[Author's Note: Thanks for reading and enjoy! ~Foxmerc]

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CHAPTER 4
The Black King
SDC Arrowhead, Titanian orbit
0912 hours Titanian local

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The incense stick had begun to whither, its final smoky breaths swirling up and around her rigid face.

It burned for as long as she needed to work and it had been burning for hours, filling the small, sparse bed quarters with thick haze and a sweet, nearly overwhelming aroma.

Urqhala incense was said to be a soul poison where she came from. It seeped into a person's body, heart, and spirit and each breath expended the very essence of life, the malicious smoke dragging the soul with it. Being locked in a room with burning urqhala served as punishment for many serious crimes, ensuring that when the criminal met his end, he would not find peace until he traveled to the underworld and fought to reclaim his shattered soul.

She didn't know if she truly believed that. But she did know that as long as she knelt on that cold, hard floor and worked, it would burn.

With a final twist of metal between her sore, bleeding fingers, the dove was finished. After nearly an hour of work that wrenched her finger joints and cut her flesh in dozens of locations, the plain sheet of aluminum had been folded and transformed into a gleaming, bloodstained bird of peace that fit in her palm

Her mother could have produced a paper dove so perfect, one could swear it would fly out of her hand. Her brother and two sisters could have made an entire menagerie and dyed the paper with such precision as to make the heavenly creators of the animals envious. Always she, the youngest, struggled to match her family's skill.

She had watched as her mother, tears streaming down her cheeks, created the first metal animal she had ever seen: a dove, a symbol of love and peace. Her hands bled as well; she said that was the point. The creation of the dove had to match the pain she felt, the love she felt, and never would she trust that to the fragility of paper. She placed the metal dove atop her husband's wrapped body and when the funeral pyre had reduced him to naught but ash, the dove remained, to be with him forever. She never created another dove.

Raven cupped her own metal dove in her palms and closed her eyes, her lips silently reciting a funeral prayer she knew by heart. In the words of her people, she wished the departed a swift and sound journey to the afterlife, wished the departed's family solace and comfort through their love, and wished the departed's children a long legacy.

Though the traditional prayer had ended, she, as ever, added a last wish.

She wished for the departed's forgiveness.

No sooner had her prayer ended than the hydraulic sigh of the door breathed behind her. The incense smoke billowed and danced as the new air rushed in and the haze rushed out. But something even fouler than the legendary incense tainted the room; it pricked her mind and infected her blood with cold heat. In her unguarded state, it threatened to overwhelm her due not to its own volition, but to its wild, untamed animosity, like a great wave dragging the unwary to drown in its depths.

His voice echoed in her head. "God damn! Smells like a whorehouse in here."

Breathe it in. Breathe it deep.

Careful, she chided herself. Such is the way of tyrants.

"The general needs his favorite pet in the comm room. You gonna go yourself or do I need to fetch a leash?"

She could sense the cruelly amused smile after his words. Many times had he smiled at her expense; the feeling was becoming as familiar as the sting of urqhala in her nostrils.

Aware of the eyes following her, she stood and walked to a small chest near her bed, cradling the metal dove as if it were as delicate as a real one. Easing back the lid, she revealed dozens of identical metal doves, all as bloodstained and perfect as heir newest addition. She placed it among them and dared to wonder how full the chest would become before she was through.

Flipping the hood of her cloak over her head, she turned to follow Cerberus away.

The black tiger stood in her doorway leaning against the frame, his muscular arms folded over the chest of his deep crimson t-shirt. Never without weaponry, he wore a leather shoulder holster and a second holster over the right thigh of his black cargo pants. The smirk still twisted his muzzle and his yellow eyes narrowed, bemused as always by her hood. He did not know why she tried to hide her face when he already knew her well. None of these Sharpclaw knew why. But it mattered not; they could not understand even if it was theirs to know.

With a little cackle in his throat, he led her through the cold, gray corridors of the Sharpclaw Security Applications cruiser. Crimson and gray-clad soldiers and employees rushed about, their conversations hushing and their paces quickening around her. Few of them dared look her in the eye and those that did quickly broke away.

Five minutes of travel through the inner corridors of the ship brought them to the sector's holographic communications room. Aside from some technical equipment embedded in the walls, the modestly-sized room contained only a single projection pad in the middle of the floor. As the door closed behind them, blotting out any outside noise, Cerberus punched in a code on the nearest wall console. The lights dimmed and with a series of musical tones to indicate an incoming call, the projection pad bloomed to life, creating a full body image of the only man besides Cerberus to make her blood run cold.

"General Scales," the tiger greeted.

Even in holographic form, the tall emerald lizard commanded more presence than most any man she'd met in all Lylat. His left hand hung casually from the pocket of his gray slacks. His gray dress shirt was open at the collar, crimson tie loosened, and his sleeves rolled to the elbows above his toned forearms. Perched between his right thumb and forefinger, a cigar leaked a steady stream of smoke. He eyed each of them in turn with a gaze that hadn't lost any luster in middle-age and took a long draw of the cigar. Though impossible, she could swear she smelled the distinctive aroma.

"Captain Morden," he replied, his words smooth and deliberate. "My dear Raven."

Her stomach turned.

"I'm rather confused regarding your report on the Titania operation."

Cerberus scowled and shot a fiery glare at Raven. "She fucked around again, sir. We have Toad in custody and she brought the fragment back, but our scans showed at least a dozen remaining life signs."

Scales' face shimmered in a cloud of smoke as he sighed. "My orders were no survivors, Raven. No one to continue the work. No one to trace your fighter. Nothing."

