Part One

It was a relatively nice day in the Supercomputer.  There were just a few clouds in the sky -- cirrus, indicating that the weather would be less pleasant tomorrow -- and the sun shined brightly.  The air was comfortably mild, not too cool for the time of year, and there was a gentle breeze.

Prime Guardian Maximillian Jennings wished he could be outside to enjoy it.

Jennings turned to regard his austere office -- budget cuts again.  He sighed wearily, then seated himself at his desk and waited for his appointment to come in through the door.

A few minutes later, that very thing happened.  A tall, well-built man with dark brown hair and glittering obsidian eyes stepped into the Prime's office.  A scraggly beard surrounded the man's perpetual frown.  He wore a uniform with a military flair, a chevron-like pattern visible on his left breast pocket.  On his right hip, an antique-looking pistol hung in its holster, though the gun was actually a quite powerful pulser.  Jennings didn't want to know how he got the gun past security.

"Please don't tell me you bribed the guards again, Nathan," Jennings said.

"Nah," Nathan Justice replied.  "Just got lucky."  Jennings looked up as ... something flitted into view behind Justice's shoulder.  It looked like a combination of a cloud, tear, and star.  The little nimbus of energy around it pulsed quickly, almost like a heartbeat.  A winking yellow star blipped in the center.  Justice glanced back, then sighed.  "Bit, weren't you supposed to stay behind?"

"YeS!" the cloud-tear-star-thing said in a faint electronic voice.  When it spoke, the star swelled larger, absorbing the cloud around it, the star becoming a yellow double-tetrahedron.  Then it returned to normal.

Justice shook his head.  "Never mind why you didn't listen to me.  I'll find out later."  He turned back, then noticed Jennings looking at him.  "Bit, this is Prime Guardian Maximillian Jennings.  Max, this is the Bit."

"Uh..." Jennings wasn't quite sure how to react.

"Just say hello," Justice said.

"Hello," Jennings said slowly.  "Pleased to meet you, Bit."

"yEs!" the Bit said in response.

"All right, Bit, now be quiet.  Max and I have business to discuss," Justice said.  "You gonna interrupt us?"

"No!" the Bit said, swelling to a pointed red star.

Justice leaned back, folding his arms.  Jennings was silent for a moment, then asked, "Bourbon?"

"Sure," Justice said.  He kept his eyes fixed on the Prime as Jennings got up to pour the drinks.  "How's your golden squad...what do you call them, Alpha Group?"

"As well as can be expected," Jennings said.  "Now that all that hacking nonsense was cleared up."  He handed Justice a glass with his drink.

"Mmphm," Justice grunted as he sipped the bourbon.  "I heard about that.  Heard they had help from the Dark Sentinel."

Jennings almost swallowed his drink the wrong way, but he recovered without slipping.  "Mmphm," he grunted back.

"Kids these days," Justice said.

Jennings cleared his throat, suddenly uncomfortable.  "Yes, well.  How are you doing?"

"As well as can be expected," Justice replied.  "Got all that legal trouble cleared up with ... Brosky."

Jennings nodded, leaning against his desk.  A couple of weeks earlier, Justice had stormed into the World Council Main Hall, into the office of Senator Albert Brosky, the chairman of the System Upkeep Committee, and -- at gunpoint -- accused the senator of attempting to surreptitiously delete an entire system to pocket the money used to 'upkeep' it.  Unfortunately, Justice had lacked any evidence, and the charge vanished into the datastream.  Brosky had tried to bring charges against Justice, but the mercenary had used some of the connections he'd earned over the years to keep himself free.

"Ah.  How'd the senator take it?" Jennings asked.

"Up the ass, I hope," Justice growled.  "The crew's fine, by the way.  Dirk's happily tinkering with the engines on the Grizzly and Sil's probably gone out on a supply run.  Sentry's ... well, Sentry.  DT-Three's just doing the same as always."

"What about your friends in Vector?"

Justice shrugged.  "Haven't heard from them, and don't care to.  I did my job, and now I'm moving on.  Last I heard, they'd managed to wrangle some money out of the Government to stimulate commerce."

