killer3.htm Hand of the Emperor

(formerly under the title The baby-killer)


________________________________________________________________________________

"I destroy my enemy when I make him my friend."

-Assassinated leader from Human History.

___________________________________3___________________________________________

Jan Church tightend his grip on the arm rest of the co-pilot's seat. The Stellar Corvette lurched as another Giant Comorant bounced off their mag-shield.

"Not very keen are they?" said the 'Sin-Guardian.

"The Comorants have survived on Scians II for millions of years, Mr. Church," said the voice behind him.

Leaning forward Jik C'kjng, pan-biologist and one of the few actual natives of Scians II improved his view.

"Gee, that's super," said the pilot as he dodged another giant swooping avian. Jan grinned at that.

"Keep it steady, Glen. Inform the squad to stay with the flock. Their numbers should mask us for a while."

"Aye that, Sir."

The Archaen pilot began sending the command through to the ten ships behind them. Jan turned and spoke to the Scian dignitary.

"I'd like to thank you once again on behalf of the Emperor for your assistance Dr. C'kjng."

The Scians eyes widen at that, since he had no mouth, that was his smile.

"Not at all Mr. Church. The Ghoiite presence on Scians II has been a burden for too long."

His voice emenated from his upper nasal cavity just below his eyes. Jan returned the smile, stood up and walked into the crew compartment.

Two squadrons of Imperial Marines, dressed in full battle armor, sat along the wall bench. Weapons and systems check were performed in silent
concentration. Jan adjusted his body to the weight of his own Imperial Battle Armor. A Torpedo Blaster was straped to his left thigh, and a
Plaze Rifle slung over his shoulder. On his right hip hung a non-standardweapon, the Emperor's golden Razor-Epee itself.

When the time came ...he patted the hilt.

"Twenty minutes to zone drop, men," he announced.

"Aye sir!!" They replied as one. Jan liked that. After their treaterous defeat by Whang and the Ghoiites, the Marines were mean and
eager for payback.

"Remember, according to our intelligence, we expect their front line to be Ghoiite children. Rubber bullets only, no live shells," said the assassin.

"Ishtar sir, is that really reliable? I mean ...what if it's a trap?" That was Corporal Zach, the squads sharp-shooter.

"Does it matter?" said the 'Sin-Guardian. "Your backs are watched."

"Your backs are watched!!" they replied as one. Jan liked that even more.

"Sir, the rest of the squadrons are checking in," called back Glen.

"Rhuk-D'kai Squad ready, Asgardian Squad ready, orbital Parr Squad ready, and the rest of Third Squad checks in ...ready."

"Aye that," said Jan. The Assassin-Guardian walked back to his seat, sat down and narrowed his eyes as he focused on the distant
cliffs three thousand feet below.

"All right Glen, take us in."

______________________________________________________________________

It was like this - I had to do something - anything! I think better on my feet, so down the tunnel I ran in the direction of Ul-Um'ba,
Ghoiite giant, and tribal Executioner, whose Ul'ek 'Arm" , I'm sure, had liberated hundreds of men from their mortal coils.
It was a sure bet that I was next.

Naturally, I had no idea of what I was going to do, but there's an old saying - 'The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius
has its limits' When this is over you'll find my holo-pic next to the word 'Stupid' in the Galactic Dictionary. Maybe I'll live to see it too.
I picked up a rock, my weapon of choice lately, as I spotted Ul-Um'ba's darkend form ahead of me. All cats are gray in the dark,
so I hoped it was true for me. I took aim, wound up, threw my hardest pitch and pressed myself flat against the shadows. I missed by
a mile, but I got the desired results. Ul-Um'ba spun around in a whirlwind of Ul'ek blades and weapons. He came to a stop resting on
one knee, weapons extended forword like some hidedious porcupine. He scanned the darkness ahead of him with cold, searching eyes.
I held my breath. Suddenly, my stomach and bladder didn't like what was inside them.

The giant took a step foreward, so I took ten back, and ran. Something hard and razor sharp hit the wall behind me as I rounded a curve.
I wondered what the extended range of an Ul'el strike was, and decided it was probably a lot longer than the head start I had.

I passed the spot where the Princess was hidden and up ahead I saw the chamber with the revine we had passed earlier. Now,
suddenly I had an idea! It wasn't brilliant, but something.

Glowlights floated in the air before me. I jumped up and grabed one without breaking stride and slide to a stop at the edge of the ravine.
I switched off the gravity field on the latern and droped it over the edge. Within seconds the receding light illuminited what I was hopeing
to see - two paces to my right.

I looked behind me.