The two men both looked at her expectantly, their respective disappointment and hatred soothing in some regard.

"I destroyed their research," she finally replied, barely above a whisper, "and their electrical systems. They were children trapped in a cave. There was no need for further killing."

Scales just looked at her and smoked, his face unreadable, his silence stretching the seconds longer and longer. At last, he flicked his hand and said, "Captain, leave us for a moment."

Cerberus snarled at her, waves of his wild hate threatening to choke her as he brushed past and out the door. When she was alone, Scales began to slowly pace back and forth wherever he was, though his holograph remained stationary.

"It seems unfair," he began, "that you do not hold up your end of our agreement, yet you expect me to hold up mine. Does that seem fair to you?"

She remained silent.

"As long as you're mine to command, you will do as you're told. Otherwise I see no reason to continue our arrangement."

Raven frowned. "This…arrangement has cost me more than you promised."

"It has? Well, I'm very sorry, I had no idea. In that case, we should definitely part ways. I cannot rely on your cooperation and you cannot abide your job. Very well then, consider our deal null. No need to thank me. You may go."

She swallowed and stood her ground.

"Well? Go ahead; no one will try to stop you. But, of course, they couldn't if they tried. You could've left any time you wanted."

Just the idea of fleeing Scales lightened her heart, but it was a dream destined only for fantasy. The truth of what would happen if she did flee weighed deeply on her. How could she be so foolish, so irresponsible? Damn the man! Cheeks flushed, she bowed her head.

"I take it you're rediscovering your satisfaction with your employment?"

"Please," she whispered, voice shaking with battered pride and quiet desperation. "I'm sorry."

"You're damn right you are." Scales drew from the cigar and ash fell, disappearing from the holograph's field of view. "If you try to add your own spin to my orders one more time, I'll have to seriously reassess your value to Sharpclaw Security Applications and its…extended projects."

"I understand."

"Let's hope so. I have an important call to make to an old friend soon so listen well; I won't repeat myself. While Captain Morden persuades Toad the younger to help in our advancements with the fragments, I need you to deliver our promised shipment to the Ruby Queen. No trouble; Lady Farrow is a useful distraction for the moment. Make sure she's satisfied."

Raven could feel an objection rising in her throat, eager to speak out, but she swallowed it back down and accepted the sad task with a grim nod. "What of the last Dagger soldier? The one who escaped the Feryon."

Scales snickered. "Beltino managed to snatch her up, that old busybody. But it doesn't matter. Judging from some rather entertaining research into her military service, she'll be more a hindrance to him than a help. You're lucky it was that one you let slip away; any other Dagger operator could've been trouble."

"I can fix it if you desire. I can—"

"No," the lizard interrupted. "No deviations. All I need from you is to do as you're told. And Raven?"

She reluctantly raised her eyes to meet his.

"Don't allow your vision to become clouded. Remember why you're here. And remember that power is…relative."

No further words were needed. Raven had bested Dagger, the greatest warriors in Lylat. She'd taken down entire bases with fearsome precision and efficiency, cleared entire ships with the cold deadliness of the space that surrounded them. She knew that TETRA soldiers feared her more than a thousand Sharpclaw and the Sharpclaw feared her even more because they knew her better.

And yet her power was nothing compared to the man who wielded her, the man who held her "leash" as Cerberus would've said.

The man who held her future, her purpose, her dreams, in the palm of his hand, ready to crush them at his whim.

Her own power felt as nothing in comparison.

"I understand," she whispered, cheeks burning, though whether from anger or humiliation she could not be certain. Did it matter? A slave seething at her chains was still a slave.

The hologram flickered off and the room's lights brightened once again. Raven stood motionless for some time, steadily breathing, trying to calm herself and dissipate her pent-up emotions rather than letting them fester. For a moment, she dared wonder if she could kill Scales where he stood, wherever in the galaxy he lurked. But she chastised herself for the dangerous thought.

Such is the way of tyrants.

As she turned to leave, she took to heart the few words Scales had said that rang true: remember why you're here.

Back in her room, the remnants of the urqhala incense curling around her like a comforting embrace, she opened the dove chest and again looked upon the flock of gleaming birds. One for every life she'd taken. Already so many more than she'd hoped there would be, and yet certainly the end had not yet been reached.

She knelt on the floor, intending to spend the rest of the night in prayer for the fallen. If her soul allowed, she would spare a moment's prayer for herself, for the strength to see her task through and, tempted as she ever was, to not fall into the way of tyrants.

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TETRA Prime Station Asgard, Cornerian orbit
1826 hours Corneria City time

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Already the briefing room was filling up by the time Andrea and Falco arrived. Like everything Toad put his stamp on, the place was far grander than the typical military briefing room she'd grown used to. A holo-projector lay embedded in the middle of the floor, while the seats ringed the projector platform in rising tiers, everything in white TDE plasteel from the ergonomic chairs to the high arched ceiling. Not for the first time, Andrea wondered how they managed to keep everything so clean with white as the official color.

Hunter had beaten them there and waved them up to the third tier. He wore something different from the basic uniform she'd first seen him in; the usual silver pants, but now a black high-collared shirt with silver trim and highlights. What drew Andrea's eye most was a striking silver design of a stylized hawk on the collar.

"The boss ain't pulling any punches," Hunter said as they took their seats beside him. "Looks like he brought in every active team on station."

Andrea scanned the room, the buzz of conversation growing as dozens of TETRA soldiers filled the chairs, and realized that quite a few sported the same uniform as her fellow wolf. "What kind of teams?"

"Warbirds."

