The Harem Saga

EPISODE 6 The Chains Of Our Commitments

PROLOGUE

I close my eyesOnly for a moment and the moment's gone.All my dreams pass before my eyes a curiosity.Dust in the wind.All they are is dust in the wind.

Same old songJust a drop of water in an endless sea.All we do crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see.Dust in the wind.All we are is dust in the wind.

Don't hang onNothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.It slips away and all your money won't another minute buy.Dust in the wind.All we are is dust in the wind.

Dust in the wind.Everything is dust in the wind.

Title — "Dust In The Wind"Artist — KansasMusic and lyrics — Kerry Livgren

She sat in her chambers, alone. The room was dark and brooding, dimly lit by a few computer monitors. The largest display processed a file that was many thousands of years old. The file contained a collection of corresponding names and faces. Men...women...children...even a few non-human sapients...innocent victims of indiscriminate violence. She had a duty to remember each and every one of them.

And to avenge them all.

An inexpiable burden of obligation written in shattered flesh and spilled blood.

She had known each of them individually, some extremely well; but even the best of memories fade with time unless refreshed often. So, to maintain the fine edge on her relentless determination, she reviewed this file frequently.

The burden of obligation had not grown any lighter over the passing centuries. In fact, she could never repay the debt completely. The victims were beyond caring, dead and buried millennia past. And their malefactors had long since gone to the grave — but their descendants still lived. As she bore her burden across the ages, her adversaries bore their guilt across the generations. The confrontation would continue until one side or the other was completely eliminated.

But, the price paid for the moral high ground was steep indeed: she no longer lived, she merely existed. Everyone that she had ever cared for, everything that she had ever cared about, was lost to her. A poor trade, of quantity for quality; an extended lifespan chained to a single purpose.

Yet, she persevered across the years. She had extracted much pain to pay for her own.

In all honesty, though, she was so very tired...

ACT 1

A time to be reapin', a time to be sowin'.The green leaves of summer are callin' me home.'Twas so good to be young then, in the season of plenty,When the catfish were jumpin' as high as the sky.

A time just for plantin', a time just for ploughin'.A time to be courtin' a girl of your own.'Twas so good to be young then, to be close to the earth,And to stand by your wife at the moment of birth.

A time to be livin', a time to be laughin'A time to be dreamin' a dream of your ownIt was good to be young then with the sweet smell of applesAnd the owl in the pine tree a-winkin' his eye

A time to be reapin', a time to be sowin'.A time just for livin', a place for to die.'Twas so good to be young then, to be close to the earth,Now the green leaves of summer are callin' me home.

Title — "The Green Leaves Of Summer"Music by — Dimitri TiomkinLyrics by — Paul Francis WebsterFrom the Film — The Alamo, 1960

Ryoko woke quietly, soundlessly, as was her habit. She didn't open her eyes, preferring instead to let her other senses scan her immediate environment and build a preliminary description.

She cast wide and recognized the sounds of her own suite: the breeze nudging the curtains, the smell of the carpets, and the ticking of the clock on the mantle. The air was still, and the birds chirped distantly in the trees. The sun had not yet risen.

She focused closer: the subtle creaking of the bed frame, the gentle rustle of bed sheets, and the rhythmic breathing of the man beside her.

His scent was unmistakable; she opened her eyes and turned her head, studying her husband's face in the dim light from the window. She had watched that face grow from an infant to an emperor, and knew every crease and curve of it. She could (and had!) watch it by the hour, observing the subtle muscular twinges and broad shifts that mirrored the mind behind it. She had tasted the skin and felt its texture, and could reconstruct it accurately in her own mind. The corner of her lip curled in a mischievous grin, seeing that a few strands of his long hair had spilled across his cheek and were dancing gently with his soft snoring. She carefully lifted the covers and slid over, so that her bare backside snuggled up against his equally bare belly. She gently lifted his arm and draped it over her ribs. Then she tucked her long cyan hair down and under her head so that it wouldn't bury his nose, and was rewarded with his exhalations caressing the back of her neck. She purred contentedly.

Ryoko dozed for a time, aware of the increasing level of light from the window, aware of the increasing sounds of activity from beyond the door. And so she was not surprised when it opened slowly, framing two backlit figures. She recognized them by their smells, by their mannerisms, by the color of their hair and the tilt of their heads: her mother and her closest friend, Washu and Ayeka, two of Tenchi's other wives.

She rose slowly on one arm, and indicated that she was aware of their presence. Each was leaning forward, reaching down to assist a toddler walk into the room. Ryoko chuckled at the familiar silhouettes: Washu's daughter Achika and Ayeka's son Azusa. Tenchi's children...Tenchi's heirs (a significant fact when one considered that he ruled an empire that stretched the length of a galactic arm, encompassing tens of thousands of star systems, hundreds of occupied planets, and trillions of humans and non-human sentients). Ryoko beckoned them into the room, grinning from ear-to-ear.

With a mere thought, she phased through the bedcovers and floated upwards, oblivious to their slow-motion collapse. Another gesture found her swathed in her favorite housecoat, and she drifted over to settle on the floor beside the bed. She spread her arms, and Achika came running into her embrace. A moment later Ayeka escorted Azusa within reach, and Ryoko drew him into a hug.

"Shall we wake up your daddy?" Ryoko whispered. The children nodded vigorously, wide-eyed and giggling. "Ok, here we go!" She hovered silently, legs folded tailor-fashion, the children on her lap. She set them on the bed beside her sleeping husband, prodding them forward. Each looked to their mother, who encouraged silently from the doorway. With one gleeful shout, they pounced on Tenchi.

It was immediately apparent that he was neither asleep nor surprised — he tucked into a ball beneath the covers, roaring in mock alarm, hiding from the little ones. They weren't fooled, either — and Ryoko yanked the covers half-off to assist their ambush.

During the giggling, laughing, and general horseplay, Ryoko slipped out the door with Washu and Ayeka, all chuckling merrily.

"I must say, that is one tradition well worth fostering," Ayeka said. She led them through the common area and into the dining room, where Mihoshi was setting the table. Sasami could be heard humming from the kitchen, amidst the clatter of pans and utensils. Mihoshi giggled at the sounds from Ryoko's open suite door, and returned to the Kitchen.

"I have to agree," Washu replied. Ryoko nodded.

All four of Tenchi's wives, and his 12-year-old betrothed, were soon sitting around the table enjoying a peaceful breakfast. The sounds of domestic disturbance drifting through the common room brought smiles to all their faces.

"Should we rescue him?" Sasami asked after a while. She gestured towards his seat, where his breakfast was cooling.

"Nah, he can take care of himself," Ryoko replied. She leaned back in her chair, hands cradling a cup of tea, pondering. She glanced over at Mihoshi, whose posture mirrored her own. "Well?"

"I've been giving it careful consideration," Mihoshi replied slowly.

"You've been giving what careful consideration?" Washu asked.

"Children," Mihoshi answered. "On our last mission, Ryoko and I discussed it quite a bit." She paused, smiling at an outburst.

"Maybe it is time," Ryoko added. She, too, smiled, at the outburst.

"What about your career?" Ayeka asked. "After all, you're on the fast track at the Galaxy Police," she said to Mihoshi.

"Well, that is the down side," Mihoshi answered. "If Tenchi and I have a baby, I think my career would be put on hold for awhile. Maybe permanently."

"Is that so bad?"

"Nope," Mihoshi replied. "The more I think about it, the less important the career seems."

"And I never wanted to be anything more than Tenchi's bodyguard," Ryoko said. "Even with a baby, I can still do that to some extent."

"I sympathize with you ladies," Washu said. Achika had been born around the time she and Tenchi celebrated their first anniversary. She had waited a long time for the right man — and hadn't wanted to wait a minute longer after she'd found him. "I've even given thought to having another one."

Everyone else stared at her, jaws dropping.

Sasami shook her head. "Must be something in the water..."

##########

Kiyone dropped onto the sofa and put her feet on the coffee table. She looked over at Mihoshi, who had sprawled into one of the chairs. For once, the common room was quiet. Everyone else was absent.

"So, Mihoshi, what is it you wanted to tell me?"

"I've decided to have a baby."

"Wow. What does Tenchi think about that?"

"I haven't discussed it with him yet."

"Shouldn't you?"

"Eventually. I wanted to make sure that's what I really wanted before I raised the subject."

"So, is that what you really want?"

Mihoshi nodded slowly. "Yes. I'm sure. I want a baby."

Kiyone grinned. "Then go for it!"

"Still, I'm worried that I might have to give up my career at the Galaxy Police."

"There's more to life than the Galaxy Police," Kiyone replied. She had quit several months previously, accepting Funaho's offer to join her security service. She hadn't regretted a single moment of it. "And there's no telling what the future will bring. After your kids are old enough to be in school, you may find other interests. Besides, you don't have to quit the GP — heck, you've already got a cushy desk job, it's Funaho that sends you galloping around the empire — so what difference is a little maternity leave going to make?"

"I know..."

"Relax, Mihoshi. Don't worry about something that may never be a problem anyway."

"I guess you're right." She brightened visibly. "And what about you? Have you and Trinnard set a date yet?" Mihoshi was referring to Kiyone's nearly-constant companion, Sir Trinnard Qualston. He was a member of the same order as Tenchi, and the two had met at Tenchi's coronation.

"No, we haven't set a date yet. We haven't even discussed marriage."

"Yeah, right," Mihoshi giggled.

Kiyone blushed.

##########

"Good morning, Ladies," Funaho said. She entered Washu's lab through the dedicated portal from the common room. Her long robes rustled softly as she walked, creating very little disturbance. She held her head regally, as befitted a former empress, and kept her face expressionless, as befitted the Director of Imperial Security. Ryoko was sitting on a biobed, looking over Washu's shoulder. They were watching the display drifting above Washu's spectral keyboard. "Am I interrupting something?"

Washu waved her great-grandmother-in-law towards a floating cushion. "Not at all, Lady Funaho. In fact, we're just finishing." She grinned at Ryoko, who grinned back. "There you go, Ryoko. Everything is enabled."

"Thanks, Mom," Ryoko replied, giving her a hug.

Funaho watched the exchange with open curiosity, but politely remained silent. Washu looked over at her and laughed. "At Ryoko's request, I've just removed all the blocks interrupting her normal fertility cycle. And unless I miscalculate — "

"An unlikely occurrence," Funaho interrupted sardonically.

" — You should have a new great-great-grandchild sometime next year." Washu looked at Ryoko, who was beaming.

"I think Mihoshi is taking similar steps," Ryoko said. "It's going to get rather crowded around this wing of the Palace."

Funaho sighed. "I guess I will be interviewing replacement investigators in the near future. It wouldn't do to send two of my best operatives into the field while pregnant." She pursed her lips reflectively, and then smiled. "But that is a small price to pay to see our family grow. Congratulations, my dear."

Ryoko's smile was dazzling. "Thank you, Lady Funaho."

"I can see I won't be getting much sleep for a while," Tenchi's voice echoed from the portal. He strolled over to the biobed, his face wreathed with a wry smile.

"You can count on it, Sweetie," Ryoko replied. She hopped down and looped her arms around one of his elbows.

"So, Lady Funaho, what brings you down to my lab?"

"I was looking for Ryoko," Funaho replied. "Tenchi said she was down here."

Washu was about to reply, when she noticed her screen flickering. "What the hell...?" Her fingers danced across the keyboard, sending inquiries into the system. Suddenly, an image appeared on the monitor: an aged woman with silver hair and golden eyes, dressed in black robes, and supporting herself with a cane. Washu and Ryoko gasped in unison.

"Well, well, well, what a pleasant surprise," the figure said.

"Naja Akara!" Ryoko spat.

"How did you break into my network?" Washu asked. "And what do you want?"

"How I broke into your network is my secret," Naja replied. "As to what I want: I was summoned."

"Obscure as always," Washu said disgustedly.

"Allow me to enlighten you, old friend. My son was aware of the blocks you had placed in Ryoko's reproductive system; as a precaution, he installed a nanotech psuedospace transceiver to notify him if anyone ever tampered with those blocks. Since I inherited Kagato's equipment, I received the warning message. It wasn't hard to figure out who set off the alarm. I must say, Washu, that was a surprisingly maternal gesture on your part."

Washu's expression was unreadable. Inwardly, she was wondering how her earlier scans had missed the transmitter.

Naja squinted at the screen, and smiled in delight. "My, the whole Imperial family is present!"

"So you're Naja Akara," Funaho said. "Your exploits are legendary, if unsavory."

"Thank you, Your Majesty. I'm flattered."

"Just why do you hold such a grudge against the House of Jurai?"

"It's a long and depressing story, Your Majesty. I'll try to remember to relate it to you before I kill you."

Funaho's only reaction was a raised eyebrow. "Such bravado. You'll pardon me if I don't get too distraught by your threat."

"Not at all, Your Majesty. I'm sure you've received many threats in your life. That will make the success of mine all the sweeter."

"Not if I get my hands on you first," Ryoko snarled.

"Such pretty posturing, Ryoko, dear. My son was a fool for not grooming your feminine qualities. But I'm sure I can rectify the situation — or perhaps I will simply abduct and educate your baby!" Naja's smile was pure venom. Ryoko roared her defiance.

"Settle down, Ryoko," Washu commanded. "Really, Naja, baiting the children is beneath you."

"True, but highly amusing." Naja cocked her head in puzzlement. "Has the Emperor nothing to say?"

Tenchi had been standing quietly beside Ryoko, eyes lidded and lips compressed. His face slowly shifted into an expression of triumph. "Sorry for my rudeness, Naja. I was a bit busy."

"Busy? Doing what?"

"Mind-linking with you. Tell me, don't you find it cold on Fenris IV, now that the glaciers are moving towards your compound?"

Naja gasped, her malicious smile fading from her face. "You're bluffing."

Washu and Funaho both turned to stare at Tenchi, while Ryoko continued to glower at the screen.

"Am I?" The Emblem of Power blinked into visibility on his forehead, and his brows twisted in concentration. Naja screamed and staggered, clutching her head. "I have your signature now," Tenchi tapped his temple. "If you come within ten light years of Jurai, I will know it. I can't teleport that far — yet — but I will soon enough. And when that happens, you had better be very careful: I don't take threats to my family lightly."

Naja's pale face twisted in a rictus of hate and fear, and she cut the connection. The monitor went blank. Washu and Funaho turned on Tenchi, their faced alight with amazement.

"You really mind-linked with her?" Washu asked. "Fenris IV is 17 light years away!"

"Yes, barely. It was quite a strain."

"Is she truly on Fenris IV?" Funaho asked.

"Yes, she has some kind of retreat on the largest northern continent, along the western edge. But I doubt if she'll stay there for long."

"Maybe she'll delay her departure long enough," Funaho replied. She withdrew a portable communicator from a pocket in her gown and spoke into it in low tones. A strike team would be visiting Fenris IV in a matter of hours.

"Just how far can you reach now?" Washu asked.

"Well, at least 17 light years," Tenchi grinned. "As for teleporting, I can't manage more than a few kilometers. But she doesn't know that."

"What did you do to her?" Ryoko asked.

Tenchi placed a hand on his wife's cheek. "What is the difference between a caress and a slap? The same way I touch your mind, I touched hers — but a lot rougher. She will think long and hard about threatening our family again."

Ryoko smirked.

Washu frowned.

"She will not relinquish this vendetta of hers," Funaho said. "If anything, it has escalated since you attacked her personally."

"I agree," Washu said. "She can't come and do it herself, so she'll be forced to send surrogates. And assassins are plentiful."

"Let 'em come!" Ryoko declared. "We'll deal with 'em."

"It won't be that easy, Ryoko," Washu said somberly.

##########

It might have been technically called a family conference; but when the Emperor summons his family for an immediate discussion (an extremely rare thing for Tenchi to do) it assumes the highest priority.

Tenchi stood at the dining room window, hands clasped behind his back, watching the clouds drift overhead. He waited until all of his wives, his betrothed, and the two former empresses had taken seats at the table. Most were pleasantly surprised when Kiyone and Trinnard arrived, but extra chairs were fetched for them. Tea cups were soon distributed, a pot was passed around, and gradually the chitchat died entirely. They all looked at him expectantly.

"Thank you all for coming," he said simply. "I realize you have very busy schedules. I hope this won't take long. We are here to discuss Naja Akara, and the threat she poses to us." There was some grumbling from around the table, but not directed at him — the name elicited negative reactions. "After discussions with Funaho and Washu, I feel that we can no longer afford the luxury of ignoring her. She must be dealt with promptly."

"Excuse me, Your Majesty, but who is she and why is she considered so dangerous?" Trinnard asked.

"Washu, can you provide some of the background details?"

Washu nodded. "She was a classmate of mine at the Juraian Royal Space Academy a long time ago...sometimes my best friend, sometimes my staunchest rival. She is extremely competent, disciplined, and relentless. She disappeared for a while, after pirates raided her research station on K1190. After she resurfaced, she had herself cloned with a male child. You may have heard of him: Kagato, one of the most notorious criminals of the last few millennia. Naja was the one who persuaded me to accept him as one of my graduate students...a decision I have sincerely regretted."

Trinnard looked at Tenchi, eyebrows raised. "Isn't that the man you dueled with?"

"Yes."

"She is capable of matching my skills and abilities. In many ways, fighting her is going to be like fighting me." Washu's words reverberated into silence, as each person considered the ramifications.

"She's that dangerous?" Ayeka asked. Washu nodded.

"Kiyone, what did you find on Fenris IV?" Tenchi asked.

"By the time we got there and identified her base, it was nothing more than a smoking crater. My team was pretty thorough about examining the rubble, as well as the records of everyone who had gone offworld in the preceding weeks. We found nothing."

"Not surprising," Funaho added. "She's very thorough, too. We nearly caught her once, about three hundred years ago. We brought a psychometrist and a clairvoyant into one of her installations, and with their help we were able to deduce her location. She escaped, and then had both adepts murdered to prevent any further occurrences. Since then, she leaves no evidence behind her larger than a few molecules."

"No loose ends, just like her son," Ryoko muttered. "I can't even imagine how you could have been friends with her," she said to Washu.

"She was a different person back then," Washu replied, "and so was I." Tenchi stepped behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. She covered them with her own, drawing comfort from them.

"Did you find the leak in your network?" Funaho asked.

"Yes, and a devious little tweak it was. God alone knows how long she's been hacking into my system. I have to assume it was not the only one."

"So we lack secure communications?" Misaki asked.

"There is only one really secure method available," Washu replied. She looked up meaningfully at her husband, as did nearly everyone else.

"I'm lost again," Trinnard sighed.

"Tenchi has mind links with all of us," Mihoshi explained. "They can't be jammed or tapped."

"With all of you?" He looked over at Kiyone.

She nodded. "It was very useful during the K'vimm Incursion."

"Ah," he replied. "If I may ask, Sire, just why am I here today?"

"When we locate Naja, I will need assistance to deal with any associates she may have present. I would like you to lead a small group of trusted comrades to run interference, while I confront her alone."

"Like hell you will!" Ryoko exclaimed angrily.

"Is there anyone else here capable of defeating her?" Tenchi asked quietly.

"We handled her before, in New York. Remember?"

"I handled her, Ryoko. I caught her by surprise, after she had imprisoned you and Ayeka. She will not be caught so easily again. And under duress she will simply escape through one of her dimensional doorways. No, she must be lured away from her lair."

"I'm going with you, I said."

"No, Ryoko, you are not."

"Why shouldn't I?"

"Because you are going to be the bait that brings her to us."

Ryoko simmered quietly, mulling that idea over.

"Once we find her, we will send you and Kiyone and Mihoshi on one of your 'missions' to a nearby naval installation. No doubt Naja will discover it almost immediately. I will take Trinnard and his friends to the naval base early and wait for her arrival."

"What makes you so sure she's going to come after me?"

"Her threat to you and your prospective baby," Washu replied. "The idea probably never occurred to her before, but you can be very sure she's thinking about it now. A poetic form of revenge on the two individuals most responsible for her son's death."

Ryoko's lips twisted into a grimace. "Me and Tenchi."

"Mmm-hmmm," Washu replied.

"What about me, Beloved?" Ayeka asked.

"You are a public figure, and your absence would be noticed. You and Sasami and Washu will need to maintain 'normal' appearances, as well as devise some method to cover for me." He smiled gently at her. "Besides, I need you here to protect the children."

"Yeah, I wouldn't put it past her to try to kill them while the family is separated," Washu added.

"We can increase palace security for a while," Funaho said, "but they can't remain on high alert for long. Time is on Naja's side...she can wait us out."

"The best defense is a good offense, or so my brother once told me," Ayeka said. "Let's exterminate the vermin before she causes any further harm."

"Damn straight — but first we have to find her," Ryoko grumbled.

"How did you find her earlier, Tenchi?" Sasami asked.

