PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 9 of 66 )

: “ Fate’s Edge ”

"Only birth and death are destiny,
the rest are choices and consequences."
- Ailan Temoko Gan, Chief Strategic Advisor

Main deck of Super Freighter Ymei Exultant
The Masa System, Union of Border Worlds
About sundown, Laifen time
1900 Hours ZULU, 11th February, 2681 (2681.042)

The sonorous chanting of the priest sounded eerie in the vaulted expanse of the super freighter, nearly exhausted as he finished the lasts rhyming chant with a tap of a small hollow drum. Another lesser chaplain, the first being on loan from the 451st New Maynah Regulars, a Tanfen loyal Homeguard regiment, took over, joining in, overlaying and then taking over the chant by himself as the first chaplain wiped his brow and took a short rest. Both of them wore the yellow robes of the Taoist priesthood, with the strange floppy and squarish looking hat that denoted their faith. Each of them wore in a scabbard a holy sword made of blessed coins from metal specially purified for demonic purging qualities. They had been at work, guiding his spirit past the numerous dangers of the afterlife until he was able to reach the Taoist equivalent of Elysium.

Before the priests lay an ad hoc altar, a table upon which lay an unfolded tapestry, stretched to about six feet high above the table by poles, showing the court of Hell, including its two most common minions, a horse headed and a bull headed demon, built like Kilrathi Drakhai with giant halberds and naginata but with the heads of said animals, flanking it as door guards. The King of the Underworld along with his coterie of bizarre and terrifying sub deities, charged with various torments in various levels of the underworld, were depicted in gory detail painted upon various parts of the tapestry. Where Christianity simply gave guidelines as to what was verboten, Taoism and Buddhism gave rather graphic and persuasive depictions of what would happen to said sinners or offenders in the afterlife. One could of course run the risk, but Taoism and Buddhism gave a warning what would happen.

Behind that altar lay the empty casket of Lord John Tan. Its solemn durasteel sides were emblazoned with the Family symbol, and draping it in military style was the banner of his original serving unit before he became an administrator and Lord Commander of Sutari. It seemed strangely sad that he was the last surviving member of his squadron, the 18th Red Guards-the Vengeful Twelve. His squadron had fallen above the skies of Maywan to stop a massive Porhen assault when they executed Operation Shatten Sendener, Shadow Hammer in Porhenese. And now, of the 18th Reds, there were none. The colors were to be retired, to be returned to Fortress Home on Laifen to be planted on the Hill of the Fallen, an underground mound of earth in a musty vaulted mausoleum with the colors of destroyed units and squadrons that were to be laid to rest, with their members lying in frozen shattered cockpits or forgotten places and graves across the galaxy, defending the Families and the Corporation with the ultimate sacrifice.

Beside and near the empty casket were rank after depleted rank of grim and silent Loyalist Marines, mourning the fall of their Lord and master. All of them wore full armor and carried their regressive blades. They avoided carrying their handguns, since they served no function at the ceremony. They all also wore black patches of material, signifying their mourning. Most of them showed injury of some sort, some so horrible that they should have been bedridden. The rest of the Corporation, including the regular Homeguard units loyal to the Corp and its hundreds of employees, viewed the ceremony and watched from closed circuit laser links beamed to each ship in the small flotilla. Though not required, it is often Chinese practice to give a sum of money as a sign of respect to pay for the cost of the funeral. Electronic transfers of donations poured in from almost everyone in the Corp fleet, down to the lowest assistant technician. The irony being not lost to Max and his trio of personal Loyalist bodyguards-that their former employer would now receive money instead of giving it, and as payment for his own funeral.

Lady Elayne herself sat quietly sobbing to herself as she continued feeding a small fire with hell bank notes with her handmaidens. Nina Tan, her newborn daughter was with a wet nurse on the medical frigate. It was extremely bad fortune for a newborn child to be in the presence of a funeral, even of her own progenitors. And thus, the widowed woman sat alone save for two trusted hand maidens, burning away each memory of the man she loved as she fed the flames with hell bank notes.

It seemed strangely appropriate, seeing the gothic expanse of the main hold of the freighter. Like an ancient cathedral, the ceiling was so high as to be shrouded in shadow, save for what could be seen by the harsh overhead spotlights. Sounds echoed strangely across the once chock full hold, now empty of refugees but full of mourners. Pipes, vents and tubing ran like metallic worms across a metallic corpse across the walls and ceiling of the ship, and like litanies of praise to God, harsh scrawled words in military block style script warned trespassers of areas with no access or maintenance hatches or of high voltage areas. That it was a metallic cathedral in space would have been an apt comparison, save for the fact that man's labor had made this floating ship in space an empty and hollow thing. Devoid of meaning save for function. Ironically enough, the ship had now been given meaning, being turned into a hall of mourning for what could perhaps, for his generation, one of the bravest and most loyal to wear the mantle of Lord Commander, defending his charges with his very life to the bitter end.

