Outlaw Star Fan Fiction ❯ Outlaw Star; The Ryunoken Sword(revised, rededited, and better than ever) ❯ Our Own Fate ( Chapter 18 )

[ Y - Young Adult: Not suitable for readers under 16 ]

CHAPTER 18:

Our Own Fate

(Official disclaimer: This work is entirely a fan fic. I do not own the rights to Gene, Melfina, or any of the themes, concepts, alien races, planets, starships, or other characters that appear in the Outlaw Star, anime or manga. So Bandai, Sunrise, or whoever owns the rights to Outlaw Star, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE, DON'T SUE ME!! I'm only doing this to honor your work and to show my respect and appreciation for what has become my favorite anime.)

With a sling of his arm, Shidowkun lowered the android girl onto the bunk of the holding cell in his ship's brig. The pressure point he had struck in her head would be sufficient to keep her unconscious until the Damocles Sword returned to the safety of his fortress. Looking to his left arm, Shidowkun flexed it as he felt the feeling slowly return. He hadn't allowed his arm to completely heal, only enough to enable him to continue fighting. The rest of his body was still stiff and sore from the battle with Gene Starwind and his friends. I haven't had a fight like that in a long time, he thought. I'd almost forgotten how good a true challenge could feel, even if it still wasn't enough to truly put my powers to their limits. Dipping into his energy source, Shidowkun cocooned his body in dark fire, repairing whatever damage still remained. When the flames lowered, not only had his body healed; but his Soul Armor had been restored as well. Complete with a new cape, helmet, and mask. With such a bottomless well of energy to power his strength, was there little wonder why he was the closest thing to God in the entire universe. And soon, I will be god himself. Switching his attention back to the still form of the android girl; Shidowkun ran his hands across her throat, her breasts, and down to her stomach. In her present state, there would be no way for her to fight back against him. Such a weak, pathetic creature, he thought. And yet she actually hurt me. Shidowkun was tempted to take her then, to strip her clothes and violate her in every way that the android deserved. But in her unconscious state, she would be unaware of anything he did. And what joy would Shidowkun have in raping her if she didn't scream and sob as he ravaged her?

"Another time then," he told her. Leaving the android in her cell, Shidowkun returned to his quarters in the upper levels of his ship. "Send for Ron MacDougal and then Aeslea," he ordered the Akuma guards. "I wish to speak with both of them immediately." Moving towards the observation window, Shidowkun looked out at the star speckled void of space as Ron MacDougal's face appeared in the window's reflection. "You wished to speak with me Lord Shidowkun?"

"Indeed I did," the Toku Emperor replied, not bothering to face him. "We have successfully captured the android girl. And as promised, I hereby declare all debts owed to the Toku by you and your brother to be null and void. By the way, how is your brother? I've heard that Gene Starwind injured him quite severely."

"He's in the sickbay. He's got internal bleeding so he needs to spend at least an hour in a regeneration pod."

"I see," Shidowkun said as he turned around and walked towards McDougal. "I never expected him to be able to defeat Gene Starwind anyway; merely to detain him long enough for me to find him and the android." Using his ki sensitivity, Shidowkun analyzed the aura generated by Ron McDougal's soul. Although Ron McDougal was famed for his cold and emotionless manner, Shidowkun was able to look past that and see just how deeply MacDougal hated him.

"Well in any rate," McDougal continued. "Since me and my brother are finished, why don't you just let us off somewhere. We can take care of our own way from there."

"I suppose I could," Shidowkun said. "But just how will you take care of your own way? Are you going to book yourselves on a transport? In your line of work, that could be quite expensive in the long run. Or maybe you could trade work for on a cargo hauler. Then again, what would the galaxy say if word got out the infamous MacDougal brothers had been reduced to working on a junk ship?" Shidowkun watched as subtle signs of tension appeared in MacDougal's face.

"Well it's not like me and Harry have much of a choice do we?"

"Do you?" Shidowkun asked as he activated the holo-projector in his palm.

"Hey that's the…"

"My attendants have rebuilt the Shangri La from the files stored in the escape pod's black box," Shidowkun told him. "We have also increased its navigational and combat capabilities greatly. Class .8 ether drive, EGM shielded hull, and weapons built into the grappler arms. A most impressive ship wouldn't you say?" MacDougal continued to stare at the hologram before looking back up to Shidowkun.

"What's the catch?"

"Merely that you stay as my vassal for a short while longer. You won't even have to do any work. Simply acknowledge me as your master for the next five days and the ship is yours." MacDougal looked back down to the hologram, back to Shidowkun, and finally sighed in defeat.

"Guess it's the best offer I'll get."

"Excellent, you are dismissed then." As Ron MacDougal left, Shidowkun saw that the hatred in his aura had increased slightly. Just keep nurturing that anger, he thought. I'll have need of it should events take a turn for the worse. Turning back to the observation window, Shidowkun heard someone else enter his quarters as MacDougal exited.

"You wished to speak with me Lord Shidowkun?" Aeslea purred; a look of feral hunger in her eyes. Behind his mask, Shidowkun grinned as a dark fire lash extended from his hand down to the deck. Now that he had obtained the android girl, he could finally seek some entertainment.

The remaining fires in the now battle scarred jungle had burned out to little more than a few flickering embers. But the funeral pyres from the Dragon Clan's fortress still shone bright, giving the early evening sky a dark orange tint.

From the first level of the fortres's top, Suzuka looked down at the courtyard and the massive funeral it held. After the Toku had retreated with Melfina in their possession, the surviving clansmen had taken almost the entire day to gather their fallen comrades. Roughly sixty of the clan, almost a third of their total number, had been slain while another third had suffered moderate to severe wounds. In the center of the pyres, Jubei chanted a sutra to give peace to all who had died. From behind Suzuka, the sound of heavy footsteps signaled that Mazren had returned.

"Some day huh?" Mazren asked as he and Slag appeared beside her. The wolf could sense the somber atmosphere in the air and hung his head.

"Where's Jim?" Suzuka asked. After he had learned what had happened, Jim had jumped into one of the transports left behind by Yama and took off for the Outlaw Star. As Gene was still emotionally thrashed from his fight with Shidowkun, Mazren had gone after Jim to bring him back. Mazren pointed with his finger and Suzuka saw Jim sitting at the foot of the steps to Jubei's tower.

"When I got there," Mazren explained, "the kid was frantically working on the Outlaw Star's navigational systems, trying to find a way to get it to work without Melfina. Kid's really something. He can do things with electronics that I've never even heard of."

"How did you get him come back?"

"I didn't. I decided to just let him be. But eventually, the strain got to him and be broke down into tears. That's when I was able to convince him to come back and get some rest."

"I see. And how are you doing?

"How do you thing I'm doing?" Suzuka didn't reply. "I'm sorry," Mazren said. "It's just been a really bad day."

"Don't worry about it," Suzuka replied. "I suppose everyone's feeling that way."

"You seem to be doing all right."

"I'm used to it," Suzuka told him. "After all, someone's got to remain calm." Mazren looked at Suzuka as if he had suddenly realized something before taking her hand and leading her and Slag into a nearby passageway. Before she could ask what he was doing, Mazren wrapped his muscular arms around Suzuka and held her against his chest.

"Take a five minute break. I'll cover." Though surprised at first, Suzuka suddenly felt every defense she had ever erected come crumbling down as she let out a small sob. Down by her hip, Slag leaned his head against Suzuka as a slow stream of tears began to fall from her eyes. There was once a time when she would have refused to show emotions such as this. But for now, Suzuka simply let go and quietly wept onto her lover's shoulder.

Lover, the word still sounded strange in Suzuka's head. After her parents, her grandmother; who had first taught Suzuka kenjutsu; and her younger sister Atsuka had all been murdered by Hitoriga; Suzuka had vowed to do whatever was necessary to avenge them. She forced herself to become cold and unfeeling; with no concerns other than obtaining her revenge. But during her travels with Gene and the others, she found that she was remembering what it felt like to have a family. And Suzuka owed most of that to Melfina. Although she had saved Melfina's life on Sentinel III simply to place Gene in her debt, Melfina had immediately looked upon her as a friend afterwards. And for some reason, Suzuka had taken an immediate liking to her as well. Perhaps it was because Melfina reminded her so much of Atsuka; so gentle and sweet natured. She even looked a little like Atsuka. It was Melfina who had convinced Gene and Jim to allow Suzuka to stay on the Outlaw Star, even though she had threatened to take Gene's life at the time. If she hadn't, Suzuka realized she probably never would have had the chance to avenge her family or even to meet Mazren.

"Are you okay?" Mazren asked.

"I'm fine," she told him. "Let's just stay this way a little longer." Suzuka had made up her mind. She had lost her family once before. She would die before she lost any of her second.

With her hands clasped in front of her, Aisha said a prayer for Ortho as his body was cremated on the pyre in front of her. She was glad that the Dragon Clan disposed of their fallen this way. According to Ctarl-Ctarl theology, cremation was a right reserved only for the most valiant warriors. The fire burned away everything that was weak, allowing the warrior's soul to ascend to the highest of level of Corza-Corza, the resting place of the honorable dead. It was an honor that Ortho deserved.

Glancing to her right, Aisha saw Keibara standing in front of Tyr's funeral pyre. The usually high-spirited ninja girl now had a blank and empty look on her face. Not surprising considering that she had just lost her father. In her arms, Keibara held the scale leopard cub tightly against her chest, almost as if the cub was her only lifeline. Aisha was about to walk over to offer whatever condolences she could when she saw a small figure squatting on the steps. Altering her direction, Aisha moved over to Jim and sat down beside him.

"You okay?" she asked as Jim looked up to her with a tear stained face and eyes that seemed so hollow, it hurt to look at him.

"Yeah I'm fine," he answered. "The smoke really hurts your eyes doesn't it?" Aisha felt the lump in her throat get even bigger. It wouldn't be so bad if she said it. She was a Ctarl-Ctarl warrior so she was supposed to be strong and tough. But Jim was just a kid, and a human kid at that. He shouldn't have to force himself to be strong and not cry when he felt sad. But then again life didn't always give people a choice.

"Tell me about it." Scooting closer to him, Aisha wrapped an arm around Jim's shoulders, and to her surprise felt Jim's arm go around her waist. Without knowing what she was doing, Aisha lowered her head and rested it against Jim's. Though a true Ctarl shouldn't show weakness out in the open like this, Aisha did feel a little better. She was also surprised at how strong a grip Jim had for a kid. It must be all that work he does on his car and the Outlaw Star, Aisha decided. And if he's already this strong, when he grows up I bet he'll give even Maz a run for his money. Aisha closed her eyes and began to picture Jim as an adult with his blond hair and blue eyes, a strong body from all his mechanical work. A girl could really strut with a mate like that on her arm.

"So how's Gene?" Jim suddenly asked, pulling a rather reluctant Aisha from her fantasy.

"He's been sitting in his quarters ever since we got back," Aisha told him. "You know, Gene didn't let Mel be taken without a fight. He would have died if she hadn't..."

"It's all right Aisha. I know it's not Gene's fault so you don't have to defend him." Aisha was glad that Jim understood. She wasn't as close to Gene as she was to Suzu, Jim, or even Mel; but she knew that he was in enough pain without anyone making it worse.

"So did you finish what you were doing at the Outlaw Star?"

"Well," Jim answered, "Gillium can handle take off, landing, and basic flight pretty well on his own. But without Mel, the Outlaw Star's sub-ether abilities are practically non-existent. I was able to jury-rig enough to handle basic jumps, but that's all. To make matters worse, our combat-abilities are limited only to the mounted weaponry. Without Mel to handle the subtle changes to the engines' output, grappler combat is totally out of the question."

