Nothing Left to Lose
A Star Ocean: the Second Story fanfic by Mikhail

Disclaimer: Star Ocean: Second Story and its characters belong to Tri-Ace and Enix; save for the federation officers and agents, the characters of this story are not mine. In addition, the ACE concept was borrowed from the game Fallout 2, which is property of Interplay and Black Isle Studeios.

The Courier

He opened his eyes and the blurry features of his room began to take shape. Rubbing his eyes, he moved to a sitting position as his head began pounding. (Ohhh… man… that does it… no more tequila after zero hour.) His vision finally cleared as he found his glasses and slipped them over his eyes. He then heard a beeping noise from the door. “Mmm… yeah, c’mon in.”

The door slid open and a tall woman with shoulder-length blond hair in a business suit entered. She smiled at him. “Hey, Royce. You feeling okay?”

Royce smoothed out his short, straight gray hair with a free hand and nodded slowly. “Yeah… I think I’m all right. My head is killing me, though.”

She nodded. “I know, it got a little tight during the download. Don’t worry, though. Argento said we’re about 3 hours away from the drop-off point. Figured I’d give you a chance to get ready.”

“Thanks, Terri.”

“No problem. You need anything?”

“Yeah, whom am I working with on this run?”

She rubbed her chin for a second. “Jonesy, Willard, and myself are the ones you know. Three others you should know about: Argento Larkin, Sergei Karisnikov, and Nina Cofax. Sergei’s the captain, and as regulation as they come. Argento’s his ex o; he’s kind of hot tempered, but he’s an okay guy, and he knows the ropes. Nina’s their technical expert - she helped with the download, and she’ll be doing the upload. She’s kind of a cool professional. Because of security issues, Zhang ordered the team to be light - only what’s necessary. That means you’re going with just Argento and Nina. We’re going to advise you via transmitter - aside from that, it’s just you three.”

“All right, thanks. I’ll be on the bridge in a sec.”

She nodded and left the room. As the door slid shut, Royce stood up and stumbled towards the closet. He pulled out a suit jacket and threw it over his shirt. He spoke up as he grabbed a tie.

“Computer, open personal record - R. Fitzgerald, blackjack 3-8-7.” A beep followed as Royce proceeded to tie his tie. “Three hours away from drop-off point, name of recipient still unknown.” He groaned as his head began to throb again. “Jonas said they put a lot of stuff in my head - mostly blueprints and technical stuff, if I remember correctly. We’ve been briefed on the system; there’s only one planet out here with any life on it, and that’s where our informant is. Personally, I just want this out of my head.” He finished buttoning his jacket and brushed back his hair again. “Further note: No alcohol after midnight. It aggravates the headache.”

Finished with his suit, he left his quarters and strolled down the narrow corridors of the ship, dodging members of the crew as he moved. (I hope this informant is the real thing. Something this big… deserves a few answers.)

Everyone turned as Royce entered the bridge. The lead man - a short, skinny man with wavy black hair and a military uniform - greeted him. “Mr. Fitzgerald, sir!” He raised his hand to his head in a stiff salute.

Royce nodded and returned his salute. “Captain Karisnikov, yes?”

“Yes, sir. I run the ship, but you call the shots, sir.”

Royce smirked. (Terri’s right, this guy was probably born with that uniform on.) “Understood. So what exactly is our destination?”

A second man answered in his place. “4th planet in this system, called Expel. Estimated population of 1 billion. Underdeveloped. Our informant tells us that they have a society similar to pre-industrial Earth.”

Royce looked the new man up and down. Another military uniform, complete with leather boots, a buzz cut, and a nametag: Larkin. (Argento… Terri said he’s got a short fuse, and he looks the part. He seems a little nervous.)

Sergei nodded. “Mr. Fitzgerald, this is my executive officer, Argento Larkin. Nina and he will be joining you on this mission. I trust you will find his assistance to be useful.”

Royce smiled and nodded. “I’m sure we will need all the help we can get. Thank you, captain.” He turned back to Argento. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, soldier.”

“The pleasure’s all mine, sir.”

The doors slid open, and Terri entered, along with two other agents and a soldier - the agents were male, the soldier female. Royce recognized the men immediately, and nodded in response. The woman caught his eye. Although she stood only three inches taller than he, something about her hinted at a person best not messed with. As he watched, she ran a hand through her short, light gray hair and glanced about the bridge. (An occipital jack; she must be Nina. Well, she got the stuff in my head; she can probably get it out.) He turned to Terri.

“Is everything set?”

Terri nodded. “Yeah, your gear is ready. The drop pods have been modified to each person’s weight - your ride should be fairly smooth. Are you ready to broadcast?”

Royce nodded. “Got it all in here.” He smiled and tapped his forehead. “Captain, it’s time to brief the crew in full.”

The Mission

Sergei turned to a nearby subordinate. “Open a channel in the ship.”

The operator nodded and activated the intercom. “You can speak freely now, sir.”

Royce cleared his throat. “Attention, crew of the Nexus. This is special agent Royce Fitzgerald of the FBI. As of now, this mission is under federal jurisdiction. The reasons we are out here are classified - that means what I’m about to tell you, does not leave this ship. Before I tell you what our goal is, I believe I should bring you up to speed.”

He took a deep breath, and continued. “Three years ago, the Federation ship Calnus disappeared in this area under decidedly mysterious circumstances. We received no distress call from them, but their last transmission had them headed towards the fourth planet in this system, in pursuit of a member of the crew - one Claude Kenni, son of Ronixis Kenni, the captain of the Calnus.”

“Shortly afterward, the FBI sent out a team to investigate. Nothing came of it, but the planet indicated by the Calnus had a population of 1 billion people - a race that seemed identical to humans in every way. An informant was stationed on that planet, in an attempt to piece together what happened. Nothing came of the investigation, but we have rotated agents on the planet, which I believe is called Expel, because we have not closed the case. The crew of the Calnus has been officially declared missing in action until found otherwise.”

“Three weeks ago, our informant contacted us, saying he had an update on the disappearance. He claimed to have discovered pieces of a ship that he believes is the Calnus, and requested blueprints and specs on the ship to be delivered to him. The orders were to keep the team as small as possible, so only ex o Larkin, Lieutenant Cofax and myself will be going to the surface. Our job is to locate the informant, upload the information to him, and determine the legitimacy of his claim, or lack thereof. If it is not the Calnus, then our mission is over and we return home.”

He took another deep breath. “If it is, then we are to determine the location and status of the ship and her crew, causes of deaths, if any, and determine the reason for its disappearance. If we find survivors, then we bring them home. Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen; we are dealing with a ship that has a crew compliment of over two hundred men and women. Two hundred MIAs need to be accounted for. Two hundred families are waiting to hear what happened to their relatives three years ago.”

Royce’s features began to grow dark. His eyes narrowed as he continued. “I expect nothing less than your full cooperation. The Federation does not, under any circumstances, abandon its citizens, civilian or otherwise. I personally promised seven families, including the wife and mother of Commodore and Ensign Kenni, that the FBI would do everything in its power to bring them home. I intend to keep those promises.”

He felt Terri’s hand on his shoulder as a lump welled up in his throat. He grit his teeth and fought to control his voice. “We begin at 0300 hours. That gives us two hours to prepare. I’m counting on each and every one of you to do what is necessary to help my team complete this mission. If Captain Karisnikov is worth his word, then I trust all of you. Good luck… and thank you.”

Royce nodded to the officer, who pressed a few buttons and nodded in return. “Channel closed.”

The agent to his left, a short, stocky man with short brown hair and a goatee, turned to Royce. “Hey, Royce. You okay?”

He nodded, his eyes closed. “Yeah, I’m okay. Sorry Jonesy, you know how it is… ever since that one time…”

“I know. We all took it kinda hard… but I know it’s tough on ya, pal. Don’t worry, we’ll find them. You can count on it.”

Royce sighed and smoothed out his hair again. He grunted as another throbbing headache took hold of him. “Rrrgh… I’m gonna go get some asprin and take 5 in my room, let me know when we get there.”

Jonas nodded as Royce left. He turned to Terri. “Poor guy… at least he doesn’t blame himself anymore.”

Terri nodded. “Yeah, but you can see it in his eyes. Stuff like this brings it all back… which might be why he’s the right guy for the job… maybe the only guy for the job.”

- One hour later -

He woke to find himself face down on the floor. Stopping only to adjust his glasses, he struggled to his feet as the floor shook again. A distant explosion forced his attention to the door. (What the... hell's... this?) Another explosion, this one closer, could be heard. Above the explosion, he heard voices shouting orders, and alarms wailing.

He steadied himself, dashed over to his closet, and removed his holster. He strapped on his holster, threw his jacket on over it, then grabbed a pair of pistols from the closet, which he immediately trained on the door as it slid open. He relaxed his aim as a tall, dark gray-hared man entered. He wore a suit identical to Royce’s and carried a similar pistol in his right hand.

“Willard! What’s going on?”

“Get your stuff ready, we’re under attack! Captain says he’s gonna try to outrun them; we’ve got five minutes to drop!”

“Who are they?”

“Don’t know, don’t have time to ask! Let’s move!”

The Darkness

Explosions, footsteps, and alarms were all he could hear. Red emergency lights, barely lighting the path ahead of him, were all he could see.

“The drop pods are in this room. Come on, let’s go!”

Royce replied with a cough as he attempted to speak between breaths. The two agents rounded a corner and dashed towards a large double door, which slid open as they approached. Without hesitation, Willard and Royce dashed inside the room. Royce collapsed to his knees and desperately attempted to regain control of his breathing. Willard glanced around the room and silently took a head count. All eyes were on the two agents as Terri approached Royce.

“Royce? Hey, Royce, take it easy. We’re all okay.”

Royce nodded and swallowed air. “Who… who’s attacking us?”

Terri shook her head. “I don’t have a clue. All of a sudden, this ship showed up and started firing. Alarms went off, and Sergei ordered us to be ready to leave in a few minutes. He said something about an ambush.”

Another voice called from the corner. “You’d better get situated. We’ll be in position in one minute.” Royce recognized it as Jonas. “Everyone’s here, and the pods are ready.”

“Then let’s get moving.”

With that, Royce, Argento, and Nina headed for a set of doors along the far wall, each marked with one of their names. Royce entered his and heard the door slam shut behind him. A glowing circle appeared on the floor as the voice of the captain could be heard.

“Just stand inside the circle, Royce. The pod takes care of the rest. Hope you don’t mind a bumpy ride, ‘cause we’re dropping you and bolting. Good luck, and god speed.”

Following the captain’s instructions, Royce stepped inside the circle and immediately felt himself being bound at the ankles, waist, and chest. The circle faded, and he could see no more. He felt something metallic being slid over his forehead. A display screen crackled to life in front of his eyes.


Royce’s eyes zeroed in on the timer. He felt his entire body tense up as the small closet-like room began to shake. Loud clanking noises could be heard through the door. (This is way over my head… no matter how much training you go through, nothing ever prepares you for the real thing.) Uttering a quick prayer in his head, he grit his teeth and shut his eyes as the timer counted off its last second.

The screen went black as he felt the ground give way beneath him.

The small pod detached itself from the ship and dropped towards the planet below at suicidal speeds. Royce kept his eyes shut as he tried to calm his suddenly agitated stomach. The pod shook as the first layers of the planet’s upper atmosphere assaulted the shell. Royce found the courage to open his eyes, and noticed the screen was back up again, counting down the estimated time of arrival from 30.

Without warning, the pod buckled and began to spin. Although he saw no change on screen, the increase in the feeling of nausea was enough an indicator to tell him that something had gone wrong. Time stopped as the words he did not want to hear flashed on the screen before him.


The small pod reacted harshly to the change in pressure as it penetrated another layer of atmosphere. Royce began to feel very queasy. His stomach told him it would not be denied as his entire body began to shake from the force of impact with increasing layers of atmosphere.


Jonas’s voice crackled to life through an unseen speaker. “Royce, what the hell’s going on?? You’re way off course! Royce, do you read me? Royce!!”

Royce managed to speak as the pod hurtled towards its destination. “Jonesy! Something… something hit the pod! Taken some damage… I’m heading to the secondary LZ. Do you read me?”

“Wait… say again? Something… damage… what was that about the LZ?”

“I said, my pod took a hit! I’m not gonna make it to the primary landing zone!”

“Royce! Royce, come back! What happened? Damn it, we lost him!”

Royce felt the icy grip of panic take hold of his mind. “Jonesy! Jonesy! Can’t you hear me? If you can, I’m heading to the secondary LZ. I’ve lost guidance on this thing… it’s spun out of control! Do you read me?!”


Royce felt the world fade to black as the pod slammed into the ground, hard.

The Pharmacist

A little bell rang as the door swung open. Without turning his head, the tall man behind the counter acknowledged the customer.

“With you in a sec, sir.”

He took a razor and carefully scraped the flower shavings into a small pile. He set down the razor and turned to face the customer, nodding in response as he recognized the face of his old colleague.

“Hey, Keith. What’s going on?”

The scholar smiled and nodded to the pharmacist. “Hi, Bowman. Nothing big, what’re you working on?”

“Just an additive. What brings you here?”

Keith’s eyes wandered around the shop. “I need a sedative, one of the supervisor’s cats got loose and it’s tearing around the university, breaking stuff. The super will have my head on a plate if the cat gets hurt, so I figured we could just knock it out.”

Bowman chuckled. “That’s why I don’t keep pets. Well, I’m sure we’ve got something here that’ll do the trick.” He began rifling through the shelves behind the counter. “Hmm… here, try this.” He removed a small sack of powder and set it on the counter. “Terlam root, it’s what they use in tranquilizers. Put it on something tasty, give it to the cat, and it’ll be out in a couple seconds. That’ll be 85 FOL.”

Keith dug through the pockets of his coat, removed a fistful of cash, and dropped it on the counter. “Thanks.”

“No problem, take it easy.” Bowman watched as Keith turned around and left the store. (That was the last batch… I’d better go find some more.) Reaching beneath the counter, he pulled out a sign, marked ‘Out to lunch. Be back in 30 minutes.’ With his other hand, he grabbed a long shovel and stepped through the door, stopping only to lock it and hang the sign on the outside.

- 15 minutes later, Sanctuary of Linga -

Bowman grunted as he thrust his shovel into the dirt. Readjusting his grip, he lifted a mound of dirt from the ground and threw it into a small hole, next to which lay a recently uprooted plant. His task finished, he set aside the shovel and wiped the sweat from his forehead and sighed. (This oughta be enough for a few weeks.) He bent down and reached for the plant, but stopped as he heard the sound of footsteps.

Moving slowly, he set the plant back down, reached into his pocket, withdrew a pair of spiked knuckles, and turned to the direction of the sounds. He took a deep breath and called out to the newcomer. “Hello? Is anyone there?”

The reply came in the form of a low, painful-sounding groan. Another footstep, followed by a scraping noise was heard. Bowman steadied himself as the owner of the voice came around the corner. His eyes grew wide as the shadowy figure of a man limped into view. As he drew closer, Bowman scanned the man carefully. (What the… why would a guy be wearing a suit in here? He’s bleeding…) “Hey, hey buddy, are you okay?”

The wounded man shuffled up to Bowman and fell to his knees, right hand desperately clutching a large cut on his forehead. “P…please… help… help m… me…”

Bowman grabbed the man’s arm and helped him up. “Easy, take it easy. You look pretty bad, come on. We’ve got to get you outta here.”

The man struggled to his feet and rested his weight on Bowman. The two men limped towards the exit, the suit-clad man groaning and grunting every other step.

The Reporter

“…is he alive?”

“I think so… a mild concussion… a few cuts and bruises…”

“What happened?”

(I can’t see… who’s there…?) “Ohhh… *cough* where…”

“He’s coming to, let’s ask him.”

Royce struggled as he attempted to open his eyelids. Color flooded his vision, followed by shape and depth. The picture began to sharpen as he turned his head and realized two people were standing by him.

“Mmm… where am I…?”

The figure to his left answered, it’s voice deep and coarse. “Linga, a town on the southern part of the Lacour continent.”

The words meant nothing to him, but he nodded slowly anyway. A faint buzzing coursed through his body, and he felt the pain subside to a dull ache. Finally regaining a reserve of strength, he placed his hands on the surface beneath him and forced himself to a sitting position. The deep-voiced person spoke again. “What’s your name, and what happened to you?”

His vision finally clear, Royce turned and faced the individual. He sized the brown-hared, slightly muscular man up and sighed. “I’m… Royce. Royce Fitzgerald. I… uh…” The details of his prior memories flooded his mind rapidly - too rapidly to be coherent for him, let alone these people. (How do I explain this to them…) “I’m an investigator. A ship crashed… near here. I’m supposed to meet someone who knows something about the crash,” he explained feebly.

The voice from the other person, now behind him, spoke up. “A ship crash? Are you sure? I haven’t heard anything about it.”

He turned to face the other person: a short, redheaded young woman. He carefully studied her face. (Something seems strange about this one… I can’t place it.) “Well, that’s what I’m here to check out.” He paused for a second. “How did I get here, anyway?”

The man sighed. “You were in the Sanctuary of Linga - it’s a cave not far from here. I saw you stumbling towards me, and helped you here. You passed out as soon as we got you inside.”

Royce finally felt strong enough to stand. Sliding off the table to his feet, he smiled at the man. “Well, I guess I should say thanks, mister…?

“Oh, Bowman. Bowman Jean.”

Royce nodded and extended his hand. “Thank you, Mr. Jean.”

Bowman smiled and shook Royce’s hand. “Please, call me Bowman. Anyway, what are you going to do now?”

Royce thought for a moment. “Well, first I need to find my gear… it should be where you found me. Where is this Sanctuary of Linga?”

“It’s northeast of town. Just follow the road and take a right at the fork.”

“Thanks. Well, so long.”

With that, Royce turned towards the door and left the building. The redheaded woman gazed after him for a few seconds. “I think I should follow him.”

Bowman shook his head. “Come on, it’s not the first time I’ve found someone hurt in the field. Leave him alone.”

“I don’t know, something about him seems weird. My gut tells me he’s not telling us everything.”

“So does mine, but what can you do? It’s none of our business, anyway.”

She sighed as Bowman left the room.

- 5 minutes later, Sanctuary of Linga -

(I can’t let it go… something really seems strange about him.)

The redheaded woman continued to rationalize her actions in her mind as she carefully followed the trail of blood Royce had left behind earlier. Within minutes, she found herself near a large box-shaped device, with Royce standing before it.

(I knew it! I’m not sure what he’s doing, but he is definitely not from Expel.) She hid herself behind a stalagmite as he began rifling through the inside of the machine. She watched as he began removing an odd collection of items. She recognized a first aid kit and some flares, but could the rest defied recognition. One looked like a strange gun with some sort of drum-shaped appendage sticking out from beneath the long barrel. The other somewhat resembled a small, hand-held radio. He cradled the massive weapon like a baby for a few seconds, then set it aside; it seemed to have been made with his large frame in mind. He then pulled out a yellow-green duffel bag from the machine and set it on the ground.

Deciding that she needed to take a closer look, she began to sneak closer to him. She got no further than four steps, however, before she tripped on a rock and fell forward on her face. With more damage done to her dignity than anything else, she stood up and found herself staring down the barrel of a gun, with an apparently surprised Royce behind the trigger.

He gave her a quick once-over. “You’re the woman from Bowman’s, right? What are you doing here?”

She found it difficult to speak with the gun pointed straight at her left eye, but figured it was safest to confess right away. “I… I followed you. I couldn’t get it out of my mind; the way you acted, the suit… it just didn’t seem right, so I followed you.”

Royce raised an eyebrow and lowered his gun. “Interesting hobby.”

She shook her head. “Don’t take it the wrong way, I didn’t mean I don’t trust you… it’s just…” She smiled. “It’s kind of my job.”

“Your job? What do you mean?”

“I’m a reporter for a newspaper in Lacour… it’s a city north of here. Oh, sorry, I didn’t even introduce myself! I’m Chisato Madison.”

Royce nodded. “That makes us even, then. Well, your instincts were right. I’m not from this planet. I’m from a planet called Earth.”

“Earth? Do you work for the Earth Federation, then?”

Royce’s eyes widened. “How do you know about the Federation?”

“Well, it’s kind of a long story. Bowman can tell it better, let’s get back to his place.”

Royce nodded and holstered his gun underneath his jacket. “Just a sec, I gotta grab my gear.” He bent down and started picking up the equipment. He stuffed the first aid kit and flares in the duffel bag, slung the bag over his shoulder, hid the radio inside his jacket, and picked up the large gun. “Let’s go.”

Questions and Answers

“Okay, so let’s hear it all.”

Royce sized up the two strangers. He rested his shoulders on the table and rubbed his face. (God, I’ve got to get this stuff out of my head.) “Chisato said you guys know about Earth and the federation, so I won’t bother explaining that. I’m with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the investigative arm of the Earth Federation. Basically, we investigate matters involving federal property or citizens. Three years ago, a ship was lost in this sector - the Calnus. With no leads, we inserted agents on monthly rotations here to search for any available clues, to no avail. Three weeks ago, we received a transmission from the current agent, claiming that he found debris from a ship that apparently resembled the Calnus. He requested a copy of the schematics to be sure.”

Bowman and Chisato listened carefully as he continued. “The safest and most successful method of a large size data transfer has always been by mnemonic courier - an agent with an implant in the brain which can store and retrieve data. As a courier, I was charged with bringing this data to the informant and verify or disprove his claim. If it isn’t the Calnus, then the mission’s over and I go back home. If it is, my job is to determine the location of the ship, the condition of survivors, if any, causes of death, if any, and bring any survivors back home. However, upon being dropped from the ship, my pod was struck by something from the outside, and I was separated from my team - two soldiers, one named Argento Larkin, the other named Nina Cofax. I don’t know how long I was out… I don’t suppose you know either of them?” He glanced up at Bowman pensively.

The pharmacist shook his head. “Sorry, I’ve never heard of them. I do know about the Calnus, though.”

Royce’s eyes went wide and locked with Bowman’s. “Tell me everything you know.”

Bowman, startled by Royce’s reaction, leaned back a bit, and sighed. “It was destroyed… at the hands of a group of terrorists known as the Ten Wise Men.”

Chisato couldn’t help but notice how suddenly tense Royce seemed. He gripped the table as though he intended to crush it beneath his fingers, and his eyes narrowed. “What of her crew?”

Chisato spoke up. “I’m sorry… they were all lost… save for Claude. He wasn’t on the ship at the time.”

His entire body froze as his mind zeroed-in on the word ‘lost.’ His eyes seemed to stare miles beyond the wall behind them. “All… lost…” His breathing became very shallow and strained.

Bowman nodded slowly. “I don’t know what to say… rest assured, the Ten Wise Men did not survive. With Claude, myself, Chisato, and a handful of others, they were destroyed forever, but not without sacrifice.” He took a long pause as he watched Royce slowly absorb the information. “If it’s any consolation, they died fighting… I never met Ronixis, but he must have been very brave…”

Royce spoke up, his voice suddenly rather faint. “What… what of the survivor, Claude?”

Chisato shook her head and sighed. “He died a few months ago.”

(So… that’s it… then, what was it all worth…) “I… I… I can’t believe this…”

Chisato leaned forward as she noticed Royce’s face turning blood red. He buried his face in his hands and started to shake. “Mr. Fitzgerald… I’m… I’m sorry… I…”

Royce slowly stood up. The look in his eyes could only hint at the mix of sorrow and rage that lie beneath. He turned towards the door and stepped outside, saying nothing as he went.

Bowman glanced after him. “I’ve never seen anyone so angry… or so hurt…”

Chisato stood up and prepared to follow him. She got no further than ten steps before she heard an ear-piercing cry fill the air. Rushing outside, she found Royce pounding the ground furiously, his face still red.

Royce shut his eyes and ground his teeth together as he slammed his fists on the ground repeatedly. “God damn it! Son of a bitch!” He raised his fists and screamed at the top of his lungs. “What was it all for, huh?! Tell me, what was it for!” His voice died down as his pounding began to cease. “What… what was it… for…” He buried his head in his hands and, despite an obvious struggle to hold it in, began to cry, softly. Fresh tears rolled down his wrists and onto the sleeves of his suit. He didn’t notice Chisato until she was right next to him.

“Are… are you okay?”

His crying ceased. He lowered his hands and wiped the tears from his face. He found it impossible to speak; all he could do was nod.

(He must have had friends aboard the ship… he looks like he’s ready to faint.) “Come on, let’s get you back inside - it’s late, people might hear you.” (They probably did already…)

Royce nodded slowly and stood up. He followed Chisato as she went back to Bowman’s house.

Bowman looked up as Chisato entered, followed by a red-faced Royce. They sat back down at the table. He faced the agent and sighed. “I’m sorry… I didn’t know they meant that much to you…”

Royce sniffed and found himself able to speak again. “No… it’s… well, I’m…” (I’m about to lose it again… maybe I shouldn’t tell them about it.) “I kind of take my job seriously… there were over two hundred people on that ship. They’ve been missing in action for three years… well, the best I can do is find the informant and finish the mission.” He stopped and took a deep breath, obviously trying to calm himself down. “Even if they’re dead, I still owe it to them to find them. If anything, they at least deserve a military burial, and their families still need to know the truth. Besides, we still don’t know if it is the Calnus on this planet or not.”

Chisato spoke up again. “Do you know what to do?”

Royce nodded. “First, I have to find Argento and Nina. Then we’ve got to track down this informant. To ensure anonymity, and for their protection, informants usually move around frequently. That said, nobody at FBI headquarters knew exactly where he was on the planet - the transmission was too fragmented to be certain - but we do have a name: Gregory Tesla. I’m not sure where to start looking, though.”

Chisato smiled slightly. “Maybe I can help.”

Royce looked up at her. “What do you mean?”

Bowman answered for her. “Chisato works for a newspaper in Lacour. They have a huge archive of news and census information dating back about a year. If anybody would know, they would.”

Chisato nodded. “I can check on it, if you like.”

Royce’s eyes lit up. “You’d… do that… for me?”

“Sure. This sounds like a serious matter; I’d like to help if I can.”

Bowman smiled. “As would I. If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.”

Royce closed his eyes and smiled for the first time in what felt like, for him, ages. “Thank you. Well… I could use a place to stay… just for tonight. Tomorrow, I’m going to look for my friends, and if you have any leads when I get back, I’ll follow up on them right away.”

Bowman nodded. “You can stay here for tonight.”

Chisato stood up and pushed in her chair. “I’m leaving for Lacour; I should be back in a few days. If I find anything, I’ll let you know.”

Royce smiled and smoothed out his hair as Chisato left.

Traveling Quickly, Going Nowhere

He wiped his mouth with a napkin and turned to the blue-hared woman to his left.

“Mmm, that was delicious, Mrs. Jean, thank you. I haven’t had eggs that good in a long time.”

Nineh smiled and nodded. “You’re welcome. At least somebody around here appreciates my cooking.” With that, she gave a suspicious glance towards Bowman, who took a defensive posture.

“Hey, now. The last batch of eggs gave Keith indigestion; I’m lucky he tried it first.”

Nineh shook her head. “Oh, sure, make your friends try something first, you big coward.”

Royce chuckled as he stood up and pushed his chair in. He bent down, picked up his duffel bag, and slung it over his shoulder.

Bowman couldn’t help but voice his curiosity. “I have to ask; what’s in the bag?”

Royce grinned. “My toys,” he answered with a wink. He bent over and picked up the large gun he had brought with him. “Well, I’d better get going. Thank you both for everything. I owe you a debt that cannot be repaid.”

Bowman shrugged. “It’s not that big a deal; I’m a pharmacist, and the closest thing this town has to a clinic. It’s my job to help people, and I’m glad I could be of help to you.”

Nineh gave a sidelong glance at the two men. “I bet he’d be even more glad if you were a pretty girl, hmm?”

Bowman started to blush slightly. “You say that like it happens all the time.”

“It *does* happen all the time,” shot back Nineh, a shrewd smile on her face.

Royce gave a nervous chuckle and started to back towards the door slowly. “Well… uh… it was nice meeting you, and thanks again for your help. Take care, I’ll see you in a few days.”

Bowman nodded. “Good luck, Royce!”

Royce nodded, and turned towards the door. He opened it, stepped through it, and closed it in one fluid motion. He glanced around the main street of Linga as his thoughts invaded his mind. (The primary LZ was on the western continent… they said I’d need to get a ride over at Hilton. Well, let’s do this.) He hefted the weapon and dashed off to the northwest, away from town.

- The next day, Hilton -

“Look, I’m sorry pal, but we’re booked straight through the next week. There are no open seats.”

Disbelief etched in his face, Royce glared at the sailor. “Are you serious? How the hell did you get booked so far back?”

The sailor removed the cigarette from his mouth, exhaled, and replaced it. “Didn’t you hear? The prince of Cross is getting married next week. We’ve got people coming from all over.”

Royce rolled his eyes. (Oh, lovely. The happiest day of someone’s life is turning out to be the most miserable of mine,), he thought. “Look, it’s really important that I get to Cross; is there some other way I could get on board?”

The sailor took another puff of his cigarette. “No can do, unless you can be considered cargo - that’s all that’s being loaded right now. Sorry, man. What can I say?”

“Unless you’re planning on punching the prince in the face for me, nothing.”

“Heh, I’ll admit I’d pay to see that. Guess you’re SOL, man. Better luck next week.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Royce shook his head. (Adding insult to injury…) He sighed and gazed about the streets of Hilton, one hand on his duffel bag. (Wait; maybe I’m in range to contact them… I’ll need a quiet place, like a hotel or something.) He turned back to the sailor. “Hey, buddy. Know a place where I can get some sleep?”

The sailor nodded and jerked his thumb towards the street behind him. “There’s an inn down that way; kinda fancy for my tastes, but hey.”

Royce nodded. “Thanks.” He turned and strolled down the street, towards the inn.

- Meanwhile… -

“Has the courier been eliminated?”

The aging, gray-hared man gripped the receiver loosely; his eyes gazed out the window as his free hand idly picked lint off of his old, tan suit. He closed his eyes as the reply came.

“Negative, sir. The transport ship was too heavily defended. We did get a shot off at his pod during the drop, but it did not destroy him. His transmission indicated he headed for the secondary landing zone, one mile east of a town called Linga, on the Lacour continent.”

He lowered his head and spun around in his chair, slamming his fist on his desk in the process. A few loose papers and other objects shook as his hand connected with the desk. “What of the landing team?”

“They made it down as well, sir. We were aiming solely for the courier, as instructed.”

“Unacceptable! You will send a team down there and finish the job, now!”

“We have an agent down there already; we’ll send a strike team as soon as we get a positive fix on the courier’s location. However, there is another matter we have not yet considered.”

The man leaned forward, his eyes narrow and his grip on the receiver tight. “And that is?”

“Given that he is unable to contact the Nexus, and that he has yet to contact the landing party, it is highly likely that he has enlisted civilian aid in locating his escort.”

The man tensed for a second. “Recommendation?”

“We should determine who Fitzgerald has contacted before we eliminate him; depending on what he has said, we may need to deal with them as well.”

The man sighed, and nodded. “Approved. If he has sought civilian assistance, terminate him and those who helped him.”

“Understood, sir. Alpha team, out.”

The line went dead. The man set down the receiver and rubbed his forehead. He heard a knock at the door and glanced up as it swung open and a young man in a navy blue suit entered.

“Ten minutes, Mr. Wade.”

The man nodded to the guard. “Thank you, Roger; I’ll be with them shortly.”

- Hilton Island Inn -

“Can I help you, sir?”

Royce gazed around the expansive foyer as he replied. “Yeah, I’d like to get a room for tonight.”

The clerk nodded and began thumbing through the registration. “Well, we have one room left - it’ll be 30 FOL for the night.”

Royce dug through his pockets and produced 30 of the strange coins Bowman had loaned to him. He handed them to the clerk, who placed them on the side of the desk as she handed Royce a pen and the registration. “Sign here. Room three; it’s the third room down the hall to your left.”

He nodded, signed his name in the book, and handed the pen and book back to the clerk. The clerk removed a key with a small ‘3’ on it and handed it to Royce. “Enjoy your stay!”

Royce nodded, smiling. “Thank you, I will.” Twirling the key around his fingers, he headed down the left-hand hallway, towards the door at the end. He unlocked the door, stepped inside, and closed it behind him.

(Wow, that guy was right; this is nice.) He gazed around the room in amazement as he set his duffel bag on the floor and sat down on the bed. (Man, this feels so comfortable… oh, if only I wasn’t here to do a job.) He sighed. (I could retire in a place like this. Heh, that’s me again - I’m not even 30 yet and I’m already looking forward to retirement.) Lying on his back, he closed his eyes and savored the soft feel of the sheets beneath him. (Focus, Royce, focus! Work first, then r&r). He reached inside his jacket, unhooked the compact, long-range radio, and held it in front of his face for a moment. He then sat up, pushed a few buttons, flipped the on/off switch, and brought the receiver up to his mouth.

“This is agent Fitzgerald, calling major Larkin and lieutenant Cofax. Do you copy? Over.”

The only response was static. “I say again; this is special agent Royce Fitzgerald, calling major Larkin and lieutenant Cofax. Do you read me? Over.” Silence. “Repeat; this is Fitzgerald, calling Larkin and Cofax. Do you read me? Is anybody getting this? Over.”

The static through the radio began to clear, and a voice, very faint, could be heard. “…stood. We… you. Please verify…ver.”

Royce’s heart stopped for a moment. He cleared his throat and spoke slowly, carefully pronouncing every word. “Once again, this is special agent Royce Fitzgerald. Do you copy? Over.”

A distinctly male voice replied, without interference. “Royce? We read you! This is Larkin; I’m with Cofax right now. Location and status, over!”

He grinned to himself as he replied. “I’m okay, sir! I’m at an inn in the city of Hilton, roughly five miles north of the secondary LZ. Over.”

“Got it. Wait at Hilton - we’ll meet you there. Over.”

Royce shook his head. “No good, the boats are booked for weeks. You’d have to sneak on or something. Over.”

“Roger. We’ll work something out - try to stay still, if you can. We’ll be there ASAP. Over.”

“There’s one more thing. I think we may have a lead on the informant. Over.”

“Outstanding! What’ve you got? Over.”

“A guy named Bowman helped me when I crashed south of here. One of his friends works at a newspaper office in Lacour. She offered to find out what she could about this Tesla guy. Over.”

“She? Is she a civilian? Over.”

“Affirmative; her name is Chisato Madison. Relax, I didn’t tell her everything - just enough to get her to cooperate. Our cover is still in place. Over.”

“Understood. We’re on our way, Royce. Larkin out.”

The line went dead. Royce nodded to himself as he turned the radio off.

Change in Plans

“Tesla… Tesla… ah, here we go.”

The short, bald man slid a manila folder marked ‘Tesla, Gregory’ from the cabinet. “I knew the name sounded familiar. He’s one of the contestants from the arms tourney a few weeks back - registered with Slayer, I think.”

Chisato blinked. (I thought he was an agent… why’d he enter the tournament?) “Those are his registration papers?”

The clerk nodded. “Yeah, check it out. He actually did okay, too. He was one of the finalists; apparently he lost only by a hair to Dol Adan.”

Chisato accepted the folder and began thumbing through its contents. “Thanks, Todd. I told my friend I could find this guy for him; you mind if I hang onto this for a while?”

Todd shrugged. “Long as it’s back in mint condition, it’s fine by me.”

A loud clanging noise sounded from the ceiling, attracting their attention. Todd shook his head. “That moron; probably Ian. That Klutz is always knocking things over. Look, it’s the end of my shift; I’m outta here. Later, Chisato.”

“Yeah, see you later Todd.” She waved to him as he headed up the stairs. (Let’s see… address… city… here we go. Salva Drift, south end.) She closed the file and slipped it inside her jacket, buttoning it closed as she secured it. Before she could start towards the stairs, a strange scent wafted through the air. Although not unbearable, the smell certainly was not familiar. Her suspicions were verified as she saw a trail of smoke float down the stairs. Shortly afterward, Todd stumbled down the stairs, his hand over his mouth, coughing.

“Todd! What’s going on?”

Todd stumbled up to her, fighting the urge to cough as he spoke. “Ch…Chisato… some men… in black… after… you…”

A trio of red dots appeared on his left arm. Chisato could only watch in a mix of fear and confusion as the dots traced their way up his arm to his chest, where they stopped short.


Several low-pitched popping noises came from the stairway, and Todd was tossed backwards into a filing cabinet, blood pouring out of several fresh wounds in his chest. He fell to the floor, lifeless. Three men, dressed entirely in black outfits and carrying deadly looking weapons, stormed the room and trained their weapons on Chisato; the laser-like light from their weapons blinded her. The lead one spoke up.

“This is her, all right. Chisato Madison, you’re coming with us!”

Before she could protest, the left-hand man approached her, balancing the weapon in one hand as he moved behind her. She felt him prod her with the barrel of the weapon. In a flash, she reached behind her, pushed the weapon to the side, and punched the man in the stomach. She then dashed behind him, pried the weapon from his hands, and pointed it at his head. She threw a glare at the lead man. “Don’t move!”

The right-hand man ignored Chisato’s order, and rushed her. She pointed the weapon at him and squeezed the trigger, sending the man flying back in a hail of gunfire. He fell to the floor, dead, as she trained the weapon on the lead man. “I said don’t move!”

Before the lead man could react, her captive elbowed her in the stomach and grabbed her wrist, aiming the weapon upward. After struggling with her for a few seconds, the man slugged her in the face with a free hand, knocking her into the wall. He smirked to himself as she slid down the wall.

Chisato’s vision faded to black. She saw nothing more as she heard the two men advance on her.

- Five hours later, Hilton Island Inn -

Royce covered his mouth as he gave a wide yawn. (God, I hate waiting. I wonder if the others managed to get on the boat?) He stood up and began pacing. (Who am I kidding; it could be days before they show up.) He sighed and sat back down on the bed, but his attention went to the door as he heard a loud knock. “Yes?”

A voice called from beyond the door. “Room service!”

Royce scratched his chin. (That’s odd… I don’t remember ordering anything.) He stepped up to the door and brought his eye down to the peephole. Standing behind the door were two large men. Royce did not recognize either of them, but what caught his eye was the object in the lead man’s left hand - a sword.

(Who the hell are these guys?) Royce reached inside his jacket and removed a handgun with his left hand as he rested his right hand on the doorknob. “Coming!”

In a flash, he unlocked the door, spun the knob, pulled it open and aimed the pistol straight at the lead man’s face. “Drop the weapon!”

The lead thug, apparently caught off guard by Royce, carefully set his weapon down. He motioned for the second man to do the same, and turned back to Royce.

Royce removed his other handgun with his free hand and pointed it at the second man. “Now who the heck are you, and what do you want?”

The lead man, a bald man in his late fifties, shook his head. “I don’t ask questions, pal. My boss said he wanted you brought in, alive.”

Royce persisted. “Your boss?”

Before the thug could respond, Royce heard a low thud from behind the second thug. The three men turned to see a small satchel with a thin wire sticking out from the top; what caught Royce’s eye were the markings on the side: composition 7 plastic explosive. Instinctively, Royce leapt back, away from the door. A split second later, the satchel exploded, throwing the two thugs aside in a burst of flame and knocking the door off its hinges.

The deafening explosion left a ringing in his ears, but above the din he clearly heard the sounds of a male voice shouting orders.

“Get him! I'll cover you!”

Royce instantly raised both of his guns towards the door as he heard footsteps approach. No sooner than he got to his feet did a heavyset man, dressed head to toe in black, charge the room, sub-machine gun at the ready. Royce met this intrusion with his own firepower, and the man was thrown to the floor, motionless. More shouted orders came from down the hall.

“Target is still alive! I repeat; the target is still alive! Get some back-up in here, now!”

Royce holstered his handguns and ran over to the bed. He pulled the large, shotgun-like weapon out of the duffel bag, zipped up the bag, slung it over his shoulder and ran back to the door. Peering around the corner, he spotted another man in black, this one talking on some sort of head-mounted radio. Seeing an opportunity, Royce spun away from the doorframe into the hallway, weapon at the ready. “Drop the weapon and freeze!”

The man in black, startled by Royce, hesitantly complied and set his weapon on the ground, shoving it aside for good measure. He looked up at Royce as he approached. “You can’t win, Fitzgerald. We’ve got the place surrounded. Just give up so we can end this quickly.”

Royce said nothing, replying only by slamming the butt of his weapon against the back of the man’s head, knocking him out cold. He bent over, picked up the sub-machine gun, and slung it over his shoulder.

A soft clacking noise from behind the counter diverted his attention. He trained his weapon on it, and leaned over to see the clerk hiding beneath the register. He smiled and touched a finger to his lips. “Shh. It’s okay, I’m not one of them.”

Regaining her composure, the clerk slowly moved to her feet and glanced around the foyer nervously. “Who… who are these men? These two pirates entered… well, I’ve seen them before - they looked like Zand’s men - but with them came those two others…”

Royce shook his head. “I don’t know… wait, who’s Zand?”

The clerk blinked and stared at him in disbelief. “You don’t know Zand? He’s kind of infamous - a wealthy pirate who lives in Herlie, on the Cross continent. Those were his men that came in first.”

(Oh joy. Mystery assassins AND pirates. This just keeps getting better and better.) “Well, in that case I’d better get out of here. Listen - just try and get out of here, okay? If they’re after me, then I’ll try and lure them away. Be careful.”

The clerk nodded and dashed down the east wing hallway. Royce turned his attention to the front door and took a deep breath. Cocking his shotgun-like weapon, he kicked the left-hand door open, glanced outside, and ducked back. Spotting no apparent hostiles, he stepped through. The streets were empty; nobody was around. Sucking a breath through his teeth, he hugged the wall and carefully made his way down the street, weapon at the ready.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he spotted a telltale beam of red light, the point of which rested squarely on his chest. A half-second later, he dove for cover behind a stack of crates as a hail of silenced energy bolts slammed into the brick wall behind him. He saw the light trace its way up the sidewalk and disappear as it hit the stack of crates. Creeping forward, he inched his head around the stack and squinted, his eyes searching for the source of the red beam. Although he could not discern the shooter, the red beam led back to an open window, revealing a room dark enough to conceal anything inside.

