"Look at all the stars, Mama! And look! There's one of the spaceships!" Canaras squealed in delight. He watched as his mother gave him a smile. "Yes, Canaras. There are so many stars, and on one of them, we'll find a planet just for us. Where we can play in real sunshine, have real wind and weather. It will be a dream come true," Sumire said.

"This sounds like one of Timothy's stories. Have you been listening to him, Mama?" Canaras asked.

Sumire laughed. Her excitable little son was a sharp one, no doubt about that. She had been listening to some of the stories Timothy told when he took care of the children, and she had to admit that the Guard had a talent with words. She was just about to comment on that to her son, when Timothy appeared.

Speak of the devil, she thought. But his facial expression was very strained…

"Ma'am can you go inside please? Lord Orakio has sent word that at the very least, all children have to be kept indoors for at least the next two hours."

"Why? What hap-"

Sumire looked up as soon as she saw that the night "sky" was brightening far too early for sunrise. And the light was not the mellow yellow of sunlight, but the orange of an explosion.

Canaras had continued to stare up at the sky when his mother had begun talking to Timothy. Thus, he was the only person in the Capitol Tower to see the detonation of the Odin's Axe. He fell to his knees, and was quickly supported by Timothy's strong hands. Sumire managed to stumble to her son, and collapsed, shocked. Timothy looked up at the once-friendly sky with tears in his eyes. He had requested a six-month transfer to the Axe, and fought against Rem to try to save people. He looked hard against that fire blossom background to see if anything survived. He could just barely make out a single dome that seemed to be more or less in intact. Turning he yelled for two guards to take Sumire and Canaras to their rooms, and to make sure they both woke up with a friendly face to greet them.

At last, Timothy again gazed up at the sky. What have we done? By creating Mother Brain, we have sentenced these innocent people to a living Hell.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

"What's the final casualty report, Ares?" Orakio asked softly.

"Out of the 12,715,325 people that lived on the Odin's Axe when Rem began his rebellion, 7, 175, 841 survived the war and made it into Dome 6. Exactly 1,366,822 children were successfully evacuated to Alisa III."

"And the survivors from the detonation?" Orakio questioned once again, the same soft tone present.

"Out of the 5,809,019 left behind because of time constraints and etc., 2,432,403 were killed or wounded before recovery. We have ascertained that 689,467 children have been orphaned by the death of their parents on the Axe. As you requested, we have checked how many people are willing and able to increase their families from anywhere from one to three children, and a surprising number are willing to take them. We-"

"Did you include us as a family willing to take in orphans?" Canaras asked in the same soft tone as his father. Orakio and Ares whirled around, startled, when they realized who had spoken.

"Son, I understand your sympathy but-"

Canaras resumed speaking in the same tone Orakio used when he received an answer he did not want to hear. Orakio shuddered as he realized just how observant his six-year-old son was. "Not the question I asked, Papa. I asked whether you included us as willing foster families."

Ares gave his superior a glare, as if to declare it was all Orakio's fault. When he turned around he said to the boy, "No, Canaras. He did not include your family."

The boy nodded once, unsurprised. He addressed his father, using the same forceful tones that Orakio employed when he wanted something. "Papa, those kids have just had their own Mamas and Papas taken from them. I know I would feel lost, confused, and hurt if you died, and I couldn't help you. How can you deny them the support that you, Timothy, Mieu, and everyone else can give them? They deserve loving families as well. Please, Papa. Give them a chance to grow up happy like me. Not sad."

Orakio averted his eyes from the boy's earnest expression. He knew that he would give in. The boy had a definite talent with people that would make him a great man once he grew up. He finally turned his eyes to Ares, defeated. "Ares, mark us as willing to take on five children, two boys and three girls."

Canaras' serious expression did not change. He did not smile, laugh, or whoop in joy. He simply nodded. "Thank you, Papa." Then he walked out of the office in the same quiet way he entered.

As soon as the door closed behind the boy, Ares resumed glaring at Orakio. Orakio tolerated the glare for the interminably long time of ten seconds before he irritably snapped, "What the hell are you looking at?"

"You! You knew what would happen if you had a son, and you just had to go right ahead!" Ares retorted.

"I did not know. How was I to know that he would pick up on my mannerisms and tactics so quick?! I thought we would have another ten years before he started running the fleet for us, not so soon!"

"It was totally irresponsible breeding that little tyrant and dumping him on our lap! Let's just hope he turns out like you, or we're all doomed. You know what would have happened if you were like Stileco when you took over," Ares accused.

Orakio frowned, the only clue as the tension that was occurring inside him. Ares had hit on Orakio's greatest fear for his son, the one that parents for generations had been troubled by; would his son become an evil so profound that his hands would result in the spilling of innocent blood? Would he desecrate all that was good for his own gain, not caring for those who might be stepped on? Would he, in short, become so dark that he would disown his parents, and become unworthy of the love they had given him?

Ares heaved a deep sigh and then murmured, "I apologize for that, Orakio. It was uncalled for. But the point is, we are all very worried about your son. He has too much talent. And as light-hearted as he seems, he has a very deep dark side. His temper has left more than one child with a bloody nose, and his anger makes even his friends fearful of him. We're afraid that if the wrong thing happens at the wrong time, he'll be pushed over the brink and destroy us all."

Orakio leapt to defend his son. "He's only six! How can a child be a threat?"