"I see," Aisha said as they looked out over the funeral pyres which had just started to dwindle. When Shidowkun had taken Mel, he had left them at a severe disadvantage. But the emptiness Aisha sensed in herself and the others wasn't due to just losing a valued crewmember or even a good friend. Aside from their regular duties, everyone on the Outlaw Star had a distinct role. For instance, Gene was the leader; although Aisha knew that as a Ctarl-Ctarl she could do a better job than him. Likewise, Jim was the brains, Aisha the brawn, and Suzuka the voice of reason. Maz, if he ever decided to stay on with them, would be the backbone while Slag could be the instinct. But it was Mel who had the most important role of them all. She was the heart of their group, the glue that kept them all together. If they couldn't get Mel back, would they all even be able to stay together? I won't let it happen, Aisha decided. I'm not going to let the Toku break us up. We're gonna rescue Mel, and then I'm gonna show Shidowkun just what happens when you mess with a Ctarl's family. "Hey Jim." Jim looked up to her and Aisha gave him a small smile. "We're not gonna let him beat us that easily are we?" To her relief, Jim smiled sadly.

"No way."

Alone in his quarters, Gene sat on his bed. In his hand was Melfina's pendant that he accidentally ripped off after Shidowkun tried to strangle her. After the fight was over, Gene had been left in a mixture of denial and numbness. Nothing about what happened seemed real to him. Less than twelve hours ago, Melfina was lying in Gene's arms in this very room. And then, just like that, she was gone; taken from Gene like his father was, and by the exact same people. It was like some kind of horrible dream. But all Gene had to do was stare at the pendant in his hand to realize that it was all too real.

Melfina…I failed. I couldn't stop him from taking you. All that training I did, all that work, it was all for nothing. I couldn't save you, just like I couldn't save my Dad.

But this time was different. Melfina was still alive wasn't she?

But in the meantime Shidowkun could do anything to her. And there's not a damn thing I can do to stop him.

Possibly but not likely. When Hakon captured her, wasn't he supposed to deliver her with her purity intact?

Except Melfina doesn't have her purity any more.

But did Melfina really seem any less pure after she had given Gene her virginity? Gene thought for a while before he came up with an answer.

No. In fact she seemed even more pure.

Purity could mean anything. It could have meant her kind heart, or her innocence, or perhaps Shidowkun knew that Haykon was a rapist and wanted to make sure that Melfina was delivered to him unharmed. Remember, Shidowkun needs both her and the sword. It's quite possible that any physical harm to her would jeopardize his plans.

But how am I going to get Mel back? I fought Shidowkun with everything I had, and he just kept getting right back up. I couldn't stop him from taking her. I couldn't keep my promise.

But what did Melfina tell Gene when she was taken? Gene was silent as he thought.

She told me that she loved me.

Exactly. Melfina believed in him, she still did. She was out there, waiting for Gene to come save her. And here he was sitting on his ass feeling sorry for himself. Was he just going to blindly accept fate as it was and prove Melfina's faith in him wrong?

Guess not?

So then what was he going to do now?

The only thing I can do. With Gene's decision, the haze lifted from his mind and he felt his spirit begin to spark. Pushing to his feet, Gene pocketed Melfina's pendant and made his way outside. Part of him was still numb, but with each step he took, the numbness vanished and the spark began to flame even brighter. Stepping outside into the night air, Gene made his way to the front of the fortress. Looking around for the others, he first saw Mazren with Suzuka and Slag standing in a nearby passageway.

"You guys seen Aisha and Jim?" he asked. Mazren and Suzuka looked to him as if they didn't recognize him before Suzuka finally spoke up.

"I think that they're both still down by the pyres."

"Then let's go get them." Turning around, Gene headed toward the stairs that led down to the courtyard. Behind him, he could hear the footsteps of the others as he went in search of the rest of their group. It's strange, he thought. But when I was thinking in my quarters, it was almost as if someone else was talking to me.

From behind, Jim heard the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs. He and Aisha turned around and were greeted to the sight of Gene and the others heading towards them. Jim looked up to Gene and was taken aback for a second. Gene's usual carefree and cocky attitude was gone. Instead, it was like Gene was projecting some kind of aura that felt calm and intense at the same time. As if Gene could knock someone flat on their back just by looking at them.

"Hey Jim you okay?" Gene asked. Jim stared at him for a little longer before he found the ability to answer.

"Well I'm feeling a little better than this morning."

"Good. Where's Jubei?" Aisha pointed to the middle of the remaining pyres, sporting the same incredulous look on her face that Jim imagined he had.

"Come on," Gene told them all. "Let's go talk to him." Pushing past Jim and Aisha, Gene led the rest of their crew towards where Jubei was chanting the last of his sutras.

"What got into him?" Aisha asked.

"Who knows," Jim answered. But let's go see what's going to happen." Standing up, Jim and Aisha followed after the others and caught up to them just as Gene reached Jubei.

"Is something the matter Gene Starwind?" the Wiseman asked.

"Jubei," Gene said, "I appreciate all the help that you've given us. And I'm sorry for everything that the Toku did today. But it's time for us to leave." Behind Gene, Jim and the others exchanged looks of astonishment. "Jim," Gene called over his shoulder, "your computer's still hooked up to the sub-ether radio from Yama's ship right?"

"Uh, yeah sure," Jim answered.

"Hack into the Toku's system and try and find out where they took Melfina. I'm not going to sit around and wait for them to tell us when we can go get her. This time, we're taking the fight to their turf."

"Sure you got it."

"Now wait a minute," Mazren interrupted. "Believe me Starwind I want to get Melfina back just as much as you do. But it's not going to be that simple. The Toku aren't going to just give her back just because we show up looking for a fight."

"Mazren's right," Suzuka added. "In all likelihood, Shidowkun already expects us to make the first move. We're only going to get one chance at this, so we're going to need a plan."

"Just leave that to me," Jim said. "I've been working on a little something ever since we left Tenrei. And if used at the right time, it'll turn the Toku's biggest strength into their biggest Achilles Heel."

"But what about the Outlaw Star?" Aisha asked. "Jim said that without Mel we can't use grappler combat. How are we going to pull off a rescue if we can't even fight?" Jim realized that Aisha was right. Even if his secret weapon worked, the Toku would still probably have some kind of auxiliary defense.

"I'll do it," Mazren suddenly said.

"You will?" Gene asked.

"Look," Mazren said, "Melfina and I were created with different specifications, but essentially we're the same 'model.' I may not be able to handle sub-ether flight, but with a little practice I should be able to handle grappler combat without too much trouble."

"There may be another way you can help," Jim said. "You told us that your ship the Warshark was based on the blueprints for the Outlaw Star right?"

"Yeah so?" Mazren asked back.

"So," Jim continued, "your ship's computer circuitry should be compatible with Gillium. If you lend me some components from your navigational system, I think that I can jury rig enough for Gillium to perform a halfway decent jump. Not quite as good as we would with Melfina; but definitely a lot better than what we've got now."

"There's just one problem Jim. The Warshark's navigational system was custom designed for my ship's rotating engines. Even if they're compatible with Gillium, they won't work with the Outlaw Star's drive system."

"Oh," Jim said. Well so much for that plan.

"Come on don't look so down," Mazren told him. "It just means that we'll have to switch the Warshark's entire navigation system, engines and all, over to the Outlaw Star." Never expecting to hear that, Jim and the others looked to Mazren in shock.

"You'd really give up your ship?" Gene asked.

"If it means saving Melfina then yes," Mazren answered. "We have all the parts so Swanzo and Mikey can finish the whole job in eight hours maybe less. Besides, if you people are crazy enough to try and take on the entire Toku pirate guild, there's no telling what else you'll do. Someone needs to make sure you don't get yourselves killed." Beside Mazren, Suzuka smiled as she took his hand in hers.

"Than its official," she told him. "Welcome to the crew." Though Mazren still kept his usual stony expression, a small flush was noticeable on his face.

"Well if we're going to Blue Heaven then we might as well use the time to stock up on weapons and ammo," Gene said. "I can use the ether-wave radio to have Fred ship what we need first class right to Mikey and Swanzo."

"But just how are we going to pay for it though?" Jim asked. Jim would do anything necessary to save Melfina, although several unpleasant images suddenly began to play in his mind as to how he and Gene were going to pay Fred back.

"Leave that to me," Gene said as he forced a smile. "But are we going to be able to get to Blue Heaven, prep for the fight, and still have enough time to get the jump on Shidowkun?"

"Hold on a minute," Jim said as he pulled out his PA. "We can go at our maximum sub-ether speed, but without Mel we'll have to make our jumps in straight lines so..."

"If we move through galactic sectors AN-15, BH-32, and DA-49," Aisha interrupted, "then we should be able to reach Blue Heaven in one standard day." Jim looked up from his calculations as he and the others cast surprised looks toward Aisha. "Sub-Ether Physics and Navigation was my minor at the Imperial Academy," she explained.

"Then it's settled," Gene said as he turned back to Jubei. "Well, I guess its goodbye then." Lifting his head, Jubei locked his eyes with Gene's.

"So then you and your friends truly intend to leave," he said. "But are you ready to face Shidowkun again so soon?"

"I don't know," Gene answered. "But it's better than sitting around and doing nothing."

"Does that mean you are also ready to face the consequences that will result?"

"Consequences?" Mazren asked. "What consequences?"

"Every action has a reaction," Jubei lectured, "and every choice a consequence. Remember what I told you about the ki lines Gene Starwind? Those who live in harmony with them are nurtured, protected, and even guided by them."

"So are you saying that you've seen something that's going to happen in the future?" Gene asked.

"Maybe," Jubei shrugged, "maybe not. What happens in the future depends on the actions we take and the choices we make in the here and now. For instance, long before you all arrived; I saw in a vision that Tyr would die in battle shortly after the Swordwielder came to us. However, the vision would only occur if Tyr chose to stay and fight when your enemies followed after you. If he had left, then he would have survived. But Try knew that as the strongest fighter in the entire Dragon Clan, he would leave us at a disadvantage if he left. So, he chose to stay and gave his life to protect the others, our home, and you as well."

"So then what are the consequences of attempting to fight Shidowkun again?" Suzuka asked. Jubei closed his eyes and the chimes on his staff began to clang against each other.

"I see two deaths," he told them. "One possible…the other definite."

"You mean Shidowkun's death right?" Aisha asked.

"His is the possible death," Jubei explained. "Whether it comes to pass depends on how well you all fight your next battle against him. The other is a definite death, one that is bound to occur if you pursue you present course of action. Unfortunately, I can't see whose death it is. There are two many possible factors for me to consider."

"So what you're saying," Jim said, "is that if we try to save Melfina, one of us may not be coming back." Jim knew that dying in an all out fight was a possibility, but to just hear it as a definite was enough to make him feel nauseous.

"It's a possibility," Jubei answered. "So then what will you do now Gene Starwind?" Jim looked up to his aniki and saw that the aura he seemed to be generating hadn't diminished in the least. Closing his eyes, Gene looked as though he was recalling something.

"Not too long ago," Gene said, "an old man told me to find my own dream and fight to make it real. Originally, my dream was to get a ship of my own and go out into space."

"And what is your dream now?" Jubei asked. Gene opened his eyes and he smiled slightly.

"I want to go out into space and take Melfina with me. I want to take her everywhere, show her everything, and see all that the universe has to offer with her by my side forever. That's something worth risking my life for." Jim listened to Gene's decision and felt his confidence return.

"Hey don't forget about us Gene," Jim told him.