He grit his teeth and ducked back behind the crates. (If I can get past that corner down there, I should be out of his line of sight. Looks like about a hundred feet…)

He held his breath and fought to control his rapidly beating heart. He carefully gripped the shotgun with his left hand as he began counting with his right. He whispered the numbers in his mind as his fingers got a feel for the trigger. (One… two… three…) He looked out from the crates at the red beam, which was currently aimed at the opposite end of the crates. (Two… one…) He took another deep breath through gritted teeth and tensed up every muscle in his body. (Two…) Carefully balancing on the balls of his feet, he placed a free hand on the ground and brought the shotgun to shoulder level.


Royce sprang out from behind the crates, raised his weapon towards the open window, and pulled the trigger as he ran, counting feet in his mind as he sprinted. (10… 15…) He squeezed the trigger as tightly as he could, and the weapon responded with the subtlety of a jackhammer, throwing out slug after slug, each shot accompanied by an echoing explosion and a hollow clinking noise as the shell hit the ground.

(50 feet…) Royce reached backwards slightly to keep his gun trained on the sniper’s position. (60… 65… 70…) His heart pounded away as though possessed; his gun fired round after round with pitiful accuracy but spectacular report. (80… 85… almost there… come on Royce, you can do it…) A slow but steady clicking noise from the weapon signaled its lack of ammunition as Royce finally rounded the corner, the sniper’s position no longer visible to him. He bent over, let the gun slip from his hands, and rested his hands on his knees, desperately trying to catch his breath as the shotgun clattered to the ground. After a few seconds pause, he slowed his breathing, picked up his gun, and continued along the street, unhooking and discarding the empty magazine as he moved. He stopped, unzipped his duffel bag, removed a spare drum-shaped magazine, and closed the duffel bag. He crept towards the corner as he fumbled with the shotgun.

Some harsh shouting from down the street drew his attention, and as he rounded the corner, he spotted two more men, dressed like the thugs whom he had first encountered. (Are those… the pirates?) He squinted and noticed a third figure, kneeling slightly behind the two men. He heard voices, one of which he instantly recognized.

“So, now what?”

Royce froze as the words entered his mind. (Chisato! How did they…?)

The right-hand thug glared down at her. “Shut up!”

Chisato bit back. “If you’re going to kill me, just do it already.”

“I said, shut up! We’ll let Zand decide what to do with you.”

Ducking back behind the corner, Royce slung his shotgun over his shoulder, set down his duffel bag, and unzipped it. Carefully rifling through its contents, he produced a single cylindrical device with a plastic ring sticking out through the side. He closed his eyes and hooked his index finger through the hole. (God, I hope this works like it’s supposed to.)

He leapt from the corner, pulled the ring out, away from the device, and threw it at the small group. He shielded his eyes as the device hit the ground; the device instantaneously exploded, emitting a blinding flash and nerve-wracking explosion. The light soon faded, leaving the pirates stunned as they painfully clutched their eyes.

The opening given to Royce by the explosive did not go unused; Royce charged the men, handguns at the ready. He took careful aim and fired a pair of shots at both men, striking them square in their chests and knocking them off their feet. They slid backwards and lay very still as he rushed to Chisato, who was rubbing her eyes with one hand and groping around with the other.

Royce hastily concealed his guns and knelt down, next to Chisato. “Chisato! It’s me, Royce! It’s okay; I got ‘em.”

Chisato fumbled with words for a few seconds, then turned and stared blindly in Royce’s direction. “Royce? Royce, what happened? I can’t see anything!”

“Relax, it’s a flashbang. It’ll wear off in a few seconds.” He rested a hand on her shoulder to orient her.

She placed a hand on his and slowly moved to her feet. The light in her eyes died, and the darkness of the street crept into her vision. A blurry outline formed as she gazed blankly at Royce.

“Are you okay? Who were those guys?”

She sighed and nodded as the shapes in her eyes began to solidify. “Yes, I’m okay. They were Zand’s men… some men in black kidnapped me… they had guns, kind of like yours. Then they blindfolded me and took me here. When they removed the blindfold, I saw Zand, surrounded by both his pirates and those other men.” Her vision finally cleared, and she looked up into Royce’s face.

Shouts from behind the two drew their attention. Royce spotted two more men, also dressed head to toe in black, approaching, and followed by a mob of pirates. Chisato grabbed Royce’s arm. “We’ve got to go! Come on, I know a way out!” She ran off towards the north end of the docks, with Royce in tow.

They stopped at a dead end along the harbor. Spotting a manhole cover, she knelt down and grunted as she attempted to pull it off. The cover slid to the side, and Chisato began to climb down the ladder, motioning for Royce to follow her in the process. Royce hastily scrambled down the ladder, stopping only to slide the cover back into place.

He hopped off the ladder and glanced around the dark sewer, slowly taking in the details of his new surroundings. Lit only every few dozen feet by oil lanterns, the sewer stretched for what seemed like miles in either direction. A small river of clear water snaked its way from north to south, occasionally dragging bits of rock and clay with it. Chisato scanned the area, and motioned for Royce to follow as she started south.

Royce wordlessly agreed as the pair made their way through the maze-like corridors. He desperately tried to retain his sense of direction, but the lack of any unique features among the various tunnels made this task impossible. Eventually, Chisato stopped, leaned against a wall, and turned to Royce.

“Okay. I think we’ve lost them… for now.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “So who are those guys in black? And what do they want with me?”

Royce shook his head. “Your guess is as good as mine. Whoever they are, it seems their goal is to prevent me from completing this mission. I’ll bet you ten to one they’re responsible for what happened to my pod on the way in.”

“You’re probably right. Zand sent some of his men with the two in black that I saw, and said they should bring you alive. If they wanted you, though, why did they come after me?”

“I’m not sure… maybe because you offered to help me. Perhaps that’s why they’re working with Zand’s men, so they can cover a wider area. One of his thugs probably saw us talking and fed it back to Zand, who told them where you were. Or maybe they heard me on the radio.”


Royce nodded and rubbed his forehead as it began to throb again. “I told Larkin and Cofax I had asked for your help; it’s possible the radio was bugged or something.” He closed his eyes and slammed his fist against the wall. “Damn… I’m sorry, it’s my fault you’re in this in the first place.” He felt a familiar lump well up in his throat as he glanced at Chisato. “I’m… what can I say? I screwed up, I… I’m sorry.”

Chisato shook her head. “No, it’s okay. Even if you’re right, you still saved my life back there.” She smiled at him. “Thanks.”

Royce’s face turned a light shade of red, and he smiled back, somewhat timidly. “You’re… you’re welcome.”

Chisato shrugged and dusted off her jacket. “It’s probably not safe to stay in Hilton… maybe we should head back to Linga, and tell Bowman our plans have changed.”

Royce nodded. “I’ll have to radio Larkin and Cofax, and tell them where we are. First, though, I’ll have to check it out and make sure it’s not bugged.”

“Okay. Anyway, let’s get going. I know my way through here, so just follow me and we’ll be out of here in no time.”

Royce smiled and hefted his shotgun. “I’ll be right behind you.”

Ulterior Motives

“No, sir. Fitzgerald was ready for us; he escaped, along with the woman we captured earlier.”

The man growled slightly, and loosened his tie with his free hand. “Twice I have asked you to eliminate agent Fitzgerald, and twice you have failed. Need I remind you that if he survives, your life is forfeit?”

The voice on the other end of the receiver swallowed, hard. “N-no sir. We will not fail again; you have my word.”

Mr. Wade smirked and drummed his fingers on his desk. “Then I shall grant you one last chance. What is your status?”

“We’re down three men, but we have eight remaining; plus, we have a large number of pirates on our side. Zand was relatively eager to cooperate. However, they have fled to the sewers below Hilton; their location is unknown. We’re switching to the backup plan.”

Wade brought his hand up and idly scratched an eyebrow. “Backup plan?”

“Our agent in the area can locate him - Zand said he’d personally deal with Royce, once found - but I recommend we keep the woman alive.”

“What for?”

The man on the phone cleared his throat. “She’s a Nedian.”

Wade froze. “A Nedian? Are you sure?”

“Yes sir. We’re unsure how she survived, but she is definitely a Nedian.”

Wade sighed and nodded slowly. “Very well. Once found, take her into custody, again. This time try to see if you can keep her there.”

“Understood. Alpha team, out.”

- Meanwhile, Hilton sewers -

“So where do these sewers go?”

Royce’s question echoed through the narrow tunnels as he followed his red-haired companion, his footsteps replaced by the splashing of shoes on water.

Chisato stopped a few paces before a T-junction. “There’s an opening about a mile south of the city. It exits into the cliffs over the ocean; it wasn’t really designed for anything but for emergencies - you know, flash floods, heavy rains, that sort of thing. Hmm… oh yeah, left here. Come on, let’s go.”

Royce silently complied as he followed Chisato. Although he had long since lost any shred of direction, Chisato seemed to know exactly where she was going - to no small amount of relief on Royce’s part. Chisato came to a sliding halt as the two found their path blocked by a rusted grate, secured on the left by a sturdy-looking padlock.

Royce raised an eyebrow. “Please tell me you have a key.”

Chisato shrugged and stuffed her hands into her pockets, apparently feeling around for something. She hinted at a grin as she produced a worn-looking hairpin. She then slid the hairpin into the keyhole and began fishing around with a hint of expertise. “It’s not a key, but I think it’ll do.”

Royce shook his head. “Well, I’ll give you this much; you’re easily one of the most interesting reporters I’ve ever met.”

Chisato smiled and leaned her head to one side as she continued fumbling with the hairpin. “Thanks, I guess.” Her smile turned to a frown as the hairpin snapped in two, with the larger part stuck in the hole. “Damn it!”

Royce glanced back down the tunnel. “Is there another way out?”

Chisato sighed and turned to face Royce. “This is the only way that we can use; the others are too high off the water. The fall would probably kill us.”

“Then get back and cover your ears.” Royce nonchalantly strolled up to the padlock and rested the barrel of his shotgun over it. Understanding filled Chisato’s head as she heeded his instructions. Royce winced as he pulled the trigger. The near-dead silence of the sewers was shattered by the sound of metal grinding against metal as the gun fired, blasting the padlock off of the grate and knocking the grate open. Royce turned to Chisato and indicated the open grate with the barrel of his gun. “Lead the way.”

Chisato stepped through the open grate carefully, with Royce close behind. “If you don’t mind my asking, what is that weapon, anyway? I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Royce smiled. “RM-343 Combat Shotgun. Special-issue for FBI agents, for things like raids, hostage situations, or anything where multiple hostiles have to be dealt with in very tight quarters.” He slung the sub-machine gun from his shoulder, removed the magazine, then slammed it back in. “That reminds me; if we get separated, you might need this.” He handed the weapon to Chisato, who reluctantly accepted. “You know how to use it?”

Chisato nodded. “Yeah, I took one from one of those soldiers; didn’t really know what it was at the time.” She slung the weapon over her shoulder.

Royce shrugged. “It’s a machine gun; just point and shoot. Might come in handy.”

Chisato started down the tunnels again, with Royce close behind. As they continued, the light from the wall torches grew increasingly dim. Within seconds, they found themselves in almost complete darkness. Chisato felt Royce’s hand on her shoulder.

“I’ll take point from here; just point the way.”

Chisato blinked and glanced in Royce’s direction. “Can you see?” She could barely make out Royce’s head as he nodded.

“Don’t worry, I can see fine. Let’s move.”

She stepped aside and felt Royce gently grab her hand. Unable to see, she began to follow Royce as he moved. “Where to? Right or left?”

“Right, then straight ahead.” Royce continued, tightening his grip on Chisato’s hand as he moved. (How is he able to see? I can’t even see him now…) Despite Royce’s grip on her hand, she began to feel very much alone. The darkness seemed to cut her off from her surroundings, Royce, and even the ground beneath her feet. In their desperate search for light, her eyes created images for her to see; images created from memory.

Although she had not seen them in a long time, she had no trouble remembering just what they were. An all-too-familiar face floated in front of her eyes.

(Mom…) She had long since forgotten the sound of her voice, but the face never went away. Another image presented itself; a small, quaint village, teeming with life and technology despite its outward appearance. One building in particular caught her attention. (My house…)

The image grew smaller, as though the picture was zooming out. Various faces flashed by her eyes; too quickly for any guess to be certain, but slow enough to resemble co-workers and old friends. The words ‘Nede Chronicle’ made themselves apparent repeatedly. Chisato suddenly found it impossible to speak; her throat had tightened, and she found it difficult to breathe as well.

A familiar voice broke the silence and brought Chisato back to reality, if only temporarily. “Chisato, you hear me? I said, which way?”

“Um… take a right… I think…” Though the tunnel she stood in was lit, it was still dim enough for the images to return. Emotion took control as she crouched down and grit her teeth, fighting the urge to cry. “I… I’m sorry… I can’t…” She shook her head and tried to stand up.

Royce’s voice called from before her, yet she saw nothing. “Hey… hey, take it easy. You don’t look so well. What’s wrong?” She felt her knees give, and she sat down, slowly. “Chisato?”

Chisato attempted to answer him, despite how distant he seemed from her; the best she could manage was a low groan.

The feeling of Royce’s hands once again brought her back to reality. She felt his arm slide behind her shoulders, and his other arm underneath her knees. She blinked as she felt herself being lifted off the ground. “R… Royce… what are you…”

“Shh. I gotcha, don’t worry. Just don’t struggle; try to relax.” Chisato felt herself being jolted slightly as Royce continued running. The tunnel darkened again, but the images did not return. Somehow, the world did not seem so distant as before, nor did Royce. She pulled herself in tighter against him, enjoying the sense of security his arms provided as she felt herself losing consciousness.

- The next day, Linga -

The bell rang as the door swung open. Without turning around, Bowman acknowledged his customer. “Just a minute.” He set down his razor and turned to face the newcomer: a man of average height, sporting a head of very short black hair and an unfamiliar uniform, apparently military. Behind him stood a tall, gray-hared woman, dressed in a similar uniform and with a large duffel bag slung over her shoulder. “Can I help you?”

The man spoke up first. “Yeah, we’re looking for a guy in a black business suit; he came by here recently. Tall, gray hair, wears glasses. His name is Royce. Do you know where he is?”

Bowman did a double take. “Did you say Royce?” The soldier nodded. “As in, Royce Fitzgerald, of the FBI?”

“Yeah, you know him?”

“Yes, I’m Bowman Jean. He asked for my help when he arrived here… are you the military escort?”

The black-hared man nodded. “Yeah. I’m sergeant major Argento Larkin, and this is lieutenant Nina Cofax.” He extended his hand to Bowman, who promptly shook it.

“Please, come on upstairs. It’s kind of a long story.”

The two soldiers followed Bowman as he led them upstairs.

Chain of Command

Argento sighed and nodded in understanding. (So these 'wise men' were responsible… well, he knows about Earth and the Federation… he must be telling the truth). “I can’t believe it… the Calnus is gone?”

“Yes, I’m sorry.” The brown-hared pharmacist exchanged glances with Larkin and Cofax. “I told Royce about it, and he went berserk. He set off to Hilton, and Chisato went to Lacour.”

Nina nodded. “Yeah, Royce said something about a girl whom he convinced to help locate the informant. That her?”

“Mm-hmm. I haven’t heard from either one since.”

Argento shook his head. “We heard of some trouble in Hilton; when we got there, the clerk at the inn said Royce had left in a big hurry, and some guys in black had attacked the place. Then Nina remembered that Royce had mentioned you, so we came here.”

Bowman shrugged. “Don’t know what I can say, guys. I haven’t seen him since he left; there’s not much I can do to help.”

Nina sighed. “We’ve got no choice. We contact the Nexus and get out of here.”

Argento glanced over at Nina. “No. We stay here and look for Royce. We finish this mission.”

“I don’t think you understand; those were black ops in Hilton!”

Bowman raised an eyebrow. “Black ops?”

Nina nodded. “Special forces teams employed by the Earth Federation; usually paramilitaries, but sometimes professional soldiers. Basically, they do jobs too dirty to have official sponsorship of the Earth Federation.”

“I always thought that was a myth,” said Argento.

Nina stared up at the ceiling. “Well, it’s not like the government just hands them a check and says ‘go kill somebody.’ Generally, it’s one or two high-ranking individuals; politicians, officers, businessmen, etc. They give them guns and armor, and for a modest fee, black ops does what they’re told to do.” She turned back to Argento. “Listen, if they’re here, then somebody high up wants us dead. Getting off this planet as soon as possible may be our only way of coming out of this alive.”

Argento shook his head. “What’s it gonna matter? Our ship was attacked, remember? It’s out of transmitter range; it was trying to outrun that ship. Whatever fired on us was probably the ship black ops is using. No, we find Royce, and finish the mission. Royce said it himself; the Federation does not abandon its people.”

A small ringing from downstairs caught their attention. Bowman stood up and slid his chair back under the table. “Just a customer.” He stepped downstairs as Argento rubbed his face with his hands.

“Hi, can I help… Royce! What… what happened to Chisato?”

Exchanging glances, Argento and Nina sprang to their feet and raced downstairs.

- 5 minutes later -

“I don’t know. She just sorta collapsed.”

Royce glanced down at Chisato, a look of concern etched on his face as Bowman examined her carefully. “Well, she’s okay. Maybe a little fatigue, but I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. Thanks for getting her out of there.”

Royce smiled slightly. “Nah, it’s nothing. It’s my fault you guys are in this in the first place.”

“Don’t worry about it; she’ll be fine, and your friends are here.”

“Yeah… listen, I gotta talk with the others; is she really going to be okay?”

Bowman grinned. “Give me a little credit, okay? Trust me, she’ll be fine.”

The agent nodded and stepped outside. Bowman glanced at Chisato, who slowly began to stir. She moaned softly and opened her eyes. “Mmm… where… where am I?”

Bowman pulled a chair over to the bed and sat down. “Hey, Chisato. Relax; it’s me, Bowman. You collapsed in the sewers; Royce carried you here.”

“I… did I? Uhhh… my head hurts a little…”

“Just get some shuteye, you’ll be okay.”

Chisato yawned and stretched out on the bed. “Okay… mmm… so tired…”

Bowman smirked as he stood up, and made his way back to the kitchen, where Royce, Argento, and Nina were in the middle of a heated discussion. Royce removed a manila folder from inside his jacket.

“Listen. This is the file on Tesla; Chisato got it for us. He’s in a town called Salva, on the continent to the west. We can salvage this mission if we find him.”

Nina shook her head. “I disagree. With black ops around, we should call for an immediate evacuation. We’ll need more soldiers to complete this mission.”

Argento glanced at Nina. “Look, we’re already on the planet. Going back to the Nexus before we finish will only waste more time and resources. Besides, once black ops figures out that we’re no longer here, they’ll be able to get reinforcements of their own.”

Royce threw his own two cents into the argument. “And if we leave, there’s nothing to stop them from taking Chisato hostage again; they’ll probably be after Bowman and Nineh, too. We stay here and we finish this.”

Argento turned to Royce. “Then we help these people first.”

Nina sighed. “Yeah… yeah, I guess you’re right. But it’s getting late, we’d better punch out for tonight.”

Bowman interrupted. “Well, since you saved Chisato and all, you’re welcome to stay here. There’s a guest bedroom upstairs, and a couple couches downstairs.”

Argento glanced at Nina, and nodded. “Guess we’ll take the couches. You can have the bed, Royce. Sounds like you earned it.”

Bowman nodded. “Chisato’s got the bed, but there’s another couch in there.”

“All right. Thanks, Bowman. Guess we all owe you this time.”

Bowman shook his head and smiled as the soldiers left the kitchen.

No More Secrets

Argento eyed his hand carefully. He pulled one card out and dropped it on the table, face down. “Dealer takes one.” He slid a card from the pile and stuffed it into his hand. “And you?”

Royce shook his head. “Fine, thanks.”

“Suit yourself. What’ve you got?”

Royce set down his hand. “Dead man’s hand: aces and eights. You?”

“Full house.” Argento set down his hand, revealing three kings and two sevens. Royce gave a defeated grin and pushed his cards aside. Argento smiled and sighed. “Man, it was so long ago.”

Royce raised an eyebrow. “What was so long ago?”

Argento shook his head. “Nah, forget about it.”

“No, c’mon. You’ve got my interest now.”

Argento sighed rubbed his eyes. “Okay. It’s nothing big, just that I used to play cards like this every day when I was little. I was a closer friend with most of the staff than the other students. During lunch I’d go and play cards with Jessie, Tyler, and Ross - two custodians and a guard, respectively.”

“During school?”

“Well, sort of. Actually, it… uh…” Argento sighed and lowered his gaze. “It was an orphanage.”

“An orphanage… you mean, you…”

Argento nodded. “Yeah. It’s kinda funny… in a way. When I was born, I was left on the doorstep of a clinic. I never found out who my parents were…”

Royce kept silent as the soldier continued. “Well, it’s not like I didn’t have fun there. I made friends, I got good grades, I ate well; it was a good life… but still…” Argento took a deep breath. “Playing cards brings it back… I try to tell myself that it’s over, to let the past be the past… but it’s never that simple in real life. Every day, I’d listen to the announcements for my name; they called out those who had been adopted over the intercom during lunch, when I was playing poker with the others. Every day, I’d listen… I heard the others get called… but I never did. It was no fun at all, then - seeing other kids going to meet their new parents, their new family, and I never did.”

Royce’s lips parted, as if to speak, but he said nothing. Argento closed his eyes and took in a slow breath. “Yeah… was no fun at all…”

Royce finally found the right words. “God… I’m sorry, major. I don’t… I don’t know what to say.”

Argento smiled, somewhat painfully, and nodded. “Hey, how could you know, man? It’s okay… kinda. Then one day when I was 17, a local recruiting officer for the army came by. By then I figured out that I wasn’t going to be adopted, so I joined the service. Been here ever since, and I’m damn proud of it too.”

“Well, I’m still sorry about your past… but I guess if you’re happy now, that’s what matters, huh?”

Argento nodded. “Yeah, I think so too. I never really forget, but at least I’ve made peace with it.” He reached over and took a sip of liquor from a nearby shot glass, which Royce promptly refilled. “Hey, mind if I ask you something?”

Royce smiled. “Sure, what’s on your mind?”

“Well, Bowman said you went berserk when you found out about the Calnus. I don’t want to open an old wound or anything… but if you don’t mind… uh…”

Royce understood, and nodded in response. “Well… I guess we’ve all got our share of tragedies… here’s mine. Seven years ago, I graduated from the FBI academy; I was officially a special agent, along with about 80 others. There was a separate ceremony for those of us who were going to be part of the augmentation program.”

It was Argento’s turn to remain silent as Royce continued. His eyes twitched and seemed to stare at nothing. “That same day, one of the graduates decided to fulfill the orders given to him by Jeremy Margolis - a known terrorist and illegal arms trafficker wanted in thirteen countries - by lobbing a satchel loaded with C-7 plastic explosives and a homemade pipe bomb into the crowd.”

Royce sucked in a breath through gritted teeth. “The bomb was poorly assembled; the C-7 didn’t go off, but the pipe bomb did. The explosion killed 12 of us. The woman on my right died in the explosion, and I lived. That’s how close I was. The bomber was apprehended, and later given life imprisonment, but because of the sensitivity of the case, the names of the deceased were not released. The FBI didn’t want to tip its hand by announcing that the bombing was not completely successful, so the incident was covered up until the bomber led us to Margolis in exchange for a life sentence.”

“It took them two years to track down Margolis, and only afterwards were we allowed to disclose the names of the deceased. It’s something you don’t forget… staring a fellow graduate’s parents in the eyes… listening to them as they begged to know if their son was all right… and the only thing I could tell them was it was classified in the interests of federal security…” He felt his throat tighten, but managed to keep his cool. “I don’t regret what we did… it had to be done, or else we wouldn’t have caught him… but still… since then, I can’t take it when the truth gets hidden like that, ‘cause people get hurt. People wait for years to hear what happened to people they care about… I know it seems kinda silly, but I can’t stand watching people in pain. That’s why I’ve dedicated myself to the Federation, and to the bureau. In the bureau, I feel like I’m doing my part to help, like I’m fighting the good fight, you know? It feels kinda… kinda nice. Kinda nice to be one of the good guys.”

Argento nodded slowly. “I see… I’m sorry. Guess tonight’s not a night for cheers, huh?”

Royce smiled slightly. “Well, how ‘bout we drink to our past… to our pain. It makes us stronger, and gives us purpose.” He grabbed the bottle and filled his shot glass, which he then raised in a toast. Argento smiled back, and knocked his shot glass against Royce’s. They downed their shots and sighed contentedly.

(Royce…) Chisato carefully peered around the corner, and ducked back. (I had no idea… no wonder he takes his work so seriously. I’m sorry…) She carefully made her way up the stairs and slipped into the guest bedroom.

The two men turned towards the stairs as they heard descending footsteps, and nodded in recognition as Bowman stepped into the light.

“Hey, guys. What happened to Chisato?”

Royce glanced up at Bowman quizzically. “Chisato? What do you mean?”

“She just headed back to her room, I figured she was down here with you. She looked like she had a lot on her mind.”

Argento shrugged. “If she was here, I didn’t see her. Feel like a hand of poker?”

Bowman smiled. “Don’t mind if I do.” He pulled up a chair as Argento began dealing again.

- Meanwhile -

“Yes, sir. That’s right. Our agent has them all located.”

Wade smirked and leaned back in his chair. “Eliminate the pharmacist, his wife, and the soldier. Take the Nedian alive, and take the agent alive if possible. If not, then kill him.”

“Yes, sir. There is another problem, though, sir.”

Wade’s smirk faded. “And that is?”

“The Nexus has returned. They’re within transmitter range now, and our ship is incapable of fighting them off; it was luck that we got away alive last time, sir.”

The tone of Wade’s voice reflected his disappointment. “Understand this; you will not fail. You will neutralize them before they can contact the Nexus. Are we clear?”

“Crystal, sir.”

Wade nodded. “Good. Commence operations immediately.”

With that, he hung up the receiver and turned to the door, beyond which a knocking was heard. “Come in.” The door swung open, and in stepped a man in a wrinkled gray suit.

“Excuse me, Mr. Senator. Your escort has arrived.”

Wade nodded to the guard. “I need to make a call, first. Inform them that I’ll be there in a few minutes.”

“Yes, sir.”

Open Fire

“…and the foreman says, ‘I want ‘em both back after lunch.’”

Bowman grinned and let out a quiet laugh, as did Royce. “Heh heh heh… ah, that was a pretty good one. What else you got?”

Argento smiled and began shuffling the cards again. “Well, okay. A guy walks into a church and…”

The joke was cut short by the sound of a crashing noise from upstairs, drawing the attentions of the three men. They exchanged glances, and Bowman spoke first.

“Sounded like it came from the guest room… didn’t it?”

Royce shrugged. “I’ll go check it out.”

Argento and Bowman watched as Royce climbed the stairs. Footsteps from behind them caught their ears, and they turned to see Nina approach the table.

“What’s going on? I thought I heard something.”

Bowman shook his head. “Probably Chisato, maybe she knocked something over in her sleep.”

The sound of repeated crashes, followed shortly by a loud gunshot, contradicted his theory. Argento immediately leapt to his feet and pulled a small pistol machinegun from inside his camouflage jacket. “Let’s go!”

Nina removed her own pistol, and Bowman slipped a pair of spiked knuckles over his fingers. The three dashed upstairs to find Royce, his back to the wall, carefully peering into the guest room. A hail of weapons fire forced his head back, muzzle flare throwing his shadow against the far wall.

Argento crept closer to Royce. “What’s going on?!”

“Someone’s in there! They’ve got Chisato!”

Bowman glanced at the open doorway. “Who?”

“Big guy, all in black; had some weird claw on his right arm. He’s not black ops, that’s for sure; said his name was Zand. I tried to stop him, but he had a gun too.”

Bowman’s eyes widened. “Zand? The pirate boss?”

“Yeah, his guys were working with the soldiers at Hilton.”

Argento slid the bolt back on his weapon and trained it on the door. “That’d explain the gun. Looks like he intends to finish it here and now.”

Meanwhile, Chisato shook her head, trying to fight the dizzying sensation that plagued her. Rubbing her forehead, she glanced up at her assailant; a man of average height, dressed entirely in black, but not in the same fashion as the soldiers in Hilton. The most noticeable feature was the large claw-like device where his right hand would be. His gun was trained on the door, but his eyes focused on her. “Ah, you’re awake again.”

Chisato blinked and glared at the man. “Who the hell are you?”

“Your friendly neighborhood pirate boss, as if you really needed to know.”

Chisato sighed. “And what do you want with me? I know you’re working with those guys in Hilton, so how do I fit in?”

The masked pirate turned his gaze to the door. “I’m not paid to ask questions; those higher-up than myself asked to have you brought in.”

“Higher than you?”

The pirate grunted slightly. “Just shut up. This’ll all be over soon.”

Spotting an opportunity, Chisato carefully slid her hand into the back pocket of her shorts and, slowly, withdrew her stun gun. She gave the pirate’s eyes a hard look, and noticed that his attention was no longer on her. In one fluid motion, she sprang to her feet, lunged at Zand, and thrust the stun gun at his neck. The gun crackled to life, shocking the pirate and forcing him to drop his gun. Dazed but unhurt, he grabbed Chisato by the collar of her shirt and threw her to the floor, only to be interrupted by a hard punch to his jaw. He looked up to see a very angry man in a suit staring him down.

“Let’s go!” shouted Royce.

Immediately, Zand gave a wide swing with his claw-hand, which Royce dodged easily. He followed up with a hammer blow to the head, which Royce blocked just as easily. Royce countered with a jab to the pirate’s stomach, knocking the wind out of Zand but doing little real damage. Royce then turned sideways and elbowed Zand in the face, forcing him back a step, but before Royce could continue his attack, a kick to the stomach evacuated the air from his lungs, and an overhead hammer punch forced him to the floor.

Without warning, Zand found himself under assault from a revitalized Chisato, who began punching him mercilessly. Zand coughed up blood as he tried, unsuccessfully, to block the punches. After a few seconds, Zand rushed Chisato and attempted to knock her off her feet again, but was interrupted by a kick to the knee from Royce. Royce jumped back and glanced at Chisato.

“Chisato, run! He’s after you; I’ll deal with him! Go get the others!”

Chisato hesitantly backed off as Royce grappled with the pirate, and exited the room. She raced into the hallway to find it deserted; she dashed downstairs into the kitchen to find it equally empty. “Bowman? Mr. Larkin? Is anybody there?”

Interrupted only by the sounds of grunting and straining from the room above, she vaguely heard the sounds of gunfire from outside. Instinct took over as she dashed outside, stun gun at the ready, and found Bowman, his fists busy as they brutalized a man who appeared to be one of the soldiers from before; a battered and bleeding pirate lay at his feet, evidence of his work.

After absorbing a complicated chain of blows, the soldier collapsed. His business with his opponent finished, Bowman turned and peered quizzically at Chisato.

“What happened? Where’s Royce?”

“He’s inside, fighting with Zand. What’s going on here?”

Bowman jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the corpse of the soldier. “About half a dozen of these guys showed up. Royce’s friends headed them off and chased them outside; we got separated in the shooting.” As he spoke, Argento and Nina approached, each holding a rather deadly looking weapon. “Come on, let’s go help Royce!”

The four reentered Bowman’s house to find Royce, badly beaten and face down on the floor with an apparently smug Zand standing over him. Royce forced himself off the ground and slowly started to crawl away from Zand.

Argento pointed his machine pistol at the pirate and squinted. “Hold it right there!”

The pirate responded by drawing his own weapon and pointing it at Argento. “Any time you’re ready, Cofax.”

Before Argento could question the statement, he felt the barrel of a gun being pointed at his head, just above his right ear. It didn’t take the voice of his comrade to figure out what was going on. “Lower your weapon, major.”

Royce chose this moment to move to his feet and draw his weapon, which he then aimed at Nina. Everyone in the room exchanged glances as they held each other at gunpoint.

Royce spoke up. “So… it was you… you double-crossed us.”

Nina smirked. “Surprised?”

“Not after I give it some thought. All this time, they seemed to know exactly where I was; the drop pod, the Hilton Island, here - how could they know unless someone had told them where I was?”

Argento nodded. “Nina did the download to your head; she probably put some sort of trace program on there, so black ops could track you.”

Nina shrugged. “Okay, so it’s not exactly original; enter Zand and his merry little band of men. The only thing we lacked here was manpower, and they filled that quite nicely.”

Zand glared at Nina. “There’s nothing little about it, ‘friend.’”

“Whatever. Point is, we couldn’t let you finish this mission.”

Royce glared up at Nina. “Why not? We’re talking about clearing a 3-year-old mystery and honoring 200 Federation citizens. Why would anybody want this to be stopped?”

“It’s way over your head, but in a nutshell, let’s just say Calnus found itself to be an unwilling test subject in the interests of federal security.”

Before she could continue, she found her right arm in the possession of the brown-hared pharmacist’s powerful hands. A shred of compassion could not be found on his face as he tightened his grip, and her cry of alarm turned to a cry of pain as her arm made a sickening crunch under his grasp. The gun slipped out of her hand and fell to the floor, harmless, and Bowman, after cocking a fist back, punched her hard in the face, breaking her nose and knocking her to the ground, hard.

Seizing the opportunity, Royce rolled onto his back, pointed his gun at Zand, and fired. The shell sliced its way through the pirate’s shoulder, causing him to cry out, in surprise more than pain. He dropped his gun and ran out through the side door, disappearing before Royce could give chase.

The pirate gone, the soldiers dead, the four now turned their complete attention to Nina, who still lay stunned on the floor. Argento knelt down next to her and locked eyes with her.

“Listen to me very carefully. I’m going to ask you some questions; for every answer I don’t like, you get shot. First question. Who hired the soldiers?”

Nina glared up at him through bloodshot eyes. “Screw you.”

“Wrong answer!” Argento lowered his machine pistol and fired a single shot, which penetrated her thigh with remarkable ease. Nina grunted in pain as Argento stared her down again. “Let’s try again. Same question.”

Nina sighed, and relented. “Wade.”

Argento and Royce exchanged glances. Bowman spoke up. “Wade?”

Royce interrupted. “Wait… Aleister Wade?”

“Y… yeah.”

“Senator Aleister Wade?”

Nina coughed and gasped, clutching her thigh in pain, and nodded.

Royce shook his head. “I don’t believe it.”

“If you don’t want to, I don’t really care, because that's who it is.”

Argento shook his head. “Okay, next question. Where are they hiding?” He grabbed her free hand and placed the barrel of the gun in the palm of her hand, providing sufficient incentive for her to speak.

“They moved into the university… third floor… they’ve been following Royce…”

“How many are left?”

She coughed. “Counting Zand and his men… seven. Two black ops.”

Argento nodded. “Last question. Why?”

“Heh… you’re asking the wrong person, Larkin.”

The major shook his head and tightened his grip on the trigger. She gritted her teeth and shut her eyes. “No, I mean it, even if you shoot me! I don’t know. Wade just said he wanted you both dead; then we found out Royce had contacted civilians…”

Royce spoke up. “Let it go, major.”

Argento sighed, and holstered his pistol. “So what do we do now?”

Chisato, finally putting the pieces together, decided to join the conversation. “You’ve still got the transmitter, right? Royce said it was with you. Maybe now would be as good a time as any to contact your ship, and fill them in.”

Bowman scratched his head. “What about Zand and the others? We really should stop them before they figure out what we’re up to. If we attack them, we’ll have the element of surprise; they won’t be prepared, and, according to her,” he indicated Nina with a nod “they’re at the university here.”

Royce nodded. “Okay then. Argento, start up the transmitter. Send a message to the Nexus: We’ve found the location of the informant, and we’re heading there as soon as possible. Tell them to stand by; we’ve got a mess to clean up first.”

Argento nodded and jogged over to the couch, where his duffel bag lay. He began rifling through it as Chisato and Bowman turned to Royce.

“Okay, then I guess we’ve got work to do. So what do you need from me?”


“I say again! We are under attack!”

Wade gripped the receiver tightly, his knuckles white. “What’s going on? Griehr, answer me! Give me your status!”

“Sir! They’re dead! We’ve lost the pirates, and it’s down to me and Beck!”

“What about your ship? Where are the reinforcements?”

“Sir, the ship is not responding! I’m not even getting static… it’s like it ain’t even there anymore!”

Sporadic gunfire and cries of pain could be heard as Wade slowly took in the information. “I don’t care if you have to blow the whole goddamn building up! Destroy them all! Forget about the Nedian!”

Silence. “Griehr?” More silence. “Griehr! Answer me!”

Another voice, deep and authoritative, answered in his place. “He didn’t make it.”

Wade’s eyes went wide. Slowly, he parted his lips and responded. “Who… who is this?”

After a pause that seemed like hours, the voice responded. “Special agent Royce Fitzgerald, of the FBI, Mr. Senator.”

Wade’s heart seemed to stop, and his face lost its color. “Fitzgerald?”

The line went dead. Wade set the receiver down and loosened his tie, which suddenly seemed rather tight.

- Meanwhile, Linga University, roof -

Zand glanced behind him, the approaching footsteps reminding him just how close the agent was. Reaching the end of the roof, he turned to face his adversary.

Royce glared hard at the pirate, shotgun at the ready. “It’s over, Zand. Let’s end this clean.”

Zand shook his head. “You’re gonna have to kill me.” He began inching closer to the edge of the roof.

“Don’t tempt me. The only reason I haven’t shot you yet is because I don’t feel like wasting the shell.”

“Then I guess you’re just gonna have to take me in, boy.”

Royce hesitantly edged closer to Zand. He turned to the sound of footsteps, and nodded as Argento, Chisato, and Bowman joined him.

Zand aimed his claw-hand towards Royce, pushed a small button, and moved even closer to the edge. The claw-hand shot out from its base, latching tightly onto Royce’s right hand and burying its hooks deep into his wrist. Zand jerked his arm back, pulling Royce forward slightly.

Royce cried out in pain and pried the shotgun out of his suddenly clenched hand. Argento raised his machine pistol and trained it on Zand, who threw a look at Argento.

“Go ahead, shoot me. You knock me off the ledge, I won’t be goin’ alone.” He indicated the cable attached to the claw that led back to his arm with a nod.

Royce threw a look of his own at Argento. “Forget about me! Blow his head off!”

Chisato protested. “No! Don’t! You'll kill Royce too!”

Bowman glanced at the contraption attached to Royce’s hand. “Shoot the cable!”

Royce hefted the massive weapon and rested the barrel next to the cable. He squeezed the trigger and clenched his teeth as the gun went off. The smoke cleared, but the cable remained intact. Dumbfounded, Royce fired again and again, with no effect. Zand chuckled softly.

An idea flashed through Royce’s mind, and it showed in his eyes. Without a second thought, he moved the barrel of the shotgun up along his hand and rested it on his wrist. Everyone’s eyes went wide as they realized, in unison, his intentions.

Time stopped as Royce squeezed the trigger. In a flash of light and a loud explosion, the cable went limp and Royce fell to the ground, clutching his now severed appendage in pain. Through gritted teeth, he screamed at Argento to fire.

Argento aimed his machine pistol at Zand, who suddenly realized that he was no longer anchored to Royce. His thoughts went blank as the first round punctured his chest and threw him backwards, off the roof and towards the ground below.

Argento slowly lowered his weapon as Bowman and Chisato rushed to Royce’s aid. Royce gripped his arm in pain; the pain became unbearable, and he felt his senses begin to fade. The last thing he heard was the muffled cries of his companions as they knelt over him. He felt the darkness overtake him again, and the world faded to silence.

- The next day -

“Hey… hey, you feeling all right? Royce?”

Royce sighed painfully, and nodded. He gently rubbed the bloody bandage over his right wrist. “I’ve been better.” He turned and looked Argento in the eyes.

“What were you thinking? Shooting your hand off… why?

“I couldn’t die yet… not there, not like that. The mission ain’t over yet. Besides, it was the only way to get that thing off me.”

Argento shrugged. “Never seen anything like it. I gotta hand it to you, Royce…” Argento gave a wide yawn as Royce stood up. “Where you going? We leave in a few minutes.”

“I know, I know. Just gotta talk to ‘sato for a sec, okay?”

Argento nodded. Royce headed up the stairs and towards the guest bedroom. He spotted Bowman leaning against the doorframe, shaking his head.

“Hey, Bowman. What’s up?”

“Oh, hey Royce. How’s the arm?”

“Not too bad, now. Pain’s stopped; I owe you big.”

“Never mind, you’ve done plenty for me, thanks - even if you caused this in the first place, which I doubt.”

Royce shrugged. “What can I say? I’m bad luck. Is Chisato in there?”

“She’s asleep.”


“Hey, Royce. While you were out, she wanted me to tell you something, about why those guys had captured her and all.” Bowman took a deep breath. “I don’t know if you’ve guessed this, but she’s not from here.”

Royce did a double take. “What do you mean?”

“She’s from a planet called Nede… it was destroyed when we killed the ten wise men - remember, the terrorists who attacked the Calnus? - and… basically, every Nedian was killed, save for three - the three who were with us.”

Royce closed his eyes. (God… I knew she was different somehow… but I never thought…) “I’m sorry… I… I can’t believe it. I suspected she was hiding something… but something like this… god, I’m sorry. Why did she have you tell me this?”

“She wanted you to know; I think it’s why she passed out in the sewers.” Bowman sighed. “She is one of the last Nedians… I guess she’s lonely for her family and her home. Don’t get me wrong; she’s gotten used to living here… but it doesn’t take a very perceptive person to figure out that she feels isolated. I… I wanted to say thank you, for rescuing her. She’s been a good friend of mine since we all met…”

Royce shook his head. “Nah, like I said, it’s nothing. It’s what I do… well, part of what I do, anyway. I… I feel terrible for her…”

“It’s okay. I think she’ll be okay; it’s not something you can easily cope with, you know, but she’s pretty tough.”

“Being tough doesn’t always help. But listen, I have to get going with Argento. We’ll be back after we find Tesla, but after we get back, we’re leaving for Earth. There’s something I need to ask you… and maybe you can consider this a thank-you gift.”

