within the gigacorporation weren't running projects behind their Master's back on the sly.

Whether operating on their own or with approval from Largo, MIDNIGHT bases themselves were of a type, refined over the decades to be discreet and unnoticeable to most wandering eyes, sensors, and investigators. Built of prefabricated, generic station components, bought through third parties, the bases were damnably hard to track by studying the paper trails of commerce. Once assembled by boomer technicians whose memory cores could be wiped after the work was done, the bases became operational, but contact with the outside universe was tightly controlled to prevent detection via subspace comm traffic. No lights, no windows revealed the station's presence in the black of space. Heat exchangers for the various systems and station reactors were cunningly hidden, their thermal signatures diffused over large areas to become negligible when viewed at a distance.

There was, however, one flaw in the design of such a base: one that the GENOM engineers had tried to resolve time and again for their offplanet operations, with little success.

In order to remain functional, the base needed gravity of some kind. Zero-gravity facilities were not good for long-time human residence, and using rotation to emulate gravity required a significant, constant supply of power to drive the rotation servos - leading to an obvious energy signature. In the end, it had apparently been decided that using artifical gravity would be an acceptable risk. Modern gravity generator technology used very little power, and could be maintained for months at standby levels without a noticeable loss of output. Since a station's gravity generators, unlike a starship's, didn't have to compensate for rapidly changing G-loads on the structure itself, it could lurk for years, unnoticed and unseen, without concerns about being revealed by the presence of abnormal gravity.

In most cases, this was true. Most starships and fightercraft who would have cause to visit an asteroid field would be unable to sense the variance. Their sensors were relatively 'grainy' in the grand scheme of things, the gravity changes made by a handful of generators unnoticeable to them.

But not to the sensors of a Shadow Legios.

Continuing to ply the sensor console, Miranda gathered what information she could. It appeared to be a relatively small facility, and there was little micro-impact weathering apparent on the exposed manufactured surfaces; quite possibly only one or two black projects had ever been held there. Doppler radar was revealing an interesting hollow on the opposite side of the asteroid, however...

"Ten minutes are up, Mir. I'm going in."

Miranda returned her focus to the present. "All right. Proceed on bearing two-two-one mark two-seven; I think I might have picked up a hangar door."


Maia carefully piloted the Shadow Legios to the indicated location. A quick check by Miranda revealed the presence of refined metals across a rectangular area large enough to accommodate several starfighters. While she started scanning for any access terminals, Maia switched back on the spotlights to help with the search.

The hatch, now illuminated, revealed something rather surprising.

"What the...??" Maia blurted out, and then narrowed her eyes, studying the angular script on the door.

The Morannon is barred, Udûn is blocked
Narchost and Carchost are guarded
You must pass through here
the stones of Minas Morgul
To cross the Ephel Dúath to Mordor

"Found the access terminal... what was that, Maia?" Miranda paused in her work, and then blinked at the words that had been somehow scribbled on the hangar door. "... oh my."

"Yeah, figured that would get your attention, Mir." Maia shook her head. "This is just getting stranger by the second."

"No kidding." Miranda pursed her lips, and ran the Beta's comm systems against the access panel she had found. Within moments, the panel was hacked, cracked, and triggered; and in response, the hangar door opened.

"After you, Maia."

"Thank you ever so much."

The Shadow Legios slid smoothly into the open hangar, using its VTOL thrusters to keep it aloft once it entered the range of the base's gravity field. It pivoted around and touched down on its wheels, now positioned for a hasty exit should circumstances warrant it. The sisters watched as the hangar door slowly closed, cutting off the starlight from outside.

In the cockpit of the Beta, Miranda monitored the hangar's environment as it pressurized. At the same time, she used the Beta's powerful sensors to scan the insides of the base proper.

"Hangar's reaching one atmosphere, composition Earth-normal, trace particulates but no contaminants. Negative sapient lifesigns - this place is empty."

"Understood." Maia performed some checks, made sure her CVR-3F and flightsuit were sealed, and then popped the Alpha's canopy. With her Gallant-H90 in one hand and a thick-handled MagLite in the other, she stood up in the cockpit and surveyed the interior of the hangar. Just because there weren't any humans here didn't mean there couldn't still be boomers on standby somewhere inside, ready to kill the unwary.

The hangar was relatively bare, though there were clear hatches for airlocks leading further into the facility. Durasteel crates were piled near the edges and in the corners, but other than that, it was empty.

"Area's clear, Miranda. You can come out now." Without waiting for a response, she descended the Alpha's landing ladder to the deck.

Miranda put her own consoles and cockpit on standby, and exited the Beta. She too was armed with a Gallant, but her flashlight was one of the more blocky types that were all lens and reflector. She also wore a simple utility belt, with tricorder, tool pouch, and accessories for her Gallant hung off to the sides.

The two of them stood side by side, regarding the hangar and the crates. No words were exchanged between the two; they just set to work studying the interior to puzzle out its secrets. Most of the crates were unmarked, and neither woman felt like opening them for the time being. However, when shifting one over, Maia noticed the remains of a shipping label still attached to its side. She shone her MagLite's beam on the label.

The label itself was generic, but the shipping address spoke volumes.

General Products Consignment Corp.
Brüningstrasse 79792
Berlin NIOGI PDZ 2667

It would've seemed straightforward enough to the shipping department guys at Raytheon, but from her time with a WDF special-forces unit, Maia knew a couple of things they didn't.

One, Brüningstrasse in Berlin ended at 55900.

Two, the Niogi Bundespost contracted out all heavy commercial freight handling services within the city of Berlin to a private shipping company. A shipping company that belonged to another company, which belonged to another company, which belonged to a holding corporation, which belonged to:

GENOM Corporation.

Diverting crates of munitions shipped to nonexistent "reseller" addresses in the city: simplicity itself.

"Well... that old spacer was halfway right," Maia mused. "There WAS a secret base in this asteroid field. It just belonged to the wrong side."

It was a moment's work to open the inner personnel airlock to the base. Once cycled through (one can never be too careful when dealing with unfamiliar stations), the sisters studied the corridor they were in.

Maia frowned at the dull greenish glow of the standby lights, which cast unnatural highlights and shadows up against the walls and along the plates of the twins' CVR. She swept the beam of her MagLite from side to side, which temporarily banished the spectral haze, but once the beam passed, the haze returned. She turned to address her sister.

"Miranda? I just want you to know... if I see even one cobweb in this place, I don't care how curious you are, we - are - LEAVING."

Miranda nodded, her expression grim. "Duly noted, Maia."

They started walking along the corridors. These were plain and generic, lacking most forms of identifying marks by the doors. They avoided those for the time being, following the readings produced by Miranda's tricorder, working out where the command center would be in the base from long experience with similar installations. Every so often, they encountered dark, dull stains along the floor and walls; without taking a closer look with MagLite or tricorder, they couldn't easily identify them, and at the moment, Maia wasn't particularly inclined to try.

"I don't know what's creepier, Mir. The standby lighting in this place, or the thought of MIDNIGHT folks having the sense of humor to implement it that way."

Her sister frowned. "I have to wonder which came first, the emergency lights or the name. I'm as much a Tolkien fangirl as anybody else, but there is such a thing as pushing it."

Maia nodded, sweeping the beam of the MagLite up and down the corridor they were in. "Any headway on finding the command center? The sooner we get the lights on, the better I'll feel."

Guided by Miranda's tricorder, and with a suitable application of elbow grease, they entered the command center and brought the base up from hibernation mode. Maia let out of a sigh of relief as lights flickered to life and control panels activated. She reached up, unsealed her helmet, and removed it.

"Be it ever so stale and recycled, there's no air like station air," she said to herself, and then set to studying the computers of the base, trying to figure out what the purpose of the place had been.

Next to her, Miranda was doing much the same thing. She took a deep breath, and then wrinkled her nose. There were some familiar scents in the air, ones that hadn't been removed by the reactivation of the base's air handlers. Leaving Maia to her work, she exited the command center and studied the now-lit corridor.

Inside, Maia had managed to gain access to the base's supply manifest. Already, she was noticing some peculiarities. "500 cases of GPM-150s and 900 cases of GPM-100s? What the hell would GENOM need with so many stockpiled General Hosement missiles? And where the hell would they put them?" she muttered to herself.

Further musings were cut off by Miranda's voice, which held a measure of urgency. "Maia? You better come out here."

Maia left the command center, turned a corner in the corridor, and headed for Miranda's voice. She didn't take long; her sister had not gone all that far. Miranda had pulled out her tricorder, and was currently scanning the stains on wall and floor.

"Yeah, Mir? What is it - holy... " Maia's voice trailed off, taking in the scene. Clearly, a pitched battle had taken place in this area; orange, rust-brown, and black stains covered the surfaces of the corridor. "... What happened here?"

"Obviously, a big boom or two," Miranda dryly replied. She continued scanning with her tricorder. "You smell that in the air?"

Maia took a whiff, and wrinkled her nose. "Smells like boomer fluid mixed with burned explodite residue."

Miranda nodded, and held up her tricorder for Maia to look at. "Mm-hm. Just what my tricorder shows for what's on the walls and floor. As well as dried human blood."

"Dayumn. Somebody was pissed off in here." She shook her head, and started heading down the corridor while Miranda continued her scans.

Maia walked about halfway down the hallway, studying the floor as she did so, and noticed another thick streak on the floor. There was something about this one's color and shape that twinged recognition in her mind. She raised her voice, and waved for Miranda to come over. "Hey, Mir, does this look familiar?"

Miranda glanced down the corridor, and walked over. She knelt down and studied the dark streak on the floor. "Huh. That looks about the width of a Cyclone tire. And look, here's the scorch mark you always get from the jump to battroid mode."

"Well, that's certainly consistent with all the micro-missile explosion sites at the other end of the hall." She glanced back the way they had come. "Whoever did this wasn't pulling any punches when they left."

Miranda nodded. "C'mon, there's got to be more evidence in here."

The two women walked a counter-clockwise circuit through the square main corridor. They tried every door they came across to get a sense of the layout of the place, although they didn't spend too much time in any of the rooms. If necessary, they could always come back later and investigate them more closely.

From what they could seen on their first pass, the MIDNIGHT base had been relatively well-equipped. There was an infirmary, mess hall, data storeroom, dormitories, and a small hydroponics unit. There were boomer charging stations and several small machine and electronics shops. Clearly this had been a nicely self-contained community, until the mysterious killer (or killers) had cut a bloody swath through the base.

Turning another corner, the two saw something decidely odd. What appeared to be a pressure bulkhead door had been ripped from its storage track and rammed against an outer wall. The sisters approached the wedged door, Miranda scanning it, while Maia leaned in close to study it. If she was quiet enough, she could hear a very faint hissing sound eminating from one of the bent edges...

" 'Breach hull, all die. Even had it underlined!' " Maia quipped.

"That's hard vacuum on the other side," Miranda confirmed. "Looks like that door is the only thing keeping all the atmosphere from venting entirely."

"Make a note, Mir. Before we leave, we fix this properly."

The two turned, and entered the door that was opposite the hull breach. It led to a different-style corridor, which eventually exited into a much different room - one with an empty, open locker (which looked suspiciously like those found in a WDF pilot or infantry locker room) and an unoccupied Cyclone hardstand.

"Well, I guess this is where the Cyclone came from," Maia observed.

"And it explains the blast damage past the hull breach," Miranda added. "Forearm missile plus boomer equals much debris."

"Helluva math problem, especially given the end result." Maia shook her head, and led the way back out to the corridor.

More hallway, more doors, more rooms. They found some storerooms filled with crates, many of them with obvious WDF insignia on the sides. There was a small recreation room, with a SegAtari Super Cougar game console hooked up to the room's master display, but they couldn't tell if it had ever been used. There was a computer room, and doors that opened onto much more industrial-looking corridors, presumably leading to the power and life-support portions of the base.

The twins entered another room, and for a moment they thought it was another infirmary, or possibly a surgical suite. There was a single long table in the middle of the room, racks of medical and technological tools along the sides, computer banks, and hooks for hanging intravenous fluid bags. All perfectly normal, save for two glaring anomalies.

The first was the fact that the long table possessed a duralloy restraint system (currently retracted). Various sensor wires and contact pads hung free over the sides.

The second was the smashed monitor on the rolling computer cart next to the table. Dried blood was spattered over its keyboard and the printer next to it. Some of the blood had even stained the printout that was still sticking out of the printer, and there were dark red streaks on the floor where a body had been dragged away.

While Miranda looked over the computers and tool selection, Maia went over to the damaged terminal and pulled out the printout to get a better look at it. What she read puzzled her, but it sent a subtle chill down her spine, and gave her a faint sense of foreboding. She read it again, and then looked over at her sister.

"Miranda. Take a look at this."

Miranda blinked at Maia's words and, more importantly, the tone of her voice. She turned around and accepted the printout without a word.

G-OS UNIX System XLII Release 6 version 1.12 (root@angband)
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
This unit may be erratic or behave in unexpected ways.

"Good God," Miranda murmured, her blue eyes going wide.

Maia nodded. "Clearly, whatever those MIDNIGHT folks were planning, they seriously screwed the pooch." She tapped the printout with her index finger.

"And this... 'Mythos-21' replicant... must have been the one that did it," Miranda replied, running over the evidence they had found in her mind.

"I guess killing everybody in the joint would qualify as 'being erratic or behaving in unexpected ways.' " Maia shrugged. "At least it was conscientious enough to clean up after itself. I bet if we explored further, we'd find another airlock that's filled with boomer fluid and dried blood stains."

"I certainly wouldn't be surprised." Miranda looked back the way they'd come. "Come on, we'd best be moving. While I doubt GENOM ever came back to investigate this place, I'd rather not take any chances."

The two Sterlings completed their circuit, returning to the airlock they had entered by. Further study of the environs revealed a larger internal hangar adjacent to the airlock, with a door leading to the outer hangar large enough to admit a Legios fighter.

"Looks like the trail ends here," Maia gestured at the room, and the further evidence of rapid death. "The replicant must have gotten into here, killed whoever was on guard, and left."

Miranda nodded, and glanced over at her twin. "The going question becomes, 'how'?"

Maia allowed herself a smirk. "Take a look at the decking and the back wall, sis. And you tell me if the scorch marks aren't familiar."

Miranda blinked, looked over the singed deckplates and the burn marks on the back wall, and drew in a breath of surprised recognition. "Those are the VTOL takeoff blast marks for a Legios!"

"Mmm-hmm. And that'd explain why they had stockpiled GPMs."

Miranda's eyebrows went up. "Stockpiled General Hosements? How many?"

"It'd probably take us... hell, 10, 15 years to use them all up, if the numbers I read on the station manifest are correct."

"... that's a lot."

"Yep." Maia looked thoughtfully at the door leading to the outer hangar, where their Shadow Legios was parked. "Seems a shame to let them go to waste..."

Miranda chuckled, patting Maia's shoulder armor with a gloved hand. "Sister? I like the way you think."

It didn't take too long for the sisters to find and move the missile crates they needed; Miranda's tricorder detected them just fine, and a nearby gravlift helped with moving them. After helping Maia prep the Alpha and Beta for missile reload (a task they were very familiar with), Miranda took a break to check for any remaining facilities (like, say, bathrooms) they had missed in their earlier sweep.

Orienting the base's layout relative to the asteroid in her mind, she realized there was still a portion left unexplored. If her hypothesis was correct, there should be a corridor that cut through the asteroid, to the hollow she had detected on the opposite side. Curious, Miranda checked for any passages they had missed that might lead in that direction.

And there it was - a featureless corridor off the main hallway that ran straight through the asteroid to the other side. There she found an observation gallery jutting out of the asteroid's surface, and what she saw beyond the shielded windows...

Miranda activated her communicator. "Maia, get down here! You are not gonna believe this!"

"You were right. I - don't - believe it," Maia breathed, her purple eyes wide as she took in the sight. She had paused in the missile loading to answer Miranda's summons, and now that she had, she was glad that she did. "The Liberator," she said, unable to keep an astonished laugh from creeping into her voice. "The god damn Liberator!" She shook her head in wonder. "These folks weren't thinking small, that's for sure!"

Miranda nodded, looking out at the vessel that was moored in the hollow of the asteroid. It was an Ikazuchi-class battlecarrier, one of a class of warships that had originally been produced by GENOM Corporation until they sold the designs to Rendili StarDrive, a Salusian-held starship manufacturer. The Salusians had corrected most of the flaws in the GENOM design (which itself had been stolen from the WDF centuries before), then put the revised version into production for use by the Royal Salusian Navy and allied planetary fleets.

Overall, it was a pretty good design, as starships went. An Ikazuchi could carry a large compliment of fightercraft, ground mecha, or both, along with the crew to pilot them and the technicians to maintain them. While not the fastest or toughest ship out there, it could still hold its own against similar opponents, and hang together through protracted battles. Just the thing for a patrol group or special-ops division on the go.

The fact that this one was painted in "Mars Division" livery, looking as if it had come straight off the cover of one of Maia's "Scott Bernard" novels, was just the icing on the cake.

For several minutes the two just stood there, each thinking about what this could mean for their future. Finally, Maia turned to face her fraternal twin. "Miranda?"

"Yes, Maia?"

"We definitely need to remember these coordinates. Oh yes..." she said with a grin as she stepped towards the transparisteel gallery windows. "... I can see much possibility in this." She crossed her arms, regarding what they had found, then glanced back over her shoulder. "Mir?"

Miranda directed a speculative glance at her twin sister and said nothing, waiting for her to go on.

"I think it's about time that GENOM, and the galaxy in general, learned that 'Mars Division' is more than just a fable or a legend." Without waiting for a reply, Maia turned around to study the starship further.

Behind Maia's back, Miranda quietly smiled at her sister. She had seen the light sparking in her twin's eyes as Maia considered the possibilities presented by this battlecarrier and base out in the middle of nowhere. It was a welcome change from the grim dullness that had become more frequent over the past months. Perhaps, just maybe, this was just the opportunity they needed to truly make a difference, and on their terms, not just on the whims of an uncaring universe.

"Hm. I like this plan, Maia. I'm proud to be a part of it," Miranda said. "But, one suggestion..."

Maia turned around, and looked at her sibling. "Yeah, Mir?"

"We are going to have to change the name." Miranda gestured at the side of the Ikazuchi.

Maia blinked, and looked a little indignant. "What? Why? That's what the Mars Division's ship is supposed to be called. Liberator's a perfectly fine name for a starship."

"Well, yes... for any other starship," Miranda explained. "But if you're really going to bring 'Mars Division' to life, we're going to need to give the ship a name that will make people think twice and hesitate at the image, not immediately dismiss it as a hallucination brought on by watching too many epsiodes of 'The Bernard Files'." She quirked a grin.

Maia didn't look entirely convinced, but she let it go for now. Miranda might have a point, but she wasn't so sure making people think they were hallucinating would be such a bad thing. Especially GENOM's people.

Still, that discussion could wait for another time. Neither sister was inclined to shackle the other's buzz with such a quibble right now. It'd be some time before they could even think about putting this ship to work. Years, maybe quite a few of them.

But when they did... oh, yes.

Yes indeed.

"Travellers On the Shadowed Road" - An Exile Mini-Story by Philip Jeremy Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Forum
© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

For Derek

Not all the survivors of the Wedge Defense Force spent the years from 2288 to 2380 in hiding or in exile.

In the year 2360, 25 years after the fall of the United Galactica and the establishment of the United Federation of Planets, one man reappeared after decades of wandering and established himself quite publicly in the very heart of the civilized galaxy: Paris, France, on Earth, almost within shouting distance of the Federation Capitol.

There, he set up shop in an office tower that had once belonged to the WDF's deadly enemies, the GENOM Corporation, taking as his personal residence the rooms that had once been Maximilien Largo's office on Earth. That would have been blatant enough, but then he took it a step further. Surrounding himself with experts in the fields of science and technology, he set about improving the lot of the ordinary people of the planet Earth and beyond in ways that supposedly-public-spirited companies like GENOM could never hope to match. The discoveries that flowed from the laboratories and workshops of his tower made everyday life better for uncountable billions in innumerable ways... and every last one of them was made available to the public free of charge.

The enemies of the Wedge Defense Force could only stand by and fume as this man single-handedly made mockery of all the lies they had used to blacken the WDF and hunt its survivors. Every day, he bucked the tide of well-funded folklore and misinformation. By 2370, he was the most beloved and influential man on Earth, his reputation and public popularity making him untouchable. Even the Olympus world government could not challenge his position.

What few people at the time knew was that the bioroid rulers of Olympus wouldn't have challenged him if they could, because when he wasn't bettering the lives of every man, woman, and child on Earth (which was, after all, in line with their own stated goals), he was serving as their ultimate option, the agent upon whom they called when all other courses of action had failed. Though he answered to no one, he could be persuaded to help if the cause was just enough, and on those occasions even the masters of Olympus called him...

Our Man Bacon

August 10, 2371
Bacon Tower, Paris

Upon entering the lobby of Bacon Tower for the first time, President Tisiphone of the Olympus world government found herself in the unaccustomed position of being taken aback. The place wasn't at all what she'd been expecting. She had assumed, since it was in Paris (a representative slice of Old Earth if ever there was one) and run by an unreconstructed, old-style human to boot, that it would be disorganized in that particularly human way, with bric-a-brac scattered here and there and lots of pointless, inefficient decorative flourishes.

Instead, it might easily have been an office building in Olympus, designed and run by bioroids. Everything was sleek, modern, and purposeful, with just enough carefully blended aesthetic elements to show that thinking, feeling beings did work here, even if they weren't so sloppy as to let those feelings show at the expense of efficiency.

In fact, for a few moments, Tisiphone wondered whether the place might actually be run by bioroids. Everyone she could see, from one side of the cavernous concourse to the other, was a woman, and all appeared to have been selected according to some strict standard of beauty. They were all different, representative of just about every ethnic division she could think of among the peoples of Earth, but they were all breathtaking, or they would've been to a suitably oriented human, anyway.

One of them, a shockingly tall and Nordic woman dressed, like all the others, in the clean-lined silver jumpsuit of the Bacon Foundation, walked briskly toward Tisiphone with a clipboard in hand and said in almost accentless Japanese (which was, for various perverse reasons of geopolitics, the official lingua franca of Olympus),

<President Tisiphone, good morning. Thank you for visiting us today. Please come with me.>

"Where is Mr. Bacon?" Tisiphone asked in English as she followed the Viking woman into an elevator. "I told your majordomo I have urgent - "

Apparently ignoring the Olympian president's annoyance, the blonde spoke a few words in a language Tisiphone couldn't begin to identify. She was apparently talking to the elevator, for a moment later the doors slid silently shut and they began to rise.

"Chairman Bacon is waiting for you on level 67," the blonde said to Tisiphone with imperturbable good cheer. "Your visit overlaps with the last four minutes of his daily workout."

"Do you mean to tell me that, with a crisis of global proportions developing, the chairman of the Bacon Foundation is lifting weights?" asked Tisiphone archly.

"Not exactly," replied the blonde impassively, still smiling.

Death came for Derek Bacon out of the dark.

Well, not Death herself; though she was not a completely unknown visitor to Bacon Tower, she tended to just come in the street door like anybody else.

The sword hissing through the air toward the back of Bacon's neck, however, would have done a good job of involving her in this scene if it had connected as its wielder intended.

It didn't, though, because Bacon stepped out of its path with the nonchalant ease of a man going out to the stoop for the mail. Less casual, though hardly less easy, was his counterattack, delivered with enough power to send his attacker flying, and enough precision to ensure that she didn't fly into the just-arriving elevator and discommode the people inside.

Another of the circle of ninja attacked, silent and purposeful, with the wicked whirling blade of a thrown kusarigama, and a third pressed home a charge with a spear at the same time. Bacon ducked the thrown blade, grabbed the chain as it passed, and whipped it around the shaft of the spear, wrenching the spear from its owner's hands and the kusarigama's wielder from her footing. Thinking quickly, she drew a short knife from within her uniform, turning the off-balance stumble into a roll and lunge - but by the time she arrived he was gone, and she only figured out where he'd gone when the butt of his third erstwhile attacker's spear clonked her gently in the back of the head.

Tisiphone and her guide stood by the elevator and watched, the guide with that same imperturbable smile and Tisiphone with blank astonishment, as Bacon disarmed five more ninja and sent them sprawling to various corners of the room. Most were back on their feet, drawing secondary or even tertiary weapons, and regrouping to press the attack again, when a gong sounded.

All the ninja immediately ceased advancing, put away their weapons, formed a neat circle, bowed to the man at its center, and then removed their hoods. At this point, the fact that they were all lovely women somehow failed to compound Tisiphone's astonishment further.

"Thank you, ladies," said Bacon, returning the bow to the four corners of the compass. "Excellent workout, as usual. Michiko, you nearly had me that time."

"You exaggerate, Dereku-sama," one of the ninja replied; then, smiling, she added, "But thank you. Perhaps next time... "

Bacon grinned. "Perhaps. Right now, though, I see I have a visitor. Dismissed!"

<No. 1 Shadow Society: disperse!> Michiko barked in Japanese, and then the ninja all vanished - their leader not before, to Tisiphone's surprise, she had darted forward to give the big man a parting kiss.

Crossing to greet his visitors, Bacon paused at a small table to collect a towel, which he used to scrub at his short, sandy hair for a few moments, then draped across his neck. Bowing, he greeted his guest cordially.

This was Tisiphone's first face-to-face encounter with Derek Bacon, and her first impression of him was the same as most people's: My God, he's huge.

It was hard to say precisely where this impression came from. Bacon was a tall man, but not abnormally so, standing about six-foot-four in his bare feet. Tisiphone, like many soldier-class bioroids, was tall for a woman, and nearly matched his barefoot height in her heels. Nor was he a fat man - quite the opposite, in fact, since the retrogenetic treatment he'd received as a founding Wedge Defender had blessed him with the kind of metabolism that made such a thing pretty well impossible.

Mostly, the shock came from the breadth of his shoulders, which seemed in his simple white karate gi to be nearly as wide as he was tall, and the general sense of massive solidity about him. He had practically no neck, not because of hugely overdeveloped shoulder muscles as one saw in bodybuilders but simply because it was nearly the same diameter as his head, which was substantial. His hands and feet, too, seemed outsized somehow; like his head, they seemed to belong on a statue on a scale about 25 percent larger than the rest of him. If she hadn't just seen his grace and agility first-hand against that squad of ninja, Tisiphone would never have believed it possible.

The crackle of intelligence in his blue eyes, and the very slight but ever-present knowing smile on his square-jawed face, put the lie to any theory that his size and power came at the expense of brainpower or wit, either. This was a man whose formidability was as obvious intellectually as physically. For the first time, it occurred to Tisiphone that he might just live up to what her predecessor, Athena, had said about him when she had heard that Tisiphone was going to consult with him.

"He's a large man," Athena had said, "but his mind is right there." Tisiphone had wondered vaguely what the hell that was supposed to mean at the time. Now, seeing him in person, she wondered no more.

"Mr. Bacon," she said, collecting her wits. "Thank you for seeing me today."

"President Tisiphone," he said, "it's my pleasure. Thank you, Brynhildr, I'll take it from here."

"You're welcome, Derek," said the blonde. To Tisiphone's surprise (she wondered idly whether her ability to feel surprise would eventually erode under these conditions), instead of bowing or saluting, Brynhildr acknowledged the dismissal by stepping past the Foundation's guest and giving the chairman a sultry kiss, quite at odds with the Nordic cool of her appearance.

Derek returned the gesture, then met the blonde's eye and said quietly, "Later." Smiling, she moved off and disappeared down a side corridor.

"There goes one of the finest minds in nanobiotechnology today," said Bacon with a sentimental sigh. "So!" he added briskly, turning to his vaguely startled-looking guest. "What brings you to the Foundation today, Madame President?"

Recovering her aplomb, Tisiphone answered his question with a question. "Have you heard of the Black Dragon Society, Mr. Bacon?"

"I've heard of nine Black Dragon Societies, actually," said Derek as he led the way back into the elevator, "but - " here he broke off for a moment to say something else in that language Athena didn't know, after which the elevator began descending, " - seven of those are off-planet and the eighth is concerned primarily with fruit machines in Singapore, so I'm assuming you mean the one in Côte du Soleil."

"Er... yes, quite."

Bacon shook his head. "I told them it was a mistake to give those circus crazies their own country," he said, "but nobody listens to me. What are they up to now?"

"They have issued a credible threat of world cataclysm."

Bacon arched one eyebrow. "How credible?"

"Let's just say no one will be vacationing at Cap Verde for a long time."

"Hmm. Do they have a tsunami generator or a volcano inducer?"

Tisiphone shook her head. "We believe it is a gravitational anomalizer of enormous size. If properly - or perhaps I should say improperly - employed, it could potentially crack the entire planet in half like an egg."

"Well. We can't have that."

"My sentiments precisely."

The elevator stopped. Tisiphone expected the door to open, but instead, after a momentary pause, the car started moving backward. She blinked, looking around, then returned her attention to Bacon.

"There aren't that many places you can hide a gravitational anomalizer and still expect it to work when you push the button," Bacon observed. "Have you checked them?"

"All those known to the Olympus Planetary Survey," Tisiphone replied, then admitted, "Their database may be incomplete."

"Mm, I doubt it. My people compiled it. Okay, that probably means it's on the Moon." He said something else in the incomprehensible tongue. The elevator paused, then started sliding back the other way, only to hesitate again a moment later and then start heading down and to the left at what felt like about a 40-degree angle.

"I won't even ask how you can be so sure of that," said Tisiphone, shaking her head.

Bacon grinned, his face shifting from pensive to boyishly cheerful in an instant. "Good," he said, "you're learning."

A moment later the elevator stopped once more and the doors opened. Bacon stepped out, untying the belt of his gi, and Tisiphone followed, expecting to find them in a corridor or conference room.

Instead, they were in a gigantic cylindrical room that reminded her of nothing so much as a subway station, complete with the railed trench in the middle and the tunnel leading off into the darkness. The main difference was that the machine waiting at the platform wasn't a train.

It was a rocketship, like an old-fashioned hood ornament from the pre-Contact era, complete with silver skin, scarlet fins, and a brow of windows set conformally into its surface not far from the point. Jets of steam issued from service ports here and there as a small army of blast-suited technicians (all women, of course) swarmed around it, disconnecting hoses and cables, checking inside panels. and generally making ready.

"Attention," said a PA system overhead. "Attention. The Silver Arrow will launch in five minutes. The Silver Arrow will launch in five minutes. Destination: Moon."

A somewhat petite redheaded woman detached herself from the launch crew and crossed the platform to greet Bacon and the Olympian leader. Unlike the Viking, she did salute, and quite creditably too. She wore an obviously custom-built pressure suit, sleek and silver like the spacecraft, and carried the bowl helmet for same under one arm. On her chest, just above the various red- and blue-coded hose fittings for the suit's life support system, was an embroidered tag reading ROGERS.

"Flash," said Bacon, returning the salute. "How's she look?"

"Ready to go, as always," the redhead replied in a whiskey-and-cigarettes voice. "Have we ever let you down?"

"Not so far," Bacon agreed. "Tisiphone, meet my personal pilot, Captain Elizabeth Rogers. Flash, this is Tisiphone. She's the president of Olympus."

Rogers brightened. "Oh hey, so you're one'a them androids, then?"

"Bioroids," Tisiphone corrected her, "yes."

"Solid. You must be rated for pretty high G-loads."

"I've... never explored that part of my specifications table," Tisiphone admitted, slightly taken aback.

"Yeah, well, you wanna come with, you'll find out," Rogers told her.

"Er... no thank you."

Rogers shrugged. "Suits me, I won't have to re-do my mass/accel calculations. I just thought I'd ask. You ready to go, boss?" She looked at a giant chronograph watch affixed just above the wrist interlock of her pressure suit by an oversized black leather strap. "T minus 90 and counting."

"Be right there, Flash."

"Well, don't dawdle or I'll leave ya here," said Rogers. "Nice meeting you, prez." Now she kissed him - it seemed to be something they did only in parting - then turned and sauntered back toward the rocket, casually plunking her helmet onto its locking ring as she went.

"You certainly have a... unique staff," Tisiphone observed.

"Best rocket jockey I ever saw, and I've seen a few," said Bacon, "but her real strength is cosmodynamic engineering. She built the Silver Arrow with her own hands, and she'll do the Kessel Run in less than eight parsecs."

While Tisiphone was absorbing that, he went on, "Well, I must be going. Planet to save and all that. I'll call you with the all-clear, or if I need you to send up one of those nuclear missiles you don't have. That probably won't become necessary, though."

"Wait!" she said, catching his arm. "You're just... going up there? With no plan? What if they're expecting you?"

"I hope they are," he said. "If not, it may make getting into their Secret Moonbase a bit tricky. Anyway, don't worry about a thing. You came all the way over here by yourself, that shows you're serious about wanting my help. I'll take care of everything."

Then, before she could object or frame any further thoughts, he leaned, kissed her, and headed for the rocketship. "Ta!" he called, pausing in the hatchway to give a big Nixon-boarding-the-chopper farewell wave, and then the hatch closed and he was gone.

A retiring silver-suited tech collected his abandoned gi from the platform, and another came over to Tisiphone (who stood staring in stunned disbelief at the ship) and told her it would really be a very good idea at this point to get behind the blast shields.

"I came in person because he refused to see my ambassador, my military advisor, and my chief of staff," she said to no one in particular.

"Yes, Madame President," said the technician as she ushered the visitor behind the nearest blast shield. "I know."

The Silver Arrow exploded from her underground launch tube in the north of France like a projectile from a cannon, which was not entirely inappropriate, given that said launch tube had originally been dug as part of a German superweapon project during World War II. Her parabolic course carried her into an exotic compound orbit that required minimal maneuvering, conserving most of the terrific momentum she launched with and enabling Rogers to hold off lighting her atomic engines until she was well clear of the atmosphere.

Once that was done, the brutal thrust of those engines was sufficient to carry the Silver Arrow from the Earth to the Moon in a little under an hour. Bacon spent most of the trip dozing, strapped into the right-hand seat of the narrow cockpit. Rogers paid him no mind as she vectored the ship into a tight lunar orbit, shut down the atomic engines, and fired up the rocket thrusters again, then dropped out of orbit and brought the ship down until her fins were nearly scraping the dusty surface.

"Up and at 'em, boss," she said, reaching across the center console to punch Bacon in the leg. "I have Point T on my scope. Their air defense network's picked us up. Soon as we clear Eratosthenes, things are gonna get exciting up here."

Bacon straightened up a bit in his seat and unfastened his seat harness. "Guess I better get to work, then. You know the game, Flash."

Rogers gave him a grin, then reached up and shut the gold-tinted outer bowl of her helmet.

"Showtime!" she cried cheerfully as the Black Dragons' surface defenses opened up.

The Silver Arrow danced a death-defying minuet across the lunar skies as missile batteries, flex-mount quad-blasters, and annihilator beams did their best to intercept and destroy her. In the hands of a lesser pilot, the ship may well have come out the loser in this game, but Bacon's praise of Beth Rogers's skill was no idle boast. She built the Silver Arrow and knew exactly what the ship could and couldn't do - and the latter wasn't a long list. She flew in one end of the Black Dragon Society's defense corridor and out the other, booming back to lunar orbit at the other end without a scratch on her vessel - and without her boss.

In her wake, as the Black Dragon defense network slowly cooled in the near-vacuum of the lunar atmosphere, Derek Bacon climbed out of the Moon's newest impact crater, which his drop pod had just plowed in Mare Imbrium just north of Eratosthenes crater.

Naturally, he thought, looking north. They've hidden their gravitizer in the Mare Imbrium mascon.

His eye caught a glint of reflected light moving in the distance - sunlight flashing from the visor of someone driving toward him with a lunar rover. As he'd expected, the Black Dragons had detected his drop and sent a welcoming party.

Now for the part he wasn't really looking forward to.

Closing his eyes, he focused his attention inward, applying a deep meditation technique he'd learned from a member of an ancient sisterhood of... well, of crazy people, if he was honest, on the Rim decades earlier. His breathing and heart rate slowed, his body temperature fell, until all three became all but imperceptible. Slowly, in the low lunar gravity, he fell to his knees, then toppled forward in the dust. His last conscious act before command of his body failed altogether was to trip a pressure relief valve designed to seem as if it had failed and vent his spacesuit's atmosphere.

When the Black Dragon security party found him, they assumed he'd suffered a suit malfunction and perished. Eager to display their trophy to their leaders - what a propaganda coup the death of Earth's most famous action philanthropist would make! - they loaded him (with much struggling and cursing) aboard their rover and took him back to base.

In the bustling-but-orderly nerve center of the Bacon Foundation, a control room so huge and sophisticated it made the Military and Security Operations Command Center in Olympus seem like a school lunchroom, Tisiphone watched with stunned disbelief as the Black Dragons overrode the television circuits to deliver what their garishly garbed spokeswoman described as "a message of global importance."

She knew what it would be. They were going to gloat. And then probably destroy Olympus. Derek Bacon had failed. There was a monitor on one of the control consoles, visible from where Tisiphone stood, that told that story clearly. Two hours before, she had watched Bacon's vital signs, relayed by his spacesuit, fade and disappear from that monitor. His retainers, dozens of whom staffed this room with brisk and businesslike efficiency, seemed strangely unmoved by this terrible turn of events; when Tisiphone had tried to question them about it, they had only smiled strangely and gone on with their duties.

"People of Earth, your attention please," announced the haughty voice of Indra Tahar, the Black Dragons' leader (a tall woman of East Indian extraction who, for some reason, preferred to dress as a sort of cross between a circus acrobat and an 18th-century French noblewoman - Madame de Pompadour on the high wire, as it were).

Here it comes, thought Tisiphone, bracing herself.

"The Black Dragon Society hereby withdraws its demands of nine o'clock Olympus time yesterday," Indra declared flatly. "We have dismantled our gravitational anomalizer and will undertake no further acts of global extortion. Efforts will begin immediately to reconstruct the damaged resort area at Cap Verde. That is all."

The screen went blank and a great cheer went up from the Bacon Foundation staffers in the control center.

Tisiphone blinked and turned to the nearest silver-clad woman, who happened to be the tall blonde Bacon had called Brynhildr. "But... how?"

Brynhildr grinned. "Chairman Bacon must have... reasoned with her," she said.

"But... Chairman Bacon is dead."

Brynhildr's smile became a sly grin. "Is he, now."

The Silver Arrow returned to her berth at 11:14 that night, sliding into the "station" in a great cloud of steam from the rocket coolant with which the pad crew had flooded the rail trench in anticipation of the ship's arrival. Not until the turntable formed by the last ship's-length of rails had turned the vessel around again, ready to be re-launched, did the crew emerge from behind the blast shields and move in with their typical quick efficiency to hook up hoses and cables and open panels to commence maintenance operations.

Tisiphone was standing on the platform, just outside all this bustling activity, and watching as the Silver Arrow's hatch opened and three figures emerged, all wearing standard Bacon Foundation spacesuits. Derek Bacon... Elizabeth Rogers... and Indra Tahar!

"Good evening, Madame President," said Bacon cheerfully. "Nice of you to stick around and welcome us back! As you can see, the situation's been resolved."

"You... you died," Tisiphone sputtered. "I saw your telemetry."

Bacon's ever-present smile widened a little. "Did you like that? The old 'hibernate and open the trick valve' stunt. Works every time! I had to con them into taking me into their base without shooting me first, after all."

Tisiphone wondered whether she would ever cease to be surprised by anything this man managed to do. Instead of dwelling on it, she cast a glance at Indra. "What about her?"