"Sort'a like TETRA special forces," Falco elaborated. "Toad had this idea of creating two-man special task teams; guys proficient in flying, ground combat, recon, all that. Jack of all trades kind of thing. The badasses of TETRA. Naturally, I was a shoo-in."

Hunter scoffed and leaned back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head. "Yeah, helps to've served with the boss's son."

"Oh, yeah, it had nothing to do with the part of my resume that said 'stopped maniacal ape from achieving galactic domination.' What did it say on your application?"

"Please; while you and your merry band were mugging at cameras, I was still mopping up the outer rims."

Andrea rolled her eyes at the two, watching as more soldiers filed in. At last, the influx seemed to trickle off, leaving at least a hundred men and women in the room. "You boys just ooze professionalism."

"We get the job done," Falco replied with a smirk. "That's what counts to Toad."

A few questions came to mind regarding the Warbirds, but before she could ask, the room's lights dimmed and the scattered conversations ceased. From a darkened doorway emerged an elderly panther, radiant in a silver and gold-trimmed dress uniform that Andrea hadn't seen yet. But she could tell from its design, similar to the dress whites of a naval admiral, that he was up there in TETRA brass. Every soldier in the room – except Andrea – rose to attention and sat back down only after the panther gave a dismissive gesture. He walked with a confident gait to the central projector platform and clicked a small device in his hand, prompting the projector to spring to life and create a large holographic representation of the Lylat system above his head. Solar burned at Andrea's eye level in the center of the room, the planets slowly orbiting it.

"General Navarro," Falco whispered in her ear. "About as high up as you can get without sitting in Toad's chair. Shit must've hit the fan for him to be giving the brief."

Navarro clicked another button and a red spot appeared on the holographic Titania. As he cleared his throat to speak, Andrea found herself wondering about him. Obviously a career military man; Toad would've hired the best. Given his age he would've been active during the war as an officer, most likely. He carried himself with a quiet dignity that reminded her of General Pepper. What could've driven such a man to abandon the army he swore allegiance to and join mercenaries? To take off the medals and ribbons he earned through blood and sweat and put on a meaningless uniform? Money seemed too simple an answer, though maybe that was just wishful thinking.

"Seven hours ago," Navarro began, his voice a commanding baritone that echoed from the walls, "we lost contact with STR Station T4 on Titania. When communications were reestablished, the acting station commander reported an attack. Numerous eyewitness reports confirm Raven as the only enemy presence."

The name caused a surge of noise from the tiers as the soldiers exchanged worried looks and utterances.

"Seventeen members of the security detail were lost," Navarro continued, bringing silence back to the room. "And Doctor Slippy Toad was captured, along with the fragment he and his science team were studying. One of his colleagues has confirmed it."

Another swell of noise.

A pit formed in Andrea's gut at the news of Slippy's capture. She didn't know him well, but he was still a friend of a friend and the few times they did meet, he treated her like one of the team. Peeking sideways, she saw Falco's brow furrow and his beak purse, etching a frown that seemed to darken the blue of his feathers. She knew that face.

"This latest attack verifies a pattern that Intelligence has been tracking for the past four months. Many of our contracts put us in direct opposition to the Sharpclaw and their allies, as do most of our own operations, but TETRA personnel have encountered Raven during only six conflicts." Another click illuminated six red points spread across Lylat; two on Titania and one each on Venom, Macbeth, Katina, and Fortuna. "One common element binds these conflicts together; the fragments. Raven and the Sharpclaw either stole or beat us to a fragment each time. This leads us to believe that Raven is a freelancer and not a Sharpclaw soldier. She is most likely interested in the fragments herself, and decided that latching onto SSA resources was the best way to go about obtaining them. Intelligence has been able to uncover nothing of Raven's history. So far, their alliance has proven unfortunately effective. Aside from the fragment here on the Asgard being used for the development of Project: Warlock, we only possess one other, and its whereabouts will remain at the highest security clearance."

Glancing around the room, Andrea saw no one as lost as she was. Fragments? Warlock? And she remembered Beltino mentioning this Raven, but who the hell was she? Before she could even try to piece it together, Falco's heated voice broke the momentary silence.

"What about Slippy?"

The panther shot a frosty look up at him. "Doctor Toad has been deliberating with his advisers on how best to approach the recovery of his son. He's decided that the time has come to be more proactive on all fronts." Another click erased the existing points on the holograph and replaced them with a new set of pulsing, red dots – at least thirty of them – spread out all over the Lylatian planets and space. "As of now, all available Warbird teams are to be deployed, each with specific tasks that you will receive soon. In addition, your standing orders have been updated. First: information gathering is paramount; anything relating to the fragments, SSA strongholds and military positions, and prisoners. Second: recovery of personnel. If your assignments lead you to reliable information regarding Doctor Toad's son or any imprisoned TETRA personnel, you are ordered to attempt recovery if possible. If not, report for reinforcements. Also, be aware of detained neutrals, specifically a Cornerian special forces team believed to have been captured about three weeks ago. Help if you can, but do not jeopardize your assignments or TETRA personnel. Report their position and Command will advise."

Andrea scowled and could feel her blood heat up, but Falco's hand on her shoulder helped calm her, giving her a gentle squeeze.

"Lastly: you are free to engage any SSA combatants and military targets. If you encounter Raven, do not attempt to engage her alone. Follow her and wait for reinforcements or gunship support. Also, only Warbird Seventeen has been given clearance to enter Silver Reach as per their espionage orders." A yellow point pulsed in the northeastern hemisphere of Zoness for a few seconds before it dissipated along with the rest of the Lylat holograph. In its place, a green wireframe city skyline arose and slowly rotated, data text blocks strewn about it at various red hotspots, the same kind of representation the army used for military threat zones. Whatever this Silver Reach place was, it wasn't friendly. "All other travel there is restricted for the time being."

