Chapter Eleven

Aria, The Imperial Court

"Oh, Edgar, was that really necessary?"

Edgar let go, and Peters's corpse fell in a clump. "If you had been to Riut, Uncle, you wouldn't ask that."

"Mm, no. But we need to move quickly now. Get word to Task Force Three. The order is given, unrestricted," he said to the side.

"Aye, sir," a reply echoed back.

Edgar shouted, "And get someone in here to clean this mess up!"

Earth Orbit, Terran Military Colony Reagan

They should've held the field day after the steel beach, Admiral Yevgeni thought with amusement. He wandered the halls of the ship, casually checking the men's work. He knew it wasn't really clean. A little imagination on his part would humiliate the crew. And it was so easy. Dust they could get to quickly they cleaned, but up on the light fixtures there would be lots of dust bunnies. So easy... and so not the time. He had bigger concerns.

The steel beach. An all-day party, where aside from standing normal watches, the entire crew was able to just kibosh. Or kibitz, or kick back, or whatever ki-word that didn't involve the deadly business they were otherwise soaked in. The lunch menu of the day would be cheeseburgers, any way you want them. The galley had even requested some charcoal grills, but Yevgeni vetoed that. Smoke was still a pretty serious danger in a contained environment, and there was no way a Colony ship was anything but contained. That was fine with the galley. They had some frozen charred patties shipped up from groundside. The patties wouldn't taste the same, but the crew wouldn't care.

The reason for the steel beach? Not the Admiral's birthday. Nor that of an Earth military or nation. It wasn't even really a holiday, except the Colonies decided to make it one. Earth's people were mildly interested in the event, although younger schoolchildren's science teachers were pumping it up a great deal. Most people lived long enough to remember this event happening once in their lives.

In short, Earth had a visitor. Halley's Comet was doing a fly-by past Earth's orbit around the Sun, and the Reagan -- all the Colonies orbiting Earth -- had front-row seats. Of the twelve still-operating Colonies, eight of them were here. The other four were on assignment.

IncludingThree Rivers, Yevgeni thought sourly. That situation put a damper on Yevgeni's enthusiasm, and he tried to not let it show. Three Rivers was sixteen hours late with her first comms buoy, four hours late with her second. Ordinarily, he'd just outright cancel the steel beach and scramble the Colonies to find their sister. Except she was last ordered into the heart of Arion space. Having additional Colony ships would simply provoke the Arions, when he was trying to sue for peace. Besides, Peters was a very competent captain, and they were under orders to not dispatch buoys from within the Arion system.

Peters. Peters was a maverick, and might be negotiating that way. Yevgeni had wanted her to see this, to bring word of peace on and off Earth just before Earth's telescopes caught Halley with its pants down. Instead, nothing, and Yevgeni didn't dare touch off a panic yet. Peters was good, damned good, and Yevgeni knew it. If diplomacy took that long -- and none of them were that practiced at it -- then so be it. Peters would take as long as she needed, and do it with a smile.

Yevgeni would let her. It was frustrating, though, when time was... no, had run out. Halley was so close now to Earth's orbit and coming into view of Earth's amateur telescopes. And the steel beach had already begun.

Yevgeni resigned himself to it. He might as well go down and enjoy himself.

He wished he could've had the whole fleet here for this. He'd've given the comet a full honor guard, eight ships in pairs it would pass through. Each ship would dim her lights in salute as Halley passed. Halley's comet was the original starfarer, a brother or distant cousin to old Hercules, the first Colony to take (reluctantly) to the stars. It was too bad. Halley deserved the red-carpet treatment. Maybe on its way out again...

Yevgeni heard a loud cheer, and knew the alcohol had arrived. He grimaced. Try as they might, no officer of the Colonies had been able to keep liqour off the ships for very long...

The three of them stood on the moon's dark side, respectfully. Sharon had introduced Xara to the comet soon after the younger one had learned to fly. Xara never missed another flyby, but never again did she try to land on it... The first time was memorable enough; Xara could smile about it now.

Besides, Cory needed the company. Her husband had stayed onplanet, and though Xara knew who it was, she had no way to contact him. Sharon didn't know Cory's husband at all. The silence, the cold, was as if Cory had decided to fly off to a jump point at half her normal speed. The loneliness, the inability to communicate with anyone because there was no one around who could live long in that environment, had tested many Protectors and Scribes over the centuries. As surely as it was testing Cory now.

Apparently, Cory's husband just couldn't be with her. Xara thought not-too-unkindly about him, not anymore, as he reminded her of Eric. Ah, Eric, Mom's flame from so long ago. The world was in one piece then, as now, but it was hardly peaceful, as it is now. The fundamentals never change. Turning her thoughts to Cory's husband, she wondered what he was now. Probably a stockbroker or something. That would explain why he wouldn't be here. The pressures of that are killing, mind-bending. She must miss him terribly.

