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Heritage of the Lunatak Empire
Part One

The office of Nitro, sire of House Iespyk, was adorned with the remnants of his various conquests. A half dozen sabers, pelts of fallen victims, news reports, trophies and other such souvenirs covered the walls. Located prominently behind the desk was the hide of a Thunderian cheetah, a pelt that was certain to irritate his next guest.

Nitro had never gotten along well with his second son, the result of a careless harem session, and took great pride in reminding the lad of his place in Icewalkers society. The Icewalkers took great pride in the purity of their race, for only by remaining pure could they ever hope to win the war for domination. When his men had captured a Thunderian freighter, they had allowed only one survivor. A cheetah woman whose natural beauty and willingness to do what it took to survive made her a novelty piece in his harem. Said novelty had worn off when it turned out their species were compatible. She had been summarily executed after an escape attempt.

Naturally the animosity between father and son was returned. Knave, even his name denoting his status, was careful to be as vicious toward his father as he could without being declared insubordinate. Even as he strode into the office his rebellious nature could be sensed. Not for the first time, Nitro wondered if it had been a mistake to let the child live. His white and black fur was heavily matted with blood, assuredly none of it his own, and his simple blue vest and pants were in a tattered condition. But it was the fire in his eyes as he reluctantly knelt on the floor that told the tale. "You summoned me, sire?" Knave asked, filling the final word with sarcasm.

"Indeed I have," Nitro answered, steepling his fingers. "The cargo ship was captured and brought here three hours ago. You have either slipped in your abilities or are hiding something."

"Slipped? I must have lost track of the time, I was having so much fun," Knave said, grinning widely. The job of interrogator had been a natural position for him. He enjoyed violence immensely, viewing every prisoner as his prey. Most prisoners' resolve broke within minutes of his ministrations. "There were three on board. There were two Darklings who claimed to be merchants, looking to establish trade relations or some such. Even after lengthy discussions, they seemed to be sticking to the story. Of course, they are trading in fire wine, which is suspicious in itself."

Nitro raised an eyebrow. There were three basic types of Icewalker. Ones who could manipulate ice, those who could manipulate fire, and those who could do both. To the first group, fire wine was a lethal beverage. It reacted poorly to their systems, resulting in almost instantaneous death. "I see. And the other?"

"He's a little more interesting. An Icewalker named Cameo. His mother is part of House Mymekon, a minor ranked family located in the Froston Ridge, our records make no mention of his father. He claims he knew nothing of the fire wine, but had accompanied the merchants because he has news," Knave's eyes shone, showing that the news indeed had been very interesting.

"And how much persuasion did he need to divulge this news?" Nitro asked, hating the game his son was clearly playing.

"That's the strange part. He claims that he'd found himself stranded on the Dark Moon when he came across this information and knew that he had to get it into your hands at once. That's why he got himself passage on board with those Darklings. I wondered if he was lying to save his own skin, but once I heard what he had to offer..."

Nitro tapped his foot. The whelp was going to make him work to hear this information, and that irritated him. Very well then. "And what was this news that he brings us and why isn't it in my hands yet?"

"Oh, right. He claims to have proof on the Darkling moon that the Excelsior's crew didn't die when their shipped crashed a hundred years ago. In fact, they somehow still live on a little planet known as Third Earth." Knave said.

The expression on Nitro's face matched that of his secretary's. "Mother?" he asked, the word barely audible.

"Grandmother Chilla. Alive and well," Knave said, breaking into a wide grin.

"If he can provide this proof, there is nothing he can ask for that will be too great," Nitro said, rising, "you will accompany him to the Dark Moon and get this proof. Then you and he will travel to Third Earth and bring her back. Oh, and if he's lying, kill him in the most brutal fashion you can."

Knave rose and bowed. "It will be done."

Not too far away on the moon a lone figure gazed up at the mountain city, once again cursing the Icewalkers for having such a desolate home. Cold wind nipped at the figure's skin causing them to bundle up further. The woman was of Psion decent, a moon that was virtually all desert, and that made this cold even more unbearable. The cities on this moon were largely carved into the rock of the many mountains. The more wealthy families were located near the summit, accessible only by ship, by the heavily guarded tunnels, or by treacherous footpaths. It was the last that the woman would need to use in order to reach her destination. She pulled her cloak more tightly about her and prayed that no wolves were on the prowl today.

On another moon, a densely forested moon whose canopy of trees were so thick that light struggled to pierce the veil, a lone bus droned quietly along the road. There were few patrons on the vehicle, and most of them stood or sat near the front of the bus in order to be away from the elderly lady and the small boy that accompanied her. They regarded her with a mixture of distaste and pity as she, like many, had been affected by the tainting of the water supply a few years back. Her skin had darkened, the first symptom that the victims developed, and then it had affected her mind. Most died within weeks, but she had not.

"Parsnips!" she cried out suddenly, much to the lad's annoyance. It had been such a quiet trip that he'd almost hoped this wouldn't happen. "If I don't get some parsnips soon I will surely die!"

"Don't worry nana. We'll get you some soon," he said, patting her hand reassuringly. She had been a friend of the family for years and when she had been hit by the poisoning they had taken her in. "Please settle down, people are staring."

"Bah. Let them stare. Why, men used to stare at me all the time when I was younger, did you know? And now they won't give me any damn parsnips," she grumbled.

"I promised we'd get you some. We're almost at the doctor," he assured her, wishing the trip to be over. He was just about to say more when there was a blinding flash of light followed swiftly by an explosion. Screams filled the air as the bus was rent in many pieces. The lad felt himself lifted into the air by the force of the blast and hit the ground hard. He struggled to get up, to get to safety, but felt something heavy land on his back, knocking him unconscious.

The city of Dagger Mouth Ridge was located in the southern region of the Ice Moon. Since the House Iespyk governed the city, everyone turned a blind eye to the goings on of the dungeon. As Knave walked the tunnels he noted the looks and wide berth he was given. He knew what people thought of half-breeds and he knew of his reputation, they may have been looks of loathing, but they were also ones of respect and fear. He was at odds, a circumstance he blamed on his mixed heritage. The Lunatak side despised them, hated how he was treated and longed to have a chance to demonstrate his skills. The Thunderian side countered that these were his people, he had been taught that they were the superior race and deserved his unswerving loyalty and that if he wanted their respect he would have to earn it.

One man who had earned some of Knave's respect was the Icewalker seated in the prison cell. Cameo had proven to be a model prisoner, barely needed any roughing up. He had co-operated with the guards and may have given them the means to win the war. Knave nodded brusquely at the solitary guard watching him and opened the cell door.

"I take it your father believed me?" Cameo asked, looking pleased.

"Yes. You are to take me to this evidence of yours and then to Third Earth," Knave replied, stepping aside. "Once you have provided me with a living Chilla you are free to name your price."

"I'm to go with you?" Cameo asked hesitantly. "That really wasn't part of my plan. I kinda had other plans."

"They've been changed. If you are lying or resist me, I am ordered to kill you in the slowest way imaginable, and believe me I've got a vivid imagination," Knave said, his words causing even the guard to pale.

"I know. I saw what you did to the Darklings. Fine, it's probably for the best if I go with you anyway. It'll be an adventure or something. We'll need a ship of some kind, one that can help us sneak on to the Dark Moon," Cameo said, as Knave led the way out.

The Psion woman made good time walking the footpath up to the main gate of the House Iespyk compound. Once in sight she paused in the shadows of a boulder and stared intently at the grounds. There were two guards per post, four posts total, and a central building that probably was the barracks. That meant she couldn't afford any errors. She focussed her psychic powers around her and strode forward.

"Using the same ship we came in on. Brilliant idea," Cameo said, settling into the cockpit of the ship. His companion settled into the passenger seat and leaned back, clearly having little interest in working the controls, and less interest in conversation. "Okay then. The controls aren't too different from the ships I normally fly, so this shouldn't be too bad. Just start the engines, engage thrusters, raise the landing gear and we're good to go." There was no comment from his silent companion, so Cameo went on. "You know, it says quite a bit that your father didn't trust me to do this alone. Wants you to tag along."

"It also says how much he thinks of me," Knave thought to himself, "the Dark Moon is hostile territory to an Icewalker, especially after what my brother did. And who knows what dangers await on this Third Earth."

"I think if things go right, you and I could make quite the pair," Cameo was still going. "You've got the muscle and I've got the brains. The fights we could win against Mutants and Thunderians would be incredible."

"What about Lunataks?" Knave asked.

The question caught Cameo off-guard. He hadn't even been sure if the hybrid was listening. "Well, I guess we could fight Lunataks if we had to. It's just that I've always heard tales of the golden days, when the moons were united against common foes. It's a sound strategy when you think of it. They all have their uses."