“And that is?”

“The guy who sent black ops - Wade - he’s still alive, and we have no assurances he won’t try to attack you again. I have to get back to Earth, and start an investigation of him… but I’d feel a little better about it if you all came with us. It might not be safe here.”

It was Bowman’s turn to do a double take. “Is that legal? We aren’t really in the Federation, after all.”

“Special circumstances, such as this, negate customs laws.” He smiled slightly and read through the little-known clause he had memorized aloud. “Any and all persons in potential and reasonable danger from a suspect or convicted felon are permitted to obtain the legal protection of the FBI until the investigation is finished and the suspect or felon is incarcerated or cleared of the charges.” He glanced behind Bowman at Chisato, and nodded. “You fit the bill; interested?”

Bowman struggled for words. “I… well… I, uh… I don’t know what to say…”

“Well, I’ll let you think it over. Anyway, just tell Chisato what I said, and we’ll be back in a few days.”

Royce turned and stepped downstairs as Bowman leaned against the doorframe, his mind going a mile a minute as he contemplated his answer.

Final Thoughts

“Yeah… this’s it all right.”

Royce cast his gaze over the wreckage. The debris, about and hour’s walk from the Salva Drift, had turned out to match the schematics exactly. Although he was relieved to have the information out of his head, he felt more than a touch of sadness as he realized what the answer meant.

He turned and looked the man named Tesla over; a pale, thin man in his mid-30’s, he hardly seemed fit to be a federal agent, yet his skill in accessing Royce’s implant proved impressive, despite the lack of assistance from lieutenant Cofax, who had been detained by some Linga authorities who ‘owed Mr. Jean a favor.’ He chuckled softly to himself, a brief but welcome relief from the gravity of the matter he found himself in.

The three men made their way into the valley, closer to the debris. According to the schematics, the largest piece was apparently a cargo hold of some kind - the only part that seemed to survive impact. “Looks like it was sealed up from the inside…”

Argento turned to Royce and Tesla. “We should split up; there might be a way inside. This might be worth checking out.”

Royce nodded, and the three spread out over the massive cargo hold. Seconds turned to minutes, which turned to hours as they searched. Finally, after about an hour and a half of searching, the voice of Argento called their attention to the north end of the giant box.

“Hey… hey Royce! Mr. Tesla! Come here!”

Royce and Tesla followed the voice to find a large crack in the side of the boxlike structure. The major’s voice called from within.

“Come in here! You’re not going to believe this!”

Complying with his instructions, the two entered the hold and glanced around in awe. Despite severe impact damage on the outside, the interior of the hold seemed perfectly intact, but what caught all three pairs of eyes were the contents.

Lining the walls, in rows of ten and columns of five, were small, pod-shaped devices. The pods, though dark and covered with frost, could not hide the shadowy figures within them. It only took a closer look to ascertain the shape of those figures.

Argento spoke first. “My god… it’s the crew!”

Royce found speech impossible; Tesla asked in his stead. “Are they alive?”

“I don’t know… there’s got to be some sort of… there, that computer!”

Argento indicated a damaged but functional computer, towards the back of the room, with an erratic gesture. The three crowded around it, and Royce began pushing buttons, cycling through passenger manifests, personnel files, and finally discovering the most recent log entries of the crew. The text of the recording spread out before their eyes.


The three read the message over and over. Argento brought up the status screen of the pods and initiated a systems check. “There’s exactly one hundred pods… some have failed… but it looks like of the hundred that made it here… 87 are still alive.”

Royce turned away from the screen, stepped into the middle of the room, and fell to his knees. He glanced around the room and began laughing.

- 30 minutes later, hold exterior -

“You sure about this?”

Royce nodded. “Yeah. It’s different; we found survivors, and we should get them aboard the Nexus as soon as possible. I can get to Chisato and the Jeans later.”

Argento nodded. All eyes went skyward as a rush of wind came; on it rode the massive steel beast that was the Nexus. Scorch marks and dents covered its hull, yet despite its appearance it had no trouble coming to a gentle stop as it settled down some distance away from the large cargo hold. The rear of the ship opened up and out poured a swarm of soldiers and technicians. Immediately following was the captain, who strolled up to the three men and brought his hand up to a stiff military salute. The three responded in kind, and the captain grinned broadly.

“Agent Fitzgerald, sergeant major Larkin, agent Tesla. Well met, gentlemen. I’ll admit, I had my doubts at first.”

Royce shrugged. “I wouldn’t have believed it otherwise myself, sir. Can we accommodate for 87 more passengers?”

Sergei nodded. “Not a problem, this ship can handle it. I’m a little more worried about the paperwork this is gonna cause, but I’m glad there were survivors.”

Argento cut in. “There’s also over a hundred dead; we need to inform the families as soon as possible. And we should get someone on the recorder, try to find out what happened.”

Tesla nodded. “I’ll get right on it, I’ll go help the techs.” With that, the agent broke from the group and reentered the hold with the crew.

The captain looked around. “Where’s ex-lieutenant Cofax?”

“She’s being held in a town called Linga, on the eastern continent. We’ll go pick her up after we’re done here.”

Sergei glanced behind the men, and raised an eyebrow. “Or we can just grab her right now, apparently.”

Confusion apparent on their faces, Royce and Argento turned around to see Chisato and Bowman approaching, with a bound and gagged Nina in tow. Bowman handed the prisoner off to a pair of soldiers, who escorted her onto the Nexus. Chisato stepped forward, a smile on her face as she prepared to answer their unspoken questions.

“Bowman mentioned something about a free trip to Earth?”

Royce stuttered, attempting to mask his surprise. “Well… uh… yeah, sure… but how’d you… I mean, why’d you come all this way?”

Bowman stepped forward. “I told her about your offer; I didn’t feel like taking you up on it, but she just lit up when I told her. Didn’t want her bringing your ‘lieutenant’ back alone, so I figured I’d bring ‘em both here for you.”

Argento smirked. “How touching. I’m almost moved.” Bowman chuckled and shrugged.

Royce turned back to Chisato. “So you serious? You really want to come with?”

Chisato grinned. “Are you kidding? I’m getting the chance to finally check out this Earth I’ve been hearing so much about lately, and you expect me to stay HERE? My boss gave me a rather long paid vacation a few days ago, and I think it’s time I collect.”

Royce smiled. “All right. Thanks, I promise you won’t regret this.”

Sergei and Argento watched as the agent escorted the reporter up the ramp into the ship. They exchanged glances.

Argento smiled. “Words fail me.”

Sergei shook his head. “You want my two cents, I think he’s got a thing for her.”

“Heh, wouldn’t bet my last cred on it.”

“Hey, Larkin; I know you’ve been through a lot, but for what it's worth… you guys did great.”

Argento nodded. “Thanks, sir.” He gestured to some technicians and motioned to the cargo hold.

“Let’s get moving!”

"We're Goin' Home."

Sergei glanced over at his second-in-command. "Mr. Larkin, is the report ready?"

Argento nodded. "Yes, sir. Royce said he'd write his as soon as he got patched up. He's with a tech in the infirmary now."

"Good. Are all the survivors aboard?"

Argento turned towards a nearby monitor, and began typing on a keyboard. He glanced back at Sergei and nodded. "All 87 of them."

"I want a complete list and report from each of them as soon as they are treated. What of our other guest?"

"Royce saw to Ms. Madison personally; she's with him in the infirmary."

Sergei smiled and turned back to the screen before him. "It's good to have you back, soldier. You missed a hell of a fight up here."

Argento sighed. "Wished I could've seen it. We had our fair share, though."

"As well you should have. Anyway, I'll be going over your report. Take us home, Major." Sergei stood up and turned towards the bow. "Ex o Larkin has the conn."

Argento grinned and brought his hand up to a salute. "Yes, sir!" He immediately turned to a helmsman and stepped towards him. "I have the conn, aye. Mr. Ridley, prep for launch."

Sergei smirked as he left the bridge. His thoughts rang hollow as he made his way to his quarters, dodging technicians and an FBI agent along the way. The door to his room slid open upon his approach, and closed behind him as he entered.

He pulled a chair out from his desk and brought his personal computer on-line. After logging on, Sergei set his hand down on a small flat panel and began dragging his finger across it, working his way through various menus until a flashing file, marked "OpRep; Larkin, Argento - May 19", appeared. He opened it and began to trace his eyes over the text as it unfolded before him.

- Meanwhile, Nexus Infirmary -

The young, brown-haired technician blinked repeatedly as he scrolled through line after line of status reports and diagnostics text. He nodded to himself and turned back to the agent on the table behind him, who was gently rubbing the bandages over his right wrist. "How's it feel?"

Royce shook his head. "I keep trying to use it... like my mind thinks it's still there. It doesn't hurt, but... it just feels... unnatural."

"Well, it's cauterized, so you should be okay now. We won't be able to replace it until we get back; without the hand, there's nothing else we can do." The technician sighed. "If it's any consolation, the bureau will cover for the surgery."

Royce smiled, though a slight sadness showed in his eyes. "Thanks, Murphy."

The technician smiled. "Least we could do. I don't know if you know how big this is, what you guys did down there. The Calnus was missing for three years; we had all given up hope of ever finding it. Not only did you find it, you brought back a third of the crew alive. That's way more than the average search-and-rescue."

Royce nodded and ran his hand through his hair. "Yeah, I know. Just wish we could've found out sooner."

Chisato watched, fascinated, as Royce continued. (I still can't believe it; he shot off his hand. That just seems so... so... ugh! I don't know if I could do that... guess he really does take his job seriously.) She smiled slightly. (Still, I'm glad I could help. He seems like a nice enough guy.)

"Right, 'sato?"

Royce's voice cut through her thoughts. "Sorry, what?"

"I said, 'at least the guys responsible are gone.' Right?"

"Oh, right. Yes, the Ten Wise Men are gone. No doubt in my mind."

Murphy stepped over to a console near the bed, and began tapping on it. "Try to hold still, Royce."

A small mechanical arm lowered down from a ceiling panel with a thin screw-like appendage sticking out of the front of it. The arm curled and aimed itself at the back of Royce's head, approaching slowly. The 'screw' began to turn as it inserted itself into a jack on the back of his head.

Chisato winced. "What are you doing?"

Murphy began rifling through lines of code. "Checking the integrity of Royce's implant, making sure it wasn't damaged." After a few minutes of pause, he nodded to himself. "Everything looks okay; you've got all your space back, and there's nothing else a stiff drink and a good night's sleep won't cure. Anything in particular you want done?"

"Just refill the morphine reservoirs and recharge the system."

"Just a second." Murphy nodded. "Done and done." He punched a few more keys, and the device carefully removed itself from the jack. It slid back up into the panel and disappeared from view. "You're set to go, agent. If that arm starts bugging you, let me know."

"Got it. Thanks, Murphy." Royce slid off the table and steadied himself. He nodded to Chisato. "C'mon, let's go."

Chisato smiled and stood up; she followed Royce as he strolled through the corridors of the ship. Although the design was different in many ways, the technology of the ship seemed remarkably similar to older Nedian systems. She continued to gaze around the hallways until they reached Royce's room; the door slid closed behind them as they entered.

Royce sat down on the bed and rubbed his forehead. Although he had long since removed the jacket and tie, he still wore his holsters, located on the sides of his chest. Beneath that, a somewhat uncomfortable-looking white dress shirt. He started fumbling with the holsters as Chisato pulled up a chair and sat down.

The silence was broken as Chisato spoke up. "So what exactly is in that implant?"

The question caught Royce off-guard, but he recovered quickly. (I'm surprised she didn't ask sooner.) "A 200-gig storage drive, morphine reservoirs and distributors, a short-range sonar/thermal imaging system, an energy regulator and a battery."

Chisato blinked. "Energy regulator?"

"It appropriates energy a human body generates to specific parts during emergencies; for example, if I needed to, I could send more energy to my arms, making them stronger, or to my legs to run faster. This is limited, though, because once the battery runs out it starts draining from me, which wears me out. Also, it's tricky to use; I usually leave it off unless it's a real emergency."

"So if it uses your body's energy, couldn't you recharge it by eating or drinking something?"

"Technically yes, but it'd take hours while the food is broken down and digested, and more hours still as the battery is gradually recharged; it's generally better to recharge with a generator, like what you saw at the infirmary."

Chisato looked him up and down, taking this new information into account. He noticed her gaze and grinned. "Relax, it doesn't make me a superhero or anything; it only augments physical abilities. A long fall or a shot to the head would still kill me, and I'd bet that on a good day, you could probably beat me, even with all systems running."

Chisato smiled slightly. "I'll admit; I'm a little relieved. I was afraid you were some sort of robot or something."

Royce chuckled. "Sorry if I scared you with that; some people have gotten the wrong idea about agents ever since the program was implemented, but it's saved countless lives. Like I said, it only augments abilities; abilities we get from the academy. All the augmentation technology available can't substitute for good training."

Royce glanced at the clock, and covered his mouth as he yawned. "Listen, I'm going to head up and talk a little with Jonesy, I'll be back soon. You can use the computer if you want; just use my account: RCFitzgerald, password blackjack387. If you get stuck, bring up ACE."

Chisato nodded. "Thanks." Royce turned towards the door and left the room as Chisato pulled her chair over to the desk and turned on the computer.


Chisato glanced at the login menu on screen. WELCOME TO EFNET.

Chisato typed out 'RCFitzgerald' and 'blackjack387' and clicked on the 'log in' button.


Chisato dragged the pointer around the screen and began navigating the various menus. She found a file marked 'ACE FAQ' and opened it. A small black screen appeared, followed shortly by text.


Chisato thought for a moment. WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE ABOUT EARTH?

A momentary pause. SPECIFY.

"Hmm... wait, maybe about the FBI?" FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION.


After a few seconds, a flashing folder marked 'FBI Databank' appeared. Chisato opened it, and was brought to another menu, this one marked with a giant golden seal which had the words 'Federal Bureau of Investigation' and 'Earth Federation' on it. Below the seal were the words 'An Introduction to the Bureau.' Atop the menu were six tabs. Chisato clicked the one marked 'FAQ.'

The ACE screen appeared again. PLEASE STATE YOUR QUERY.

Chisato blinked. (What is this ACE thing? It's all over the place.) WHAT ARE YOU?


(I've never seen anything like this; I wonder if they actually have developed AI?) She resumed typing. IS TRUE AI POSSIBLE?


Chisato raised an eyebrow. "Abandoned?" WHY?


Chisato's lips parted, but said nothing. (My god... I've never thought of it that way... no wonder Nede never actually built an AI system. Hmm... then maybe...) HOW DO YOU FEEL?






A voice from behind caught her by surprise. "I see you've met ACE. Remarkable piece of technology, don't you think?"

She turned around to find Royce sitting on the bed, smiling. "How long have you been here?"

"Just got here a few seconds ago. You looked like you were really absorbed for a second, there."

She grinned. "Part of my old job. I was one of the better computer techs back on Nede."

Royce's smile faded. "So... it's true then... you're really from this Nede place, huh?"

Chisato nodded slowly. "Yeah. What can I say? I've spent the majority of my life in a giant glass jar. Not that I minded so much - my friends and family were there - but I always wondered why Nede felt it had to isolate itself from the rest of the universe."

Royce's eyes donned an inquisitive look. "Can you tell me more about Nede?"

"Well, sort of. I... nahh, you wouldn't believe me."

"What, you mean you're not going to tell me how the biggest empire in the universe basically collapsed overnight?"

Chisato shook her head. "Well, I..." She stopped and glanced up at Royce, surprised. "How did you know?"

Royce smirked. "It's not like we haven't heard of Nede before; in the past two years we've discovered a number of planets which, though no longer inhabited, contained information about an empire called Nede, which supposedly had the most advanced technology available."

Chisato blinked, then nodded slowly. (I guess since Nede controlled most of this galaxy, it would've been hard to erase all traces of its existence.) "So... what else do you know?"

"Well, not much other than the name. We know that they had a pretty large area of control, and that it fell apart almost overnight. Something about a massive rebellion on the colonies, and Nede lost control. Bowman told me Nede was destroyed when the Ten Wise Men were killed... is that true?"

Chisato sighed. "Yes... myself, Noel Chandler, and Rena Lanford were the only ones to escape alive. It was necessary, I think, but I still miss it."

"I see... I'm sorry. Why was it necessary?"

Chisato took a long look into Royce's eyes. (I probably shouldn't tell him everything... not yet, anyway. It might only complicate things...) "I... I'm sorry... I don't really feel comfortable talking about this."

Royce nodded. "Sorry, I didn't mean to pry."

"No, it's all right." Chisato smiled. "I'll tell you the whole story when I'm ready... okay?"

Royce smiled. "Sure." He glanced at the clock again. "Listen, I'm gonna jump in the shower; I'll be out in a sec. If you're tired, you can go ahead and get some shuteye; I'll be up for a while."

"I might do that. Thanks." She turned back to the computer as Royce left the room through a smaller door opposite the desk. She began scrolling through operation reports, message boards, watch lists, and dossiers, until she came to a file of interest.

The sound of running water caught her attention briefly, but she quickly focused back on the file before her, marked "Special Agent Royce C. Fitzgerald". (Now let's see what HE'S not telling me...) She grinned to herself as she began browsing through his dossier.

Home Sweet Home

"Is that all?"

"Yes, sir. According to Chisato, the group responsible for the attack - the so-called Ten Wise Men - were destroyed, but not before Nede, too, was destroyed. She checks out; she's a Nedian, all right."

The image of the man before Royce - a thin, black-hared Asian man in a suit - nodded in approval. "So that threat is gone. The information on the black ops has me worried, however. I will debrief you all in full as soon as you get back to New York."

The man to Royce's left replied. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

The image disappeared. The helmsman turned towards the captain. "Sir, we've received confirmation to land."

Sergei nodded to the helmsman. "Take us in, Mr. Ridley."

"Aye sir."

Royce turned to his left and smiled. "Guess it's all downhill from here, huh?"

Jonesy smirked. "Yeah, if you call a potential inside job easy. You know, it's gonna be tough nailing Wade without proof."

A voice from behind Royce joined the conversation. "I still can't believe you didn't get any of this on tape; you could've saved us all a lot of trouble."

Royce gave a sidelong glance at the agent behind him. "Terri, give me a break. You guys didn't supply me with a recorder. How the hell could I have?"

The ship shuddered as it began to penetrate layers of Earth's atmosphere. All three turned as the doors slid open, revealing Willard and Tesla. Royce grinned as the newcomers approached.

"Hey, Willard. Good to see you, man."

The gray-hared agent nodded. "Likewise; we thought you were a goner when we lost track of you. Guess it turned out okay."

Terri smiled at Royce. "They had the right guy for the job."

Royce shook his head. "Couldn't have done it without Larkin. Chisato helped out big, too."

Jonesy spoke up. "So why are we bringing Chisato with us to Earth?" The agents were cut short briefly by the final burst of atmosphere, but kept their balance.

"Protective custody. The guys that tried to kill us might do it again, more so if Wade or someone on the Senate is involved. The question is, how?"

Willard shrugged. "Beats the hell outta me."

The captain glanced at the agents, then turned back to the helmsman. "ETA?"

"One minute and counting."

The seconds passed as the image of a large landing area, surrounded on all four sides by buildings, grew larger on the main screen. The pad disappeared as the Nexus settled over it and began to descend slowly. After another few seconds, a dull *thud* from beneath the ship signaled its successful touchdown. The sounds of generators and large motors began to wind down as the ship ground to a halt.

"Ms. Farrell, begin powering down the ship, and tell the LaGuardia crew that we need some repairs done. Jackie, give me audio."

The tech to the captain's left brushed her fingers over a few buttons on her console, and nodded to the captain. "Go ahead, sir."

Sergei cleared his throat and began to speak. "Attention all passengers. We have successfully touched down at LaGuardia. To the crew of the Nexus, report to the meeting room for a debriefing, and then escort the crew of the Calnus to terminal 18. Transportation to Federation headquarters will be waiting. We reconvene here by 0800 next Wednesday; consider yourself on shore leave for the time being. To the Calnus crew, you will be brought back to Federation headquarters for debriefing, extensive medical checks, and questioning. To all FBI personnel, your ground transportation to FBI headquarters is waiting at terminal 4. Good luck, and congratulations on a successful mission."

Sergei nodded to Jackie and made a slashing gesture across his neck with his forefinger. Jackie tapped a few keys on the console and nodded to the captain. "Channel closed."

Royce stepped up and extended his hand to the captain. "Captain Karisnikov. On behalf of the bureau, I'd like to say thank you for your help. When you see major Larkin, extend my gratitude for his help as well. We could not have succeeded without the help of you and your crew."

The captain smiled and shook the agent's hand, his grip somewhat awkward due to it being his left hand. "You're welcome, agent Fitzgerald. It was a pleasure to work with you."

Royce nodded, and released Sergei's hand. He turned back to the other agents. "Let's get moving."

- Ten minutes later, en route to FBI headquarters in New York City, N.Y. -

Chisato found herself in the back of a rather large, black, off-road vehicle, following another one just like it and being followed by a third. With her were Royce and the agent he had called Jonesy - a short, stocky man with thick brown hair and a goatee. She gazed out the window at the city surrounding her on all sides in a mix of wonder and confusion.

The sun had long since set, and New York was now lit solely by artificial light. Buildings of various shape, size, and function appeared and disappeared as the ORVs rolled down street after street. Streetlights and brightly lit signs showered their surroundings in a silvery glow that seemed at once welcoming and perplexing.

Jonesy cast a sidelong glance at their redheaded companion, and smiled. "First time outside of Nede, huh?"

Chisato nodded without turning around. "Yeah, I've never seen a city quite so big... Central City was large, sure, but... nothing like this... this is amazing..."

Royce nodded. "It's something, isn't it? We'll have to take you sightseeing before we leave; after the investigation, of course."

Chisato nodded again, and turned back to the two agents. "So, what exactly are we going to do? You said it yourself; you have no hard evidence linking that Wade guy to the attack, right? So, what can you do?"

Jonesy scratched his chin. "Probably start an investigation; what I'm curious about is just how Wade relates to Nede, or Expel, for that matter."

Royce glanced over at Jonesy. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves. We've still got to get approval from Zhang."

Chisato peered quizzically at Royce. "Zhang?"

Jonesy nodded. "Adrian Zhang, director of the FBI. He's our boss."

The agent behind the wheel called back to Royce. "We're here, agent Fitzgerald."

Royce nodded to the driver and opened the door, motioning for Chisato to follow him.

"Let's go."


"...and we successfully verified the data, discovering and rescuing approximately one-third of her crew in the process."

Chisato now found herself in one of the cleanest offices she had ever been in. Everything about the office suggested its owner prized efficiency and order; the books on the shelves, which lined wall opposite Chisato, were perfectly organized; the stack of papers on the desk was neatly organized; even the small aquarium lining the west end of the office was obviously well-maintained.

The director himself, a thin, older man with a head of receding black hair and a neatly trimmed suit, seemed to be a born bureaucrat. There was a hardness about his eyes, however, that suggested he was no pushover. The conspicuous bulge in the upper-left corner of the suit jacket - normally where a pistol would be concealed - helped to stress this image. His face looked tough, but not unreasonable; the smile he bore helped to lighten his appearance.

"I guess it's no secret that nobody expected survivors, not after three years. Well done, all of you. Agents Fitzgerald and Tesla, we could not have completed this mission without you. You should be proud of yourselves."

Royce nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Zhang."

Tesla nodded as well. "Thank you, sir."

Director Zhang continued. "Your op bonuses are being transferred as we speak; they should be finalized within the next six hours. If you two and Ms. Madison would excuse us, I need to speak to agents Holden, Mattingly, and Devereaux. Oh, and Fitzgerald? Murphy said he needed to speak to you, and Sanchez has your equipment. After you're equipped, I want you to report back here for your next assignment. As for you, Tesla, it's good to have you back. Your job is still here waiting for you; given the circumstances, you'll have the rest of the week off. Consider this a 'welcome back' present."

The two agents nodded, and politely excused themselves, with Chisato close behind. Tesla turned to face Royce.

"Well, it's been a pleasure working with you, agent. Good luck on your next assignment."

Royce smiled and nodded. "The pleasure is mine; thanks for your help, Telsa."

The hacker nodded, and took his leave. Royce turned to Chisato and smiled. "Let's go."

The redheaded reporter eagerly followed the agent as he made his way to the elevator. She gazed around the various offices as she followed Royce; most were similar, if a bit less well-furnished, than director Zhang's had been. She followed Royce into the elevator as it opened. He punched the button marked '5' and stepped back as the elevator began to move upward.

Chisato couldn't contain her curiosity. "Will I be able to take a look around? I've heard so much about Earth from Claude; I'd like to explore a little, if it's okay."

Royce nodded. "I figured you would. Well, you'll be in protective custody for the duration of the investigation, assuming one takes place, but when we get some free time I'll take you around New York. But if it's FBI HQ, I can do that pretty much any time; so long as you're with one of us, you're allowed to almost anywhere on site."

Chisato nodded and held back a grin. "So, where are we going now?"

"Jake Murphy's office, fifth floor. This's basically where R&D takes place; Murphy's one of the techs who works with augmentation technology - you met him on the Nexus."

Chisato nodded as the elevator slowly stopped and its doors slid open. She followed Royce out into a brightly lit hallway, stretching a few dozen feet in either direction and ending in a pair of doors. The two made their way south to the doors marked "Augmentation Lab/Testing Chamber", which slid open upon their approach. A familiar brown-hared man in a white coat called to them as they entered.

"Royce! Over here!" Murphy waved to them, which got their attention.

Royce and Chisato approached the technician, dodging a small parade of men and women in white coats and clean suits in the process. The room itself was large, with a low ceiling and monitors lining the walls. Two tables sat below each monitor and next to a large bank of machinery, the function of which Chisato could not even begin to guess.

"Murphy, how you doin', man?"

The young tech grinned. "Not too bad, not too bad at all."

Royce nodded. "So what's up?"

"Just a few new goodies for you. First, your prescription cleared. Here are your sunglasses." Murphy removed a dark pair of wire-rimmed sunglasses, and handed them to Royce. "They don't self-tint, so you'll have to hang onto your old glasses."

Royce smiled. "Thanks, man." He turned away, slipped his glasses off, pocketed them, and slid on the new glasses. He took a step forward and turned towards Chisato and Murphy. "How do I look?"

Murphy cast an appraising glance, and nodded. "Not bad."

Chisato smiled slightly. "I kinda like it. Now all you need is your hand back, and the mental image would be perfect."

Royce raised an eyebrow. "Huh?"

Chisato giggled slightly. "Nah, it's just, you look like the stereotype now - dark glasses, the suit, expensive shoes - just like what you'd think a government agent would look like."

Royce scratched his head. "Well, I guess we DO look a lot alike in these things..."

Murphy interrupted. "Funny you should mention the hand. Royce, c'mon over to one of the tables."

Royce followed obediently as Murphy led him over to a table. Royce sat down on the table, and then lay down on his back. He positioned his arms and legs so they fit into large metal clamps located at the wrist and ankle level.

Murphy continued. "The genetics lab said it'd take a few days to replicate a hand, but they're working on it right now. It'll be done by Saturday. Until then, we're fitting you with a prosthetic."

Royce nodded. The clamps around his wrists and ankles shut, binding his wrists and feet. The panel behind Royce slid up, and the table began to retract within the opening. The panel closed behind Royce as the machinery next to the table sprang to life. The monitors above the panel displayed his pulse and an x-ray of his body.

Another technician approached as Murphy glanced over at Chisato. "This might take awhile. You can have a seat, if you'd like. Just pull up a chair."

Chisato nodded.

Unfinished Business

"I don't think you heard me. He's in New York right now, with the Nedian woman. Too many people know; taking him out now would be pointless."

The senator shook his head and drummed his fingers on his desk. "You disappoint me. I thought I told you to kill him as soon as possible."

"Right. What exactly did you want me to do? Pull a gun on him on the Nexus? I didn't have time to. Now it's irrelevant."

Wade growled. "I will decide what is irrelevant, do you understand me?"

A slight pause. "Yes, sir."

"Good. Now how much do they know?"

"Well, not much, aside from what we already know - that Nede was an empire that collapsed due to numerous uprisings on distant colonies. Royce knows you're implicated, but he lacks proof."

"Does he know anything about Artemis?"

"No, sir."

Wade nodded. "Good." He sighed, and rubbed his forehead. "Stall the investigation as long as you can. I'll get word to Vaughn and the others that we might have a problem. If necessary, get Garrett to deal with Royce."

"Ah, yes, your 'Black Ops'. I still can't believe you gave military hardware to Garrett's men. They aren't even soldiers, for chrissakes!"

"Don't worry, they do the job well enough. I think he can be persuaded to help us again... the same way we got a hold of you."

No response. Wade continued. "Disrupt Royce's investigation as long as you can, or until we can eliminate him. I'll handle the press. You have your orders, agent."

"Yes, sir." The line went dead.

- Meanwhile, FBI Headquarters, 3rd floor: Quartermaster -

"Okay, here are four spare magazines for your handguns. I cleaned them myself, so there shouldn't be a problem."

Royce nodded to the dark-skinned quartermaster. "What else you got for me?"

"Well, we had to take the combat shotgun back - when we got it from the Nexus, it had been jammed. Zhang wants you to have a new secondary, and, let me tell you, it's a real beaut, this one."

Sanchez hefted a large, double-barreled weapon and grinned broadly. "An HK-19 submachine gun: laser sight, silencer compatible, 40-round magazine, and an underhanded 25mm grenade launcher. Feeds easy, excellent accuracy, good rate of fire; top-of-the-line. Try to avoid using grenades unless you have to; they're rather expensive." He slid the submachine gun into a drawer below the table.

Royce opened the drawer on his end and retrieved the HK-19. He pulled the magazine out, checked it, and slammed it back in.

Sanchez continued. "For obvious reasons, you should leave that behind in the car whenever you're entering a civilian area. It's too large to conceal. Take it out only when you're walking into a fight."

Royce nodded. "I'll use my discretion. Thanks, Sanchez."

Sanchez nodded. "Now head on up. Zhang wants to speak to you."

- 5 minutes later, director Zhang's office -

"I've gone over your report, Royce. Very interesting, to say the least."

The agent and the reporter found themselves back in the director's office. Zhang now had a more serious look on his face, an accurate reflection of the gravity of the situation. He slowly paced about the room, coming to a stop before both of them.

"According to captain Karisnikov, the Nexus came under attack, and the ship responsible was of Federation origin; it was destroyed soon afterwards. The information from the former Lt. Cofax implicated mercenary troops, a.k.a. Black Ops, which would explain the weapons they were using. In your report, she also implicated Wade, but you couldn't get it on tape, and since it was under duress it won't hold in court."

Royce nodded. "So what is my next assignment?"

Adrian gave Royce a sidelong glance. "You are to find whoever's responsible for the attack; since Cofax said it was Wade, you may consider him your primary suspect. Once you find some solid evidence, you bring in the suspect alive. Got me?"

"Yes, sir. Who am I working with?"

Zhang gave a small smile, and turned his attention to the door. "Agent Quint, come on in."

The door swung open, revealing a somewhat short, black-haired man in a navy blue suit, with a pair of sunglasses concealing his eyes. He stepped in and nodded. "You sent for me, sir?"

"Agent Quint, this is agent Fitzgerald. You'll be working with him on the Wade investigation."

Royce turned to the newcomer and smiled. "Royce Fitzgerald, how do you do?"

The agent nodded in response. "Tyler Quint. Nice to meet you."

Royce turned back to Zhang. "So, do you have any leads?"

Zhang shook his head. "Nothing solid. If I were you, I'd check and find out how Wade relates to Expel, or Nede. If that doesn't come up, find out what we were doing there before the Calnus left Earth. There has to be a lead somewhere; senator Wade isn't known for his efficiency." Zhang turned to Chisato. "As for you, Ms. Madison, you will be in protective custody for the duration of the investigation. Agent Holden will be assigned as your personal guard."

Chisato blinked. "Holden?"

Royce smiled. "Willard. Don't worry, you're in good hands with him."

"You're going to get a few visits from some Earth Federation scientists, asking questions about Nede. You are free to roam FBI HQ as long as Holden is with you, or any other agent. Once the investigation is finished, you will be permitted to leave, and even return to Expel if you so desire."

Chisato nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Zhang."

Royce spoke up. "What are Terri and Jonesy doing?"

"Agents Mattingly and Devereaux have been assigned to oversee the raid on the Davidson Mental Hospital. We suspect that an escaped convict is hiding out there."

Royce nodded. Zhang turned back to Chisato. "Agent Holden is waiting outside. If you have any questions, he will relay them to me. Please forgive the hectic circumstances; we are a bit understaffed at the moment."

Chisato nodded. She turned to Royce and sighed. "Well, I guess this's goodbye."

Royce shook his head. "Just 'till the investigation is over. I'll see you after this mess gets cleared up."

Chisato smiled. "All right, then. See you later, Royce."

Royce nodded. "Take it easy, 'sato."

Chisato opened the door and stepped outside, closing it behind her. Royce and Tyler turned back to Zhang.

"You have your orders, gentlemen. Good luck, and be careful. If it really is Wade, then this could get way beyond FUBAR."

Tyler nodded. "We're on it, sir."

Hit the Streets, Jack

"Okay, so where should we start?"

Royce thought for a moment, his eyes sizing up the streamlined black sedan before him. "All I can think of is what Zhang said; find out why we were out there in the first place."

Tyler nodded in agreement. "Sounds good. Maybe we can dig something up on the Arctura system." He sighed. "Who'd know, though? I mean, we could go through the archives, but we don't even know what we're looking for."

Royce rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Maybe somebody else would. Who else has been out there?"

"Earth Federation headquarters should know. They have a branch office in Manhattan; we'll check back a few years and see what other ships have been in the area."

Royce smiled and nodded. "It's as good a place as any to start."

Tyler dug through his pockets and produced a ring of keys. "Let's go."

- 15 minutes later, en route to Earth Federation branch office -

The buildings flew by in a blur of concrete and steel as the sedan rolled down the road. The somewhat soothing sounds of ambient techno music floated through the radio, failing to interrupt Royce's train of thought as he stared out the window.

"So, who was that woman?"

The sound of his new partner's voice derailed the aforementioned train of thought; Royce glanced over at Tyler. "Huh?"

"That woman, Chisato Madison, who was she?"

"Oh. She's a Nedian who I found on Expel; the Black Ops tried to take her alive. I figured if they wanted her alive, she was probably important enough for them to try again, so she's here on protective custody."

"A Nedian?"

Royce nodded. "Supposedly, a very old, very powerful race, which, at one time, controlled most of the galaxy. It almost disappeared overnight during a massive uprising."

Tyler's curiosity got the best of him. "So, what then?"

Royce let his gaze return to the window. He watched absentmindedly as lights from nearby buildings sped by, leaving trails of color in his eyes. "According to Chisato, Nede eventually put down the uprisings, but it cost many lives, both for the empire and for its colonies. Fearing their own technological prowess, they abandoned their homeworld and isolated themselves on an artificial planet inside a high-energy body in the Arctura system, called Energy Nede."

The sedan ground to a halt as the light before them turned red. Tyler turned to Royce again. "If they isolated themselves, then how did Chisato get out?"

"Energy Nede was destroyed by a group of terrorists called the Ten Wise Men; they were also responsible for the attack on the Calnus. With the help of ensign Kenni, of that ship, and a band of others from Expel and Nede, the Ten Wise Men were wiped out, but herself and two others were the only Nedians to survive the battle."

Tyler slowly accelerated as the light changed back to green. "Wow... that's incredible. So she's one of the last of her kind, now? That's gotta be pretty hard on her."

Royce smirked. "Yeah... yeah, I think so too. She's pretty strong, though. Still, I feel bad for her, you know?"

Tyler glanced over at Royce again. "I hear you. Sucks to be the odd man out."

Royce nodded. The sedan slowed down and turned right into a multi-level parking lot, marked 'Visitor Parking', stopping at the gate. Tyler reached out and took a ticket from the machine. "How long you think we'll be in here?"

"Dunno, maybe an hour."

The gate rose, and the sedan passed underneath it. Tyler glanced around. "Place is almost empty." He pulled into a nearby parking space and killed the engine.

"Let's do it."

- 5 minutes later, Earth Federation Reception -

"Excuse me, miss."

The receptionist glanced up from her computer at the newcomers: two men in suits, one gray-haired, one black-haired. "Yes? Can I help you?"

The agents opened their wallets and showed their respective ID cards to the clerk. Royce spoke up. "I'm agent Fitzgerald, this is agent Quint. FBI."

Tyler nodded. "We'd like back records of every Federation ship that has entered the Arctura system, for whatever reason."

The receptionist nodded. "You'll have to talk to Mr. Young about that, over in Archives. It's down that hall," she indicated with a pass of her hand, "take a right at the first turn. Third door on your left."

Royce smiled. "Thank you."

The agents followed her directions and made their way towards Archives. Finding themselves outside a small glass double-door, marked 'Archives', they nodded to each other and entered.

The Archives office surprised neither man by its appearance: small and simple, yet high-tech and very tidy. The two agents worked their way past various workstations and push carts, towards the lone person on duty - a slightly tanned, white-haired man in a shirt and tie. He turned towards the agents as they approached.

Royce spoke first. "Mr. Young?"

The man nodded. "Yes, that's me. Can I help you, gentlemen?"

Tyler nodded. "Agents Fitzgerald and Quint, FBI. We'd like to ask you a few questions."

Young nodded. To no one's surprise, he seemed to tense up, and his tone of voice immediately became more respectful. "Of course. What do you need?"

"We're looking for information on all ships that have gone to the Arctura system, for any reason whatsoever."

He nodded. "I see. I'll check for anything that's been out there in the past... 10 years?"

Royce nodded. "That'll do for starters."

"Okay... let's see here..." Young turned back to his station and began typing. "This may take a few minutes. You can have a seat, if you'd like."

Royce complied and sat down at a vacant workstation nearby. Tyler looked over Young's shoulder inquisitively.

Young glanced back at Royce. "May I ask what this is about?"

Royce shook his head. "Sorry, it's classified."

"No big deal; just curious." He continued typing on the screen, and smiled. "Bingo. Here, take a look."

Royce and Tyler gathered around the screen as Young punched out the results of the search.


Tyler raised an eyebrow. "Project Artemis?"

"Bring it up; let's see what it was," said Royce.

Young nodded. He ran his fingers over the keys and punched up the appropriate command; the screen before them became flooded with text.


D.O.D. - 3/19/41
D.O.R. - 7/22/41

Young glanced up at Royce. "Just a survey mission, I guess. Nothing important."

Royce took a long glance at the screen. "Can we get a passenger list of the Morningstar?

"Sure." Young punched out another command, and a list of names came up.



The agents' eyes focused on Wade's name. Royce did a double take. "You see what I see?"

Tyler nodded. "Wade's been out there before... I think we've got something to go on. Give me a hard copy of this, and the summary."

Young nodded and typed out another command. The printer next to the computer began to whir, and before long, two pages of text rolled out of the machine. Tyler eagerly snatched the papers up, neatly folded them, and slid them into his jacket pocket.

"Okay, so we know he's been out there," said Tyler. "Let's head back to headquarters, see what the FBI databank can dig up on this project."

Royce turned to Young. "Thanks for your time, Mr. Young. You've been a big help."

Young smiled. "You're welcome, agent. Good luck."

Business as Usual

"You still on that thing?"

Chisato glanced back at the elder agent behind her. "I can't help it. This's my first time on Earth; I want to find out all I can while I'm here."

Willard chuckled. "So you're a computer expert, huh?"

"Yep." Chisato continued as she drummed away at the keyboard. "Journalism on Nede wasn't always just about the story, you know. We had to be ready for anything, kind of like you agents. Following a story sometimes required a little extra skill... for example, hacking. Or jujitsu."

Willard smiled. "A hacker and a martial artist. Color this agent impressed."

Chisato turned around. "Hey, let me ask you something. About Royce... is he really blond?"

Willard raised an eyebrow in mild surprise. "Yeah, how'd you know?"

"It was in his dossier. Does he dye his hair, or something?"

"No, no, no. It's from the implant; in about 80% of the agents it has that side effect - the agent's hair turns gray."

"Why doesn't he dye it? I mean, doesn't that bother him?"

Willard shook his head. "Nah, not really. Should it?"

"It's just, most guys I know were a little insecure about getting gray hair. Personally, I kind of like it, but for a guy that takes his work so seriously, I just thought... oh, nevermind." Chisato sighed and went back to the computer. "When am I going to be able to check out the city?"

Willard shrugged. "Royce or Terri will probably take you sometime tomorrow."

The redheaded reporter grinned. "I hope so."

- Meanwhile, Davidson Mental Hospital -

"NYPD! Nobody move!"

The man in the chair glanced up as the door burst open and in poured five men and women, dressed head-to-toe in black body armor and toting rifles. Four men and women in expensive-looking suits - partially covered by riot vests - and carrying handguns, followed them moments later. All trained their weapons on the man in the chair - a tall, fat, bald man, clad in an old leather jacket and a pair of black pants.

The lead cop shouted an order. "Police! Drop to your knees, and put your hands on your head!"

The bald man, taken by surprise, instinctively dropped to his knees. Seeing that it was a poor match, he obediently placed his hands behind his head and lowered his gaze to the floor.

A second cop cuffed the suspect and began reading him his rights as the remaining cops started to search the apartment. After a few minutes, one of the cops nodded to the lead officer.

"Got it." The lieutenant adjusted his headset radio. "All clear. I say again, all clear. We have the suspect." He turned to the agents and nodded. "Your show, agent Mattingly."

Terri nodded. "Good work, lieutenant. The suspect is in your custody. Have your men canvas the area; see who's been going in and out."

"Yes, sir." He gave a short nod to one of the cops. "Get him out of here. Turn this place inside out. Anderson, Scott, start checking with the staff; see who else has been in here."

Terri glanced over at the other agents. "Clint, escort the suspect to the lobby, then report back here. Yuri, go with Anderson."

The two agents nodded and excused themselves. Jonas glanced back at them as they left, and smirked. "Well, we got him. I'll inform Zhang."

