The Harem Saga

EPISODE 4 Katanawoutsu

PROLOGUE

"I do not understand, Father," faltered the boy.

The man shook his black mane. "You will in time, Conan. Before a man is worthy to bear a sword of steel in battle — a weapon such as the gods once bore against the giants — he must learn its riddle. He must understand the ways of steel. Know that in all the world you can trust no one, neither man nor woman nor beast, neither spirit nor demon nor god. But you can trust a blade of well-forged steel."

The man cupped his son's small hands within his own and, curling the boy's fingers about the hilt of the great sword, said; "The heart of a man is like a piece of unworked iron. It must be hammered by adversity and forged by suffering and the challenges flung by the thoughtless gods, nigh unto the point of breaking. It must be purged and hardened in the fires of conflict. It must be purified and shaped on the anvil of despair and loss.

"Only when your heart has become as steel will you be worthy to wield a keen-edged sword in battle and win against your enemies, as did the gods when they conquered the giants. When you have mastered the mysteries of steel, my son, your sword will be your very soul."

"Conan the Barbarian"— L. Sprague De Camp and Lin CarterBased on a screenplay by John Milius and Oliver Stone

It was just a dream.

She knew it was just a dream.

But it wasn't an ordinary dream.

It was a precognitive dream.

By now, Sasami knew the difference by the way it felt.

She was floating high above Jurai, its oceans and continents peeping out from beneath the cloud formations. She could see the moons drifting nearby. And everywhere there were ships. Metal skins reflected sunlight as harsh pinpoints; organic skins scattered the glare with their rough textures. Further out, she sensed even more ships, but these were ugly things, abrasive to the eyes and sensibilities. And all the ships were shooting at one another. Startica fireworks raised above the stratosphere...

Then the two most important men her life were floating before her. Her father, Azusa, and her betrothed, Tenchi. The former was a blue-haired bear of a man, large-boned, heavily-muscled, gregarious and moody. The latter was a slender athlete, serious and shy, immensely powerful. Both men were surrounded in flames.

Were they fighting each other? The thought alarmed her, and she cried out to them both. They couldn't — or wouldn't — answer. She tried again, and again. And still they struggled. But with who? Spaceships swirled about the heavens and died, fiery fragments vanishing into the darkness. And then a ball of fire erupted out beyond the moons, swelling and billowing until it consumed everyone and everything.

Sasami woke, gasping and shivering.

ACT 1 - FORGING AND SHAPING

When you look into a mirrorThe reflection that you seeIs a shell of what you wereIt's not who you want to be

But you're gonna changeYou've just about made up your mind(You're gonna change)You're gonna changeAnd when you leave it all behind

What will the past remember?What will the future bring?When you walk outWhen you walk out

You were brought into this worldWith a head full of good ideasBut the person you becameWell you just couldn't be for real

But you're gonna changeYou've just about made up your mind(You're gonna change)You're gonna changeAnd when you leave it all behind

What will the past remember?What will the future bring?When you walk outWhen you walk out

But you're gonna changeYou've just about made up your mind(You're gonna change)You're gonna changeAnd when you leave it all behind

What will the past remember?What will the future bring?When you walk outWhen you walk outWhen you walk outWhen you walk outWhen you walk out

Title: "Walk Out"Artist: Matthew Sweet

Detective First Class Kiyone Makibi was falling. But it wasn't an ordinary fall: she had tumbled off a gantry high over an experimental power reactor. Normally, dropping a distance of several stories to impact on the structure below should have taken only a few seconds. Her death should have been instantaneous and messy. But these weren't normal circumstances.

Kiyone and her partner had originally been given a search-and-rescue assignment for a kidnapped Galaxy Police Detective — one of their fellow GP officers.

The kidnapper was a lieutenant of the crime lord who had been stealing all available supplies of a hazardous new element. The crime boss, one Naja Akara by name, had an axe to grind against the Juraian Empire. And she intended to use the extremely dense, poisonously radioactive, and highly unstable material to build a superweapon to use against Jurai.

Naja Akara was located by Juraian Intelligence in the bowels of a large space station, originally carved out of an iron asteroid over three kilometers in diameter. The lieutenant and the missing GP officer were also on the station.

Kiyone and her partner were given permission to accompany the JI assault team. They had successfully recovered the kidnapped officer, and had cornered the crime boss in her command center. It was during the ensuing firefight that Kiyone, gun in hand, had been bumped off the gantry...by her partner.

Rather than face capture, Naja initiated the self-destruct sequence of the main reactor, which was powered by the stolen material.

The reactor promptly did a fine impression of a collapsing star, vanishing into a singularity of its own creation, and taking most of the station with it. As she fell, Kiyone watched the structure around her shred into long fragments of steel and plastic. Much of the detritus fell into the singularity immediately, disappearing like ingested noodles. Other loose fragments, like herself, fell at a slower rate. She could see the roof far above her crumble, and even caught a glimpse of the stars beyond. She grabbed hold of a column that was tumbling slowly beside her, hoping to avoid being caught between it and a falling section of wall. The lights around her failed, and the scene was lit by the hellish light of Cherenkov radiation from the singularity's event horizon. She knew that the pocket of air around her was dissipating rapidly, and it was just a question of what would kill her first: being crushed between falling fragments, asphyxiated by the encroaching vacuum, freezing solid as the heat rushed into space, or having the molecules of her body stretched apart and scattered by the gravitational forces. With her last breath, she screamed a final message for her partner: "Mihoshi! I swear I will KILL you!"

##########

And then the universe flickered, and she was no longer falling.

Floating, but not falling.

And she had air to breathe. And it was warm. And there was light, provided by banks of lamps.

Kiyone panted, trying to force her respiration rate back to normal. And she blinked repeatedly, trying to acclimate to the sudden brightness. And the realization that she was, miraculously, alive.

Weightlessness was a familiar feeling for her, so she relaxed. She twisted her head around slowly, examining her immediate environment. She was in a sphere made of a transparent material, approximately eight meters in diameter. The sphere was placed in the center of a large room, which looked like a laboratory or small warehouse. The lights came from one surface, which she assumed was the ceiling, while the opposite surface contained an assortment of consoles and tables, which she assumed was the floor. And as she rotated around her own center of mass, she became aware of someone watching from just outside the sphere.

The observer was a woman, quickly determined by large breasts and a mane of spiky red hair that stretched nearly to the floor. She wore a white lab coat, whose big pockets hid her hands. And there was a gaily-colored tummy pouch which hung from her shoulders, which appeared to contain a red-haired infant. The woman smiled with the patient air of someone who's just discovered a new puzzle. "Hello, Officer."

"Uh, hello."

"Impressive. Not the usual panicky, 'Where am I?' You're good."

"Well, I know where I'm not. I suppose I have you thank for rescuing me?"

"Yes, you do. And I am just dying to hear how you happened to be falling into the event horizon of a mini black hole."

Kiyone hesitated. She knew that the standard procedure for any JI Special Ops team was a mindblock, and that any member of the team attempting to relate the tale would end up babbling some nonsensical story. Doubtless she and Mihoshi would have gotten the same treatment. "I was on a covert operation," she finally replied, "and I'm not at liberty to talk about it."

"Ah, that would be the Ultra Energy Matter fiasco."

Kiyone gasped. "You know about that?"

"Mmm-hmmm," the observer nodded. "Naja Akara and I are old acquaintances. Let me introduce myself: I'm Princess Washu Masaki, and this little lady is my daughter Achika. And you would be...?"

"First Class Detective Kiyone Makibi." Washu removed a small control pad from one pocket and began typing on its keypad. Kiyone felt gravity start to appear, pulling her feet toward the bottom of the sphere. "Old acquaintances?"

"We went to the Galaxy Academy together, a long time ago. She disappeared later near K1190, after being attacked by pirates. She surfaced some years afterwards, and I've been keeping an eye on her ever since. By the way, you can put that pistol away. You're quite safe here."

"Huh? Oh! Sorry about that." Kiyone was still clutching her service-issue sidearm, which she slid into her shoulder holster. With a satisfying click her feet connected with the bottom of the sphere, and her weight returned to normal. A wedge-shaped opening appeared and swung outwards, and Kiyone stepped onto the concrete floor. She noticed that Washu was typing on a shadowy keyboard that hovered at waist level, and that an equally shadowy panel was displaying graphic information for her. With a start, Kiyone recognized her own image flash across the screen. "What are you doing?"

"Verifying your identity. Yes, indeed, you are Detective Kiyone Makibi, reported MIA three years ago as a casualty of the Ultra Energy Matter incident. No effort was made to scan the remains of Naja's space station, and it was quarantined by the GP and the Juraian navy."

"What do you mean, 'three years'? I couldn't have been gone that long."

"Actually, you have. You have to remember that time slows down near the event horizon of a singularity — so for you, it's only been a few moments' subjective time. Good thing, too, or you'd have been dead long ago. Here, I'll update your personnel file and notify your family, as well as your regional commander."

"You have that authority?"

"Being a member of the Jurai Imperial Family has certain privileges...not to mention that the GP computers are an easy hack for someone like me. Just how did you get dropped into that singularity in the first place?"

"My idiot partner lost her balance and pushed me off an observation platform."

"'Idiot partner,' eh?" Washu typed a string of instructions into her keyboard, and then grinned wickedly at the information returned to her. "H-m-m-m, I thought your name sounded familiar."

"Now that you mention it, your name sounds familiar, too. But I don't remember any Princess Washu."

"I married into the Imperial Family a year ago." Washu made a gesture and the keyboard vanished. "Well, we're done here. Let's go upstairs while I feed the baby." She removed her lab coat and laid it over a hoverchair back, then started towards a door that Kiyone hadn't noticed before.

"By the way, just where are we?"

"Down here we're in a pocket in psuedospace; upstairs is the north wing of the Imperial palace."

"The Imperial palace?" Kiyone straightened her uniform vest, not that it did much good — she was pretty frumpy-looking after dodging blaster bolts and rolling around the decks of Naja Akara's space station. She expected an elevator or a stairs, but the door led directly into a large room. The room was obviously a common area, full of comfortable furniture, bookcases, and closed doors. The wall opposite the doorway opened onto a kitchen and dining room, and Washu headed for the latter. Kiyone was just walking past a sofa, looking interestedly at the decorations — and stopped dead in her tracks. A group portrait hung on the wall, of four young women and a girl encircling a young man. Kiyone's eyes locked onto one of the figures, her eyes bulging and mouth dropping open. Finally, she was able to mutter one word: "Mihoshi?"

Washu turned, grinning. "She's the 'idiot partner' you mentioned, isn't she?"

"Yes," Kiyone finally managed to say.

"Well she hasn't changed much in three years." Washu unzipped the outer layer of her belly pouch, and the infant within stirred. Tufts of pinkish-red hair wavered slowly above the lip of the pouch. A moment later, she had the infant free and laid upon her shoulder.

"Wait a minute — she's wearing detective captain's bars!"

"She's been promoted a couple of times since her wedding. I guess the GP figured that their PR superstar needed some window dressing." Washu put a blanket on the dining room table, laid the baby on the blanket, and then shed the belly pouch. She flexed her shoulders wearily, dropped into a chair, unfastened one of the catches on her blouse, and positioned Achika for breastfeeding. Kiyone barely noticed.

"And after all my efforts to get promoted..." She studied the image of Washu in her university robes. "Ah, hah! Now I remember you: Washu Hakubi, kidnapped by the criminal Kagato."

"It's Princess Washu Masaki now, and yes that was me."

"How did you escape? Did Kagato ransom you?"

"No. Tenchi killed him in a duel."

"Your husband?" Kiyone examined the central figure in the portrait. "Wow, he must be a tremendous Power adept."

"He is. He's the great-grandson of Emperor Azusa."

Kiyone digested the information, putting the pieces together. "I don't remember the Emperor having a great-grandson. But I do recognize Princess Ayeka and Princess Sasami."

Washu shifted her daughter slightly. "Yep. Ayeka is married to the Prince, too, and Sasami will be when she's a little older. Right now they're formally betrothed."

"All these women are married to Prince Tenchi? Even Mihoshi? But I thought polygamy among the Royal Family was strictly regulated."

"Juraian law permits it if the consorts are all Power adepts."

Kiyone tuned sharply to stare at Washu. "Mihoshi? I knew she was an empath, but a Power adept? I find that hard to believe."

"Believe it. She's an electrokinetic, as well as able to stack probabilities in her favor. If she ever learned to control those talents properly, she'd be a formidable adept."

Kiyone shook her head, more than a little dazed by the revelation. "Who's this?"

"My daughter, Ryoko."

"Ryoko, the space pirate? Your daughter?"

"Yes, she was a pirate, and, yes, she is my daughter."

"She had been missing for centuries..."

"She went 'underground' for a while, until the statute of limitations had expired on her charges. Not long after that it was revealed that Kagato had enslaved her, forcing her to commit all those crimes. She was publicly pardoned just before she married Tenchi. You look like you could use some tea."

"Yeah, that's not a bad idea."

"You'll find a pot brewing in the kitchen. Cups are in the cupboard on the left."

Kiyone pulled herself away from the portrait and drifted into the kitchen, all the while muttering about Princess Mihoshi. Washu lifted Achika and rotated her, allowing her to reach the other breast. Kiyone sat next to them at the table stirring the tea before sipping it.

"Hey, this is pretty good. Who made it?"

"Sasami. She's an absolute sorceress in the kitchen. By the way, there's a book on that shelf over there that you might find interesting reading." Kiyone rose and walked to the indicated bookshelf. "Second shelf, third book from the left end. That's it, the skinny one."

"Oh my god," Kiyone whispered. "This looks like one of Mihoshi's reports."

"It is. She wrote it right after the Kagato Incident. It started a chain of events that took two years to resolve. It also explains how we all met Tenchi, who no one knew even existed."

Intrigued, Kiyone returned to her seat and started thumbing through the pages. She hadn't gotten very far when she heard voices. She looked up casually, and then snapped smartly to attention as she recognized the first two women to enter the common area. She bowed deeply from the waist as Empress Funaho and Empress Misaki strode into the dining room, chatting amiably with a third woman. Before Kiyone could utter a polite, "Your Majesties," the third woman gasped loudly and practically vaulted the table.

"KIYONE!" Mihoshi wrapped her arms around her old friend and put The Squeeze on her.

"Mihoshi...can't breathe...too tight!"

"Oh, Kiyone, I just knew you weren't dead! I just knew it!" Mihoshi relaxed her grip, but maintained the embrace. "How did you get here?"

"Princess Washu rescued me," Kiyone gasped.

"Oh, Washu, thank you — thank you so much!"

"Don't mention it," Washu replied.

"Who is your friend, Mihoshi?" Funaho asked.

"This is my former partner and best friend in the whole universe, Detective First Class Kiyone Makibi!"

"Nice to meet you, Detective," Funaho replied.

"Uh, thank you, Your Majesty," Kiyone managed to wheeze, embarrassed by Mihoshi's emotional gush, and her own predicament. She would have bowed, but Mihoshi held her in an iron grip. She at least nodded her head.

"Detective," Misaki said, and chuckled slightly.

"Your Majesty," Kiyone nodded towards Misaki.

"Lady Misaki, I just finished feeding Achika. Would you like to burp her?" Washu asked.

"Oh, absolutely!" Misaki replied. She took the offered blanket, folded it, and put it over her shoulder, then carefully lifted the baby and placed her on the blanket. She wandered away from the table, making cooing noises and patting Achika's back. Washu and Funaho grinned at each other, watching Misaki's bobbing backside.

"What did you discover, Washu?" Funaho asked, taking a seat at the table. She gestured to Kiyone and Mihoshi to join her. Kiyone managed to regain her seat, with Mihoshi plopping onto the chair next to her.

"There are definitely gravity waves being generated at random intervals up and down this galactic arm, but the GP reports no similar occurrences anywhere else. Since the Juraian Empire occupies most of this arm, it seems logical to assume that Jurai is being targeted somehow. I was running deep scans on all of the known singularities within Jurai space when I discovered Detective Kiyone. The GP Sector office calls me daily asking for status updates."

They all knew that each of the spiral arms tended to be dominated by one species and one government. In the case of Jurai, humans started expanding and colonizing along this arm nearly 50,000 ago. In the consolidating wars that followed, Jurai emerged as the largest political structure in human space, controlling thousands of star systems and hundreds of occupied planets. The neighboring arms were controlled by other species, a pattern which replicated itself clear around the galactic spiral. The Galaxy Police, however, was less homogenous and far older than any of the local governments. Its primary mission was to offer disaster relief and assist with local law enforcement — 'controlling chaos' was how their mission statement defined it. The GP recruited officers from all over the galaxy, apportioning an even mix of locals and aliens to follow its mission and support the peace...although this last task often proved difficult, and in its zeal to remain neutral would often evacuate a combat zone until the shooting stopped. Strictly apolitical. Naturally, if the Juraian Empire was about to become a new theater of engagement, the GP wanted to be ready to yank all of its personnel until the dust settled and they knew who was in charge.

"Very prudent of them," Funaho answered levelly. She looked over at the two GP officers across the table from her. As head of Internal Security, she was quite familiar with Mihoshi's GP record, and as a matter of course had read the dossiers on all of her partners. It only took a moment to recall Kiyone's record: she had been an extremely competent officer. Such expertise could prove very useful. "So, Detective Kiyone, where are you assigned to?"

"I have no idea, Your Majesty. Princess Washu only notified them an hour ago of my rescue."

"We have guest facilities in the west wing, Detective. You would be welcome to stay here until your schedule is sorted out."

"That is very gracious, Your Majesty. Thank you."

"And this gives us a chance to get all caught up!" Mihoshi burbled.

"Yes, I can see a lot has changed..." Kiyone sighed absently. While she grudgingly admitted that she did want to chitchat with Mihoshi, the short conversation between Funaho and Washu had roused her curiosity.

Funaho, used to dealing with security types, noticed her interest. "Perhaps I can get you assigned to the local office, if only temporarily."

"Thank you, Your Majesty." Actually, the suggestion was a mixed bag: working in the Imperial capitol could be a terrific assignment — but she wasn't sure if she wanted another tour with Mihoshi.

"Washu, were there any unusual properties about those gravity waves?" Misaki asked.

"Well, there was one curious property: their signature strengths were graduated, not quite the abrupt generation you normally see with singularities. Almost muted, both at origination and termination."

"Oh, like a door opening and closing?" Mihoshi suggested casually.

Washu stared at her openmouthed. "Damn, why didn't I think of that! Mihoshi, you do have your moments." With a gesture Washu summoned her shadow keyboard and began typing furiously.

"I do? What did I say?" She looked from Kiyone's confused expression to Funaho's gentle grin and back to Washu.

"Hot damn," Washu muttered through a smug smile. "Those are dimensional doorways, all right. But, extremely large doorways."

"How large?" Funaho asked.

"Big enough to pass a battleship through," Washu replied. Achika burped audibly, and Misaki laughed.

"You said it, little one," Funaho smiled. Then she was lost in thought for a while, and the others kept quiet to let her ruminate. "You realize, of course, that this could be interpreted as a possible precursor to invasion?"

"Yes," Misaki replied. "We should probably inform Azusa."

Funaho nodded in agreement. "But he'd demand confirmation, and rightly so, which would take time. I think there are some precautions we should start now. Where's Tenchi?"

"I sent to him Earth for a visit, to spend some time with his family," Washu replied. Funaho gave her an appraising look, and Washu returned a subtle, seemingly casual gesture with her fingers. Funaho's reaction was nearly imperceptible, but Washu saw it — and knew that Funaho had correctly interpreted her private communication. "It's his father's birthday."

"Ah," Funaho replied softly, nodding. "Actually, that might be to our benefit. Yosho should be apprised of the situation." She looked across the table at Mihoshi and Kiyone. "Mihoshi, what's your schedule look like?"

"You've got me booked up pretty solid for the next three weeks, Lady Funaho. That's why I didn't go with Tenchi."

"I'm clearing your schedule, effective immediately. I think you need a vacation, and you should spend it with your husband."

Mihoshi beamed. "I like it already."

"This way you can also deliver a diplomatic packet to Yosho without attracting undue attention. How soon can you leave?"

"As soon as Yukinojo is replenished. Six hours at the most."

"Very good. Start packing. I'll see to your schedule, and call the GP Sector office and get Detective Kiyone assigned to us for a while. There will be a diplomatic pouch delivered to your ship before liftoff, but it will be done discreetly. Ladies, I have a bad feeling about this. Leave quietly, but make haste. I want Tenchi back here as soon as possible." She stood, effectively bringing all conversation to an end.

Mihoshi and Kiyone leaped to their feet, saluted, and bowed. Misaki gently passed Achika back to Washu and followed Funaho out of the common area.

##########

Ryoko stared out the portal, watching the stars pass. They weren't the diamond-hard lights of realspace, but the fuzzy lanterns of psuedospace. They had been traveling for nearly five days, now, though sometimes it seemed much longer. When Washu had first suggested this trip, visions of a second honeymoon had flashed through her head, and she had even laughed with Ayeka about it.

Until Washu told them the real reason: "Tenchi is starting to metamorphose again." Ryoko had cursed, and Ayeka had paled. "He doesn't know it yet. He's resisting the change, and this environment is adding to his stress."

"What's wrong with this environment?" Ayeka had asked.

"Those pointless errands your father keeps sending him on, and the long hours he spends at the university and studying. The only time he really unwinds is with us, and I'm afraid he needs a few days to relax and let this phase occur. Sadly, there is another element, as well."

"And what's that?" Ryoko had asked.

"At this point, it would not do him any good to go through another change where all the palace spies and spooks can witness the whole thing. God alone knows how it will be used against him, but you can be sure it will. Azusa would probably be first in line to exploit his circumstances."

"I'm afraid I have to concur with that," Ayeka said. She loved her father, but her husband came first. Period. "How serious is this phase liable to be?"

"I have no idea. I couldn't even predict the first one. Tsunami says this phase won't be nearly as critical as the other one was, but she agrees that he should be isolated for a while. I know he'd like to see his father and stepmother again, and he hasn't been back to Earth since their wedding. Maybe sleeping in his old room will calm him down enough to let the process run its course."

"Just what have you told him?" Ryoko asked.

"Nothing. I merely suggested that since he's on semester break, this might be a good time to visit Earth."

Ryoko and Ayeka had looked at one another and nodded. They had sworn to protect their husband, no matter what.

So Ryoko spent the long days watching, either outwards at the changing constellations, or inwards at her semi-comatose husband. And drinking lots of tea (good thing she was going back to Earth — her supply of sake had been depleted and her cache of Bavidian brandy was nearly gone; time to hit the Okayama liquor stores).

Ayeka joined her at the window. She had brought along her needlework on this trip, and had spent many of the hours silently flipping her needles in rhythmic patterns. Ryoko approved, if for no other reason than that it reduced conversations to a minimum. (Her missions with Mihoshi, though often of similar duration, were always so busy that there was never time to sit around and twiddle their thumbs. Always plans to make on the trip out, and reports to write on the trip back.) "I never get tired of the view, particularly when passing near the nebulae."

Ryoko nodded. "It can get a little boring sometimes."

"I guess I haven't traveled enough, then." She poured a cup of tea and offered it to Ryoko, who accepted it. She poured herself a cup.

"I'm worried about Tenchi. He's sleeping too much and too fitfully." Both women turned to look at the man draped across the futon. Blankets had been twisted and tossed so many ways that they were a chaotic jumble. Even across Ryo-ohki's command deck, they could see him sweating heavily.

Ayeka shrugged. "We have to trust Washu's advice on this. I must admit, I was reluctant to come along, as I haven't been feeling well lately. But I also sense that something bad is about to happen, and I wanted to be near Tenchi."

Ryoko looked at her with a raised eyebrow. "Oh?"

"Sasami has been having more precognitive dreams lately, and I've had my own premonitions."

"Is that what has been making you ill?"

"No. I'm pregnant."

"Really?" Ryoko gasped, grinning. "That's wonderful! Boy or girl?"

"Boy."

"Wow. Does Tenchi know?"

"No, I was informed just prior to departure."

"Uh, shouldn't you be telling Tenchi before anyone else?"

Ayeka slowly stirred her tea. "I remember asking Funaho once how she was able to accept my mother into her marriage. She replied that, once they had settled upon a working relationship, the two women became close friends. I was skeptical at the time, but I have since learned to appreciate that statement. Ryoko, even when we were rivals for Tenchi's affections, we still had much in common. I really didn't like you back then, but I did respect you. We have been through a great deal together since, and now that we are 'Sisters of the Serail,' I must admit that you are my closest friend. I feel that you will keep my confidences, as I will keep yours."

Ryoko was clearly touched. "Thank you, Ayeka. I never had a friend before meeting you, other than Ryo-ohki. I'm just glad that things worked out the way they did."

"Of course, having said all that, don't think I'm willing to relinquish even one minute of my time with Tenchi." She grinned and raised her cup in salute.

Ryoko returned both grin and salute. "Absolutely. I wouldn't have it any other way."

"How soon to the Sol system?"

"Three hours 'till we drop into realspace, another nine to cross the distance to Earth."

"Good."

Tenchi stirred in his sleep, drawing worried glances from his wives.

##########

"No offense, Darling, but you look like hell," Ryoko said.

"Yes, Beloved, if you open your eyes any wider you'll bleed to death," Ayeka said.

Tenchi shrugged. "If you think the outside is bad, you should try the inside. I feel exhausted." Tenchi sat on the deck next to the main portal, watching the blue crescent of Earth growing with proximity. They would be in Japanese airspace in less than an hour, and he needed to be awake and ready. He looked again at the pile of blankets on his futon and cringed. "I must have been running laps in my sleep."

"With that enhanced speed of yours, you were bruising our legs," Ayeka replied. "We moved our futons over there."

"I'm sorry," he answered sheepishly. "I didn't think my Power would manifest while I'm asleep."

"This is the first time I've seen it happen," Ryoko said. Ayeka nodded in agreement.

"The dreams are getting longer and more intense," Tenchi explained. "Maybe I should take some kind of tranquilizer."

"If Washu thought that would help, I'm sure she would have given you one by now," Ayeka replied. "I'm as confident as she is that it's all just stress related. This vacation will do you some good."

"And that means it will do us all some good," Ryoko added. "In fact, I'm looking forward to a little shopping. You wanna tag along, Ayeka?"

"Absolutely."

"Now, be a good boy and get showered and dressed, will you? You've only got about 30 minutes."

##########

The courier 'bot had arrived three days earlier, announcing the scheduled arrival of Ryo-ohki. It had been just one of several shuttles slipping unseen through the overlapping radar nets of the numerous Terran governments. Most of the denizens of planet Earth were completely ignorant of the Galaxy Academy's science station nestled quietly above the Masaki shrine in the mountains of Okayama Prefecture. Some of the Juraians present were monitoring the Terrans and their cultures, descendents of Juraian colonists thousands of years in the past; some were laboring over the Royal Tree that was semi-rooted in a pond below the shrine; others were simply transients moving personnel and cargo in and out of the station. There was a steady (though discreet) amount of traffic up and down the mountainside, but it studiously avoided the shrine itself and the Masaki family residence. Everyone onsite knew who lived at the shrine and the residence; there was modest interaction between the two groups, but it was kept to a minimum.

Crown Prince Yosho Masaki Jurai liked it that way. He had lived on the mountain for seven centuries, and he didn't like seeing its natural rhythms disturbed. He divided his time between attending to his duties as the local Shinto priest, and keeping an eye on the galactics. He had long since resumed the aged facade of Katsuhito Masaki, primarily for the benefit of the locals, but the extraterrestrials saw right through it. He was still young and healthy, a master swordsman, and heir to the throne of the Juraian Empire. He was held in high regard.

Nobuyuki Masaki, Terran son-in-law of the Crown Prince, lead a much more mundane existence. His time was spent between the architectural firm he worked at, and being with his new family. His first wife had died many years earlier, and he had raised his son under the watchful eye of his father-in-law. It had seemed an isolated life for the young Tenchi, and might have remained that way had unusual circumstances not intervened...circumstances like Ryoko, and Ayeka, and Sasami, etc. Nobuyuki had been forced to deal with a new reality, and did so reasonably successfully. When his son had finally gotten married and moved out on his own (albeit hundreds of light years away!), Nobuyuki had resigned himself to returning to a quiet and monotonous existence. Then he'd met the widow Reina, and their whirlwind courtship, and the wedding, and the mini-invasion of Juraian researchers, and...well, it was fortunate that he had learned how to live with uncertainty.

Reina Masaki brought her children, 6-year-old son Ken'ichi and four-year-old daughter Kiyoko, to the mountain expecting a peaceful, rural lifestyle. Her future husband had described the place as rather idyllic, and her frequent weekends had seemed to justify the label. Of course, that was before the full import of the family's little secret had been revealed to her. She had learned to be flexible after the death of her first husband, and it had proved good training for the subsequent turn of events. Every morning she walked into the living room and faced the portrait of her stepson and his wives, and the knowledge that they possessed talents and skills that were totally beyond her experience. Not so for her kids; having been raised in the age of anime, they accepted it all with equanimity. They never tired of Grandpa's stories about Tenchi and the girls and their adventures. Their biggest single regret was being sworn to silence (and even they could see that no one would believe such tales anyway). They leaped for joy when they heard that Ryo-ohki was inbound.

And so it was a small group who waited on the dock outside the house, watching Ryo-ohki drifting silently from the sky in the early morning sunshine: Yosho, Nobuyuki, Reina, Ken'ichi, Kiyoko, and a small delegation from the science station. The bioship hovered above the lake, and three figures shivered into existence as Ryoko teleported Tenchi and Ayeka onto the dock.