"Mostly as stew," Knave remarked, deciding to retreat back into silence.

"Stew? I know it's tradition but it's still disgusting. Anyway, my point is "

The rescue teams on the Dark Moon were nothing if not efficient. Within moments of the bus explosion they had contained the damage, the resulting fire had been extinguished and the wounded were sorted into immediate care and those who could wait. The older woman in the back had slipped into a coma, though her injuries were largely superficial. The boy they'd found near her had called her Shade' upon opening his eyes and was constantly asking about her. After reassuring her that she was under the best possible care, he'd been convinced that his own wounds needed to be tended to. The pair were placed in an ambulance and rushed off.

The third moon of Plundarr was home to the royal family of Lunataks. It contained the geography of all the other moons. Lush green forests, sprawling deserts, fertile grasslands and frigid ice caps. It was said in legend that it had once been a planet in its own right until the king decided to split it into segments for each of his five sons to inherit. The current inhabitant of the royal apartments wasn't much into the religious aspect of things. He believed in having keen wits and a healthy heap of luck.

Tycho Lunar, whose lineage to the throne required a flow chart to decipher, lay face down on his bed, reports scattered across the mattress. "Have I ever mentioned how much I hate bureaucracy?" he asked of his companion.

A few centuries ago, it had been discovered that the other moons were using their powers to influence members of the royal family. Since the populace of the Royal Moon had no powers of their own, they did the next best thing; The Guardian program was started. Genetics experts assembled and created all sorts of creatures whose sole purpose in life was the protection of the royal family, each customized to suit the family member's particular desires. Tycho's was a shape changer named Darius, a greenish humanoid with a pair of wings when in his natural form. He stood a little over five feet, though he could draw in and expel mass to some degree through a process Tycho didn't really understand, allowing him to take on just about any form he chose. Tycho wondered where he would be without the man. He was friend, confidante, protector, body double, and lover all rolled into one.

At the moment Darius was watching his ward while seated in an arm chair near the window. "I believe you've mentioned it once or twice," came the reply, a trace of mirth on his lips.

"Look at this," Tycho waved a sheaf of paper in Darius' direction. "It's a letter from the Psions with their list of demands if we want them to sign the new peace treaty. Taxes, trade goods, the right to put someone of their choosing on the throne. Do they really think anyone is going to fall for this? At least the Icewalkers are more straight forward. They have a large number of blood debts they want repaid before they will sign. I seem to have avoided being on that list but a number of other high ranking officials haven't."

Darius stood and walked over to the bed and settled himself at Tycho's side, slowly massaging the man's shoulders. "Dare I ask want the Darklings want?" he asked, his voice turned low and soothing.

"They will only entertain the idea if House Iespyk is brought to justice before them, and we both know the likelihood of that happening," Tycho sighed and flung the papers off the bed. They could wait until morning. It was always the same song and dance anyway. He stared up in to Darius' face "It's about the same as you getting any sleep tonight."

The small cargo ship approached one of the landing platforms that rose from the greenery. The entire trip Knave had been wondering how the two of them were going to get off the ship and to Cameo's hiding spot. The thought of simply fighting his way through appealed to him, but he knew his limitations. These landing platforms were usually crawling with guards, and the numbers game would add up very quickly. As the ship touched down he was just contemplating how effective a disguise would be when Cameo stood and handed him a small silver disk. "Holoprojector," he explained, "I've already programmed it to show us as Darklings, so try and act the part." Knave nodded and followed him out the door.

"Your tea, sir," Nitro's secretary said, entering the room and carefully placing an ornate cup on the rock hewn desk. "Will you be requiring anything else tonight?"

"There's one more letter for you to proofread, unless you have other matters?" Nitro replied. It was less a request and more a challenge. The secretary could turn it down, but he would be facing consequences if he did. Reluctantly he took the pages from his sire and settled at his own desk in the corner of the large room. He settled in to work while Nitro perused some paperwork of his own.

It was quiet in the room, the only noises made being the shuffling of paper. Four guards stood at attention near the door, and the thick white carpet muffled the sounds of any movements they might make. So it came as doubly surprising when one of the guards let out a gurgled cry of pain, blood spewing forth from his back. The other three guards wheeled, weapons drawn searching for the attacker to no avail. Nitro stood, a pistol from the drawer in one hand and a sabre in the other. Long seconds passed and the guards grew more and more nervous. A second one suddenly clutched at his throat as blood erupted from a wound that had appeared. The two remaining guards fired blindly in the direction that an attacker would be.

"Whoever you are, you're making a mistake. I am Nitro. Sire of House Iespyk. And you will suffer dearly for this," Nitro said, backing himself into a corner and holding his sabre in front of him.

"Then I have made no mistake," a feminine voice said from somewhere across the room. Nitro tried to estimate where it had come from and fired three shots, each missing. The guards moved in that direction, swinging their own blades wildly.

"Who are you?" Nitro snarled, noting out of the corner of his eye that his secretary had fainted. There was no reply. Indeed, the only sound he could hear was the heavy breathing of the two surviving guards. Then there was a violent cracking sound as one of their heads was turned at an awkward angle, neck snapping, and causing him to fall to the ground.

"Three down, two to go," the voice whispered, seeming to suddenly be very close. Nitro hissed and breathed a stream of ice in the general vicinity of the voice, but seemed to have missed. "A little ventriloquism," the voice taunted. "You are most fortunate. Most of my victims never learn of my presence, never hear my voice or see my face."

Nitro scanned the room, searching for footprints in the carpet or some other clue as to her location. The last guard doubled over clutching his chest. Blood spurted through twin punctures near his heart and Nitro knew that the man would soon be dead. "Why?" he asked, his own heart beating quicker.

"Because my masters wish you to know who has killed you and why. Waiting nearby is the Psion fleet. With one of their lead tacticians dead, your moon will be vulnerable. All I need to do is signal when you die and your people will either surrender or join you in the afterlife," the woman said. Nitro's eyes widened, not in surprise but at what he had noticed. His pistol fired once and he heard a satisfying grunt followed by a flickering image of a cloaked woman. The image faded, though he fancied he could see a slight distortion. Her hand had been on her rib cage and a single blade in her other hand.

The image flickered again, this time showing she was closer, walking somewhat gingerly. Nitro breathed a heavy sheet of ice at the image, grinning broadly when the woman came clearly into view, her body trapped from the waist down in a solid block of ice. "Drop your weapon," he said, pointing with his sabre, "or I remove your hand." Black eyes glowered back at him, but she obeyed. "Good. Now you're going to sing for me, little bird, or else I'll resort to other methods."

"How did you do it?" she asked, hoping to delay, hoping her forces would attack soon.

"You got sloppy. You're obviously a Psion with the power to convince people you're not there. What you couldn't convince me of was the blood dripping from your knife. Once I saw the drops, you were dead. Now talk. Who are you, how many are in your attack force, are there other assassinations planned, where are they planning to strike, who are your ring leaders?" Nitro said, pacing slowly around his prisoner. He gestured at his secretary, who was rousing, to fetch more guards and inform the army to be ready for attack.

The assassin considered. Her employers had paid her very well and would likely attack soon, with or without her signal. The question was what would Nitro do to her in the interim. "My name is Zanaya. I am from the Psion Moon and I refuse to tell you anything that might give you an advantage over my people," she said, earning her a backhand.

"No matter. You would doubtless lie to me anyway," Nitro said, as several guards entered the room. "Take her to the dungeons. She's got camouflage powers, so even if the cell looks empty, it isn't. If she tries to use her powers you have my permission to beat her until she stops. And if the little birdie decides to talk, let me know. I'll be in the war room."

Roly Poly, head council member of the Graviton Moon settled himself on a bar stool at the government pub. The moon was a peace loving place, preferring to solve problems with a tankard of ale and a bowl of junk food. Whatever booze couldn't solve, the free love could. Half clad Gravitons danced and swayed about the room while others played a shuffleboard-like game or darts.

Outside the bar were verdant fields and sprawling grasslands. Due to the high gravity, nothing grew very tall and that included the inhabitants. There was no such thing as a two story building, though some had luxury basements. Of the five moons, the home of the Gravitons was the most peaceful, remaining out of the conflict and offering themselves as a trading post and as a neutral site for any treaty discussions.

"Ees there any business?" Roly Poly asked, downing a tankard.

"A minor scuffle at one of our trading outposts, but nothing serious," one of the council members said, launching a dart at the target, narrowly missing the board.