"I traced her quantum pattern," Tenchi added. Tenchi was referring to the fact that the universe is not what it appears: space is really a sea of energy, churned by waves that overlap and blur in very complicated patterns. People see ordinary objects only because their minds filter the underlying patterns of quantum information into something recognizable. There are no boundaries between the edge of one quantum pattern and the beginning of another. Amazingly, no quantum pattern is concentrated in any one location — it is distributed across the entire universe. "It was a question of focusing my mind to the same frequency as Naja's mind. It was very difficult."

Washu turned to look up at her husband. "You never cease to amaze me, my love."

"Why was it so difficult?" Mihoshi asked.

"I'll give you the same analogy that Washu gave me," he replied. "Think in terms of astronomy: if you stand outside on a cloudless night and see a star one light year away, it is clearly visible to the naked eye. If the star moves ten light years away, you need a low-power telescope to make it out clearly. At fifty light years, you need a high-power telescope to see it. Each time it moves, the star does not get any dimmer, but distance causes its light to dissipate — so you need a bigger telescope to collect that light. But at no time is the star ever out of range, because there is no limit to how far the light will shine."

"Ah, I get it," Mihoshi replied.

"Tenchi, you're beginning to sound like Washu," Ryoko warned.

"Thank you, Ryoko!" Washu grinned.

"Does everyone have this ability?" Funaho asked. She was considering how beneficial such a skill would be to her organization.

"In theory, yes," Washu replied. "In actuality, very few individuals ever manifest the skill. Tenchi is one of the exceptions because he has an edge."

"The Lighthawk Wings," Misaki said.

"Mmmm-hmmm," Washu nodded. "Because of them, he has a much more intimate knowledge of quantum patterns and their manipulation than anyone else."

"Impressive," Funaho said. "And very fortunate for us."

"Naja is no longer on Fenris IV," Washu continued, "and chances are she is much farther away by now. Granted, distance doesn't matter when you are talking about quantum patterns...but granularity does matter. The farther away she is the more dissipated her pattern will be, like ripples expanding outward on an infinite pond. Consequently, the larger the area Tenchi examines, the fuzzier the pattern will be — and the harder to recognize. He will need a bigger lens; much bigger, if she is very distant. And constructing the lens (a manifestation of the Lighthawk Wings) will take Power. Lots of Power. Perhaps more than he can access directly. And that would require external sources to combine with his own. Right?" She turned to look up at her husband, who nodded back at her.

"And it just so happens that there are several such sources sitting around this table," he added. Those members of the Adeptus Pskyer caste (like Tenchi and his wives) had the innate natural talent for mentally tapping into external energy sources and manipulating them. This bestowed all sorts of psionic capabilities on those thus gifted.

"We will help any way that can we can, Beloved," Ayeka said.

"Absolutely," Mihoshi agreed. "But what do you want us to do?"

Tenchi grinned. "Sing for me."

"Now I'm lost," Ryoko muttered.

"You've been working with Professor Gayal and her daughter for months now, learning how to harmonize. As they can conduct your voices, I can conduct your Power attributes."

"Very impressive," Funaho said. "When did you acquire that skill?"

"During all those singing lessons, when I was observing quietly."

"And here we thought you were just appreciating our talents," Ayeka chided gently.

"Oh, I've always appreciated your talents," Tenchi grinned. Ayeka blushed, which caused the other wives to chortle. His grin faded. "You were happy, and in an energized frame of mind, and radiated Power at a subconscious level. I tapped into it while you were distracted. For this to work, I will need to duplicate those conditions. What would you ladies say to inviting Araciela and Kiyuma to dinner, followed by an informal recital?"

The women around the table exchanged glances and nods, agreeing silently, before Ryoko spoke. "Sure, go ahead."

"I'll issue the invitation," Misaki announced. "And I'll make sure they bring their instruments with them."

"Thank you, Misaki. I hope you and Funaho will also attend." She smiled her consent.

Funaho nodded in agreement. "I wouldn't miss it."

"And I'd appreciate it if you two were here, also," Tenchi said to Kiyone and Trinnard.

"Of course, Sire," the knight replied.

ACT 2

The following was excerpted from the "Ryoko Forever Fan Club: Tenchi Muyo! Character names in Kanji" website (.):

TENCHI:

Compound: 'tenchi', 'amatsuchi' — heaven and earth, the universe, nature; top and bottom; world, realm, sphere. (New Nelson also includes the four-character compound tenchimuyou this side up; do not turn over.)TEN: sky, air, heavens, celestial sphere, firmament; heaven, Providence, God, Nature; destiny; weather; top; beginning. 'ame' — sky, heaven. 'ama' — heavenly. 'amatsu' — heavenly, Imperial.[NN 1136/JIS 4537]NOTE: This character should not be confused with the very similar YOU early death, calamity. Although come to think of it...CHI: earth, land, ground, the surface of the earth; soil; place, region; territory; room, space; position; site; foundation. 'ji' — ground, land, earth; the surface of the earth; foundation, soil; texture, weave, fabric; field (of a flag); region; disposition; respectability; accompaniment; narrative part; fact. 'ji' (beta) — the ground, the earth. tsuchi earth, soil, ground.[NN 976/JIS434f]

Tenchi = "Heaven and earth"; an angel, "Angel" (.com/search?q=angel):1. A typically benevolent celestial being that acts as an intermediary between heaven and earth.5. a. A kind and lovable person. b. One who manifests goodness, purity, and selflessness.

Down to the earth I fellWith dripping wings,Heavy things won't flyAnd the sky might catch on fireAnd burn the axis of the worldThat's whyI prefer a sunless skyTo the glittering and stinging in my eye

I feel so lightThis is all I wanna feel tonightI feel so lightTonight and the rest of my lifeTonight and the rest of my life

Gleaming in the dark seaI'm as light as airFloating there breathlesslyWhen the dream dissolves I open up my eyesI realize thatEverything is shoreless seaWeightlessness is passing over me

I feel so lightThis is all I wanna feel tonightI feel so lightTonight and the rest of my lifeTonight and the rest of my life

Everything is waves and starsThe universe is resting in my arms

I feel so aliveThis is all I wanna feel tonightI feel so lightTonight and the rest of my lifeI feel so lightThis is all I wanna feel tonightI feel so lightTonight and the rest of my lifeTonight and the rest of my life

Title — "Tonight And The Rest Of My Life"Artist — Nina Gordon

"That's quite an interesting proposal, Your Majesty," said Professor Araciela Gayal. She appeared middle-aged, but as with most Juraians it was impossible to guess accurately. She was an attractive woman, whose stylish purple hair was laced with gray. Her voice was rich and well modulated, and when she spoke it was slowly, and each word was enunciated precisely. She had a habit of nodding in rhythm with her speech. "It sounds like you are describing some sort of medieval séance. I'm afraid that I will make a poor medium."

Tenchi chuckled, gently sloshing the wine in his goblet. "Well, perhaps there is a superficial resemblance, Professor, but I assure you we are not trying to contact the dead."

"Nah, we're trying to find a demon," Ryoko said. "A real hellspawn. And she's definitely not dead."

"A situation we hope to remedy," Ayeka added quietly. Azusa sat on her lap, playing idly with a spoon, and she softly kissed the back of his head.

Araciela cleared her throat, momentarily surprised by the study in contrasts: the soft-spoken, nurturing mother mouthing such an unbridled threat. She surmised that whoever they were looking for must be a direct danger to the Royal Family...and they wouldn't take kindly to any interference or obstruction. One glance at Lady Funaho's measured expression was enough to confirm her suspicions; it would not be prudent to decline the invitation. Besides, when push came to shove, the experiment did sound intriguing. "Kiyuma?"

"I'm interested," her daughter replied. She was a beautiful woman in her early adult years, whose voice was deep and throaty and sonorous. Her long limbs matched her long violet hair, and she was easily a head taller than her mother. She kept a professional detachment about her that formed a near-palpable shell, and though readily polite she seldom smiled. She exchanged a meaningful glance with her mother, indicating that she had reached similar conclusions about the nature of the monarch's request.

Washu watched the silent communication, hiding her smile by turning away to offer her hoverchair-bound daughter another spoonful. Neither woman was a Power adept, and the empresses' early misgivings about them had faded when it became apparent that the Gayals had no designs on their husband. They were now regular visitors to the Palace, providing voice lessons to the Emperor's wives. That they had been invited to dine in the residential wing, and were being asked to assist in such an unusual procedure, was itself an expression of trust. And both women were fully cognizant of the implications. Washu liked them, but also knew that they were not above a little exploitation should the opportunity present itself. She had assumed that they would cooperate; she also assumed that someone would tempt them with large amounts of Imperial credits afterwards to recount the whole experience. That would result in fresh rumors about Tenchi's growing talents...usually exaggerated, never accurate, and always useful at keeping the aristocracy guessing. A win/win solution. She made eye contact with Funaho, forming the subtle hand gestures that comprised their private mode of communication. Funaho's response was masked behind the innocent act of reaching for her goblet, but Washu caught it nonetheless. They were in agreement.

"Very well, Your Majesty, we are at your disposal," Araciela announced.

"I trust you brought your musical instruments?" Misaki asked.

"Of course, but we left them in the car."

Misaki produced a comm unit and spoke into it. Within moments one of her liveried concierges entered the dining room silently, an autostylus in hand. She issued instructions, which he entered them into the device.

"I only wish we had a percussionist. I understand they are invaluable for this kind of thing."

"I play the drums, professor," Trinnard offered. Kiyone looked at him with upraised brows.

"Really?" Araciela replied. "What kind of drums?"

The knight described them. "Those sound like bongo drums," Tenchi said.

"I'm unfamiliar with the reference, Sire. But I have a set in my dormitory room."

"We'll have them brought here, too," Misaki announced. She gestured to her attendant, who promptly keyed another set of commands into the autostylus.

"How long will it take, Mother?" Sasami asked.

Misaki deferred the question to her concierge. "An hour at most, Your Highness," the man replied. "Probably less."

Sasami smiled. "Good. Then there's time for dessert!"

"You never told me you played the drums," Kiyone whispered to Trinnard. He merely shrugged. "What else haven't you told me?" She fumed quietly, until she realized that Mihoshi was watching her. "Well, what are you looking at?"

"Me? Oh, nothing, nothing at all." Mihoshi's grin belied her innocent tone. She rose from her seat and followed Sasami into the kitchen, giggling loudly. "Hey, Sasami, do you need some help in here?"

Kiyone realized that Ryoko and Ayeka were grinning at her, too, which deepened her blush.

##########

"We should do this down in my lab," Washu said.

"Actually, that may have hindered the process last time. What with crossing the psuedospace membrane and all," Tenchi replied.

"Well, can I at least bring a few recording instruments in here, then?" she asked, her hand sweeping the common room, whose furniture was being rearranged to accommodate so many occupants.

"Sure, if you can find the space," Tenchi shrugged.

"Oh, I'll think of something." She passed Achika into Misaki's outstretched arms and exited through the portal. She returned shortly carrying an armload of sensors, which she promptly started tossing up to the ceiling.

"Those had better not leave any marks!"

"Relax, Ayeka. They're programmed to hover against the first surface they touch. I'll retrieve 'em later." Satisfied at the distribution of her gadgets, she started to fetch her daughter.

"Uh, maybe Misaki should hold her for awhile. And Azusa should go into his bassinet."

"Why, Tenchi?" Washu hesitated, surprised by her husband's comment.

"Minimal interference," he replied.

"Ah. I see your point. Lady Misaki, do you mind...?"

"Of course not." She located a chair and settled into it, settling Achika comfortably on her lap.

"I'll watch Azusa," Funaho offered. Ayeka grinned her thanks and passed her son into the Queen Mother's hands.

The room was soon divided into three 'zones': Ryoko, Ayeka, and Sasami sat on one sofa, with Washu and Mihoshi standing behind them; the Gayals sat on the other sofa holding their stringed instruments, with Trinnard and his drums on the floor between them; Kiyone leaned against the wall behind Funaho and Misaki. Tenchi sat on the floor in the middle of the room, facing his wives.

"Hey, Kiyone, get over here!" Ryoko demanded.

"I'm not a Power adept," she shrugged.

"Yeah, but you've sung with us often enough. We need your voice."

"C'mon, Kiyone," Mihoshi echoed. "This'll be fun!"

"Go ahead, Kiyone," Tenchi said, looking over his shoulder at her. "You don't need to be an adept, just harmonize with them."

Kiyone would rather not have, but a request from the Emperor — even a friendly request — was not to be ignored. She sighed and worked her way over to stand beside Mihoshi.

"Ryoko, you're the anchor for this task," Tenchi said.

"Huh? Why me?"

"You're the strongest Power adept — and the loudest."

"My, what an accurate assessment!" Ayeka smirked. Mihoshi, Washu and Sasami burst out laughing.

"Thanks a lot," Ryoko growled at Tenchi. She glared at her 'sisters,' and then grinned. "Fine. Then I get to choose the song!"

"Oh, now wait just a minute," Mihoshi exclaimed. "I think we all should have a say in this."

"Agreed," Ayeka added.

"What did you have in mind, Ryoko?" Kiyone asked.

"I was thinking of 'Like A Prayer,'" she replied.

"I like that one," Sasami said.

"Thanks, Kiddo. I think it's rather appropriate, considering the nature of this little experiment."

"But we do that one so often..." Mihoshi lamented.

"I can think of at least three songs more suitable," Ayeka said. "And all of them are proper Juraian works."

"Gee, Little Empress, I don't think nursery rhymes are gonna work for this!"

"Here we go again," Kiyone muttered. "C'mon you two..."

"What do you think, Tenchi?" Sasami asked.

"That one sounds fine," he replied. "Professor Gayal already has the music worked out, and you ladies are familiar with it..."

"See? Tenchi agrees with me!" Ryoko smirked.

"Only because you're distracting him from his preparations!" Ayeka snapped back.

"Let's vote on it," Mihoshi suggested.

Tenchi ignored the banter between the women, instead focusing on the task at hand. He closed his eyes, took three deep breaths to clear his mind, and then summoned the Lighthawk Wings. He heard the Gayals gasp in unison as the three-bladed construct materialized in the air above his head, hovering silently in its Y-shaped configuration. The Emblem of Power blazed on his brow, and both pulsed in unison with a barely perceptible rhythm.

In the end, Ryoko got her way (more by attrition than anything else). Araciela nodded, accepting the choice, and leaned forward to discuss the details with her daughter and Trinnard.

Ryoko waited for the accompaniment to begin. Tenchi had appointed her to be the Anchor for this experiment, and she would not disappoint him. This time would not just be for entertainment or a voice lesson; this time she was singing for Her Tenchi.

Ryoko:

Life is a mystery, everyone must stand aloneI hear you call my nameAnd it feels like home

All:

When you call my name it's like a little prayerI'm down on my knees, I wanna take you thereIn the midnight hour I can feel your powerJust like a prayer you know I'll take you there

The ladies' initial reluctance gave way to active participation. They had always enjoyed singing individually, and many times back at the Masaki house on Earth had seen them employing the karaoke machine. Under the Gayals' guidance they had learned to layer their voices into a pleasing gestalt. 'Joy In Unity' had been Araciela's constant mantra, and moments like this proved the value of her motto. Now that they had a goal, their efforts intensified. The Power level in the room began rising noticeably — at least to Funaho and Misaki, who sat with the babies propped on their laps, tapping their toes in time to the beat.

Ryoko:

I hear your voice, it's like an angel sighingI have no choice, I hear your voiceFeels like flyingI close my eyes, Oh God I think I'm fallingOut of the sky, I close my eyesHeaven help me

All:

When you call my name it's like a little prayerI'm down on my knees, I wanna take you thereIn the midnight hour I can feel your powerJust like a prayer you know I'll take you there

Tenchi's enhanced perceptions detected the Power envelope emanating from each of his wives. They simmered like heat waves above sun-baked asphalt. He felt the textures of their auras, gauging their strengths. Deftly, hesitantly, he reached out and grasped the strands of energy, braiding them together like so much cordage. He wasn't watching, of course, but the wings began to shift, morphing into a ring of interwoven filaments. He opened mind-links to each of them. Their enthusiasm was rising, feeding off of Ryoko's emotions, the novelty of Trinnard's drumming, and the very visible affect they were having on the shapeshifting circlet floating above him.

Ryoko:

Like a child you whisper softly to meYou're in control just like a childNow I'm dancingIt's like a dream, no end and no beginningYou're here with me, it's like a dreamLet the choir sing

All:

When you call my name it's like a little prayerI'm down on my knees, I wanna take you thereIn the midnight hour I can feel your powerJust like a prayer you know I'll take you thereWhen you call my name it's like a little prayerI'm down on my knees, I wanna take you thereIn the midnight hour I can feel your powerJust like a prayer you know I'll take you there

The ladies were well into the song now, clapping and swaying and blending their voices as they had been taught. However, Tenchi was not paying much attention: he was wrestling with mental imagery, looking for useful parallels to apply to the task at hand. A vision of Sherlock Holmes entered his mind, with deerstalker cap and magnifying lens. He fixed on the latter image as the tool he needed. The ring of Power above him began to spin, flattening into a lens shape, thick in the middle and thinning at the edge.

The Gayals were utterly enthralled, playing their instruments mechanically while watching the Royal Family. They had heard the stories, of course, and seen the news videos — but sitting two meters from the greatest adept in human space, watching him deploy the fabled Lighthawk Wings, was an unimaginable treat. Trinnard, however, accepted the whole situation with equanimity; as Kiyone's Companion, he had spent considerable time around the Royals for the better part of a year...nothing much surprised him anymore.

Ryoko:

Life is a mystery, everyone must stand aloneI hear you call my nameAnd it feels like homeJust like a prayer, your voice can take me thereJust like a muse to me, you are a mysteryJust like a dream, you are not what you seemJust like a prayer, no choice your voice can take me there

All:

Just like a prayer, I'll take you thereIt's like a dream to meJust like a prayer, I'll take you thereIt's like a dream to meJust like a prayer, I'll take you thereIt's like a dream to meJust like a prayer, I'll take you thereIt's like a dream to me

The musicians launched into an instrumental interlude, while the ladies hummed and crooned and clapped in synchrony.

It wasn't working. The lens-shaped artifact wasn't enough; he could sense patterns beyond its reach. He needed something better. Fighting frustration, he allowed his mind to free-associate, and a steady stream of images rolled past his eyes: inspector...magician...sorcerer...tools...wands...talismans...crystal ball! He smiled, and the lens above him roiled and inflated into a sphere..

Now he was ready. He clamped a protective mind-link over the other two Power adepts in the room — Funaho and Misaki — and sent a warning down the links to his vocalists:

Tenchi - Here we go!

He released the restraints that kept his Power levels muted, which enabled other members of the Adeptus Psyker Caste to get within 10 meters of him and remain unaffected. The Emblem on his brow flared into incandescence, the energy ball above him burned with a blue-white resplendence, and his wives' Power levels erupted reflexively. Under his guidance, with Power cascading into the structure, the Lighthawk Sphere expanded at unbelievable speed, dragging everyone's consciousness with it. Tenchi sensed their reactions...

* Ryoko's awareness expanded, becoming thin as gas and larger than a planet. She had become accustomed to extraordinary feats like levitation and teleportation and insubstantiality, but nothing could have prepared her for this. She felt Power being drawn from her Gem, merging with her own, flowing towards her husband. This had happened once before, when Kagato had sought to drain it – and her! – for his own nefarious purposes. But this was different: Kagato's vampirism versus Tenchi's symbiosis. She loved her husband and trusted him completely, and thus yielded freely to the rush.

* Ayeka's mind reeled at the sudden onslaught of information. It was one thing to consider such descriptions of spacetime in abstract discussions, but to actually experience them directly was nearly overwhelming. Her Power roared through and beyond her in a steady stream, focused upon her husband, who in turn directed it outwards. She felt a heightened respect for him, and his abilities to weave such raw energies together. He was more Conductor than Conqueror, coaxing closely held secrets from the weft and woof of reality, rather than wresting them loose by force.

* Sasami was on familiar ground. She had shared her awareness with Tsunami on many occasions, although never on such a scale before. She felt Power drawn not only from herself, but from Tsunami through her. It was a decidedly odd experience, but not an unpleasant one. She sensed Tsunami observing, nodding with approval, which quelled her few fears (after all, the universe was vast, and required matching mindsets). She, too, was observing – watching Tenchi as he knitted disparate coils of energy into the net that spread so far and wide. She was immensely proud of him.

* Washu felt the bubble expand at near-infinite speed, which should have been impossible. Out of ancient habit, a part of her mind withdrew to analyze the experience. If Tenchi's Power ball was composed of transverse waves (photons propagating through space), then it would have been restricted to the speed of light. But it obviously wasn't, so she guessed it must be scalar in nature, that is, composed of longitudinal waves (akin to sound waves rippling through air). The Lighthawk Sphere was thus literally a structure of pure information! Her enthusiasm was dampened, however, by the nagging feeling that somewhere in her dark, distant past, she had performed this same exercise herself.