There was a solemn moment where the two groups exchanged bows, and then all of the Masaki family members broke out laughing and smiling. Tenchi stepped forward and embraced his father and grandfather affectionately. Ayeka received hugs from the kids, who then leaped at Ryoko with wild abandon. Ayeka embraced Reina, the two women having long since recognized kindred spirits in each other. "Hey, how are the best kids on this planet, eh?" Ryoko exclaimed, setting one on each of her shoulders. There followed a flurry of chatter and gossip and teasing, while Tenchi and Yosho approached the waiting station personnel.

As a group, they bowed formally to the future rulers of the Empire.

Yosho and Tenchi returned their bows, and then there was a round of introductions, and small talk, and an invitation for Tenchi to visit their facilities. Tenchi promised he would, there was more polite conversation, and then the academy personnel beat a quiet but hasty retreat.

Ryo-ohki emitted a loud "Miya!" and Ryoko slapped her forehead theatrically. "Sorry kids," she apologized, setting them on the dock, "but I've gotta get the luggage before I do anything else. I'll be right back!" And with that, she levitated into the air and vanished. She appeared moments later carrying an assortment of suitcases and boxes. Ryo-ohki chittered, and then began the shrinking/compressing action that she used to revert to her quadruped form. She had no sooner landed on the dock before being scooped up by Kiyoko, who produced a carrot from a pocket and dangled it under the cabbit's nose. Ryo-ohki "Miya"-ed appreciatively.

"It's good to be back in Okayama," Tenchi said, returning to his family. "Springtime in the mountains..."

"You look rather worn out, Son," Nobuyuki replied. "Don't tell me they're turning you into a salaryman out there!"

"You're closer to the truth than you know, Dad. In fact, Washu was very specific about getting some rest while I'm here."

"Well, your old room is ready for you, though I wasn't really planning on three of you sleeping there..."

"Not a problem!" Ryoko said, grinning wickedly. "We've found a way to stack up vertically!"

"Oh, Ryoko..." Ayeka sighed.

"That's my son!" Nobuyuki beamed. Tenchi was too tired to blush.

##########

"That didn't take long," Ryoko said, materializing in the dining room.

"So quickly...maybe he is finally relaxing," Ayeka replied.

"I no sooner threw a blanket over him than he was snoring. I left Ryo-ohki with him." Ryoko sat next to Ayeka at the table.

"Well, the snoring is a good sign."

"What is going on, Little Sister?" Yosho asked. He nodded to Reina, who was distributing cups of steaming tea.

"Is something wrong with my son?" Nobuyuki asked.

"Er, we really aren't supposed to say anything..." Ryoko began.

"Washu thinks he's about to enter another change. He's been under such a lot of stress, lately, that he's resisting the process. He has not slept well in two or three weeks. She thought a few days here would relax him enough to allow the process to begin."

"A change?" Reina asked. "Into what?"

Yosho explained briefly about Tenchi's Power attributes, and their incremental expansions.

There was an awkward silence for a moment, before Nobuyuki cleared his throat. "So, how is that little grand-daughter of mine?"

"Growing like a weed," Ryoko grinned.

"Yes, her hair is turning the same shade of red as Washu's, though she has Tenchi's eyes," Ayeka added.

"What other attributes has she inherited from her father?" Yosho asked.

"Washu says it's too early to tell for sure, but the indications are promising," Ayeka answered. "Sasami hasn't started manifesting her Power attributes yet, but it should happen in the next couple of years. There's no reason to assume Achika won't follow the same pattern."

"How is Sasami?" Reina asked.

"Taller," Ryoko replied. "And playing more practical jokes than ever. Although of late she has been targeting her tutors, rather than us."

"I like what you've done to your hair," Reina said to Ayeka.

"This is my natural color," Ayeka said, lifting one of her azure-colored ponytails. "It looks more like my mother's and Sasami's now. I grew tired of the darker tint some months ago."

"Does Tenchi like it?" Ayeka nodded, smiling. Reina turned to Ryoko. "And how about you, Dear? How are you doing?"

"I'm doing quite well," Ryoko replied. "Never better, in fact. I have a husband, and a family, and a home, and a career. I couldn't ask for anything more." She looked sidelong at Ayeka, who returned the glance. Yosho noticed the exchange.

"Are you sure it's not too sedate a lifestyle for you?" he asked.

"Your mother keeps me from getting bored. She sends me out on assignments with Mihoshi, and those are anything but dull. Guarding Tenchi on his various errands is almost a relief."

"And affairs of state keep me occupied," Ayeka said. "Since Tenchi is often away from the capitol, I stand in for him at council meetings and parliamentary sessions. I never really realized just how full my father's calendar is." She sipped her tea, looking at her older brother. "Tell me, Yosho, when will Funaho be ready to fly?"

"Not for another eighteen months at least. The botanists say that there has been tremendous progress, but the process cannot be rushed. So, I remain here for the foreseeable future. But I trust you're doing an admirable job filling my seat at all those meetings. You always did appreciate them more than I."

Ayeka nodded, confirming the statement.

"So: what's on today's agenda?" Ryoko asked.

"Well, I took a couple of days of vacation, once I knew you were coming. We thought we'd leave it up to you kids to decide," Nobuyuki replied. "Was there something special you had in mind?"

Ryoko and an Ayeka exchanged grins, and said in unison: "Shopping!"

"What about Tenchi?" Reina asked.

Ryoko shrugged. "He'll sleep for several hours, and he won't need us hovering over him the whole time."

"And we did inform him of our intentions on the voyage here," Ayeka added. "If he wakes up early, he can spend his time just walking about and resetting his biorhythms. It will do him some good."

"Are you coming with us, Reina?"

"Go ahead, Dear," Nobuyuki said. "I'll watch the little ones."

"Well..." Reina paused, considering. "Ok." A big smile spread across her face.

##########

The GP Cruiser Yukinojo slipped into psuedospace after receiving its clearance from the Juraian Space Traffic Control Authority. With five days of confinement to look forward to, the two passengers addressed the lists of unpacking and maintenance tasks that awaited them.

Kiyone looked around Mihoshi's cabin in amazement. "Mihoshi — this is so clean! Not like your quarters on the old Yagami."

Mihoshi giggled. "Yes, Tenchi showed me how to organize the clutter, and then made me promise to clean it once a week."

Kiyone grinned and shook her head. She sat on Mihoshi's bed and looked at the graphic mounted on the opposite bulkhead. Tenchi and Mihoshi, shoulder-to-shoulder, smiling to each other as much as to the photographer. "I envy you, Mihoshi. He's quite a catch."

"Thanks, Kiyone. I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't met him." She sat next to her friend and partner, staring at the photograph with her clear, blue eyes. "It was pretty tough after you disappeared. I went into a long slump; I had a string of partners and cases which all ended disastrously. No matter how hard I tried to stay positive about it, everything kept going wrong. I got a terrible reputation. All sorts of comments were whispered behind my back, just nasty things. It was awful."

"What were they saying?"

"They called me the 'Luck Vampire,' that I always solved my cases by siphoning all the luck from my partner, that my career was made at my partner's expense." She looked sidelong at Kiyone, and Kiyone realized she had often made similar comments herself. She swallowed silently. "They called me 'bubblehead' and said that if I let my hair down, I'd lose my memory. That the only reason I was allowed to stay in the GP was because of my grandfather. Stupid, spiteful things like that. I was convinced I was jinxed. Even Kagato had heard the rumors, damn him." She drifted into silence.

"Then what happened?" Kiyone prompted.

"I finally hit rock bottom when Yukinojo ejected me to keep me from being pulled into a subspace pocket that I had blithely ignored...and I was rescued by a 17-year-old boy." She nodded at the photograph. "Little did I know at that moment that I had been saved by the one person in the galaxy so powerful that he couldn't be harmed by my 'talents'. It didn't take very long to fall for him like a ton of bricks." She sighed, smiling at her memories. "The competition for him was pretty stiff: Ryoko and Ayeka were so possessive of him that they literally fought for his attention (the house was repaired any number of times). And there was always Washu in the background, and Sasami..." She stood up, walking over to touch the portrait. "I didn't think he noticed me. Or cared. The happiest day of my life was when he proposed to us. He started with Ryoko, and then Ayeka, and then Sasami...and I was thinking the whole time that I would be left out, that I should probably go pack. And then he asked me, too! God, I was so excited I almost wet my pants." She giggled, and Kiyone grinned. "I haven't had a bad day since."

"So, just what have you been doing?"

"Lady Funaho got me attached to her security office. She sends me and Ryoko out on intelligence-gathering missions, or fleet security evaluations. Pretty exciting stuff, really. I go in the front door in my usual spectacular fashion, while Ryoko sneaks in the back door. Some of our missions get pretty wild. We even took Tenchi along once, although Ayeka got really angry when she found out." Mihoshi fiddled idly with her wedding ring. "The question now is, what are you going to do? I doubt that you want to be stuck with me again, so between Lady Funaho and I we can probably get you posted anywhere you want to go."

"I honestly don't know, Mihoshi. I feel so out of place now. That three-year-long bite out of my career may be terminal. I haven't aged a day, but the general feeling seems to be that I've been on the shelf, getting rusty and lax. I really love the GP...but maybe I should consider other options."

"Well, let me know what you want to do. I'll help any way that I can."

"Thanks, Mihoshi."

##########

The Juraian admiralty had been warned about possible dimensional doorways appearing suddenly, but nobody expected one to appear in the central star system. Approximately four million miles from the system primary, out between the orbits of the fourth and fifth planets, a massive ring shimmered into existence. Its arrival was announced by gravity waves and photon spillage, and a squadron of cruisers and destroyers was immediately dispatched to investigate...and to intercept whatever might emerge.

Like most such doorways, it was black and completely featureless, other than the faint glow of its verge. No background stars were visible through the portal, and orientation of the doorway meant nothing without knowing the point of origin. It hung silent and menacing for nearly two hours before the first vessel appeared. The starship was a lumpy, ungainly-looking structure, covered with the abundant sensors and weapons' blisters that denoted a combat vessel. It was small, and easily matched by the Juraian reception committee. It made no overt actions, just advanced slowly away from the doorway for a thousand klicks and stopped. It sat quietly and waited, which gave the Home Fleet a chance to identify it.

"It's a K'vimm corvette," Captain Shalareron reported to Emperor Azusa. The captain was Azusa's current naval attaché, wearing the shoulder cords of his office, and presently walking a respectful distance behind the Emperor as he strode across the Palace grounds. Empress Misaki kept pace with her husband, occasionally glancing at his profile in an attempt to discern his mood. Azusa was seldom a jolly man, and when distracted or engulfed by events, he cloaked himself in an unreadable dour facade. Today was no exception.

"Who are the K'vimm?" Azusa growled.

"One of the three dominant species in the galactic arm east of us, Your Majesty. They are considered insectoid, with a history of random and aggressive behavior. They rarely venture beyond their borders without good cause."

"So what brings them this far into Jurai space?"

"Unknown, Your Majesty. The corvette appears to be waiting for some action to take place, possibly a similar gesture on our part."

Azusa led them to the airfield, where his security guard was waiting for him: seven troopers decked out in battle armor and assault rifles, and a similarly equipped officer. The officer saluted smartly upon their approach. Misaki had summoned them, knowing that her husband would soon transport himself to his Royal Tree, knowing she would be sent to her own vessel. Protocol (and common sense) demanded that he have an escort.

"Well, why don't you proceed with this 'gesture' then?"

"We were waiting for your permission, Your Majesty. Standing orders prohibit any first contact scenarios without the express consent of the monarchy."

Azusa waved aside the objection. "Get it done, Captain. Let's hear what they want."

"Yes, Your Majesty." Shalareron produced a personal terminal and began speaking quietly into it. At the same time, the security officer produced a similar device and spoke into it. In seconds, the squad, Shalareron, and the Emperor flickered and vanished. Misaki sighed; she would have preferred to accompany her husband, but she had lost that argument so many times it wasn't worth raising any longer. She produced her own terminal and issued instructions.

The Corral was a Lagrangian point of gravitational balance between the planet and its moons. This was the gathering place of the Royal Trees, feeding on sunlight and patiently waiting for interesting events to unfold among the humans. Three of the five first-generation trees were floating quietly in the Corral: the largest and most powerful being Kirito, whose latest Companion (of only 800 years) was the Emperor. She was accompanied by her peers: Empress Funaho's Companion Mizuho and Empress Misaki's Companion Karin (each also bonded less than 1000 years). The other two first-generation trees were many light years away: Yosho's Companion Funaho was still on Earth, and Mizunagi and her Companion Fleet Admiral Kasumi Jurai were stationed on the frontier. Of the dozen second-generation Trees, only Ayeka's Companion Ryu-oh was present (she was regenerating, having been critically damaged on her last voyage to Earth). The Sentinels — five third-generation and five fourth-generation trees — floated nearby.

The grandest of the Royal Trees was Kirito, The Heavens Tree, the Flying Palace. The vessel was immense, and was large enough to carry hundreds of passengers in luxury, hundreds of servants to pamper the guests, and hundreds of crew to attend to the ship's needs. Azusa schemed to spend as much time aboard as he could finagle, commanding in regal isolation from his elevated throne. The view out the immense portals was spectacular, and he could see the trees moving into formation with Kirito — except Mizuho and Ryu-oh. He tossed the obvious question to the crowd of courtiers at the bottom of the steps. Once again, Shalareron answered. "Empress Funaho is looking into reports of other doorways appearing throughout the Empire, and will not be joining us. Princess Ayeka is presently on Earth with Prince Tenchi." Left unspoken was the simple fact that neither Tree would budge from the Corral without her Companion aboard. Only one Royal Tree had the inclination to act independently, and did so frequently.

As if reading his mind, Shalareron added, "Tsunami's location is unknown, although Princess Sasami may have knowledge of her whereabouts."

Azusa grumbled, but maintained his composure. "Very well, set a course for the dimensional doorway. Let's meet this K'vimm representative."

Kirito ponderously rumbled to life, her gravitic 'legs' propelling her out of the Corral and into interplanetary space. Karin paced the flagship as the Sentinels formed a ring around them, and an escort of heavy cruisers and destroyers broke orbit from the Imperial naval base on the outer moon.

##########

"Dinner time? Geez, I didn't mean to sleep the whole day away."

"Well, look who's awake!" Nobuyuki exclaimed.

Tenchi stood in the doorway, yawning. The bags under his eyes had dwindled, and his gaze appeared alert. "Yeah, I really needed that nap. I feel much better."

Ayeka and Ryoko swapped relieved smiles. They made room for him at the table, in his old seat between them.

"I'm glad to see you up and around," Reina began, setting a place for him.

"This is excellent," Ryoko said. "Here, Tenchi, try a little of this."

Tenchi did, and nodded appreciatively. "She's right, Reina. This taste's great."

"Thank you," Reina said, smiling.

"You look refreshed, Beloved," Ayeka said.

"Actually, I feel pretty good. Restless, in fact."

"Tenchi, have you continued to practice?" Yosho asked.

Tenchi nodded. "I'm afraid your sensei had passed away during your absence, but his oldest daughter has assumed his position as head of the school. Ryoko and I have been studying with her."

"I'm guessing we've been something of a challenge for her," Ryoko added. "Still, she is one creative lady, and a terrific teacher."

"Grandpa has started teaching me the sword, too!" Ken'ichi exclaimed. "He said you were my age when you started learning."

"That's right, I was." Tenchi stopped eating for a moment, recalling memories. "You should pay close attention to what he says, because there is no better teacher anywhere."

"I don't see much practical use for it," Reina said quietly.

"Aw, Mom, it's fun. And it's great exercise."

"It is impossible to foresee the future accurately," Yosho said. "Such skills may prove very useful in due time."

"Maybe I could go to Jurai with Tenchi!"

"Maybe." Tenchi saw the look on his mother's face. "But that kind of decision is many years in the future. It will depend on a lot of things, including how well you do in school."

Before Ken'ichi could pursue the thread any further, Yosho added: "All this talk of swordplay. Perhaps you'd like to visit the practice area after dinner, and show an old man what you've learned."

Tenchi, Ryoko, and Ayeka laughed, both at the 'old man' reference, and at more unbidden memories.

"Sure, Grandpa, I'd love to."

"Count me in," Ryoko said.

##########

Misaki sat in her command chair, brooding. Her staff recognized her pensive mood and found excuses to be elsewhere, so she had the bridge of Karin to herself. She watched Kirito sailing majestically alongside, her many lights both festive and harsh.

Which rather matched her husband's personality, she decided.

There was distance growing between the principles of the Imperial Family, and had been for a long time. The intimacy between Azusa and his wives had been allowed to wither over time. The fire of their early years, their unified sense of purpose, appeared to have cooled and gone out. She slept alone most of the time, as Azusa's visits became rarer...a condition also shared by Funaho. And Misaki had to face the fact that Azusa rarely slept alone (Funaho's operatives had more than enough evidence of his promiscuity — and they were very efficient in dealing with any loose ends). The truth hurt, but not as much as she thought it might.

She loved her husband, but she was no longer in love with him.

She had considered playing the same games he did, seeking comfort in the arms of paramours, but she just couldn't bring herself to do it. Her loyalty ran too deep. She had confided her fears to Funaho, who had voiced similar sentiments. They had taken oaths and would stand by them. But neither had the answer to the root question: how do you keep the romance alive in a marriage measured in centuries? Others had found the means (her own parents, for instance), so what had fractured their own union? She didn't think it had anything to do with its polygamous structure, but she couldn't prove it. The only thing she knew for certain was that she was increasingly lonely, and did not relish the thought of facing the coming centuries in an empty bed. Neither divorce nor perfidy were acceptable, since the scandal would bring shame upon their House, but the current situation was becoming equally unacceptable.

Funaho had found an avenue of escape in her duties, an option not open to Misaki. As head of the royal bodyguards, Misaki faced her husband on a daily basis. So she would have to seek another venue. There had been a time when she had lavished her attentions and affections upon her daughters. But now those same daughters were becoming independent and distant, as children inevitably do. She had experienced severe misgivings when Ayeka had married into Tenchi's growing household, but her daughter's happiness was plainly evident. And Sasami remained fervently focused upon joining her older sister. She wondered idly if Tenchi would one day succumb to the temptations that had corrupted Azusa, and leave her little girls sad and abandoned as well. But that scenario just didn't fit — Tenchi was not flamboyant and prevaricating, but stalwart and dependable. Perhaps Azusa perceived the dichotomy as well, and added that to his list of reasons to resent his great-grandson.

For the foreseeable future, at least, House Jurai would not know peace.

##########

Azusa, too, was contemplating his great-grandson.

The boy's popularity was growing by leaps and bounds, and his Power attributes were growing beyond 'formidable' to 'legendary.' Accession to the throne was determined by fitness — the strongest ruled. He had wrested the crown from his father, as his father had before him, and his father. That his own son was too weak to make the attempt was galling; that none of his children was really strong enough to face him was a painful disappointment. He had heard that his granddaughter had possessed spirit and strength, and he regretted the lost opportunity. But as to his great-grandson...

Tenchi could vanquish him at any time. Courage and spirit and Power in abundance — and the boy simply dismissed the opportunity as irrelevant. Which, in essence, deemed his great-grandfather irrelevant.

Azusa considered himself a warrior of high renown. To be rejected as unworthy of a Challenge was the foulest of insults. The problem was that the boy was right: he could not provide a worthy struggle. Having been top dog for so long, being overshadowed so easily was humiliating. It might have been more tolerable if the boy affected an arrogant and swaggering demeanor — nobody liked a bully, after all — but he was polite, sensitive, intense...in short, chivalrous.

The situation placed his own future is doubt. What action or decision of his would convince the boy to issue the Challenge? When would Tenchi's native ambition get the better of him, and push him to seek the crown? Should Azusa moderate his policies to meet the boy's approval, and thus remain on the throne, or throw caution to the winds and rule as he saw fit? The latter option was his first choice, but there still remained many tasks to accomplish before being banished into retirement/obscurity. He had not slept well in two years.

Although sleeping was not always the activity of choice. He studied the collection of beautiful women milling about the chamber. He had bedded many of them, and would pursue the remainder when it suited him. He allowed a grudging smile to touch his face: he would give Tenchi credit in his choice of women. At least one family trait carried true to form.

##########

Tenchi stood on the deck, wrapped in a bathrobe against the chill spring breeze, looking at the stars but not really seeing them. The dreams had come again: whether confined in a box, or a ball, or an amorphous cage, he was trapped and couldn't get out. No matter how much he shouted and pounded on the walls, he could not get free. As usual, he awakened sweating and gasping. As quietly as he could, he'd donned his bathrobe, and then slipped out to the deck to calm down.

Practically every time he slept, the dreams haunted him. He didn't know how much longer this could continue.

A pair of feminine hands appeared out of the darkness and wrapped around him, and he felt breasts pressed into his back. He saw shadowy cyan hair out of the corner of his eye, and felt a chin sink softly into his shoulder. "Bad dreams again, huh?" Ryoko asked.

"Yeah," Tenchi answered. No use trying to hide the obvious. "I hope I didn't wake you."

"No," she lied, trying to muffle a yawn. "I was just checking on you. It's a habit in that bedroom." There had been a time, once, when she had hovered over him all through the night, just watching him sleep, afraid that something might happen to him.

"Have you talked to Washu about your dreams?"

"Yes," he replied. "She doesn't think they're precognitive, but that they reflect something I'm worried about. In fact, she was the one who suggested I come back here for Dad's birthday, to take my mind off of the university, and the palace, and my duties." Tenchi sighed, absently massaging Ryoko's arms. "I don't think it's helped much."

They stood locked together for a while, lost in their own thoughts.

"Aren't you getting cold out here?" she asked, feeling him shiver. She, of course, was impervious to the temperature. "Come on, let's go back to bed."

Tenchi allowed himself to be dragged back into the house, shutting the sliding door behind them. He stood by the bed and removed his bathrobe, standing naked in the starlight from the windows. He gently lifted the covers and climbed in next to Ayeka, trying not to disturb her. She was facing the wall, as naked as he was, with the covers pulled tightly around her. He had just settled onto his pillow when she said quite clearly, "The next time you two decide to go out for a moonlight stroll, would you please close that door tightly? There's a considerable draught."

"I'm sorry," Tenchi sighed. Ryoko slipped under the covers on his other side, as naked as her husband, while Ayeka rolled over to face them. He lay on his back and spread his arms, as both of his wives snuggled up to his ribs. He could smell their hair as they put their heads on his chest, and he felt each of them drape a leg over his knees. "Hey, watch the extremities," he growled. They giggled back at him. "You know, I don't remember this bed being so cramped before."

"I don't think it's cramped," Ayeka replied.

"Me, neither," Ryoko added.

"Miya," Ryo-ohki chirped from the foot of the bed.

Tenchi started chuckling.

"What's so funny?" Ryoko asked.

"What I do remember is the first few weeks after you two came here, and how I used to lay here and fantasize about you both."

"You could have done something about it, you know," Ryoko said.

"Think of all the grief you could have prevented," Ayeka added.

"Do either of you have any idea how scared of you I was? I'd never met a Power adept before, let alone two Power adepts, let alone two beautiful Power adepts. I didn't know which one of you was going to kill me first, but I was pretty sure my days were numbered."

"As a bachelor, anyway," Ryoko replied. She drew circles around his navel with her fingertip.

"If you're trying to start something," Tenchi warned her, "I should point out that I'm really too tired."

"As am I," Ayeka added.

"You both ought to be," Ryoko replied, her grin evident in her voice.

"If you find that so amusing, perhaps you can explain to the children in the morning just exactly why the three of us were making so much noise in here," Ayeka said.

Tenchi stiffened, and both women felt him blush. "Oh, geez."

"No problem," Ryoko replied. "I'll even wash the sheets, if that will make you feel better."

"Thank you, Ryoko, that is very considerate," Ayeka yawned. Tenchi merely groaned.

There was a long silence, broken finally by Tenchi on the verge of falling asleep. "I love you ladies." He got a kiss in return from each of them.

Ayeka waited for his breathing to deepen into a slow, regular rhythm, before whispering, "Well?"

"Washu was right," Ryoko whispered back. "It's happening again."

"Our poor Tenchi."

"You haven't told him yet, have you?"

"No, I just couldn't, not with this problem worrying him so much."

"It might actually help him take his mind off this problem," Ryoko prompted. "A little good news can go a long way."

"You have a valid point, Ryoko. I will reconsider the matter."

##########

Ayeka, Ryoko, and Tenchi followed Yosho into the clearing that cradled The Holy Tree of Masaki Shrine. It had changed dramatically over the last two years. The pond that had once sheltered the little isle in its center was only half as deep now. There were weatherproof shelters constructed all along the original waterline, and many sprouted cables that snaked into the water like tentacles. Juraian botanists busied themselves with monitors and equipment attached to Funaho's exposed surfaces. Hoverbarges drifted over portions of the pond, with mounted sensors pointing into its depths. A radio blared from somewhere, playing music from one of the popular Tokyo stations.

Funaho had changed, too. The tree had once resembled a bristlecone pine, whose roots seemed to grip the ground firmly before vanishing into the pond. Being a young tree, it was densely clad with non-terrestrial leaves, sweating sap in the sunshine that filled the air with resinous scents. It had sat long enough that gravity had begun to sculpt its limbs into beautiful and distinctive shapes, and youth and vitality had radiated from its corrugated skin. But now its roots were withdrawing from the muck of the ponds' bottom, coiling slowly back into the sunlight and the wind. Its trunk had nearly tripled in diameter, and its canopy was slowly shrinking and condensing, giving the tree a passing resemblance to a sea anemone. A complex pattern could be discerned by correlating limbs and roots, as the tree metamorphosed slowly back to its original shape.

Ryo-ohki had inflicted severe combat damage upon Funaho, who had been forced to revert to a more primitive state to seek sustenance from the soil. Consequently, the tree had been dormant for seven centuries, finally rising to a lethargic wakened state with the revival of Ryo-ohki and the appearance of Ryu-oh. Now, Funaho was fully awake and aware, and eagerly co-operating with the team of scientists restoring it to full functionality.

Funaho was typical of Royal Trees: for the bulk of her juvenile years, she had maintained the standard configuration (i.e., "ground-bound and roots-down"). Later, she was moved to a custom-grown habitat module, where she had completed the conversion to arboreal astronaut. And where she was presented to Crown Prince Yosho, whom she had accepted as her human symbiont. Where Funaho was atypical of other Royal Trees was in her size and Power manifestations. She was a first-generation tree, and as such she was capable of projecting three Lighthawk Wings, and could manipulate these in both offensive and defensive dispositions. Nothing in the Juraian navy could match her or her peers for versatility and efficiency. Later generation trees were less capable of such brute force, but the navy was happy to have them: self-sustaining, self-repairing, wide-ranging, and requiring small crews. They preferred to bond with individual humans, and winning the command of such a vessel (and the cooperation of the tree herself) was considered the ultimate goal of every officer in the fleet. To the knowledge of the admiralty, and the reassurance of the Galaxy Police, there was simply nothing like them anywhere in the galaxy. The Jewels of the Juraian Crown.

The botanists nursing the invalid Funaho were duplicating her original maturation process...to a point. Many of the later adaptations were already in place, so it was more a question of healing rather than growing. She would soon be ready for zero gravity, and in the planning stage was a dome that would completely cover the pond. Once erected (and camouflaged from the locals) she would begin her final resurrection. She would probably look nothing like her original incarnation. Funaho was looking forward to it — as was Yosho, when he cared to admit it.

Yosho led them onto a railed gantry that had been extended out over the rocks and roots. He walked up to the side of the tree and placed a hand gently on her bark, communicating silently through their shared mental link. Funaho returned the greeting with a cascade of coherent beams and trilling notes from the branches above him. Yosho stood thus for a moment, before stepping aside.

"Hello, old friend," Ayeka said, placing her hand as Yosho had. She was treated to a similar display of lights and sounds, which conveyed a warm welcome to The Companion's half-sister. "You look so different now, it's amazing."

Ryoko stepped in front of the Tree, bowing slightly. The greeting she received was more reserved, polite and respectful. Even though they had once been enemies, they both knew that without Ryoko's gems Yosho would have long since died, and Funaho would have been permanently stranded. "It's okay, Funaho, I don't expect us to be friends — but just remember: we're on the same side now." Ryo-ohki chittered similar sentiments from her place on Ryoko's shoulder.

And then Tenchi stepped up to the tree, and the reception he got was nearly blinding. As bright as spotlights, the beams that danced and examined the Juraian Prince were accompanied by musical tremors of approbation and homage. Ryoko leaned over and whispered to Ayeka, "Geez, he gets that treatment from everybody — even the plants!" Ayeka shrugged, and whispered back, "That's our Tenchi."

Tenchi remained still for several moments, apparently communicating with Funaho. He touched the barklike skin, watching the fleeting shadows cast by the tree's coherent flashes. Then he turned and studied his family. "What was it like that day on Jurai? All three of you were there."

They all knew which day he meant.

"It's been over 700 years, Tenchi," Ryoko replied. "I don't remember all of the details. I don't really want to — I was enslaved most of time, and there was so much destruction..."

"I'm not asking you to relive it, just recall it. Sometimes valuable lessons can be learned from such experiences."

"Nothing valuable can be learned from that," Ryoko responded sullenly, crossing her arms and looking away.

"I disagree, Ryoko," Yosho said quietly. "If nothing else, consider the military implications. I'm quite sure the Juraian admiralty did a lot of soul searching and reorganizing afterwards. That can only make them stronger."

"Who'd be stupid enough to attack Homeworld?"

"You'd be surprised. Peace and prosperity depend upon strength and vigilance; and Jurai has many enemies, human and otherwise. The empire will not last forever." Yosho relaxed against the railing and bowed his head. "I remember that day vividly, even after 700 years. My mother and father were away on a diplomatic mission, and the first- and second-generation Royal Trees had accompanied the bulk of the home fleet on maneuvers. Primary defense rested with the few third- and fourth-generation trees that comprised the Sentinel squadron. The Sentinels were considered a sufficient force to deal with any of the expected threats — and Kagato was not on that list. I was en-route home from the Galaxy Academy aboard Funaho when we started receiving reports about an attack on Homeworld. By the time we dropped into realspace, you had damaged or destroyed the Sentinels, as well as the Imperial navy squadron and orbiting fortresses."