"Excellent. Glad to hear eet, Pop Stop. Anything else?" Roly Poly looked about, hopeful there wouldn't be.

"The Snruzz brewing plant ees trying out a new flavour. They're hoping eet will appeal to the Darklings. Eet's supposed to have a buttery taste to eet," a female Graviton, in the middle of an elaborate dance move announced.

"Buttery? This ees indeed important business. The council must sample this before the Darklings do, to make sure eet tastes alright," Roly Poly said, pounding on the bar with one meaty fist. "All een favour?"

"Aye!" came the chorus.

"All opposed?" Not a sound was heard. "I didn't think so."

Knave fumed silently at the length of time it was taking to get to this secret hiding hole of Cameo's. He almost suspected that he was being delivered into the hands of the proper authorities. Wouldn't that be a feather in the cap of the Darklings. After all, it had been the elder of his two younger brothers that had poisoned the water supply here. No one would have known it was him at all if he hadn't gotten waylaid at the landing pads trying to escape. His execution had been broadcast across the moon, with a copy sent directly to House Iespyk.

Knave recalled watching in horror as Davyn was consumed in flames. He'd actually liked that brother. His other two treated him much the same way his father did, but not Davyn. Davyn saw him as a potential asset on the battlefield and worthy of his trust. It had been Knave that he'd sought out before going on the mission, expressing concern that it wouldn't go well, and wondering if he'd ever see his girlfriend again.

So lost in thought was he that it wasn't until after the third tap on the shoulder that he realized that Cameo was saying something. "What?" He snapped somewhat more irritably than he'd intended.

"I said, we're here. You feeling okay? You've been in a trance the last half hour. Keep a look out for anyone coming. I overheard someone talking about a bus explosion nearby so there might be extra police about," Cameo said, slipping a little ways off the beaten path into the brush. He carefully moved a fallen tree branch off a sizeable rock and then removed said rock. Beneath was a hole containing a locked box. It was this box that Cameo handed to Knave. "Here it is, proof that your grandmother yet lives," he said. "We'll open it once we're back on the ship."

"Why not now?"

"Because, we're in the open, and you probably don't want them seeing what's in here," Cameo said.

It was dark on the Darkling Moon, but even darker when night fell. Only the foolhardy or brave ventured outside at these hours. By the time Knave and Cameo got to the landing platforms it was almost pitch black. Even their infrared goggles seemed to be helping very little. As a consequence, they found a hotel to stay in, claiming to be tourists from the other side of the moon. The proprietor didn't ask any more questions and gladly sold them a room.

Tajengo sat at the bedside of Shade. The doctors had insisted that his wound be stitched first, but when it was done he ran to her side. He felt almost to blame for the incident. He'd been the one to insist they take the transit to the clinic, he could have taken his own car, but had been trying to save the fuel cost. He'd also been the one to insist on leaving early and not taking the next bus. It was foolish to play what if' but it was all he could do at present. He stroked her hand gently, hoping that she would come out of the coma. A smiling doctor entered, carrying a blanket and draped it over his shoulders, silently encouraging him to catch some sleep where he sat.

In the war room of Nitro Iespyk, eight of the highest ranking Icewalkers had managed to join Nitro either via monitor or in person. "Reports!" Nitro said, looking from one to another. He had just relayed the limited information provided by his prisoner and his own people.

"Our scanners aren't detecting anything yet out of the ordinary around the Psion Moon."

"Our spies on the Psion Moon have noted some troop activity near their northern city, but nothing entirely out of the ordinary."

"I've been in contact with House Blyzzard and their sire was found dead in his bathtub."

"House Blyzzard, eh? They're in the same mountain range as us, which suggests this region will face the brunt of any attack. Reposition units to this ridge, have our orbital patrols doubled. I want those traitorous Psions to pay for their boldness," Nitro said.

Tycho extracted himself from the tangle of sheets on his bed. Darius had left some time ago in that way of his that ensured the young king would get all the sleep he could. He'd even managed to set a tray of breakfast on the end table for when he woke. How well Darius knew him, he'd even sorted the thrown papers into piles ranging from important to things he could delegate.

On the top of the first pile was a message from his chief rival, Aristarchus. He was planning to challenge, again, Tycho's claim to the throne, citing a second lover in his grandmother's past that may have been his real father rather than the blood tie he currently claimed. Tycho sighed and bit into a piece of toast, liberally smeared with some kind of jam. Aristarchus would always be a thorn in his side. Others would probably arrange for him to disappear, but Tycho always hoped for a more peaceful end. With the attempts on his own life, it appeared that the only end would be when one of them was resting in peace.

Cameo settled himself once again in the pilot seat of the cargo ship. The ship wasn't really designed for interstellar travel. They would probably need to change ships again once they returned to the Ice Moon. He tossed Knave a silver key and turned back to focussing on the controls.

The hybrid gingerly opened the box and opened it reverently, his face betraying his excitement at the prospects of what was inside. Five pieces of paper, each bearing the face of one of the passengers from the Excelsior, each bearing their name and a sum offered for their capture. "Signed Evil Chaser First Class Mandora: Interplanetary Control Force," Knave spat. He'd heard the name, she'd even tried to intervene in the wars once. She'd been summarily told off and reminded that the moons governed themselves and answered to no control force. "Do we know if anyone has turned them in?" he asked suddenly.

"I've heard varying reports, but your computers will probably tell us for certain," Cameo replied. "We'll be back home in a few minutes."

Knave remained focussed on the sheets of paper, trying to decide if these could be some kind of forgeries. It just wasn't possible that they could still be alive. Chilla had been forty-two when she'd left. Lunataks were long lived, often reaching a hundred and fifty or so, but even still would make Chilla an old woman. But the picture made her look as young as she'd been when she left. He glanced up and noticed that Cameo was having trouble getting past an Ice Blade fighter that had met them in orbit. He pushed Cameo away from the view screen. "This is Knave, second son of Nitro, of the House Iespyk. We bear urgent news for my father. Unless you wish to anger him you will clear us for landing immediately," he said, staring into the monitor at a suddenly nervous pilot.

"Yes sir, sorry sir. No need to detain you. *ahem* You are cleared for landing," the pilot said, punching some buttons on his console. The screen went blank and Knave smugly settled back into the passenger seat.

"That wasn't necessary. He was just doing his job," Cameo said defensively. As a pilot himself, he was protective of others in the profession.

"I know that, I even admire it, but let him hassle someone else. I don't want to deal with it right now."

The prisons in the mountain city weren't built for comfort, Zanaya reflected. The guards had manacled one wrist to a long chain attached to the wall and erected an energy field across the door. The walls were solid stone covered in a sheen of ice. The floor was damp, cold and hard. The only light came from the hallway outside the door.

As they'd placed her in the cell the guards had been none too gentle, jarring her ribs against a rocky point in the wall. A doctor, she was assured, would be by later to make sure she wouldn't die from the wound so that they could execute her properly later. She flexed the fingers of her shackled hand, certain that the clasp was on too tight and that they were going numb.

Across the hall from her were two Darklings, one of whom appeared to be missing his legs, and both were coated in blood. The one that was intact, through fits of tears, explained that the other's legs had been chewed off and then force fed to them. If that was the kind of punishment meted out for selling fire wine, Zanaya wondered what murder and attempted assassination would bring.

Tycho found Darius where he expected him to, waiting patiently outside the door reading a book. He closed the book and fell into step beside the king of the Lunar empire as they headed for their ten o'clock appointment. The two knew each other so well that it was amusing, neither liked being late for anything, and that kind of assurance allowed them to keep reliable schedules. Darius had likely known that Tycho would leave his room at nine fifteen and had made sure he was there at nine oh five.

They were currently headed to one of the genetics labs. Since he'd ascended the throne, the pair had decided that a second Guardian was in order. The creatures were tricky and expensive to produce, so their production was limited. "You know what we should do," Darius said, a hint of cheer in his voice. "We should genetic engineer ourselves a genetic engineer. Someone we can make absolutely loyal to us."

"Oh? And why is that?" Tycho asked, his own mood lifted by Darius'.

"I've always wondered about imprinting traits of loyalty in the Guardians. Surely an unscrupulous person..."

"Like Aristarchus?"

"Like Aristarchus. Surely they could pay our engineer to create a spy. He could have the Guardian pretend to be loyal to us, but actually be loyal to him. Unless of course this person made the genetic engineer a spy. But that just complicates things, don't you think?"

Tycho let out a healthy laugh, wrapping an arm around Darius' shoulders. "You see, that's why I love you. Always thinking. Personally though, present company aside, I dislike the Guardian program. It feels too artificial. You shouldn't have to make people loyal to you, it should come naturally. I would rather have someone want to work for me than to do so because of some geneticist's coding. It's like taking the work out of my hands."