With a final click, the projector shut off and the briefing room lights brightened. Navarro looked around at his men. "Any questions?"

A soldier on the opposite side piped up. "Sir…are we at war?"

The general didn't answer immediately. But when an answer finally returned, it came from a new voice that drew every eye in the room to the doorway, a voice more imposing yet unshackled by Navarro's precise military monotone.

"Conflict between us is inevitable." Beltino Toad strode into the room and up to the projector platform, Navarro stepping aside. "As inevitable as conflict between water and fire. When TETRA was founded and its charter written with opposition to piracy, smuggling, slavery, and terrorism, it was inevitable that our contracts would bring us into conflict with those groups that accept such things. Namely, the Sharpclaw. But even if he is a cold, brutal being, I believed General Scales to be an honorable businessman. A man who kept his war confined to the contracts his company accepted. I was wrong."

Toad began to pace around the edge of the platform as he spoke. "His obsession with the fragments has transformed him into a very real threat. First he allies with Raven, a wrathful force that has claimed dozens of TETRA lives and invaded our non-military outposts. SSA now attacks us without regard for rules of engagement. And lastly, he has specifically targeted my son. If there is any clearer declaration of war, I have not witnessed it.

"You are the best I have, hand-picked from all over Lylat, not just for your martial skill but also for your integrity. I can order you to your tasks as your commander…but I can only ask for you to go above and beyond for my sake. I ask this with all earnest. Please, find my son."

The crowd of Warbirds remained silent as Beltino concluded and nodded at Navarro, signaling him to take charge once more. Though his stern face struggled to hide an undercurrent of grief, he exited the room with his head held high and his bearing as unshaken as ever. Since her time wallowing with her brother in Starwolf, Andrea had known fathers who didn't bat an eye at a child's death, who only cared about their own agenda. In the Vipers, she watched as one of her commanders left her own daughter to die in a battle rather than risk her own ship. The galaxy-weary side of Andrea whispered that Toad was no different; the detached, calculating CEO of a multi-billion credit enterprise and the commander in chief of a large private military company? Didn't strike her as the family man sort.

But the way Toad spoke curbed her cynicism enough to give him the benefit of the doubt. What else but the pain of lost family could get a man like Beltino to humbly plea for his employees' help?

Besides, she'd become all too familiar with the pain of a lost loved one during the previous weeks, and it was a feeling not be wished upon anyone.

The thought stirred concerns of how this development would affect her search for Dagger. But before she could whisper to Falco and ask him about seeing Beltino, her question was answered.

"Warbird Seven, see me in my office in exactly thirty minutes," the toad said as he neared the briefing room door. "And bring Corporal O'Donnell."

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Beltino stepped off the elevator into his office, the cavernous room silent and still like the endless space beyond the transparent far wall. He knew what troubles awaited him at his desk: a computer filled to capacity with duties, a mission plan to coordinate and approve, an endless stream of messages from every department of TDE and TETRA, and heaviest of all, a small framed picture of his wife and son tucked in the second right-hand drawer. He didn't feel up to seeing it again.

The time for pining had passed.

Instead, he sat at the head of the long wooden conference table and pulled open a hidden keyboard built into the frame. A few keystrokes produced a holographic chessboard before him on the table, halfway between his seat and the comm unit in the middle of the table. He leaned back in the leather chair, crossing his legs, and rested his chin on his hand, studying the softly luminescent blue board, the pieces already locked in the static battle of a match in progress, his own white army and the enemy's black all but equal.

Being one step ahead of an opponent was crucial in chess as in life. And he knew his opponent well. He could be reasonably sure of the next four or fives moves, possibly ending the match there. However, his opponent knew Beltino equally well. In four or five moves, their match may just as well be the unstoppable tide against the immovable cliffs.

Unless one were to slip up.

After a few minutes lost in his mental calculations, Beltino glanced at the table's comm unit as it began to emit the tones of an incoming call. Few people knew the direct line to that unit. He inhaled deeply through his nose and hit the receive button on his keyboard before folding his hands on his lap. The top of the comm base opened and from inside rose the condensed frame of a holoscreen, the segments forming into a rectangular window before his eyes. Once the frame took shape, the screen flickered into view, displaying the caller: a dark green lizard sitting in a high-backed leather chair, the skyline of an expansive city visible through the wall of glass behind him. The lizard rested his elbows on his gleaming metal desk and smiled at the toad.

"Beltino," he greeted. "I'm rather surprised you answered my call."

"I don't leave tasks incomplete, Khamisi." Beltino glanced up from the board to see his opponent's eyes gazing slightly downward, no doubt at the duplicate holographic board on his end. "I believe it's your move."

The lizard strummed his fingers on the desk for nearly three minutes before tapping his keyboard twice. Knight to king four, as expected.

"You may be the only man left in Lylat who calls me that," he said, settling back after his move.

Beltino kept his eyes on the board. He knew the move to make, but another careful survey of options would cost him nothing but a few minutes. When he was satisfied of his plan, he tapped his own keys and his piece moved. "I may well be the only one left in Lylat who cares to remember you before you scarred yourself with the name Scales."

"Another time, another life, my friend." Khamisi grinned as he studied his options. "Hard to believe we still play the same day and same time every week, without fail. I almost didn't call today." His carefree demeanor fell slightly. "Of course, I almost didn't call once before. Eleven years ago." He looked up from the board. "She was a good woman, Beltino. I was sorry to hear of her passing."