"That's right," Aisha added. "You and Mel aren't the only people in the universe. We wanna have some fun too." Mazren and Suzuka simply looked to each other and nodded.

"And if it is fated that one of you die?" Jubei asked.

"Well I guess we'll just have to make our own fate then," Gene answered. Under his hat, Jubei smiled as he took Gene's hand in his.

"Gene Starwind," he told him, "I have nothing further to teach you. You have the power, you have the knowledge, and most importantly, you have the will. How far you take it though, will depend entirely upon you." Gene nodded and took a step back.

"I want to thank you for that and everything else that you, Tyr, and the entire Dragon clan have done for us," Gene replied. "If I do beat Shidowkun, a large part of it will be due to what you've taught me."

"True but you're going to need more than that if you are to save your friend," Jubei said as he walked past them. Curious as to what he meant, Jim and the others followed after him. "Give us four hours to prepare and we shall follow after you."

"Hey wait a minute Jubei," Gene said. "You don't have to do that."

"Of course I do," the Wiseman told him. "Remember, I and my clan have pledged our loyalty to you. We are honor bound to aid you."

"Well then," Gene said, "I hereby release you from your pledge. Come on Jubei you and your clan have suffered enough because of us."

"It was Shidowkun, not you; that has made us suffer. Besides," Jubei said as he turned to face him, "I have two additional reasons for joining your fight."

"And what would that be?" Mazren asked.

"Out in the jungle," Jubei explained, "when I battled with Shidowkun, he showed me his true face. Not the face under his mask of course; but the face of his soul. I suspect he was attempting to discourage me from opposing him any further. But in truth, it had the opposite effect on me. You see, Shidowkun is wrong."

"Yeah we pretty much realized that from the start," Aisha said.

"No you don't understand," Jubei told them. "Shidowkun and his power is an abomination, a mistake that shouldn't be. His very existence is a threat to the balance of the entire universe. If he is not destroyed, there is no telling what sort of damage he will unleash."

"And what's the second reason?" Mazren asked.

"That your friend is in danger," Jubei answered. "An innocent's life is being threatened by unjust forces. If I did not do everything that was in my power to help you save her, I would be just as guilty as Shidowkun. Besides, wasn't your caster damaged rather badly in your fight? While we prepare ourselves, you should take it Korde and have it fixed." Gene sighed, realizing that it was useless to argue.

"Well, I guess we're gonna need all the help we can get on this job," Gene said. "Just one condition though. This is our fight Jubei. You and your clan can help, but you can only run interference. Leave Shidowkun to us."

"Perfectly agreeable."

"Hey don't forget about me." Jim turned around and saw Keibara standing behind them. "Mel's my friend too. Plus I've got some unfinished business with one of Shidowkun's fighters."

"Are you sure about that Keibara?" Jubei asked. "You've suffered a greater loss than the rest of us today. And besides, what about..."

"Don't worry about Tyr," she interrupted. "I talked with Korde and he said he'll take care of him 'till I get back. Besides, I'm now the first warrior of the Dragon Clan. Dad would never forgive me if I allowed Master Jubei go running off without any protection."

"Tyr?" Gene asked.

"I named the scale leopard cub after my dad," Keibara explained. "You got a problem with that Skinny?"

"No I guess not."

"Very well then," Jubei decided. "Keibara select twenty of the strongest from those who survived and take them to the secret hanger. The main entrance might have been destroyed but the secondary one should still be intact."

"While they do that," Gene told Jim and the others, "let's get our stuff together and back to the Outlaw Star."

"Right!" they all replied. Going on their separate errands, Jim found himself looking up to the sea of stars above him. Melfina, he thought, please be safe. We'll be there as soon as we can.

With a slight groan, Melfina opened her eyes. Her body felt stiff and her head was dizzy, as if she hadn't gotten any real rest during the time she was asleep. Where am I? she wondered. Slowly turning her head, Melfina saw that she was in unfamiliar quarters. The walls were made of stained wood platforms while light was provided by paper lamps set into the room's four corners. On opposite sides of the room were two sets of paper screen doors. The only real furniture she could see was a small table across from the mattress she slept on; both of which were level with the mat covered floor. Suddenly, Melfina remembered what had happened before she lost consciousness and she bolted upright. Taking another look around, Melfina realized that her worst fears had come true; she had been captured and taken away by the Toku. Okay, she thought. I have to calm down. They still don't have the sword so they won't do anything to me yet. Rising off her mat, Melfina crept around her prison. Running her hands over the walls, she felt for any flaws in their design that could help her escape but found none. Melfina next tried one of the screen doors, but it was locked. Pushing her finger into the paper, Melfina broke through and felt what seemed to be a steel panel behind the screen. Moving to the opposite screen, Melfina found it was unlocked, but saw that it only led to a small bathroom. Well at least I won't have to worry about one thing, she thought. Hearing a soft whooshing sound, Melfina looked up and saw a duct in the ceiling; except it was too small for even Jim to wiggle through. Realizing that she was trapped, Melfina returned to the mattress. Pulling her legs up to her chest, Melfina shivered slightly and wished to know what would happen next. She also wished that Gene was there with her. They had finally found their way back to each other; and now, for all that Melfina knew, she and Gene could be on opposite sides of the galaxy. Never in her life had she felt more scared and alone. She wanted to cry, but forced herself to hold her tears back. I won't let the Toku see me cry, Melfina decided. Gene and the others will come save me. I just have to make sure I stay alive until then. Just then, the clack of a door being unlocked sounded and the first screen door slid open. Looking up, Melfina half-expected to see Shidowkun towering over her. Instead, she was greeted to the sight of a face so pale and emaciated, it looked half dead. The man wore a crimson robe over his skeletal frame and carried a red staff with a headpiece shaped like an inverted G.

"Ah, you're finally awake." The man's voice was a high, hissing rasp; and was enough to make Melfina's skin crawl.

"Who are you?" she asked, trying to keep her voice steady. "Where am I?"

"I am Naga," the man answered with a nod. "I am also the Shogun of Magic. And as for where you are, you needn't worry about that. Now please come with me. Lord Shidowkun wishes to speak with you and he hates to be kept waiting." Melfina felt her pulse quicken and she scooted backward slightly. As if sensing her defiance, Naga frowned. "Guard!" Behind Naga appeared a man wearing armor similar to Shidowkun, but with reverse coloring.

"Yes Lord Naga?" Whirling around, Naga flashed his right pointer and index fingers and a glowing red character appeared on the guard's body. Before he even had a chance to scream, dark energy crackled over the guard's body and he crumbled to the floor in a pile of ashes.

"Unless you wish to experience a great deal of unpleasantness," Naga informed her, "than I suggest you cooperate." Unable to take her eyes off the remains of the guard, Melfina swallowed and slowly stood to her feet. "Excellent. Now come." Doing as she was told, Melfina carefully swerved around the still smoking pile of ash; her mouth covered by her hand so that she wouldn't vomit. This wasn't the first time that she had seen someone die. She had seen Gene and the others take the lives of others, but only for self-defense. They never enjoyed it like the pirates did, and never with such savagery.

As she followed Naga through the halls of wherever she was, Melfina made sure to take stock of her surroundings. Unlike the quarters she found herself in, the rest of wherever she was seemed to be concentrated more on function. The walls were made of steel and had so many twists and turns, it was hard to determine which way she was going after a while. So even if I tried to escape I'd still be trapped, she thought. The emptiness of the walls seemed to be magnified by how devoid of life they were. On occasion, she would pass by another one of the red and black armored guards or what seemed like a high ranking Toku official; but the main occupants of the halls were either more of the robotic cybers or the Oni.

"This is where we must part," Naga informed her as he gestured to another paper screen door. "But Aeslea shall take care of you for now."

Who's Aeslea? Melfina asked. Naga's response was a dark grin that sent shivers up Melfina's spine.

"You'll know her when you see her." Sliding the screen open, Naga gestured again and Melfina entered. As the door shut behind her, Melfina blinked in surprise as she found herself in what looked like a Tenrei hot spring. Much larger than her quarters, a wooden platform ran around the front and left side of the room while the rest of the space was taken up by a huge bath surrounded by rocks and plants. Lounging in and around the bath were several lightly dressed young women her age with empty, forced smiles.

"Oh look," one of them said in a flat tone. "Our guest has arrived."

"Welcome guest."

"Lady Aeslea she is ready." Through the steam from the bathwater, Melfina saw a figure move from the platform towards her. Unlike the other women, this one was slightly older than her, and wore only a crimson sash that wrapped around her body. Her figure was as tall and voluptuous as Suzuka's, but her hair was chin length and had streaks of white. As she leaned her head down to get a closer look at Melfina's more petite form, the woman smiled coldly as her eyes grew a mixture of amusement and intrigue. I guess that this must be Aeslea, Melfina thought.

"So this is the one that Lord Shidowkun has been so obsessed over as of late," Aeslea said. As the woman began to slowly circle around her, Melfina clenched her fists to keep herself from shaking. There was something about this Aeslea woman that frightened her. The way she looked at her reminded Melfina of when Harry first hacked into the Outlaw Star's systems. Suddenly, Melfina felt Aeslea grab her from behind. One arm snaked around her waist while the other rose up between her breasts to lightly caress her throat. "I can see why," Aeslea whispered in her ear. "You're such a pretty little doll aren't you? So soft, warm, and life like." I'm not a doll, Melfina's mind yelled. She tried to say it aloud, but all that came out of her lips was a ragged gasp. Meanwhile, Aeslea's hand moved from her throat and slowly began to undo Melfina's tie.

"What are you doing? she asked."

"We have to prepare you before you meet Lord Shidowkun," Aeslea purred as she started to unbutton Melfina's collar. "After all you can't bathe with your clothes on can you?" Melfina wanted to fight free of Aeslea's grip and scream to be left alone, but realized that Aeslea would only harm her more if she resisted. And more than likely get even more pleasure out of it as well.

"Wait, please stop," she calmly asked. "I'll get undressed on my own." Aeslea's hands stopped as she prepared to undo the second button and Melfina half-expected to be struck at, but instead felt herself released.

"As you wish." With a sigh of relief, Melfina moved away and reluctantly began to strip. As she undid the final button on her blouse, Melfina turned around and saw Aeslea watching her with great interest.

"Please look away." But no sooner had she asked than Aeslea pounced on her, grabbing Melfina's shoulder and shoving her back against the wall.

"Now you listen to me you naughty little thing," Aeslea hissed as she roughly cupped Melfina's chin. "Pretty little dolls like yourself don't give orders, they obey them. Keep that in mind because you now belong to us." Too terrified to fight back, Melfina was helpless to defend herself as Aeslea reached up and prepared to rip off her bra when another hand darted in and pulled it away.

"That is enough! The emperor instructed you to supervise the android's preparation, not to toy with her." Behind Aeslea, a huge man wearing armor and a mask had appeared. At first, Melfina thought it was Shidowkun. But then she saw that he was wearing the same armor as the guards.

"What do you think you're doing Karg?" Aeslea demanded. I'll speak to Lord Shidowkun about this."

"It was Lord Shidowkun who sent me here," Karg replied. "He's well aware of how you entertain yourself. Keep in mind that the android is the emperor's property. Not ours and definitely not yours." With a scowl of disgust, Aeslea released Melfina and strolled over to sit on the edge of the bath.

"Very well then, but I hope you won't mind if I watch."

"See to it that's all that you do." Taking Melfina by the elbow, Karg led her over to the corner. "Finish changing," he ordered as he turned his back to her. "And don't worry about Aeslea. I'll make sure she won't threaten you again." Grateful but still in shock, Melfina didn't reply as she quickly finished changing out of her clothes. As she removed her skirt and underwear, she removed the tracer from her pocket that Mazren had given her and hid it in her clenched hand. When Gene and the others came to save her, she knew that the tracer would be her best chance for a speedy rescue. She had better hold on to it until then. "If you're ready then take this." Melfina peered over her shoulder and saw that Karg was handing a towel to her from around his side.