Jennings nodded.  "Well, I suppose that's that ... which brings us to your mission."

Justice inclined his head slightly in a nod as he swallowed more of his drink.  "I was wondering when you'd get around to that."

Jennings went back around his desk and seated himself, withdrawing a holocube.  He pressed a control on the side.  A holo of a middle-aged man shimmered before them.  He had a slim face and gangly muscles, straw-blond hair and green eyes.  He wore the Guardian uniform with a lieutenant's stripes.

"This is Lt. Thomas Burke," Jennings said.  "One of our Guardians stationed in Mainframe.  Not overly heroic.  The days of adventure in that system are long over.  Just a rank-and-filer, really."

"Mmphm," Justice grunted, swallowing more of his bourbon.

"The trouble is this -- " Jennings said.  He flipped a switch on the holocube and Burke's image was replaced by a tough-looking Khatran with red-gold fur and a stern expression.  The Khatran wore a black uniform with a strange emblem on the front -- a triangle with three slash-marks coming downward out of the triangle.  "Lt. Burke has been captured by this person, Renei.  Renei is a member of the Crimson Claw."

"The who?"

"The Crimson Claw," Jennings said.  "They're an anti-human terrorist group."

"Hmm, more Apocalypsers," Justice said.

"No," the Prime corrected, "they are not at all like the Apocalypse.  The Apocalypse merely wants to kick the human race out of the Metaverse.  The Crimson Claw wants to eradicate us altogether."  He looked back at Renei's holo.  "The Claw is very tightly compartmented.  If we take out one cell, the loss doesn't largely affect the rest of the organization.  That makes it very difficult to completely take down the group.

"The Claw's been upset lately because their actions are routinely overshadowed by the Apocalypse," Jennings sighed.  "That's more the media's fault.  So, what Renei decided to do, apparently, was kidnap a human Guardian and publicly execute him."  Jennings sighed.  "Lt. Burke was unfortunate enough to be convenient for them.  The execution they've planned is in a week.  From what we've been able to gather, they're planning to hit a holovision station and commandeer the broadcast for the execution."

"Doesn't seem all that difficult so far," Justice said.  "Why haven't you guys tried to stop it?  Why not use one of your squads?"

"We did," the Prime said.  "They all died.  The Crimson Claw is very very violent.  They don't think twice of killing anybody who gets in their way."

"So why not just block the broadcast?"

"Renei is not known for having a good temper," Jennings replied.  "If we block his broadcast, he could conceivably kill Lt. Burke out of frustration.  We'd like to get him back with as little damage to his person as possible."

Justice shrugged.  "Whatever.  We can handle the job.  One question, though."


"Where'd you get their plans?"

Jennings thumbed the holocube again.  "There's a member of the Claw who's developed a conscience.  A F'Val named Cen il'Ensar.  He leaked the information to us.  If you can get in contact with him, he can provide more information."

Justice swallowed the last of his drink and put the glass on the edge of the desk.  He looked at the holocube.  "Does that have all the information about the mission?"

"Yes," Jennings said, handing it back.  "Good luck, Nathan.  Try not to lose your temper too often."

"No promises," the mercenary said, pocketing the cube.  He turned to the door.  "Let's go, Bit."

"YeS!" The Bit flitted to his shoulder and bobbed in the air toward Jennings, almost as if nodding in goodbye, and then swept out after Justice.

Jennings started to go back to work, but Justice paused, turning back.  He peered at the Prime Guardian.  "Why do I get the feeling you're not telling me everything, Max?"

"Lingering distrust of the Government?" Jennings offered.

Justice digested that, then grunted.  "Yeah, that's probably it.  See you around, Max."  And then he left.

Sil al'Nasen honed the edge of her slender sword, leaning against the brass-like hull of the Grizzly.  She lowered the sharpener and peered down the blade, then went back to work.  Her big Irish wolfhound, Sentry, dozed lightly nearby, nose twitching in the air.  Dirk Manning was somewhere within the ship, muttering indistinct curses at the engines.  The sleek, gunmetal form of DT-Three hovered out, then peered at Sil.  "Begging your pardon, Sil, but would you happen to know where the spanner is?"