"Oh, I agree, but people can only be trusted so far. For too many, loyalty can be purchased with money, and that's a risk you can't always afford. And yes, engineering takes some of the free will out of it. It's funny that we're so much on the same wave length. Are you sure you didn't program me to agree with anything you say?" Darius asked, eyes twinkling. Tycho laughed again.

The hangar bay was teeming with activity as the cargo ship landed. The two Lunataks disembarked and stopped a technician going by to ask what was happening. He explained to them the situation and rushed off. "I guess our trip is postponed," Cameo noted, "there's no way we'll be able to get a ship until this is over. Besides, they're going to need all the pilots they can get."

"I suppose my father is going to want me to do something too, probably guard duty or some other menial job," Knave replied. "Well then, we'll meet up after the fight. Stay alive."

"I'll do my best."

Coldwin climbed into his small fighter craft, an Ice Sabre class ship, and began performing systems checks. It lacked a little in ordinance, but made up for it with manoeuverability. He had to admit that the Psions were his least favourite combatants; they never fought fair. A typical Psion craft held two, unlike his one. The first person was the pilot and gunner, usually reasonably skilled, though the Psions didn't have a large talent pool in this regard. The shortcomings of the pilot were negated by the passenger, usually a telepath or telekinetic. Space combat was difficult enough without someone rummaging through your head, or holding your ship in place, turning you into a sitting duck. Why couldn't it be Mutants? Those were easy. Big bulky ships, loaded with firepower but slow as molasses. Mutant ships he liked. Them he could deal with. But not Psions.

Zanaya lay still on the bed, chewing on a wad of cloth the doctor had provided. Surgery to remove the bullet that had pierced just below her rib cage was less than pleasant, but necessary. The doctor seemed a pleasant enough person, friendly, almost caring towards her. It was a pity that she would be a pawn in the assassin's escape. "Could... could you check my wrist? I think it's broken," she said, filling her voice with as much weakness as she could. The doctor's eyes widened and she picked up the nearly limp arm. "Ah! It hurts," Zanaya hissed. Gingerly the doctor set it back down and went to speak with the guards.

They were speaking in hushed voices, but Zanaya could tell that the guards were reluctant to unchain her, while the doctor was indicating that she was in no condition to escape. Finally, after a lengthy argument, the guards relented and handed over the key.

As soon as the manacle was removed, the Psion leapt into action, utilizing her camouflage powers, decking the doctor, and diving through the cell door before either of the guards could react. One rushed the door and filled the room with ice and cursed when he realized the prisoner wasn't there. The other guard sprinted for an alarm nearby but found his progress halted as the doctor's scalpel buried itself in his neck. The first guard tried breathing down both halls but couldn't find the escaped prisoner anywhere. With his gun drawn he slowly walked towards the same alarm, eyes scanning around him for any hint of where she might be. He was almost there when Zanaya emerged from the shadows and jumped on his back, hands wrapped tightly around his throat. He struggled for breath even as he felt his life slipping away. He dropped to one knee and then fell forward.

Zanaya counted to thirty before releasing her grip. She walked over to the other guard and examined him. Not dead, merely paralysed. His own people could deal with him. She fished around in his pockets for keys and promptly unlocked all the cells. There weren't many prisoners in here, and many of them were badly injured, but a jailbreak would throw things into confusion enough for her purposes. With that done, Zanaya followed the group out of the dungeons.

"Ah, Tycho, good to see you again. Come to see the progress I presume?" a thin scientist asked, straightening his coat. Tycho nodded. "Ah, excellent, excellent. You won't be disappointed I think. Chamber number three I believe it is, ah yes, yes. Here it is. Nearly complete, almost ready for awakening. As you can see I started with a captured Panther Thunderian cub, enhanced its reflexes and infused it with a strong sense of loyalty to you, oh yes, loyalty was a little difficult to do. Too much natural loyalty in these Thunderians, have to tweak it and guide it. If they weren't so useful I'd have nothing to do with them, to be honest with you, indeed I wouldn't."

"You've done well, Erdwin, the throne is pleased with your work," Tycho said as formally as he could.

"Is this what I think it is?" Darius asked, pointing at a nearby stasis chamber. It contained a similar looking green skinned creature. This one's tint was a little more vibrant, indicating it was a female of the species.

"Ah that? Oh yes, that one would be for, oh let me look that up. Ah, it seems to be for Kaprenius. He took a great liking to the work my predecessor did on you and asked me to duplicate it. I, ah, must admit to some difficulty. Your shape changing was a closely guarded secret, and I've only figured parts of it out. But I'm nearing a breakthrough, I can feel it in my bones, I can." Erdwin said, rubbing his hands together gleefully.

"Let us know how that turns out. In fact, keep us informed on all your experiments. The empire will reward you well for such knowledge," Tycho said.

"Oh indeed I will, as the majesty requests," Erdwin said, bowing.

Nothing. Nitro had had nothing for Knave to do, and had suggested that he would be best serving the moon if he stayed in his room out of the way. Feeling useless, he found rage building and knew the best thing to do would be to blow off steam in the dungeons lest he do something he shouldn't. He was rounding a corner when he caught sight of a dozen or so people of varying races. All of whom he'd last seen in the dungeons. Their eyes widened at the sight of him, and the prospect of revenge spurred them into advancing on him.

His family's trademark icepick slipped easily into his hands as he gauged the situation. Twelve on one was normally poor odds, but these were wounded and weakened prisoners which evened the odds tremendously. "You have five seconds to return to your cells," he growled, tensing his muscles.

"Kill him!" someone shouted.

"Avenge the others!" another chimed in.

"I was hoping you'd say that," Knave smiled and pounced, his icepick lashing out at the lead member of the pack, slashing across the belly of an Icewalker who had been caught selling secrets. His fist crunched into the face of the upright Darkling trader, causing both he and his companion to fall. The remaining group tried to swarm him but he was too quick for it and retreated back so he could attack again. As he braced for another assault he thought he caught a whiff of something in the air, the familiar scent of blood and ointments. He didn't have time to think much on it as an jackal Mutant, whose ears he'd previously shredded, picked up one of the fallen guards' gun. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, Knave bolted back up the tunnel to the guard post near the entrance to the dungeons.

Zanaya's heart was pounding as she slipped into the city tunnel system. The half-breed had detected her somehow. She knew of him, the report on her target had mentioned him in passing, and she hoped that the prisoners would kill him. Any blow against the Icewalkers was welcome. She wondered where Nitro would be at this point, whether it would be wise to try to complete the mission or get space borne. The answer to the latter would depend greatly on the former.

"Jailbreak! A dozen of them, two armed," Knave panted, his heightened speed allowing him to arrive in seconds flat. The six guards who had been lounging around immediately stood and headed back down the tunnel. The escapees were ready, the two with weapons leapt into the corridor and started firing, wounding one guard in the process. The fight didn't last very long, but it was deadly. In the end five of the prisoners were killed and the rest were wounded. When it was discovered that the assassin was missing, Nitro was informed.

With his fighter fully charged, Cameo donned his helmet and slipped into the seat. The Psion attack fleet had been spotted leaving their moon and would arrive in an hour or so. "All units, ready for launch," a voice said in his headpiece.

"Affirmative. Cameo ready for launch," he replied.

"All units remain in formation. Follow your squad leader and bring glory to the empire."

Cameo's hands moved across his control panel. Once the ship in front of him started moving towards the gaping maw of the hangar bay he began to move himself. There was a rush of adrenaline pumping through his veins as the small fighter craft roared out through the doors, following the three ships in front of him through the thin atmosphere in to the cold darkness of space. He scarcely heard his leader barking orders to the other ships, focussing on the task at hand. Soon, very soon, there would be the familiar routine of combat. A chance to do his duty and protect his home world. "Cameo, keep on my flank," the squad leader instructed. Cameo affirmed that he'd heard and shook his head to clear it of all thoughts. The only thing that mattered now was victory.

His scanner chirped, indicating that a large number of Psion ships were approaching fast. He counted thirty, maybe thirty-five of the things spiralling closer to his position. He waited, one eye on the squad leader, preparing to move when he moved. Suddenly, though, he didn't feel like doing this anymore. All this fighting was doing was resulting in the deaths of many, there was no point. Besides, he thought, the Psions were the superior fighters, they didn't stand a chance. "No!" he shouted aloud, pinching himself to try and wrench his mind away from the telepath's grasp.

"Easy there," the squad leader's voice came through clearly. "Let's get them back for that dirty trick."