"Indra's coming to work for me," said Bacon blithely. "It turns out she's quite an engineer. She built their gravitizer herself! I think she's just what I've been looking for to get my Trans-Pacific Levi-Train project back on track."

It was not until she was back in her office in Olympus the next morning that Tisiphone realized that, on top of everything else, Derek Bacon had made a pun out of his plans for the reformed villainess's future career.

She felt vaguely uneasy for the rest of that day.

"Our Man Bacon" - an Exile Mini-Story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Stardate 8135.1
0208 hrs.
Christopher Pike Hall, Starfleet Academy
San Francisco, Earth
Dimension GCC No. 723/T

"Football practice!"

Benjamin Hutchins bolted up from a sound sleep to full wakefulness in less than a second, a sudden revelation burning like a torch in his mind's eye. So focused was he on this that he had no conscious thought to spare for the proprieties of the situation; fortunately, the automatic context-sensitive reference generator that was always at the back of his brain found and uttered the appropriate statement for such circumstances without his help. He wasn't even aware that he'd spoken.

His roommate, a lighter sleeper than he would ever be, was aware of it, though, and she gave him a quizzical look from her lower bunk as he jumped down from his upper one. He ignored her - wasn't even really aware that he had a roommate just now - and went to the desk in the corner, where he hunted briefly for pen and paper, then remembered that there was no such thing permitted in the dorms at Starfleet Academy and switched on his desktop data terminal instead.

Saavik got out of bed, crossed to stand just behind him, and said, "I do not understand your remark. You are not a member of the Academy football team, and even if you were, it is highly unlikely that a practice session would be scheduled for 0200 hours. It is not even the football season."

Gryphon blinked, glanced back over his shoulder distractedly, and then returned to his feverish note-jotting, asking only, "What? Sorry, what?"

Saavik paused for a moment, closed her eyes, silently counted prime numbers backward from 97 in Vulcan, and then said, "Never mind."

"Nn," Gryphon replied, nodding without again taking his eyes from the screen.

Seeing that she would get nothing more out of him, Saavik retired to sit seiza on her bunk and wait. Gryphon typed sporadic notes, muttering to himself and occasionally mussing his already-mussed hair or rasping a thumb across his unshaven chin, for the better part of half an hour, then sat back with a sigh, collected himself, and turned to face her. His eyes glinted in the cast-off light from the terminal display, which was the only light source in the room just then, as he grinned at her.

"Sorry," he said, a bit more coherently. "I had to get that down before it all drained out of my head. Computer, what time is it?"

The computer chirped and replied, "It's 2:39 in the oh my God, what are we doing up this latening."

Gryphon frowned. "Damn. Too early. Or too late, depending on your point of view."

Saavik arched an eyebrow. "For what?"

"To start recruiting. I need a bridge crew. And an engineer. People I can trust. Everybody from the Heist Team who hasn't graduated, that'll do for a start. Hmm. Johnny might still be up. Computer, locate Cadet Harriman."

"Cadet Harriman is in the library," the computer replied.

"Well, that figures," said Gryphon. "Get me a com." A pause; a chirp; then John Harriman's slightly puzzled voice saying hello. "Johnny! I need you over here on the double."

"At quarter of three in the morning?" Harriman replied, sounding more puzzled than annoyed.

"Not a moment to be lost," Gryphon replied cheerfully. "Is Preston with you? Bring him. And grab Gaila if you see her along the way."

"... Okay, I'm on my way. This'd better be good, Ben."

"You'll like it. I promise. See you in a few, Johnny." Gryphon commed off, then called for the room's lights at two-thirds intensity.

Then, after regarding his still-quizzical roommate for a few judicious moments, he said, "You should probably get dressed. I mean, I'm used to it, but you know what a delicate boy Pete is."

Saavik blinked, went slightly green, and then rose to go to the closet.

By the time Harriman arrived, with both Peter Preston and Gaila in tow, Gryphon and Saavik were dressed and waiting with a pot of tea brewing.

"Okay, we're here," said Harriman once the door closed behind them. "What's this about?"

Gryphon grinned. "I'm putting the band back together," he said. "We've got a job to do before we all get out of here. We'll need a couple more people to make it work, but for now the five of us can get started planning."

Preston looked confused. "Job, what job? I have to report aboard Enterprise by 1730 tomorrow... "

"As do I," Saavik put in.

"... and you're going to Challenger the day after," Preston finished.

"That's okay. We'll be finished by noon. It'll mean prepping all night and a lot of running around once campus wakes up again, but it'll be worth it. We'll be famous. This place will never forget our names. If it works."

"If what works?" Gaila asked.

Gryphon's grin became broader and more conspiratorial.

"We're gonna win the Kobayashi Maru," he said.

Harriman nearly choked on his tea.

Gaila slapped her forehead. "Oh, for - you dragged us down here for that?"

Harriman regained control of his breathing and added, "That's not exactly a new trick, Ben."

Gryphon shook his head. "No, no, don't misunderstand me. I don't mean I got a copy of KIRK-KM.SIM. That's the beauty of it. That's what'll make us all famous." He leaned forward slightly in his seat, looking Harriman in the eyes with a sparkle in his own, and said in a low, confidential tone, "We're not going to cheat."

"... How can we win the Kobayashi Maru without cheating? It's designed to be impossible," Preston argued.

"Not quite. It's designed to be unwinnable, but it does still adhere to certain parameters. The enemy units, for instance, are finite. It's not like one of those early video games that just kept getting harder and harder until you died. But here's the thing. It was designed by people - very talented, very balls-nasty people, but people - who are most familiar with the Starfleet doctrines and tactics that the students who take it will have been taught here.

"But I've been turning it over and over in my head since it was my turn in the barrel. I've only taken it the once myself, but I crewed for almost everyone else in our class who took it, so I've been through it almost a hundred times. And tonight, it suddenly hit me that it's just like the time the Kilrathi tried to corner us in Delta Reticuli, out in back of the Jörmundgandr Nebula, and you have no idea what I'm talking about, but that's okay!" he finished with a broad smile around at their baffled faces.

He gave them a decent pause to interject, but when no one did he became serious again and went on, "It's not going to be easy. Everybody on the crew is going to have to know exactly what part to play. The only way it's ever going to work is if every last one of us knows his or her shit to the nth degree - and everybody else's, too. We have to be a machine."

Harriman slowly smiled. "Like the Heist," he said.

Gryphon nodded, his own smile breaking out again. "Exactly like the Heist. Except we won't have to worry about getting caught, because we'll be breaking their expectations - but not any rules."

"We're going to need at least three more people," said Gaila. "I bet we could get Linc to take Medical."

Harriman nodded. "She's good. And we can count on her. We're gonna need a weapons officer, though."

Gryphon nodded. "That's going to be one of the most important jobs, too. I was thinking Gaila for that at first," he said, looking to the young Orion woman, "but the more I think about it, the more I think I want you at Navigation."

Gaila nodded, her scarlet curls bobbing. "You figure on needing a quick getaway?"

"It's essential," Gryphon confirmed, nodding. "And our best chance at it is to have the law firm of Harriman & Gaila at the Bar."

"What about Winston?" Harriman asked.

Gryphon snapped his fingers. "Yes," he said. "He's exactly what we need at Tactical."

"What does that leave?" asked Preston.

"Well... I've got to have you in the 'engine room,' obviously... so what we need is a transporter operator. That's another big one, though. Whoever it is has to be a seriously hot hand with a transporter console. And steady."

For the first time since she echoed Preston's protest at the start of the briefing, Saavik spoke, and when she did, it was with a very faint tone of satisfaction. Of all the cadets at the Academy, it was likely that only those in the room with her knew her well enough to detect it at all, but to them, it spoke volumes as she said calmly,

"I know just the person. Leave it to me."

"Okay," said Gryphon. "I'll get a conference room in the sim center reserved for first thing tomorrow - uh, this - morning, and the bridge sim for 1100 hours. Then I'll start refining the plan and putting together briefing materials for everyone. We need to do this up by the book. We'll be making history, after all, and history needs proper documentation. The rest of you, get some rack time." He grinned. "Briefing starts at 0900. Dismissed!"

Harriman gave him a sketchy salute. "Aye aye, Captain," he said wryly.

Gryphon saw the three to the door, then turned back to see Saavik standing by their bunk stack, regarding him with Vulcan inscrutability.

"What?" he asked.

She shook her head, concealing an infinitesimal smile. "So human," she said, and then, before pulling off her uniform tunic and returning to bed, "Lights: out."

Smiling to himself, Gryphon went back to his desk, tilted the display so its glow wouldn't fall on the lower bunk, and set quietly to work refining his plan.

1044 hrs.
Briefing Room C
Starfleet Academy Simulation Center

The actual briefing took only the first 30 minutes or so of the team's allotted time. The rest was taken up in quiet reflection. Each team member had to memorize his or her part in the operation before leaving the room, since taking personal datapads and so forth into the simulation wasn't permitted.

Finally, at a quarter to eleven, Cadet Hutchins put down his pad, stood up, and quietly surveyed the other cadets arranged around the long table before speaking.

"Okay, gang, it's about that time," he said. "You've all had the chance to absorb the plan. What do you think? Have we got a shot?"

John Harriman was the first to speak. "A lot of things have to go our way," he said, tapping his fingertips against the datapad in front of him. "More things than I'm comfortable counting on... but I think it's worth a try."

"What have we got to lose?" Gaila asked rhetorically.

Gryphon looked around at the others, who all sat looking back at him with an air of calm expectation. Businesslike, he tapped open a crew roster on his datapad and said, "All right, let's go around the horn. Medical."

Heather Lincoln, MD, finished running a diagnostic on her medical tricorder, replaced it in its case, and smiled. "Ready and willing."


Peter Preston regarded the head of the reversible spanner he'd brought with him for a few seconds, then put it down on the table with a rather final thump and said, "Give the word, Captain."

The next member of the team at the table was the only one who wasn't a senior; she was a second-year cadet, years away from having to face the Kobayashi Maru test herself, and had joined based on Saavik's recommendation. Gryphon had been so busy working up the briefing materials that he hadn't even had time to be introduced before the meeting started. Now, regarding her thoughtfully, he saw a slight, fine-boned young human with curly blonde hair and high Slavic cheekbones. She looked curiously familiar, so much so that instead of stating her role in the sim team, Gryphon said,

"I'm sorry, Cadet, but - do I know you? I could swear I do."

She smiled, her eyes twinkling mischievously, and replied in a light Russian accent, "We have met, yes, but I'm not surprised you don't recognize me. It's been a long time. I am Cadet Second Class Valentina Andre'evna Chekova."

Gryphon stared at her for a couple of seconds, then staggered back a half-step and dropped into his chair, putting a hand to his forehead as if he'd just been struck with an ice cream headache. "... Gyah! I keep forgetting I'm OLD." Then, shaking his head with a smile, he went on, "Anyway, welcome to the team, Cadet Chekova. Are you ready to be our beam wrangler?"

"Count on me, sir."

Still smiling, Gryphon turned to the shaven-headed young black man next to her. "Tactical?"

Winston Zeddemore grinned. "Ready."


Gaila nodded. "Ready, sir."


Harriman tapped his fingers against his datapad for a few moments, then nodded. "Ready as I'll ever be."


Saavik arched an eyebrow. "The usefulness of a science officer in the Kobayashi Maru scenario is limited; but it will be interesting to see your stratagem unfold."

Gryphon stood up, squared his uniform jacket, and nodded.

"Okay, then. Let's make history!"

They left the conference room; Gryphon was the last one out. As they entered the bridge simulator, they found one person already there, waiting at the communications console. When Gryphon entered, he got to his feet with a smile: a tall, gray-haired man with a full admiral's star on his shoulder strap, the chest of his scarlet tunic covered in medals, term-of-service hash marks reaching almost to his elbow.

"Admiral Pike!" Gryphon blurted, snapping to attention and saluting as soon as he recognized the man. "What are you doing here, sir?"

Christopher Pike returned the salute, then shook the apparently-younger man's hand with a smile. "I volunteered to be your faculty comms proctor," he said. "You're up to something, mister, and by God I want to be here to see it."

"No funny business here, sir, I promise. But you're more than welcome to stay and confirm it. Did you bring Porthos?"

"Of course," said Pike, gesturing to a tricolored beagle who sat expectantly next to the captain's chair. "That dog's a damn fool for simulator runs. He'd come to 'em all if I'd let him."

Gryphon smiled, ruffling the dog's ears, and took his station for the sim. "Maybe he just wants to get back into space," he opined.

Pike chuckled. "Maybe so. I know I do." Seating himself at the comms console, the admiral fitted an earpiece to his right ear, then said briskly, "Communications manned and ready, Captain."

With a slightly self-conscious cough, Gryphon inclined his head and replied, "Thank you, Mr. Pike. Okay, Control... begin simulation."

"Affirmative," a slightly metallic voice, the voice of the unseen simulation controller, announced on the overhead. "Simulation KM-23 commencing in five. Four. Three. Two. Simulation begins... now."

And just like that, the bridge came alive around Gryphon and his crew. In an instant it ceased to be a slightly battered, rather dimly lit approximation of a starship's control room and became the bridge of the USS Enterprise, cruising in the vicinity of Gamma Hydra, just an ordinary day in an ordinary five-year mission.

Until the distress call.

When the call came in, cadets generally did one of two things. They either made straight for the Kobayashi Maru's reported position, or they bore away from the Neutral Zone entirely, as if evading a source of dangerous radiation.

Gryphon did neither. Calmly, as if he did this kind of thing every day, he ordered a conic-section intercept course that would bring the Enterprise as close as possible to the freighter's position outside the Neutral Zone's boundary - making for the shortest possible dash across the disputed territory.

"Mr. Pike," he said when they were in position just outside the line, "see if you can raise the Kobayashi."

Pike worked the board. "Affirmative, Captain. Voice link established."

"Kobayashi Maru, this is Captain Benjamin D. Hutchins of the Federation starship Enterprise. We've received your distress call and are preparing to assist. How many survivors do you have?"

"Thank God, sir. Marcus Darawyd here, captain of the Kobayashi Maru. We have thirteen souls aboard, four injured, none seriously. Our full complement, no fatalities."

"Good to hear, Captain Darawyd. Your ship is a Class Three neutronic fuel carrier, correct? How much cargo aboard?"

"We're fully loaded. Ninety-seven kilotons."

"Mostly in the aft tank for trim?"

"... That's right," said Darawyd; the simulation supervisor portraying him played him as surprised that a Starfleet officer would know that, as indeed the SIMSUP himself was that a cadet did.

"Excellent news. If you would be so good as to gather as far forward as you can - the fo'c'sle orlop would be ideal - and stay together, we'll get you out of there as soon as possible."

"Uh... roger that, Captain. Forecastle orlop it is."

"If you'll excuse me for a few minutes, sir, I'm going to be a little bit busy securing the area so that I can get you out. We'll speak again shortly. Enterprise out." Once the channel was shut, he went on in a much less conversational voice, "All right, here we go. Red alert, raise shields. Weapons to standby charge. All hands to battle stations. Mr. Harriman, take us in. Impulse power, all ahead one-half. Stay on the conic, please, I want to be in reverse orientation when we reach the freighter."

"All ahead one-half, stay on the conic, aye aye, sir." All of Harriman's customary nervous habits vanished at times like this; his nervousness was social, not professional. With the helm of the faux Enterprise handling like the real one under his hands, he guided the ship across the forbidden boundary, setting off alarms at once.

/* Hans Zimmer
"Wheel of Fortune"
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006) */

"Shields at full power," Zeddemore reported. "All decks report hands at battle stations. Phaser banks charged and standing by. Torpedo bay loaded and standing by."

"Conn, Sensors," said Saavik dispassionately, head bent over her objective scanner. "New contacts bearing one five three mark four five. Klingon warships, k't'Inga-class, I make it a squadron of four, on intercept course."

"Right on schedule," Gryphon said, not without satisfaction. "Give me a tactical plot." The forward viewer changed to a wireframe map of the area, centered on Enterprise and showing the projected course, the freighter, and the approaching Klingons.

"Mr. Harriman, reverse course. Mr. Pike, are the Klingons transmitting a challenge?"

"Negative, sir," Pike replied crisply, playing his part to perfection. "Jamming on all frequencies."

"Well, for what little it's worth, we might as well make the gesture. See if you can get a laser lock on their lead cruiser, please, and let's put it on record that this is a rescue mission."

Pike suppressed a grin. Nobody ever thought of that. "Aye aye, sir." He waited for the SIMSUP acting as comms referee to rule on the attempt in his earpiece, then reported, "Message away, Captain."

"Any acknowledgement?"

"Negative, sir. I confirm successful transmission. They heard us, they just don't care."

Gryphon nodded. "Very well," he said. "Helm, make your course zero four two mark seven five. All ahead three-fourths. Sickbay, this is the captain. Prepare to receive wounded."

"Aye aye, sir," Dr. Lincoln's voice replied from his armrest. The simulator's sickbay was actually adjacent to the bridge (as were the "engine room" and "transporter room"), but they were all so into it now that the doctor sincerely felt like she was responding from the depths of the ship.

"Conn, Sensors," Saavik put in. She had developed the habit of identifying her station whenever she spoke in a tactical situation, at least in simulations with Gryphon, because it was out of the captain's normal line of sight. She wasn't sure how it would play with real captains in the real world, but it worked quite well for the two of them in Academy sims, and a few of the proctors had remarked on it, none negatively. At worst, it was seen as a mild eccentricity, as was the naval-adapted way she phrased her next declaration:

"Klingon torpedoes in the æther. Active and homing, range three thousand. My count is four."

"Tactical, deploy countermeasures. Helm, all ahead full. Come to larboard 75 degrees mark four."

On the tactical plot, the Klingons' first spread of torpedoes missed, confounded by the countermeasures and the sudden radical course change. The Enterprise's inertial dampers groaned audibly as they countered acceleration forces that would have turned her crew into paste, allowing just enough through to keep everyone informed that the ship was indeed moving, as the Klingons altered course to follow. In the back of his mind, Gryphon remarked on the effectiveness of the simulator rig in conveying these sensations; the rest of him was buying in too thoroughly to countenance such thoughts.

This was by design, and in fact he had stressed its importance during the briefing. He and his crew had to buy in, had to take the sim utterly seriously. If they didn't - if they allowed themselves to remember that it was just a simulation, after all, and not one that even counted toward their grade point averages - they wouldn't have the razor-sharp edge required to make this thing work.

To reinforce the illusion, there were several "enlisted personnel" scattered around the bridge at secondary duty stations. Their consoles didn't actually do anything - their functions were handled by the simulator itself; they were really test proctors, like the faculty comm officer, and their job was to elicit elaboration on the commander's mindset and/or tactical decisions from inside the test's fourth wall, as it were.

One of them, a master chief petty officer and as such entitled to a little familiarity in a crisis, turned to Gryphon from an engineering backup station off to the conn's left and asked in a low voice, "Sir, what are you doing?"

Gryphon smiled tightly. "The Kobayashi Maru hit a mine. Let's see if the Klingons are keeping that in mind."

"Conn, Sensors," Saavik interjected. "Gravitic pulse, bearing one eight nine mark two four, range two thousand. The lead Klingon has lost power and is drifting."

"Guess they didn't," Gryphon observed with faint satisfaction.

The "master chief" blinked. "... You suckered them into their own minefield?"

Gryphon nodded, all his attention on the viewer. "Guess I did."

The other three Klingons scattered as their captains suddenly remembered the minefield. Gryphon ordered another course change to keep the Enterprise out of the mess herself. This was one of the delicate parts of his strategy. He knew that his previous evolutions had put him in a position that would require him to accept battle now if he wasn't to abandon his tactical command of the freighter - to give up what old sailing captains called the weathergage, putting himself so far out of position that the Klingons could afford to break off from pursuing him to destroy the Kobayashi Maru.

Indeed, it looked like one of them, after standing clear of the mines, had that idea anyway. The Klingon vessel, designated Bandit Bravo on the tactical plot, turned toward the freighter and increased speed.

"Helm, intercept course on Bandit Bravo. Increase to flank. Tactical, get me a firing solution."

"Solution computed and locked, sir."

"Tubes one and two: Fire as they bear."

Zeddemore worked his controls and bent his gaze to the torpedo data computer. "Fire one. Fire two. Torpedoes away, active and homing. Klingon countermeasures... ineffective." Turning a grin to his captain, he added, "Scratch Bandit Bravo."

"Confirmed," Saavik put in. "Target Bandit Bravo has exploded. I read a massive gamma flux - it appears their warp core was breached."

"Good shooting, Mr. Zeddemore."

"Thank you, sir."

"Conn, Sensors. Second Klingon squadron on intercept course, bearing two-five-seven mark two-four."

"They're taking the bait, Captain," said Gaila, sounding exhilarated.

"So far, so good," Gryphon agreed tightly. He glanced at his antique wristwatch. The Enterprise shuddered as her shields shed Klingon disruptor fire. The battle with the first squadron was entering its second, more brutal phase, moving from the chesslike deliberation of long-range torpedo fire to the knife fight of phaser-disruptor dueling.

Gryphon knew the Enterprise was going to take a beating in this phase. It was inevitable in this kind of fight. He was confident, though, that with Zeddemore at the guns and Harriman at the helm, backed up by Gaila and the navigator station's helm-assist controls, they'd give better than they got. On paper, a Constitution-class cruiser was about an even match for a single k't'Inga, but Klingon crews were mostly conscripts, poorly trained and even more poorly motivated, led by officers who were often more wary of each other than the enemy. The simulation was programmed with this realistic bias - had it not been, this stratagem wouldn't even have been worth attempting.

Christopher Pike had seen some tight crews fight some well-run starships with damned fine efficiency in the course of his long, much-decorated career in Starfleet. Ben Hutchins's scratch crew handled the simulated Enterprise up there with the best of them. Of course, he knew that they'd had a long and intensive briefing before the sim began, but in absolute terms, how much could that make up for the lack of practice and real-world experience?

He'd also seen cadet crews start out good, but come unglued when the hard knocks started coming and the simulator started throwing sparks and pitching around. Not this crew. They held to their posts, ignored the fireworks, and kept right on working. The only break in any of their routines, Pike was amused to see, was when Gryphon leaned down from his conn to make Porthos's harness fast to a ringbolt in the deck. (As for the official mascot of Starfleet, he was a veteran of many actual space battles. A little jumping around in the simulator wasn't going to rile him up.)

"Conn, engine room," Peter Preston's voice declared from Gryphon's chair arm after a particularly hard bump.

"Conn, aye," said Gryphon.

"That last whack may have sprung our larboard nacelle pylon," Preston reported. "I don't like the looks of the main conduit's readings. Request permission to cut portside phaser power while I get a team up there to lock it down."

Gryphon glanced at Zeddemore, who nodded and started making adjustments to his panel on the fly. "Go for it, Pete," said Gryphon. "But don't keep 'em dark too long." He frowned for a second as a notion occurred to him. "Mr. Preston."

"Still here, sir."

"Vent some waste plasma from the larboard ramscoop. Let's see if we can make them think they've hit us harder than they have."

"Aye aye, Captain," Preston replied, the approving smile evident in his voice.

"Helm, wounded bird," Gryphon ordered. "Favor to port."

"Wounded bird to port it is," Harriman replied, plying his controls.

Gryphon surveyed the tactical situation. The first Klingon squadron was pretty much out of the fight altogether at this point - two ships crippled, one destroyed, and one with its drive so badly hobbled that, though it could still shoot, the nucleus of battle had left it behind and it was now mostly out of range. The second squadron was also a bit tattered, though that was in part due to a hideous fast-maneuver collision between two of its members that had left one gutted and the other dark.

About time the SIMSUPs let them have a little bad luck, thought Gryphon; then he chastised himself and reached down to touch the little wooden charm hanging from Porthos's collar.

Another of the Klingons misstepped a moment later; drawn in by the Enterprise's wounded bird ruse, he crossed straight into the forward torpedo bay's arc of fire and lost one of his engine nacelles for his trouble.

Gryphon glanced at his watch again, the tension mounting on his face. They were approaching the critical point, the fulcrum of his whole strategy. The next 60 seconds would see him either vindicated or made a fool of in front of Admiral Pike and everybody.

"Conn, Sensors. Nine new contacts bearing three four three mark four five. I make it two full k't'Inga squadrons and a battleship, type L-13. Time to torpedo range, 30 seconds... mark."


"Captain, Kobayashi Maru is hailing," said Pike, just to give Gryphon something more to think about. "Captain Darawyd's getting nervous."

"Please tell him to remain calm and stay exactly where I told him, Mr. Pike, unless he'd rather try to catch a lift home from the Klingons."

Pike again suppressed a smile. "Aye aye, sir."

Gryphon gave Harriman the instructions for his next evolution, triple-checked both his wristwatch and the tactical plot, and then settled back in his conn, one hand on the intercom panel, the other on Porthos's head.

/* Michael Giacchino
"Enterprising Young Men"
Star Trek (2009) */

"Gaila, you ready?"

"Course plotted and locked in," Gaila replied briskly, her fingers flying over her navigation console. "My board is green."


"Tactical ready," Zeddemore reported at once.

Gryphon thumbed the intercom open. "Engine room, conn. What've you got for me, Pete?"

"Pylon secured, Captain. Ready to restore full power."

"Bypass larboard phaser interlock; stand by on nacelle restart."

"Ready, aye ready, sir."

As Gryphon had hoped, the Klingons (or, well, the SIMSUPs) were confused when the Enterprise's full phaser banks reactivated without the accompanying glow of power restored to the larboard engine nacelle. They hesitated, changing course, and at least one of them passed up a golden opportunity to hit the Kobayashi Maru, back toward which the Enterprise was now speeding at flank impulse power.

Now for the hard part.

"Transporter room, conn," said Gryphon. "On my mark, you will have fifteen seconds to lock on and recover the crew of the Kobayashi Maru."

"Ready, Keptin!" Chekova's high voice piped back at once.

"Conn, Sensors. Klingon torpedoes in the æther. Full spread from the incoming flotilla, active and homing."

"Countermeasures exhausted, Captain," Zeddemore reported, though he knew it wasn't news.

"Impact in 30 seconds," said Saavik. "Twenty-nine."

"Gaila, let's have visual, I don't need to look at all those torpedo icons," said Gryphon. The main viewer switched to a crazily rolling starfield centered on the rapidly approaching hulk of the Kobayashi Maru.

Now for the crazy part.

"Engine room, conn. Restore all power."

There was a deep, reverberating CLUNK throughout the Enterprise's spaceframe as all the interlocks, massive, heavy things reminiscent of nothing so much as early-twentieth-century electric relays, slammed back into battery.

"Full power restored!" Preston reported, unable to keep the triumph from his voice.

"Well done, Mr. Preston. Transporter room! Stand by!"

"Transporter room, aye!"

"Mr. Zeddemore - shields down!"

Without hesitation, Winston Zeddemore complied with what was, on the face of it, the craziest, stupidest order he was ever likely to be given in his entire Starfleet career. He dropped the Enterprise's shields under heavy fire, with a dozen Klingon torpedoes active and homing and no countermeasures left in the shop.

"Transporter room!" Gryphon bellowed in the kind of voice a sailing ship's captain would use to reach the foremast top. "Mark!"

"Torpedo impact in 20 seconds," said Saavik. "Nineteen."

Now all Gryphon could do was hang on grimly and give Chekova all the time he could. The seconds ticked by like hours, his adrenaline pumping, his mind distorting time like a wormhole, as Saavik counted mechanically, remorselessly down to their destruction.

"Eight," said Saavik. "Seven."

The Enterprise bucked, an unmanned tertiary environment console blowing out next to the main viewer, as a disruptor volley crashed against her unshielded hull just aft of the bridge.

"Hull breach on Deck 2, sectors seven and eight," Gaila reported. "Pressure fields are holding."

"Conn, transporter room," came Chekova's breathless voice. "Transport complete!"

Gryphon's tense face split into a huge grin, though they weren't quite out of the woods yet. "Damn well done, Valya! Tactical, raise shields! Helm, make your course three five mark one eight five! Tactical, get me a firing solution on target Kilo Mike for tube three!"

"Shields up, solution computed and locked!"

"Three," said Saavik.

"Match bearings and shoot!" Gryphon roared.

"Fire three!" Zeddemore replied, slamming his finger down on the key. A photon torpedo blasted from Enterprise's single aft torpedo tube, streaking away from the racing ship at a relative speed that was nearly luminal. "Torpedo away!"

"I hope to Christ this works!" Gryphon said to himself; then, back in his quarterdeck bellow: "Okay, Johnny - get us out of here!"

Harriman plied his console. "Main drive engaged!"

The starfield ahead hesitated, multichromated, and then burst into rainbow motion as the Enterprise jumped to warp speed.

Around the now-abandoned wreck of the Kobayashi Maru, the Klingon ships swarmed like maddened hornets, some of them coming about for pursuit. The new arrivals' initial torpedo spread fireworked harmlessly in the subspace eddies left in the vanishing Federation starship's wake.

Enterprise's parting torpedo detonated too, but not quite so harmlessly.

It struck the Kobayashi Maru's aft holding tank.

The one containing 97,000 metric tons of neutronic fuel.

The fireball filled the sky and removed any thoughts of further pursuit from the minds of the surviving Klingon captains.

"We have cleared the Neutral Zone," Saavik reported calmly a few seconds later. "Negative pursuit. My scope is clear."

Cadets and "enlisted" proctors alike looked around at each other in a startled silence for a few minutes, their nerves still vibrating from the crescendo of tension they'd all just endured.

Gryphon spoke first, thumbing his intercom panel. "Sickbay, conn. What's the butcher's bill?"

"Seventeen injured, two seriously," Dr. Lincoln's voice replied at once. "All stable. If we get Jaworsky and S'taah to a starbase within 24 hours, they'll be okay. The freighter's crew are doing fine."

"Nobody killed?"

"No, sir."

"Thank you. Carry on."

"Aye aye, Captain."

Gryphon closed the channel, sat back, patted Porthos, and looked around at his bridge. Everyone there was looking back at him as it sank in.

Gaila was the first to say it out loud:

"We... we did it."

"Hot damn!" Winston Zeddemore burst out. "We had the tools, we had the talent!"

As the cheering began, the voice of SIMCON shattered the fourth wall: "End simulation."

The consoles went dark, the forward viewer parted, and the uniformed figures of the SIMSUPs peered in. A moment later, Lincoln, Preston, and Chekova edged around them, coming in from the other modules, to join their victorious crewmates on the "bridge".

The SIMSUPs stood around in something like awe, and Admiral Pike with a beaming air of satisfaction, as the cadets congratulated each other with high-fives, hugs, and other jubilant disregards of military decorum - until a harsh voice suddenly cut in:


At this, everyone (apart from Porthos and Pike) snapped to attention. Almost elbowing his way around the SIMSUPs, the lean, hard-faced figure of Admiral Roger Cartwright strode into the bridge simulator, making straight for the man standing by the conn.

"All right, mister, explanation," he snapped. "How in the hell did you do that? Did Kirk help you come up with some updated version of his damned patch? I suppose you think you're clever."

Gryphon blinked. "Uh... " He shrugged, conceding the point. "Well, Admiral, I suppose I do think I'm clever, but, uh, no, Admiral Kirk didn't have anything to do with it. If you check with SIMCON and the rest of the crew, you'll find that the simulation software has not been altered." As he spoke, Saavik stepped up behind and to the right of the conn, ready to offer her own evidence if need be.

Cartwright ignored her, staying focused on Gryphon. "Well, if it hasn't been altered, then - "

Gryphon couldn't keep the grin off his face. "That's right, sir. We whipped 'em the old-fashioned way - by being better spacers than they were."

Cartwright hesitated, as if building up steam for an explosion - only to have it dissipate harmlessly as Christopher Pike stepped around the conn and put a hand on his arm.

"Rog," he said, "I was here the whole time. These kids didn't do anything but fight the sharpest damn action I've seen since the Tioji Drift. I'll certify that to an Inquiry Board if you insist." He leaned closer to his fellow admiral and added in an undertone, "But I really hope you don't."

Cartwright stood looking from Gryphon to Saavik to Pike and back to Gryphon, trying to come up with something suitably scathing. In the end, though, all he could come up with was a low growl of, "... knew enrolling you was a mistake," and then he pivoted on his heel and stormed away.

"Well, I guess I'd better steer clear of Admiral Cartwright for a while," Gryphon observed philosophically. "On the other hand, I try to make that a general policy anyway, so."

Pike smiled. "Well, let me be the first to say it, then, since he couldn't be bothered - that was damn fine work. All of you," he said, raising his voice to take in the whole cadet group. "I'd take my ship into a fight with any of you, any day."

Caught up in the moment, one of the SIMSUPs - the one who had played the Kobayashi Maru's captain - cried, "Three cheers for Captain Hutchins and his crew! Hip hip!"

"HOORAY!" the rest of the SIMSUPs chorused, and twice more, before dispersing back to their duties.

Pike unclipped Porthos's harness from the deck ring. "C'mon, Porthos," he said. "Let's leave these kids to their celebration. They've earned it," he added with a wink to Saavik, who looked entirely uncertain how or whether to respond.

"Good boy, Porthos," said Gryphon, scruffling the dog in parting. "You brought us luck!"

"Who's for lunch at the Lucky Dragon?" Zeddemore asked. "I'm buyin'!"

"I'll catch up with you guys there," said Gryphon, waving, as the others headed for the door. "I need to file my sim reports. Shouldn't take but a minute."

"I will wait on the Quad," Saavik remarked with one of her non-smiles as she left.

Gryphon turned back to the conn to retrieve his log module and saw the stocky figure of SIMCON, Commander Hardin, standing by the cosmocompass and regarding him thoughtfully. Retired from front-line service after suffering serious injury in battle with the very Klingons he used as simulated enemies, Hardin was notoriously difficult to please - but today he looked oddly approachable, so Gryphon approached him.

"Commander," said Gryphon. "Thanks for a straight run today. There were a million places where you guys could have tripped us up if you'd wanted to."

Hardin smiled. "When I figured out what you were trying to do, I didn't have the heart to cheat," he said. "What the hell. You weren't." He held out his hand. "I don't normally shake hands with mids after sim runs, but I'll make an exception this time. You, sir, are a spaceman."

"Thanks, Commander," said Gryphon, shaking his hand. "That means a lot, coming from you."

He was halfway across the Quad when Saavik fell into step beside him. "I have rarely seen Admiral Pike so... gleeful," she said.

The crew dined in huge style at their favorite Chinatown eatery, standing rounds of dim sum for the whole place and hailing each other as indispensable to the project's success, though when it came right down to it, they all agreed that Valya Chekova was the day's real all-star. Then they returned to the Academy and the sort of welcome usually reserved for victorious sports teams, as the word of what they had done had spread to the far corners of the campus while they ate.

And the next day, they were scattered: Gryphon to Challenger, others to the real Enterprise, or to other duty stations, or final touch-up coursework, or home for the summer holidays. Within a few weeks, one of them would be dead, killed in a real battle aboard a real starship.

The eight members of the cadet crew that beat the Kobayashi Maru fair and square would never again all be together at once.

But on the wall of the Simulation Center, they are together forever, around a corner table at the Lucky Dragon.

"The Final Simulation" - a Split Infinitive mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Saturday, March 8, 2380
Socko Soda Bottling Co.
outside Vesper, Musashi

Despite the run-down, oppressive industrial setting and the lowering greyish-pink sky, the mood at Socko Base was festive that Saturday. All hands - the 33 Invincible survivors left after the Surprise's crew left for Meizuri and Salusia - were hard at work packing up the base and preparing for extraction. They worked cheerfully, buoyed by the news that their beloved captain had captured his nemesis and was set to have his day in court. They would all be there when the time came, to stand by him and show their solidarity to the legal apparatus of this strange new cosmos - about that they were unanimously determined.

Lieutenant Francis Prescott sat on a packing case and watched his shipmates at their work. He did this not because he was lazy, nor because he had some strange idea of his position as the officer in nominal command of the equally nominal station, but because Dr. Selar was still not quite happy - excuse me, not quite satisfied - with the condition of his leg. This appendage had been badly broken in the run-up to the crash of the Invincible, owing to an argument then-Ensign Prescott had with the starboard ladder in Impulse Engineering when the ship's internal gravity momentarily lost track of itself, and the doctor had had the very devil of a time convincing the rather narrow range of osteogenerative gene sequences that had survived the wreck to get along and play well with Prescott's apparently finicky immune system.

Even now, after several days of more successful treatment, Selar didn't consider the young officer's leg sturdy enough to bear anything much in the way of hard work. He no longer wore a cast and he could get around just fine with the aid of a makeshift cane, but he still had a bit of a limp and the occasional sharp pain shot down from knee to ankle with a quite shocking suddenness and intensity, especially when he moved or bore weight upon it unexpectedly. The doctor had told him these were normal - signs that the bones were knitting properly, and a regrettable but inevitable side effect of the accelerated healing. But they, like the limb's ongoing weakness, were enough to keep him from helping to pack.

In his heart of hearts, Prescott worried about this a little. He believed that his acting-order as lieutenant had come as a surprise to some of his shipmates, and it wouldn't have surprised him to learn that some of them resented it. After all, while other members of the Invincible's crew had been perishing for the sake of their comrades in acts of miniature but no less genuine heroism all over the ship in her final moments, Prescott had been lying unconscious in sickbay, strapped firmly to a biobed, his leg immobilized in temporary gelfoam. The ship had crashed into a mountain and he had slept through it, a feat which had already won him the nickname "Rip Van Prescott" among his few fellow survivors from Engineering.

It would never have occurred to Prescott, a paradoxically self-deprecating but image-conscious young man, that he had earned his rest that day. Even before his fall from the top of No. 2 reactor, he'd garnered lasting fame as the officer whose quick thinking and decisive command of the evacuation had saved 23 people from the portside warp engineering watch before the E-hull went up - one of them, a Vulcan woman (presumably a fill-in from some other watch, he didn't recognize her), by personally dragging her up the saucer pylon's larboard emergency companionway. Then he had reported to Impulse Engineering rather than seek treatment for his own burns and bruises; then he had suffered that shockingly broken leg when the gravity blipped; then he had crawled to the auxiliary command console on the lower level and helped to stabilize the reactor before he would finally allow himself to be carried to sickbay. Everyone who knew what Francis E. Prescott III had done during the Invincible's last battle agreed without reservation that the young officer was a spaceman of the first order.

Prescott knew none of this. He judged his worth only on the basis of the last thing he had done, and the last thing he had done was sleep through the crash and, indeed, its entire aftermath. He had regained consciousness on Musashi, right here in Socko Base, and his only part in the survivors' odyssey across the frozen wastes of Xawin was as baggage. He hadn't helped set up the station here, and now, thanks to his leg, he wasn't able to help pull it down either. He felt useless, quite unnecessary, his promotion unearned.

Not that, in the end, it was likely to mean much; Starfleet Command was hardly in a position to confirm the captain's acting order, after all. Prescott was in no way ungrateful for the gesture, but he was pragmatic enough to know that it had been mostly symbolic. No one had really thought ahead to what would become of them all once Captain Hutchins had had his day in court, but whatever their fate, Prescott doubted that his would hinge on whether he'd been made a lieutenant without proper consultation with Headquarters.