Each of them wore a special set of hearing aids. Not to hear each other talk, of course. But to keep them connected to Moon-orbiting satellites up above, transmitting and receiving between Earth and the Moon's observatory telescopes. By a friendly arrangement, a radio broadcaster focused on Halley's Comet was speaking about the approach, and the appropriate powers relayed that broadcast over the Moon's comms satellites, built for lunar colonies that never happened. Cory had closed her eyes in delight when she plugged the little beige tab into her ear, as it released a puff of air in to the newly sealed area and started vibrating.

Really an ingenious design the Enlightenment had cooked up centuries before, Sharon had remarked. She'd soldered Terran versions of them together a couple days ago for her colleagues.

"The images are coming in very clearly now... Angola is enjoying the full view of the comet... really quite extraordinary. The, uh, tail region is estimated to be... What the..."

Those last two words startled Xara. She snapped her eyes open from the radio show and moved her eyes to find the comet. It didn't take very long. Sharon and Cory were on their feet, their mouths open in amazement.

Halley's Comet was there... and there, and there, and there, and there too... "Halley's Comet appears to have broken up, ladies and gentlemen, very suddenly. The nucleus is moving in several separate directions, somewhat chaotically, and the tail has lengthened considerably... We have no information as to why this is happening..."

Sharon wanted to say, "Look," as she pointed. But it was useless to try, as none of them had air in their lungs. Nonetheless, both Xara and Cory narrowed their vision to look precisely where Sharon pointed, to follow her arm towards the comet.

A small shadow flew under the largest chunk of comet debris, around it and headed straight for Earth. On the other side, Xara noticed another shadow, a lump of dark... something, with sharp edges, flying through the boiling gases.

Sharon and Xara leapt for the comet, already fearing the worst. Cory, trained to think first as a Scribe, leapt up a couple seconds later. It didn't take them long to figure it out.

Nor did it take the newscaster on Earth very long, as his voice continued rapidly, "Ladies and gentlemen, we appear to be under attack by a large number of unidentified objects coming out of the remains of Halley's Comet..."


HUH? Surprised people on the Reagan looked at each other, wide-eyed. GQ? In a steel beach?

This was not the time to run a drill... which meant, of course, that it wasn't a drill. A couple sailors had already hit the booze pretty hard, and several more than a little, but it didn't matter. Nearly the entire complement in the hangar bay rushed for the hallway doors, to get to their battle stations.

Organized chaos would have been a kind way to put it. Pandemonium would've been accurate. There weren't fistfights, but there were hundreds trying desperately to get through each door, which was only two meters wide. The shouting overwhelmed the alarm gong, even the petty officer of the watch, detailing how people should move about the ship. Not that it mattered, with that many people in one place.

It was the same on every other Colony ship orbiting Earth. It was seven minutes before the Admiral reached the Reagan's bridge. Seven minutes during which, of course, the officer of the deck had broken Earth orbit to meet the attackers, but also seven minutes whereby the Fleet had no one in charge giving orders the various captains would listen to. Nobody commanding a Colony respected a lieutenant commander who was merely the admiral's chief of staff.

Seven minutes which spelled disaster. Yevgeni was kicking himself in the ass mentally, with all the force he could muster. How could he be so stupid?

The last Arion task force had taken three days to get from their jump point to Earth. Simple laws of physics and Arion ship design made it impossible for them to arrive any faster. That was why Yevgeni had been patient with Peters, had let the steel beach go on. The Arions couldn't have silenced her and sent a strike force against them that fast. Assuming, of course, that they left the jump point three days ago...

"They're dispersed, sir, all over the damn place..."

"I got bogies, coming in!"

"I count sixteen ships, sir..."

"And the bogies?"

"Sixteen of them, too, sir, leading the ships, heading for us."

Yevgeni blinked when he heard that. "That doesn't make sense," he muttered quietly.

"Sir?" Someone overheard him.

He repeated himself more loudly, then called the ship's captain over. The executive officer ordered the force fields raised, and the mist deployed. To the captain, he said, "Why would the Arions try that trick again? We beat them off before, and they know it. Why would they come after us now?"

"Obviously, they used the comet for cover, sir."

Yevgeni looked at the captain. The captain stared back. They both knew who was to blame for this: all of them. They also knew there wasn't time for recriminations right now.

"Radar contact! Off to starboard, very distant... looks like three more bogies coming up from the Moon, on an intercept course with the raiders."

"Designate them friendlies, Chief; that's probably Xara and the others."

"Aye, aye, sir!"

"Estimated time of impact, two minutes!"

Two minutes. A sudden near-silence fell on the Reagan's bridge. Two minutes where they could do nothing but wait for the Arions to make fools of themselves. Some radiated confidence, others fear of what would happen next, if the Arions did something different... The three "friendlies" ignored the advance group and went for the nearest ships.

The seconds ticked by. Yes, the mist was in place, as were the force fields. No, the Arion Primes (they had to be Primes) were still aiming straight at them. No, the Primes would reach the Colonies before the friendlies reached the attacking fleet.

"All hands, brace for impact! Prepare to repel boarders!"

"Six, five, four, three..."


Yevgeni's eyes shot to a lookout. The lookout continued, shouting far too loudly, "They're turning!"

Indeed, they were turning hard to their right, to the left of the Reagan.

To Earth.

Oh, shit...