Working his way to a quiet corner of the lobby, Jonas pulled out his phone, opened it, and dialed in a number. Before he could hit 'send', however, the phone suddenly started ringing. With a shrug, he cleared out the number and pressed 'on'. "Devereaux."

Royce's voice came through the line. "Jones, it's Royce."

Devereaux smiled. "Hey, Royce. What's goin' on?"

"I found out something interesting; turns out senator Wade went out to the Arctura system a couple years ago - long before Calnus did. Something called the 'Artemis Project.' Ever hear of it?"

The agent shook his head. "No. What is it?"

"It was some sort of research mission on the high-energy body, before we even knew Nede existed. They didn't find out much."

Jonesy nodded. "Now that you mention it, it does sound a little familiar. My friend Dillon mentioned something like that, a long time ago."

"Dillon Kyler?"

"Yeah, you know him?"

"He's one of the civilians hired for the team. Think you could set us up?"

Jonesy scratched his chin. "I'll give him a call, but I'm not sure if he'll talk. He said it was real hush-hush. His address is 922 Roland Avenue, on the south side. I'll let him know you're coming."

"Thanks Jonesy. I owe you one. Tell Terri I said hi."

"No problem, man. Keep me posted."

"Will do. Later." The phone clicked as the line went dead. Jonesy shook his head as he began dialing again.

No Rest for the Weary

"Royce? Hey, Royce! You awake?"

Royce blinked and shook his head slightly. His vision returned gradually, and he turned to his partner. "Ah... sorry 'bout that... must've dozed off..."

Tyler smiled. "You know what? You look like hell. Tell you what, I'll drop you off at HQ, let you get some rest. I'll go talk to Kyler."

Royce nodded slowly. "Thanks, man. What about you?"

Tyler grinned. "I'm working graveyard tonight; we'll meet up at noon tomorrow, your office. I'll tell you what I got outta Kyler."

"All right. Good luck, Tyler."

The black-hared agent nodded. 5 minutes later, the sedan rolled up into FBI HQ, and stopped in the parking lot. Royce gave a wide yawn as he stepped out of the sedan, giving a short wave to Tyler in the process. Tyler responded with a wave, and pulled away.

- 5 minutes later, 4th floor -

Willard glanced to his right as the sound of shuffling feet echoed through the hall. The source stepped closer, revealing itself to be a severely disheveled, gray-haired agent with a small smile on his face.

"Royce. Hey, man. What's up?"

Royce nodded as he stepped up to Willard. "Tyler's looking for some guy, who worked with Wade on something called... uh... Artemis, that's it." He sighed. "We're trying to find out what's been going on out there... why it's so important."

Willard nodded. "Damn, man; you look wasted."

"Yeah, it's almost the end of my shift anyway. Thought I'd stop in and say hi to Chisato. She in?"

Willard shook his head. "She's asleep."

"Hmm... aright, then. How's she been?"

Willard grinned. "She's only been here for a couple hours, Royce. She's fine, don't worry about it."

Royce chuckled. "Okay, okay. Just tell her I'll stop by & see her tomorrow. I gotta get goin'; I'll see you later, man."

The older agent nodded. "All right, take it easy."

- Next morning, Royce's apartment -

Royce blinked once, twice, and glanced around the room. He squinted up at his alarm clock, perplexed. (10:17... I set it for 10:30, why'd it go off now?) A ringing sound from the grayish device behind the clock caught his attention. (Oh, this better be good.) He reached above his head and felt around for the phone, eventually getting a solid grip on the receiver and bringing it to his mouth. "Mmm... hello?"

A familiar female voice answered. "Hope you're not camped out there with a bottle of tequila."

Royce smiled, his eyes half open. "Very funny."

"Got a lot of work today, Royce."

"Don't worry, Terri; I'm up. What's the word?"

"Agent Quint came by, and he wanted me to tell you this: He couldn't get ahold of Dillon last night, so he's stopping by there later today. He said he'll call you when he gets something solid."

Royce slowly sat up and nodded, his eyes shut. "Got it. Anything else?"

"Yeah. There was a small riot downtown a couple hours ago. NYPD got it under control, but Zhang wants you to get down here on the double. I heard you're going to supervise."

This was enough to get Royce's full attention. His eyes snapped open. "Why me?"

"I think he was impressed by the work you did on Expel. Zhang will fill you in when you get here."

"Okay, I'm on it. Thanks, Terri."

"Not a problem. See you later, Royce."

The line went dead. Royce sighed and hung the phone back up. He turned his attention to his mechanical hand, which lay lifeless on the table next to his bed. (Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Royce Fitzgerald, the mechanical man,) he thought to himself as he inserted the prosthetic into the base installed on his right wrist.

- 20 minutes later, FBI HQ: Director Zhang's office -

Royce sized up the image before him. The man was about six feet tall; blond hair, hazel eyes, pale skin, medium build. "I've heard of him, but that's it. What sort of bad man is he?"

The director nodded in the direction of the image. "Vincent Garrett's one of the more recent additions to the FBI's watch list. Wanted in multiple districts for armed robbery, kidnapping, blackmail, arson, and hijacking. Was just another gang leader until a few months ago, when his boys stole a shipment of Fed navy weapons; assault rifles, energy weapons, rockets, you name it."

"So he started the riots?"

Zhang nodded. "NYPD is heading up a search for him; we have about ten agents on the scene already, so I want you to supervise while the NYPD sweeps the area for any remaining rioters. Lieutenant Fallon is in charge of the NYPD in the area; as soon as the area is secure, you are to locate Garrett and inform the NYPD of his location. You'll be in charge, but if Fallon talks, you listen. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good. Now, move out."

Royce turned to leave, then turned back to Zhang. "Sir, may I ask a favor?"

"Go right ahead."

"Would it be all right to take Chisato with me on this?"

Zhang blinked. "Take a civilian with you on a manhunt?"

"I'll be supervising; I won't be anywhere near combat. Besides, if it's all the same, I told her I'd show her around the city a little; I think she'd like the opportunity to leave FBI HQ for awhile."

Zhang took a deep breath and closed his eyes. After a long pause, he nodded slowly. "All right, you got it. She's your responsibility, though. You are not to put her at risk for any reason, and if something happens, you will take full responsibility. Understood?"

Royce smiled and nodded. "Yes, sir!"

Worlds Collide

"All right, I'll inform Vaughn. How did this happen?"

Wade glanced up at the clock, absentmindedly drumming his fingers on his desk as the voice on the other end replied. "You know as well as I do that riot cops don't screw around. Garrett said he lost about eight men, and NYPD reports five officers down. We got the results we're looking for, though; FBI agents are already in the area, and Fitzgerald is en route to supervise."

A smile worked its way onto the senator's face. "Good. I no longer need him dead, although I would prefer it. He simply needs to be out of the way. Inform Garrett to personally meet us at LaGuardia tonight, along with his men. Vaughn and the others will be there. And bring the Nedian woman; we shall finish what we started 7 years ago."

"That may be a problem, sir. She is with Fitzgerald."

The smile disappeared. "What?"

"Royce requested that he be allowed to bring Chisato with him. Zhang agreed. We'll have to go through Royce to get her."

Wade scowled. "Very well then. Tell Garrett to finish him off, and anybody else that gets in his way. I want you to assist him."

"Are you certain? Zhang will get suspicious if I abandon my current assignment."

"Just do what you're told, agent! Bring Chisato to LaGuardia tonight; I don't care if you have to kill every agent in downtown New York, just do it!"

The voice sighed. "Yes, sir."

- Meanwhile, en route to NYPD command center, downtown New York -

Chisato found herself gazing out the window, again, in a mix of awe and confusion. The immense city spread itself out before her; buildings stretched as far as the eye could see, and the afternoon sun seemed to highlight the city in a bright outline. The streets, though crowded with all sorts of foot traffic, showed no signs of disorder.

In all, it was the last thing she had expected New York to be, especially after a riot.

She decided to voice her confusion. "I don't understand; I thought there was a riot earlier. Why does everything seem so... calm?"

Royce grinned. "I don't know if 'calm' is the right word to describe New York, but I digress. The city is divided into multiple districts - Manhattan, the Bronx, Hell's Kitchen, and so on. This is uptown; the riot took place closer to Hell's Kitchen."

She turned to face Royce. "When Claude first told me about Earth, I thought it'd be a terrible place. He said the air was dirty, there weren't many trees, and everything was all mechanical. After seeing it... well, it doesn't seem so bad. In fact, it's kind of nice."

He nodded. "It grows on you. The air ain't that bad, it's just that the air on Expel is so fresh, it seems bad by comparison. Then again, on Expel I doubt I'd ever get my hand back, you know? It's a trade-off, and I can deal with a little dirt if it means I won't be a southpaw for the rest of my life."

Chisato smiled. "Point taken." She glanced out the window again. "So what exactly are we going to do?"

"Garrett's men have fled the scene; we think Garrett himself may still be around. The cops and the other agents are securing the area; our job is to supervise the operation, then locate Garrett and call in the cavalry as soon as the coast is clear."

The conversation was interrupted as the phone started ringing. Royce shrugged and pushed a button on the dashboard. "Hello?"

An elderly female voice floated through the phone. "Hi, Royce."

Royce smiled. "Hi, mom. What's up?"

"What happened last Sunday? You never showed up."

The agent blinked. "What're you talking about?"

"You said you were going to stop by with Alice for dinner. Why didn't you show up?"

Chisato shot him a look. "Who's Alice?"

Royce groaned and rolled his eyes. "Ex-girlfriend." He turned back to the phone. "Mom, first of all, I wasn't even in town on Sunday. I was off-world on assignment; I told you that a couple weeks ago. Second, I broke up with Alice two years ago."


"I said I broke up with Alice two years ago!"

"You'll have to speak up, I can't hear you."

Chisato covered her mouth and laughed warmly; Royce glared at her, causing her to laugh harder.

"Ugh... listen closely. I... broke... up... with... Alice... two... years... ago!"

"I don't remember that! Are you sure?"

Royce's face went blank. "Put dad on."


"Put... dad... on!!"

Her voice sounded annoyed. "Okay, okay. Don't have to be so pushy..."

Royce shook his head. A male voice came on. "Royce?"

"Hi, dad. Did mom forget her medicine again?"

A short laugh preceded his response. "Yeah. She's getting her prescription filled; you know it takes longer than you think it does."

Royce smiled slightly. "Yeah, I guess so. So how've you guys been?"

"Doing just fine. How's work?"

Royce coughed. "Not too bad, all things considered."

Chisato threw a suspicious look at him, indicating his prosthetic hand with her eyes. Royce touched a finger to his lips.

Royce's gaze returned to the road. "Listen, dad, I gotta run. We're dealing with the riot earlier; I'm supervising. Take it easy, okay?"

"You mean all that fighting earlier today? Well, all right then, see you later, Royce. Be careful."

"I will. Bye." Royce pressed the button again, hanging the phone up. He threw a look at Chisato, who was still grinning. "All right, all right. They're my parents, what can I say? Mom's a little senile, and dad... well, what you see is what you get."

"Yeah, sounds a lot like my parents, only reverse. Dad was kind of a nut. Mom was okay, but she kept trying to fix me up with guys I'd never even met."

Royce chuckled. "Any of 'em ever pan out?"

Chisato shook her head. "Nah, not really. Some of them were nice enough, but I just wasn't interested, you know? The guys I did like, well... ah, it's kind of a long story."

Royce nodded. "Better save it, we're almost there."

On the Ground

"1066... this's the place."

Chisato reflected on the meeting beforehand as her eyes soaked in the details. She found herself in a grim reflection of the cityscape she had seen before. Buildings surrounded her on all sides, and that was about all the two images had in common. This district seemed significantly lower class. Vacant buildings, including the one before her, loomed like shadows. Old newspapers littered the sidewalks, occasionally being tossed around by a stray breeze; an abandoned car, long since gutted of anything useful by thieves and rust, sat next to a dim street light.

The building before appeared to be an old warehouse. The NYPD lieutenant, Fallon, had suggested they investigate here. ("Most of the civilians left. The ones who didn't took shelter at the warehouse and the El station." That's what he said. It's like a war zone... I hope Royce knows what he's doing.)

Chisato followed Royce as he entered the warehouse. Although abandoned, it was far from empty. In addition to the usual collection of junk, trash fires, and discarded boxes, the building also housed at least a dozen people. Royce glanced over at a nearby woman - an NYPD officer in full riot gear, apparently standing guard. She nodded in response as Royce and Chisato approached.


"Officer. What's the situation?"

"These people retreated here when the fighting started, about two hours ago. We've searched the area; no sign of Garrett or any of his men."

Royce nodded. "How many people are here?"

The cop indicated the group behind her with a nod. "Twelve on this level, another ten upstairs. One guard per floor, and another two officers walking the perimeter of the building. A few of these are homeless, but most just can't get home 'cause the El got damaged in the fighting."

"Any of them know what happened?"

"I didn't ask; I was just told to stand guard. You're welcome to check."

"I might do that. Thanks."

Chisato followed Royce again as he strolled over to a nearby group of people - a man in a black trenchcoat and dark sunglasses, a woman in a tank top and a pair of jeans, and a man in a worn leather jacket and pants.

Royce addressed the group. "Excuse me. I'm special agent Royce Fitzgerald, FBI." He showed his ID to the group for emphasis. "Any of you know what happened with Garrett and the others?"

The trenchcoat-clad man eyed Royce up and down, and nodded. "Yeah, I was there when it happened. Some nut job walked into the middle of the street, pulled out a crowbar and started smashing a cop car; heh, practically bounced right off the window, though. About three other guys joined him, and soon the whole block went nuts."

Chisato spoke up. "What about Garrett, did you see him?"

He shook his head. "I didn't see him, but the riot cops got there pretty quick. He couldn't have gotten far."

The woman glanced at Chisato. "I think I saw him on my way here; he was heading down 38th street, had a whole bunch of guys with him."

Royce blinked. "38th street? What's down there?"

The second man nodded. "Now that you mention it, he might've been heading to one of the abandoned buildings. There's a bunch of us, we live in an apartment building down there, but one night I got there and there was about 20 or 30 guys in there, with machine guns and crap. They'd forced the others out, even shot one old guy."

Chisato raised an eyebrow. "Was it them?"

"Almost positive. There's not much on 38th; just a nightclub, a bar, and a couple old apartment complexes."

Royce managed a grim smile. "Where is this building?"

The man nodded. "522, it's a couple blocks down from here, on the corner of 38th and MacRay."

"You've been very helpful. Thanks." Royce turned back to Chisato. "C'mon, let's check it out."

- 5 minutes later, corner of 38th and MacRay -

Royce squinted as he focused on the two men standing before the building. He quietly cleared his throat.

"So tell me, 'Sato; do you see what is wrong with this picture?"

Chisato squinted as well, and noticed the two men were holding rather large guns, apparently standing guard. "Mm-hmm. Why are two men with guns guarding the place?"

"Exactly. I find it just a little odd that an abandoned apartment building would have guards, much less guards with illegal guns." He smirked. "Let's call in the good guys."

Royce crept around the corner and hopped back into the ORV. He hit the button for the phone and dialed in a number.

Fallon's voice came through the line. "Fallon here."

"It's Royce. I think I've found him."

"Outstanding. Where are you?"

"I'm on the corner of 38th and MacRay. They're using an abandoned apartment building - number 522 - as some sort of base. Two guys out front packing some serious firepower; I'm not sure how many others are in there."

"Roger that. We're on our way."

"Yes, sir."

Royce pushed the button again, hanging up the phone. He stepped out of the ORV, closed and locked it, and went back around the corner. Chisato was nowhere to be seen.

His blood ran cold. "Chisato?"

A footstep from behind him caught his attention; he turned around just in time to see the butt of a rifle heading for his face. The world around him turned black as he felt himself being struck, falling, and colliding with the concrete sidewalk.



A soft voice called to him. His eyes opened, but saw nothing. Small traces of light worked their way into his eyes as he slowly sat up. His head throbbed as his vision cleared, revealing his surroundings to be that of a dark storeroom, devoid of everything aside from a dirty window and a burnt-out ceiling light.

He noticed a head of red hair atop a black jacket and a red pair of shorts. "'Sato? That you?"

The blurry figure of Chisato nodded. "Are you okay?"

Royce rubbed his eyes, and discovered his glasses were missing. "Yeah... yeah, I think so. Got kind of a headache, but I'll live. Where are we?"

"I think we're in the apartment building. After you left, some guys surprised me and dragged me in here. A couple minutes after locking me in here, they threw you in here."

Royce reached into his jacket pocket, and withdrew the sunglasses Murphy had given him. (This'll have to do.) "How long was I out?"

"A couple hours."

Royce sighed as he slid the sunglasses over his eyes. (A couple hours... where the hell is Fallon?) His vision sharpened; the already poorly lit room darkened significantly. "What about you, are you okay?"

Chisato nodded. "I'm fine, thanks. A little cold, but I'll manage."

Royce reached inside his jacket. As he had suspected, his guns were missing. He grunted as he stood up. Stepping over to the door, he ran his fingers over it slowly, placing his ear next to it. After a minute, he sighed and sat back down next to Chisato. "There's a guy right outside, about 10 feet away. Can't tell if he's armed."

Chisato glanced out the window. The sun was low in the sky, starting to set. "We're 5 floors up. There's nothing to climb... I don't suppose you could make the jump, could you?"

Royce shook his head. "I don't think I could handle more than a 50-foot drop." He glanced up at the door. "The door's not very solid: no deadbolt, a simple lock. We could probably force it open."

Chisato nodded. She managed a small smile as she began sifting through her hair and produced a small hairpin. "I think the subtle approach would go better here."

Royce grinned. "Chisato, you're beautiful. Now we just gotta wait for him to turn his back."

Chisato blinked, puzzled. "You can see him?"

"Sort of. I told you earlier; I've got short-range sonar and thermal imaging. Basically it lets me 'see' through walls, so to speak; lets me know if someone's behind one."

Chisato smiled at him. "I'll admit, I am impressed."

Royce bowed slightly. (Score one for the mechanical man.) "Just one of the tools of the trade."

Chisato glanced at the door. "We might be here awhile."

Royce nodded. "Why don't you get some sleep; I'll wake you up if he moves."

"Okay. I'm kinda tired as it is." She covered her mouth as she yawned, and leaned against the wall, her eyes shut. Eventually, she felt the world around her fade away.

Seconds later, she opened her eyes and found the world had changed significantly. Royce was gone, as was the storeroom. Her surroundings had changed to an all-too-familiar location. High-rise buildings dotted the surrounding blocks; all varieties of people wandered about the city square, attending to their business as they wished; various stores lined the circular block around the square.

Chisato sighed. (Not again...) She moved to her feet and worked her way north, dodging people that seemed to ignore her. She eventually found herself in front of a large building. A sign out front affirmed what she already suspected; the sign read "City Hall, Nede Chronicle, Nede Publishing Company, Central City."

(My old job.) Her heart heavy with a mix of sadness and nostalgia, she slowly worked her way up the stairs. Guided more by her mind than her feet, she found herself in front of her old office. Glancing through the glass window, she saw various reporters, editors, and other staff milling about the office. She sighed as she stepped through the door, spotting a desk with her name on it as she approached the far window.

Glancing outside, she noticed a large white wave of energy approaching the city. She turned to the others and screamed at them to run. No one noticed, no one cared. A bright light filled the office as the windows were blown inwards. Everyone looked out the window and screamed as the wave slammed into the side of the building, completely destroying it.

The light faded, and Chisato found herself surrounded by nothingness. Her eyes searched for any detail, any noticeable feature, but found none. Suddenly, a large glass ball faded into view. Inside the ball was what looked like a large island, floating in midair. She watched in sadness as the island slowly began to explode. The ball shattered from the force of explosion.

This image faded, and a new one appeared; a thousand people surrounded her on all sides, their faces devoid of any emotion. They said nothing; they didn't have to. Chisato understood perfectly, and sat back down, her head hung low and eyes downcast.

(I don't belong here... I don't belong anywhere... anymore...)

She sniffed, attempting to hold back her tears. She grit her teeth and swallowed hard. As she exhaled, she saw her own breath. She began to shiver as she noticed just how cold it really was. She sighed, and heard her teeth chatter.

A voice cut through the darkness. "Chisato?"

Chisato looked around, but did not see the owner of the voice. "Hello?"

"Chisato, are you cold?"

Chisato blinked. "What? Who are you?"

"Here, put this on."

She bit her lower lip in confusion, then jumped back in surprise as she felt something being wrapped around her. She glanced down and saw an expensive black suit jacket draped over her shoulders.

The features of the storeroom returned; Chisato glanced to her right and found Royce on one knee, a look of concern on his face.

"You okay?"

Chisato glanced down and found that she still wore the jacket; she looked up and Royce and noticed his was missing. "Is this... yours?"

Royce smiled. "You looked like you were cold."

"Thanks." She worked her arms into his jacket. (A little tacky, seeing as how I'm already wearing a jacket, but it is kinda warm.)

"No problem. You okay? You look a little pale."

Chisato nodded. "Yeah, just... just had a bad dream, that's all."

Royce sat back down. After a long pause, he spoke up. "Tell me a little about Nede."

Chisato glanced over at him, and thought for a moment. "It was so long ago... it was a wonderful place; clean air, beautiful landscape... whatever land there was, anyway. Most of it was water. I lived in a city on the southern continent: Central City. A lot like New York, only smaller."

Royce smiled as she continued. "I grew up in a city north of there, appropriately named North City. My mom still lived up there, so I went and visited her every other week, when I wasn't busy. I was always running around on assignment somewhere - caves, ruins, you name it. Who'd have thought being a journalist would turn out like that, huh?"

He nodded. "I figured you were more outgoing than most press I've ever met. You got that look, like you're always waiting for something to happen, and ready when it does."

Chisato grinned. "Yeah, I was a little competitive; you kinda had to be, there wasn't much news to be had before Claude and his friends showed up. Stories were strictly on a first-come, first-serve basis. First one on the scene gets the story. Claude thought the best way to cover his group would be to join up with him, so I took him up on the offer. Right now, though, I'm wondering whether it was worth it."

"What do you mean?"

Chisato sighed. "Well... I don't know... it seems like it was only a few days ago that... Nede was destroyed. I left behind everything... my friends, my family, my job... when I came to Expel, I had nothing."

Royce's face lost its smile. "What about Claude, and the others? You said you weren't the only Nedian to escape, didn't they help you get back on your feet?"

"Oh, absolutely. They were really nice to me; Bowman even helped me get a job at the Lacour Times. Point is, though... well... I guess I'm just feeling... a little like I don't belong, you know?"

Royce nodded. "Sorry to hear it... I know it's tough on you... wish I could say or do something to help."

Chisato shook her head, smiling slightly. "Well, you did listen to me... it's kind of hard to talk about this with anybody; usually I prefer not to... but thanks for listening. Even if you don't believe it, you did help... thank you, Royce."

Royce smiled. "Not a problem." He glanced up at the door. "The guard is walking away... if we're going to move, now's as good a time as any."

Chisato nodded.

"Bravo Team, Move In!"

Chisato took a deep breath as she began feeling around the lock with the hairpin. After a few seconds, she heard a small clicking noise as the lock slid open. She glanced back at Royce and nodded.

Royce smiled, amused. "Not bad, not bad at all."

Chisato slowly opened the door and peered into the hallway. Spotting no immediate threats, she crept into the hallway, with Royce close behind. She snuck up to a corner, turned back to Royce, and whispered, "Anybody?"

Royce stared at the wall for a moment, and nodded. He held up one finger, and pointed around the corner. Chisato glanced around the corner and spotted a single guard, his back to her, a silenced pistol at the ready.

Chisato carefully crept up to the guard, steadied herself, and leapt at him, taking him by complete surprise. After a few seconds of wrestling with the guard, she landed a solid punch to his face, knocking him out cold. She pried the gun loose from the guard's hand, and handed it to Royce.

Royce slid the magazine out, checked it, slid it back in, and nodded in satisfaction. He carefully stepped past Chisato and began looking around. A few seconds later, he turned back to Chisato.

"We're clear. There's nobody else on this floor."

Chisato shook her head. "I don't like this. I don't like this one bit, we got out of there a little too easily. Where is everybody?"

Royce shrugged, then stopped short. He put a finger to his lips. "Quiet... you hear that?"

Chisato peered quizzically at Royce, and began listening. Although the distance made it hard to be certain, she distinctly heard some sort of repeated popping noise. Her eyes widened as she realized what it was.


Royce pulled the bolt back on the pistol and nodded. "Let's go!"

The pair made their way down the hall, to the door marked 'Stairs', and dashed down flight after flight of stairs. Eventually, they made their way to the lobby on the first floor, just in time to find themselves in the middle of a massive firefight between Garrett's thugs, who had barricaded the front door, and the NYPD, just outside the front door. Two men manned each window, while three more waited behind the front desk. Two lay dead on the floor in the middle of the room, still desperately clutching their pistols.

Chisato and Royce ducked back behind the corner. Chisato struggled to catch her breath, and turned to Royce. "Well, now what?"

Royce shrugged. "We can't just sit here, we've got to do something."

"You've got a gun, can't you fight? We could take them by surprise."

Royce sighed. "Well, I'm out of ideas. What've we got to lose?"

Chisato smirked. "Aside from the obvious?"

Royce took a careful assessment of the scene. "Okay, here's the plan. I'll open up on those three by the desk; make a run for the two dead guys, see if you can get their guns. I'll cover you. Once you get one, we'll have a fighting chance."

The reporter nodded. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, attempting to mentally prepare herself - with little success. She crouched down as Royce carefully took aim at the lead man.


On his word, she leapt out of hiding and dashed towards the two dead men. Royce opened fire on the trio of men, striking the lead man in the chest and sending the other two diving to the floor for cover. Chisato glanced to her left. (Good, the guys at the window didn't notice... must be busy with the cops.) She finally reached the two corpses and began prying the guns from their hands.

Royce saw the two men leap from hiding and attack, firing wildly at both Royce and Chisato. Neither one landed any shots, but it was enough to force Chisato to a prone position, and Royce back around the corner. Royce peered back out and returned fire, getting a good look at his opponents; one had apparently been shot in the leg, the other was fine.

Chisato finished pulling the guns away from the dead men, and rushed to the hallway opposite Royce. Royce fired again, forcing Hurt and Unhurt behind the counter again.

Chisato fumbled with the guns until she got a good grip on both of them. She put her back to the wall and peered around the corner, glancing at the counter. She watched as the two men popped back up, guns at the ready. She glanced over at Royce, who held out one finger. He held up a second finger, and at that moment Chisato knew exactly what he had in mind.

He put up a third finger, and they jumped out of hiding simultaneously.

Royce took careful aim at the wounded man, and squeezed the trigger thrice. The bullets struck their target with impeccable precision, and he crumpled to the floor, lifeless.

Chisato squinted as she aimed at the healthy man, and opened fire with both guns. He responded accordingly as the projectiles sliced through him; he fell to the floor and ceased moving.

The gunshots finally attracted the attention of the four men by the windows. They leapt back and whirled around, weapons at the ready. Royce and Chisato ducked back behind cover as a hail of bullets flew by.

With a deafening explosion, the barricade at the door was smashed into toothpicks; the four men were knocked off their feet by the force of the explosion. Within seconds, riot cops stormed the entrance, sub-machineguns at the ready. The gangsters, more dazed than hurt, reluctantly released their weapons and raised their hands in surrender.

The snipers subdued, the lead cop called out to Royce. "Agent Fitzgerald! Are you all right? The area is secure!"

Royce hesitantly stuck his head out, and nodded to Chisato as he spotted the officers. The pair came into view, and approached the cops, a very relieved expression on both their faces.

Royce grinned as a familiar officer stepped through the shattered doorframe, sub-machinegun in one hand. "Lieutenant!"

Fallon nodded to Royce. "Agent. Are you two all right? We got your message."

"Yeah... yeah, we're okay. Cut it kinda close, but we're okay. Thanks for comin' after us, Fallon."

"No problem. We wouldn't have found them without you, and I'm guessing it was you two who kept the snipers busy long enough to blow the door. Nice work."

Chisato smiled. "Don't mention it."

Royce frowned for a second. "What took you guys so long? I called you hours ago."

Fallon shrugged. "Agent Holden came by to direct the operation. He held back the raid until we could be sure that no hostages were inside. Guess he didn't count you two, huh?"

Royce nodded. Fallon brought his free hand up to his headset radio. "Alpha team, Bravo team, move in. Level one is secure. Garrett is alive, and he might still be here. Sweep levels two through six on the double!"

- 10 minutes later, 4th floor -

"I don't care what you have to do; just stall them as long as you can. We're canceling the meeting at LaGuardia - the agent was held up as well."

The pale-skinned, blond-haired man glared hard at the image of the older, suit-clad man. Behind him, two men kept a close, nervous watch on the door.

"I don't think you understand. Your man didn't stall them long enough; they'll be here in a few minutes. The NYPD is searching this building right now!"

"Don't forget our agreement - amnesty for you and your men if, and only if, you deal with Royce. Consider these your final orders. Wade out."

With that, the image disappeared. As if on cue, the door behind Garrett burst open and riot cops stormed the room, guns at the ready. The two gangsters instinctively raised their guns, but stopped short as Garrett approached the lead cop.

"Stand down, guys. It's over."

The men sighed, and reluctantly dropped their weapons. Three cops ran up and began frisking them as the lead officer began to read them their rights. Having done so, he reached up to his headset radio and adjusted it.

"Lieutenant? We got him, sir."

All in a Day's Work

Royce watched with detached amusement as Jonesy and another FBI agent sat down across from Garrett. Invisible behind the one-way mirror, he took a sip from a cup of coffee, and offered it to Chisato, who stood next to him.

"Want some?"

Chisato nodded, and took the cup from him. "Thank you."

Royce smiled slightly. "They're starting."

Jonesy started off gently. "Mr. Garrett, I'm agent Devereaux, this is agent Foster. We'd like to ask you a few questions. This conversation will be recorded. Do you understand?"

Garrett nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Good. Let's begin." Jonesy cleared his throat. "Were you responsible for the riot earlier this morning?"


Jonesy raised an eyebrow, surprised at his honesty, but shrugged it off. "Were there any other participants?"

"Just me and my men."

Foster spoke up. "Were you acting alone?"


Garrett blinked. "What do you mean?"

A knocking sound to Royce's left caught his attention. The door opened, and Tyler entered. Royce nodded to the agent as he approached.

Tyler glanced at Garrett, then turned to Royce. "Can I talk to you for a second?"

"Sure. Let's go outside."

Royce followed Tyler as he left the observation room. Tyler turned around and sighed. "I managed to talk to Kyler about the Artemis Project."

"What did you find out?"

Tyler took a deep breath, and removed a notepad from inside his jacket. "Dillon wasn't willing to say much, but what I did gather from him was that Artemis wasn't purely a research mission, at least, not in the typical sense. Have you ever heard of Janus?"

"Yeah, it's the program they merged with an ACE. Made the world's first AI, which was named after the program. What about it?"

"Well, apparently they had the software on-board the Morningstar, and when they returned, it was gone. Also, the ACE unit had been modified."

Royce blinked. "Modified? Are you trying to say they... created an AI... on the ship? Wouldn't that take days?"

"With the right people, it can be done overnight, even outside of a lab. He wouldn't say anything more than that."

The door to the interrogation room opened, and agent Foster stepped outside. "Agent Fitzgerald? Garrett says he'd like to speak with you."

Royce nodded. "Be right with you." He turned back to Tyler. "Get this to Zhang and Murphy; see what they make of it. I'll meet back with you tomorrow, at noon."

Tyler nodded, and left. Royce turned to the door. (Let's see what you've got, Mr. Garrett.)

- One hour later, en route to Royce's apartment -

Royce gripped the steering wheel tightly. He ground his teeth together as the memories of the past hour swam through his mind over and over again.

("Wade forced me to do his dirty work. He promised to grant us amnesty for our crimes, if we... killed you, or stalled you long enough.")

Royce slammed on the brakes as the light before him turned red. ("Long enough for what?")

The gray-hared agent watched absentmindedly as pedestrians took this moment to cross the street. ("He got ahold of our records... he did it to one of you, too...")

The words made his blood boil. ("You mean Wade's got an agent working for him? Who?")

("I don't know, man, he never told me.")

Royce floored the accelerator as the light turned green. ("Name. NOW!")

("All I know is, one of your agents is dirty.")

Royce's throat tightened. (I still don't buy it... a spy... at the bureau? I don't want to believe it... I can't...)

He sighed; it had been a long day. After a lengthy interrogation, Garrett had admitted his role in the attack on Expel; as it turned out, his men were the so-called 'Black Ops' hired by Wade, in return for absolution of their criminal records. Garrett relented to a court appearance, in which he would name Wade as the key figure behind the riot and the attack on Expel.

(It's not enough for a conviction... but we're definitely getting warmer.) He glanced out the window at the night sky, watching in fascination as the city lights sped by the window. (What are you up to, Mr. Wade...)

His thoughts were cut short as the phone rang. He shook his head and pressed the switch. "Hello?"

A quiet, mechanical voice came through the phone. "I do not have much time, agent Fitzgerald, so listen closely."

Royce blinked. "Who is this?"

"One of your agents is a traitor. Garrett may or may not have already informed you of this."

Royce nodded. "He did. So?"

"The proof of the agent's involvement is in Wade's apartment. I cannot say his name on the phone; it is possible that they are listening as we speak."

"Who is this? What do you want?"

"I am Chimera. I can only tell you to hurry; many lives, including my own, depend on you. The agent will try to kill Garrett if you do not find him first."

Royce took a deep breath. "Why are you helping me?"

"I desire freedom, and life. Wade took one from me and threatens to take the other unless I follow his instructions. Please... help me."

With that, a click followed, signaling the end of the call.

Royce's mind filled instantaneously with questions, but none made it past his lips. He sat still, his eyes fixed on the road but his mind replaying the conversation over and over again.

He sighed. More from habit than from memory, he turned right into the parking lot before his building. He turned off the lights and killed the engine as he glanced up at his apartment.

(Someone is going to pay.)

Rude Awakening

The sound of a phone ringing brought Royce out of his slumber. Half asleep, he reached over and grabbed the receiver, which felt as if made of lead. He gave a wide yawn and spoke up, his voice seeming to echo in his ears.


“Royce? It’s Tyler. You awake?”

Royce sighed. “No, not really. What’s going on?”

“We’ve got problems. Garrett’s dead.”

Royce’s eyes widened. All traces of fatigue instantly vanished, replaced by the more familiar sensation of confusion. “What?”

“He was on his way into the courthouse to give his deposition when a team of snipers fired on the escort. Our agents made it to cover in time, but Garrett took a shot to the head.”

Royce felt his blood run cold. “Jesus, how the hell did this happen?”

“Don’t know. Zhang’s calling a meeting with the department heads; you’d better get down here on the double.”

Royce nodded. “I’m on my way.”

- 20 minutes later, FBI HQ: Lab -

(One more… there, that should do it.)

Murphy set down the screwdriver and reached for a pair of pliers. He half smiled as he slid the pliers into the small hole, and put his eye up to the lens of a small fiber-optic camera, his other hand braced between the computer and the cable. Using the camera to see, he gently wrapped the pliers around a burnt and slightly cracked chip, and began to pry at it. Feeling someone tap him on the shoulder, he glanced up from the scope.

He smiled. “Hey, Royce. What’s up?”

Royce nodded. “I wish I knew. Got a minute?”

“Gimme a sec. Cooling unit fried on my PC. Figured it’d be cheaper to do it myself, and I didn’t feel like gutting it, so I grabbed a fiber-optic and a pair of pliers.” He set his eye back up to the lens, gripped the pliers, and began sliding them in further. He grit his teeth and grunted a little as he squeezed the handle. After a few seconds, he gave a satisfied grin as the chip gave way and slid out of the socket. He slid the chip out, set aside the pliers, and turned back to Royce.

“So, what’cha need?”

“Someone called me on the car phone last night, and he called himself Chimera. Ever heard of him?”

The technician thought for a moment. “Chimera… sounds like a hacker alias. I’m not sure, myself… wait, there was also an experimental AI prototype called Chimera a long time ago.”

Royce blinked. “AI prototype?”

“Yeah, it was designed to interface with autonomous weapons systems - you know, like Glock 450 sentry guns. Never actually implemented, as far as I can tell.”

“Why not?”

Murphy shrugged. “Probably followed typical AI behavior; it wanted to be free. What did this Chimera say to you?”

“He said one of our agents was a traitor, and that the evidence was in Wade’s apartment.” Royce paused. “He also said that the agent was going to kill Garrett, and asked me to help him.”

Murphy took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. “Have you told Zhang yet?”

Royce shook his head. “Zhang’s in a meeting. I want you run a trace on the call, see what comes up. I also want you to dig up anything you can related to the Chimera AI.”

Murphy nodded. “I’ll do what I can.”

“And Jake… don’t tell anybody else. If Chimera is telling the truth, it could be anybody.”

Murphy watched as the agent turned and left his workstation. He sighed and turned back to his computer.

(I’ve got a bad feeling about this…)

- 5 minutes later; Director Zhang’s office -

“Come on in, agent.”

Royce twisted the knob and pushed the door open, revealing a disheveled, exhausted director in his chair. Zhang’s trademark tough, confident, uncompromising look was nowhere to be seen, replaced instead by something akin to that of a shell-shocked marine. Royce had seen that look only once before, and it was enough to inspire concern.

“Sir…” Royce couldn’t find the words to voice the questions burning in his mind.

He didn’t have to. “Sit down, agent. I have a lot to say.”

The gray-hared agent heeded the instruction. He watched Zhang intently, expectantly.

“First of all, congratulations on successfully capturing Garrett and his men in Hell’s Kitchen. Your actions will not go without reward. Extend my thanks to Ms. Madison; I had hoped you would keep her out of trouble, but it seems it was for the better that you brought her with.”

Royce nodded slowly. “Thank you, sir.”

“I suppose you’ve already heard… I might as well say it straight. Garrett was killed earlier this morning as he was entering the courthouse uptown to give his deposition. Needless to say, we have nothing.”

Royce’s eyes narrowed, and he slowly took a deep breath. “Tyler explained it to me. He said something about snipers?”

Adrian nodded. “Yes. There were about four of them. From what I’m told, they stopped firing almost immediately after Garrett was killed. Whoever they were, they just wanted him.”

“Royce, I don’t know what to say. We’re back to square one, and the press is eating this alive. Internal Affairs wants to start their own investigation, since Garrett claimed that one of our agents was in on this whole mess. If they start, I’ll have to halt your investigation until this is cleared up. Believe me, I want to help you nail this guy, but if there is a spy here, we have to deal with that first; do you have anything else to go on?”

“Yes, sir. Last night, someone named Chimera called me on my way home. He backed Garrett’s story, and said that his life was in danger. He also said the proof we need to find the spy is in Wade’s apartment.”

Zhang blinked. “Chimera?”

Royce sighed. “Murphy said it was an AI prototype which was designed to control weapons systems. He also said it could be a hacker. Either way, after hearing about Garrett, I’m inclined to believe him.”

The director gave a long, frustrated sigh. “So, what do want to do?”

Royce thought hard for a few seconds. He then stepped closer and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I want to sneak into Wade’s apartment. No warrant, no search party, just me.”

Zhang raised an eyebrow. “Ordinarily, I wouldn’t even bother hearing this out. What do you have in mind?”

“If Chimera is right, the identity of the spy can be found there, as well as the proof needed to apprehend him. If we get that, we might be able to convince him to lead us to whoever’s in charge.”

“So you want to break into Wade’s apartment on the off chance that you might find evidence of a conspiracy at the bureau, which you would then use to blackmail one of our own?”

“I think this goes way beyond the FBI, but yes.”

Zhang shook his head and leaned back in his chair. “Sorry Royce, I can’t let you do that. You know the rules; this has to be by the book, or it won’t stick.”

Royce had had enough. He angrily slammed his palms on Zhang’s desk and glared hard at him. “Then get me a goddamn warrant! How long you gonna wait before it’s one of us he wants dead? What about Chisato? You know he’s after her! With one of ours on his side, you think he’ll have any particular trouble getting her?”

Zhang leapt to his feet, outraged. “You think I’m enjoying this?! That I’m particularly fond of the idea that one of our own has turned on us and that they might be gunning for one of us next? God damn it, I’ve got a family!”

“Then do what’s right for them, for us! Let me go find out who it is! I’m out of ideas, and at this point we’ve got a lot to lose!”

Zhang lowered his head. “Royce, I told you, I can’t. I want to, believe me, I want to let you go, but this has to be legal! The press is already on my back for Garrett’s death. If they find out an agent turned traitor, and one of our augmented agents went AWOL, it’d be a feeding frenzy. I can’t get you a warrant for at least two hours, and by then Wade would know something was up.”

Royce said nothing. His face became flustered as Zhang continued. “Royce… please try to understand. I believe you. I know something is wrong here. We’ve both been through this before… I was there too, when the bomb went off.” Adrian took a deep breath. “Royce, I know how you feel. God knows I feel the same way. If there’s anybody I trust in this, it’s you. I don’t like this any more than you do… knowing that someone we’ve worked with, someone we’ve trusted wants us dead…”

Royce hung his head. His tone immediately lowered to an almost sorrowful pitch. “Y…yes, sir… forgive me for losing my temper, sir…”

The director looked the young agent in the eye. A small smile graced his weathered face. “Royce… you know I can’t allow one of my agents to just go off and do what he wants to. It’s against the rules… agents have to follow the rules…”

Royce looked back up, confused. He blinked as he saw the director’s face break into a confident, mildly arrogant smirk. “Sir?” (What’s he up to?)

The director repeated himself, adding a brief wink for emphasis. “I’m saying I can’t let an agent just go off on his or her own. Unless, of course…” He placed a hand on his desk, palm up, and curled his fingers inward invitingly. (Come on Royce, get the hint…)

Royce stared mindlessly at the director for a few seconds. His eyes suddenly lit up as understanding flooded his mind. Adopting a dramatic pose, he reached into his pocket, removed his wallet, pulled out the ID and threw it down on the desk forcefully. He then pulled out his two handguns and set them on the desk before Zhang.

“If that’s the way you want it… I’m out. I quit!”