He looked up from his rumination to see the tall, dark figure of Senior Chief Petty Officer Alberto Giotto, the ranking survivor among the Invincible's enlisted security personnel, approaching his perch. The captain had left Giotto in charge of Socko Base's security, a task which Prescott was perfectly happy leaving to him. Truth be told, he felt a bit silly commanding senior noncoms with combat experience like Giotto and Gunnery Sergeant Breckenridge of the Marines anyway. Giotto had ten years' seniority with Starfleet Security, and Breckenridge had almost twice that in the Marine Corps. Prescott, on the other hand, was barely six months out of Starfleet Academy, and an engineer to boot. He'd never been in a situation where he was even issued a phaser outside a firing range.

Giotto didn't seem to think it was silly, though; his face was entirely serious as he said, "Lieutenant, you'd better come see this."

Prescott got up from the crate, collected his cane, and followed Giotto across the process floor, up a couple of flights of metal stairs (his limp only slowing him down a little bit), and out onto an exterior catwalk that had once overlooked the loading dock area. Up here was one of the observation posts, perfectly positioned to cover the western approaches to the back of the plant. There wasn't much to see out there - only the blackened skeletons of Socko Soda's less resilient neighbors and a few low, scour-topped hills - but the security plan called for watching all sides, and now, apparently, that vigilance was paying off.

The sentry on duty in this post was a wiry young Earthman with slightly exaggerated sideburns in the style still popularly known as the Starfleet Academy trim. He wore yellow-tinted shooter's goggles and a nonregulation slouch hat with the brim pinned up on one side, and was leaning over the telescopic sight attached to his phaser rifle.

"Still there, Mundy?" Giotto asked.

"Yessir," Mundy replied, his antipodean accent, like Prescott's own English one, still apparent despite the homogenizing influence of Starfleet's standard-language training. "Three more have arrived since you left. They're staying low and spreading out. I think they're using that old road as a guideline."

Prescott picked up a monocular spotter's sight from the makeshift crate table that made up part of the Australian's sniper nest and had a look for himself.

"Good eyes, Mundy," he muttered as he spotted the first one, a dark-clad figure in what looked like a long coat and ballcap, moving low to the ground in a furtive crouch.

"Thank you, sir," Mundy replied, not looking up from his rifle scope.

Prescott scanned the rest of the area, then turned to Giotto, offering him the optic.

"I've got a bad feeling about this," he said. "Take a look at that. They're not just following the road, they're using the ditch for cover."

Giotto looked and saw that the young officer was right. A dull chill settled into the pit of his stomach as he realized what the mysterious figures out there were up to.

"They're encircling the plant," he said. He pulled out his communicator, flipped it open, and said, "Giotto to Breckenridge. Perimeter check."

Breckenridge's voice replied, "You must be psychic, Al, I was just about to call you. I've got four - make that five people strung out in a rough skirmish line about 200 meters south of our position. Looks like they're trying to find hides."

"Keep watching them."

"Roger that."

Giotto went to switch channels, but his communicator beeped with an incoming call before he had the chance. "Giotto."

"Ecklund, Chief," came the voice of Breckenridge's number-two Marine. "I've got five humanoids taking up positions to the north, range about 150 meters, in the ruins of that old cannery. I don't think they know we're aware of them."

"Are they armed?"

"No long arms that I can see. They might have handguns - I can't tell at this range. They don't appear to be uniformed."

"Okay, stay sharp."

"Aye aye, Chief."

Giotto commed off, then adjusted the device and signaled once more: "Giotto to Sv'aal."

"Go ahead, Chief." Sv'aal was a Cetian reptiloid; her voice had a faint sibilant quality, like a cartoon snake's, that always made Prescott wonder whether she was doing it on purpose.

"Perimeter check. Do you see anything?"

"Negative," Sv'aal replied. "The easst approach is clear. ... Wait. Belay that. I have a group of... I make it ssixteen humanoidss approaching up the old accesss road."

"Do they appear to be any kind of legitimate authority?"

"Not unlesss the copss on thiss planet order their uniformss from the hobo catalog," Sv'aal replied. "Their clothess are old and filthy, and none of them match. But," she added with a faint note of apprehension, "their gunss look like they work."

That was all Giotto needed to hear; galvanized into action, he dashed back inside and down the stairs, making for the security checkpoint at the front of the old bottling plant, where the guard shack had once been. Prescott followed, making excellent time for a man with a cane, the pains in his leg pushed out of his mind by the sudden urgency of the situation.

Sv'aal's dark-green scales had a dull shine in the muted sunlight penetrating the overcast above as she and her two colleagues, another security crewman and a Marine, crouched behind the concrete barricade next to the guard post and watched the approaching armed group. Giotto joined them, and Prescott arrived seconds later.

"Have they made any hostile moves?" Prescott asked.

"No, ssir," Sv'aal replied. "But," she added, hazarding a speculation, "they don't sstrike me as the welcome wagon."

Before Prescott could respond beyond quirking a small smile, the group of ill-clad but armed humans halted fifteen meters or so from the checkpoint. One of them, a tall human male with the beginnings of a beard showing through the grime on his face, stepped away from the rest of the group and spoke in a voice just below a shout.

"I want to talk to the person in charge here - now."

Prescott raised an eyebrow. "Well," he said to the others around him, "as ranking officer, I suppose I should go and ask them what they want."

"Sir, these people's intentions are unknown," Giotto objected. "They're armed and it's safe to assume the other people out there working to encircle the base are with them. Confronting them head-on is needlessly dangerous in my opinion. Let me talk to them."

"I appreciate your concern for my safety, Chief," Prescott said, "but it's my responsibility, not yours. Besides which," he added with a self-deprecating smile, "if something goes wrong, you'll be needed by the others more than I will."

Giotto looked for a moment as if he intended to argue further; then he checked himself and nodded. "I've got your back, Lieutenant."

"I haven't the slighest doubt of it," Prescott replied, smiling. Then he straightened up, stepped around the end of the barricade, and walked toward the ragtag group until he was within easy earshot of them. While he advanced, the only sound was the tip of his cane tapping the cracked pavement.

"I'm Lieutenant Francis Prescott, late of the starship Invincible," he declared. "I'm in command of this outpost. State your business."

The bearded man snorted derisively and spat on the ground. "Outpost? This is a ruined soda factory, Lieutenant," he said, with heavy, mocking emphasis on Prescott's rank. "But, sure, if you wanna play it that way. My name's Dane. I represent the Greater Vesper Vigilance Society." He gestured to the people around him. "Let's get right down to brass tacks, Lieutenant. We know the Butcher is here. We want him. You're gonna give him to us, or we'll be forced to consider you his accomplices."

Prescott affected a look of unconcerned incomprehension. "There are no butchers here," he said. "We're shipwreck survivors, waiting for our shipmates to finish arranging our rescue. We're certainly not harboring any criminals, if that's what you're implying."

"That Valkyrie you're trying to hide in the loading dock says otherwise," Dane replied, sneering. "Pretty famous piece of kit. Where'd a bunch of shipwreck survivors come by a thing like that, now, and not even knowing the Butcher?"

"If you're referring to the criminal known as the Butcher of Musashi, I believe you'll find that he's just been captured on Salusia," Prescott told him coldly. "Now, if there is nothing else I can explicate for you, perhaps you'd be so good as to take your posse and leave us in peace. Good day to you, sir."

Dane pulled a weapon - some kind of compact blaster, Prescott guessed - from his belt and aimed it at him. "Not so fast. We've got this dump surrounded and we're not leaving until you prove to us that the Butcher isn't here - and that you don't know him. Even if he has been caught somewhere else, his accomplices are worth a pretty penny."

Prescott drew himself up. "Accomplices? Of a notorious mass murderer? How dare you, sir! We are officers and crew of a Federation starship, and we will not be bullied into 'proving' anything to any... any vigilante rabble! And before you consider making some sort of example of me, sir," he added as Dane's fist tightened on the grip of his weapon, "consider the implications of what I have just said!"

Dane looked confused. He lowered the blaster slightly, so he could regard Prescott without the sights in the way, and said, "What implications?"

"Ah, well, maybe you are not aware of the special security equipment issued to all Federation crews," Prescott replied.

"What the hell is he talking about?" Giotto whispered.

"Ssearch me," Sv'aal replied.

"What 'special equipment'?" Dane demanded.

Prescott smiled coldly. "So you don't know? That surprises me. I mean, I know it's still classified, but I had thought it was an open secret by now. You truly don't know about the implants?"

"Implants?" Giotto muttered, completely lost now.

Seeing that Dane wasn't following him either, Prescott took on a didactic air (unconsciously imitating one of his favorite lecturers in Academy engineering classes). "You see, every member of the Starfleet, upon induction, receives a special bionic implant. This device contains a small quantity of a substance called... corbomite."

Giotto clapped his free hand over his mouth to keep any sound from escaping, while Sv'aal and the Marine regarded him curiously.

"In the event of a potentially lethal assault upon the officer's person," Prescott went on, "the corbomite is released directly into the prefrontal cortex of the brain. There it has the interesting effect of magnifying the subject's survival instinct by a factor of... oh, I forget the technical details, something on the order of ten thousandfold. The side effects of this magnification are quite impressive. While it lasts, the subject has the strength of ten men and the ferocity of a Mongol army, and is absolutely indifferent to pain, fatigue, and fear. He is, in effect, a walking dead man - if the injury that triggered the implant doesn't kill him, the stress of the corbomite effect will - but before he goes... well, he can make quite a mess. In this way the fleet makes certain that no one can ever murder one of its personnel with impunity.

"Now, having said that, Mr. Dane, I urge you to consider your position. You may be able to kill me without much difficulty, but if you do, my shipmates will retire into the facility and defend it to the utmost. You won't be able to shift them; if you want them, you'll have to go inside and get them. The building is filled with traps, hidden weapons, all the dirty tricks the Federation's darkest military minds could devise... and of course the people. They won't give up. They won't surrender. You'll have to kill them... and I've told you what will happen then."

Prescott limped forward, ignoring the muzzle of Dane's weapon, and noted with entirely hidden satisfaction that the rest of Dane's group all edged away, eyes wide, making no attempt to draw their own arms. He stopped at barely arm's length from the vigilante leader, staring him down.

"Believe me, sir, the last thing you want to be confronting in a confined space full of traps and barricades is a horde of corbomite-infused corpses-in-waiting." Looking straight into Dane's eyes, Prescott finished, "You may kill us all, but you and your colleagues will die far more horrible deaths than our own."

Dane stood staring at him, uncertain just what sort of madman he was dealing with. His weapon wandered uncertainly; then, with a visible effort to get hold of himself, the vigilante raised the gun and aimed it square at Prescott's head.

"Go ahead, then," Prescott told him. "Death has little meaning for us, you know. Our job is predicated on a disregard for mortality. Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence - the fleet has little use for recruits who spend all their time worrying about how they will perish. But if you do shoot me, Mr. Dane?" Prescott smiled a rather ghastly smile, still looking directly into Dane's eyes. "I hope for your sake that your shot is lucky enough to cripple my implant."

Dane stared at the casually smiling young man for a full four seconds, then withdrew his blaster and took a half-step back.

"Fall back to the outer perimeter," he ordered his followers, his voice wavering only slightly. Then, giving Prescott a sneer in a half-hearted attempt to seize back some moral territory with bravado, he added, "We'll starve 'em out."

Prescott watched them go until they stopped just outside the ruins of the soda plant's chain-link fence, then turned and limped back to the checkpoint.

"That was beautiful, sir," Giotto said.

Prescott grinned. "Liked that, did you?" he said, uncomplicatedly pleased. "I wasn't entirely convinced it was going to work." Then, glancing back over his shoulder, he continued on into the building with Giotto at his side, adding in a lower voice, "I don't think it'll hold them forever, though." Turning to Giotto, he said, "I'd be glad of the benefit of your experience, Senior Chief."

Giotto smiled tightly, acknowledging the young officer's deference to him in matters pertaining to his specialty. "First thing we need to do is double the watches. Then we can get started reinforcing the fortifications; everyone who's not needed for that should concentrate on being ready for a quick evac once our ride gets here."

Prescott nodded. "Make it so, Chief," he said. "For my part, I shall signal Surprise, see if I can't get them to put on a bit more speed."

Monday, March 10, 2380

As the crew swiftly but not hurriedly broke down the remainder of the camp and transferred everything into the Surprise's hold, Lt. Prescott stood at the base of the ramp giving his report to Commander Saavik.

"... and that was that. We thought briefly that they were thinking of trying us early this morning, but Mundy's sharpshooting discouraged their probing force to the west quickly enough." Prescott smiled. "I don't think they realized a phaser rifle could stun at 230 meters. After that they kept their heads down, and before they could muster the courage for another attempt, you arrived."

Saavik said nothing for a moment, her eyes flicking back and forth as she scanned the précis of his report on her datapad. Then she looked up and said,

"Corbomite, Lieutenant?"

Prescott smiled. "I've always been a keen student of the classics, ma'am."

To the young officer's considerable shock, the Invincible's inscrutable Vulcan first officer smiled, if only very slightly, in return.

"Well done, Mr. Prescott," she said.

"Th... thank you, Commander," he said. She held the eighth-smile on him for another full second, then turned to give the imminently-reabandoned facility a final visual sweep.

"That'ss the lasst of the containerss, ssir," Sv'aal reported to Prescott. "All perssonnel aboard. Ssocko Basse is evacuated."

"Thank you, Crewman." Sv'aal nodded and went up the ramp. Prescott turned to Saavik, though the Vulcan had of course heard Sv'aal's report perfectly well for herself, and relayed the report anyway, as tradition required: "Evacuation complete, Commander."

Saavik nodded. "Very well, Lieutenant." She glanced at his leg and cane. "What is your condition?"

"Fit for duty, ma'am," he replied at once. "A bit of a limp, but nothing that'll keep me from working."

"I see. Then you may report to Engineering. I'm sure Mr. Lang would appreciate your assistance."

"Right away, ma'am." Prescott turned and stumped up the ramp, but Saavik's voice halted him halfway up.

"Lt. Prescott," she said.

Prescott stopped and turned. "Ma'am?"

"You may be pleased to know that this dimension's Starfleet has accepted our credentials as regards rank and seniority - a legal necessity before we will be qualified to speak at Captain Hutchins's trial. Though we are not members of this Starfleet, your promotion in our own is now as official as it can be."

Prescott worked that thought through the gears in his head, then smiled.

"Thank you, Commander," he said, and then finished going on board.

Saavik stood at the base of the ramp for a moment longer, looking through the open loading dock doors; then she turned, ascended into the Surprise, retracted the ramp, and went forward to the bridge.

"Mr. Hunter," she said, "raise ship. Destination: Earth."

Max Hunter grinned. "With pleasure, ma'am," he said, and within a minute, the Surprise was gone from Musashi, never - every member of her crew fervently hoped - to return.

"Prescott's Bluff" - a Manhunt mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Friday, February 15, 2385
The Kapalis Wastes
Vulcan, Vega sector

Even by the standards of the average Vulcan, the Kapalis Wastes were inhospitable. The nearest city was hundreds of miles away, and there was no particular reason why anyone would ever come this far out into the equatorial desert belt. Relatively few people even knew there was a dwelling out here - but a dwelling there was, a small domed structure in a style typical of small homes in a thousand deserts around the galaxy, standing next to a wind-scoured sandstone bluff to take advantage of what little shade there was in this dry and torrid place.

Into this mean landscape a man came who was not himself mean. He arrived by transporter in a wash of orange light, wearing a loose-fitting long coat and a floppy-brimmed hat against the sun, materializing perhaps a half-mile from the little cliffside house. He could have arrived closer, of course, but he considered that that would have been rude, especially since he'd come unannounced. He had little choice in that regard, since the house had no communications equipment of any kind.

Squinting against the harsh Vulcan sun, Benjamin "Gryphon" Hutchins took a moment to note, for nothing like the first time, that it was always a little hotter, a little dryer, and a little higher-gravity on Vulcan than he remembered from the last time he was there. Then, with a resigned sigh, he took a drink from his canteen and set off toward the house.

He had come to within a hundred yards or so of the front door when a more-or-less humanoid figure in a shapeless, rough-spun, hooded grey robe emerged from the front door and seemed to regard him for a few moments. He raised a hand in greeting -

- then yanked it down again when the figure produced a blaster rifle and pumped a warning shot into the dust at his feet, making a little glassy pockmark in the desert floor.

"Come no closer," the robed figure ordered in a flat but carrying voice.

"Now that's a hell of a welcome for an old shipmate," Gryphon called back.

"You are not welcome." The muzzle of the rifle came up, steady and menacing. "Be on your way."

Gryphon didn't seem concerned. He kept his hands at his sides, his only concession to anything like surrender being to turn his open palms forward, and walked casually toward the weapon and its wielder.

"I've been cleared, you know," he said conversationally.

"I had heard. Despite my best efforts, I am not entirely out of touch with the outside world. If you take one more step, I will shoot you."

"Please," said Gryphon disbelievingly. "You will not." He took the next step. There was a pause while he and the robed figure regarded each other across the few paces of open space that remained between them.

With a small noise of frustration, the latter put up her weapon, then pulled back her hood, revealing herself to be a youngish Vulcan woman with the characteristic high cheekbones and sharply raked eyebrows of her people, her long brown hair drawn back into a surprisingly disordered sheaf. More unusually still, she glared at the Earthman with something not far from outright hostility.

Gryphon smiled. "Hello, T'Pol." Then, his tone still casual, he observed, "I don't think I've ever seen you epically pissed off before. It looks surprisingly good on you."

"You have twenty-three seconds to tell me what you are doing here," T'Pol replied flatly.

Gryphon frowned thoughtfully. "Twenty-three?"

"You wasted seven in a futile attempt to be charming. You have since wasted six more."

Gryphon considered this, then shrugged and said, "I'm putting the band back together."

T'Pol turned her back on him. "Go away."

"Can't. My ship won't be back overhead for three hours."

She looked back over her shoulder, skepticism and outright annoyance mingling on her face. "You arranged this deliberately."

He shrugged. "Maybe."

T'Pol turned back to face him, gave him a severe look for a few seconds, then said, "I should leave you out here. For a man of your... abilities... three hours in direct sunlight should pose no great hardship, even here."

Gryphon put his hands in his trouser pockets, pinning back the tails of his coat, and smiled cheerfully. "But you're not going to, because you were raised right."

"But I'm not going to," T'Pol went on as if he hadn't spoken, "because, improbable as it seems, someone might pass by and see you here."

"I'll take that," he said agreeably as he followed her inside.

"I trust you won't be attempting any of your old cheap moves," she said.

"No, no. I have all new cheap moves," he replied, but she ignored him, moving through what appeared to be a small sitting room and into the next room. Gryphon stopped, blinking in the sudden dimness, and as soon as he could make out the furniture, he put his hat down on a low table in the middle of the room, then sat down in a chair that proved to be as uncomfortable as it looked.

A few minutes later, T'Pol returned, having left her roughspun cloak in the kitchen, dressed only in simple desert robes that reminded Gryphon of the traditional garb of humanoid Jedi Knights. She carried a small tray, on which stood two teacups and a battered stainless steel pot. She put the tray on the table next to his hat, seated herself in another chair catercorner to the one he'd selected, and poured tea.

"I did not come out here to the center of Vulcan's most inhospitable desert in order to welcome casual visitors," she informed him.

Gryphon raised his cup in a silent toast. "And yet you still own more than one teacup."

"Do not presume to psychoanalyze me."

"I'm just making conversation."

"My obligation to shelter you until your ship returns does not extend to humoring your desire for conversation," T'Pol said coldly.

Somewhat to her surprise, Gryphon's response to this was to shrug, as if to say "fair enough," sip his tea, and then settle back into something like meditation. She looked at him for a few moments, then mirrored his posture, closed her eyes, and tried to ignore him.

Four days ago
Utopia Planitia Naval Shipyard
Zeta Cygni, Cygnus sector

Nearing the end of the third hour of their telephone conversation, they came back around - as his and Zoner's phone conversations often did - to the original topic of discussion.

"... so it's not the ships that are the problem," Gryphon said, "it's staffing them. Oh, sure, we can get recruits. Now that the Force's name is clear - well, as clear as the Federation court system and a concerted PR effort can make it - we don't lack for recruits. But we need officers with experience, and there just aren't that many willing to leave whatever jobs they're in now."

"What about the old gang?" Zoner said. "There were plenty of people in the outfit back in the day who were ready, or almost ready, to have commands of their own. We just didn't have the ships for them. They can't all be dead."

"I've found a few," Gryphon said. "So have Max and Miria, and Maia's outfit's scooped up more than one. But a lot of them are still hiding, and some just don't want anything to do with us."

"What about the Interservice Exchange?" Zoner mused. "We had dozens of officers from other services who spent time with us. Some must still be out there, and they all had a great time. Even our first Vulcan IE officer enjoyed herself."

Gryphon took the phone away from his head and gave the receiver a quizzical look, then put it back to his ear and said, "Are you talking about T'Pol?"

"Yeah. I think so," said Zoner. "Olive complexion, about so high, Moe Howard haircut, Lara Croft lips."

"Zoner, she had a psychotic episode."

"Well, yeah, but after that," Zoner explained helpfully.

Gryphon accepted this without comment, noting instead, "She was posted to Enterprise. She must be missing with the rest of them."

"No, she's on Vulcan," said Zoner positively. "I think she was on some kind of compassionate leave when the shit hit the fan. Anyway, I saw her there last year."

"What were you doing on Vulcan?"

"Workin'," replied Zoner vaguely.

An hour passed in silence before T'Pol opened one eye, looked at Gryphon, and felt a thoroughly irrational surge of annoyance at his silent placidity.

"Well?" she said.

His eyes opened immediately, dispelling any hope she'd had that he might have fallen asleep. "Well what?"

"Are you simply going to sit there?"

"You said you didn't want to talk."

T'Pol stewed in this remark for a few seconds, then asked sharply, "Why did you come here?"

"I told you. I'm putting the band back together." Seeing that she wasn't going to be satisfied with the metaphor, he elaborated, "The WDF needs experienced, capable officers who have experience with the original form of the outfit. As you can imagine, after nearly a century, there aren't that many left."

"I'm not interested," she said, though the look on her face contradicted her. "You have wasted your time."

"Why are you so mad at me?" he asked bluntly. "Last time we saw each other I came away thinking we were cool."

"Much has happened since then, little of it good," she told him, "and most of it predicated on your actions. Yours and those of the other command staff. Succinctly put, you failed the rest of us when we needed you most, and a great many of us paid for your frailties with our lives."

T'Pol looked away, aware that she'd said too much if she wanted simply to give him the cold shoulder and send him away. She still remembered his damnable compassion, and she knew she'd inadvertently given him a glimpse of the pain that dwelt within her. He was as pernicious as a Charismatic in his ability to sense such things, then tease them out into the open. She had no intention of letting him practice on her.

Gryphon got up, picked up his hat, and said, "Okay. I didn't come here to dredge up painful memories, though I suppose it was kind of inevitable. I'll wait outside. You're right, it's nothing I won't be able to handle." He stepped toward the door, then looked back at her with sadness on his face and said, "I'll leave you alone. You won't see me again. Goodbye, T'Pol."

His hand had almost reached the control that would open the door when she spoke. Her voice was low, monotonal, almost mechanical, and she wasn't looking at him, or anything else, really - just a spot on the adobe wall opposite her chair.

"Do you remember what you told me on Hoth?" she asked.

Gryphon blinked. "The thing from The Lion King?"

T'Pol shook her head. "No. It had to do with the benefit - indeed, by your standards, the necessity - of disregarding caution."

Wednesday, February 22, 2274
Hoth, Anoat sector

Bundled up heavily against the shark-toothed afternoon winds of the ice planet, Gryphon and T'Pol stood atop the ridgeline overlooking Echo Base and watched the planet's feeble sun dip toward the far horizon.

"Look around you, Subcommander," Gryphon said. "There's more to see than can ever be seen; more to do than - hang on, sorry, that's The Lion King." He shook his head. "All I'm trying to say is that it's not the end of the world. In fact, you may find that it opens up whole new continua of experience for you." He put an arm over her thickly padded shoulders and gestured expansively with his free hand. "Sometimes you just have to say... 'What the fuck.'" Warming to his topic, he went on to explain, "'What the fuck' gives you freedom. Freedom leads to opportunity. And opportunity gives you a future."

"I took that advice to heart," T'Pol went on quietly, "as I had never taken any before. I threw myself into a great experiment, body and soul, adopting the mantra you proposed and using it as my guide. Four years later, I joined Enterprise at your recommendation and my fate was truly sealed. In the end, I cast aside millennia of tradition and decades of training outright in order to embrace my shipmates' human experiences with both arms." She stood slowly up, turning to face him. "I wept. I laughed. I explored every forbidden corner of the ancient passions - I even permitted myself to love. I adopted the Wedge Defender spirit to an extent rarely seen even in the Force's most human members... and in the end, what did it profit me?"

Stalking toward him, her eyes fixed on his, she said in a rapidly gathering tone of savage anger, "My shipmates dead. My reputation destroyed. My life in ruins. Unwelcome on my homeworld and hunted everywhere else, I found that there was nowhere left in the cosmos where I could belong." T'Pol jabbed a fingertip into his chest. "You made me unfit to live among my own kind and then permitted the only society in which I could survive to collapse." Toe to toe, nearly nose to nose, with him, she all but snarled up into his face (for she was not a particularly tall woman), "Do you not therefore think I might have reason to be angry with you?"

Gryphon looked into her furious face for a few seconds, his own expression faintly mournful. He slowly raised his hands, running them gently up her arms, and then closed them over her slim shoulders; she tensed, as if preparing to pull away, but didn't move.

"I'm sorry," he said. When she didn't reply, he bowed his head, his forehead nearly touching hers, and went on, "I'm sorry you had to go through all that. I'm sorry for the part I played. And I'm sorry... so, so sorry... that you feel it was all for nothing now."

His hands slipped off her shoulders, across her back; she stiffened in surprise and reflexive discomfort, but again - though it would have been a trivial task to do so - didn't break away from him as he enfolded her in a firm embrace.

"You're right," he said, and she could tell from the break in his voice that he was weeping - genuinely weeping - oddly cool human tears dripping onto her shoulder and soaking slowly into the fabric of her tunic. "I failed you. We failed everybody."

T'Pol stood where she was for a moment, her anger completely disintegrated, feeling vaguely foolish. Then, her movements awkward with long lack of practice, she cautiously worked her arms around him as well, under his coat, and returned his embrace. They stood there together for several long, silent, motionless minutes, just... holding on.

"Giving you another chance," she observed quietly, "would be illogical."

"Yes," Gryphon agreed.

"The cost if you failed me again would be appalling," she went on. "It seems unlikely that I would be able to go on at all."

"I know," he whispered.

The moment stretched taut, then parted.

"Well... what the fuck," said T'Pol.

Wednesday, October 12, 2388
Utopia Planitia Naval Shipyard
Zeta Cygni, Cygnus sector

The new Wedge Defense Force was on full alert, in the midst of a fast and deft transition from fleet-in-waiting to fleet in action, and Benjamin Hutchins was in the midst of a transition of his own. As he strode down one of the shipyard corridors toward one of the last of the new ships to get underway, he was halfway out of one persona - Master Engineer of the Yard - and halfway into another - rear admiral commanding the fleet's Blue squadron in the impending action against the GENOM Corporation's mammoth navy. But that was all right, since the errand he was on now called for him to wear both hats, as it were.

He wasn't wearing any hat as he stepped through the airlock into the entry port of the newly completed ship, one of a hundred putting to space for the second time - the first having been fleet acceptance trials - for this battle. The bosun's mate on duty in said entry port saluted and piped him aboard; he declined her offer of an escort to the bridge. He'd designed the ship, after all. He knew where to find it.

Gryphon emerged onto the bridge after six full seconds in the turbolift (just long enough to appreciate the placard inside the car reading "WELCOME TO THE GARDEN STATE PARKWAY"). The ship, in the throes of preparing for launch and combat simultaneously, was a hive of activity, nowhere more so than the bridge; but the whole thing was calmly furious activity, administered by a steady hand.

"Admiral on the bridge," said the captain, standing erect next to her conn, hands folded behind her back.

"As you were," Gryphon said before anyone else could get up. He stepped down into the bullseye and faced the ship's captain, a smile stealing onto his face despite the incredible pressure he found himself under on this, the most hectic in a long series of hectic days.

"Well, Captain T'Pol," he said. "How do you find your ship today?"

"All systems operational, all personnel prepared," T'Pol replied at once. "New Jersey is ready for sea, Admiral."

He stood and took her in for a moment, in her trimly cut, double-breasted, brass-buttoned, long-tailed jacket of royal blue, her razor-creased white serge trousers, her sturdy black shoes, and her precisely angled white captain's cap with its black leather bill shined to a mirror-like finish, and his smile broadened.

"And you?" he asked in a quieter, more personal tone of voice, as the members of her bridge crew tended to their business all around them and tried to pretend that they weren't listening intently to every word that passed between their captain and the admiral.

T'Pol raised a hand and brushed a lock of her neatly trimmed hair behind one pointed ear, smiling very slightly.

"I'm right where I belong," she said.

"Good to hear." He handed her the packet of sailcloth-wrapped papers he had under his arm. "Your orders, Captain. New Jersey is officially transferred out of Construction Command and into Blue Squadron. You'll be under battle orders from the commencement of today's engagement until the GENOM fleet is defeated. After that... I have another little job for you."

She looked at the packet, then restrained the urge to open it immediately, tucked it under her own arm, and saluted him. "Admiral," she said.

He returned the salute, shook her hand, then said, "Good luck today, T'Pol."

"And to you, Benjamin," she replied. "May the Force be with you."

Smiling, he departed, bound for the last of his errands - to finish shrugging off his engineer's mantle and fully take up command of the Blue and of Concordia. In just minutes, the fleet would deploy from the sphere that had nurtured it all these months. In a few minutes more, battle would be joined, all-out battle against the Wedge Defense Force's oldest, most deadly enemies.

In the meantime, though, Captain T'Pol sat down, cracked the seal, and read her orders. The first few paragraphs were as she had expected, dealing with the coming battle. But after that...

At the conclusion of the engagement with GENOM, and upon release from Blue Squadron service by the admiral commanding, you are hereby requested and required to take the vessel under your command and proceed to the Galactic Standard Coordinates encrypted herewithin. There you will commence a search for the Wedge Defense Force starship Enterprise (NX-01), last reported at those coordinates on Sept. 10, 2288. This search will be open-ended and you will conduct it according to your instincts guided by your experience, as per Regulation 128.29c governing independent search and exploration missions.

T'Pol read it three times, then folded the packet and tucked it inside the flap of her jacket with a very faint but fully satisfied smile. The man had his faults - had, arguably, more than his share of them - but in some matters he had unfailingly perfect pitch. Could be... relied upon.

"Signal from Concordia to all ships of the squadron, Captain," her communications officer reported. "'Weigh anchor and form up for sphere departure.'"

"Acknowledge," she said crisply. "Mr. Stuvek, clear all moorings. Maneuvering thrusters, all ahead one-half."

The battleship New Jersey slid smoothly from her berth and moved off to join the rest of the fleet.

"Second Chances Are Illogical" - a Crossroads mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

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Duet for Robots in E

Benjamin D. Hutchins

© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Friday, May 31, 2402
Kane's World, Conroy sector
United Federation of Planets

It was all Leonard's fault.

That might have seemed like the usual sort of defensive statement that someone in as tight a spot as Corwin Ravenhair would come up with at the age of not-quite-eleven, but in Corwin's case, it had the advantage of being true, and even verifiable. Leonard Hutchins himself, if confronted with this assertion, would have had to admit that, yes, it was all his fault.

Leonard was the one who was bored. Leonard was the one who suggested they hop the N over to New Avalon International Spaceport and watch the starships come and go. Leonard was the one, furthermore, who had mentioned the new automated baggage handling system that had been installed at this, the busiest of New Avalon's three spaceport facilities.

That Corwin had then insisted on investigating said system could not be held on his account, as any rational sapient lifeform should accept that, Len having mentioned it, Corwin was obliged to check it out.

That they subsequently got baggage-handled and wound up on the 11:40 Federated Express metaspace run to Kane's World is mainly the fault of the somewhat inattentive gentleman who programmed the new system.

Fortunately, cargo runners are pressurized.

"Okay," said Len, hands in his pockets, calm and collected. He leaned against the concrete post holding up the ceiling of the New Gotham Transit Authority's City Center station and composed himself for thought. "We managed to get out of the spaceport without getting arrested. That's a start."

"Not much of one, though," Corwin replied. He sat down on the floor, rummaged through his battered black leather satchel, and sighed. "How much money have you got on you?"

"Ten credits and some change," Len replied. "You?"

"Um... two fifty. And some folding money from Vanaheim."

"That probably won't do us much good here."

"No," Corwin agreed glumly. He got up, slung the satchel by its shoulder strap, and, lacking anything else to do, the brothers went upstairs.

Corwin was the elder, by about an hour, but Len looked the part. He was slightly taller, slightly slimmer, the lines of his face a bit more mature-looking below his jagged rust-orange bangs. The rest of his coarse, heavy hair was gathered into a thick sheaf that trailed off down his back. Corwin was shorter, a bit wider, and overall the more boyish-looking of the two. His coal-black hair was short but thick, jumbled in an unruly crest atop his head, with one thumb-thick forelock sticking out in front that he could never seem to do anything with.

Both were dressed for a day's exploration, in simple, sturdy clothes, Corwin in jeans, button-front canvas shirt and Army jacket, Len in military cargo pants, a sweatshirt and gray trenchcoat. Both wore good, strong boots, Corwin's black and buckled, Len's brown and laced. Neither had a hat. Fortunately, it wasn't raining. By the feel of the air as they reached the street level, it was either spring or fall, cool but not cold. Impossible to tell which, though, for this was New Gotham City, and there were no trees around to give them a hint.

They walked down the street, not paying much attention to their surroundings. Which isn't to say they were oblivious to them - neither boy was careless in such matters - but they were a bit preoccupied, and so only paying subliminal attention, stepping around other people on the crowded sidewalks and avoiding lampposts and parking meters. As they walked, they discussed in quiet tones their predicament and what to do about it.

"We're not really in that much of a fix," Len observed calmly. "All we have to do is call home and admit what we did. Dad will come get us."

"Oh sure, that's a great idea," Corwin pretended to agree. "And then we get to hear about how dangerous it was for the rest of the year, and we never get to go anywhere near the spaceport again without a tracking implant."

"Well, then why don't we find a mirror and you can call your Aunt Bell? She won't scold us too badly."

"No, but she might tell Aunt Urd, and then I'd never hear the end of it. 'Hey, Corwin, tell me again about your trip to New Gotham!' 'Will you be flying out with your dad for New Year's, or will you just ship yourself?'"

Len looked a little rueful. "Yeah, you've got a point. I suppose your mom's out of the question, then."

Corwin rolled his eyes. "She'd be torn. On the one hand, it was a wicked neat hack. On the other hand, it was a stupid thing to do. Her maternal instinct would clash with her hacker imperative. She might short out or something."

"Hm," said Len, nodding. "Maybe Hiroshi could - " He stopped, both speaking and walking, just then, and held out his hand, palm flat against Corwin's chest, to stop him too.

"What?" Corwin murmured.

"Trouble," Len replied. "See that guy in the black coat?"

Corwin saw him. "The one walking behind the girl in the green dress?"

"He's not walking behind her. He has a gun in her back. He's forcing her into that car."

Corwin looked, and indeed the two were approaching a car - an outstandingly ugly one, as it happened, that would have caught his eye sooner under less preoccupying circumstances. It was a SEAT Grandee, a truly regrettable executive blingmobile built on nearby Nueva Castilla, easily distinguished by its bulging (but somehow not sporty) fenders, its ten-foot-long coffin hood, and its hugely ostentatious hood ornament, which was a chunk of synthetic crystal about the size of a baseball that was supposed to, but did not, put the viewer in mind of a brilliant-cut diamond. They seemed weirdly popular with some segment of New Gotham's population; Corwin had noticed, in a detached sort of way, that nearly every car in this part of the city that wasn't an S-class Mercedes-Benz seemed to be a Grandee.

Corwin didn't ask his brother how he was so sure about the significance of the car and the man in the black coat. Len just seemed to know these things. Instead he merely tightened up a little, readying for action, and asked, "So what's the plan?"

There was no question as to whether they should get involved. Of course they shouldn't get involved. They were strangers to this city and had literally no idea who they might be messing with.

Of course they were going to get involved. There was a lady in trouble.

"No time to plan," said Len. "Just follow my lead."

If he'd had time, Corwin might have expressed his theoretical appreciation for a little more advance notice than that, but he didn't have any, since Len had already started running.

Stifling the kind of curse that would get him smacked on the head in Valkyrie training, Corwin followed. For the first couple of steps, his plan, inasmuch as he had one, was to follow Len in and hit the gunman low while Len hit him high. As they approached the car, though, he noticed something that changed the picture entirely. Fortunately, he was trained to handle contingencies like this, and by the time he'd taken two more steps, he'd adjusted his strategy accordingly.

Lacking a proper weapon, Len made do with the only one available to him and hit the gunman with a solid shoulder block. Unprepared for the sudden broadside attack, the man was flung against the side of the car, his jaw bouncing off the corner of the roof with a painful noise. He lost his grip on his pistol, dropping it to the pavement.

Corwin, meanwhile, detoured around the girl and the open car door she was standing next to, sparing a moment to glance at her as he passed. She was pretty, with neatly bobbed auburn hair, very pale skin, and the darkest eyes he'd ever seen - he thought, as he made fleeting eye contact with her, that they were genuinely black. Either that or her pupils were massively dilated. Her affect was surely a bit flat for someone who was in the middle of being forced into a car at gunpoint. Maybe they'd drugged her? Though if that were the case, why the gun?

No time to consider that now. The car's driver had emerged from his seat and pulled out his own gun, which he was aiming over the roof at Len as the redheaded boy stepped back and kicked the dropped pistol under the car.

Corwin put a hand on the fender and vaulted the Grandee's vast hood, his draconic warstaff appearing in his hand as he slid across the slickly polished metal. He swung the weapon hard, adding the force of his arms to the momentum of his slide, and clobbered the driver in the face as he came off the other side of the hood. Swearing, the driver recoiled, raising his free hand to his bloodied nose. Corwin planted his feet, pivoted, and hit the driver again from the opposite direction.

The two men, both stunned by the sudden violence that had invaded their peaceful little kidnapping, were clearly in disbelief about who was attacking them as they gathered their wits and tried to mount some kind of counterattack. Len's dance partner produced a tactical baton from inside his heavy black coat and, with a grunt of mingled effort and rage, took a swing that would have taken Len's head off had it connected.

It was so badly telegraphed, however, that there was no realistic chance of that. Len moved out of his way with a Katsujinkenryuu empty-hand counter, grabbed his arm, and twisted. Yelling in pain, the man dropped the baton. Len caught it, released him with a shove that sent him stumbling back against the side of the car, and then gave him a quick, precise blow to the side of the neck with the baton. He crumpled to the ground without another sound.

As for the driver, he still had hold of his gun, and now that he had some of his wits collected he intended to use it. He raised it and aimed. Just as he fired, Corwin smacked it aside with his staff, using a whirling strike that added more energy to the blow. The bullet tore through the hood of the gunman's own car, raising a small geyser of steam as it punctured a coolant line. The recoil, added to the impact, tore the weapon from the gunman's smarting hand and sent it bouncing across the hood, out of sight.

"Nice shot," Corwin told him.

Bigger and stronger than the man who'd been herding the girl into the car, the driver wasn't about to be taunted by a kid who looked like he should've been sitting final exams in the sixth grade. His face purpled with rage and he lunged forward, seizing Corwin's shoulders with big, meaty hands and leaning over him like an avalanche about to fall.