The one thing they couldn't prepare for, and couldn't stop. The invasion of Earth, by Primes.

The admiral's voice was shaky as he said, "Get the commander-in-chief of U.N. forces on the radio."

Cory grabbed Xara's hand very roughly, jerking Xara off course. Xara's head snapped over to see what had pulled so forcefully on her arm, nearly tearing her shoulder out of its socket, but her eyes landed on the Primes first.

Oh, shit...

Xara grabbed Sharon's foot... and three seconds later they veered off in pursuit. But they knew it was already far, far too late.


The first salvos from the Arion task force struck, hard, before the lookout could finish. They went right through the force fields, through the mist... through each Colony ship, and through the force fields again... The Reagan shuddered, grievously wounded with the first blow.


"Aye, sir," a voice cried out.

"Won't do much good, sir," the navigator said quietly. "Recommend a quick microfusion jump behind them."

The captain caught on immediately. Yes, with war shots moving that fast, from that far away, thrusters left them as very expensive tin cans. "Do it!" The navigator hurried to his station and laid it in. Without waiting, the ship jumped.

Too late, Yevgeni saw the strategy of his opponent. First they had hidden themselves on the far side of the comet where no one would think to look for them, and where they wouldn't show up on radar. Either that or in the tail. Probably behind it. That let them get in close without his detecting them. Then the Primes decoyed, heading for the ships until the last possible second, drawing the Colony ships' attention. That left the three Vels (no, two Vels and Xara, dammit) heading for the wrong targets, which were fully prepared to deal with the Colonies.

Xara and the others could defeat the Arion ships... with time. Time that would be bought with the lives of millions on Earth, maybe one or two billion lives. The Arions knew that, and had loaded the dice anyway, throwing five times what they had on their side against them.

Not to mention the ships, which had their rear guns already loaded... unfortunately for the Reagan and other Colonies jumping to the ambush. The lookout didn't even get to open his mouth when the next shot struck.

The navigator swore loudly and hit a few buttons, without orders. This time the jump was truly random, taking them to a position above, to the left a little, and behind the raider fleet. Six other ships followed suit, to other areas, one landing in the middle of the dispersed raiders' formation.

The seventh, Lincoln, didn't move. Yevgeni blinked, seeing the disaster unfold before him. What he didn't know was that it took time to reload the electromagnetic guns which accelerated pellets to five percent of lightspeed. Several seconds later, Lincoln did start moving, on thrusters. Meanwhile, the Arion fleet, which still outnumbered them two to one, started breaking up their approach and picking targets to pursue.

Very suddenly, Lincoln lurched suddenly, two massive explosions on her hull evident. One almost at her bow, another almost at her stern... exactly opposite the first explosion. On the opposite side of the ship.

It happened three more times almost immediately. The lights went dark on the Lincoln, and her thrusters faded to nothing. Gases were pouring out of her.

Yevgeni closed his eyes, listening to damage reports absently, mourning the loss of thousands in a few minutes.

"It's working..." a voice quietly said. Yevgeni opened his eyes. The navigator had spoken to his captain. "We're jumping every few seconds, sir, to random locations. The Arions can't keep a lock on any one ship long enough to fire on us. The other Colony ships are doing the same." Great minds think alike, the navigator reflected.

No one chose to harass the navigator about taking the ship on a joyride. Very probably, he'd saved their asses.

"All right, what about us retaliating? Can we drop a M-F bomb on them where they are?"

The navigator shook his head. "No, sir, no mother bombs for us right now. I'm barely able to keep us alive, but the targeting computer will need some warning of when and where we jump to before we do that. I'll need a few minutes with Weps to program it right."

Yevgeni interrupted. "No, no M-F's. Thermonuclear warheads only."

The navigator and ship's captain looked at each other. The captain decided to speak. "Sir, with all due respect, the microfusion bombs can eas..."

"No microfusion bombs, Captain. We still have forces in-system that are on our side, and that would be seriously hurt by a microfusion explosion here."

The captain nodded. That was sensible, even if it made their job a lot harder. Each Arion was quite far apart from the others; a direct hit on one would miss everybody else. Sixteen bombs on target... and God knows how many misses...

"Sir! The Eisenhower, she..."

"I see it," the captain said grimly. Eisenhower had just executed her last jump... partially into the same space occupied by an Arion warship. The flash terrified them, even at this distance. "Widen the jump radius." Bad enough to think of the metal and rocky hulls which had just been merged forcefully. Worse to think of the people merged equally forcefully with metal and rock, or with other people... The captain swallowed, turning very green instantly, and headed off the bridge.

Yevgeni nearly did the same, the horror he felt. Eisenhower's lights were also dimming, her gases leaking... and then a series of small flashes took her place. The Arion ship Eisenhower had "collided" with activated a self-destruct.

Fifteen of them, six of us... damn them. Then he lost sight of Eisenhower's grave as the Reagan jumped again.