"Thank you," she said as she accepted. She really did not want to be running around naked in the same room as Aeslea if she could avoid it. Wrapping it around herself, Melfina moved out to behind Karg and slowly entered the bath. Waiting until she was deep enough to cover her breasts when she sat down, Melfina released the towel into the water as three of the other women moved towards her. One of them began to shampoo her hair while the other two began lathering her skin with aromatic soap.

"Were you kidnapped as well?" she asked them as they continued to wash her.

"Kidnapped?" one of them asked. "What ever do you mean?"

"I mean were you taken from your friends and families like I was."

"Oh no," the girl who was washing her hair answered. "We've always been owned by Lord Shidowkun."

"But that's terrible," Melfina said. "You mean to say that you've been slaves your entire lives?" Behind her, Melfina heard Aeslea laughing softly.

"Silly little doll. You mean to say you don't recognize your own sisters?"

"My sisters!" Melfina exclaimed as she turned around.

"That's right. All these girls are bio-androids based on your own design." Looking around, Melfina took a closer look at the other girls and saw that Aeslea could be right. They all had different hair and eye color, but every one of them had the exact same face and body as hers. "There is one difference of course. Their brain is mostly technological instead of yours which I'm told is roughly 70% organic." As she spoke, Aeslea leaned forward and wrapped her arms around the chest of one red haired android that leaned against the bath's edge. "It limits their sentience and makes them much more obedient. Isn't that right?" Aeslea asked as she began kissing the android's throat and neck.

"Yes it is Lady Aeslea," the android responded.

"And do you like what I'm doing to you?"

"Yes I like it very much." But Aeslea stopped in her groping of the android to cast her gaze towards Melfina.

"Of course," Aeslea admitted, "it does mean that they lack a certain degree of sincerity in their reactions." Unable to watch any further, Melfina turned away and caught her reflection in the water. These woman are all androids like me, she thought. But they don't really seem that different from me at all? Does that mean that Aeslea's right? Am I really nothing more than a doll to be used by others? Just then, Melfina saw the reflection of one of the other androids and noticed something. The others had eyes that were blank and glazed, devoid of any emotion. In contrast, her eyes were clear and full, and appeared to be on the verge of tears. No, she decided as she quietly wiped them dry. I'm not like these others. I'm not a doll, and I'm not something to be used. I just have to keep telling myself that and not listen to what these people are telling me anymore.

After she was clean, Melfina was led out of bath and onto the platform to be dried and prepared some more. By that time, Aeslea had grown bored of watching and had left to find amusement elsewhere, leaving Melfina under the watchful eye of Karg, who graciously kept his back to her. Meanwhile, the android attendents dabbed perfume onto the pulse points of her wrists and underneath her ears, applied a light touch of makeup to her face, and thoroughly brushed and teased her hair before they finally dressed her. "Is this to your liking?" one asked as two others brought over a full-length mirror. Melfina stood up and evaluated herself in the reflection. Her front bangs had been trimmed back slightly from her eyes while her sides had been cut to make her hair all one length. The spiky ends had all been tamed, making her hair seem soft and smooth as Suzuka's, and actually seemed to make it longer. It now rested lightly on her shoulders instead of stopping at her collar. Melfina decided that she did like her hair, but wasn't sure about the makeup. While it did seem to bring out a hidden beauty to her face, the feel of it on her skin was somewhat alien to her. Her feet had been placed in sandals with golden straps that wrapped all around her ankles and calves. The one thing she didn't like was the dress. Made of a soft black material, it hardly covered her at all. Held up by a strap that wrapped around the back of her neck; the bodice was backless, sleeveless, bared her shoulders, and had a deep V cut that went all the way down to her navel, drawing attention to her unbound breasts. The knee-length skirt had two wide thigh high slits on both sides that even though it accentuated the length of her legs, it barely concealed her rear and groin. Flinching slightly, Melfina tugged on the skirt to make sure the underpants underneath weren't visible. Though she was relieved to have been given at least something to go under the dress, they were so thin and flimsy it felt like she was wearing string.

"I guess so," she finally admitted. Running her hands up her front, Melfina quietly hid the transmitter inside the bodice just above her left breast. That way, she'd be able to activate it quickly once Gene and the others came.

"I see you're ready then," Karg said. "In that case come."

"Where am I going now?" Melfina asked.

"After you were finished," Karg explained. "Lord Shidowkun instructed me to deliver you to his quarters immediately." Melfina's eyes widened and she took a step back, finally realizing as to why they had spent so much time preparing her.

"No, please," she begged. "I don't want to go there. I won't." Behind his mask, Karg's eyes narrowed slightly as he approached her, making Melfina retreat backwards until she was cornered against the wall.

"The emperor ordered me to bring you to his chambers unharmed," he told her. "However, he did not tell me to bring you to him conscious." Melfina swallowed the lump in her throat as she considered her options. She knew what would happen if she went to Shidowkun's quarters. But if she cooperated for now, at least then she'd be conscious and have a chance of defending herself. Melfina's shoulders slumped in defeat and she nodded in compliance. "A wise decision. I'd rather not make this any harder than it has to be on either of us."

"Gene," Fred said as he rubbed the crust out of his eyes, "this had better be important for you to bother me at his ungodly hour." Normally, Fred would have refused to answer any calls at this particular time. Especially since he hadn't had proper time to spruce up and looked like death warmed over. But since it was Gene well how could he refuse?

"Sorry Fred," Gene's image replied. "Did I wake you?"

"Don't try to be funny Gene. At 3 in the morning even you are capable of getting on my nerves."

"Sorry, I've been in space for so long that I've forgotten all about Heifong standard time."

"Well," Fred said as he leaned toward the monitor. "Since we're both up, why don't you come on over and…"

"Wait a minute Fred!" Gene suddenly flustered. Fred smiled slightly and leaned back. Gene was even more irresistible when he played hard to get. "It's not that kind of call. Besides, I'm not even on Heifong."

"Really," Fred said. If Gene doesn't want to come over then at least he could be honest with me, Fred thought. He doesn't have to make up what's obviously a lie. "Then let me guess, you need to order weapons and supplies for your ship. Am I right?" Gene began to fidget slightly.

"Well, you see…"

"Goodnight Gene," Fred told him as he reached for the off button.

"Fred no wait stop!"

"I don't have time for your silly games Gene. You may have paid off your debt to me but don't think that gives you the right to come bothering me whenever you want. If you want to place and order, then send an e-mail or come by first thing tomorrow morning. Now if you'll excuse me…"


"Melfina's been kidnapped!" Fred stopped reaching for the off button and looked back to the screen.

"What?"

"She's been taken by the Toku," Gene explained. "But the Outlaw Star doesn't have enough weapons to pull off a rescue. We're currently on our way to Blue Heaven and I know that you have a supply depot near there so it won't be too hard for you to get me what I need." Fred didn't know what to tell Gene. He could tell that Gene wanted to save Melfina, but going up against the Toku Pirate Guild was nothing short of suicide. Besides, the fact that if Melfina wasn't around then Gene would be available again wasn't entirely lost on Fred.

"Gene," Fred said in the calmest, most rational tone he could muster, "listen to me. Have you any idea what you're suggesting? The Toku are the most powerful guild in the entire galaxy. They can hold their own against even the Ctarl-Ctarl military."

"I know but…"

"Besides," Fred continued. "All my haulers from that supply depot you mentioned have already been booked. If I tell one of them to change course, then their shipment will be late and I'll lose money and quite possible a customer as well. I'm sorry but there's nothing I can do for you at the moment." Fred expected Gene to either yell at him like when Melfina was taken by that Davidson impersonator or to cut the transmission completely. But instead, Gene sighed and leaned forward so that Fred could make out every detail of his incredibly blue eyes.

"Fred, you're the only person that I can turn to. If you don't then I'll just have to try anyway. So I'm going to ask you one more time. Please Fred…help me." Fred found himself unable to look away from Gene's gaze. It was so desperate but incredibly determined as well. Even if I said no than he'd still go, he realized. He's willing to risk everything to save Melfina…because he loves her.

"Allright Gene," Fred sighed in defeat. "Tell me what you need and I'll ship it to Blue Heaven immediately. My Galileo hauler doesn't have a full payload so I'll tell him to take it." Gene leaned back from the screen and lowered his shoulders in relief.

"Thanks Fred."

"Yeah well just be sure to pay me back for all this after you make it big."

"How about right now?" Gene asked as he sent an e-mail. Fred opened the message and read though what looked like some kind of electronic blueprints.

"So tell me Gene what exactly am I looking at here?"

"This," Gene answered, "is the design for a sub-ether radio along with the formula for making its synthetic dragonite antennae; plundered straight from the Toku's computer network."

"Are you serious?" Then Gene wasn't lying about not being on the planet. He and Fred were actually conversing over a distance of who knew how many light-years.

"It's the real deal. So will this cover everything?"

"I'm sure it will," Fred answered. With technology like this, he'd be able to corner the communication market. "Now about your order…"

"Right here," Gene said as he sent a second e-mail. "Don't worry I won't take unfair advantage like when Suzuka was after you. I'll just be needing the usual." Fred opened the message and scrolled down the list of what Gene needed. Why this won't do at all against the likes of the Toku, he thought. I'd better do some slight editing before I file it.

"I'll see to it right away," Fred told him. "If all goes well it should arrive at Blue Heaven in half a day."

"Great, that's about when we're scheduled to arrive. Have it sent to Blue Heaven dock 8, care of a Corbanite named Swanzo. Oh and Fred…"

"Yes Gene?"

"Look," Gene told him, "your guard once told me that…well you know…and that's why I really appreciate what you're doing today. And even though I'm not…you know…I've always thought of you as a friend and I hope that we can keep on being friends in the future." Fred nodded and gave a small smile.

"I'd like that. And I'm sure that we will be." Of course, Fred would always wish to be more than that, but it looked like Melfina had beaten him to the punch. I guess in the end the better person won, he decided.

"By the way," Gene suddenly said. "Have I told you that the Outlaw Star has a new crewmember?"

"Is that so?"

"Yeah, his name is Mazren and here's his picture. Well, catch you later." After sending a third e-mail, Gene cut the transmission. Curious, Fred opened the e-mail and was greeted by the image of a rugged looking man in black; and all regrets about Gene were quickly forgotten.

"Oh my," Fred said aloud as he tugged his left earlobe. "Isn't he tall."

Leaning back in his chair, Gene rubbed his hand over his eyes. They had left the Sword's planet roughly five hours ago and still had another 12 to go before they reached Blue Heaven. Jubei and his group had already gone ahead to tell Swanzo that they were coming and to keep the dock open for them. If everything went according to plan; they would spend 8 hours prepping the Outlaw Star, then another day of travel before they arrived at Shidowkun's fortress in time to get the jump on him. Based on what Jim had uncovered, that was where Melfina had been taken.