"Yeah, Kagato wouldn't settle for anything less than a first-generation tree. In fact, what he really wanted was Ouke No Ki, the First Tree of Jurai."

"Tsunami," Ayeka whispered.

"Tsunami," Ryoko echoed. "He was convinced she was housed somewhere on the palace grounds, probably in the arboretum where the Sentinels were cultivated. It was after eliminating the defense forces that I realized Kagato's intentions, and I tried to run away. And that's when Kagato reached out and locked my mind in an iron vise. He made me leave Ryo-ohki and attack the palace. I couldn't do anything afterwards but watch, as he casually torched whole city blocks just to divert emergency services away from the palace, and summoned demons to attack the palace guards. I was screaming the whole time, but it was his laughter that spilled from my lips."

"I remember running frantically to the airfield," Ayeka said, "summoning Ryu-oh to come and get me, so we could defend our home."

"It wouldn't have done any good, Ayeka," Ryoko whispered. "Ryu-oh is a second-generation tree, and back then she was still immature. She might have been able to hold her own against Ryo-ohki, but I had all three gems. And you wouldn't have been fighting me, you'd have been fighting Kagato." Ryoko shuddered.

"I know," Ayeka said, placing a hand on Ryoko's shoulder. "But I would have tried anyway."

"That's when I finally entered orbit," Yosho added. "I saw Ryoko heading for the arboretum, so I transported down to confront her while Funaho and Ryo-ohki started dueling."

"That was really the turning point," Ryoko replied. "Funaho is a first-generation ship, more than Ryo-ohki could handle alone. Kagato gave up and I escaped aboard Ryo-ohki."

"And I pursued you," Yosho said. "All the way here to Earth."

"The very saddest part of it all is that Tsunami wasn't even on Jurai," Ayeka said. "She hasn't touched a planet's surface in millennia. She was in contact with the saplings in the nursery and the juveniles in the arboretum, and she directed Sasami's rescue and regeneration. Had she been physically present, she would have intervened directly."

"And where was Kagato?" Yosho asked.

"Hiding in Jurai's Oort cloud, pulling the strings like a master puppeteer. He had every intention of following us, but he got a little distracted by the Imperial navy just then." Ryoko smiled grimly. "They chased his ass for a thousand parsecs — so he was too preoccupied to keep track of us."

"Fortunately."

"Yeah, but he found us eventually, didn't he?"

"And that was his final mistake," Tenchi said. They all turned to look at him, having forgotten he was even there. "This is the first time any of you have discussed this, isn't it?" He received slow nods from them. "Tell me, doesn't it feel better to get it off your chests?"

They each looked at him in amazement, realizing the simple truth of the statement.

##########

Yosho entered the Masaki house and removed his sandals. The morning sun glittered on the dew-dappled grass behind him, and the breeze contained invigorating scents and promises. Ayeka and Ryoko were just descending the stairs.

"Good morning, Yosho," Ayeka said. Ryoko simply nodded.

Yosho returned the greeting. "Where is your husband?"

"Still asleep." Ayeka chewed her lip nervously, which Yosho couldn't fail to notice.

"Is there a problem?"

"Well...yes, there may be. He did not respond when we tried to wake him. It is unlike him."

"Should I examine him?"

"Thank you, brother, that would be comforting." Ayeka turned and started back up the stairs, followed by Yosho. Ryoko simply teleported directly to their room.

Tenchi still occupied the center of the bed, but rather than the loose-jointed posture of normal sleep, all his limbs appeared rigid. Even his brow seemed tense and constricted. Ryoko pulled the blanket up to his shoulders, to keep him warm and cover his nakedness. Ayeka and Yosho entered moments later.

Yosho sat on the edge of the bed, checking Tenchi's fingers, pupils, rate of breathing, and other signs of his condition. "Ryoko, would you close the blinds, please? Ayeka, would you extinguish the lights?" Once the room had been shuttered, Yosho cupped his hands over Tenchi's forehead and peeked between the fingers. "Just as I thought. Take a look, ladies."

Ayeka leaned forward and stared intently through a small gap Yosho opened between his hands. "His Emblem is glowing! But it's so faint..."

Yosho nodded. "Was it visible last night?"

"No," Ryoko replied, looking between Yosho's hands. "We'd have noticed." Ayeka nodded in agreement.

"Did you three indulge in any, eh, 'conjugal exercises' last night?"

"Yes," Ayeka said, blushing modestly.

"And the night before," Ryoko grinned.

"Well, my congratulations, then. Between returning here," his gesture swept the room, "and your, eh, 'tranquilizing ministrations,' you have succeeded in relaxing him enough to let the process begin."

"Well, he did fall asleep with a smile on his face, "Ayeka said.

"So did we," Ryoko added. Ayeka blushed again.

"At any rate," Yosho drawled, rising, "since we don't know what will happen next, I would advise you ladies to put some clothes on him. I'm sure he'll appreciate it."

Both wives nodded.

##########

Empress Misaki was getting tired of waiting. She had been staring at the lone K'vimm vessel for three days, and staring at the Kirito for three days. The activities aboard the former were a total mystery, the activities aboard the latter were painfully obvious. She had not been allowed to join her husband since they established this position, on the grounds that, "Anything could happen at any time, and we should be able to react instantly!" Misaki figured the truth had more to do with whatever mistress he was currently entertaining.

She sighed. Funaho's spies aboard the flagship would be very busy.

What actually amazed her was the fact that the dimensional doorway was still open. Such constructions had voracious appetites for energy, and the fact that this one was so large and had been kept open so long spoke volumes about the commitment and resources of the K'vimm. One of the cruisers had repeatedly launched probes into the doorway, but they had been destroyed within fractions of a second after appearing on the far side. So far, the K'vimm were keeping their secrets effectively.

She reached a decision. One press of a button on her command seat's armrest and the face of the Kirito's communications officer appeared on a monitor. "Yes, Your Majesty?"

"I wish to speak to the Emperor."

"He is in conference, Your Majesty, and left explicit orders not to be disturbed unless it is an emergency." Misaki translated the message into realspeak: 'I'm presently screwing a voluptuous young opportunist, and will execute whoever interferes.'

"Well, please inform His Majesty that I am tired of waiting on some intelligent insect to make the first move. I'm taking Karin over to examine that ship. And, given a chance, I will board it."

"But, Your Majesty, the Emperor left strict instructions — "

"Yes, yes, Commander, I recall his orders quite clearly. And since this exchange is being recorded, you can play it back for him later. Then he can see that it was his impatient wife who overruled his commands, and we can discuss it in private." Misaki terminated the communication. Karin's key was shaped like a comb, similar to Ryo-oh's key that Ayeka wore as a tiara, and she absently tugged at it as she sent a query to her lifelong Companion. It took only a second to explain her desires. Karin responded immediately, her gravitic drives causing the entire vessel to vibrate gently. The Royal Tree crept away from Kirito, and Misaki breathed a sigh of relief to be finally doing something.

She studied the K'vimm vessel in the monitor. That it was bait was obvious. But what kind of teeth would the trap contain? And why hadn't any of the other curious Navy elements triggered a reaction? Well, she would know soon enough. However, prudence recommended a few precautions. She made the suggestion to Karin, who complied willingly: she deployed the Lighthawk Wings, as well as some lower-level defensive shields, and extended the barrels of her secondary batteries.

Misaki felt much better, now that they were armored, and their weapons were coming online.

Karin closed to within one kilometer of the vessel, before the first movement was detected. "Part of the ship's sensor array is repositioning," one of the Bridge officers announced.

"Put it on the monitors," Misaki commanded. Two video panes appeared in the air beside her, one showing a camera image and the other showing a computed schematic. Both showed movement, as the antenna array at the bow of the vessel was moving. They appeared to be centering upon the approaching Karin. "How odd. The damn things look like moth antennae, don't they?"

"I'm starting to see some changes in baseline energy readings, Your Majesty," said another officer.

"How strong?"

"Low-level, but increasing in frequency. Looks like we're the invitation it's been waiting for."

Misaki nodded her agreement...not that it made any sense. But then, that's why the Monarchy had put such restrictions on first contact scenarios. Wars had been started in the past over misinterpreted actions. She urged caution of Karin, and repeated the request to her bridge staff.

"Range now 500 meters." She directed Karin to stop and hold this position.

"Energy output increasing in intensity and frequency." She directed Karin to target the ship.

"We're being scanned." She directed all available power into Karin's secondary shields.

The K'vimm ship detonated. Gouts of flame roiled outward in a globular blossom, spraying metal and radiation into the interplanetary depths. Fragments and debris impacted Karin's wings and ricocheted harmlessly, and radiation pattered across her secondary shields like wind-blown rain. Karin shrugged off the explosion with no damage.

Misaki was just imagining the Imperial lecture she was going to get, when: "Sensors show an object still occupying those coordinates. It appears to be some kind of crystal. And it's emitting a Power signature."

Misaki's instincts screamed a warning, and Karin reacted instantly — she jumped into psuedospace.

Misaki felt, rather than heard, Karin's exertions. They had been too far into the gravity well to jump safely, and now the Royal Tree was straining to climb back out. With a nauseating surge of disorientation, the tree ship dropped back into realspace several light seconds away. Just far enough away to witness what was transpiring at the dimensional doorway.

A globe of force could be sensed expanding outwards and away from the crystal object. It was directed at the formation centered around Kirito. Lighthawk Wings could be seen materializing in front of the Treeships, while the steel vessels were hastily erecting conventional shields.

Misaki was not paying much attention, as she was comforting her distraught Companion. But her staff was observing and recording. And cursing and swearing, which drew her attention back to exterior activities.

"It's some kind of Power-dampening field, and it's aimed at the Trees. Look: the Wings are being extinguished! We're losing contact with the flagship and the Sentinels."

"Dammit — look at the doorway! There are more K'vimm vessels coming through. And they're huge! Galleon class. And frigates. Lots of them. They're opening fire on the escorts. The escorts are returning fire. The escorts are trying to engage Kirito and the Sentinels with tractor beams, and tow them back to Jurai. The K'vimm are deliberately avoiding the Trees."

"Here comes the tactical analysis: The device appears to be some kind of neural stunner, used to disable the Trees. High probability that the K'vimm seek to hijack the Trees, and are bringing sufficient forces through the doorway to suppress local defenses."

Misaki was momentarily stunned. Someone wanted to steal the Royal Trees! She might have laughed, had she not been witnessing the initial engagement. Karin was recovering, and concerned about the sudden silence from her sisters. She instructed the Companion to return to their original departure point, as quickly as possible.

So they did — back through psuedospace. Only this time, they weren't fighting their way 'out' but 'sliding down', and Karin needed only to calculate their approximate point of re-entry. They emerged into realspace within shooting distance of the crystal device. An aurora of Power materialized about Karin's bow, thickening and condensing into an eye-burning sphere, before being launched at high velocity towards the generator.

The device detonated in a horrific fireball, many times the size of the previous explosion. Even though Karin's secondary shields were raised, her Lighthawk Wings were not. The biovessel staggered violently when the shockwave hit her. She screamed down her link with Misaki, who screamed in reaction. Acting on her own instincts, Karin applied her gravitics at maximum power and retreated in whatever direction her stern was pointing.

"The Sentinels are coming back on-line, and are returning fire. Still no response from Kirito. Heavy cruisers Reventin and Binoptin have grappled with the flagship and are towing her back toward Homeworld. The Trees are starting to come under fire." Someone had raised an image of two Sentinels linked side-by-side, the energy rod stretched between their bows blossoming into Lighthawk Wings. The pair were trying to maneuver into a covering position between Kirito and the advancing K'vimm. "Oh my god!"

There was a tremendous series of explosions as Kirito took multiple simultaneous impacts, the concentrated fire from several K'vimm galleons stitching a fractal pattern across the flagship's enormous surface. Fragments and splinters rippled into space, and sinuous tears appeared throughout her skin. Clouds of gas could be seen billowing into the vacuum from cracks in the huge residential module, freezing into ice crystals instantly. Four-limbed shapes could be seen tumbling among the debris spilling into the darkness. Nearby, a steel-skinned destroyer split in two, consumed by internal fires and uncontrolled energies. Two more escort vessels reeled under impacts, their shields buckling. One of the Sentinels pinwheeled past, burning furiously. In the distance, K'vimm vessels could be seen dying in similar fashion.

Misaki roared in anger, echoed by Karin's soundless snarl. Karin did not need to be told what to do next: her gravitics kicked-in at maximum thrust, and she threw herself into the gap between the opposing forces. The nimbus of Power shimmered into existence, raw and ravenous, and another ball of lightning hurtled towards the K'vimm. It struck the nearest galleon, converting it into a miniature sun. Burning fragments tumbled into neighboring warships, overloading their shields and sending them careening. She engaged these cripples with her secondary batteries, punching gaping wounds through their armored shells. She launched another Powerball into their formation, and was rewarded by a sensor-searing blast.

But vengeance was not without cost. Karin's main defense — her Lighthawk Wings — were not available when being used offensively. And while busy condensing yet another orb, her secondary shields were swamped by the combined fire of the closest K'vimm dreadnoughts. Karin screamed, as she recoiled under the blows. The shields held, but the residential module was shaken violently. Internal frameworks collapsed, crushing furniture, appliances, consoles, and people. Misaki was tossed head-first into a bulkhead, and she slid to the deck in a limp pile. Fires started in three chambers, and surviving crewmembers fought them while Karin retreated. The balancers failed, and debris — organic and fabricated — floated about the smoke-filled module.

Misaki was unconscious, and so did not witness the quartet of K'vimm corvettes that raced though the fleeing Juraian flotilla, launching several torpedo spreads. Four missiles hit the flagship and atomized it, killing everyone aboard — including her husband. She did not watch as multiple impacts rippled across the rear-guard destroyers, breaking one in half and gutting the other two. Nor did she see the ignominious retreat by the survivors, limping frantically towards the expected safety of Homeworld.

##########

Yosho was sitting at his desk in the shrine office, working through a stack of paperwork, when he felt Funaho's warning. His instincts took over: he retrieved the Master Key, donned his sandals, and was bolting down the mountainside in less than a minute.

When he burst into the clearing, science station personnel were running in all directions, yelling in anger and panic. Explosions blossomed among them, throwing clouds of debris and sprays of pond water high into the air. Looking upward, Yosho saw two vessels hovering along the edge of the valley, slowly descending as their landing gear unfolded. A third was flying back and forth above the clearing, firing bright beams of energy from belly guns. His experienced eye discerned that (1) none of the covering fire was aimed at people or equipment, so carnage was not the intruders' primary intent, and (2) the orbiting vessel kept its pattern centered on Funaho — which meant the Royal Tree was the target.

The vessels were squat and ugly in design, the size of a city bus. They proved to be troop transports, as multi-legged man-sized beetle-shaped figures shambled down the boarding ramps from each ship and began racing towards the pond. Yosho did not recognize them, nor the designs of their vessels, so dismissed the question until later. He ran into the clearing and began shouting instructions, commanding the scientists and technicians to evacuate into the woods. He assisted those who had fallen, spoke encouragements to the aged and infirm, and actually snarled at one lab-coated individual who was brandishing a stick at the approaching combatants. Once he was sure that the civilians were on their way to safety, Yosho strode down to the railed gantry, turned to face the invaders, and ignited the Master Key.

A moment later, Ryoko and Ayeka materialized beside him.

"We heard the explosions," Ryoko said, igniting her own energy sword. She began watching the orbiting transport, timing its patterns. She summoned Ryo-ohki through their link.

"How is Tenchi?" Yosho asked.

"He remains asleep," Ayeka answered, as a swarm of log-shaped guardians appeared about her. She wished that she'd brought Azaka and Kamidake along on this trip.

"What are those things?" Ryoko asked.

"I don't know, but I believe they have designs on Funaho."

"We'll see about that," Ryoko muttered, just as the first intruders entered the clearing. They opened fire with their oddly-shaped weapons, which fizzled uselessly against Ayeka's shield. They continued to advance, dispersing rapidly. The transport overhead continued to fire upon them. "I'll take care of that one," Ryoko said, pointed upwards, and vanished.

"What are those creatures doing?" Ayeka asked. Some of the invaders were rummaging through the shelters, carrying equipment into the open and coiling many of the cables.

"It looks like they are trying to retrieve the diagnostic instruments."

"Shouldn't we try to prevent them?"

"I do not want to leave Funaho defenseless. She is still too weak to conjure her Lighthawk Wings."

"I will defend her — you deal with those vandals!"

Yosho nodded once, and Ayeka restructured her shield to allow him to exit. He ran at the nearest group, raising the Master Key. He dodged some blaster bolts, deflected others with his own shield, and closed the distance. There was a blue-white blur as he applied the Master Key, and alien bodies began collapsing (some in pieces). He moved on to the next group.

Blaster bolts continued to rain down on Ayeka's shield, but she was able to adjust it to allow sections to pulse outwards in narrow spikes. She impaled three of the aliens that ventured too close. She tried to keep track of all of the activity going on around her.

A tremendous blast from the sky surprised everyone, and the orbiting transport tumbled to ground trailing smoke and flames. It crumpled upon impact, spitting sparks and shards in all directions. Ryoko's victory laugh could be heard faintly above the weapons fire.

Then a shadow blanketed Funaho. Ayeka looked up to see a starship descending, its cloaking field shimmering as it was deactivated. In seconds the entire pond was enveloped in the spreading pool of shade. The ship ceased its descent to hover directly over Funaho, and a cone of light reached down from the keel to pinion the Royal Tree. Ayeka watched as loose equipment canisters, cables, and Funaho's limbs began to drift upwards. Then Ayeka felt it, too, as her own weight began to diminish. "Tractor beam!" she shouted to her companions.

Yosho was carving his way through the insect-like creatures, who did their best to avoid him and continue tossing cabinets into the tractor beam. Cables slithered from the pond with snake-like intent, looping and twisting like drunken cobras. Portable terminals and documents floated upwards in a bizarre ballet. Clouds of mist rose from the pond's surface like steam wraiths. Funaho creaked audibly, and her root structure quivered. The beam brightened visibly as the power increased.

Ayeka backed onto the gantry, wrapping the shield around her and anchoring it to the ground. Blaster bolts continued to ripple brightly on its surface, but the invaders had figured out how to stay sheltered and thus evade her spikes. The gantry began to shake, as it — along with Ayeka and her shield — were being tugged skyward. With a sudden lurch, the gantry slid out from beneath her and rose into the air. She followed for a few seconds, until she frantically realigned her shield with boulders extruding from the pond bed. She dangled like a tethered balloon.

And then a second explosion lit-up the sky, and the tractor beam snapped off. Ayeka screamed and tumbled to the ground, rolling around inside her shield like a hamster in a Plexiglas sphere. Objects of all sizes clattered across her shield surface. Her concentration wavered under the buffeting and disorientation, and failed completely when one edge of the gantry struck her forcefield. The shield collapsed, and she passed out.

Yosho spun about to locate the origin of the explosion, and discovered Ryo-ohki hovering above the edge of the valley, pumping fire into the alien starship. Ryoko flew towards her ship and then disappeared as she teleported aboard. With a violent roar, the alien vessel zoomed skyward like an artillery round, chased by Ryo-ohki. About him, the creatures were retreating towards their transports and, to his horror, two of them gathered Ayeka from the rubble and scurried into the woods. Yosho skipped sideways to avoid a blaster bolt, bisected the attacker with the Master Key, and ran after Ayeka.

Yosho only got halfway up the hillside when he heard the transports lift off, their ramps closing and their landing gear retracting. Cloaking fields shimmered about them, wiping them from visibility, and the resulting crystal-like distortions raced off over the mountains.

Yosho stood alone on the battlefield.

##########

Dreams...walls...barriers.

In the half-conscious state he lay in, Tenchi's dreams and memories blurred.

He was sitting on his front steps one summer day, not long after his engagement to his galactic houseguests. It had been one of those rare moments when he had been alone, and he sat watching Sasami and Ryo-ohki chasing one another through the grass by the dock. It had been peaceful, and he had almost objected when he felt someone drop onto the steps beside him. Irritation had changed to surprise, however, when he realized who it was. "Hi, Washu."

"Hi, yourself. What are you doing out here?" She was still in her adolescent form then, and her voice was higher-pitched.

"Oh, just watching Sasami and Ryo-ohki."

"Ah." She had a book, and was obviously looking for a quiet place to read. But before she could get too immersed in it, Tenchi interrupted her. "Washu, can I ask you a question?"

"Sure."

"I've always wondered how little Ryo-ohki turns into something as big a space ship. I get the impression that there's more to her than meets the eye."

Washu studied him a moment, a glint in her eyes. "That's not a bad assessment, Tenchi. Yes, there's more to her than meets the eye. Much more. Ever wonder why she eats so many carrots?"

"Well, yeah. She'd clean-out all of the fields if we gave her the chance. I think she eats a lot of other plants besides."

"She does, and I give her some high-protein supplements as well. She has to eat a lot, because she's so big."

Tenchi watched the cabbit romping in the grass, and considered. "I'll bet it has something do with other dimensions, doesn't it?"

Washu beamed. "Oh, I am so pleased! Yes, Tenchi, she's a multi-dimensional organism. What you see there is only a fraction of the total creature. The rest of her resides in psuedospace, and only ventures into realspace when she needs to." Tenchi chewed that one over, with Washu watching him the whole time. "Having trouble visualizing it?"

He nodded. She took him by the hand and walked him out onto the dock.

"See that fish? If you were to lean over and put a fingertip into the water, what would the fish see?"

"A tiny bump, bigger than an insect, smaller than itself."

"And the tiny bump could move around, and do all sorts of things, couldn't it? But the fish can't see the whole finger above the surface, can it? Or the hand attached to the finger, or the arm attached to the hand, or the rest of your body — until you entered the water. Do you see the analogy?"

"Yeah, I do. That's pretty impressive, Washu."

"I thought so. Ryoko is the same way, you know."

"I am?" said a voice behind them. Tenchi started, but Washu appeared nonplussed. He felt Ryoko's hands on his shoulders.

"Sure are. That's how you can phase through walls and teleport. Only most of you is on this side of the barrier, while most of Ryo-ohki is on the other side of the barrier."

"You know, I was always so busy using the ability, I never wondered much about how it worked."

"Washu, what about the ship-like parts of her, the command deck and such?"

"Why does a turtle have a hard shell? It's just the way she is, Tenchi. And she lets us make use of it. You, of all people, should have learned by now that what is on the surface seldom reflects what is in the depths. Look at Sasami. Look at yourself." She kissed his cheek and headed back to the steps, humming happily.

"Tenchi?" Ryoko asked nervously.

"Yes?"

"Do...you...think differently about me...now?" There was fear in her eyes.

His smile was genuine, as was his hug. "Of course not. It's just another example of how special you are."

Dreams...walls...barriers.

He was back in his dream, enclosed in a box, too small stand, too small to recline, too small to do anything. He slapped and punched and kicked at the walls, screaming to get out. But it wasn't enough, the barriers held fast.

And then he heard Washu's voice, drifting out of his memory, "That's how you can phase through walls and teleport. Only most of you is on this side of the barrier." And, "Do you see the analogy?"

Of course.

##########

"What's happening to him?" Ken'ichi asked. "What's that thing on his forehead?"

"The Emblem of Power," Yosho replied. "Better stand back kids, something is about to happen."

Something was happening. The tripartite symbol on Tenchi's brow continued to glow brighter and brighter, becoming painful to look at it. In fact, his whole body seemed swathed in blue-white light. The hair on everyone's necks began to bristle.

"It's happening again, isn't it, Father?" Nobuyuki asked.

"Yes, it is. This is why he came home. Perhaps we should…"

There was a flash of light and Tenchi disappeared.

##########

He recognized the feeling. It caressed his nervous system every time he teleported an object, like warm water trickling across his skin. Only this time, he was immersed in it. He opened his eyes to find himself lying on the rocks outside Ryoko's cave. His special retreat, or Fortress of Solitude (a term his father had once borrowed from a comic book). He sat up, feeling Power coursing through him at a fever pitch, and his mind expanding in a direction he had never experienced before. He knew what it was, what he had finally accomplished.

He'd broken into psuedospace, and he had teleported. Like Ryoko.

He thought about the dock in front of his house, its familiar wooden planks simmering in the summer sunshine, and the sound of water lapping at its supports. He reached out and through the new dimension, searching, and then applied Power. There was that familiar feeling, like traveling with Ryoko, like 'shifting' small objects, and suddenly he was sitting on the dock.

He built an image of his room, and leapt.

"Tenchi!"

"Oh, hi, Dad."

"What happened? Where did you go?"

"I teleported. Like Ryoko. I went up to the cave, and then out to the dock. Wow..."

"You're glowing," Kiyoko said, peeking out from behind Nobuyuki.

Tenchi looked at his hands. "I guess I am. It'll probably fade after while, once I get the hang of this." He looked around. "Where are Ayeka and Ryoko?"

Yosho sighed. "They're gone, Tenchi. Much has happened while you were asleep."

ACT 2 - NORMALIZING AND ANNEALING

I took a walk around the worldTo ease my troubled mindI left my body laying somewhereIn the sands of timeI watched the world floatTo the dark side of the moonI feel there is nothing I can do, yeah

I watched the world floatTo the dark side of the moonAfter all I knew it had to beSomething to do with youI really don't mind what happens now and thenAs long as you'll be my friend at the end

If I go crazy then will you stillCall me SupermanIf I'm alive and well, will you beThere holding my handI'll keep you by my sideWith my superhuman mightKryptonite

You called me strong, you called me weak,But still your secrets I will keepYou took for granted all the timesI never let you downYou stumbled in and bumped your head,If not for me then you would be deadI picked you up and put you backOn solid ground

If I go crazy then will you stillCall me SupermanIf I'm alive and well,Will you be there holding my handI'll keep you by my sideWith my superhuman mightKryptonite

Yeah! If I go crazy then will you stillCall me SupermanIf I'm alive and well, will you be thereHolding my handI'll keep you by my sideWith my superhuman mightKryptonite

Title: "Kryptonite"Artist: 3 Doors Down

"They call themselves K'vimm," said the scientist. He and four colleagues sat in the Shrine office, in front of Yosho's desk. facing the Crown Prince. Behind him stood his grandson, an expressionless mask pulled over his face. "They come from a neighboring arm of the galaxy. We know little about them, although the GP probably does."

"Can you think of any possible reason for entering a restricted area, and attacking a science station?" Yosho asked.

"We cannot think of any reasons, Your Highness. The buoys about this system conform to treaty standards. We noticed that they remained cloaked except during the actual attack; that bespeaks a certain adherence to the Conventions."

"Possibly, or perhaps simple expedience — cloaked ships are harder to detect." Yosho sipped his tea, and regarded his neighbors. "Were there any serious injuries?"

"A few broken bones, and one minor concussion. Already attended to. More disruption was done to Funaho's salvage operation than to any personnel. Much of our equipment was damaged or destroyed."

"And Funaho?"

"Some of her roots were extracted prematurely. She will recover quickly enough. A minor setback of a few weeks at most."

Yosho nodded, aware of Tenchi beside him. He turned to look at his grandson. "Do you have any questions for our visitors?"

Tenchi slowly shook his head.

The spokesman for the group turned to Yosho. "Your Highness, should we initiate our evacuation plans?"

"No," Yosho replied. "If your station had been the target, the K'vimm could have simply bombed it from high orbit. I believe that they wanted Funaho. You should repair the damage and proceed with your efforts. I will talk to the admiralty about an increased naval presence."

They bowed, visibly relieved, and exited the office.

##########

Tenchi - Ryoko

Ryoko - Tenchi?

Tenchi - Yes, it's me

Ryoko - Are you awake? Of course you're awake. How can you reach me this far out?

Tenchi - I have...changed...grown. Ryoko, you are in danger, turn around immediately

Ryoko - Huh? Are you kidding? Another hour and we'll be close enough to blast that ship to atoms!

Tenchi - Another hour and you will likely be surrounded. That ship is leading you into an ambush

Ryoko - How do you know?

Tenchi - I can sense them ahead of you. Turn around now

Ryoko - You're sure?

Tenchi - Yes. Very sure

Ryoko - Do you know who these creeps are?

Tenchi - They are called the K'vimm, and they are not inhabitants of Jurai space

Ryoko - Uh, oh...

Tenchi - What is it?

Ryoko - I just had Ryo-ohki do a long-range scan. There's a dimensional doorway opening ahead of us

Tenchi - Get out of there, Ryoko. Now!

Ryoko - Ok, ok, you've convinced me!

Tenchi stepped around the desk, but did not sit down. "There are more of them."

"You know this?"

"Yes. Ryoko has seen a dimensional doorway opening out beyond Mars. I fear she is being led into a trap. Mihoshi is in-bound, and is liable to run into the same threat. And there is another group of human ships out near Pluto. I don't know who they are."

"More than likely a Juraian naval task force, sent to provide you and your family with an escort if the need arises. And I think this definitely qualifies as a 'need.'"

Tenchi started for the door. Yosho followed him outside.

"I must help Ryoko and Mihoshi, before I can look for Ayeka."

"How can you reach them?"

"I have a way, but I am extremely reluctant to use it. I have only seen this Power manifestation used once before — by Kagato." Tenchi stopped at the bottom of the wooden steps and looked at his grandfather. "I know how to replicate it. But I am afraid that if I do, I will be taking one more step down the path that he trod."

"A sword is just a tool, Tenchi. It is the man that wields it who decides whether it fights for justice or chaos."