As Kyra watched, the chaplain stopped chanting and beckoned the Loyalists to give their respects. Those that were mobile stood up, even those injured tried their best, but those too crippled to walk or even hold their blades sat and bowed their heads. Celes gave a short bow and went over to join her blood brothers and sisters in paying their final respects as one. Richard led them as they all stood before the altar in serried combat formation. As one, they all drew their regressive blades and then stood at guard position.

Kyra stared in fascination as they all begun an intricate sword dance with such perfection and unity that said much for their skill with the blade. Her protocol briefing had covered this. It was a modified version of the Path of Blades, of which there were 888 stances. With the deep belief the Chinese had for the mystical and astrological, they crafted the path so that configurations of it yielded different magical and mystical meanings as the blades cut through the ether, to cut and mould destiny, so to speak. Though Max had not learnt the Path, he recognized enough to realize that the Loyalists were performing stances in the multiples of four, the number of death in both Chinese and Japanese belief. As it was, the Path of Blades they performed begun at the 4th, then commenced at the 8th, the 12th and so on. In their ancient crafting of the art of swordsmanship in the Path, this configuration yielded a dance of blades that was slow, and sad, and seemingly final as they seemed to weave, leap and do graceful slashes in each of the four cardinal directions. Max knew what they were doing. They Blade danced in that configuration to give respect to Lord John's soul, as well as severing the ties he had to life, both to the four cardinal directions of the earth as well as to the basic elements of creation; earth, air, fire, water and a fifth final one of metal, and to help him on his way into the afterlife. It was one of the most beautiful things Kyra had seen in her life.

Strangely enough, she had begun this mission with a belief that the Tanfenners were simply money minded corporate soldiers, bound to wealth and self interest. As she went more and more into it, she had begun understanding that they were all not the cardboard cutouts of the "Evil Corpers" as the mass media were so fond of putting them. That they were people, with their own culture, their own beliefs and their own unique way of life, with values that were different yet worth defending as much as she defended the Union for what she believed in. She had the opportunity to witness what was essentially a private ceremony, a privilege she had not hoped to receive in her lifetime. Soon, the dance finished, and with one great spinning lunge, they all stopped and scabbarded their blades. Celes walked back to Max side as the rest of the Loyalists returned to their seats, grim and silent, some moved to tears.

The ceremony had gone on for several hours already, but was into its closing sessions. The TPRO officer and Celes, as well as the volunteers had done an incredible job of it. Admiral Hanton was absent, though she expressed her deepest condolences with a carefully worded and bounced off transcomm. message, also asking that Kyra and her squad represent her and the Union of Border Worlds. Kyra Kaslowki observed all this with a fascinated eye, watching for the very first time a Taoist funeral ceremony. It was both strange and mystical. The heady scent of incense and burning hell bank notes formed clouds of mist that were quickly sucked away by the ship's ventilation fans.

She, her XO, and her squad sat a respectful distance away in foldout chairs, quietly observing. Her XO rolled his eyes up, half bored and half scared with the rituals before him. An Arch Reformist Catholic of the Holiest Church of Gemini, he personally thought this apostasy and heresy of the highest order, but held his tongue. Especially due to the fact that  every single Loyalist Marine was but ten paces away from him, and armed with their reg blades. After the fuel raid, he had asked a Loyalist just how sharp their blades were. The Loyalist drew her blade and took out a spare piece of durasteel meant for vehicle armor plating and then hacked it in half with one stroke. He did, however show it by snorting and sulking, halfway torn between walking out and screaming heretic to everyone present. Kyra knew just what her XO was capable of and let out a sigh, hoping he'd stop. He persisted, until even Max turned his head and raised an eyebrow.

Kyra gave her XO the "killer look," the one women gave to men that said "stop what you're doing idiot because you're pissing me off you stupid prick." Her XO shrank back and pulled his collar up, brushing his sleeves in a hurt manner. She knew his routine and realized he'd only act this way when he felt threatened, especially with heresy or rather more recently, in life threatening situations where a 10 gigawatt beam of energy or a quarter sized gauss rifle round could mean instant and often gory death.