Melfina, Gene thought. Was she safe? Was she in pain? Would he even know if she was? If she was then Gene would pay it back threefold to the entire Toku guild. Feeling his hand starting to heat, Gene looked down and saw that the crest was starting to shine red. Take it easy Gene, he told himself. You can't afford to lose control again. You stopped yourself the last time but who knows what you'll do the next. As he continued to stare at the dragon crest on the back of his hand, Gene thought on how much his life had changed in the space of less then a month. He had gotten a new crewmember, he had learned the truth behind his father's death, he and Melfina had finally understood the depth of their relationship, and he had been given a power that he was only starting to comprehend. He had also gotten another new caster. Reaching towards his nearby gunbelt, Gene pulled it out and studied its design, remembering when Korde gave it to him…

…Gene had never seen a caster like this before. Instead of repairing it, Korde had completely redesigned it. Instead of a gun barrel, it now had a foot long double edged blade forward of the chamber. In place of the usual two accelerator rings, it had a single ring just behind the blade with two rods running flush against the blade's sides. The handle jutted straight out from behind the chamber before angling downward slightly, and had been done over in a black finish.

"

Do you like it?" Korde asked.

"Yeah I do," Gene answered. "I'll still fire right?"

"Of course," the scarred Saurian answered. "It has all the previous abilities of your previous caster. It's merely been rebuilt into a much more efficient design; higher performance as well as close quarter combat capabilities. Try it out." Angling the blade upright, Gene slashed lengthwise a few times before twirling it over his head and swinging straight down.

"It's got a really good feel to it."

"That's due to the handle's design," Korde told him. "It reduces strain on the wrist allowing for more precise blade control."

"It'll definitely help me when I use my ki blade," Gene said. "But what about the shells? You said that you could use them to make something that could help against Shidowkun." Korde nodded and held his hand out to Gene. In Korde's palm, Gene saw two shells. One he recognized as his number 9, but the other he had never seen before.

"Originally, you gave me one number 9, two number 4's, and one number 13. This number 9 was left over after I was forced to take the energy from the 13 and two 4's to create this shell. You could call it a number 21 shell, the first of its kind."

"So what does it do?" Gene asked.

"Well," Korde explained, "caster shells are powered by mana, a type of waste energy created by the balance between the chi, life energy, and sha, death energy, of a planet. Because chi and sha are both created by ki, mana isn't quite as strong as ki. On the other hand, it is a good deal easier to master. Unfortunately the mana in these shells was rather weak, indicating that the planet they were made on had a poor balance between its chi and sha. That's why I had to combine their energy into this single shell here. But to answer your question, I've altered the mana in this shell to attach itself to its target. I've also infused it with a healthy dose of positively charged ki. The result is a caster attack that targets the evil in a person's soul and burns it away."

"And since Shidowkun is all bad," Gene theorized, "then he'll be extra vulnerable. Will it kill him?"

"Probably not, no," Korde admitted. "But it should be able to weaken him enough for you and your friends to kill him yourselves. If you do use it though be absolutely sure that you can hit him. You'll only get one shot." Taking the shells from Kord, Gene placed them in his gunbelt before twirling his casterblade around and depositing it in its sheathe.

"One shot is all that I need…"

…Gene stared at his reflection in the caster blade a little while longer before he finally put it away. It was time to get back to work. Raising his right pointer finger, Gene began to concentrate the power into its tip. Ever since he and the others had taken off, he had been practicing almost nonstop, and had actually made some useful discoveries. Long breaths in helped his control, while short breaths out increased his strength. Taking a slow breath in, Gene began to spread the power from his finger all the way through his right arm, his shoulders, and then up his left arm. With a speedy exhale, he felt the power increase as his muscles swelled and hardened slightly. Gene inhaled again and concentrated the power into his hands before exhaling slower this time, releasing the power harmlessly into the air as energy bolts danced between his hands. Gene repeated this process for the next hour, until his muscles began to feel stiff and sore from the strain being put on them. Maybe I should take a break, he decided.

"Hey Gillium," Gene called out. "How much longer until we can jump again?"

"We should be able to jump again in about thirty minutes," the computer replied. "After that we'll need to jump two more times before we arrive at Blue Heaven."

"In that case I'm going to get some rest. Just be sure to wake me up once we get to Blue Heaven."

"As you wish Gene." Getting up from his desk's chair, Gene shuffled through his cramped quarters over to his bunk. As he lay down on the bed, his hand wandered down to his pocket where he kept Melfina's pendant. His last thoughts as he closed his eyes were of her; and of how empty and cold his bed felt.

As the elevator continued on its ascent, Melfina cast a sideways glance towards Karg. There was something about him that seemed different from Naga and Aeslea. Unlike them, he didn't seem to take any pleasure in hurting people. Melfina decided to take a chance.

"Can I ask you something?" Karg's head turned slightly to look at her.

"What?"

"Why are you doing this?" The masked guard turned his head away from her before he answered.

"Because as captain of the Akuma guard; I am loyal to the Toku Emperor. For me, his orders are law."

"But you don't have to obey him," Melfina told him. "If you think he's wrong you don't have to follow his orders if you don't want to."

"Please understand," Karg replied. "I have sworn an oath of loyalty to Lord Shidowkun. As a man of honor, I am therefore bound to obey him no matter what those orders may be."

"But Shidowkun is wrong. And you know it. How can you..."

"Enough!" Karg roared. "Understand this. Even if I hadn't taken an official oath, I would still serve Shidowkun because he and I share the same goals and objectives. Nothing you say will convince me otherwise." As he calmed down, Melfina saw Karg's shoulders lower slightly. "Besides, even if I wanted to help you, I've come too far and done too much to stop now. I've decided my path and will see it through to the end no matter what." Just then, the elevator came to a stop and the doors opened. Peering out, Melfina saw a hallway that led to a pair of heavy double doors. Following Karg as he led her out, Melfina's eyes kept flitting for anything that she could use as a means of escape. As they reached the end of the hall, the doors suddenly opened and Melfina was startled to see Harry McDougal standing before her.

"Check it out Ron, Shidowkun's new toy has arrived." Behind Harry stood a taller man with black hair and a scar across his lip. Melfina had never met him in person, but she realized that this had to be the second half of the McDougal brothers. As they passed her by, Harry took a second to examine her more closely, looking her over as if he was buying a new car. "Wonder if Shidowkun will let me have a piece of her when he's done?"

"Come one Harry leave it alone," his older brother told him. "I want to go check out the progress on the new Shangri La."

"Yeah sure Ron." Following after his brother, Harry turned around for a second. "Hey Melfina," he called out with a dark grin." "Have fun." As the elevator doors closed on the McDougal brothers, Melfina felt Karg's large hand on her back.

"If you want to make this as painless as possible," he instructed, "then I suggest you cooperate completely with him." Taking a deep breath to prepare herself, Melfina slowly entered Shidowkun's quarters as the doors slammed shut behind her. Looking around, Melfina didn't see Shidowkun, nor did she feel his presence either. With a sigh of relief, Melfina took the opportunity to assess her current situation. The room was spacious, but dimly lit. Unlike the other rooms she had been in, Shidowkun's seemed to favor western design. Against one side of the room was a quintet of chairs while on the other side was a large bed with four posts at its corners. Across from the doors was an octagonal window that cast light upon a large rectangular object. Curious, Melfina crept over for a better look and saw that it was actually some kind of stone sarcophagus. But there was something about it that seemed vaguely familiar. Leaning closer, Melfina saw that the top of the box was adorned with the same hieroglyphics from the Grave of the Dragon. Extending her hand, Melfina touched the surface of the stone and quickly withdrew it as a feeling of cold dread began to spread through her.

"Enjoying your handiwork?" Melfina whirled around and found herself face to face with Shidowkun. Instead of his armor, the Toku Emperor was wearing a red kimono with matching black hakama trousers and kataginu vest; his red streaked black hair tied up into a topknot. "Surprised?" he asked as he began to stalk towards her. "You couldn't even sense me this time could you? I've had Naga use his magic so that I can conceal myself in this room from your senses." Melfina backed away from Shidowkun until she pressed against the stone box. But even though she was frightened, Melfina decided not to give Shidowkun the satisfaction of seeing it.

"Why did you bring me here?" she asked, even though she already had an idea as to why. But as long as she could keep him talking then maybe she could avoid it. Meanwhile, a smile spread across Shidowkun's grey skin as he gently grasped her shoulder and turned her around to face the sarcophogas.

"First of all, I wanted to show you this. I usually keep in my throne-room but I thought you might want to see it."

"What is it? And why did you say it was my handiwork?"

"Because you are the one who created it," Shidowkun answered. "Well, perhaps saying it was you specifically is a bit of a stretch, but it's close enough." Melfina looked down at the box as Shidowkun's riddle began to come together in her head. This box has the same markings as the Grave of the Dragon, she thought. Does that mean that Shidowkun's after the Leyline like Hazonko was?

"If it's the Leyline that you're after," she told him, "then I can't help you. I'm no longer the maiden." Shidowkun laughed slightly as his hands grasped her exposed shoulders, making Melfina cringe from their cold, stony grip.

"You think that I don't know that? There is nothing that occurs in this galaxy that I am not aware of."

"Than why are you telling me this? Why did you even bring me here?" Melfina felt Shidowkun's breath on the back of her neck as he leaned forward to whisper in her ear.

"Because I could. When I see something that I want, I take it." With a sudden burst, Melfina wriggled free of Shidowkun's grip and ran over to the other side of the sarcophagus.

"I'm not a piece of property!" Melfina cried, surprised at the volume of her voice. "I'm not a doll, I'm not a plaything, and I'm not a puppet! And I won't let me treat you like one either!" Expecting a backlash, Melfina instead saw that Shidowkun seemed to be amused.

"Look out that window and tell me what you see." Backing up, Melfina slowly turned around and saw that she was near the top of some massive tower. As far as she can see, Shidowkun's fortress was surrounded by dead and scorched earth. The sky was covered by thick black clouds and the only light came from pools of lava and volcanic flairs that erupted irregularly. "If you were to be tossed out in that, how long do you think you could survive?"

"Is that a threat?"

"No, merely a statement of fact," Shidowkun answered as he moved around the sarcophagus towards her. Melfina retreated backwards as Shidowkun slowly pursued her through the room. "Now that you realize the situation, are you finally able to accept your fate?"

"What fate?" Melfina asked as she felt her legs bump against something. She had been so busy keeping her distance from Shidowkun that she had failed to notice that he had cornered her against the bed.

"You've met your sisters haven't you?" he asked. "They're androids, exactly the same as you. The difference is that they've accepted their role in life. It is the fate of androids to serve and obey their masters absolutely. It's what they're created for. You, on the other hand, refuse to accept it. You try to pretend that you're human, hoping that no one notices that you're not. But no matter how convincing you appear you will never be anything more than an imposter and you know it. So why don't you accept your fate? It would be so much easier on your heart." As he spoke, Shidowkun closed the distance between them so that he now towered over her. But Melfina still refused to let him toy with her.

"You're right," Melfina consented. "I am an android. But I'm not the same as those others. They can't choose who they are but I can. And I don't have to be anything that I don't want to be." Grinning in amusement, Shidowkun leaned forward so that his eyes were only inches from hers.

"And why is that? Because Gene Starwind told you?" Melfina didn't answer. "Are even you aware of his past?"

"What do you talking about? What past?"

"You truly don't know do you?" Shidowkun asked. "Before you met him, Gene Starwind was known as the worst womanizer on Sentinel III. As long as he found a woman attractive, he would do whatever was necessary to seduce her into his bed, then move on to the next once he was satisfied." It's not true, Melfina thought. Gene wouldn't be so cruel as to use someone like that. "Sometimes," Shidowkun continued, "he would even pay women to sleep with him. They were nothing more to him than marks on a scorecard; just like you were." Melfina's eyes widened in shock. "Don't be so surprised. I've already told you that nothing occurs in this galaxy that I am not aware of. If Gene Starwind found it necessary, he would have told you that you were a human who thought that she was an android. And now that he's had you; he'll move on to the next woman without so much as a second thought." Melfina turned her head away, feeling dirty and violated that Shidowkun had spied on a moment that was so private and special for her and Gene. But she also felt a small trace of doubt lingering in the back of her head. What if Shidowkun is telling the truth? she worried. What if Gene decides I'm not worth coming to rescue? Subconsciously, she reached up to her necklace and found that it wasn't there. That's right, she remembered. Gene accidentally ripped it off when Shidowkun attacked us. She also remembered how it was when they first started dating; how Gene supported her search for her own identity, and how they both decided to take their relationship slow and not rush into something neither of them was ready for.