A stalemate. As long as the six remaining Colony ships kept random-jumping, they couldn't be hit... but they couldn't hit anything in return, either. A nuke too close to Earth would knock out electricity over a whole continent, just when they needed to fight the Arion Primes for survival. Only the navigator and the weapons officer on each Colony ship could shift the balance in their favor, and that would take time. And of course, they couldn't do anything about the Primes wreaking havoc on Earth, because the only solutions they had were thermonuclear and microfusion bombs that would kill millions on their own. Assuming, of course, that each Prime they targeted stayed close enough to Ground Zero -- an uncomfortable term for an all-too-familiar event.

There were sixteen Primes on the planet, probably just coming out of re-entry now...

Tokyo, Japan

Pi'atr limped a little, cursing himself. Stupid. Primes aren't cannonballs. He'd thought it would be a pool of steel, not steel crystals. His aim was rotten -- the back of his ankle had struck a kevlar-reinforced beam at Mach 2. Hurt like... well, it hurt... but behind him, the world's tallest skyscraper was wounded.

I'm going to finish it, Pi'atr decided. He'd landed near a major street, major and crowded. He'd seen traffic like this on Aria as a boy. Rush hour. He calmly -- but with fists clenched -- walked to it and entered the highway... on its right side.

Straight into head-on traffic.

Two cars swerved immediately. The driver of the third, talking on his cell phone and looking back, never saw him. Pi'atr timed it... and put his foot down at the front of the car's hood.

The car suddenly had a force greater than 400 times its own weight added to its front axles and wheels, and was moving forward at 132 kilometers per hour. Physics took over and flipped the Honda. Its roof slammed into Pi'atr's face and knocked him down. The car somersaulted past him.

The driver expired a minute later.

Pi'atr grimaced. His face and upper body would've made one big "dent" in the car's frame. His back had made another in the pavement as the car nailed him down before flipping off him. Slowly, he stood up. By now, traffic had stopped, and the people nearest him looked on him in wonder. Further back, horns were honking. For his first-ever "smash everything" assignment, Pi'atr reflected, things were not going well. He'd misjudged the Terrans -- or more likely, his own strength and toughness in comparison. It was easy to do, he reminded himself.

Looking towards the tower, Pi'atr started running down the highway, into the traffic. Time for his lower body to make some "dents"...

In Tokyo, it was 3:20 in the afternoon, Thursday. By GMT time, it was 6:20 in the morning, Thursday.

Washington, D.C.

"Who's in charge here?" Lynn'dia snarled. The Secret Service, there in the White Tower, had no time to react. So much for the reinforced walls they'd done after building the Tower where the old House had stood.

"I am," a tall man in shirt and tie said, not even blinking at the nude woman standing before him -- 120 meters above ground level. This particular Prime was impressed. If it weren't for his graying hair, she might've thought him a Prime herself. Particularly since he didn't cower, didn't hesitate. A born leader.

She leaped over his large oak desk, grabbed his suit by the jacket and said into his face, "Hey, baby. I'm Air Force One, and you're going for a ride." She didn't know what the Air Force was, but she knew the name of his private government transportation. She yanked him up and back, out the hole she'd made in the wall, at 50 kilometers an hour.

Three seconds clicked by on the grandfather clock Lynn'dia had missed while making her entrance. A Secret Service agent muttered, "They took the bait. All clear."

A panel dropped from the ceiling.

They couldn't react to Lynn'dia in this tower, but they'd intercepted Admiral Yevgeni's urgent radio call. This gave them enough time to pull a switch (thank God Gibbs had remembered to turn in his service pistol)... and it had worked.

Agent Bill Gibbs was nearly a splitting image of the President -- nearly. Gibbs was six centimeters taller and outweighed him by twenty kilos that didn't show. Muscle worked like that. It was just their good luck that gave them an Agent who so closely resembled Paradox. They hadn't had lookalikes for... hell, longer than anyone on the Service could remember. Good luck for Paradox... bad luck for Facsimile. It was the job.

The same agent who'd spoken said a little louder, "Just dodged someone faster than a speeding bullet... Poor Gibbs..."

"Air Force One" was clueless, of course, or she'd've been back. Unbeknownst to any of them, Gibbs was already starting to feel his lips numb as the wind chill worked on his exposed skin.

It was 1:21 in the morning, Thursday. By GMT time, it was 6:21 in the morning, Thursday.

Stockholm, Sweden

This is where we came from? Ti'nor couldn't help but think. The blonds were everywhere. It was disconcerting.

It actually stopped him. Who knew how many Protectors -- or worse, Sa'ra'yen, might lurk here? He didn't believe the intelligence reports. Those reports said the last Sa'ra'yen had died thirteen years ago. Those reports said there were no Protectors on Earth, only a golden-haired Virago whose face they hadn't captured on film yet. No, he was spooked, simply unable to believe that these Frails were really frail.

He never touched ground. Instead, he flew west. The people below him never knew the angel of death had been that close.

It was 7:22 in the morning. By GMT time, it was 6:22 in the morning.

Bombay, India

"So many Frails!" Pat'rika was astonished.

"That's all right," Ry'olan answered. "We came here to create life. So they're in the way. Too bad... for them."

Pat'rika looked her husband in the eye. "But not for us?"

Ry'olan smiled. "No, never for us." He began to kiss her.