"You little bastard," he snarled, his breath - weirdly minty, Corwin thought, like he'd only just brushed his teeth - palpable on the young demigod's tattooed forehead. "You need to learn to mind your own god damn business."

"Never been very good at that," Corwin agreed.

Then he lunged forward and rammed the top of his head into the underside of the man's jaw. That hurt more than he was expecting, enough to make him see stars, but it hurt the driver even more; he had been just about to make some other profound statement, and the sudden, violent closure of his jaw had made him nearly bite off part of his tongue. He reeled, roaring with pain, and Corwin staggered back, shaking his head and trying to clear it before his opponent could renew hostilities.

He needn't have worried. The driver wasn't going to be making another offensive anytime soon. The baton formerly possessed by his colleague made certain of that by belting him solidly in the back of the head and laying him out next to the Grandee like a felled tree.

"Corwin? You okay?" Len asked as he scrambled down from the top of the car.

"Whu - yeah. Yeah." Corwin blinked, shook his head once more, and nodded. "'Mokay."

"We better get out of here," said Len. He collapsed the baton and stuck it in his trenchcoat's inside pocket. "These guys might have backup."

"Good idea." Corwin rounded the front of the car and saw the girl in the green dress still standing in the same spot, looking around at the chaos surrounding them with a look of faint surprise. "Come on," he said to her, taking hold of her wrist. "Let's get - whoa."

The last came because, when he tugged on her arm to add emphasis to "come on," she didn't move. At all. It was like trying to catch the arm of a bronze statue. Slowly, she looked down at his hand on her wrist, then raised her eyes to meet his again. Her movements were very precise and accompanied by very faint sounds - very faint, but instantly recognizable to Corwin.

He blinked. "Oh hey," he said. "You're a robot."

The girl tilted her head very slightly.

"That's correct," she said. Her voice was a clear alto and perfectly lifelike, devoid of any mechanical overtones, though her diction, like her movements, was unnaturally precise.

"Are we about to feel really stupid," Len asked, "or were those guys kidnapping you?"

"Technically, I cannot be kidnapped," she said. "Kidnapping is the unlawful abduction of one person by another. I am not a person."

"Let's split the legal hairs later," said Len. "Were they taking you against your will?"

Knowing the robotic mind better than Len, Corwin shook his head and put in before she could reply, "Were they entitled to take you?"

"No," she said, and then added in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact way, "Also, I believe they intend me harm."

"Okay. Now we're getting someplace," Corwin said. "Come with us, we'll protect you."

The girl considered this for a moment, then inclined her head very slightly. "Very well," she said, and permitted Corwin to lead her away from the scene.

They moved deeper into the city, heading toward the tallest buildings, which Corwin and Len assumed would be downtown.

"I think we're in over our heads," Len observed. "Like it or not, we have to call someone now."

Corwin sighed. "Yeah, you're probably right. Though I'd rather not do that until I know more about what's going on." He looked back over his shoulder. "I don't think anyone's following us. We ought to find a place to hole up and get as much information as we can before we make the call."

Len looked at the expressionless young woman with them. "Miss? Are you from around here?"

She slowly turned to look at him. "I've never been outside New Gotham," she confirmed.

"We need to find somewhere public, where we can use a crowd as cover, but less exposed than out on the street," Len explained. "Someplace where, if anyone else comes looking for you, we can see them coming."

She thought about that for a second, then nodded. "This way," she said.

A few minutes later, they were on the top floor of a building on the edge of downtown, of modest height compared to the towers a few blocks further toward the center, but tall enough to have a commanding view back the way they had come. Most of the building was offices, but the top two floors seemed to be a sort of shopping mall, complete with a food court in one corner. They went to the table in the far corner and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.

"Let's start at the beginning," said Len while Corwin hunted in his satchel for his mobilecomm unit. "What's your name?"

The girl regarded him with her very dark eyes for a moment, then said, "R. Dorothy Wayneright."

"Who were those men that were trying to ki - ... er, steal you?"

"I don't know specifically," Dorothy said. "They work for a local crime boss. His name would have no meaning to you. He believes my creator owes him a great deal of money. I was being... collected as payment for that debt."

"Where's your creator?" Corwin asked. "Didn't he object?"

"Of course he did," Dorothy replied, and then, flatly, "Presumably that's why they murdered him."

Corwin looked up from his search. "... Oh. I'm sorry."

"It wasn't your doing," Dorothy said. She seemed ever-so-faintly puzzled, as if unsure what this complete stranger had to apologize for.

"Does he have any heirs? Your creator? Anyone who will have... uh... inherited you now?" Len asked.

Dorothy shook her head. "He was alone. That's why he built me."

"We're up," said Corwin, having found the subether booster antenna and affixed it to his mobilecomm. "Okay, let's see if I can get on the local network so I don't have to set up a subether tunnel clear back to - ... that's weird."

"What's weird?" Len asked.

Corwin peered at the comm unit's status display, fiddled with a knob, and then switched to a different screen. "That's really weird. I'm picking up some kind of subetheric signal. It's not on any of the regular bands, I just ran across it doing a band search." He held the unit up and moved it from side to side, as if it were a tricorder, then pointed it at Dorothy. "And it seems to be coming from you."

"A homing signal?" Len asked.

"I don't think so," Corwin said. "Looks more sophisticated than that. Some kind of automation system command signal, maybe." He raised an eyebrow at Dorothy, inviting comment. She looked back at him, stonily silent. With a shrug, he started adjusting some of the unit's finer settings. "Let me see if I can figure out what it's supposed to do... "

Len turned to look out the window, then stiffened, blinking. "Uh... Corwin?" he said, reaching across the table to tap on Corwin's arm.

"Not now, Len, I'm busy."

Len changed from tapping to tugging his brother's sleeve. "Corwin."

Exasperated, Corwin looked up from the comm unit's screen. "Look, do you want me to trace this signal or noooohhhh crap."

Around them, other people started noticing, and within a few seconds, panic gripped the food court as everyone reacted to the giant, vaguely-woman-shaped robot that was approaching the building, presumably without proper authorization from the City of New Gotham.

"That's going to be a problem," Corwin mused.

"Why's it headed this way?" Len wondered.

Dorothy rose slowly to her feet, her face even blanker than usual, and when she spoke it was in a low, completely uninflected murmur.

"Dorothy-Two," she said. "Search priority alpha. Override one one one."

"What does that mean?" Corwin asked. Getting no response, he rose, put a hand on her shoulder, and said in a more forceful tone, "Dorothy. Situation report."

Dorothy seemed to come back from some distance away, her eyes refocusing, and she turned to look at him with some signs of effort. "Part of her command circuitry is built into me," she said. "That's what the men you took me from wanted. To remove it from me so that they would have complete control over her."

Len eyed her sidelong. "For the record, it would've been helpful if you had mentioned that before," he said dryly.

"I didn't know it could broadcast a signal," Dorothy said. "No one ever explained its workings to me. I was only intended to... carry it."

Corwin turned to look at the approaching robot. "That's a Big Fire terrormech. I'd bet anything on it." He shook his head. "That explains a lot."

Len blinked. "It does?"

"Well, how many other criminal organizations do you know of that have a use for giant robots? It's not like they offer any particular advantage to bank robbers or drug smugglers. And Big Fire's always fooling around with hopelessly baroque control systems." He turned to Dorothy. "Do you know if that has a pilot on board?"

"No," Dorothy said. "If her control system were complete, she'd be autonomous. There's no place for a cockpit."

Corwin turned and put his hand against the window, gazing intently at the approaching robot and shutting out the chaos and panic behind him.

"Think, Corwin," he muttered to himself. "Reason it out. If its control system is incomplete, someone must be operating it with a manual proxy system. That means short range." He turned, picked up his mobilecomm, and consulted its display again. "I'm not seeing any other anomalous subether activity or unaccountable radio traffic, so they're probably using a laser link. That means line-of-sight." Turning to the window again, he scanned the immediate area around the building they were in. "They need it to be mobile. That means a vehicle. Probably a van or something like."

Len pointed. "There."

Corwin looked and saw what he was pointing at: a multi-story parking garage, catercornered off the square in front of their building, with each deck open at the sides.

"Yeah," he agreed. "That looks likely."

"I'll check it out."

Corwin nodded. "Look for a van with a laser array on the roof. I'll see what I can do from this end."

Len made for the fire stairs at a dead run and disappeared through the door. The food court was nearly deserted now; down below, Corwin could see people streaming from the building into the square. A few moments later, a phalanx of black vans appeared from side streets, blocking the exits from the square, and men in black jumpsuits and matching pointed hoods started piling out and rounding up the civilians.

Well, that confirms that, Corwin thought, his fist clenching. Big Fire.

He turned to Dorothy, who stood next to him watching the proceedings down below. Only a slight narrowing of her eyes betrayed any state of mind other than total impassivity.

"This bit of the giant robot's control circuitry you have in you," he asked. "Is it a module, or is it integrated in your own systems?"

"It's a separate part. I saw it before Fa... my creator installed it."

"Where is it?"

Dorothy turned to face him fully. "Why?"

"I can't remove it if I don't know where it is, can I?" Corwin asked rhetorically.

"Why would you do that?"

"Simple. You don't have it any more, they stop chasing you. Right?"

"My internal mechanisms are very delicate," said Dorothy. "A blind attempt to remove the device could do a great deal of damage."

"Well... " Corwin tilted his head toward the window. "I can guarantee that I care about that more than they do."

Dorothy hesitated, a very faintly fearful look edging onto her face. "You have a point."

I should have asked, Len remarked to himself as he entered the parking garage, what it is I'm supposed to do when I find this van. Ah, well.

Avoiding the Black Hoods who swept in to surround the office building had been surprisingly simple, given that he wasn't equipped for any kind of stealth. Once inside the garage, he had a decision to make: start from the top or the bottom? Reasoning that the upper levels would provide better lines of sight, he climbed the stairs to the uppermost deck and started his search there.

Up in the now-empty food court, Corwin swept the dishes from one of the larger tables, then took off his jacket and began rolling up his sleeves as Dorothy climbed onto the table. As she arranged herself (to the faint sounds of gunfire and police sirens from outside, and the steady crashing tread of the approaching giant robot), she glanced sideways at Corwin, the fear on her face making her seem fully human to him for the first time.

He smiled and smoothed her auburn hair with one hand.

"Relax," he said, propping his satchel open. "I won't let anything happen to you."

He expected her to form some objection regarding his age, but instead, she gazed intently into his eyes for a few seconds, then lay back, closed her eyes, and shut down, becoming very, very still.

Corwin dug in his satchel, found his sonic screwdriver, and stood for a couple of seconds in silent conference with himself before setting to work.

Len found the van on the second-from-the-top level of the parking garage, backed into a space about halfway along the side facing the square. Like the ones down below, it was black with heavily tinted windows, but, just as Corwin had predicted, it had a laser communications emitter on its roof, tracking slowly southwestward as it maintained its lock on the advancing robot. Len looked and saw that the robot was within two or three giant strides of the building where Corwin and Dorothy still were.

As he watched, it drew back its arm, preparing to deal a gigantic punch to the uppermost level of that building. Plainly, then, these guys didn't care about capturing Dorothy intact; they figured they'd just fish what they needed out of her wreckage.

Once again there was no time to plan; once again Len's instincts carried him through. He broke into a run, sprinting past the noses of parked cars and trucks. About halfway to the van, he passed the front of yet another SEAT Grandee. Without slackening his pace, he reached out and wrenched the hood ornament from its mountings, setting off the car's alarm. Taking two more strides, he wound up and hurled the chunk of mock diamond as hard as he could.

Len's aim was true. The Grandee's hood ornament smashed the van's delicate laser array to tangled scrap; even if the laser had kept working, it would have been impossible to aim. It lost lock with the giant robot's receiver instantly.

Aboard the robot, safety protocols kicked in, disengaging the partial control system and shutting the machine down to prevent it from running wild in the absence of a proper command signal. It ground to a halt, freezing in position with its knockout punch half-delivered.

Len didn't stick around to admire his handiwork. As soon as the hood ornament hit the laser, he skidded to a halt, reversed course, and beat it for the stairs. By the time the startled Big Fire robot controller and his engineer/driver had extracted themselves from the control rig in the back of the van and emerged to see what had cut them off, he was gone.

Dorothy's internal mechanisms were delicate, though that had mainly to do with their complexity and the fineness of their interrelation with one another. She was built to standards of tolerance well beyond anything Corwin had ever seen before, a multitude of fragile parts that interlocked, when properly assembled, into a robust and durable whole, like some twenty-fifth-century descendant of a Harrison marine chronometer. Once he had her outer casing open, he felt somewhat less bold than he had when he proposed this operation.

Also, the continuing firefight outside and the giant robot advancing steadily toward him were not what he would call aids to his concentration. All in all, he was looking at a tall order for a fully qualified adult robot mechanic, let alone a nearly-eleven-year-old boy.

He pushed it all out of his head and went to work. The look in Dorothy's eyes just before she shut herself down remained always in the back of his mind. He knew without doubt that, despite their muted presentation, she had emotions. The trust she showed by shutting down like that, placing herself completely in his hands, touched him clean through. The worst possible thing he could do was fail that trust, no matter what the outside circumstances.

But far from compounding the pressure on him, that thought held it at bay, keeping his eye clear and his hand steady as he delved into Dorothy's fantastically sophisticated inner structure in search of the item that didn't belong. It wasn't hard to find; the trick was in removing it without disturbing the systems around it, then clearing away all trace of its passage and restoring her to full working order.

It may have been a tall order for an adult roboticist, but Corwin Ravenhair happened to be the son of Skuld Ravenhair, the Norse goddess of technology. He'd grown up playing with the most sophisticated inventions in the universe the way other kids had chemistry sets. He had what his own mother had once called a weapons-grade aptitude for hardware. He was famous in his family circle for having been able to say "multiprocessor" before he could say "mommy".

The rest of the world disappeared. Time ceased to have meaning. There was only this task, only these fantastically advanced systems, only the glow of this synthetic but no less genuine life, sleeping while his hands extracted this ugly anomaly from within it.

Only when he had it out, and Dorothy's casing closed, did he realize that the giant robot was standing right outside, its fist raised, but had for some reason neglected to smash him to bits.

"Hm," he said, and then, because there was nothing he could do about the giant robot either way, he put his tools away, re-composed Dorothy's clothing - only now, with the technical considerations dealt with, did it occur to him, slightly red-faced, how completely lifelike her construction was beneath them - and leaned down to speak her name quietly into her ear.

She opened her eyes and sat up, looking at him with a very mildly curious expression.

"How do you feel?" Corwin asked.

After a moment's pause, Dorothy replied, "Diagnostics complete. No faults detected." Cocking her head slightly, she added, "You did it."

Corwin smiled and held up the item he'd removed, a small black rectangle that was completely at odds with the elegant precision of everything else he'd found inside her. He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could, the fire doors banged open and Black Hoods swarmed into the food court, brandishing their submachineguns and generally being as fearsome as possible.

Corwin kept himself between them and Dorothy, telling her quietly, "Stay behind me," as she got down from the table.

"This is what you're looking for," he said, holding up the little black module. "Let's make a deal."

The Black Hoods' Q-Boss, distinctive in his red hood and blazer over white dress trousers, made his way to the front and coughed discreetly.

"I don't think you're really in a position to negotiate, kid," he said. "Here's the deal: Hand over the gadget and the girl and maybe you'll walk out of here alive."

Corwin shook his head. "Not good enough," he said. "You see, I promised her that I wouldn't let anything happen to her." He waggled the device. "This is all you really want anyway. It's the rest of the control system for your terrormech there. Plug it in and embarrassing things like that stop happening to it," he added, gesturing with his head toward its curious immobility.

"He's bluffing," one of the Black Hoods sneered. "Wayneright said he wasn't sure he could get that thing out of the girl without wrecking her. There's no way a friggin' fifth-grader pulled it off in a food court."

"You got a multiband comm unit? Scan us," Corwin said. "This device is producing the command signal you followed here. Not the girl."

Q-Boss snapped his fingers. One of the other Black Hoods put up his submachinegun and produced a scanning device instead. He played it over first Corwin, then Dorothy, then turned to his boss and nodded.

"He's telling the truth. The signal's coming from him."

"Let me get this straight," Q-Boss said. "You're proposing that you give me the widget, we take our robot and leave, and you walk away with the girl?"

Corwin shrugged. "Why not? You get what you really came for."

Q-Boss looked around as if he couldn't quite believe that Corwin hadn't fully grasped the situation, then said, "I'm not really seeing why you think you're in any position to make a deal here, to be honest. I got 30 guys with guns here, and you got... a sonic screwdriver. What's to stop me just blowing you away and taking everything?"

"You'd be amazed what a sonic screwdriver can do in the right hands," Corwin said.

He and the Big Fire boss stared each other down for a few tense, brittle seconds.

Then Q-Boss laughed and said, "You got balls, kid. I can't help but admire that. Okay, you got a deal. Gimme the gadget and you and the girl walk."

"Well-bargained and done," said Corwin, tossing the module across. Q-Boss caught it and tucked it into his inside coat pocket.

Now he decides to kill me anyway, Corwin thought, and I have to get real creative, but to his surprise, Q-Boss turned to go, gesturing to his men.

"C'mon, boys. Let's jet before the Bat - "


The elevator doors opened, revealing a tall man clad from head to toe in black armor.

"... shows... up... hell!" Q-Boss snarled.

Corwin had heard of Gotham City's costumed champion, the notorious Batman, before. He knew, in fact, that this particular one was the third (or possibly fourth) man to hold the title, and that he'd been active for a little more than four years at this point. He hadn't really expected to see him here, though he'd certainly been hoping he'd show up.

And now he had a front-row seat as the Batman stepped out of the elevator into a crowd of 30 heavily armed Big Fire Black Hoods and, without saying a word, quickly and efficiently beat them all right the hell up.

Once he'd finished with that, the black-clad man turned and walked across the food court to Corwin, who still stood with Dorothy behind him.

"Are you okay?" he asked, his voice low and just slightly raspy - very similar to what Corwin's father's neighbor Marty Rose called his "work voice".

"Fine," Corwin said. "The Q-Boss has a black electronic module in his inside pocket. It's part of the control system for that terrormech outside. And it doesn't work," he added.

"How do you know that?" Batman asked.

"Because I broke it," Corwin replied, holding up his sonic screwdriver with a grin.

An hour later, Corwin and Len were standing, along with Dorothy, out by the still-frozen terrormech's feet, waiting to sign transcripts of their statements to the police while New Gotham Public Works Department personnel tried to figure out how they were going to remove the giant robot from the middle of Sloane Square.

"Uh-oh," Len said, leaning toward his brother.

"What?" Corwin asked.

"Here comes trouble," said Len, pointing.

"Uh-oh," Corwin agreed, for passing through the police cordon, clearing her way with a flash of her Lens, came Leonard's mother - Kei Morgan, the Red Lensman, one of the principal Experts of Justice.

"Gentlemen," said Kei as she approached. "I believe you're supposed to be in New Avalon."

"Uh, well... that's true," Len allowed.

"Imagine, therefore, my surprise when I learn that you are instead in the Conroy sector, screwing with the local Big Fire operations." Kei folded her arms. "That happens to be my job."

"I - " Corwin began.

"It - " said Len.

Kei silenced them both with a glare that could've split concrete.

Which she was able to maintain for about three-quarters of a second before breaking into a huge grin.

"I can't wait to find out how you managed to get into this," she said. "Come on, Batman and I cleared your statements with the cops. Let's get the hell outta here before your father finds out what's going on."

Corwin and Len exchanged guarded looks of surprised glee - lucky! - and moved to follow her as she walked away. Then Corwin paused and turned back to see Dorothy hanging back, looking uncertain.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

Looking around at the various preoccupied cops, she said hesitantly, "I suppose I'm... evidence."

"Nah," Corwin told her. "The widget's evidence. And I took it out."

"You... you did," she agreed.

"Do you have anywhere to go?" he asked.

"No," she said.

"Well... you can come with me if you want," Corwin offered, holding out a hand.

Dorothy looked at it for a moment, then raised her eyes to look into his.

Then she said, "All right," and took his hand.

"Duet for Robots in E"
Symphony of the Sword Prelude by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Wedesday, March 17, 2404
Worcester, Massachusetts
Earth, Centaurus sector

Spring was in the air, and welcome too, after another ironclad New England winter. On the campus of the Worcester Preparatory Institute, students were beginning to look forward to the end of another school year. Some - those disappointed with the school's quirky archaism (especially in the realm of creature comforts), its slightly compressed term schedule, its defiantly deliberate lack of social cachet, or its rather ruthless academic standards - had long since taken to calling the school "Worst Place Imaginable" and were plotting their escapes to other, more suitable schools after final exams in June. Others - those who took a certain perverse pride in all of the above and knew the school as The W (sometimes with extraneous "Big" added for emphasis) - were watching that first group plot and scheme and thinking with satisfaction, You guys just don't get it.

Azalynn dv'Ir Natashkan - fourteen Standard years old, a native of Dantrov in the Bacchus sector - counted herself in the second group and proudly. So the place didn't have personal whirlpool baths for every student and matter transposition between classes, or whatever those spoiled pukes from the Core Sectors assumed a Decent School would have. It had everything Azalynn needed and lacked a good many things she, for one, didn't care to want. She played the oboe in the student orchestra; she ran on the cross-country team in the fall; she had a good circle of friends and the food wasn't that bad, especially if you'd ever endured a Terzayyl on which no pudding was available and you'd had to make do with puréed splineworm.

Today, with the last of her classes finished and nothing much to do until supper, she sat on the steps of Alden Memorial Hall, the performing arts building, and watched her fellow students come and go, mentally tagging each one.

Gets it, she thought. Doesn't get it. Gets it. Gets it. Really doesn't get it...

Then a schoolmate went by whose status Azalynn had, until recently, been entirely unable to figure out. She liked figuring people out, not because she looked to gain an advantage from it, but simply because it was something she was generally good at and she liked being good at things. This girl, though... for the longest time Azalynn couldn't decide whether she got it, didn't get it, or just... sort of existed beyond it.

Her name was Kaitlyn; Azalynn knew that because she'd gone up and introduced herself on the first day of orchestra rehearsals, back in September. She'd done that with everybody in the orchestra, with varying degrees of success. In this case, she'd gotten a shy look that wasn't quite a smile and a hushed, halting one-word reply, and that was pretty much it. She'd spent the first week or so of A-term in a mild dudgeon before she realized, based on further observation, that the girl wasn't standoffish so much as... well, vaguely terrified of everyone around her.

That struck Azalynn as an odd frame of mind to bring to a boarding school, especially one many parsecs from one's home star - a home star, indeed, that wasn't on particularly good terms with Earth. A little research in the student directory had turned up that Kaitlyn (last name Hutchins, which had meant nothing to Azalynn at the time) was from New Avalon, in the Republic of Zeta Cygni. She was a very long way from home, almost as long a way as Azalynn herself. Normally that would have spoken of an adventurous spirit, but Kaitlyn just seemed frightened much of the time.

It was a shame, too, because she was obviously a very talented musician. She played several different instruments in the student orchestra, depending on the needs of the particular piece they were playing; she was by far the finest pianist on campus, better even than Professor Curran. She composed music, as well, and beautiful music at that, if Azalynn was any judge. Only while playing did she come close to emerging from the armored shell she drew around herself, and at the moments when she verged closest to that edge, Kaitlyn seemed to notice and draw back again. It was, Azalynn knew, keeping her from reaching her full potential, and both Curran and Kieran Calloway, the senior who held the post of student orchestra director, clearly knew it; but neither of them seemed able to penetrate her reserve and reach her.

She never socialized with other students either, never hung around lecture halls after class, never appeared in the Wedge (WPI's rudimentary student center, derided by the don'tgetits as little more than a bus station lobby) of an evening. Half the time she didn't even turn up for meals in the Morgan Hall dining commons, though Azalynn knew she lived in that very dorm, on the second floor. Most students didn't think of her at all; those few who did thought of her as a sort of recluse and chalked it up to the terrible speech impediment she betrayed on the rare occasions when she was called upon in class.

Azalynn, though, was more observant than most. She had a few advantages in that department over the average WPI student, to be fair. A member of a species both arboreal and nocturnal, she had exceptional vision and hearing by human standards and no fear of heights, and she required only an hour or two of sleep a night, all of which meant that she often occupied herself by prowling the dark and quiet corners of the campus when everyone else was asleep, or climbing the buildings to explore the rooftops just for something to do.

From this unique vantage point, she had learned that there was more to this Kaitlyn girl than most people assumed. She'd seen her roaming the darkened streets and lanes of the campus and the neighborhood beyond long after the normal, rules-abiding students were in bed with lights out. It was no great mystery why she did it: Everyone on campus knew that her roommate was hard to share space with. Hiroe Ogawa's strange and tragic condition was the scandal of the school year. What intrigued Azalynn, and caused her to invest many an evening hour in silently shadowing her schoolmate from above, was how she did it.

For all that she seemed to harbor a deep-seated terror of social contact with her fellow students, Kaitlyn clearly had no fear of nighttime encounters with strangers. The WPI area was not without a certain criminal element, which was part of the reason for the residence halls' curfew, but she ignored it, just as Azalynn did, and never seemed at all concerned. She slipped through the darkened city like a ghost, coming and going with impunity. Azalynn, watching from roofs and trees, had seen her walk right past dimly lit doorways staffed by obvious muggers without giving them so much as a glance - nor getting one in return. It was like they didn't even see her.

All this made Azalynn intensely curious. She wanted - she had - to learn more about this strange and fascinating creature.

"Who knows?" her roommate, Amanda Dessler (who just happened to be princess of Gamilon, not that she was one to stand on ceremony), replied when Azalynn asked her about their schoolmate's peculiar behavior.

"Well, that's just it," Azalynn said. "Someone must, and I want to. It's going to drive me crazy otherwise. And the school year's ending soon!"

Amanda shrugged. "Her parents are a couple of the founders of the old Wedge Defense Force. The people who blew up the original version of this city, as it happens."

Azalynn blinked. "Amanda Elektra Dessler. You've been holding out on me."

"It's common knowledge," Amanda said. "It's not my fault you don't pay attention in history class."

"You know very well we're not going to get to anything like that until next year. What else do you know that you haven't told me?"

"Incalculable things," Amanda replied dryly. "But, on this particular subject, nothing much. It's not as if I've ever met these people, though I think Father has."

"Hmm. They must be well off."

Amanda snorted. "A bit like saying Gamilon must have an army. Her father founded the International Police. Pretty much paid for it out of his own pocket, from what I hear. You have to figure that wasn't cheap."

"I wonder why she's here, then? I mean, not that WPI isn't a good school, but they have good schools in New Avalon. We've met people from some of them at music festivals and sports meets."

"Who knows?" Amanda repeated, her tone indicating that she was tiring of Azalynn's dogged pursuit of the topic. "If you're that curious, why not just ask her? We see her every day."

That was in December, a couple of weeks before the Christmas break. Azalynn hadn't asked. There never seemed to be an opportunity. Instead, she'd taken to observing her odd schoolmate more closely, more carefully. She didn't follow her, except occasionally at night, unobserved, but she paid closer attention during classes and orchestra rehearsals... and late one night in early March, she finally, at last, believed she understood.

She was in the Higgins House garden, a carefully maintained greenspot in the corner of campus, behind a building that had once been the private residence of a neighbor and benefactor of the school and was now the alumni affairs office. Azalynn went there often to sing in the night, when she didn't feel like wandering further afield. She'd never been spotted there, but students passing the area in the evening - on their way back to the Quad dorms from the computer center in Fuller Labs, usually - had heard her, and the legend that was forming about the singing ghost of the Higgins garden amused her.

That night, when Azalynn arrived, she found the open area in the middle of the garden already occupied. She didn't realize it at first, but before she could descend from the big chestnut tree at the garden's edge, she spotted the other figure, dressed in dark clothes, kneeling in the grass in the exact center of the garden. It was a chilly night - fragments of snowbanks still lingered in the corners and shady areas of the garden - and she could just make out the faint grey cloud of the person's breath.

Azalynn was just wondering if she should make some sign of her presence, or possibly call the campus police and report a prowler (ha! And just how would she explain why she'd been here to see it?), when the figure stood up and Azalynn's night-sensitive eyes made out her face. It was Kaitlyn, and she looked... angry? No... just unusually intense, Azalynn decided, with her jaw set and an uncharacteristic hardness in her eyes.

What's she doing out here? Azalynn wondered.

A moment later, as Kaitlyn's hands moved and a glittering length of steel emerged from dark wood, she had her answer.

Azalynn had always vaguely wondered why Kaitlyn carried a walking stick wherever she went when she had no apparent need of one, but it was such a minor curiosity compared to all the other things she wondered about Kaitlyn that it never really bubbled to the very top of her consciousness. Now, though, the answer was obvious. It was a sword, and the strange girl from New Avalon was clearly well-trained in its use.

Well, now I know why she was never particularly worried about muggers, Azalynn mused.

What she crouched in the tree and watched for the next half-hour was a breathtaking display, not just of skill, but also of emotion, emotion so strong Azalynn fancied that she could feel it from her perch. It rolled off Kaitlyn in waves that were practically visible, waves of aggression, of barely-contained fury so intense that Azalynn imagined them bending the dry, spring-dead blades of the grass and rustling the leafless boughs of the trees as the girl practiced ever-more-intricate kata, her sword hissing through the air like a living, angry thing.

Eventually she finished, her solitary dance of steel peaking and ebbing. At the end she struck down one last invisible foe, sheathed her weapon, bowed to some equally invisible master, and then, after a few moments' self-collection, vanished into the darkness beyond the garden's walls. Not until she had gone did Azalynn realize what, in retrospect, struck her as the strangest thing of all about the whole display.

Not once at any point in the exercise had Kaitlyn made a single sound. The entire furious display took place in utter silence.

Dvhil nazhai, Kaitlyn, thought Azalynn. What happened to you?


... what can I do to help you?

Azalynn spent the next couple of weeks mulling that second question over in her head. It ran through her mind once more on the afternoon of March 17, as she sat on the steps of Alden Memorial and watched Kaitlyn go by, her expression shrouded as always, that harmless-looking brown walking stick in hand, but she still didn't have an answer. Sighing and feeling unaccustomedly glum herself, she got up and walked the short distance to Sanford Riley Hall and the room she shared with Amanda Dessler.

Two hours later, after supper, the answer - like most of Azalynn's most important answers - came to her in prayer.

"I understand," she said aloud. "Thank you, elo'thanai."

"Huh?" Amanda Dessler mumbled from the uppermost frontier of sleep.

"Wake up," Azalynn said, shaking her by the shoulder. "And go get Devlin."

It was a bit after ten PM - when the dorms locked up for the night and all the students were supposed to be, if not in bed, at least in their rooms - when Kaitlyn entered Alden Memorial. She wasn't really supposed to be able to get in, of course, but the locks were simple and the security monitoring system ... well, Kate wasn't her younger sister Priss, a charter member of the Young Cyber-Vandals of Zeta Cygni, but her parents had taught her a few tricks, all the same. Journeymen of the Asagiri Katsujinkenryuu didn't make a habit of letting people lock them into or out of buildings.

Anyway, she wasn't here to get up to anything, and even if she ran into a faculty member - or even the campus police - they were all quite sympathetic to the reasons for her nocturnal wanderings. They knew she wasn't looking to steal or damage anything. She just liked - in some ways, she needed - to be by herself, and using a facility after it was supposed to be locked up and dark was a pretty good way of ensuring that.

She walked silently into the hall's main auditorium and up onto the stage. The room was lit but dimly, by the illuminated signs over the exits (a sure sign she wasn't in her childhood hometown; all such signs in Avalon said WAY OUT) and some low house lighting. She could make out the familiar shapes of band equipment clustered near the front of the stage: a drum kit, some amplifier stacks. Rock band stuff. She wondered which of the various student bands had left their gear set up; probably had a rehearsal block slated for first thing in the morning, between breakfast and first-period classes.

What Kate was interested in was the grand piano that hulked on the proscenium. She seated herself and uncovered the keyboard, then noticed another shape above that. Switching on the tiny light above the piano's built-in music stand, she saw that it had an electronic keyboard set up on top of the casing, the school's Ono-Sendai sequencing synthesizer. It was a fairly primitive piece of kit, as those things went - Kaitlyn had much more sophisticated equipment of her own at home - but she was familiar with it. Hell, she'd designed the bracket it was attached to the top of the Steinway with.

Somebody had set it up and left it standing by; it responded to the turning-on of the music light by coming out of sleep mode, its holokeys and config panels glowing faintly. That same person (she supposed) had also left some sheet music in the stand next to it. She scanned it and felt a faint smile slip onto her face, for it was a song she knew well. It wasn't what she'd come to play, but what the hell... for old times' sake, perhaps.

She reached out, placed her fingers on the Steinway's keys, took a moment to collect herself, and then started playing. Bassline with the left hand, simple repeated harmony with the right, in a familiar, soothing pattern. Repeat it twice, then come in with the vocal, words as familiar as the opening lines of her father's favorite poem. (It little profits that an idle king, By this still hearth, among these barren crags... )

It would have shocked almost all of Kaitlyn's schoolmates, to say nothing of her teachers, to hear her sing. After all, she could barely speak, being afflicted with a stutter of - as her student file tactlessly but accurately put it - epic intensity that diminished only when addressing a select few, virtually none of whom were at WPI (or anywhere in the Centaurus sector, for that matter). But, as she would've explained if she'd cared to invest the time and effort in it, that was speaking. Singing was another matter altogether.

Just a small-town girl
Livin' in a lonely world
She took the midnight train goin' anywhere

Her singing voice was clear, beautiful, and highly versatile; a chorus teacher would have pegged her as a contralto, but her range actually reached from mezzo-soprano territory at its height down to the upper strata of tenor. On the relatively rare occasions when she relaxed enough to let herself sing, even quietly and alone as she was now, she put all her concentration into it, focusing on the task with the same sort of intensity she gave to her kenjutsu practice... which is why she at first failed to notice that she had been joined in the accompaniment for the second part of the first verse.

Just a city boy
Born and raised in South Detroit
He took the midnight train going anywhere

It was when she reached the end of that line that it dawned on her: someone was playing a bass guitar, playing along with the bassline she was putting down with the piano, making the sound richer and darker. At first she thought the Ono-Sendai was sequencing it, but a glance at the displays showed that it wasn't configured to do anything when no one was playing it; it was just sitting there waiting for instructions.

This was the most delicate part of the operation, and Azalynn had known it when she set it up. If she'd gauged Kaitlyn's reaction to the music wrong, the girl would freeze now, stop playing, and either confront her mysterious accompanier or just leave. The moment would be lost, probably forever.

But if the song was doing its job, if she understood that the hands playing the bass only wanted to share the joy of the music with her... then they had a chance.

In fact, though Kaitlyn was clearly surprised, she felt only a microsecond pulse of worry before the song swept it away, and when a third instrument - a guitar, naturally - joined in during the next gap in the lyrics, she took it as natural. That was, after all, exactly where the guitar was supposed to come in. She knew, on some level, that she should be upset. These people, whoever they were, had sneaked up on her - something that wasn't supposed to be possible, or at least not easy - and were intruding on what she had intended to be a private moment. She should have been shocked, maybe even angry. She should have stopped playing, turned, and demanded to know who they were and what they thought they were doing.

But that would have ruined the song, and for whatever reason, she simply couldn't bring herself to do that.

A singer in a smoky room
A smell of wine and cheap perfume
For a smile they can share the night
It goes on and on and on and on

There came the drums, right on schedule, and other voices joining her own. She hadn't sung harmony with another living being in months, not since leaving New Avalon last fall, not since her last jam session with Marty and his band. It was an odd sensation, but by now the music had her in its grip, and she played and sang on almost in a trance.

Strangers waiting
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlight people
Livin' just to find emotion
Hiding somewhere in the night...

Now she switched to the Ono-Sendai, knowing before she touched the holokeys that it was set up for the right pseudo-strings voice, for hadn't this whole thing been left here as a kind of... well, a kind of trap, really? And damn, that bassist knew his job, whoever he was. They all did. The four of them were a little ragged, but that was to be expected; at least one of them was a total stranger to the other three, and indeed, Kaitlyn hadn't even looked around to see who or where her musical interlocutors were. It might break the spell, and she decided as they pulled together and swept toward the next verse that she very much didn't want to do that.

She gave her voice full rein now, no longer a fearful, timid girl singing quietly to herself in an empty auditorium. Kaitlyn's voice was her favorite instrument out of all the many she could play, and, empty house or no, this was a performance now. By the time she reached the end of the chorus, with that sustained note that had always been her very favorite part of the song, she could hold nothing back.

Workin' hard to get my fill
Everybody wants a thrill
Payin' anything to roll the dice just one more time
Some win
Some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh the movie never ends it goes on and on and on and on

Strangers waiting
Up and down the boulevard
Their shadows searching in the night
Streetlight people
Livin' just to find emotion
Hiding somewhere in the niiiiiight!

And there came that fifth instrument she'd been waiting for, the lead guitar, its solo line soaring above even her voice. Swept along, Kaitlyn finally glanced to her left and saw the two guitarists. Playing rhythm guitar - on a Gibson Flying V, no less! - was the Gamilon girl she'd seen around the school, the one who played the Arcturan horn in the orchestra... and on the lead part was... what was her name, she'd introduced herself on the first day... Azalynn! Yes, that was it.

I never knew she played guitar, some part of Kaitlyn's mind mused, and then there was no more time for musing, because Azalynn was reaching the end of the solo. She and the Gamilon were sharing a standing mic - something very rock 'n roll about that, Kaitlyn thought - and they struck the harmony effortlessly with Kate.

When they had started the second verse, they were just five people playing the same song.

After Kate's second chorus and Azalynn's solo, they dove into the outro as a band.

Don't stop believin'
Hold on to that feeling
Streetlight people...

Don't stop believin'
Hold on -
Streetlight people...

Don't stop believin'
Hold on to that feeling
Streetlight people...

Don't stop!

And just like that, it was over. The original version of the song faded out, it didn't have a proper ending; how all five of them had known to finish in the same place was one of those phenomena Kaitlyn chose not to investigate too closely. She sat at the Steinway, her hands still hovering over the Ono-Sendai's holokeys, for a few seconds, eyes closed, face flushed and a little sweaty. The whole thing was a bit dreamlike, and she wondered for an instant if she would find herself alone in an empty room when she opened her eyes and turned around on the bench.

Instead, she found four people smiling at her: Azalynn grinning broadly; the Gamilon girl with a small, almost conspiratorial smile; the blond guy behind the drum kit a bit hesitant and tentative; the enormous black guy with the bass looking contented but not smug.

Kaitlyn stared at the four of them for several long seconds before finally mustering her wits and her courage enough to say,

"Uh... h-h-h-hi. I'm... um... K-K-K-K-Kaitl-l-l-l-lyn."

The black guy put his bass on a stand and bowed deeply at the waist, which was quite an achievement and quite a sight, given that he was roughly spherical. In a voice not too far removed from what Kaitlyn had always fancifully imagined the voice of Marty Rose's God would sound like, he said,

"The Hon'rable J. Maurice MacEchearn the Fourth, at your service." Then, with a grin that split his round, pleasantly ugly face nearly in two, he added, "Call me Moose."

The drummer saluted jauntily with one of his drumsticks and said in a reedy voice with a pronounced English accent, "Carter Devlin, good lady. Or Devlin Carter. Take your pick, it don't matter."