"Even if Gene really was like that once," she said, "that's not the way he is now. I don't care about his past or how many women he's been with; only that he's with me now! I know that he'll come for me and I won't listen to you anymore!" Melfina looked back to Shidokwun and saw that he had backed away slightly, almost as if he were fearful of something.

"I see," he said with a scowl. "So your faith in him is absolute then?" Melfina nodded and Shidowkun's face grew a smug expression. "Then at least I know that everything will proceed as I have planned."

"Planned?" Melfina asked. "What do you mean…"and Melfina's eyes widened as the realization finally hit her. "You were never after me were you? It's Gene you're after isn't it?"

"Perceptive aren't you?" he asked.

"I won't you do it!" she yelled, not caring what happened to her. "I won't let you use me to hurt Gene!" Just then, something grabbed Melfina by the wrists and yanked her back onto the bed as something else grabbed her ankles. Looking around, Melfina saw that all four of her limbs had been grabbed by shadow tentacles, tying her onto the bed

"As if you could do anything to stop me." Moving to the side of the bed, Shidowkun climbed in beside her and began stroking her outer thigh.

"No don't," she begged. "Stop it please."

"As I told you before," Shidowkun reminded her as he straddled her legs. "Androids exist solely to serve their masters. And you now belong to me. Besides, if your connection with Gene Starwind is as strong as I think it is, then this should give him some added incentive to come sooner." Leaning down towards her, Shidowkun's tongue extended out like a lizard, and Melfina's terror turned to desperation.

"Stop it!" she yelled. "LEAVE ME ALONE!" Suddenly, something burst from inside her that sent Shidowkun flying off her and across the room. As the tentacles released her, Melfina scooted back against the head of the bed. I did it again, the thought. It was just like when Shidowkun attacked Keibara. Meanwhile, Shidowkun had risen back to his feet, his power crackling around his body as his eyes began to flame.

"You insolent BITCH!" Forming a dark fire lash, Shidowkun cracked it towards the bed and Melfina barely rolled out of the way in time. Landing on the floor, Melfina looked up to see Shidowkun pull back his whip for another attack. With no time or room to dodge, Melfina covered her head with her arms as the whip missed her by a matter of inches. Opening her eyes, Melfina saw that Karg had burst into the room and grabbed Shidowkun in a body hold. "Karg what the hell do you think you're doing!"

"My emperor you must calm down," Karg told him. "If you proceed you might slaughter the android and all your plans would be ruined. Besides, if you continue to threaten her she might learn how to properly harness her power. Let me take her back to her cell and away from you. That would be the best course of action for now." Appearing to calm down, Shidowkun retracted his whip before twisting free of Karg's grip, grabbing him by the throat and slamming him into the wall.

"Considering your intentions Karg," Shidowkun told him, "I'll overlook this one moment of insolence. Now take her away and get out of my sight." Releasing Karg from his grip, Shidowkun moved over to the observation window while Karg walked over to Melfina and helped her up. "Come," he ordered. Following after him as she was escorted out of the room and back to the elevator, Melfina waited until the doors closed before she leaned against the wall and slumped down to the floor where she trembled quietly in a huddle.

It was dark all around him. But it wasn't like any kind of darkness Gene had ever seen before. There was no light, no sound, not even ground. It was like he was standing on solid shadow. Where am I? he wondered. "Hello," he called out. "Is anyone here?"

"Gene," someone whimpered in the distance. That was Melfina, he realized. "Gene help me."

"Mel where are you?" In the dark, it was hard to tell just where her voice was coming from.

"Does it matter?" another voice asked. "You'll never find her in time." That was Shidowkun, Gene thought.

"Mel hold on I'm coming." Heading in the direction he hoped she was, Gene began to run. "Just keep talking and I'll find you."

"Gene hurry please," Melfina half-sobbed. "He's going to kill me."

"No he won't! Shidowkun you so much as touch Mel and I'll…"

"You'll what?" Gene braked to a stop as two red lights appeared in the dark in front of him. Unable to look away, Gene reached for his gun, but couldn't find it. "I'm waiting," Shidowkun said. Remembering the number 21 shell, Gene grabbed his casterblade but it refused to budge from its holster. "Gene Starwind, you are afraid of me aren't you. It's no wonder you're unable to save Melfina." Laughing in contempt, Shidowkun's eyes vanished into the dark as Gene felt a cold sweat begin to bead on his forehead. What's wrong with me? he asked himself. Why can't I defeat him? I have all this power so why can't I beat him? Suddenly, Gene heard footstops coming from behind him. "Who's there?" he asked as he turned around. The footsteps became louder as a small figure appeared in the dark. "Mel I'm over here!"

"Gene!" Melfina ran towards him and was within arms length when something darted out of the shadows and grabbed Melfina by the neck. Gene leapt for her, but was too late to stop Melfina from being jerked back into the dark. Gene chased after her, and the quiet of the darkness was shattered by a scream.

"Melfina!" Gene yelled. Something was thrown to the ground in front of him and Gene slowed to a stop. Leaning down for a closer look, Gene saw Melfina lying motionless in front of him. "Mel wake up!" Lifting her shoulders, Gene shook her lightly, but she didn't answer. Melfina no, he prayed. She was so cold, so still. Gene buried his face against her unbeating heart and felt hot tears begin to run down his face.

"How pathetic, shedding tears over a broken doll." Gene looked up to see Shidowkun standing above him, and his vision exploded in crimson fury. Screaming in rage, Gene launched himself forward and punched, exploding Shidowkun's head in a single hit. As the rage passed, Gene collapsed to his knees as Shidowkun finally lay dead before him. Panting in exhaustion, Gene watched as Shidowkun's body dissolved into the ground as a slight rumbling began

"What's that?" Gene asked. The rumbling grew louder and the darkness began to shake as glowing red cracks appeared in the ground beneath Gene. "What the hell's going on!" The cracks were growing wider and the ground began to rise and heave. One opened up where Melfina lay and her body fell into the crack before Gene could grab her. Another crack opened behind him and a guyser of flame sprang forth as a something huge began to rise from its depths. At first shapeless, it formed arms, a torso, even a pair of huge demonic wings that stretched from shoulder to hip. Three horns sprouted from the top and sides of its head as the skull exploded with dancing flames. As the demon's eyes found him, Gene could only scream as it opened its mouth, launched out its tongue to catch him, and pulled him into the fanged maw…

…Gene continued to scream as he bolted straight up from his bunk. His heart was racing and his forehead was drenched in sweat. Jerking his head around, Gene saw that he was in his quarters aboard the Outlaw Star. It was just a dream Gene, he told himself as his shaking hands went to his temples. Calm down Gene it was just a dream.

"Oh dear, is something the matter Gene?" Gene looked up and saw Gillium's pink maintenance robot hanging above him.

"Nah it's nothing," he panted. "How long was I out?"

"According to ship's clock, you were asleep for roughly five hours. We still have another twelve and two more jumps to make before we reach Blue Heaven."

"Great, keep up the good work Gillium. We're all counting on you."

"Your confidence in my abilities flatters me Gene. I know that I'm nowhere near as skilled as Melfina, but I shall do my best." As the robot rolled out on its maintenance rail, Gene stood up from his bunk. He still felt some anxiety from his nightmare that he needed to work off. Maybe I'll go watch some TV, he thought. Exiting his quarters, he proceeded down the main deck towards the ship's lounge. Opening the hatch, he saw someone sitting on the couch in the dark. At first he thought that it was Suzuka or Aisha, but then realized that the person was far too big to be either of them.

"Something I can help you with?" Mazren asked. Down by his feet, Slag looked up to Gene, but didn't growl at him like usual.

"I just came in to watch some TV," Gene answered. "But if you're already…"

"I'm not," Mazren answered. "Go right ahead." Shutting the hatch behind him, Gene strolled over and sat at the couch's opposite end.

"You know maybe I'll just sit here and think instead." Even if it was Mazren, the others were all asleep and he really didn't feel like being by himself.

"Do what you want it's your ship," Mazren said. Not bothering to reply, Gene looked ahead and saw that the lounge monitor had been tuned to the Outlaw Star's sensors, giving them a scenic tour of space.

"Nice view," he said.

"I guess," Mazren commented. Gene turned to him and watched as Mazren pulled a beer from a nearby 12-pack. Already, four empty cans lay on the end table beside him.

"Can I ask you something?"

"As long as it's not personal," Mazren answered.

"How do you drink like that without getting hammered?" Gene watched as Mazren pointed to his arm, his head, and then his heart.

"Strength of body, strength of mind, and strength of soul," he told him. "And having enhanced healing abilities doesn't hurt either."

"Right," Gene said. Again the lounge was quiet. "Can I ask something else?"

"Go ahead."

"What do you think about fate?" Gene asked. Mazren sighed as he stared at the monitor.

"I don't. Things happen and people say that it's fate, the will of god, it wasn't meant to be, or whatever." As he spoke, Mazren paused to take a sip from his beer. "But I hate sayings like that. They're nothing but excuses people use for not taking control of their own lives. If I just accepted what fate handed me, than I wouldn't be sitting here now. I'd still be nothing more than a Kei Pirate pawn."

"I used to think that way too," Gene admitted. "But with everything that's happened and with what Jubei taught me I don't know anymore."

"What did he tell you?"

"Basically that whenever things get out of control the universe picks someone to clean up the mess."

"Then don't think of it as fate," Mazren said. "Think of it as a client hiring you to do a job." Gene thought about that for a second and nodded.

"I guess that makes sense," he admitted. But I'm only doing this for Mel and the others, he decided. After that, the universe can find someone else to do its dirty work. Out of the corner of his eye, Gene saw a small smile appear on Mazren's face. "Care to let me in on the joke?"

"I was just thinking," Mazren answered. "Melfina once told me that we were a lot alike."

"God forbid," Gene said,

"My thoughts exactly," Mazren replied. Gene couldn't help but smile himself; but then remembered what Mazren told him the morning of the attack.

"I'm sorry," he said. "You trusted me to protect Melfina and I screwed up."

"You did everything that you could," Mazren told him. "Shidowkun had us out-muscled and out-planned. For what it's worth, I probably wouldn't have been able to last as long as you did." Gene was silent as he remembered what Shidowkun told him in his nightmare; you are afraid of me.

"How are we going to beat him?" he asked. "We threw everything we had at him and he just kept getting right back up again. How can we possible defeat something like that?" Mazren hummed in thought as he finished his beer and set it on the table with the others.

"You're first problem is that you think he's unbeatable. I'll admit that Shidowkun's stronger than anyone I've ever encountered before. And his techniques surpass fighting masters I know of who I can't even begin to compare myself with. Still; no one is invincible. Everyone has a weakness somewhere; you just have to look for it."

"So then what's Shidowkun's weakness?" Gene asked.

"Let's examine his strengths first," Mazren answered. "He's incredible strong, obviously thinks things through before acting, and has entire armies at his beck and call."

"Don't forget his powers," Gene recalled. "Everytime he healed himself, it felt like he was dipping into a bottomless well of energy. I've never heard of Tao magic like that before. Not even Hazonko could do that."