Sil lowered her sword and looked up.  "Dirk left it right over there," she said, gesturing with the point of her sword.  She went back to work, then paused as she heard a yowl of pain within the Grizzly.  She looked back up at DT-Three.  "And the first aid kit's outside Nat's quarters."

"Thank you, Sil," the mech said, hovering over to the spanner and picking it up with its grasping hands.  "Nat should be back soon."  DT-Three hovered back into the ship, carrying the spanner.

"Mmhmm," she said, focusing on sharpening her sword.  She stood up, rousing Sentry enough for him to raise an ear in question, then made a few practice thrusts and swings with the blade.  She lowered it, then examined the blade, nodding in satisfaction.  She folded the sword shut and attached it to her belt.  That done, she took out the disc she had clipped to the back of her armor and twirled it in her fingers, inspecting the sides for chips.

Sentry suddenly perked up and stood, barking loudly.  Sil turned back around.  "Hush, Sentry," she said, seeing what had roused the hound.  "Hey, Nat.  Finished business with the Prime?"

"Yeah," Justice said.  He held up the holocube.  "Got the data here.  Once Dirk's done messing around with the Grizzly's engines, get us up and set a course for Mainframe."

"Mainframe, eh?" she said.  "What's the mission?"

"I'll discuss it on the way," the mercenary said.  He and Sil, followed by the Bit and Sentry, walked into the ship, then paused as a sweaty and dirty Dirk Manning emerged from the engine room.  He'd applied a large Band-Aid to his head.

He mopped sweat off his forehead with his tough leather workglove, then grimaced.  "Ouch."  He grumbled.  "I swear to God, one of these days, I'm gonna tear that engine apart."

"Yeah," Justice said humorlessly, "but not today.  Go get cleaned up, then get to the bridge.  We're off to Mainframe."

"Ooh," Dirk said with a grin, brushing one of his forelocks out of his face.  "Mainframe.  Sounds like fun."

Justice harrumphed.  "Right."

A half-hour later, they were on their way to Mainframe, and Justice had laid out the mission as Prime Jennings had told him.  Dirk was a bit sobered.  "I stand corrected," the mechanic said.  "It's not gonna be fun."

"The way I see it," Justice said, "is we get some more information once we get to Mainframe about where the Crimson Claw is based.  Then, Sil goes inside."

"Makes sense," the F'Val pilot said.  "If either of you try to get in, they'll shoot you just as soon as look at you."

"Once you get inside," Justice said, "locate this Cen il'Ensar.  He's our ace-in-the-hole.  We don't have any access to the Claw's plans without him."

"I'd suggest finding a hacker, too," Dirk said.  "Crack the Claw's database, then check il'Ensar's information against it."

Justice slowly started to nod.  "Yeah, and while the hacker's at it, check the Guardian dBase.  I'm not convinced Jennings told us everything."

Sil blinked.  "Hack the Guardian Base?  Nat, no hacker in their right mind will do that.  That's practically asking for trouble."

"Let me worry about convincing them," Justice said.  "For now, let's just get to Mainframe and start looking for information."  He took out his pistol and started to clean it.  "And also, remember that this isn't a pleasure trip.  We're not gonna go to any museums unless it's for a rendezvous or during a gunfight.  No sightseeing."

Dirk grumbled under his breath.  "Shut it," the captain snapped.  "We're professionals.  Pulling this off might get us back in the Government's good graces."

"Yeah," Sil said, "or Senator Brosky might just use it as leverage for his next election campaign."

"If that happens," Justice said, "then I'll beat his shark face in."

The Plug'n'Play Port Inn was a hotel/bar of middling size.  When the group arrived, it was still early, so the place was still rather empty.  A few patrons lay passed out at their tables from the alcohol they had consumed.  Justice looked at the innkeeper.  "Need a room, for three and one animal," he said.

"We don't keep animals here," the innkeeper, a sprite with aquamarine skin, said.

"You'll keep this one here," Sil said, "`cause otherwise he'll get mad."