Ul-Um'ba stood twenty meters away. Instantly he raised his arm and extended his Ul'ek pike with the killing speed of an arrow.

I stepped over the edge.

______________________________________________________________________

Darkness drained from Ra'suk's consciousness like black ink from a sieve. Points of light, swimming before him, grayed and focused
into images. Connection to a present tense reality was slower in coming. His head throbbed with pain, that much was real.

Slowly, he began to remember...

*Someone hit me,* he thought. *...From behind!*

Sounds faded up, followed by smells, one unique onto itself - burning Ul'ek. A gray smudge moved in front of him. Ra'suk blinked
several times and the smudge came into focus, along with an alarming clarity of thought.

It was a Dwarf - working at a communication's console.

*A prisoner at my station?*

The Dwarf spoke into the Comm-piece in clipped and agitated toned. His bandaged head didn't seem to be slowing him down.
Ra' suk crepted closer.

"By Thor, their children. Armed ...dangerous, but children nonethe..."

The Dwarf spun.

*By the prophet!* Ra'suk thought. *He heard my approach!*

The Asgardian reached for the Mechanic's Hammer hanging at his side, a massive mallet of solid steel, but Ra'suk had all the
time in the world. Raising his arms he concentrated on the mental commands for an Ul'ek strike.

His world went black ...

Spots exploded in front of his eyes. Concentration was diffucult, as his head throbed from his injury. Through sheer pain and
tearing agony, Ra'suk pushed the mental command forward and pushed his Ul'ek pike towards the Dwarf at half its normal speed.

It was pushed aside by his foe's rising weapon. The strike shot off to his left, and in one move the Dwarf continued around with
his momentum, rotated fully and slammed the solid hammer into Ra'suk's side.

The youth was picked up and thrown clear across the room where he slid to a stop against an Ul'ek portal. His lungs ached for air,
but he knew his Ul'ek armor had taken the blunt of the blow.

His adversary approached cautiously, eyes narrowed, prepared to finish the job. He spun his hammer on its leather strap, quickly,
building the weapon to a blazing speed before throwing it at him with deadly acuracy. Twenty five pounds of iron shot his
way doing eighty miles per hour.

The youth screamed, pushed off with his legs, and mentally opened the Ul'ek behind him. He fell through as the doors solidified
a quarter of a second before the hammer hit. A dent banged through, leaving a loyal impression of the Mechanic's Hammer.

Ra'suk hit the muddy ground, and rolled several times before coming to a stop. His head throbbed in a swirl of liquid colors.
Breathing deeply, he could feel the pungent, sweet muddy smell of post-storm air, as hard daylight burned down upon him. Blinking
his eyes he felt completely lost, until slowly, recognition came. Standing up, he looked around, surveying his location with growing clarity.
He had made his escape through the exterior hatch, placing himself on the high bluffs of the communication's tower. Still, despite his disorientation
something seemed oddly wrong. Strange sounds echoed among the cliffs. Sounds that were not common to the Giant Cormorants,
or the wind. Straining, he scanned the air far above him.

AiD Pact troops filled the sky like confetti.

______________________________________________________________________


I hit the ledge and a jolt shot up my leg bone. Ignoring the pain I struggled for balance and for a few seconds I thought I wasn't
going to make it. Then I found a hand hold in the dark, and pulled myself flat against the ravine wall.

Part of the ledge broke away under me and fell.

I stole a look over my shoulder, and Janus help me, I could still see the glow light falling away as a tiny dot of light a thousand
feet below. Pebbles fell on me.

Ul-Um'ba stood four meters above looking down.

Once more I held my breath and fought my insides for control, hopeing he couldn't see me in the dark. If he cought my suicide
act, he would take the hint and leave. He didn't.

His 'Arm' elongated into a jagged-edged schmitar stretching down into the dark several meters to the right of me. I lost sight of
it in the void, but I could hear it - like fingernails on a slate board, scratching, probing like a blindman's cane, coming closer, louder.
I pressed flatter until I was sucking rock wall. Sweat trickeld down my temples. Timing would be everything.

"Come on ..." I whispered.

Closer now, two meters away ... my ledge cracked again ...now one meter. Any moment it would hit me. Ul'ek flashed in the dark.
I grabed it with both my hands and jerked down with all my might. Ul-Um'ba gasped with surprise and toppeled over the edge.
Sparks flew as his armored limbs flailed against the wall. I was struck by something in the shoulder and I could feel sheering white
pain rip me to the bone. Ul-Um'ba tumbled by, pulling me.

We fell into the abyss.

______________________________________________________________________


"I don't understand, why don't they attack?" shouted Suk O'mar.