"I wouldn't call Shidowkun's powers magical," Mazren said. "He may be drawing in energy from an outside source, but he's definitely generating his power by himself. That makes his powers more spiritual than magical. But I noticed something whenever he healed himself."

"Which is?"

"When I used Thunder Fist Dragon after draining off his energy, Shidowkun retreated instead of continuing the fight. He then reappeared both regenerated and recharged. What does that tell you?" Gene thought it over until it finally hit him.

"Shidowkun can't attack while he's healing."

"Exactly," Mazren said. "Even if Shidowkun possesses incredible power and unlimited energy, he can only hold a limited amount of it at once. That's his first weakness."

"You know, now that I think about it," Gene added, "every time Shidowkun got hit, he acted like it was something personal."

"That's his second weakness," Mazren explained. "Even if Shidowkun realizes he's fallible, he's convinced himself that he's invincible. And whenever someone proves him otherwise, he gets blinded by his own anger, which makes him sloppy and easy to predict."

"So if we make him get angry," Gene theorized, "then hit him when his guard is down, and then keep hitting him so that he doesn't get a chance to recharge; we'll be able to beat him."

"And now you're thinking like a fighter," Mazren told him. Gene grinned as he felt his confidence return just before a thought hit him.

"Hey," he asked, "are we actually having a friendly moment?"

"Maybe," Mazren answered. Reaching into his pocket, Gene pulled out Melfina's pendant.

"Mel really wanted us to get along didn't she?" he asked as he stared at the necklace. "I really wish she could see this." Looking up, Gene saw that Mazren was holding a beer out to him.

"We'll show her when we rescue her."

"Right," Gene replied as he accepted the peace offering. Mazren pulled another for himself and they clinked their cans together. "To Mel," he said.

"We're gonna get her back no matter what." Gene nodded as he felt something on his leg. Slag had gotten up and had laid his head on Gene's lap. I guess Mazren and this mutt aren't bad guys after all, he thought as he began to scratch between the wolf's ears. Man now I feel kind of bad about sending his picture to Fred.

Looking down at the shaking figure of the android girl, Karg had no idea as to whether she was incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. Not only had she refused to submit herself to the Emperor, she actually seemed to have hurt him as well. She looks so young, he thought. Probably not even the human equivalent of twenty yet, still just a child. As if sensing he was watching her, the android looked up to him.

"Thank you," she said as she began to calm down.

"For what?" he asked her.

"For stopping him," she told him. "You stayed outside after I went in, and you kept him from hurting me." With a grunt, Karg looked away.

"It wasn't my intention to help you," he told her. "Merely to make sure the Emperor didn't lose sight of his objectives. Besides, I wouldn't have had to take any action if you had merely done as I instructed." Out of the corner of his eye, Karg watched as the android slowly stood to her feet.

"I'm sorry," she told him. "But I couldn't let him do that to me. I just couldn't."

"Don't be stupid!" Karg snapped. "Your chastity isn't worth your life."

"It had nothing to do with that. I've already given myself to someone. And I know that he wouldn't look down on me if Shidowkun raped me, but I still want to keep myself only for him no matter what."

"Love isn't worth your life either," Karg remarked. "Don't be so idiotic as to throw your life away for empty idealism."

"What I'm feeling isn't empty," she said. "What about you? Wasn't there a time in your own life when you cared about someone else so much that you'd do anything for them?" Karg didn't answer at first. In the back of his mind he saw the image of beautiful little six-year old girl with dark red hair, ice blue eyes, and wearing a yellow dress running towards him.

"My past is irrelevant," he said. "I've already told you that I've sworn an oath of loyalty to the Toku Emperor. That is all that matters now." At that moment, the elevator came to a stop and the doors opened. Escorting the android out, she and Karg were stopped by another of the Akuma guards who bowed in respect.

"Captain," he said, "your presence is needed at the inspection for the new defense systems of level one."

"Understood, I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Actually sir, your presence is required immediately. We've run behind schedule due to wiring problems with the fortress's main computer and…"

"Very well," Karg interrupted. "You take the android back to her holding cell and…"but Karg stopped as the red-coated figure of Ron MacDougal came around the corner. "On second thought, MacDougal come here." MacDougal stopped in his tracks and turned towards them.

"What do you want?" he asked

"I need you to escort the android back to her cell. It's in section 4, room 32."

"Get someone else to do it," MacDougal snapped. "I'm on my way to meet my brother and I'm late enough as it is. Besides, in case you've forgotten, I don't have to do anything except stay here for four more days."

"You may not have any official responsibilities anymore," Karg consented. "But you are still Lord Shidowkun's vassal. Or would you rather I report your insubordination to the Emperor?" MacDougal's eyes narrowed in anger as he walked over to them.

"Fine I'll do it." Roughly taking the android by the arm, MacDougal led her down the hall to her cell. "Come one move it," he told her.

"Make sure she gets there unharmed MacDougal," Karg called after him.

"Yeah sure whatever," he replied over his shoulder. As Karg and his subordinate went about on their own business, Karg thought about what the android girl had asked him and the memory that it had stirred. If she had lived, he wondered. Would she have grown up to be like the android?

"Is something wrong Captain?" the guard asked.

"No it's nothing," Karg answered. "But after we finish with the inspection I want food and water sent to the android's cell on a regular basis."

"Yes sir, I'll have tubes of organic paste sent right…"

"No," Karg ordered. "Leave that for our own androids. Instead, have the kitchen prepare some simple, but well balanced meals for her."

"Has Lord Shidowkun ordered that she be fed that way?"

"No, but then again he didn't order us not to feed her that way either."

As she was led back to her cell, Melfina wanted to ask Ron MacDougal something important, but was almost afraid to. There was something about the way he acted around her that told Melfina that he deeply disliked her. Does he blame me for what happened to Harry at the Leyline? she wondered.

"This must be it," he said aloud as they reached her room. Pressing a button on the door's side, the metal slab slid open and he released her arm. As she entered her prison, Melfina decided that she had to ask him before she lost her chance.

"Wait," she told him. Ron looked to her in a mixture of disinterest and contempt.

"What do you want?" he asked.

"How was Harry brought back to life?" Ron glared at her and Melfina thought that he wouldn't answer. But to her surprise, he leaned against the doorframe and told her how Harry had copied his memories and personality into the Shangri-La's computer system, that it became active after he was killed by Hazonko, and how the Toku later came to them and offered to create a new body for Harry. "I'm sorry," she told him.

"You're what?" he asked.

"I'm sorry for everything that you and Harry have had to go through. And I'm sorry that I couldn't be what he wanted me to be. But I couldn't go with him. I just wasn't in love him." Ron looked to her with raised eyebrows before chuckling softly.

"This is rich," he said. "An android telling me about love? Don't insult me. You have no idea what you're talking about."

"But what about Harry?" she asked, making Ron bristle noticeably.

"What about Harry?"

"Doesn't he seem as though he's not himself? The Toku did something to him, something bad. If you help me, maybe I can help you by undoing whatever they…" but Melfina was cut off as Ron slammed his fist against the wall.

"Shut up!" he screamed. "If there is something wrong with my brother then it's not the Toku's fault, its yours and Gene Starwind's. If you really want to make amends, then just die along with him when he comes." Melfina was shocked by Ron's outburst, but she didn't break eye contact with him.

"There's something else that you need to know," she said.

"And what would that be?" Ron asked.

"Did you ever take a job from the Toku about six or seven years ago?"

"Maybe," Ron said. "What's it to you?"

"Around that time,'' Melfina explained. "Two Toku ships, led by a third that looked a lot like your ship, attacked a cargo hauler at Sentinel III. Gene was on that ship with his father. He escaped, but his father died while trying to save him." Ron raised his eyebrow slightly, but then turned his back to her.

"I can't honestly say if it was me or not," he told her. "I can't remember every single job that I did and who I did it for; especially if it was over six years ago. But even if I did do it, Gene should know better than to take something like that personal. It was just a job."

"Even so, I want you to know that I feel sorry for you and Harry," Melfina told him. "Because when Gene comes, I don't think he will."

"Whatever." Stepping out of the doorway, Ron shut the door and locked her in. Alone at last, Melfina moved over to her cell's mattress where she lay down and finally allowed the tears she had kept back to fall from her eyes. As she silently wept onto her pillow, Melfina thought back to what she had learned from Shidowkun. And even though she didn't want to stay in this awful place, neither did she want Gene to come get her if it meant he was walking into a trap. What am I going to do, she thought as she gave in to her exhaustion. What am I going to do now?

Stepping out of the elevator with Slag, Mazren looked up to the black and silver trimmed hull of the Warshark. After almost a full day of stop and go jumping through sub-ether space, they had finally made it to Blue Heaven. Now, they only had one-third a day to prep and load up the Outlaw Star before they could launch for Shidowkun's fortress and rescue Melfina. Luckily, Jubei and his group had arrived along with the weapons and supplies Starwind had ordered from Fred Luo. With their help, they'd be able to launch ahead of schedule. Well this is it, he thought. Never thought I'd see the day when I'd give up the Warshark, but I guess it has to be done.

"Hey ya Mazren." Over to the left, Zedia had suddenly appeared with ten of the twenty clan members Jubei had brought with him. The rest were helping Starwind load the weapons onto the Outlaw Star. "I got your message and I've given your friends the list of what we need to strip. Just give the signal and we'll start."

"Give me minute with Diana first," he told her. "After everything that we've been though I owe her a face to face explanation."

"Sure go ahead." Ascending the ramp, Mazren and Slag entered though the main hatch and strolled down the main deck. This will be the last time I'll ever walk this corridor, he realized.

"Welcome back Mazren," Diana's throaty voice called out as he entered the bridge. "Did everything turn out for the best?"

"Not exactly," Mazren said as he sat on the side of the pilot chair. "And we need to talk about something."

"I assume this has something to do with that group of characters with Zedia right?"

"You got it." Diana was always observant. He would miss that about her. "Melfina was taken. But the Outlaw Star doesn't have the capabilities without her to launch a rescue so…"

"So you need to transfer some of the Warshark's components over to the Outlaw Star," Diana interrupted.

"Pretty much," Mazren said. "I'm sorry Diana, but this is where we say goodbye."

"It's alright I understand. Although, I must admit that I am concerned over what will happen to me."

"You don't have to worry about that. I've talked with Swanzo and he's in the market for a new computer for his dock. You do a pretty good job of keeping the Warshark together so I figured you'd be able to handle something like that easy."

"I suppose I could," Diana answered. "All in all, I think that I would prefer it. Bounty hunting has more risks than benefits anyway." Mazren smiled sadly as he touched the armrest of the pilot's seat.

"I want you to know that I couldn't have asked for a better ship than the Warshark," he told her, "or a better friend than you."

"The feeling is mutual, even if you're the most hardheaded and stubborn person I've ever encountered." Mazren laughed slightly. He'd miss Diana's sarcastic wit as well. "So does this mean you'll be traveling with Gene Starwind and his group?"

"Yeah," Mazren said. "I guess no one can remain a lone wolf forever. I think I've finally found a pack to run with."

"Especially since you'll be traveling with that Suzuka person am I right?" Mazren felt himself blush slightly as he rubbed the back of his head.

"She's one hell of a woman," he admitted. "And I'm not sure but I think I love her."

"Well, at least I know that someone will be there to take care of you. Still, I'll have to send her the stun prod so that she can get you out of bed."

"Yeah right," Mazren said as he began to type in the appropriate commands at the pilot's console, causing lights around him to dim. "I'm going to have to shut you down now. But your memory core will remain intact so don't worry about being deleted."