He would, of course perform all his duties to the best of his abilities, but he'd sulk like a spoiled little girl the whole time. Seeing a Marine sulk was something special, but ultimately tiresome after the first few times. It wasn't so much as a refusal to obey orders, but more of doing so with a snort, a sigh or a salute bordering on a headslap. She knew, of course that simply shouting at him or reporting him would lose her a (if he was not sulking that is) valuable XO that ran her squad like a finely tuned fiddle. After some experimentation, Kyra found out that he normally turned back to normal after some amount of persuasion that he wasn't going to hell because of respecting another's beliefs, even though they bordered or went way over into heresy or that he wasn't going to die just yet and go to hell for some minor or unconfessed sin. She added that mentally with a sigh to her mental notebook of things to do. After the ceremony was over, she was to take the Union assault shuttle down to Masa's orbit and then take charge of the refugees. Max was quite helpful, including Richard by providing them with TSF sourced supplies as well as giving some pre-fabricated defensive fortifications and heavy anti-fighter armaments for defense. Strangely, Kyra felt amazed that the Corporation had such seasoned, well trained troops and armaments for an organization that supposedly had only as much real life combat situations as stopping the odd pirate raid. From what post combat debriefings she'd been able to squeeze from a friend's email in the Taipans fighter squadron, the TSF, while wearing their Homeguard "hats" fought like veterans to a man and woman, encumbered only by their less sophisticated fighters. She'd have to ask Max later where did they get all this combat experience from.

Though not required, they all, including the XO after a short sharp and vicious shin kick by Kyra, observed and gave their respects to the former Lord John by bowing thrice, to heaven, hell and the departed spirit as well as placing three incense sticks a man. As Kyra finished the last bow, and the last ring of a small bell sounded throughout the cavernous freighter, there was the sound of a loud gasping sob.

Kyra turned at the noise, coming face to face with Lady Elayne as she stood in robes of darkest black mourning. Her eyes were red, teary and streaked with sorrow. Her hair was neat and combed straight, though it was obvious her handmaidens had assisted her in looking presentable. She pointed her finger at Kyra, her once pretty face muted into something angry and filled with bitter, sorrowful, burning hatred.

"You! You murderous bastards! If it weren't for you, John wouldn't have died. Died for all your useless causes! You! You! You! All of you!!!"

Each word was enunciated with her accusing finger at each of the surviving Union Marines. Each word bearing the full force anger of a woman torn from the thing she loved most in life in a cause that was not their own. The hall grew silent. The Loyalists grew uneasy, as well as the Union Marines. Max started to walk forward, asking for calm, before Lady Elayne pointed her finger one more time at Kyra, the easiest target due to her lieutenant's stripes.

"I swear vendetta upon you! Till you are dust, my daughter and I shall devote her life to ending yours!" At that, she crumpled, falling into the arms of her ladies in waiting, quietly sobbing. Max gave a nod of his head at one of the handmaidens. The hall was silent, nothing except the coils of incense roiling about until sucked away by ventilation fans. The only noise was the shuffling of feet as she left, carried by her ladies in waiting. The Loyalists sat silently. Their former Lord's wife had almost as much authority as a full member of Family Tan. Her words carried the full force of law to them. Though they had fought with, and bled with their Union compatriots, achieved a bonding of blood and camaraderie that only those who lived by the sword understood, they all knew that those words would doom them. Them and the Union Marines to a path of bloody resolution. Once Blood Vendetta was announced, it was a point of honor that could only be quenched in the blood of the wrongful one. Though they would do it reluctantly, should Lady Elayne give them the order, they would slay their brothers in arms, the Union Marines, with cold steel and hot lead. To the last man and woman for either side, or die trying. Legalities or laws be damned. It was the Loyalist way.

However, the exact phrasing meant that she wanted vengeance personally, though it was not unheard of to involve additional assistance in a Blood Feud. Max could do nothing about that. He was not from Tan, and thus, had no say in their affairs. He could "order" them to halt, but that authority ended when he renounced his status as Lord Commander and CEO of the Branch. Even then, Family law stated that Blood Feud was out of his hands and that a renunciation order could only be temporary due to a lack of strategic assets. His mother might, but her status as a wife of Family Gan now meant diminished say in the halls of Tan. Kyra stood there, seemingly confused by the strange outburst, and not realizing the full implication of what that outburst meant. To her, her squad and to every warrior present in the bay.

Max moved forward to apologize for his aunts outburst but Kyra held her hand up, giving a mellow smile. "That's all right, Max. She is hurt, lost and angry. I was simply the best target."