Tenchi nodded. There really wasn't any choice: the lives of his family mattered more to him than anything else. Even his own future. He backed away from the steps, summoning his Power. The Emblem flashed into visibility, blazing even in the late afternoon sunshine. He gestured and the Lighthawk Wings shimmered into existence, hovering in their Y-shaped configuration. His Lighthawk Armor appeared as well, shimmering as it settled along his contours. His mind manipulated the underlying patterns, and the wings began to stretch, merging into an amorphous shape that rapidly englobed him.

Yosho stood on the steps, watching anxiously as Tenchi encased himself in the blue-white cocoon. And then he gasped as the cocoon rose silently into the air, receding at an ever-increasing velocity. It vanished into the azure sky, just as Kagato's traveling sphere had once vanished after abducting Ryoko.

##########

Ayeka sat on a bench that ran the length of the transport's cabin. On either side of her sat two of the chitin-covered, multi-limbed creatures. They were armored and armed, and they refused to answer her questions. Across the aisle sat three more of the aliens, all as stoic and as silent as her benchmates. She stewed quietly, knowing that this short-range vehicle was incapable of taking them very far.

In fact, in less than 15 minutes the forward hatch irised outward, and she was escorted down the ramp and into a large room filled with desks and chairs and antique (to her, anyway) computers. The room was unlit except by the light filtering in through the windows. The source of the illumination came from surrounding buildings, and from a level well below the windows, so she assumed that she was in an office tower in one of Earth's larger cities. And since it was nighttime here, and had been day-time in Japan, she had to assume that she was now somewhere on the far side of the planet. She heard the mechanical whine of the rising ramp, and a slam which must have been a door closing. She kept her mounting panic tightly reined.

"Welcome, Princess Ayeka!" The vaguely familiar voice came from the shadows along the back wall, and a figure ignited one of the desk-mounted lamps. The glow spilled upwards in a weak cone, but it was enough to discern a hooked-nose and pink-tinged locks above Juraian robes.

"Lord Seiryo!"

"How flattering that you remember me, my dear." He stepped out of the shadows, approaching her slowly. Ayeka simply tilted her head and crossed her arms, apparently unimpressed and unintimidated. "I trust your journey here was not too unpleasant?"

"Of course it was unpleasant. Who are those creatures?"

"Business associates of mine, actually. They are called the K'vimm. Not very appealing to look at, I agree, but definitely proficient at what they do."

"And what do they do — kidnapping and assault?"

"Yes," he feigned a sigh of resignation. "Accomplished thieves and pirates, too, when they have the need to be."

"That's close enough," Ayeka growled. Seiryo stopped, surprised. "What could possibly interest such scavengers in the Sol system? This is a protected area, technically and socially primitive. It is much too distant from the trade routes to be of any strategic value."

Seiryo recovered his courage, and stepped closer. "It has two redeeming qualities, Your Highness: you are here, and so is your brother's Royal Tree." He reached for her. Ayeka casually intercepted his right hand, gripped two of the fingers, and bent them backwards. The slender, seemingly diminutive woman suddenly revealed her enormous strength. Seiryo gasped audibly, rising onto his toes and arching his back in an effort to ease the pressure on his fingers.

"Before you attempt anything dramatic and completely stupid, I will call your attention to just how easily I can break these repulsive digits of yours. I realized aboard that transport that you have shielded your facilities against my Power attributes, but I am far from helpless. In fact, I have had some interesting lessons on self-defense — like this one, for instance." She punched Seiryo squarely in the stomach, using her native strength and the leverage from the twist of her waist, to send him staggering into the wall, gagging and gasping. She watched his eyes for the shock to wear off, and the inevitable anger to appear. He lunged at her. She intercepted his functional left hand, passed it in front of her centerline, and buried her elbow into his exposed bicep. As he howled in pain, she extended her arm and struck the right side of his face, again using the torque generated from her hips. His head snapped sideways, and she used his locked left arm to push him backwards just far enough to raise her right leg and stamp-kick him in the stomach. He collapsed noisily. "That was another interesting facet of my education. Never punch the head — there are too many fragile bones in your hand. Better to use the palm or the ridge. My teacher is quite thorough, don't you think?" In response, he made several retching noises. "Good. Now, why would my brother's Royal Tree be of any interest to you or those K'vimm?"

Seiryo struggled to his feet, all the while watching Ayeka cautiously. Then he grinned viciously. "The K'vimm want the Royal Trees. In fact, they are even now attacking your planet. They intend to tow the Royal Trees back to K'vimm space, and empty the Royal Arboretum."

Ayeka kept her face impassive and her voice steady. "Well, it's easy to guess who has been supplying them with privileged information, isn't it? And what do you get out of this arrangement?"

"You, of course. And since you will be the only surviving member of the Royal Family, that makes you the Crown Princess. And after we are married, then I will be the new Emperor, and my family will start a new dynasty!"

Ayeka yawned. "You will find that the Royal Trees will not be so easily subdued. And as for my family — "

"Your family will be eliminated with comparative ease," said another voice from the shadows. "And I have already provided the K'vimm with a way to neutralize the Trees." The figure that stepped from the shadows was a woman. In her youth she had been tall and silver-haired, soft-skinned and golden-eyed. But now she was stooped with age, and her beauty had succumbed to the weight of years. She walked with a cane. And she held a gun. "My son devised an elegant method for binding a Royal Tree, and even tested it effectively on Tsunami. Most impressive. And as for your family...well, I do believe it's time to terminate the House of Jurai."

Seiryo stepped forward and reached for Ayeka again, confidant of the gun held by his companion. Ayeka promptly illustrated the failure in his logic by jerking on his right hand. He was momentarily unbalanced, and he shuffled his right foot forward to compensate. She slipped her left leg behind his right knee and looped her left hand over his extended right arm. And then she bent her knees, sank her center of gravity, and snapped her arms apart. Her left hand propelled him over her left knee, and he dropped to the floor with a muffled thud, his head rebounding off the carpet. "And yet another lesson from my teacher, on the dangers of over-confidence."

"Ju...just who is your teacher?" Seiryo stammered.

"My husband!" Ayeka replied proudly. She turned to face the elderly woman.

The old woman cackled. "Your Highness, I have to confess that I admire your style. Now, please stop molesting my partner and step onto that platform over there." She gestured with the pistol at a gap in the desks, where a glowing dais two meters on a side hummed quietly on the carpeted floor.

Ayeka crossed her arms and tilted her head. "I need to use the ladies' room."

"Such recalcitrance will get you shot, Princess."

"And an injured hostage is not only lower in value but requires higher maintenance."

The old woman yielded, nodding minutely. "Very well. It's the second door on your right."

Ayeka started for the door and stopped, turning to face Seiryo. "Don't you ever attempt to touch me again, vermin." The 'or else' was unspoken but implied.

After Ayeka had left the room, Seiryo staggered into the nearest chair. He glared after the princess.

"Good luck trying to tame that one," the old woman said.

"There are some truly marvelous drugs available, which will make her cooperative if not actually compliant. Besides, she only has to live long enough to complete the wedding ceremony. Afterwards, she's disposable."

"She's pregnant, you know."

Seiryo stared at her. "How do you know that?"

"I scanned her. I don't like surprises."

"Well, well, well. There might have to be an abortion in the near future. Or the fetus can die with the mother. An interesting decision." His lips stretched into a humorless rictus.

The door opened and Ayeka returned, her haughty demeanor undiminished. "Thank you," she said to the woman, and then stepped onto the indicated platform.

The woman withdrew a small keypad from her robes and pressed a combination of buttons. A force field shimmered into existence around Ayeka. Ayeka settled onto the platform, kneeling quietly in apparent meditation.

Seiryo grumbled irritably.

##########

Tenchi had been right, of course. He was usually right. If she had delayed that scan any longer she would have sailed right into the K'vimm squadron. There was a time she would've faced such odds with a glint in her eye and guns blazing; but now she had too much to lose. The very thought of never seeing Tenchi again filled her with deep dread.

Ryo-ohki, like most objects in the universe, simply could not stop on a coin. It took power, and it took time. And if she had attempted the maneuver, the K'vimm vessels pouring out of dimensional doorway — enjoying a zero velocity advantage — could have easily accelerated and overtaken her. Bad move on her part. Instead, Ryo-ohki had altered course into a wide, cometary orbit, pulling away from the K'vimm on a vector Ryoko hoped would discourage any pursuit.

No such luck, however. The ship she had been chasing began decelerating almost as soon as Ryo-ohki had changed course. Two similar vessels drove away from their doorway at a high rate of speed, and now it was Ryoko's turn to be the target of a stern chase. Ominously, the remaining K'vimm vessels had set a course for the outer planets.

And those ugly, nest-like ships were faster than Ryo-ohki! She frantically dodged the energy blasts from the two pursuing K'vimm ships. Fireballs erupted from her armored wings as the occasional shot found its mark. Ryoko was just as frantically wracking her brain, trying to find a strategy to extricate them from this trap, but she was coming-up empty-handed. She had to admit that Ryo-ohki was tiring, that her energy reserves were nearly depleted, and it looked as though their luck had finally run out. Despair and fear had almost extinguished Ryoko's vaunted fighting spirit, though she continued to encourage Ryo-ohki. She expected to die — soon — in a curtain of flame when the shields finally collapsed.

It was then that Ryo-ohki signaled her that something was approaching them at incredible speed. What few resources she could spare to examine the object told her little: a sphere of high-frequency energy, probably a shield of some sort, no more than three meters in diameter, heading straight for them. Ryoko admitted defeat at last. "Goodbye, my Tenchi..."

But: the blue-white ball of light rocketed past Ryo-ohki and executed an impossible right-angled course change that sent it into and through the closest K'vimm warship. The dreadnought disintegrated into flaming fragments, spewing burning chunks of metal that peppered Ryo-ohki's shields with debris. Then the sphere executed another incredibly-fast maneuver and burrowed into the second vessel, passing through its shields and armor plating like tissue paper. The warship burst at the seams, spilling white-hot clouds of fire into the vacuum. Saw-toothed shards of steel and plastic pinwheeled into the endless night, as two incandescent clouds cooled visibly and vanished utterly. Ryoko was staggered by the speed and ferocity of her rescue.

Just as suddenly, the blue-white ball changed course again, bearing directly for Ryoko's ship. It passed through Ryo-ohki's shields and skin as easily as it had through the other vessels'. It hovered momentarily above the command deck before cracking into slices that receded into an all-too-familiar Y-winged configuration. Then the wings disappeared, leaving behind an all-too-familiar figure girded in glowing armor. Even if she didn't recognize his face, his smell, or the sound of his breathing, Ryoko's heart recognized him unerringly.

"Tenchi!" she cried, flying across the intervening distance and wrapping her arms around her husband. She spent an indeterminate time kissing him passionately, laughing hysterically, and sobbing uncontrollably. "I thought I'd never see you again."

"Then who'd raise our children to be proper little pirates?" he asked softly.

"We don't have any children," she sniffled, her voice muffled by his neck.

"Yet." He waited patiently for another round of sobs to settle out, before pushing her gently away. "I can't stay, Ryoko. Mihoshi is about to sail into a similar trap."

She dried her eyes with her sleeves, regaining her composure. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go. After all, you mess with one Masaki, you mess with us all!"

"I'll take care of Mihoshi, don't worry. But I have another task for you back on Earth."

"What kind of task?"

"Ayeka is being held hostage someplace. I need you locate her."

Ryoko shook her head grimly. "No. I want to help you. I want to burn those bastards..."

He placed a hand gently along the side of her face, and she responded by tipping her head into the palm. "No, Ryoko. We have a long, difficult journey ahead of us. I need you rested, recovered, and ready to kick ass." That brought a smile to her face. "With all your experience the last few months doing intelligence work for Lady Funaho, you are the most qualified to find Ayeka. Right now, I need a spy, not a warrior." She nodded reluctantly, conceding his point. "What kind of shape is Ryo-ohki in?"

"She's tired, Tenchi, and wounded. She needs energy."

"Well, maybe I can help with that," he smiled. He stepped away from her and spread his arms, the Lighthawk Emblem flaring on his brow like a three-part sun. A blue-white nimbus formed around him, which he directed downwards into Ryo-ohki. The ship bucked once, and then started vibrating. Tenchi fed her as much Power as she could take, waiting for some indication that she was finished. The signal was a lion-like roar that reverberated through the command deck, a far cry from the usual cat-like "Miya!" that she vocalized.

Ryoko laughed. "Well, I guess she's recovered!"

"Ryoko," Tenchi said, the smile leaving his face. "Don't let yourself be detected. They might execute Ayeka if they think there's a rescue underway. I don't know why they took her. Just be very careful."

Ryoko nodded. "I will. Now come here and kiss me, and then be on your way!"

It was long, fervent, and ended with whispered promises. And then he was englobed in blue-white light and gone.

"Oh, damn!" she swore, snapping her fingers. "I was gonna ask him how the hell he does that...and how he blew those ships up! "

"Mrowrrr!" Ryo-ohki snarled.

##########

They came from in-system: nearly two-dozen hive-shaped vessels clearly not of human design. The Galaxy Police cruiser Yukinojo had attempted to hail the squadron, having quickly identified the ships as belonging to a star-faring race that frankly had no business being there. And for its efforts it was promptly fired upon. Yukinojo had veered-off on a sunward course and fled, and three of the intruders had peeled-off after it.

Yukinojo fired its thrusters in random sequences, trying to dodge the energy blasts from the warships on its tail. Only the nearest was an actual threat, since the three K'vimm ships were staggered behind the fleeing GP cruiser. But the overwhelming firepower of even one of the behemoths was more than a match for Yukinojo. The cruiser had taken several grazing hits, taxing its shields to the limit, and straining its skeletal framework during its frantic evasive maneuvers.

Though Mihoshi sat in the pilot's station, she didn't actually control Yukinojo. Starship maneuvers, particularly during combat, were calculated and executed at speeds far in excess of human cognition. Still, she could offer advice to the ship's artificial intelligence unit, as well as her affinity for sheer dumb luck to keep the cruiser intact. Kiyone sat in the co-pilot's chair, praying to whatever deities that might be listening.

Kiyone's prayers were answered: "Mihoshi, there is an unidentified object approaching at extremely high velocity. It appears to be vectoring in on an intercept course." The AI had been programmed with basic emotional expression, which at the moment sounded like a cross between panic and distraction.

"Which direction is it coming from?" Mihoshi cried, as the ship executed another desperate lunge.

"Sunwards," the AI replied. "Contact in three...two...one..."A blue-white sphere flashed by the ship's viewports as it passed close abeam. The AI already had the bridge monitors pointing towards the stern, so it was impossible to miss as the object dived straight into the nearest pursuer and detonated it with an eye-searing explosion. "Primary K'vimm threat destroyed. Unidentified object reacquired...now changing course to intercept the closest remaining vessel." The second warship didn't recognize the threat until too late, when it attempted its own evasive shuffle. The sphere altered course and caught its prey easily, obliterating it in a churning fireball. "Secondary K'vimm threat destroyed. Unidentified object now targeting the surviving K'vimm vessel." The third battlecraft was far enough away to have witnessed the destruction of its sisters, and so opened fire on the sphere with everything it had. The Lilliputian opponent was unaffected, passing through energy beams and exploding torpedoes like a blue-white specter. The third alien battlecraft died seconds later. "All K'vimm threats eliminated. Unidentified object has changed course again. Interception in five seconds."

There was just enough time for Mihoshi and Kiyone to exchange glances before the bridge was bathed in blue-white light. And then they were joined by a lone figure in luminescent armor, taking stock of his surroundings.

"Tenchi!" Mihoshi threw off her safety harness, climbed on her chair, stepped onto the navigation console, and leaped into her husband's arms, all in one smooth movement. Neither said anything for the next few moments, mouths occupied with other activities. Eventually, Mihoshi's adrenaline-induced shaking subsided, and she put her head on his shoulder. "I just knew it had to be you."

"Are you ok?" he asked.

"I am now."

"Yukinojo, what is your status?" Tenchi said to the AI.

"Shields at 7%, Life Support down to 54%, and main battery energy cells depleted. Minor damage to outer hull in three locations."

"How soon can you affect repairs?"

"It will be at least two days to restore enough power to commence repairs."

"Can I transfer power directly into your subsystems?"

"Yes, Your Highness. It will take a few minutes to reconfigure a transfer conduit."

"Please proceed, and notify me when you are ready."

"Acknowledged."

"Your Highness?" Kiyone had finally found her voice.

"Oh, how rude of me!" Mihoshi stammered. "Tenchi, this is my long-lost partner and best friend, Detective First Class Kiyone Makibi. Kiyone, this is my husband, Prince Sir Tenchi Masaki." She had obviously waited a long time to make that introduction, and her smile was radiant.

Kiyone's smile was polite, but more than a little apprehensive. "Pleased to meet you, Your Highness," she said, bowing.

"Just call me Tenchi," he replied, grinning. "I thought you were MIA?"

"Washu found her and rescued her. Isn't that great?" Mihoshi interrupted. "She's been assigned to my office. We're partners again!"

Tenchi didn't miss the subtle sigh of resignation from Kiyone. "I'll worry less knowing that you have someone so professional working with you," Tenchi said to his wife. Kiyone's eyebrows perked.

"Your Highness, the transfer conduit is ready."

"Thank you, Yukinojo. Mihoshi, would you guide me to the engine room?" She took him by the hand and led him off the bridge and down the access corridor, chattering the whole way. Tenchi just smiled, relieved to hear his wife's voice again. Kiyone followed, not really knowing what else to do.

The cruiser's engine room was cramped and efficient, as was everything else aboard a ship designed for long-term patrols in distant places. Two maintenance 'bots were scuttling off a jury-rigged pedestal near one of the main consoles. A single metal plate dominated the space at the top of the waist-high column. "When you are ready, Your Highness, just place your hand on the contact plate and commence the energy exchange. I will inform you when my reservoirs have been replenished."

Tenchi extricated himself gently from Mihoshi, and guided her off to a safe corner. Kiyone stood in the doorway, watching with interest. The Emblem of Power appeared on his brow, and the room was flooded with the blue-white aurora that encircled his body. Tenchi placed his right hand firmly on the plate and focused Power into the pedestal. Yukinojo absorbed the energy hungrily, and the dials and instruments around the room reflected the improving readiness. It only took a few moments. "Thank you, Your Highness. All reserves at maximum. I will commence my repairs immediately."

Tenchi walked over to his wife and took her hands. "Mihoshi, I want you to head straight for Earth. There is trouble brewing there. Ayeka has been kidnapped and I've already got Ryoko searching for her. Meet me at Dad's house as soon as you can. Understand?" Mihoshi nodded, wide-eyed. "One more thing: there's a Juraian task force orbiting the ninth planet. Please inform them about your attack, and that I'm on my way." He kissed his wife goodbye, and stepped away from her. "Kiyone, it's been a pleasure. We'll talk more once things settle down."

Kiyone nodded. "Until then, Your High — Tenchi." She bowed at the figure backing into the center of the room. Then she gasped as she recognized the Lighthawk Wings that snapped into existence before him. At some unheard command, they elongated and englobed him, and then he vanished. The sudden darkness was startling. "Come on, Mihoshi, he gave us our orders."

"Bye, Tenchi," she whispered, and followed Kiyone back to the bridge.

##########

Ragged broadsides were exchanged between both clusters of ships, the Juraian navy orbiting with their backs to deep space, and the hostiles on the sunward side. Sol was a brighter light in the sky than the other stars, but not by much. Were it not for the ghostly reflections off of Pluto and its moon Charon, there would be no visible indication that the combatants were within a solar system at all. Energy beams and torpedo explosions were quickly swallowed by the infinite darkness.

The Juraian navy's capital ships were the third- and fourth-generation Royal Trees, and command of such a marvel was the desire of every fleet captain. Unfortunately, none of these rare leviathans were present, and Admiral Mobinita had to be content with traditional steel-hulled warships...which, at the moment, were giving a good account of themselves. His task force had been assigned to shadow Prince Tenchi, who was further in-system. The voyage here had been uneventful, dropping out of psuedospace nearly a week earlier to establish a loose orbit around the outermost planet, because it made a convenient rendezvous point. Someone else had the same idea, apparently, because the K'vimm flotilla that had come roaring up the gravity well knew exactly where to look for them. They had opened fire on his command two hours earlier with no warning whatsoever. The Gods alone knew what the hell K'vimm warships were doing this far into Jurai space, but at least his own ships' automatic defense systems had raised their shields at the first sign of trouble, so he had not lost any vessels.

Yet.

But that was going to change soon, because it was becoming increasingly obvious that the wasp-nest-shaped hostiles had superior shields. His own ships were expending far too much energy to score many hits, and casualties were mounting. He would soon be presented with the disagreeable choice of preserving his command by abandoning the young Prince, or to shoot his way in-system and try to locate His Highness, all the while with mounting losses.

"Admiral? We have an incoming message on the Galaxy Police Standard Frequency." The voice belonged to Balinor, the AI of the heavy cruiser that served as his flagship. Balinor's voice issued from a small sensor unit floating near his head, all the better to be heard over the background noise of the strategic bridge. Mobinita knew that Captain Istanaka, fighting her ship from the tactical bridge one deck below, would be receiving the same information.

"Who is it from?"

"Galaxy Police patrol cruiser Yukinojo, recently reassigned from this sector to the GP office on Jurai. Captain Mihoshi Masaki, commanding."

"Princess Mihoshi Masaki?" The young heir had made quite a splash when he appeared at court the previous year, having already taken advantage of one of the perks of his rank.

"Yes, Sir."

"What's the message?"

"That her vessel was recently attacked by three K'vimm warships, that the Prince intervened and destroyed them, and is presently en-route to meet with our forces."

"Did you say that the Prince destroyed three K'vimm vessels by himself?"

"That's what the message states, Admiral."

"Captain Istanaka, did you catch all that?"

"Yes, sir," she replied, her voice filtered through the comm network.

"Admiral, long-range sensors are tracking an unidentified object approaching at high velocity." Balinor posted the read-outs on one of the monitors, although all Mobinita could see was a blue-white streak of light.

"How fast is that thing moving?" Captain Istanaka asked.

"Difficult to register accurately," Balinor replied. "Sensor readings are providing conflicting results. Optical estimation places it near 70% of light speed."

"Huh? That's impossible," Mobinita coughed. "Our fastest couriers can't do better than 25% in-system."

"The object is changing course. Estimated heading places it near the largest K'vimm warship in twenty seconds."

"You don't suppose that thing is the prince, do you?" Istanaka asked.

"Insufficient information to calculate," Balinor replied.

"But that object is approximately man-sized," Istanaka said. "And the Prince has been publicly seen deploying the Lighthawk Wings..."

"Guess we'll find out soon enough," Mobinita mused. "Inform the task force of the approaching object, and try to avoid shooting at it until we determine its intentions."

"Acknowledged," the AI replied.

The blue-white sphere sailed directly for the largest K'vimm warship, which resembled a termite mound bristling with gun turrets. Weapons fire from four different vessels was focused on the tiny speck, but with no effect. It vanished into the target's hull. Almost immediately the K'vimm galleon began trembling like a palsied whale, wracked by a series of internal explosions. Huge cracks encircled the ship, from which sprouted geysers of flame that expanded quickly into fountains of fire. The whole ship separated into massive chunks, some of which managed to stay intact as they emerged from the mushrooming fireball. The remainder disintegrated outright or continued to burn.

"By the gods!" Mobinita gasped.

"The K'vimm galleon has been destroyed. Unidentified object reacquired and is changing course to intercept the warship immediately astern," Balinor announced. "Contact imminent."

The second K'vimm starship was attempting a desperate evasion, while its neighbors continued to pour weapons fire onto the minute intruder. The blue-white sphere hurtled across the gap, slipping effortlessly through the victim's walls of force and metal. The warship became a nova, its mass converted almost completely to radiant energy. An expanding cloud of gas and debris marked the previous location of the vessel.

"The second K'vimm galleon has been destroyed. The object has now been tentatively identified as Prince Sir Tenchi Masaki," Balinor drawled. "His Highness is now vectoring towards the third K'vimm capitol ship. Contact imminent."

The K'vimm squadron was now in complete disarray, some elements advancing on the elusive threat with guns blazing, others attempting to escape. Mobinita's task force had been completely forgotten by the K'vimm — but he hadn't forgotten about them. "Relay message to all task force commanders: Since His Highness is dealing with the primaries, you will direct your main batteries upon the K'vimm secondaries. Convergent fire is the order of the day." His instruction was punctuated by another massive explosion.

"The third K'vimm galleon has been destroyed. His Highness is now targeting the fourth K'vimm capitol ship. Contact imminent. Secondaries are now accelerating out of the engagement area. Recommend immediate pursuit."

"I agree. Pass the order."

An enormous flash was followed by two distant, smaller bursts. "The fourth K'vimm primary has been destroyed. His Highness is now targeting the nearest K'vimm secondary. Time to interception: 3 seconds. Task force units have destroyed two K'vimm frigates."

"Pour it on," Mobinita replied.

In less than an hour there was a stream of radioactive detritus that trailed away from Pluto on a course back towards Sol. The Juraian victors were combing through the larger pieces looking for K'vimm survivors — but frankly didn't expect to find any. Few participants lived through the losing side of starship combat.

"Where is His Highness now?" Mobinita asked.

"Approaching on an intercept vector," Balinor replied. "Decelerating to conventional close-formation parameters. Time to contact: eight seconds."

"Any indications what he's going to do now?"

"No, Admiral, but there is a high probability that he will board this vessel."

"Captain Istanaka, what do you think?"

"I'd have to agree with the AI, Admiral. Better put out the good china."

Mobinita nodded. "Order the task force to stand down, and to submit readiness and casualty figures as soon as they are computed."

"Acknowledged," Balinor answered, followed by, "His Highness is now aboard."

Blue-white light suddenly flooded the strategic bridge. All activity in the cabin dwindled to a halt, as uniformed men and women twisted away from their consoles seeking the source of the illumination. The sphere settled into the only space large enough to accommodate it, before retracting into the Lighthawk Wings. The armored figure made a gesture and the wings vanished, followed seconds later by the shining body armor. Though room lighting returned to normal levels, activity levels did not — until Mobinita barked at them. He had read much about the heir to the throne, and had seen many of the vids, so he recognized the prince immediately. He rose from his desk and stepped forward, bowing stiffly.

"Your Highness, welcome aboard the Imperial Juraian Naval ship Balinor. I am Rear Admiral Mobinita, at your service."

Tenchi returned the bow. "The pleasure is mine, Admiral, although I wish the circumstances were a bit less...disruptive." Truth be told, Tenchi was intensely curious about his surroundings, but enough lectures by Ayeka and coaching by Funaho had taught him to remain composed. He had to remind himself that he was probably being recorded, and the file would almost certainly be scrutinized in the months to come.

"Your timing is impeccable, Your Highness. We were having some difficulties with their defenses."

"Thank you, Admiral. Happy I could help."

"Your Highness, do you have any idea what this is all about? The K'vimm have never ventured so far into this galactic arm, and have never attacked without provocation."

"Not yet, Admiral, but I intend to find out soon enough. Until then, my time here is somewhat limited. Does your ship come equipped with an AI unit?"

They all did, part of the standard configuration. But Mobinita thought it best not to instruct the heir to the Empire. "Yes, Your Highness. Balinor?"

"Yes, Admiral?" the AI responded.

"I believe the prince has a request to make of you."

"Please proceed, Your Highness."

"A few hours ago I effected an energy transfer to the Galaxy Police cruiser Yukinojo, which at present is headed for the third planet. Can you contact Yukinojo and acquire the technical details of the transfer?"

"Yes, Your Highness."

"Please do so. Admiral, what is the status of your task force?"

"We're collating the data now. It should be available in short order."

"Query completed, Your Highness," Balinor said.

"Please review the technical details. Can the same procedure be applied to the ships in this task force?"

"Working. Yes, Your Highness, the same procedure can be applied to all elements of this command."

"Balinor, do we have the readiness and casualty figures yet?" Mobinita asked.

"Yes, Admiral."

"What is the average status of all task force elements?" No need to bury the Prince in statistics, since he seemed in a hurry.

"Shields at 34%, life support down to 61%, and main battery energy cell levels at 54%. All vessels have suffered damage to their outer hulls, in three instances the breach is severe. At present energy levels repairs will require 12 to 15 days, best estimate."

"How long will it take if I provide energy transfers similar to Yukinojo?"

"Working. Repairs can be completed in five days."

"Admiral, with your permission I would like to transfer energy into all of the ships in your task force. I have reason to believe we may be needed at Homeworld in the immediate future, and we need your vessels at fighting trim."

Mobinita's first inclination was to label the request 'ludicrous.' Then he remembered that this young man had just destroyed four galleons and a handful of frigates all by himself, and gods-alone-knew how many other vessels further in-system. As his mentor had taught him centuries ago: never question royalty, and never argue with a Master Class Power Adept. "We're at your convenience, Your Highness. Balinor, please advise all task force commanders that His Highness will be visiting each vessel in the next few hours. Pass along the technical details for immediate implementation. Captain Istanaka, my compliments and would you please report to the strategic bridge. Balinor, what are the total casualty figures?"

"81 dead, 506 injured."

Mobinita did a silent translation: 1-in-9 of his task force's personnel was no longer able to perform their duty. Some forever.

##########

Ryoko strolled down the street in her red-and-black jumpsuit. The street was noisy, and crowded, and dirty, and she received any number of amazed and admiring looks.

She ignored them all.

She was looking up at the walls of the skyscraper beside her. Ryo-ohki's sensors had told her that a K'vimm outpost was buried inside the building, approximately two-thirds of the way up from the ground floor. She had watched as a sporadic stream of cloaked vessels dropped from the sky and hovered just outside the windows. The locals couldn't see them, of course, but she could — as walnut-shaped distortions.