"I'm impressed that you can still recognize virtue."

"But nonetheless, I called on time as always. You surprised me then, as you do now, sitting down to play. Moreso now, given the…circumstances." He tapped out a move, bringing his queen out of hiding and on the offensive.

Beltino leaned on the arm of his chair and tried to keep himself more focused on the game than on his opponent. "Did you call to play, Khamisi? Or did you call to remind me that my wife is long in the grave and our only child is the last blood I have left in this life? Rather transparent."

The amused grin was back on Khamisi's scaly face. "I don't want to hurt your son, Beltino. I simply need to borrow his expertise for some time. Don't push against me and no harm will come to him. When my project is complete, he'll be returned, you have my word."

"The promises of a poisonous tongue." Beltino moved his rook forward to divert and occupy the queen. Eventually the queen would be taken, but more value was to be had in allowing his opponent to think the piece still had power. "This is a dangerous game you're playing. I've sent numerous reports on your activities to friends in the Cornerian military; eventually, you may find an armada on Silver Reach's doorstep."

Khamisi chuckled. "I doubt that. No military in Lylat has reason to see SSA as an enemy; we've never been accused of any actions against military or police. Besides, the public is still reeling from the Black Scythe's misadventures last year. No politician would start up another conflict now because of some questionable contracts and isolated violence in the seedier parts of the system."

The toad hated to admit that the Sharpclaw had been meticulous in avoiding trouble with authorities. He wouldn't be surprised if TETRA actually rated as a higher watch priority to some. "And Dagger? The Feryon?"

Khamisi moved his bishop parallel with his queen, taking a white knight. The captured piece disintegrated from the board. "Never heard of Dagger. The Feryon rings a bell; I saw it on the news a couple weeks back. Destroyed with all hands. And no clue who did it."

Beltino sighed through his nose. Even a man like Khamisi wasn't brazen enough to admit to killing or kidnapping a Cornerian black ops team on an open comm channel, but still the toad found it strangely offensive to be lied to in such a pedestrian manner. "Not all hands went down with that ship."

"Ah, yes. And on a completely unrelated note, how is the newest addition to TETRA's ranks?"

Beltino moved a pawn up, limiting the bishop's movements. His opponent had strayed from the predicted course, but so far it was nothing that couldn't be countered. "She has three things on her side: potential, drive, and an insatiable resolve to find her team."

"Is that so? A little bird told me that she's a far cry from being a formidable warrior. I hope her team, wherever they may be, keeps their expectations low."

"And I hope her enemies continue to underestimate her as well."

Khamisi's rook joined the offensive and eliminated a blocking pawn, securing another successful attack. With two unexpected moves now under the lizard's belt, Beltino found himself trying to even think a single move ahead. But his demeanor did not change in the least; stone solid, as unassuming as the digitally carved face of his idle king.

"I know you still have at least one fragment," Khamisi said. "If you give it to me, it will certainly expedite your son's return."

Beltino chuckled under his breath as he looked over his diminishing forces on the board. "You know, old friend, I was just talking about you not a half hour ago. I said that up until now, you at least acted like a businessman, which I could respect. But now…you're just a criminal in a suit. A terrorist with manners. You know me well enough that I cannot hide my desire to have my son back. But you've made a grave mistake if you believe I'll kowtow to you. All you've done is spark a war."

He moved his own queen over to help defend the king and provide escape options.

"So be it," the Khamisi replied casually. "For your sake, I hope your men are made of sterner stuff than what they've shown SSA thus far. We'll see how committed they are to a TETRA paycheck when Raven swoops onto the battlefield."

He tapped his keyboard with a flourish and his knight skirted to the white king's flank. With gleaming, narrow eyes and a cold smirk, he announced, "Check."

Interesting.

Beltino glanced at his watch. "I have a meeting in two minutes; I'm afraid I'll have to cut our time short. Until next week then."

"Stopping now, so close to the end? Is the taste of defeat that bitter?"

Beltino sat upright and looked his enemy square in the eye. "Khamisi, believe me when I say you're far from achieving a checkmate."

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When Andrea stepped off the elevator with Hunter and Falco, she found Beltino sitting at the head of the conference table that stretched across the office before his desk. He seemed lost in thought, his eyes distant and set upon the comm unit in the table's center. Only when they neared did he acknowledge their presence by gesturing for them to join him at the table.

"Falco, Carter, I've decided to give you the assignment I consider top priority," the toad began once they were seated. "Familiar territory. Money, glamour, and a snake in a red dress."

Falco and Hunter exchanged a peeved look before the avian replied, "I could think of worse things to call her."

"I think she may in possession of the rogue Feryon fragment. Worse, I believe she's about to sell it to Scales."

"Lady Farrow?" Hunter frowned. "Why would she have it?"

"When neither TETRA nor the Fortunian navy could track down the rogue fragment, we assumed Scales had managed to recover it. Yet his ships kept coming back for the next week to scan the area. I suspected a third party might have come across it; that area of space is heavily traveled by large ships avoiding the asteroid belt…and pirates avoiding Katinian patrols. If one of them picked up its energy signature and retrieved it, it would have no doubt found its way into the black market. No one would have truly known what it was."

"And no one has their claws deeper in illegal trafficking than Farrow," Falco finished.

Beltino nodded. "Indeed. With her connections, she would know that the Sharpclaw are looking for these fragments. No doubt, she bought it for pocket change compared to what she's selling it to him for." He paused. "This was all just a theory until two days ago. Our monitoring station traced a call from the Ruby Queen to an SSA ship. I doubt Farrow was calling to chat about the weather."