"Kyra, you don't…"

"Please, forget about it."

The chaplain cleared his throat, and recommenced the ceremony, temporarily ending the awkward silence. Max gave a glance at Hudgins, who nodded and gestured at the holo video camera crew and mimed a scissors. Good, at least Lady Elaynes vow did not broadcast itself to every ship in the fleet. Hudgins was a public relations genius, perfectly handling the timing, protocol and every minor aspect of the ceremony with an accuracy and preciseness that a TBRAD auditor would approve of. Everyone had been seated in their proper place, with the proper invitations and with the most polite possible advice on proper behavior. A pity that Hudgins' abilities did not go into stopping Blood Vendettas.

Celes paused and froze. She touched her ear, activating her discreet earphone, linked into the central communications grid as she received a report. As if she heard a report from some mystical source from on high, she perked her eyes as she paid attention carefully. "Please repeat," she whispered quietly. "Understood."

Celes nodded as she dismissed and cut the line and then walked over towards Max, beckoning him to lean over in a strangely beguiling way, though she did not realize it herself. It was almost sensual, the way she leaned over on tiptoes as he breathed the message into Max' ear, if not for the import of the message. Her breath seemed to smell sweet to Max, as was the warmth of her body. She seemed all the more beautiful with how the litheness of her womanhood were protected by her body hugging armor and uniform.

"Milord, a report from the recon Arrow we sent to Kohlingen. The Branch has been lost. There are no apparent survivors, and large amounts of orbital wreckage, both organic and metallic. Though our pilot used passive sensors, he has detected a large force of incoming alien enemy ships reaching the jump point to Masa, about two hours, an hour at the least away from us. Your orders?"

The Aliens had beat them to Kohlingen, and massacred more good men and women. Max felt weary. Extremely weary at how the aliens struck with impunity the forces humanity arrayed against them. He wondered why, of all the people that Tanfen and the Families could pick, he had to be the one, apparently the only one left alive to lead some three thousand of his own people, and tens of  thousands of refugees to safety. Duty once more. Always, it was duty. To serve the Families was all. It was always that mantra that was repeated to him, throughout basic, throughout school and now in his career as an officer.

Max sighed, looked at the priest and gave a question. "How long until the ceremony is over?" The priest, sensing it just held up a finger. One more hour. At least. Due to the unfortunate fact that Lord John's condition meant that there wasn't enough of him to stuff into a teaspoon, much less a paper bag, the casket itself was empty. It was to be launched at Masa itself, to burn itself upon reentry like a shooting star.

Damn, he thought to himself. He pointed a finger at his watch and gave the hand signal for danger that all troopers recognized. The chaplain gave a grim nod, and then gave a one truncated by a half. Half an hour. Unavoidable, then. It was an extreme loss of face and disrespect to simply abandon the funeral halfway, but the living had to come before the dead. Max went up to the chaplain.

"We are having a situation, is it alright if I take my command staff and myself?"

The chaplain gave a grim shake of his head, thinking to say no, but saw the look in his lord's eyes. "It would be… bad, milord, but I think the situation warrants it. Please, give your final respects before you go, along with your staff." Kyra saw Celes, her body language and shifted uneasily in her chair. Her XO also noticed it and raised an eyebrow.

Max placed with as much respect as he could the three joss sticks into a holder and bowed thrice. Richard looked at Max, and then gestured to Marle to take over the squad, which had folded in Lord John's bodyguard detail into his squad and formed a reinforced platoon. Richard then walked over to take his place behind his lord as Celes paid her last respects. She then formed up. The three of them walking towards Kyra.

"I'm sorry, Kyra. There seems to have been a… problem. Would you like to join me on the Command deck of the Memory?"

Kyra saw how pale Max's face was and gave a nod. More trouble. "I'll be there."


Far away, within the Sue Surree, something stirred. The man looked horribly thin, and was so, even though he could quite possibly eat a whole Terran horse, hoofs and all. He had hidden in the vent for untold days, keeping his breathing down, and ensuring that he was as quiet as possible. He had fallen into a meditative trance that reduced his vital functions, yet he stirred once or twice when he heard shuddering and explosions throughout the ship. Once, a little boy peered at him through the vent, almost pointing him out to his parents before they hustled him away. It was a close call. Now, it was silent, save for the infernal screaming that awakened him.