She was contemplating on whether she should just fly up and into the structure when she heard a commotion behind her. She turned slowly, seeing a group of heavily-muscled males appraising her. They liked what they saw and emphasized it vocally. Since Ryoko was in a hurry, she ignored them; she had no intention of staying in Manhattan any longer than it took to locate and rescue Ayeka. She returned to her study of the tower.

One of the males, probably the leader, tapped her on the shoulder. She turned to find his smiling face inches from her own, and the deep rumble of his voice was making obvious invitations. She didn't even smile back; she raised her hands to indicate her wedding ring, and then made sweeping gestures to shoo them away. The leader's tone of voice turned nasty, and he grabbed her shoulder.

Ryoko allowed the momentum to twist her around, and combined the torque with her own respectable strength. Her hammer fist dropped squarely on his head, and he sat on the sidewalk with a loud thud. His eyes were dazed and unfocused, and Ryoko said (in Japanese — the only Earth language she knew), "Get lost." She turned and started walking, noticing a bank of revolving doors a little further along the sidewalk.

She heard the group coming for her, and so she turned to face them. They were supporting their leader by his arms, and looked determined to take revenge for putting him in such a humiliating position. She waited patiently for them. They gathered around her like a pack of wolves, making intimidating gestures and threatening postures. They looked angry, and supremely confident, as they heckled a lone female. For a moment, she tried to picture Tenchi performing this ritual, and just couldn't — it was too barbaric. She turned to the largest member of the group (very large, actually), and hoisted him into the air with one hand. She tossed him across the roof of one of the nearby ground cars. Then she turned to the stunned pack members, glared at each of them in turn, and dropped another hammer fist onto the leader's melon-shaped head. His lights went out and he plummeted to the pavement, dragging his nearest associates along like cascading rag dolls.

They did not bother her again.

She followed a group of pedestrians into the building, looking around curiously. There was a lot of brass and marble evident, applied in replicating curls and wavy patterns. It was quite attractive. She watched the tide of humanity flowing into and out of the elevators, realizing their function immediately, and finally joined one of the smaller groups. She rode the elevator up as far as it would go, and waited until she was alone in the car. Then she phased up through the floor and into the dark shaft, drifting slowly until she had reached the calculated floor.

She stuck her head through the elevator doors, looking both ways quickly. The corridor appeared deserted, so she floated through the doors and hovered silently. The hallway continued the brass-and-marble decor, and stenciled doorways lined the hall in both directions. She settled onto the carpet and started walking slowly. Locals in business attire entered and departed the doors on a random basis, but there was one set at the end of the hall that no one appeared to use. She waited until the hall was empty, and phased through the door.

She stood in office devoid of lights and people, filled with desks and chairs, and facing a bank of unshuttered windows. Halfway down the room, she saw Ayeka's cage. Ayeka herself was kneeling on the floor, idly watching out the windows. Ryoko smiled and strode across the room.

She didn't know if Ayeka could hear her, and she didn't know if touching the force field would set-off any alarms, so she walked around in front of Ayeka and knelt on the floor.

Ayeka recoiled, visibly startled. Her lips started moving, the look on her face was quite agitated — but relieved, as well — and Ryoko was glad to see her alive and unhurt. Ryoko started examining Ayeka's prison, looking for any controls or sources of power. She wasn't having much luck, and Ayeka's silent entreaties were not helping much.

"Are you looking for something?"

Ryoko suppressed her reaction to the man's voice. She looked over her shoulder at the two figures standing behind her. She recognized the man instantly. "Well, if it ain't Seiryo. Long time, no see, pretty boy. Still wearing that ridiculous hair color?"

Seiryo growled, but regained his composure. "If I were in your position, I would be more concerned with my own health and safety than with anyone else's appearance."

"If you were in my position, you probably wouldn't be alone." She waited for a moment before the Juraian figured out the insult, and then his face reddened. "Gee, your blush and your hair color don't match. Have you discussed that with a cosmetician?"

"That will be enough, Ryoko. Baiting him gets quickly tedious."

Ryoko turned to study the older woman. "You look familiar, somehow. Have we met?"

The woman waved nonchalantly. "Oh, yes, but it's been a long time. Perhaps you will remember my son easier, particularly since you were in his...employ...for such a long time."

It took only a moment for the clues to fall into place: the silvery hair, the golden eyes, the reference to her son. "Naja Akara!" She spit the name out, and felt her own face flushing — with rage.

"I see you do remember me, after all. Maybe you should call me Grandma, since my son was so much like a father to you." Her grin was wicked and cold.

"My husband sent that bastard straight to Hell," Ryoko hissed. "And if you'd have been there he'd have sent you, too!"

Naja clucked genially. "Kagato always did draw out the best and worst in people."

"Just before he killed them!"

"Everyone dies, sooner or later. He merely...facilitated...the natural course of events."

Ryoko ignited her energy sword — only to watch it fizzle and vanish. "What the hell?"

"As to your sword: there is an energy-dampening field around this chamber, so your Power attributes are unavailable. Now, be a dear and step onto that platform, or I will be forced to electrocute that charming princess." Naja brandished the keypad, her thumb menacingly on the buttons. Ryoko looked at Ayeka, who pointed grimly to a mechanism fastened around her ankle.

Ryoko snorted in disgust. She had screwed up, big time.

##########

Ryoko and Ayeka sat on opposite corners of the platform. Each now wore a bracelet around an ankle, a hasty construction containing two sealed boxes. One component was a psuedospace transceiver, and thus had unlimited range; the other component was an energy cell with enough voltage to stun Ryoko and kill Ayeka. It was a guarantee of good behavior.

They had been sharing information, watching the occasional K'vimm soldier lumber past their cage, watching the city lights glowing brighter beyond the windows.

"I thought she'd died a long time ago," Ryoko said, shaking her head. "It figures she'd be involved with some grand scheme to bring down the Emperor."

"And I failed to keep track of the various suitors my father picked for me. None of them take rejection very well — but to engage in treason..."

They were both silent for a while, until Ryoko indicated the floor grid. "You realize that there are probably microphones in there."

Ayeka shrugged. "Well, I certainly would put them in. However, I find this whole containment structure rather odd, don't you? The shield walls are transparent to certain frequencies of light, but closed to molecular passage. No air, no sound...very odd."

"Could it have been built by the K'vimm?"

"The thought had crossed my mind." She paused, watching a guard shuffle by. "How is our husband?"

Ryoko grinned. "Wide awake and mad as hell. And he has a few new talents, now. Very useful talents."

"And how useful might these new talents be?" Naja's voice echoed inside the forcefield. The wives exchanged glances, not surprised by the interruption — or the confirmed eavesdropping.

"Tell you what, Naja. I'd be willing to discuss this over some dinner. Manhattan is known for its hamburgers and pizza; why don't you get us something to eat, and we'll talk."

"Why don't I just close the ventilation to your cubicle, and then it becomes a moot point?" Ayeka would suffocate, of course; but Ryoko would not be immediately affected. They both wondered if Naja was aware of that fact.

"Your call," Ryoko shrugged.

A moment later the forcefield vanished, and both women climbed to their feet. "I need to use the ladies' room," Ayeka announced. No one objected, so she headed for the door. Ryoko wandered over to the window and looked down.

"If you are considering..."

"Yeah, I know, if I try to leave you zap us both. Can't I even stretch my legs? And when do we eat?"

##########

They had pushed two desks together, shoved everything, onto the floor, and gathered four chairs. Three pizza boxes lay open and half empty, a couple of wine bottles, and a stack of paper napkins. Ryoko ate enthusiastically, Ayeka nibbled at her slice, and their captors chewed in silence.

"Damn, this pizza is pretty good!" Ryoko said between slices. She washed the last mouthful down with a swig from her wine bottle. "The wine is tasty, too. I'd have preferred sake, but this stuff isn't bad. Aren't you going to eat?"

The last comment was aimed at Ayeka, whose rate of consumption was lower and slower than Ryoko's. "This is a bit too spicy for my palate," she finally replied. "Although I did try a cheese pizza once that was quite delicious."

"The more meat, the better," Ryoko said through a napkin. "Tell me, Naja, why did you pick New York? Isn't it kinda crowded around here? You're taking a big chance on getting seen."

"Sometimes it is more effective to hide in plain sight," Naja replied. "Besides, this way I have millions of potential hostages. And the energy output from this city masks my modest activities."

"I found you easily enough."

"So you did..."

"You don't eat food, you inhale it!" Seiryo sneered. He was obviously appalled at Ryoko's rapid consumption.

She just grinned at him. "I prefer to enjoy life to the fullest. You never know how long it will last."

"Too true, Ryoko, Dear. Particularly with the kind of life you've lived," Naja said. She was still picking at her first slice.

Ryoko reached for another. "It has been exciting, that's for sure. Of course, that's all changed these days. Now that I'm married and respectable — "

"Thank you for reminding me. We kept our part of the bargain, now you fulfill yours."

Ayeka glared at Ryoko, but Ryoko just shrugged. "Ok. What do you want to know?"

"What talents has your husband recently discovered?"

"Why don't you just ask me directly?" Tenchi said from the shadows. He stepped into the light, pulling his hand away from his forehead, and the Emblem of Power shone dramatically.

Naja and Seiryo leaped away from the desks. Naja's fingers wrapped around the keypad, and Seiryo lifted an inverted T-shaped instrument. "Stop right there, Prince of Jurai!" Naja commanded.

Tenchi frowned and the keypad vanished from Naja's hand. It appeared on his open palm. He looked from it to the platform to his wives' ankle bracelets, and shook his head. The keypad and bracelets vanished. There was a burst of sparks from the floor of the platform, and it started smoking. Tenchi's wives joined him, each kissing the nearest cheek. "Sorry it took so long to get here. Thanks for stalling them."

"Not a problem," Ryoko replied.

"Perfect timing," Ayeka added.

"Confine them!" Seiryo commanded. With an all-too-familiar flourish, Naja gestured and a spectral keyboard appeared in front of her. Her hands danced over the keys and a glowing barrier appeared between the two groups. Tenchi gestured with his right hand, and a ball of blue-white light appeared. It uncoiled into the Lighthawk Sword, which he promptly thrust into the barrier. The shield flared and collapsed.

"Uh, oh," Naja muttered. She typed frantically, and two schematics appeared in the air above the keyboard. Tenchi stepped forwards, and Seiryo interposed himself between Tenchi and Naja. Seiryo activated the weapon he held, and a blade of energy emerged from the cross-guard. He settled into an en garde stance.

"We never did have a proper contest, did we?" Seiryo snarled. "Come and receive a lesson from a true swordsman!"

Tenchi sighed irritably.

Naja studied the schematics and blanched. Her fingers typed furiously on the keys and a dimensional doorway appeared beside her. She looked up as her keyboard vanished, and said, "My advice to you, m'lad, it to beat a hasty retreat. And to you three: give my regards to Washu!" She hobbled into the doorway, which promptly disappeared.

Tenchi looked at Ayeka, and they both looked at Ryoko. "Hey, I didn't know she could do that! I thought Washu was the only one with those abilities!"

"Face me, you coward!" Seiryo demanded.

"God, what a week," Tenchi groaned. "Tell me, Lord Seiryo, did you kidnap Princess Ayeka?"

"Yes," Seiryo answered.

"And did you lay hands on her?"

"I tried to," he admitted sheepishly. But then he threw back his shoulders, and said, "And I'd do it again!"

"And you threatened the lives of both Princess Ayeka and Princess Ryoko?"

"Yes, I don't deny it!"

"Then I consider this a Challenge," Tenchi replied.

"Excellent! Now fight me, man-to-man!"

Tenchi pointed the Lighthawk Sword at Seiryo, whose weapon vanished in a flash of blue-white light.

"Where is my sword?" Seiryo demanded.

"I just teleported it two kilometers away — straight down."

"Oh...damn..." The building suddenly shook, and the ground far below rumbled.

Ayeka giggled and Ryoko cackled. They both realized (along with Seiryo) that his energy sword had materialized inside solid rock. The resulting explosion was in the megaton range.

"Tenchi, are you going to kill him now?" Ryoko purred.

"No, he must stand trial for his treason," Ayeka insisted.

"I'll not accept either option!" Seiryo announced — and bolted for the door.

Ryoko teleported in front of him, cold-cocking him with one punch. She casually draped him over her shoulder and strolled back to her family.

"Let's go home," Tenchi said. He released the sword, which writhed and contorted and morphed into the Lighthawk Wings. His arms snaked around his wives' waists, who watched as each wing expanded and merged with its mates and englobed them all. They were now inside a cocoon of blue light, where gravity had suddenly ceased.

"Oh, wow!" Ryoko exclaimed.

"I can't see anything," Ayeka complained.

Tenchi initiated a mind link to each of them. In his mind he visualized each woman, and then overlaid a visor on their faces. They now saw what he did: they were rapidly rising through the floors of the building, bursting suddenly into the night sky. They looked downwards, watching New York City dwindle beneath them. Fluorescent clouds spilled over them, and the curve of the planet became more pronounced as they rocketed skyward. The entire northeastern coast of the United States soon became visible. Tenchi headed north, steering for the pole along the great circle route. Above them the stars glistened like diamonds.

"Oh, this is wonderful!" Ayeka marveled. She clung to her husband, feeling Power rippling around her in waves. They soared across the roof of the world, like angels.

"So this is what it's like!" Ryoko said. She had never flown so fast in her life, and her imagination provided wind to course through her hair.

Ahead of them the sun was starting to peep over the arctic ice, which sparkled like fireworks as sunlight reflected off ten trillion faceted surfaces. In seconds they had crossed the terminator and were traveling high above the Bering Sea. "We'll be home soon," he said. He was surprised by their disappointment.

##########

The citizens of Jurai answered the Imperial summons, and gathered on the flagstone patio of the Masaki Shrine. By rights, every person on Earth was a servant of the crown, but as they didn't know yet they were excused from attendance. Scientists, botanists, pilots, everyone gathered, spreading blankets on the ground and settling down for a meeting of unguessable length. The afternoon sun shone brightly, warming the springtime air of the mountains. The wind shuffled the trees, and the clouds marched overhead in majestic stillness, paying homage to the Royal Family.

The Masaki family gathered quietly along the edge of the wooden portico, clustered loosely around Yosho and Tenchi. Among them stood a naval officer in full dress uniform. None of them smiled, and conversation was sparse. The crowd noted this and mumbled to itself accordingly.

At the appropriate time, Yosho walked quietly onto the veranda. All conversation ceased, and all assembled rose and bowed. He returned the bow, and motioned for them to sit. He waited quietly until silence had again settled over the patio.

"You have been summoned to hear grave news, and to witness the consequences. Ten days ago, a dimensional doorway created by our galactic neighbors, the K'vimm, was opened inside the confines of the Juraian solar system. A lone vessel entered Juraian space and sat for three days, before Empress Misaki approached the vessel in her Royal Tree-ship Kirin. The vessel was apparently a lure, and was waiting for just such an occurrence. It blew up, revealing a mechanism of unknown design used to paralyze the remaining Tree Ships in the system. An assault force immediately exited the doorway and opened fire on all Imperial Naval units in the vicinity. Several vessels were destroyed — including the flagship, Kirito, with Emperor Azusa aboard."

Yosho waited for the startled buzz from the crowd to die down before continuing. "Empress Misaki was injured, but survived. Empress Funaho assumed command of the Imperial forces. The admiralty promptly dispatched a host of couriers," he indicated the naval officer, "just before the K'vimm instituted a complete blockade of the system. We have received no word since."

A ripple of concern passed among the crowd, but Yosho raised his hands before it had a chance to gather momentum. "Obviously, we are now in a state of war. And just as obviously, the Empire needs a strong hand to guide it. While Empress Funaho is capable, the law is clear: the Crown Prince must now ascend to the throne. However, as many of you know, I am bound to this world for another eighteen months at least. I cannot fulfill my obligations. Therefore, to expedite the line of succession, particularly in light of the current crisis, I have summoned you all here to witness the following declaration." Yosho unrolled a parchment, of the kind used exclusively for proclamations. "I, Yosho Jurai, firstborn son of Azusa and Funaho, do immediately abdicate my inherited position as Crown Prince of the Empire of Jurai. I agree to forfeit all the rights and responsibilities, privileges and perquisites of my office, and do pass these on to my grandson, Tenchi Masaki."

In the stunned silence, Yosho put his stamp on the document, and slowly rolled it up. "A copy will be kept in safeguard here at the Shrine, and another will be sent with the courier to Admiral Mobinita's fleet off Pluto, to be taken back to Jurai under guard. All hail Crown Prince Sir Tenchi Masaki!" He turned and knelt before Tenchi, who had come up beside him. The entire Masaki family, plus the naval courier and the leaders of the science station, all knelt to the future Emperor. While it was a solemn moment, those closest to the verandah could see a faint smile on Yosho's face, and everyone could see the happy faces of Tenchi's wives.

Tenchi remained stoic, however, his face a mask.

ACT 3 - REFINING THE EDGE

The Queen of Light took her bow.And then she turned to go.The Prince of Peace embraced the gloomAnd walked the night alone.

Dance in the dark of night.Sing to the morning light.The Dark Lord rides in force tonightAnd time will tell us all.

Throw down your plow and hoe.Rest not till you're goin' home.Side by side we walk the night.The darkest of them all.

I hear the horses thunderDown in the valley below.I'm waiting for the angels of AvalonWaiting for the eastern glow.

The apples of the valley holdThe seeds of happiness.The ground is rich from tender care.Repay, do not forget, no, no.

Dance in the dark of night.Sing to the morning light.The apples turn to brown and black.The tyrant's face is red.

War is the common cryPick up your swords and fightThe sky is filled with good and badThat mortals never know.

Oh, well, the night is longThe beads of time pass slow.Tired eyes on the sunriseWaiting for the eastern glow.

The pain of war cannot exceedThe woe of aftermath.The drums will shake the castle wallThe Ringwraiths ride in black.

Ride on.War is the common ground.Ride on.

Pick up your swords and fight.No comfort has the fire at night.That lights the face so cold.

Dance in the dark of night.Sing to the morning light.

The magic runes are writ in goldTo bring the balance back.Bring it back.

At last the sun is shiningThe clouds are blue and white.With flames from the dragon of darknessThe sunlight blinds his eyes.

Bring it back.Bring it back, bring it back, bring it back.Bring it back, bring it back, now, now, now.

Bring it, bring it, bring it, bring it.

Title: "Battle of Evermore"Artist: Heart (Lovemongers)Words and Lyrics: Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page & Robert Plant)

"The long-range probes have returned, Admiral," Balinor reported. "Uploading has commenced."

"Very well." Mobinita had parked the task force out in the Juraian Oort Cloud, spread his pickets and sensors, and sent one or two probes skirting deeper in-system on discreet orbits, all the better to sneak a peek without getting detected — or shot at. He wanted current information about K'vimm deployments, rather than relying on obsolete data.

He also wanted some solid information to pass along to the Crown Prince. He found working with the future emperor to be far less arduous than he had first imagined. The young man knew little about naval tactics, and said so up-front. But he wasn't stupid, either; he asked intelligent questions, digested the answers carefully, and made no attempt to interfere with how Mobinita ran his command. But he also minced no words about who had the final say — this whole operation fell upon his young shoulders, and he accepted the responsibility without complaint. All very exemplary traits. That he was also personable and charismatic, and that the younger officers and crew were warming to him rapidly, didn't hurt anything either. He had to admit that he liked Crown Prince Sir Tenchi Masaki.

"Upload and analysis completed."

"Put it on-screen," Mobinita replied. Balinor placed a detailed schematic on a large floating pane, festooned with colored blips, shaded turf, and sparse verbiage. The image looked remarkably like a cancerous cell: the K'vimm had established an egg-shaped zone of occupation, anchored on the sunward-side by Homeworld, and enclosing a massive (or gigantic, or immense, or hideous, or any of a dozen other descriptives) dimensional doorway further out. Hundreds of ships patrolled this volume of space, defining a perimeter that effectively sealed-in the Imperial capitol. A screen of Juraian vessels could be seen defending Homeworld and its moons. Mobinita swore softly.

"There are approximately 750 K'vimm vessels blockading the planet Jurai," Balinor explained, "and approximately one-third of those are galleon class capitol ships. The majority of heavy elements are divided evenly between guarding the dimensional doorway and engaging elements of Home Fleet, with the remainder stationed at strategic points along the outer perimeter. There is extensive damage to the orbiting industrial facilities, as well as a lack of observable activity at the boundary commercial space stations. An analysis of debris clouds in the disputed area suggests that a temporary stalemate has been achieved after extensive fighting."

It was painfully obvious that the doorway's appearance had caught Home Fleet completely by surprise, and a whole battle fleet had swarmed out of the dimensional portal and overwhelmed the defending squadrons. Assuming that the commanding fleet admiral survived, he/she would face a court martial when the dust settled. First and foremost, though, was the doorway — they needed to close it to prevent reinforcements from arriving. "How close is that doorway to the jump drive boundary?"

"The dimensional doorway is nine light-minutes sunward of the boundary."

Mobinita cursed again. Modern deep-space mariners shared many of the same problems as their ancient deep-water forebears. For the sailors of old, the size of the hull was the basic yardstick: when approaching the shoreline, they had to be ever mindful of the rising seabed lest they run aground in the shallow waters. The modern sailor used the jump field diameter as the basic yardstick: when entering the gravity well created by large concentrations of mass (such as stars), the energy requirements to maintain the field increased exponentially until the generators failed. The deep-water sailor had two options to get his cargo ashore: offload it to smaller draft vessels, or locate a harbor (whether natural or man-made). The deep-space sailor faced two similar options: use the sub-light engines to reach the final destination (which was expensive in transit time), or transfer the cargo to smaller vessels at a space station. The space station was by far the most common solution; these huge structures were built in solar orbits where the slope of the gravity well became too steep to be dealt with. As a rule of thumb, this transitional boundary was usually three to five AU from the primary star, or approximately the orbit of the fifth planet. And the K'vimm doorway was well inside the transitional boundary, meaning that his task force could not drop out of psuedospace and open fire on it. They would have to use the sub-light drives to get within shooting range, running a gauntlet of K'vimm warships for the entire distance. And his task force stood no chance against so many galleons. "How soon before our frontier squadrons arrive?"

"Twenty-three days at best estimate, assuming immediate departure."

The war would be over in 23 days. Home Fleet was taking a pounding, unable to replace its own losses, while K'vimm reserves could be summoned quickly through the doorway...or doubled...or tripled. He didn't have to ask Balinor to know that Jurai would be forced to surrender in the next few days, or face possible nuclear bombardment from orbit. Immediate action was required.

Mobinita ordered Balinor to open a communications channel to Ryo-ohki.

##########

"Ok, Ladies, it's about Show Time." Tenchi had been standing beside the large portal, looking at the formation around them. As he moved, the Emblem of Power appeared on his brow. The Lighthawk Wings appeared, hovering just before him, before merging together into one Wing. He stepped through it, the phosphorescent foam of Power coalescing into his shimmering Lighthawk Armor. Without hesitation, Ryoko stepped through the hovering Wing as her husband had done. She reappeared with her own armor hardening around her limbs. Ayeka stepped through seconds later.

Tenchi - Ladies, I'm going to put Kiyone in armor, as well as giving her a link

Ryoko - What! Why? This isn't a proposal, is it?

Ayeka - Please explain your reasoning, Beloved

Tenchi - No, I don't need another wife. I figured anyone who has to fight alongside Mihoshi ought to have every survival advantage available

Ryoko - Oh. Yeah. Go ahead

Ayeka - I agree — she will need all the help she can get

Mihoshi appeared on the other side of the Wing, looking down at the lustrous carapace forming around her. She was about to explain to Kiyone what was going on when she saw her partner twitch once, spasmodically. Kiyone turned to stare at Tenchi, who just smiled back and gestured towards the floating Wing. Hesitantly, the GP officer stepped up to and through the Power manifestation. She gasped audibly as the blue-white fog settled around her, forming the combat armor that was so similar to what the other women were wearing. "Oh, wow — Kiyone gets Armor, too? Terrific!"

Tenchi - Is everyone ready?

Ryoko - Yep

Ayeka - Yes, Beloved

Mihoshi - Uh, huh

Kiyone - Yes...although this takes some getting used to

Tenchi - You'll do fine. A final reminder: this link, like the armor, will remain in place as long as I am alive. You will be able to communicate with each other, even though I will be somewhat preoccupied. Watch each other's backs, and work together. Ok, line up — it's ShowTime

##########

The war room was a commandeered conference room where banks of computers had been added around the walls in a haphazard manner. What space wasn't eaten by the conference table and chairs was clogged with power conduits and snaking cables. One had to be careful how one maneuvered into the room, as well as extricating oneself from it.

Washu sat near the door, not only because she lacked seniority, but because it also gave her a better shot at escape when the stress or the boredom got too intense. Little Achika stirred contently in her chest pouch, occasionally gurgling in her sleep. Washu liked to play with the reddish tufts that floated out of the top of the pouch, enjoying their soft texture or nuzzling them with her chin. She missed the baby's father, as well as the three half-mothers that were with him.

"Washu, can I get you some tea?"

"Thank you, Sasami, that would be very nice." At 10-years-old, and naturally slight to begin with, the princess had no problem navigating through the clutter. She didn't fully fathom what was discussed here, but as a member of the Royal Family, and fourth in line for the throne, she had the right to be present. More often than not, she asked Washu for interpretations of events, or simply ran errands for the adults. Further into the room, closer to the center of the table, were the chairs traditionally reserved for the Emperor and his wives. Sadly, two of those seats would remain vacant for some time to come. Empress Funaho, however, made it her highest priority to be in attendance. At the moment, she was watching Washu blow puffs of wind into Achika's hair.

"Is my great-great-granddaughter awake?"

"No, Lady Funaho, she's not the least bit impressed by all of this."

"Smart girl...like her mother." Washu exchanged grins with Funaho. They had gotten along well since their first meeting, on a set of stone steps too many light years away to think about. Where Washu brought raw intellect into the family, Funaho had brought cunning and force of will. They complimented one another, a fact they had both recognized early. "Ah, thank you Sasami. Very well, let's get this meeting started." Military uniforms and civilians alike hustled into their chairs, and very soon the room's climate controller (already burdened by the extra electronics) was straining to keep up.

"Thank you," Washu whispered to Sasami, and set the drink on the table. Sasami slipped into her own chair, placing a teacup on the table beside Washu's. Princess Achika murmured in her sleep, and Princess Sasami giggled quietly at the expression on her face.

"Admiral Nogumo, any word yet from Admiral Mobinita's task force?'

"Yes, Your Majesty. They have just dropped into realspace. They will be reaching the outer perimeter of the K'vimm blockade within the hour." The crusty old warrior made a motion to his adjutant, who's fingers danced across the keyboard on his lap. A large monitor flickered into existence above the table, and schematics appeared. "His task force is not only intact, but he is accompanied by the Galaxy Police cruiser Yukinojo and the royal yacht Ryo-ohki."

Washu, Funaho, and Sasami exchanged glances. "Any word about Prince Tenchi or his entourage?" Funaho asked.

"Mobinita's communiqué mentioned that Sir Tenchi was instrumental in the destruction of a K'vimm squadron — in fact, it states he destroyed half the force by himself."

Funaho's eyes locked with Washu's, both running parallel calculations. "Washu, can you speculate on just how he might have accomplished such a feat, considering what happened when Emperor Azusa confronted the first K'vimm units?"

"I can only guess that he's harnessed some new property of the Lighthawk Wings. As to specifics, I can't imagine. But whatever it is, it must be pretty damn effective." Washu's pride was obvious, mirrored by the young princess beside her.

"Please continue, Admiral Nogumo."

Nogumo nodded, indicating the monitor. "The K'vimm are doing their best to jam communications, so details are sketchy at best. But our own sensors have managed to confirm this." The image on the screen swelled in size, until the only figure visible was a slowly rotating cone composed of two dozen small dots. As they watched, each of the dots sprouted a label and verbiage. "This is the formation Mobinita's forces have assumed."

"A cone?" Funaho asked.

"While a little out-of-date, it is still a very practical arrangement for concentrating maximum firepower while offering optimum protection. His units are not big enough to establish over-lapping shields, but by rotating the entire formation around the center axis he can minimize the amount of time any one ship is exposed to a given threat. Of course, the major emphasis of this formation is upon convergent fire — multiple ships all attacking the same target simultaneously. It would seem a questionable tactical move in a sky full of targets."

"Unless they don't expect to encounter 'a sky full of targets.'"

"Which ship is at the vertex?" Washu asked.

"Ryo-ohki, Sir Tenchi's flagship," Admiral Nogumo read from the screen, "which seems a bit unusual." Not to Washu, it wasn't: doubtless Ryoko was spoiling for a fight, and just as doubtless Tenchi was willing to indulge her. "And Yukinojo is in the third tier down from the vertex, alongside Admiral Mobinita's flagship Balinor."

"Excuse me, Admiral," the adjutant interrupted, "but we are getting an incoming transmission from the task force, unscrambled, commercial as well as military bands." Other displays appeared in the air, all projecting the same image. "It must be a very powerful generator to burn through the K'vimm jamming."

Replicated around the room was a view of the command deck of Ryo-ohki. Tenchi was seated in the pilot's chair, and around him stood Ryoko, Ayeka, Mihoshi, and Kiyone. They all wore Lighthawk Armor and matching predatory grins. Washu's heart leaped to see them all alive and well...although she did wonder why Kiyone was included in this grouping.

"To the K'vimm forces who are presently occupying Juraian space: this is Crown Prince Sir Tenchi Masaki, warning you to leave now or be destroyed. This is your one and only warning. Alpha circuit." The last statement was a command to all military units to switch to the standard secure channel. Most of the monitors in the room flickered off, but the few that remained lit added a small glyph in the lower right corner that indicated an encrypted transmission. "Well, Admiral, do you expect any response from the K'vimm?"