He stood on the lower ramparts of the cliff bluff looking at the AiD troops hovering in the sky, five hundred feet above.

"The workers have taked half the projector plant, and the communication's tower. What are they waitng for?"

"I don't know," said Whang. "It's like they're afraid of something ..."

"Ah! ...Then Gho is truly with us," said the tribal leader.

"Don't delude yourself, Suk. Something's wrong here. Where's Ul-Um'ba and her Highness?" asked the assassin.

Suk suddenly looked around. He shook his head several times.

"They should be here now."

"Damn...!" Whang ran for the lift.

"Where are you going!" cried the Ghoiite Leader.

"To get our ticket out of here!" Whang pushed his Ul'ek key on his belt, and the lift doors irised open. He shouted back to the chieftain.

"Prepare to fight Suk! Prepare to fight for your lives!"

The Ul'ek doors closed.

Whang set the controls for the sublevels. He pulled his blaster and double checked his shell count. The door opened. He stepped through,
weapon first, then scanned the tunnel with his Sensor-glove.

It was clear.

He ran down a tunnel and came into the open cavern where the ravine was. Something was wrong. One of the glow lights was missing.
Whang lifted his hand, and scanned the area. Negitive.

He sprinted past the ravine to the adjacent tunnel, then stopped again. With weapons and palmed Sensor-glove extened once more,
he walked down the tunnel, slowly.

"Nothing ...nothing ...nothing ...gotcha!" Infra-red and audio sensors picked up something. He switched his gun's scopelight to wide
and illuminated the rock.

"Hello your Highness. Playing hide-and-seek?"

Princess Onia stood up. Her eyes squinted in the light. Whang smiled, then stoped. The ground began to quake.

______________________________________________________________________

A million gallons of water smashed through the Ul'ek walls as if shot through a pressurized cannon. Solid rock was scored on contact.
Cavern Spiders, some has large as half a meter in length, scuttled for their deep burrows only to be sucked out by the vaccuum
of the water's wake. Two hundred meters below the world began to shake apart.

______________________________________________________________________

I woke with my teeth chattering. That, at least, told me I wasn't dead. Pebbles fell from above, stinging my face and arms. I had fallen
to another ledge below, but I was alive. My shoulder was on fire. I moved it gingerly. Nothing broke, but I didn't think the blood was dry just yet.

Suddenly, the ledge under me cracked giving me a sickening feeling in my stomach. I groped for a new hand hold on the wall. Nothing.
The ledge cracked again and my legs fell out. I think I started to laugh as I slid down raking the walls with my finger nails.

Purchase!

I found a hand hold and came to a jarring stop. I blanked out for a second from the pain in my shoulder, but I wouldn't let go.
I looked up and saw it was a long climb to the top.

To make a long story short, I got up and it really hurt and I wouldn't like to talk about it again, thank you. I had only one
thing on my mind - Onia.

A deafing roar filled the cavern, coming from everywhere. Bolders fell from the ceiling. The ground shook so hard it traveled
through my body and out the spaces between my teeth. Gas and steam vented through errupting fissures. A sickening realization
washed over me. The flood waters had broken through!

"Janus..." I whispered

I rushed back to the tunnel and found our rock. Onia was gone! Absolutly gone. Not a trace to be found. Fighting off a panic I
screamed her name above the roar filling my ear drums. Screamed until my voice went horse. Screamed because I couldn't think
of nothing else to do.

"She's gone. Mr. Ohio."

I whirled around. Someone was near by - an obscure figure in the dark.

"Who ...?" I called.

He stepped into the light. It was Calum!

______________________________________________________________________


The lift doors opened and the gun muzzel proceded through, followed by the open palm of a Sensor-glove.

"Clear, your Highness. You go first," said Whang.

Lady Onia walked into the room. With Dreamer eyes she studied the layout. It appeared to be some kind of maintence hanger.
Fuel barrels were grouped together, steel tables cluttered with equipment and tools. Food rations, medicine supplies, cables,
pumps and raw Ul'ek were neatly organized on loading pallets and shelfs. Pallet jacks and gravity-carts were scattered about the
place. The room was 'L' shaped. Down its longerst end was a clear wall with a closed Ul'ek archway. On the other side a
Ghoiite shuttle could be seen.

"There's been a change of plans, your Highness. You and I are leaving."

Onia turned and looked at Whang.

"You seem to eventully betray everyone you work with, Captain Whang," commented the young Dreamer.

"Stand there please, and don't move. Remember, I absolutely have no problem with shooting you."

Whang grabbed a cart and began gathering supplies.

"You must think I'm truly and evil man, your Highness," he said over his shoulder.

Onia remained silent.