The innkeeper scowled.  "Oh, heavens," he said with extreme sarcasm, "whatever will I do?"

Sil merely smiled as Sentry's head appeared over the bar, and then the massive Irish wolfhound stood up, placing his paws on the bartop.  Sentry snarled, showing off his impressive teeth.  The innkeeper's skin paled several shades.  "Oh, Lord-a mercy!" he said, stumbling back.  "All right, all right!"  He turned to the cardkey-rack and punched a code in, then handed it over.  "You've got the suite on the fourth floor.  Just keep that thing away from me!"

Sentry growled once more to make his point, then jumped down, panting happily as Sil scratched his head.  The innkeeper wiped sweat off his face and went back to cleaning glasses.  Justice then said, "Also, give us some drinks.  Generic 'cohol."

"Sure, sure," the innkeeper said, producing three bottles of beer, then moving down the bar to put some distance between himself and the new guests.

Justice passed out the beer, then seated himself at a table, the others soon crowding around.  "All right," he said, "we'll set up shop here.  We at least deserve better accommodations than the quarters on the Grizzly.  After we drop off our gear, we'll go about getting more information about the Crimson Claw.  Soon as we do that, Sil, you get inside.  Dirk will monitor you from out, and I'll see if I can find out if the Prime was holding back information.  I have a feeling that Lt. Burke's a bigger fish than we've been led to believe."

They nodded in agreement, and then leaned back in their chairs to drink their beer.  The Bit hovered near Justice's shoulder, curious as to the contents of this mysterious concoction, then blipped once, a simple pulse of its being.  Justice glanced at it, then looked to the side.  He raised an eyebrow.  "Hey, Bit, is that who I think it is over there?"

"yEs!" the Bit said.

"Thought so," the mercenary said.  He stood up, then motioned for Sil and Dirk to look as well.  Sil smiled softly and Dirk smirked.  "Let's go say 'hi,'" Justice said.

They went over to the table.  The patron was asleep, his black-booted feet crossed on top of the table, leaning far back in his chair.  The long, woolly coat that he wore trailed near the ground, and his black Stetson was pulled down over his eyes.  His hands wore fingerless gloves, and were currently folded on his stomach.  He snored lightly.  Justice harrumphed.  "Sil, would you do the honors?"

Sil smiled and leaned down to whisper in Sentry's ear.  The hound propped himself up on the table, then leaned forward to sniff at the sleeper's boots.  Sentry let loose a single, sharp WOOF.  Calvin West's eyes opened and he tilted his Stetson up to see what had awoken him.  He saw the canine face not more than a foot away from him and panicked.  "Oh, Jeezus Christ!" Cal said, stumbling back in his chair, then crashing spectacularly on the floor.  Sentry hopped down and came over to sniff at him.  Cal blinked as he looked at the Irish wolfhound.  "Wait a sec.  I know those teeth.  Sentry?"  The dog wuffed in response.  Cal looked up to see Justice, Sil, Dirk, DT-Three, and the Bit looking at him.  "Whoa!  What the hell are you guys doing here?"

"I might ask you the same thing, Cowboy," Justice said, wearing his customary frown.

"I'm just here temporarily," the young hacker said, standing up.  "Lookin' for a place to set up residence now that my job in Vector's over."

"Funny," Sil remarked.  "I figured Marcus and Kimball would've wanted you to stick around, what with the repairs and all."

Cowboy tipped his hat in respect to Sil, then shrugged.  "Once the Government programmers showed up, I punched out.  Too many bad memories.  `Sides, I had to let Avi's folks now what'd happened to him."  Avi Greenberg had been Calvin West's partner, but while the two had been stuck in Vector, the former had been killed by one of the viruses in the system.

"Hmph," Justice grunted.  "Nice seeing you again, Cowboy."

"Smile when you say that," the hacker grinned.  "Seriously."

"I am smiling," Justice said.  His face hadn't changed a bit.

Cowboy stared at Justice for a moment, then shook his head.  "Anyway...what brings you guys to Mainframe?"

"Work," Dirk said.  "What brought you to Mainframe?"