For the two Primes, it was their honeymoon, on an alien planet. For everyone else in the area, it was hormonal hellfire several minutes later, as the unpracticed wife didn't contain her husband's genetics, mingled with her own, properly. The city went up in an explosion so vast survivors thought it was a nuclear bomb.

"Oops," the husband said mockingly, watching the blast wave propagate out from them.

The wife, in the center of the inferno they'd created, shrugged. "It's a new thing for me." Moments later, they felt the rushing winds begin to cool them, as the smoke and heat gathered into a firestorm over their heads.

"Maybe we should try again," he whispered in her ear playfully. Of course, that had been their plan the whole time. "Which direction was that next city?"

Pat'rika smirked. "I don't know. In all the twisting around we did, I lost my bearings."

Ry'olan tensed. He had lost his sense of direction too, and the wreckage around them -- plus the smoke -- wasn't going to help. He tugged her up slowly with his flying power into the heart of the storm cloud forming over them. Into it, and above it, to find their next target. He went slowly because he knew it would take him a little time to "recharge".

It was 12:11 in the afternoon, local time. By GMT time, it was 6:41 in the morning.

Cancun, Mexico

"Oh, my God, would you look at that?" Laura uttered, awestruck.

Look they did -- all four of them, at this big hunk of a man entering the club. They were all underage -- seventeen, eighteen at the most -- and a little tipsy from their liquor.

Sure, there had been some interesting guys in the room -- but all of a sudden they were forgotten in the presence of this one point nine meter model/bodybuilder walking in. Three of them were shocked. One of them, Kristin, was impressed and smiling.

Without a doubt, he was dressed to the nines... and even those nines were having trouble holding him in. Not from fat; from slabs of muscle over his chest to chiseled legs stretching the pants he wore. Kristin couldn't help noticing something else stretching those pants too, something even more impressive.

Kristin set her drink down and put on her best "hey, baby, you haven't met a real woman before, have you" smile.

"Kristin..." Laura said in warning.

"What?" Kristin turned to look at her friend and fluttered her eyelashes. The music changed to a song they knew because last week it had been released by the Krumplers. A song three hundred years old, made fresh. "Short Short Man" -- the unclean version.

Kristin thought that song was very appropriate. She had this thing for guys who were big, in every possible way. Without a doubt, this man certainly qualified.

"Krissy, don't do it..." Paulina added. "You're drunk, girl."

Kristin laughed loudly. "We're all drunk, Paulina! Only I've had it with this cheap watered-down shit. I want the real thing." Oh, yes, she wanted it. Every last drop.

Her heels were masked by the carpet and the loud music.

For his part, Mich'el saw her coming. She was tall for a Frail -- only a head shorter than him. Tall and undeniably attractive. This would be fun. Even more fun when he saw her nips stretching the fabric of her blue-green dress. He smiled, and felt something begin to stir.

"Hi," she said huskily.

"Hello," he replied, with an odd accent. He thanked Skietra he'd taken the time to learn English, and successfully fought down the urge to wince. There was something foul on her breath.

Kristin, with all the alcohol buzzing in her head, didn't know what to say next. So she just said, "I'm kinda thirsty, and I'm wondering if you know someone who'd buy a lonely girl a drink." Her eyes batted him alluringly. She leaned forward a little, hand on her hip, the V of her dress falling forward a little. She knew what she was doing -- and yet, it was the booze talking. Sober, she was far too shy to play this game.

Mich'el played along. He looked to the side sheepishly, and quietly said, "I'm sorry, I don't have any money." Which was true. He'd stolen the outfit from the shopping center four blocks away.

"That's okay," Kristin said, stepping a little closer. She laid her hands on that massive chest, under the shirt, marveling at the power under that shirt. She had no idea just how much power it was, and if she'd known she wouldn't have come within thirty kilometers of the Prime. "I've probably had enough anyway." She moved her hands to find the edges of those pecs. He obliged her, puffing his chest out and flexing them for her.

She was astonished at how far out they came. Oh, yes, this man really had it in him. She couldn't help it, she let out a quiet "Wow..."

"You like?" The words were amused, but still oddly accented. Maybe a little French, she thought. Even better. The French had a great reputation as lovers, and by the looks of him he would live up to it.

Kristin looked over her shoulder at her friends' table. Their jaws were wide open, and Laura was cleary shaking her head, trying to warn her off. But Kristin wouldn't hear of it. "Oh, yes," Kristin said, turning back to look him in those deep eyes over the chiseled face, "I like it very much."

Mich'el suddenly felt something very cold at his waistline. Knowing what it was, he whispered in her ear, "Look down."

She did. And her own mouth widened. There it was, coming out of his pants -- at the top. Huge -- and growing!!

And she was not half a meter away from him. No one else could see that monster coming out. "I like it too," he whispered. It was still growing. The head had just cleared.

In the background, Kristin absently heard the song snidely call out, "You better put your pants back on, honey."

Suddenly she knew she had to get him out of here with no one seeing that thing climbing out. She was only seventeen -- not even eighteen -- and as much as she wanted to really work it, she couldn't do that in the club. Not anymore. She could've flirted outrageously on the dance floor while it was still hidden. But not now.