As the lead ship slipped left, Cameo followed suit, picking out the group of Psion ships they were headed for. Other squads were doing likewise, choosing their targets and acting accordingly. Cameo could feel the telepath trying to gain a foothold in his mind again and glowered. "Stop that," he grumbled.

"Why should I?" the telepath's voice rang strong in his head. They were clearly getting closer. "You are inferior to us. You will be destroyed like all of your comrades unless you surrender."

"Never... surrender..." Cameo said, angrily firing his weapons at the closest Psion ship, pleased when it exploded before his eyes, and even more pleased when the probing voice in his head disappeared.

"Cameo. Get back in formation!" the squad leader said, bringing a relieved smile to the pilot. Now that was a voice he hoped wouldn't disappear.

"Attention all units. Be advised that a dangerous prisoner has escaped the dungeons. She is described as a Psion female who can camouflage. Security measure Alpha-seven-one is in effect," a man's voice said over a radio. Zanaya was passing by a police officer as the report came in and cursed to herself. She had hoped she would have more time to complete her mission. Deciding that she didn't really want to find out what security measure Alpha-seven-one' meant, she changed her course and headed for the nearest exit. If she could reach her escape ship, she might be able to slip back to the Psion Moon during the fighting.

There was a warning beep going off in his ear, but Coldwin couldn't do anything about it. Some damned telekinetic had managed to shut off his engine, leaving him quite helpless until the stupid machine could power up again. In the meantime the telekinetic's partner was barrelling towards him, laser fire searing the hull. He closed his eyes, praying to any gods that were willing to listen that he would get home again, would get to see his wife and kid again. His eyes opened again just in time to see his wing mate destroy the oncoming ship. Shrapnel from the vessel struck his own, and he knew he would have to retreat back to base for repairs.

With the taste of blood, most of it not his own, still fresh on his lips Knave helped the guards escort the living prisoners back to their cells. There would be an inquiry out of all this. Someone would need to be blamed, and measures put in place to ensure that it didn't happen again. Nitro would probably insist on executing someone, he mused to himself, possibly one of the prisoners though he was just as likely to accuse the doctor and the guards as having been in on the escape. Knave pitied them, they had been following orders after all, and knew they were just doing their jobs. There was no protocol that said a prisoner couldn't be unchained briefly. This one was quick though, and Knave wanted to meet her again.

Cameo let out a breath he didn't realize he was holding. Over half the Psion ships were either crippled or destroyed and they were finally turning tail. He did a quick tally of the Icewalker forces and noted that despite greatly outnumbering the Psions, they'd lost roughly the same percentage. He turned his ship around and headed home, dreading the next part.

The disembarking was terrifying. Searching the hangar for familiar faces and realizing that there were fewer of those than when you'd left. How many families would be missing a loved one tonight? It made Cameo want to cry. His eyes noted the two missing ships from his squad of seven. Snowdron and Gustril. The latter had a two year old girl and wife. Both would be devastated. Cameo wasn't sure about Snowdron, he'd always kept to himself. Still, the man had been dependable in a fight, a crack shot. Cameo could remember Snowdron screaming in his headset about being on fire before his communicator went dead. A pyrokinetic then. They were the rarest breed of Psion, but he'd heard rumours of some being active.

His squad leader came over and clapped him on the shoulder, congratulating him on his work out there while offering support. It was hardest on the squad leaders, he'd been told, as they were responsible for the safety of the flight. There would be a debriefing soon, he supposed, and then some rest. His trip to Third Earth would have to wait.

Thermal scans! Zanaya hissed to herself from the safety of a doorway. At every exit to the city there were a pair of guards with thermal scanners, calibrated to detect non-Icewalker body temperature. A brain she could fool, but not those damned pieces of machinery. Escape would require a little more finesse. The assassin slipped into an abandoned residence and decided to take a quick nap.

Aristarchus watched his son from a distance, seated in the parlour of his mansion. Kaprenius was only twenty, still quite young by Lunatak standards, and was chatting amiably with a pair of Mutants. "Disgusting creatures," said his companion, standing by the window and following Aristarchus' gaze. The parlour, as was the rest of the estate, was furnished with the finest that money could buy. Sturdy furniture and a thick carpet, woven from the hides of some exotic animal, filled the room.

"They have their uses. Menial labour and cannon fodder mostly," Aristarchus agreed. "The boy seems to think they could serve as allies."

"Allies?" the companion snorted.

"Indeed. I've failed somewhere in his upbringing. Incidentally, news of your defeat arrived on my desk," Aristarchus turned his attention fully on the Psion standing before him. The long flowing robes with distinctive crescent markings indicated he was a priest on his moon. To the Psions there was no greater status, and Mystan was one of the higher ranked priests.

"A trifling setback. Though there are parts of the situation that trouble me, I am not entirely surprised by the results. The Icewalkers are stubborn creatures," he replied.

"Which means that conquering them becomes all the more important if we are to succeed," Aristarchus refilled his glass of water from a nearby pitcher. When Mystan declined more, he resumed. "Luckily they have made their share of enemies. The Darklings will eagerly join us to get revenge on the Icewalkers, and the Gravitons will fall in line once every one else has."

"Which means there is but one small problem," Mystan noted.

"His excellency."

"His excellency. King Tycho."

Boots flew across the room as Cameo entered his home. It was little more than a small tunnel with a pair of branching caves, but it was cozy enough and it was his own. The debriefing had gone the same way every other debriefing he'd attended had gone. Some high commander telling the pilots what had happened, who had died, and who had achieved the most kills. Cameo had managed two more of his own. Another six and he'd earn a promotion.

Having already had a shower in the public baths, he figured he would fix a quick meal before turning in. He walked across the carpeted floor into the living room/kitchen and inspected his fridge. Very little. Ah well, it was for the best anyway. He would soon be gone for at least a week or two, and didn't want anything spoiling.

A knock on the door startled him. He opened it and found Psikaris standing on the other side. She was a Psion crossed with an Icewalker, and had been his neighbour for as long as he could remember. He'd also developed a bit of a crush on her. "I thought I heard you come home," she said, walking past him into the living room. She settled on one of the three wooden chairs. "How'd the fight go?"

"Not bad, we chased them off. Let me guess, you were confined to your home again?" He resumed his hunt for food, as they talked.

"Got it in one, neighbour. I'm a security threat whenever you fight the Psions. It's silly. I'm not going to betray my people," Psikaris said, stealing some of the food off his plate. There wasn't much that grew on the Ice Moon, but there were plenty of mushroom like plants which were a staple of Icewalker diet. Cameo had found a bowl of the things and some dried meat and had finally taken a seat next to his friend. He reminded himself that he needed to replace the old wooden chairs and buy something a little more comfortable, especially when company was over. Six more kills and he could afford it.

"But the Psions are your people too, or so the logic goes, remember?" Cameo said. This was a familiar conversation. She knew he agreed with her, but they needed to voice it now and then to remind themselves.

"They didn't raise me," Psikaris said, gesturing with a piece mushroom, "which makes me an Icewalker as far as I'm concerned. Keeping a mechanic from her work should count as cruel and unusual punishment."

"Especially when she's one of the best we've got," Cameo added.

"Thanks. Anyway, I'd better head back before Psychro gets the wrong idea. I just wanted to make sure you were alright," Psikaris said, referring to her twin brother. Cameo nodded, knowing full well that her brother would be full of innuendos if she was with him for too long, and a part of him wished that those innuendos were true.

There was the tiniest sliver of light shining through the dense canopy of trees, a rarity on the Dark Moon. The phenomenon was a minor hassle as it threw off the infrared goggles she was wearing for a moment. She was a young twenty-two years old once more and running through a section of forest with her father, searching for an escape pod that had touched down moments ago. The two were part of a team that patrolled the forests during the daylight hours, searching for any threats to their people, and a Thunderian craft certainly qualified. She'd been on their trail for about five minutes while another group of Darklings was going over the downed ship.

There were four survivors. Two adults, one child, and another that might have been either. They weren't travelling very fast, which led her to believe that they didn't have any kind of infrared goggles themselves. She verified this another two minutes later when she got within a few metres of them.

"Surrender, Thunderians," her father's deep guttural voice said.

"Please. We mean you no harm. We just want to go home," one of them, a male, said.

"Ha, ha, ha! Do you think we care? You are trespassing on Lunatak soil and are our prisoners now. Luna will be most pleased to receive you," Red Eye said.

Shade could see one of the figures trying to stand protectively in front of the other three and guessed this must be a family unit. She slipped quietly behind the group as her father continued talking. Lunataks despised the other races. They weren't too fond of each other, but Luna was a good ruler, able to keep the factions united against common enemies. She placed the muzzle of her pistol against the other adult's head, pleased at the startled cry. "Is this your wife I've got my gun against?" Shade purred softly.