* Mihoshi felt dizzy and disoriented as the Power coursed through her and beyond, and she became aware of the enormous vista spreading before her mind's eye. Over the course of the last three years' practice with Tenchi (under Washu's watchful eye), she had begun to discern the elements of her own Power manifestations. There was a different 'feel' between her electrokinetic talents and her affinity with probabilities (i.e., Luck). And as the Power transited through her, she 'tainted' it with the latter, hoping that it would assist her husband on his quest.

* Kiyone had marginal experience with Power. She had watched for years as Mihoshi effortlessly drew on hidden resources to accomplish incredible things (granted that most of them were disruptive). The previous year she had been encased in Lighthawk Armour during the counterattack against the K'vimm. Since then, she had watched Ryoko and Ayeka sparring in the Practice Area on several occasions, erecting shields and energy weapons from out of thin air. But none of these compared to the mind-altering phenomenon she now experienced. She felt wraithlike and omniscient at the same time, and awed by those who could harness such abilities.

...and allowed the Lighthawk Sphere to expand to the limit of the available Power. Once the construct was stabilized, he focused his thoughts inwards, using the massive instrument as a template to hunt for the quantum pattern he needed.

Funaho watched quietly as the ladies' voices faltered and ceased, replaced by slack jaws and vacant stares. She could only guess at what they were experiencing. Tenchi's face was pinched and sweating, eyes clamped shut in concentration. The Gayals and Trinnard stopped playing their instruments, watching the vocalists curiously. Funaho wondered if they were cognizant (on some subconscious level) of the Power current that radiated from the sofa towards Tenchi. The Gayals slowly cased their musical instruments, closing the lids quietly. Trinnard simply sat still, his eyes roving between Tenchi and Kiyone. Funaho patiently cuddled little Azusa, making small cooing noises for his amusement. Misaki whispered to Achika, explaining why her mommy and half-mommies had stopped singing. The air was heavy with an expectant silence.

After several minutes the Power current paused and then reversed its flow. There was a stir of deep breaths and fluttering eyelids as the ladies regained their composure. The Lighthawk Wings hovered once more above their master, pulsing softly with blue-white light.

"That was unreal," Ryoko whispered.

"I concur," Ayeka added. "I've never experienced anything like that."

"How big was that thing?" Mihoshi asked.

"At a guess, I'd say almost half an AU in diameter," Washu answered. "I sure hope my instruments recorded everything..."

"Let's not do that again," Kiyone said. She looked over at Trinnard's inquisitive expression.

"So many patterns," Sasami marveled. "How does he find anything in all that?"

Everyone turned to look at Tenchi. He was slumped forward wearily, shoulders stooped, rubbing his eyes. He gestured and the Wings evaporated. "Thank you, everyone. I appreciate your help." His voice sounded strained.

"Did you locate Naja Akara?" Funaho asked him.

"Yes, I did. She's on Boreanis, in the largest city on the southern continent."

"Tenchi, Boreanis is 1,200 light years away!" Ayeka exclaimed. "How can you reach that far?"

They all stared him. Tenchi just shrugged.

"Better to ask how she got there so fast," Funaho suggested.

"Another one of her damn dimensional doorways," Washu replied. "This isn't going to be easy."

ACT 3

April roses, tiny sparrowsComets bright and newAll belong togetherWith the mystery that is youWhen I see your little faceI hear a song from long agoI think you knowThe many secrets I've forgotten

Generations through the agesJoined as one somehowLeading to the miracleThat I am holding nowFrom the sky and from the seaUpon a breeze you came to meYou seem to seeA greater universe than I do

Sleep my baby, sleep my babyDream of somewhere far awayDo you remember stillHow I hope you always willKeep the memory of the dayThe world was born

When you wake up I'll be waitingEager for your smileYou've had quite a journey darlingYou should rest a whileWhen you cry we still rejoiceTo hear your voice — oh yes, it's trueMy sweet WashuPlease understand how much we love you

Sleep my baby, sleep my babyLater on perhaps you'll tellThe wondrous things you've seenMore miraculous than dreamsTell me all about the dayThe world was born

[ Instrumental ]

Sleep my baby, sleep my babyDream of somewhere far awayDo you remember stillHow I hope you always willKeep the memory of the dayThe world was born

Title — "Washu's Lullaby"Artist — Scottie Haskell

Ayeka looked into her son's face and smiled. Her heart sang just studying Azusa's features. His eyes were the same shade of red as her own, and his azure-tinted hair bespoke the Seto family heritage. But his face was cast directly from his father. His father...so many times during her stay on Earth, she had wondered if she would ever find happiness with her brother's grandson. Though she was technically Tenchi's great-aunt, the vagaries of astrophysics and suspended animation had rendered them quite close together in biological age; and though related by blood, Imperial traditions and Juraian society had permitted their union. Had she been able to look past her immediate problems and see how her future would pan out, she would have been greatly comforted. Washu often spoke of synchronicity and metaphysics and the probabilities that had actually brought them all together. She didn't care, frankly; Tenchi loved her and wanted her with him, however bizarre the circumstances were. That was enough for her.

She laid Azusa on her bed and finished dressing him, speaking quietly to him the whole time. Occasionally her motions shook the mattress, and the manacles on the bedposts tinkled merrily. She couldn't help grinning with each chime, because the tones kindled so many fond memories...and the expectations of more to come.

"Ayeka?"

"In here, Mother!"

Ayeka's suite door opened and Misaki strolled in.

"Well, how's my grandson this morning?" Misaki scooped Azusa off the bed and cuddled him.

"He's healthy and happy."

"Where's his daddy?"

"Off to the admiralty, I believe. I don't expect him back until this afternoon." She rose from the bed and tossed Azusa's sleepwear into a hamper. "Ryoko wasn't very happy about it."

"Oh? Why?" Misaki's interest was based upon more than curiosity: before her husband's death, she had been head of the Imperial bodyguard, and the Emperor's constant companion. Since then, Ryoko had assumed that mantle, and Misaki had taken on the role of privy councilor for her daughter.

"She wants him to keep a lower profile until this Naja Akara person is apprehended or executed. I must say, I agree with her."

"Well, you know the Emperor can't afford to be intimidated."

"I would accept that statement if the matter was under public scrutiny."

"It will be; these scoundrels are never content to remain quiet. Sooner or later the threat will surface, and the media will start comparing dates and schedules. It's happened many times before, and it will happen many times again."

"I suppose you're right," Ayeka sighed. "Shall we go out on the veranda? It appears to be a lovely day."

"It's a tad chilly. You might want to put him in a jacket first."

##########

Ayeka and Misaki wandered onto the flagstone porch that circled the residential wings of the palace. There were many tables and chairs scattered about, and they easily found a location with plenty of sunshine. While they spread their datapads and schedules onto the tabletop, Azusa was allowed to crawl about at his leisure. He was just starting to walk along walls and furniture, and the long railing (with its closely-spaced vertical supports) provided him with plenty of opportunity for exercise.

They spent an hour discussing Ayeka's itinerary, which was usually pretty full. Tradition and protocol required that a member of the Royal Family be in attendance at a wide variety of social functions. Ayeka had accepted this role, and had gotten quite polished at public speaking. She had also taken an active stance on many economic and environmental issues, and these she supported openly. Over time, her influence was being seen in the way her husband's policies and edicts were changing. Empress Ayeka was as popular with the lower classes as Empress Ryoko was with the military.

"This sure looks like a busy place!" Three shadows colored the flagstones at their feet.

"Oh, good morning!" Misaki and Ayeka chorused.

Washu and Funaho stood next to the table, each holding one of Achika's hands.

"Where's Azusa?" Funaho asked.

Ayeka pointed to the railing, where her son was standing and staring through the uprights, babbling happily. "Care to join us?" She gestured to two empty seats.

"Well, actually we were looking for Tenchi," Washu answered.

"He went to the admiralty. Something about acceptance trials on that prototype engine you developed."

"Oh." Washu took one of the offered seats, and Funaho settled silently into the other. Achika promptly tottered off towards her half-brother.

"Is something wrong?" Misaki asked.

"We wanted to discuss an aspect of his immediate plans," Funaho replied.

"About Naja Akara?" Ayeka asked, sounding calmer than she felt.

"Yes." Washu's voice mirrored Ayeka's.

"I do not approve of his intentions," Ayeka said flatly.

"Nor do we, but there is something even more pressing to worry about."

"What could that be?" Misaki asked.

"Palace security," Funaho replied.

"It's been quite effective to date," Ayeka said.

"It hasn't had to face Naja. I've been considering how I would break into the Palace, if I really wanted in here bad enough. Because we have teleport jammers all around the perimeter, I'd just erect a dimensional doorway. And so would she. I know of no way to jam a doorway, and detecting a small one — even originating nearby — is virtually impossible."

"Wouldn't Tenchi sense her proximity to Jurai?" Misaki asked.

"Tenchi may not be here," Funaho said. "And what's to stop her from sending an assassin equipped with a portable generator?" Ayeka and her mother exchanged nervous glances. "No, I think we'd better start assuming that someone will find a way onto the grounds, and plan accordingly."

"So, what do you have in mind?" Ayeka asked.

##########

Tenchi was in his garden, kneeling in the dirt while methodically removing the weeds. He heard the voices before he actually saw them: Misaki was escorting Trinnard and a small group between the hedges, followed at a distance by a busily chatting Mihoshi and Kiyone.

When Tenchi thought of knights, he conjured a mental vision of medieval horsemen armed with hearts of iron and swords of steel. The group who stood before him now were about as far from that vision as one could get and still be tied to the word 'chivalry'. There were several orders of chivalry headquartered on Jurai, with long and distinguished histories. Of these, the three largest had vied with one another to recruit Prince Tenchi not long after his emergence into the public eye. Tenchi's grandfather, Emperor Azusa, had resisted the idea; Tenchi's grandmother, Empress Funaho, and mother-in-law, Empress Misaki, had thought otherwise. A great deal of negotiating had ensued in the private chambers of the Palace, and in the end Azusa had finally conceded. Tenchi eventually gave the nod to the largest. The Order of The Flaming Sword could trace its lineage back several millennia. It had been founded by a monastic order with a militaristic bent, remaining fervently Royalist during some of the monarchy's rockiest periods. In order to retain its strong charter to the Juraian crown, it had relinquished its original nobiliary requirements, conferring membership to any Juraian subject who exhibited outstanding compassion and courage in military or civilian emergency services. Its public focus had evolved over time into support of a wide array of medical and charitable activities, and was immensely popular.

Each passing generation saw the order's ranks refreshed with a constant infusion of courageous and highly motivated individuals. The majority of these new members remained in their civilian or military jobs, but a select few were recruited to become part of the full-time administrative staff of the Order. Sir Trinnard Qualston was typical of the breed: he had been a firefighter in the sector capitol on Kanamitsu, decorated several times for his bravery, before his name was submitted to the order as a candidate. After receiving his knighthood, he was offered a full-time position on Jurai within the Order, which he accepted. It was in the capacity as an administrative assistant that he was first introduced to the future emperor, and served as one of Tenchi's advisors. Later, he had been invited to the Emperor's coronation reception, and there introduced to Empress Mihoshi's best friend Kiyone Makibi. The attraction had been immediate and mutual.

Physically, Trinnard was a strapping athlete taller and heavier than Tenchi. He was not handsome: his blue-black hair and piercing black eyes failed to distract from his large nose and soft chin. But his affable manner and ready laugh quickly put his companions at ease. It surprised no one when Tenchi asked him for him assistance in the coming confrontation with Naja Akara. But afterwards, in private, Trinnard had not been so sure. "I'm not trained as a warrior, Your Majesty. You may want to reconsider taking me along."

Tenchi had shrugged. "You'll do fine, Trinnard. I suspect you can find a former soldier or two among your acquaintances who can give you a few pointers." And Trinnard had indeed sought aid from among his inner circle of friends — they had all volunteered eagerly to go along.

So here stood Trinnard and his friends, all dressed in the robes of the Order, all seeking the Emperor's favor.

"Sire, this is Sir Lorand Jabray. A former member of the Navy's Special Operations squadron, he is trained in all manner of hostage rescue and vessel boarding tactics." Tenchi received a bow from the grinning, heavily muscled redhead.

"And this is Sir Phieer Varo, a former police officer from Seniwa." The bronze-skinned man with blond-white hair bowed deeply, his smile buried in a massive moustache of the same color. He moved easily, but his blue eyes seemed to see everything at once.

"This is Sir Miisa Myminka, a retired Naval officer who served with distinction during the K'vimm Incursion last year." The woman was middle-aged, with the finely chiseled figure of an athlete. Her tightly curled green hair was kept in a military-style queue, and her bow was crisp and smart.

"This is Sir Tayto Bradar, lately of the Imperial Marines." The blue-haired man somehow gave the impression of swaggering while bowing, but the grin on his face was more confidence than arrogance. He was easily as tall as Trinnard, but much leaner.

"And this is Sir Miabel Hakaisha, another former police officer." The woman who bowed was dark-skinned and almond-eyed, very muscular, and very reserved. Surprisingly, her smile was shy and modest, almost lost behind the curtain of black hair that swept her face.

"A pleasure to meet you all," Tenchi said. "You'll have to forgive me for not recognizing you. I am remiss at not making the effort to meet the newest members of the Order." Tenchi, too, was a recent inductee into the Order of the Flaming Sword — but he traveled in much higher circles than they did.

"The pleasure is ours, Sire," Sir Myminka replied. The others made similar comments.

"I trust Trinnard has described our situation to you?" Tenchi asked. He brushed the dirt from his hands and stepped out of his garden, gesturing towards a stone table and benches in nearby shade.

"I have, Sire. They all expressed an interest in helping."

"Very good. I won't sugarcoat the situation: Naja Akara is extremely dangerous, and you can be sure any assistants she has in her employ will be merciless thugs. There will be a great deal of risk. If anyone wishes to withdraw, no one will think any less of you."

Nobody moved.

"Then you have the gratitude of the Royal Family," Tenchi said. He sat, inviting the others to do likewise. Misaki and Mihoshi stood behind him. "The difficulty of this situation can be summed-up in one sentence: Naja wants my family dead, and has proven impossible to catch using standard methods. Our solution: we are going to lure her out of her present lair, and deal with her discreetly...since she would detect any movements by the armed services."

"How do you intend to do that?" Sir Myminka asked.

"I will explain the details over the next few days, since we are still resolving some last-minute issues. Of more pressing concern is getting you properly equipped. We can provide some of the supplies you will need — "

"Excuse me, Sire," Trinnard interrupted, "but the Order will provide us with everything we need."

"Oh?"

"The Order has never abandoned its Royalist position. According to my superior, there have been several instances in the past where the Crown has called upon us for support. It is considered a great honor, and the Order maintains discretionary funds for just such events. You need only tell us what our role will be, and we will do the rest."

"I see," Tenchi replied. "Well, it had been my intention to at least provide you with battle armor..."

"We will have the latest design available. The best that money can buy."

"Well, let me show you what I had in mind." The Emblem of Power flared into visibility, and the Wings appeared over Tenchi's head. He suppressed a smile at the amazed expressions on the knights' faces. He gestured, and the Wings fused, settling into a single door-sized object touching the ground. "Mihoshi, would you mind?"

Mihoshi giggled, stepping into and through the fluorescent construct. She seemed nonchalant as the glowing fog that clung to her limbs hardened into a glistening carapace.

All the knights stared open-mouthed.

"Lighthawk Armor," Tenchi explained.

"And very effective," Kiyone added. "I took two torso shots from K'vimm assault rifles at a range of three meters, and my Armor disbursed the energy completely. I can guarantee that nothing short of a tank can match it."

"Uh, no offense, Sire, but I have my instructions." Trinnard stared at Mihoshi's luminescent shell. "We must wear the Order's livery."

"It pains me to say this, Your Majesty, but I have to agree." Sir Jabray practically salivated as he watched Mihoshi's Armor flexing and adjusting silently. "If for no other reason, stealth would be impossible in armor that glows so brightly."

"A good point." Tenchi gestured and Mihoshi's Armor faded away. A moment later so did the Wings and his Emblem. "However, the offer remains. Just let me know if you change your minds."

##########

It had not been a happy week. Tenchi's wives were already edgy about his plans, and their mood deteriorated even more when he had announced that he was suspending his normal sleeping schedule. In practical terms, that meant he was no longer spending seven consecutive nights with each wife. Since it was the middle of Ayeka's week, he spent that night with her, the next night with Ryoko, the next with Mihoshi, and the last with Washu. This, his last night on Jurai, he reserved for Sasami.

She had made one of her fabulous dinners for them, and then announced that they were eating picnic-style. He had helped her carry dishes and bowls and platters and cups from the dining room to a veranda table. Over dinner they discussed her tutors, the public school he'd attended on Earth, and many other topics.

During the lull at the end of the meal, Tenchi sat admiring the young lady Sasami was becoming. She was taller now than the skinny 8-year-old that had first made his acquaintance. She was shedding the baby fat of pre-adolescence, becoming leaner and more poised as she matured. Her freckles had started to fade. Her azure ponytails were much longer now, and she had started braiding them in a manner similar to her sister. Her pink eyes had lost none of their sparkle, but were taking on a startling depth. The Emblem of Power on her forehead (so similar to his own) had begun to change, the adjacent triangles rounding and separating into two distinct circles.

She tapped her glass with a spoon to get his attention. "Wake up, Tenchi!"

"What? Oh, I'm sorry," he grinned. "I guess I was lost in my thoughts."

"They must have been pretty deep thoughts. Care to share them?"

"I'd probably embarrass you."

"Try me."

So he told her. Adding, "You've always been pretty; you'll be a very beautiful woman."

She studied her hands, blushing. "Do you really think so?"

"Absolutely," Tenchi replied.

"I'm glad. I often wondered how boys would see me."

Tenchi was silent a moment. "You know, if you feel the least bit restricted by this arrangement, we can have the betrothal bond dismissed. Then you'd be free to ask those boys yourself."

"No," Sasami said quietly. "I've been dreaming about you since the day we first met. I've seen into your heart as well as your mind, Tenchi. I probably know more about you than you do yourself. I could never be happy with anyone else."

"Thank you."

Sasami squirmed silently, seeking a different topic of conversation. Her eyebrows popped when an idea came to her. "Did I tell you that my Power attributes are starting to manifest?"

"No, you didn't. Can you show me?"

She leaned back in her chair, brow furrowing in concentration. Her Emblem began to glow, and several of the smaller bowls on the table rattled before rising into the air. Over the next few minutes, nearly every platter and dish drifted skyward, hanging above the tabletop like tethered balloons. After a long pause, the process reversed itself.

Tenchi applauded. "That's terrific, Sasami! How long have you been able to do that?"

"I just noticed it in the last couple of weeks. Ayeka has her shield, and it looks like I'll be a telekinetic."

"That's very impressive. I'll bet you'll even be able to fly like Ryoko, eventually."

"Oh, I hope so. I can't wait until I'm grown up."

"Don't wish your life away, Sasami. You have an awful lot to learn."

"I already know more than you realize," she giggled. "I read all of your father's manga — including the hentai stuff. And I listen to Ayeka and the others talking when they think I can't hear them. And Mother has continued my lessons since we returned; I'm almost as good with the whip now as Ayeka!"

It was Tenchi's turn to blush.

"I'll be 18 in five years, Tenchi. And on my 18th Birthday I'll start planning our wedding."

"I'm looking forward to it."

"Really?"

"Yes, 'really'. The day I proposed I said I'd wait for you; and I've seen no reason to change my mind."

"I'm glad."

They were silent for a while, each lost in their own thoughts (his on the immediate future, hers on the distant future).

"You spoke of dreams. Have you had any precognitive ones about Naja Akara?"

"A few. There is danger, of course. But I keep seeing Naja as a very lonely, bitter person. I feel sorry for her."

"Neither Washu nor Ryoko will say much about her. We may never know what she's really like."

Sasami nodded.

Tenchi checked his chronometer. "Well, that was a wonderful dinner."

"Thank you. What will you do now?"

"I have some final preparations to make, and then I'll sneak off to bed."

Sasami grinned. "I heard the others talking: I think they're planning on surprising you — if they can find you, that is."

"Which is exactly why I didn't tell them where I'm sleeping!"

Sasami paused, a far-away look on her face. "Tsunami just entered orbit."

"Yes, I know. I felt her, too,"

Sasami's face broke into a big grin. "You're sleeping aboard her tonight, aren't you?"

Tenchi's lopsided smile and nod answered her question. "Promise me you won't tell the others?"

"I promise," she giggled.