"Would you like to dance?" she asked him.

"Yes," he replied. Jesus, that thing was big now!

She grasped his hands -- huge meaty hands that would feel good on her breasts, she knew -- and turned him around, her front still covering his at close range. No one noticed what he had. She tugged him towards the door. "What are you doing?" he asked, with a curious but pleasant expression.

"I'm taking you out," she said plainly. "Honey, I love what you've got, but we can't dance in here with your little pole poking out. Besides," and here her voice turned conspiratorial, "I think you'd enjoy a private dance much more than this."

The salami continued to grow. God, he had to be nearly half out of his pants by now! Just as quietly, he replied, "I'm sure I would." That accent made her butter in his arms, she thought. She had no idea how right she was. She put a hand over it -- obstensibly, on his belly, and that's what everyone in the bar would think. Her hand barely covered it.

"Come on." She looked past him to her friends with a greedy smile.

"Oh, shit," Laura said. "We're never gonna see her again. He's gonna rape the fuck out of her." The new couple wandered out of the bar. Laura sipped at her drink, seriously depressed. Sure, the guy had been a hunk -- and if Laura thought she could handle it, she would've tried. But he was too much for her, obviously on 'roids, and she knew in her gut that was a bad thing for Kristin. She didn't want Kristin to come home with black eyes and busted-out teeth, or worse.

Five minutes later, Kristin was humming with pleasure. Ten minutes after that, she was crying in pain. Half a second later, her cries had turned to howls of agony as his sperm -- made to work in the body of a female Prime or a Protector, started going on the rampage against a girl whose insides were of ordinary human flesh. It was then, in his moment of passion, that he accidentally snapped her arms at the shoulders. She was dying, anyway, and he was just getting started. Thirty seconds later, he was spent... and the peritonitis had claimed her. One sperm had possibly reached an egg -- and all the rest were burrowing out of her, looking for other eggs. They'd go through anything else -- besides his own super-skin, of course -- to find more eggs to fertilize.

He could actually see the little holes, the ooze creeping out of her belly. It sickened him, and he left her bloody corpse to rot in the club's alley where he'd had his way with her -- with her permission. He walked off to try to clean himself up. But the damage, in a sense, was already done. He'd had his fun... and now his sperm would have theirs.

The screams of Cancun filled the night, while he wandered about, wondering what he would do next. His release had temporarily addled both his brains and his strength -- plus the knowledge that his power had done all this left him savoring the moment. Savoring the hours.

The screams went on. It was 12:59 in the morning. By GMT time, it was 6:59 in the morning.

Elsewhere in the world, the Primes had been busy. The tower in Tokyo had fallen -- and over two thousand people had already died. Facsimile, having passed over the rebuilt Baltimore, was nearing death, even as the Prime carrying him flirted and tantalized him. The Prime who'd abandoned Sweden toyed with the Royal Air Force of Britain, discovering all the ways he could cripple a military jet.

India had it worst, though. Two cities had gone up in flames, and what was left of the Indian government was shrieking curses at its ancient enemy, Pakistan, to the northwest. Pakistan denied all knowledge, of course -- and correctly so. The Indian government had no idea what was going on. Pakistan also pointed out that if it really wanted to destroy India, it wouldn't do it one city at a time, fifteen minutes apart...

Russia had its own problems. The Prime taking on that city hadn't even bothered playing games with the natives -- she simply carried a miniature nuclear weapon to the city and detonated it. Not thermonuclear, of course -- she held it just beneath her as it went off, and she wanted to absorb as much of the upward force of the blast as she could, while the downward force incinerated Moscow. She'd also lobbed a nuke she'd carried down at St. Petersburg, but her aim was poor; it struck the outskirts of the city. Within twenty seconds of the Moscow bombing, though, she had company.

Xara Kor'El had spotted the blast and zeroed in on it. It was fortunate that it was Xara and not one of the others, as neither Sharon nor Cory would've stood a chance against a freshly-energized-by-atomic-power Prime. Xara and the woman slugged it out for a good fifteen minutes before the latter finally died. Xara never uttered a word to the bitch, nor did the bitch say anything to her. After the woman was dead, Xara took stock. She was battered, hard. Her shoulders and chest ached, and a particularly low blow left her stinging. Her left shin was bruised, and her throat -- actually, just below her jaw where she'd taken a sucker punch -- was probably crushed where she couldn't talk right now.

Moscow and St. Petersburg were toast. Xara almost said she was toast too -- and hoped no other Primes carried nukes. That one, taking advantage of the charge, had nearly done her in. Her "hearing aids" were gone, probably reduced to powder when the bitch boxed her ears, so she had no idea where to go next. She needed either altitude or a radio.

She spotted a column of tanks approaching Moscow from the east. She flew down to greet them, hoping they wouldn't fire on her and make her job more difficult...

Cory had pursued another Prime to Seoul, South Korea, and spent the better part of an hour killing him. She walked away after burying him under Seoul's once-bustling downtown, three hundred meters deep. She climbed -- not flew, climbed -- out of the hole, clutching her left side. Her forehead was bruised from one or three too many headbutts, and she was dizzy.

