Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Spring Break

by David & Kati Schock

On the homeworld of the female-dominated Cygnan Empire, in the main reception hall of the Queen's castle, a meeting was about to take place -- perhaps the most important meeting ever to be held here in the heart of the Empire. From such meetings, fortunes are made, lives are lost, and sadly, kingdoms all too often fall.

This particular meeting was being held at this time to prevent a war, but not just any war; the worst kind of war imaginable to any society, a civil war. Entering the Great Hall through the massive gold-plated double doors walked Queen Zazen'lda's older sister, heading up her own personal retainers.

She was a powerful woman, tall and well built. She might have been on the wrong side of forty, but except for the few strands of gray hair and worry lines around her eyes, she bore no sign of the years she carried. What drew one's attention next to her height, which was at least three inches over six feet, was the scar that ran down the side of her face. She bore it proudly, since she received it in the service of her sister the Queen and the Empire she ruled so well.

At her side, and one step behind, walked her first-born daughter Zelda, followed by her own personal bodyguards and advisors. When this group of formidable warriors reached the foot of their Queen's throne, they all dropped down to one knee and bowed to show their respect. The Queen's niece also joined in performing this show of respect to her aunt by following suit with her mother's troops. Her mother and the Queen's sister showed her respect by standing at attention and simply and respectfully nodding her head.

The Queen gave the visitors permission to stand, and waited for her older sister to speak.

When no explanation was forthcoming from her, she took it as a sign to start the conversation herself. "I can't believe you plan on risking the peace and safety of our Empire just to put your own daughter on the throne after I am gone, my sister!"

She looked up at her sister and Queen. "No, Zazen'lda -- it is you who risks the safety of the Empire by insisting that your long-lost daughter inherit the throne of an Empire in which she has never even stepped foot."

"She is my daughter and that should be reason enough, even for you," her sister the Queen pointed out, almost as if she was making a plea.

"In name only, Baby Sister. If truth be told, she never truly was your daughter -- not since the day you lost her, almost twenty years ago!"

Queen Zazen'lda made her way down the steps to stand before her big sister. Putting her hand affectionately on her shoulder, she pleaded, "Don't do this, Shaska. As your sister I'm begging you. Please don't start something that neither you nor I have any way of predicting the outcome." She then added, "Or is it because of the fact that our mother chose me -- the younger daughter -- over you, the oldest -- to be the next Queen after her? Has your resentment so clouded your judgment?"

"No, Baby Sister, our mother thought you would make the better leader for our people. I didn't agree with her at the time. But I obeyed her wishes and supported you. In time, you proved to me and the rest of our people that our mother was right. You were, and still are, a good and noble Queen, Little Sister."

"Then why will you deny me the support that I need so badly?" asked the Queen.

"Because in this case, you are wrong, my sister. Your daughter is totally unfit to rule the Empire."

In an angry voice her sister asked, "And I suppose you think your daughter is fit to be the next Queen?"

"Ever since you lost your daughter nearly twenty years ago, she has been trained for just this duty," answered her sister.

Her own daughter tried to interrupt. "But Mother! I -- "

"Silence," her mother said. "This is between your aunt and myself."

"What do you think the people will say?" asked the Queen.

Her sister answered," I have over half the Council on my side, and almost half the Fleet as well. Most, if not all of the frontier planet governors, think the same as I do, and have sworn their loyalty to my daughter and me. And whether you like it or not, she will be the next Queen!"

C-ko's mother looked into her older sister's eyes and pleaded in a sad voice, "Please don't do this, Shaky!" She now addressed her sister by her childhood nickname.

"I'm sorry, Zaza," said Shaska, using in turn her sister's nickname. "What I do now, I do not for myself or even for my own daughter. I do it for the Empire and her people whom we both serve. I do what I have to do as a servant of that Empire -- and not as your sister."

"Just as I must do what I think is right," Zazen'lda solemnly answered. "Because of this, I can stand before you as your sister and not as your Queen. But once I climb those steps and once again sit on that damn throne, it will no longer be as your baby sister. Instead -- once I reach the top - it will be your Queen who stands before you." With that in mind she then added, "Please, Shaky -- I'm begging you as family. Don't make me climb those steps."

With that, she turned around and slowly climbed the stairs that led back up to her throne, hoping with every step she took to hear the sister she still loved call her back, or at least call out her name. When that name was not forthcoming, and after she reached the top of the steps, she turned and sat back down on her throne.

Facing her now ex-sister, she told her in her own harsh and powerful voice, "You have three days to leave Cygnan space. Take your ships, your supporters, and your familes. At the end of those three days, we will be at war -- and then I will be coming for you."

"No, my one-time sister. After three days, I will be the one who will be coming after you." Her older sister stood with tears in her eyes, which soon ran down her scared face. She turned around, with her cape unfolding behind her, and started to storm out of the Hall.

Her daughter took her mother by the forearm, begging, "Mother, please! There has to be another way."

"My daughter, the only way to decide this is the Way of the Warrior," said Shaska as she and her daughter left the Great Hall together.

As the massive doors closed behind them, the Queen of the Cygnan Empire never felt more alone in her life. In a hall crowded with retainers, noblewomen, servants, and warriors, Zazen'lda's only company were her childhood memories of her big sister's love and the tears which now blinded her.

------


"It's just a simple engineering problem," said Biko Daitokuji (B-ko for short) as she lay on her bed with her back leaning up against the dorm wall. Her roommate, sometimes friend, and constant rival Eiko Magami had a mouthful of pins but still managed to complain, "Everything is a simple engineering problem to you."

"I wish the two of you could knock off the sniping and finish helping me with this suit," pointed out Shiiko Kotobuki (C-ko for short).