"Understood," Diana said as her voice slowed to a drawl. "I wish you the best of luck in your new life Mazren." As Diana's voice faded away, the lights on the console blinked off and the sub-ether drive shut down with a low hum. Getting up from the pilot seat, Mazren took one last look around the Warshark's bridge before patting his hip.

"Come on boy," he told Slag. "It's time to move on." Slag whined and pawed the chair one final time before following after his master. As they exited the hatch, they saw Zedia and the clansmen standing at the foot of the ramp. "Go ahead, she's all yours."

"You heard the man," Zedia told her assistants. "Let's get to work." As Zedia and the clan workers began to strip the Warshark of whatever they needed, Mazren and Slag never looked back once. One part of their lives was over, but a new one had begun to replace it.

As he sat drinking his wine, Ron MacDougal didn't know what was wrong with him. At the moment, he and Harry were in one of the many baths Shidowkun used to entertain his guests and attendants. After taking Melfina back to her cell, Ron had hurried to meet with Harry to celebrate how their luck was finally changing. Over on the other side of the bath, Harry was in the midst of getting a deep tissue massage from two of the bath's android servants. There were a few other people with them, mostly Akuma guards who were either getting bathed by the androids or groping them. But despite the party going on around him, for some reason Ron didn't feel much like celebrating.

"Ah there you are," someone hissed behind him. Ron looked up as the emaciated form of Naga sat down beside him. "I was told that I'd find you in here."

"Something I can do for you?" Ron asked. He really wasn't in the mood for company.

"No," the Shogun of Magic answered. "Pay me no heed. I'm merely here to relieve some tension." With a wave of his hand, Naga signaled for one android with strawberry blond hair to bring a second bottle of wine. "You look like you could use some relief yourself. You know, these androids feel exactly the same as a human. And they're programmed to service you in every way you could possible desire." As he spoke, Naga signaled for the android who had brought his wine to go over to Ron. But as she neared him, Ron grabbed her by the arms and shoved her away.

"Don't touch me!" he yelled as she landed on the floor.

"What's the matter?" Naga asked. "You don't like redheads?"

"No I don't like androids," Ron growled. "They're nothing but machines pretending to be human, but you can tell just by watching them that they're not." Meanwhile, the android he had shoved away stood up and smiled in compliance as she went to serve an Akuma guard that had just entered. Maybe that's what's wrong with me, he thought. Being surrounded by all these smiling, glassy eyed dolls is really starting to creep me out.

"But what about Melfina though?" Naga asked. "You can't tell right away that she's an android can you?"

"She's even worse," Ron admitted. "I know that she's a bio-android, but I can't see it. No matter how hard I look her over I can't find anything out of place with her. There's nothing that keys me off about her. She's just too…"

"Human?" Naga asked. Ron didn't answer. As he knocked back another drink, he realized that Melfina was what his real problem was. Not so much that he couldn't tell that she was an android, but what she had told him about Gene Starwind. Was it really possible that he had killed Gene's father? It wasn't that Ron felt any guilt about it. After all he was just doing his job. What really drove him crazy was that he couldn't remember if he did or not. He had taken jobs from the Toku before, but did he take one seven years ago? "Well I wouldn't worry about it," he heard Naga say. "As I told you before, don't think too much about unnecessary things."

"When did you tell me that?"

"You remember," Naga told him. "It was when we hired you to attack that hauler." Ron looked up to Naga as something clicked in his head. He couldn't remember when, but sometime in the past the Toku had hired him to lead an attack on some random cargo hauler. Ron had asked why, but Naga told him to think more about the huge amount of money the Toku was offering him and not about unnecessary things. So Ron took the job and never gave it a second thought afterwards. Gene Starwind once asked me if I led an attack on a cargo hauler at Sentinel III, he thought. And that android accused me of doing the same thing. Did that mean that what Melfina had told him was true, and that Ron had killed Gene's father? But there was still something about all this that didn't add up. Why would the Toku order a hit on Gene Starwind's father, then lead Gene himself into what was obviously a trap seven years later? Ron decided that it was finally time to get to the bottom of whatever mess he and Harry were involved in.

"I suppose you're right," Ron said. "By the way, since me and Harry are going to be sticking around a while longer, why don't you let me in on the whole plan you have for Gene and his friends."

"Still worrying about unnecessary things are we?" Naga asked as he took another sip of wine.

"Nah," Ron said with a cold grin. "I just want to know if there's anything we could do to help. After all we still have a grudge against them." Naga hummed in thought before he lowered his cup.

"Alright," the Shogun consented. "First things first, have you ever heard of an item called, the Ryunoken Sword?"

Sitting in the pilot's, Gene pressed the button that activated the control tubes and visor helmet to fold out of their storage compartments. Sticking his arms into the tubes, Gene flexed the controls as the helmet lowered over his head, giving him a 360 degree view of the dock.

"So how does it feel?" he heard Mazren ask.

"It's definitely different from what I'm used to," Gene answered. "But I think I can get the hang of it pretty quickly."

"It's a system based on one used by a member of the Anten 7," Mazren explained. "Overall control this way is both easier and more efficient. Plus it doesn't cause headaches like optic laser transmitters do."

"That's a plus," Gene commented. Retracting his arms from the tubes, Gene signaled for the system to fold back into storage. "So Jim how's it coming?" Down where the copilot's seat used to be, Jim was busy expanding the front of the bridge's command unit and adding a second seat. After they saved Melfina, the secondary copilot seat would become Mazren's station.

"Just finishing up," Jim said as he screwed in the control console. "Any additional systems that need to be monitored like the sensors, defense, even navigation can all be accessed from this seat."

"Great," Gene said as he leapt out of his chair. "Let's go see how the others are doing." With a push, Gene floated down the main deck of the Outlaw Star. Swanzo had turned down the dock's gravity to allow the work to go more quickly. Reaching the hatch, Gene pulled himself out with Mazren and Jim behind him.

"I'm gonna go get a soda," Jim said. "You guys want anything?"

"Yeah sure," Mazren said as he handed Jim a wong. "Get me a diet."

"Make it two," Gene said as he handed Jim another.

"Got it, be right back." Bracing his feet against the Outlaw Star's hull, Jim pushed and rocketed away to a nearby corridor where normal gravity was still in effect. Meanwhile, Mazren and Gene went their separate ways; Mazren to check on the grappler arms, Gene to check on the new engines. Floating to the Outlaw Star's aft; Gene caught a hold of a rope and pulled himself in to where Mikey and Swanzo were installing what used to be the Warshark's sublight engines.

"How's it coming guys?"

"We're making good time," Mikey said as he pulled up his welding mask. "Give us just two more hours and we'll have these babies working."

"Those friends of yours are a big help," Swanzo added. "Especially that Jubei guy. That magic or whatever he's using really speeds things up."

"Speak for yourself," Mikey commented as he pulled his down his mask. "I'd rather be working with that Keibara chick. Now that's my type of girl."

"Yeah right," Swanzo said. "Every girl's your type."

"Okay then I'll let you guys get back to work," Gene said as he pushed off. "Just let me know if you need anything." Landing on the floor of Mikey's dock, Gene saw Mazren standing with Keibara and the others as they reviewed the grappler arms. "How's everything down here?"

"The new landing gear's been installed," Keibara answered, "and so have the grappler weapons. The only really major thing left now is to load up the ammo. After that, you're good to go."

"Suits me just fine," Gene said as he looked up to the grappler arms. Although he had only asked Fred for the usual hatchet, pistol, and smart missiles; Fred had instead seen fit to send them a whole arsenal of specialized artillery as well as a static saber and a vulcan energy gun. Both weapons could be plugged into the Outlaw Star's power supply through the grappler arms for virtually unlimited use.

"Speaking of which," Mazren said, "have you checked out some of these missles? Your friend really came through for us."

"I know," Gene remarked. "EMP missiles, quad bombs, micro missile pods. I'm almost looking forward to the fight now."

"No better way to relieve stress than to blow stuff up," Mazren joked.

"I heard that," Gene agreed. Off to the side, Gene saw Aisha and Suzuka grinning at him and Mazren. "What?"

"You two seem to be getting pretty chummy all of a sudden," Aisha said.

"I suppose that they finally found some common ground," Suzuka theorized. "Boys and their toys I guess."

"Um," Gene said, "well we…"

"Gene!" someone screamed.

"What the hell?" Mazren asked.

"That was Jim!" Gene said.

After getting two diets for Mazren and Gene and one orange or himself, Jim was on his way back when he heard someone walking behind him.

"One moment young man, a moment if you please." Jim looked over his shoulder and saw a short, thin figure standing in the shadows.

"Sorry," he told the guy. "But I don't have any change on me."

"What oh no no," the guy said. "I don't want change, not at all. I merely wish to talk. Yes that's quite right."

"Yeah well my mother told me never to talk to strangers. And no offense pal, but you're pretty strange." But even though Jim couldn't see his face, there was something about the way the man spoke that seemed vaguely familiar to him.

"Oh but no I'm not a stranger. You and I know each other. Yes yes we do."

"Okay pal look," Jim said as he started to back away. "I don't know who you are or what you want, but you're really starting to creep me out. So back away because my friends are right outside in the dock and…"

"They are?" the guy asked. "Why that's good. Yes it is. You should call them. You see, I wish to speak with them as well. Yes I must speak with Gene especially." Before Jim could ask how the guy knew Gene, he stepped forward into the light. Jim's face began to pale and he dropped the sodas he was carrying. As he began to back away even further, he thought he heard someone scream Gene's name, but couldn't tell if he did it or not. A few seconds later, someone grabbed Jim from behind and yanked him back.

"Jim, Jim are you okay!" Jim looked up and saw Aisha standing behind him with her arms wrapped around his shoulders.

"Uh yeah sure fine," he said as the others began to appear. Hey this feels kind of nice, Jim thought as he felt Aisha's ample breasts pushing against his back. Whoa snap out of it Jim. This is no time to start acting like Gene. Meanwhile; Suzuka moved to beside Aisha and Jim while Gene, Mazren, and Slag put themselves between Jim and the man, who once again had backed into shadows.

"All right you," Gene growled. "You'd better have a damn good explanation for whatever shit you were trying to pull with Jim."

"Excuse me, I deeply apologize. I only wished to talk to the boy. I had no desire to frighten him. No desire at all."

"Yeah like I haven't heard that from every pedophile I ever hunted down," Mazren said.

"Aisha," Suzuka said as she drew her bokuto. "Take Jim back into the dock. We'll handle it from here."

"Wait a minute," someone said. "Who are you? And why is it that I don't sense any ki being generated from you?" From behind them all, Jubei and Keibara with a trio of Clansmen had joined the party in the corridor.

"Well that's quite simple," the man said. "Quite simple indeed. You see, as I don't have a soul of my own, then I can't generate any ki. Does that answer your question?"

"What!" Mazren yelled. "What the hell are you babbling about?"

"That's what I'd like to know," Gene added. "Just who are you anyway?"

"As I already told Jim, you already know who I am Gene Starwind. Yes that's right you do."

"How the hell do you know my name?" Gene asked. And then, Gene realized there was only one person he knew of who spoke like this. "Gwen Khan!"

(Gwen Khan is alive. But how is that possible? Didn't he fade out of existence at the Leyline? As Gene and the others attempt to get some answers from Khan, Ron MacDougal is getting his own answers from Naga, the Shogun of Magic. Why was Gene Starwind chosen to be the Swordwielder? What is the secret of Shidowkun's power? And what is the connection between Melfina and the Toku Emperor. Everything is about to be revealed in our next exciting episode. Same outlaw-time, same outlaw-website. Don't forget to review.)

Chapter 17
Chapter 19

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