Cowboy shrugged.  "Money.  I'm low on cash, and I thought I might catch a break here and get enough money to get an apartment.  No such luck.  I've got a place down at the shelter."  Then he looked at Justice.  "Say, you wouldn't be able to get me any--"

"No," Justice said.  There was a pause as the young hacker looked down dejectedly, and then Justice spoke up.  "Actually, Cowboy, I may not be able to get you any money, but I think I gotta job for ya.  Let's go up to our room and discuss it."

"Forget it!" Cowboy said after Justice had explained the details of the mission to him.  "I may be a hacker, but I have my limits!  The only hackers who could concievably get inside the Guardian dBase are DaVinci, Storm, and Orion.  Maybe Sagittaria, too.  But, aside from Sagittaria, they'd all say no to what you're suggesting.  It's suicide!"

"Why wouldn't Sagittaria say no?" Justice pressed.

"Because she was goddamn crazy!" Cowboy said.  "It's a good thing she died in that government raid, or we'd all be in deep shit."  He shook his head.  "Sorry, Mr. Justice, but I won't do it."

Justice's trademark frown deepened.  Dirk blinked as he saw this, then turned to the hacker.  "Better do as he says, West.  I've seen him get that look before.  It's not healthy."

Justice's eyes narrowed ever so slightly, and it sent a shiver up Cowboy's spine.  He broke.  "Oh, Jeezus, okay!  Just don't look at me like that!"  He wiped some sweat off his brow, then said, "I'll give it a shot, but you have to understand that this sort of thing is extremely dangerous.  It's one thing to hack a System's operations like in Vector, or to hack a corporation's server, but hacking the Guardians is another thing.  Their security is better than anybody else's, except for maybe the Teracomputer.  If I get caught, I'm going to have to tell them who hired me."

"That's fine," Justice said.  "Prime Jennings gave us this mission himself.  I still have some strings I can pull to get it passed off as an outside security test."

Cowboy still looked doubtful.  "Not that I have any lack of faith in you, Mr. Justice, but somehow I'm not that comforted by it.  If word gets out about hackers being 'employed' by the Guardians, politicians like Senator Brosky will jump all over the Prime for it."  When the young hacker spoke the name of the System Upkeep Committee Chairman, he put considerable venom in it.  It was understandable.  Despite his major role in maintaining the safety of System Vector during its viral problems, Sen. Brosky had tried to have Cowboy arrested for hacking.  It was only thanks to the intervention of the system's "mayor," Frederick Marcus, that Cowboy escaped without problems.

"And if Brosky tries anything," Justice said, "I'll punch his slimy little face in."

Cowboy shrugged.  "All right.  It might take me a couple of days to get into the Guardian dBase as far as you need.  I'll need to dig out the passwords before I do anything."

Sil nodded.  "Just let us know if we can be of any help."

He hesitated, then asked, "Can I get a gun?  If we're going up against the type of people you're talking about, they might track you here, and I'll be hacking here.  I don't want to get killed without popping a few of them."

Justice looked at him, then looked at Dirk.  The mechanic dug in a pocket and produced a small blaster.  "That'll give you only a few shots," Dirk said.  "So use 'em carefully."

"Aye-aye, sir," Cowboy said.

"Right," Justice said.  "Now, Sil, you wait here.  DT, Dirk, you come with me.  We've got to go contact some people here in Mainframe who could help us out."

The mechanic nodded, then tapped a finger on the former security 'bot.  DT-Three's lights came up from sleep mode and the mech hovered into the air.  Justice nodded a good-bye to Sil and Cowboy, then left.

Justice glanced at the entrance to the seedy club.  The Bit hovered just behind Justice.  No amount of persuasion on the mercenary's part could get the thing to stay behind.  Justice looked at the Bit.  "You gonna behave yourself, Bit?"

"YeS!" the Bit replied.

"Do you know what to do if a fight breaks out?" Justice asked.

"You mean when a fight breaks out," Dirk commented.

"Shut up, Dirk.  Well?"