"A six-year-old who is already a prodigy at knives. I can barely keep up with him, and even Deikon is hard-pressed to beat him. And who knows what will happen when he enters the full training? He's charming direct, and dynamic. He gets what he wants with either guile or force. He will become a leader on this ship, and we'd rather that he not be another Lassic or Stileco."

Orakio tried to change the topic. "That's too far into the future. We don't have to worry about it yet. Besides, he looks up to us. You, Deikon, Galen, Lune, Cilor, Hawat, Timothy, and myself are all his role models.  How can he fall onto this dark path you all fear so much?"

"I hear that the same was asked of Lassic when he assumed the throne," Ares replied coldly before walking out, leaving Orakio to brood on this rampant fear of his son.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Canaras gazed at his new siblings. But where most children acquired them one at a time, he had gotten his all at once and under far less happy circumstances. Two big brothers, three little sisters, all in a silence that was unnatural for children. Canaras sighed. Though he understood why they were keeping themselves distant from each other, he knew, in the innocent way of children, that they had to get closer to others to heal the wounds of the loss of a loved one. He exchanged worried looks with his cousins, and resumed examining his foster siblings.

 His roaming eyes finally settled on one of the girls. She was a little shorter than he was, with the strangest blue hair he had ever seen. She was the only one openly crying, but she did not sob to try to bring attention to herself. Quietly, Canaras walked to her and sat down next to her. When she didn't react, he hesitated, and then put an arm around her to try to comfort her. She violently shrugged him off.  Frowning, Canaras said, "I know why you're sad, but that doesn't mean you have to hurt others who are worried about you."

She looked up to glare at him through tear-reddened eyes. Canaras blinked, not so much as in shock, but in surprise. Her eyes are that same purple-blue color as her hair!

The girl spoke, her voice trembling with heartbreak. "W-what do you care, p-peasant."

Canaras' expression darkened. "Peasant, huh? Then who are you to look down on me?"

She visibly tried to put herself together, to show contempt for his upbringing. "I'm A-alyssa Ecaz, d-descendant of the Archdragoon, and h-heiress of the D-duchy of Elacca. You c-can call me your grace."

Canaras' frown did not disappear. If anything, it deepened. This girl's bloodline was much higher up than his own, and she was obviously used to a lot of pampering. He could try to get past her conceit and become her friend, or simply let her suffer. I didn't ask Papa to offer orphans a home because I was gonna look down on them. Besides, she's as scared as the rest of us. She might try to hide it behind all that bluster, but under the surface, she's a scared kid. Well, this ain't gonna be fun.

"Alright, your grace.  Wait…Ecaz? As in Duke Demetrios Ecaz? You're his daughter?!"

"G-granddaughter. We were all v-visiting on the A-axe when…when…" her face collapsed and she wept bitterly.

Lirita gave her cousin a disapproving glare that made Canaras flinch. He shrugged helplessly, and his face automatically adopted an "It's not my fault!" look. Her delicate face issued a challenging glare Canaras recognized as Aunt Lira's. Canaras scowled. That brat! She's gonna make me look like an idiot. I just know it!

Canaras glowered at her as she walked up to the oldest kid present, a tall silver-eyed ten-year-old. She flashed her most winning smile and gushed, "Hi! I'm Lirita, but all my friends call me Liri. What's your name?"

The boy's sullen face changed to an aggravated expression. "None of your business, brat. Go play dolls or something, and just leave me alone."

Lirita's smile did not fade. If anything, it became less friendly. "A brat, huh? Why am I a brat?"

Canaras winced. Lirita was a nice girl, but if you called her a brat…well, you better have good life insurance, as his Uncle Rulakir would say. Oblivious to this, the other boy said, "Because you are a brat! You're annoying me, so go away." He made a shooing gesture.

"Let me tell you a secret, and then I'll go, ok?" Lirita's expression was guileless and innocent. Canaras gulped. Here it comes…

"Fine," he huffed. He stooped down to her level. "Whatta ya want?"

"Just this," she murmured, and she poked him in the eye. As he shouted, she threw her ball into his crotch. The boy collapsed into the fetal position. Then, Lirita started jumping up and down on him, singing a silly little tune as she did. All of the children slowly, hesitantly, began to smile, than giggle, and finally laugh out loud.

As the last of their mirth faded, the boy finally picked himself up. He groaned, which started another round of laughter. He managed to glare at Lirita. "What's so funny, you-" He stopped himself just in time.

"You never gave me your name," Lirita's innocent tone belied the mischievous glee in her eyes.

He grunted as he ran a hand through tousled brown hair. He finally muttered, "I'm Chay Radzyn. The displeasure of meeting you is all mine."

Lirita's smile again became threatening. "Be nice," she murmured.

Canaras took charge before Lirita could again unleash a sneak attack on Chay. Dragging Alyssa by the hand, he went the middle of the room. "I think we should all introduce ourselves. I am Canaras Sa Riik, and this-" he gestured to his other cousin and then to Alyssa-"is Kirath, my cousin, and Alyssa Ecaz, my…friend. Lirita you have all had the pleasure of meeting." He smiled at Chay. " Or in some cases, the displeasure. What about the rest of you guys? And girls," he added hastily at the evil looks he was receiving from the girls in the room.

The orphans exchanged wary looks, and recited their names. Stragen Emsat, Sylvie Emsat, and Tira Durza, all relatives whose parents had not survived the disaster. Kirath stared at them. "What does 'relatives' mean?" he asked.