"So, we finally get to take her down?" Hunter asked, eyes lighting up. "Hell, I'll do this one for free."

"Not quite. I want you to go to the Ruby Queen and follow my orders to the letter. Details will be in your brief."

Hunter nodded, but Falco just looked down at the table with a scowl.

"Is that clear, Lieutenant Lombardi?"

The avian looked up at his boss and hesitated before replying. "I was hoping to go after Slippy. We gotta have some idea of where this shitbag is holding him. Just point me in the general direction and say the word."

Beltino returned a half-smile, part amused and part appreciative. "Lombardi, trust that every move I make brings us a step closer. When the time comes to retrieve my son, there's no one I'd sooner call on than you."

Andrea expected Falco to keep pressing, but he kept his beak shut and his brow furrowed. Instead, she hopped in herself. "And how many steps until I find my team? I'll do whatever I can to help you get Slippy, but if you're right and my team's out there…look, I'm not TETRA. I'm Dagger, and I'll never stop being Dagger, even if I am buddying up with you guys for the time being. You're the one who came to me about my team; I belong out there looking for them, not working for you."

The toad shook his head. "I did not call you up here to give you a TETRA assignment, corporal. While I would have liked to garner a wider breadth of knowledge regarding your abilities through more evaluations, Scales has altered my timetables. If you believe you're ready, I agree that it's time for you to search for your team."

Andrea blinked. "Oh…good. But I need every bit of information you have about the Sharpclaw. Who they are, how they got my team, and what the hell these fragments are that everyone keeps talking about. No more secrets."

Beltino looked her in the eye and didn't respond for a few moments, his finger tapping against his forearm as he thought. Finally, he said, "Warbird Seven, you're dismissed. Best of luck."

Hunter eagerly bounded out of his chair and headed for the elevator, giving Andrea a nod of farewell. Lingering behind, Falco gave her a light sock to the shoulder in passing and uttered, "Good hunting. When you find the ol' boy scout, tell him sorry I wasn't there to bail his ass out this time."

Andrea grinned, the memory of Gage bittersweet. "Will do. Be safe out there, okay?"

"Little late in life to start now."

He joined his partner in the elevator and the doors closed, leaving her and Beltino in silence. The toad stood and walked over to a cabinet against the wall of old pictures, retrieving a bottle of sherry and a glass from the shelves. He took his time pouring and returning the bottle to its place before taking his seat again, sipping and relishing the sherry with a satisfied sigh. He arched his brow upon looking at his guest again. "Oh, I'm sorry. Can I get you something?"

"No, thanks," she replied flatly, wishing he'd get on with it. Fortunately, he wasted no more words.

With a tap of his keyboard, a holoscreen extracted from the conference table's central comm unit. A flurry of typing brought up a numbered mission intelligence file – password protected, of course – and then displayed a military dossier sheet, the picture showing a serious young lizard in a military uniform…a very familiar uniform.

"This is Khamisi Tafari, a young man who joined the Cornerian Army Engineer Corps after graduating college with a double major in biology and physics at age seventeen. The army recognized his potential and convinced him to serve four years in their defensive development research branch. I met him in my own younger years when Toad Development Enterprises was a fairly new name in the world of military hardware. We easily became friends; I saw in him an energetic genius and I suppose he saw in me a mind that appreciated him as a colleague instead of a mental superior. No offense to the army, of course."

Andrea arched her own brow but said nothing.

"It was he that convinced me to begin my exhaustive research into the G-Diffuser system," Beltino continued. "Between me and the army, he did Lylat a great service. When his four years were up, I convinced him to come work with me at TDE. In the years before the war, we did much together, both professionally and in leisure. We played chess often, frequented the theater…I even had him over to my house on holidays since he never did marry. He was one of the first people I called when my son was born. He was there for me when my wife died."

He stole a sip before continuing, his gaze on the picture of Tafari rather than Andrea. "The time came when one of our mutual colleagues became a rather outspoken danger in the scientific community: Andross. I found myself debating Tafari often, since he'd taken Andross' side that science and progress must be sought out even in the presence of sizeable danger and moral ambiguity. After the disaster that led to Andross' exile, Tafari was more enraged than ever. Eventually, the matter died down and I believed that was the end of it, though I'd learned of a darker side of my friend."

"Let me guess," Andrea interjected. "A few years later, Andross declares war and Tafari's giving him a thumbs-up."

"Not quite. He never did condone the war, but he couldn't fault Andross' motivations. To his credit, he did rejoin the Cornerian Army engineers for a time to help in the defense effort. He even earned a nickname when his research base was destroyed by a saboteur. He survived thirty-seven shrapnel punctures in his torso; the product of being stubborn and thick-hided, the doctor joked. Those around him began calling him Scales in jest. He didn't like it at first, but apparently it grew on him.

"I noticed a change in him after that. He became detached, more serious about his work. Halfway through the war, he disappeared. He left me a note saying he'd been given the opportunity of a lifetime and had to take it. I don't know what he meant and I never found out. Seven years passed; and just this past year, three weeks after the mercenary war ended, I received a call at the same time on the same day we used to play chess. And we started up again like nothing had happened. He wouldn't tell me where he'd been, but I know he came back a colder and harder man. He confided in me that he was starting a private military company, and I confided in him the same. And those two roads have led to today."

Andrea slowly nodded, her mind sorting everything she'd heard. "And everything would be happy and dandy, except his company has no problem with piracy, slavery, and pretty much anything to make a credit."