##########

The Imperial Palace of Jurai was a grand estate that covered a large island in a fresh-water lake. Its natural isolation was further enhanced by many layers of trees and terraces, and its natural security was further enhanced by many layers of discreet and not-so-discreet defensive systems. Within this campus was a collection of cottages, garages, barracks, office buildings, and various support services, generally confined to the island's perimeter. The actual residence used by the Royal Family dominated the center of the island, surrounded by gardens and lawns for maximum privacy.

The island was connected to the capitol city by an ancient causeway, destroyed and rebuilt many times over the millennia, over which ground and air transport were funneled. At the opposite end of the island was the modest spaceport reserved for special dignitaries and guests, strategically located as far from prying eyes (and camera lenses) as was possible.

Tenchi stood on the spaceport tarmac, feeling the wind from the lake ruffling through his shoulder-length hair. Two vessels hovered silently above him, blotting-out the morning sunshine like artificial clouds. Both ships were alive and sentient, and both waited for his commands.

Tsunami was ancient, by anyone's measure. Her vast buttresses and branches, corrugated like tree bark, swept from the trunk in loops and spirals that anchored the command module firmly to her skin. Although conceived in the soils of a planetary crust, she had not touched solid ground since before the first Egyptians charted the night skies of Earth. Tsunami's mind was so vast and curious that she seldom remained in one place very long — but was somehow always around when needed by the Royal Family. Like now.

Ryo-ohki was younger by many thousands of years, and much smaller in size. Her appearance was angular and crystalline, as compared to the graceful tree-ship. Normally, the little cabbit that was so much a part of the Royal Family was a cute-though-unprepossessing figure of small proportions. This belied her true size and form, which resided in psuedospace, much the same way that an iceberg's bulk was buried deep beneath the surface of the ocean. She revealed her hidden dimensions only when needed. Like now.

Tenchi turned to face his family. His wives and children stood shoulder-to-shoulder, the wind tussling their hair in unison, flanked by the Queen Mothers. Behind them stood Kiyone, Sir Trinnard, and his five comrades. And behind them stood a small security detachment, ordered on-site by Funaho; protocol (and common sense) would be observed. "Are you ready, then?" There were reluctant nods.

"Ryo-ohki is ready to take us up to meet Yukinojo," Ryoko replied, gesturing to include Mihoshi and Kiyone.

Tenchi nodded. "And you, Trinnard?"

"We are at your disposal, Sire." Each figure from the Order stood at ease in a splinter-pattern battlesuit, the Emblem of the Order stitched on the left breast. On the ground beside each lay a rucksack containing assault armor, plasma weapons, and toolkits of various sizes.

Tenchi nodded again. He was not eager to leave, but he was also reluctant to drag this out any longer than necessary. Sooner gone, sooner home. He approached his wives, reaching for the closest. Ayeka was holding Azusa, and he was sandwiched between his parents during their silent embrace. "Be careful, Beloved," she whispered.

Washu, too, supported their daughter. Achika threw her arms around her daddy's neck, squeezing tightly. Washu's embrace was just as expressive. "Come home in one piece," she admonished, and then withdrew.

Mihoshi did not blubber, as everyone expected, but she sniffled loudly and clung to him tightly. "I know, I'll see you in a few days. But I still wish we weren't going."

Ryoko planted a long kiss on his lips, and held him without speaking. Then she walked away, dragging Mihoshi and Kiyone with her. Without a backwards glance, the three vanished in Ryo-ohki's teleport beam.

Sasami locked him in a bear hug, demonstrating the great physical strength she had inherited from her mother. "You'd better eat right and get plenty of sleep!" she warned him.

He exchanged bows with the Queen Mothers, and assurances that they would look after things while he was gone.

With his face an expressionless mask, he joined the waiting knights. He signaled Tsunami, and she teleported them off the tarmac.

Both ships turned and climbed into the Juraian sky, dwindling to specks in seconds. And then they were gone.

##########

Washu tracked her family's outbound progress on her instruments...or attempted to anyway.

There were literally hundreds of ships in orbit around Jurai and her moons at any given time. Commercial freighters and space liners, cargo tramps, military ships of all rankings. There were repair facilities around the outer moon, docking and transport operations around the inner moon, several orbiting naval facilities — and then, of course, there was the Corral (the gathering place of the Royal Space Trees) in one of the Lagrangian points.

Washu had tapped into the Juraian space traffic control computers, and thus her monitors repeated what the JSTC saw. Not that it helped much: Ryo-ohki had maneuvered next to Yukinojo and vanished, no doubt because the former had transferred her passengers to the latter, and then joined them. As for Tsunami: she had made a dignified entrance into the Corral and then disappeared completely, no doubt because she had raised her cloak and slipped back into interplanetary space.

Washu watched Yukinojo climb out of Homeworld's gravity well and change course after a few million kilometers. The GP cruiser was leaving the jurisdiction of the main JSTC zone, and was being routed to the proper skyharbor. The skyharbors were a series of massive space stations orbiting at regular intervals around the imaginary sphere that marked the optimum jump point into psuedospace. Their primary business was providing warehousing facilities for transferring cargo between the deep space tramps and the smaller in-system shuttles. Many skyharbors had been damaged during the K'vimm Incursion of the previous year, and were being rebuilt, forcing the others to absorb the excess traffic volume. Hundreds of starships could be seen phasing in and out of realspace in this border region, and thousands more clustered around the skyharbors in transitory constellations. Yukinojo was being routed to one of the solar polar installations, which was smaller, not so congested, and physically closest to the destination logged with the JSTC. In due course, the GP cruiser passed close to the space station and executed the jump to psuedospace, vanishing from the monitors.

Washu stood and stretched wearily, oddly depressed. Then she went to check on Achika in her playpen, and discovered that her daughter had fallen asleep clutching her favorite teddy bear. Washu's gentle smile turned wry when she realized that she herself had been holding and stroking a certain stuffed toy guinea pig, and couldn't remember when she had retrieved it. "Like mother, like daughter, I guess..."

ACT 4

Take the children and yourselfAnd hide out in the cellarBy now the fighting will be close at handDon't believe the Church and StateAnd everything they tell youBelieve in me, I'm with the High Command

Can you hear me, can you hear me running?Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?Can you hear me, can you hear me running?Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?

There's a gun and ammunitionJust inside the doorwayUse it only in emergencyBetter you should pray to GodThe Father and the SpiritWill guide you and protect from up here

Can you hear me, can you hear me running?Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?Can you hear me, can you hear me running?Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?

Swear allegiance to the flagWhatever flag they offerNever hint at what you really feelTeach the children quietlyFor some day sons and daughtersWill rise up and fight while we stood still

Can you hear me, can you hear me running?Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?Can you hear me, can you hear me running?Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?Can you hear me, can you hear me running?Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?Can you hear me, can you hear me running?Can you hear me running, can you hear me calling you?Calling you, calling you

Title — "Silent Running (On Dangerous Ground)"Artist — Mike & The MechanicsWritten by — Mike Rutherford & B.A. Robertson

The utility van hovered over the roof of the office building, ignoring the obvious landing pad. It drifted in a rambling pattern before locating the air-conditioning ducts and exhaust fans. The side panel opened and manipulator arms lowered a large crate to the rooftop. Then the van floated over the to the landing pad and settled with an unceremonious thump.

The woman who climbed out of the van was short and stocky, dressed in coveralls, and carried a toolbox and a crowbar. She waddled across the roof until she located the crate. She leveraged the top off the crate with her crowbar, and then began dismantling the sides. She didn't cease her efforts until the crate had been unfolded like a flower.

There were two box-shaped mechanisms inside, wrapped in shipping foam and restraining straps. More time was spent freeing the mechanisms and lifting them clear of the crate debris. Using the toolkit, she opened a panel on each box and entered a series of commands on the keyboards within. Satisfied, she reattached the panels and gathered all of the refuse, hauling it back to the van. She climbed into the van and directed it skyward, where it merged into one of the many traffic streams.

On the rooftop, the two boxes slowly hovered to a height of one meter. They rotated in place, scanning the horizon until they located the gap in the surrounding skyscrapers. They drifted to the edge of the roof, observing the ornate causeway visible many stories beneath them yet only a few blocks away. The causeway arched away from the shore to a distant island, where buildings and trees could be seen flanking the ancient bridge.

The twin mechanisms settled back onto the rooftop. Nightfall was only a few hours away.

##########

Ayeka tucked Azusa into his floating highchair, and tied a bib around his neck. He gurgled happily, eliciting grins from Sasami, Misaki, and Funaho. His tiny fists banged on the tray top with a staccato rhythm.

"I think he's hungry, Sister," Sasami said.

"I know he's hungry," Ayeka smiled. She settled into the chair beside him, reaching for the bowl and spoon placed just out of his reach.

"Since we're on the subject of food, what should we do about dinner?" Misaki asked. Sasami had announced that she was not in the mood to cook anything. "Should we roust the chef? Or just drop by the cafeteria over at the service center."

"I say we visit the cafeteria," Funaho replied. "Quick and simple."

"That gets my vote," Ayeka agreed. She wasn't really hungry, and with Tenchi absent she (like Sasami) simply wasn't in the mood to hang around the common room.

"Mine, too," Sasami said.

Misaki nodded. "Then it's unanimous. I'll summon a transport."

"I'll go tell Washu," Sasami volunteered.

##########

The two boxes on the rooftop stirred, hovering once more. Their sensors were filtered enough to ignore the bright lights from the city streets and random offices from the surrounding towers. They concentrated on the far horizon, observing the silhouettes barely visible on the island. Traffic was restricted to the brightly-lit corridor of the causeway, and it wasn't all that heavy anyway.

The Alpha unit was the designated leader, and calculated the necessary coordinates. A dimensional doorway coalesced in the air just beyond the roof, and the box-shaped mechanism floated through it. The Beta unit followed a moment later, and the doorway dissolved.

Both mechanisms now hovered in the lower branches of a large tree. There was a series of cracking sounds as tree limbs tumbled to the ground, severed from the trunk by the sudden appearance of the doorway. Moments passed, and no response to the noise appeared. Both units began rotating, sensors absorbing and recording. The sky behind them blazed with the lights of the capitol city, and darkness extended in the opposite direction, broken here-and-there by streetlights and building facades. The largest of these, and the farthest away, was the Residence — which both units recognized from their mission profile.

Alpha Unit floated downward until its bottom surface touched the grass. There was a barely-audible rustling as the unit changed its shape, morphing into a two-meter-wide saucer no more than a few centimeters thick. Energy fields activated, and holographic grass blades appeared on its upper surfaces. Its thermal and magnetic signatures were now fully masked, and in the dark it would pass any casual inspection. It began slowly drifting toward the Residence at a pace calculated to fool the motion sensors scattered liberally between the buildings.

Beta Unit settled to the grass, repeating the camouflage process. It chose a different path toward the Residence, creeping forward cautiously.

It was only early evening, and with the usual bustle and activity of the palace grounds, the odds were in their favor of avoiding discovery.

##########=

Alpha Unit was sheltered in the shadows of the main portico when the aircar settled to the pavement. From where it hid, it could see the brightly-lit main steps. It watched as five human females disembarked from the car and started up the steps. A quick perusal of the mission profile identified all five figures — and both infants — as primary targets. The audio pick-ups confirmed the identification. The robot considered whether to rush the stairs and attempt to liquidate them all simultaneously, or try to isolate and destroy them separately within the confines of the building. After computing the odds, it decided to enter the building and stalk its prey there.

But first, how to get into the Residence?

Alpha Unit was still ruminating when it saw the maintenance 'bot drift past all the security checks and float up the steps and through the door.

##########

Like many of the corridors within the palace, those in the north wing were lined with plush carpets and ornate woodwork. Antique mirrors and hand-painted portraits were interspersed with mounted suits of medieval armor. The windows were framed in elaborate draperies, and many of the lamps were framed in stained glass. Thus, the corridors were composed of warm earth tones highlighted by spots of colored light.

The women of the Royal Family cast soft shadows as they approached the common room entrance.

"The cafeteria is a convenience," Funaho said, as she walked beside Sasami. "No one promised haute cuisine."

"I wasn't complaining, Funaho," Sasami replied. "I just said that they could have done a better job with the spice mixture. That's all."

"Ah. Then perhaps you should consider how you phrase a statement, as well as the intent."

"Now you're beginning to sound like one of my tutors."

"Thank you. I'm sure that was intended as a compliment." What might have been an exchange of irritants was quickly defused by an exchange of smiles. They entered the door to the common room.

Washu followed, carrying a chattering Achika.

Ayeka started to enter the door when Misaki stopped. "Is something wrong, Mother?"

"No," Misaki replied, "I was just thinking about tomorrow's itinerary, and wondered if I should retrieve the schedule from my office."

"Really, Mother, it can wait until tomorrow. Come on in and have some tea."

Azusa was snoring on his mothers shoulder, though he stirred when she paused at the door. She massaged his back gently, encouraging him to go back to sleep, when she saw the movement out of the corner of her eye. A moment later the maintenance 'bot drifted down the hallway and into full view, approaching slowly. Misaki saw it and dismissed it as just another automated servant. Ayeka, on the other hand, stared at it, a feeling of unease raising the hairs on the back of her neck.

And then she remembered why.

She suddenly stepped forward and shoved her mother to the side, while a ring of miniature logs appeared in the air around her, raising her force field with feverish speed. The robot responded by opening a panel on its side and extending the muzzle of a blaster. Energy beams lanced down the hallway, splintering against Ayeka's violet-tinged shield.

Ayeka snarled, anger at the attack overcoming the fear for her child. Her shield rippled and a long violet spike leaped toward the mechanical intruder. The robot dodged the threat and continued firing its gun. This dance continued for several moments, as violet spikes and scarlet plasma beams crisscrossed the hallway.

After several exchanges, Alpha Unit calculated that the counterattack had peaked, and that the targets would be vulnerable to a simple physical assault. Accordingly, its outer casing reshaped itself into a small saucer with two stout appendages. These latter terminated it multifaceted mallets. Still firing its blaster, the assassin flew towards Ayeka and Azusa.

The robot impacted Ayeka's shield and sent her stumbling backwards, struggling to keep her force field stable while regaining her footing. Alpha Unit closed on her, its arms alternately striking the violet barrier with a tremendous drumming. Ayeka knew that she could not maintain the shield much longer, and she clutched her son protectively to her chest. Shaken from a sound sleep, and sensing his mothers distress, the baby began crying in earnest.

That's when Misaki appeared behind the robot with a battleaxe in her hands, snatched from one of the mounted displays. Misaki's greatest weapon was her incredible physical strength, which she now employed with adrenalin-fed fury. The battleaxe pierced Alpha Unit's undefended back plate with such force that the robot bounced off the floor. Alpha Unit spun to meet the new attack, only to have one of its arms severed by the ballistic arc of the razor-sharp wedge. Being silicon-based, and capable of computing far faster than a mere carbon-based life form, the robot reevaluated its present circumstances and considered its options. It decided that the best course of action would be to retreat out of range of the anachronistic attack and use the blaster.

Accordingly, Alpha Unit drifted backwards just fast enough to avoid Misaki's next swing. It rotated its body to bring the muzzle of the blaster to bear directly onto the chest of the charging human — but the sudden violet spike that punched down the barrel disabled the weapon's fragile internal components. The second violet spike pinioned the remaining arm, which slewed erratically to the side. The third violet spike shattered the lens of the primary sensor, and crumpled the plate it was attached to. Alpha Unit reacted by dropping the useless appendage, withdrawing the blaster back into its housing, and switching to its secondary sensor array. The robot analyzed the damage to its outer casing, the loss of two of its available tools, and the horrendous loss of tactical surprise, and opted for retreat.

Ayeka's force field clamped onto the robot and dragged it backwards, restraining it for the few critical seconds necessary for Misaki to get in range. She slammed Alpha Unit into the floor again, ripping another huge gash in its armored skin. The robot convulsed, its internal supports and critical circuitry fatally damaged. Sensing victory, Misaki repeatedly chopped the battleaxe into the robot with savage force. Sparks flew off the metal casing, smoke started to ripple out of the sharp-edged tears, and fluids began spraying in random directions.

Misaki kept hacking until the robot separated into four massive chunks.

By then the sounds of combat and infant terror had roused the rest of the family, and Sasami charged into the hallway with Washu and Funaho on her heels. They all stopped and stared open-mouthed; at Ayeka as she calmed and cuddled her son, at Misaki who shouldered the battleaxe like a Valkyrie, and at the quivering remains of Naja Akara's assassin.

"I'll summon security," Funaho said.

"No one, no...thing, threatens my grandson and survives," Misaki whispered, panting. She turned to face her daughter. "Ayeka, how did you know what that was?"

"Since we moved into the Palace, Tenchi has made and enforced only one rule. Even Ryoko follows it, though she complains constantly about it."

"What rule is that?"

"No mechanical servants are allowed in this wing. We do all our own cooking and cleaning, to build character and to honor our traditions. Every robot on the island has been programmed to avoid this section of the building." She kissed her whimpering son, and rocked him gently. "I will never — ever — question your daddy's decisions again," she whispered.

##########

Beta Unit lost contact with its partner, and assumed the worst: the targets had penetrated their shape-shifting and camouflage capabilities, and had recognized them for what they were. Accordingly, the robot dispensed with the mandate for stealth. Its outer casing began to shift, bringing all of its weapons on-line and reconfiguring for maximum combat potential.

Beta Unit was still unsure which wing of the Residence the targets would be found in. However, the robot noticed the sudden increase in activity by armed security personnel, and was reasonably certain that the guards would have been summoned to their location.

With emotionless resolve, the cyberkiller surged through the darkness.

##########

"Harpo, Chico, Groucho, Zeppo, get up here!" Washu stood at the portal to her lab, and summoned her servants. She stepped back as four streamlined predators flew into the common room. Each dart-shaped mechanism had a human caricature stenciled to its upper surface. With an imperious gesture, she turned and strode into the corridor, her cat-sized servants floating faithfully behind her.

She pointed to the cooling wreckage of Alpha Unit. "Scan and acquire all signatures!"

The four silver robots formed a nose-in circle around the debris, sensors humming. After a few minutes they reformed their circle around Washu.

"Harpo, search every room in this wing of the building, employ a spiral pattern. Chico, get to the roof and initiate a building-wide search, same pattern. Groucho, circle the building, pay particular attention to the walls and windows. Zeppo, follow this thing's trail back to the point of origin." The first three robots scattered, phasing through the walls like shadows — or Ryoko. The last robot began working its way up the corridor in a methodical weaving pattern. Washu turned to the others and suggested that they go have some hot tea.

"What clue do your hunters look for?" Funaho asked.

"I figured Naja would employ some kind of cloaking technology, which generally suppresses or masks EM output. So I programmed my little assistants to concentrate on any olfactory signature."

"And that means...?" Misaki asked.

"They hunt by smell! Oh, don't look so doubtful; everything gives off a chemical signature, however faint it might be. That piece of scrap, "Washu gestured towards the remains of Alpha Unit, "reeks of lubricants and other compounds. My robots have noses so sensitive they'd make a bloodhound jealous." She led the group into the common room. "If there are any more of Naja's killers nearby, my cyberferrets will find them."

##########

Beta Unit had reconfigured itself into a squat cone, its blaster occupying the apex, its base hovering mere centimeters above the dirt. It had deployed its own arms at opposite sides of its body, and its primary and secondary sensor clusters occupied armored revetments between the arms. It compromised all-around visibility for optimum weapons placement, and by settling so close to the ground reduced the vulnerability of its sensitive gravitics plates.

The funnel-shaped mini-tank moved toward the veranda, leaving a wake of flattened grass behind it.

##########

Washu was just about to sip tea from her cup when the explosion blew out the dining room windows. She reflexively threw herself over her daughter, shielding her from any possible shards. The other members of the family made similar gestures, ducking under the table or dropping prone to the floor. Moments later the security sirens sounded.

Washu gathered Achika in one hand, produced a small comm unit in the other and dashed through the doors onto the veranda. She was joined immediately by her family. Before they could ask, she pointed into the darkness. "Groucho found another one!"

Illuminated by the blocks of light cast through the windows, and the faint glow of security lights from the roof, they could just discern Naja's second robot assassin. It was only a few meters away from the railing, and had obviously been making its approach when Washu's cyberferret detected it. The silver arrow was orbiting the mechanism at high speed, dodging the scarlet plasma beams hurled at it.

"Harpo, Chico, Zeppo — intruder detected. Rendezvous with Groucho and commence defensive action!" Almost before the words had left Washu's mouth three silver blurs burst from the Palace wall and homed-in on Beta Unit. Muzzles protruded from their sleek noses as their spinal-mounted blasters came on-line, and three beams of green plasma lit the night.

Beta Unit slipped to the side, evading the volley, and countered with its own weapon. The four cyberferrets scattered, circling the assassin in widely varying arcs. At random intervals, each hunter performed an abrupt twist in midair, changing direction and speed to confuse the assassin's targeting computer. Greenish fire bracketed the cone, scoring its metal skin or scorching the grass in blackened streaks.