Admiral Mobinita's face opened in a panel in the lower left corner. "No, Your Highness, they are a singularly uncommunicative lot."

Tenchi shrugged. "We had to try. Very well, proceed according to plan. Please pass along my compliments to all the commanders and their crews, and wish them good luck and good hunting."

"Yes, Your Highness. The same to you."

"And to any sunside forces who can pick-up this transmission, we're going to stir up some trouble out along the perimeter. If you see an opportunity to distract our K'vimm guests in the next few hours, we would surely appreciate it. Tenchi out." The screens went blank.

Washu and Funaho exchanged glances.

"Crown Prince Tenchi? Has something happened to Yosho?" Funaho asked.

"I have no idea," Washu replied.

"Admiral, how soon till that formation makes contact with the leading K'vimm elements?"

"No more than fifteen minutes, Your Majesty. In fact..." he looked at a small readout to his left, "...they are accelerating as we speak. K'vimm forces are beginning to sortie for an interception. Major K'vimm forces. Looks like they monitored His Highness's broadcast."

"Send word to the fleet to be prepared for immediate engagement. Let's give His Highness and Admiral Mobinita a chance to get the ball rolling, but be ready to offer support." Funaho was about to add something else when she noticed the expressions on Washu's and Sasami's faces.

Tenchi - Washu? Sasami? Can you hear me?

Sasami - Yes!

Washu - We hear you just fine. Your range is improving, I see

Tenchi - We can discuss that later. Ladies, I need your help

Washu - For you, anything

Tenchi - Washu, can you get one of your sunbuster bombs ready in the next hour or so?

Washu - Yes. Why?

Tenchi - A gift for the K'vimm. Sasami, where is Tsunami?

Sasami - Approaching quickly. She'll be here within the hour

Tenchi - Can Tsunami get past the blockade while cloaked?

Sasami - Yes. Why?

Tenchi - I need her to bring me the sunbuster bomb

Washu - Only if I come along to arm it

Tenchi - I expected that. You might want to bring along a long-range probe as well

Sasami - Where and when, Tenchi?

Tenchi - I'll be in touch in the next couple of hours. I'm going to be rather busy in the meantime...

Washu - Just be careful

Sasami - Yes, be very careful

Tenchi – Always

"Washu? Are you feeling alright?"

Washu blinked a couple of times, and then exchanged grins with Sasami. "Never better!"

##########

Tenchi stood slowly, turning. He opened his arms as Ryoko slipped into them. A hug, a kiss, and a whispered farewell. Ayeka followed, and then Mihoshi. He shook hands with Kiyone, and wished her good luck. Then he stepped away from them, summoning the full Power at his command. The wings appeared, stretching and englobing him in their blue-white embrace. And then he was gone.

"We'd better get back to Yukinojo," Kiyone said quietly. Mihoshi sniffed once and nodded.

"Good luck," Ayeka said. Ryoko echoed her.

##########

"His Highness has left the flagship," Balinor said. "He is approaching the leading K'vimm primary on an intercept vector. Time to contact: eight seconds."

"Open a channel to all task force units and pipe it to the main board. I want to see my captains."

"Acknowledged." One entire wall of the strategic bridge was blanketed by ghostly panels, each showing the operations center of a ship in the formation. Of those displayed, the most striking were the images from Ryo-ohki and Yukinojo: each of the occupants wore glowing Lighthawk Armor. Mobinita had heard of this, but had never seen it. Most impressive. It felt good to be fighting with the Royal Family again.

##########

"What is that?" Admiral Nogumo asked. The miniscule sphere was racing ahead of the formation at incredible speed, and the computer was forced to rapidly redraw the schematic in an effort to keep everything in the image.

"Unknown," his adjutant replied. "But our sensors register it as a Power manifestation."

"Confirmed," said another officer.

"Source?"

"It came from Ryo-ohki. It doesn't match any torpedo configuration in our library."

"That's no torpedo," Washu exclaimed, "That's Tenchi!" She pushed the teacups out of the way and gestured over the empty table space, where her spectral keyboard materialized. Her fingers danced excitedly over the keys, and small schematics appeared in the space over the table. She started cackling, a smile spreading from ear to ear.

"What is he doing, Washu?" Funaho asked.

"Oh, this ought to be good!" she replied.

##########

The K'vimm dreadnought was enormous, a mountain of metal and mayhem. Tenchi's altered perception saw it as a multi-layered structure coursing with energies, and honeycombed with chambers and halls and symmetrical tunnels. Life forms skittered throughout the vessel, like agitated ants. With an effort, he ignored the crew and concentrated on locating the reactor, seeking the heart of the ship.

The dreadnought opened fire on him, raking him and his path with energies that would vaporize granite. Such threats couldn't harm him, so he dismissed them. Tenchi was almost upon the monster, and was awed by its size.

But size couldn't protect it.

##########

"K'vimm galleon destroyed. His Highness has been reacquired, now targeting nearest K'vimm primary. Contact imminent."

Mobinita watched with interest. K'vimm ships were racing to intercept them, doubtless expecting an easy victory over a motley collection of cruisers and destroyers. Ah, the element of surprise was surely the great equalizer. Keep coming, you bastards, there's plenty to go around.

"Second K'vimm galleon destroyed. Third primary targeted. Contact imminent."

##########

"Gods, there goes another one!" Admiral Nogumo gasped, straining his composure.

Funaho watched open-mouthed. Azusa had been killed and Misaki had been critically wounded by these creatures, and here her great-grandson was ripping through them like a white-hot poker. She finally found her voice. "Admiral, how soon before the task force reaches the perimeter?"

"Two minutes, Your Majesty."

"Washu, have you figured out what your husband is doing out there?"

"I have a pretty good idea, Lady Funaho. And if I'm right, there's no defense against it. The tide is about to turn in our favor."

"There goes another one! And another!"

##########

"Fourth K'vimm target destroyed by direct effects, fifth target destroyed by collateral damage. Secondaries are maneuvering away from the combat zone. His Highness is employing a spiral pattern outwards from the first point of contact."

"Well, that's what he'd told us he was going to do. How close are we?" Mobinita asked.

"Maximum firing range in 30 seconds, optimum firing range in 45 seconds."

"Princess Ryoko?"

"Yes, Admiral?"

"As captain of the flagship, would you do us the honor of launching the first salvo?"

"It would be my distinct pleasure, Admiral. Thank you."

Mobinita savored the irony. He had been a wet-behind-the-ears ensign in the Imperial Navy when this cyan-haired woman had attacked Homeworld seven centuries earlier. Incredibly, she had slipped through the same defensive layers that had recently caught and held the K'vimm. She had caused catastrophic damage to the capitol city, scorched a fair-sized chunk of the surrounding landmass, and had erased a high percentage of the home fleet. And now here she was, married to the heir, and willing to fight just as hard to protect the people that had forgiven her. The Hand of Fate was truly an unpredictable force to be reckoned with. "Balinor, track Ryo-ohki's first salvo and direct all weapons to the same target. Successive targets to be determined by greatest threat assessment. Select K'vimm secondary units when possible. Convergent fire when possible. Complete global coverage."

"Acknowledged." Balinor was going to be very busy for a while: not only was the AI assisting Captain Istanaka with combat functions, but it was calculating a continuing series of course corrections for every ship in the formation to maintain station, as well as feeding constant figures to each ship's fire control computers. "We are now in range."

"This one is for Tenchi," Ryoko's relayed image said. "Ryo-ohki: fire!"

An energy bolt rippled away from the formation at lightspeed, impacting the shields of the K'vimm frigate and generating eye-popping auroras. The alien's shields were tough, though, and could handle the single assault well enough; but they could not withstand the hundreds of beams that arrived a heartbeat later. In fractions of a second the shields overloaded and collapsed, the outer hull vaporized, and the inner hull imploded at dozens of points. Rivers of photons burned their way through the center of the vessel and beyond, releasing pressurized gasses to the vacuum. The ship's reactor was pierced in five places, and it detonated in a fireball that consumed the entire vessel. An expanding cloud of charred fragments and ionized dust were all that remained.

Within three seconds two nearby K'vimm frigates were blasted into oblivion, and the guns of the task force began hunting for prey in earnest.

##########

"All K'vimm forces at the point of interception have been destroyed," the adjutant informed them.

"Where's the Crown Prince now?" Funaho asked.

"He has changed course, and is heading for the K'vimm dimensional doorway. He's just destroyed his fourteenth ship. Their forces are regrouping nine light-minutes downrange, either to attempt to overwhelm him or to defend the doorway."

"What about the forces on the inner perimeter?"

"They are being redeployed. Heavier elements are being pulled back to the doorway."

"Admiral, wouldn't this be a good time to start those distractions the Crown Prince mentioned?"

"I was thinking the same thing, Your Majesty," Admiral Nogumo replied, grinning wolfishly.

"So that's his plan," Washu said thoughtfully. "Brilliant. Come on, Sasami, we have an errand to run."

##########

"We have reached the breach, Admiral," Balinor reported.

"Thank you. Ladies and Gentlemen, His Highness was gracious enough to open a door through their perimeter, and it would be bad manners on our part to refuse his invitation. Execute the course change, Balinor."

Every ship in the task force stopped shooting as the stream of data broadcast from the heavy cruiser assumed a new priority.

From the command deck of Ryo-ohki, the rear view was spectacular. As the vertex of the cone, the task force literally revolved around her, and as her position in space changed so did the ships slaved to her wake. The stars appeared to spin in a dizzy pirouette, though in reality the ships in the formation were executing a complicated three-dimensional spiral. The Juraian sun swam across the sky, from the forward quarter to a position abeam. Facing them now was a growing collection of wrecks and debris clouds, breadcrumbs left by the blue-white sphere on its march to the far-distant dimensional doorway. Specks of light could be seen and identified as K'vimm vessels attempting to stop the Crown Prince.

"Realignment completed. Returning to combat mode. Assuming new course and accelerating along planned vectors."

##########

Combat is often described as long hours of monotony divided by moments of extreme terror.

"You wanna go over that again?" Ryoko yawned.

Ayeka nodded. She was using balls of yarn laid out on the floor as markers. "Perhaps a visual reference will help. These two represent Sasami and I. This one is Misaki Jurai, our mother. Her parents are Seto and Utsumi Kamiki."

"I've heard of Lady Seto," Ryoko said. "Didn't they call her the 'Ogre Princess?' She's supposed to be ungodly strong."

"Quite right. She broke several of my grandfather's bones during some of their, er, intimate activities."

"Which would explain your mother's strength — and your ability to keep up with me."

Ayeka's nod was noncommittal. "Grandfather Utsumi married into House Kamiki and assumed their surname — "

"Shouldn't Tenchi have done that? Tenchi Masaki Jurai?"

"Yes, he should. And he will probably have to when he's crowned emperor. Which means our names will change, too."

"Does that make yours Ayeka Jurai Masaki Jurai?" Ryoko smirked.

Ayeka rolled her eyes. "I'll let the College of Heralds make that decision. Anyway, this is Lady Seto's father, Ushio Kamiki. Lady Seto was an orphan when he found and adopted her. He was quite strong, too."

"Must be something in the water," Ryoko muttered.

Ayeka restacked the yarn balls. "Now for my father's side of the family. This is Emperor Azusa Jurai. This is his sister, Kasumi Jurai. This is his mother, Amame Jurai, and his father, Kazuki Yotsuga..."

##########

There was little for the crew to do but wait, as the ship fought and danced like a metal marionette.

"Mihoshi, what are you doing?"

"I'm keeping track of Tenchi. According to Balinor, he's just destroyed his twenty-third enemy ship!"

Kiyone shook her head. During their tours together, Mihoshi had always been something of a ditz. Not a total idiot, really, just scatterbrained enough to be downright annoying. But when she rose to the occasion, it was always spectacular. Her empathic talents proved extremely useful during interviews and interrogations, and her blind luck had saved their tails more than once. She had earned her commendations, absolutely. But meeting and marrying the heir to the Juraian Empire (never mind sharing that privilege with four other Power adepts) was simply an incredible achievement, even for her. Kiyone's emotions were tied to a pendulum that swung between envy and awe. Power, prestige, plum assignments, promotions...

So where did that leave Kiyone? Well, assuming she survived the next few days, the best she could expect was to be back out on patrol. And for some reason, that thought was unsettling. After all, she'd been considered dead for three years, long enough for everyone to mourn her passing and move on — except for the blonde in the pilot's seat. Even Kiyone had to admit, the one person who'd never given up on her was her partner. And friend.

Kiyone sighed.

Ryoko - How are you two doing over there?

Kiyone - Kinda bored, really. What about you?

Ryoko - Ayeka is telling me all about her family history. I'm almost asleep

Ayeka - You really should pay more attention, since it involves our husband's family

Ryoko - Tenchi is all the family I need

Mihoshi - He just destroyed his thirtieth ship!

Ayeka - Remarkable

Ryoko - Damn, I've gotta remember to ask him how he does that

Kiyone - Let me get this right: you all lived in the same house before you got married?

Ryoko - Yep

Ayeka - The circumstances were unusual, to say the least

Mihoshi - Nothing about Tenchi is 'usual'

Ryoko - Amen to that. Wish we had some sake around here

Mihoshi - Oh, I have some in Yukinojo's galley!

Ryoko - Now you tell me…

##########

Starships fly. Starships die.

Mobinita's cone sailed through a target-rich environment, shooting at everything that moved. Wrecked ships and radioactive dust clouds formed a glittering necklace in the interplanetary medium. The task force maintained a constant acceleration, making it increasingly difficult for enemy ships behind them to pose a threat. Some of the faster, corvette-sized vessels did manage to get close enough to cross Balinor's comfort zone, and were met with the combined fire of the formation's stern batteries. Balinor also seeded their trail with mines, and the occasional explosion from astern provided evidence that the trick was working. Still, they received casualties, some serious. "Admiral, I have been analyzing the K'vimm tactics, and I have noticed an increasing shift towards lateral assaults."

"Elaborate, please."

"They are attempting to attack from the sides, thus forcing us to abandon convergent targeting and deal with multiple threats. This is the primary weakness of a conical tactical deployment."

"Can they succeed?"

"Unlikely. At our present velocity, it is too difficult to intercept and maintain contact long enough to inflict any critical damage. They are passing astern too quickly."

"They expect us to begin decelerating once we reach midpoint, at which time they can swarm over us."

"That is a logical assumption."

"Then they're in for another surprise. Keep monitoring their movements, and let me know of any further indications."

"Acknowledged."

##########

"Current status, Admiral Nogumo?"

"Admiral Mobinita's task force continues to accelerate, Your Majesty. We detect no major casualties in their formation, and we are beginning to pick-up internal transmissions. K'vimm jamming is beginning to break down."

"What about K'vimm casualties?"

"The Crown Prince has just accounted for his forty-ninth warship. He has been concentrating on their galleons, leaving the secondaries for Admiral Mobinita. A very successful strategy up to this point."

"Shouldn't they be slowing down soon?"

"We expect that, Your Majesty, but so must the K'vimm, who are placing most of their forces close to the dimensional doorway. They must be confident of overwhelming Mobinita's task force."

"What about the home fleet?"

"They have broken through the sunside perimeter in four places, and are attempting flanking maneuvers on the remaining K'vimm vessels."

Funaho studied the schematics, letting the facts settle into her mind where her intuition could grasp them fully. At first glance, the battle was becoming a K'vimm rout, but something worried her. "The Crown Prince seems awfully isolated..."

"Indeed, Your Majesty. But more K'vimm are fleeing from him than staying to fight. His appearance has totally decimated their morale and boosted our own."

The Empress of Jurai gnawed at her lip as she watched the monitors.

##########

The attack was sudden, vicious, and totally unexpected.

A K'vimm corvette streaked past the task force at an unbelievable rate of speed, spilling hundreds of small canisters into its path. Balinor recognized the wildly maneuvering objects and opened fire with the formation's anti-personnel batteries, spraying needles of energy into the cluster.

"What are those things — mines?" Mobinita demanded.

"No, Admiral, they are troop transport tubes. We are being boarded."

Half the task force rolled through the cloud of canisters, unleashing volleys of blaster fire. But there were so many of them that dozens got close enough to make contact with the formation's defensive shields. Bursts of energy appeared, forcing local contraction of a shield and allowing the canister to adhere directly to a hull. It took only seconds to burn through the metal and inject the contents into a Juraian vessel.

"Status?" Mobinita barked.

"Intruders aboard eleven vessels. Marines have been dispatched in all but two instances to deal with the threat."

"What are the two exceptions?"

"Ryo-ohki and Yukinojo."

Mobinita searched the wall of images until he located the two images in question. Both screens were filled with movement and energy discharges. He blanched when he realized that three of the Crown Prince's consorts were now in dire peril.

##########

Kiyone popped-up from behind the console and opened fire, her pistol spitting blobs of radiant plasma at the armored attackers spilling onto the bridge. They were insect-shaped, shorter and wider than humans. They were having some difficulty slipping through the hatch, which gave her an extra second to aim. Her target staggered under the round that hit its chest, and collapsed. It lay on the deck, twitching, kicking its comrades. Another K'vimm fell as Mihoshi pumped a round into it.

"How many are there?" Mihoshi yelled from her position behind a stanchion.

"There are six intruders aboard," Yukinojo replied. "I am unable to use the defensive systems due to the proximity of the crew."

"I got one!" Kiyone called. "That leaves five."

"And I got one, which leaves four!" Mihoshi replied. She dropped to one knee and leaned around the stanchion, taking a shot at another intruder's head.

"Correction," Yukinojo drawled. "There are four intruders, at present occupying the corridor abaft the bridge. I detect energy weapons as well as a chemical compound which — "

Whatever the AI was going to say was lost in an explosion as the hatch framework blew inward, falling in fragments onto the deck and the dead. A cloud of black smoke billowed about the chamber, and the ventilators kicked-in to deal with it. Energy bolts flashed both directions through the murk, weapons snarled, armored limbs banged into bulkheads, and humans coughed. The noise was deafening.

Kiyone - Mihoshi! Look out!

One of the intruders had grabbed the hatch and was using it as a shield, absorbing Mihoshi's pistol blasts as it charged forward. Another was hot on its heels, spraying random blasts at Kiyone to keep her pinned down. Except Kiyone refused to stay down; she ignored the erratic fire and place two carefully aimed rounds into the intruders. They crumpled like disjointed boulders.

Mihoshi - Kiyone, duck!

The remaining two intruders had taken advantage of the distraction and slipped through the shattered doorway. They aimed their weapons at Kiyone's chest and fired. Twin beams of energy lanced outward and hit her squarely...and vanished. Amazed, she looked downwards to see the Lighthawk Armor casually dissipating the beams. Shock turned to fury, and she shot the closest intruder at the same time that Mihoshi burned the other.

"No remaining intruders," Yukinojo said. "I will inform Balinor of our status and then commence repairs."

##########

The blast wave caught Ryoko and Ayeka from behind, throwing them both forward into Ryo-ohki's control crystals. Several things flashed through Ryoko's mind in quick secession:

* Ryo-ohki howled in pain as the organic wall shredded, leaving a tear large enough for an armored K'vimm to crawl through.

* The pressurized atmosphere inside the command dome was doing its level best to evacuate through the hole — but was repeatedly blocked by a bulky figure squirming through the breach.

* There were now three of the horrors standing on the deck with their weapons poised, and a fourth was working its way inside.

* Ayeka was not injured, as she had reflexively erected her personal shield before impacting the console — but if the pressure loss was not stanched quickly then she would slowly suffocate inside her bubble.

* Ryoko herself was not injured, nor affected by the sudden pressure loss, but was royally pissed off.

She teleported across the command deck, materializing next to the tear. She staggered for a moment as the current of air roaring into space caught hold of her, then ignited her energy sword. The four insectoid intruders were unaware of her presence, and all had their backs to her. She stepped forward and swung the sword horizontal to the deck, cutting the nearest K'vimm in half at the thorax. The blade cauterized the wound it made, preventing any spray of fluids or tissue, so the convulsing alien failed to alert its companions. Ryoko grabbed the falling torso and shoved it headfirst into the hole. This plugged the leak, and the rushing winds subsided.

Unfortunately, the abrupt stillness alerted the three remaining K'vimm, who spun about and opened fire on her. She was in the midst of standing when the energy beams stitched a pattern from her hip to her shoulder. She gasped and looked down, expecting to see gaping wounds. Instead, she saw the beams sparking uselessly against her Lighthawk Armor. Then she felt another concussion wave, only this was one generated by an angry Juraian princess, and was directed into the undefended backs of the K'vimm. They slammed into the hull with enough force to break armored joints, crack pressure seals, and shatter bones.

"Are you injured, Ryoko?" Ayeka asked, seething with fury.

"Nah, I'm ok. Thanks to this," Ryoko replied, tapping the glowing breastplate.

"As usual, Tenchi's fears were well-founded. We should report our status to Admiral Mobinita immediately."

"I will, just as soon as I check on Ryo-ohki. And toss this trash back into space."

##########

"Admiral Mobinita's forces were just attacked, and they have sustained some casualties."

"Very serious?" asked Funaho.

"No, Your Majesty," Admiral Nogumo replied. "They remain on course, and are still firing upon any K'vimm vessel they encounter. Curiously, they have just passed the midpoint but show no signs of deceleration."

"What does that mean?"

"It appears that Admiral Mobinita intends to make a high-speed fly-by of the dimensional doorway."

"For what reason? He lacks the firepower to destroy it."

"By himself, yes — but the Crown Prince is aiding him, and he does appear to have the capability. Perhaps their sole intention from the start has been to coax the K'vimm back to the doorway. It is impossible to discern clearly at this point."

"And where is the Crown Prince?"

"Within 10,000 klicks of the doorway. It is getting very hard to locate him, due to the increasing number of K'vimm ships, the torrential amounts of energy being released, and the high density of debris filling the area. We have definite confirmation on his seventy-fourth victory, but that was three minutes ago — the number has probably risen since. An astounding achievement."

"And the home fleet?"

"We have full control of the inner planets again, and are harassing the retreating K'vimm."

##########

"Admiral, overall task force energy reserves will soon reach the marginal state."

Mobinita stood and stretched. The battle was well into its third hour, and the strains were starting to show in the hardware and wetware. The stars crawled visibly across the plates, they were moving so fast. The guns of the task force had not been needed in almost a quarter of an hour; they had outraced their pursuers, and space ahead of them was practically empty — until you got within spitting distance of the K'vimm's dimensional doorway. There were hundreds of vessels orbiting the giant structure, some engaged in defense, others performing an orderly withdrawal down its gaping maw. They were getting close enough to actually discern individual galleons stationed as pickets.

Of the Crown Prince, there was no sign. His last reported position had been within a dozen klicks of the doorway, raising merry hell and panicking the K'vimm ship captains. Then he had simply vanished in the chaos. Which made Mobinita nervous. But, it was not his place to question orders.

"Balinor, how long before we reach the rendezvous point?"

"Eight minutes."

"Very well. Ladies and Gentlemen," he said, addressing his wall of screens, "It's time to begin the final phase of this operation. Send your crews to condition yellow, give them a chance to unwind a bit, but keep them close to their stations. Balinor, execute the reorientation."

"Acknowledged."

##########

"What's happening?" Funaho asked as she entered the war room.

"Admiral Mobinita is reorienting his task force." Nogumo indicated one of the schematics. "He's performing a precessional alignment of the formation axis perpendicular to their present vector."

"Meaning...?"

"He's rotating the formation to keep it pointed straight down the throat of the doorway."

"How are the K'vimm reacting?"

"They're building a wall of ships between the task force and their ticket home. If I were in command of that fleet I'd be sweating buckets right now, trying to determine if two dozen second-tier warships are really a threat, or if it's just a giant bluff."

"Where's Crown Prince Tenchi?"

"Still undetermined."

##########

Ryoko - No sign of Tenchi, huh? I don't like it

Ayeka - It worries me, also

Mihoshi - Yukinojo is tied into the home fleet net, and they haven't seen him, either

Kiyone - The internal GP broadcasts are saying the same thing

Ayeka - I can see the doorway clearly, and that powdery fog around it must be the K'vimm fleet

Mihoshi - The home fleet has recorded no explosions in proximity to the doorway for quite a while

Ryoko - Meaning Tenchi is not there

Mihoshi - Probably

Kiyone - Would we be able to sense if he was injured?

Ayeka - I think we would

Ryoko - What the hell?

##########

"Admiral, there is a vessel decloaking in our forward quadrant."

Mobinita watched the monitors. There was a shimmer in the starfield, like heat waves rising from hot asphalt, and a shape began to emerge. Long and lean, graceful and glorious, one end was dominated by bulbs and planes, while the other branched and forked into a set of buttresses and stout limbs. The surface of the whole ship was corrugated, like tree bark, and knotted in many places. There was no mistaking the flagship of the Juraian Navy: "Tsunami."

"Confirmed. Tsunami is matching vectors and velocities with the task force."

She was doing more than that. She was assuming a position directly ahead of Ryo-ohki, becoming the new vertex of the cone.

"Admiral, we will reach perigee in one minute."

"Very well. Commence final deployment."

##########

"What are they doing?" Funaho asked.

Everyone in the War Room was watching the monitors, as Mobinita's cone began unraveling, reforming into a column behind Tsunami. A blue-white nimbus began to radiate from her bow, as buds of pure force blossomed outwards into leaves of enormous size. Funaho counted ten of them. At full extension, the Lighthawk Wings began to merge into a seamless parasol nearly half a kilometer in diameter. The ships of the task force moved as close together as possible, huddling within the shelter of the penumbra.

"Your Majesty, they are approaching perigee."

"Perigee?"

"Their closest distance to the dimensional doorway."

The wall of K'vimm vessels opened fire. Energy rained down on Tsunami's shield in a reversal of tactics: the task force now felt the weight of convergent fire. Everyone watching the monitors could see the flagship shudder under the constant pressure; the Wings shook like palm fronds in a hurricane, twisting and warping with the strain. But they held together; and Tsunami kept her station. Mobinita's ships launched successive torpedo spreads, clearing their path of K'vimm mines. Space around the task force flashed and sparked continuously.

A burst of text flashed across the screens as a small object appeared from Tsunami's bow and accelerated straight for the doorway. "Ah, it's the Crown Prince! He must have been aboard Tsunami."

Half the monitors in the room shifted to follow the object, the remainder watching the task force.

The object continued to accelerate, approaching the mass of K'vimm galleons and frigates that formed the barrier. Every weapon in the K'vimm formation targeted the approaching threat. Beams of energy and massive explosions bracketed the blue-white sphere, but nothing stopped it. In moments, it had passed through the lethal zone, slipped between (or completely through) the K'vimm leviathans, crossed the kilometers-wide gap to the mouth of the doorway, and vanished.

"We've lost sensor lock on His Highness," the adjutant said. It was confirmed by one of the civilians. "The task force has passed perigee, and their distance of separation from the doorway is increasing." The Juraian column was just passing beyond the range of the K'vimm barrage, when all the monitors in the room flickered and blacked-out. "What's happened?"

"One moment, Admiral." his adjutant replied, as he and the other military and civilian technicians were typing furiously on their keyboards. The screens returned to life, those showing the task force unchanged, the others showing an expanding ball of fire. "What the...?"

"Is that the sun?"

"No, Sir — that's the dimensional doorway. Or where it used to be."

##########

Mobinita watched the explosion in real-time. Gouts of incandescent gas spewed outwards, expanding in clouds of roiling flame at hypersonic speeds. It reminded him of vids he'd seen once of lava bubbles ballooning and bursting from vents in a volcano. Only this dome of white-hot plasma was the size of a small moon and growing rapidly. It took less than a second for the doorway to collapse, its generator on the far end consumed by the same cataclysm witnessed here. With one hemisphere no longer restrained, the plasma expanded in an irregular-shaped cloud. Those K'vimm vessels caught in transit simply ceased to exist, while those orbiting the doorway disintegrated under the horrendous heat and pressure. K'vimm ships forming the barrier realized what had happened, and tried frantically to escape the death blossom. But their shields flared briefly and vanished, and the cloud incinerated them instantly.

Mobinita had known this was coming, of course. His Highness had carried a sunbuster bomb through the psuedospace tunnel, just as he had promised, and then had set it off. The roaring residue here was nothing compared to the inferno now blazing at the other end; this little bit of leakage was just a fraction of the total output that was scorching a star system someplace else. His task force sailed away from the doorway at nearly 25% of lightspeed, and so escaped the tide of million-degree plasma.

His task force had survived.

##########

"By the gods," Funaho whispered.

A new nebula was uncoiling in the sky beyond the fourth planet, visible from every location in the solar system. Depending upon which part of the electromagnetic spectrum it was viewed under, it would appear as anything from a pale, diaphanous ghost to a radiant blossom. It was a fleeting structure, though; it would expand until it was too dispersed to be visible, and eventually be blown away by the solar wind.

"That whole quadrant of the sky has been scoured clean," Nogumo said. "Other than Mobinita's task force, there's nothing left."

"Did that explosion catch all of the K'vimm?"

"There are a few remaining ships left a little further out. They'll be burned pretty good when the shockwave catches them. For that matter, some of our own forces had better batten down, too."

Funaho stared at the screens for a moment, waiting for the concern in the back of her mind to bubble to the fore. And then the blood drained from her face. "What about the Crown Prince? We all saw him enter the doorway..."

Nogumo conversed quietly with his adjutant, and then other technicians in the room, before answering. "There is no indication that he returned to Jurai space before the explosion."

The Empress of Jurai slowly collapsed into a chair.

##########

Ayeka - No. I don't believe it. I can't believe it

Mihoshi - But...he didn't come back through the doorway

Ryoko - He's still alive, I tell you. I can feel him!

Ayeka - Tenchi...

Kiyone - Wait a minute! We're still linked, aren't we?