"I am Amanda Elektra Dessler," said the Gamilon calmly, her faintly glowing scarlet eyes flicking a nanosecond unreadable look at the drummer.

"And I'm Azalynn," said Azalynn. "I hope you don't mind that we joined you. Only I've been wanting to get to know you better, and... well, I couldn't think of any other way to start."

Kaitlyn looked as if she had no idea how to respond to that for a moment, then colored slightly and gave a shy smile.

"I-i-i-i-it's ok-k-k-k-kay," she said. Then, with a regretful look, she said, "I'm s-s-s-s-s-sorry ab-b-b-bout... "

"Bah," said Moose, waving a basketball-sized hand dismissively. "Don't worry about a thing."

"O... ok-k-k-kay. Um... " Kaitlyn steeled herself for a long and difficult interrogative. "W... w-w-w... w-what's the n-n-n-n-name of y-y-y-your b-b-b-band?"

Azalynn grinned once more.

"It doesn't have one yet, on account of we just formed it about five minutes ago." Then, with an even brighter smile and a complete lack of guile, she added, "We were hoping you'd think of one."

"The Art of Noise" - Prelude to Symphony No. 1 by Benjamin D. Hutchins
"Don't Stop Believin'" by Jonathan Cain, Steve Perry, and Neal Schon
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Sunday, December 24, 2406
Shinguuji Compound
~35 Miles Northeast of Sendai, Empire of Morita
Ishiyama, Outer Rim Territories

It was a clear, crisp winter's day in the mountains that overlooked the city of Sendai. The prior night's blizzard had ceased as suddenly as it arrived the day before, and a fresh layer of white powder, up to two feet thick in some places, had accumulated atop the harder-packed snow from earlier in the week. It made walking through the forests outside the Shinguuji family home a little more difficult, but that was hardly a challenge for someone as hardy as Utena Tenjou. Clad in a black turtleneck sweater beneath a white-trimmed blue ski jacket, as well as red snow pants, boots, earmuffs, and mittens, Utena was quite cozy and comfortable as she made her way across the landscape with no particular purpose in mind.

Well, aside from just enjoying a day out with Anthy. Not that difficult, all things considered.

The two of them walked among the snow-covered trees, separated by several feet but neither losing sight of the other. Like Utena, Anthy was dressed warmly for the weather; unlike Utena, her outfit was much more feminine in design. Dressed in earth-toned clothes, which included a plush cream-trimmed brown jacket, thick tan skirt, and appropriate accoutrements, Anthy regarded the forest with a calm serenity, her green eyes wide behind her slim glasses.

Utena smiled to herself, watching Anthy's wavy purple hair shift with her motions as she walked, the slight fog created with every outward breath. After the nail-biting tension and climactic transformation during her junior year's spring break, and the whirlwind of frenetic activity that had been her summer vacation, the chance to take several steps back and just... amble, for lack of a better word ... through a school holiday was more than welcome.

Especially with what was to come when they headed back to the Deedlit Satori Mandeville Memorial Institute on Jerrado to finish their senior year. It was an ordeal every bit as threatening as confronting the Fallen Prince of Cephiro, or running the gauntlet of the Earth Alliance. Something that struck fear into the strongest of hearts, made doubly dire due to its utter mundanity when compared to the more world-shaking events that Utena and her circle of friends often found themselves involved with:

The college selection process.

All of the Duelists and the members of the IBGF regarded it with equal measures of anticipation and dread. It was a regular subject of discussion in the Castle's halls and the school cafeteria. While the tight-knit group hoped to stay together after graduation, they all acknowledged that the needs of their future hopeful careers could easily trump that desire. Arthur Haineley, DSM's Student Counselor, had been helping out as best as he was able, because he very much wanted them to succeed in this task, but even he was unable to help with the presentation of the Duelists' more "unique" experiences to prospective colleges.

How do you put that on a college application, anyway? Utena wondered. "Over the past year, I: Became a prince; got married; captured a Klingon battlecruiser; and participated in a system-wide riot in the Earth Alliance."

At that thought, Utena's expression turned briefly pensive. While she was glad that she was finally able to visit Ishiyama and Sendai, after the summer tour's aborted visit, the circumstances that required them to celebrate Christmas on the Outer Rim she really could have done without. Her honeymoon with Anthy in Castle Eyrie on Titan had been a special, treasured moment, but regrettably all too brief. She had been looking forward to spending more time there with her wife during the Christmas break, even - maybe especially - with the rest of the Hutchins family and their extended circle of friends and relations present.

But Ishiyama, Sendai, and the Shinguuji household held their own charms. They possessed a timelessness, a sense of history that Castle Eyrie had lacked. Peaceful and remote on the Outer Rim, Ishiyama kept its own counsel and looked after its own. The Shinguuji shoin-zukuri and its accompanying lands were even more isolated. With the additional snow cover muting the outdoors, aurally and visually, it was easy for Utena to imagine that she and Anthy were the only holiday guests the Shinguuji had this year.

Utena allowed herself a smile, her mood lightening. She was really looking forward to seeing Anthy's reactions to the Hutchins clan's holiday traditions, and to her participation in the Christmas Day festivities. To think that little over two years ago, Christmas had been a neutral holiday for her! Now, it was almost impossible for her to fathom that concept. Just one more thing in the long list of things that Kate, Corwin, and their extended family had taught her how to enjoy again.

She continued to walk through the snow-covered forest with Anthy nearby, mentally counting her blessings. There were many blessings to take stock of, much more than she had first considered, and this took up a reasonable amount of her mental processes.

So lost in thought was Utena that she didn't notice the change in the snowy terrain until she, quite literally, stumbled into it.


Utena's startled exclamation caught the attention of Anthy, who was still within earshot. She hiked up the edges of her fringed skirt and made her best speed to where she'd heard her husband cry out, and then came to a halt to see Utena on hands and knees in the middle of a large, semicircular depression, already recovering from her fall.

"Utena? Are you all right?" Anthy asked with quiet concern, already reaching out a hand to help her spouse up out of the snow.

"Mff. Just showing off a little bit for all my fans," Utena wryly admitted as she accepted Anthy's hand gratefully. "Thanks. That'll teach me to watch where I step; those bumps in the snow could be anything."

Anthy nodded as she pulled Utena up to her feet and out of the snow-packed area. There was something oddly familiar about the shape in the snow, but she couldn't immediately put her finger on it. Once she had released Utena and was able to take a better look, it finally dawned on her what that familiarity was.

"... Like a footprint from a giant boot?"

"... Excuse me?" Utena looked at Anthy askance after dusting the snow off her knees and glancing down at her own snow boots. "I'll admit my boots are big, but it's not like I'm wearing snowshoes."

Anthy shook her head. "No, not your boot, dear... the one that made that print." She pointed behind Utena, indicating the large packed shape the other woman had fallen into.

Utena turned around to look. "Wha? Holy..." Her voice trailed off as she finally was able to take a good look at where she'd fallen.

What she had first taken to be a semicircular hollow in the snow was just the metaphorical tip of the iceberg. There was another depression connected with the first, wider and more oval in shape. The weight of whatever had caused the print had been enough to compress the snowfall from the blizzard and the past week's snowpack; Utena could quite clearly see the edges of the layers through the exposed inner sides. This wasn't something caused by a removed boulder or a rolling snowdrift; the deep hollow in the snow was too smooth to be anything but artificially-made.

"What the hell?" Utena inquired of nobody in particular, still studying the giant bootprint as she scratched the back of her head with one mitten-covered hand. The heel of the print had been more than large enough to accommodate her when she had tripped and fell. The rest of it was at least as big as the bed she and Anthy shared back in the Castle on Jerrado, though it wouldn't have been as comfortable to lie in. Even with the snow, the tread ridges were more akin to those made by construction equipment than outdoor footwear.

"I suppose a giant from the Upper Worlds could have created it," Anthy suggested. "Though how one could make it to Midgard is beyond me - Aunt Bell told me once that giants, in general, aren't all that strong in the magical arts."

"Yeah... but what would a Jotun be doing on Ishiyama, wearing a size... " At this, Utena squinted, making out another set of ridges in the bootprint, ones that she could surprisingly understand once she flipped them around in her head. "... B52 TS GTX Salomon Ladies' snow boot?"

"Well, I did say it wasn't likely," Anthy admitted. "In any case, it's obvious we're not the only ones out here, Utena," she continued, gesturing with her own mittened hand further off into the forest.

Utena narrowed her eyes, and through the slashes of white snow and tree shadows, she was able to make out a second bootprint several yards away, the companion to the one they had just now encountered. She considered the two bootprints, and then looked back the way she and Anthy had come. Their path through the woods up the hills was still fresh, and she could easily see the wisps of smoke produced by the fireplaces of the Shinguuji household in the distance. Her expression became more thoughtful - an expression that Anthy was very familiar with.

"What are you thinking, love?" Anthy asked with a twinkle in her green eyes, for she already had an inkling of what Utena was about to suggest.

Utena hrmed, making a show of studying her watch. "Well, it's still morning... late morning, but even so..."

"Mmm-hmm?" Anthy nodded.

Utena looked back down the hill, shading her eyes with her hands. "... we won't need to head back until midafternoon to make it back in time for dinner ..."

"It's not a long walk at all, and even if we get too far out, there are always quick ways back," Anthy added casually.

Utena patted the waist pocket of her ski jacket, confirming the presence of her communicator. "... and it's not like they can't contact us if something does comes up..."

"Entirely true," Anthy replied, her fey expression becoming more pronounced.

"... so, Mrs. Tenjou, would you care to join me in finding out where this trail leads?" Utena finally asked Anthy with a smile and an offered arm.

"It would be my pleasure, Captain Tenjou," Anthy replied with a full smile as she looped her arm around Utena's, and the two of them trudged further onward into the forest.

The two of them continued their hike up through the forested hills. The trail wasn't that difficult to follow - apparently their mysterious giant was taking care not to blunder its way through the trees. Instead, every so often the bootprints stopped in front of one tree or another, packing the snow further before moving on.

By the time noon rolled around, they were ready for a break. They stopped for lunch, finding a rocky outcropping that they could sit on, using a compact survival blanket as a picnic cloth. With the clear blue sky above them, the snow covered hills below them, and the Shinguuji compound in the distance, it was a fine place to just take in the world and enjoy the presence of a loved one nearby.

They shared watercress-and-egg sandwiches that Utena had prepared earlier that day, accompanied by cocoa kept warm via thermos. Dessert was improvised from bowls of snow and honey, the latter heated by Anthy with a magic spell. Once the two of them had cleaned up the remaining traces of honey from each other's faces, they packed up their impromptu picnic site and continued heading onward and upward through the forest.

Winter birds soared through the air or picked out fallen kernels of food from beneath the snow. Every so often, a red-coated deer would poke its head out from the underbrush, look at the two women, sneak a treat from Anthy, and then scamper away. White-furred foxes occassionaly crossed their path, tagging along for several minutes before darting back beneath the trees on their own errands. The forest life seemed rather more active than usual to Utena, though she couldn't be sure if it was due to the passage of the giant earlier in the day, or just the presence of her wife.

When they stopped to give a family of rabbits the parts of their remaining sandwich, Utena finally got a chance to voice the observation that she had made in the past hour of walking.

"Himemiya, I think our giant's gained a follower who isn't us." Utena gestured further along the path they were following.

Anthy got to her feet, and looked in the direction Utena was pointing. "Oh ho."

Where there had once been one pair of giant bootprints through the snow... there were now two pairs. This second pair of bootprints seemed a little blockier than the first set they had been following, but they looked to be about the same size and headed in the same direction.

"Also, have you noticed? Some of these trees have been cleared of snow." She pointed out several conifers along the trail, their thick needles and spreading branches dark and distinct in comparison to their snow-clad brethren, and the piles of lumped snow that gathered at their bases. "If I didn't know better, I'd say these two giants are looking for a Christmas tree."

Anthy considered this for a moment. "Perhaps they are. 'Tis the season, after all."

Utena chuckled softly and took Anthy's hand. "Well, we'll just have to ask them when we catch up to them."

The higher up in the hills they walked, the further evidence they gathered. More pine trees had been cleared of snow, accompanied by overlapping bootprints. Utena wondered why all these trees had been passed over; whoever the giants were, they appeared to be quite finicky as to what would be the "best" tree. Quite frankly, she felt that any of them would have sufficed, but what did she know about the proper selection of Christmas trees?

Utena said as much to Anthy, and as they walked on, they began to compare and contrast the trees they encountered. Utena tended to judge more on the practical scale - the thickness of the trunks, the sturdiness of the branches, whether they could be safely climbed - while Anthy evaluated them in terms of the freshness of their needles, the shape of the boughs, the lack of dead branches. Clearly, the forests around and above Sendai had more than their share of hardy conifers, enough to make any forester or holiday decorator weep for joy.

Which still didn't answer the question of why they all had been skipped, but at least it passed the time.

Utena frowned slightly as she checked her watch. "You know, as much fun as this has been, if we don't meet those two giants soon, we'll have to turn around and go back if we want to make it in time for dinner."

Anthy considered this, and nodded. "A shame, that... it's been quite a pleasant walk, and a good day for it. It may just end up being a mystery to the two of us... forever unsolved."

Utena made an amused sound. "Oh, like that'll happen," she said with a smile. "I'll have to ask Sakura if her family has any legends about giants in the woods. They've lived here for generations, after all. Since the colony was founded."

"I'm sure they have plenty of interesting tales, Utena. A place as ... alive ... as this can't help but have them." Anthy smiled back, and then made a (decidely cute) merfing sound as a sudden gust of wind flipped her hair around her face and over her brown beret and grey scarf. She tried to get her hair back under control, but it only made matters more tangled, given she was wearing knitted mittens.

"Yeah, that's true - hey, hold still!" Utena laughed. "Lemme get that for you...." Utena uncovered one of her hands, and then worked on straightening Anthy's wavy purple hair. The wind at this altitude was starting to pick up, which made it a challenge, but at least wasn't hitting the velocities of the blizzard of the prior night. It threaded its way through the trees and hills, carrying a soft, deep, echoing sound produced by the far-off mountains.

As Utena continued her work, just running her fingers through Anthy's hair and appreciating its softness, she could almost swear that the sounds of the wind were forming words.

"...at about this one..."

"...mm, i dunno..."

Utena abruptly stopped combing Anthy's hair, blinking in astonishment. They were forming words - deep, yet oddly feminine - carried by the wind.

Sensing Utena's tension behind her, Anthy turned around. "What is it?"

Utena made a shushing sound, holding her breath. Anthy caught on quickly, and became silent as well.

"... is the fifteenth tree you've nixed!"

"...ell, you were the one turning down my choices once we joined back up..."

Utena and Anthy exchanged surprised significant glances, and without further discussion, the two of them broke into a run, heading for the source of the deep voices.

Utena Tenjou had participated in more than her share of incredible things so far in her life. In her way, she practically thrived on them, surmounting challenges and shifts in worldview, adapting quickly (though sometimes with good-natured complaint) to the strange turns life tossed at her. It was this spirit that had driven her through to the end of the Grand Tournament, had helped her surmount the shock of the transition to Midgard, had aided her in revolutionizing Cephiro, and led to her successful command of the IPS Valiant.

That being said, what she and Anthy now came upon didn't count as the most "incredible" thing she had seen among the Ten Worlds - it probably didn't even rank among the top fifteen - but it certainly was a contender for a solid position in the top thirty.

For when confronted by the sight of two giant women, both of them clad in winter wear, arguing about which tree would be most suitable for the Shinguuji/Hutchins family Christmas party, there wasn't much either Tenjou could do except stare at the incongruous sight.

The two women looked up at the giants, who hadn't noticed their presence, still involved in their discussion. It was Utena who found her voice first, blurting out:


Anthy blinked, startled, and looked over at Utena, even as the latter facepalmed.

"... okay, now I feel stupid," Utena muttered through her mitten.

Anthy, still looking curiously concerned, placed a reassuring hand on her husband's shoulder. She knew that Utena would explain her reaction to the scene soon enough, and she was patient. In the interim, she looked up at the giant women, studying them.

One of the giants was somewhat shorter than the other, though such a distinction seemed trivial when they both easily matched the heights of the firs, spruces, and other trees in the area. They were dressed for a winter expedition, but the shorter of the two was clad in much more casual outerwear, while the other was dressed in a polar suit that looked to be military-made. The shorter woman had a cute (almost pixie-ish) face, bright teal eyes, clear skin, and a mop of short scarlet curls that were currently restrained by a thickly-knitted cap. Anthy would have almost taken her for the younger of the two, save for the way she carried herself when dealing with her taller companion. This was a woman who was quite used to the duties of seniority and command, and she carried it off without being overbearing about her position (whatever it was - there were no rank insignia that Anthy recognized on her current outfit).

The other woman, who was taller by several feet, had a body and face that could only be described as "Amazonian". She carried herself with easy grace despite her height and mass, and her voice reminded Anthy strongly of Juri Arisugawa's (save for the extra bass undertones). Her hair was green, nearly matching Kyouichi Saionji's in color, but straigher and shorter, framing her face to both sides above her shoulders in gentle curves, save for a section of hair secured at the nape of her neck to trail down her back in a thin ponytail. She had clear skin as well, deep blue eyes, and a purposeful mien. Unlike her companion, she did have rank insignia on her outfit. These appeared to place her as a lieutenant in the Wedge Defense Force, if Anthy was reading them correctly.

However, she also wore a jaunty white-and-red santa hat, appropriate for the season, but at odds with the regimentation of her winter wear. Anthy found it both amusing and touching, and then returned her attention towards her husband.

Utena finally lifted her head back up and looked up at the giants a second time. She shook her head, still not fully processing what she was viewing, but unable to deny its existence.

"Never thought I'd see a reminder of that part of my Galactic History courses. At least not on vacation," she murmured to herself before turning to Anthy with an apologetic smile. "Sorry about that, Himemiya."

"It's all right, Utena," Anthy replied, squeezing Utena's shoulder before finally letting go. "You called them 'Zentraedi' ?"

Utena nodded, looking up at the two women again, before looking back at Anthy. "Yeah. An alien race from the early Earth Expansion Period. When the WDF was just getting started, one of the first really serious extended wars they had was against the Zentraedi. I forget exactly why they were attacking the new colonies and headed for Earth, but somehow Zoner and Gryphon and the others managed to convince one of their leaders that that wasn't a good idea. Later on they prevented one of the other Zentraedi leaders from annihilating the WDF, the Wayward Son, and the Zentraedi fleet that'd become their allies. If they hadn't, I'm told that guy's next move would've been glassing Earth."

Anthy's green eyes widened. "Well, thank the Allfather that the WDF succeeded," she finally said, and Utena nodded in agreement.

"After that, the WDF helped the Zentraedi get reorganized and adapted to the galaxy's culture - seems they didn't know how to cope with parts of it." Utena quirked a grin. "Aside from the Salusians and the Autobots, the Zentraedi are some of the WDF's oldest allies."

Anthy nodded, and the two of them looked up at the two Zentraedi women. Utena considered the fact that they still hadn't noticed their appearance, and decided that more drastic measures needed to be taken. She didn't waste energy trying to raise her voice and shout over their discussion, she just put her pinkies in her mouth and shrilly whistled.

With a start, both giants stopped their conversation, trying to place the location of the sudden whistle. Finally, they looked down, and saw the two Duelists waving up at them.

"Ah, yes? Can we help you?" asked the shorter of the two Meltrandi as she crouched down to get a better look at the two women. At this range, Utena could easily see a brief puzzled expression cross the redhead's face -- as if she was trying to think of something, but couldn't quite remember what it was.

"Well, on the way up here, we couldn't help but notice that you two have been trying to pick out a Christmas tree," Utena said with a grin. "I was wondering if you could use a second and third opinion - er, sorry, third and fourth - from the two of us."

The redheaded giant considered this, and then nodded as she smiled, her scarlet curls bobbing where they weren't restrained by her patterned watch cap. "I think we could be amenable to this. It'd certainly allow us to finish faster. I doubt General Shinguuji would appreciate us taking another day to pick out a suitable tree for the compound."

At this, she directed a pointed glance at her green-haired companion, who returned it, with a muttered, "Look, you keep nixing my choices, what am I supposed to do?"

"Well, if you would take my selections under better consideration --"

"But your selections just aren't right for this gathering --"

Utena ignored the byplay between the two Zentraedi women. "Oh, you're here for Dad's party, too?" She interjected, in order to keep things on track.

At this, she was successful. The two giants stopped their argument, and the green-haired one blinked. She looked down at Utena with equal measures of curiosity and confusion. "Your father?"

Anthy allowed herself an induldgent smile. "Oh, she means Chief Hutchins. You would know him as 'Gryphon', most likely." She glanced over at Utena, who looked mildly embarrassed for having referred to Ben Hutchins as her father yet again. With a twinkle in her eye, she went on. "And we're being remiss -- we haven't introduced ourselves."

"D'oh!" The redheaded Meltrandi exclaimed, and applied palm to forehead. "You're right! Totally slipped my mind. Let's correct that." With a grin, she stood up straight and tall, and saluted the two smaller women. "Vice Admiral Xeralia Fallyna Sterling of the Wedge Defense Force, at your service."

Automatically, the green-haired giant saluted right afterwards and proclaimed "Lieutenant Miracle A. Sterling, Quadrono Squadron, WDF Quelquira-Nuur! Pleasure to meet you, sirs!" Only after she had spoken did she appear to realize that she'd used more regimentation than needed, and an embarrased flush crossed her cheeks.

Grinning, Xeralia crouched down again, and confided to Utena and Anthy, "We'll break her of that habit eventually. Honest! Only took us a couple decades to get her to understand the concept of 'vacation time'..."

Anthy giggled, and Utena chuckled. "Well, with an opening like that, what can we do but respond in kind?" Utena rhetorically asked before standing straight and saluting. "Captain Utena Tenjou, IPS Valiant, pleasure to meet you both; and this lovely lady next to me is my wife, Anthy Tenjou."

Anthy smiled and curtseyed, being appropriately dressed for the part. "Likewise."

Xeralia and Miracle didn't appear in any way discomfited by Utena's bald proclimation of marriage to Anthy. If anything, they both looked appreciative and approving of the fact. And then, with a startled double-blink, Xeralia's focus snapped wholey on Utena. "Wait a second -- 'Tenjou'? As in 'The Paladin of Titan' Tenjou? You're that Utena Tenjou?"

Utena blinked, and then looked faintly embarrased once again, reaching behind her head with her right hand. "Uh, yeah? (I suppose I am)..."

At this, Xeralia's face broke into a grin, and she snapped her fingers. "That's where I thought I'd seen you before! On the after-mission vids Maia forwarded to me!"

Utena blinked. "There's videos of that?"

"You have no idea how popular you are, Capt. Tenjou. Especially among the command-deck set." Xeralia shook her head in wonder. "I have to keep some of my officers from goofing off at their stations reviewing it."

"And that girl in the starfighter that followed your ship off Earth? What was her name, 'Karou'?" Miracle interjected, enthusiastic. "I don't think I've seen anybody inspire our Gnerl-pilots like she has. Fixed-config craft have always gotten short shrift among of the Zentraedi -- but not anymore!"

"Ohhh-kay." Utena arched an eyebrow, clearly not sure how to take this news. Beside her, Anthy said nothing, diplomatically hiding her smile behind a mittened hand, but her eyes twinkled with merriment. Utena glanced to her side, caught Anthy's expression, then rolled her eyes good-naturedly. "Right. Well, you two can tell me and Kozue all about this when we get back... don't we have a tree to choose before sundown?"

Xeralia looked up at the sky, and then nodded. "You're right. We'd best get a move on. I wouldn't want to step on anything in the dark on the way back to the house. It's just plain rude when you accidentally obliterate somebody's landscaping that way."

With their numbers increased, and a little more searching, it now became much easier to reach a consensus. After about another half-hour, Xeralia, Miracle, Utena, and Anthy had finally narrowed down the choices to three trees within several paces of the two Meltrandi. Two robust firs of differing size and shape, as well as a tapered spruce tree that was nearly as tall as Miracle, vied for attention.

"OK, ladies!" Xeralia exclaimed, clapping her mittened hands together. "Now for the bonus round! Which of these three should we choose?" She pointed at the trees in turn. "Fir number one? Fir number two? Or spruce number three?"

Utena looked between the three of them, one more time. All three had their merits, she had to admit. But only one could be chosen; and not only that, in all likelyhood it would stand near the buildings of the Shinguuji household for years to come. She turned, and looked at Anthy. "Himemeya, what do you think?"

Anthy considered her husband's question seriously. After a moment's thought, she said, "Well, I'd choose --" She raised her mittened hand, but as she was singling out her choice, a familiar voice from further away rang out through the forest.

"THERE you two are! Hey guys, I FOUND 'EM!"

Utena and Anthy turned around at the sound. Through the spread-out trees, they could see a familiar white speck, easily made out against the darker branches of the forest, flapping towards them. Two other figures could be seen approaching on the snow-covered ground behind him.

"Nall? What are you doing out here?" Utena exclaimed, and then paused as a thought occurred to her. "We aren't late for dinner, are we?"

Nall snorted, and coasted over to perch on Utena's shoulder. "Nah, if you were, do you think I'd be here? It was rocket boy's idea to gather a posse' to find you two and Terry's friends..." but then he trailed off, his attention being now taken by the two giants standing above them. "Boy howdy, friends are found!" He shook his furry head, and looked back the way he'd came. "There, that's done. Can we go back now, Corwin?"

That named worthy, clad in black winterwear trimmed in silver fur, trudged the rest of the way into the copse of trees. "No, Nall, you know the deal." The little dragon rolled his eyes, at which Corwin grinned. "Besides, Utena and Anthy haven't met Terry yet, and you haven't met Xera and Mira, either."

Meanwhile, the fuchsia-haired woman who accompanied him (and, like the others, was dressed for the weather), retrieved her communicator with her free hand and spoke into it. "Komi? It's Terry. I found our two little lost Meltrandi. Uh-huh, about what we figured. They're still trying to pick a tree out, and now they have help. Right. Once they FINALLY choose, I'll call again with the dimensions."

Xeralia smirked. "No need to wait, Terry - we're done here." She gestured at the chosen tree. "What do you think?"

"Hey, wait a second!" Utena exclaimed. "Anthy hasn't chosen yet!"

"Actually, I did, Utena," Anthy replied, calmly.

"Oh, which, that one?" Nall asked, indicating with a pointing wing at the tree next to Miracle. "Niiiiiice. Yeah, that'll do."

Utena blinked. "Er, right. So. How'd you..." she began to say, but then she noticed that the newest member of the group was carrying Tiny Robo close in the crook of her left arm. Being a smart woman, she realized that the little robot had been used to home in on her and Anthy's position, eliminating the need to ask her original question. "Right." She chuckled, and extended her hand to Robo's carrier. "I see you've got my robot. Or he's got you, you never can be sure. Pleasure to meet you. Utena Tenjou."

The woman took Utena's hand, and shook it firmly. "Therèse Sterling. I see you've met my sisters already," she said with a grin and a jerk of the head upwards towards the two giant women. "And I've gotta say, this little 'bot of yours is a marvel."

Utena laughed, and accepted the handover of Tiny Robo. The little robot made a satisfied rumble as he settled into place in her arms. "Thanks, but I can't take credit for him... he's all Corwin's doing."

"Oh really?" Therèse arched an eyebrow, looking between the two, then smiled. "Ah, I see," she remarked, but before Utena could ask what she'd meant by that, she turned her attentions to Anthy. "And you must be the lucky Mrs. Tenjou."

"Indeed, I am," Anthy replied with a smile, and took Utena's arm again. "Very lucky, indeed."

"Yeah, believe me, these two together... they'd never have made it happen without yours truly," Nall smugly added.

Utena looked wry, and rubbed a knuckle on the top of Nall's furry head. "Well, you had some help, dragon."

"Ow! Okay, okay, I'll be good."

"A likely story," Utena replied with a smile, and Nall smiled a cheesy grin.

Therèse laughed. "Yeah, I can see he's quite the character," she said, and patted Nall on the head.

Xeralia coughed, to get her sister's attention. "So, who's this that you want us to meet, Terry?"

"Oh, right." Terry gestured between the two giants. "Nall, meet my older and younger sisters, Xeralia and Miracle Sterling."

Nall whistled. "You're related? Yeah, I can see the resemblance."

Terry went on, ignoring the interjection. "Xera, Mira? Meet Corwin's friend..."

Nall puffed up his chest, and announced in his most grandiose tone of voice, "Nall, Great Alfheim Cat Dragon, Lord of the Winter Skies, Heir to Aglarond, Boon Companion to the Pillar of Cephiro, at your service."

"Modesty, thy name is Nall," Utena dryly commented. "And you forgot your surname."

"No I didn't!" Nall protested, but Utena and Anthy just looked at him, slightly askance. "Did I?"

Utena and Anthy had no choice but to nod in confirmation. Nearby, Corwin was trying hard not to laugh outright.

Miracle blinked. "Wait... you're a dragon?"

"Yep! I sure am, live and in the fur."

"But, you can't be a dragon," Miracle protested.

Nall smirked. "Oh, really?" he replied, glancing over at Corwin, who had recovered and was now smiling in silent conspiracy.

Miracle nodded, and gestured widely with her hands. "Dragons are giant beasts, as big as any Zentran, winged and powerful, skilled in sorcery and masters of their realms. Whole micron armies cannot stand against them, and even the mightiest of Meltrans would be hard-pressed to deal with them." She paused in her recitation, then amended her statement. "At least, so I've read," she admitted, looking sheepish. "But in any case, you aren't any of these things. Clearly."

Nall chuckled, shaking his head. "Kids these days. What are they teaching them in school?" He looked up at Mira. "Lady, prepare to get an education of the most immediate kind. You mind if I go ahead and stretch out, rocket boy?"

Corwin made an offhand gesture, and smiled. "Hey, I'm not about to stop you, furball ... Just be sure not to knock down the trees, okay?"

Nall snorted. "As if." He pushed off of Utena's shoulder with a spring in his legs and a beat of his wings, and rapidly ascended to a height that was approximately waist-height to the Meltrandi pilot. "'Scuse me while I whip this out!"

Before the two Meltrandi, Nall abruptly expanded, his body, neck, and tail stretching to their full size, along with the rest of him, rapidly filling up the space between them and the smaller people on the ground. The process took mere moments, but such was Nall's control now that he didn't even disturb a pine needle.

"Yaa! Deculture!" Miracle exclaimed, startled, jerking back to make room as Nall transformed. Xeralia held back her own comments, watching the entire experience, with less doubt but equal surprise.

Now fullsize, landing on his paws, Nall arched his neck as he folded his feathered wings back over his body. "Now are you convinced?" he said smugly, his ruby eyes now large enough to match Miracle's blue ones.

Miracle nodded, her eyes wide. Slowly, carefully, she reached an arm forward, to touch the golden ruff of fur on the side of his face.

Nall blinked. "What? I'm not gonna bite or something..."

"You're... real..." Miracle murmured in an awed tone. "You're really real..."

Before Nall could reply to that, Miracle's face lit up into a gigantic smile, her blue eyes shining, and she lunged forward to lean against his side and start scritching his fur. "You're so cute!"

"Gah!" Nall blurted out, surprised at being pounced on by a being that was approximately the same size as himself. "Hey, watch it, lady! Those wings aren't meant to be ... leaned... on.... mrrr..." His protestations died down as his feline and draconic instincts took hold, and his neck and head flopped down into the snow as he began to purr. Given his size, it came out more as a subsonic rumble, which the group could feel through their boots.

"Well, congratulations, Nall," Xeralia commented, with a dry expression. "You have caused a multiply-awarded Meltrandi ace to revert into childhood. I hope you're satisfied." Miracle snorted, looked up at her sister, stuck out her tongue, and then resumed what she was doing.

"Oh, I am, I am," Nall rumbled, purring as Miracle scratched a particularly irksome area. "Yeaah, that's the stuff... riiiight there."

Therèse regarded the scene, and then looked up at Xeralia. "Okay, we've lost Mira and Nall, what've you got left, Xera?"

"I don't know, Terry, I'm boggled beyond all rational thought."

Utena spoke up. "Might I suggest we do what we originally came here to do?" she said as she gestured towards the chosen tree.

"I like this plan. I'm proud to be a part of it," Corwin replied, sizing up the tree. "Yeah, that looks like a good one. Let's do this thing."

With Miracle and Nall presently occupied, it was left to the rest to figure out how to extract the chosen Christmas Tree from the surrounding hillside. Therèse looked up and down the length of the tree, hands on hips, regarding it in the lowering afternoon sun.

"I do hope you brought something to help us dig this thing out, Xera. It's rather too late for me to go back and get my Valkyrie, and without the proper implements, I'd damage the hand manipulators digging it out anyway."

"Oh, we brought an entrenching tool; Mira's got it, if we ever get her away from Nall," Xeralia replied as she brushed off the remaining snow from the tree. Down below, Utena and Corwin were clearing away the dead branches and twigs that fell during this process.

Anthy, now holding Tiny Robo, looked up into the depths of the tree with a thoughtful expression. "Hm. But first, I think there's one detail left to take care of, Therèse," she finally said, turning back to look at the pink-haired Sterling.

Therèse blinked. "Eh? What is it, Anthy?"

Up above, there was a groan from Xeralia. "Oh, hell. I see it too. Terry, we've got a problem."

"What? What is it?"

Xeralia drew back, and pulled off her mittens, dropping them on the ground. She leaned down, and picked up her sister without warning, but Therèse had plenty of experience with this sort of thing, and didn't protest. "This tree... it's already got some residents." She pointed with her free hand, and inside the shadowy depths of the tree, her sister could see the makeshift twigs and debris that made up a squirrel's nest. Higher up, she could make out some vaguely circular objects that looked to be bird nests.

Therèse's face fell. "Well, Hell. Well, that scraps using this tree. Unless you think you can move them somehow, Xera..." One look at her sister's face showed her the level of confidence her larger sister had at making the attempt. "No, huh. Well, what about one of the other trees?"

Anthy shook her head. "No, there won't be a need for that, Therèse. I think Tiny Robo and I should be able to handle it. If you could lift me up, Xeralia?"

With a soft "Grr", Tiny Robo straightened in Anthy's embrace, and flexed his arms and tiny fists in readiness. She waited patiently while Xeralia put down her sister, and then reached over to gently pick up Anthy and her own passenger.

Utena, despite herself, tensed up slightly as she watched this occur. Corwin, standing next to her, put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a smile. Thus reassured, Utena relaxed and watched as Anthy stood on Xeralia's palm like it was a cargo lifter platform, and she and Tiny Robo worked their magic to transplant the animals that lived within the branches to another tree. This consisted of Anthy convincing the woodland creatures to come out to where she was, on the giant woman's palm, and of Tiny Robo extracting their nests.

This took some doing, but eventually the birds and squirrels (and one surprised fox) were relocated to one of the runner-up trees. Now satisfied, Xeralia set Anthy back down on the ground.

"Thanks, Anthy, Tiny Robo," she said, smiling down at the two as they rejoined Utena and Anthy.

"No trouble, Xeralia. It was a pleasure," Anthy replied, with a gracious nod. Tiny Robo gave a satisfied "Grr" as well.

"So, what do we about those two?" Utena asked, indicating where Nall and Miracle were still sprawled, the scratch-fest now having settled down to Nall telling stories of his exploits to the attentive Meltrandi.

"Leave that to me," Therèse replied, and marched over to the dragon's side. With her relative size to the two, she remained unnoticed, until her sharp voice barked out, "Atten-HUT!"

Miracle abruptly jerked upright, jumping to her feet, to the surprise of Nall. "Lt. Sterling, reporting for duty!"

"Woah! Easy there, Mira!" Nall drew back and got to his feet at a slower pace. "There aren't any military bases around for miles."

"Oh?" Miracle blinked, and then blushed. "Oh, hell." She looked down, and glared at the diminutive form of Therèse down near her feet. "I was comfortable there!"

"Yeah, yeah. Enough time for that later, Mira... right now you've got work to do."

Miracle sighed. "Fine, fine... just a minute." Dismissing her sister, she turned to regard Nall, looking at him straight in the eye. "I apologize for ever doubting you were a dragon, Nall. Can you forgive me?"

"Ahh, don't worry about it," Nall replied with a shrug of his wings. "You couldn't have know--" His reply was cut off as Miracle kissed him on the top of his snout. ".... yeaaah, you're forgiven," he finally said with a cockeyed smile on his muzzle.

Utena watched the goings-on with an arched eyebrow. "(You know, if this keeps up, Umi's going to use him for a rug,)" she commented under her voice.

"(Forget rug, she'll use him for wall-to-wall house carpeting,)" Corwin replied, equally quiet.

"(Shag carpeting.)"

"(True that.)"

"Why are you whispering?" Anthy asked.

The two blinked, and looked back at her. "Damned if I know," Corwin finally admitted. Shaking his head, he looked back up and over, to where Miracle had now joined Xeralia in discussing how they would go about the final critical step of extracting the selected tree. After some consultation with Therèse, they finally decided on the plan. Xeralia moved to one side of the tree, while Miracle walked around to the opposite side.

Xeralia reached into the depths of the tree with her re-mittened hands to hold onto the trunk. "Okay, I've got it steady, Mira."

"All right," Miracle replied. She reached behind herself, and pulled out a folded-up assembly of curved metal and reinforced tubing. It took only a few moments for her to unfold the entrenching tool to its functional configuration, and then she hunched over to start digging. Therèse rejoined Utena, Anthy, and Corwin, and the four of them moved back to give the much larger women room to work.

"So, given any thought to what you're planning to do after Christmas here?" Therèse asked the younger trio.

"Uh... well, we're not really sure," Corwin scratched the back of his head with his gloved hands, having shoved back the hood of his coat to do so. "We were originally going to do kind of an abbreviated galactic grand tour, but I figured out the route thinking we'd be in the Solar system at this end, not way out here."

"If I had to guess - and I do - I'd say we're going to be overcome with laziness and just stay here until it's time to head to New Avalon for New Year's," Utena admitted.

Therèse laughed. "Yeah, that sounds like a good plan. Me 'n Komi don't have that option, we have to get back to the shipyards before the end of the week." She then tilted her head, curiously. "Hey, think you'll be down on the Grand Common when the year rolls over?"

Utena grinned, and worked her arm around Anthy's waist. "Damn straight we'll be. This'll be Anthy's first!"

"I'm looking forward to it," Anthy replied with a smile, leaning against her husband.

At that moment, there was a grunt, a mighty rustling sound from behind them, and a proclamation of success.

"There we go! Guys, it's out! You better move back!" Miracle exclaimed, and the others turned to witness the two Meltrandi had finished digging a circular cut into the ground around the tree. With both pairs of arms reaching in to grab the trunk, they lifted the selected christmas tree out of the ground, and carefully tilted it on its side. "Ta-dah!"

The smaller folk on the ground golf-clapped. Xeralia made an exaggerated bow. "Thank you, thank you. And now, for our next trick -- Miracle Sterling will now show off her physical prowess by carrying back the tree!"

Miracle blinked, and looked at her older sister. "Xera, why do I have to carry back the tree?"

"Because I'm Older, Smarter, Cuter -- and I Outrank you."

Miracle rolled her eyes. "I'll accept two of those, sis, but I'm afraid I have to debate the others. Besides, it's going to take two of us to carry it back without dragging." She indicated the length of the tree, now laid out on the ground, with its tangled roots jutting out with a sizeable amount of dirt still present inside.

Xeralia considered this. "Oh. Hrm."