"Oh come on! Don't give me that uppity Dreamer snot! You want to know why, dontcha?" Whang continue packing.

"All right Captain, why?" she asked.

The assassin stacked several more boxes of rations high upon the cart. When done he actually relaxed and smiled back at her.

"If you think you're ready, I'll tell you. I..."

A maintence hatch opened next to Onia and a figure stumbled through. It was Ra'suk. He was covered with mud, oil and cobwebs.
Dried blood caked the back of his head. He whobbeled his way forward and braced his arms against the side of a table. His breathing
came in haggard gulps.

"Ra'suk? What the devil are you doing here?" Whang came around from behind the cart. His right arm hung casually by his blaster
as he pressed towards the young Ghoiite. Ra'suk arced his swollen head and peered at him with dazed eyes.

"Wuh ...aanng...?" His voice was slured. Inhaling several times he shook his head slightly. His arms, braced on the table, trembled.

"Was ...was attacked in the Com-tower.." He swollowed again. "Ma ...managed to escape and make ...way ...down ....maintence chute."

He tenderly nodded his head towards the hatch door before looking back at the assassin.

"Wuh ...what are you doing here?"

Whang smiled.

Ra'suk's brows narrowed with confusion, then he saw Onia. Alarm spread through his face. He stood up right as his Ul'ek robe
began to form weapons. Whang kicked a viccious round house across his head, his sickel boots slicing him just above the brow,
snapping Ra'suk around and into the closest wall with a sickening thud. In one fluid motion the assassin pulled his blaster and aimed
for his heart tracking the unconscious Ghoiite as he hit the floor.

"Whang!" The assassin stopped. Princess Onia stood slightly behind him. Whang looked back at her without droping his aim.
Her face was utterly calm, and Whang saw nothing in her eyes save a reflection of his own face - the true killer that he was. His teeth clinched.

"Fine. Have it your way, your Highness" He holstered his gun. Walking over he knelt down next to Ra'suk and began groping
through his robe.

"I'm willing to bet Suk's boy got a higher proirity Ul'ek key than mine. This will save us from having to muck around with their
shuttle locks ...Ah...got it!" Whang produced the studded key card, then turned around.

Onia was gone.

"Damn it!" he roared.

The chute door was left opened.

______________________________________________________________________

"He's got her!"

"Who?" I asked

"Whang! Come on!"

Calum ran past me and I followed. He caught the look on face and filled me in as we went along.

Apparently the Archaens had flooded the Ghoiite territory with operatives a few days after Lady Onia's abduction.
Strictly non-'Sin-Guardian types, least Whang recognize them. Calum was a Lieutenant in the Third Helo Squad of the White,
Prince Jinnex's outfit. He volunteered along with fifty others in hopes of at least one of them finding the whereabouts
of her Highness. Calum allowed himself to be catpure after posing as an engineer on a deep space salvage ship. The Ghoiites
took him here and put him to work in their field projector plant.

It seemed every so often the Ghoiites would take a few prisoners and have them participate in their warrior's Rites of Passage Ceramony.
Today was Calums turn. What he didn't expect was to see me. He must have put two and two together and realized something
was going on.

"I'm a big fan of yours Mr. Ohio," he said. "Always catch your show - 'Somerset on the Net'. Anyway, I'd figure the obscure
idiom would get your attention."

"You did good, Calum."

Talk about embarrasing. Anyway, It turns out Calum tracked back to their base by following the exhaust plumes of the
cooling towers. As for the Ghoiit kids after him, let's just say they didn't earn their merit badges that day.

The Ghoiites have been using younger and younger kids for guards, so it wsn't too hard for him to get the drop on one.
Before long he managed to free a dozen or so workers and lead a full scale uprising at the projector plant. They took over
most of the facilities and their communicatons tower within an hour.

"About three hours ago Uther contacted an AiD convoy. As we speak an AiD Battalion has the sky blanketed topside
waiting to attack," he said

"Waiting for what?" I asked

"Confirmation of Lady O's safety."

"Janus!..."

"I know," he returned

"No! Listen!"

We stopped for a second. Behind us the deafing roar was getting louder. The flood waters were coming.

"Hurry!" We ran on. At the end of the tunnel was another Ul'ek door. I was beginning to hate the damn things.

"I saw Whang and Lady Onia come this way. That's a lift door, I think I can open it."

Calum took out a small box with a few studs on them.

"I liberated this from a Ghoiite lad. It's an Ul'ek key, should do the trick."

I stole a look behind me. Something massive and flowing was entering the ravine cavern.

"...Calum?"

"Damn! Must be a different set of codes. Hold on."

Glow lights winked out one after another. The end of the tunnel was now capped in darkness.