"Correct, sadly. At first, I questioned why someone like him would want to create a PMC, but then I looked at TETRA. If run well, a PMC can make more money than most businesses, especially with a mind like his at the helm. He always did say that scientists would make the best leaders due to their thought processes. Honestly, I would first question how he defines 'best.' Lord knows Andross had his own definition. Regardless, if he wishes to finance his own studies and research, SSA is the best way to do it. Aside from making money, his scruples are loose enough that he can 'acquire' what he needs through force and threat."

Andrea grunted. "I know the type."

Beltino sipped from his glass with one hand and tapped his keyboard with the other, bringing up another military dossier sheet, this one in the format of the Venomian Army. A black tiger stared back at her with vivid yellow eyes.

"This is Shane Morden, former Venomian special forces. Black Scythe, to be specific. All we know of him is that he's commander of Tafari's special operations, his callsign is Cerberus, and he was smart enough to stay clear of Torqinski's ill-fated plans last year. He's one to be wary of."

Beltino deactivated the holoscreen and leaned back in his chair as the frame retracted into the com unit. "There's one more person you should know."

"Raven," Andrea said.

With a grim nod, the toad continued. "We don't know who she is or what she looks like. But you heard in the briefing what she's done and what she's capable of doing. I consider her the Sharpclaw's most powerful weapon and our greatest threat. You're a Dagger operative; you have the best training in all of Lylat. But none of that will help you against her. Some of my best soldiers were swept aside like nothing, and some of my most battle-hardened veterans reduced to shivering wrecks in her presence."

Andrea's throat suddenly felt dry and she swallowed. "So…avoid her then."

"Until our tacticians can come up with a more permanent solution, yes. Fortunately, right now she seems to only surface when the fragments are in play. Which leads me to—"

"The fragments."

"Indeed." Beltino stood and polished off the remainder of his sherry. "Come. Some things deserve to be seen rather than explained."

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Andrea had never seen so many security checkpoints and redundancies. Posted security levels steadily rose the deeper Beltino brought her into the Asgard until they disappeared altogether, replaced by subtle creases in the walls that she recognized as alarm-triggered turret bays. The toad tried to allay her nervousness by saying there was a ten second delay to enter a code for secondary and tertiary failsafes, but she still let out a relieved breath when his keycard opened the final thick blast door and they could move on.

Numerous isolated labs breezed past them on either side as they walked to a chamber at the end of the white corridor. The large room was enclosed in glass on all sides, with four scientists in white coats scurrying about assorted consoles and holoscreens, barely paying the newcomers any mind. But what drew Andrea's attention was a floor-to-ceiling glass cylinder in the center of the room, barely wider than a sapling's trunk, protected by an invisible energy barrier, or so she assumed from the familiar emitter panels encircling it on the floor. Suspended by anti-gravity at eye-level inside the cylinder was a jagged piece of dark purple metal, the length of a flat hand, rough around the edges and etched with seemingly random inlays.

"That's it?" Andre asked, squinting at the shard. "That's what Scales is killing for?"

"Deceptive in its unassuming presence," Toad replied, nodding a greeting at the scientists. "This is the first we found, nearly half a year ago when a TDE survey picked up an energy spike on Katina. We don't know what it is or where it came from; the metal is of an element all its own and the inscriptions are illegible. But of particular interest to me – and Tafari – is the baffling level of energy it emits. Were we to harness its energy, it could power the Asgard for centuries, or be put to more nefarious purposes. But my scientists recently discovered that the energy output is similar to a pattern we're already familiar with: bioelectricity. The implications of this are still being studied."

Andrea nodded, impressed. "You said the Feryon was carrying one of these?"

"Correct. A few weeks before the attack on the Feryon, TETRA got wind of another energy signature on Fortuna. To keep our profile low, I convinced a government friend to arrange an excavation of the area. The site went dark; TETRA went in. Scales had launched an attack and managed to get away with one of two fragments found at the site. The other was transported to a secret TETRA facility, but I took the precaution of setting up a fake charter with another cargo ship as a decoy."

"The Feryon." Andrea pursed her lips. "My team died, or nearly died, because you wanted to cover your ass?"

"It wasn't supposed to happen; the ship was manned by prepared, armed soldiers, ordered to evacuate and scuttle the ship at any sign of danger. We didn't count on Raven; a status report confirmed her presence. I couldn't warn CASOC, couldn't risk leaking to the Sharpclaw the fact that we escaped with a fragment. So I watched and hoped for the best."

The wolf sighed through her nose and asked the question that'd been on her mind since she'd first arrived. Maybe now she'd get a straight answer. "Why do you think my team survived?"

"The TETRA ship monitoring the situation picked up an energy burst seconds before the Feryon exploded, a very distinctive and unmistakable signature, belonging to a stealth vessel. We didn't pick it up going in, but we managed to catch that burst as it escaped, possibly because the explosion scrambled it momentarily. We believe Raven destroyed the ship to cover SSA's tracks. But she didn't leave alone; analysis of the signature indicated numerous life signs. And Raven never has back up. Since your report states that your team found no crew survivors, I'm led to believe they themselves were taken prisoner. Not enough evidence to make CASOC take action, but enough for you, I'm sure."

A tingling of cautious optimism rose in Andrea's chest. "Why didn't the Dagger transport pick up the energy burst? Or any other scanners in orbit?"

"Simple," Beltino replied with a melancholy grin. "They don't have the signature in their scan range. This specific stealth technology was never sold, only employed by the two men who co-designed it."

"You and Scales."

"The Arwing isn't the only bit of tech that I never offered to the military. I like for TETRA to have a leg up in some areas."