Stragen gave him an arrogant smirk. "That's a fancy way of saying family. Sylvie is my sister, and Tira is my cousin."

"Like Liri is my sister and Canaras is my cousin?"

"What do you know? You do have brains!" Stragen sneered.

Canaras' eyes narrowed dangerously. Insulting his family was guaranteed to provoke his temper. He managed to rein it in, but Alyssa still glimpsed the fierce blaze. He's a kid, but he has the same look in his eyes as Grandpa!

"I think you owe Kir an apology," Canaras murmured calmly, which caused his cousins to share concerned looks.

"It's when the dragon's roar is softest is when he is most dangerous," Kirath whispered to his sister.

The older boy snorted derisively at Canaras. "Not bloody likely, suboid."

Canaras' golden eyes darkened to the fierce black of his father. Suboids had once been the mindless troopers of Stileco's countless legions. Over the centuries, the word had become an insult that would make the most thick-skinned person foam at the mouth. "Why don't we settle this at the training floor, ghafla?" Canaras snarled in kind.

Stragen's orange eyes narrowed. "Lead the way, suboid."

With a 'come along' motion of his hand, Canaras led the way out of the playroom and into the transtube. Once everyone entered, he programmed the tube to take them to the practice hall on Level 5. In the few seconds that it took to convey them to the practice hall, Stragen began to show definite signs of doubt. When they had exchanged their clothing for training pants and faced each other on the blue mats, Stragen's face was a study in guilt. "Last chance to back out, small fry."

"No thanks. Let's go."

"Okay. You asked for it." Stragen replied as he threw a punch at Canaras' face…only to have his punch meet empty air.

"What the…?" he sputtered.

"Behind you, ghafla."

Stragen whirled to find Canaras right behind him, giving him a smile tinged with scorn. With an inarticulate growl, Stragen lunged at the smaller boy. Once again, his target skillfully evaded while he skidded on the floor.

"Strike two. One last chance to get me before I'm done warming up," Canaras taunted.

"Stand still, you stupid midget!!" Stragen screamed as he kicked out at Canaras' legs. A nimble leap brought Canaras over Stragen's body and onto the middle of the mat.

Canaras' smile turned feral. "My turn."

Stragen's face became wary as he prepared for the offensive. Canaras feinted with a left hook, then brought his right leg around for a roundhouse kick that knocked Stragen to the floor, gasping for breath. He then began an elbow drop that stopped only centimeters from Stragen's face. "Do you have something you want to say to me and Kir?" he asked mock solicitously.

"S-sor…ry…for…the…insults…" he wheezed weakly.

"Forgiven." Canaras helped him up and brushed him off. "When my temper's provoked, there's not much I can do but go with it."

Stragen managed to say, "How the heck did you do that? You're smaller than I am! You ain't supposed be able to do that!"

Canaras and his cousins chuckled, while the other children looked confused. "I shouldn't, but I did.  Don't worry so much about it. I've been trained to fight since I was a baby. It's no big deal."

"Is to me. Think they'd let me take the same lessons as you?"

"Yes, we would."

Stragen's question was answered by none other than Orakio himself. Canaras managed to look innocently curious. "Hi, dad. What's up?"

"Don't 'what's up' me, Canaras. I saw that fight. What do you have to say for yourself?"

Canaras glared at his father, well aware that he might finally be forced to apologize. I've never said sorry in my life, and I don't intend to start! 'Specially since I didn't do nothing wrong!

"Forgive me, Commander. I started the fight. I felt angry and tried to take it out on everybody else. I'm really sorry," Stragen apologized contritely.

So he gets away with it again. Orakio suddenly came to the unnerving realization that everyone feared his son not because of his potential, but because he never apologized. As far as his son was concerned, his actions were correct, and no apology was necessary. And more often than not, he's in the right.

"I see. In any case, I expected these sorts of incidents. Not quite so soon, but that was my mistake. The training you'll all undergo will help you all achieve what Canaras has. It will also help you get closer to each other. Timothy!"

Canaras focused on Timothy, who had been waiting outside. Timothy was Canaras' guardian, but Canaras thought of him more as an uncle than anything else. Right now, Timothy was answering his father.

"Timothy, I take it that you can handle a few more kids?"

 "Yes, Lord Orakio. Do you want me to take care of their mental conditioning as well?"

Mental conditioning. Yes, that's an accurate description of what's being done to their minds. Making leaders and capable warriors out of them. I wonder if the other children will do as well as Canaras?

"Yes, Timothy. Start right away."

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

"How goes it, Lune? Is it all according to schedule?"

"Yes, Laya. The mutagen has been introduced into the water supplies of Frigidia and Dahlia. Our tests indicate that it is incorporating itself into the genome. Within two years, all of our populations should have a modicum of our powers," Lune finished his report, and glanced at Laya.

Her health is declining, he thought. It had become obvious during the report that she could barely focus and was physically exhausted. The sapphire eyes were bright with fever, the alabaster skin paler than it should be, the blonde hair mussed. Lune did not bother to hide his concern. "Laya, are you feeling all right?"

Laya managed a smile, which she thought showed strength, but Lune saw to be strained. She had been feeling lousy in the last few weeks, and had not gone to the doctor yet. It's just the blue fever, she thought. No big deal.