"Calum!"

"Half a second!"

The Ul'ek opened and stopped. A bread box couldn't fit through. I began to back up. A wave of icy air hit me that smelled
like a dog's hot breath.

"Tell me something good, Calum."

"Almost there!"

A flood of black death was coming. I figured we had about ten seconds ...maybe five.

"Now!!"

The door flew open and we pushed through. Instantly Calum sealed the Ul'ek, and set the controls for up. I realized I
wasn't breathing when the wave it hit. We hit the walls, but kept going up. The lift shook violently, but eventually
died down till all was quiet. We exchanged looks of relief. Somehow we had made it.

"Ishtar!" said Calum.

"You said it."

The lift stopped and opened. We pressed against the side and peeked through. I noticed just then that Calum had a communicator
stud on his collar, and a small hammer hung from his belt.

"Calum, um ...just how are you planing to liberate Lady O from Whang?"

With a guilty expression he looked at me, and shrugged.

"I'm open to suggestions," he said.

I rolled my eyes. Why me? Here I go again.

"Come on."

Calum pulled his hammer out and walked through. I followed. We looked to be in some sort of a maintenance hanger. Not far in
front of us was a pallet-lift with supplies stocked on. Beyond that, on the far end of the room was a clear wall. Through that I
could see a Ghoiite shuttle.

"Maybe he's still here ...somewhere," I whispered.

"Yeah."

Someone groaned. Cautiously we peered around the corner of a steel table and saw Ra'suk sprawl out against the wall.
His face was a bloody mess. Next to him was an open maintenance hatch. Calum and I looked at each other.

"What ...the?" he said

"Somerset?"

We turned around.

Princess Onia walked out from behind the pallet-lift. Her eyebrows were raised in a Dreamer's smile. Her robe was torn and dirty,
her make-up, smudged and runny, but it was her. I blinked my eyes in disbelief, it was a day of grateful sightings. I felt all the
tension drain from my body as I knelt down in front of her and gently placed my hands upon her shoulders.

"Onia? ...what ..what happened? Where's Whang?"

She nodded in the direction of the opened hatch.

"He thought I went up the chute, He went after."

On that Calum shut the hatch and pulled the bolt.

"Right. Your Highness, are you okay?"

"Yes, I'm fine."

Calum smiled, pressed his collar stud and spoke.

"Calum to Uther! Calum to Uther! We have Lady Onia. Repeat, her Highness is safe!"

"Odin's beard! What took you so long? Hold on."

______________________________________________________________________

Ten seconds later, and seven hundred feet above them the go ahead was given. AiD Pact troops dropped like shooting stars to the
cliffs below. War came to Scians II. It would be over in an hour. Jan receive the telemetry on Calum's signal and guided the Archaen
Shadow Squad in a drop towards the Com-tower. Behind him, The Third Helo Squad of the White screamed the Emperor's name
and opened fire.

______________________________________________________________________

Ra'suk groaned again. Onia started towards him, but Calum stepped between.

"Don't, your Highness. He's dangerous."

"You must be Calum?"

"Yes, your Highness. Lieutenant Calum Garr of the Third."

"My brother's squad. Thank you Lieutenant, but this boy is wounded."

"He's a Ghoiite pirate. Best to let him die ...your Highness," he said.

"I can't let that happen." Onia walked past him and knelt by Ra'suk's side.

I placed a hand on Calum's shoulder before he could further intervene.

"It's okay Lieutenant, he won't hurt her."

"The hell you say! You didn't hear what they did to the insectoid."

I shook my head.

"Not him. I don't think he's like that. Back in the camp I saw something in his eyes. He's intelligent, a trained warrior,
but not a cold blooded killer."

Calum wrestled with that for several moments.

"I hope you're right." He hefted his hammer. I left him and knelt beside Onia. She had ripped off part of her robe and was
bandaging the kid's head. Ra'suk opened his eyes, and tried to get up.

"Lay still. You have a major concussion," ordered the Dreamer.

Ra'suk's eyes dashed from Onia's to mine, then relaxed.

"Whh ...hhhy...," he slurred in a sleepy tone.

Onia gripped his hand tightly.

"Stay with me Ra'suk! Do not fall asleep!" The warriors eyes brightened at that. Together we helped him sit up. When he found
his focus his gaze fell upon Onia again. For a few moments she seemed to struggle for control, then spoke.

"Whang has killed too many people because of ...me. I couldn't let you be another victim ...even if you are my enemy."

With a surge of strength Ra'suk placed his hand over hers.

"I won't ...forget, ...Archaen..." Onia nodded again, her nostrils flairing slightly.