"Tygara?" the man asked, turning around. She knew she had guessed right, his body temperature shot up as the blood flowed quicker through his system.

"It would be a shame if she had to die to prove a point," Shade said, "especially in front of your children."

"Okay, okay. I give up."

Knave felt the glower of the crowd as he crossed the dingy room to his usual table. The far corner had been nicknamed the freak corner' in his honour, as mixed breeds were generally viewed as unclean or something. After the day he'd been having he was hoping for one particular server, the only one who treated him with any kind of courtesy, though he somehow doubted it. It was only his father's last name that kept the other servers from throwing him out.

"What'll it be?" a gruff voice asked, eliciting a sigh from the hybrid. It would have to be Jarel, his self professed least favourite fan.'

"Something to drink and whatever's fresh," Knave replied, knowing full well his drink would be spit in and his dinner over done. Jarel did a mock bow and left to fill the order. Idly his mind went over recent events.

It was still hard to fathom that his grandmother could be alive. He'd seen the visual logs from the Excelsior. It had been a mission to recover an artifact of some power, to help the Lunar empire crush the Mutants of Plundarr and take the planet for their own. Members from all five moons had joined the crew of that ship. It was supposed to be Princess Luna's crowning glory, to show what the moons could accomplish when they worked together.

But something had gone wrong, hadn't it? A small shuttle, manned by one person from each moon, including Luna herself, had started towards the surface, investigating a pyramid, if his memory served. Lightning flared around the ship, sending it plummeting to the ground, smashing it into pieces. Lacking another shuttle, the Excelsior could do little from orbit. They returned home, intending to collect a salvage crew to form a search party or, more likely, recover the bodies, but politics got in the way. Blame was thrown around. And war was started.

Knave's food arrived, a plate with a pair of rats stuffed with herbs and spices, surrounded by mushrooms, was dropped unceremoniously at his place. A glass of beer joined it. A quick glance made him suspect that the dishes hadn't been washed from the previous customer. He managed a sarcastic thanks before digging in, the rat making a satisfying crunching noise as he bit into it.

The wanted posters made it clear that the assumptions had been wrong. All six aboard that shuttle had managed to escape and were, apparently, harassing the populace of Third Earth. That much, at least, made sense. Lunataks didn't play well with others, finding means to exploit the weaknesses of others for their advantage. The warrant specified a number of races that had lodged complaints against the Lunataks. Wollos, Berbils, Bulkins, and Thunderians. Knave wondered what kind of fearsome creatures some of those were.

Berbils, at least, he had seen before. A ship from their home world of Ro-Bear had ventured too close to the Ice Moon. The little robotic bears hadn't lasted long in the ensuing fire fight. Scientists on the moon had spent months dissecting the creatures and eventually deemed them worthless.

Upon returning to his bedroom, after a long meeting, Tycho found Darius pacing back and forth. He was biting his lip and his wings were drooped ever so slightly, which warned the king that Darius was nervous and upset. The changeling's eyes widened when he noticed that he wasn't alone anymore, and stopped his pacing. "Out with it," Tycho said with a sigh, settling himself on a padded chair by his desk. Darius took a deep breath and crossed over to him, he shifted three folders closer to Tycho.

"These," he said, "are your prospective brides. Each carefully selected, their pedigrees thoroughly examined, their political ties and backgrounds are clearly noted. Everything you could possibly want to know about them is there."

"I see," Tycho said, understanding now. They'd been down this road before. The stability of the empire required a clear line of succession. A bride would lead to an heir, and that would aid his standing. Darius, of course, was jealous. He didn't want to share the affections of the king, no matter how much it would benefit the empire. They'd even debated whether Darius would be able to hold a royal female form long enough to carry an infant to term. It had never been tried before, but theoretically it could work. Whether the populace would accept such an heir was debatable. "Do you have a favourite?" he asked, pleased when he caught the changeling off guard.

"What? Well, I suppose they each have their pluses. Raehan Lunar, a fifth cousin twice removed of yours probably has the best blood line. Her family owns the factories that produce engines for our ships. I'm told that she's considered unattractive in most circles. Paracia Elsus is the youngest, but is independently wealthy. Her mother owned several large portions of land that were passed to Paracia when she died. Her great grandfather was a Graviton so that may pose a bit of a problem. Lastly there's Eluosi Brythago. She took up acting a few years ago with limited success, but she's very outgoing and people seem to like her. She's also very out spoken about the war efforts and that may work against you. All in all there isn't a clear front-runner in the group," Darius replied.

"I suppose it doesn't really matter," Tycho said, glancing half-heartedly at the pictures enclosed in each folder. "All she really needs to do is procreate, attend public functions with me, and be able to take care of herself. She'll become an instant target for my enemies, which means yet another Guardian to purchase." The pictures weren't inspiring him at all, nor did their credentials. "I suppose we'll have to arrange meetings with them," he sighed, "see if, by some miracle, there are any sparks." The weariness and reluctance in Tycho's tone echoed Darius' as he agreed to set it up.

Darkness. It was dark and cold wherever he was. The last thing he remembered was... what? He couldn't remember anything before the now. He was dimly aware of some kind of fluid around him, and a dull ache in his back. He began to think, trying to figure out who he was and where he was. A name surfaced in his mind. Aristarchus. Was it his own? He didn't think it was. There was a sense that whoever this Aristarchus was, he could trust with his life. He would sacrifice his life, though only a few minutes old, for this Aristarchus. Gingerly he tried to move, only to realize that he was in a very small space. A prisoner perhaps? Had someone captured him and erased his mind? There was an apparatus around his mouth, to allow him to breathe he supposed.

The darkness changed suddenly, dramatically, as whatever had been covering his prison was removed. Squinting both through the liquid and the sudden light, he saw the face of his saviour. It was Aristarchus himself, come to his rescue no doubt. There was another with him. A gentleman with short cropped white hair and beady green eyes. A dim memory of these eyes flashed through his brain. He'd seen these eyes before, only they'd been bigger. Staring at him through the bars of a cage. Had this man captured him? If only he could remember more he would be content.

He noticed, then, that the liquid was draining away. He looked down at himself briefly. Pale skin with short matted grey fur. Short claws on his three fingers. And naked, though that didn't bother him, he had the impression that he rarely wore clothes. There was a rush of air as his prison was opened and he could now hear the two men talking clearly.

"I assure you, sir, the disorientation is a common side effect of the process. Come along, step forward, and present yourself to your master," the beady eyed man said.

"I... I am at your service," he replied, carefully taking two steps toward Aristarchus and knelt. This must be his master. That had to be why he felt such a keen sense of loyalty.

"Arise. What is your name?" Aristarchus asked, his eyes examining him closely, watching for some sign of weakness.

"My name, sir? I don't believe I have one."

"Then you shall be called Rodin after the rodent you were created from. What of his abilities? Was the surgery a success?" Aristarchus said, turning to the beady eyed scientist again.

"I believe so. There were a few complications, but he should be able turn himself invisible at will. With practice, he may learn to extend this power to others in close proximity, though I couldn't say for sure. A procedure such as this has never been performed successfully," the man replied.

Rodin didn't understand any of what the two men were talking about, and neither seemed inclined to explain. He wasn't quite sure of things yet, but felt a distrust of the scientist. As though he had been hurt by the man somehow. He'd said something about surgery and complications, so perhaps that explained those feelings. But Aristarchus didn't seem to be resentful of the man, so he had to be okay, didn't he?

"It appears weak," Aristarchus said, interrupting his train of thought. "It seems to lack a killer's instinct."

The scientist flinched at the words. "I did try and warn you. His species is generally a cowardly one and the inherent personalities of the creatures are hard to replace. He should be absolutely loyal to you, and with the proper training he might be turned into a more ruthless fighter."

"If I hadn't invested so much into creating him I would have you terminate him and start over... What is he doing now?" Aristarchus asked, his cold hard eyes watching as Rodin bolted under a table.

"Residual instinct, I suspect. His species lives in caves, so I suppose he sees the table as a safe place," the scientist tried.

Rodin peered nervously out from the shelter, confused by the words. Did they mean that the table wasn't a safe place? Was he displeasing his master by hiding here? It did appear that way. With great willpower he forced himself out and stood once more before his master. He hadn't intended to hide, but the thought of being killed, especially by one he trusted so much, terrified him so. "Come along then. We'll find some use for you yet," Aristarchus said with a sneer.