She used her desk as leverage to get up. Lune's worry doubled at the strained expression on her face, and the trembling of her legs. "Maybe I should call the medic, Laya."

"Don't be silly. I'm fine…" she managed, then put the lie to that statement as she slumped to the floor in a faint.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Cilor paced the examining room, worried. He had been visiting the garrison at Drasgow II when he had received news of Laya's faint, and he had rushed back, duty being damned. Nothing can happen to her. Please no! Please, whatever gods there may be! Don't let anything happen to her!

Lune sat and watched his friend pace. While he shared in Cil's agitation, he was just as fascinated in the changes inherent in him. Before he married Laya, he was much colder, looking out for no one but himself. Now, he genuinely worries about Laya. I wonder if I'll change as dramatically as he did when I get married?

Lune veered off from that train of thought. Kara was hinting at it, and he had no intention of marrying her without thinking it through and talking to her about it. He did not plan on making a mistake with the woman he married. Finally, the doctor appeared and headed towards them.

"What is wrong with my wife? It's just the blue fever, right?" Cilor demanded, worry translating itself in his voice as aggression.

Lune nodded, hoping his friend was right. Blue fever was a virus common in cold regions of Palm and on Dezo. It usually produced a fever, congestion, and decreased appetite. Harmless, rapidly mutating, and highly contagious, it did not usually produce such an effect on people who caught it.

"It's a little more than the blue fever, Commandant," the doctor said. "You'll have to be careful to avoid placing too much stress on her due to her condition."

Cilor paled, and demanded, "Then what is it? What is her condition?"

The doctor smiled at him. "Congratulations, Commandant. Your wife is pregnant."

Lune pounded Cilor on the back, who could only stand in shock. When he finally realized his impending fatherhood, he let out a victory whoop that was heard all over Mystoke. "Can I go see her?"

The doctor gestured easily. "Be my guest, Commandant."

Eagerly, Cilor walked into Laya's room. He opened the door, and entered the medical suite. Looking around, he saw the desk, the bed, the examining equipment, and his Laya, dressed in medical scrubs and sleeping. He smiled at his sleeping wife, his thoughts roaming around his future child…and the events that produced that child. Quite suddenly, a pillow removed the lascivious grin on his face. "Hey! What—"

"This is all your fault!"

Laya had been awakened by Cilor's presence and as soon as she caught sight of his smile, did not hesitate to take out her annoyance on him. "Not only do I feel lousy, but the doctors say that I'm only in the first month!"

"And by the time you reach the ninth month, I'll need good insurance." Cilor smiled at his furious wife. "My dear, don't you think you should be happy? We're going to have a child!"

"Of course I'm happy, you half-wit! I'm just cranky and I feel like taking it out on the reason for this!"

"Cilor? Need I repeat Inej's words?"

Cilor scowled at Lune, who had entered sometime during Laya's tirade. "Who asked you, wise guy? I'm going to make sure that you find a wife as docile and sweet-natured as mine."

Lune smirked at him, and returned his attention to Laya. "Do you feel better?"

"I feel just great. That is, when I'm not throwing up, or feeling cranky or—"

"I'm sorry I asked," Lune muttered.

"What was that!?"

Cilor intervened before Laya's rant could resume. "Don't you think we should come up with a name for our child, love? After all, we want positive energy to enter the child from the beginning. And the child will need all the help it can get, since it's not getting any from the mother."

Pouting, Laya glared at her husband. "Alright, I'm being unusually shallow, and I apologize for it. Happy?"

"Yes. Since you're not usually so surly, I hope you won't keep that attitude."

Laya ignored the friendly jibe. "What should we call her?"

"Her? But the doctor couldn't have the child's gender yet. We just learned—"

"Call it woman's intuition, Cil. What should we name our daughter?

"Woman's intuition, eh? Since when has that ever been right?"

 "Cilor Ra Mira!"

"Alright, relax!" Cilor chuckled. "How about Samna?"

"Hmm…how about Polsala instead?"

" 'Star dream'? Well, why not? It seems oddly appropriate, seeing as we're in the void between stars, trying to find a new one to be our home."

"Ever the poet, aren't you, Cil?" Lune interjected.

"It's one of the many things my wife adores about me," Cilor replied easily.

"I do?" Laya asked.        

"You do. And once the doctor releases you from here, I'll show you why."

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Dad isn't making this easy at all, Canaras thought uneasily. It had been six months since the destruction of the Odin's Axe, and he and his foster siblings had been in training ever since. While many people protested the ethics of training children in the arts of war and leadership, Orakio scorned them for limiting themselves so blatantly.

"Yes, they're children. So what? Children learn. Adults, and even adolescents, know so much that they can't learn. And they're not even losing their childhood. They're more precocious and mature than other children, and this training helps them to understand their strengths and weaknesses. These children are probably more mature than all of you."

This comment had not gone over well, and when further pressed, Orakio had silenced them all with a single barked command. Canaras had listened to all the arguments about why children should not be in training, and found them all weak and unconvincing. They all remained irrepressibly individual, dynamic, and thoughtful. What probably scared a lot of people, Canaras decided, was the maturity in all of them.  They weren't robots, and they always questioned, always demanded explanations. And they weren't adult minds in child bodies, either. They all enjoyed having fun, and most of their favorite activities were for children.