Around her as she came to the surface, the infrastructure of the city was clearly crumbling under the assault it had survived. Cory shook her head -- lights were out all over the city, and the sun was setting. Probably no one else in the immediate area would know where she should go next. The sirens bringing aid were too little and too late, she knew, but they came anyway.

Sharon, for her part, was grimly having fun. The Virago had already made short work of two Primes and was hunting a third in Paraguay. Killing the Primes was easy. Finding them was much harder. But her "hearing aids" were still working, even if they were now hearing a Spanish broadcast. She'd forgotten the language entirely, having never really learned it in the first place, but she recognized a few city names over the broadcast, and they told her where to go.

Sharon did her best to not think about the humans who were in the line of fire. She didn't have time to think about them, and one Prime had thrown a passenger train car at her, full of people. Double-decker at that. The authorities were trying to save as many of the survivors in their wake, but there were unfortunately very few, and Sharon could not take the time to do CPR or anything else for them.

No one on the planet or in the Solar System knew it, but four Primes were already dead. That still left twelve Primes active on the planet's surface. They were busy tearing up cities across the planet: Spain, Kuwait, Surinam, Malaysia, Mongolia, Georgia, Afghanistan, Israel, West Africa, South Africa, western Australia, and Italy -- or, in the case of Italy, one small corner of it. One Prime had done her research and had gone after the Vatican. The Pope was long since dead, and she was taking her time in hunting down anyone in Vatican City. The Swiss Guards hadn't had a chance, though she took the time to make one of them very worshipful of her (and hateful of himself)...

Some Primes were active, making their presence known. Some were passive, doing their damage in such a way that no one outside the immediate areas noticed right away. Such was the way of Primal combat. It was a free-for-all, and the only order they'd been given was to be creative in their destruction. Not necessarily showy, just creative. Some were creative, others were not. It didn't matter. They still sowed terror around the world, and that was their mission. With luck, they would kill the Virago they knew about, and then nothing would stop them. They thought.

Outside Earth orbit, Terran Military Colony Reagan

"Admiral, we're receiving a call from the surface. It's the American President."

Yevgeni blinked. That was a surprise.

Over an hour, and his officers hadn't been able to fix the computers to drop bombs on the bastards. The lookouts were now totally useless, as they didn't have enough time between jumps to get their bearings on anything, much less track what was going on in space around them. They'd lost another ship to collision with an Arion.

The Arions had started taking a shotgun approach, carefully aiming to hit nothing they knew wouldn't move much. That meant their own warships, Earth, and the Moon. Anything else -- anywhere else, to be precise -- was fair game. One shot had nearly hit the Reagan. Fortunately, space was vast, and the Arions' targets were a little hard to hit.

Of course, the Terrans gave as good as they got. Yevgeni had deliberately let the Reagan wait out one jump cycle without moving, long enough to give his team a chance to aim and drop a warhead on top of a (relatively) stationary Arion. There wasn't much left of the target except ionized gases! The Arions were slow to react; they hadn't expected Reagan to actually take a shot, and thus a chance at getting creamed itself. An EM-gun shot passed cleanly through the space Reagan vacated a tenth of a second before.

Twelve to five. And Yevgeni was getting mighty tired of all this jumping. So were the microfusion plants, apparently; no less than six on the Reagan had given out already under the strain. True, it only took one to jump, and they had ten more, but that was a bad trend. In his mind, he'd worked out a tactic to respond. Get out at extreme range -- several light-seconds -- and fire from there. That far out, the distances mattered. The opposing forces' mobility mattered more. The Colonies could keep jumping about in a limited region, as long as they stayed those crucial light-seconds away from the targets. The Arions' vectors were far more predictable than the Colonies. Thus, the Terrans could fire their bombshots -- jump them into a particular location relative to the ships -- much more accurately than the Arions could target their guns on the Colonies. In short, the Colonies would know where to shoot, and the Arions -- even with their radar -- wouldn't. Radar would take so long to echo back to the Arions that the Terrans would've jumped before their enemies could fire. It'd be the Arions who were the sitting ducks.

Yevgeni was about to implement that plan, explain it to his officers and start the ball rolling, when the call came up.

At that moment, Yevgeni didn't know exactly what to do. The Terran Military Colonies had descended directly -- and literally -- from American military forces during the Fourth World War. The inclusion of Chinese nationals aboard the Colonies scarcely changed that. The American president was also the commander-in-chief of American military forces. Did that mean the President could give him an order?

Of course he could, Yevgeni rationalized. The real question was whether Yevgeni would be obliged to follow it. It was a sticky situation, one which the courts over the years had never considered. Not only that, but a large part of the Colonies had a reverence for old America and the government thereof. His officers might follow an executive order from that particular official and consider any orders of the admiral's to the contrary to be legally overridden.

Yevgeni knew he could tell the President through the comms officer that he was in the middle of a battle and now really wasn't the time for a chat, but he decided not to. He'd handle the President personally. The call alone undermined his command, and he seriously doubted the other realized it. "Let's hear it, audio only," he ordered. A moment later after the comms officer nodded, he said loudly, questioningly, "Mr. President?"