"Stay out of the way.  Just let me do what I do," Justice said.  He nodded to Dirk and then entered the club.  As they went through the vestibule--which was lined with various forms of electronic surveillance--a large Perovanian bouncer tossed a drunken sprite out the door.  Justice glanced back, then turned away and continued forward.

The club--Club Wayside--looked like something out of the cantina scene in Star Wars.  A squat bartender with an ugly face looked ready to tell Justice to put DT-Three outside, but he caught a glimpse of Justice's frown and quickly decided to take his business elsewhere.  Dirk removed his glove and rolled up his sleeve to expose his extensive tattoo job--which made it look like dark vines were crawling up his arm.

Justice went to a table.  A Rachallian was passed out there.  Justice grabbed the Anthro by the shoulder and threw him aside.  The Rachallian didn't seem to notice.  Justice seated himself and indicated for Dirk to sit across from him.  A dazed-looking sprite came up and said, "Orders?"  His voice was slurred; Justice suspected he was high on something.

"Colsarian brandy," Justice said.

"Whiskey," Dirk said.

The sprite staggered off to pass on the orders and then Dirk turned to Justice.  "You sure he'll be here?"

"Trust me," Justice said.  "This guy is very dedicated to his insobriety.  He'll be here."

"Let's hope," Dirk said.  "Think he saw the signal?"

"If he didn't," Justice said, "he'll see it soon enough."

Justice drummed his fingers on the table, then glanced down at the still-passed out Rachallian.  He bent down and plucked a shiv off the drunkard, then spread his hand on the table.  To pass the time, Justice played the 'knife game.'  He started stabbing the blade down between his fingers, one at a time, quickly building up speed.  Dirk watched, secretly waiting for Justice to nick himself.

A grubby-looking human came up.  He had a long dark beard and a heavy brow that threw his eyes into shadow.  He wore the uniform of one of Mainframe's hovertruck services.  Justice glanced up, then pulled his hand back.  He stuck the knife in the table.  The trucker sat down.  "Emmitt?" Justice asked.

"That's right," the trucker said.  He snorted, hocked, then swallowed.  "Ya wanna buy som' info?"

"That's right," Justice said.  He took his Colsarian brandy from the waiter and poured a glass.  "Brandy?"

"Nah," Emmitt said.  "Nevah liked th' stuff."  He picked dirt from his filthy fingernails.  "Star' talkin'.  Wha'cha wanna know?"

"Where does the Crimson Claw meet?" Justice asked.

Emmitt glanced up.  His head moved the barest millimeter to look toward the knife in the middle of the table.  The shadows hiding his eyes made it difficult to determine where he was looking.  "Why ya wanna know that?"

"None of your damn business," Dirk said.  "Just answer the question."

Emmitt sat back in his chair, folding his arms.  "Not gonna happen.  Th' Claw's not a bunch ya wanna mess with."

"And how would you know that?" Justice asked.

"Th' last person t' ask about them," Emmitt said, "was sen' home inna garbage bag."  He shook his head.  "I ain't gettin' mahself killed for info."  He saw Dirk about to speak, then leaned forward, placing his hands on the table.  "It don't mattah how much ya'd pay me.  Not gonna happen."

There was a whhhhisk of air, followed by a metallic thuk.  Emmitt glanced down to see the knife expertly placed between two of his fingers, which were closed.  He looked up at Justice, who was sitting back in his chair, arms folded.  Justice's voice was devoid of any humor when he said, "Wanna see me do that again?"

The trucker seemed to be looking at the mercenary, then he shook his head.  "Go ahead an' threaten me.  Ya wan' me t' get info on th' Claw?  Not gonna happen."  He turned his head to look toward the entrance to the club, then stood up, suddenly afraid.  "But ya can ask them.  Bye!"  He quickly shoved his way through the crowds and vanished.

The entrance was filled by a group of Khatra and F'Vali.  They wore crimson uniforms, and the leader's eyes scanned the crowds for humans.  Justice retrieved the knife and hid it in his sleeve as he noticed the Crimson Claw in the doorway.  Dirk discreetly tugged his glove back on and nudged DT-Three into combat readiness.