Refocusing on the exercise, he listened for the Chay's and Stragen's footsteps. He was blindfolded, while his companions were not. Orakio had decided to teach them how to rely on their other senses: they all were sharply observant, but Orakio had declared that they needed to use more than just their eyes in combat. He had demonstrated in mock-duel with Deikon.

Canaras grinned as he remembered watching his blindfolded father fight the equally handicapped Deikon to a standstill. Breathing deeply, he tried to employ the seven attitudes against attack form eight sides. Listening, feeling, and smelling, he tried to determine where the first attack would come from.

He felt more than heard Stragen kick out behind him. Moving quickly, Canaras ducked and kicked out at the unbalanced Stragen, dropping him. Anyone who fell to the mat was out, and this gave Canaras a measure of confidence. One down, one to go.

He straightened, and suddenly felt the odd sense of vertigo that meant he had been grabbed and was about to be thrown to the mat. Refusing to go down without taking Chay with him, Canaras lashed out at Chay's knees, temporarily deadening the nerves and toppling the both of them.

Canaras removed the blindfold and saw his father clapping. "Very good, Canaras. I hope that teaches you all something."

"Yeah, it does. Don't be full of yourself," Chay said, scowling.

Orakio shook his head. "Not that. You can be as confident as you wish in combat. That little scuffle of yours should have taught you two things." He ticked the points off on his hand to emphasize. "One, expect only what happens in a fight. That way, you'll never be surprised. Two, do not count a man dead until you've seen his body. Even then, you can make a mistake."

Orakio glared at the three boys, who stood quietly. "Remember, it is not play we do here. Your life may depend on the training you receive here today. Now, do that exercise again. And you will all wear blindfolds this time."

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Sumire watched her husband instruct the boys, marking the speed to which they adopted to the training regimen. While Stragen and Chay were eager and learning quickly, Canaras was surpassing anything they were doing with a minimum of effort. Orakio had quietly expressed his fears about their son to her, and she found herself curious at her own lack of fear. That dream must have done it…

Sumire's mind wandered back to the dream she had right before her son had been born--two knights battled hordes of monsters, back to back. One, she recognized, was her beloved Orakio, older and grim. He wielded a black sword, and slaughtered amongst the enemy, all the life in his eyes dimmed by blood lust and grief. The other she thought was her love in his youth, but she saw the young man's eyes: golden brown like her own. There was a fierce scar traversing his face, going from right to left. He burned with an aura of righteous anger. He massacred all who crossed his path. She suddenly saw the one she knew was responsible for this horror, and she saw her son battling his way to duel him. She saw her son kill the man, who carried a similar scar, and collapse when the man stabbed him. Orakio lifted him away, and they ran. Grief and terror contorted Orakio's face, and she felt her own heart fill with worry. What was happening? Another presence was at the limit of her perception, and she glimpsed a pretty girl who seemed confident and with her hands touching her son, who seemed to stir to life—and then the world had focused sharply as she felt the first pains of labor.

She had shared the dream with Orakio, who had related his own experiences with dreams. She could recall his words even now. Dreams, eh? I've had a dream haunt me since I was a little boy. I saw myself carrying an ebon sword, and dueling with an abomination that wore a mockery of a human face. I am always alone, dueling that creature. The nightmare always ended with my death at the hands of that beast. The black sword you describe bothers me. We might have received a look at the possible futures, but remember what the Old Master said: nothing is written in stone. And even if it was, the stone can be broken. Let us hope that neither of these are an immutable future, that at some point we might avoid such a fate.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Shadows. Most people are uncomfortable in the dark. An almost childlike fear of the night convinces people not to stray outside when the sun sets. Even inside, they try to hold back the darkness' inevitable reign, turning lights on as long as they possibly could, in an attempt to evade the touch of what they perceive as evil. Not so for Seth. He preferred the darkness, lurked in them. The audience chamber where he received the citizens of Catha Island was all the more intimidating since it did not let in much light. He often went there, when he had to think, or govern…or scheme. He sat himself down in his chair, watching the empty room.

 "How go my plans?" Seth asked softly, seemingly speaking to the shadows of his audience chamber. To any normal person, the response would have seemed to be the mere whispering of the artificial wind.

"All goes as you have commanded,               Master. Soon, the first challenge shall begin. Then, we shall complete the annihilation of these scum, O Great and High One."

Seth's charcoal eyes distorted, forming into fierce red embers. "Do not waste my time with obsequious chatter! Accomplish what I demand, or face a fate worse than that I shall give these mortals! How fares the Ly'sefalz?"

The hissing sound had a fearful undertone to it now. "The mother still lives. Her body has begun to absorb the energy of the…offspring. Soon, she will no longer be fully human. She will become a succubus. As for the offspring, it thrives off the energy of those you have seized. Soon, it will become the physical embodiment of our god. It will be able to survive in this world with it's own power, and will absorb yours in case you fall. From what I've seen, it is truly immortal!"

Seth's inhuman eyes closed. His minion took this opportunity to reveal itself from the shadows. Gray-robed, his head concealed by a full breather mask and a hood, Malefic awaited his master's command. "Are you ready to introduce the drugs necessary to miscarriage Laya's pregnancy into her body as soon as my minions accomplish their goal?"

"Yes, my Master," Malefic whispered.

"Then do what is required."