The man perked his ears as he craned to listened what it was. Ten million curses upon the Families. Or perhaps, he should interpret it as joy. It was a funeral chant. Someone of note had died. That was good. But bad in a way. The man was not involved in that death, which was altogether quite disappointing. But no matter, a good Tanfenner was a dead one. It was simply annoying that he had awakened from his trance by something so banal and paganistically annoying as a funeral ceremony run by the Families.

In seconds, he had awakened to full alertness and with his good hand levered himself out of the vent and into the corridor. He landed without a sound, and then reached into the vent to pull out his stolen regressive blade. The man sought to walk down the corridor before he noticed something odd. His left arm hung down oddly. With a savage grimace, he reached over with his right hand, and jammed his shoulder bone back into its socket as if replacing a light bulb. He savored the pain, enjoyed its sweet nuances like a summer vintage. Pain was good. Especially giving it generously.

There still was a slight problem though. He was still clad in plain clothes. He had to find more… appropriate attire. Knowing Tanfen procedure, he figured he had to obtain a… volunteer for his clothing or he'd be caught. He may have been death incarnate, but a hundred Homeguard would still overwhelm and take him down. Sneaking like a shadow, he found an appropriate volunteer, a TMMN spacer that looked his height. Judging from the stains on his jumpsuit and ID tag, he seemed to be attached to a maintenance detail. Good. One or two would not be missed, and the fact that they were rotated around fairly regularly meant that one of them missing would not be taken that seriously.

One broken neck and airlock ejected body later, he was now proudly known as Anatole Kai Ron In, Tanfen Merchant Marine Navy crewer number H0411878955. He adjusted his uniform proudly and walked down the corridor, entirely eager to serve his corporation. Which corporation he so proudly served, though, was open to question.


Command Galaxy Starry Memory; Command Deck C
A few minutes later, 2110 Hours

Arrayed before them was a Tri-D depiction of the local system. Burning in like bats from hell was a blinking red wedge of unknown Alien ships. What types they consisted of, Max had only sketchy Intelligence. He specifically forbidden the pilot to paint the Aliens with ladar and radar to find out their exact numbers and also die in the process, but to fall back and report. He told everyone gathered at the holo table the situation. Except now, he was in charge.

Listening to him now was the local division chief of TMMN, along with Ivanov Petrov in his position as CO of the 101st, with Celes as his TISD officer and Richard with another new man, Colonel Kai Yin, of the remaining HG infantry regiments. He had specifically requested that this be a combat briefing only, and cut out non-combat and business parts of the Corp from it.

He actually enjoyed that. So far, all the possible usurpers, apple polishers and every combination of these two types had popped up from the woodwork in the Corp, and thinking him an easy bait had wanted his verigraph so that he'd give them "temporary oversight" in their own little fiefdoms. Too bad. The first thing his mother taught him -- don't sign anything unless he'd read it twenty times, forwards, backwards and sideways as well as upside down. He didn't have the time or luxury to battle paper pushers so he asked Celes to relegate them all to sending in memos and requests, which he "unfortunately" misplaced, and thus had to be resubmit again for approval.

Of course, all of them entered his Junk box on his administrator account, but they didn't know that. And the last time one of those paper pushers from some obscure division Max had no idea even existed, the Tanfen Public Safety Administration Office, demanded an audience, Celes as well as her sisters Akiko and Mai nipped it in the bud. The pompous fellow actually thought to push aside the women and shoulder his way in for an "audience." Celes regretted being so heavy handed, but she heard the fellow was recuperating nicely from a broken wrist on the Jasmine. At least he had learned something productive. Paper pushers were significantly more respectful and polite after that incident, or accident, depending on where you heard it from first.

"That is the problem, ladies and gentlemen. I don't think we can possibly move those refugees back up again, nor do I think we have enough forces to stop and hold the enemy. Though this alien force is a raiding team quite possibly, judging from the size in comparison to other formations they have shown, they still represent a massive force."

He had to find alternatives. Max turned to Ivanov and the TMMN chief. "What other combat capable ships have you dredged up?"

Ivanov answered, "Barring those two reconditioned F/A-76 Longbows, we have a courier P-64 Ferret that we can possibly rearm with a spare pair of lasers and a Dart Dumbfire. That's about it, milord. The rest of what we've found are mostly support and flak defense ships with gatling lasers and firestorm lasers." Ivanov gestured at the TMMN chief as he said that.

The odds weren't good. Before he attended the briefing, Celes had reported that as far as Tanfen was concerned, all their people were on board and ready to go, and that the fleet could leave orbit at any time. However, if they left now, the previously safe refugees were going to be slaughtered. It would have simply been a delay to their fate. Celes gave a shrug. They were not from Tanfen. Did it matter?