The hatch exploded behind us. Calum was caught square in the blast and thrown across the steel table and into a pile of barrels.
His leg was bent at a bad angle. I flung myself over Onia and Ra'suk as hot fragments stung into me. When I turned around I knew I
wasn't going to like what I saw.

Captain Whang walked through the smoldering ruins of the hatch door. A smoking Torpedo Blaster was held firmly in his hand.

"Very cute, your Highness. Like a screwin' 'Sin-Guardian you are. Ah ...Somerset! Was wondering when you'd show up.
Now I get to kill you after all."

I stood up.

"Like I said Whang, anything to get away from you."

The assassin took aim.

At times like these my thoughts get screwy. I thought of a saying by a wise and sagacious philosopher. 'I don't mind dying, I just don't
want to be there when it happens'. It was happening, and I definitely didn't want to be here. The muzzle rose up in slow motion.
I felt myself rise several inches and realized that I was standing on my toes. I wish I could go higher. I couldn't tear my eyes away from
the gun, waiting for the flash, the light, followed by the darkness. I wondered where my gear was. Screwy thought, that too.

"NO!" Onia cut in front.

"It's over Captain. The AiD forces are attacking. You've no place to run, or hide. Surrender!"

Onia stepped forward and extended her hand.

"Give me the gun."

Whang stared in stunned disbelief. Several moments ticked by until finally he lowered his gun, and let out a deep, hearty belly
laugh with real tears welling in his eyes.

"Oh ...oh your Highness, that was good! That was really rich!. You know, I think I've finally gotten sick of that sacred nobility
of yours, sick to my stomach with it. I've killed babies before in the past, I've never really enjoyed it, but now ...this time ...I
think I will."

Whang re-aimed his gun, point blank, between Onia's eyes.

"Good-bye, your Highness."

She was going to die.

A shot rang out and Whang's gun was jerked from his hand.

"Why don't we make that ...hello."

Jan Church walked from the shadows of the ruined maintenance chute. Dressed in his Imperial Battle Armor he level his
smoking Torpedo Blaster squarely at Whang's chest. The assassin's expression was poisonous as he gingerly rubbed his
shooting hand.

"Are you all right, your Highness?" asked the 'Sin-Guardian.

"Yes, I am now. Thank you, Jan."

"Somerset?"

"Speechless, but I'll recover." Jan grinned.

"Your Highness, I'd like you to take the chute ladder to the upper level. There's a reconnaissance team waiting
for you up there. You too Somerset."

"In a second," I said.

I ran over to Calum. His lifeless eyes were staring up at the ceiling.

"I'm sorry my friend ..." I closed his lids.

"Jan?..."

"I'll take care of him, Somerset," said the 'Sin-Guardian.

I came to Ra'suk's side. "Think you can make it?"

The Ghoiite lad gave me his hand and I pulled him to his feet, threw his arm around my shoulder, and walked him to the chute.
Onia stood by her 'Sin-Guardian.

"Jan ..." she began.

"Not a scratch, your Highness. Now go."

She gave both assassins a hard long look, then walked into the chute without a word. We follwed behind. Now the reporter in me
wanted to stay. I know a good story when I see one.

But sometimes, just sometimes, things are just better left ...off the record.

______________________________________________________________________


The wind blew down the empty chute. Whang leveled a look at his former commander.

"Wounders Jan? I'm surprised you didn't blow my hand off."

"You're going to need it," said the 'Sin-Guardian.

Jan raised the muzzle of his gun, shifted the safety in place and threw the blaster over his shoulder. Whang nearly did a double take
even more as the 'Sin-Guardian drew the golden Razor-epee from its sheath. He recognized the blade.

"So, you're the Hand of the Emperor, eh Jan?"

"Does that scare you?"

The 'Sin-Guardian extended the Emperor's sword and dropped into an Em Garde pose.

"What do you think." Whang drew Jan's Warsaw from its sheath.

"Oh, by the way I was successful in translating the Titan name of your blade. 'Gravesender', how appropriate."

Whang pressed the activation stud. Instantly, nano-serrated edges whirled around the circumference of the blade at twice the speed of sound.
A sonic boom exploded in the room, shattering glass and pounding dust from the ceiling. The edge of the sword was a vaporous
blur, coursing with power.

Jan kept his stance, Whang fell into his. The two warriors stared into each other for several seconds. Small arms fire could be heard in
the distance, the scurrying of small rodents. Then, on an unspoken signal they screamed - a 'Sin-Guardian roar and charged.