His underling fading from sight, Seth contemplated the delicious chaos he would soon create. It was only a matter of time before he seized this ship and returned to his god, back in Algo. The Profound Darkness would be pleased when he returned to free her. And no doubt she would be ecstatic when he presented her with the perfect body, one made of both power and flesh. Immortal and more powerful than ever before, she would be most grateful. One of his goals had been accomplished. He had created a Ly'sefalz. His ancient enemies the Espers would not appreciate the ironic name for his offspring, considering the language was theirs, and the implications even more serious. Seth grinned as he thought, Ly'sefalz. Child of Dark Force.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Captain Jas "Shred" Tremor watched his troops begin the transfer of nuclear waste out of the Frigidian power reactor.  The power plants that powered the individual domes of the Alisa III were the most efficient models available, but nonetheless produced a massive amount of waste.  The heating and cooling processes required large amounts of materials to maintain, and the waste products always had to be removed to Techna to be used as fuel, or to be treated and reused in the power plants. While the new Bio-Plant creatures called Oozes could eat the wastes and then produce the required materials to maintain the fusion process, not enough of them had been born to totally eliminate the need for vitrification and the transportation of the waste-composed glass rods to Techna. 

Tremor shook his head as his technicians carefully loaded the rods into a convoy of specially shielded Vans. Ordinarily, in domes like Terminus, the presence of his soldiers would not have been required. But Frigidia, Aquatica, and Dome 4 were prowled by bands of rebellious women who thought nothing of striking at the convoys and using the wastes as threats against humble villagers. While only one such incident had ever occurred, in Frigidia, which had thankfully been resolved quickly. Orakio had ordered military escorts from that point on. He had barely averted a full-blown rebellion by the governors, who had been led by an enraged Laya De Cille. Even now, with Governor De Cille in the six month of her pregnancy, the relations between the erstwhile allies were tense.

Motherhood makes women go crazy…

"Captain! The wastes have been removed! We're ready to move out!"

Nodding, Tremor said, "Alright, you know the drill. We've been on this duty for over a year, and personally, I want to get to Techna in time for the New Year Holiday! Who's with me?"

Tremor smiled at the cheers he received from his Security Corps brigade. With the Punishers hunting for dissidents and the Republican Guard tied down in garrison duty, the Security Corps was the only military organization with enough manpower to spare to guard the convoys. I wonder why she doesn't use her militia? They have the manpower after all…

In a move designed to emphasize her independence from Orakio, Laya had formed a local militia to patrol the outskirts and defend the cities. While Orakio maintained garrisons at Drasgow II and at Firon, he had yielded to her demands that she defend her own people. Oddly enough, she still insisted that Orakio's forces remove the wastes. Resentful, Orakio had personally ordered Tremor to handle the situation in Frigidia.

Tremor smiled as he considered the terms of his acquaintance with Orakio Sa Riik. He'd originally been a top enforcer for one of Old Camineet's gangs, the Red Stingers. His smashed nose and scarred face were souvenirs of that particular part of his life, and while they detracted from his looks, did not impair his abilities. He'd first met Orakio in a firefight, back when Orakio had been a lieutenant in the Republican Guard, not Supreme Commander of the Palman Relocation Fleet, or even Chief of Planetary Security. His enforcers had successfully stolen a shipment of PalmCorp technology, when a squad led by Orakio had discovered them. In the firefight that followed, neither side gained an advantage. Then, in a reckless move, Orakio had leapt from cover, and activated a plasma sword. Confident, Tremor had ordered his men to gun him down. Much to their surprise, Orakio deflected the rounds back at them. Annoyed, Tremor had then ordered three of his thugs to kill him at close range. Orakio, however, literally disarmed the three, and Tremor had ordered his gangers to flee. They never stood a chance, as the squad they had thought pinned down had taken advantage of Orakio's feint to sneak up behind him and stun his thugs.

Even though he had not been particularly impressed with the squad that had captured them, Tremor had been absolutely terrified of Orakio. The amazing sword skills he'd displayed made Tremor want to run away as fast as he could. And Orakio's interrogation had been fierce, not the usual slap on the wrist the old Office of Planetary Security used to have. Later on, while in a holding cell, he'd been convinced by Orakio to drop his law-breaking ways. This conversion proved convenient, as Tremor soon helped Orakio take down a group of corrupt corporate officials and the Red Stingers in a move that resulted in the abolition of the corrupt Office of Planetary Security, and the creation of the Department of Palman Planetary Security, headed by none other than Orakio himself.

Grateful, Orakio had granted Tremor's request to be allowed a role in the new organization. Orakio had handed him a brigade made up of idealist rookies and indifferent cops, and told him to straighten them out. For the last decade, that brigade had followed Tremor—who followed Orakio—through the Gothic Mine incident, the Planetary Evacuation, the Battle on the Tundra, and numerous other places.

Boarding the Aerotank they'd appropriated from the local militia, Tremor carefully observed the tundra to make sure that neither Amazons nor Samurai approach them. He wanted no trouble while they transported the wastes to Firon, and he wanted trouble to keep it's distance. Sensing that this trip would not be as easy as all the rest, he activated the com and told his troops, "Alright, people! No relaxing today. I have a bad feeling about this mess, and I'm not letting whatever's causing it to screw us over. Keep your eyes open, and stay alert! Tremor out."