Zhang held back a grin. He nodded to Royce. “Very well then. I’ll get the paperwork ready. You have until 1800 hours to get what you need and leave.”

Royce nodded. His voice lowered to a whisper. “Thank you, sir.”

The agent turned away from Zhang and started towards the door. He hung his head again, but this time he hid a mischievous grin. As he left, Willard entered, giving a confused glance in his direction.

“What happened to him?”

Zhang sighed. “Royce resigned. I gave him ‘till 6 to get his stuff and leave.”

Willard shook his head. “He’s reckless. I was afraid it’d come to this.”

“Ah, let him go. He’s only this impulsive when he’s really on his last nerve.”

“Did he return the keys?”

Zhang shrugged. “I told him to return his keys to the quartermaster.”

“Really…” Willard scratched his chin. “Very well then. Excuse me, sir.” With that, the agent left the room.

Wanted: One Hero. No Experience Necessary

Royce strode towards the ORV with a confident air around him. He pressed the button on his key ring, which unlocked the vehicle, and hopped in. He slid the key into the ignition, and did a double take as he realized he was not alone. He glanced to his right and spotted a familiar head of red hair, sitting low in the seat, grinning up at him.

“And where do you think you’re going?”

Royce shook his head. “Damn it, Chisato. How’d you get in?”

The journalist, still grinning, slid back up in her seat. “Let’s just say you don’t get the scoop on all the top stories without learning a few things about locks.”

“Why aren’t you with Willard?”

Chisato sighed. “He went for coffee; I heard you shouting about going to Wade’s apartment, and looking for the spy, so I thought I’d give you a hand.”

Royce blushed slightly, realizing just how loud he had been. (I can’t do this…) he thought. (Well, I know she can take care of herself… but I don’t know about this…) “’Sato… look, it might be dangerous. You sure you want to come with?”

Chisato smiled slowly. “Are you kidding? I’ll be all right, trust me. I’ve done much riskier things than a little breaking and entering, this’ll be a piece of cake.” She glanced over at Royce. “Besides, if there is a spy at the FBI, and nobody knows who it is, wouldn’t I be safer with you?”

Royce couldn’t argue with that. He gave a defeated smile. “All right, you win. Let’s go.” He started the ignition and shifted to reverse, his foot on the brake. Glancing over his shoulder, he backed out of his space and turned towards the exit.

- Meanwhile, FBI Headquarters, 3rd floor: Quartermaster -


The dark-skinned quartermaster looked up into the eyes of the gray-hared agent before him. “Oh, agent Holden. What’s up?”

Willard smiled. “Nothing much. Have you seen Royce? He just resigned; Zhang said he was headed here to return his key. He’s not in his office.”

Sanchez sighed. “He quit, huh? It’s a shame… he a was a good agent.”

Willard pressed on. “Did you see him?”

“Yeah, actually he was down here a few minutes ago. He picked up an electronic lockpick set; you know, the R-series, for agents like you. I got the fax from Zhang, so I approved it. He didn’t say anything about resigning, though.”

Willard nodded. “I see… well… thanks for your time.”

“You okay, Willard? You look a little worried. What’s going on?”

Willard shook his head. “It’s nothing. See you later, Sanchez.”

The quartermaster shrugged and nodded as Willard left. He rounded a corner, pulled a phone out of his jacket, and dialed in a number as he glanced up and down the hallway. The phone rang twice before being answered.

A coarse voice answered. “Hello?”

Willard licked his lips and swallowed. “We might have a problem.”

- 15 minutes later, en route to Wade’s apartment -

“So where is his apartment?”

Royce glanced up the sunlit boulevard as the ORV roared through an intersection. “The Heights, 1723 Palmersdale rd. It’s an upper-class neighborhood, mostly apartments and timeshares.”

Chisato nodded and glanced back out the window. Her thoughts were interrupted, briefly, as the news wafted through the radio.

“…And that could mean a tougher standard for rehabilitated felons across the district. In other news, this day seven years ago, Senators Aleister Wade and Grace Crowley gave an impassioned tandem speech on the senate floor, defending the controversial military budget bill, which would have increased military spending by well over 50 billion credits. The bill was defeated soon afterwards, and was promptly replaced by…”

She traced the buildings with her eyes as they sped by, watching with passive amusement as people on the sidewalks went about their business.

“Who do you think it is?”

Chisato’s voice cut through Royce’s own thoughts, and he glanced over at her, a blank look on his face.

“I’m trying not to think about it. I don’t want to believe it… but you can’t deny the evidence. Somebody tipped off the snipers where we were taking Garrett, somebody knew we were out there back in Hell’s Kitchen, and somebody seems to be telling these guys exactly what we’re doing ahead of time. I trust everybody, but… I don’t know who to believe.”

Chisato lowered her gaze. “Oh… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“No, it’s okay. Probably gonna have to face up to it sooner or later. I just don’t know what to hope for.”

A long silence followed his words. His thoughts returned to the road, but were once again interrupted as Chisato spoke up, her voice suddenly very soft.

“Royce… do you ever dream?”

The agent, obviously perplexed by this question, glanced over at his companion, his confusion readily apparent on his face. “What?”

Chisato turned to face Royce. “Do you ever have dreams, you know, like something you’ve always wanted to do, or be?”

Royce managed a small smile, and turned back to the road. “Oh, yeah. Yeah, of course I do.” He grinned slightly. “I’m living the dream.”

“You wanted to be an FBI agent?”

“Well, that’s one way of putting it. Ever since I was real little, I’ve always wanted… nah, I can’t. It’s stupid.”

“No, c’mon, what is it?”

Royce shook his head. “Forget it, it’s… kind of an old dream…” He glanced over at Chisato. “Promise you won’t laugh?”

Chisato smiled. “Promise.”

Royce sighed. He started to turn a light shade of red. “Okay. Since I was really young… well, I’ve always wanted to be a hero.”

“That’s not so bad. I know lots of guys like that.”

“I know, I know… it’s just kind of embarrassing to say out loud… I’ve wanted to be a hero since I was six. My dad would tell me stories when I was young, stories about knights killing dragons or wizards, going on adventures, or rescuing a princess; you know, stuff like that. I kind of envied that.”

Chisato nodded. “My mom did kind of the same for me.”

Royce glanced to his left as he gently pressed down on the brake. Spotting no traffic, he turned right down a two-lane street and continued. “I was kind of disillusioned by reality, though. Willard always says there are no more heroes… and after the graduation bombing, I started to believe him.” He sighed. “I don't know, maybe it’s something you can’t decide for yourself; being a hero, that is. Maybe it’s something only other people can see.”

The journalist ran a hand through her hair. She glanced back out the window. “You might be right.” She sighed. (I’d like to tell you what I see…)

“How ‘bout you? You ever dream of anything like that?”

His voice startled her; for a moment, she forgot what she had just asked of him. Her own question quickly re-entered her mind. “Well, actually yeah. It’s a little like what yours is… only more complicated.”

Royce smirked as he changed lanes. “Do tell.”

Chisato gazed up at the sky outside. “Well, I, too, kinda wanted to be a hero. All that stuff you said, well, it’s kind of the same with me. I liked the idea of being in the right place at the right time, and going on adventures. Growing up in a place like Nede, isolated from the rest of the universe, it makes you kind of eager to explore… well, that’s what happened to me, anyway. I, too, envied the stories of heroes going on adventures, and I always wanted to do stuff like that. Probably why I got into journalism.”

Royce nodded. “Sounds fair enough. Can’t say I blame you.”

Chisato continued. “Well, not only did I want to go on an adventure, but I also wanted to be the one people could rely on and trust. In other words, I wanted to be just like a hero… yet, at the same time… I also wanted to be rescued.”

“Rescued? Wait a minute, you wanted to be the hero and be rescued?”

“Yeah… at the same time I wanted others to feel like they could depend on me, and that I’d risk my life for them… I kind of wanted someone to do the same for me. I like that kind of feeling… that someone cares enough about you to come after you, no matter what.”

Royce shrugged. “So in your story, the princess breaks out of jail and kills the dragon herself, huh?” He grinned. “That’d make for some interesting reading.”

Chisato laughed. “Never thought of it that way.”

The agent nodded. “Maybe it means you want to be able to rely on yourself, as well as others.” He looked over at her and smiled. “Hey, for what it’s worth, I think you’re good at both. I know you can fight, and you’d have to be able to work good with others to make it as far as you have.”

Chisato smiled. “Thanks.”

Royce nodded again. His eyes sized up the building before him as he pulled up to the curb and slowed to a stop.

“This’s the place.”


“Where do you want it?”

The young technician gave a thorough glance over the contents of the pushcart. “Bring it to Ballistics. I want to know what happened to it before I start trying to fix it.”

“Yes, sir.” With a nod, the white coat-clad technician wheeled the broken machinery out of the lab.

Murphy sighed and shook his head. (Damn shame… they just don’t make ‘em like they used to.) A tap on his shoulder interrupted his train of thought. He turned around, and recognized the newcomer as he saw him. “Hey Tyler. What’s up?”

Tyler nodded in response. “Can I ask you a question?”

Murphy nodded. “Sure. What’s on your mind?”

“It’s about Royce. I overheard him and Zhang shouting about something.”

“What was it?”

Tyler bit his lower lip and scratched the back of his head. “I’m not too sure. I got bits and pieces; Royce said something about Chimera, and that evidence about the spy was in Wade’s apartment, or something like that. Then he got all pissed-off and said he quit.”

The tech looked shocked. “Royce quit?!”

“I’m not sure. He said he did, and he left his guns and his ID badge, but when I checked with the quartermaster, Sanchez said he didn’t return his key, and it looks like he hasn’t told anybody else about it. Sanchez also said he checked out a lockpick set, R-series.”

Murphy narrowed his eyes. “What are you saying? He didn’t really quit?”

“Well, I doubt Zhang would authorize him for a lockpit set if he were quitting. To be honest, I don’t know what’s going on, but I think he knows something that he’s not telling us. Do you know what it could be?” Tyler paused for a moment. “What is that Chimera thing he was talking about?”

“Well…” Murphy remembered his earlier conversation with Royce. “He told me not to tell anybody… but I guess I’ll have to. Chimera is a codename for an AI prototype that was supposed to interface with autonomous weapons systems; stuff that was too dangerous or too compact for a human to operate. None were actually built, as far as I can tell.”

The black-hared agent sighed. “So what would this AI want with Royce, assuming that’s what it is?”

Murphy shook his head. “I’m not sure. Royce had me trace the call… it’s taking some work. The caller bounced it off a number of satellites and receivers, which makes it difficult to track. Whoever called knew what they were doing, but I’ll get it eventually.”

“I see…” (An AI prototype… wait a second…) “Wait… Kyler was talking about something like that.”

Murphy blinked. “Kyler?”

“Dillon Kyler, a member of a 10-person research team called Project Artemis. A few years ago, they were sent to investigate the high-energy body in the Arctura system, what we now know was Energy Nede. He didn’t tell me exactly what they did out there, but he said that the Morningstar had both an ACE unit and Janus software onboard; the two components necessary for creating an AI. When the ship returned, the ACE unit had been modified, and the Janus program was gone.”

“So… they made an AI?”

The agent nodded. “I think so. For what, I don’t know.” He took a deep breath. “See if you can find out whatever happened to the Morningstar. I’d like to take a look at it, up close.”

Murphy smiled. “You got it.”

“Thanks Murphy. Be careful.” With that, Tyler turned and left the room.

- Meanwhile, Wade’s Apartment -

“Okay… let’s see what we got here.”

Chisato watched in fascination as Royce inserted one end of the cord into the jack on the back of his head, and the other end into a strange, box-shaped device with a keycard sticking from the left edge of it. The agent then carefully slid the ‘card’ through the key reader, pressing a button on the box as he did.

The light next to the reader blinked red for a moment, and then blinked green. Royce grinned in satisfaction and disconnected the lockpick. He turned to Chisato as he gripped the knob. “Let’s go.”

The door swung open, leading to a dim, clean hallway. The reporter followed the agent as he carefully stepped through and closed the door behind him.

No sooner than ten steps into the hallway did Royce stop short, nearly causing Chisato to collide with him. He glanced down at the phone concealed in his jacket as it started ringing. Nonplussed, he opened up the phone, turned it on, and brought it to his ear. “Fitzgerald.”

A vaguely familiar mechanical voice answered. “This is Chimera. You are in or near Wade’s apartment, correct?”

Royce blinked. “Yeah… how’d you know? Who are you, anyway?”

“I don’t have time to explain. I’ll lose communications in 30 seconds, so listen closely. The file on the agent is located on Wade’s computer. You may need to hack it to obtain the file.”

“Okay. Where’s the computer?”

“His office. It’s through his bedroom, the last door on the right. Hurry. They’re on to us.” A barely audible click signaled the end of the conversation.

“Who was that?”

Royce closed his phone and concealed it. “Someone named Chimera. He says the file is on Wade’s computer. Let’s go.”

The two headed down the hall, following the informant’s directions. Passing through the spacious bedroom, they found themselves in what looked like a small office. Chisato nodded to the computer, and sat down at the chair as Royce gazed around the office. Although slightly cramped, the office was spotless, with bookshelves lining the front and back walls, a computer workstation in the corner, and a locked gun cabinet next to the far bookshelf. A large oak desk, covered with various papers and file folders, dominated the center of the room.

Finishing his search, Royce returned to Chisato, who had booted up the computer. “He said we might need to hack it; think you can do it?”

The redhead grinned and cracked her knuckles. “I’m all over it.”

It was Royce’s turn to watch in amazement as she drummed her fingers over the keyboard with obvious finesse. He sat down at the desk and smiled as he watched her. (Wow… look at her go, she must really have this hacking stuff down cold.) He gave a deep sigh as he eyed her up and down, taking in every detail. (Never really had time to notice before, but she’s kinda cute… wait a minute, hold it, Royce! Focus, man, you’re here to do a job, remember?) He nodded to himself and leaned back in the chair. (I can’t help it, though. It’s been two years since Alice… goddamn, she’s cute. Am I… nah, that can’t be it…)

“Hey, Royce! You awake?”

Royce blinked and shook himself back to reality. He found Chisato standing before him, her hand in front of his face as she snapped her fingers again. His face turned a light shade of red again.

“Er… sorry, kinda blanked there for a second.”

Chisato hinted at a smile. “Never mind. Listen, I found the file. Take a look!”

Royce stood up and followed Chisato as she went back over to the computer. She brought up a file marked ‘Personnel Report - May 2’. Royce hesitantly read the text that appeared before his eyes.














Royce’s eyes narrowed. His breathing became very shallow as his eyes soaked in the words.

“Oh my god… Royce, Willard’s the spy!”

Royce closed his eyes and swallowed. (Willard… damn it all…) He opened his eyes and turned to Chisato. “Print it up. We’ve got to tell Zhang.” Royce headed for the door as Chisato clicked the button marked ‘print’.

He turned the knob and opened the door, revealing a tall, gray-hared man in a suit, with a pistol aimed straight at Royce’s heart. Time stopped as Royce heard the click of the bolt.

Chisato turned and watched in horror as Royce was thrown off his feet by the force of the gunshot, his head slamming hard against the wooden floor. She gazed up at the door, and cautiously stepped back as a stone-faced Willard entered the room, gun at the ready.

“Ms. Madison, you’re coming with me. Don’t try to resist.”

Chisato, frozen with fear, refused to move. The older agent turned back to Royce, who lay very still on the floor. He kneeled down next to him and gazed into his eyes.

“I know you can still hear me. Just keep out of this, Royce. I don’t want to kill you.”

A barely conscious Royce watched, through tear-soaked eyes, as the blurry figure of Willard forced Chisato out of the room at gunpoint. The picture became dark as his vision began to fade.

And They All Fall Down

“No. For the last time, we have not confirmed those rumors.”

Zhang tried to maintain his composure as he saw a sea of hands, cameras, and microphones rise before him. The crowd of reporters began shouting questions all at once, each trying to out-shout the rest. Zhang pointed down to a bald man in a gray suit.

The reporter cleared his throat. “Mike Stanwell, EF Nightly. Do you have any information regarding the shooting earlier today?”

Zhang shook his head. “Only that we have confirmed at least four separate shooters, and that Vincent Garrett was the sole casualty.” He pointed to another reporter. “Go ahead.”

“Julia Sweeney, New York Times. Information has leaked that the shooting was the result of a possible spy in the bureau. Any comment?”

“We no reason at this time to believe that one of our agents is a spy.”

“Aside from the fact that the locations of Garrett’s escort and destination were kept secret.”

Zhang glared down at the woman. “Mrs. Sweeney, I advise you to limit yourself to questions only.” He glanced over at another reporter, and nodded.

“Juan Marcos, Federation Examiner. What of reports that an augmented agent has gone AWOL?”

(I was afraid of this. Christ, it’s 7 already; Royce, where the hell are you?) His voice wavering slightly, Zhang stopped to clear his throat before replying. He chose his words carefully as he spoke up. “I have heard nothing of the sort. I can assure you, all of our augmented agents are accounted for.”

Zhang glanced up at the clock. “I’m afraid we have time for no further questions. Excuse me.”

The director stepped away from the microphone and left the room, stage left. Following close behind were agents Devereaux, Quint, and Mattingly.

Jonesy spoke up first. “So… where is Royce, sir?”

Zhang sighed. “I don’t know. He said he wanted to go check out Wade’s apartment. Then he went ballistic and said he quit. Stormed out of here like he had murder on his mind.”

Terri shook her head. “I can’t believe it… why would he do that? What was so important there?”

Zhang shrugged. “Said it was information pertaining to the spy. I told him we had to do this by the book, and he went off.”

Tyler thought hard for a moment, almost colliding with various staff members as the trio of agents followed the director. Eventually, he stopped in his tracks. “Wait.”

The other three stopped and turned around. Terri glanced at Tyler. “What is it?”

“Garrett said there was a meeting going down at LaGuardia the night we captured him, but he said it was postponed. He also was the first to tell us about the spy…”

Zhang stepped closer. “What are you saying?”

“I’m not sure… but he was very clear on that fact. I think something might be going down at LaGuardia, maybe even tonight.”

Jonesy blinked. “LaGuardia? You sure?”

Tyler shook his head. “No, I’m not. But it’s all we’ve got to go on. Royce’s gone; I mean, it’s this or nothing.”

Adrian gave a long sigh. “Okay. Terri, get Lieutenant Fallon on the phone; tell him to get a couple squads patrolling the area around LaGuardia, and set up a surveillance perimeter at least a few hundred meters around the entrances and exits. I want to know who goes in and out.”

The female agent nodded. “Yes, sir.” Terri dashed off down the hall.

Zhang turned back to Jonesy and Tyler. “You two go look for Royce. Start at Wade’s apartment. If you find him, give him this.” He removed a folded sheet of paper from inside his jacket and handed it to Tyler.

Tyler voiced his confusion as he unfolded the paper. “What is this?”

Jonesy glanced over Tyler’s shoulder and began scanning the document as Zhang answered. “It’s a search warrant for Wade’s apartment.”

The short, stocky agent glanced up at the director. “Sir?”

“Just get it to him, agent. He’ll explain the rest. Now move!”

With a nod, the two agents hastily exited the room.

- Meanwhile -

He studied every feature visible on the woman’s thin frame. Although showing signs of fatigue, she appeared in fairly good shape. Her bright red hair, which hung down in short strands just above her light blue eyes, kept partially in check by a blue headband, drew the attention of his eyes. Her clothes were an unusual combination of an expensive-looking suit jacket, which partially concealed a yellow undershirt, a pair of red shorts, and a durable pair of running shoes, all of which looked well worn and dirty. A dark red bruise on her forehead signaled a failed attempt to escape earlier, and her despondent eyes seemed to stare through the floor.

All in all not what he had expected. The old, suit-clad man was obviously not impressed. “So, this is the Nedian?”

Willard nodded. “Royce won’t be a problem anymore. I dealt with him at your apartment.”

The man nodded, and idly smoothed out a few wrinkles in his tan suit. “That just leaves two loose ends, then. Head out to LaGuardia, and meet up with General Vaughn and the others. Make sure the launch goes off without any complications. I will deal with her personally.”

“Yes, sir.” With that, the agent excused himself from the office, leaving the aging man alone with her.

At long last, the woman lifted her gaze to meet that of the tall, stocky man. “So… you are Wade?”

He smirked. “Senator Aleister Wade, of the Earth Federation’s Congress. A pleasure to finally meet you… though I imagine you feel differently, yes?”

“What do you want?”

“Quick and to the point. Qualities I admire in a person.” The senator scoffed. “All you need to know is that by midnight, this will all be over… in the worst way for you, I’m sorry to say.” He stepped around the chair, eyes focused on the Nedian. “You have been a major thorn in my side, Ms. Madison. I look forward to the day when I can assure the President that the threat your kind pose is indeed gone forever.”

Chisato turned to look in his direction, quickly discovering that her hands and feet were bound to the chair, fixing her in place. “What threat? What are you talking about?”

“Don’t patronize me, Nedian. Or have you already forgotten about your little pet project, the Ten Wise Men, hmm? The biomechanical weapons your people designed to put down the uprisings so righteously fought by your empire’s colonies? Stop me when any of this rings a bell.”

Her eyes widened as his words invaded her ears. (How does he know about that?) “How… how do you… know about… that?”

Wade managed a subtle smile. “Credit that to years of exploration. Oh, it was obvious, even to the casual observer, that there was an attempt at a cover-up, but as we moved away from where we suspected your homeworld once was, we uncovered more and more evidence of not only your existence, but also of your… shall we say… rather colorful history. In your haste to isolate yourselves, you left behind a great deal of clues. It was only a matter of time before someone found them.”

“But… the threat is gone. Nede was… destroyed… when we killed the Ten Wise Men. I myself fought with the group that managed to defeat them all. And besides, I had nothing to do with their creation; why do you want me?”

“The fact that such technology exists means that your civilization has sufficient power to rule the known universe. We have only recently learned of Energy Nede’s destruction, but we have no confirmation as to whether or not other such districts still exist. As such, we want to know everything, and you shall tell us.”

Chisato threw a look of disbelief at him. “Look, I can assure you, there are no other districts. Energy Nede was the only one.”

“We’ll see. While we’re at it, why don’t you tell us everything you know about Nede… maybe shed a little light on the situation?”

Footsteps from both sides attracted her attention. A pair of men, dressed in black suits with matching shoes and sunglasses, appeared before her. Each had a stern, no-nonsense look about them. She inhaled slowly, unsure of what to say or think.

“I’d advise you to tell these two gentlemen everything you can about Nede. They can be quite unpleasant when the situation calls for it.”

Chisato held her breath and squirmed back against the chair as the two men advanced upon her.

Mechanical Man

Pain. Throbbing, burning pain. He felt nothing else. Although it was hardly severe, it was enough to prevent further thought.


“Ooooohh…” (What the… hell…?) He watched as more words appeared in the darkness.


As the words appeared, the pain started to fade. Within seconds, he felt no more. Slowly, he forced open his tear-encrusted eyes.


The words disappeared, replaced by the blurry features of the office ceiling. He blinked once, twice, and slowly moved to a sitting position, stopping only to wipe the tears from his eyes.

Royce gazed around the room as it slowly came into focus. He reached up and adjusted his shades, which were slightly askew. With a grunt, he forced himself to his feet.

(The office… yeah, Wade’s apartment… I was here with… oh no, where is she?) Suddenly in a panic, the agent glanced around the room. “Chisato?” No answer. “Chisato, are you here?” Silence.

(Wait… Willard… yeah, it was Willard… Damn it, he must’ve taken her.) The memories of his encounter with his former comrade became all too clear as he massaged his throbbing forehead. Glancing down, he carefully felt around his heart, but, as the diagnostic had reported, there was no damage aside from a small bruise. He smiled and gently patted the suit where the bullet had struck him. (God bless the maker of lightweight Kevlar cloth.)

Remembering that he was unarmed, his eyes fell on the gun cabinet, which now lay open and, to his obvious disappointment, empty. With a sigh, he glanced down at his watch. (7:15… damn, must’ve been out for a while. I’d better call Zhang.)

He turned around and leaned over the desk. He reached for the phone, only to discover that the receiver had been smashed. He gazed around the room, now noticing that several key items had been destroyed, including the computer. Royce also was quick to notice that his phone was missing. He collapsed in the leather chair, chuckling painfully. (Methodical bastard… of all the times for him to be so damn efficient.) This line of thinking provoked another thought. (Wait a sec… if he was so thorough in making sure I couldn’t get in his way, why didn’t he just kill me? He knows the suits are bulletproof; if he wanted me dead, I’d be dead already.)

His mind continued whirring away with questions as he gazed about the office. Something to his right caught his eye, and soon he found himself staring at the printer, with two sheets of paper that had apparently been printed only recently. He stood up, made his way to the printer, and began reading the text printed on the paper. A wry grin crossed his face.

Without further thought, he hastily folded the sheets and stuffed them in his jacket pocket. The agent stepped towards the door, one thought on his mind as he exited the apartment.

(You missed a spot, agent Holden.)

- Meanwhile; FBI HQ: Director Zhang’s office -

“Come on in.”

Zhang looked up as a tall, brown-hared technician entered. “Murphy. What is it?”

Murphy glanced around nervously. “I think I found out something you might want to know about.”

Zhang raised an eyebrow. “What are you talking about?”

“Did Royce tell you about Chimera?”

The aging director nodded. “Yeah, his mystery informant. The guy who told him about the spy, said something about the evidence being in Wade’s apartment. Please, have a seat.”

Murphy nodded, and sat down across from Zhang. “He had me run a trace on his car phone… and I came up with this number.” He removed a small, folded-up piece of paper from inside his lab coat and handed it to Zhang. “I checked it with directory assistance; it’s the number for a closed-off terminal in LaGuardia.”

Zhang’s eyes widened. “LaGuardia? Are you sure?”

“Yeah, terminal 14. They’re doing renovations, so it’s closed to the public.” Murphy peered quizzically at Zhang, who suddenly seemed very tense. “Is something wrong, sir?”

“Garrett said that some sort of meeting was taking place at LaGuardia. I just had Terri get the NYPD on surveillance around it.”

Murphy nodded. “There’s one other thing, sir. Something Tyler asked me about earlier.”

Zhang donned an inquisitive look. “What’s that?”

“Tyler said that one of the members of Project Artemis, a research mission a few years ago, hinted at an AI prototype they supposedly assembled during the mission. This was on the Federation ship Morningstar.”

“An AI prototype? Could it be Chimera?”

Murphy closed his eyes for a moment, and sighed. “I don’t know. But I do know this. When I called LaGuardia, I managed to get ahold of a guy at the ATC archives. Specifically, the location of the Morningstar.”

“So, where is it?”

Murphy managed a grim smile. “I’ll give you two guesses, but you’ll probably only need one.”

A faint spark of satisfaction was visible in the director’s eyes as he replied. “LaGuardia.”

The technician nodded. “Terminal 14, closed for renovations. An ideal spot to park something you don’t want found, yet not seem out of place.”

“But what does any of this have to do with Senator Wade?”

Murphy blinked again. “Sir, Wade was on the Project Artemis committee.”

Zhang’s eyes widened. Words failed him; he managed only to nod in response. After a few seconds, his voice returned. “Good work, Murphy. See if you can reach Agents Devereaux and Quint; tell them to get back here on the double.”

“Yes, sir!” With a nod, the tech excused himself and left the office.

Adrian smirked as he picked up the phone and punched a button on the side. “Leah, get me Agent Mattingly and Lieutenant Fallon.”


Royce glanced up and down the street. Spotting no one, he crossed it to where his vehicle sat, parked. Although Willard had deprived him of the keys, the look on Royce’s face indicated that he had other plans.

His look soured as he approached the ORV, mainly due to the fact that the tires had been blown out. Shaking his head, he stepped towards the driver’s side door and began sizing up the window. (These things are bulletproof… I can’t break it, not without something…) His eyes searched up and down the street, in vain, for anything of use. (A pipe, a wrench, even a brick… something, anything. Come on…)

Another idea ran through his head. Circling the vehicle, he stepped into an alley across the sidewalk and approached a lime green dumpster which lay a few yards in. He stepped up to the dumpster and shoved the lid aside, revealing its contents. With a disgusted grimace on his face, he began rifling through the garbage. His sour expression disappeared as his hands fell upon something long, thick, and metallic. Wrapping his hand around the object, he pried it loose and smiled slightly as he found himself holding a slightly rusted crowbar. He stepped back over to the driver’s side door, both hands tightly gripping the crowbar.

Royce closed his eyes and gave silent instructions to himself. He felt his arms throb slightly as newfound energy began flowing through them. With a loud grunt, he brought the crowbar up to shoulder level and swung it at the glass, cracking it slightly. He cocked his head questioningly, and, with another grunt, swung again, causing the crack to spiderweb outwards.

He summoned up as much strength as he could, and, with a loud yell, he brought the iron bar down on the window again, this time shattering it inwards. A satisfied grin on his face, he tossed the crowbar to the ground and reached inside to unlock the door. His arms ceased throbbing as he opened the door and slid himself inside, carefully brushing the glass off the leather seat in the process.

(Good thing I listened to Sanchez… now where’s that gun…) He crawled over the backseat, dropped his hands to the floor, and pursed his lips as began to feel around under the seat. He stopped short as his hands came in contact with a small briefcase, which he slid out and cracked open. The satisfied grin returned as he feasted his eyes on the sub-machine gun Sanchez had issued him. He pried the gun loose from the case with one hand, and grabbed the spare magazine with his other hand. He set the two aside and reached inside the case again, this time pulling out four small red shells, marked “25mm HE”. He carefully slid the grenades into his jacket pocket, and grabbed the magazine, which he stuffed into his other pocket.

The agent slung the submachine gun over his shoulder, but his attention was forced back to the driver’s seat as the phone began to ring. (Now what?) Carefully crawling back over the seat, he reached over and picked up the receiver. “Hello?”

“Royce, get out of there, now! There’s a bomb in the car!”

“What? Where?!”

The mechanical voice responded almost before Royce finished. “Save the Nedian woman. You might be the only one who can. Get away from the car, now!”

Without another thought, Royce threw down the receiver and jumped out of the seat. He dashed away from the ORV, breathing heavily. He got no further than 20 steps away before a deafening explosion from behind rocked the street, nearly knocking him off his feet. The street lit up as the vehicle erupted in a ball of flame, sending broken and charred pieces of metal everywhere.

Squinting, Royce turned around and sighed in dismay as he eyed up the burning vehicle. (Ugh… can’t I ever get a goddamn break once in a while, huh? Willard, you son of a bitch…) He turned away from the wreckage and glanced up the street. (Gotta find a phone… I’ve gotta warn the others.)

With another sigh, he readjusted the sub-machine gun and dashed off to the north, his footsteps echoing through the empty street.

- 5 minutes later -

“You see anything?”

The black-hared agent glanced out the window. “Nothing. He did bring the ORV, didn’t he?”

Jonesy nodded. “Yeah, it was missing from the garage. I think Chisato went with him, too.”

“Hmm… hey… hey, look at that. You see that?”

The short, stocky agent cocked his head to one side and glanced out the window. His eyes widened as he spotted a burning hunk of metal, surrounded on all sides by broken glass and metal. His blood ran cold as he realized that it was parked just outside of Wade’s apartment - where Royce had said he was headed.

“Oh my god... is that what I think it is?”

Tyler shook his head slightly. “I don’t know, I can’t tell. What the hell happened?”

Jonesy carefully eyed up the debris as the sedan slowed to a stop. “Might’ve been a bomb. All that looks like it was blown outward.”

Tyler reached for the phone and began dialing as Jonesy stepped outside. A female voice answered after a few seconds. “New York Police Department. Officer Morgan.”

“This’s agent Quint, FBI. We’ve got an explosion on 1723 Palmersdale rd., possibly arson. Get a ballistics team and a fire unit down here ASAP.”

“Yes, sir.” The line closed. Tyler hung the receiver back up and stepped outside to join Jonesy, who was carefully making his way towards the fiery wreckage.

Tyler waved his hand before his face, brushing away a few puffs of smoke. He shook his head and sighed. “Jesus.”

Jonesy knelt down and edged closer to the wreckage, peering into the remains of the front seat with a look of concern on his face. “I don’t see anything left inside… but this’s definitely an ORV. I don’t think anybody was in it, though.”

“I hope you’re right.”

- Meanwhile -

“Ugh… please… stop…”

Through the sunglasses, the man’s eyes showed no emotion. His face was set in a permanently sour expression. “Once again. Where are the other districts?”

Chisato coughed, and stopped to wipe the tears and blood from her eyes. “I don’t know of any other districts… why would they tell me, anyway? I’m just… *cough* a reporter…”

The man in black shook his head, turned back to the other man, and shrugged as Chisato continued babbling. “A reporter… used to work at… Nede Chronicle… it’s all gone…”

The second man joined the first one. “You worked in a government office. You must have known something.”

“All gone… *cough* there’s nothing left…” Chisato looked back up and exhaled slowly, almost painfully.

“She’s delirious. Let’s give her five more minutes to think.”

With a nod of agreement, the second man followed the first as he headed towards the door. They stopped short as the door opened and Willard entered the room.

The first man voiced his confusion. “Agent Holden, what are you doing here? You were to go to LaGuardia with the others.”

Willard’s face showed slight signs of panic. His voice cracked as he spoke up. “We’ve got problems. Come with me.”

The two men in black exchanged glances, and followed Willard as he left the room, leaving Chisato alone.

She moved to a sitting position and leaned against the far wall. She sniffled as she rubbed her forehead, her fingers gently caressing a large bruise. A low groan escaped her lips, and she slid down the wall until she was on her back, curling into a ball in the process.

(It… it’s all gone… Nede… it’s gone…) The darkness of the room invaded her eyes, and was once again replaced with images from her past. The images came alive as she found herself in her old office again. Stopping to look up, she glanced out the window and saw a large wave of energy heading straight for the building. She watched in horror as the windows were blown inwards. Screams filled the air as the wave collided with the building.

(I have nothing left… nobody left… they’re all gone too…) More images gathered in front of her eyes; images of people. She could only watch as the familiar faces of her co-workers, her friends and her family appeared before her eyes. She sat up again to find herself surrounded on all sides by men and women, colored only in various shades of gray. (They… my friends… mom, dad…) She sniffed again, and hung her head as tears began to gather in the corners of her eyes. A new image appeared before her. She sized up the man before her, and her eyes widened as the blurry features of his face came into focus.

(R… Royce?) This time, a collage of images floated before her eyes. She looked around to find herself in a dim, narrow tunnel. Hearing a splashing noise to her left, she glanced to her left and saw a man in a suit running, with a blurry, redheaded figure in his arms. (This… the Hilton sewers?)

Before she could make any sense of it, a new image appeared. She now found herself in a large, open area. Before her was one of the largest machines she had ever seen, with a small opening in the side. She watched in confusion as Royce stepped through the opening, followed closely by the blurry, redheaded figure again. Several men and women in uniform came out of the opening shortly afterwards. (The… the Nexus…)

One by one, the memories of her journey flooded her mind. The infirmary, the car ride, FBI headquarters, the abandoned hotel - it all came back to haunt her. One final image filled her eyes, and part of her knew exactly what it was before it even came into focus. She watched in horror as her last clear memory played itself out before her tear-filled eyes.

Chisato found herself back in the apartment. The black-and-white image of Royce stepped towards a nearby door, and turned the knob. The door swung inward, and Royce had just enough time to let out a cry of surprise as he faced down an unseen assailant. Chisato watched in horror as the bright flash and loud report of the gunshot took hostage her complete attention. Feeling completely helpless, she could only watch as Royce was knocked off his feet by the bullet, landing hard on his back and banging his head painfully against the ground in the process. He slid a few inches and came to a stop, where he lay very still.

Chisato could take no more. She brought her hands to her eyes to staunch the inevitable flow of tears, but it was too late. She sniffed once and began to cry, quietly. Tears flowed between her fingers and ran down her hands, soaking the cuffs of her shirt. One by one, her senses were overwhelmed by her emotions. She felt, saw, and heard nothing. She didn’t feel when she was lifted to her feet and dragged towards an unseen exit. She didn’t hear the voices of the guards as they conversed. She didn’t see Willard standing before her, talking to someone on the phone with a very nervous expression on his face.

“I’ve got her right here. Where do you want to meet?”

Day of the Hero

“I don’t believe it.”

Zhang’s eyes narrowed as he heard the reply. “I’m telling you, the son-of-a-bitch shot me. I have proof that he was working with Wade all along, just like Cofax and Garrett.”

The director shook his head. “Okay, okay. I get it. Look… what do you want to do?”

Royce cleared his throat. “I made a deal with him. He’s bringing Chisato to the 18th street el train station, in Brooklyn. I’m on my way there now, but he might not be alone. I’ll need backup.”

“Okay. I’ve got Devereaux and Quint in the field. I’ll send them to meet you right away.”

“Thanks. Tell them to hurry. What else is going on?”

Zhang coughed. “Murphy managed to trace that number; you know, the one this Chimera has been calling you from. It leads to a terminal at LaGuardia, which is going through renovations.”

Royce’s confusion was apparent in his voice. “LaGuardia? You mean Chimera is at LaGuardia?”

“Well, he’s definitely calling from there. Here’s something else Murphy found out. Remember that ship, the Morningstar? The one they used for Project Artemis?”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“He did a little extra digging, and he found out that the Morningstar landed at LaGuardia when it returned, at the same terminal Chimera is calling from.”

Royce paused. “So… does this mean Chimera is the AI they built on the Morningstar?”

Zhang nodded. “It certainly seems that way. The more I find out about this, the more I’m starting to think that Project Artemis wasn’t just a research mission.”

“Well, we’ll sort this out later. Right now, just get Jonesy and Tyler out here on the double. I’ll try and stall him as long as I can.”

“Got it. As soon as that’s finished, get your ass back here on the double. We’ve got work to do.”

“Yes, sir.”

Zhang paused for a second. “And Royce… try to take him alive if you can, but be careful. He’s augmented too.”

“I’ll do what I can, sir.” With a click, the line was closed.

- 5 minutes later, 18th street El station -

“Wake up. It’s time.”

Chisato shook her head vigorously, and opened her eyes to find her surroundings had changed drastically. As her vision focused, she realized that she was in a way station of sorts. Old newspapers, empty cans, and other miscellaneous trash littered the area. A rush of wind tossed her hair and jacket around as a train sped by on the tracks along the far wall. She watched as the train left the station into the open night air.

Finally gaining enough strength to form words, she spoke up. “Where am I? What’s going on?”

The man to her left glanced down at her and scoffed. “An elevated train station, and you don’t need to know what’s going on.”

She sighed, and looked back down. (What’s it matter anyway… they’re probably gonna kill me here… no witnesses… damn, it’s just like those books… Royce, where are you when I need you?) Her heart sank as her memory answered her question. The gunshot echoed through her mind again, and she felt very much alone.

Her thoughts were interrupted as the second man spoke up. “He’s late.”

Willard, who had been standing by the boarding ramp, glanced up at him. “He’ll be here. I know him.”

The first man stepped forward and leaned against a nearby pillar. “I don’t understand why you didn’t just off him in the first place.”

Chisato, confused, began to pay close attention as Willard replied. “I didn’t want to kill him… at least, I didn’t want to see him die. I’ve worked with him for too long… he deserves better than that.”

“Deserves better? Willard, he’s the enemy. He’s loyal to the bureau, and he’d have blown you away for double-crossing it.”

Holden shot him a look. “You didn’t leave me much choice, did you? I loved the bureau, too, you know. You think they would’ve let me stay if they found that record? You both know the rules: no criminal record. They only take clean agents.”

The agent scoffed again. “That was your mistake, Holden. Nobody forced you to rob that store, or hack those bank terminals. And I know for a fact that nobody made you violate your parole.”

Willard sighed and hung his head. “I know, I know… a rebellious youth, and I’m paying for it with the rest of my life… but my friends shouldn’t have to pay for my mistakes!”

The second man in black shook his head. “You heard Wade’s orders. If you can’t convince him to back off, we’ll have to take him down.” He lowered his own head and sighed. “Look… if it’s any consolation, I know how you feel. I didn’t want it end up this way either… but if what she told us is right, then these monsters have the capability to destroy the entire universe. I’ve got a son, Mr. Holden, and I want him to grow up in a world free from such nightmares. To do that… I would forsake even the Federation.”

Willard nodded, slowly. “I understand what you are saying, and I sympathize. I would have resigned long ago if I did not… I just hope he will too. Like I said, I don’t want him to pay for my mistakes.”

Approaching footsteps drew all four sets of eyes. Through the shadows, a man in a suit could be seen. Chisato’s eyes lit up as he spoke, his voice forever etched in her mind.


Chisato felt her heart beat faster. (Royce!! H… how?) She couldn’t stop herself from calling out to him. “Royce!!”

The agent stepped out of the shadows, a sub-machine gun slung over his shoulder and a serious look on his face. He stood before the three men and nodded.

Willard managed a grim smile. “It’s been a while, Royce. I hope I didn’t cause any permanent damage.”

“Nothing that blowing away your sorry ass won’t cure,” replied Royce.

The older agent shook his head. “Now, now. Let’s not be vulgar, there’s a lady present.”

“The bomb was a nice touch,” continued Royce. “Thought you didn’t want to kill me.”

Willard blinked. “Bomb? What are you talking about?”

The lead man stepped forward, away from Chisato. “Enough chitchat. What do you want?”

Royce glanced at him. “I have with me the only remaining copy of your deal with Wade. I’ll make it disappear if, and only if, you release Chisato and tell me what the hell’s going on.” He removed the folded-up sheets of paper from his jacket pocket and waved it around temptingly.

Willard nodded. “Fair enough. I’ll tell you what; I’ll tell you the whole story for free. Wade thinks I’m wasting my time… but I know that deep down you want to do what’s right for the Federation, and for its people.”

“Save the sales pitch for someone who gives a damn. Just tell me what’s going on.”

As if on cue, the two agents drew their pistols and aimed them at Royce’s head. Willard glanced at them and held up a hand. “Easy. Give me a chance. I don’t want this to happen.”

Willard took a deep breath. “You already know about the Ten Wise Men and the Nedian Empire. Now I’ll tell you what Chisato here didn’t want you to know.”