Andrea scoffed. "And you wonder why CASOC's keeping an eye on you."

"It's not distrust of the military that keeps my more advanced tech my own. I simply know that once the military possesses hardware, certain unscrupulous entrepreneurs will make it available to dangerous people across Lylat. And I'd rather those people not be able to detect my stealth or attack me with Arwings."

"Fair enough," she uttered. "I guess I should be thankful you're helping with Dagger…so long as saving their lives, which you put in danger, doesn't 'jeopardize TETRA personnel or assignments.'"

Beltino snickered, apparently familiar with that part of Navarro's briefing. "Just as you don't work for TETRA, I don't work for CASOC. Similar goals, varying priorities."

"And these fragments are your priority. And Scales'."

"I'm interested in the fragments for their scientific application, and I'm sure Tafari is as well. But it's too much power for hands as cold as his. I fear what he may do, what legacy he may be furthering."

"Legacy?"

Beltino gestured toward the fragment. "This was found in an old Venomian technology cache on Katina. The two Fortunian shards were found in a secret Venomian bunker. Most of the discovered fragments were retrieved either near or in abandoned Venomian sites. Andross may have created whatever device these fragments once belonged to. And nothing that sprang from his mind could be good for Lylat."

One of the scientists, a badger barely older than Andrea, waved emphatically through the glass, summoning them inside. A nearly inaudible groan escaped the toad's throat as he led the way around the chamber to a locked door. A lengthy keycode granted them access, a breath of cold, chemical-perfumed air wafting around them as the glass door slid open.

"Doctor Wyatt," Beltino greeted, shaking the badger's hand. "Good to see you. Corporal O'Donnell, this is Doctor Robert Wyatt. Doctor Wyatt, this is—"

"Yeah, yeah, great," the scientist interrupted ignoring Andrea's outstretched hand. "Listen, I have good news and bad news. The data I was able to salvage after Raven's attack is minimal at best, maybe only a month's worth of work."

Beltino nodded. "What's the good news?"

"That, uh…" Wyatt blinked. "That was the good news. The bad news is that I've been trying to apply it to this fragment since I got here, but even less of it is taking. All coding parameters have to be rewritten."

Beltino frowned at the man and looked him up and down. "Did you get any sleep on the flight here?"

Wyatt snorted and sat back down, spinning his seat around to face his console.. "Would you sleep after what happened?"

"Touché. What data were you able to save?"

"Well, if there's any silver lining, that's it; all my work into Project: Warlock is still there."

Warlock? That was the second time Andrea had heard of it. "What's that?"

Wyatt glanced over his shoulder and gave her the same kind of look usually reserved for hundred-pound boys trying out for the football team. "If I dumbed it down enough for you to understand, it would lose all meaning."

Andrea narrowed her eyes at the back of his head. "Try me."

"Fine, here's the grade school version," he huffed. "Andross specialized in biotechnology and biological entities. Just look at what he made during the war. But the biological information gathered from these fragments suggests the manipulation of a DNA pattern very close to base Lylatian configurations. Bluntly, I think the bioelectric energy can be infused into a living person. I don't know if that's what Andross intended – super soldiers wouldn't be that far fetched given his psychotic mentality – but it can be done and controlled."

"In theory," Beltino added. "Tell her what happened to your test rats."

Wyatt hesitated with a nervous fidget. He glanced at her again and muttered, "Much the same results as a gerbil in a microwave. I'd imagine. All science has its bumps that need to be ironed out."

The toad chortled. "Yes, well, finish up here and then check your mail account for your new assignment. You'll have plenty of time for sleep on the way."

"Whoa, wait!" He leapt up, nearly knocking the chair over. "Assignment to where? I need to keep working on Warlock."

"Once you and Corporal O'Donnell find the Great Fox, we can set up a data stream so you can conduct your research onboard. But first I need it up and running like new; heaven knows what shape it's in, or even if ROB is still active. And second to my son, you have the greatest working knowledge of TDE technology."

"But…but…" His bewildered eyes shifted to Andrea, whose equally lost expression only seemed to confuse him more. "But…"

"Good travels, doctor."

Beltino turned toward the door and gestured for the corporal to follow him, leaving Wyatt to slowly phase from addled to annoyed as he gruffly returned to his work.

When the glass door closed, leaving them in silence, Andrea spoke up. "Want to tell me what this is all about?"

"It's about bringing all my pieces into play," he replied. "Even at its age, the Great Fox is a stellar war machine, as are the Arwings. Almost as stellar as Fox McCloud himself. Find him, Corporal O'Donnell. Get him and the Great Fox back. Once you do, that ship will be your base of operations for your hunt. You can run the show however you see fit and, within reason, you'll have full TETRA support."

Andrea gave a curt nod and said, "Thanks," careful to keep her appreciation in check until the results matched the promise. "What about Doctor Sunshine in there?"

"He can be of greater help than he seems," Beltino assured, giving an exasperated look through the glass at Wyatt's angered typing. "He can help locate McCloud, and whatever state the Great Fox is in, he'll fix it. After that, keep him as your crew's technical officer, so long as he is made readily available if I need him for any fragments recovered out there. Seems a fair deal to retain the…second best TETRA mind on your team."

"Deal." Andrea glanced at him, seeing a twinge of pain that reference to Slippy evoked. "Listen, I wouldn't even know about my team without your help. If you need me when you find Slippy, I'm there."

Beltino nodded, his face unreadable. "A common goal. Let us hope our difference of priorities doesn't stand in the way."

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-Chapter 5 coming soon-