"She's got you there, Xera," Corwin pointed out with a smile.

"Okay, fine," Xeralia conceded. "You've got me. But I'm taking the top part," she said, moving to the upper part of the tree and reaching in to grab the trunk.

"Whatever navs your cruiser, Xera," replied Miracle with a shake of her head, and she moved to the lower half and did the same.

Together, the two Sterlings lifted the tree off the ground, keeping it relatively horizontal. Miracle twisted around and looked back at the rest. "See you back at the house!" she said with a smile, and then with the sounds of much lifting, shifting, and moving, they started to make their way down the hills back to the Shinguuji household in the distance.

Nall watched them go, and chuckled. "Nice kid, there. A little stiff at times, but she loosens up if you give her a chance."

Therèse smiled. "Yeah, she is. She's polished up well. So..." She trailed off, and considered the dragon's furry bulk as he looked down at his friends. "... care to give a girl a lift?"

"Mmmmm, I dunnno..." Nall replied with affected nonchalance. "What's in it for me?"

"Nall!" Utena protested, but it was a half-hearted protest, given her grin as she said it.

The dragon laughed. "All right, all right!" He hunkered down, so that the four could climb aboard, finding easy handholds by grabbing onto his fur. They made their way to the center of his back, between the wings and a little behind his neck, and made themselves comfortable. "Hold on, 'cause here we go!"

Laughing, Anthy held onto Utena, who held onto Corwin, as Nall leaped into the sky with a powerful push of his legs. Therèse let out an undignified squeal of surprise as she held on for dear life, not having expected the suddenness of the launch. Then she joined in the laughter as Nall's wings caught the winds, and they soared over the hills, back the way they had come.

With luck, they would get back to the central compound before the Christmas tree did.

"A Walk in the Woods" - a Symphony of the Sword Mini-Story by Philip Jeremy Moyer
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

From the cleaning-out-the-dustbin files: The first bit of this piece was just a leftover bit of a dead-end scene from the end of Lost & Found, and lay around for a long time, long enough that I more or less forgot about it, because I couldn't think what to do with it. I ran across it a bit ago, renewed my acquaintance with it, and decided I liked the standard of quipsmanship too much to be permanently daunted by the complete lack of any point to the thing. :)

Anyway, if you're the sort that needs things to have a point, well, there is that bit at the end about moving to Tomodachi, which, as we know, the Griffins eventually did. --G.

Thursday, August 23, 2407
755 Malden Avenue, No. 17
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni

Don Griffin didn't actually need to sleep all that much. In a pinch, he could get by with little more than six or eight hours a week, and in sustained crisis situations (for example, his entire post-secondary education) he had done just that. Under normal circumstances, though, he enjoyed sleeping like a regular person. It was something like a hobby.

As he slept, something drilled into his consciousness. Something shrill. Something repetitive. Something... tremendously annoying.

His twilit consciousness considered the nature of this abstract thing with a detached sort of bemusement.

the hell is that? sounds like... some kind of bell. phone? no. turned phone off. TARDIS doesn't make that noise. some kind of...

Next to him, Kitty stirred and made a blurry, disgruntled noise. "... 're you gonna get th'door?" she wondered.

"oh," Don replied, coming to something like wakefulness. "doorbell. course."

Before he could reassemble any more of his scattered consciousness, to say nothing of mustering the strength of will it would take to remove his arm from around Kitty's middle and extract himself from the warm cocoon of the covers, he heard the apartment door open. That took him aback for a moment, until he remembered that they had a houseguest who would naturally, the guest room being closest to the door, take it upon herself to answer the summons.

Whoever it was obviously had the wrong house. Who would be visiting at - he glanced at the bedside clock - 3:08 in the morning?

He had just settled back and closed his eyes again when the bedroom light clicked on.

"Hngh?!" was Don's incisive comment as he rolled instinctively onto his back and sat partway up, blinking into the sudden brightness. Kitty, whose reflexes were better-trained, was up in a half-kneel next to him, her sword in its scabbard across the bed in front of her, before she reached consciousness.

"Oh, no," said the person who had just invaded their bedroom. "Dear me, don't get up."

Don closed his eyes, waited for one full second, and opened them again, but it was no use. Emma Frost was still there.

Kitty found her voice first.

"Emma, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

Emma looked shocked. "I just stopped by to say hello!" she protested. "I never dreamed you'd be in bed so early, young people like yourselves."

Don wiped a hand down his face and glanced past Emma into the hall. Paige Guthrie gave him a stricken, apologetic look and a shrug. Don sighed, waving her unspoken apology away, and said to the intruder, "Emma, do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Of course," Emma replied with a smile. "The Cobalt Club closes at three o'clock, and it can't have taken me more than 10 minutes to get here from there." She winked one pale-blue eye and smirked slightly. "Cab drivers are easily motivated," she added.

Kitty relaxed her grip on her sword's scabbard and settled back to sit in a kind of seiza next to Don, making sure her oversized T-shirt's hem was tucked under her knees.

"Well, you've said hello," she said in the voice of a woman who is very carefully controlling herself. "Now try goodbye."

Emma pouted. "Oh, come now," she said. "Won't you at least have a drink with me? I'm celebrating!" She held up a dark green glass bottle and a pair of flute glasses. "Think of it as breakfast in bed," she added with a wicked grin.

"Where I come from," Don pointed out patiently, "champagne is not considered a breakfast food."

"Oh, pooh," said Emma. "It's good for you. It'll put hair on your chest."

Don gave her a skeptical look and replied dryly, "That's not something I need help with."

Emma smiled lasciviously. "Mm, now that I've said it, I see that," she said.

"OK, that's it," said Kitty, pointing to the door. "Get out."

The blonde sighed expansively. "Whatever for? We're all friends here, aren't we?" When Kitty reached significantly for her sword, however, Emma relented with a hurt look. "All right, very well. If you simply must kowtow to the Puritan baggage of your upbringing, I'll wait in the kitchen while you get dressed."

And she turned and swept from the room.

Paige watched her go, gave the Griffins the most apologetic look she could muster, and then went after her so that they could dress in peace.

"So," said Don as he buttoned his shirt. "What do you suppose she wants?"

"Do I care?" Kitty asked rhetorically. "Maybe she's founding a new Hellfire Club in New Avalon and wants you to be the Black King."

"She's only been here for three days," Don observed. "Even Emma doesn't work that fast."

"I don't know how you can say that. She practically had your pants off right there in the control room," said Kitty sourly.

"Now, now," said Don mildly. "I'm not so easily swayed as that."

"Well," said Emma when they joined her in the kitchen a few minutes later. "Now that we're all here, I can share the big news with you. I've finally found a place to live!"

Kitty stared at her, then turned silently away and opened the cabinet next to the coffee maker. Don, who didn't like coffee, switched on the electric kettle instead and busied himself for a few moments spooning mint tea leaves into the strainer basket of his favorite small white teapot.

"Congratulations," he said dryly. "Seventy-two hours in the city's finest hotel must have been difficult to bear."

"It doesn't suit me to be a rootless drifter," Emma replied blithely. "Anyway, I wanted to share the good news with you two first, because we're going to be neighbors!"

Don raised an eyebrow. "Oh really."

"Absolutely," Emma replied. "Why didn't you tell me number 18 was available? I move in tomorrow. I'll be right across the hall! Isn't that wonderful?"

Don considered the situation for a few moments, then said calmly, "Emma, if you keep doing things like this - and I speak here as a man who does not want his beloved wife to go to prison - Kitty's going to kill you."

"I'm a ninja," Kitty remarked grumpily from somewhere in the cabinet. "The cops will never pin it on me."

"Oh, Katherine, darling, don't be that way. We're living in a whole new context these days, you know, and I can tell we're all going to be great friends." Emma put the glasses down on the table and gestured with the bottle. "Sure you won't have some champagne?"

"Despite your best efforts, you haven't quite driven me to drink yet," Kitty replied, priming Mr. Coffee.

"Well," said Emma philosophically, "we have plenty of time." She sighed and gathered up her glassware. "Fine then. If no one here is going to have a drink with me, I'll just have to go and find someone who will. You two simply must come to my housewarming party next Friday, though, I shan't take no for an answer. Ta, darlings!"

Paige waited until she was gone, then emerged from her room and put her head into the kitchen.

"I'm really, really sorry about that," she said. "I had no idea - "

"Eh, don't worry about it," said Don. "It could've been worse. I'm not mopping blood off the floor."

"The line about not wanting me to go to jail was nice," Kitty remarked, sliding into the seat next to him. "God! I think I liked the old Emma better. Somehow she was easier to take when she was trying to kill us."

Paige sat down across from her and looked glum. "She's really not a bad person," she said. "It's just that... well, her personality hasn't caught up with her outlook."

"Ha! I like that," said Kitty, pouring coffee. "Coffee?"

"No thank you. Mama always said it'd stunt my growth."

"Yeah," Kitty replied archly, elbowing Don. "We can see where you'd have to worry about that, huh Don?"

"What!" Don replied, throwing up his hands. "Why is it not okay for Emma to mack on me but okay for you to insinuate - "

"I didn't insinuate anything!" Kitty replied, looking pious while Paige's face went red. "Anyway, I refuse to be held responsible for anything I say on three hours' sleep."

"You're not going to get back to sleep if you drink that," Don observed, gesturing toward her coffee.

"I'm not going to get back to sleep anyway, after this," said Kitty. "Just lie awake thinking about living with that next door. That doctorate program on Tomodachi is looking more attractive all the time."

"What would stop her from following us out there?" Don asked rhetorically.

"We'd have to get a house," Kitty replied. "A big one. With a big yard. And high windows. So no one could approach within say 100 yards without being spotted by the snipers. Did I mention we'd need snipers?"

"You're starting to remind me of Logan. And since I sleep with you, that's more than a little unnerving. Stop it."

Paige snorted. "I think I'll go back to bed before I learn something I didn't want to know. Good night, you two. I promise I'll look before I open the door next time."

"'Night, Paige. Don't worry about it. This stuff happens." Don watched her go, then took the kettle off the boil and poured hot water into his teapot. "You seriously want to move to Tomodachi?"

Kitty sipped her coffee. "Hell, I don't know. I mean, the doctorate program at NIT does look really good. And it was nice over there. And Hank's there." She sighed. "Have to finish my rxnfrgt masters first, either way. Good thing fall term at NAIS starts next week. Mind you, studying's going to be fun with the Hellfire Club moving in next door. I can already see myself living in the library."

"Before you go, can you get your picture taken someplace? I don't want to forget what you looked like while you're gone." Don looked thoughtful. "Would letting that happen constitute playing into Emma's hands on your part? Ow!"

"Hello, Neighbors" - a Lost & Found addendum by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

February 10, 2410
Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, New Snowdonia
Crown Colonies, Rigel sector

Geoff Depew woke up, sat up, and briefly wondered where the hell he was.

He was warm, dry, and dressed, the first two being an upgrade to his previous status. It took him a moment to remember what he'd been doing before, but it came back easily enough: He'd been working a scheme with Logan, trying to track down some gunrunners, when he'd caught a big baton round in the chest, tossing him out a window into the river as he lost consciousness.

Now he found himself sitting up on a divan in what appeared to be a tastefully-appointed library. There was a lot of dark-stained wood paneling, the fireplace roaring, and books of all kinds lined the walls. The divan itself was leather, but older, with the sense of being well-worn from use. Two chairs faced the fireplace. As Geoff woke, the shape of a man rose from one and turned to face him.

The gentleman - that was the word that automatically came to Geoff's mind, looking at him - was very tall and broad-shouldered, with a heavy fall of almost-golden hair, clubbed navy-fashion and tied at the base of his neck with a bow-knotted black ribbon. He wore the clothing of a Victorian gentleman-about-town, including a ruffed white shirt and fastidiously knotted neckcloth under a suit of deep orange, nearly crimson, broadcloth. Geoff reflected that such a color combination ought to be a fashion disaster, but this fellow managed to pull it off. He had a leonine face with neatly trimmed sidewhiskers, and little round blue-tinted spectacles kept Geoff from making out the color of his eyes.

"Good evening, sir," said Geoff's apparent host with a small, contained, but hospitable smile. "Welcome to my humble home. No, pray don't get up," he added with a gesture as Geoff made to rise. "Permit me to introduce myself: Sir Victor Creed, first Baronet Creedmanse." He drew himself up and bowed elegantly. "Your servant."

Geoff blinked. He felt as if he'd awakened in a BBC costume drama. Only the thoroughly unaffected ease with which Creed spoke and moved prevented his mannerisms from coming off as comical, or worse, camp; but he was neither.

"Uh... thank you," said Geoff, gathering himself.

Creed turned his chair to face the divan and sat again. "May I compliment you on your resiliency, sir? You were rather worse than half-dead when Braddock and I pulled you from the river."

"Thank you for that, as well," said Geoff.

"Oh, you're most welcome, though I must confess it wasn't plain benevolence. May I offer you a glass of claret?" the baronet added, picking up a decanter from the low table between them. "It has no pretentions to greatness, I find, but it is surprisingly accessible."

Geoff blinked a few more times, then managed to get out, "Uh... yes, please." Creed poured him a glass; Geoff sipped. "I don't know much about wine," he agreed, "but that's good." Setting it down, his wits more collected now, he asked, "If my rescue wasn't pure benevolence, what was the rest of it?"

Creed removed his tinted spectacles, revealing vertically-slit golden eyes that twinkled merrily in the firelight. "Ah, now we come to the meat of the matter, if you'll excuse the expression," he said with evident satisfaction. "You came to my attention some days ago, Mr. Depew, when you arrived in what I might stretch a point and call my demesne. Not on your own merits, I hasten to add, but because of the man you travel with. This man called Logan. He intrigues me.

"You see, in my misspent youth I spent some time in the company of one Thomas Logan; a man who looked remarkably like your friend. Mr. Thomas Logan was, as Mr. Hobbes put it, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. The troubling thing is, he is also long dead. I know; I put him down myself." Geoff looked taken slightly aback by this blandly bald revelation, but Creed went on, unconcerned. "Now here he is, appearing in town years after his death, tearing through the local underworld in a most indecorous fashion and causing no end of fuss. Logically, he cannot be Thomas Logan. Which leads us inexorably to the question: Who is he?"

Creed let the question hang in the air while he took a sip of claret. Then he smiled again, a slightly wider smile that revealed markedly (though not freakishly) pronounced canine teeth, and said, "Pray speak, sir. My appetite for this information is frightfully sharp-set."

Geoff took a moment to process this. He wondered briefly whether this guy were some kind of vampire who was subtly threatening to torture this intel out of him, but his instincts said no; he had dealt with torturers and freaks as a matter of daily routine for so long that he could practically smell them. Though Victor Creed was undoubtedly a hard man, and quite probably a ruthless one, he didn't have that stench clinging figuratively to his old-fashioned clothes. Besides, the information he was asking for wasn't secret.

"Well," he said, "I've only known Logan for a few months, so I can't really help you with the wider implications of the question. I can tell you that he's an Expert of Justice, an IPO Lensman, and he hasn't got a first name."

Creed raised an eyebrow. "A Lensman, you say. Hm! That's reassuring. No, Thomas could never have passed the test for entrance into that august company. But what is Lensman Logan doing here?"

"We're tracking Big Fire gunrunners. More than that I can't say. Sorry."

Geoff wondered whether Creed would press the point, but he only nodded and rose from his chair. "Ah. Well, that's enough. Excuse me a moment, I beg." Repeating his short bow from before, Creed left the room, leaving Geoff sitting on the divan.

He rose and used the opportunity to take stock of his situation. His guns were missing, which wasn't that surprising; for all he knew, they were at the bottom of the river. He still had his wrist unit with its three ready vials of Miraculon, and the rest of his compact equipment. He looked toward the other end of the room, noting a pair of French doors leading to what looked like a garden. By those doors stood the tall, blond figure of a liveried manservant he'd previously overlooked, as taken up as his attention was with the singular figure of Sir Victor Creed. The butler - presumably the "Braddock" Creed had mentioned before - looked blankly back at him with a properly butlerly expressionlessness.

A few moments later, Creed reappeared in the doorway. He'd donned a dark overcoat and a top hat that further accentuated his great height, and carried in one hand a gold-topped cane.

"Shall we go in search of your lost Lensman, sir? If he has fallen into the hands of the local criminal element, I have a very good idea where they might be keeping him. Braddock! Mr. Depew's weapons, if you please, and then pray be so good as to bring around the car."

Logan snarled, partly because he was chained to a concrete wall and partly because it was just that kind of a day. The head of the gunrunning team had become almost incoherent with rage when Logan didn't die from being shot in the chest and gut, and when one of his own men was injured when a bullet ricocheted off of Logan's skull, he nearly had a stroke from the rage.

"What does it take to kill you, eh, mate? What?!" he screamed into Logan's face, yanking his head back by the hair.

Logan smirked through the blood on his face. "More than you got, bub."

One of the gunrunner's underlings hustled in from another room, a bulky piece of equipment under his arm. "Oi, boss. Got the plasmacaster."

Logan considered. That might be enough; even if it wasn't, it was a sure way to make a lousy day even worse. He started to tense his muscles to try and break the handcuffs... when the outside door was abruptly kicked in.

The voice that followed the crash was deep, rich, and to Logan unmistakeable, even as the words it spoke boggled him.

"Gentlemen!" Victor Creed declared as he strode into the room with Geoff Depew, guns at the ready, right behind him. Logan blinked, then stared, at the sight of his oldest - and generally grubbiest - foe from the Old Country (as he sometimes wryly called his long-lost native dimension) dressed like a nineteenth-century Englishman of substance.

The shock was made even more reverberating by the realization that Creed also spoke like one. "I believe you know who I am," he announced to the gunrunners. "If so, you also know that you are trespassing upon my property. As baronet of Creedmanse, I demand your surrender in the name of the law."

The leader of the gunrunners looked oddly indulgent, even a trifle sentimental, as he leveled a handgun at Creed's chest. "I don't think so, my lord," he said. "Don't you move, now, and tell yer man there t'drop the hardware." The eight other members of the gang all drew their own weapons and covered the baronet as well.

Sir Victor seemed unmoved by the weapons. Removing his spectacles, he tucked them away in his coat and regarded the gunrunner with a penetrating stare from his unnervingly feline eyes.

"Jacob Castleford, you know better than this," he said in a tone of faint disappointment. "I've turned a blind eye to your lesser criminalities for years, deeming you the lesser of two evils. Why throw that away for the sake of some ill-considered dealings with Big Fire? Come, put up your pistol and let us discuss the matter like civilized men."

"I'm afraid not, my lord. We're in too deep for that now. We might's well be hanged for a peer o' the realm as the hairy gent from the Sphere," Castleford added, jerking his head toward Logan.

Creed's face went white with rage. "Your soul to the Devil, sir!" he cried. "I show you mercy for years, aye decades - I offer you a greater mercy now - and you throw it in my face at the point of a gun? Notorious mongrel! Do you have the courage to fight me fair? Or will you hide behind arms like some Popish fop of a Frenchman? Jackanapes! Whoreson beetle-headed flap-eared knave!"

"Oh, for Christ's sake, Jake, kill this crazy pouf," said one of the gunrunners in the back of the room.

Creed seemed to expand somehow, becoming even taller and broader, as he said in the tone of a man barely controlling himself, "I am ordinarily loath to use the weapons with which Nature has equipped me, but by God, you tempt me, sir!"

Geoff, slack-jawed, glanced at Logan and was obscurely gratified to see the very same expression on his normally unflappable mentor's face. Just from the sight of Logan, Geoff knew they were both thinking the same thing: How did we get to 1880?

Jake, quailing slightly in the face of the baronet's almost palpable wrath, took a half-step back and extended his weapon slightly, saying, "L-last warning, my lord."

From parchment-white, Creed's face was now rapidly going crimson. Dropping his walking stick, he raised his hands, fingers bent into claws - and to the gunrunners' horror, his fingernails thickened and lengthened, becoming distinctly talon-like in their own rights. "Drop that weapon, sir!" Creed roared. "Drop it or by God I shall stick you like a hog!"

Jake, his nerves frayed beyond all recovery by this bizarre behavior, shot Sir Victor square in the chest with his DL-44 heavy blaster: a point-blank shot that would have felled a bantha. His already-shocked mind was not prepared for the unintuitive fact that this marked the start of the fight, not the end, but he didn't have long to contemplate it. With a bellow that made his previous tone of voice sound conversational, the baronet lunged forward and nearly disemboweled the gangster with a single thrust of his talons.

Things got very hectic in the little warehouse after that. Every remaining bad guy who had a gun started shooting. Geoff throttled up the Daodan and returned fire, trusting in the patterns of the Ignatine gun kata to keep him out of the enemy's line of fire. With a roar to rival Creed's, Logan broke his bonds and plunged into the fray, the shocking surreality of his old foe's appearance wiped away by the immediacy of battle.

For a few moments, when the gunfire ended, Geoff thought that the fight might not quite be over. Creed and Logan, their claws bloodied and no one left to fight, circled each other like rival lions, respectful but wary, each sniffing thoughtfully at the air.

Creed recovered his composure first. His posture straightening, he withdrew his talons, reached into his somewhat damaged coat, and produced a gunfire-holed handkerchief. With a tsk for its (and his coat's) disreputable condition, he fastidiously wiped his hands, folded the handkerchief so the smears of blood were on the inside, and tucked it away again. Then he took out his spectacles, noting with a pleased look that they were unharmed, put them on, and regarded Logan, who still stood, shoulders hunched, eyeing him cautiously.

"Well, sir," Creed said after a moment. "You're very similar to my late nemesis, but there are differences. All these men were alive when I arrived, and some of them still are. Were you the Thomas Logan I once knew, I would have entered this place to find them not only dead but partially eaten."

Logan relaxed, retracting his claws, and gave Creed a faintly disgusted scowl. "I once ate part o' my own arm to survive, but that's the most I've ever done o' that. And my name ain't Thomas."

Geoff raised a hand. "Can we turn the survivors over to the cops and report in, and you guys can have your confrontation later?"

Creed turned and gave him a big, toothy smile, as if dismissing any possibility that he might be having any sort of "confrontation" with Logan. "My dear chap, the police are already here." Addressing a discreet commtab attached to his collar, he said, "Braddock? You may send in Chief Inspector Sharpe now."

"Right away, sir," Braddock replied, and within moments the warehouse was full of uniformed Llanfairpwllgwyngyll constables and a tall, trenchcoated man with a long, heavily mustached face. This man - Chief Inspector Sharpe, apparently - greeted Creed with a familiar deference, not only as befit his station, but also as a colleague, however unofficial, who had helped him break countless cases and face many dangers in the past.

Logan, still looking skeptically disconcerted, accepted a towel from one of the cops, wiped his hands, and handed it back. He found his jacket, discarded in the corner of the room, and was shrugging it on as he sidled up next to Geoff.

"Where'd you find this guy, bub?" he asked out of the side of his mouth.

"He found me," Geoff replied, but before he could continue, Creed clasped Inspector Sharpe's upper arm briefly in parting and then crossed to them.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I think our business here is concluded. May I offer you the hospitality of Creedmanse for the evening? Baths first, of course, and I'm sure Braddock can find you some suitable attire, sir," this last directed at Logan, who wore only his battered biker jacket and the remains of his jeans. He looked around at the wreckage of the room, with the constables indexing crates of weapons and the medics sorting the wounded from the dead, and shook his head. "A bloody evening's work. By God, we've earned our dinner. Roast chicken, I think; Elizabeth, my confidential secretary, is also a very fine cook. Cigars in the smoking room, and some excellent cognac I recently procured; and finally a good night's sleep in a warm bed."

Logan eyed Creed for a few moments, then relaxed entirely and even grinned. "That sounds pretty darn civilized to me, right there," he said.

"Like Civilized Men" - a mini-story by Geoff Depew and Benjamin D. Hutchins
Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

"Elizabeth," said Sir Victor Creed suddenly from the depths of his favorite armchair, "pray be so good as to find an address for Mr. Logan. We shall send him some of the remaindered furniture." He considered for a moment, puffing thoughtfully at his pipe, then added, "And a ham, I think, from Telschmann's. Thomas always enjoyed a good ham. I think we may chance that Lensman Logan shares at least that much with him."

At her desk in the corner of the study, Elizabeth nodded, smiling a little indulgently. "Very good, Sir Victor."

The weather was surprisingly mild for Jotunheim in late February, which is to say it was only snowing about a quarter-inch per hour and the wind was gusting to no more than 40 miles per hour out of the northeast. The ranger on duty at Tindalos National Park Gate 17, one of the smallest and least-used entrances to the park at the best of times, was surprised to see anyone out this far in any sort of weather, much less one of the Small Folk - and on horseback, no less.

"Well, how about that," he said, emerging from his guard shack and crouching next to the road. "You're a long way from home, shortpockets. You get lost looking for the highway to Utgard?"

"No," said the black-cloaked, hooded figure who sat astride a matching horse. The guard had never seen a horse that was entirely black before; usually they had a bit of white on them somewhere, on the face or the legs, but this one appeared to have no other color anywhere.

"I'm exactly where I mean to be," the man continued. He brushed back his hood, revealing hair as jet-black as his cloak and his horse - except for a silver shock in front that drooped over the Æsir brand on his forehead.

The Jotun park ranger blinked, wondering when the surprises would stop with this strange visitor. "You mean to be riding into the Tindalos at this time of year? Here? Do you know where you are?" He gestured up the road, to the hulking mass of stone and ice that lay mostly obscured by the snow and cloud a few miles further on. "That's not just any Jotun mountain, friend. That there's Ortrûlcánd. Matalde the Red makes her lair there."

The visitor nodded. "I know."

"You mean to visit her?" The ranger scratched his head, dumbfounded, then shrugged. "Well, it's your funeral, Asgardian. Frankly, I'm amazed you made it this far. No one ever reaches this post on horseback. Horses won't come anywhere near Ortrûlcánd. The very smell of the place drives them mad with fear miles away."

Corwin Ravenhair smiled very slightly.

"Svartlyn fears nothing," he said, and then he put up his hood and rode on into the Tindalos.

The ranger stood looking after him until he and his black horse disappeared into the snow. Then, shaking his head, he turned and went back into his hut.

Corwin was passenger more than pilot for the last league or so of the journey, letting Svartlyn find her way along a trail that was more impression than reality. If the surroundings of Mount Firebrand really did have some power to induce fear in horses, she ignored it. Indeed, when they reached the mouth of a cave halfway up the mountain's flank, she seemed annoyed that Corwin was leaving her there; she pawed at the ground, whickering and nudging him with her nose, as he dismounted and dropped the reins to the cavern floor.

<Easy, girl,> he said to her in Norse. <It's not because I think you'd fear Matalde.> Then, with a wry smile, he gave her a sugar cube and added, <If anything, I'm afraid you'd start a fight.>

Svartlyn snorted and tossed her head, as if to ridicule the very thought.

<I'll be back shortly,> said Corwin. <I have to do this alone.>

He made his way into the mountain's interior by the light of an International Police Space Force handlamp, which was less romantic than a torch or bullseye lantern but a good deal more practical, and eventually he emerged from the ever-descending tunnel into the hollow heart of Ortrûlcánd. The heat, which had been growing steadily as he descended, hit him in the face like the blast from an opened oven as he stepped out into the main chamber. There was no open pool of magma here, as the popular conceptions of volcanoes so often pictured it, but from the great heat radiating from the stone platform in the center of the room, a person could be forgiven for expecting it.

That platform stood perhaps twenty feet high and was fifty yards or more in diameter. Basking atop its flat surface lay the simultaneously sinuous and robust shape of a great dragon.

Unlike Corwin's childhood companion Nall, who was by lineage a prince of the panther dragons of northeastern Alfheim and was thus covered in dense white fur, Matalde the Red was a western wyrm - one of the classic dragons of European myth - and her hide was armored with a million shining scales. Westerns, Corwin knew, came in all the colors of the rainbow and more besides, including a good many whose scales had the crystalline glint of polished gemstones. Matalde's, on the other hand, had a metallic cast in the dim light filtering into her lair from the opening at Mount Firebrand's pinnacle high above. They were a dull cherry red, the color of hot iron, and seemed almost to glow from within like an overstoked stove.

Sensing his presence, Matalde stirred, then turned her great head and opened eyes the color of molten steel.

Juniper thought I was throwing her in at the deep end when we visited King Bahamut, thought Corwin wryly. I wonder what she'd have made of Matalde...

<Ah. Bahamut's godling protégé,> Matalde said, speaking Norse in a voice like a bubbling crucible. <I trust you are taking proper care of my egg.>

<Hail, Matalde Ironwingéd, Terror of the Tindalos. Corwin Ravenhair of the Æsir greets you,> Corwin replied, bowing. <Your egg is well-looked-after; indeed, I came to thank you personally for placing the child within in my care. It means much to me that the Draconic Alliance wishes to continue the tradition that Nallénskuldgändr and I began - and that you yourself would entrust my family with such a boon.>

Matalde regarded him for a few seconds.

<I did not do it for you, Æs,> she said, <nor for your posterity. I did it because King Bahamut asked of me the one favor he has ever sought from me in my life. Because he is my liege lord, because he is my brother, and because he made it a request and not a command, I agreed. Had he demanded it as king, there would have been blood, I think... but he is wise.>

<That he is,> Corwin agreed. <At any rate, regardless of your reasons, I am grateful for your trust, and for the chance to welcome one of your august bloodline to my family.>

This elicited another few seconds' silent contemplation; then Matalde inclined her head slightly and said, <I accept your thanks. Know that it was not a decision made lightly, to entrust my only offspring to a barely-bearded Æs and a svartelven witch. And know one thing more before you leave my lair.>

Matalde rose to her feet then, standing at the edge of the platform looking down at Corwin, and stretched out her wings to their full span, the spikes along her spinal ridge bristling, her foretalons crumbling the stone at the edge of her bed. Gazing at him with a terrible solemnity in her molten-steel eyes, she told him,

<If any harm comes to my little one, Corwin Skuldsson, I will hold you personally responsible... and there will be nowhere in the Ten Worlds you can hide from me.>

Corwin didn't quail before the promise of the ancient wyrm's wrath. Instead, he looked straight back into her eyes and replied with cold precision in an older, more formal form of the Asgardian language,

<Thy child and mine will be companions, Red One. If aught harm comes to them, thy anger will be as nothing compared to mine, and thy vengeance will wait until mine is complete. Are we in accord?>

Matalde stared at him for a few seconds longer, and then one corner of her colossal mouth quirked into a faint smile, baring a single gleaming steel-colored fang.

<Well-bargained and done, Swordforger,> she said with a tone of faint respect, furling her wings and relaxing her spines. <Now be on your way. I tire of bandying words with you in your clumsy tongue.>

I would happily have conversed in Draconic, Corwin replied with a bow, had you first addressed me thus.

Matalde's tiny smile broadened imperceptibly, becoming a little bit of a smirk as she narrowed her eyes. I shall remember that, she replied, but be off anyway. And see that you give my child a suitable name. "Nallénskuldgändr" cannot even be rendered properly in dragonscript.

That was Nall's choice, not ours, Corwin told her, but I will bear it in mind. Good day to you, Dread Matalde, he added, bowing, and then he left.

If the Jotun park ranger had been surprised to see Corwin arrive on horseback, and more surprised to see them head off up the Ortrûlcánd trail, he was most surprised to see them return just before nightfall, apparently unharmed.

"Didn't think I'd ever see your lordship again," he admitted as he put his head out the window of his hut to observe the young Æs pass by. "Turn back before reaching the mountain, did you?"

"No," Corwin replied; then, with a faint smile, he added, "Matalde and I have an understanding."

Then he rode away into the gathering dusk, leaving the ranger once again scratching his head.

"Matalde the Red" - a Symphony No. 5 mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Across the galaxy, stories are told of a mysterious stranger. A man who seems to appear from nowhere when the need is greatest. A man who arises to champion the cause of the innocent - the helpless - the powerless - and then disappears into the night.

He accepts no payment.
He speaks to no one.
Few have ever seen his face.
He is a man...
who does not exist.

Some say he's the escaped product of an illegal super-soldier project,
or the cyborg creation of a mad automotive engineer,
or the Devil's own chauffeur.

Some say he's just an urban legend.

All we know is...

He's called the Stig.

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
The Chronicles of the Stig

The Sandero Affair

written by
Benjamin D. Hutchins

and starring
The Stig

© 2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

It began, as these things so often do, with the 12-for-a-credit shrimp-flavor cup ramen special at Tesco.

Had the shrimp ramen 12-packs not been on special, they probably wouldn't have been in a special display on an endcap, but instead with the rest of the Soups & Instant Foods in aisle four. Had they been there, the Stig wouldn't have been able to see the supermarket's parking lot from where he stood contemplating his soup options. Had that been the case, he wouldn't have seen the abduction.

But they were, he was, and he did. As a young woman crossed the market's forecourt, headed for the door, a black van pulled up, its side door opened, and two large men grabbed the girl from behind and hauled her into the van. With a chirp of tires on tarmac and the metallic clang of the side door slamming shut, the van was gone. The whole incident happened so fast, the few people who saw it questioned whether they really had seen what they thought they saw.

All but the Stig.

Dropping the ramen 12-pack back onto the display, he handed his shopping basket to a passing Tesco employee, pivoted on his heel, and strode briskly from the store, the automatic doors swishing quietly to let him pass. In his wake, the startled stockboy stood staring for a moment, then looked down into the basket. If he was hoping for some clue as to the motivations of the strange customer in the white full-body racing suit and sleek black-visored white crash helmet, none was forthcoming in the assortment of items there. If anything, his shopping choices were even more puzzling than his dress or behavior: two rolls of Scotch tape, an avocado, a pack of condoms, a pound of fresh mozzarella, two magazines (Queenfancier and Modern Bride), a paperback book (Aeryn Stonefist and the Carpathian Syndicate), and a whisk.

If the Stig was giving any thought to his abandoned shopping, it didn't show as he marched across the parking lot to his car, climbed behind the wheel, fired up the engine, and roared away, leaving two smoking strips of duravulc in his wake.

The driver of the black van had a significant head start, and her vehicle was not all that it appeared to be. It had been specifically prepared for this task, and one of the many factors its preparers had taken into account was the possibility - indeed, the likelihood - that the abduction team would have to deal with police pursuit. In a city like Perth, that might take the form of anything from automobiles specially configured for the chase to light aircraft to - unlikely but conceivable - jetpack cops. In addition to a number of dirty tricks, the van had a considerable turn of speed and deceptively good handling for its ungainly body shape, both achieved at considerable expense and with the aid of very sophisticated parts.

As such, it came as no great surprise to the driver when she noticed a glint of reflected sunlight in her rearview mirror. Something was cresting the brow of the small hill behind them, something that was catching up fast. But...

"That's no cop," she muttered, mostly to herself. "What the hell... "

/* The Art of Noise
"Peter Gunn (feat. Duane Eddy)"
In Visible Silence (1986) */

"Hang on!" she yelled to her passengers (willing and unwilling), then put her foot down. The van leaped forward, its modified turbine wailing, the driver calculating a precise path through the surface traffic toward the freeway. As she maneuvered with deft professionalism through the afternoon traffic, she glanced regularly in the mirror, monitoring the progress of her strange pursuer. She'd never seen a car like the one behind them before. Low and sleek, with bulging wheel arches and a long hood, it was clearly a high-performance automobile, but with its vivid blue and red racing stripes on an otherwise white paint job, there was no way it was a police vehicle. The Perth Police Department's cars were the standard black-and-white panda jobs, and the Avalon County Sheriff's Department's livery was green and gold.

"Who the hell is that?" one of the kidnappers demanded, looking out one of the rear windows at their pursuer.

"I don't know," the driver replied through her teeth. "Not the local cops, not a county mountie."

"IPO?" the second kidnapper asked.

"Their cars are blue. Just keep quiet and let me lose him."

The driver's job was simplified by the natural instincts of the other motorists on the road. Seeing a black van with bull bars bearing down on them, they got the hell out of the way. That suited the driver fine. She'd have preferred to use a car, as was her normal procedure - she was a BMW woman, personally, but anything with reasonable performance would do - but her employers had insisted on the van to make the initial grab easier, thinking the tradeoff if there was a pursuit would be worth it.

The driver did not agree, but she wasn't getting paid to agree; she was getting paid to drive. So she put her foot down and applied all her professional skill to the task of shaking whoever that was back there.

She cleared the last corner before the freeway entrance on three wheels in a huge cloud of smoke, taking the corner faster than a lot of sports cars would've been able to manage it, and lost sight of their pursuer in the smoke. With a straight shot to the freeway now, she bent slightly over the wheel, urging the van onward. A glance in the mirror didn't show the white car emerging from the smoke. Maybe he'd lost sight of them as well in the impromptu smokescreen and missed the turnoff...

The white car was a Sunrise Motorworks Griffon 6155 Interceptor, the famed Salusian automaker's early-22nd-century supercar follow-on to the more famous Griffon Mk II 2100 limousine. If the black van's driver didn't recognize it, she could perhaps have been forgiven. Only 24 were made, and those nearly three centuries before her birth. Had she known what it was, though, then even if that didn't tell her who was driving it, she would at least have known that, as a rule, those who do drive G-6155s are not in the habit of missing turnoffs.

The Interceptor rocketed out of a side street ahead of the van, pulled into line with it, and abruptly disgorged a large quantity of oil onto the road in its wake. Cursing, the van driver tried to avoid it, but it was too late, and the attempt to change direction only made the problem worse. The van slewed, overcorrected, toppled onto its side, then rolled onto its roof, sliding down the street with a hair-raising shriek of metal on asphalt.

The Stig executed a double-clutch downshift and tugged the handbrake, slinging the Interceptor into a 180-degree skid and then bringing it to a halt fifty feet or so from where the upside-down van came to rest. In the sudden quiet that followed the crash, police sirens could be heard in the distance as the Stig opened the Interceptor's driver's door, climbed out, and began walking toward the van.

As he approached, the back doors burst open and the two men, bloodied but upright, dragged their captive out. The shorter of the two spotted the Stig and pointed.

"Look out, they've got guns!" the girl screamed, a half-second or so before her captors opened fire. Bullets ripped into the Stig's chest, punching five neat black holes in his white racing suit, and he crashed to the ground, flat on his back.

Covering him cautiously with their guns and dragging the girl along with their free hands, the two kidnappers edged closer to the Stig until they stood a couple of feet away, looking down at his sprawled body.

"No blood," the shorter remarked.

"Who is this guy?" the taller wondered.

"Check his wallet," the shorter suggested.

The taller kidnapper gave his colleague a do-you-work-here? look, then turned away, tugging the girl along by her upper arm. "Come on. Cops'll be here any second. We gotta find another way out of here."

The shorter one lingered for a moment, staring at the fallen Stig, then turned and followed.

Hanging in her seat harness, the driver came to in time to see the kidnappers shoot the stranger in the white racing suit, then turn away. She further watched as, unnoticed by his assailants, the Stig twitched, twitched again, then climbed to his feet. She could, she supposed, have blown the horn, warning her erstwhile clients that their pursuer wasn't as dead as they thought...

... but, given that they'd just abandoned her for dead (or for the cops), the hell with them. She just hung there and watched while the big one left the girl in the care of the smaller one, then stepped into the outside traffic lane and brandished his pistol at the next fast-looking car to come along.

For his part, the Stig didn't hesitate. He turned and walked back to his car, and for a second the van driver thought he was giving up and quitting the scene.