Chisato’s face suddenly turned pale. (Oh no… no, please, not now!)

“The Ten Wise Men were biomechanical weapons, created by Nedian scientists to put down the uprisings on their colonies, several million years ago. These so-called terrorists killed by the dozen, and indiscriminately - women, children, families, it didn’t matter. Nede didn’t coexist with its neighbors; it conquered them, just like our old world governments did.”

Royce grew quiet. His eyes narrowed and his breathing became very shallow. Apparently pleased with this reaction, Willard continued. “Nede realized what it had done, and isolated itself to prevent further abuses of its power. That’s when the real danger made itself apparent.”

“Nedian scientists, for some reason, created two weapons; one capable of literally destroying the universe - the Crest of Annihilation, if memory serves correctly - and one capable of stopping it - the Crest of Enchantment. The Wise Men got a hold of the Crest of Annihilation, and prepared to use it. It was at this point that the Calnus was attacked, as a demonstration of their power.”

“Thanks to the efforts of Claude Kenni, Ms. Madison, and a handful of others, their attempts were halted, but not before the crest was activated. The Crest of Enchantment was used, but it only contained the resultant explosion; it didn’t stop it altogether. This is how Nede was destroyed.”

Royce finally spoke. “Nede had… that kind of power? And the Wise Men…”

Willard nodded. “Yes; Nede killed itself.”

“So… what do you have to do with all this?”

The older agent sighed. “Don’t you get it, yet? Artemis wasn’t a research mission at all. It was a test of an experimental weapon, one that could have stopped Nede and the Ten Wise Men in their tracks.”

Royce blinked. “Experimental weapon?”

“A type of antimatter cannon; a burst of energy surrounded by an electromagnetic field. It would go through their shields like it wasn’t even there. It wouldn’t even drain the shields, but it would destroy pretty much whatever it hits. We needed a weapon capable of stopping Nede, in the event that they got ambitious. This was before we knew about the Ten Wise Men, or the Crest of Annihilation.”

“Royce, listen to me. These people… these… things… could have killed us all. The Nedian race represents a threat not just to the Federation, but also to everything, everywhere. Royce, we both swore to defend the Federation from its enemies; I stand before you now and tell you that this is your chance to do just that.”

“We still don’t know if there are any other districts out there… but if there’s even one… just one of those places out there, then there could be other crests as well, or other monsters just like the Wise Men. We both know what has to be done. The Nedian race has had its time; its power exceeds its control. They knew this, and sealed themselves up, but, as the Ten Wise Men have proven, even this cannot contain their destructive power.”

“Royce, we need to keep this secret. The weapon… Energy Nede… the tests… they have to be kept secret. The Federation doesn’t want to waste money on weapons; they’d never give us what we need to protect ourselves, but they don’t know what we know, and if we released this information publicly, there’d be a panic everywhere. Riots, religious fanaticism - total anarchy. Now do you see why it was kept secret? Why not even the President was told the whole story? Royce… we need your help. Please… help us make this disappear.”

Royce took a deep breath. His eyes closed as he slowly took the words in. “What about Chisato?”

“Forget about this woman. She’s an enemy now, Royce. You know it; I know it. All you have to do is drop the papers, and walk away. This will all be over soon, and we can all live happily ever after. Just like you’ve always wanted, you’ll get to be a hero… a hero to your people… to your friends.”

Chisato felt her blood run cold. She pleaded to Royce in her mind. (Don’t do it… please, don’t do it…)

Royce slowly exhaled. He opened his eyes and nodded slowly. “All right.”

Chisato nearly fainted. Her face lost all of its color as her heart sank to new depths.

“Maybe you’re right… maybe… their time has come.” Royce closed his eyes. “Maybe we do need to be ready… to stop them… and maybe they do deserve to die.”

Chisato felt as though her heart had been ripped in half. Tears welled up in her eyes as he continued. “Hell… our lives were in danger and we didn’t even know it… sheer luck that they were able to kill the Wise Men, but who’s to say there won’t be more?”

Willard smiled. “That’s the smartest thing you’ve said all night.” He stepped forward, his hand outstretched. “Give me the records.”

Royce held up a hand. “Wait. I’m not finished.”

Willard raised an eyebrow. “What?”

“I said I’m not finished.”

Nonplussed, Willard stepped back. Royce took another deep breath, and continued. “I said you might be right… I said they might deserve to die…”


Royce looked up. “But what if you’re wrong?” He took a step forward. “What if they don’t deserve to die? What if there are no other districts, or, if there are, what if they no longer pose a threat to us?” He took another step forward, almost menacingly. “The human race has posed a threat to the universe well since the early 21st century. Maybe we couldn’t destroy the universe, but with our technology we could come pretty damn close, if only someone in charge really wanted to. Does that mean we deserve to die? Does that necessarily condemn our species? What about you and me? We’re augmented; we could easily kill a normal human in a fight. Does that mean we deserve to die? Should every augmented agent pay if one of us makes a mistake?”

“Royce, you’re missing the point.”

“Shut up! You’re missing the point! You’re saying we should kill whatever’s left of the Nedians because they pose a threat to us! Well, apparently, with this weapon, we now pose a threat to them, too. Does that mean we should be destroyed as well? Even if we do finish them off, as you suggest, what if one of us gets the urge to abuse this power? Who the hell says we get to decide who lives and who dies?”

“Willard, the weapon… protecting ourselves is one thing. What you’re talking about is genocide. You’re saying that they should all die because they have the power to kill us, and a few of them might decide to exercise that power! You’re saying Chisato should die because other people like her made a few mistakes, and it’s our job to make the rest of them pay! Any way you slice this, it’s genocide! Well, now we have the power to kill them! We always have! So why should we get to live, when they don’t? Explain it to me!”

Willard, stunned by Royce’s sudden reaction, stepped back. Chisato looked back up, her tears fading as she realized Royce’s true intentions. Her heart secretly leapt as he continued.

“You conspired against your own people, you withheld information you had no right to, and now you want to declare war on the remnants of a species simply because of something that could have happened, but didn’t. Oh, I see all right; I see why you had to keep this all secret, because nobody in their right mind would condone what you wish to do.”

Royce’s hand rested on the barrel of his sub-machine gun. “Maybe I’ll never be a hero… and frankly right now I couldn’t care less… but I’m still going to fight for my people, and for my friends. My people are those who obey the law. My friends are the people I care about, not those who make decisions for me and tell me it’s for my own good.”

Royce indicated Chisato with a nod. “Chisato’s my friend, and I trust her. I’ll do what it takes to get her out of this alive.” He lowered his head, and his eyes took on an almost inhuman glare. “Let her go, now!”

“I can’t allow that.” Willard shook his head. “I’m disappointed in you, Royce… but these things happen.” He nodded to the lead man. “We are through. Kill him.”

The man in black trained his gun on Royce’s head, grinning smugly.

Spotting an opening, Chisato kicked out and knocked the man’s legs out from under him, tripping him up and sending him to the floor on his back. He instinctively squeezed the trigger, but it was too late. The bullet sailed harmlessly to the ceiling, far above Royce’s head.

The ice broken, so to speak, Royce gripped the trigger of his sub-machine gun and began firing. Willard got caught in a burst before he could get clear, and was knocked to the floor, though the bullets failed to puncture his suit. The second man went into a diving roll behind a pillar. Spotting that Willard was still alive, he began firing to cover him as he rolled out of the way.

Chisato scrambled backwards as the trio exchanged gunfire with Royce. Above the din, she barely heard Royce yell at her to get out of the way. Without a second thought, she dove to her right and watched as he pumped a switch underneath the lower barrel of the gun. He pulled the trigger, and a dark red bullet sprang forth from the chamber, towards the back wall. Realizing what it was, Chisato had a fraction of a second to cover her ears before the bullet struck its mark.

The sudden explosion caught all three men off guard, throwing them away from the ramp. As the smoke from the grenade cleared, Willard glanced to his right and spotted Chisato, who had survived the blast. He glanced to his left at the agent, and indicated Chisato with a nod. “Get her! I’ll handle Royce.”

The smoke gone, Royce leapt back out of hiding and opened fire on the pillar, failing to hit Willard but succeeding in keeping him back. As the agent dashed by, Royce fired a burst of bullets at him, but missed. The agent noted, with grim satisfaction, that one of the agents hadn’t gotten clear of the grenade in time, and was now laying very still on the floor, his pistol trapped in a death grip in his hand.

Chisato lifted her head and noticed that the smoke had cleared. The sound of gunfire forced her attention to Royce and Willard, who were exchanging shots. She spotted the corpse of the man in black, and moved to her feet, but stopped short. (Wait a minute… there were two of them…)

The butt of a pistol slammed on the back of her head, interrupting her thoughts. She looked up to see the second man in black, pistol in his hand and sadistic grin on his face. Instinctively, she kicked out again, smashing the man’s knee and forcing him backwards. His balance lost, he couldn’t prevent Chisato from getting back to her feet and rushing him. A hard punch to his jaw followed to a kick to his stomach loosened his grip on his pistol, which slid out of his hands and clattered to the ground.

Regaining his composure, the agent countered with a punch to the face, stunning Chisato. He threw another jab, which she quickly blocked, countering with a jab of her own to his stomach. Angered, he brought his elbow up and smashed her in the face, grapping the neckline of her shirt with his other hand. She quickly wriggled free of his grasp and kicked him in the stomach again, knocking the wind out of him. She quickly exhaled and, without setting her foot down, kicked him in the face, knocking him back a few steps and forcing a grunt of pain past his lips. Completely enraged, and with the taste of blood in his mouth, the agent leapt back at Chisato, fists flying. She took a few hits, which forced her backwards and spun her around; seeing this, the man grabbed her shoulders and prepared to throw her. Before he could, though, Chisato spun around and slammed her elbow in the man’s face, knocking his glasses off. With finesse to spare, she immediately followed up with a one-two punch to the face and a kick to the chest, letting out a loud “Kiai!” as the last blow landed.

The resultant punishment was too much for the man; he tottered backwards, tripped over his own feet, and fell to the ground where he lay very still. Breathless, Chisato rubbed her aching jaw as she grinned smugly.

Royce glanced to his left, and saw - to his obvious relief - that Chisato was okay. With a loud cry, he leapt from hiding and emptied the rest of his magazine at Willard, forcing him out of his hiding position. Willard fired a pair of shots at Royce, who quickly ducked out of the way. The elder agent rolled to the side and began fumbling with his pistol, attempting to remove the magazine, but was interrupted by Royce as he brutally pistol-whipped Willard. Losing his grip on the gun, Willard let it slip and turned his attention to Royce. He swept his foot outwards, knocking Royce off his feet. His sub-machine gun clattered to the ground, harmless. Without pausing, Willard brought his foot up and brought it down towards Royce’s face. Royce rolled out of the way and scrambled to his feet, struggling to catch his breath.

Willard glared up at the younger agent as he leapt to his feet. With a low growl, he threw his hands around Royce’s neck, attempting to throttle him. Royce, sending a reserve of strength to his arms, managed to break the grip and responded by kicking the agent in the stomach. Willard recovered quickly, and countered with a hammer blow, which forced Royce into the pillar. He cocked his fist back and swung at Royce; Royce ducked down, narrowly avoiding the fist, which smashed into the pillar instead, leaving a large hole in it. Royce decided to get dirty, and latched his hands onto Willard’s shoulders. He grit his teeth and grunted as he rocketed his knee into Willard’s groin, drawing a cry of pain out of the elder agent. Willard responded by thrusting his elbow up at Royce’s face, knocking off his sunglasses and breaking his hold. Royce spun around and kicked Willard in the stomach, which knocked the wind out of him but did little real damage. Without warning, Willard leapt back and brought his knee up to his chest. He reached down and pulled a knife out of a concealed sheath on his foot.

“See you in hell, Royce”, taunted Willard as he leapt at the agent. The knife hit its mark, drawing blood from Royce’s arm as he attempted to dodge. Willard closed in again, slashing Royce across his forehead. Before Willard could strike a third time, however, Royce grabbed his wrist and backhanded him in the face, drawing blood. Angered, Willard pried his wrist free, switched the knife to an overhand grip, and thrust it down at Royce’s neck. Missing its mark, the knife continued and, aided by Willard’s strength, imbedded itself in the concrete.

The knife stuck in the concrete, Willard found himself immobilized for a fraction of a second, which was more than Royce needed. Before Willard could even see Royce close in, he felt a blow to his stomach force even more air out of his lungs, followed immediately by a kick to his kneecap and a hard haymaker to his nose. Willard stumbled back, battered and bleeding. The blood blinding his vision, his anger clouding his judgment, the wounded agent leapt at Royce, forsaking anything remotely close to good fighting technique as he swung wildly at the blurry outline of the younger agent. Royce, in response, grabbed Willard’s shoulder and punched him in the face again. To his surprise, he suddenly found a pair of powerful hands around his neck. Royce began to gasp for air as the agent tightened his grip, an inhumanly sadistic look on his face.

With an unearthly cry, Royce summoned up as much strength as he could and, with the skill of a trained professional, struck Willard hard in the neck. The resulting blow stopped Willard in his tracks and brought a sickening crunch from its target. Willard’s eyes blinked once, and he fell backwards onto the ground, his mouth and eyes wide open. His entire body shook once, twice, and then lay very still as blood began to trickle out of his mouth. With a sigh, all traces of life vanished from the elder agent.

Royce fell to his knees, his eyes filled with the face of the former agent, frozen forever in death. The rage consuming him, Royce crawled up closer to Willard’s face, and began pounding his lifeless body mercilessly. (Double-crossing… son-of-a-bitch…) he thought in between punches. He watched as Willard’s face was crushed beneath his fists, and as his body shook accordingly. (Goddamn… traitor… I’ll kill you… I swear to god I'll kill you… die… die… DIE!!)

It seemed hours before his punishment ceased. Hands cool as jade rested on his shoulders; a voice soft as silk brought him out of the furnace of his rage.


The haze cleared from his eyes. He wiped his forehead clean of sweat and blood, and looked up and the beautiful face above him. “’Sato…”

“It’s over.”

Sniffing a little, Royce nodded, and slowly, wearily, moved to his feet. “S… sorry… I…”

She shook her head. “It’s okay. I know.”

Royce stammered, unable to hide his guilt. His eyes watered up, and all self-control seemed to vanish as the psychological blow began to sink in. “I… I killed him… with my own hands… I never wanted this… God, I never wanted this…” He hung his head, trying to hide the few tears that began to slide down his cheeks.

“I know. You did what you thought was right.” She smiled at him. “You saved my life, too. Thanks, Royce.”

Royce smiled back, albeit shyly, as he wiped his face dry. “N… no problem…” he stuttered, more from embarrassment this time.

She nodded, and brushed back a few loose strands of hair from her face. Her eyes widened as she noticed how bad he was bleeding. “Oh my… we have to get that treated. We’ve got to get you to a doctor. C’mere, give me your arm.”

Royce blinked as she grabbed hold of his arm, but understood as she draped it around her shoulder. He leaned against her partially and used her for support as they walked.

They had moved no further than three steps when the clicking of a hammer focused Royce’s attention to someone standing behind him. They turned around to see the last agent badly beaten and a pistol in his hand. With a scream, he trained his pistol on Royce and wrapped his finger around the trigger.

Before he could pull the trigger, a low-pitched popping noise was heard from the station entrance, and the man reeled back as though struck, a fine mist of blood spraying from a head wound. He was dead before he hit the floor. Royce and Chisato turned around again, and grinned as they recognized the newcomers.

“Jonesy! Tyler!” Royce managed, weakly. He lost his grip on Chisato and fell to his knees.

The brown-hared agent grinned back, and rushed to Royce’s aid, his pistol still smoking. Tyler stepped up and smiled down at Royce.

“Looks like we got here just in time. What happened? Are you guys okay?”

Chisato scratched the back of her head and lowered her gaze. “It’s kind of a long story…”

Back in Town

“So… it’s true. Willard was the spy.”

Jonesy watched as shadows danced across the dashboard, underneath the streetlights as they passed by. He glanced back at Royce, who was himself gazing out the window.

Without turning his head, Royce nodded. “Yeah. Willard, Garrett, and Cofax… they were all in on it. The research mission was a cover for a weapons test; they wanted to make sure it would penetrate Nedian shields if they ever needed to use it. Wade believes that since Nede had created the Ten Wise Men, who, with the Crest of Annihilation, were capable of destroying the universe, all Nedians should be wiped out. They were planning on making Chisato tell if there were any other districts, and then I called… well, you can guess what happened from there.”

Chisato shuddered and gently rubbed her bruised gut. “Good thing you called when you did; they were about to kill me.”

Royce glanced over at Chisato, and smiled. “Least I could do. I’m just glad you’re okay.”

Tyler spoke up. “But what about this weapon? This antimatter cannon? What could it do?”

“Well, if what Willard said was true, the cannon could punch through shields without even scratching them, focusing all their power instead on the target itself. This was developed with Nede in mind, as it was covered with a shield powerful enough to withstand repeated positron blasts.”

Jonesy nodded. “So, that’s it then. Senator Wade, along with the other members of the committee and the crew of the ship, discovered the truth of what Nede was, and realized the threat potential. This scared him enough into developing a weapon secretly; his connections to the military, namely General Vaughn, allowed him to do so. This, of course, required at least a few ‘misappropriations’ of Congress’s budget that Wade could improvise, say through a few bogus bills, like Project Artemis. After hearing of Nede’s destruction, he wanted to make sure that other colonies weren’t out there.”

Tyler smacked his palms on the wheel. “That’s why he’s at LaGuardia; he wants to deploy the weapon and get it out of Federation space until the heat dies down. Obviously, he didn’t count on us finding the extortion records, or on Murphy tracking down Chimera’s location.”

Chisato joined the conversation. “What does Chimera have to do with all this?”

“Murphy said that Chimera was an AI prototype, designed to control autonomous weapons systems. I’d imagine that it was built solely for the antimatter cannon on-board the Morningstar.”

Jonesy nodded. “We’d better get this to Zhang. The meeting starts in half an hour.”

Royce sighed and leaned back against the seat. He shook his head in disbelief. “I still don’t believe this. I mean, this is a conspiracy theorist’s dream come true… or nightmare, depending on how you look at it.”

Chisato looked over at him, and grinned. “Maybe you just might get your wish after all. I have to say, this’s gonna make a great story. I feel like I should be writing this down.”

Royce smirked. “I’ll give you the condensed version later, after we finish putting the pieces together.”

He glanced back out the window and sighed again. He heard a yawn to his right and jerked his head in surprise as he something leaned against him. He looked down to see a head of fiery red hair resting on his shoulder. He glanced down at Chisato, who’s face seemed slightly redder than usual, and smiled. He looked back out the window and brushed aside a few loose strands of gray hair, not noticing the sly grin on her face.

Jonesy glanced back at Royce and Chisato, and looked over at Tyler. They started muttering something under their breaths, which Royce could not hear from the back. After a few seconds of near-muted chatter, they shook hands.

“What’s going on?” asked Royce.

“Oh… nothing important. You’ll see”, replied Jonesy, a grin hidden on his face.

- 35 minutes later, FBI HQ; Meeting Room -

Zhang’s gaze floated about the room, his eyes resting for less than a second on each member of the current group of people. Department heads, high-level special agents, and even a few NYPD liaison officers - including Fallon - gathered around the table, their eyes all focused on the director.

At long last, the sound of doors opening broke the ice. All heads turned to see agents Quint and Devereaux enter the room. Tyler took his seat while Jonesy stepped up to Zhang and nodded.

“Did you get my report?”

Zhang nodded in response. “Yes. Agent Holden… I can’t believe it.”

Jonesy hung his head. “I know. Royce was pretty broken up about it, too.” He looked up. “Is everyone here?”

“Yes. We were waiting on you.”

Jonesy nodded and took his seat. “Sorry I’m late.”

The director nodded. “Let’s begin.”

- 15 minutes later, at the Infirmary -

“There you go, good as new.”

Royce smiled at his reflection. “Thanks, doc. Can’t even see the scars.”

The doctor nodded as he checked Royce up and down. “The damage has been healed; you might feel a little disoriented, but it should only be for a few minutes.”

The two men looked up as the doors slid open, revealing the thin frame of Chisato. She stepped in, smiling. “Hi, Royce. Hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

Royce smiled slightly. “Not at all, c’mon in.”

The doctor glanced over the monitor next to Royce. “I have to run some tests; I’ll be back soon.”

Royce nodded as the doctor left, and turned back to Chisato. “How you holdin’ up?”

Chisato shrugged as she sat down. “I’m okay, I guess. I just can’t believe any of this… you know, how all this time, we were being watched.”

“Same here. Kinda feel like we’ve all been had.”

A long, uncomfortable moment of silence followed. After a minute that seemed like three, Royce spoke up. “You ever miss it?”

Chisato looked up, startled. “Miss what?”


“Oh.” Chisato sighed, and lowered her gaze. “…All the time.”

Royce nodded. Chisato looked up at him. “I mean, I know I always wanted to get outside of Nede, and explore the galaxy, like I read so much about when I was young, but… I always thought I’d have a place to come back to.”

“Sorry… touchy subject?”

“Sort of. But… it’s okay… I feel a little better about it… after talking with you about it, that is.”

Royce blinked, nonplussed. “What do you mean?”

“Well… it’s kind of embarrassing…” She started to blush.

“C’mon, what’s on your mind?”

“Well, okay.” She smiled slightly, and ran a hand through her hair. “Remember back in the Hilton sewers? When I passed out?”

“Yeah, I remember. Heh, seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it? So what did happen back there, anyway?”

She sighed. “Well… my imagination kind of runs away on me at night, or in the dark. I get the feeling that sometimes my mind wanders and it doesn’t come back.” She chuckled, as did Royce. “Anyway, I started seeing things… things from back home: my house, my mom, my old job… that sort of thing. I guess I really do miss it all, you know? But… well, after… after you picked me up and started carrying me… when it got dark, I didn’t see anything like that. I just kind of dozed off, without thinking. All I remember was it felt… well, safe… and secure. You know what I’m saying?”

Royce smiled slightly, and started blushing himself as he took in her words. “Well, I guess so. You had me worried there… I never did find out why you passed out back there. I think it just means you hate being alone… being the odd man out, you know? I know where you’re coming from on that.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. I’ve never really like being alone, to tell you the truth. And since I’m one of the last of my kind… well, you get the idea. For what it’s worth… thanks, Royce, for being there.”

Royce grinned. “C’mon, all I did was haul you outta there, it was no big deal. Besides… I know we haven’t known each other for that long… but if it helps, you can always count on me. No matter what, or where, I got your six.” He winked for emphasis. (And a rather nice six it is too, I might add), he thought with a grin.

Another awkward silence followed. Royce found himself staring at her, and turned away, slightly redder. Chisato, half confused, half curious, sat down next to him, her trademark grin already in place. The silence was broken as they both realized that they were not alone. Royce looked up to see Jonesy standing in the doorway, grinning like a jackal.

“Hate to interrupt the moment, but Zhang wants to talk to you. You’d better get down there.”

Royce fumbled for words. “J… Jones, how long you been there?”

Jonesy kept grinning. “Long enough. C’mon, let’s go.”

Royce nodded, and turned to Chisato. “Wait here, I’ll be right back.” With that, he followed Jonesy as he exited the room.

As soon as Chisato was out of earshot, Jonesy gave Royce a suspicious grin, who raised his hands defensively.

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, Jones.”

Jonesy fought to keep from bursting into laughter. “Ah, sorry man, but you gotta admit, nobody would ever think that ‘sensitive-guy’ act was going to get you anywhere with women, outside of Alice. She likes you man, I can tell.”

Royce grinned. “Yeah…” His grin faded. “Yeah… that’s what I’m afraid of.”

This made Jonesy’s grin disappear as well. “What do you mean?”

“Well, let’s just say… I’m not really sure how either of us feels, or why.”

It was Jonesy’s turn to look confused. “What’re you talking about?”

Royce smiled, albeit sadly. “If we make it through this, I’ll tell you. Right now we’ve got work to do.”

Jonesy smirked. “If you say so. You’d better tell me later; you know how I hate not knowing these things.”

Royce nodded and pushed the elevator call button. “You got it.”


Royce watched with mild concern as Zhang paced about his office. His memories of the past few hours were a blur, save for one particular image: the look on Willard's face. For some reason, he felt rather despondent. At the time, he had felt no particular remorse for killing his former comrade; he was a traitor, and it was self-defense. At least, that's what his mind said over and over. Still, he couldn't get past that look.

"Royce... first off, I'm sorry about Willard. I've had to put down men that went bad, too; there's nothing I can say that will make you feel better, but for what it's worth, you did the right thing."

The agent nodded. "Thank you, sir."

Adrian looked Royce in the eyes. "Anyway, I'm glad to see you're still all right. With the mail you recovered from Wade's apartment, we have enough to nail him. I also took care of the warrant situation; Tyler should still have it."

"Warrant?" asked Royce.

Zhang managed a small smile and went around his desk. "In case you forgot, you resigned, remember? I'm willing to keep that just between you and me," he said as he produced Royce's ID and handguns from his desk drawer, "if you're willing to keep quiet about how nobody else knew of the warrant until seven this afternoon... coincidentally, *after* you had already entered the premises," he added with a raised eyebrow. To Royce, it sounded as though he were accentuating every other word in the back half of the sentence.

Royce smiled. Despite the façade of the spit-shine, clean-cut bureau director that Zhang was oh-so-fond of, everyone knew that deep down he had no trouble with occasionally bending the rules a bit to get the job done. To some that could be seen as illegal, and Royce could name number of bureaucrats who would like to see Zhang behind bars for such violations. Royce often claimed, however, that his mother and father raised no fools, and believed that enforcing the rules sometimes required bending them.

(Contradictory, yes,) he thought to himself, (but if anybody can do it without going overboard, it's Zhang.)

"Must've been a power surge," he replied. "Knocked the memo right off the mainframe."

A smile worked its way onto the director's face. "Welcome back, agent." The smile disappeared. "Enough of that; we've got work to do. NYPD pulled the tags off the two MiBs from the station. Turns out they were part of Wade's security detail."

Royce's eyes widened as though he were hit with a bucket of ice water. "Those guys were secret service?"

Zhang nodded. "You know what that means; they're in on it too. Lieutenant Fallon and Agent Mattingly have a few teams patrolling LaGuardia. We think Wade may show up there, along with anyone else who was involved."

Royce nodded. "That's where it all points. Chimera's calling from there... the records show that's where the Morningstar landed... even Garrett said that's where they were all going to meet."

"All right. We've got enough evidence to bring Wade in for questioning, and if we find the Morningstar we'll be able to hit him hard. I'll get the paperwork ready for the search; I want you to give NYPD a call, put out an APB for one Aleister Wade. While you're at it, have somebody call up Earth Fed and tell them they may want to detain Major General Vaughn until we're finished."

The gray-haired agent grinned. "Thought you'd never ask."

- Meanwhile -

He had the phone in his hand almost as soon as it had rung. "Talk to me."

A familiar voice on the other end of the phone hastily complied. "It's tonight; you'd better hurry, the FBI is on to us."

The tall, brown-haired man leaned back in his chair, the receiver gripped tightly in his hand. "I thought Garrett was supposed to keep them at bay."

"Garrett's dead. The NYPD was more aggressive than we had counted on; he was captured, and compromised. We were forced to eliminate him."

"Christ. Wade, this has gotten way out of hand. What are we going to do, go to war with the rest of the Federation?"

"General, please calm down. All that remains is to destroy the prototype - and Chimera with it."

Vaughn sighed. "50 billion credits of R&D, down the drain - just like that. All because you couldn't wait for Congress to approve the military budget increase."

"They never did approve it, and they never would have. The damd thing was dead before it hit the floor. They couldn't have known about Nede, and releasing that sort of information would cause a panic."

The general cast a loose gaze around the contents of his office. "Three purple hearts... two silver stars... even a medal of honor - all that means nothing now. It'll all mean nothing once this is over."

The voice on the other end had enough. "Stop this! Your self-pity is sickening; what kind of soldier are you? You agreed to this because it was the right thing to do, and you know it. Now pull yourself together and get to LaGuardia ASAP."

"You're right... my apologies, Senator. I'll be on my way shortly."

"Good. I've informed the others; NYPD is patrolling the area, so be extra cautious."


The line clicked and went dead. The general set the phone down and sighed. (It's over, isn't it... we're all going to pay. This is treason... any way you spin it...) He buried his head in his hands and gave a weary sigh as he brushed his hair back.

- Two minutes later -

"Earth Federation, alpha complex. Megan speaking. How may I help you?"

"This is agent Miles Foster, FBI. I'm calling in regards to..."

The voice was interrupted as she smiled and waved at the passing officer. "Have a good flight, General."

The tall officer smiled and nodded. "Take care, Megan."

The voice persisted. "Wait, who was that? Hello? Who was that?!"

Slightly irritated at the agent's impatience, the clerk picked the phone back up and gave a very audible sigh. "That was Major General Edward Vaughn," she said matter-of-factly. "Who are you again, and what did you want?"

The voice became irritated as well. "Damn it, call security! Stop him before he leaves the building! This is special agent Miles Foster, FBI, the New York office."

She bit her lip for a moment, unsure of how to respond. The voice continued. "Trace the call if you're not sure, whatever you have to do, just don't let him leave that building!"

Following the suggestion, Megan began punching out commands on the keyboard before her. Her eyes reflected the on-screen text as it appeared, and widened as it confirmed the voice's statement.

The voice continued. "Well?"

Megan stammered a bit as she replied. "H-hold please." She pressed a button on the receiver and dialed out another number.


"This is Megan in alpha complex. Don't let General Vaughn leave the building. I repeat, do not let General Vaughn leave the building."

- FBI HQ -

The sound of a receiver slamming down startled him; the cursing of his fellow agent drove the point home that something had gone wrong.

"What's wrong?" asked Royce.

Foster shook his head. "No go. Vaughn was leaving right when I called; security didn't get him."

"Damn. Did they say where he was going?"

"Nah, only that he was getting on a flight to New York. Means he's either landing at JFK or LaGuardia."

Royce nodded. "Send out the call to both airports; make sure he doesn't get off a plane without a welcoming party."

The agent nodded. "Got it." He paused, and looked up at Royce. "Hey, you know what?" He smiled. "You look like hell. Why don't you go get some rest, we'll call you if something comes up."

With a tired grin, Royce shook his head. "Nah, I'll just go get some coffee, thanks. You want something?" he asked as he stood up.

"No thanks, not big into coffee."

"Heathen," Royce said jokingly as he left. Foster chuckled and picked the phone back up.

Best Laid Plans

"Argh, come on. Come loose, damn it!"

Jonas grunted as he struck the plastic window of the vending machine. The material in question being virtually unbreakable, he succeeded only in shaking the machine a bit. He watched in dismay as the hanging candy bar shook, but failed to dislodge from its position.

(You mock me, and I will not be mocked,) he thought to himself as he grabbed the sides of the vending machine and started to rock it. "Come on, fall down! I spent 50 credits on you; you're coming down whether you want to or not!"

A barely audible giggle from behind him distracted him; he turned around to see Chisato standing there, her hand over her mouth in an attempt to suppress laughter.

"And how long have you been standing there?" he asked.

"Oh, long enough," she replied with a subtle smile. "Having trouble?"

Jonesy shook his head. "This vending machine will be the death of me; I swear it."

Chisato smiled and stepped closer. "Never mind that." She glanced around with a hint of... was it apprehension? "Can... can I talk to you for a minute?" she asked.

Agent Devereaux heard her voice waver for a bit; suspicion began to nag at the corners of his mind. "Sure, I guess. C'mon."

(Wonder what's on her mind...) he wondered as he led her down the hall to a darkened computer room. He knocked on it to make sure that it was empty; when no reply came, he opened the door and stepped inside, turning the lights on at the same time. Chisato followed, closing the door behind her.

Jonesy sat down at one of the workstations and looked up at her. "Have a seat," he offered. She complied, taking a seat at the workstation next to his. "So, what's on your mind?" he asked.

"Well, I kind of need your opinion on something, but first I wanted to ask you a question." She bit her lip and thought for a moment, deciding how best to continue the conversation. "How did Royce survive that gunshot? I was there, it was pointed right at his heart."

The brown-haired agent chuckled. "A little secret about bureau attire. These suits aren't just for looks, you know." He removed his pistol from inside his jacket and spun it around, offering it to Chisato. "Kevlar 9e body armor, interwoven with the suit itself. It can stop a 12-gauge round at point-blank range. Go ahead, shoot me in the stomach."

Chisato waved her hands slightly. "N-no... that's okay, I'll take your word on it." She glanced around the room nervously again. "Can I ask you something else?"

Jonesy smiled. "Yeah, no problem."

"First... well, I want to know about Royce... like what you think of him, for starters."

Jonas donned his ever popular 'I KNEW it!!' grin. (Royce owes me big for this... heh heh, and Tyler's buying next time.) "Well, I can tell you this; he's one of the best we've got. Smart, a quick thinker, tough, and reliable; a real poster boy for the ideal agent. Don't let that fool you, though, he's actually kind of sensitive. Overall, just your old-school nice guy wrapped around all the qualities of a good agent. Oh, and he's kinda shy around women." He took a careful appraisal of her face. "I get the feeling that's not what you were asking for."

She shook her head. "No, no, no, I mean more like...well, like how does he... feel?" Her voice started to waver a bit, and she clearly had difficulty getting the last few words out. "A... about me?" she said, almost inaudibly, and winced as she heard the words out loud.

Jonesy's grin relaxed into an uncharacteristically gentle smile. "I think it's safe to say he has more than a professional interest in you, if you catch my drift. Still, something's bothering him, and I can't quite figure it out."

Chisato nodded. "I noticed it too; I think it might be the same problem I have."

The short, stocky agent blinked and leaned forward in his chair. "What do you mean?"

"Well, when I think about what we've been through together over a rather short period of time... I'm not surprised at how I feel. It's like... I like him, you know? A lot... but I don't know if it's just because circumstance forced us together like this."

Jonesy nodded in understanding. "I get it. You're wondering if whatever you feel might be based on the fact that you two have had to save each other's hide more than a few times, rather than on actually liking who the other is as a person, or something like that. Am I getting warm?"

Chisato smiled slightly. "Very. In fact, I guess that's it."

"Hmm. Well, don't know what to tell you. If you ask me, I'd say you should sort it out with him. Sort out your feelings, and then come clean with him. Never know when you might get the chance to again." Jonesy's eyes met with the reporters, and he took on a more serious attitude. "I can tell you this; the guy thinks the world of you, Chiz... he hasn't said much to me on the subject, but I've known him long enough to know how he ticks. How he feels... it's got nothing to do with what you two have been through. In my opinion, that's just something that brought you two together. I doubt very highly it's what kept you together." ('Kept them together'... that's a good one, I'll have to remember it. Score one for agent Devereaux.) "Who knows, maybe you just need to get to know each other more."

Chisato smiled and nodded. "Thanks, Jonas."

"Just Jonesy, or Jones will do," he said with a grin. "Go on, go find him. No better time than now."

She nodded again, stood up and quickly left the room. Jonesy chuckled and stood up, shutting the lights off before he followed suit.

- Meanwhile, Zhang's office -

"We just missed him. The secretary said he left right after we called."

Zhang nodded. "All right. At least we know where he's headed. Call Mattingly, tell her to be careful around terminal 14; we don't want to tip our hand just yet. And get Devereaux and Quint in here; I'll have them work with security at JFK, we'll pick up Vaughn when he arrives. He won't come in through LaGuardia, that's too obvious." He shifted his gaze to the fish tank lining the wall. "Also, I took the liberty of having Mr. Kyler moved to protected custody; he spoke with Devereaux earlier, said he was willing to testify against Wade, along with the rest of the conspirators."

"Soon as we catch them, that is," remarked Royce.

"Exactly. Nothing left to do but wait."

Royce nodded. "Got that, sir. Anything I can do in the meantime?"

A smile graced Zhang's tired, weathered features. "Yeah. Go home and get some rest. You look like hell."

Royce half laughed, half coughed. "Yeah, I get that a lot."

The director nodded. "We'll call you as soon as we pick up the General."

"Thanks. See you later."

- 10 minutes later, locker room (men) -

"I tell ya, you should've seen the look on the guy's face, heh heh heh..."

Royce smiled as he pulled his t-shirt over his muscular frame, wincing slightly as the cloth pressed against the numerous bruises lining his chest and abdomen. (Ow, still sore... at this rate, I'll be lucky to live to retirement.) "So what'd you do next?"

He could almost hear the grin in the agent's voice. "He was just standing there, shaking and all, so I told him to face the wall and put his hands on it. The guy just starts crying like a little girl, it was pathetic."

Royce chuckled and reached into his locker, removing a brown leather jacket, which he quickly donned. "Yeah, right. If anything, it was you that was crying, like that time we had to help with that DEA raid on the pet store? And one of our guys accidentally broke that snake cage? Jesus, I've never seen a guy so petrified of snakes in my life."

The tall, heavyset agent turned around and glanced down at Royce. "Yeah, that's real cute, Royce."

Royce grinned back and extended his hand. "Anytime, anywhere." The agent shook his hand and turned back to putting his suit on.

"So where you off to?" asked the agent.

"Home, for the moment. Least 'till we pick up this Vaughn guy."

"I hear that. What do you know about him?"

Royce shrugged. "Well, he skippered the Morningstar when it was used for Project Artemis, kind of a big war hero... that sort of thing. Not much outside the headlines."

"I know what you mean. Well, take it easy Royce," said the agent as he nodded and waved.

"Aright, have a good one Phil."

The gray-haired agent sighed and began digging through his coat pockets, looking for his car keys. He was so caught up in this usually routine activity that he failed to notice a familiar face standing just outside the locker room, until he was practically right on top of said face.

He sensed someone before him just in time to stop, about an inch from the person's face. "Whoa! Sorry, wasn't looking where I... oh, 'Sato, hey!" He smiled. "How's it going?"

Chisato grinned and stepped back a little. "Fine, thanks. What's going on?"

"A whole lot of nothing. We got teams waiting to pick up General Vaughn - the ex-captain of the Morningstar - and waiting for Wade to show up at LaGuardia. Not much to do until we catch 'em."

She nodded. "So what are you doing?"

"Me?" asked Royce with a grin. "I'm going home, it feels like I haven't slept in days. Why, you wanna do something?"

She quickly shook her head. "No, that's okay... well, would you mind if I... if I talked with you for a minute?"

"Yeah, no problem. C'mon, let's go."

The journalist quickly fell into step behind Royce as he strode down the hall. He stopped at a nearby wall phone. "One second," he said as he picked up the receiver.

"Main office, please." A brief pause. "Leah, it's Royce. Can you get me Zhang real quick? Thanks." Another pause. "It's Fitzgerald. Yeah, did you get my request yet? You did... mm-hmm... uh-huh... all right. That sounds fine, thank you sir. Yeah, I'm taking her with me now. I know the routine; don't worry. See you when I get back." He hung up the receiver and turned to Chisato. "Let's go."

"What was all that?" she asked as she followed him.

"I put in a request to be assigned as your guard, in place of Willard. Figured it'd be easier to keep an eye on you this way," he said with a smile.

She smiled back. "Thanks."

Therapy on Wheels

"That was Tyger Tyger's hit single "Illuminati." If you're joining us now, it's your old pal Rutger manhandling the airwaves tonight, with four solid hours of the best and loudest of old-school rock. Coming up we got another artist from out west, the San Fran bay area to be exact. Stick around!"

Royce idly drummed his fingers on the wheel as he approached the exit. Passing the night watchman, he nodded and waved to him as he pulled into the right lane and out of the motor pool.

Chisato gazed around the interior of the car. Though slightly smaller than most of the bureau vehicles, the hunter green, four-person sedan had a charm all its own. She smiled as she heard the engine rev in response to Royce's commands; clearly, this was a well-maintained piece of machinery. The faded leather seats showed distinct signs of age and abuse, while one of the rear speakers seemed to be nonfunctional. The chrome material surrounding the frame, on the other hand, was obviously well cared for, and shiny enough for Chisato to see her reflection in it.

Royce looked completely at home in the car. She grinned, realizing that this was the first time she had seen him in anything but his suit. He was currently clad in a pair of dark blue jeans and a brown leather jacket, which was unzipped. Beneath the jacket was a simple red t-shirt, adorned with the phrase "Mean People Suck."

"So, where's your place?" asked Chisato.

"About 5 minutes from here."

"Ah." She found herself watching the world as it sped by her window, becoming a dizzying array of lights, buildings, and vehicles.

"So what was it you wanted to talk to me about?" His question caught her off-guard; for a moment, she forgot why she was here in the first place. She smiled and blushed slightly.

"Well, I wanted to ask you something."

Royce nodded as he changed lanes. "I'm listening."

She cleared her throat and brushed back a few bangs of red hair before asking. "What are you going to do after this is all over?"

Royce chuckled. "What do you mean? This is my job, remember? Zhang's probably got something lined up for me right after this. No rest for the wicked, huh?"

Chisato frowned slightly. (Damn, forgot about that... it's gotta be those clothes, he looks different in them.) Before she could reply, he continued.

"Nah, I'm just messing with you. I'm quitting if I don't get a nice, long vacation after this," he said with a big grin.

Chisato nodded and smiled. Her hopes raised a little, but she didn't feel ready to ask him how he felt just yet.

"What about you? What are you gonna do?"

She thought for a moment before replying. "I honestly don't know. Probably return to Expel, if it's possible."

Royce nodded and gave a small sigh as he slowed down before a red light. (Guess that's the way it works, huh... come on Royce, just say it!) Little did either know, but they were focused mainly on the same line of thought. "I'm pretty sure it is."

She smiled sadly. "I know I haven't been here too long... and saying my experiences here haven't exactly been pleasant is kind of an understatement... but I think I'm going to miss this place."

He smiled and looked over at her. "Yeah, New York has a way of doing that to you. I've grown kind of attached to the city, but I'd still like to be anywhere but here right now."

Chisato leaned back in the leather seat, frustrated that she couldn't voice her feelings. She watched as a large apartment complex came into view, and Royce immediately turned into the underground parking lot beneath it.