"Admiral," a gruff voice came back a few seconds later.

A voice of authority, Yevgeni noted. Not good. He didn't have any particular problem with the President. But this was really putting the pressure on him to make a snap decision he didn't want to make. He decided to raise the one point he could safely raise. "Sir, you do understand we're engaged in heavy fighting right now?" He kept his tone very respectful, no sarcasm at all. He didn't dare. He didn't want to give the man on the other end any ideas.

Which of course, that man did have anyway, or he wouldn't have called. "Yes, Admiral, I do understand. I apologize for calling you, but we have a problem down here as well." The time-delay was disconcerting to Yevgeni, but elementary physics dictated that. He hoped a few background noises aboard the Reagan were getting down there.

"Yes, sir," the admiral said non-committally.

"Now, I'm not sure if I'm allowed to give you orders or not," the President said semi-casually, with a drawl. Yevgeni's heart leaped at that until he heard the next words. "But I'm sure that if you don't do something, I and my successors won't be around long enough to give you anything. So here's what I want you to do." The President fell silent for a moment.

Yevgeni didn't think, Damn. He'd been brought up all the way from the rank of Ensign to obey orders first, long before he'd been trusted to give them. He'd lost that crucial authority at the top of the command structure, and didn't even blink at it. It was a reflex. Whatever the President asked, he would do, and it was as simple as that.

Then the President's next words reached them.

"I want you to find every single Prime on this planet and eliminate them. At any cost."

Yevgeni's eyes bulged. "Sir? Do you realize what you're asking?" Only the time-delay allowed him to finish that sentence.

If it had been a visual connection on both ends, Yevgeni would've seen the President nod slowly. "Yes, Admiral, I do. I know you, and you alone, have those microfusion bombs which would kill the Primes. I also know that if you use them as I'm asking you to do, millions of humans will die. I also know that if you don't do this, millions of humans will still die, and the Primes will go right on killing until we find some way to stop them. There's only one way I know of which can stop them -- and move fast enough to keep up with them." The President let his reasoned voice fall silent. The implications were clear.

Yevgeni closed his eyes and felt his face drop. Unfortunately, the implications were also right. There was really no way around it. He knew he couldn't ask about Xara and the others; the President wouldn't know, and the position he held wouldn't let him modify that position if he did.

It was the Fourth World War, all over again. Their Achilles heel. Nothing more than a sneak attack against enemies unprepared for it. Nothing more than millions of humans reduced to ashes. Nothing which could be avoided. Xara couldn't possibly win, not fast enough to save all the lives sixteen microfusion bombs on Earth would save.

"Admiral?" Even with the time-delay, the President knew that enough time had passed for Yevgeni to reply.

His voice barely more than a croak, he answered, "Aye-aye, sir." The sorrow carried through in his voice.

Various officers around the bridge looked at each other, very glad for once they weren't in the admiral's shoes.

Yevgeni straightened up, resolute. He smoothed out his uniform shirt, his right hand brushing over the ribbons he'd earned and was about to make worthless. He took a deep breath, long and slow. Leaving the radio channel open, he quietly but clearly said, "I want a time-on-target attack, microfusion weapons. Track every Prime you can and plot their direction. You can tell who's a Prime and who's a Velorian, right?" The weapons officer nodded. "Make sure there are no Velorians in the target regions when you launch. At the same time, we will detonate enough microfusion bombs in the vicinity of the Arion fleet to scrap it. Once again, time-on-target. All twenty-eight bombs are to go off simultaneously. The Arions are to get no warning of what's about to befall them."

A moment later, the President's voice filtered through again. "One question, Admiral. Is Washington a target?" The question was asked without fear.

Yevgeni looked to the weapons officer, who shook his head. "No, sir."

A sigh could be heard on the other end. Perhaps of relief, perhaps of disappointment at living through the order given. "One more thing, Admiral. I want you to make sure this never happens again."

"Understood, Mr. President."

"This is the White Tower, signing off." The signal faded to static. The communications officer quickly shut it off. No one on the Reagan's bridge said anything. Finally, Weps said, "Sir, I have a firing solution, but it's going to require assistance. Twenty-three microfusion bombs; we only have sixteen on board." Yevgeni looked at Weps (Twenty-three? I asked for twenty-eight.) Weps looked back, poker-faced. (Yes, sir, but only twenty-three are necessary. Five of the Primes are already dead, not showing up on my scopes.) Yevgeni didn't question it aloud. It wouldn't have done anyone any good.

To the comms officer, Yevgeni nodded. Reluctantly, the order was given. Equally reluctantly, Tiananmen acknowledged. The firing solution was shared, and Tiananmen received her firing sequence. Yevgeni thought, Bad enough for one ship to have to do this... "Take the fleet off the autojump sequence and move us six light-seconds out from Earth, towards the Sun. Weapons: When you are ready, Commander, you may fire." Better to have the light behind them to counter the light they would now make, even if they couldn't see all of it.

The order was followed without acknowledgement. Yevgeni then nodded at the weapons officer. Weps looked at his console, verified a few things, and said, "Three... two... one... mark."