It was mid-day in the Psion capital, Zanaya's internal clock said, which meant that it was close to midnight here on the frigid Ice Moon. A pile of refuse masked her location, had anyone with a thermal scanner entered the building, and even if they had she knew that she was a very light sleeper. With night firmly entrenched on the moon, it was relatively safe for her to sneak around and search for another way out. With a mountain complex such as this, she knew, there were bound to be tunnels and cracks that few if anyone knew about. It was simply a matter of finding one.

Her first destination, however, was the hangar. That was the most likely section to have developed cracks near the surface. The vibrations from the machinery, coupled with the heat of the ships, often had that kind of effect on the rocks and ice. If she were fortunate, she might even find a ship ready to depart that she could steal. She was almost there when noise from an establishment caught her attention. A group of men, she could see through the window, were singing a bawdy song, obviously trying to entice a pair of hybrid Lunataks into a fight. She was about to continue on when she realized that one of them was the son of her target; Knave of House Iespyk. If a fight did break out, an accident' could occur to him. Quietly she slipped inside the building to watch a bit.

"I met her there one evenin', a knockin' on my door Only had one thing to sell, for she was just a whore I took her to my room, til she could stand no more Then I kicked her out, cause that's what half-breeds're for!"

It was clear that Knave was getting more and more aggravated. A Darkling/Icewalker was desperately trying to urge him to go home, with little effect. Zanaya decided that maybe he needed a prodding in the right direction. Always mindful of where people were in relation to her, so as not to reveal herself, she stepped behind the crowd and selected an unguarded glass that contained the dregs of some pink liquid. Her assassin training guiding her arm, Zanaya launched the glass with pinpoint accuracy, causing it to shatter against the side of Knave's head. As she had hoped, he let out a roar and dove into the crowd, fists and claws flailing.

The great cheer that rose from the assembled crowd changed to one of terror at the sight of the crazed man who was busily attacking anyone foolish enough to get within arm's reach. Many fled for the doors, while others attempted to subdue him. Through it all, Zanaya crept closer, her mind calculating just how to make her attack appear to be an accidental, if lucky, wound. She had just closed the gap between them to several feet when his head jerked in her direction, nose upturned as though scenting the air. A pair of arms tried to grab him while he was thus distracted, but earned a bloodied nose as payment. Knave's eyes scoured Zanaya's position, trying to find her. He broke free from the crowd and lunged at where he thought she was. Startled, Zanaya threw her knife, catching the hybrid in the chest, and bolted.

The Psion Moon was 85% desert, the rest was composed of water. On the south pole of the moon rested the vast majority of this water. A large lake had been surrounded by the capital city of the Psions. Located on an island in the centre of the lake was the heart of the empire. The holy temple. Seated in the basement were four of the five elders. Watching via a monitor was the fifth, as Mystan was still on the Royal Moon.

In addition to Mystan's report on his progress making an alliance with Aristarchus, others gave varying reports on the war with the Icewalkers, the assassination attempts, the coming harvest, and the latest group of students. When a Psion reached puberty, their dormant powers started to manifest. It was at this time that they were examined by the elders, with the cream of the crop being chosen for higher learning. In this way, the temple always had the most powerful among their number. Every generation, though, there was one student who stood above the others. These were said to have been touched by the gods themselves, blessed to fulfill some sacred purpose. This year there was a powerful pyrokinetic girl whose appearance in the midst of a war against the Icewalkers could not be a co-incidence.

Lazily Tycho traced his finger along Darius' wing, following no particular pattern. They were soft and warm to the touch, which he found comforting somehow. The changeling had long drifted off to sleep, leaving Tycho alone with his thoughts.

They wouldn't be able to do this, he thought to himself, not as often anyway. For the sake of public perception he and his bride would need to share a room and, every so often, a bed. She would have needs too, ones that he would have to fulfill. Life wasn't very fair. He'd only taken the throne because the only other candidate for it, Aristarchus, didn't have the best interests of the moons at heart.

All he'd really wanted out of life was to be happy, earn a little money, and keep out of the public eye. If he could just live somewhere quiet and out of the way with Darius, life would be perfect. But that wasn't what the people wanted, and that certainly wasn't the life he would have if Aristarchus had his way.

The changeling stirred slightly, nuzzling up against his ward. He looked so peaceful, so relaxed. There would be trials and difficulties ahead, but that seemed to be becoming a daily occurrence. "Sleep soundly my friend," he whispered, "you deserve it."

The clock on the wall indicated that it was eight in the morning, and it received a baleful glare for waking him. There was nothing for it, though, so Cameo sat up in his bed and stretched his legs. He was feeling old this morning, though he was still considered a young adult by Lunar standards. He would need to let Psikaris know he'd be gone for a while so she wouldn't worry about him. She would fuss at him to be careful, but it was better than taking off without telling her. He'd try and find some ancient piece of machinery as a peace offering. Slipping into his flight suit and double checking his bags by the door, he went out and rapped firmly on the door to her cave.

The door opened a crack and a pair of green eyes stared back at him. "She's not here, Cameo," the owner of the eyes said in a tone that indicated that conversation was not an option here. In the background he could hear multiple sets of giggles, suggesting that Psikaris' brother had female company over.

"Oh. Okay, Psychro. Um, I'll try the hangar or something," he said, turning in that direction. He knew that Psikaris could spend days in the hangar, tinkering with this or that, and that she would often be ordered to go home and rest. Machines were her life, and she couldn't get enough of them. If Psychro had company over, as he often did, that's where she would be.

Getting into the hangar had been remarkably easy. Whoever had set the thermal scanning device up had done so sloppily, leaving a gap between the scanner and the door jamb. Slipping through the gap would have been impossible for a Graviton, but Zanaya was in peak condition so it proved little hindrance. She had intended to go straight for the main bay doors, to see if there were a way to manually open them, when a fragment of conversation caught her ears.

"...fuelled in a hurry," a man she recognized as Nitro's secretary said to a man who appeared to be in charge of the hangar.

"He expects Captain Havallance to turn the flagship over to his half-breed son? Yeah, that'll go over well," the other man replied.

"I gather he's speaking with the captain now. Enough fuel to get to Third Earth and back, remember," the secretary said, clasping the other's shoulder, "and try to keep the destination quiet. Nitro's orders."

Zanaya watched as the two men parted company, trying to absorb and process what she had just heard. Knave was taking the flagship to Third Earth on a secret mission? That didn't make sense. There was nothing on Third Earth, was there? Either way, her superiors would have to be notified of this event. Sneaking on to the flagship wasn't a problem, it was far too easy to get lost on board the wretched thing, but keeping herself from being detected by that feline would be another matter.

"Get up," Nitro snapped, looming over his son. He'd received the report on the bar fight and Knave's subsequent injury, and had made it a priority to make sure the whelp wasn't wasting time in the hospital. The doctors had had to do very little work to clean and mend the wound, and were anxious to see him leave. A single look from the head of House Iespyk told the staff to vacate the room so he could speak with the boy.

"Yes sire," Knave replied, giving a mock salute. His muscles were sore in the one arm but he felt fine otherwise.

"I have decided, at great expense, to grant you the use of the Icewalker flagship, the Honour Of The Moon. A hero of Chilla's stature deserves nothing less than the best we can offer. Remember that you are representing me on this mission, as loathe as I am to admit that, so do not screw this up," Nitro stared daggers at his son. This same look could make men quiver, but to Knave it re-enforced his loathing of the man.

"And what of the others? There are wanted posters for the rest of the crew. If they live still?" Knave asked.

"If they live, eliminate the Psion and the Darkling. They could give our enemies an advantage we do not want them to have. Luna may have her uses. She could be a powerful ally to our cause. The Graviton I leave to your discretion," Nitro replied.

Cameo stood in the hangar bay in confusion. When he'd arrived he had been told that she had hopped aboard a transport ship going to the Dagger Mouth Ridge. If he had known she was headed that way, he would have accompanied her there. There was nothing for it but to hope he ran into her before he left.

"So this is the famed chairman of the council, eh?" a voice woke Roly Poly from his drunken stupor. The butter flavoured beer had arrived and the council had insisted on sampling it at once. He stared up into the face of a Lunatak from the Royal Moon, his red eyes peering down at him. Behind him stood three simian Mutants from Plundarr. "What a disgusting moon this is, so backwards," the voice went on, "the great pity is that they might serve some use to the empire if we can get them to fall in line." The Royal Lunatak placed one gloved hand around Roly Poly's throat and brought him to his feet.

"What do you want from me?" Roly Poly asked, glancing around and seeing the rest of the council were still passed out from the council meeting.