Mihoshi - Yes

Kiyone - And we're still wearing the Lighthawk Armor, right?

Ryoko - Yes!

Ayeka - Then, that means —

##########

"Incoming transmission from Tsunami," Balinor reported. "Unscrambled, all commercial and military bands."

Mobinita turned to the main screen, unconsciously straightening his tunic. The image that appeared surprised him, even on a day when he'd thought he'd seen everything. There was the Crown Prince, sitting in the pilot's chair, looking exhausted. But the light in his eyes was undiminished, and glowed almost as bright as the Emblem on his brow or the Armor he wore. Behind him stood Princess Washu and Princess Sasami, both encased in their own Lighthawk Armor.

"This is Crown Prince Sir Tenchi Masaki, ordering all remaining K'vimm vessels in this solar system to stand down and surrender or be hunted down and exterminated. You've lost the war, and you're stranded thousands of light years from home. Continued resistance is pointless. Don't throw your lives away...there's been enough bloodshed already, on both sides. You have one hour to comply. Alpha Circuit."

##########

Funaho retained her composure, but just barely. Others in the War Room were not so successful. Nogumo had to silence their cheers with a hiss.

"Admiral Mobinita?"

"Yes, Your Highness?" The task force commander's face appeared in a panel on screen. He looked almost as haggard as Tenchi did.

"What's our status?"

"We've secured from battle stations, Your Highness. And we will initiate deceleration as soon as you give the word."

"Consider it given, Admiral."

"Yes, Sir."

##########

The stars spun around the task force, as the ships spread out and assumed a safer distance of separation. Not many aboard them were watching the view, though. There was damage to repair, injuries to attend to, and dead to mourn.

Tenchi - Hello, Ladies

Ryoko/Ayeka/Mihoshi - Tenchi!

Tenchi - Is everyone alright?

Ryoko - We are now!

Ayeka - What about you? You look so fatigued...

Tenchi - I'll be fine, as soon as I get some hot food and a long nap

Sasami - Don't worry, everyone, I've got something cooking for him right now

Washu - And I'll give him a real nice sedative for dessert

Tenchi - I doubt if I'll need it

Kiyone - How did you manage to survive that blast? We saw you enter the doorway..."

Tenchi - I'll explain it all later. At home

ACT 4 - TEMPERING AND QUENCHING

I can't stand to flyI'm not that naiveI'm just out to findThe better part of me

I'm more than a bird…I'm more than a planeMore than some pretty face beside a trainAnd it's not easy to be me

I wish that I could cryFall upon my kneesFind a way to lieAbout a home I'll never see

It may sound absurd…but don't be naiveEven Heroes have the right to bleedI may be disturbed…but won't you concedeEven Heroes have the right to dreamAnd it's not easy to be me

Up, up and away…away from meWell it's all right…You can all sleep sound tonightI'm not crazy…or anything…

I can't stand to flyI'm not that naiveMen weren't meant to rideWith clouds between their knees

I'm only a man in a silly red sheetDigging for kryptonite on this one way streetOnly a man in a funny red sheetLooking for special things inside of me

Inside of meInside of meInside of meInside of me

I'm only a man in a funny red sheetI'm only a man looking for a dreamI'm only a man in a funny red sheetAnd it's not easy...

It's not easy to be me.

Artist: Five For FightingTrack: "Superman (It's Not Easy)"(From the Warner Bros. TV series Smallville)

The Emperor's Privy Council was normally reserved for the few council members that assisted with the day-to-day running of the empire. The Minister of Agriculture, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Commerce, The Minister of Security, The Minister of Health and Welfare, the Minister of Justice, and a few other Council members. This meeting, however, was flush with military personnel, recently debriefed and hustled to this chamber, as well as assistants for the Ministers. The chamber itself was dominated by a long oval table, but there wasn't sufficient room to accommodate everyone, so enough extra chairs had been brought in to form a gallery along one wall. The opposite wall was reserved for the Emperor and his family.

Everyone was present except the Royal Family, whose lateness was politely attributed to visiting Empress Misaki in the hospital. A refreshment cart was pushed into the room, and in no time a queue had formed. It was at this point that Empress Funaho slipped quietly into the room, and got almost to her seat before anyone noticed she was there. The Chamberlain made The Call, and conversation stopped abruptly. All bowed, which she returned, and indicated for them to continue. She settled into her seat. (By rights, as the senior consort, and upon the death of the Emperor, she could have taken his seat, but she pointedly refused. She was in mourning, and the new Emperor had yet to be crowned.)

People were assuming their seats when the Chamberlain made The Call and the Crown Prince and his entourage entered. The military officers present snapped to attention and bowed smartly, followed hastily by the civilian Ministers. Funaho noted the respect with which the military now treated her great-grandson; he had been untested before the invasion, and therefore treated politely but reservedly. No longer.

Privy Meetings were generally bereft of the protocols required of other functions, but was still somewhat bound by traditions. The Emperor usually entered alone, followed by his consorts in order of seniority. Tenchi trashed that tradition when he entered the room carrying Achika, followed closely by Washu and Sasami, Ayeka and Ryoko, and Mihoshi and Kiyone. Kiyone got more than her share of curious looks, and many present wondered if the Crown Prince was about to increase the size of his family. Tenchi bowed before the empty seats, bowed once to his great-grandmother, and assumed his usual chair behind her. Chairs had been provided for his entourage, who filled them quietly.

Funaho watched her great-grandson with interest. She noted the change in his posture, the way he wrapped Command Authority around himself like a cloak, the set of his shoulders that now carried a burden greater than any he had known before. But mostly she noticed his eyes: there was a weariness about them that she knew all too well, because she had seen many of her operatives acquire the same cast; her great-grandson had lost his innocence, and the void had been filled with a harsh wisdom.

The Chamberlain called the meeting to order, and silence settled upon the room.

"Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming today. We all have many pressing duties waiting for us, but I think it will do us good to pause and reflect upon the last few days. I have asked members of the military to join us and provide a summary of the actions that broke the K'vimm blockade and their subsequent destruction. I would also appreciate hearing from the various ministers a brief review of their current circumstances and recovery plans. We need not delve too deeply into details. Admiral Nogumo, would you start, please?"

The Admiral rose from his seat in the gallery, and approached the closest end of the table. "Thank you, Your Majesty. From the military perspective, three weeks ago the K'vimm dimensional doorway appeared suddenly beyond the orbit of the fourth planet. Strategically, this was closer to the inner systems than is normally permissible by conventional jump technology. They established a perimeter of ships and satellites at this distance out from the sun, with the intent of detecting and intercepting any vessels approaching Homeworld. Concurrently, they attempted to overwhelm the naval bases on the Juraian moons and the orbital defenses above Homeworld. In this they were unsuccessful, and were forced to establish an englobement posture. It was during these initial engagements that Emperor Azusa was killed, and Empress Funaho assumed command of Homeworld defense. While the K'vimm attacking force had sufficient numbers to pin down the home fleet, they could not possibly win against the entire weight of the Juraian navy. We have major fleets stationed at each end of our empire, as well as squadrons stationed at strategic points throughout the volume of Jurai space. Unfortunately, it takes time to summon such forces, and time was an ally of the K'vimm. Since our communications were being jammed, we sent couriers to those fleets, to our nearest squadrons, and (of course) to those members of the Royal Family visiting colony world 0315, a.k.a. Earth. At least one courier got through to Admiral Mobinita's squadron. Admiral Mobinita will now provide details of subsequent events."

Mobinita rose and stepped up to the table, replacing Nogumo. "Concurrent to their attack on Homeworld, the Imperial Residence on Earth was attacked by elements of the K'vimm. They were successfully repelled, but one element abducted Princess Ayeka, and one element escaped into space pursued by Princess Ryoko aboard Ryo-ohki. Subsequently, a K'vimm task force attacked my squadron, as well as the Galaxy Police cruiser Yukinojo, then en route to Earth. Amazingly enough, His Highness intercepted and destroyed all those forces attacking his consorts, as well as a decisive number of K'vimm vessels engaged with us, in just a matter of only a few hours." The implications were obvious: Tenchi had crossed half a solar system in a fraction of the normal time, stopping to rescue two of his wives in the process, before pouncing upon the intruders harassing Mobinita's squadron. An impressive feat, and the chamber was abuzz with admiration. Funaho turned in her seat to look at her great-grandson, who was playing quietly with his daughter.

Mobinita continued. "His Highness returned to Earth, in company with his consorts, then located and rescued Princess Ayeka. Her Majesty's courier arrived within the next few days, so I immediately sent him to Earth to inform Crown Prince Yosho of the circumstances. Sadly, the restoration process on his Royal Tree is only half-completed; he cannot leave Earth for many months. It was realized by all that the Empire needed a leader, and needed one now. So, the Crown Prince formally abdicated his position, and his grandson, Prince Tenchi, assumed the title of Crown Prince. In the ensuing week it took to return to Homeworld, we mapped out a strategy for dealing with the K'vimm blockade. Since His Highness had been so successful removing the K'vimm capital ships, and my forces had been so successful with convergent fire on the K'vimm secondaries, it was decided to continue this tactic. His Highness suggested that we drive the K'vimm forces as close to their doorway as possible, and then destroy them all with one effort."

Funaho turned to her great-grandson. "And just how did you plan to accomplish that, Tenchi?"

"Push a sunbuster bomb through their doorway and set it off," Tenchi replied. "I figured that it would not only destroy the generating end of the doorway (and any forces stationed near it), but the backwash would probably roast anything close to this end."

"What if you did not have access to a sunbuster?" She looked pointedly at Washu, who just grinned.

"I had...other options...at my disposal." The look on his face was a warning to everyone that this was a closed subject. Funaho got the message.

"Then it was fortunate for us that you did, and that Tsunami was at hand to deliver it and provide shelter for Admiral Mobinita's squadron. Thank you, Admiral." Mobinita bowed and returned to his seat.

"What about Home Fleet, Admiral Nogumo?"

"I will let Admiral Terest provide those details, Your Majesty." Nogumo indicated a woman in the gallery who rose when her name was called. She stepped up to the table and bowed.

"Thank you, Admiral. Your Majesty, we had our forces arranged in the standard deployment, that is, we had contingents based at..." She droned on, providing details of the ships that had struggled and died against the invaders, and the heroic efforts to stave-off a K'vimm landing on Homeworld itself. Funaho only listened with one ear, as she already knew the details. She was thinking about her son, Yosho, still marooned on Earth when he was needed the most. She wondered if, in the end, Yosho was reluctant or relieved that he had finally escaped the throne. And what of his feelings for his father? They had talked briefly on Earth, two years ago, and a simple exchange of letters since. How much would Yosho grieve for Azusa? She may never know, she decided.

Terest finished her narrative, bowed, and returned to her seat. "Thank you, Admiral Terest. Is there anything more to add, Admiral Nogumo?"

"While it is not really my place to ask, Your Majesty, I have heard rumors about what caused the K'vimm incursion in the first place. That they came in large numbers is obvious, but the numbers were not large enough for a sustained invasion. They wanted something; they launched a preemptive strike to acquire it, and I believe they had every intention of returning to their own territory once they seized their objective. So I ask, Your Majesty, on behalf of those who died in the line of duty: What were the K'vimm after?"

"I'll answer that," Tenchi said. He stood slowly, cradling his daughter, and stepped up to the table beside his great-grandmother. "They wanted the Royal Trees."

There was a stir in the room, and the Minister of Agriculture finally stood and asked, "How do you know this, Your Highness?"

"Princess Ayeka heard it from the lips of one of their collaborators," he replied.

The stir grew to an angry buzz.

"And who might that be, Your Highness?" asked the Minister of Commerce.

Tenchi hesitated, considering what might happen if he revealed the name. "I cannot say at this point, Minister. I'd like to, but there isn't sufficient evidence yet to convict the man and his family of treason. I really don't care why he did what he did, that's for the courts and the Ministry of Justice to determine."

"Just where is this collaborator now?"

"In a maximum security prison cell — for his own protection. As for any possible collaboration with the K'vimm, I believe my great-grandmother's operatives are already looking into the matter. But it does explain how a K'vimm raiding party would be on Earth, if they were trying to retrieve my grandfather's Royal Tree. It might also explain their reluctance to fire upon my great-grandfather's formation when they had the chance, or on Tsunami when we were well within range of their massed batteries." He turned to face Nogumo. "Will that suffice, Admiral, at least for now?"

"It does, indeed, Your Highness. Thank you." Nogumo bowed, and returned to his seat.

Funaho watched Tenchi return to his seat. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I can assure you that the matter is being investigated even as we speak. We will have answers." She paused for emphasis, before continuing.

"Princess Washu, will you tell us what your probe into the doorway revealed?" Funaho asked, turning to look over her shoulder.

"Certainly, Your Majesty." Washu rose and stepped beside her husband's chair. "At the Crown Prince's suggestion, I attached a long-range probe to the sunbuster bomb. His Highness delivered and protected both mechanisms upon their journey through the dimensional doorway. Here is the visual portion of the data I received." Her spectral keyboard materialized beside her, and a few keystrokes produced a large screen in the air above her. The image was extremely bright, obviously looking directly into a star. "This is the orientation of the probe upon arrival. It was programmed to perform a spherical sweep of the sky. Frankly, it didn't have much time — when I set the proximity fuse on the bomb, I figured it would take a couple of hours to travel from the release point to the solar corona. It never even occurred to me that the doorway would be so damn close to the star. We were lucky to get what information we did." She typed a command and the image on the screen crawled slowly across the star's bright surface, until the horizon appeared. "The sun you are looking at is a red giant, which makes it swollen and cooler than brighter, younger stars. Thus, it is possible to approach much closer."

As the black of space assumed a larger portion of the image, objects began to appear. The closest were K'vimm warships, some appearing through the doorway, others forming a security cordon. These latter were shooting at the probe, but having no effect. As the image continued to pan, a portion of a huge metal ring appeared, broken at regular intervals with utility structures and service portals. Attached to it was a massive array of solar collectors, thousands of kilometers across, stretching away into the distance.

"You can see the generator starting to appear. This solar array is how they were able to keep the doorway open for so long. I haven't bothered to calculate the size, but it must have taken years to construct. However, this is what I found the most interesting." The image continued to rotate, the distance increased noticeably, and more K'vimm handiwork became visible. She froze the image, and pointed to other ring-shaped structures at the edges of the screen. "I counted seven more in this shot. I wouldn't even care to guess how many there were altogether, since I have no accurate idea of the size of the array. Or even if this is the only array."

Another tap on the keyboard, and the video continued. The camera completed its view backwards, rotation continued, and the star's horizon crept once more onto the screen. Washu lowered the intensity — but it still hurt the eyes to look at it.

"Here the probe is dropping though the chromosphere (notice the horizontal and vertical clouds of gas). And now it has reached the photosphere, or what passes for the surface of the star. I'm sure you recognize the sunspots." The screen suddenly went dark. "This is the closest His Highness could take the probe."

"I passed out from the strain," Tenchi said. "It was just too far away."

"That's okay, Dear, it was close enough. The proximity fuse in the bomb's armored canister did its job before it melted." Washu smiled at him, then turned back to face the group. "I find it hard to believe that the K'vimm constructed their 'doorway farm' just beyond that sun's corona, but they must have had a good reason. Whatever it was, their proximity to the sun gave us a pretty small window of opportunity. The glare was so bad that I couldn't find enough visible stars to get a good reference fix. I have been looking through the stellar catalogs for viable candidates, but I won't be really certain of a match until I do a spectral analysis."

"Are we likely to face another incursion?" Funaho asked.

"Not for a while," Washu replied chuckling. "That entire structure no longer exists."

"How can you be so sure?"

"The sunbuster bomb. Actually, the name 'sunbuster' is a misnomer: it doesn't cause a star to explode, it merely induces a 'coughing fit' of coronal mass ejections. But the effect on any objects close to the star — like this array — can be just as catastrophic."

"What conclusions have you reached after your analysis of the data?"

"I believe that the array was the only object in that solar system. The K'vimm must have built it there on the assumption that sooner-or-later something unfriendly would come through one of the doorways. There were no populated planets at risk."

Funaho nodded, relief momentarily crossing her face. "Please continue."

"It might be wise to consider building our own network of dimensional doorways between regions of the Empire, as a means of transporting resources around in case a similar situation arises again."

"Indeed," Funaho agreed, "a policy worth considering. Expensive, but perhaps not prohibitively so."

"The cost could be recouped if such doorways were made available to commercial traffic. A toll is a lot cheaper on time and resources than a long voyage. Not to mention the tighter security." Washu nodded and returned to her seat.

"All things considered, the amount of actual damage to our citizens and infrastructure was relatively minor," Funaho said. "The K'vimm did not feel it in their interest to lay waste the surface of Homeworld, or even some of the commercial structures in and around the moons. Which lends even more credence to His Highness'...interpretation. We will now hear from the assembled ministers."

Tenchi - Are you ladies thirsty? I see a cart full of goodies along the far wall

Tenchi received affirmative replies, and gestured to one of the serv'bots floating silently against the wall. It drifted across the room and hovered beside him. He whispered his own request, repeated the requests his entourage were making, and dismissed it with a gesture.

Washu - Is Achika getting fussy?

Tenchi - Well, just a little...

Washu - I'll take her

Sasami - Can I hold her?

Washu – Sure

Tenchi felt Sasami's hands slipping under Achika's arms as she lifted the baby off of his shoulder. He didn't need to turn around to hear the attention the baby was getting.

Tenchi - You're going to spoil her, you know

Ryoko - So, what's your point?

Sasami - Yeah, Tenchi, what's the problem?

Washu - Now, now, quit picking on him, especially when he's so outnumbered...

Ayeka - I'll defend you, Beloved

Mihoshi - Defend him from what?

Kiyone - From his family, I gather

Tenchi chuckled, drawing a curious glance from his great-grandmother. He blushed, cleared his throat, and made every effort to pay attention to the present speaker.

##########

The serv'bot soon delivered their drinks, Achika was passed around and fussed over, and Tenchi actually listened to the various Ministers speeches. He knew, deep in his soul, that he had better start learning how to conduct these meetings. His coronation was now inevitable, whether he felt prepared or not. He felt a depression settle over him, clinging like a wet blanket.

"Thank you," Funaho said, as the last of the Privy Council members completed their summary. "We can now open the floor to questions, knowing that some of them may not be permissible to answer at this point. Anyone?"

"I've got one," Ryoko said, standing. She surprised many in the chamber — including her husband, who turned in his seat to stare at her. "Tenchi, I've been meaning to ask you: just how do you travel through space like that? And how did you destroy those K'vimm warships?" She smiled, pleased with herself for finally remembering to ask her questions.

"I'd like to know that, too, Your Highness," added Admiral Mobinita, rising from his seat in the gallery.

"Oh! Oh! Let me tell them!" Washu bounced out of her seat, waving her hand like a child in school.

Tenchi had to grin at her enthusiasm. "Go ahead, Washu. You'll do a better job than I would, anyway."

Washu recovered her dignity before launching into her explanation. "Just a bit of background first. His Highness employs the Lighthawk Wings, which draw their Power directly from the quantum vacuum. How isn't important. What is important is that they operate on a frequency of hundreds of cycles per second. Remember that fact." She stepped down to the table and retrieved a wine bottle. "Now, who can tell me the two fundamental rules of teleportation?"

"You have to know where you're going, and you can't occupy the same space as some other object."

"Thank you, Ryoko. You get the prize." She poured the contents of the wine bottle into Ryoko's glass. "Although I should point-out that Ryoko here cheats a bit: when she teleports, she is just enough out-of-phase with the target space that she can make the transition a gradual one. The rest of us mere mortals who rely on mechanical teleportation cannot violate that second rule at all. And even Ryoko has to know where she's going; if she hasn't been there before, or it isn't in her direct line-of-sight, she can't teleport there."

Washu began pacing slowly along the table. "This is how normal teleportation works," she placed the bottle upright on the tabletop. "Object 'A' resides in realspace, but desires to be over there," she said, pointing to the other end of the table. "By executing a temporary shift into psuedospace in a given direction, Object 'A' leaves realspace here and reappears over there." Washu lifted the bottle and carried it to the far end of the table, setting it down in front of the Minister of Health and Welfare. "Of course, it ain't magic — distance and duration are paid for in energy, and the subject is forced to return to realspace damn quick or violate several conservation laws. Whatever. Teleportation is a messy, inefficient, and inherently risky way to travel, and it only works reliably over short distances. Teleportation has two sisters: the jump drive and the dimensional doorway. The jump drive is a variation on teleportation, with certain technical refinements to increase the range. Still risky, particularly around gravity wells, but it has been the motive force behind our civilization for millennia. Dimensional doorways are safer and stabler, and bypass the conservation laws by building a tunnel through psuedospace, so that 'technically' the subject never really leaves realspace. The jump drive requires detailed knowledge of the destination; the dimensional doorway does not. The jump drive is unbounded, in that the subject can literally go anywhere; the dimensional doorway has only one entrance and only one exit."

"Please come to the point, Washu," Funaho said. "This is elementary applied physics."

"His Highness has learned to combine the best features of both jump drive and dimensional doorway into a slick little hybrid transport system."

"The concept has been around for a long time, Princess Washu," Admiral Nogumo noted.

"True, but there were so many technical glitches that no one ever made it work. Until now." The smile she directed at her husband was radiant. "His Highness builds a shield around himself out of the Lighthawk Wings — "

Sasami - Like the cocoon you built last year?

Tenchi - Yes, exactly like that one

" — And then he teleports the whole shield as far forward as his enhanced perception can see — and I'd guess that ranges from a few centimeters to several meters. But, since this process is based upon the Lighthawk Wings, it doesn't just happen once; it happens hundreds of times a second. And he doesn't actually have to wait for a full cycle to complete; as soon as he phases into realspace just far enough to get his bearings, he jumps again. Hundreds-of-times-a-second." She laid the wine bottle on its side and pushed it, sending it rolling the length of the table. "Shields, hulls, blaster beams, solid rock, kilometers of empty space...it doesn't matter, he phases right through it all."

Profound silence, until Councilor Syuuzen Amaki cleared his throat. "But that doesn't explain some of the properties we observed, such as the high velocity, or those incredibly acute maneuvers. I received eyewitness reports of at least two 90-degree turns with no deceleration. Simply impossible at that speed."

"Ah, but you still haven't got it, Minister. His Highness is not accelerating in realspace; he's shifting position in realspace. He's not wasting energy trying to go faster and faster, so he's not paying the energy debt to fight inertia. His velocity relative to the universe at large is no more than what he started with, which for all practical purposes might as well be zero. Changing course is a snap. He can't exceed lightspeed, but he can come pretty damn close."

"By the gods..." Amaki replied.

"Now you've got it. A new form of realspace driver. And here's something else to consider: with the widespread acceptance of the Masaki Drive — "

" — The Masaki Drive?" asked the Minister of Commerce.

"The principle for the new engine was perfected by Crown Prince Sir Tenchi Masaki, and the first working prototype of a mechanical derivative will be patented and demonstrated by Princess Washu Masaki sometime in the next few months. Anyone got a problem with calling it the Masaki Drive?" No one objected. "As I was saying, with the widespread acceptance of the Masaki Drive, it will revolutionize the merchant marine and the military. Think of it: in-system freighters that can cross a solar system in hours, rather than days. Or torpedoes that can penetrate any known shield, launched from warships that can literally turn on a coin. Or search-and-rescue vessels that don't need to wait for sensor probes and digging equipment to rescue earthquake victims." She waited until she could see an anticipatory gleam in their eyes. "But I should warn you, Ladies and Gentlemen, that you will not have a very large window of opportunity. Such breakthroughs are rare, and are generally countered and copied rather quickly. You will only have, at best, a few years to exploit your advantages."

"But that still doesn't explain how you were able to destroy those ships simply by passing through them," Ryoko persisted. "According to Washu, you were never inside them long enough to touch anything."

"I didn't have to touch anything," Tenchi replied slowly. "During the split second I was inside the reactor on each vessel, I rearranged some of the more volatile elements, or shifted some of the fragile components around."

"But, Tenchi, if you didn't touch anything...?"

"Besides being an autoteleport, I'm also an exoteleport," he explained for the Council members and guests present. "I can teleport objects without actually being in contact with them. And since I only needed to move things a few millimeters..."

"Oh, now I get it: one object can't occupy the same space as another object!"

"Instant catastrophic chain-reaction," Mobinita said. "Very impressive, Your Highness."

"And I guided the shield (as Washu called it) through the K'vimm's dimensional doorway, even though I remained aboard Tsunami."

Ayeka stood slowly and raised her glass towards her husband. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to propose a toast. To His Highness, Crown Prince Sir Tenchi Masaki: his actions won the war, and his discovery will fuel our economic recovery!" Everyone in the room agreed enthusiastically, raising their glasses towards Tenchi.

Tenchi waited until they'd lowered their glasses before rising himself. "You make me sound like a hero," he said solemnly, "which I am definitely not." He raised his own glass towards the Emperor's empty seat. "I would propose a toast to the real heroes of the last few weeks: to fallen comrades."

##########

Kiyone stood at rigid attention and snapped a smart salute. Funaho looked across her desk and smiled. "Relax, Detective, this is a social call." Kiyone blinked several times, before assuming the parade rest posture. Funaho chuckled and gestured towards one of the guest chairs. Kiyone sat, but did not relax.

"Thank you, Your Majesty. But if this is not duty-related, then why am I here?"

"I have been watching you, Detective. I must compliment you, not only on your proficiency, your composure, and your patience (particularly with Mihoshi), but on your general attitude. I like what I see. I also like your service record. Most impressive."

"Thank you, Your Majesty." Kiyone resisted the urge to blush, and failed.

"Mihoshi tells me that you have been reconsidering your future with the Galaxy Police. Are you dissatisfied with your present career?"

"Not dissatisfied, really; just not sure. I thought I had a career path all laid out, but it seems to have been repeatedly side-tracked."

"Well, I'm sure being partnered with Mihoshi didn't help matters any." Kiyone's shocked look turned into a wry smile as she studied Funaho's amused smile. "Your talents were never overlooked, Detective. But there were certain individuals in the GP administration who thought it wiser — and easier, in all honesty — to keep you linked with Mihoshi. You excelled at restraining her excesses. It was deemed 'politically unwise' to be the one to flush the Marshall's grand-daughter out of active service. For many on the management chain, it was more important to keep you right where you were."

Kiyone growled softly. "That just confirms what I have always suspected. But no one in the GP would give me an honest answer."

"You need not remain in the GP, you know. The galaxy is full of opportunities, especially for someone who works hard and thinks carefully." Kiyone canted her head, evaluating the statement. Funaho waited until she saw the proper glint in the young woman's eyes. "In fact, I am impressed enough to offer you a position in my organization."

"What position, Your Majesty?"

"In my Special Operations unit. Information retrieval and investigation. I believe the GP has a similar department, with similar goals."

"The same department that raided Naja Akara's space station?" Kiyone struggled to keep her voice level, particularly when Funaho nodded her head. "Would I be working with Mihoshi and Ryoko?"

"Yes, but not consistently. Ryoko has other extensive duties, and Mihoshi has many GP functions to attend to. Realistically, there will be occasions when you three would be sent on assignment together."

"What rank would I receive?" Here was the real clincher.

"Commander, the same as Ryoko. It is equivalent to Mihoshi's rank of Detective Captain, I believe." Funaho watched Kiyone mentally salivating, and managed to suppress a grin. "Mihoshi and Ryoko work reasonably well together, but I think they would both benefit from a calmer voice providing...suggestions...for achieving their goals. A certain amount of trust, familiarity, and experience would be highly beneficial, don't you think?"

"Yes, Your Majesty, I do. And, please, just call me Kiyone."

##########

There was a general sigh of contentment, as six females settled into the steaming waters of the onsen. Washu reached up and nudged Achika's hovering bassinet a little closer to the side of the pool. Ryoko fetched a sake bottle and started distributing cups. Kiyone watched the well-rehearsed routine with a raised eyebrow.

"Damn, that's good!" Ryoko said, smacking her lips appreciatively.

"Can I ask you ladies a personal question?"

"Sure, Kiyone, go ahead. You're part of the family now."

"Just how do you four manage to share a husband, and do it so...amicably?"

"We take turns. We each get him for a week at a time."

"However," Ayeka added, "it wasn't always so cooperative."

"Yeah, it was down-right nasty for the first couple of months. Even worse than when we were single."

"So how did you resolve the issue?"

"About six months into the marriage, we came in here and locked the door, determined to work out the kinks. Tenchi, of course, was not invited."

"It was a little more involved than that," Washu interjected. Ryoko and Ayeka indicated that she should continue. Sasami was paying rapt attention, and Mihoshi just stared into her sake. "We all jumped into this marriage expecting our husband to follow a reasonably predictable pattern. As usual, he surprised us all. And when we started comparing notes, we discovered we had all made the same mistake."

"What mistake?"

"We forgot he was a Power adept. A prodigious Power adept."

"So?"

"Well, physically he's of average size, though he can be very vigorous — "

" — And durable," Ayeka added.

" — And strong," Ryoko added.

"He's a healthy human male, with all the normal physical drives and capabilities," Washu continued. "He has a proven performance record, so to speak, not to mention creative — "

" — And adaptable," Ayeka said.

" — And tolerant," Ryoko said.

"He sounds too good to be true," Kiyone said wryly.

"Oh, he has his shortcomings," Washu smiled, stirring her sake with her finger. "Anyway, he has established mind links with each of us. We resonate very strongly across those links. Very strongly. Particularly during moments of extreme stress."

"I have a link with him, and I don't feel any strong sensations, even during the fighting with the K'vimm."

"You're not an adept. He talks to you, but he sings to us. For example, when we kiss him, not only do we feel our own sensations, but we receive his sensations at the same time, and he feels ours. One sensation feeds on the other in a sensual steamroller, giving new meaning to the term 'shared experience.' Sexual climax is an order of magnitude more intense."