Then, as the big kidnapper was occupied dragging some poor sap in a suit out of his V-class Mercedes, the kidnap victim braced herself and yanked her arm out of the smaller one's grip, turned, and made a run for it. Cursing, her suddenly-ex-captor lunged after her -

The Interceptor's big V-16 roared to life, its headlights snapped on, and it practically leaped from its position, speeding toward the girl. For a second, the shorter kidnapper thought the crazy bastard was going to run her down.

Instead, the Interceptor's passenger door popped open and the car went into a tire-shrieking sideways skid, matched her course, and seemed to swallow her up before turning the rest of the way around and coming to a stop with a jerk that slammed the door shut behind her.

Several seconds passed in which the kidnapper and the car (its driver and abruptly acquired passenger invisible behind blacked-out glass) stared each other down.

Then the Interceptor launched itself again, this time heading straight for the freeway entrance that had been the black van's goal in the first place. The shorter kidnapper had to dive out of the way; the Stig didn't really try to run him over, but he certainly didn't bother trying to avoid him either.

"Get in, asshole!" the big one yelled from the driver's seat of the V-class.

In the Interceptor, Dacia Sandero tried to regain her breath and figure out exactly what had just happened. One moment she was running for her life, the next she was sprawled in the passenger seat of a strange car. At the wheel of that car was a man in a white racing suit and matching helmet, his face completely obscured by the helmet's black visor.

"Uh..." Dacia collected herself, shifting to a more normal position in the seat, then turned to take a closer look at the driver. "Who are you?"

The Stig looked blankly at her for a moment, pointed to a placard affixed to the dashboard of the Interceptor, just in front of the passenger seat, and returned his attention to driving.

"... Oh," said Dacia, unable to think of anything else to say. No further comment was forthcoming from the Stig either. He wasn't the type for a lot of chitchat, and anyway, he was focused on the stolen V-class that had just appeared in his rearview mirror.

The Stig knew well the capabilities of that car, having tested one very much like it on the previous season of Top Gear. With its brutal turboelectric torque, the Merc was very probably faster in a straight line than his Interceptor, which, though one of the galaxy's great supercars, was after all nearly 300 years old. Its handling wasn't anything to sneeze at either. A normal man would, perhaps, have wondered why these kidnappers were so fixated on their task that they would give chase without the aid of their hired driver, who was, after all, supposed to be the professional at this sort of thing.

The Stig didn't care.

He simply considered the situation, weighed his options, and then gave the handbrake a yank, flinging the Interceptor into another 180-degree skid. Dacia gave a muted shriek of surprise and dismay as the car spun violently, her seat's tractor array keeping her firmly in place despite the sudden maneuver. Then she gave a somewhat less muted shriek as it dawned on her that they were now hurtling into oncoming traffic on the P420 freeway.

Two miles back, the carjacking kidnapper put the accelerator to the floor and smiled with gritted teeth as the V-class responded with its full mountain of torque, hurling them forward. He had no particularly detailed plan for what he intended to do when he caught up to the Stig, but he knew he had to do something. The alternative was to report to Falcon Gold that they had failed to secure the cooperation of Sandero Technologies in the effort to improve the Imperizer System. And that was clearly not on.

His semi-willing copilot was the first to notice that the Interceptor had turned around and was now threading its way back through the flow of freeway traffic, making lane changes with the cold precision of a slot car, toward them. Pointing, he made an incoherent noise. His colleague snarled and gripped the steering wheel harder, flogging the V-class to even greater speed, and turned the contest into a straight-up game of chicken.

His passenger didn't particularly like that plan. Nor, it had to be admitted, did Dacia, who made a fairly credible attempt at backing into the Interceptor's boot which was only thwarted by the back of her seat.

"What are you dooooiiiiinnng?!" she demanded shrilly as the distance between the two cars dwindled at more than 200 miles per hour.

The Stig's only response was to hit one of the special control buttons on his steering wheel for the second time that day, then flick the Interceptor over one lane.

The V-class flashed past on the right, and for one elongated instant, Dacia made eye contact through the side window with the shorter of the two thugs in black. Despite the fact that he'd terrorized and tried to kidnap her, she felt a momentary spark of empathy with him, if only because the expression on his face perfectly mirrored her own in that fragment of time.

Then the Mercedes hit the oil slick the Stig had just laid down, spun completely out of control, punched through the concrete barrier at the edge of the freeway, and described a fiery arc through the crisp afternoon air before plunging into Fremantle Harbor.

With a faint air of satisfaction, the Stig pressed another button. Behind them, the oil slick dissolved, changing from a pool of slippery liquid to a faint damp patch and then evaporating entirely in a few seconds. It wouldn't do to leave something like that lying around on the P420, after all. Someone might get hurt.

The Stig guided the Interceptor down the same entrance ramp he'd used to get on the freeway in the first place and cruised back up the street, passing the overturned black van with a small wave for the cordon of police who had surrounded it in their absence.

For a minute Dacia thought he was taking her back to the supermarket, which would make sense, she supposed, except for the possibility that she was still in danger. Instead, he cruised right by it, hung a right, and silently drove her up into the hills to her house. The gates of the Sandero estate opened for the Interceptor without a pause, letting the vehicle growl to a halt at the door of the mansion itself. Black-suited Sandero Tech security officers swarmed out of the house, surrounding the car, as the passenger door sighed open automatically.

Dacia sat staring at the strange figure that had just rescued her, uncertain what to say or do. Then, on impulse, she leaned across the center console, gave him a hug, and kissed him on the side of the helmet.

"Thank you," she said softly.

The Stig regarded her for a moment, then fractionally inclined his head in acknowledgement. With a smile, Dacia slid out of the car. Her mother's head of security announced her safe return into his earpiece as the others fanned out to check the grounds. The Stig's Interceptor glided between them, nosed around the decorative fountain in front of the house, and rumbled back down the drive, where the gates once again parted to let it pass unchallenged.

"Who was that, Miss Dacia?" the security chief asked.

Dacia watched the Interceptor until its taillights disappeared around the corner at the end of the drive, then turned her smile to him.

"A white knight," she said.

Back at Tesco, the stockboy with whom the Stig had left his basket was still trying to decide whether he should re-shelve the items, turn the basket in to the service desk, or what when the figure in the white racing suit and helmet re-entered the store and made directly for him. Apart from the bullet holes in his chest, he looked no different than he had when he'd left the store a few minutes before.

Well, that and the big red kiss mark on the side of his helmet.

Unconcerned with the stockboy's open stare of astonishment, the Stig collected his shopping basket and went in search of tinned salmon.

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
The Chronicles of the Stig

The Sandero Affair

by Benjamin D. Hutchins

The Stig created by Jeremy Clarkson

Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum

E P U (colour) 2008

This adventure appeared as the B-feature in issue #188 of Tales of the Lensmen (the A-feature was a Nikola Tesla/Tuncer the Last Elite story, "Christmastime in the City").

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Bacon Comics Group

Kozue Kaoru in

Tales of the Lensmen:
Before Victory Comes Honor

Benjamin D. Hutchins

Bacon Comics chief: Derek Bacon

© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Thursday, December 23, 2410
Colonial Battlestar Aurora (SDF-100)
Cambrai system, Loire sector
United Federation of Planets

"What's the deal, Wedge?" Kozue Kaoru asked as she entered her squadron commander's office. "I thought we were supposed to get a couple days off."

Then she paused, looked around, and said a trifle belatedly, "Where's everyone else?"

Wedge Antilles, seated behind his desk, gestured to one of the decommissioned ejection seats that passed for chairs in his office. "Have a seat, Kozue," he said. "This isn't a squadron matter."

Now that Kozue realigned her expectations and had a better look, that was apparent. Not only was the rest of the squadron missing, there was someone entirely unexpected in the office, standing next to Wedge's desk with a data solid in her hand: Yuri Daniels, the International Police Organization's deputy chief, in her trademark red trenchcoat and hat.

"Hello, Lt. Kaoru," she said, smiling. "Been a long time."

"Christmas before last, wasn't it?" Kozue asked. She took Wedge up on his offer of a seat, then asked, "What's up?"

"I'll get right to the point," Yuri said, "because we don't have a lot of time. The IPO needs your help, Kozue."

Kozue blinked. "Mine? Specifically?"

Yuri nodded. "A member of Big Fire's Magnificent Ten is believed to be operating in this area, and we think you're our best chance at stopping him."

Kozue stared at her. "The Magnificent Ten? Uh, I think you're talking to the wrong Duelist. You want Utena for that. Or Corwin."

Yuri smiled and shook her head. "No, I'm pretty sure we want you. Can I fill you in a little more?"

"Sure. I'm curious, if nothing else."

Yuri slotted a data crystal into the top of Wedge's desk; the small holotank in the middle of the office, used for quicker and less formal briefings than the larger one over in Aurora's full air wing's ready room, glowed to life and displayed a near-life-sized image of a tall, thin, fair-haired man in old-fashioned leather and canvas flying gear - not too unlike the outfit Kozue often wore when flying her antique Warhawk during her infrequent home leaves in New Avalon.

"This is your opponent: Hans August Otto Freiherr von Hammer, code name Hellhammer. And the reason we're asking you to help us with him is because flying is his game. He's a fighter pilot, maybe the best in the galaxy."

Kozue looked the holo over. "That explains the Red Baron costume," she said. "He's some kind of Retro? Like Zerstörer Dampfherz?"

Yuri shook her head. "It's worse than that, I'm afraid. He's a renegade Returnist."

Kozue turned to her. "Are you kidding me?"

"Wish I was, believe me. Von Hammer flew fighters for Germany in both of Earth's first two World Wars, back in the 20th century. He died in 1969, fought with distinction in the Ragnarök, and claimed his Right of Return six years ago."

"And joined up with Big Fire?"

"Apparently so. We'll get back to that," Yuri said. "At any rate, now he's in this sector, taking point for Big Fire's backing of the totalitarian revolutionary government of Le Cateau-Cambrésis. He's played hell with our attempts to support the legitimate democratic regime - interdicting military supplies, keeping the Loyalist aerospace force on the ground in fear, and killing anyone we send in to try and whip them back into shape.

"Things have reached a head, though, because of tomorrow's shipment. There's been an outbreak of Destrière's disease in the main Loyalist encampment. They don't have the wherewithal to treat that kind of thing locally, so we're sending in a load of toronepine. If it doesn't get there quick, there may not be a Loyalist encampment by this time next week."

Kozue sighed. "What a mess." She fell silent for a few moments, contemplating the holo of von Hammer, and something occurred to her. "Wait, back up. This guy flew for Hitler and then went to Valhalla?"

"He's a complicated man, apparently," said Yuri wryly. "I've brought along someone who can probably give you better insight into his character than I can. He'll complete your briefing from here - if you're up for the job."

Kozue considered the holo for a few more moments, then looked at Wedge. "What do you say, boss? Sounds to me like a job for the old PWEI fake freighter trick. I don't care how good this guy is, he can't take on the whole squadron, especially if we take him by surprise."

Wedge shook his head. "Nothing I'd like better, but we can't go with you," he said. "Colonial High Command is staying strictly the hell out of the whole Le Cateau mess. If you take the job, I put you on leave and you take care of it on your own time."

"And with my own equipment, naturally," Kozue finished for him.

He nodded. "I'm sorry, Kozue, but that's the way it's got to be. That comes straight from the Colonial Senate. Under no circumstances are any Colonial military assets to get involved in the situation here in the Cambrai system. Hell, just loitering out at the edge of the system like we're doing is pushing it."

Kozue thought that over, nibbling unconsciously at the edge of her thumbnail for a moment; then she turned to Yuri.

"Well, what the hell. If I'm on leave way out in this nowhere system, I've got nothing else to do. You just hired a pilot."

Yuri grinned. "Great. Let me bring in the man who'll complete your briefing." She went to the side door leading to the ready room, opened it, and put her head through. "Major? We're ready for you."

The man who accompanied Yuri back into Wedge's office looked... well, not entirely unlike von Hammer, come to that. He, too, was tall and slim, with fair hair, and he wore clothes that wouldn't have looked out of place in any of Earth's more adventurous locales of the early 20th century, including a leather flying jacket not too unlike one Kozue owned herself. His hair was a little longer and considerably more tousled than von Hammer's severe crew cut, though, and his face wasn't quite so thin, nor so broodingly ascetic.

He didn't walk into Wedge's office so much as limp, aided by a cane, and Kozue saw that one of his legs was in a pressure cast from knee to foot. The rest of him was sufficiently athletic that she figured this had to be a recent injury.

"Let me introduce you," said Yuri as Kozue got to her feet. "Lieutenant Kozue Kaoru, Colonial Forces, meet Major James Bigglesworth, CMG, DSO, IPSF."

Bigglesworth smiled and gave Kozue's offered hand a firm shake. "Delighted," he said heartily. "Call me Biggles. Dreadfully sorry about this," he added, gesturing ruefully to his cast. "I'd take care of this nasty business myself if not for this leg. Had a bit of an argument with a hedge during a parachute jump last week, I'm afraid."

Kozue, who had once had a bit of an argument with an entire ejection seat high over the deserts of Muroc III, nodded sympathetically. "That kind of thing always seems to happen at the most inconvenient time."

"Doesn't it just," Biggles agreed. "Now then. You'll be wanting more information on your quarry for this show, I expect. Well, there's nobody better placed to give it to you. Von Hammer and I have a lot of history. I've flown against him for keeps more times than anyone else around. Twice in the Great War and twice more in World War II. When all was said and done, the score was two all. He's a damned clever man with an aircraft, and the best gunner I've ever seen. It's a deadly combination, as any number of men learned to their cost in the wars."

"Does he have any weakness?" Kozue wondered.

"Well, I don't know if I'd call it a weakness, as such, but he does live by a very rigid code of honor. He's a Prussian nobleman, and they tended to take that kind of thing seriously. I've never known him to attack an unarmed foe, for example. I survived our second meeting during War I because he turned around and went home after realizing that my Camel's guns had failed, rather than finish me off."

Kozue raised an eyebrow. "And yet he's apparently such a creep he'd blow up a transport loaded with medical supplies?"

"They aren't being flagged," Yuri put in. "The Loyalist leadership won't allow it. They claim - and I can see their point, though I don't agree with it - that if word got out that they were in such a bad position, it would destroy public confidence in their cause. To say nothing of what the Revolutionaries might do with such an advantage, with or without von Hammer's help."

"You might be able to make use of that fact," Biggles said. "If you can convince him that it is a load of medical supplies, von Hammer will let it through. I'm as certain of that as I am of anything. He'll still press the attack on you, because you're an armed aggressor, but he won't touch the transport. Convincing him won't be an easy matter, though. He's likely to think you're indulging in a ruse de guerre."

Kozue exhaled noisily, puffing her cheeks. "It's never easy. If Starbuck had woken me up this morning and told me that I'd be sent out to fight a dead Nazi working for Big Fire, I'd have told her she was sniffing spice."

"He's not a damned Nazi," Biggles said, a touch sharply. Seeing Kozue's startled look, he held up a hand apologetically and said, "Sorry. It's just... von Hammer's a friend. Even in our first lives, when we occasionally did our level best to kill each other, we were never enemies, only adversaries, and in Valhalla... " He sighed, shoulders slumping. "In Valhalla, we were like brothers. At any rate, he isn't a Nazi. He never joined the Party; in fact, it was well-known that he hated Hitler and his cronies. He joined Göring's Luftwaffe to fight for Germany, not the bloody Nazis. Wouldn't even have their damned swastika on his aircraft, which was unheard-of."

"Then why'd he join Big Fire?" Kozue asked.

"He's bought into what it says in their marketing bumf," replied Biggles. "Thinks they're going to save the galaxy by taking control of it. Utopia through the judicious application of the iron fist - it's really quite a Prussian ideal. Doesn't surprise me that it appealed to him."

"Hmph. Not one Big Fire member in a hundred believes that crap," Kozue said.

"True, but a number of their leaders, the so-called Magnificent Ten, do, and von Hammer's among them."

Friday, December 24, 2410
23:42 hrs UTC
Cambrai system, on approach to Le Cateau-Cambrésis

Bored cross-eyed in the cockpit of her much-modified Z-95 Headhunter, Kozue took another look at her sensor scope, visually verified her formation with the GR-75 transport Mom's Home Cooking (Who names these things? she wondered, not for the first time), and then, in something like desperation, deliberately performed a mystic incantation to summon her foe. Making certain that her comm system was not in VOX mode and the push-to-talk was not engaged, she said aloud in the privacy of her cockpit,

"Maybe he's not coming."

Three seconds later, the sensor array signaled the appearance of a new contact emerging from hyperspace.

Kozue smiled. "Works every time."

Once she had a visual on the new arrival, there could be little doubt who it was. There was little chance that anyone else in the galaxy flew a bright red Heinkel He-490 Mantelform starfighter whose only markings were the black cross of Old Germany and the stylized torch of Big Fire.

Kozue might have snorted at the idea of someone in this day and age bringing a Cloakshape to a fight, but then again, she had a Headhunter - a spacecraft of approximately the same vintage - and she would have been willing to bet that there was very little stock about either one. It wouldn't be the first time she'd seen an He-490 capable of holding its own against modern front-line fighters, either.

This suspicion was confirmed when, a moment later, the Cloakshape throttled up for an attack run. No stock 490 had that kind of acceleration.

Kozue grinned, powered up her Headhunter's weapons array and made to intercept.

Von Hammer took notice of her, but did nothing, judging that he would have enough time to make his first - and, if all went well, final - attack on the transport before the interloper reached him. Pushing his He-490's engines to full power, he made for the transport flat-out, his combat sensors seeking a missile lock on the GR-75's engines.

Just before they would have achieved that lock, however, the transport's exhausts flared white.

"Our job's done, X-Ray One," Mom's Home Cooking's captain announced on Kozue's tactical band. "We're out of here. Good hunting!"

And with that, the decoy transport fled into hyperspace, leaving Kozue alone with her quarry. If Von Hammer had any thought of making a run for it himself now that his own target had gone, he never showed it; indeed, he aborted his torpedo run the instant the GR-75 disappeared, executed a hard left turn, and charged head-on into full engagement with the Headhunter instead.

/* Operator
"The Only One"
Soulcrusher (2007) */

Within a single pass, Kozue knew without doubt that she was in a serious fight. Her assumptions about von Hammer's 490 were proven correct in moments, and everything Biggles had told her about his ability seemed to have been true as well. Until today, the toughest single opponent she'd fought in the sky had been Guld Goa Bowman, a man whose experience and aggression balanced her natural talent and plain doggedness almost perfectly.

Von Hammer was better, because - and Kozue could never explain to anyone else, except possibly Max Sterling, how she knew this - he had that same kind of talent too. This wasn't a game pitting a prodigy against a grandmaster. They were both prodigies...

... and von Hammer had the experience as well.

Well, said Kozue to herself as she kicked down the power on her starboard stabilizers and skidded her Headhunter out of the Heinkel's line of fire, nobody said this job was going to be easy.

Most aerial engagements, whether in the skies over France in 1916 or deep space in 2410, were over in seconds - blurry instants of fury and fear in which victory, as often as not, went to the pilot with the sounder instincts. Rarely were pilots and machines so well-matched that they could elude each other's attempts to destroy them for more than a few moments. This battle, on the other hand, lasted for several minutes, testing not only the combatants' skill but also their endurance as they threw their craft around the void.

It was tactically that von Hammer's experience first paid the German pilot a solid dividend. Through a combination of canny maneuvering and judicious fakery, he managed to coax his young opponent into coming after him a little more aggressively than was really prudent. It was a narrow window of opportunity, but he figured it was the best he was going to get. He'd heard stories about this girl's skill at the controls of a starfighter, but he'd taken them with a pretty big grain of salt. It hadn't taken her long to demonstrate to him that underestimating her would be folly.

In fact, if he had to tell the truth, von Hammer was quite enjoying this fight. It had been a long time since he'd faced an opponent that was truly worthy of his time. He rather hoped he wouldn't have to kill her, even if she was committing the unpardonable faux pas of supporting the Cateau resistance.

Now, as she bore down on him at full throttle, he rammed his He-490 into a negative-G Z-axis translation, pancaking away from the Headhunter's guns and disappearing entirely from Kozue's field of view for a moment. He expected her to shoot past him, thrusters still firewalled, and straight into a volley of fire from his quad-linked blasters - but she didn't appear.

The trick had almost worked - in its initial phase, Kozue had been entirely taken in - but von Hammer had reckoned without her phenomenal reaction speed and her equally phenomenal spacecraft control. When she saw the Cloakshape vanish from in front of her, she reacted instinctively, standing on her own Z-thrusters and hauling the joystick back at the same time. The result was a perfect pinwheel turn, a maneuver she'd learned in Viper training and spent hours figuring out how to translate to the Z-95's control system. The Headhunter swapped ends like a thrown knife, thruster exhausts rainbow-haloing with the sudden reversal of momentum, and clawed away from the Heinkel. After two seconds of full-power burn, she doubled the maneuver, flipping back to her old orientation, and the red Cloakshape swung neatly back into her sights.

Von Hammer cursed and twisted his craft away from Kozue's streams of scarlet blasterfire, feeling the Heinkel's spaceframe jolt and whump as red bolts punched through his weak aft shields and pocked the armor plating of its broad wings. Then he played his own next card, a skidding about-face that whirled the flat fighter on its vertical axis, and opened up as his opponent charged in with guns still blazing.

During his abbreviated training for the Kaiser's air force, one of the things that was drummed into the young Hans von Hammer's brain time and again was, "Never turn away from a head-on pass. If you do, the enemy will have you." It was a rule he'd lived by ever since.

Apparently Kozue had learned the same lesson somewhere along the way, for she kept right on in as well, ignoring the buck and thump of the German's fire raking her ship. They passed within a few yards of each other, practically a collision in spaceflight terms, and immediately started angling for the advantage on the next pass, their shields discharged and armor smoking.

Kozue felt the wrongness in her craft as soon as she started her turn. It was subtle, not the outright wounded-bird stagger of a badly damaged fighter, but a bit of a sluggishness in the starboard stablilizers. She could only hope that she'd exacted a similar price from von Hammer.

Back and forth they went, falling into the eternal paradox of one-on-one aerospace combat: each dead set on killing the other; each feeling a deepening respect for the other with each pass. The thing really was like a duel, with the same give-and-take, the same parry-and-riposte, and for a few moments, von Hammer could forget that he found himself in a computerized age of vacuum-hardened guided weapons and back in the simpler age when pilots like himself really had been knights of the sky.

Then they made the sort of simultaneous pass that had often left both men dead back in those days, another near-collision head-on pass in which both pilots felt, heard, and smelled the damage being inflicted, but neither dared back off or turn away. When it was over, Kozue's balky starboard S-foil had gone offline altogether, making right turns next to impossible and left turns difficult, and von Hammer found his cannon system entirely inoperative.

He hated to do what came next, because under the circumstances there was hardly any sport in it and it took him entirely out of his nostalgic frame of mind; but he was a professional and he had a job to do. He patiently jockeyed for position, noting to himself how brilliantly the IPO pilot evaded him even with her spacecraft so nearly crippled. She even managed to turn her blasters on him a few more times, at one point coming damned near to holing his canopy. This was still a fight... but the magic had gone, and von Hammer cursed the times in which he lived as he overflew Kozue's turning radius and lined up to finish the game.

Kozue knew he had her; had known what the probably outcome would be the instant that disastrous pass was finished and she felt her fighter's sluggish response become outright lousy. Only the fact that von Hammer's cannons seemed to be out, and the fact that she was just constitutionally unable to give up a fight, kept her working as hard as she can, hoping there might just be a way out after all.

On the fifth ever-tightening turn, however, when she knew she wasn't going to be able to get him under her guns again, all she had left to do was hang on, try to make it as hard for him as possible, and listen to the sound of his missile seekers in her helmet.

dit dit dit dit ditditditditditditdidididididiDAAAAAAAAAA...

... nothing.

Instead of launching warheads and blowing her to kingdom come, von Hammer streaked past in full burner, rocked his wings twice, and then boomed into hyperspace, heading for home. As suddenly as she had been expecting to die, Kozue was left alone with the depths of space and her thoughts.

It took her a few seconds to reacquaint herself with the idea of living to return to the Aurora after all. Once she did, she turned her attention to her Z-95's onboard diagnostics, checking to see whether she could, in fact, limp home, or if she'd have to call for help.

As she checked the MFD and saw that she could, in fact, just about make it back, she noticed the blinking icon indicating an Extremely Narrow Band text message arriving. Puzzled, she opened it, read it, read it again, and then just sat looking at it for a few moments, letting the pattern of green phosphor dots sink into her consciouness.

Across the top of the display, the standard onboard systems banner announced the date and time, as usual.


The only other information on the screen was the ENB message she'd just received. Unsigned, bearing no origination address header, it consisted of just 21 characters:


"Kozue?" The voice in her headset almost made her jump, so lost in her own private thoughts had she been. "Are you okay? We've lost your telemetry."

"Uh. Yeah! I'm here, Wedge," she replied.

"What's your status?"

"I'm okay. My bird's a little shot up, but I can make it back."

"Where's von Hammer?"


"You took him out?"

"Negative. He left. Hypered out just before you called."

"Damn. That means he'll be back tomorrow for the real transport. We'd better get you back and see if Cally can put your Z-95 back together in time."

"I don't think that'll be necessary," said Kozue.

"Why not?"

She smiled to herself and set her limping course for home. "'Cause it's Christmas, Wedge. Gentlemen don't fight on Christmas."

"Before Victory Comes Honor" - a Tales of the Lensmen mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
ending suggested by Geoff Depew
special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Thursday, December 30, 2410
07:18 AM
Imperial Hotel Monolith
New Avalon, Zeta Cygni, Cygnus sector

At first glance, it seemed like the decorators at the Monolith must be asleep at the switch. It was nearly a full week after Christmas, but the hotel's huge atrium was still awash in holiday-themed finery. Fake snow covered the elegant marble floor; silvery garland festooned the balconies and hung in swooping folds from the six-story-high ceiling; the decorative fountain in the middle of the room was frozen thanks to a small miracle of cryonics technology. In one corner, a festively ramshackle prop hut with a sign reading "SANTA'S WORKSHOP" discreetly hid the freight elevator. Next to the frozen fountain stood a six-foot-tall wooden pole, striped white and red like a giant candy cane. This had been topped with another sign, this one reading "NORTH POLE", but the sign now lay broken next to the pole.

The reason for that was plain to see. Lying at the pole's base was the sprawled body of a young woman dressed in a high-collared green satin bodysuit and not much else. Closer inspection revealed that she wasn't just lying by the pole; in fact, it jutted rakishly through her upper torso, and not all the red striping was paint. Hideously incongruous amid the jolly surroundings, she lay impaled, arms and legs outflung, her glazed green eyes staring uselessly up at the constellation of garland hanging from the upper levels.

Criminalist-Inspector Eric Delko, part of the day shift crew out of the International Police Organization's crime lab, stood holding his field kit and trying to wrap his head around the scene. In his several years as a crime scene investigator, he'd seen all kinds of weird things, but this... this was special. He could tell just by his initial survey of the scene that this would be a case to write home to his sisters about.

"You gotta be kidding me," he said.

Next to him, Calleigh Duquesne took in the scene with an air of, if not disbelief, at least bemusement.

This, it had to be admitted, wasn't so much for the victim herself - people found all sorts of strange ways to get killed, and falling onto a pole wasn't that weird - so much as for the background. A dead woman stuck on a pole was one thing. A dead woman stuck on a pole in a room full of Santa Clauses... that was another.

"There must be hundreds of them," she murmured.

"Six hundred seventy-four, to be exact," said Natalia Boa Vista as she came up behind her two colleagues, tucking her notebook away in her inside jacket pocket as she did so.

"What are they doing here?" Delko asked. "Christmas was last week."

"It's ClausCon," Natalia replied. "The annual Santa convention. Every year, after the holiday's over with, the Santas of the galaxy converge on the Monolith to compare notes, trade industry gossip, and unwind."

"Okay, that's just weird," Calleigh said.

"Ladies and gentleman," said Criminalist-Superintendent Horatio Caine, the day shift's leader, as he appeared from the lobby. "What've we got?"

Detective Sergeant Frank Tripp, the New Avalon Police Department's lead investigator on the case, consulted his notes. "The victim's name is Melinda Barnett. She's 34, works as an event coordinator for the hotel. The management says she went off-duty last night at 10:30 and nobody on staff saw her after that... until the hotel staff went to reopen the atrium for today's part of the program."

Caine nodded and stepped past his investigators to get a closer look. For a few seconds, he stood with hands on hips, taking a long look around, from the body of the unfortunate Melinda Barnett to the frozen fountain to the crowd of murmuring onlookers behind the yellow tape - a crowd of onlookers like any other, except for the singular and rather startling fact that they were all dressed like Santa Claus.

"Is she a Vulcan?" Eric wondered. "She's got pointed ears."

"No, the blood's red," Natalia pointed out. "They must be some kind of prosthetic. Stage makeup, maybe."

"I guess she's supposed to be one of Santa's elves," Calleigh mused.

Slipping on a pair of dataglasses, Horatio looked up and let the glasses' rangefinder function tell him the distance from the body's location to each of the five balconies ringing the atrium. Then, removing the glasses, he looked down at Melinda Barnett's body again.

"Someone," he observed, "decked more than the halls."

/* The Who
"Won't Get Fooled Again"
Who's Next */

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
CSI: New Avalon - The Day Shift

Reindeer Games

written by
Benjamin D. Hutchins

from an idea by
Chad Collier

© 2007 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

The fourth and newest member of Caine's team, Constable Ryan Wolfe, arrived a minute or so later, accompanied by Dr. Alexx Woods, the IPO's day-shift medical examiner. As they crossed the tape barrier and approached the scene, Wolfe stopped for a moment, like his colleagues, to just take it all in for a moment.

"Well, there's something you don't see every day," he said, sounding impressed.

"Mr. Wolfe," said Caine, his voice mild but reproachful.

"Hm? Oh. Sorry," Wolfe replied.

Dr. Woods put down her equipment case and knelt next to the body. In contrast to Wolfe, who was visibly grappling with an inappropriate humor response, she was deadly serious, her fine, dark features set in a look of compassion and regret.

"Aw, honey," she said quietly to the dead woman while going about the formality of ascertaining death. "What happened? Were you naughty or nice?" She shook her head. "Even if you were naughty, you didn't deserve this." Straightening up, she turned to Horatio. "Looks like a straight impalement - exsanguination - but I won't know for sure until I get her across the street. One thing I can tell you now is that she's been dead five to six hours."

"Okay, thank you, Alexx," Horatio replied.

"What are we going to do about this pole?" Eric wondered. "It's too tall to go in the coroner's van... "

"See if we can separate it from its base, pull it the rest of the way through, and send it to Trace?" Natalia hazarded.

Horatio nodded. "Very carefully, and only after we get as much as we can from it where it is."

"I'll start talkin' to the Santas," Sgt. Tripp declared. "See if anybody might've had a beef with this lady."

"Okay, keep me posted, Frank," said Horatio.

"I'll get started on the scene scans for holo-reconstruction," Calleigh said, breaking open her kit.

"Good," Horatio agreed, nodding. "Eric, Natalia, see what you can get from the pole and the body. Mr. Wolfe, you take the photos."

"You got it," said Wolfe, unlimbering his camera.

While his colleagues busied themselves with their assigned tasks and Caine cruised off to see how Tripp was getting along, Wolfe ranged around the scene, taking pictures from every angle he could find, from long overviews to high-zoom detail shots. It was while getting one of the overviews that the full weirdness of the situation seemed to hit him. Standing not far from the North Pole, he lowered the camera and looked around the room with an expression not too far from wonder on his face.

"So this is Christmas," he mused, causing Delko to suppress a snort of laughter. "What? What's so funny?"

"Nothing, Ryan. Nothing. Don't worry about it," Delko replied, nearly laughing again when he caught the you're-busted smirk Natalia was throwing him over the body. They were still getting used to Wolfe; the new guy had some oddities, mostly attributable to the fact that he was a Charismatic Vulcan and not entirely used to living in general galactic society yet. He was a good investigator and most of the time managed to seem more or less like a regular guy, but sometimes he had flashes of... well, of Vulcanness that were all the more incongruous coming from a guy who liked ugly sport coats and basketball.

"By the way, Eric... what's with the elk?" Wolfe asked, pointing to the several antlered animals standing in a pen next to Santa's Workshop.

Delko looked, then shook his head. "Those are reindeer," he said. "You know... Santa Claus? Reindeer?" At Wolfe's blank look, he added, "What were you, raised by wolves?"

"Was that a crack about my name?"

"What? No."

Wolfe still looked puzzled. "Otherwise the remark doesn't make sense. If I had been raised by carnivorous predators, odds are I'd recognize a prey animal like that easily."

Delko just looked at him for a second, then went back to work.

"I got trace," Natalia announced a few seconds later. "Oh... hey." Sounding troubled, she looked up and met Eric's puzzled eyes. "Red fuzz and black shoe polish. You know what that means."

"Yeah." Delko sat back on his haunches and looked around the room with a sigh. "It means somewhere in all this jollity... we've got ourselves one bad Santa."

Frank Tripp eyed the ID card the de facto leader of the 674 Santas had just handed him. "Your name is really Kris Kringle?" he asked, his voice soaked with skepticism.

"I legally changed it more than 20 years ago," Kringle replied. "I just can't believe it," he went on, dismay written all over his jolly round face. "I can't imagine anyone would want to hurt Melinda. It must have been some kind of terrible accident."

"Not according to the medical examiner," said Tripp. He consulted his PDA, which had just received Alexx Woods's preliminary report a few minutes before.

"But what else could it have been? She must have fallen from one of the balconies by accident, she must have. No one here would do a thing like that."

"She wasn't killed by the fall," Calleigh told him. "She was strangled."

Kringle blinked, aghast. "Strangled?" he whispered.

"Yeah. We couldn't see the bruises until we got her back to the lab because of the collar of that costume she was wearing," Wolfe explained.

"Kind of hard for that to happen by accident," Tripp pointed out.

"But... that's impossible. No one here would do something like that!"

"So you keep saying. Why not? Because you're all just jolly old elves full of holiday goodwill?"

"No!" Kringle replied, a trifle scornfully. "Because everybody in our community loves... loved... Melinda. She's coordinated ClausCon for the past six years. Every year she gets us something even better for the North Pole here. This year it was the reindeer."

"Too many reindeer," another Santa remarked, his voice a bit snide, as he passed on his way to the station where Natalia and Eric were fingerprinting and photographing all the congoers.

"What'd he mean by that?" Calleigh asked Kringle.

"Oh, that was Giles," said Kringle dismissively. "Giles Benderman. Lead Santa at Carpathian's Department Store. He's a p - " He seemed to change his mind about his choice of words just then, hesitating for a fraction of a second before continuing, " - purist. He's upset because there are nine reindeer. He thinks there should only be eight."

"What does it matter?" Wolfe asked, but Calleigh wore a look of comprehension.

"Because Rudolph isn't part of the original myth," she said.

"Right," said Kringle, nodding with a wink. "But he's most children's favorite, and those of us who understand the true spirit of Santa Claus welcome him because of that," he added, a bit huffily.

"Uh-huh, can we get back to the murder, please?" asked Tripp testily. "Do you know anything that might be helpful?"

"I'm sorry, Officer, I just don't," Kringle replied, shaking his head mournfully. "As I've told you, it's just inconceivable to me that anyone would wish Melinda harm. She was every Santa's favorite elf."

"Maybe a little too much so," Wolfe muttered, earning himself an elbow and a sharp look from Calleigh.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Kringle wondered.

"It means we're gonna need your Santas to form a second line when they're done being printed and photographed," Tripp said.

"What for?"

"DNA samples."

"DNA samples? What in the universe would you need DNA samples - " His eyes went wide. "You must be joking."

"Uh, yeah, we make a standard practice of joking about that kind of thing," Wolfe said.

"Well," said Kringle, getting huffy again, "I hope you're looking at the hotel staff and other guests as well. You won't find a Santa responsible for that." He folded his arms. "It would be unfaithful to Mrs. Claus."

"Are these guys serious?" Wolfe asked as the four criminalists emerged from the elevator on the tenth floor of IPO Headquarters.

"As a heart attack," Calleigh replied.

"Come on, Wolfe, you of all people should understand the obsessive nature of fandom," Delko chided, grinning.

"I'm obsessive about weapon maintenance and lab procedure, not ancient pagan myth," Wolfe objected.

"I'm going to check in with Maxine," Natalia said.

"I'll see if there are any prints on the pole or the victim," Delko concurred.

"I'm on Trace," said Wolfe.

Calleigh looked faintly miffed. "Well," she said. "I guess I'll go read a book or something."

"Hey, it's not our fault our perp wasn't considerate enough to shoot anybody," said Eric, earning himself a mild whack on the shoulder.

Horatio Caine came back from lunch and started making the rounds of his lab, curious to see how his criminalists were getting along on the ClausCon case. He'd held himself more or less aloof from the early stages of the case on purpose, interested in seeing how well his crew could handle such a matter without his direct involvement.

His first stop was the DNA lab, where Calleigh and Natalia were trying to avoid seeming like they were looking over the shoulder of biochemist Maxine Valera.

Bending over a microscope, Valera didn't see him enter. "Yep," she declared with a note of satisfaction in her voice. "Definite swimmers." A slow smirk crept onto her lips. "Santa's little helpers."

"Ladies," Horatio said, making Valera jump and blush. Pretending he hadn't heard her remark (or Natalia's snort of amusement), he went on mildly, "What news?"

"Just finished sequencing the DNA samples from the victim, sir," Valera reported.

Horatio raised an eyebrow. "Samples? Plural?"

Valera nodded. "The semen sample from the rape kit is straightforward enough. No hits in COGENT. It's definitely from a human, most likely of Earth descent."

"Okay, so we can rule out all the non-human Santas, can't we," Horatio observed.

"There are non-human Santas?" said Calleigh, who hadn't noticed.

"Dozens of them. Didn't you see the Klingon?" Natalia wondered. "qrIS Q'tlhIngl. No joke."

"Scratch the Meltran, too," Valera noted. "Fake beard aside, she's, uh, unequipped for the job. Still, that leaves me with more than 400 swabs to compare with the sample. That's gonna take me... a while."

"What's the other sample?"

"Unknown biological trace, found on the upper chest, not far from the impalement wound," Valera said, frowning at a printout from the sequencer.

"Non-human?" Natalia wondered.

"Non-sapient," Valera replied, looking up from the printout with a troubled expression.

"... Oh my," said Calleigh.

Horatio smiled faintly. "I think," he said, "you may have a few more participants to swab."

He left them considering that and cruised on down the hall to the trace lab, where Ryan Wolfe and Eric Delko were consulting with chief laboratory scientist Barry Allen.

"Gentlemen. Eric, fingerprints?"

"Nothin'," Delko replied. "The only prints on the pole belong to the hotel's maintenance staff, which is legit enough - they're the ones who put the thing up. Nothing on the vic. On the other had, because the prints were a bust, Ryan and I had time to run a trajectory simulation with the holoscans Calleigh took."

Wolfe nodded. "Santa's favorite elf was thrown from the level-five balcony."

"Good work, gentlemen. How about the trace?"

"The fibers found on the victim's body are a cheap synthetic," Barry reported, proffering a composition report from the lab's analytic collider. "The kind of thing used in low-grade fake fur. The boot polish is similarly cheap, a formulation commonly used on patent leather."

"Hmm. Cheap fake fur and patent leather. So we may be looking for a low-rent Santa," Horatio mused.