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Malefic carefully looked over the position he had chosen to ambush the convoy. With mountains on either side of a pass known to the mortals as Blind Man's Gap, the convoy could neither outflank him, nor escape him. He glared at the minions his master had given him to accomplish his goal. Few of them had the intelligence to grasp, let alone relish, the plot that was being unfurled, piece-by-piece. Resurrected Skeletons, summoned demons such as the Wrestlers, and other monstrosities from the Edge were positioned around the pass, ready to attack at his signal. What did it matter if they were too simple-minded to comprehend the intricacies of his scheme? Carefully using his magic to watch over the incoming convoy, Malefic could not help but laugh. Hissing chuckles escaped him, as he watched the foolish Palmans walk into his trap.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

"Sir! We're under attack!"

A jolt of adrenaline spread through Tremor's body as he heard his panicked scout's scream through his comlink. "Damn! Listen up! Transport Vans fan out and assume support positions. Everyone out and prepare for battle! Melee troopers, prepare to charge! Gunners and riflemen, prepare to open fire! Move people! Com crew! Radio for assistance from Skyhaven, Firon, and Drasgow II!"

Suiting actions to words, Tremor picked up his plasma rifle and exited the Aerotank. He quickly scanned his location, and spotted a likely rock outcropping that would give him sufficient cover to fight from. In under a minute, his brigade was positioned to intercept the aggressors that had attacked his scout. Patiently, he waited for his foe to appear. And when his enemy finally showed up, he was left speechless.

Skeletons were marching across the field and toward his men. Other soldiers were similarly stunned at witnessing something their rational minds declared impossible. But while his mind was astounded, his instincts had no problem screaming their warning to Tremor.

Enemy! Enemy! Enemy! Destroy! Destroy! Destroy!!

Deciding to heed the counsel of his less enlightened side, Tremor barked out his orders to his men. "What in the blue hell are you all waiting for?! Open fire!!"

Blue and green laser fire soon swathed the encroaching enemy in flames, as Vans, Poleziax, Warren-286 and riflemen used their sophisticated weaponry on the primitive Undead. Well aware that his melee troopers would be vulnerable in such a battle, Tremor directed them to assume defensive positions around the preoccupied gunners. While their Undead foes were falling by the score, Tremor knew full well that before too long, their high-tech beam weaponry would have to be set aside to be recharged. And then the close-range battle would begin. Deciding to change the rules of the game, he ordered, "Set aside the beam weapons for now! Vans! Continue support fire! Make sure to avoid hitting our own troops! Melee troopers! Commence attack!"

"We copy! Commencing attack…wait…what the hell are those?!"

Turning his attention to the region where the Skeletons had approached from, Tremor received his second nasty surprise of the day, only an hour after he had received his first. Monstrosities of every type were pouring through the gap, howling and screaming as they neared his forces. Cheerless creatures with shallow, skull-like heads misplaced on massive, bulky bodies; faceless beasts with a massive talon attached to one arm, and a snout-like appendage where the other arm should be; four-legged demons covered in armor; masked, robed sorcerers that emanated evil; and, worst of all, Palmans, armed either with glowing black sabers or odd growths on their hands, directing the incoming fiends.

Scowling, Tremor shouted, "Com crew! Where are out reinforcements?!"

"No good, sir! Skyhaven will airdrop two hundred or so Dogbots and Robomen in a few minutes, but full-blown reinforcements won't arrive for another hour! And the rear guard reports that enemies are attacking us from behind!"

"Damn! All units! Get ready to use the Last Stand!"

Protests echoed through the link. The Last Stand was a desperation tactic invented during the Dragoon Wars, where it had, unfortunately, received constant use. The tactic involved establishing an outnumbered, outflanked army in a narrow niche or mountain pass, and then splitting the melee forces and riflemen in two, one to meet each side of the attack. While the numerically superior enemy attacked, the defenders would inflict heavy casualties. If the unit was sufficiently well-trained, the enemy would either flee or be defeated. However, usually, the defenders received reinforcements, and escaped to fight another day, despite heavy losses.

Grimly, Tremor told his men, "Do it! We don't have a choice! We're outnumbered, and outflanked! This is the only way for at least some of us to escape with our lives! Move! Reinforcements won't arrive for another hour, and I intend to see that hour go by! Who's with me?!"

Sheer bravado crowded the comlink, as his troopers took heart from his impromptu speech. Hoping that he would not be forced to eat those brave words, Tremor withdrew to the gap.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

The three special waste-transporting Vans that had been the heart of the military escort had long since fled from the devastating conflict raging near Blind Man's Gap. Relieved to have escaped with their lives, the technicians did their best to return to the reactor base. Which was what Malefic had expected.

"What the hell…?" one of the pilots muttered. He thought he had seen a gray cloak in his path, but he shrugged at what was probably an illusion.

"What's up?" his friend asked.

"Nothing, I think. See, I thought I saw—"

Whatever he thought he saw was never revealed when the Van crashed into some unseen force, crushing the pilot into a bloody pulp, and shattering his friend's legs. Moaning in pain, the survivors all tried to make sense of what had occurred. And then they heard a sound that froze the blood in their veins…when it was not bleeding out of them.

Malefic continued his labored laughter. He had teleported a small group of his minions into the path of the fleeing Vans, and had set up a powerful magic barrier to stop their escape. Witnessing the survivors beginning to stagger out, he turned to his minions. "Rippers, Wrestlers, and other fiends serving the Profound Darkness! Feast on these miserable fools! But do no harm to the anything inside those metal boxes!"