"There are Users in here!" the lead Claw shouted.  "Death to them all!"

Cen il'Ensar didn't want to be here, but he wasn't going to tell Renei that.  At least he wasn't present on this raid.  That much calmed Cen a little, but not nearly enough.  Furthermore, coming to Club Wayside was practically asking the Guardians or the CPUs to show up.  But again, he wasn't going to tell Renei that.

He watched Serani scream the orders, then stepped back as his fellows bellowed a war cry and launched themselves into the crowds of the club.  Cen stayed back as Serani drew his pistol.  The ugly human bartender waved his hands in protest.  "No blasters!  No blas--"  He was cut off as Serani pumped a shot into the human's chest, knocking him down, probably killing him.

Cen watched as several of the humans in the club ran away from the Claw agents.  He prayed that they'd make it out alive.  He didn't need to see any more blood spilled today.  One disheveled man swung a pool cue at Dem, knocking his rifle away.  Dem quickly picked up a chair to bludgeon the human with, but the man pulled two pistols.  "Ah kih yew!" the human screamed.

Dem responded by smashing the man across the room with the chair.  Cen groaned inwardly as he saw that the human was quite dead by the time he slumped to the floor.  Serani waded forward, firing shots at random, not caring who he hit, just as long as it was a 'User.'

Cen blinked with surprise as a security 'bot hovered into the air, firing small, pinpoint shots into the Claws.  Serani ducked, and Dem shouted with pain as one scarlet pulse struck him in the shoulder.  A stocky human with red-brown hair pounced off a table toward Xenia, a small force-shield springing up around his arm as he slammed into her.  Xenia grunted as she hit the floor, and then the human wallopped her across the face with a gloved fist.

Serani noticed the human and turned toward him, but then a larger human with a scraggly beard jumped forward and kicked him in the head.  Serani flew back into the bar, falling down, dazed.  The bigger human clutched a liquor bottle in one hand, which he wound up and threw at Yan.  The bottle made an unpleasant thunk sound as it collided with Yan's skull.

Dem, who had recovered from his injury, retrieved his rifle and drew a bead on the smaller human, but the security 'bot showed up and fired a shot at the rifle.  Dem's aim was spoiled, and the smaller human turned, his shield returning and deflecting the shot.  The human got up and charged toward the young F'Val, bowling him over and clobbering him with his own rifle.

Cen wondered to himself who these humans could possibly be to be so skilled.  Guardians in disguise, perhaps?  If such was the case, then Cen wanted to find out before one of them attacked him or killed him.

The bearded human stepped away from Serani to grapple with Seka.  The human moved with extreme agility, taking a minimum of hits and dealing a maximum of damage to her.  Seka screamed as the human kicked her in the muzzle.  She went down with blood coming out of her mouth.  Across the bar, Var was aiming his gun, but the human whipped around to face him, making a throwing motion with his hand.  A knife flew from his sleeve and dispatched Var.

Dem and Xenia were getting back up, but the smaller human was still kicking.  He retrieved the pool cue dropped earlier, and cracked it across Dem's head.  It snapped in two, but it rendered Dem unconscious.  The human tossed away the broken cue and swept up the rifle.  He threw this as well as Xenia turned toward him, and the stock of the rifle hit her in the face.  She went down again.

Cen started to duck back into the doorway.  This wasn't looking good.  But he stopped as the security 'bot dropped down beside him.  Its camera gleamed.  "No, don't leave," it said in a tinny voice and its grasping claws clapped together.  Cen swallowed as he saw the mech's laser aimed at him.

Serani was getting back up.  He hissed at the bearded human, lunging forward to slash, but the human ducked, spun and came up in a fierce uppercut.  The movement sent the Khatran over the bar and into the wall.  The human vaulted the bar and picked Serani up.  Serani grabbed at the human's leg, but the human kicked him away.  He picked Serani up and slammed him into the bar tap.  Serani's body shuddered from the force of the blow.

Cen gasped as he saw the human shove his hand down on Serani's jaw, forcing his mouth open.  The human thrust the tap's mobile spigot into Serani's mouth.  He snarled.  "Here!  Have a drink!"  He turned on the flow.