"Convergent fire on the intruder's sensor clusters!" Washu directed.

Her hunters complied, their erratic orbits dropping to near-horizontal circuits. Restricted to a smaller airspace, they began looping together in tight spirals, all the time snapping calculated bursts at Beta Unit's sheltered sets of lenses and antennae. Naja's robot refused to be intimidated, evading with random lateral shifts. Its own blaster spun about the apex like a high-speed searchlight, spraying scarlet plasma at the silicon predators.

Neither side was gaining any advantage. Beta Unit recalculated its options, whether to dash for the targets so clearly visible on the veranda, or withdraw and return later with increased ambush possibilities. The probabilities favored the second option.

"Look!" Ayeka yelled, pointing at the portal coalescing near the assassin. "It's escaping!"

"Oh no you don't!" Sasami snarled. Her arms extended directly toward Beta Unit, fingers rigid. The Emblem on her forehead flared with azure brilliance, and her hands rotated into a palm-up posture. In response, the closest edge of the robot's base wobbled into the air. It hung suspended, skewed and vulnerable, shaking frantically with its efforts to reach the doorway.

"Convergent fire on the lifter plates!" Washu instructed.

The formation abandoned its defensive weave, all four predators racing beneath the upended cone. They strafed the delicate electronics tucked into the assassin's belly, and were rewarded with a gout of flame and a shower of debris.

Sasami swooned; her Emblem extinguished, her eyelids fluttering, and her knees buckled as the collapsed under the strain. Misaki caught her before she hit the flagstones.

Beta Unit tumbled onto its damaged base with a loud thump. And whether by luck or calculation, one of its arms managed to strike a passing hunter. Harpo tumbled through the air, leaving a trail of smoke. Though immobilized, Naja's assassin continued to spray the dodging cyberferrets with scarlet plasma.

"Harpo, execute vertical kamikaze maneuver," Washu said quietly into her comm unit. "Ayeka? I think you better raise a shield around us."

Ayeka was kneeling next to her mother and sister, still clutching Azusa. She stood, her face a determined mask, and erected the violet barrier around her family.

Harpo plunged out of the darkness, straight onto Beta Unit.

Naja's armored killer might have been able to withstand the impact, but not the effects of the hunter's exploding power cell. The apex-mounted blaster disintegrated, and the adjacent sloping sides twisted like crumpled tissue paper. The fireball spewed debris in all directions — including downward into the ruptured body. Beta Unit's own power cell detonated, blowing the robot's arms off with fountains of flame, cracking and warping the entire cone like a collapsing volcano. High-velocity fragments impacted Ayeka's shield with lethal force, ricocheting in all directions. The walls and flagstones absorbed hundreds of metal missiles, and the grass around the dying robot was instantly incinerated. Chico, Groucho, and Zeppo dived downward, phasing safely into the ground.

It was several moments before the Royal Family could see and hear again. Washu's cyberferrets had returned to circling the shattered remains of Beta Unit. The veranda was rapidly filling with armed and armored security personnel, directed by Funaho. Achika and Azusa were both crying lustily, and Sasami was sitting upright and massaging her temple.

"Groucho and Zeppo, return to your search patterns. Chico, scan and acquire this machine's signatures and trace its trail back to the point of origin." She looked upwards into the night sky while rocking her daughter. "Be very careful, My Love."

ACT 5

Title — "If I Only Had A Brain"

I could while away the hours, conferrin' with the flowersConsultin' with the rain.And my head I'd be scratchin' whilemy thoughts were busy hatchin'If I only had a brain.I'd unravel every riddle for any individ'le,In trouble or in pain.With the thoughts you'll be thinkin'you could be another LincolnIf you only had a brain.Oh, I could tell you why The ocean's near the shore.I could think of things I never thunk before.And then I'd sit, and think some more.I would not be just a nothin' my head all full of stuffin'My heart all full of pain.I would dance and be merry, life would be a ding-a-derry,If I only had a brain.

Title — "If I Only Had A Heart"

When a man's an empty kettle he should be upon his mettle,And yet I'm torn apart.Just because I'm presumin' that I could be kind-a-human,If I only had heart.I'd be tender — I'd be gentle and awful sentimentalRegarding Love and Art.I'd be friends with the sparrows ...and the boys who shoots the arrowsIf I only had a heart.Picture me — a balcony. Above a voice sings low.Wherefore art thou, Romeo? I hear a beat...How sweet.Just to register emotion, jealousy — devotion,And really feel the part.I could stay young and chipperand I'd lock it with a zipper,If I only had a heart.

Title — "If I Only Had The Nerve"

Yeh, it's sad, believe me, Missy,When you're born to be a sissyWithout the vim and verve.But I could show my prowess, be a lion not a mou-essIf I only had the nerve.I'm afraid there's no denyin' I'm just a dandelion,A fate I don't deserve.I'd be brave as a blizzard...I'd be gentle as a lizard...I'd be clever as a gizzard...If the Wizard is a Wizard who will serve.

Then I'm sure to get a brain,...a heart,...the nerve!

Music by — Harold Arlen (b. Hyman Arluck)Lyrics by — E. Yip Harburg (Edgar Yipsel H.)From the Film — The Wizard Of Oz, 1939

The Galaxy Police cruiser Yukinojo was originally designed with two cabins aboard. For most of its short operational life, Mihoshi had occupied one of them while the other went empty. After her marriage and assignment to Funaho's security staff, Ryoko had moved into the other cabin on a semi-permanent basis. When Kiyone was brought into the mix, the ship's artificial intelligence had used its maintenance 'bots to reconfigure the bulkheads into three small cabins. They weren't much bigger than walk-in closets, but they would suffice for short-duration flights. Consequently, the ship's passengers preferred to spend the majority of their time in the larger galley, as it reduced the claustrophobia to tolerable levels.

"I don't want to do this anymore," Ryoko said. She was sitting in a galley seat, tipping her chair backwards against the bulkhead, her feet propped onto the table that served for conferences, meals, and the occasional jigsaw puzzle. Her ankles were crossed right in the middle of the holographic projection from Kiyone's blueprints. Ryo-ohki was curled into a ball on her lap, eyes droopy with impending sleep.

Kiyone might have been irritated, except she shared Ryoko's dissatisfaction. She sighed and mirrored Ryoko's posture, blotting-out a phantom building with her heels. She had joined the Ryoko/Mihoshi team nearly a year earlier, and when they had discovered her aptitude for tactical planning and flair for organization, they had turned all of the mission planning chores over to her. Of course, information is power; Kiyone soon became the defacto leader of the group. "Where's the sake?"

Mihoshi was kneeling on the deck, head buried in one of the galley's many cupboards. "I found it!" she called, her voice muffled by the enclosure. She extracted the bottle, stood upright, and pulled three mugs from another cupboard. She retrieved a carrot from the preservator, which she set in front of Ryo-ohki's twitching nose. Then she sat in the remaining seat, dropped the mugs into the spectral model, and filled one for herself. She nudged the bottle towards Kiyone, leaned her own seat backwards, planted her feet on the blueprints, and sipped at the imported Terran beverage.

Kiyone filled the remaining mugs, passed one to Ryoko, and took a long pull on the other.

Mihoshi stared into space, pupils glazed. She had been teased about that look for years, but her companions had long-since learned that empty eyes did not reflect an empty mind. She was stewing about something. "Yukinojo?"

"Yes, Mihoshi?" the ship's AI responded immediately, if not very enthusiastically. "Did you need something?"

"How long have we been in psuedospace?"

"Two hours, eighteen minutes."

"Are there any other vessels within range?"

"No, Mihoshi. Our last contact was an in-bound cargo vessel. We are the sole occupants of this route."

"What's our ETA at the Kuramis Naval Base?"

"Six days, nine hours."

"Good. I ought to be sober by then."

"You, too?" Ryoko asked.

Mihoshi nodded. "These missions were fun for a while, especially after Kiyone joined us. But not any more. Now they're just tedious."

"They call it work for a reason, Mihoshi," Kiyone said dryly. "But I have to agree, the spark has gone out of the whole routine. I think it's time to pass the chore onto someone else."

"Then what's with the schematics?" Ryoko asked, indicating the Lilliputian images shimmering around their feet.

"Just in case Naja refuses the bait, and we have to go through another security evaluation."

"That's what I like about you, Kiyone: always working the angles." Ryoko raised her mug in salute. "You'd have made a hell of a pirate."

"Speaking of angles," Kiyone replied, "here's a question for you Royals: Who do you think inherits the throne after Tenchi? Achika is the first-born child, but Washu is his second wife; while you — " pointing at Ryoko, " — married him first, your child will be the third- or fourth-born. So, who claims the throne?"

"Now that sounds like a question for Ayeka. She tried to explain this whole Line of Succession thing to me once. It used to be that the heir was determined the same way that everything else among Power adepts is decided — by confrontation."

"The Great Game," Kiyone said, sipping her sake.

"Yep. The strongest ruled. Anyway, her father dropped a big turd in the honey by marrying Misaki and refusing to divorce Funaho (something about a constitutional challenge from his barons). The whole matter went to the courts. Yosho was the oldest, and had the law on his side; Ayeka had popular sentiment on her side, and could have used the ancient tradition to issue a Challenge. Yosho didn't want to hurt his sister, and really didn't want the throne anyway. So when the chance to avoid the whole problem presented itself (namely me), he took advantage of it. Then Tenchi came along and the whole argument became moot — he's the strongest and the best legal fit." "So what is Tenchi likely to do, let the courts decide who inherits, revive the old tradition, or just trash both methods and pick his own successor?"

"Beats me. What do you think, Mihoshi?"

"How the hell should I know?" Mihoshi snapped.

Kiyone and Ryoko stared at her over their raised mugs, wide-eyed.

"I'm sorry, Ryoko," Mihoshi said quietly. "I'm a little jumpy, I guess. I think Tenchi will let the law stand, personally. He's more evolutionary than revolutionary by nature." She studied their shocked faces. "What's the matter, didn't you think I knew big words like that? Gods, I'm tired of being away from Tenchi so much, I'm tired of being the GP's poster child, and I'm sick and tired of being typecast as a bubblehead. I'm empathic, not retarded. I've been putting up with this crap since high school. I worked hard to get through college, and even harder to make it through the Academy. I ignored the rumors about sleeping with my instructors, the supposed payoffs to the administration by my grandfather, and the endless snide comments about my lack of coordination. I'm a klutz, I admit it — but I am not stupid."

She chugged half the sake in her mug, leaving a wet mustache that she wiped off with the back of her hand. Her partners didn't move a muscle.

"I used to wait for Tenchi at the bus stop after school, and we'd talk about all sorts of things. We would compare Earth and Seniwa, and I'd tell him stories about my duty assignments. He suggested that I keep a journal, and I liked the idea so much that I've kept one ever since. I like to write, you know. I had poetry and short stories published in college, and I've even gotten official recognition for my duty reports." She looked up from her drink to the incredulous eyes watching her. "I know, real impressive. But I always figured that with my service record, every little bit helps." She sighed, sloshing the alcohol around in her mug. She was getting flushed, and strands of her hair were starting to fall across her eyes. "I like to write. I'm good at it. And I figure I have enough interesting details stashed away in my journal to write a fair-sized novel."

"So why don't you?" Kiyone asked, finally finding her voice.

"Who has time?" she replied morosely.

"If it was important enough, you'd make the time."

"Yeah, right. I also want a family; I want a little blond-headed princess to cuddle and care for, to love me like her daddy, whether I'm a klutz or not. I can't do either chained to an assignment roster."

"You didn't have to come along on this trip," Ryoko said.

"Yes I did. Yukinojo compiled the stats on this Naja Akara for me, and she is pure trouble. She threatened my family; she has to be stopped. And the only way I'll be completely sure my family is safe is if I'm there to witness it."

"And then what?"

Mihoshi grinned, chin held high. "Then I'm getting knocked up by the Emperor of Jurai, taking a sabbatical from the GP, and starting work on that novel."

Ryoko raised her mug in salute. "You go, girl!"

Kiyone mirrored the gesture. She gulped her sake, savoring the burn — and the growing fuzziness around her vision. "You weren't the only one with a reputation at the GP, Mihoshi. I had one, too. I earned it during my Academy days."

"Really? What kind of reputation could you have gotten?"

"I was a machine. Heartless, relentless, and ambitious. (Heh, sounds like a law firm, doesn't it?) Nothing mattered more than my career, and the only way to get ahead was to be the best of the best. Nose to the grindstone, volunteer for everything, be the first on-shift and the last off-post. Who needs a personal life? Just a major distraction and a waste of time!"

Ryoko refilled their mugs, somehow avoiding spilling any of the bottle's contents onto Kiyone's schematics.

"But, the Academy never addressed the quality of life issue. The course on ethics focused on integrating into alien cultures, not how to abandon your own culture. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the drop-out rate in the first five years is nearly 30%. It isn't the pressure, you know...it's the isolation."

"I know," Mihoshi said.

"I can relate," Ryoko added.

"It's so easy to lose your humanity when you're alone so much. I was MIA for three years...and no one noticed. I was just another statistic." She hiccupped during the last word. "That was a real eye-opener, you know? I never thought much about starting a family, but it's another thing entirely to have the choice taken away from you."

"Or never have the choice at all," Ryoko whispered.

"So when I quit the GP, I decided to open up a little. To explore those social options that I had shelved years earlier. And then I met Trinnard. It's been a pretty wild ride since, I will say that."

"Have you two talked about marriage?"

"He has. I skate around the issue. I don't want to be tied down just yet."

"How long will he keep talking, before he starts walking?"

"Huh?"

"No one waits forever, Kiyone. People change...people leave. Is Trinnard worth keeping?"

Kiyone shrugged. "We're compatible."

"Compatible!" Mihoshi snorted. "You and I were compatible. Does he get your heart racing? Do you dread being away from him? Do you love him?"

"I don't know," Kiyone answered honestly.

"And people say I'm dumb. Listen to your heart, Kiyone. While you still have the chance."

"Sounds like you're avoiding the 'C' word," Ryoko said.

"What 'C' word?"

"'Commitment.'"

"Oh. For a moment there, I thought you were going to say 'Courage.'"

"No, you've never lacked for courage."

Kiyone was silent a moment, framing her reply. "But what about your courage, Ryoko? You've been awful reluctant these last couple of missions. Very hesitant. Are you losing your nerve?"

"Maybe," Ryoko answered softly, syllables starting to slur from the sake. "You know, there was a time when I would have gone hunting for Naja just for the chance to spit in her face. I didn't care about odds or assessments; as long as I got to kick some ass, I was happy. And when my number was finally up, then I'd take as many with me as I could. But last year, when the K'vimm raided Earth and tried to steal Yosho's Royal Tree...somethin' changed."

"What changed?"

"Me and Ryo-ohki, here," Ryoko gently stroked the cabbit's head, eliciting a subtle purr, "chased their ship out past Mars, and we nearly caught it, too. Then Tenchi mind-linked with me, and warned me we were heading into an ambush. We beat cheeks out of the area pronto, but they sent a couple of big ships after us. We couldn't out-run them, and we couldn't out-gun them, and we had nowhere to hide, and it looked like we were gonna fry." Ryoko took another pull on her mug. "And I was so scared. Not of dying, really, but that I would never see Tenchi again. I had been alone my whole life, and here I had finally found someone who loved me, and now I was about to die alone without ever having the chance to say goodbye to him. And our time together had been so short, and so unfinished, and it seemed so unfair, and I was bawling I was so terrified. And then he arrived in the nick of time and blasted them all to hell...my knight in shining armor."

Ryoko became aware that her eyes were tearing, and wiped them with a shirtsleeve. Ryo-ohki "Miya"-ed softly, and received another stroke. "I have too much to lose now, to be so reckless. Getting myself killed would be bad enough, but getting someone else killed — especially Tenchi — is more than I could stand. Washu might say I'm finally maturing...or that I'm just getting smarter. I dunno." She took another pull on her mug. "Maybe I am losing my nerve. But if that's the price to pay for a long life and a litter of little pirates, then it's worth it."

"I don't think you're losing your nerve," Mihoshi said quietly. "If anything, it takes even more guts to face the truth."

"Thanks, Mihoshi," Ryoko replied. Then she chuckled. "You know, when this is over, maybe we should tag-team Tenchi again, just like we did that one time he came with us."

Mihoshi giggled. "I'll never forget that mission as long as I live! Yeah, we should do that. Have you ever done it in zero-gee?"

"Nope. Got any tips?"

"Well..."

"Excuse me, but I don't think I need to hear any of this," Kiyone interrupted.

##########

Yukinojo's programmers had made the AI as adaptable as possible, allowing for long-term feedback to adjust its emotional parameters, as well as updating the relational rulebook for interaction with assigned GP crewmembers. They hadn't predicted Mihoshi when designing the system, but they had been aware of the wide spectrum of human and alien vagaries/idiosyncrasies. Mihoshi's personality fell within acceptable tolerances, but she most certainly stressed the AI's modifiers. Yukinojo had long since learned how to sigh like a driving instructor.

The alarm had been ringing for nearly five minutes when Yukinojo gave-up and decided for the more direct approach. He had sent his 'bots into her chamber many months earlier and wired her bunk with a neural exciter. Since she was a heavy sleeper, and generally ignored auditory cues, the electrical goosing had proved the most effective stimulus when her presence was needed on the Bridge.

Like now, for instance.

There was a high-pitched zap! followed instantly by Mihoshi's blood-curdling scream. She bounced onto the deck plates, eyes wide open and vacant, long blonde hair twisted and coagulated into a dozen different directions. Drool trickled down one side of her chin.

"Good Morning, Mihoshi," the AI said (in a voice that was almost smug).

"I'll take your word for it," she replied groggily. She scratched and rocked her head, working a kink out of her neck muscles. Then she caught sight of the chronometer on the bulkhead. "Wait a minute, why am I up so early?"

"Long-range sensors indicate a ship approaching on an intercept vector. They will be within hailing distance in twelve minutes."

"Have you identified the vessel?" She was waking quickly, her instincts providing an alarm of their own.

"No. The design is not in my database."

"If you haven't already, begin an action log. All sensor records to be included. Mark the record 'highest priority' and fully encrypt it. And wake up the others." She pulled herself off the deck and began hunting for her duty uniform.

"This sounds serious," the AI conjectured. "Shouldn't I be fully briefed?"

"Agreed. There is a high probability that the vessel belongs to Naja Akara, and she will engage this ship in an attempt to abscond with one or more crewmembers. Combat is almost certain."

"Based upon that information, I am now proceeding to red alert status. Empress Ryoko and Commander Kiyone are now awake and dressing. Any requirements from the galley?"

"Brew some tea. Make it strong."

##########

Mihoshi dropped into the pilot's chair, reflexively locating the restraining straps. Kiyone was already buckled into the co-pilot's seat, querying the sensor logs. Ryoko sat in the navigator's chair, stroking Ryo-ohki's neck and idly typing on the keyboard.

"We're only one-third of the way to the Kuramis Naval Base," Ryoko reported.

"And no one around for parsecs. Nice place for an ambush," Kiyone replied.

"If we don't arrive on schedule, will Tenchi backtrack and look for us?" Mihoshi asked.

"Yes," Ryoko answered firmly.

"But there's an awful lot of empty space out there," Kiyone said. "If we fight — and lose — Naja is unlikely to stick around for long. She'll scamper off someplace else, taking us with her. And even with that quantum pattern scanner, he's gonna have trouble locating us."

Ryoko lifted the cabbit from her lap and twisted her about, so that she could look into the creature's eyes. "Listen, Ryo-ohki: if things here get nasty, you run on ahead to Kuramis and bring Tenchi back here. Do you understand?"

"Miya-mi-meeeyaaaa," she replied mournfully.

"I know, I don't like it either."

"Mihoshi, I have compiled a schematic of the unidentified vessel based on sensor returns."

"Thank you, Yukinojo. Let's see it."

The main holo-display appeared above the console containing the pilot's and co-pilot's controls. It presented the wireframe drawing of a lens-shaped vessel nearly half a kilometer in diameter, but only a fraction of that through the thickest point.

"Oh, c'mon — a flying saucer?" Kiyone drawled.

"While the overall structure is saucer-shaped there are a number of interesting anomalies," Yukinojo said. "For instance, it does not maintain a minimal aspect during flight, as would be expected; the line of flight passes through the center of the ship at right angles to its equator. There are also two rings of unspecified mechanical protuberances near the center and the outer edge."

"Could those be dimensional doorway generator nodes?" Kiyone asked.

"A distinct possibility," the AI replied. "It would correspond to the rumors of her affinity for that method of transport."

"Then why is she chasing us in psuedospace?"