Howling their agreement, all of the less evolved demons and quite a few of the more intelligent ones attacked the defenseless technicians. Soon, nothing could be heard but the high-pitched screams of pain of Palmans being eaten alive, and the unnatural sounds escaping the creatures of Darkness, covered in blood.

Malefic enjoyed the show, and when the defenseless mortals were no more, he turned to a pair of Sakoff. "Begin moving the boxes closer to me. Our Lord has need of this elsewhere. Good thing the sea is frozen, too. We can use that as a convenient excuse. Now, hurry! Hurry!"

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

"Impossible! What is being done to stop this rogue force and to locate those missing Vans?" Laya demanded. It was late morning, and she had been at work, dealing with the politics of running her dome and the continued process of integrating the refugees from the Odin's Axe. While the disaster had occurred almost a year ago, the more temperate domes were crowded enough, and the vast majority of the refugees had been sent to relatively empty Frigidia. Most of these refugees were resentful of Orakio, and rumors had hinted that this move had been a deliberate attempt by Orakio to herd his enemies in a single place where he could annihilate them. While Laya doubted the veracity of the rumor, most of the refugees and many of her aides believed it, and she had been forced to take security measures to maintain her own position, and defend the people. The militia she had created, while nowhere near the standards of the Republican Guard, let alone Orakio's Punishers, was sufficient for the purpose of defending against the Amazons and Samurai that still plagued the tundra, despite the Amazon's crushing defeat three years ago, and the forced relocation of the Samurai eighteen months after that. Sipping her tea, she listened to her husband recite what was known about the current situation.

"I've already placed my militia brigades on alert, but it's taking time to mobilize them. Orakio's garrisons at Firon and Drasgow II are severely weakened, since they've sent most of their reserves to aid the embattled brigade at Blind Man's Gap. From what I can tell, they barely have enough to defend themselves. In any case, we've already instituted a curfew, and militia patrols are hunting for the thieves even now."

"Good." Laya turned from Cilor and stared out her office window, still drinking her tea. "I want a full rep—" She stopped, her attention attracted to something outside. "Oh, no! By the Reverent One, no!!"

Startled, Cilor turned his gaze out the window, and gaped in horror. He had sent a militia unit to guard a small town where he had situated an outpost, which was five kilometers from Mystoke. Where that town would be, there was an ominous mushroom cloud gathering. And he knew what he witnessed. Something he had only read about before. Something that should not have occurred. What he saw were the first instants of an atomic detonation.

He might have been entranced at the sight longer if he had not seen his wife crumple to the floor in a faint. "Laya!" Rushing to her, he took her into his arms when he noticed something very wrong…

"No! She's in labor! Her water broke! It's too soon!" Lunging for the speaker system, he shouted, "Get a medical team into the Governor's office! She's in labor! Mobilize the militia units! We have to prevent those Vans from being detonated again!"

Pulling away from military considerations, Cilor clutched his wife to his chest and softly prayed that he not lose her.

***                                            ***                                            ***                                           ***

Seven days. It's been seven days. My baby girl has been born too soon, and they're not sure she will survive. They tell me that if she lives through the next week, she won't die. And now, I know what I must do.

Laya stared out at the expectant faces gathered outside the Castle of Silence, in spite of the cold. Many carried counseling posters, while others watched on with neutral expressions. Cilor had gathered his militia around the people to defend against any intruders. Lune had arrived from Dahlia, to show his support for her. The Mayors of Kirlante, Shusoran, and Endora has arrived as well, each one promising to support whatever measures she deemed necessary. Shaking off her disquiet, Laya gripped her husband's arm for support.

Cilor spoke to Laya in their ancient language, choosing to keep this as private as he could. "Are you sure about this Laya? After this, there is no going back."

"I can do nothing more," she responded sadly.

With a sharp gesture, Cilor summoned the other Politicians to Laya's side. Making sure that he presented himself as Commandant of the Frigidian Militia and husband to the Governor of Frigidia, he hoped that no one would interpret Laya's grip on his arm as weakness. Leading her out to the podium placed on the hastily erected stage, he withdrew, leaving Laya alone.

Taking a deep breath, and discreetly using a Res Technique to boost her energy, Laya began to speak in a firm voice. "This New Year Holiday, normally a time of great joy and revelry, has been a time of great sorrow and pain. Seven days ago, rogues under the direction of an unknown person or persons attacked a convoy under the protection of Orakio Sa Riik's soldiers. These men, while bravely fighting off their attackers, failed to protect the people. The enemy seized the convoy, which had been carrying deadly nuclear wastes, and used it against a helpless town. Over 2,000 innocent people, and the whole of a militia brigade, are now dead. While most of Orakio's soldiers succeeded in surviving against a superior enemy, they failed in their primary mission, which is to protect the people. This disaster has given me, and the Politicians who stand with me, no choice but to declare that we have no confidence in Commander Orakio Sa Riik's governance. We choose not to impeach him, for he has committed no moral wrong, nor is he inept. We declare that the Dome of Frigidia, the Moon of Dahlia, and the city-states of Kirlante, Shusoran, and Endora will now secede from the rule of the Capital City in Dome 2. We shall govern and defend ourselves from this moment on. Commander Sa Riik, this is an ultimatum. We leave your governance and assume independence from your rule. You are to remove all military garrisons from our lands in seven days, or you will face the consequences."