Jan broke into a Fleché. Sword arm extended forward, he charged Whang with the speed of a sprinter. Whang broke into
a Passata Sotto, arm and legs tripoded out, sword thrusted forward. But Jan's feet had already left the ground. Flipping over Whang he
slashed downwards. Whang tracked him around, and lashed out, striking the back of his Imperial Armor. The 'Sin-Guardian landed on
his feet, slide to a stop, turned and dropped into a perfect En Garde stance.

"First hit mine." said the ex-'Sin-Guardian. "What's a matter Jan, armor slowing you down?"

"Don't be so sure."

The blood trickled down Whang's neck, followed by the pain. Half his earlobe was missing. Shock registered on his face washed away by anger.

"BASTARD!!!" He screamed, then charged.

Jan held his ground. Whang hefted the sword over his head poised to strike. Jan was ready, but suddenly at the last moment
Whang changed directions and slashed the Warsaw into a steel barrel, sending a shower of sparks into Jan's face. The 'Sin-Guardian
threw his hand up defensively and tried to back up. but Whang kicked him in the abdomen, and if not for his armor, Whang's sickle shoes
would have disembowel him.

The 'Sin-Guardian hit a wall and Whang lunged for the kill. Quickly recovering the Jan slammed the Forte of his blade into the flat of Whang's,
stopping the strike completely. The two men now were in contact, Corps-A-Corps. Whang had attacked with two hands, but had Jan parried
with one. Instantly the assassin realized his mistake - too late.

Jan reached out with his free right hand, gripped Whang's biceps, twisted and flipped him over his hip, sending him flying head over heels
in a flurry of limps and steel. Something struck the 'Sin-Guardian and he spun away.

Whang landed on his feet like a cat, turned and faced his quarry. The 'Sin-Guardian backed away, holding the laceration on his left sword arm.
He held the Emperor's Epee weakly, like a dagger in his hand, pointed down.

Whang smiled. Now it was his turn. Extending the Warsaw forward, he exploded into a blinding Fleché, charging straight for Jan's heart.
Jan readied himself, playing possum until the last possible instant. Whang's blade closed to centimeters away, before the 'Sin-Guardian spun
at the last moment and slammed his blade home.

Whang ran past and slowed to a stop. The Warsaw dropped from his hand. He looked down and saw the Emperor's hilt buried into his chest.
The sword had been completely run through him. He fell to his knees.

Jan walked around to his front and saw Whang's eyes, like saucers, looking up at him with incredulous horror.

"That was from the Emperor," he said.

He gripped Whang's throat and pulled him to his feet.

"...And this ...this is form me!"

Aiming for a point past his face, Jan slammed his fist into him with all his 'Sin-Guardian might. Whith a sickening thud Whang spun around.
His face was wrong. His nose had been completely pushed under his cheekbone. Blood bubbled up past his broken teeth, his eyes rolled in his head.

"Eeeeeshhh....tarrrrr..." Half turning, he fell, dead before he hit the ground.

"I doubt she cares, Whang," said the 'Sin-Guardian.

______________________________________________________________________

Cheers erupted as Jan climbed out of the maintenance chute. The 'Sin-Guardian looked around sheepishly, surprised at the gathering
crowd of AiD troops. I was one of them.

A medic approached, but Jan waved her away, walking instead straight to her Highness. A heavy expression was on his face. He knelt in front of her,
bowed his head and placed his Warsaw at her feet.

"Your Highness, Whang is dead. However, this does not excuse my prior failure to you as your 'Sin-Guardian. Therefore,
I offer you my sword and resigna..."

"You lied to me, Jan Church," cut in the Dreamer.

The 'Sin-Guardian stopped, and looked up at his charge.

"Your Highness?..."

"You said 'Not a scratch'. Did you not?"

Jan looked at his arm. A sly grin played across his face.

"Yes, but..."

"But nothing! A fitting punishment would be to keep you in my service, until I have decided what to do with you."

"If you ...if you think that is best, your Highness." Jan tried not to smile.

"I do. Now rise, as my 'Sin-Guardian ...and my friend, and take your place by my side."

Jan did, and AiD troops fired their guns off cheerful hurrahs. Commanders and squad leaders came forward to offer congratulations
and support. I spotted Uther, and pulled him aside.

"Calum didn't make it," I said.

"I know, I heard." We were silent for a while as the troops cheered on. A Cormorant shadow passed over us.

"What of the Ghoiites?" I asked

"Most of them retreated further into the caverns. Let Hel, or the flood waters have them for all I care."

He crossed his arms.

"Their children fought like devils, though. If not for the troops combat experience they would have been a real
problem. I think the Ghoiites pushed them too young. Hunting and guarding defenseless workers is one thing.
Fighting seasoned warriors, another. We were lucky this day, Mr. Ohio, but tomorrow will be another. The
Ghoiites will be back."