"A dimensional doorway is not a flexible structure, Mihoshi. It must be anchored at both ends. That vessel would have to locate and immobilize us, and then drop us into normal space, before a dimensional doorway could be employed."

"If it comes to shooting, target those rings," Kiyone advised.

"Why?" Ryoko asked.

"So she'll be forced to drop into realspace and stay put until she gets them fixed — giving Tenchi time to find us. If she runs away in psuedospace, she'll leave a wake that Ryo-ohki should be able to track."

"Good call," Ryoko nodded. She looked at the cabbit, who "Miya"-ed in agreement.

"Yukinojo, the primary targets are those rings," Mihoshi instructed. "Secondary targets will be any visible weapons clusters or jump drive modules."

"Acknowledged. There is an in-coming transmission," the AI said. It replaced the wireframe schematic with the communication, and a silver-haired woman smiled at them from the holo-display.

"Naja Akara!" Ryoko spat. Ryo-ohki snarled.

"Why, Ryoko, dear, what a pleasant surprise meeting you out here!"

"Yeah, I'm sure it's just a coincidence."

"Why don't you introduce me to your associates?" Naja gestured at the women behind the command console.

Ryoko was about to rain invectives at the screen, when she caught sight of Kiyone making a frantic gesture behind her chair. She was pointing to her keyboard, and Ryoko glanced over at the monitor where a message had been typed: STALL FOR TIME. YUK IS TARGETING.

"Sure, why not," Ryoko drawled. "This is Empress Mihoshi Masaki Jurai, my husband's third wife and a Detective Captain in the Galaxy Police. This is her ship."

"What a pleasure to meet you," Naja purred.

Mihoshi said nothing.

"And this Is Commander Kiyone Makibi, of Juraian Internal Security."

"We've met," Kiyone said, voice bereft of inflection.

"We have?"

"Briefly, four years ago. Mihoshi and I were both First Class Detectives then, and we were paying a courtesy call upon you, as invited observers of a JI taskforce. One of your lieutenants had taken a liking to one of our detectives, and we were instructed to locate and recover him."

"H-m-m-m. I don't recall..."

"You were busy acquiring a large volume of Ultra Energy Matter. The JI had reason to question your motives."

"Oh, yes, now I remember! That was such a...chaotic...situation. My poor memory just isn't what it used to be," she made a dismissive gesture. "I see you emerged unharmed. Actually, you both appear to have prospered since then."

"You are too kind," Mihoshi said, emotions held in check.

"Well, enough social pleasantries. I must ask — insist, really — that you shut down your drive engines and prepare to be boarded."

"Unless you are in need of mechanical or medical assistance, I'm afraid we cannot comply," Mihoshi replied. "This vessel is performing its duties in accord with the treaty signed between the Galaxy Police and the Juraian Navy, which does not take kindly to unscheduled maritime activities in its territories. Such actions may be perceived as piracy."

"That's sweet, dear. But if you don't cooperate I will be forced to open fire on you."

"That is your prerogative," Mihoshi replied, voice tinged with anger. "However, be warned that we will return fire. And you will be hunted and prosecuted for such activities."

Naja laughed. "I like you. You have such an...uncomplicated...perspective on your present circumstances."

"I know what is legal and what is not; I know what is right and what is not. There will be serious repercussions for firing on a patrol vessel of the Galaxy Police."

"Particularly since there are members of the Juraian Royal Family aboard," Kiyone added. And as I am a ranking officer in Juraian Intelligence, that will only compound the charges brought against you." She gestured at Ryoko and Mihoshi, who both saw the TARGETS AQUIRED message on her monitors.

"This is all very amusing, ladies," Naja replied politely, "but if you are dead you won't derive any satisfaction from it. My instruments show that you have your shields raised and gunports open. Do you honestly think you can best this ship in combat?"

"And our instruments show that you have your shields raised and gunports open. Do you honestly think you'll escape a confrontation unscathed?" Mihoshi asked. She typed one word onto her keyboard and leaned back into her seat, arms crossed and brow furrowed angrily.

Ryoko wondered what Mihoshi had typed — and looked over at Kiyone, who discreetly typed a response on her keyboard.

"I suspect my ship will sustain a great deal more damage than yours can," Naja replied smugly.

"One of my literature teachers in college had an appropriate expression for dealing with such questions," Mihoshi said. her upper body didn't move, but her right foot made an unmistakable kicking movement. The corner of Kiyone's lip curled upwards, and she typed a final command into the system.

"And what was that?" Naja asked.

"'Reality is full of surprises!'" Mihoshi replied.

Ryoko felt Yukinojo's main battery open fire, as plasma bolts rippled outwards in concentrated vollies. The AI had directed all of its guns on the nearest targeted structures along the rim of Naja's ship, where layered shields flared under the assault.

Naja's ship returned fire, but by then Yukinojo had already initiated a series of evasive movements, and the lethal energies either blew past the cruiser or hit its shields at oblique angles. Naja's ship moved ponderously trying to track the agile GP cruiser, and the agile GP cruiser continued to dart about frantically while maintaining fire on its primary targets.

There was the stunning flash of collapsing shields, followed by successive fireballs as fragments of Naja's ship caromed into psuedospace.

Yukinojo's crewmembers had no time to celebrate, however, because the cost of remaining in-range over the same piece of real estate became suddenly very heavy. Naja's combat computers had calculated where Yukinojo had to be to accomplish its objective, and finally succeeded in maneuvering the cruiser into a crossfire. Plasma beams carved into Yukinojo's shields and ruptured them, blowing electrical circuits inside the ship. Moments later the wildly dodging cruiser received its first direct hit, and the starboard engine shattered into thousands of fragments of scrap metal. Unable to evade the next strike, the port engine bay crumpled. A rapidly expanding debris cloud formed around the cruiser.

Hidden among the retreating detritus was a furry little quadruped, who watched forlornly as more convergent fire from Naja's ship penetrated Yukinojo's hull. She remained motionless until she was safely beyond immediate detector range. Then she transformed into her ship-based configuration and raced away at full speed.

##########

Naja Akara sat in her command chair, idly watching her bridge crew perform their duties. Her monitors showed the boarding party just docking with the remains of Yukinojo. The cruiser's aft section was completely shredded, but the bridge and residential sections appeared to be intact. Teleporting in psuedospace was an imminently risky affair, so they had to resort to more archaic methods. She would leave the wreck drifting right where it was, undetectable from realspace, and damned difficult to locate in psuedospace. The Juraian navy would find it eventually, but by then it would be much too late.

The comm unit on her command console beeped for her attention. "Yes, Dootar?"

An image flickered into existence above the panel. The grizzled old engineer she had employed for centuries looked back at her, wiping greasy hands on a heavily stained towel. "It's not as bad I feared, Naja. We can jury-rig a new node, but it will take a couple of days. They knew exactly what they were doing."

"Very well, start assembling your resources. Once we've retrieved our guests, we'll drop back into realspace and commence repairs. Even a casual flyby will not reveal our presence, so we should remain undisturbed."

"Yes, Ma'am," the figure replied, saluting casually as the image faded. He had been with her for so long, and through so many close shaves, that he was one of the few individuals given unconditional access. She trusted him completely.

Kiyone, Mihoshi, and Ryoko were unconscious when carried aboard Naja's ship. Generous doses of a sleeping aerosol had been required for Kiyone and Mihoshi — Ryoko had taken much more effort as she kept phasing through Yukinojo's hull plates and blasting Naja's retrieval crew with energy needles. In the end, she had finally succumbed to an industrial grade paralyser beam.

Naja escorted her guests through the corridors of her ship, from the hanger deck to medlab (a considerable distance considering her cane). She supervised their medical scanning, and was informed by her lab techs that they would be unconscious for a couple of days at least. Satisfied, the parade continued to the brig, where Kiyone and Mihoshi were placed in standard restraining cells, and Ryoko was immobilized in a special device designed just for her.

"Call me when they revive," she told her mercenary guards. They saluted and bowed, as she hobbled her way back up to the bridge.

ACT 6

(English)

Hope is your survivalA captive path I lead

No matter where you goI will find youIf it takes a long, long timeNo matter where you goI will find youIf it takes a thousand years

(Mohican)

NachgochemaAnetahaAnachemowagan

(English)

No matter where you goI will find youIn the place with no frontiersNo matter where you goI will find youIf it takes a thousand years

(Cherokee)

Hale wú yu ga I svDo na dio sv IWi ja lo svHa le wú yuDo na dlo sv

(English)

No matter where you goI will find youIf it takes a long long timeNo matter where you goI will find youIf it takes a thousand years

No matter where you goI will find youIn the place with no frontiersNo matter where you goI will find youIf it takes a thousand years

No matter where you goI will find you

Title — "I Will Find You"Artist — ClannadFrom the Film — The Last Of The Mohicans, 1992

"We've been forced to remain in realspace for over four days, thanks to you ladies. But my engineer tells me that the damage you inflicted on my vessel will be fully repaired in the next few hours." Naja stood just inside the hatchway to the brig, resting easily against her cane. "And though it seems unlikely that anyone will discover our location, I've taken the precaution of activating a teleport jammer around this ship. No one gets in without an invitation, and no one leaves without permission!" Her cackle was accompanied by the low chuckling of the two guards in the room.

"I do hope you'll forgive me for placing you in such primitive facilities," Naja said to Kiyone and Mihoshi. "We have so little use for a brig, and our few occupants are generally so much...coarser...than you ladies." She tapped Kiyone's cell door bars with her cane. "I have to admit, though, there is a certain charm about these cages. Such an efficient design; so very Spartan, yet so very sturdy." She chuckled and turned to face Ryoko. "I had to take rather more drastic measures with you, Ryoko, dear. We couldn't have you phasing off that table, or burning through your restraints, now could we? No, that simply wouldn't do. That power inhibitor integrated into your biobed cost me a pretty penny, but it's guaranteed to reduce any member of the Adeptus Psyker caste to a mere mortal — with the possible exception of your husband. I sincerely doubt there is a device in existence that could inhibit him...though it might be amusing to try. And you needn't exert too much effort on those restraints; even your strength is insufficient to break them."

Ryoko mumbled a question through the gag in her mouth.

"Pardon me? Did you ask what my intentions are? My plan is really very simple: I'm going to fertilize one of your eggs from Kagato's preserved sperm samples!"

Ryoko roared beneath the gag, eyes aflame with horror and hatred.

"Since your system is still adjusting to its restored fertility cycle, this is not the optimum time for the procedure. So I'll just keep you under lock and key for a few days while your body settles down properly. Oh, no need to thank me, my dear. It will be so wonderful to have my Kagato back again...and even more powerful than ever, since he'll incorporate your DNA as well. You know, I think I even have some of his memory engrams stored away somewhere, so we'll be able to infuse the fetus with his personality, too! He was such a charmer, wasn't he...?"

Ryoko writhed on the table, trying to break out of her restraints, trying to summon Power and hurl energy bolts at the witch before her. Nothing worked. Naja watched the failed attempts with open amusement. Then she turned to the cells where Kiyone and Mihoshi were incarcerated.

"I should probably dispose of you two immediately, since you represent a significant threat. However, you," she gestured at Kiyone, "have quite a distinguished service record with the GP — and there are a number of your former...clients...that might enjoy the chance to get reacquainted. And you," she gestured at Mihoshi, "produced some truly remarkable readings on my instruments. I think you warrant further investigation before your final...dissection." She laughed coolly and turned for the door. "Keep an eye on my guests, if you please," she said to the guards. They nodded smartly and returned her smile. Satisfied, she hobbled out of the chamber.

Ryoko muttered something expressive, and the guards chortled.

Kiyone flopped onto her bunk, crossed her arms and legs, and glared at the guards. They grinned back.

Mihoshi settled quietly onto her own bunk, staring at the ceiling. Even if she had a gun, and shot both goons, she doubted if she could get past the door lock. Sighing deeply, she tried to relax. The thought of a gun caused her mind to drift back to a time when she and Tenchi had visited the shooting range maintained by the Palace guards. She had demonstrated her marksmanship for him, and he was suitably impressed. "You have a real flair for firearms," her husband had told her, and she had blushed from the compliment.

Another memory slipped into her mind, a visit to Washu's lab, where she had listened to an explanation on how her Power attributes worked. "You're an electrokinetic — you can cause catastrophic damage to circuitry in any machine," Washu had explained. But as far back as she could remember, she could never control it or predict its occurrence. She could sure use the ability now.

She thought about Tenchi, and the very real chance that he would never find them. She'd never see him again, or hold him, or make love to him, or have any of his children...

Mihoshi's normal response was an outburst of tears, which generally reduced her to a blubbering mess. But this time her frustration had a target: Naja Akara. This was all her fault. Mihoshi felt the heat rising in her, and the memories echoed and reverberated in her mind until they fused, and an idea formed. She sat up on the edge of the bed and looked at the guards. They looked back, bored and arrogant. Kiyone looked over from her own cell, eyes slitted and simmering. Ryoko glanced over from the biobed, withdrawn and worried.

Mihoshi formed her right hand into a 'pistol': thumb high and forefinger rigid. Her left hand was cupped under the right one in the classic brace position. Then she brought her hands up to her face and extended her arms towards the nearest guard, bringing the digital barrel on target. The guards laughed derisively, and her partners' eyebrows arched in surprise.

She had been trained to aim for the center of mass (i.e., the chest) and release one long burst. Now, she aimed at the assault rifle in the mercenary's hands, and in her mind visualized the circuits controlling the energy cell. She recalled the recent experience of Power flowing through her and beyond, and the knowledge that if she and her partners didn't escape soon, they would all face terminal fates — and she would never see Tenchi again. Anger bubbled to the surface, sharpening her sense of focus. She audibly pulled the trigger: "Bang!"

Power swelled up from the small of her back, surging along her spine, through her shoulders, and cascading down her arms. Her hands burned with the sudden energy passage.

The closest guard's sneer faded as the weapon in his hands suddenly started vibrating, and its overload warning blared automatically. He had just enough time to release the rifle before the battery detonated, the fireball disassembling his body into its component parts. Organic fluids and residue spattered the wall over the man-shaped silhouette burned into its surface. The other guard staggered backwards from the concussion, and Mihoshi turned her 'pistol' on him.

He saw it and threw his rifle towards Kiyone's cell. Mihoshi ignored the gesture, aiming for the sidearm strapped to his thigh. "Bang!"

The guard heard the overload warning whining shrilly from his leg, and he slapped frantically at the holster. The subsequent explosion snapped him apart like a celery stalk, tumbling the remains into a gooey puddle in a corner.

Mihoshi stood and walked slowly over to her cell door, aware of her partners' astonished-but-encouraging looks.

The cell used an electronic key, rather than a manual key. She wasn't at all familiar with the circuitry needed to lock and unlock the door, so instead she just visualized burning wires. She pointed her 'pistol' at one of the panels along the frame: "Bang!" Smoke poured out from behind the panel, and the door lock disengaged. There were audible gasps from her partners.

Mihoshi grinned self-consciously and stepped out of her cell, turning towards the controls for Kiyone's cell door. "Bang!" The panel tumbled off the wall in a shower of sparks, and Kiyone was free.

Kiyone promptly grabbed the assault rifle off the floor, and dragged Mihoshi towards Ryoko's biobed. "I don't know what you did, but don't stop doing it!" She gently removed the gag from Ryoko's mouth, while Mihoshi destroyed the Power Inhibitor.

Ryoko hugged them both gratefully. To Mihoshi she said, "So you finally got a handle on your Power attributes, huh? What made the connection?"

"I want Tenchi," she replied.

"Me, too," Ryoko grinned.

"Let's get out of here first," Kiyone said. "Those explosions must have triggered some alarms, and we're sitting ducks in here."

"Like hell we are. Maybe I can't teleport, but I have other options!" Ryoko hovered off the floor, grabbed her partners, and phased them all through the ceiling to the next level above.

They found themselves standing just off the grand gallery, the main corridor that formed the equator of Naja Akara's ship.

"Let's split up and try to find the com center," Kiyone said. "We can call for help from there. Ryoko, you go that way, Mihoshi and I will go this way."

"Right," Ryoko nodded, and flew off down the corridor.

"C'mon, Mihoshi, let's go." Kiyone lead her partner down the opposite corridor.

##########

The grand gallery followed the general contour of the ship, curving gradually and cut at regular intervals with perpendicular cross-corridors...until it disappeared into one side of a large chamber, continuing its passage on the far side. Kiyone and Mihoshi heard the hum of many voices as they crept closer.

The cafeteria, of course. And it just had to be full of armed mercenaries, mostly human. Fortunately, the majority were head-down over their trays, scooping protein into their mouths with little regard for appearance or diplomacy. A few, though, were watching the door when Kiyone and Mihoshi tried to walk in nonchalantly — and they raised the alarm by raising their weapons and voices. The room as a whole turned to regard them.

"Aw, hell," Kiyone said, dragging Mihoshi back through the doorway, "this just isn't my day." Blaster fire and microexplosions rippled on the bulkheads around them, until they were safely around the bend in the corridor.

"I suppose there is no other way around, is there?" Mihoshi asked.

"I dunno, but I don't think we have the time to look. We're gonna have to go through them."

"Any suggestions?"

"None at all, other than don't get killed. We could sure use a good forcefield right about now."

"Yeah, where's Ayeka when you need her?" Mihoshi replied, looking around for anything useful.

Kiyone pointed her rifle at the nearest door and squeezed off several shots. It fell into the corridor with a loud thud and a gust of displaced air. She grabbed one corner and heaved, lifting it off the floor. "Not too heavy."

Mihoshi tugged the opposite side up to shoulder level. "Just like old times. Who leads?"

"I will." She shouldered her rifle and grabbed the edges of the plate. "Ready? Then let's go!"

They charged back down the corridor, with Kiyone running along the wall and Mihoshi following down the middle. The makeshift shield was thus held at an angle, and plasma bolts ricocheted off the door surface rather than sticking and burning through. The first solid object they encountered was two-legged and too slow to react, and they ran right over him. They encountered three more soft speed bumps, dealt with in the same manner.

As they neared the cafeteria door, Mihoshi drifted sideways, directly behind Kiyone. They thus presented a broadside panel to the room as they raced across to the opposite exit — and through it.

"Dump the door!" Kiyone yelled, as she and Mihoshi released the panel and accelerated down the corridor. Blaster fire shadowed them all the way around the next bend.

##########

Ryoko hovered in the grand gallery, looking down the corridor as far as she could see. She sensed an ambush up ahead, and she considered her options.

She peaked behind one or two hatches until she found what she wanted: a maintenance locker. Pipes of all shapes and sized ran vertically and horizontally through the chamber. She picked one of the larger ones, ignited her energy sword, and cut away a section of pipe about two meters tall. She caught it as it fell.

She had no idea what was normally pumped through the pipe, but it seemed dry enough and clean enough. She lowered it to the floor, phased through the heavy metal sidewall, and settled herself inside.

Encased in her jury-rigged shell, she floated off the floor, through the bulkhead, and started down the grand gallery.

It happened at an intersection, where a half-dozen mercenary guards opened-up on her from both sides. Their plasma beams were ineffective against the pipe she carried, and more than a few beams rebounded back to their point of origin with lethal pyrotechnics. Bodies flopped noisily to the deck of both side corridors. She considered pausing long enough to play with the survivors, but decided against it. She had more pressing issues.

She did stay long enough to shed her shell, materialize her energy sword, and thrust it through their personal comm units. She also acquired a small collection of flash-bang and smoke grenades. She liked surprises — especially when she was on the giving end.

Donning her tubular armor, she ignored the moaning and twitching from the deck and continued her flight down the corridor.

##########

"This just gets better and better," Kiyone growled. "The group in the cafeteria must have radioed ahead." A contingent of armed thugs had been waiting for them at the next intersection — she and Mihoshi had barely managed to duck into recessed hatchways. "We'd better dispose of this bunch, before the others show up and box us in." She peeked around the coaming and snapped-off a shot, grinning maliciously as the target's shoulder vanished in a spray of flame.

Mihoshi dropped to the deck and rolled into the corridor, well clear of cover. She raised both hands as 'pistols' and began alternate shooting gestures. "Bang-Bang-Bang-Bang!" It might have been a ludicrous image if not for the four subsequent explosions and the corresponding screams. She started to rise, and then rolled frantically back into the safety of the hatchway. "They've got a walker!"

Kiyone heard the ponderous clanking, and snuck a quick peek. The occupant of the heavy combat suit saw her and pointed one of his arms her direction. She retreated just as the spot recently occupied by her head flamed a hideous shade of orange. "I hate walkers!" Kiyone snarled.

Mihoshi leaned around the doorjamb and raised her hand. "Bang! Bang! Bang!" She, too, returned to cover just in time. "I can't seem to hurt it!" she cried.

"What are you shooting at?"

"The overload circuit to the battery, just like all the other guns."