"What do I want? I want you to keep your mouth shut so that I don't have to smell your breath. It's bad enough that my glove has touched your skin. Now listen closely. When my father makes his move for the throne I want you to throw your support behind him. Once he's been crowned you can come back here and do whatever revolting things you please," he replied. The Lunatak, Kaprenius, was trying to keep this confrontation as short as possible so that he could return home for multiple showers.

"And eef I don't?" Roly Poly asked, regretting the decision as the hand about his throat tightened, Kaprenius' face getting closer.

"If you don't, my friends here will make sure that your last moments alive are very painful," Kaprenius said, causing the simians to begin hooting behind him. "In fact, boys, why don't we demonstrate. Make sure he's alive, but otherwise have fun." Kaprenius discarded his sullied glove and left, choosing not to be witness of the upcoming carnage.

He supposed that Paracia would be considered attractive by most people's standards, that her horns were slightly longer than a typical Royal Lunatak's could be attributed to her Graviton heritage. She was terribly excitable and he suspected that she hadn't fully considered the ramifications of being his consort. Visions of her spending the empire's fortune on herself came to mind, though he had to remind himself that she had managed to maintain her fortune thus far. She had chosen for this occasion a lime green dress with a neckline that plunged far enough that he could almost see her waist, this was accentuated with a yellow pendant that dangled from around her neck.

He and Darius had decided that the first round of interviews should be held in the public eye, so that people could see that he was taking his position seriously. A popular, if expensive, restaurant had been selected for an early lunch. An artificial river dotted with fish wove its way through the seating area, making it more difficult for the waiters to serve them. However, the food was excellent.

"You look deep in thought, I'm not boring you, am I?" she asked, her face looking alarmed. Tycho was startled by the comment. He had thought he was paying attention to the woman, but obviously he hadn't.

"I'm sorry. I just... I just never wanted to enter a relationship like this," he said, uncertain as to how much of his personal life to divulge, though most of it was rumoured anyway. "I don't want to get married for the sake of getting married. It's not you at all, you're a very beautiful woman, it's the situation on the whole."

"Oh!" she said, perking up. "I understand that perfectly. My mom, she was always telling me to grow up, find a nice young man to settle down with, grow the company, raise some kids. And I'm all like, Mom, relax, I just need a little fun in my life', y'know? There's just no pleasing people. I mean, if we did get married we'd make sure to have some fun, right? Let's face it, the last couple of years have been all doom and gloom. Kings and queens dying. Revolutions. Assassinations. There's no fun in all of that. People need a break from all of it. They need to lighten up."

"Absolutely," Tycho said, though in his mind he rolled his eyes. Gods, she was naive. "But it's all about the balance. There needs to be time for relaxation and fun', as you call it, but there also needs to be a time when we knuckle down and make the tough decisions. Do you think you'd be able to do that? Send people to their death for the betterment of all? I've done that and it's not easy."

"You have? Gosh, I didn't know that. Wow, I guess it's pretty tough being king, huh?" Paracia said. Tycho nodded, knowing how big an understatement that truly was.

Knave tapped his foot impatiently while he waited for everyone to be onboard the Honour of the Moon. He'd met briefly with the captain, a man who'd made it clear that Knave's presence was unwelcome and that any time he'd like to drop dead would be appreciated. He'd seen engineers, security staff, pilots, and medical personnel go by his post near the entrance with no sign yet of Cameo. If he was trying to back out of this mission he would regret it. Finally, with only a few minutes before take off, he arrived, slugging two bags over his shoulder. "Sorry bout that. I was trying to find someone before I left," he said, saluting the captain.

"As long as you're here," Knave replied, "follow me. They stuck us in the same room, near the engine room with another half-breed. It's really a glorified closet. I don't know how they expect the three of us to share it."

"Keeping all the hybrids together as far from the rest of the crew as possible, eh?" Cameo sighed at the predictable rooming conditions. As good a pilot as he was he was never able to shake his heritage.

"Big surprise, eh... wait. You? You're a half-breed?" Knave asked, surprised, leading the way through a hall and down a flight of stairs.

"It's not very visible, I know. Wait, you didn't know? My mother had been visiting another planet, called Solaris, and discovered the hard way that our races are compatible. I assumed you'd done a background check."

"I did. It didn't mention anything about your father. Anyway, here we are. 33b. I already claimed the top bunk. Psikaris took the bottom on the other side," he said, gesturing at the two bunk beds that had been crammed in a small space. A table sat at the back of the room with a stool tucked under it.

"Did you say Psikaris? Karis is here, rooming with us?" Cameo asked, stunned.

"You know her?"

"Know her? I'm her neighbour, she's the one I was looking for. Now it all makes sense. Hnh. That's going to make this a little more pleasant, I suppose."

"Just don't do any funny business while I'm around," Knave said, looking up as the nearby engines revved up. "Looks like we're getting to take off. I'm going to the bridge to watch. You coming?"

"No thanks. I'll stay here," Cameo said. Knave shrugged and headed on up. He wanted to say goodbye to his home just in case they never came back. He shuddered at the very real possibility.

Cameo shuddered. Karis was going to be here. His Karis. The same one he'd had a crush on for years. That Karis was going to be only an arm's length away. He'd often spent nights dreaming of a situation like this, only a second man had never appeared in any of those fantasies, nor a second woman for that matter. But how did she feel about him? He couldn't say for sure. Was he just a friend to her? Did she see something more in him? And could that happen here on this voyage?

He busied himself setting his possessions on the bunk below Knave's, his heart hammering away in his chest as it ached for Psikaris' affection. He glanced over at the bunk where her suitcase lay. He wasn't aware that he had flicked the latch on it until it was opening, her womanly scent wafting up from the bundle of clothes inside. Hastily he closed it again, hoping she wouldn't notice the disturbance, and forced himself to focus on something else, anything else.

The ship layout! The captain had provided him with an information package including that, he should familiarize himself with it in case he needed to go to any of the vital areas. There were three levels to the ship; near the rear was the engine room, which took up two floors on its own, and a hangar with two fighter crafts and a minimally armed shuttle. The second floor was devoted mostly to the crew quarters and mess hall, the third to a medical bay and cargo, while the top floor housed the quarters for the higher ranked officers and weapons systems. In the front of the ship was the command hub.

There was a bustle of activity in the crowded command centre as Knave walked through the doors. Even though the ship was practically House Iespyk property, he'd never been on it, so he didn't know what to expect. Three stations in a semi-circle were at the front with a captain's chair behind them.

On the right hand side a woman in a short white skirt was speaking into a headset, indicating that she was the communications expert. She was busily getting clearance from the hangar bay for take off. To her left was the pilot, awaiting confirmation from both the woman and his captain. Beside him was the weapons officer, who doubled in non-combat situations as a second set of eyes on the scanners.

Then there was the captain, cool, calm and collected. He wore a crisply cleaned uniform of white with a streak of red at the shoulder to indicate rank. His eyes meticulously flicked from one position to another, searching for any dereliction of duty. He was known to keep a tight ship, and only the finest kept their positions.

Standing by his side was his bodyguard slash head of security Krystalin. She was infamous throughout the empire. Seeing the success of the Guardian program by the Royal Lunataks, the Icewalkers had attempted their own genetic engineering program. Of the dozen attempts, Krystalin was the sole survivor. Her blood ran super cold but never froze for reasons the scientists could not figure out. A touch from her bare skin could cause the body to go into shock, and could even kill if held long enough. Even the moisture in the air froze when it came in contact with her, granting her an almost permanent armour of ice. She wore a pair of elbow length gloves, thick boots, and a thin body suit that allowed the armour to form while granting her some modesty. The woman snorted when she spied him enter and informed Captain Havallance.

"I don't allow your kind in here," he said, scowling.

"My kind?" Knave's hand clenched in a fist. "My father..."

The captain interrupted before he could say any more. "Your father is not here. My orders are to get you and your friend to Third Earth. Nothing more. I'm not required to deal with you in any capacity other than making sure your sorry hide is on that shuttle."

"You dare speak to me like that?" Knave asked, consciously aware that Krystalin was removing a glove from her hand. "When my father finds out about this..."

"He won't care about you or your feelings. I want you to understand me clearly. Your father gave me explicit instructions that he would be most pleased if you were to not return home. He's not going to be your saviour here, boy. The only shame will be if someone else gets to kill you first," Havallance said. He still hadn't moved from his chair, but Krystalin had moved a lot closer, standing within two feet of him, eyes boring into his skull. Knave could feel the air he was breathing grow very cold, making each breath just a little more painful. He knew he wasn't going to win this fight so he backed up and left.

On to Heritage of the Lunatak Empire - part two
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