I had a feeling he was right. I looked over and saw Ra'suk standing to the side. His head was freshly bandaged, and he looked oddly
naked without his Ul'ek robe, standing with the support of a cane.

Her Highness had ordered him not to be harmed, and to be released when it was time to go. The young lad looked about at the
comradeship around him. I think I caught him actually smiling once, and perhaps even looking a little jealously.

The Archaen plan all along had been to give the Ghoiites something to think about. Maybe it would work after all.
Uther must have caught me musing. He slapped me heartedly on the shoulder, and said,

"You look like you could use a drink, Mr. Ohio."

"I could use a lot of things, Uther. But right now I think I'd like to go home."

"Ah yes, time to celebrate. Food! Drink! and songs to be sung of our glorious adventure here. In time,
you may even miss this place."

"You may be right, my friend. But you know, I don't think I'll cry a river."

______________________________________________________________________


I watched the stars go by at four times the speed of light.

I stood on a terrace on a high tower of the Imperial Palace of the White - the Archaen's Inerstellar Fortess and Palace. Only a clear
xallocite dome existed between me and the vacuum of space. At our speed the stars looked like straight rainbows receding
away to a singular vanishing point. One of the most beautiful things you could possibly see.

I leaned on the rail, took a puff from one of the Emperor's Cubanos, and exhaled luxuriously. I scratched at my Archaen tuxedo.
Usually I don't smoke stogies or wear monkey suits, but today was special.

Behind me, through an archway, the Archaen Imperial Orchestra played 'You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To' with all the jazzy
bells and whistles. Not a bad rendition either.

Families danced in the spacious hall, along with dignitaries and royal guest. Princess Onia's return home had become an Imperial Celebration.
I was taking a break from all the festivities.

Lord Cambridge strolled in, perhaps he had the same idea. I a caught look of his face and had to fight from laughing. He said,

"So, how does it feel 'Sir' Somerset?"

I smiled. My Knighthood hadn't sunk in yet.

"I still have to get final approval from the Omnet, but you know, ...'Sir Somerset on the Net' doesn't sound so ...uhh ...did I
just say that? " I shook my head.

"You may find that Royalty has its..." He caught my look. "Is there something wrong?"

"I'm sorry Cambridge, it's just that ...you and a cigar look ....funny!"

"Really? I think it's rather regal."

I did a double take, I think he just did a Gracho M'arx?. He settled in next to me on the rail and we smoked together for a while.

"I finished interviewing Calum's widow this morning. That was a great thing the Emperor did," I said.

"The least he could do."

Calum had been granted the rank and privilege of the 'Sin-Guardian Order, and was given a Hero's Funeral. His widow and children
would be adopted by the Royal family and cared for till the end of their days. Jan and Onia had strongly insisted on it.

"...and the AiD Pact Treaty?"

"The ink's dry on that one," said the True-Dreamer.

"This was a lot to do just for some chicken scratch," I said.

"Perhaps, but I'd like to believe that true friendship does not require a treaty."

He turnd and looked past me.

"Somerset, would you care to dance?"

Onia stood in the archway dressed in her Imperial Royal Gown, looking every much like the Princess she truly was. Jan stood behind a few paces back.

"Jan?" I asked.

"Take her. If I step on her toes one more time I'll lose my job."

I stood up, straighten my tux and brushed off my lapel.

"Your Highness ...it would be my pleasure."

I gave her my arm and escorted her back to the dance floor. Handing my cigar to a footman I took her arms and we began to waltz.
She was like an angel on her feet! She could truly dance. Despite myself, I couldn't help but to laugh.

For once everything was all right. All about me families were dancing with their children, and couples waltzed together as the music played on
and on, well into the night. In this day and age we live in, it doesn't get any better than this.

______________________________________________________________________


EPILOGUE

Seven light years away, on a new lake on the surface of Scians II, water churned and bubbled.

An Ul'ek sphere broke the surface and bobbed in the muddy waves several times before opening to the sultry air.
The Ghoiite inside sucked in hot, humid air in long barrel chested lungfuls, one after another.

He was covered with horse-leeches. Ripping them off in agonizing grunts of pain, he crushed them in his hand and flung them
as away as far as possible. Shivering, he laid for a while before his breathing and pain became bearable.

Shading his eyes against the low laying sun he scanned his surroundings.

There!

He spotted the cliffs not too far off, and the the smoking ruins of the Exhaust Towers. Laying down in his Ul'ek shell,
he formed it into a sturdy body board. With long limbs and even strokes Ul-Um'ba began to paddle for the closest shore.

______________________________________________________________________