"Mihoshi, that wiring is heavily shielded against EMP — it would take a cannon to punch through the casing!" The clanking was getting louder as the Walker approached. She risked another peek to confirm that the two-legged tank and two more unarmored mercenaries were moving relentlessly towards them.

"If that's what it takes, so be it. Cover me!"

Kiyone had often questioned her partner's judgment over the years — but never failed to support her. Without hesitation, she dropped to one knee and leaned around the corner, peppering the walker with blaster fire. While the shots flared ineffectually, the exposed mercenaries dived for cover. It also brought the walker's guns pointing straight at her. She rolled back into cover just as the doorframe shuddered.

Meanwhile, Mihoshi hopped into the open, both arms raised, all ten digits extended towards the threat. In her mind, she ratcheted her 'weapon' upwards from handgun to howitzer. "BOOM!" she yelled. She trembled visibly from the Power discharge — and then was flung backwards as the huge battlesuit detonated.

A ball of flame rolled past Kiyone, barely missing the prone Mihoshi. The corridor was filled with clouds of greasy black smoke, and the smell of scorched metal and burned meat. Kiyone's ears were ringing as she scrambled over to her partner and coaxed her upright. Mihoshi was still dazed, and so had to be supported as they staggered forward into the pall, past the still-burning wreckage.

##########

Ryoko followed the grand gallery until it vanished into a large chamber. One quick glance told her she was in a maintenance bay of some sort, with heavy machinery filling most of the space and spare parts cabinets lining the bulkheads. Unfortunately, she was not alone.

The man waiting for her was quite tall, slim as a runner, and crowned with jet-black hair that rolled off his shoulders and spilled down his back. His robes had the Spartan-but-tailored look of a professional soldier, although he wore no weapons. He was undeniably handsome — but the attraction was spoiled by the arrogant posture that all ranking members of the Adeptus Psyker caste affected. He radiated confidence and menace at the same time. He was also standing inside a globular forcefield.

"Ah, the Empress Ryoko!" His voice was deep and resonating. "I have wanted to meet you for so very long. Please, dispense with that ridiculous-looking shell and join me for some conversation."

Ryoko didn't have time to spare with pleasantries — particularly with one of Naja Akara's ranking lieutenants — but she did phase through the sidewall of the pipe. It hit the deck with a loud clang. "Who the hell are you?"

"My name is Cotan Shaygeron. Perhaps you've heard of me...?"

"Nope. Should I have?"

"I have a reputation within certain circles of interest to Juraian Security."

"An assassin," Ryoko spat.

"Quite so. You disapprove?"

Ryoko shrugged. "As long you stay away from me and mine, I don't care if you sweep the streets. Now, if you'll excuse me..." She started to fly around him, but he stepped in front of her.

"Oh, you can't leave just yet — we have so much to discuss!"

"Like what?"

"I have an offer for you to consider," Cotan replied smoothly. Ryoko's silence encouraged him to continue. "I have long been an admirer of yours. Your reputation is exceeded only by your beauty, which is completely wasted on that lummox husband of yours."

Ryoko bristled with the insult, and started to reply, but Cotan held up his hands disarmingly.

"Please, hear me out!" Cotan paused waiting to see Ryoko's reaction. "Really, I don't understand how can you tolerate to share one man with those other women. If you would consider an alliance with me, I can guarantee you that you would receive all of my affection and devotion. It would give me the greatest joy to keep you pleased and happy."

"Yeah, right. And how many women were there before me? Did you promise them the same devotion, until they grew tiresome and you disposed of them? My husband is ten times the man you'll ever be."

Cotan's placating smile faded. "I had hoped you would at least consider my offer before spurning me outright. What if I issued him a Challenge, and defeated him in the traditional manner? Would you accompany me then?"

Ryoko laughed in his face. "You? Beat Tenchi? Oh, that is funny!"

Cotan's expression didn't change, but his voice hardened. "Very well, since you won't become my next Companion, I guess you will have to become my next victim!" The surface of his forcefield bubbled, and a long spike extended forward at incredible speed. Ryoko twisted to avoid it, because even in a phased state she was vulnerable to energy constructs. She managed to evade the first spike, and the second, but not the third. It impaled her left shoulder, and she bit back a scream as she lost the feeling in her left arm.

"I could offer some platititude about how much this is going to hurt me more than it is you — but that would be blatantly false. Farewell, Empress, we could have had such a wonderful time together."

Ryoko passed through the deck and flew backwards — just as force projections stitched her trail like a sewing machine needle. Fortunately, her restorative powers were dealing with her wound, and the feeling was starting to return to her hand. She flew through the cabins in a random pattern, trying to get past him, but somehow he knew where she was, and continued to puncture the ceiling and bulkheads just behind her.

Which pissed her off major.

She rose back through the plating to confront him, launching a energy spray of energy needles at his face. They splintered harmlessly off of his shield, which drew a disappointed sigh from him. She ignored the insult, because the attack had only been a diversion. She started tossing grenades onto the deck around him.

Too late he realized the danger, as the first flash-bang exploded right in front of him. He clutched his eyes and staggered, temporarily blinded by the incandescent flash and deafened by the concussion. Two smoke grenades lit-off, flooding the bay with a chemical fog. Ryoko flew around him, tossing two more flash-bang grenades to keep him disoriented. Then she ignited her energy sword and traced a line in the floor all the way around his shield.

Cotan Shaygeron (still enclosed in his globular shield) rode the circular section of deck plates through the new hole to the level below, leaving trails of turbulence in the clouds of smoke. A thunderous clang of metal-on-metal followed the assassin's exit, nearly muffling his anguished scream.

"Take that, you bad old putty tat!" Ryoko smiled wolfishly, bidding homage to all the inspirational cartoons she had watched on Earth.

##########

Ryoko flew up the elevator shaft to the next level, passing through the doors and appearing in the corridor right beside Kiyone and Mihoshi. They all lowered their weapons upon recognition. "You didn't find it either, huh?"

"Nope. I did find a terminal in one of the side corridors, and used it to display a schematic of this ship, but it didn't help." Kiyone eyed both directions of the corridor nervously.

"Shall we split up again?"

"No, I don't think we accomplished much. And a couple of times we could have used your help."

"Yeah, they're settin' up receptions for us everywhere. They must be monitoring us pretty effectively."

"We could just make a run for the hangar bay and look for a shuttle, or try to find a life boat," Mihoshi suggested.

"Well, even assuming that we didn't get vaporized by one of the ship's main batteries on the way out, we really don't know where we are," Kiyone said evenly. We could be adrift for weeks in a boat with minimal air and water. No offense, but I think I'll take my chances on board."

"Yeah, you're right," Mihoshi said.

Ryoko just rolled her eyes. "C'mon, you two — we're wasting time."

##########

Ryoko hovered off the floor, energy sword held defensively before her. Standing on the deck was a husky, squat man with an energy sword of his own. She materialized and manipulated hers directly; his was generated by an artifact similar to the Master Key. Her blade was red with a yellow core; his blade was violet with an azure core.

They glared at one another.

"Why don't you save us all a lot of trouble and just get out of the way," Ryoko growled.

"Killing you will be a pleasure, Ryoko...since you killed one of my ancestors."

"Stand aside, or you'll be joining your ancestor soon enough!"

"I will extend you more courtesy than you deserve, harpy. I am Blanim Tyllon, swordsman and third rank master of the Adeptus Psyker caste — "

"And paid stooge of Naja Akara," Ryoko sneered. "Interesting that you can look down your nose at me, yet take blood money from someone who's killed ten times more than I ever did. How very discriminating of you."

Blanim ground his teeth together, visibly wrestling to control his temper.

"Your talents are quite well known, Ryoko," said the woman holding a gun to Mihoshi's head. Mihoshi was suspended horizontally off the floor, trussed like a dressed game bird by bands of yellow energy. "I've seen several of the public exhibitions staged with your husband. You are indeed formidable — so formidable, in fact, that we find we must discourage you from using some of your talents to allow Blanim his moment of revenge."

"Yes," said the woman holding an energy ball next to Kiyone's head. "It is fortunate for us that Naja has the teleport jammer in operation. And we think we have sufficient leverage here to convince you not to phase through the floors like you did with poor Cotan." She sighed melodramatically. "He'll recover soon enough, though you probably won't be around to see him."

"Just who the hell are you two, anyways?" Ryoko asked, never taking her eyes off of Blanim.

"Oh! Where are our manners? I forgot that you and her," nodding to Mihoshi, "are two of the Emperor's wives. Allow me to introduce myself: I am Breemmilie Zijette, not yet ranked, but with high aspirations." Her smile was cold and calculating. She was tall and raven-haired, wearing orange and white robes that clung suggestively to her ample curves. The gun she held on Mihoshi seemed oversized in her dainty hand.

"I am Vyayla Nakayla. My rank is irrelevant." She was short and svelte, and her close-cropped hair was as yellow-orange as the flame in her hand. The other hand gestured and a band of flame encircled Kiyone's waist like a slithering snake. Kiyone withdrew visibly from the threat. The adept's black robes rustled noisily, providing the crackling that the artificial fire lacked.

"Enough talk!" Blanim snarled, and launched himself at Ryoko.

She met the attack directly, allowing their blades to slam together in a shower of sparks — and was startled into near paralysis when he jumped straight up to the ceiling and stuck there. They were now face-to-face but 180 degrees apart, and though it didn't improve his position any, it was disconcerting in the extreme. Ryoko was forced to reorient herself, just to keep up with him. He charged her, and she responded by adroitly parrying the cuts and thrusts. He suddenly jumped for the nearest bulkhead, twisting in midair to bring his feet squarely on the plates. Ryoko swung at him and missed, and then had to reorient herself yet again. This continued for several moments, Blanim chasing her along the grand gallery randomly jumping to yet another surface in an effort to confuse her. He seemed completely comfortable at any angle, able to attack and defend with alacrity.

For her part, Ryoko continued to hover betwixt deck plates and overhead, keeping just out of his reach, her sword deftly redirecting each of his strikes. Her techniques had been improving over the last couple of years, under the tutelage of her husband's grandfather, Yosho Jurai, and her recent study with Kaline Breexandra Sensei. But she was not known for her patience: with a shout she planted her feet on the bulkhead and launched an attack of her own. Now it was Blanim's turn to stagger, because Ryoko was far stronger than he was.

She pummeled him with blows, which he parried or evaded, and waited for the inevitable counterattack. The move was slick, and might have worked under normal circumstances. It was an off-hand grab for her sword handle, Blanim probably figuring that since she was able to grasp it, he ought to be able to, also. Ryoko let him discover the error of his ways: her skin was made of different materials than his, and was able to tolerate higher damage rates and provide faster repairs. Blanim's palm turned black the second it came in contact with the glowing red 'handle', and he screamed as his arm recoiled. Ryoko closed the gap between them and buried the pommel of her sword a full inch into his chest. He screamed again, louder and more strident, as he felt skin and bone cauterizing, and smelled his own muscles cooking. She yanked the sword free, strands of molten flesh still sticking to it, and then stamp-kicked him square in the stomach. He tumbled from the bulkhead, skull bouncing onto the steel deck plate with a sickening thud.

Ryoko hovered over her opponent, panting, watching carefully before being convinced he was incapacitated. "Oh, Tenchi," she whispered, "where are you?"

##########

Tenchi - Closer than you know

Ryoko,Mihoshi,Kiyone - Tenchi! You found us!

Tenchi - I will always find you. I'll join you shortly. But for now, I want you to surrender to Naja's lieutenants

Ryoko - Whatever for?

Tenchi - Because they'll take you to her, and then I'll have you all in one place

Kiyone - Makes sense...

Ryoko - I don't like it!

Mihoshi - Where are you?

Tenchi - We're just about to dock with one of the emergency hatches and burn our way inside

Kiyone - And you haven't been noticed?

Tenchi - Tsunami is cloaked. Even this close, they can't see her. Now turn yourselves in before someone gets hurt

Feeling considerably calmer, Ryoko extinguished her energy sword and turned to face the group at the end of the corridor. "I yield."

"You what?" Breemmilie asked, obviously surprised. She had expected Ryoko to rush them, or stalk them though the bulkheads.

"I give up. You win. No more resistance. Take us to your leader."

Still amazed, and more than a little suspicious, Naja's lieutenants complied.

##########

One would have expected the ship's bridge to be as centrally located as possible. Thus, one would be wrong — and thus why Ryoko, Kiyone and Mihoshi had not been able to locate it. It was tucked into an obscure location two decks below the grand gallery, not far from the brig.

It was, however, quite large. Approximately pie-shaped, the captain's station and its monitors filled the narrow end of the chamber, while an assortment of astrogator and engineering stations filled the far wall. Entrances to the bridge were placed at right angles to this information axis. The space in the middle of the room was kept free for conferences and portable data stations. Except that presently the chamber was crowded with human and non-human mercenaries — all armed to the teeth.

Naja sat in her command chair, fingers tapping on a spectral keyboard. She watched the crowd of goons on one side surge away from the door, as Vyayla strode into the chamber. Ryoko, Mihoshi, and Kiyone followed behind docilely, followed by Breemmilie, who was assisting Blanim. At almost the same moment Cotan entered from the opposite door, drinking a restorative. He saw Ryoko and snarled.

Naja watched them merge with an amused twinkle in her eye. Her lieutenants formed a box around the hostages, while scores of armed mercenaries ringed them in completely. "Well, it seems you've run out of options, Ladies. I trust there will be no more heroics. Not only do you try my patience, but you've gone and injured two of my closest advisors. I cannot afford any more...activities...of this nature."

Ryoko was exchanging stares with Cotan and Blanim, then turned her gaze on Naja. "You can call off your dogs, Naja. We've had our fun."

"Dogs?" hissed Blanim. He started to reach for his energy sword, but was restrained by Breemmilie. Ryoko laughed derisively.

Mihoshi pointed her finger at Blanim's energy sword and coughed. The adept's sword started smoking. He yanked it off his belt and tried to activate it — and failed completely. His cursing ended with enraged sputters.

Kiyone stood with legs braced apart, arms crossed, head tilted to one side. "Gee, Naja, where do you find these assistants of yours? As I recall, it was that lovestruck adept of yours that kidnapped our officer, and thus brought the GP and JI down on your head. Don't they have any discipline?"

Naja smiled and made a dismissive gesture. "There are always plenty of hot-headed young fools around, ready to make a name for themselves. One of those genetic flaws in our species, I suppose." She shrugged, the smile fading from her lips. "Despite your opinions of my lieutenants, the fact remains that they are here to enforce my will, and have an ample supply of armed assistants." She indicated the roomful of rifles pointing at them. "There will be no further escape attempts. One of you may succeed — but the others will die promptly, and be...disposed of...out the nearest airlock. Probably in body-bags, but in buckets if need be. No one can rescue you now!"

"Don't be too sure of that," Tenchi said.

ACT 7

Where have all the good men goneAnd where are all the gods?Where's the street-wise HerculesTo fight the rising odds?Isn't there a white knightUpon a firey steed?Late at night I toss and turnAnd I dream of what I need

I need a heroI'm holdin' out for a hero'Till the end of the nightHe's gotta be strongAnd he's got to be fastAnd he's got to be fresh from the fightI need a heroI'm holdin' out for a hero 'till the mornin' lightHe's gotta be sureAnd he's gotta be soonAnd he's gotta be larger than lifeLarger than life

Somewhere after midnightIn my wildest fantasySomewhere just beyond my reachThere's someone reaching back for meRacing on the thunderAnd rising with the heatIt's gonna take a SupermanTo sweep me off my feet

I need a heroI'm holdin' out for a hero'Till the end of the nightHe's gotta be strongAnd he's got to be fastAnd he's got to be fresh from the fight

I need a hero|I'm holdin' out for a hero 'til the mornin' lightHe's gotta be sureAnd he's gotta be soonAnd he's gotta be larger than lifeLarger than life

Up where the mountains meet the heavens aboveOut where the lightning splits the seaI would swear there's someone somewhereWatching meThrough the wind and the chill and the rainAnd the storm and the floodI can feel his approachLike a fire in my blood

I need a heroI'm holdin' out for a hero'Till the end of the nightHe's gotta be strongAnd he's got to be fastAnd he's got to be fresh from the fight

I need a heroI'm holdin' out for a hero 'til the mornin' lightHe's gotta be sureAnd he's gotta be soonAnd he's gotta be larger than lifeLarger than life

Title — "Holding Out For A Hero"Artist — Bonnie TylerWritten by — Jim Steinman & Dean Pitchford

Tenchi stood in one doorway to the bridge, the Lighthawk Wings pulsing gently above him like a Y-shaped halo. He was encased in iridescent armor, he carried the gleaming sword nestled comfortably in the crook of his left elbow, and the Emblem of Power glittered on his brow. The mercenaries around him promptly backpedaled as far as they could go while keeping their weapons trained upon him.

Tenchi ignored them.

Tenchi - Greetings, Ladies

Ryoko,Mihoshi,Kiyone - We are so glad to see you!

Tenchi - Things are about to happen, and I want you ready to leave

Kiyone - What kinds of 'things' are about to happen?

Tenchi - Trinnard and his associates are about to disable the power couplings at the reactor core

Trinnard - We need another two minutes, Sire. We've run into some difficulties

Tenchi - Very well. We need a diversion. Any ideas?

Ryoko - I have a great idea!

Naja beckoned the emperor from her perch, and Tenchi slowly made his way into the chamber. "So, you found us after all. Doubtless you had help from that little cur Ryo-ohki."

"Yes, she led me right to you," Tenchi replied. He looked around, paying particular attention to the adepts restraining his family. "Frankly, Naja, this place isn't much better than your Manhattan office was. I expected better."

A wry smile wreathed her face. "Don't tell me the Emperor of Jurai is a materialist? For shame!"

"Tenchi, Dear," Ryoko called, "I have someone here who wants to meet you!"

Tenchi turned, affecting a very casual attitude. "Oh?"

"I'd like to introduce you to Cotan Shaygeron. He's an ardent admirer of mine, who has asked me to run away with him."

Cotan's reaction was masked behind the iron control of his features.

"He called you a lummox, and wants to issue you a Challenge. Go ahead, Cotan, now's your chance."

Cotan cleared his throat, forced into the confrontation to save face and his reputation. "She is correct, Your Majesty. I desire her, and am willing to resolve the matter in the traditional manner. Do you accept my Challenge?"

Tenchi - This is your great idea?

Ryoko - Well, you wanted a diversion...

"Yes, I accept."

"Then prepare to die!" Cotan's forcefield shimmered into existence, and he launched a volley of protuberances straight at Tenchi's chest.

With his Power-enhanced speed and reflexes, Tenchi saw the danger and easily avoided it. Cotan growled in frustration and fury, and increased the assault by launching dozens of energy needles at Tenchi. Tenchi's body became a blur as he dodged all the attacks, each evasion moving him one step closer to his opponent. It didn't take long before he was standing directly beside Cotan, looking across the energy barrier at him. Before the assassin had a chance to reorient, Tenchi thrust the Lighthawk Sword straight into the forcefield. The shield flared once and collapsed. Cotan staggered backwards, fighting the shock to his nervous system. He never saw the sword arc high over Tenchi's right shoulder and then swing across the gap between them. Cotan's head fell off his shoulders and rolled roughly under the nearest console, his body dropping wetly to the deck.

"I keep my wife," Tenchi said to the corpse.

"I'm not done with her yet," Naja said. "But if you're still alive in a year, you can have her back then."

##########

Trinnard - We're in place, Sire!

Tenchi - Very good. On the count of 'three', disable the core

Trinnard - With pleasure!

Tenchi - Ladies, I am about to rattle this cage big time. At the count of 'three' hit the deck immediately. Then, Ryoko, I want you to get the others down to the hangar deck. Rendezvous with Trinnard and his people. Ryo-ohki is waiting there to ferry you all to safety

Ryoko - What about you?

Tenchi - I'll be right behind you. I have some business to attend to first

Tenchi turned slowly to face Naja, his expression composed.

"Very impressive, boy, you didn't even raise a sweat. Your reputation doesn't do you justice."

"I'm glad you approve." He started walking slowly into the middle of the chamber.

Tenchi - One...

"I know of several non-human adepts that might enjoy the opportunity to...test their mettle...against the greatest adept our race has to offer. You would do us all proud, I'm sure."

"The Emperor of Jurai as a gladiator?" Tenchi stopped when he was sure he was in the center of the chamber. Although he appeared to be considering Naja's vision, he was actually noting the distribution of her mercenaries — and the location of her lieutenants. He clamped a protective mind-shield on each of his wives.

Mihoshi - What...?

Ryoko - Oh, this ought to be good!

Tenchi - Two...

"Admit it, Boy: you're a fighter! Wouldn't you like to be the undisputed master of the galaxy? I could arrange that, you know."

"I thought you wanted me and my family dead?"

"Eventually, yes. But a little...competitive entertainment...beforehand is acceptable."