Max shook his head. It did. To him at least. Women like Mrs. Felin were down there. People with lives, cares, sorrows and worries like him and Celes. To abandon them like that was cruel. But his upbringing taught him that to survive in a world where gigantic corporations and equally massive faceless governments thrived, only the strong and the ruthless survived.

Kyra stood beside Max. She raised her voice. "Max, I'm afraid I must insist that you do your best to defend those refugees."

Celes gave a signal, nothing more perceptible than her parting the hair over her left ear. As she touched her left ear, she also activated a touch sensitive comlink earring that sent a pulsed signal to her blood brothers and sisters on the freighter. Richard burst suddenly into action and placed a platolum stiletto at Kyra's throat before she could react. "Nothing personal, my dear." he added candidly.

Celes pressed a control that opened a closed circuit camera in the freighter's hold. Kyra's men, all of them, were surrounded and held up by armed Loyalist Marines. It was a standoff, but there was little doubt where the odds were weighed in such close quarters. Kyra knew, as well as all her men that should they fire even a shot at that range, the Loyalists would turn into frenzied killing machines. They might perhaps kill a few Loyalists, but the rest of them would massacre them to a man. "I am afraid not, miss Kaslowski. Please do not force us."

The tables were turned, it seemed. The Loyalists held their regressive blades pointed at the Marines. At the close distance they were, regardless of whether the Union Marines had guns or not, they would have been slaughtered like sheep. The Union Marines did not waver, their pistols were pointed squarely at their compatriots. Both upheld and were willing to lay down their lives in what they believed in, to a man and woman. And now, they were at crossroads. Max stared at Celes. He was amazed at her. And at her Loyalist brethren that they could execute such a maneuver with speed, efficiency and surprise that it surprised even frontline Union Marines.

Celes asked quietly of her master. "Milord, the fleet is prepared to leave at any time. Your orders?"

Richard looked at Max, grief in his eyes. "Milord, I saw we leave her and head for another Branch. They and their kind made us lose many of my battle brothers and sisters." He enunciated with a sneer "Their kind left our Lord, Lord John to die out there. They deserve to rot on this hole. Let the Aliens have them. They have caused enough trouble as it is."

Kyra did not flinch at all. She held Max's gaze calmly. "I believe in what I'm going to need to do, Max. As do you. I believe in my government, as you believe in the Families. That much I have learned from my time with you. If your Family believes in compassion and humanity, as I do, then I ask for your help. If not, let me go with my men. Give me as much of your anti-fighter weaponry as you can spare, and I will do my best to protect those refugees. I will die knowing I did the right thing."

Time seemed to pause and slow as everyone riveted their eyes onto Max. Divine forces it seemed focused their attention on him now. The young man in the centre of a storm. Richard, loyal, boisterous and faithful Richard, his hand never wavering from the knife, simply gave a grin as he regarded his lord. Ivanov looked at him, acknowledging him as his superior officer and lord. If he gave the order, he would go to hell and back and die with the name of the Families on his lips, with honor and glory. Celes looked at Max, her albino red eyes seemingly passionless and emotionless, yet showing hidden and unexplored depths. She would lay down her life for him without question. All of them would. All of them waited for their lord's word.

Kyra stood there, proud and defiant. She was not righteous, not in that sense, but she knew the stakes and that what she fought for was for the side of good. They all waited for his word. If he said it one way, he would doom them all. If he said it another way, he would send a woman, her squad and perhaps just a few thousand non-Tanfenners on their road to the afterlife.

Was it right, the loyal few for the many for which they the Families owed them nothing? Something in Max stirred. It could have been morality, or pity, or perhaps humanity or decency. Perhaps it was a combination of everything. But he felt, and he thought of those innocents. No. Tanfen or not. He had a duty as a member of humanity not to leave them to their deaths.

Celes asked again. "Milord, your orders?"

"We stay and fight. We will fight together…" With that, he left it unsaid, "... and if we fail, we'll die together."

Max gestured to Richard. He removed his knife from her throat and stood back. Kyra regarded Max in a whole new light. "For what its worth… thank you… for helping." She knew it was perhaps a futile gesture. A shouted invective in the teeth of a typhoon, but by God, she'd give the Aliens a good accounting of herself before she went to meet her maker. Max, too, would fall, given the odds, and strangely enough, she would miss his company. Odd. She was actually looking forward to keeping an eye on him.

"Now, I have a plan, so gather around..."