"Oh." Kiyone tried to visualize the concept, and noticed Ayeka and Ryoko exchanging dreamy smiles.

"But that isn't all. What do you know about the social mores of the Adeptus Psyker caste?"

"Not much. A lot of competition and dominance games. There aren't many of them in human space, but any one of them can cause of a lot of grief for the local mundanes."

"A very accurate assessment. Put any two male adepts, or any two female adepts, into a locked room and they will immediately start contesting for position. They — we — can't help it; adepts project a Power envelope, which is a component of the aura. Our nervous systems are sensitive to more sources of stimulation than yours — including each other. We ruffle each other's feathers, so to speak. Consequently, those of us with higher Power levels have larger envelopes, and tend to be dominant, just as those of you mundanes with larger physiques tend to be dominant. It's a hardwired response." Washu paused to sip her sake. "Now, if you put a male and a female adept into a locked room, she immediately starts responding to his envelope, assessing his mating qualifications. The more powerful he is, the more attractive he becomes. Again, it's hardwired into the animal, and cannot be ignored. Primal sexual response. Absolutely unavoidable — and absolutely irresistible."

"Are you ladies immune to this...response?"

"Nope. We," Washu indicated herself and the other females present, "are all high grade adepts. And if Tenchi is not yet the most powerful adept in the galaxy, he soon will be. Any female adept experiencing that envelope of his is quite simply transfixed. He has to keep his envelope muted, or he'd have every female adept in the capitol following him round like a lovesick puppy, and every male adept cowering in the corners. He calls it 'whisper mode.'"

Kiyone refilled her cup, as well as Mihoshi's, and passed the bottle on to Sasami, who was nursing her own cup along. Kiyone noted absently how flushed the youngster was getting.

"Imagine what happens between two copulating adepts when you add the near-debilitating effects of overlapping Power envelopes — paralysis doesn't even begin to describe it. Also, baseline sexual climax for Homo sapiens has many similarities to an epileptic seizure. All barriers tumble in the face of that kind of pressure...including Tenchi's 'Whisper Mode.'"

"I think I see where this is going," Kiyone said.

"Mmm-hmmm," Washu nodded. "Tenchi subjects each partner — "

" — Or partners," Ryoko muttered, grinning slyly at Ayeka and Mihoshi. The former blushed, the latter sipped her sake quietly.

Washu appraised her daughter with one eyebrow raised. "Or partners, to the combined effects of physical stimulation, sensual mirroring, and coincidental annuli. Every pleasure center in the brain, every nerve fiber in the body, lights-up like Startica fireworks."

"It's exhilarating!" Ayeka said.

"It's exhausting!" Ryoko said.

"Correct on both counts," Washu replied. "Once we started comparing notes, we discovered that none of us could tolerate more than a week of horizontal wind-sprints with our new husband. All concerns about getting-a-worn-out-husband-when-it's-my-turn went right out the window, and we found that having a couple of weeks to recover made good sense."

"You could spread the, er, occurrences, farther apart," Kiyone suggested. All four wives gave her a you-gotta-be-kidding! look. Kiyone shrugged and took another pull on her sake.

"Well, we did consider that alternative, but none of us really liked the idea. It's amazing how much of the competition between us disappeared at that point, and Tenchi greatly appreciated the reduced tensions."

"I'm sure he did."

"We also got a better handle on just how much we need to protect him."

"From who?"

"From other female adepts. We are not the only Master Class women around, you know. He's already been stalked by a couple, and sometimes he's just too damn nice for his own good. This way he always has at least one of us around that's clear-headed and ready to confront the intruder."

"I can't wait until I'm old enough to join in the fun," Sasami said, her speech slurred by sake. She was flushed a bright red.

Kiyone glanced from Sasami to the adults at the other end of the pool. "Isn't she a little young for this stuff?"

"Possibly, but I was already sampling the chemistry by her age," Ayeka replied.

"Yeah, so lighten up," Ryoko added. "Consider this as part of her education!"

Kiyone just shook her head. "Hey, Mihoshi, what's up? You haven't said a single thing since we got here."

"I've already said too much," Mihoshi replied glumly.

"Whatever do you mean?" Ayeka asked.

"I managed to hurt Tenchi's feelings a while ago, with only one statement."

"What could you possibly say to hurt Tenchi's feelings?"

"I don't want to repeat it, because then you'd all be mad at me, and start shouting at me. That wouldn't be as bad as his silence, but almost as bad."

Washu, Ryoko, and Ayeka all exchanged curious glances, now thoroughly intrigued.

"Look, Mihoshi, we promise we won't get mad at you, or yell at you," Ryoko replied.

"Absolutely," Ayeka added.

"Yep." Washu reached above her head to adjust Achika's bassinet.

"Well...alright. Kiyone has been reading my Kagato report to the GP, and had asked for some photos of him. I got some hardcopies printed through my office workstation, and that was the first time I really noticed the similarity."

Ryoko sighed, swallowing her impatience with some effort. "What similarity?"

"Well, even though you have Washu's spiky hair and general build, you have Kagato's eye and hair color. I never noticed the similarity before. I mentioned it to Tenchi a while ago. He gave me this long, pained long, and just vanished. I think I hurt his feelings." Mihoshi was so lost in her own misery that she failed to notice the color draining from Ryoko's face. Or the cloud that crossed Washu's brow. "Somehow I always manage to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time."

"You certainly do have a talent for it," Washu muttered. She watched her daughter, waiting for the inevitable reaction.

"Gee, Mom, did you sleep with him, too? Is he my father? And what about the Masu I'm supposed to be made of?" Ryoko's voice was subdued, but dripping with acid.

"I'll tell you the whole story, if you're willing to listen to it. All of it."

"Another story," she snorted. "Sure. Pass me the bottle, Ayeka, so I can get into the proper frame of mind!"

Washu's shoulders slumped, but her gaze didn't waver. "To answer your first question: no, I never slept with him. I'd used my adolescent form for centuries before I met him. He was many things, but never a pedophile." She emptied her cup before continuing. "I'd been in stasis for a long time when he released me. He announced that he wanted an heir, but it couldn't be an ordinary child. He wouldn't accept a clone, either — too likely to try and usurp his power at some point. No, he wanted a genetically tailored child...and he wanted me to brew it for him."

"Why didn't you just refuse?" Ayeka asked.

"Because he threatened to put me back in stasis — after inflicting some of his 'creative punishments' on me. He had me cold, so I cooperated. Yes, Ryoko, the bulk of your genetic make-up is from my ovum, and the majority of your body chemistry is a Masu derivative. But I had to use some of his DNA, as well. You were supposed to be his descendent, after all."

"So you played along, huh?" Ryoko asked bitterly.

"Yes, I did. I didn't want to lose you like I lost your brother."

"Huh? What brother?"

"You weren't the first, Ryoko. I resented that bastard for holding me captive, so out of spite I refused to incorporate his DNA into my first attempt. And when he discovered the truth, Kagato blasted the little boy into a charred lump and tossed the remains out the airlock of the Souja." Washu's eyes filmed with memories and pain. "God, I wanted to die — but I wanted him dead even more. He just laughed, and told me to 'do it right' the next time. So I did, although I managed to confine most of his influence to your Power manifestations." She reached for the sake bottle. "He converted one of the cargo holds into an apartment, and dumped us there. Mercifully, those times alone with you were pure heaven; I even made you a Companion."

"Ryo-ohki," Ryoko whispered.

Washu nodded. "Kagato was distracted for a few years, and you were already walking and talking before he decided to intervene in your 'training.' He'd lost interest in being a surrogate father by then, but he recognized an awesome adept when saw one — and the potential for turning you into a weapon. Some slave to do his dirty work for him, as well as to take all the heat for him when the authorities got too close. He threw me into stasis again, screaming curses and begging him to stop. He lapped it all up like the cur that he was, enjoying the whole spectacle. I'm sure you remember what happened after that."

"Yes." She pulled one lock of her hair, studying it. "Why didn't you tell me this earlier?"

"Why give you even more grief, or hate? Tenchi removed him from our lives and took his place, and that was poetic justice of the highest order."

It was quiet for a time, before Ayeka spoke. "Ryoko?"

"I'm alright," Ryoko replied softly. "I'm sorry I got angry at you, Mom. I guess I have a lot to learn." She drained her sake cup and stared into it. "'Tenchi: of Heaven and Earth; an angel,'" she recited a definition she'd read once upon a time. "If you ladies will excuse me, I feel an overpowering need to hold our husband." She levitated above the waters and vanished.

"And I feel a need to apologize to him," Mihoshi added. She rose soundlessly and stepped out of the pool. With a sigh, the others followed her.

##########

They found him sitting on a marble bench by his garden, staring at the blossoms glowing in the light of the Juraian moons.

"Tenchi?" Mihoshi approached him from behind, placing her hands on his shoulders.

"H-m-m-m?" he replied absently.

"I want to apologize for hurting your feelings. I'm sorry for what I said."

Tenchi twisted slowly around on the seat, looking at her alabaster face in the gloom. "Huh? Sorry for what?"

"For comparing Kagato and Ryoko."

Tenchi shrugged. "It's okay, Mihoshi. You didn't hurt my feelings. It's just that I've been thinking a lot about him lately."

"Why?" Washu asked. Cradling little Achika in one arm, she settled onto the bench beside him. The other members of his family drifted up behind them, observing like silent wraiths.

"I'm scared, Washu."

It wasn't the answer she expected. "Of what?"

"Of becoming like him."

"What makes you think you are?"

"When these latest...Power attributes...surfaced, I recognized the traveling sphere as one of Kagato's abilities. At the time I was worried that using it might be just one more step down the path that he took. But I was even more worried about my family, so I used it. I liked it, Washu; it made me feel so completely free, to fly though space at will, and to go anywhere I wanted. Anywhere. That first day, when I was blasting K'vimm warships apart, I felt almost godlike...I could pass through their hulls and nothing could touch me...I could obliterate a vessel with little more than a thought...it was like an addictive video game. It was so easy. I didn't want it to stop."

He paused, and looked at her face in the moonlight. "Go on," she urged.

"And then I remembered my one experience with starship combat...and what happens to the losers." Ryo-ohki had taken them into space to face Souja, and had brought along Ayeka's Ryu-oh for extra support (Ryo-ohki knew only too well just how powerful Kagato really was). Tenchi had boarded Ryo-oh in a valiant attempt to face the larger vessel — and had gotten Ryu-oh blown to splinters, and himself along with it. "My last memory of that fight was feeling my clothing shredding under the blast wave. But Tsunami told me later that Ryu-oh's last act had been to cover me with her branches, and when the lower three-fourths of my body had been obliterated, it was her sap that kept me alive until Azaka and Kamidake found me. They held me in stasis until Tsunami arrived. Somehow, there was enough life frozen inside my shattered body that she was able to regenerate the missing parts, and revive me. And thinking about those poor souls in those ships...K'vimm and human...it just makes me sick. I have the ability to sense a mind, to see it shining like a candle in the night...and I'd snuffed out thousands of candles in a single day. Did those creatures die screaming? Did they writhe in agony before melting, or suffocate quickly in the vacuum, or get blasted into quivering gobbets of flesh? The fight above Homeworld was worse: each time I entered one of those ships I knew I was condemning all aboard it to death...even though I kept telling myself that if I didn't kill them, they would soon be killing Juraians. It was the hardest thing I've ever done." Tenchi shuddered. "I've been wrestling with this conflict ever since, weighing the thrill of those god-like Power attributes against the consequences of using them."

"I've been there," Ryoko said softly, sitting on the bench next to him, taking his hand. "The memories, and the guilt, and the nightmares. Don't face those alone, Tenchi, it just makes the pain worse." He looked into her eyes, understanding a part of his wife for the very first time. "Let us help."

"I'm trying," he replied, and received an encouraging smile. "I know which path Kagato chose. And I've seen where it leads. Washu, what was he like before...?"

"Before he ran amok? He was a graduate student of mine, one of several. Very charming, very witty, very ambitious, very arrogant. Not only was he a strong Power adept, but an exceedingly intelligent one. I didn't know it at the time, but he was masterminding a number of illegal activities. Once he got access to my lab, and my facilities, he started trying to enhance his Power attributes. There is always a danger in biting off more than you can chew, and he was warned repeatedly about it." She shifted Achika. "There are some major differences between you and Kagato, Tenchi. For starters, you are a man of conscious and honor; his soul had already eroded before I ever laid eyes on him. You saw the dangers and stepped away from the precipice; he enthusiastically leaped over the edge. For another thing, his talents were artificially augmented, and he paid a heavy price for it. Your gifts are natural, and only manifest as you are ready for them. It took him nearly a century to get as far you have in two years."

"You told me once that male Power adepts take 40 or 50 years to mature. I'm only 21; what other 'gifts' can I expect to appear in the next 25 years?"

She smiled and wrapped an arm around him. "I have no idea, my love. And that's what makes living with you so fascinating — never a dull minute!"

"You also have us," Ryoko said, putting her head on his shoulder. "We won't allow you to mutate into that kind of hellspawn."

Tenchi felt other hands touch him, and whispers of support from the darkness behind. He continued to stare into the night. "I also keep thinking about that time spent on Earth. If we hadn't gone there, we'd have been here the whole time, and we might have saved the lives of all those Juraian soldiers and sailors killed during the incursion."

"If we hadn't gone to Earth, Beloved, the K'vimm would have taken Funaho," Ayeka replied. "They might have even killed Yosho and your father."

"If we had stayed on Earth, the loss of life here would have been even higher," Mihoshi added.

"And what if your new Power attributes hadn't surfaced at all?" Sasami asked.

"'If, if, if.' Tenchi, don't dishonor the dead with regrets or excuses," Kiyone said. "They sacrificed their lives so that there would be a future for the citizens of Jurai. Including your daughter."

"And your son," Ayeka said.

"Huh?" came the chorus from everyone but Ryoko, who chuckled.

Ayeka circled the bench and knelt in front of Tenchi, so that she could look into his face. "Your son will be born next year, just in time for Startica."

"Our son," he corrected her, touching her face, smiling at last.

Ayeka hesitated. "Beloved, would you have any objections to naming him 'Azusa?'" She searched his eyes, half hidden in shadow. She remembered only too well that her father and her husband had never really gotten along.

"None whatsoever," he replied.

EPILOGUE

"The riddle of steel," murmured Conan, remembering the words of his father, the Cimmerian smith.

"Yes, you know that riddle, do you not?" The cult leader's voice was intimate, persuasive. Speaking as to a friend, Doom's words continued emotionless, hypnotic, brimming with deceit. "In those days, I deemed steel stronger than all things, even than human flesh and spirit. But I was wrong, boy! I was wrong! The soul of man or woman can master everything, even steel! Look you, boy — "

Raising his hypnotic eyes, he fixed them upon the sweet face of the smiling girl above them on the wall.

"Come to me, child," he hissed, his sibilant voice scarcely above a whisper.

The childish face became suffused with joy. She poised for a moment at the edge of the embankment; then, without a glance at the youth beside her, she leaped from the wall and fell with a heavy thud on the tiles of the garden walk below.

Conan averted his eyes from the doll-like broken body near their feet. Doom laughed, the music of his laughter spun through with a note of triumph. Then he said: "That is strength, boy — that is power! It is strength against which the hardness of steel or the resilience of human flesh are as naught. What is steel, compared to the hand that wields it; what is the hand, without a mind to command it? There is the secret of strength. Steel, bah!"

"Conan the Barbarian"— L. Sprague De Camp and Lin CarterBased on a screenplay by John Milius and Oliver Stone

Washu sat in her rocking chair, singing a lullaby to Achika. The chair was placed on the veranda, overlooking the gardens immediately surrounding the Imperial Palace. The acreage was enclosed in a dense screen of trees, which swayed ever-so-gently in the afternoon breeze. Above the field the clouds marched majestically, casting ponderous shadows onto the rolling countryside. Birds chased one another, leaves whispered, and the chair squeaked rhythmically. On the lawn below, Washu's family gathered around the circular stone table. It had started when Tenchi wandered outside, looking for a quiet place to study in the irresistible afternoon sunlight. Shortly afterwards, Ayeka, Sasami, and the convalescing Misaki had ventured outside, lost in a conversation about babies and nurseries. They had joined him at his invitation. Then Funaho had lead Ryoko, Mihoshi, and Kiyone outside, carrying pocket-terminals and reference books and charts, and had commandeered another slice of the table to plan their first assignment together. Their voices were subdued, and provided yet another murmur to harmonize with Washu's lullaby.

There had been activity, of course. Sasami went into the kitchen frequently to check on dinner, once bringing a plate of cookies to pass around the table. Funaho sent Mihoshi inside after a reference manual, and Mihoshi had stopped on the way back to nuzzle Tenchi's neck. Since her hair was now unbound it cascaded around her shoulders in golden waves, and he had grabbed a handful and tugged gently until her lips were in reach of his own. Ayeka and Ryoko promptly demanded — and received — equal attention, accompanied by much giggling and laughing. And they all waved frequently at Washu and the sleeping infant.

Washu was at peace with the universe.

"Such an idyllic scene," said the deep, feminine voice. Tsunami shimmered into visibility beside the rocking chair.

"It sure is," Washu replied.

"It is unfortunate that such peaceful moments do not last."

"All the more reason to treasure them," Washu replied, kissing her daughter's forehead lightly.

"What do your forecasts and projections reveal?"

"The same thing that your visions and prognostications do: Tenchi's Power will dwarf us all eventually."

"You must realize that he is an aberration. A mutation, born a thousand generations too soon."

Washu shrugged. "That depends upon your point of view. I prefer to think of him as the first of his kind, rather than one of a kind."

Tsunami gestured towards the sleeping Achika. "You have good reason to take that position."

"Do you regret saving Tenchi's life?"

"No, of course not. Even if I had lacked feelings for the boy, Sasami would never have forgiven me."

Washu nodded. "You didn't have to unlock his Power attributes, you know."

"He never could have defeated Kagato without them. He would have surely died. And if by some miracle he had survived the encounter, then his Power would have found another outlet. Such potentials must be fulfilled, one way or another. This way, we have some influence. Does that bother you, Sister?"

"Nope. Not one bit." Washu turned to look at the shimmering figure beside her. "Let's face facts, Sister. Each of us assumed a different form, placing ourselves and our energies into a species native to this galaxy capable of handling our Power. The experiment was less than successful: we were unable to produce offspring that matched our capabilities. So we chose avatars, my Ryoko and your Sasami, and in that our successes were still less than anticipated. It is Tenchi who has risen to the task, and I thank the gods that he appeared when he did."

"Ryoko will recover her gems within two years, and Sasami will pass through puberty shortly afterwards. Doesn't this concern you?"

"Not as much as it did."

"Why? What has changed?"

"Because the breadth of Tenchi's Power is only matched by the depth of his character. He strengthens all those around him. Ryoko and Sasami are being redeemed. I have greater hope for our future."

"But it will take time, Sister. Tokimi may not grant us enough time."

Washu sighed. "Then we will do the best with what we have. But what we have is formidable."

#################### Author's Notes ####################

The following thoughts are posted as a mini-FAQ, in an effort to provide answers for those readers who are scratching their heads over some of the positions and opinions stated in the above story.

KAGATO AND WASHU:

I have seen suggestions in other fan-fics that Washu and Kagato may have been lovers in the old days. I personally doubt it, based on one observation and one supposition.

The observation: she was dumped into a stasis chamber on the Souja while in her adolescent form, and I have to assume that during her last stressful moments, she would not have been wasting time/energy switching shapes trying to convince him to change his mind. I expect that this was the form she had settled upon long before accepting him as a graduate student.

The supposition: They had too much in common to 'click'. She had a higher morality base, he had fewer scruples, but they both shared too many personality traits. It's the opposites that attract, after all.

KAGATO AND RYOKO:

I think there's a pretty good case for naming Kagato as Ryoko's 'father.' His hair is more of a silverish color than her cyan, and his eyes are totally golden as opposed to her pupils. But I'm guessing these were changes from the base characteristics brought on by aging and then loss of his corporeal constitution. In other words, he was no longer completely human, but he looked a bit different when he was completely human. And what sealed the deal for me was comparing their Power attributes. The following information is based upon the details and graphics at "Kagato's Special Abilities" (Link removed by the editor) and "Ryoko's Powers" (Link removed by the editor):

* Teleportation — Both individuals make use of this talent, although we see Ryoko using it more frequently.* Flight and Levitation — Both of them seem to prefer floating to walking (heck, so would I!).* Shield — His is quite powerful, hers seems less effective.* Energy Sword — Different shapes, different colors, similar functionality.* Energy Blasts — Projectile variations on the sword, tailored to each person.* Shadows/Doppelgangers — They each demonstrated the ability only once, so it must be energy-intensive.* Matter Conversion — Limited application, also probably energy-intensive. Useful in combat.* Non-corporeal Form — i.e., "phasing" through walls, floors, etc.* Mind Link — Between Kagato and Ryoko, between Kagato and the Souja, between Ryoko and Ryo-ohki (and Washu, of course).* Regeneration — Ryoko keeps growing new hands, Kagato healed Tenchi's cut on his cheek (but the damage from the Lighthawk Sword must have been too extensive).* Drawing Power through gems — Ryoko has her three red ones, Kagato has an undetermined number of (I'm guessing here) green gems.

Of course, each of them has unique Power attributes as well:

Kagato:

* Spirit Fire — Kagato uses this rather than a flashlight. A fire elemental, perhaps?* Gateway — Actually, this is the "transport sphere" I used in the story above.* Telekinesis — Making a grab for the Tenchi-ken, summoning a cyclone to employ against Tenchi, etc.* Mind Touch — This is NOT telepathy. It's actually closer to what I had Tenchi using in "And If I Fall".

Ryoko:

* Demon Summoning — Calling elementals. Possibly similar to Kagato's Spirit Fire.* Astral travel — Limited in scope and duration.

OTHER POWER USERS:

The following definitions were stolen shamelessly from "GURPS Psionics, Fantastic Powers of Mind Over Matter" by David L. Pulver, search the Catalog for "GURPS", and then stroll down the resulting list until you find "Psionics":

Tenchi:

* Autoteleport: This is the basic Teleport ability — the skill to move yourself from point-to-point without crossing the space between. You cannot go somewhere unless you have already been there, or can see it at the moment you are teleporting.* Exoteleport: This is the ability to transport objects from point-to-point, allowing you to teleport objects without teleporting yourself.

Mihoshi:

* Electrokinesis: This is the ability to mentally control computers and electrical and electronic systems. An electrokinetic must be able to see or touch the subject to affect it.Dampen: You can hinder the function of all electrical devices in the area by "slowing" the current that powers the object.Surge: This skill causes a power surge in an electrical device. You cannot "surge" an entire spacecraft or vehicle; you must target the specific electrical system.

* Limitations: Limitations reduce the utility of psi powers.Nuisance Effect: Your ability has an annoying side effect of some sort — something that actually causes harm to you or those around you, or causes you a serious inconvenience.Unconscious Only: This can be taken only in conjunction with the Uncontrollable limitation. The psi skill cannot be consciously activated at all; it can only come into play under stress.Uncontrollable: This limitation is only available for the Antipsi, Electrokinetic, Psychokinetic, and Teleport powers. Your power tends to manifest by itself — even your will — when you are angry or excited. This can be especially interesting if your skill is destructive and you have a high power.

INTERPLANETARY TRANSPORTATION:

I can just see the e-mail coming from those screaming about the travel times required to get around in the TM universe. Well, I got news for you: outer space is vast. There is slick little calculator at (Link removed by the editor) that will compute a model illustrating the scale distances involved in our own solar system. The premise is to place markings at appropriate distances on a roll of paper (toilet paper, printer paper, etc) to represent the nine planets. You will be amazed at the volume of empty space. For my own calculations (and remembering that this is just fiction, after all) I placed the psuedospace jump-point at approximately 4.3 AU (Astronomical Units, or 645,000,000 km, or 399,900,000 mi) from the average star. Which puts the corresponding distance between Earth/Jurai and the jump-point at roughly 3.3 AU (495,000,000 km, or 306,900,000 mi). And even allowing for Sir Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic") to permit Juraian technology to generate tremendous speed, it is still going to take a while to get anywhere.

For instance, it takes eight minutes for light to cover the distance between the sun and the Earth (1 AU, or 150,000,000 km, or 93,000,000 mi). A little work on a calculator shows that to cover the 3.3 AU from Earth to the jump-point will take 26 minutes. Not bad, just not realistic. However, if Juraian technomagic can boost a ship up to even 20% of light speed, then you could get to the jump-point in 550 minutes, or just over nine hours. Of course, at this speed the relativistic effects would become noticeable — but I kept such considerations to a minimum.

If Tenchi is zipping around at 70% light speed, then you can see a drastic reduction in travel time. The longest distance being from Earth to Pluto, or 39 AU, would take him just under eight hours.

And psuedospace is just guesswork and wishful thinking at this point.

SOLAR MECHANICS AND THE SUNBUSTER BOMB:

Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are clouds of hot (1-2 million degrees) gasses ejected from the Sun at extremely high speeds. After acceleration away from the Sun, they will travel through interplanetary space and reach Earth in 2.5 to 5 days. Once here, CMEs cause disturbances in the magnetosphere, which trigger auroras, make magnetic navigation at high latitudes difficult, and sometimes cause current spikes in high-voltage power lines, resulting in power outages and occasionally in destruction of power equipment. They also can damage or destroy Earth-orbiting satellites.

Physicists theorize that fluctuations in the sun's magnetic field cause sunspots, flares and CMEs. CMEs can be massive objects; spanning 120° in solar latitude or longitude, they can involve 1016 g (i.e. billions of tons) of gas that is suddenly ejected at speeds up to 2000 km/s with a kinetic energy 1032 ergs, all directed outward into interplanetary space. The ongoing changes are not confined to the space immediately around the star. The sun's magnetic field envelops the entire solar system in a bubble that scientists call the 'heliosphere,' which extends 50 to 100 AU beyond the orbit of Pluto. Inside it is the solar system — outside is interstellar space. Changes in the Sun's magnetic field are carried outward through the heliosphere by the solar wind. It takes about a year for disturbances to propagate all the way from the Sun to the outer bounds of the heliosphere.

Empress Funaho was right to be concerned about Washu's sunbuster bomb being employed in an inhabited solar system. One of the most spectacular Y2K disaster scenarios was that a massive CME might strike the Earth, only instead of killing satellites and power grids, it would directly kill people by sudden heating of the environment. Ramping-up the temperatures of the atmosphere and the ocean surface would generate extreme weather conditions across the entire globe. Think: El Nino On Steroids. Setting off such a devastating weapon ranks a notch or two above genocide, since you'd be inflicting ecological damage on a massive scale. Sooner or later, someone/something is going to hold you accountable...

MISCELLANEOUS:

I wasn't the first person to apply Matthew Sweet's "Walk Out" or 3 Doors Down's "Kryptonite" to TM. You will find anime music videos by BuggyNess ("Tenchi's Walk Out") and Slayerwolf ("Super Tenchi") — both have stories posted on the TMFFA — at that are quite well done, and inspired me to use them here. In fact, these are the audiovisual equivalents to the fanfics found on TMFFA. I highly recommend perusing their archives (I have several favorites I've downloaded and committed to CD).

There's an awful lot of information in the story above. Some of it is pure conjecture on my part, trying to stay consistent with the OVA and the other three stories in this series ("Kime", "We Belong", "And If I Fall"). However, many of the background details were gleaned from the "Tenchi Muyo In Depth Alternate Universes" website (Link removed by the editor). Honestly, I wish I'd read this FAQ before I ever started writing TM fan-fics. I might have done a better job of keeping the facts straight...then again, I might never have taken the wild tangent I did, either. Go figure.

I got quite a bit of e-mail after about the first three stories (Thank You, by the way), and the most commonly asked question was: "Where's Kiyone?" So, just for you folks, I included her in this story. However, I admit to having mixed feelings about it. First off, she was never really in the OVA (just the "Mihoshi Special"), and though she is one of the most popular characters from the TV shows, she really doesn't belong in the OVA continuity. Second off, she disrupts the continuity for Mihoshi. To quote from the above-named FAQ: "Many fans like Kiyone but point out that Kiyone's character destroys Mihoshi's character and the foil relationship between Washu and Mihoshi." I agree, and feel that Mihoshi has been terribly 'dumbed-down' to make her a poorly-portrayed comic relief. I much prefer to see her as a blonde Columbo — kinda rambling and ditzy, but extremely competent. If I write any more fan-fics in this series, I would portray the Kiyone-Ryoko-Mihoshi team of Special Investigators as a cross between The Marx Brothers (Groucho-Chico-Harpo), who were accomplished musicians and performers, and Charlie's Angels ("Tenchi's Angels," anyone?), who are proficient detectives and martial artists. Stupid or bubbleheaded caricatures will NOT appear.

If you are at all interested in how fleet actions could be fought in interplanetary or interstellar space, I highly recommend reading the The Lensman series by E.E. 'Doc' Smith. These are classic space opera novels written on an epic scale. There are several fleet battles, described in sufficient detail to satisfy even the staunchest 'hard science' sci-fi fan (like me). For a complete list of the series, check out the website at (Link removed by the editor).

The title of this story is from the Japanese verb 'katanawoutsu': to temper or forge a sword.

The characters of Tenchi Muyo were created by Masaki Kajashima, and brought to North America by Pioneer LDC. This story, while incorporating names and situations held under copyright by others, is copyright 2002 by Jeffery L. Harris.

This story comes entirely from my imagination, and is not, nor intended to be, canon. Please do not send the legions of lawyers after me...it's not worth their time, or mine.

Any questions or comments should be directed to:

Jeffery L HarrisSubject: "Katanawoutsu"

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