"Like a cat playing with its prey. How considerate. And if I perished in the contests, well so much the better, eh? I'm afraid I must decline your invitation."

Tenchi - Three!

Several events happened nearly simultaneously:

* The Lighthawk Wings hovering above Tenchi's head did a creditable imitation of a nova, and a globular concussion wave spread outwards at a speed in excess of 100 klicks an hour. Mihoshi, Kiyone and Ryoko dived for the floor, just as the wall of condensed air rolled over them and scattered mercenaries and furniture like a bomb blast. Ryoko grabbed onto Mihoshi's and Kiyone's arms and phased them all through the deck, after one last concerned glance at her husband.

* Naja's three remaining Power adepts, struggling to regain their feet, convulsed under Tenchi's fully-manifested Power envelope. Blanim curled into a ball and wet his pants, gibbering in absolute terror; Breemmilie and Vyayla fell to the floor, muscles locked and eyes wide open, panting like locomotives. Both females succumbed to an age-old imperative, turned towards Tenchi, and began to crawl forward — until they encountered each other. Vyayla grabbed Breemmilie's shoulder, shouting for her partner to Get-Lost-And-Leave-Him-Alone-He's-Mine! Breemmilie shoved her partner to the floor, Vyayla kicked her partner in the ribs, and they fell to exchanging blows.

* The main lighting flickered and died, and the battery back-up system kicked-in. The chamber was bathed in red emergency lighting, consoles and monitors shutting down indiscriminately, and the brightest light in the chamber was from the Lighthawk manifestations.

Naja was slammed into the bulkhead behind her, the wind knocked out of her lungs. She gasped, trying to recover her breath, trying to fight off the effects of Tenchi's Power envelope. Both objectives required a strenuous effort, and then she pulled herself forward to look at the chaos that her bridge had become. Broken bodies were piled everywhere, some moaning painfully. Her female lieutenants were rolling on the deck, locked in a loud violent struggle. Her surviving male lieutenant was catatonic and useless. Her hostages were gone. Her ship was helpless. And the greatest Power adept in human space was watching her coldly.

##########

The teleport jammer died with the lights, so Ryoko was now completely unhindered. Unfortunately, she had been unconscious when brought aboard, and so couldn't target the hangar deck. Instead, she flew herself and her partners down the length of the ship's main corridor, phasing through metal and flesh obstructions, until she located the hangar deck. It was a cavernous space filled with parked shuttles, and pitch black except for the scattered emergency lights. Even the air circulators had stopped pumping.

Ryoko lowered her partners to the deck, and felt a familiar tingle in her mind. "Ryo-ohki?"

The cabbit leaped out of the shadows and onto her shoulder, purring rhythmically.

"Yeah, I'm glad to see you, too. Thanks for bringing Tenchi to us." She would interrogate the cabbit's memory later, extracting all the details of her run to safety. For now, she was just glad to see her life-long Companion safe and sound.

She heard footsteps and turned to face the source, her energy sword gleaming brightly.

Trinnard and his friends entered from a side door at a dead run, battery-powered torches throwing cones of light ahead of them. "We've got company coming!" He paused in front of Kiyone, and they examined one another. "Any injuries?"

"Nope. You?"

"Nope. Later?"

"Later." They nodded to one another, satisfied.

Ryoko and Mihoshi couldn't resist exchanging grins. "True love, huh?" said the latter. The former chuckled.

"Mrrrrowwwr!" snarled the cabbit, rolling above the deck towards the outer bay doors. She was contorting and enlarging at a phenomenal rate, no longer recognizable as the quadrupedal creature of moments before. She phased through the bay door and kept expanding.

Footsteps could be heard from the corridor recently vacated by Trinnard and his associates. "We'd better get ready for our visitors," he growled.

They didn't have the chance. There was a shimmer as Ryo-ohki's teleport beam grabbed them all, and they vanished. The contingent of Naja's mercenaries that crept into the hangar deck a moment later found it completely deserted.

##########

Naja considered her options, calculating the success of her alternate plans, and reached a conclusion: abandon ship and try again later. She waved her hand and a dimensional doorway materialized a few steps away. She withdrew a small metal sphere from her robes, her thumb hovering over the single red button inset into its surface. She studied Tenchi casually. "You know, boy, I'm almost going to regret killing you. You're different from all of the other pampered and power-mad fools that have claimed the throne."

"How so?" Tenchi asked, canting his head slightly.

"You have dirty fingernails and a clean conscience. You have a spine, and a sense of morals. I haven't seen your like in the House of Jurai in thousands of years. Even if I let you live, you'll come to a bad end."

"Really?"

"Really. You'll fight the corruption until you're overwhelmed, and then take a lot of innocent people with you when you fall. Or else your unswerving honor will get you assassinated young."

"You're probably right," Tenchi admitted. "Tell me, why do you hate my family so much?"

Naja considered the question. "How much do you know about me?"

"Very little. Washu won't discuss you, and the records are incomplete. Probably biased, anyway."

"You are good," she smiled. "Okay, boy, I'll swap information with you. I'll tell you about my past, and in exchange you tell me about the Lighthawk Wings. Deal?"

"Deal."

##########

Ryo-ohki fled from Naja's stricken ship at maximum speed. When asked why by Ryoko, she informed her mistress that it had been Tenchi's last instruction to her.

"Where are we going?" Kiyone asked.

Ryoko swiveled the pilot's chair around to face the group gazing at the wall-sized monitors. "We're going to rendezvous with Tsunami."

"I don't see her anywhere," Mihoshi said. "Wait! What's that?"

There was a shimmer in the blackness ahead, and a vessel decloaked. The great wooden tree ship, lights blazing, could be seen floating regally. And behind her was shattered remains of a GP cruiser.

Mihoshi's wrist alarm started beeping, and she flipped the switch to trigger the communicator. "Yukinojo?"

"Welcome back, Mihoshi. What's your status?"

"We're alive and well. What about you?"

"I have already begun essential repairs, and will contact the GP Sector Office once we have returned to Jurai."

Mihoshi breathed a sigh of relief.

Another shimmer appeared in the air beside Ryoko, and the projection solidified into a tall woman with long blue hair.

"Tsunami," Ryoko said.

"I see you are all uninjured. That is gratifying."

"Tenchi didn't come with us, though."

"He will join us shortly."

"Are you sure of that?" Mihoshi asked.

"Quite sure," the image replied.

##########

"What do you know about K1190?"

"It was a research station that was attacked by pirates. A lot of lives were lost. You were MIA and considered dead."

"K1190 was indeed a research station, established by the Juraian Royal Space Academy. I was the station manager, overseeing my own research as well as nearly 200 other projects. There were almost 1,800 people on-site; students and faculty, and many brought their families. There were so many children, in fact, that we had to set-up a small school for them. Almost all of them died in the attack."

"What has that to do with my family?"

Naja pursed her lips and paused, looking more like a scholar than a terrorist. "I've done a little bit of study about your homeworld. In the previous generation, a situation arose where two superpowers were engaged in a cultural fight for domination. They were too powerful for direct confrontation, so most of their battles were fought by proxy states."

"The Cold War," Tenchi replied.

Naja nodded. "The same situation has been repeated throughout human history, on larger and smaller scales. Each side donates weapons and advise to little piss-ant governments with a grudge against their neighbors, and then those fools flay one another into extinction. And the innocents get caught in the crossfire."

Tenchi said nothing.

"Your ancestor was directly responsible for shipping munitions to the local warlord, who decided to test his new toys on an unarmed research station. There were only a handful of survivors...there are always survivors, of course...and the reigning emperor gave his blessing to the discreet disposal of all of the witnesses. We were a political liability, capable of raising wide scale condemnation. I was lucky enough to escape the first assassination attempt, and went into hiding. The others were not so lucky — except that Seto woman, who was blood-kin to the Royal Family. They bought her silence with a wedding ring." Naja snorted. "I swore an oath to avenge all those men, women, and children in my care. My care! And I let them down!" She stared at Tenchi with a cold fire in her eyes. "I won't rest until your family has been eradicated like the vermin they are."

"The House of Jurai has many branches. It won't go down quietly."

"Don't underestimate me, Boy. I can be very persistent. I'll get them all, sooner or later."

"Even Washu? She was your best friend, once upon a time. She's my wife, now, and our daughter bears the family name."

"She has chosen to reform the clan from within. I admire her for that, even though I think it's a wasted effort."

"You could help, you know. I would rather see someone of your caliber as my advisor, rather than my enemy."

She laughed derisively. "You couldn't trust me, boy. No one else would."

Now it was Tenchi's turn to laugh. "I don't trust anyone now, other than my family. Why should you be any different?"

Naja stared at him, her face an inscrutable mask, as she considered the temptation.

"Tell me," Tenchi asked softly, "at what point do your sins exceed those you accuse my ancestors of? Who will avenge the people you've slain? You're just extending the cycle of retribution."

Naja's lips compressed into a tense line. "You killed my son."

"He was trying to kill me. He had kidnapped and assaulted the women I love, and had tried to scorch my homeworld. What would you have done?" Naja made no reply. "Did you know he had imprisoned Washu on the Souja for all those centuries?"

"No, I didn't know it. I might have made some effort at intervention if I had." She shrugged. "Kagato was rotten to the core. But I loved him, despite the venom in his veins."

It was Tenchi's turn to wear a noncommittal mask.

"Enough of my sad tale. What of the Lighthawk Wings?"

"What do you know about them?" Tenchi asked.

"You were born with certain genetic predispositions, and Tsunami showed you how to access them."

Tenchi grinned. "That had to come from Washu's private files — the part about Tsunami is not public information."

Naja shrugged. "Guilty as charged."

"It's generally thought that the wings are the ultimate personal defense system. The royal space trees can generate them, as do I. However, that's an inaccurate assumption."

"Oh?"

"They are merely tools for focusing thoughts and energies, nothing more. An expression of creation."

Naja was silent for several moments, lost in thought. "And the Lighthawk Sword?"

"A manifestation of the wings, like the armor. In essence, the wings are like lumps of clay, to be molded and partitioned and shaped into whatever form the artist desires. The final goal is expanding the mental capacities of the adept."

"And the source for your Power? You're far too strong for most artificial or environmental sources."

"The quantum vacuum," he replied.

"Gods..." she muttered. "No wonder you're so damn potent." Now she understood why she had not been able to generate shields that would cut him off from his energy source — his source was omnipresent. And it explained why her son had been bested by a teenage boy. "How old are you?"

"Almost 25," he replied.

She cursed under her breath. Most adepts didn't fully mature until well into their 50's; if he was this powerful at 25, what would he be like in 30 years? Washu was absolutely right to grab this one, damn her. That pretty much settled the issue in her mind. "Now I'm sure you have to die, boy. Nothing personal, but I can't let your DNA filter into the next generation. You and your offspring will keep a stranglehold on the empire forever. I can't allow that."

"My offer still stands," he said quietly. He didn't move, simply watched her with a sad expression.

She hesitated, and the fire in her eyes cooled. "I wish we'd met under different circumstances, Your Majesty. I think there's much we'd have taught each other." Her regrets were softly spoken, and her aged face seemed more haggard than ever. But it lasted only a moment, and then her voice hardened. "Give my regards to Washu."

She pressed the single stud on the sphere in her hand and tossed it onto a nearby console. She started hobbling towards the dimensional doorway.

"I can't let you leave, Naja," Tenchi said.

She stopped, sighed deeply, and turned to face him. "I just started the timer on this station's autodestruct. You have about two-and-a-half minutes before everything for 10,000 klicks around turns to very hot plasma. Now, you can either let me go, you can kill me, or we can stand here debating until we're both dead."

Tenchi nodded. If he let her enter the portal, he would be subjecting his family to all manner of threats for many years to come — and statically some of them were bound to succeed. His family would die by inches. That didn't even count the terrorist actions she would commit, and the greater loss of life that entailed. Killing her would be more execution that murder, since she had already admitted to her crimes on numerous occasions. It was a distasteful choice.

But he knew his duty, to his family and to his realm, no matter how distasteful it might be.

"What's it going to be, boy? Free me or kill me." She stepped towards the portal, a satisfied smug on her face.

Tenchi opened the mind-link with her, dreading the next few moments. To his heightened senses her mind appeared as an amorphous fog that extended well beyond her body. He ignored the image, forcing Power down the link and directly into her autonomic nervous system.

The seizure he initiated caused her to black-out instantly, so she never felt her vital systems collapse like dominoes. Her chest muscles constricted, compressing her diaphragm and causing immediate suffocation. Her heart suffered ventricular fibrillation, and it ceased pumping. She relinquished control of her bladder, emptying the contents onto her robes. Her head snapped backwards in a silent scream, her knees buckling under the assault, fists clenched into rigidity. She hit the floor with a thud, quivering and convulsing. Her cane clattered to the floor next to her shaking body. Tenchi continued to apply Power until he was reasonably sure that her life had been extinguished.

He gestured, and a ball of blue-white light appeared around her body, lifting it off the floor and straightening her limbs. The Lighthawk Wings above him elongated and descended, forming a cocoon. Both Power constructs hovered for a moment before phasing through the bulkhead and accelerating away from the ship.

Behind him, the timer concluded its countdown and issued commands to the ship's reactor core.

##########

Ryoko was watching the monitor screens scattered about Ryo-ohki's command deck, waiting for some sign of her husband. She was unprepared for the sudden flare in the sky. "What the hell?"

"Naja's ship just blew up!" Kiyone exclaimed.

Mihoshi and Ryoko exchanged worried looks. "Where's Tenchi?" the former asked.

"He is unharmed," Tsunami replied. "He is approaching even now."

It was true: they soon recognized the twin spheres racing toward them at an incredible velocity. Tenchi could transit across realspace at near-relativistic speeds, but even he could not outrun the lightspeed flash when Naja's vessel exploded. Behind him a fireball was seen to be swelling like an incandescent blister, spitting radioactive debris and detritus into the interstellar emptiness.

He passed them without stopping, barreling into the endless night towards the distant stars. Ryo-ohki and Tsunami (still towing the shattered Yukinojo) were soon racing after him.

EPILOGUE

Title — "Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead," Part I

Ding Dong! The Witch is dead. Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch!Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead.Wake up — sleepy head, rub your eyes, get out of bed.Wake up, the Wicked Witch is dead. She's gone where the goblins go,Below — below — below. Yo-ho, let's open up and sing and ring the bells out.Ding Dong' the merry-oh, sing it high, sing it low.Let them knowThe Wicked Witch is dead!

Title — "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead," Part II

As Mayor of the Munchkin City, in the County of the Land of Oz, I welcome you most regally.But we've got to verify it legally, to see;To see?If she,If she?Is morally, ethic'lly,Spiritually, physically,Positively, absolutely,Undeniably and reliably Dead!

As Coroner I must aver, I thoroughly examined her. And she's not only merely dead, she's really most sincerely dead.Then this is a day of Independence for all the Munchkins and their descendants!If any!Yes, let the joyous news be spread that the Wicked Old Witch at last IS dead!

Music by — Harold Arlen (b. Hyman Arluck)Lyrics by — E. Yip Harburg (Edgar Yipsel H.)From the Film — The Wizard Of Oz" 1939

Tenchi and his ladies stood in the common room, clustered into one corner near the cribs where Achika and Azusa slept. One crib quivered, and Tenchi looked down at his daughter. He scooped her up gently and placed her on his shoulder. She fidgeted for a few seconds before drifting back to sleep. His son slept soundly in the other crib.

Floating in the other corner was the luminescent bier that contained Naja Akara's body. Washu regarded the glowing sphere with an unreadable expression. "We were friends, you know? Partners. We complimented one another. I based my research on intuition and flashes of brilliance; she preferred to work through all the details with dogged determination. We always reached the same conclusions, and confirmed one another's' results. We made a great team."

"The Naja you knew died a long time ago," Tenchi said.

"I know," Washu nodded. "We didn't talk to one another until after Kagato's death. I never blamed her for Kagato, and she never apologized for him. Her loathing for the Royal Family was too ingrained to be reasoned with, and when I married you..." Washu shook her head sadly. "In the end we had drifted too far apart." She placed her hand on his arm and gestured towards the portal to her lab. "Still, she was pretty clever. This might not be the real Naja. I need to run some tests."

The portal opened, and she stepped through it, followed by Tenchi and Naja.

The others watched them leave, then looked at one another.

Ryoko cleared her throat. "Ayeka, can we talk?"

##########

Washu's lab never seemed to change. But the lights seemed cold and somber, and the machinery sung to each other with an indifferent rumble. Tenchi instructed the ball of blue-white light to deposit Naja's body on the biobed. He dispersed the Powerball, and its absence left that corner of the lab in semi-gloom.

Washu walked slowly to stand over the corpse, then activated a series of sensors and instruments that probed the body in great detail. After several minutes, they settled into inactivity, and she turned them off one-by-one. "Yes, it's definitely Naja. It's not a clone, and it's not an android. This is...was... Naja Akara."

"I'm sorry, Washu."

"It's okay, Tenchi. You did the right thing. How did she...?"

"It was as quick and painless as I could make it." Tenchi offered no details, and Washu asked for none. He turned to go.

"Tenchi? Would you leave Achika here with me?"

"Why?" he asked, puzzled by the request.

"Because, I need to hold a piece of my future while I say goodbye to a piece of my past."

Without another word, Tenchi placed his sleeping daughter on her mother's shoulder, backed away soundlessly, and exited through the portal.

##########

Tenchi was surprised to find Ryoko and Mihoshi waiting for him, their faces wreathed with conspiratorial smiles. Behind them Ayeka sat on one of the sofas, a smirk on her face. Sasami sat beside her, a grin stretched from ear-to-ear.

"Uh, what now?" he asked.

"Well, lover, Mihoshi and I had this long talk on the out-bound leg of our recent adventure," Ryoko said. "And it seems we have certain goals in common."

"We sure do," Mihoshi replied. "And it seems that you figure prominently in them."

Tenchi groaned, shoulders slumping. "Oh, no..."

"Oh, come now, Beloved," Ayeka said, "it can't be as bad as all that."

Ryoko and Mihoshi stepped forward and glomped onto their husband, cackling with anticipation.

Tenchi turned a surprised expression on each, and then on Ayeka, who continued to smirk at him. "You aren't contesting this?"

Ayeka shook her head, grinning like a Cheshire cat. "We struck a bargain: they get you tonight, and tomorrow the normal schedule resumes — with my week first in the rotation."

"Time's wasting, eh, Mihoshi?" Ryoko leered.

"Sure is," Mihoshi leered back.

"Shall we begin with that zero-gravity experiment?"

"Absolutely!"

"Oh, God," Tenchi managed to say, before Ryoko teleported them away.

Ayeka and Sasami exchanged chuckles, Ayeka's thoughts turning expectantly to her bedpost manacles, and Sasami's imagination painting a vivid picture of the events transpiring in Mihoshi's suite.

#################### Author's Notes ####################

The title of this story is derived from the Japanese concepts of "gimu" (legalistic duty), "giri" (social or status obligation), and "on" (personal, often overarching obligation). To discharge a debt requires an individual to accept ethical and social constraints, as well as perseverance and personal responsibility. Debts travel many directions, weaving an unbreakable spiderweb: Emperor subjects, boss employees, parents children, friend friend, friend enemy, etc. And some debts can simply never be repaid, increasing in scope with the passage of time.

"Like A Prayer" was written by Madonna and Patrick Leonard. You are free to substitute any piece of music you choose, naturally, but I found this tune to be quite appropriate for the setting. After all, Ryoko being who she is, and the lyrics being full of double entendres, and a few of the phrases being applicable to her abilities...

On the subject of applying environmental sounds when building a certain mindset, I would refer you to "Sound & Fury: Auditory Elements in Martial Ritual" by John J. Donohue, Ph.D., Journal Of Asian Martial Arts, Volume 9, Number 4. It is a discussion of how sounds and music can be applied in martial training as well as on the battlefield, and the author looks at examples from Europe and Japan. Quite interesting.

If you would like further information about the nature of quantum patterns, or you just want to understand what they are, I highly recommend reading The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot, Harper Perennial, 1992, ISBN 0-06-092258-3, or the writings of physicist Jack Sarfatti and colleagues at (but you'd better have more than a nodding acquaintance with physics to follow some of their discussions).

My source material about the history of Naja Akara is based upon the "Tenchi Muyo In Depth Alternate Universes" website. I was in the middle of writing this story when John Takis posted "Washu's Lullaby" to the TMFFA website. An excellent read, highly recommended. He had access to much more detail than I had available, and rather than try to rewrite what I had, I decided to push ahead — and chalk-up the discrepancies as yet another example of the variety and inconsistencies of the Tenchiverse.

For a visual reference of Tenchi's high-speed combat motions, I recommend watching Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, Jet Li in The One, or even the Flash on Cartoon Network's The Justice League.

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: "The Chains of Our Commitments"

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