- Meanwhile -

"NY-39, say again, over."

"I say again, nothing to report, dispatch," replied the officer with a sigh. "Over."

"Copy, NY-39."

He glanced over at his partner. "Anything?"

The woman shook her head and sighed. "All quiet in this section. Nothing's come in or out of the terminal since we got here."

He closed his eyes and raised a cup of coffee to his lips, inhaling the warm aroma as the liquid made its way into his mouth. (Oh, god that's good stuff... what the hell are we out here for, anyway? I promised Angel I was getting some time off...)

Being shaken at the shoulder was enough to bring the cop back to reality. "What, what's going on?" he asked, a hint of irritation in his voice.

"Look over there," said his partner as she handed him a pair of night-vision binoculars and pointed out the window of the car.

He squinted as he peered through the binoculars, focusing in on the object of her attention: a black, armored limousine with heavily tinted windows. The lights were off; the occupants were obviously trying to avoid attention. To compensate, the car was traveling at a leisurely pace. The license plate on the front read 'FRS-1735-GX.'

"You see what I see?" asked the partner as she began typing some keys on the squad car's personal computer.

The cop nodded. "This has 'bad' written all over it."

The partner looked at the display as the information she requested became visible. "And with government plates. That limo is from the Federation Secret Service... and the plates indicate that it's registered to the agents on Senator Wade's security detail."

Without a second thought, the cop set the binoculars aside and picked the microphone back up. He flipped the switch on. "Dispatch, this is NY-39, we have visual confirmation of an armored limousine entering the district surrounding terminal 14 of LaGuardia, traveling north on Vernon parkway. Occupants unknown, but the car is registered to the SS agents on Wade's detail. Over."

"Copy that, NY-39. Backup is en route, over."

- Royce's apartment -

"Royce, are you in here?" she asked as she stepped into the rec room. Failing to spot him, Chisato turned and sat down on a nearby couch. She picked the remote up from the table next to her and turned on the television.

Royce's apartment displayed a definite comfort with bachelorhood; the guest room had been renovated to function as a small game room, complete with a pool table, a small card table, a dartboard, and a wall-mounted TV. The room she was in served as a general recreation room, with a big-screen TV, a powerful, complicated-looking stereo system, and a few game systems which plugged into the back of the TV. Chisato grinned as she eyed the electronic equipment up. (Boys and their toys,) she thought to herself. (Maybe if he didn't spend so much on electronics, he could afford a bigger place... I mean, this is nice and all, but... well, he's an FBI agent. Shouldn't he have some big house uptown or something?)

Behind her was a waist-high divider, which separated the rec room and the kitchen. The kitchen showed signs of recent use; the agent apparently had more than just a passing interest in cooking, since several expensive-looking cooking utensils were scattered about the kitchen.

(Heh, agent by day, chef by night. I guess living alone would force a guy to learn how to cook.) She sighed as she began changing channels, stopping when she reached the news.

"The Saints led the Scorpions in a 28-24 victory, securing their place in the playoffs. Coach Gennaro said he was 'outraged' at the offsides call in the closing seconds of the game, citing it as the reason for their loss."

Chisato leaned back in the couch and sighed. For a second, she thought she heard Royce over the female reporter's voice.

"In other news, an All-Points Bulletin has been issued for Senator Aleister Wade, who is wanted for questioning concerning the Garrett shooting earlier this morning. Garrett, a former gang leader and the man responsible for the riot yesterday afternoon, was captured after a brief but brutal shoot-out with police and federal agents, which left fifteen dead and twenty-two seriously injured. Citizens with any information regarding Senator Wade's present location are advised to call this number..."

Chisato blinked; this time, she swore she heard Royce's voice. She stood up and began following it to its source, eventually making her way to Royce's bedroom. She put her ear against the door and began listening.

"Yeah, I know dad, I know. I'm sorry; it's just been a hell of a day. No... no, I'm sorry, I can't talk about it over the phone. Classified, y'know?" A brief pause. "No, it's okay. You're just going to have to wait until the press gets the condensed version; frankly, I'm not sure I completely understand it myself." Another pause. "Thanks... sorry about all this. So anyway, what'd you do today?"

Chisato smiled, remembering his conversation with his parents the previous day. "You started watching it, too?" asked Royce. "Yeah, I told you it was pretty confusing. Well, what exactly are you having trouble with? Uh-huh... okay, let's see if I can help out..."

After an animated discussion regarding what sounded like some sort of TV show, Chisato couldn't help but grin as she heard him laugh. "I know, you don't think about how ridiculous that all sounds until you say it aloud. You want me to send you my flowchart?"

Chisato was so caught up in the conversation that she didn't realize how hard she was leaning against the door. Not until it began to swing open, at least. She eased off before it could swing completely open, and she put her eye up to the now slightly ajar door, attempting to locate Royce. She spotted him, reclining in a leather chair by a desk. The desk was loaded with all sorts of papers and books; his room apparently doubled as an office of some sort.

"Yeah, look, I gotta go. I got somebody over. Hmm? Nah, you don't know her... oh, don't even start with me on that." He blushed a little and gave a clearly audible groan. "Daaaad... c'mon, it's not like that. Well... not entirely. She... it's kind of a long story, I... well, I met her while on assignment. No, she wasn't my partner... not by choice anyway." Royce sighed. "I don't know... I feel kinda bad about it. Most I can tell you now about it is... well, ever since she met me, her life has been pretty much destroyed. She's been shot at, beaten, kidnapped, psychologically destroyed... hell, and what's my excuse? I brought her here on protected custody. So far, I've done a remarkably poor job of it. I don't know... sometimes I feel like she'd be better off if she'd never met me."

Chisato sighed. Her heart sank again, as it did back at the station. (Royce, no... it's not your fault, I...) She could hear the sadness in his voice as he continued.

"Okay, I'll level with you. Yes, I do have more than a passing interest in her. Yes, I am attracted to her. I can't stand it, though; I've inadvertently made her life a living hell, and I don't know if what I'm feeling is just 'cause circumstance forced us together for the past few weeks. I..." His voice raised a notch higher. "I don't want it to be like that! All I want to do is to know for sure if what I feel is... is what I think it is... and look her in the eyes a-and just tell her."

Chisato blinked as she felt herself moving forward. It took her a second to realize that she was leaning hard against the door again, and this time she couldn't stop herself from falling. The door swung open as she fell forward and unceremoniously landed on her face, immediately killing her dignity for the nth time in recent memory.


She felt her face flush with embarrassment as she heard Royce yelp in surprise. She looked up to see that the agent was also red-faced and wide-eyed. He held the receiver of the phone so tightly that his knuckles were turning white.

Chisato heard Royce's father through the receiver. "Royce? Royce, what's going on?"

Royce hesitantly picked the phone up and spoke into it, his voice suddenly very quiet. "I'll call you back." With that, he hung the phone up and focused his attention on the redheaded journalist, who still lay sprawled out on the floor.

Chisato rolled onto her back and sat up. She turned around and stared, red-faced, at the agent. "Um... hi, Royce."

"Hey... uh, here, c'mon," he said as he offered her his hand. She smiled and reached out to accept his hand, and was momentarily caught off guard as she was pulled to her feet. She steadied herself and turned back to face Royce, suddenly finding that she was less than three inches from his face.

"Thanks," she said, turning slightly redder.

Royce smiled and scratched the back of his head, trying to take the edge off the situation. "Uh, yeah, n-no problem... uh... were you lis... um, listening?"

Chisato stepped back, now somewhat ashamed. Her heart skipped another beat as she realized she had but two options: tell the truth and humiliate her newfound friend, or tell a lie that he wouldn't believe if it had come from the most honest person alive. She tried hard to avoid his gaze, but his light brown eyes, magnified by his glasses, caught and held her attention. She briefly considered making something up, a notion which was dispelled a second after its conception. (No... he'd never buy it, and I can't lie to him. I owe it to him to be honest... he'll hate me for it, I know he will.) "Y... yes... I heard... I heard everything."

Her thoughts went a mile a minute as she carefully gauged Royce's reaction. He took a step back, his eyes widened, and his heart beat loud enough to be heard from another room. (I knew it,) she thought with a sigh. (I can't believe it... damn, why am I such a klutz? He saved my life, he's been so nice to me, and I repay him by spying on him during a private conversation... I couldn't help it, I had to know... had to see inside of him, past the suit, past what we've been through and see if what's there is worth... is worth, well, anything. And now he hates me for it...) A single tear ran down her cheek as she fought to avoid his gaze.

To her surprise, his features softened. His eyes took on that gentle, kind-hearted look that she had come to like him for. He smiled, his face almost as red as hers, and reached up to her face. He stroked her cheek gently, wiping away the tear. "'Sato, I... don't cry, aright? It was an accident... Yeah, I'm a little mad that you were listening in... but in a way, I'm... I'm kinda happy, too." He closed his eyes and turned away from her, as if looking into his own soul to find the words to verbalize his feelings. He gave a weak chuckle. "At the very least, it saves me a little trouble."

Chisato couldn't even smile, her emotions - mostly shock, with a hint of happiness - having taken complete control of her body. All she could do was listen as he continued.

"Jonesy told me once that there's never a better time to say something than the here and now, so I might as well say it." He turned back around and met her eyes with his own. "Chisato, I... I don't know why I feel what I feel... but I..."

Chisato finally found the will to speak. She stepped forward and touched a finger to his lips, silencing him. "It's okay... I think I know what you mean. I'll admit, the circumstances haven't exactly been ideal... but I don't think that's why we stuck together." She smiled, remembering her earlier conversation with Agent Devereaux. "You didn't have to take me with you when you came back to Earth... or when you went to investigate the riot, or even to break into Wade's apartment. Likewise, nobody forced me to come with you in any of those circumstances; and nobody made you come after me when Zand attacked, or made you request an assignment as my new guard."

Royce got the picture. "A good reason for all that is because it's my job... and that is a reason, but it's not the only one. A better reason is that I wanted to do those things. I... I guess what I'm trying to say is that..."

"Royce?" She looked up at him, her eyes starting to tear up again. She didn't know what to expect, or to hope for. Her mind was entirely focused on what he was going to say, leaving little room for speculation. (Say it Royce... please, say something, anything...)

"'Sato, I... I think I l..."


(SON OF A BITCH!) screamed Royce in his mind. He strode over to the phone and yanked the receiver from the base. "This better be important!"

Chisato was close enough to hear the voice through the receiver. It sounded like Zhang.

"Royce, get down to JFK on the double; Vaughn arrived with a part of Wade's security detail, and shots have been fired."

Against Our Own

- 5 minutes earlier, John F. Kennedy airport, C-wing -

"All right, listen up people," began the security chief. "General Vaughn's transport is coming in at gate 19. The passenger manifest we got from Dulles indicates that four of Senator Wade's SS agents are on board. They went on armed and wearing suits, so load up AP rounds in case things get ugly."

Jonesy looked over the assembled dozen or so security guards. Though varying in size, shape, ethnicity and gender, they all shared a single look of mild confusion, mixed with a hint of fear. (I think I can relate,) he thought to himself. (It's not every day you wake up, go to your job, and get a call to bring in a decorated war hero... and get through four Secret Service agents to boot. I don't think these guys are going down without a fight.)

A glance at the chief, on the other hand, told a different story. A pair of shades covered her eyes, and her lips were pursed in a straight line. Neatly-ironed pants and shirt, pistol slung high around her hip, hair completely covered by a black baseball cap, the chief was clearly used to giving orders and having people follow them.

"Agents Devereaux and Quint are in charge. You all report to me, but if they talk, you listen. Understood?"

"Yes, sir!" shouted the guards in unison.

"Good! Let's get to work. You three, start clearing out the surrounding terminals..."

Tyler managed a weak smile as the chief continued barking out orders. Three of the guards proceeded to nearby terminals, ushering people as far from gate 19 as possible, while the rest spread out and took defensive positions. (Hope for the best, plan for the worst,) thought the agent as the guards readied their weapons and took aim at the terminal.

"Bruebeck, get the techs at the control room on the phone, tell them to seal the door as soon as everyone's clear of it."

"Yes, sir!" replied one of the guards, who promptly sped off to find the nearest phone.

Jonesy turned as a guard approached him, a radio in hand. "Agent Devereaux, they've landed. They're docking now, sir."

The agent nodded. "All right, listen up! They'll be getting off any minute now; take your places, stay out of view until they're out in the open, and no shots unless they fire first. Soon as they're out, get the civvies out of the way. I want this to go down clean, people!"

The guards took appropriate cover, hiding behind pillars, seats, and counters. Tyler sat down on one of the chairs and unfolded a newspaper, concealing his face. Jonesy and the chief stood to the left and right of the gate door, hugging the wall. All ears were listening for the door, and nine hearts skipped a simultaneous beat as it hissed and slid open.

One by one, the passengers exited the gate and left the terminal, some obviously confused as to the lack of other travelers at the gate. One or two gave an odd look to the man in the suit, right next to the door. Others noticed the security chief standing guard, apparently trying not to attract any attention

At long last, an elderly man in a military uniform exited the gate, followed close behind by four other men, sporting sunglasses, black suits, and earphones.

As the last Secret Service agent exited the gate, the guards simultaneously sprang out of hiding and took aim at the agents. The gate slammed shut behind them as Tyler threw away his newspaper and leapt to his feet, pointing his gun square at the lead agent's head.

"FBI! Drop your weapons!"

Vaughn turned to see Jonesy and the chief standing behind his escort, guns at the ready.

"Drop your weapons and put your hands up, now!"

Everyone held perfectly still, not daring to move or breathe.

Instinct taking over, one of the agents went for his gun and dove to his left. The group immediately spread out, and all hell broke loose as guns began firing.

The agent nearest Jonesy thrust his elbow into the agent's face, knocking him backwards. Jonesy countered by rushing and tackling the man in black, throwing him onto his back. The two men scrambled for their guns, aiming and firing simultaneously. Jonesy dropped down to dodge the shot, but failed to react fast enough. The bullets passed each other in mid-air; Jonesy took a hit to the left shoulder and was spun around like a top, knocked off his balance, but was saved by the armored cloth, which prevented the bullet from penetrating and doing any real damage. The SS agent wasn't so lucky, as he was prone and couldn't move out of the way. The bullet struck him in the chin, sliced through bone and tissue, and exited out the back of the neck by the base of the skull, killing the unfortunate agent before he could even open his mouth to scream.

"General Vaughn! This way!" screamed an SS agent as he tried to drag the general away from the firefight. As he turned to run, he found himself face to face with the security chief.

He quickly shoved the general out of the line of fire and drew his gun, squeezing off a pair of rounds before the chief could get off a few of her own. Both combatants rolled away, desperately looking for cover. Finding none, they squared off again and turned to fire. The chief fired first, and faster, striking the agent several times in the chest before one round finally punched through the armored cloth, impaling his heart and sealing his fate.

Vaughn turned to run, aided by the two remaining SS agents. The lead agent put himself between Vaughn and the ambush, while the second agent dove behind a column and began returning fire.

Tyler spotted Vaughn and the agent trying to escape. He glanced over at a pair of guards and readied his gun. "Cover me! I'm goin' after Vaughn!"

The guards nodded and leapt from cover, drawing a bead on the agent and firing as Tyler started to chase after the general. The agent leaned around the column and returned fire, hitting one of the guards in the abdomen. Exposed to incoming fire, he had a fraction of a second to dodge as the guards returned fire; having failed to take cover, the agent was pushed back several paces as the bullets slammed into his chest. Each shot felt as though he were punched hard in the chest, and despite the bulletproof suit jacket he felt two of his ribs break.

The agent got off one more round before a pair of shots from the guards ripped through the face and neck, killing him before his body hit the floor. His body collapsed and twitched for a few seconds, then lay very still.

Meanwhile, Tyler dashed through the terminals, his gun at the ready; frightened passengers and airport staff scattered as he pursued the agent and the general. Rounding a corner, he finally came upon the SS agent, who had turned to fight. Tyler saw the general running off in the distance, but he had more immediate problems.

Quint raised his pistol and trained it on the agent's head. "Stand down, agent. I don't want this to happen."

"It's happening already, 'agent'," replied the man in black, a hint of scorn in his voice. "And there's nothing you can do to stop it."

With that, the agent went into a diving roll to his left, coming up with his gun drawn. Tyler reacquired his target, dropped to one knee, and fired thrice.

The SS agent never got a shot off; Tyler dropped him before he could even set finger on the trigger.

Without a second thought, Tyler charged past the slain agent, his shoes clacking mercilessly on the marble floor of the airport. Within seconds, he found himself at yet another one of C-wing's terminals. The report of repeated gunfire from said terminal caused him to a sliding halt, pistol at the ready. He watched as general Vaughn stumbled away from the terminal, firing blindly at an unseen target. Nonplussed, Tyler raised his weapon and cleared his throat.

"Drop the weapon, General!" shouted Tyler.

Vaughn nearly leapt out of his shoes as he turned to face agent Quint. "Y-you! How did... you... damn you!"

"I said, drop the weapon!"

Vaughn, no longer capable of rational thought, raised his handgun and fired at Tyler. The agent barely needed to dodge; he leapt to his right and squeezed off a single round, which nailed the general in his right shoulder, knocking him backwards. He cried out in pain and tripped over his own feet, landing hard on his back.

Without warning, a pair of security guards emerged from the terminal and trained their weapons on him. Tyler charged forward to join the two men as one of the guards kicked away Vaughn's weapon.

"General Vaughn, FBI. You're under arrest."

Filling in the Blanks

- Two hours later, 01:10 hours, FBI HQ -

"All right, let's hear it all."

Tyler could feel Zhang's penetrating stare as he began. "We surrounded the terminal and confronted the general. His escort went for their guns, and all hell broke loose. One of them broke away from the terminal, covering Vaughn. I gave chase and was forced to kill the agent; Vaughn had been delayed by security guards, so I caught up to him."

"Right," said Zhang as he began pacing the perimeter of the meeting room, focusing his stare on each of the assembled men and women, one at a time. "Okay, let's review. Sometime around seven years ago, following the defeat of that military budget bill, Wade and his cohorts construct and deploy an experimental antimatter cannon, capable of penetrating shields. Somehow, they knew about Nede and its defenses, and Project Artemis was a test of this weapon." He glanced at the man across the table from him. "Mr. Kyler, would you please give us the details of this weapon?"

Dillon stood up, giving a brief nod to the director. "The cannon fires a powerful antimatter blast, sheathed in a narrow electromagnetic pulse. The resulting blast cuts through most shields without the slightest drain in power, focusing entirely on the target within. Because of the intense energy build-up required, the weapon itself had to be deployed, separate from the ship, and it could not be controlled remotely. This is where the Chimera AI comes in." He nodded to the brown-haired technician who sat next to him.

Kyler sat down as Murphy stood up. "Chimera, as you all know, was a codename for an experimental AI prototype, designed to control autonomous weapons systems. A Chimera was created onboard the Morningstar specifically for the purpose of controlling this weapon."

Zhang picked the conversation back up. "All right, so they have a weapon and a guidance system. Where does Expel come in?"

Royce turned to face Zhang. "More than likely, Wade feared that by going out to Expel, we would stumble across some clues pertaining to Nede; namely, Mr. Kenni, Ms. Madison, and the others, who had stopped the terrorists known as the Ten Wise Men. I wager he wanted to keep the whole thing quiet."

"Makes sense," said one of the department heads. "If there were any survivors, their knowledge of the attack could prompt further exploration of the Arctura system, thus taking the situation out of Wade's control."

Zhang nodded. "Okay. So he's a control freak, and he withheld knowledge that was directly responsible for the casualties on-board the Calnus. We can slap him on the wrist with this, but the worst of it came from general Vaughn himself. Coupled with the mail that agent Fitzgerald recovered," he indicated Royce with a nod, "we now know he deliberately blackmailed agents and officers in the Federation, including our own Willard Holden and ex-lieutenant Nina Cofax."

Foster cleared his throat. "With what he told us, it seems that a good deal of money was intentionally misappropriated by Vaughn through a series of 'false' bills; deals within Congress that required much less money than they were supplied with, like when they revamped the land-lease act about ten years ago."

"There you have it," said Zhang. "Embezzlement, extortion, withholding information, deliberate violation of the Undeveloped Planet Protection treaty, unauthorized production and testing of weapons..."

"Kidnapping, torture," added Royce, a hint of acid in his voice.

Zhang closed his eyes and planted his hands on the table. "This is treason, ladies and gentlemen. The deal between Senator Wade, General Vaughn, and the members of Project Artemis, is nothing less than an honest-to-god conspiracy. A cabal of politicians, scientists, and officers has deliberately formed their own foreign policy, built weapons, violated numerous Federation laws, and declared war on a race that may not even pose a threat to the Federation anymore." The room fell silent as he let out a heavy sigh. "This will not go unpunished."

The doors swung open, and through them stepped a tall, brown-haired secretary, a look of extreme concern on her face. "Excuse me, Mr. Zhang?"

Zhang nodded to the secretary. "Yes? What is it, Leah?"

"Agent Mattingly just called from LaGuardia; Senator Wade arrived at terminal 14 ten minutes ago, with an escort."

Zhang took a deep breath. "All right, then." He turned back to the table. "This is it, ladies and gentlemen. I want all agents on full alert, and those not assigned to any task assembled at the motor pool within five minutes. Department heads, start coordinating your agents with the New York SWAT teams, and get our counter-terrorism units squared away. Leah, get me General Brassik at the Federation headquarters, I want his best military advisor here as soon as possible."

The entire room became alive at once as the assembled guests broke off and began hurriedly tending to their respective duties. Zhang turned to face Royce, who was on his feet, his eyes hidden by a new pair of sunglasses.

"Royce..." started Zhang as he removed his pistol from inside his jacket. The director unlocked the magazine, checked it, slid it back in, and pulled the bolt back.

"Let's show them how real Feds kick ass."

Royce managed a narrow grin. "Yes, sir!"

- 01:15 hours, terminal 14, LaGuardia -

The armored limousine rolled up, reflected in the sunglasses of the Secret Service agent as she waved it on. She followed at a distance as the vehicle rolled to a stop, several dozen feet before a large, dilapidated looking spaceship. She cast an unimpressed gaze over the beast's hull, taking in the details slowly as a pair of soldiers stepped past her.

Clamped securely to the hangar floor by the large docking latches along the port and starboard sides, the word Morningstar was still easily visible along the bow. From beneath, the ship looked like an oversized missile, widening at the middle to allow for maximum storage space, with three protruding wings at the rear, each bearing an engine coil. Atop the ship was a small, rectangular extension of the main body, presumably the location of the bridge. Though the ship itself appeared to be intact, it had clearly not been used in a very long time. An odd humming permeated the air as yellow maintenance bots hovered to and fro, tending to the ship as they saw fit.

The doors of the limousine opened up, and a pair of men in black exited. The driver stepped to the rear and opened the door, allowing a lean, aging man to exit. The female SS agent stepped towards the limo, her eyes carefully appraising the senator, from his polished black shoes, to his dark brown suit and tie, to his head of receding gray hair. Though he stood several inches shorter than most of the agents in his employ, the features of his face were pressed into a serious no-nonsense expression. His dark blue eyes bore a look of focused malevolence. A third agent exited the vehicle and came around Wade's side; though the only difference between he and the other agents was a different color of suit, his being navy blue while the other agents' were straight black, something about his bearing suggested that he was a tougher, cooler customer than the other subordinates. The fact that his hair was gray despite his apparent age, no older than his mid-thirties, suggested to the agent that he was augmented.

Aleister Wade turned to face the agents as they assembled before him. "How are the preparations proceeding?"

"The ship is almost fully repaired," replied the female agent. "It should be ready to launch within a half hour."

"And the committee?"

"Everyone is here except for Kyler."

Wade blinked. "Who?"

The agent cleared her throat. "Dillon Kyler, one of the programmers from the Project."

"I wouldn't worry about him," said the gray-haired agent. "In a half hour, this will all be over."

The agent looked down at bit her lip. "We're also missing general Vaughn."

Wade took a step back, his eyes narrowed. "What?"

"They caught the General a few hours ago as he was getting off his flight." She sighed. "All of his escorts were killed."

"Damn... did the military back-up he promised arrive yet?"

"Yes, sir. At least six of them are in with us. There's a dozen more that will follow orders, but they aren't a part of this operation; if the Feds show up, things could get ugly."

"Good, that'll be more than enough," replied Wade. "Let's go; I need to have a chat with Chimera."

The gray-haired agent fell into step behind Wade, led by the female agent as they approached the ship.

Roll Out En Masse

"Copy that, sir," said Tyler. "What're we looking at?"

A male voice replied through the speakers, allowing the occupants to hear. "Wade's six remaining Secret Service agents are with him, including one Roger Weiss, an ex-SF soldier from the Navy."

"Special forces?" asked Jonesy. "Is he augmented?"

"Yeah. From the Artemis Committee, we also have Senators Ivanovitch and Greene, so you can expect at least two dozen SS agents. Jesus, this list is like a who's who of politicians for the last decade."

Royce called from the back of the sedan. "What else are we up against?"

"Let me see... here, Shinji Kayora. He's one of general Vaughn's subordinates, he arrived with a detachment of about eighteen marines."

Jonesy coughed. "You gotta be kidding me. Marines?!"

"That's what we got from NYPD. Agent Mattingly confirmed it."

"Damn," muttered Tyler. "All right, thanks for the heads-up. We're on our way there now."

"Got it," answered the dispatcher. "Good luck, and keep your head down."

"Thanks," said Tyler as he pushed a button on the phone, hanging up the line.

"That didn't exactly fill me with a lot of hope," remarked Chisato, who sat next to Royce in the back of the sedan.

"Me neither, Chiz," said Jonas as he glanced out the window, passing his gaze over the escort.

The sedan roared down the road, following three bureau ORVs and being followed by another sedan and two black, armored vans. Joining the vehicular parade were half a dozen police squad cars, three SWAT armored personnel carriers, and even a pair of military halftracks. Above the mass of metal hovered three Federation VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) craft, each carrying enough firepower to level a city block.

Royce bit his lip. "I got a real bad feeling about this, guys."

Tyler nodded. "You aren't the only one," he said as he leaned back into the leather seat, as though he'd claw his way into it if he could. "Those are Federation agents and marines we're going up against. No class I took at the academy ever explained how to handle our own when they switch sides."

"Certainly would explain all the firepower," said Jonesy. "We've got enough to blow up LaGuardia seven times over."

Chisato sighed and looked over at Royce, growing slightly uncomfortable with the uneasiness visible on his face. (Royce...)

A beeping noise from the front interrupted further thought as Tyler answered the call. "Quint."

Zhang's voice came through the phone. "We're spreading out to cover the exits. Follow Agent Mattingly; you three plus Mattingly and Foster are going to cover the main entrance in the terminal. Lieutenant Fallon will be dispatching some men to cover you, and we'll have a VTOL standing by in case things get ugly. The rest are going to take the other exits, box 'em in."

"Yes, sir," replied Tyler.

Royce sighed and glanced over at Chisato. "How did I let you talk me into bringing you along, anyway?"

Chisato managed a sly grin and blushed as Jonesy answered in her place. "She's got you under her thumb already, Royce."

Royce's face became flushed with embarrassment. "W-what?!"

The stocky agent grinned and turned to face Tyler. "Quite a pair, don't you think?"

Tyler just shook his head and chuckled as he turned to follow the vehicle before him, breaking away from the main convoy, followed by an APC. The sedan sped along the darkened roads of the airport district for a few minutes, the streetlights above causing shadows to dance across the dashboard as they passed vacant landing pads and sparsely occupied terminals. Eventually they came to a stop before the main ground entrance of one of terminal 14's hangars, which was flanked by a pair of NYPD squad cars. A pair of agents hopped out of the ORV before them, and SWAT troopers began piling out of the APC.

"All right, Chisato," began Royce. "You know the deal: you stay in the car, no matter what. Okay?"

Chisato smiled and nodded. "Don't worry, I will." She shifted around in her seat slightly and looked out at the hangar before them. "Just... just be careful, okay?" she added, somewhat timidly.

"Yeah... yeah, I'm workin' on that," he said with a sheepish grin.

"This is it, gentlemen," said Tyler. "Let's do this."

Jonesy grinned back at Royce again. "Like old times, Royce?"

Royce grinned back and nodded. "Like old times, Jones."

"Let's get this guy."

- Hangar Interior -

"Sir! We got company!"

Wade hurried over to the agent and looked him in the eye. "Who and how many?"

"Our worst nightmare," said the agent. "Lots of them."

Aleister looked through the monitors and inwardly cringed as he saw scores of police and federal agents surrounding the terminal, armed to the teeth.

"They also brought these along," continued the agent as he flipped a switch on one of the monitors. "Three KR-38 VTOLs." The image of the flying craft appeared on screen as he said the words, hovering above the entrance to the hanger like a vulture preparing to strike.

"Jesus H. Christ," muttered the senator. His eye caught sight of a familiar face on one of the monitors. "Zoom in on 13."

"Aw, hell," murmured the guard. "They're right outside the hangar doors. Chimera must've tipped them off."

(I'll be...) thought Wade as his eyes traced the features of the center man's face. (That son of a bitch...) "Fitzgerald," he whispered.

Without warning, a series of loud clicks were heard, and the overhead lights began clicking off, one by one. The camera monitors flickered briefly before dying.

"They cut the power," said the agent. "Give me a sec, I'll reroute the emergency generators." He began typing on a keyboard for a few seconds, and some of the lights came back on. Cries of alarm came from the hangar floor, and lights began shining through the windows.

"Senator Aleister Wade!" came a booming voice from outside. "This is the Federal Bureau of Investigation! We have the terminal completely surrounded! Surrender yourselves immediately!"

"Mr. Wade!"

The senator turned around to see a gray-haired agent running towards him.

"Roger," said Wade. "Tell me there's a way out of here."

"Yes sir," answered Roger. "We have an escort waiting near one of the gates, so far hasn't been found by the police. Follow me, sir."

"We get out of this alive, you're getting a raise," said Wade with a chuckle. He turned back to the other agent. "Start wiring up the Morningstar to blow; I want nothing left of that thing. Not a single goddamn piece, you read me?"

"Yes, sir!" answered the agent.

"Sir!" exclaimed Roger. "They're opening the hangar door, we really have to go, now!"

Wade turned and started after Roger along the catwalk, but threw a glance over his shoulder at the large hangar door as it slowly opened, and no less than a dozen shadowy figures became visible, all of them armed and armored.

"FBI! Drop your weapons, now!" came the shout.

The reply to this request came swiftly as gunfire erupted from all corners of the hangar.

- Hangar Floor -

Royce grunted as he rolled to his right, taking cover behind a stack of metal crates. He stood up and pressed his back against it, leaning around to get a better look at the scene.

Before him sat a massive spaceship, which, according to the lettering on the front, was the Morningstar. Snipers on the catwalks fired down at the FBI agents and SWAT officers scattered along the hangar floor, all taking cover behind various miscellaneous objects, though most of the incoming fire came from across the hangar, where a number of hostiles, including SS agents, took similar cover.

Royce aimed his left handgun at the nearest sniper and fired thrice. The range of the shot made accuracy difficult, and most of his shots ricocheted off the catwalk, but it was enough to faze the sniper. Royce used the opening to leap from hiding and charge towards the sniper from beneath, both handguns blazing. Round after round struck the metal catwalk until finally one shot slipped between the railing supports and hit the sniper just above the waist, pushing him back against the wall and knocking the rifle out of his hands.

Preoccupied with the sniper, Royce didn't see the SS agent aiming at him until a bullet slammed into Royce' back, knocking him off balance but failing to penetrate his protective jacket. The FBI agent rolled onto his back and looked up at his opponent, who was now quite clearly aiming for his head.

A series of gunshots were heard from his right, and the SS agent spun away to his right as bullets ripped through the side of his head.

"Royce! You okay?!" cried a female voice.

Royce quickly scrambled for cover and glanced over to see Terri, her pistol still trained on the fallen agent. He grimaced at the throbbing pain in his back, but fought it down and gave a thumbs-up to Terri, who smiled and nodded in return.

(That's two I owe you, Terri,) thought Royce as he moved back to his feet. He looked to his left and watched as a pair of SWAT troopers laid down surprising fire while Foster, along with another SWAT trooper, advanced from another direction. Royce felt the pain disappear as his back was saturated with morphine from his implant, and took this moment to return to the fray.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the hanger, Jonesy fired relentlessly at the man before him, whom he vaguely recognized from the briefing as one of the conspirators. He watched with grim fascination as his bullets tore through the man repeatedly, sending him to the floor in a gory dance of death.

The stocky agent quickly ducked behind cover and started to reload as a hail of bullets came in response from an unseen target. He felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to face Tyler, who was taking cover with him. The black-haired agent pointed to the catwalk along the port side of the Morningstar, where two snipers were raining suppressing fire on three SWAT officers.

"Let's go!" shouted Tyler.

Together, the two agents charged towards the snipers, pistols firing. As they closed the distance, their shots became more accurate, until at last they landed multiple shots to the left-hand sniper's chest, blasting him off his feet and slaying him almost instantly. Encouraged by the change in odds, the SWAT officers moved out of hiding and opened fire on the remaining sniper, riddling him with bullets until his mutilated corpse collapsed on the metal catwalk, his hand still desperately clutching his assault rifle.

Jonesy suddenly felt multiple bullets strike his upper back, just below his neck, which sent him stumbling forward to the ground. Tyler half-turned to his right to see a female agent holding a combat shotgun, and centered his pistol on her head. He glared at her and pulled the trigger without hesitation, shooting her between the eyes. The SS agent's body hadn't even hit the floor before he turned back to Jonesy, who lay prone on the floor.

"Jonas!" shouted Tyler. "You all right?"

"Yeah," grunted Jonesy. "A little sore, but I'm all right. You got him?"

"Yeah, I got her," replied Tyler. "C'mon, let's go."

At the same time, agent Foster cut wide around a deactivated maintenance robot, leading with his pistol. Immediately following him was a female SWAT trooper, a sub-machine gun at the ready. Both knelt down to get a better aim on the marines before them, who had their backs to them as they fired at a separate group of police.

Foster trained his gun on the right-hand man and fired twice; the 10mm rounds effortlessly penetrated the man's upper back and abdomen, while a quick burst from the trooper's gun riddled the remaining two soldiers with bullets, killing both of them.

Foster heard footsteps approaching and trained his gun on his pursuer, but relaxed as he recognized the newcomer.

"Foster!" shouted Royce. "You all right?"

Foster nodded. "We're okay, thanks. Looks like we got 'em this time."

Royce smiled. "Good. Set up a perimeter around this thing," he indicated the Morningstar with a nod. "Nobody touches it until Zhang gets here."

"I'm on it," said Foster.

"What about Wade?" asked Royce. "You seen him?"

The trooper nodded and spoke up. "I saw him not too long ago; he was retreating with three men in black. I tried to give chase, but then the shooting started and I had to take cover."

Royce blinked. "Did you see where he went?"

"Into the terminal," said the trooper breathlessly. She let out a long sigh as Foster and Royce exchanged looks.

"I'll go after him," said Royce. "Soon as you see Jonesy or Tyler, tell 'em to meet me there."

"Got it, Royce," said Foster with a smile. "Go get him."

Royce hurriedly sped off towards the hangar exit, both handguns at the ready.

"We Meet at Last"

Royce steeled himself for combat as he kicked the push-bar of the steel door, shoving it open. He dashed through and swung his pistols in a wide arc as he scanned the room for hostiles. Finding none, he lowered his weapons and gazed around the empty terminal.

Lit only by emergency lighting, the darkened terminal stretched for a quarter mile in three directions, with gates every hundred feet down the corridors. The waiting areas by the gates were deserted, and were not lit at all, which didn't help to ease Royce's anxiety as he stepped away from the door and into the junction. The escalators down to baggage claim had stopped moving, and an almost tangible sense of foreboding flooded Royce as he took another look at the inoperative machinery and empty hallways.

Royce nearly leapt out of his shoes as the exit door swung open, emitting a loud squeaking noise. He led with his guns as he turned to face the intruder, and let out a loud sigh after seeing who it was.

"Terri," said Royce. "You scared the hell outta me."

Terri half-smiled. "Sorry. I saw you headed towards the terminal, I tried to catch up with you."

Royce nodded. "One of the troopers saw Wade go this way when the shooting started."

Terri's eyes widened, and her face tensed up a bit. "He's here?"

Royce shrugged. "I don't know... this place sure is quiet."

Terri nodded and stepped away from the door. "Yeah," she said as she let out a sigh. "Kinda spooky in here, huh?"

As if on cue, a loud gunshot rang out from the southeastern branch, the noise of the explosion echoing through the terminal with an almost ethereal quality. Startled, the two agents gasped aloud and pointed their weapons toward the noise.

"What the..." hissed Terri.

Royce nodded, squinting to see down the darkened hallway through his sunglasses. "Let's go," he whispered.

Royce started down the corridor, with Terri following close behind, both agents leading with their weapons as they scanned the area. Royce, no longer capable of seeing accurately with his eyes, unfocused his vision and turned to his tracking system for guidance. Inaudible sonar pulses began ringing from the implant, sending audio information back to his brain, while the thermal tracking system began scanning for any nearby signs of life. This unique combination of abilities effectively allowed Royce to 'see' through walls, a trait that somewhat unsettled Royce more often than not, and now was no exception. He felt his head lighten a little as the data was translated for his eyes, recreating the image of the hallway with a dark greenish tint, making the experience somewhat similar to wearing night-vision goggles.

Terri stepped forward lightly, trusting Royce's eyes as she tried to make her footsteps as quiet as possible. She glanced upward at the emergency lighting, a frown on her face. (I'd swear, those lights are getting dimmer by the minute...)

As though her thoughts had been given life, the emergency lighting dimmed to nothing, drowning the two agents in darkness.

"What the hell!" exclaimed Terri, her eyes searching in vain for a source of light.

"What, what happened?" asked Royce, oblivious to the change in light level.

"The lights just went out," answered Terri.

Royce blinked. "The lights *were* out."

"Yeah, well, now the emergency lights are gone, too."

Royce sighed. "Perfect."

Without warning, a dim red beam of light cut through the darkness. Terri's eyes, still dependent on light, saw this, and she gasped aloud.

"R-Royce..." she whispered as the beam began sweeping around the corridor.

"Shh!" hissed Royce. "There's someone ahead of us, about 50 yards away... I think he's armed."

"I think he sees us," said Terri through gritted teeth. She let out a ragged breath as the beam settled on Royce and began inching up his chest.

"Jesus, Royce, get down!" he heard her shout into his ear.

Royce didn't have time to think as Terri wrapped her arms around him and yanked him aside, just as the hallway was lit up with gunfire. The resonant *ping* of metal on metal repeated itself as bullets struck against the walls and floor of the corridor, while the red beam swept the hallway blindly, searching for a target.

Royce smirked and ducked down behind a chair, slowly creeping into the waiting area away from the hallway. "Thanks," he said as the gunfire died down.

Terri smiled and nodded in Royce's direction, not taking her eyes off the beam of light. "Where is he?" she whispered.

"Two gates down from us... he's got NVGs."


She almost heard Royce nod as he stood up.

"Lights are still off... can you see at all?"

Terri shook her head. "No."

"All right, then... on three, we run out and open fire. Just follow the beam and shoot at it."

She scoffed. "That's it? That's your plan?"

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

Terri smirked, unseen to Royce, and sighed as she nodded the affirmative. "All right... ready when you are."


Terri pulled the bolt back on her gun, trying to remember how many rounds she had left.


She heard a pair of clicking noises to her left, indicating that Royce had his pistols at the ready.

"Three! Go!" shouted Royce.

The two agents dashed out of the waiting area and into the hallway, guns at the ready. Royce and Terri opened fire simultaneously, shooting at the origin of the red light. The hallway lit up briefly from each flash of muzzle flare, and the gunshots echoed hollowly through the arched ceiling. Between them they expended nine rounds, and Royce watched, fascinated, as the human-shaped heat pattern in his eyes was struck in the chest repeatedly, and toppled over.

"We got him," said Royce.

Terri smiled and sighed. "We got him," she repeated.

"Not bad, agent!" shouted a voice from further down the hallway. "Not bad at all."

The lights suddenly came back on, bathing the terminal in a pale glow. Hearing the familiar buzzing from the lights, Royce deactivated his sonar and thermal imaging system (STIS) and blinked twice as his eyes became accustomed to the light. Both agents almost gasped aloud as they spotted the men before them: one in a dark brown suit, with receding gray hair and blue eyes, and a tall, lanky Asian man in a military uniform and a head of neatly-trimmed black hair.

"Wade," growled Royce, training both his pistols squarely on the man's head.

"Son of a bitch!" exclaimed Terri as she followed suit, aiming between Wade's eyes.

Wade smirked. "The man himself; splendid. You brought a friend, too, how nice."

A second man, gray-haired and clad in a navy blue suit, stepped away from a gate into the hallway. "Mr. Wade, Major Kayora; we're ready."

Royce widened his stance and trained one of his guns on wade, and the other on the officer, while Terri turned hers to the newcomer.

"Thank you, Roger," said Wade. "Shinji, we're leaving."

Major Kayora glanced over at the dead man before him, his eyes still concealed by a pair of night-vision goggles, his hands still desperately clutching a scoped assault rifle.

"He was one of my best," spat Kayora, leveling a glare at Royce.

"Get down on your knees and keep your hands above your head!" shouted Terri.

"I guess Willard was wrong; you really are just another mindless dog of the Federation, obediently following every order given to you," countered Wade.

"You keep your goddamn mouth shut!" yelled Royce. "You put him up to this, Wade... Willard's blood is on your hands!" He grit his teeth and glared hard at Wade. "Considering what you've put everyone through, it's a miracle I haven't shot you yet."

"Oh, please," said Wade. "You don't have what it takes to kill someone in cold blood."

"Test me," replied Royce as he adjusted his grip on his guns. "Please."

"I'm afraid I can't allow that," said Roger. In the blink of an eye, the SS agent produced a flashbang from inside his jacket and, in one fluid motion, pulled the pin and hurled it at the agents. Royce and Terri began firing, but both conspirators were quick to move, and narrowly dodged the hail of bullets. The flashbang landed at Royce's feet, and both agents had a split second to shield their eyes as it went off with a deafening *BANG*, illuminating the entire hallway and blinding both of them.