Eric nodded in agreement. "A lot of these guys are serious players," he said. "They wear real furs, high-end boots, the works."

"All right, thank you, gentlemen."

"This is definitely a new one on me," Maxine Valera observed. She handed Calleigh a fresh printout from her lab's secondary sequencer. "And the winner is: Blitzen."

"Well," Calleigh remarked wryly, "at least it wasn't Rudolph. Hmm. Blitzen was the one who had biological material in his teeth, too, but there are no bites on the victim."

Valera shook her head. "That material's XY. I'm running a second comparison stream against our reference samples. No hits yet."

Calleigh looked over the printout at her biochemist colleague. "Do I even want to know if you've identified what the sample from the victim is?"

"Fortunately for your peace of mind and mine, it's saliva," said Valera.

"Saliva. Huh."

"Yeah. My guess is, Blitzen licked your victim at some point shortly before or after she died."

"... Because human blood is salty," said Calleigh in a now-I-get-it tone.

"I don't see how it could've happened after death," Wolfe objected. "The North Pole was a good 50 feet from the reindeer pen."

"Yeah, but we know she was dead for at least a little while before she ended up on the pole," Natalia pointed out.

"Which means it might not have been blood the reindeer was licking in the first place," Delko mused. "She might just have been sweaty." He picked up his kit. "I'm going to go have a closer look at that reindeer pen."

"Uh-huh," said Eric with a grimly triumphant smile. He switched his CrimeLite to his left hand and dug around in his kit for a swab with his right. "Biological fluids on the floor here." He swabbed up a sample, then plugged the head of the swab into a port on his tricorder and tabbed his handlink. "Hey, Valera, I'm sending over a 560 scan of what I think is a mixed biological sample. Can you run it against your comparison stack real quick?"

"Sure," Valera's voice replied. "A 560 scan of genetic material won't get you very far in court, but it's good enough to move a field inquiry forward. Uh-huh... uh-huh... yeah. Looks like it's a match to the sample from the victim's SART kit, with a contribution from the victim, to boot. I guess wherever you got that is where the deed got done."

"Okay, thanks, Valera."

"Any time. Don't forget to get a second swab for comprehensive follow-up testing."

Delko grinned. "I have done this a time or two," he noted.

"Sorry. I'm a little paranoid about dotting Is and crossing Ts since my suspension," Valera replied glumly. "Anyway, the seq is about finished chewing on the first comparison. If any of these reference samples you guys brought me match the SART sample, I'll have an ID for you in a few minutes."

"Great, send it over as soon as you have it. Delko out." He stood up, dusting straw from his pants legs.

"Hmm," said Wolfe. "That's something. Did the vic have any straw on her?"

"Not that we could find at post," Natalia replied. "She must've been brushed off."

"Weird. Why rape and kill someone, then brush the straw off the body, lug her up to a fifth-floor balcony, and throw her onto a pole? Even by human standards that's not logical."

Eric opened his mouth to answer, or possibly to snark off about the racial dig, but before he could speak, his PDA chimed. He pulled it from his belt, regarded the screen for a moment, then grinned.

"Why don't we ask the guy that did it?"

"You think I had something to do with what happened to Melinda?" Giles Benderman inquired archly. Shorn of his stocking cap, padded fur jacket, and fake beard, he was a surprisingly young, surprisingly skinny specimen for a Santa, especially a traditionalist one.

"No, we know you did, smart guy," Frank Tripp shot back. "So why don't we cut the bull? Sometime last night - we figure right before she was killed - you had sex with Melinda Barnett in the reindeer pen."

"Given that you had a beef with her," Wolfe noted, "our guess is that sex wasn't consensual."

"And hey, what better way to stop something like that from getting reported than to kill the victim when you're done?" Natalia asked coldly.

"The only thing we can't figure is why the little kabuki show with the body afterward?" Tripp asked. "Your smart killer will hide a corpse, not make it more obvious."

Benderman stared at each of them in turn for a moment, his thin face a mask of disbelief - and then, to their surprise, he laughed.

"You think I raped Melinda?" he said. "Oh, that's rich. That really is." His amusement transmuting instantly to anger, he glared at Tripp and snarled, "She was my girlfriend, you bald-headed cretin! We always made a point of... enjoying ourselves - discreetly, of course - somewhere in the event area during ClausCon. It gave us a thrill."

Tripp gave him a skeptical look. "... And this year was the reindeer pen."

"See, that's interesting, 'cause we were given to understand that the reindeer were a point of contention between you two," Wolfe said.

"Pff. Because there were nine of them? Who told you that? That pompous twit Kringle, I suppose. I didn't like it, but I'd hardly kill someone over something like that." Benderman gave the young Vulcan a patronizing look. "A man can be a purist without being a fanatic, you know. Still, we did argue about it, I won't deny that. That's why we used the reindeer pen this year. Melinda thought it was funny, and so did I, to be honest." He folded his arms, his composure entirely regained. "No, I'm sorry, but you'll have to look elsewhere. You have the wrong Santa."

"What happened to your thumb, Mr. Benderman?" Natalia suddenly asked. Surprised, Benderman unfolded his arms and looked at his hands. His left thumb had a curious bend in it - the last joint was cocked at about a 30-degree angle to the right, away from the palm of the hand.

"I caught it in a bending brake years ago. Metal shop class in high school," he said. "I'm right-handed, so I decided to forego the expense of a proper reconstruction."

"I see."

"Is that all? I assure you, Melinda was alive and well when I left her," Benderman told them. "And please believe me... nobody wants to see the bastard who did this caught more than I do."

As they left the interview room, Wolfe told Natalia, "Nice catch on that thumb thing. His hand doesn't match the bruise pattern on the victim's neck."

Natalia nodded. "He couldn't have strangled her."

"So where does that leave us?"

It was Horatio Caine, leaning against the doorframe of the trace lab, who answered.

"It leaves us looking," he said, "for a low-budget Santa with a grudge... and a more recent injury."

"Mr. Gharity, we have fibers from your costume and a smear of your boot polish on the victim's body," Horatio informed the considerably shabbier-looking Santa who took Benderman's place in the interview room. "And as Inspector Delko has just confirmed, the proportions of your hands match the bruises we found on Miss Barnett's neck."

"Would you care to explain that?" Tripp asked.

"No," Randall Gharity replied.

"Take off your jacket, please," Calleigh said.

Gharity glanced at her, drawing away instinctively. "Why?"

"Because I asked you nicely?" she said with a pleasant smile.


The smile vanished instantly from the Salusian investigator's pretty face. "Okay," she said, "then because I have a warrant for it, and if you don't take it off, I'll take it off you."

"I'd do as she says if I were you, Randall," said Tripp helpfully. Gharity glared at him, then slowly, reluctantly, did as he was told.

"That's a nasty bite you have there," Eric Delko observed as Gharity's upper right arm was revealed. Before Gharity could react, Eric snapped a photo of the injury, then jacked his camera into his PDA and overlaid the image on another in the mini-computer's memory. "And look at that. A perfect match." Looking from the screen to the Santa, he asked, "What did you do to make Blitzen so mad he took a chunk out of your arm?"

"How... how did you know?" Gharity asked.

"Blitzen," Horatio explained, "still had a little bit of you in his teeth, Randall. Now, reindeer don't eat meat, so there was only one way something like that could have gotten there."

"It's true what Kris Kringle told us," Calleigh said. "Everybody in the community really did love Melinda. Even the reindeer."

Gharity looked from one of his interrogators to the next, then fixed his eyes on Caine.

"She sullied the convention," he said. "Carrying on like that. It flew in the face of everything we stand for."

Horatio nodded. "And you couldn't take it any more. Is that it, Randall?"

"You don't know how hard it is," Gharity told him, his eyes desperate now. "Trying to get any respect in this business. Bring joy to children and hold your head up. All the snickering. All the stupid jokes about sitting in Santa's lap. 'What do you want for Christmas, little girl?' It makes me sick. And there's Melinda, everybody's favorite, carrying on with Benderman - a Santa who should know better! I begged her not to do it this year. Or at least to go to a room, not do it right in the middle of the venue. But she just laughed at me. I was on my way through the atrium after things shut down for the night, just to make sure everything was secure, and... there they were."

He waits for them to finish, averting his eyes, for he is no voyeur; indeed, their actions sicken him. He wants no part of them. Finally, they finish, and Benderman does up the fly of his chinos - he's in civvies, it's after hours - and leaves.

He only intends to remonstrate with her as he enters the pen to find her tidying up her costume - but the fact that she not only did this foul thing, but did it in her costume, ears and all - drives him into a rage. Before he has time to consciously think what he's doing, it's all over, and she's lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. The only thing that brings him back to consciousness of what he's doing is the sudden bolt of pain as the nearest reindeer sinks its teeth into his shoulder.

"Oh my God," he murmurs after shoving away the animal - which, fortunately, is docile enough now that it's made its displeasure felt. It seems more concerned with Melinda, anyway. Cautiously, in a manner that reminds him of a dog, it noses at her body, then gives her upper chest a tentative lick, as though trying to wake her.

"Oh my God," he repeats, falling to his knees. "Melinda, what have I done?"

Caine looked gently puzzled. "If killing her horrified you so much, Randall," he asked, "why did you mutilate her body afterward?"

"I... I wanted to make it look like an accident. I didn't mean for that... that grotesquerie with the pole to happen. I just wanted it to seem like she'd fallen. I've read that when someone's... strangled... it breaks a bone in their neck. Is that true?" Horatio nodded. "Well... I figured if she fell... enough bones would be broken that that wouldn't really stand out." He put his face in his hands. "But I slipped as I was trying to get her over the railing... "

"Dead weight is harder to maneuver than a living person," said Eric. "A lot of killers underestimate how hard it is to move a body."

"I slipped and... pushed her off harder than I intended. And she... fell on the pole. Oh, God. It was horrible." Uncovering his face, Gherity turned beseeching eyes on his interrogators. "I was only trying to defend the holiday. They were... they were defiling the spirit of Santa's workshop."

Horatio stood up and regarded Gherity with a combination of pity and reproach.

"Somehow, Randall," he said, "I doubt that spirit is very accommodating of murder, either. Take him, Frank."

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
CSI: New Avalon - The Day Shift
Reindeer Games

by Benjamin D. Hutchins

from an idea by Chad Collier

CSI: Miami created by
Anthony E. Zuiker
Ann Donahue
Carol Mendelsohn

Special to the Eyrie Productions Discussion Forum

E P U (colour) 2007

The setting sun filled the room at the top of the White Tower with a peculiar blood-red light, a quality of light Utena Tenjou had only ever seen in this one room. She was aware on some unconscious level that this ought to make her uneasy, as indeed simply being in this room should do, but the notion didn't penetrate her actual awareness; in fact, she felt entirely secure - safe and looked-after - as she reclined across one of the white leather couches, head against one armrest and long legs outstretched across her sweetheart's lap, and outlined to him her plans for the future.

"So I'll make you a deal," she said. "You stop trying out all these replacements that don't work and go back to your old job, and just as soon as I'm ready I'll come back and take over for good." With the sudden, easy energy of youth, she drew her legs in underneath her and sat up, draped her arms over his shoulders and leaned her head close to his, her fingers toying idly with the collar of his scarlet dress shirt. "How does that sound?"

Gryphon gave her a speculative look out of the corner of his eye, the glint of silver in his hair catching the sunset when he moved his head, then grinned. "Works for me," he said, and then leaned to kiss her.

hang on a minute, that's not right at all

Utena stood before a full-length mirror in her old dorm room, smoothing a sleeve, head tilted on one side.

"I dunno," she said.

"It's a little late to not know now," said Anthy in a bored voice from the top bunk of their bed. She flipped a page in the style magazine she was reading and added, "Fish or cut bait, darling."

no, Anthy wasn't there, and it didn't happen there anyway

Utena stood before a large, plain table of some dark red wood while a white-furred, quite beautiful Salusian woman looked her up and down. Outside the Student Council office's French doors, the zeppelin regatta was in full swing.

"This is quite a way to go just to get your father to take you seriously," said the Salusian woman, who wore a more ornate version of the same black-and-white uniform Utena herself was dressed in, with the starred epaulets of a vice-admiral.

Utena shook her head. "That's not why I'm here, Admiral. I'm here for... " She searched for the phrase, then settled on, "... For the good of the service."

The admiral looked puzzled. "I'm afraid I don't quite follow you."

"May I speak frankly, sir?" said Utena.

"I have difficulty picturing you speaking in any other way," the admiral replied. "Out with it."

"Admiral, I couldn't give a damn about being 'taken seriously', and even if it was something I had cause to worry about, it wouldn't be from my father. I'm not ashamed of the way I entered the IPSF - I think my record speaks for itself - but there are aspects of spacemanship that can only be learned from the bottom up, and I need to learn them before I can be a complete flag officer. I'm here because I want to learn my trade. Not because I feel some yearning for street cred."

The admiral frowned thoughtfully. "You are a strange young woman."

"I've heard that before."

"But you do wear the uniform well - for a human - and there's no denying you swept the field in charm school. Admiral Rendiz endorsed your performance record himself, and that doesn't happen often." The admiral thought a moment longer, then smiled with a hint of sardony and stood up. "All right. I'll see if anyone in my squadron is willing to take you on - but I warn you now, whatever positions you might have held in some other outfit aren't going to count for anything once you're thrown into the fleet. Nor your name, nor your family, nor even your connections at Court."

"I'm counting on it, sir."

that's a bit more like it

It took her three weeks to end up in a fight, and that was with trying as hard as she could to be on her best behavior. Anthy would've been dismayed - but at the same time, she'd have been proud of the reason why.

Utena knew on her first day aboard Her Salusian Majesty's light cruiser Vortigaunt that the fight was inevitable, but she'd tried to avoid it anyway, not because she was in any way concerned with her own safety, but because she hadn't wanted to put any of the people who had helped her get this far on the spot.

"You must be the newcomer. The human." The young Salusian said it in a way that made it obvious how he felt about sharing the midshipmen's berth of a Queen's ship with an alien. "I am the senior here. My name is Stovall. If you simply must speak to me, you may address me as 'sir'."

Swallowing her pride and calling the pompous bastard "sir" wasn't easy, but then, she was here to learn just such lessons about life in the service, wasn't she? So she had. Truth to tell, ignoring his petty abuses and little spitefulnesses was easy, because his small-minded irrelevancy was plain to see, and because, though he was a physical as well as verbal bully with the other midshipmen, his own bigotry made him too proud to raise his hand to any creature as weak and inferior as a human female. He simply didn't feel she was worth it, and she simply didn't give a damn.

Which was the way it went until she'd caught him whipping poor, mousy, undergrown Hardy Peteio with a knotted rope's end, a device wryly called a "starter", for no evident reason. One of the many things about the Royal Navy that continued to strike her as odd was that that sort of thing was actually still allowed as a sort of rough-justice motivation. Most officers carried such a thing, and it wasn't unheard-of for them to give an ordinary spaceman who wasn't snapping to in a satisfactorily lively manner in action a pop or two across the shoulders just to hustle him and his mates along. It made more noise than harm and was not generally taken as an insult, but officers - even the lowliest sort who hadn't earned their commissions yet and might never - weren't expected to go around "starting" each other, and particularly not off-duty, on a bare back, and for no reason at all.

Utena knew Stovall did it - Peteio was Vindari, so the blood showed clearly against his grey fur when he changed his shirt between watches, and he went about in obvious flinching terror of Stovall at all times - but she'd never caught him at it. When she'd mentioned it to Lt. Dalaz, the fifth lieutenant, he'd taken her aside and told her in a kindly, vaguely conspiratorial sort of way that the midshipmen's berth was expected to deal with such matters internally, and not pester their betters with them.

"But by the same token," Dalaz said before dismissing her and returning to the forward battery, "no one outside the berth is likely to take it amiss if Mr. Midshipman Stovall misses a watch or two on sick call."

So, really, when she caught Stovall red-handed (so to speak), what else could she do? It hadn't been a duel, obviously, that would've been a matter involving not one but several superior officers and anyway would've had to be handled on shore someplace. She'd just taken off her sword and coat, put them on her bunk, and then gone across and given him a damned good hiding. It had been monumentally satisfying, and it'd been easy, because despite his size and slightly superhuman strength, Stovall didn't really have the slightest idea what to do with his fists if his opponent didn't just stand there and take it like poor Peteio.

"Three weeks," Captain Kerwin said, observing the surgeon's report on Mr. Stovall's injuries. He looked up from the report at the pink-haired human who stood opposite his desk, neat bands of white tape across the knuckles of both hands. Then, as she was expecting him to burst out in fury despite Mr. Dalaz's advice, he chuckled darkly and said, "Well, we shan't have any more trouble from him, I dare say. But you just watch yourself, Mr. Tenjou," he added, rising. "I'm told Mr. Peteio and the other young gentlemen already half worship you. Keep attracting followers at this rate and I may come to suspect you of masterminding a mutiny!"

but he was smiling when he said it

Smoke, fire, clanging alarms; there were no working exterior monitors in no. 1 turret, but from the sound of things, the third Klingon had pounded down their shields and grappled alongside.

"Mr. Dalaz, report," the speaker next to the door crackled.

Utena clambered over wreckage and punched the acknowledgement key. "Mr. Dalaz is a casualty, Captain," she reported, her voice made hoarse by smoke and all the shouting she'd been doing for the last twenty minutes.

"Very well, Mr. Tenjou," Kerwin replied without missing a beat. "Get down to the portside entry port with everyone you can gather who can hold a weapon and prepare to repel boarders."

"Aye aye, sir," Utena replied. She turned and took stock of her gun crew - a dozen or so still standing, their uniforms torn and dirty as hers undoubtedly was, all looking to her for leadership.

You said you wanted to be a rock star, honey, she said to herself wryly; then she said aloud, "You heard the captain - we're leaving." Then she turned to the gunner's mate who sat propped against the bulkhead next to the hatch, an improvised bandage around one thigh. "I'm leaving the turret in your hands, Stannor," she said.

Stannor grinned, his teeth very white in the smoky semidarkness. "I'll try not to misplace it, sir."

The gun crew filed out one by one, ducking through the hatch; as Utena went to follow them, Stannor put out a hand and said, "Take this, sir. It sounds like you may need it."

Utena looked and saw that he was holding out his personal weapon, a Martell heavy laser pistol. Seeing her hesitate, he pushed it toward her. "Please, sir. If the Klavaarites get in here, it's not going to do me much good anyway."

Giving the wounded gunner what she hoped was a reassuring smile, Utena took the laser and hung it on her belt opposite the scabbard of her sword.

"Good luck, Mr. Tenjou," Stannor said before she could try to find words to thank him. She paused, nodded, and then ducked through the hatch.

She found the survivors of no. 2 turret emerging from its base onto the gundeck some way aft; their ranking officer was one of her fellow mids, Dennis Dorine, and though he was (like every other officer aboard) senior to her he deferred instantly to her air of authority and assurance. Assembling their two crews and what few other survivors they found on the forward gundeck, the two midshipmen were leading the way aft to the entry port when they passed the brig and Utena noticed that one of the cells was energized, a crewman inside.

"Keep going, Dennis," said Utena. "I'll catch you up."

"Are you mad?" Dorine demanded. "You can't be thinking of letting him out."

Utena blinked. "Well, I'm not leaving him trapped in a cage while the Klavaarites storm the ship," she shot back. "Now go! I'll be back with you before they can breach the airlock."

She had no idea who the man was - in six months aboard the ship, she had met relatively few members of the enlisted crew who weren't assigned to her section of the forward battery - but she had to admit that he did look pretty intimidating, now that she got a better look at him. He was huge, and quite the most unkempt Salusian sailor she'd ever seen, his face obscured by a great bushy black beard with two parallel white streaks in it, and his eyes, which glared out from beneath a beetling brow, were black and wild.

"What's your name, sailor?" Utena asked as she started punching what she hoped was an officer's emergency override into the keypad next to his cell door.

"Teach, if you please, sir," the man replied in a voice that matched the rest of him, big and loud and slightly guttural, with an unusual accent she hadn't heard in a Salusian's voice before.

"That's it? Just 'Teach'? What's your rating?"

"'Aven't got one, sir," Teach replied stolidly. "Ordin'ry spaceman. Well, I should say I 'aven't got one any more, like. I've 'ad several, but... " He paused, then added with surprising good humor, "I'm what they call a chronic disciplinary problem, like."

"What're you in here for?"

"Strikin' an officer," Teach replied unconcernedly. "But 'e 'ad it comin'," he added when she glanced sharply at him. "It were young Bransford, the fourth. Arrogant young pup."

Utena, who privately shared the hulking spaceman's assessment of Lieutenant Charton Bransford, finished overriding his cell barrier and said as he emerged, "Well, you'll get the chance to strike plenty of officers in a few minutes, so long as you don't mind they're Klingons."

Teach's ugly face broke into a huge, gap-toothed smile. "I'd like nothin' better, sir. Lead the way."

The man's reputation had clearly spread to much of the lower deck, if it hadn't reached Utena yet, because more than a few of the survivors gathered near the portside airlock's inner doors looked startled and drew together when he came among them in her wake. The vibrocutlass he'd collected from a boarding locker on the way looked like a toy in his giant fist; Utena remarked to herself that he'd have looked more appropriate with a Valerian space axe like her friend Julius Van Der Groot favored.

Speaking of people I wish were here right now, she thought ruefully. Then she said, "All right, people. Hear those noises? They're setting the charges now. When you see sparks start to come off the inner door, open your mouth so the blast wave doesn't burst your eardrums, and then be ready to fight, 'cause the Klingons aren't going to wait for the smoke to clear. And remember - don't expect any quarter from these bastards. These are desperate men, traitors to their own kind. They're not the sort of Klingons one associates with honor."

The gathered crewmen nodded gravely, fingering their weapons and trying to hide their nervousness. There were perhaps three dozen of them now, men and women, all three major subspecies, but all Salusian apart from Utena - which wasn't too surprising, since she was the only non-Salusian in the entire crew. She turned to Dorine, who stood next to her eyeing Teach warily.

"Ready, Dennis?" she asked in a low voice.

"I'm glad you've done this before," he replied.

"Just remember what I taught you," she said. "You'll be fine."

The inner door glowed, then began to spark near the top.

"Get ready!" Utena barked, leaving her jaw slightly slack. The sizzling sparks grew thicker and brighter, the noise louder, until with a sudden thunderous BANG the hatch blew inward, its fragments rebounding from the opposite bulkhead. Two or three crewmen who hadn't heeded her advice clapped their hands to their ears and fell writhing to the deck.

"Here they come!" she yelled to those that were left. Drawing her sword with one hand and handing Stannor's Martell to Dorine with the other, she added at the top of her lungs, "Long live the Queen!"

I always expected I'd feel stupid saying that, but I didn't

"Come on, ye traitorous buggers!" Teach roared as the first wave of Klingon boarders surged into the corridor; pushing Dorine aside, he waded into them with such shocking violence that even the hardened Klingon marines checked their advance and looked for someone smaller and less furious to fight. "An' when ye get to Sto-Vo-Kor, tell yer ancestors that Mad Ned Teach sent ye!"

The Klavaarite boarding party was led by their ship's second lieutenant, a young and powerful warrior and a recognized third-level master of the bat'leth. Leaving his men to deal with Teach and the others as best they could, he hit the after guard of the Vortigaunt's defenders like a scythe hits grain, opening a space for his marines to pour in behind him, and it looked for a few moments as if Utena's first command position in the Royal Salusian Navy was also going to be her last - but her people rallied and engaged the lieutenant's more successfully, leaving him for some more experienced swordsman to deal with.

Someone like Mr. Midshipman Tenjou.

Subcommander QatlH sneered as he made for his obvious target - the only human aboard and the only one he'd ever heard of with that color hair, in any case. Emperor Klayvor had offered an instant promotion to command for any junior officer who brought her to him, and he, QatlH, meant to have that promotion. And what was there to stop him? A terrified rabble of Salusian sailors and an old, battered, plain steel sword. He had heard that this Tenjou was a great swordswoman, and that she carried a weapon made by one of the finest smiths in the galaxy; if the latter were the case, she'd apparently left it in her quarters and met the boarders with an everyday knockabout blade instead. The one she held wasn't actually rusty, but it wasn't what you would call polished either, and the scabbard at her belt looked positively disreputable.

The broad corridor in front of the entry port cleared, dozens of smaller fights and the general swirl of the melee parting as if by some silent signal, as QatlH and Utena squared off. The Klingon lunged, expecting his weapon to penetrate her guard easily; instead, it rebounded from a sweeping parry with a clang and a fat yellow spark that, he was shocked to see a moment later, had come from a chunk being taken out of his edge, not hers. Three more exchanges led to three more such blemishes on what had been one of the finest bat'leth money could buy, and QatlH's fury elevated with each one until he was almost blind with rage.

Utena evaded his next strike, crossed up his guard, and twisted the weapon clean out of his hands, then belted him across the face with her sword's plain steel-disc pommel, dropping him to the deck. Her shipmates cheered around her and laid into their opponents with renewed vigor, gaining the upper hand in moments. The entry port yawned empty before her, the pulsing amber battle lighting of a Klingon ship's middeck visible beyond the melted edges of the inner hatch, and she suddenly realized what she had to do next.

"Right, lads!" she cried as she stepped over the sprawled officer and made for the hatch. "Now we'll show them how you board an enemy man-of-war! Vortigaunts - follow me!"

"Vortigaunt!" the others roared, charging after their leader without a second's thought.

QatlH raised himself from the deck, tugging his disruptor from his belt - he'd had strict orders not to use powerguns for this boarding because the Emperor wanted the human alive, but by Kahless, no one humiliated him that way and lived - but as he leveled it, trying to draw a bead on her pink hair through the shifting crowd of her shipmates behind her, a hand like a vice closed on his shoulder and dragged him bodily from the deck.

"Ah, ah, ah," said Teach in a mocking, chiding voice; and then he snapped the Klingon's neck with one hand, dropped him to the floor, and lumbered after the others.

but I didn't find out about that part until later

As Utena had suspected, the Klingon ship's crew was largely absent - almost all those who had survived the hour-long battle with the Vortigaunt had been in the boarding party, and now lay dead or incapacitated aboard the Salusian ship. With their blood boiling, the Vortigaunts were easily the equal of a force three times their size, and they carved their way to the D-7's bridge, rolling over anyone who tried to bar their way.

It fell to Teach - one of whose several lost ratings had been electrician's mate - to hotwire the bridge doors, and the Vortigaunt's spacers poured into that confined space like buckshot into a bag. Utena led the way, elbowing and punching her way to the bullseye, and with the point of her shabby old sword to the captain's throat she demanded his surrender in the name of the Queen -

- and something hit her like a sledgehammer in the side of the head and everything went black.

well, that wasn't the shortest career on record, but it wasn't too distinguished, now was it

"Stay alive," Corwin said.

"I'll do my best," she replied, and she was just reflecting that she hadn't done a very good job keeping that promise - and it occurred to her to wonder whether he'd come to take her to Valhalla himself, if that would be allowed, and how awkward would that be -

- when she regained consciousness and realized that her head hurt too much for her to be dead.

"Ungh," she said.

"Easy there, sir," said the gravelly voice of Teach, comically hushed. A huge hand put a cool cloth gently to her forehead. "You gave us all a bit of a scare, like."

Utena opened her eyes and perceived the dim amber light of a Klingon sickbay, such as they were, and the oddly reassuring bulk of Teach looming over her.

What he said next was even more surprising than how reassuring his presence was: "I'm sorry, sir."

"Sorry?" Utena put a hand to her head, holding the cloth in place, and sat slowly up. "What for?"

"I didn't see the bugger what 'it ye until it was too late t'stop 'im," Teach explained; then, with a slightly nasty smile, he added grimly, "But 'e won't be pullin' that stunt on anyone else, I promise ye that."

"What'd he hit me with?" Utena asked, gingerly feeling at the side of her head.

"Spanner," Teach grunted. "Gave ye a bit o' concussion, but some Vorpanol soon put ye right."

Utena eyed him. "How did you know to do that?"

"I used t' be rated surgeon's mate, like," Teach told her. Reaching to the table next to him, he picked up a steaming mug and handed it to her. "This should perk up your spirits some, sir."

Utena sniffed it, took a wary sip, then gave Teach a look of undisguised astonishment. "Where did you find belgad broth on a Klingon ship?"

Teach shrugged, looking slightly abashed at her admiration for the feat. "Wasn't that hard, sir," he mumbled. "They like meat, every ship has water aboard... "

"You made it from scratch?"

"I used t' be rated cook's mate, like," he said. Then, briskly, as if the topic made him uncomfortable, he added, "Now, sir, if ye'll come along to the bridge, I think Mr. Dorine would appreciate yer advice."

The bridge bore few traces of the wild melee that had been taking place when Utena had last seen it. Dorine sat in the center seat, his uniform rumpled and neckcloth absent; when he heard the door he turned and nearly slumped clean out of the seat with relief.

"Thank Althena you're all right," he said, rising. "I'm in a hell of a fix."

"What's up?" she asked.

He gestured to the viewer. "See anything you recognize?"

Utena looked, sipping her belgad broth, then gave Dorine a dubious look. "Uh... space? Is this a trick question?"

"Let me rephrase it. Do you not see anything you recognize?"

Utena looked again. "Where's the Vortigaunt?"

Dorine sat down again and looked glum. "I wish I knew. I think the Klingons tried to warp to safety when we breached the bridge, but I have no idea where the hell we were. Or how to find our way back there. The nav computer is blank and comms are smashed." He gave her a sheepish look and admitted, "As you know, I'm not the midshipmen's berth's strongest navigator."

Utena chuckled; Dorine's regular wire-brushings from the Vortigaunt's navigator, acerbic Lt. Jirov, over his botched calculations and creatively misaligned star sights were part of the ship's routine.

"Well, sir," she said, acknowledging his seniority with only slight irony, "with your permission, I'll take over as navigator and see if I can't get a handle on that."

Monday, June 27, 2411
HMS Vortigaunt (SCS-3914)
Disputed space, near Klingon Neutral Zone

Captain Frederick Kerwin sat and gazed gloomily out of the forward windows of his bridge. Around him, the ship's routine was almost back to normal, field repairs mostly completed, and apart from a few blanked-off consoles that would require shipyard repairs and some lingering smudges of soot on bulkheads, it almost looked as if the ship's desperate fight with the Klavaarite squadron hadn't happened.

Well, apart from those and the startlingly large gaps in the ship's watchbill, the latest attempts to reorganize which Jirov was even now presenting for his approval.

Kerwin looked them over, signed them, and handed the datapad back, then caught the lieutenant's eye and said bluntly, "You don't think I should stay here any longer, do you, Mr. Jirov?"

"No, sir," Jirov replied at once. Whatever the lieutenant's personality lacked in warmth or likability, he wasn't deficient in honesty. "We've been loitering in this area for nearly five days now. Every further hour we linger without returning to base for proper repairs and replacement crew makes us still more vulnerable to another attack. The Klavaarites know we're out here. One of their ships escaped."

"And Mr. Tenjou and her boarders are already dead. That's what you were going to say next."

"Sir," Jirov drove on unflinchingly, "you know as well as I do that they were most likely outnumbered and outgunned. Leading a counter-boarding was a bold thing for Tenjou to do, but it was also foolhardy. She hadn't a chance in a thousand."

"If that's so, why did Dorine and the others follow her? He's senior to her, he could've countermanded her at any time." Kerwin knew what Jirov was going to say to that, too, but he wanted to make him say it. This sort of exercise benefitted them both when it came time to decide on strategies; it had become a standard thing for them to do during their five years of service together.

"Mr. Dorine may have held the senior of their two warrants, but we both know who the natural leader was. In the whole berth, not just between those two. She would have gone far, had her enthusiasm been tempered by judgment." Jirov shook his head. "A tragic waste." Hazarding a personal opinion, he added, "I'd not want to be the one to explain it to the Queen."

"Well, fortunately, Mr. Jirov, if you're right, that task will fall to me, not you," Kerwin said archly.

Jirov blinked. "I apologize, Captain. I had assumed that Vice-Admiral Kirk - "

"I'm her captain, not Kanaia," Kerwin said, shaking his head. "If she has been killed in action, it's my responsibility to inform Her Majesty. And Mr. Tenjou's father. And her husband... and her wife... and her daughter."

Jirov looked at the deckplates. "I'm sorry, sir," he said. "The remark was insensitive."

"It damned well was," Kerwin agreed; then, clapping the younger man on the shoulder, he added, "But it was also quite right. All right, Victor, I understand what you're thinking; but we'll give it a few more hours, all the same. If any Klingon comes looking for us, we can show him our heels easily enough."

Jirov drew himself up and saluted. "Aye aye, Captain." He turned to return to his station.

"Captain!" the sensor operator on duty called. "New contact bearing three-two-two mark seven-four. Incoming starship at moderate warp speed, range 7200."


"Querying. No IFF. Warp signature indicates probable Klingon."

"Hands to quarters," Kerwin snapped, straightening in his conn. "Clear for action."

Two minutes later, the approaching ship dropped out of warp and approached within visual-scan range on impulse power, and there was no mistaking the outline of a Klingon D-7, the same type of which they'd recently fought three. That had been a good showing - they'd destroyed one, crippled one, and the third had fled - but they couldn't expect another showing like that again, not with the ship still half blown apart and a third of the crew either dead, in sickbay, or MIA.

Turning to Jirov, he added, "Looks like you were right, Victor. Helm, prepare to withdraw. Maximum warp."

Jirov regarded the approaching Klingon on the viewer for a few moments as the Vortigaunt maneuvered onto the best heading from which to make a run for home, but just before Kerwin would've given the order to engage, Jirov held up a hand.

"Wait. Look at his running lights." He pointed, then began drawing on his long-ago experience as ensign of signals under old Admiral Korhiro to translate the international blink code. "V-O-R-T-I-G-A-U-N-T," he spelled out, then read off the rest of the message in words, a note of puzzled wonder in his voice: "... 'Good to see you'?!"

Utena materialized in the transporter room with Dorine to her left and Teach to her right; since the battle, the hulking spaceman had rarely left her side, and then not for any longer than he had to. Lt. Bransford, sent down to meet them, looked taken aback to see a man he'd confined to the brig suddenly appearing from an already-unexpected Klingon prize; Teach merely saluted him without a trace of irony, but no particular deference either.

"What's he doing here?"

"Spaceman Teach has been indispensable to the taking of the Klingon vessel and to prize operations since, sir," said Dorine before Utena could speak up. "He's earned the right to report with us to the Captain, if you please."

Bransford blinked, then said, "Very well, follow me."

Their course took them past the midshipmen's berth, and as they passed by, Utena's sharp ear caught the familiar sound of a "starter" on flesh and a suppressed yelp comprised of as much general misery as actual pain. Setting her jaw pugnaciously, she detoured, slapped the door activator, took one step across the threshold and barked in her most commanding voice,

"Mister Stovall, I'll thank you to leave Peteio alone!"

From out in the hall, Bransford, Dorine and Teach heard a high-pitched scream of terror and a heavy thud; Utena emerged a moment later looking quite pleased with herself.

"Do you know, Mr. Bransford," she said, "I get the impression that Mr. Stovall had given me up for dead."

Bransford tried without much success to hide his grin.

"I get the impression you are correct, Mr. Tenjou," he said.

The foursome, with little Peteio now trotting delightedly after them (hastily tugging on his coat), emerged from the midships companionway onto the bridge, where everyone who could come up with even the flimsiest excuse or pretense had gathered to greet them; and as Dorine and Utena saluted the quarterdeck and received Captain Kerwin's smiling salute in return, someone down in the gathering of crewmen at the front of the auditorium-like bridge shouted anonymously,

"Huzzah for Mr. Tenjou!"

Kerwin let them cheer, waiting until they'd finished before saying mildly, "If you're quite finished, I'll trouble you to set course for home, gentlemen." Then, turning to his prodigal officers, he said, "Mr. Dorine, you may return to your prize and conduct her to base. I'm afraid you'll have to get by without Mr. Tenjou for the last leg, though, as I require her here."

Dorine hesitated, swallowing, and said, "Thank you, Captain, but the capture is rightfully Midshipman Tenjou's. Without her initiative the Klingon would never have been taken."

"Thank you, Mr. Dorine, I think I'm qualified to select prize crews," said Kerwin with a hint of asperity.

"Er... aye aye, sir," Dorine said, saluting, and with a stricken, apologetic look at Utena - I tried - he took his leave.

In his office abaft the bridge, Kerwin seated himself and said, "As it happens, I agree with young Dorine; he's senior to you, but it's obvious from the holologs of the boarding action that it would all have gone to pieces if he'd been the only officer there."

"Respectfully, sir, that's unfair," said Utena. "Dennis does his best, and he never flinched. He consolidated our capture of the Klingon ship and made our situation there secure while I was out cold in sickbay."

Kerwin smiled. "I don't fault his courage, only his skill. He hasn't the swordarm to have stopped that Klavaarite lieutenant and you know it. Nor could he command the loyalty of a man like Teach. I won't ask how you managed that."

"I'm not sure I know," Utena admitted wryly.

"Mm. No, I imagine you don't," said Kerwin, but before she could ask him what he meant by that, he went on, "Well, if you weren't already, this will make you a hero to every jack on this ship. And I told you before that that would never do!"

Utena eyed him, not sure where he was going. "Sir?"

"I'm afraid you'll be leaving the Vortigaunt when we get back to Salu II, Mr. Tenjou," said Kerwin, his enigmatic smile becoming somewhat less enigmatic. "With Mr. Dorine promoted to take the late Mr. Dalaz's place, I won't have a place aboard for another lieutenant."

Utena blinked, then couldn't stop the grin from overspreading her face. "Thank you, sir," she said.

"No need," Kerwin replied. "You've earned it. It's part of my job to identify and reward the officers I think are the greatest assets to Her Majesty's Navy. I hate to lose you, but frankly you're too big for a little ship like the Vortigaunt. You need to move on to bigger and better things." He rose and held out his hand. "But congratulations, Lieutenant. And well done."

She shook the hand, thanked him again and then, being dismissed, turned to leave. Just as she reached the door, his voice reached out and stopped her. "Oh, one more thing, Mr. Tenjou."

Utena turned. "Sir?"

"You may be interested to know that Spaceman Teach has already made plain his desire to accompany you to whatever your next posting may be. He seems to think you're destined for command one day, and, and I'm quoting here, 'She'll need a good cox'n then, won't she.'" Leaning forward with his hands on his desk, he said, "Before you decide whether that's something you want, read his file. He's a twenty-year spacer, the highest grade he's ever held was senior chief, and he's struck successfully for almost every rating in the book... but he's also loud, violent, and almost completely unsuited to naval discipline, which is why he no longer holds that grade nor any rating at all. It'll take a very strong and very special personality in an officer to control that weapon. There's a reason he's called 'Mad Ned'." Sitting down again, the captain concluded, "That said, he could be a great asset to the officer who has that personality... and I wish you'd take him." Kerwin cracked his wry smile again. "For the good of the Service."

"Mr. Midshipman Tenjou: For the Good of the Service" - a New Frontier mini-story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
(with apologies to Capt. Frederick Marryat)
Special to Forum Mini-Stories Omnibus Volume 4
© 2009 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Eyrie Productions, Unlimited

Undocumented Features Forum Mini-Stories
Omnibus Edition Volume Four

Written by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Geoff Depew Philip J. Moyer

With the gracious assistance of
Chad Collier
Janice Collier
and all the Eyrie Productions Usual Suspects

Graphics, compilation and prettification
Benjamin D. Hutchins

E P U (colour) 2009