Serani gagged as the beer shot into his throat, then spat.  The human picked up a bottle and smashed it on Serani's head, rendering him mercifully unconscious.  The bearded human exhaled slowly, as if blowing away the battle rage, then climbed back over the bar.  By now the smaller human had come up to Cen and was watching him closely.  He turned to his compatriot.  "Hey, Nat, look, we caught one."

The bearded human--Nat, as the small one called him--stepped forward.  Cen was shocked by the look on Nat's face.  His obsidian eyes glittered with the same coldness that Renei's did, and his frown was deep.  Nat drew an old-looking pistol from his holster and pointed it at him.  He turned his head slightly.  "Whaddaya think?  Should I let 'em live?"

Cen blinked as a small, glowing thing that looked remarkably like a tear swooped up.  It turned into a yellow 'star' and said, "yES!" in an electronic voice.  The small human nodded as well.

"I, too, think we should let him live," the 'bot added.

"What's your name?" Nat asked.

"Cen il'Ensar," he replied.  He was startled to see a flash of recognition in Nat's eyes.  The human holstered his pistol, then grabbed his arm by the armpit.

"Come on, Cen," Nat said.  "You're just the F'Val we're looking for."

The Khatran Crimson Claw named Renei looked up as Xenia and Dem il'Weast burst into the room.  Dem wore a bandage on his arm and head, and Xenia was in similar shape.  Renei snarled.  "Don't barge in like that!"  He turned to them.  "What is it?  Was the raid successful?"

"Sir, Users--they--" Dem tried to explain, but he was too agitated.  Renei looked at Xenia.

"It's Serani," she said.  "He's dying."

Renei choked with surprise.  There was a weak, dry chuckle from Renei's prisoner.  "o/~ Some-one was-n't wor-thy. o/~" the prisoner sang quietly.

Renei smacked him across the face.  "Silence, User!" he hissed.  He turned to Xenia and Dem.  "Show me to Serani."

The two led him to the medical ward.  Serani lay on the examination table.  He was bleeding from the head and twitching.  Renei looked at Dem.  "Alcohol poisoning," the F'Val said.  "A User forced a spigot in his mouth and turned on the flow."

"Serani!" Renei said, grasping him.  "Who did this to you?  A name, a face, anything!"

Serani gagged, choked, then gasped in a breath.  "Tall--strong--beard--black eyes, dark hair--" He broke off in a coughing fit.  "--never smiled--"

Serani's voice trailed off, becoming fainter, and then his twitching stopped.  Renei stiffened, then closed Serani's eyes.  The others bowed their heads out of respect.  Renei quivered with rage, then roared.  "I will make them burn!!"  He swung to Xenia.  "Where's Cen?"

"They captured him, sir," she replied.

Renei hissed.  "Find them!  Get Cen back, and kill the damned Users!"

"But, sir," Dem said, "if our plan is successful, then won't they just--"

Renei wheeled on him, snarling.  "Don't presume to second guess me!  Just do it!"

Xenia and Dem nodded hastily and left.  Renei looked once more on Serani's corpse, then stalked back into the prisoner's cell.  The prisoner, still tied to his chair, looked up at him as he entered.  "Aw," the User said, "did the big bad Khatran's best friend die? -tsk- Too bad."

Renei smacked him again.  "You will be silent, User, unless I ask you a question!  Understand?"

"Screw you," the User said.  Renei smacked him a third time.  The User grunted from the pain, then added, "And your mother."

Renei grabbed the User by the head and sent an electric shock into him.  The User screamed, and Renei said, "Tell me the code number."

"Bugger off," the User said.

Renei, fed up, placed his foot on the User's chest and kicked him over so he crashed on his back.  Renei glowered at him.  "I'll let you stew here overnight.  Perhaps tomorrow you'll be more cooperative."

"Not bloodly likely.  In the meantime, feel free to eviscerate yourself, but don't go to any special trouble on my expense," the User grated.

Renei hissed at him, then shut the door to the Lt. Thomas Burke's cell.