Through the din, Royce heard Wade shouting. "Chimera! Get us out of here, now!"

Royce heard a low hum as the light and noise from the grenade died down, and rounded the corner just in time to see a pillar of light encircle Wade, Kayora, and Roger, who then faded from view.

"No!" shouted Royce. "He got away on the Morningstar's teleporter! Terri, c'mon!" Terri dashed over to the window of the gate and fumbled with the switches next to it. The shutters slid open, and moonlight flooded the waiting area as the ground below became visible. To Royce's horror, he saw the trio out on the landing pad, with a black limousine nearby, fifteen feet below and a hundred feet away.

"They're getting away!" exclaimed Terri.

Royce stepped back and simultaneously pressed a button on both of his handguns. The empty magazines for the pistols slid out and clattered to the floor, and Royce tucked one of the guns under his arm while he reloaded the other. "Terri," said Royce, "go find Jonesy and the others, tell them to meet me outside of... uh..." he looked over at the gate marker. "19-C."

Terri nodded. "Why, what are you going to do?"

"Help me shoot out that window, and you'll find out."

Terri grinned and stepped away from the window. She trained her gun on it and nodded to Royce. The two agents fired simultaneously, blasting several holes in the window and weakening it severely.

Royce readjusted his hold on his guns, trying to keep the one from slipping out of his sweaty left hand. His right clenched tightly around the handle of the other gun, its warmth making him momentarily forget that his hand was synthetic.

"Hey," said Terri. "Good luck, Royce."

Royce smiled and winked at her. "See you on the ground."

She waved and shook her head as Royce dashed off, heading straight towards the bullet-riddled window. (Gotta hand it him,) she thought, (he's got guts.)

Royce charged towards the window and let out a holler as he jumped towards it, leading with his right forearm. He squeezed his eyes shut as his body collided with the cracked and weakened glass, and he felt relieved and terrified at the same time when it gave way. His body crashed through the glass without losing momentum, and for a brief moment he felt weightless.

That moment quickly passed as gravity kicked in, and Royce summoned up all of his available energy, which he directed to his legs. He felt his legs begin to pulse and throb as he bent his knees and opened his eyes, holstering one gun so his right hand could act as a balance upon impact.

His entire world became concrete as he dropped down onto the pad, letting out a loud "Oomph!" as he landed. His knees buckled, and he fell forward, dropping to one knee, as he reached down with one hand to steady himself.

When all felt right and his legs ceased throbbing, Royce stood up and carefully brushed the glass off of himself. He pushed his sunglasses back up his nose and looked up to see a black armored limousine bearing down on him.

The Chase

Wade stared blankly ahead through the tinted windows as the FBI agent landed hard on the concrete, apparently unhurt by a fall that surely would have crippled a normal human.

"God damn," muttered Kayora. "He's a persistent one, this Fitzgerald."

"Run him down," growled wade. "I want his face imbedded on the hood, you hear me?!"

"Yes, sir," answered Roger as he stepped on the accelerator, causing the limousine to lurch forward, charging straight at Royce.

Royce didn't stop to draw his other handgun, instead opting to open fire with what he had. Round after round spat forth from his 10mm pistol, striking the window, hood, and front bumper of the limousine... to no apparent effect. The bullets sparked as they bounced harmlessly off the armored vehicle, and Royce began to panic as it grew closer.

(Armored,) thought Royce as he fired again, not knowing what to do. (Goddamn it, Wade, you son of a bitch, just die!)

Royce squeezed the trigger over and over, sweating profusely as the vehicle continued to approach him at a decidedly lethal speed. With one final squeeze of the trigger, the world stopped as the weapon produced only a hollow *click* in response. Royce's eyes widened, and he froze.

(You gotta be kidding me... it ain't fair, it ain't fair!) Royce turned and started to run, and the limousine turned to follow, now less than fifty feet away. (Crap, I'm not gonna make it... damn you, Wade, damn you to hell!) Royce ran as fast as his legs could carry him, pumping as much reserve energy as he could muster into his legs. He leapt off the landing pad and dashed across the open courtyard, the limo in hot pursuit. Running at speeds in excess of 25 miles per hour, Royce quickly discovered that physical augmentation was no match for a 450+ horsepower engine as he heard the limo grow closer, and a part of him reasoned to just give up, his heart pounding, his legs and lungs aching as he took in breath after ragged breath. (I'm gonna die... it's right behind me... ohgodohgodohgodohgod-)

His mental cursing was cut short as a loud *CRUNCH* rang through the air, followed by the distinct squealing of tires. He finally stopped running and turned around, struggling to catch his breath and calm his pounding heart. To his amazement - and relief - the limousine had been nailed from the side by a black sedan. Having been struck in the back, both cars, though damaged, were still running. The limousine had been stalled, though, and that was enough. Exhausted, Royce walked over to the sedan and peered through the window to catch a glimpse of his savior. He stopped as the door swung open and the driver stepped out.

"'Sato!" exclaimed Royce between breaths, as loud as he was able.

Chisato smiled over at him and brushed back a few bangs of her fiery red hair. "Hi, Royce. Sorry I took so long, I heard from that woman agent... um, Terri, I think she said her name was. You said not to leave the car, and Tyler had left the keys in the ignition, so I..." She was cut off as Royce tackled her in a bone-crushing hug.

Royce squeezed his eyes shut, holding Chisato tightly. "You saved my life, 'Sato," whispered Royce. "Thank you."

Chisato blushed slightly, hesitantly returning the embrace. "It's... it's okay. I mean, you did the same for me... I guess this makes us even, then."

Royce grinned and let his arms fall off her shoulders. "Yeah... yeah, I guess so." He blushed lightly, and hung his head slightly, staring at the ground. "S-sorry... I just thought I was gonna die there for a second."

Chisato smiled. "I can relate."

The sound of squealing tires focused Royce's attention like a laser beam back on their predicament. "Wade!" he shouted, turning around to see the wounded limousine speeding off, away from Royce and Chisato.

Royce turned back to Chisato. "Come on, let's go!"

Chisato nodded and climbed back into the car, sliding over to the passenger side as Royce sat down behind the wheel, shutting the door behind him. Being armored itself, the sedan had suffered only minor damage to the front fender and headlights, and not the wheel well or the engine like Royce had feared. He immediately shifted to drive and pulled a tight turn in pursuit of the limousine.

- Meanwhile, back at the hangar -

Eyes and ears turned as the sound of tires screeching to a halt announced the arrival of a bureau vehicle. The ORV slid to a stop abruptly, parking itself several dozen feet before the hulking form of the Morningstar. The driver-side door swung open, and Zhang climbed out, pistol at the ready. He turned to face a police officer as he approached the ship.

"What's the situation, officer?" asked the director.

"We've taken out all hostile Secret Service guards and marines, sir. Three of the conspirators surrendered on sight, but the rest of them opened fire."

Zhang nodded. "Any casualties?"

The officer shook his head. "No fatalities, sir. Two of the SWAT troopers were wounded, but they're being treated as we speak. Looks like we caught them by surprise."

"What about the ship?"

"Agent Fitzgerald ordered that it be left alone until you arrived."

Adrian smirked. "Right. Get one of LaGuardia's techs at the control room, run a sensor sweep of that ship, see if anyone's in it. Then run through it with a K-9 unit and a bomb squad; make sure there's no surprises on-board."

"Yes, sir!" said the officer with a salute before speeding off to carry out the orders.

Hearing footsteps from behind, Zhang turned to see Jonesy and Tyler approaching, a somewhat despondent look on both their faces.

"Agents," said Zhang with a nod. "How'd it go?"

"Well enough, sir," said Jonesy, wincing slightly as he tried to stand up straight.

Zhang glanced quizzically at Jonesy. "You all right, Devereaux?"

Jonesy nodded. "Took a hit to the back, sir. A little sore, but it didn't get through; I'll live."

Tyler sighed. "We checked out the entire hangar; no sign of Senator Wade, sir."

"Damn," muttered Wade. "He must've slipped out during the fighting. Don't worry, we've got the whole terminal shut tight; he's not getting away this time."

"I also haven't seen Royce around," added Jonesy.

"Yeah, where is he?" asked Tyler. "Haven't seen him since the shooting started."

Jonesy privately suspected it wasn't coincidence when a phone began ringing. All three agents took out their phones at the same time, and after some initial confusion as to which was ringing, the director hit a button on his phone and brought it up to his ear.

"Zhang," he said.

"Zhang, it's Royce!"

"Royce?" asked Zhang. "What's going on, where the hell are you?"

"Ask him if he knows where my car is," said Tyler.

"I *told* you not to leave the keys in it," replied Jonesy.

"I'm with Chisato, we're in pursuit of Wade, he's in an armored limo, heading southeast towards another hangar... uh, 15, it looks like."

"Got that, Royce. Just keep on him, we're sending backup."

Gunshots sailed through the phone, causing Adrian's face to tense up momentarily. He hit another button on the phone and turned to Jonesy and Tyler. Reaching into his pants pocket with his free hand, he produced a set of keys and tossed them to Jonesy. "Grey Highwayman ORV, license LTK-446, it's out front. Take it, get to hangar 15; Royce is after Wade, and it looks like that's where they're headed."

"Yes, sir!" shouted the agents before charging off towards the main hangar entrance.

Zhang hit a few buttons on his phone and brought it back up to his ear. "It's Zhang. Get one of those VTOLs and some squad cars to hangar 15; agent Fitzgerald is in pursuit of Wade, I want you there to intercept him."

- At the same time, another part of Terminal 14 -

"Blow it, now!"

A deafening explosion rocked the hallway as the door was blown inwards by the breaching charge; without hesitation, a SWAT officer stepped in and lobbed a flashbang into the room, filling it with a bright light and stunning its occupants. Following this, the three other SWAT officers squinted through their bulletproof visors as they charged into the room, each locking their sights on the nearest hostile.

"Police!" shouted the lead trooper. "Drop your weapons, now!"

All at once, the trio within the room raised their sub-machine guns and opened fire, forcing the SWAT officers to duck down and return fire. Laser sights pierced the smoke of the room and painted the three men red, and seven seconds of sustained gunfire later, the room fell silent. The troopers moved forward and quickly disarmed their foes, in the process discovering that the two marines and the one secret service agent had not survived the shoot-out.

"Sir, look!" shouted one of the troopers.

The captain stepped past the corpses to where his subordinate stood. "What is it, Ferguson?"

Ferguson nodded to a nearby desk, beneath which two figures lay facedown, both apparently gagged and bound at the wrists and feet.

"Hey, are you two all right?" asked the captain as he removed his flashlight and shined it on the captives. He raised an eyebrow in curiosity as he saw that both were wearing military uniforms.

"What the..." started Ferguson as he approached the men, perplexed as to why neither was moving. He reached out and hesitantly shook one of the men gently by the shoulder. "Hey... hello?" Ferguson set aside his weapon and slowly tried to drag the bound and gagged soldier out from beneath the desk, but reeled back in horror as a dark, bloody hole became visible on the back of the man's head. A quick examination of the body revealed that he had been dead for some time.

"Ferguson, what's the problem?" asked the captain.

"These... these men are dead, sir."


"My best guess would be at least a few hours or so, sir. Corporals Winslow and Kosalovitch."

"Whoa, wait a minute!" shouted the third SWAT trooper. "Did you say Winslow and Kosalovitch?"

"Yeah, why?"

"That can't be right... according to Fallon, they were supposed to be piloting one of the VTOLs." The third trooper stepped over to the desk and knelt down to check the bodies.

"So, wait, if those two are Winslow and Kosalovitch," began the captain, "then who the hell is piloting that gunship?"

Closing In

Royce felt the phone vibrate in his hand as it rang, and brought it up to speak. He pressed a button and adjusted his grip on the steering wheel. "Fitzgerald."

"Royce, we've got a problem," said Zhang.

Chisato glanced in the rearview mirror and smiled as a set of flashing lights became visible. Before long, a pair of NYPD squad cars had joined the pursuit, and, having the benefit of significantly more powerful engines, soon overtook the sedan.

"What's up?" asked Royce.

"NYPD just found two bodies in the terminal; marines, apparently ones that are supposed to be piloting one of the VTOLs."

Royce felt a chill run through his body. "What? What are you talking about?"

Chisato blinked. "What's going on?"

"The pilots of one of those birds are dead. We know Wade brought in marines of his own, and we think that..."

Royce looked at the rearview mirror again, and his eyes widened as he saw one of the VTOLs appear slightly above and behind the sedan. Royce swerved to the right somewhat, his gaze returning to the limousine several hundred feet away.

"Royce, are you there?" asked Zhang, his voice suddenly sounding very nervous.

With little warning, a barely audible *fwoosh* was heard from behind the sedan; Royce didn't even bother to look as he swerved hard to the right. Chisato let out a yelp of surprise as a missile streaked by, homing in on the nearest squad car.

"No!" shouted Royce as the explosive slammed head on into the police car, detonating almost on impact and blasting the vehicle into scrap metal. What was left of the squad car spun out of control and slammed into the other car, knocking it aside and causing it to stall. Royce hurriedly jerked the wheel to the right, causing the tires to squeal as it slid out of the way of the wreckage.

"Royce!" shouted Zhang. "Are you all right? What's going on?!"

"I think I just found your gunship." Without thinking twice, Royce swerved to the left and tossed aside his phone.

"What the hell is happening?!" yelled Chisato.

"Someone switched pilots with the ones who are supposed to be flying that thing," grumbled Royce as he floored the accelerator, gritting his teeth as the sedan lurched forward, passing by numerous gates at a dizzying speed.

Bright flashes of light and loud explosions from behind the car heralded the use of the gunship's machine gun, and the car rattled and shook violently as 7.62x51mm rounds began denting the roof and cracking the reinforced glass. Another *fwoosh* was heard, and Royce swerved hard to the left to dodge the incoming missile as hangar 15 grew larger through the windshield.

The missile smacked into the pavement beside them, nearly knocking the car on its side. "We can't keep this up," said Chisato. "What are we going to do??"

Royce glanced over at Chisato, and back into the rearview mirror. "Chisato... climb into the back and look under the seat. There should be a large briefcase."

Chisato nodded and hesitantly unbuckled her seatbelt. She turned around, scooted to her right, and climbed over the seat - presenting Royce with a rather distracting, but not unpleasant, view of her rear end. She hurriedly searched beneath the seats and grinned as her hands fell upon a metal briefcase, which she hurriedly removed and opened. Her eyes widened as she spotted a large, shiny, deadly looking sub-machine gun, two magazines, and four large, red bullets.

"What is it?" asked Royce, grunting slightly as he swerved again to dodge a hail of bullets.

"It's a sub-machine gun," answered Chisato. "Two clips, and four of these red bullets."

"Perfect," said Royce. "Those are grenades; get the gun and load it. They slide into a small hatch beneath the barrel. Push it in, pump the metal handle, and repeat."

Chisato gingerly lifted the sub-machine gun out of its case and began loading the bullets into the gun as per his instructions, until all four grenades had been loaded into the gun.

She didn't have to ask what was next; Royce pressed a button on the door panel next to him, and the rear driver's side window slid open. Chisato glanced out it and ducked back in as she spotted their airborne enemy, hovering steadily behind the sedan.

"You all right?" asked Royce. "Want me to do it?"

"No," said Chisato, shaking her head. "I'll be okay... I'll take care of it. You just keep up with Wade!" she answered, gaining some measure of confidence as she moved back towards the window.

The air tortured her ears and hair as it whipped past her, lightly ruffling her jacket as the sedan raced along the terminal exterior. She hefted the sub-machine gun and sighted down the VTOL. Pumping the handle beneath the gun, like she remembered Royce doing back at the station, she pulled the trigger and let a grenade fly.

The grenade sailed in slow motion through the air, its distance enhanced by the speeding sedan, and whipped past the VTOL, just missing its starboard engine. The grenade hit the pavement hard and exploded, illuminating several hundred feet of the terminal. She pumped the handle and fired again, sending another bullet out towards the gunship, missing by a mile as the vehicle deftly evaded the grenade. She saw the ship's gun, nestled beneath the cockpit, start to rotate, and ducked back inside as bullets began pelting the sedan. She winced as the rear window cracked again and again from the impact, and leaned back outside when the firing stopped, a determined look on her face.

"Die!" she shouted at the top of her lungs as she pumped and fired a third time, sending a grenade straight at the cockpit of the VTOL. This time, the craft couldn't swerve fast enough, and the bullet lodged itself in its port side engine before exploding, sending the craft to its right, shivering violently. The blast knocked the engine clean off, blowing bits of metal and circuitry all over the ground beneath it. Taking advantage of the craft's condition, Chisato pumped the handle once more, and squeezed the trigger to let loose her last grenade.

The red bullet collided with the durable plexiglass cockpit window, exploding on impact and smashing the cockpit into a twisted mass of metal, killing both pilots. The fatally stricken vehicle spiraled to the ground and landed hard, crashing into the concrete with enough force to cause the sedan to bounce a few inches off the ground.

"Got him!" shouted a grinning Chisato.

"Nice shooting, 'Sato!" cheered Royce from the front, his voice barely audible over the roaring wind.

Chisato slid back into the car and set the empty sub-machine gun on the seat beside her. "Where's Wade?"

"I'm right behind him, he ain't going anywhere."

Questionable Loyalties

"You promised us complete protection!" shouted Wade as he stepped out of the limousine.

Shinji backed away, his hands raised defensively. "I didn't count on them finding us so soon; what'd you expect, my men to hold off the entire goddamn navy?!"

"I expected that you'd do your job!" growled Wade. He stepped around the limo and joined Roger, who stood watch by the hangar entrance. "All we have now is Chimera, and that's a wild card at best, especially if the bomb squad got to him first!"

"Calm down, Senator," said Shinji. "It's not over yet."

"Not over, not over," muttered Wade. "You're damn right it's not over; not for me, anyway. Someone's going to have to take the fall for this, Kayora..." he said as he reached into his jacket and wrapped his hand around the grip of the weapon Shinji had given him. He drew the metallic, pistol-shaped weapon and pointed it straight at Shinji.

"Mr. Wade, please, take it easy... we can still cut a deal with them..."

"I TRIED THAT ALREADY!" screamed Wade. "I let Willard try to convince that prick Fitzgerald into walking away, and not only does he - *and* two of my men - end up dead, he allows the FBI to figure out what we're doing, and where we are!" He glared at Shinji. "These are not the sort of people you can just buy off, Shinji..."

"Like I said, someone will have to take the fall..." He started to squeeze the trigger of his gun.

"Aleister, no!" shouted Shinji.

"And it will *not* be me."

Wade pulled the trigger of the weapon, and a near-instantaneous reaction from within the barrel caused an energy build-up, which was then projected out the barrel in a concentrated bolt of plasma. The bolt struck Shinji square in the chest and burned a hole straight through him, cauterizing the wound at the same instant it was made. He barely had time to scream before the blowback from the impact of the plasma bolt discharged directly into the officer, literally vaporizing him on the spot, filling the air with the scent of burnt flesh. What was left of Shinji Kayora clattered to the ground in a small pile of blackened dust.

Wade quickly flipped on the safety of the phase gun, not even momentarily disturbed by Kayora's anguished cry of pain as it echoed through the hangar.

"All right, show's over Wade! Drop the weapon!"

Wade and Roger turned to see two agents - one tall, with short, stringy black hair and one short, stocky and with a head of brown hair and matching goatee - training pistols on both of them.

"Agents Devereaux and Quint, FBI!" shouted the tall one.

Abandoning all hopes of negotiating his situation, Wade clicked off the safety and turned to fire. Roger did likewise, drawing his pistol and firing at the agents in the blink of an eye. Both agents easily dodged the incoming fire, and Wade and Roger split up and dashed for separate parts of the hangar.

"Tyler!" shouted Jonesy. "Go after Wade, I'll get that other guy!"

"Right," said Tyler. "Careful, Jones, he's augmented."

"I know, I know; don't worry, I'll be fine. Just go get Wade!"

- Maintenance 'bot bay, hangar 15 -

Wade panted heavily as he dashed down the darkened walkway, flanked on his right by bright yellow maintenance robots, all inoperative.


The senator spun wildly, trying to identify the source of the noise, his phase gun flailing wildly as he prepared to shoot anything that moved. A heavy *clank* came from behind, and he turned to see a tall, gray-haired FBI agent standing before him, sunglasses hiding his eyes, and a menacing smirk on his face.

"Hello, hello," said the agent.

"Fitzgerald," said Wade. "We meet again."

"We're all alone this time, Wade," said Royce. "No back-up, no sleight of hand with a flashbang and a teleporter, no guards... just you and me."

"How poetic," spat Wade. "I'd hoped I would get the chance to kill you personally. Even for an FBI lapdog, your persistence is remarkable."

"Yeah, I'm working on that," answered Royce. "I can assure you, the feeling is mutual."

"I honestly thought I had you with the bomb back at my apartment; you should know it's not nice to enter other peoples' homes without their permission."

Royce raised an eyebrow as Wade continued. "Yes, Royce, I set the bomb. I didn't care much for you rifling through my personal belongings, especially with that alien bitch in tow." The agent opened his mouth to speak, but Wade cut him off. "If it's about the warrant, I already know. I find it very interesting that I had no prior notification of a warrant being served against me, and it was only *after* you had already entered my apartment that it surfaced. Heh, your hypocrisy is so blatant it makes me wonder why we're on opposite sides."

"Yeah, well maybe if you hadn't sent your little goon squad to Expel, I wouldn't have to do my job."

"I was doing it for the Federation, Royce," said Wade.

"You had innocents murdered all for the secrecy of a project no one approved of, and no one wanted! You kidnapped, tortured, and blackmailed people, and *you're* going to lecture *me* about the Federation?!"

"You know nothing!" shot back Wade. "The things I've done and ordered done... these pale in comparison to what those murderous creatures had in store for us... for the entire goddamn universe! Can't you get that through your thick skull?!" Wade raised his weapon to fire. "I didn't want this to happen, none of it... I was just doing what the people elected me to do."

A hand shot out from the darkness and grabbed Wade's wrist, forcing it into the air. In a panic, Wade squeezed the trigger, causing the weapon to fire. The bolt collided with the ceiling, scorching the metal slightly but doing no real damage to anyone. Wade glanced to his right and saw a familiar red-headed figure standing next to him, holding his arm tightly, a very sour look on her face.

"You..." said Wade.

Chisato hurriedly slammed her free hand down on Wade's wrist, striking at just the right spot; Wade screamed and dropped the phase gun, clutching his wrist painfully as he attempted to free himself.

"Thanks, 'Sato," said Royce as he stepped forward, his pistols at the ready.

Gunfight at the 15th Hangar

Jonesy leapt to his right and let loose three rounds, which Roger deftly evaded by ducking behind an iron support beam. The SS agent countered by spinning away from the beam and firing a pair of his own bullets, forcing Jonesy to seek cover.

"Give it up, Weiss!" shouted Jonesy. "Your boss is a traitor, and he's going to take you down with him!"

"My orders are to protect the Senator with my life," replied Roger.

"Then why'd you split up with him back in the hangar?"

Roger said nothing as he charged from hiding, clearly moving faster than any normal human could have. Within seconds, he was upon Jonesy's hiding place, and he fired again. Jonesy, however, was just as crafty, and rolled beneath a set of metal stairs, narrowly dodging the bullet. He fired back twice, and watched in amazement as Roger leapt nearly ten feet straight up from a dead stop, catching onto a steel support bar along the underside of a catwalk with one hand while his other kept his pistol trained on Jonesy.

(Jesus, this guy's tricked-out,) thought Jonesy. (He's still human, though... if I can just get him to hold still...)

The stocky agent rolled out from hiding and fired up at Roger, who evaded by releasing his hold on the bar. The gray-haired agent landed on his feet, grunting slightly upon impact, and sprang to his left, shooting twice more at Jonesy, who began to dash to his right. Jonesy fired at Roger as he ran through rows of support beams and various pieces of miscellaneous spacecraft machinery, most of his bullets deflecting off the multiple chunks of metal between them. He heard Roger grunt again, and raised his gun skyward as he saw the agent sailing over a seven-foot-tall pile of broken machine parts. Jonesy fired once and finally landed a hit, striking the agent in the stomach but failing to penetrate his armored suit.

The impact was enough to alter Roger's momentum, and Jonesy ducked to his right as the SS agent landed painfully on his back.

Roger grimaced and squinted up at Jonesy, who stood triumphantly over him, a cold grin on his face as he pointed his weapon down at the prone SS agent.

Thinking quickly, Roger kicked out with his foot and knocked the gun from Jonesy's hand. In a flash, Roger was back on his feet and had his own weapon pointed straight between Jonesy's eyes.

"You're mine, bureau," said Roger as he squeezed the trigger.

Moving with almost inhuman speed, Jonesy simultaneously reached up with his hand and deflected the pistol, and kicked out with his foot, striking Roger square in the groin. Roger grunted loudly as a wave of white-hot pain surged through his system, and barely noticed it when Jonesy put him in an arm-lock, pried the gun from his hand, reversed the grip and pointed it back at Roger all in one fluid motion.

"You mock me," said Jonesy. "And I will not be mocked," he finished as he squeezed the trigger.

The muzzle flare from the gun flash-fried a hole into Roger's head, allowing the bullet to fly unobstructed into his brain and exit out the back. Jonesy turned around and began walking away before his body could finish slumping to the ground.

- Meanwhile, hangar 15 maintenance 'bot bay -

"Tyler, good to see you," said Royce as the black-haired agent joined him.

"Likewise; looks like you got him all right," said Tyler, indicating Wade with a nod.

"Ah, wasn't just me; Chisato helped out, too," Royce added with a grin.

Chisato blushed slightly, but frowned as Wade wormed free of her grasp, backing towards the wall of the bay. He began patting the inside of his jacket, exhaling sharply in surprise when his hands came upon an empty holster, opposite the one from which he had produced his phase gun.

Chisato smiled and dangled a 10mm pistol from her left hand. "Looking for this?"

"No, actually," said Wade. "I was looking for this."

Wade broke into a wide, sadistic grin as he removed a small, rectangular device from inside his jacket and pressed a button on it.

Royce raised an eyebrow. "I thought we had gotten everything from him."

Wade smirked. "You're a journalist, Ms. Madison; you of all people should know to be ready for the unexpected."

The senator continued smirking as he dropped the boxlike device before the trio. Seconds later, the device beeped thrice before emitting a high-pitched whirring noise. A blue sphere of energy swam out from the device in all directions as the device itself sparked and apparently shorted out.

As the energy sphere passed through Chisato, she felt as though her clothes had increased in weight by fifty pounds. Her knees buckled as she attempted to stay standing, and the pressure on her head made it feel as though she were underwater. The sensation passed as quickly as it came. A quick glance at Tyler indicated that he had felt the same thing.

"Okay... what was that?" asked Chisato hesitantly. She heard a faint *pop* from her right, and looked over to see Royce rolling around on the ground, clutching desperately at his head, groaning loudly. "Royce? Royce, what's wrong?!"

Chisato and Terri knelt down next to Royce, who continued thrashing about in pain as he clawed at his head. "God, stop it, stop it! Oh, god, it hurts, IT HURTS!! Rrgh... urrr... eaaaaaaaaaaaah!" he screamed at the top of his lungs as blood began pouring out his nose.

"What the hell did you do to him?!" shouted Tyler as he turned back to Wade, only to step back as he saw that the senator had retrieved his phase gun.

His question answered itself as the lights of the maintenance bay faded to nothing; the only light available came through the window into the hangar itself as strange sparking noises were heard from the maintenance 'bots behind him.

"Jesus no..." muttered Tyler.

"What, what is it??" pleaded Chisato.

"An EMP grenade," answered Tyler. "It shorted out Royce's implant."

Wade said nothing as he approached Royce, beckoning Chisato and Tyler to back off with his phase gun.

"Wade..." whispered Royce before he coughed, causing him to spit up blood. "You... god damn you..." he said before he collapsed on the ground.

Wade growled and kicked Royce hard in the stomach, causing him to roll onto his side and grunt in protest. "You..." he said as he kicked him again. "Have been a constant," he said with another kick. "Irritating," he added before he kicked him again, this time in the face, sending him sprawling onto his back. "Pain in my ass," finished Wade. "Every time I turned around, you defied my simple requests to have you exterminated."

"Well," he continued. "This is it, then. I'm through asking others to do it for me; your time is up, agent Fitzgerald. I'll let them know that you died poorly, cowering on your back like a turtle flipped over, without your precious augmentations to save you."

A voice called from Wade's left. "Hey, I heard some shouting; what was with that EMP field?" said Jonesy as he stepped into the bay. He stood frozen in place and his eyes widened as he realized their predicament. "Wade!" he said as he reached for his gun.

Wade was quicker on the draw; he pointed his gun straight at agent Devereaux and let loose another plasma bolt. The last thing Jonesy heard was the click of a trigger, followed by a strange whooshing noise; the last thing he saw was a white-blue beam of plasma sailing straight for his face.

The bolt hit Jonesy right between the eyes and burned a hole through his head. As with Shinji, blowback from the impact caused his body to instantly vaporize, leaving a pile of ash that could barely have filled a saltshaker.

"JOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONES!" screamed Royce, his hoarse, raspy voice loud enough to shake the foundations of the hangar.

In less time than it takes for a man to blink, Wade found himself eye-to-eye with Royce Fitzgerald; the look in his eyes could have made the devil himself weep with fear.

The agent began mindlessly pummeling Wade, each fist feeling as though it were driven by all the rage, all the pain, all the suffering Royce had ever experienced, all at once. Blow after blow landed as Royce literally crushed Wade beneath his fists over and over.

Wade finally managed to push himself away from the insane agent, and drew his phase gun, which he still held in a death grip in his right hand, and pointed it in the general direction of the blurry figures before him.

In a flash, Royce and Tyler had their guns out, and Chisato was training the pistol she had confiscated from Wade on him. Before the senator could even set finger on the trigger, the trio began firing. Bullet after bullet tore through Wade, spraying his blood all along the lifeless maintenance 'bots, and before the senator's lifeless body could crash to the floor, the three had literally emptied 38 rounds into him.

No one dared move; all that was heard was the strained breathing of Royce, followed by the more controlled breathing of Tyler and Chisato. At long last, as the sound of wailing sirens began to approach the building, Royce spoke up.

"We... we got him..." he whispered as he collapsed to his knees. Chisato and Tyler instantly rushed to his said. Chisato took his hand and clasped it tightly, holding him as close as possible, while Tyler gently patted him on the back, urging into his ears "It's over Royce... we got him... it's over."

Minutes that seemed like hours passed by, and a pair of SWAT troopers barged into the maintenance bay, rifles at the ready. "What's going on?" demanded the lead trooper.

Tyler turned to face the troopers. "Get your EMS people in here now; we've got an injured agent here, and a man down."


"...more on this story at eleven. Our top story tonight, a massive shoot-out at New York's LaGuardia spaceport last night ended in both jubilation and tragedy. While details as of yet are unclear, we have confirmed that a number of high-ranking Federation officials, including senator Aleister Wade, were killed in the fighting. FBI Director Adrian Zhang, who coordinated the raid on the 14th terminal, had this to say."

The image of the reporter disappeared, replaced by one of Zhang standing behind a podium inscribed with the Federation logo.

"Good evening, citizens of the Federation. Approximately 24 hours ago, Federal agents, working in concert with New York police and the Federation military, led a raid on the 14th terminal in an effort to capture members of the former Project Artemis, who, in a deliberate conspiracy to deceive members of the Federation, both civilian and government, produced and deployed a type of anti-matter weapon without authorization or supervision. To cover this up, they willingly and knowingly put innocent lives at risk, including, but not limited to, the crew of the Federation starship Calnus. At the helm of the project was none other than Senator Wade, who deliberately misappropriated Congressional funding to support the creation of this weapon."

Tyler sighed. (Still can't believe it... all this time, we were all being fooled.) He glanced over at Royce, who lay asleep in the hospital bed, his suit and tie since replaced by a light blue patient's outfit, consisting of a loose shirt and pair of pants. His gold wire-rimmed glasses lay on a table beside him, along with an empty cup that, Tyler presumed, once contained coffee.

A closer look revealed that Royce's gray hair was starting to change color at the root, slowly turning back to its original blond color. Tyler smirked. (Hope you weren't too attached to the gray look, Royce,) he thought with a chuckle. He glanced over at the TV, and broke into a grin. "Hey, look, man, you're on TV."

The pictures of Royce and Tyler were displayed on the screen as the reporter commented via voice-over. "Though Zhang praised the efforts of the New York City Police Department and the Federation military, he credited the apprehension of Wade to agents Tyler Quint and Royce Fitzgerald, stating that, "Without the exemplary work of agents Fitzgerald and Quint, this horrendously dark day in Federation history could never have come to a close."

A picture of Jonesy replaced their pictures as the reporter continued. "Special Agents Jonas Devereaux and Willard Holden, of the FBI, were also among the casualties, and a special ceremony commemorating their years of service is scheduled to be held this Friday. Regarding the agents, Zhang had this to say." Zhang's voice cut in. "It is always tragic when we lose agents, but doubly so when they are as highly valued as Deveraux and Holden. While it's true that agent Holden had been forced to assist Wade through blackmail, we will not let the taint of this conspiracy make us forget how, time and again, Holden laid his life on the line to protect fellow agents and civilians alike."

Tyler shook his head; that was the one part of the arrangement that disagreed with him. (Willard dies a hero's death, and Wade takes the full blame... yeah, he's a longtime fed, but how 'bout credit where credit's due?)

A knocking at the door interrupted Tyler's train of thought; he fell back in his chair and pretended to be asleep. He watched through his sunglasses as the door swung open and Chisato entered the room, careful not to make a sound; Tyler closed his eyes but kept his ears open, curious as to what was about to transpire.

"Hi, Royce," whispered Chisato. "They told me I can head back to Expel if I wanted to, and the earliest flight is tonight... I wanted to stay for a while, but considering all that has happened I think it'd be best if I just left quietly. I'm sorry..."

She continued. "They say you're going to be out for a while... that's part of why I didn't want to stay... Zhang said that it'd complicate matters if I stayed for too long. I'm so sorry, Royce... I never got a chance to say thank you... to thank you for all that you've done for me."

"I know, you might think that you've caused me nothing but trouble, but believe me when I say that that isn't true. You've risked your life for me, you've *saved* my life... you comforted me when my past came back to haunt me... Royce... you protected me... and I just wanted to say thank you. The reason why I helped you out in the first place, and even later, was mostly because I *wanted* to."

Tyler heard a faint rustling of paper, and cracked open an eye to see Chisato holding some sort of letter. "I have two things I want to ask of you... this letter should explain everything. It's... it's a letter from Claude to his mother. Please deliver it... it's the last thing he asked me to do before I left Expel with you."

(Claude?) Thought Tyler. (I thought she said he was dead...)

"And second... is a favor for me." Chisato smiled and began to blush deeply. She sat down on the bed and leaned over the prone figure of Royce, slowly moving her lips to his.

"Don't forget about me, Royce," whispered Chisato, "because I'll never forget you."

With only a second's hesitation, the Nedian planted her lips on Royce's and kissed him softly, yet passionately. Her eyes spoke volumes as she reluctantly parted, gently touching a finger to his warm, unconsciously responsive lips.

Tyler winced inwardly; he never had a liking for mushy stuff, and was somewhat relieved when Chisato turned to leave, nearly stumbling over a pushcart in the process. She continued to blush as she hastily left the room, smiling brightly yet sadly at the same time.

The black-haired agent sat back up in his chair and opened his other eye. He glanced over at Royce, and couldn't stop himself from grinning as he saw the agent smile in his sleep.

(You were right, Jonas), thought Tyler to himself as he glanced out the window.

(You would've won.)

- Two weeks later -


"I'll get it!" exclaimed the cheerful woman as she set down the knife and rushed to the door.

The man at the table shook his head slightly, dusting a few stray breadcrumbs off of his slightly faded Federation uniform. (Two weeks since we heard, and she's already acting like her old self.)

"Oh, my, please come in!"

He smiled. (She's strong... in many ways, stronger than me. God, I wish it were different... I still don't understand how it happened... how I survived and he didn't.)

She stepped into the kitchen, with three men following her, two dressed in black business-like suits and matching ties - one blond, with a pair of glasses, and the other black-haired - while the third was decked out in a Federation ceremonial uniform, the kind reserved for important diplomatic functions.

(Or bringing bad news... he added with a sigh.)

"Commodore Kenni?" asked the blond-haired suit.

"Yes?" replied Ronixis.

Introductions went around; though Ronixis remembered the agent's name, and associated it with his rescue from the Calnus storage chamber - for which he expressed his gratitude - he focused more on what came next.

"I have some news about your son... you may want to sit down too, ma'am," he said with a nod to the woman, who obediently sat down next to Ronixis.

"While we aren't at liberty to discuss the complete details of the operation, we can tell you that your son was the leader of the group who stopped the terrorists known as the Ten Wise Men; the ones responsible for the attack on the Calnus, as well as numerous other atrocities."

The dressed officer, who had identified himself as Captain Sergei Karisnikov, presented the Kennis with a small, black box.

A single tear ran down Ronixis' cheek as he opened the box, revealing a simple, yet intricate medal attached to a blue and gold ribbon. The medal, made of solid gold, depicted a shield with two swords crossed before it, which in turn stood before the seal of the Earth Federation.

"For valorous and honorable conduct in the face of great danger, both to himself and to his comrades, and for his bravery and commitment to the Federation, your son is being awarded the Congressional Medal of honor."

Both Kennis smiled sadly and nodded as the blond-haired agent continued.

"Your son is the bravest man I've never met, sir. You should be very proud of him."

Ronixis smiled up at the agent. "I am."

Having presented the medal, the men politely excused themselves and left. Ronixis was about to close the box when he saw a scrap of paper sticking out from beneath the medal. Curious, he pulled it out and unfolded it. Tears from both Kennis began to dot the paper as they read together.

"Dear Mom & Dad,

If you're reading this, then everyone thinks I'm dead. I'm sorry to have to lead you on like this, but it is for the best. I mean this in no offense to either of you, but I've grown happy here on Expel and cannot bear to leave, at least not yet; if the Federation had known of my existence here, they surely wouldn't have allowed me to stay. For this I asked my friend Chisato to help me conceal my life from the eyes of the Federation, and now only myself, Chisato, and, if this message got to you, this agent Fitzgerald she has mentioned, know the truth.

I love you both, and will never forget you, but I am a grown man now, and I needed to seek my own path. My path led me here... to Expel, to the woman I love, and to our child. That's right; come August, this year, you will both officially be grandparents.

I'm sorry to have made you worry so much. I wanted both of you to know that I am well, and that regardless of how I acted in the past, no one loved you, and was more proud of both of you, than me.

Take care, Mom and Dad. I promise that someday I will return when things settle down.

Your son, Claude C. Kenni."

Ronixis had to fight the urge to cry right then and there as his wife covered her eyes and began weeping tears of joy.

(Well done, Claude...) he thought to himself. (Take care... my son...)


- Special Agent Royce Fitzgerald, operation report.

Zhang smiled and nodded to himself as the words reached his eyes. He gave a wide yawn and turned off his monitor as the door swung open, and knew who it was before he even said a word, simply from the sound of his footsteps.

"I thought you were on vacation," said Zhang.

Royce smiled, his straight, slightly unkempt blond hair falling down in loose bangs over his eyes. "You know me, I'm married to my work."

Zhang chuckled. "What's the matter, you lose another 5 grand at poker?"

Royce shook his head. "Nah, I just got to some long-overdue thinking."

Zhang smirked. "Dangerous habit. Have a seat, agent."

The agent nodded and sat down opposite the director.

"So what's on your mind?" asked Zhang, planting his elbows on his desk and staring at Royce, a slightly bemused expression on his face.

"Well, sir, about that request you mentioned earlier..."

Zhang raised an eyebrow. "You found a place you want to go?"

Royce nodded. "It'll require some string pulling, and you might not like it..."

Zhang grinned. "Royce, I think you're forgetting who you're talking to. Come on, let's hear it."

"Very well then."

- Two days later -

"You sure you want this?"

Royce nodded. "I've wanted it since we first met. Just didn't know it 'till now."

"You got one month, Royce," said Terri.

"I know... Terri, I know..."

"You think that'll be enough time?"

Royce shrugged. "Who knows... all I know is I'm a bit tired of coming home to an empty apartment and a precooked meal every night, spending my days doing the same damn thing I've done all my life."

"What's that?" Terri asked, confused.

"Nothing!" exclaimed Royce. "Six years of living in New York, you know how many friends I have outside the bureau? Excluding Alice? Zero." Royce sighed. "Nobody to go hang out with, nobody to talk to, nobody to do things with, or even do nothing with, outside of work."

Terri sighed. "Sorry..."

"No, it's not your fault. I just regretting never taking a chance... and I'm through with regrets. This is a chance at something more... something more meaningful than an empty apartment... something more worthwhile outside the suit."

Terri smiled. "All right, then."

Royce exhaled slightly as he stepped onto the teleporter. (One month... maybe that'll be enough time for something more.)

"Good luck Royce," said Terri as she waved to him.

"See ya, Terri," replied Royce as he felt a bright light consume him.

"Go get her," whispered Terri with a grin.

- One day later, Lacour -

"This's the place!"

The child smiled as he watched the blond-haired man stare, wide-eyed, at the house before them. "*This* is her house?" He whistled, clearly impressed. "Livin' large!"

"Yep! Miss Madison lives there; she made millions of FOL after her book became a bestseller."

"Thanks, kid," said the man as he stepped towards the door.

- Inside the mansion -

Chisato stood up and smiled at the butler as he entered. "Hi, Walter. What is it?"

Walter nodded in response. "There's a man here to see you, Ms. Madison."

She nodded and glanced over at the clock. "All right, I have a few hours before my meeting; send him in."

"Right away." Walter disappeared through the doorway, and returned with a young, blond-haired man in tow. Chisato's jaw dropped and her heart skipped a beat as her eyes took in the features of his face.

"Hey, 'Sato," said Royce, a sheepish smile on his face.

- End -