The three girls, all college roommates, were trying on the swimsuits they were planning to wear on Spring Break, as soon as their finals were done for the semester. Kneeling at the feet of her friend C-ko was Eiko (A-ko for short) in her own one-piece white and red suit, cut high at the hip. Its color contrasted nicely with her red hair. As was her fashion, B-ko wore a purple tiny micro-thong bikini that left little or nothing to the imagination. Their mutual friend C-ko was wearing a modest two-piece suit with ruffles on the top and bottom.

"All I'm saying," B-ko pointed out, "is that if you were to remove the ruffles from the bottom, it would have a slimming effect. It'd also draw attention to her bustline, where she wants it in the first place, and away from her ass, where she doesn't."

"What would you know about clothing design?" asked A-ko. "There aren't any printed circuits, computer chips, or titanium armor plate in a swimsuit -- which means that you know next to nothing about such things!" She then added, "Besides, how can we -- or for that matter, anyone -- trust your judgment in clothing? If there was any less of that suit you're wearing or any more of you, you'd be arrested for soliciting. Not to mention the fact that when the first wave comes along, you'll be finding yourself as naked as the day you were hatched, Dragon Lady!"

"Unlike you, Bubble Butt, some women have a figure that can wear a swimsuit such as this," answered B-ko. "Besides," she added, "what makes you think a suit like this is made for swimming? This, Farm Girl, is an original design, made for me by the finest fashion house in Paris. It's made for men to look at, not to get wet!"

"How many times do I have to tell you? My father was raised on a farm, and you know very well I wasn't. Furthermore, most men want their women to look like women -- not twelve-year-old boys." In truth, ever since she turned fifteen, there was no way B-ko could ever be mistaken for a boy, and since A-ko turned eighteen, a blind man would have no trouble determining her gender.

"Better to be slim and attractive than built like a weightlifting Dolly Parton on steroids," B-ko pointed out.

A-ko had inherited her father's size, but she'd also inherited both her mother's athletic physique and also her feminine shape and form. Still, she was very sensitive about her six-foot height, the width of her shoulders, and the size of her arms and legs. These attributes were all due to a sudden growth spurt which occurred when she turned eighteen.

It had taken her nearly two years to grow and adapt into her new Amazon body. Because she was hurt by B-ko's remarks, A-ko took the pins out of her mouth, stood up, and faced B-ko. "Listen here, you skinny-ass Bi..."

"Enough!" screamed C-ko. "Can't the two of you even go one day without fighting?"

"Who's fighting?" A-ko and B-ko asked in unison.

C-ko looked up to the heavens, rolling her eyes as she said silently, why me? "I think B-ko is right. I think the suit would look better without the ruffles on the bottom piece."

A-ko looked down on her small friend and told her, "All right; I promise to work on your suit before we leave on Spring Beak. But tonight, you and I both have to pull all-nighters if we are going to be ready for our tests tomorrow."

Even as A-ko and C-ko took off their suits and prepared for a night of frantic studying, B-ko was getting dressed to go out. Seeing her getting dressed in her finest, A-ko asked,"Aren't you going to study for finals?"

"Some poor souls -- like the two of you -- have to study, and others -- like myself -- have to meet the captain of the basketball team for a date," B-ko explained with a big grin.

Concerned for her friend (even if she would never admit it), A-ko said, "I happen to know you have an engineering final tomorrow. Are you trying to tell me you don't have to study for it?"

"My so-called engineering professors have been going over problems all semester that I solved on my own when I was still in elementary school, building my first mecha [robot]."

Shaking her head, she then added, "I can't believe I turned down going to M.I.T. for Metropolis University!"

In truth, Metro U had one of the finest engineering programs in the country, if not in the world. It also without a doubt one of the finest journalism schools found anywhere. This is what had attracted A-ko. As for C-ko - well, wherever A-ko went, she went with her.

In fact, the only thing on which the three young women could agree was their desire to attend college abroad, avoiding going to college in Graviton City. If truth be told -- they were all less then welcome there.

There were other reasons which had convinced A-ko to attend her father's alma mater. Beside the fact that it had the very best creative writing program available on the east coast, she had also received a partial scholarship. But most important was that she could remain close to her parents without anyone knowing about it, except C-ko. Her family had moved back to the family homestead in Kansas under new names and identities. Her parents had kept their secret by keeping their home in Graviton City as a front to protect both their daughter's and their own yet-again brand-new identities here in America.

As B-ko worked on her engineering degree and A-ko studied journalism, C-ko was equally hard at work preparing herself to be a social worker. She did this because she wanted to be as much help to the unwanted of the world as possible. She wanted to help other orphans such as herself to find the love and security her adopted parents had provided for her.


It was three o'clock in the morning when C-ko turned to pour herself another cup of hot coffee, only to discover that the pot had somehow became unplugged. "Damn, the coffee is cold!" she complained.

"Let me take care of it," A-ko said as she concentrated and stared at the glass coffee pot. Two beams of radiant heat erupted from her eyes, and after a few moments the coffee was boiling merrily in the pot. This caused the redhead to rub her temples in obvious pain. Her childhood friend asked her, "Your head still hurts whenever you do that?"

"Yes, but less and less each time I try it. Papa says that I have to be patient, and the more I practice, the less it will hurt."

"Does he know why?" asked C-ko.

"My father's friends at Star Labs and Wayne Tech say that my Amazon blood doesn't always get along with my Kryptonian physiology. But my body is starting to adjust to all the new powers I developed when I turned eighteen."

Just then, B-ko was at their door, getting a last goodnight kiss from the captain of the basketball team. After saying her goodbyes and telling a few lies, she waltzed into the room with a big silly grin on her face.

"Well, well -- look what the cat dragged in," said A-ko.

"Jealous, are we?" laughed B-ko. She started to take off her clothes and throw them around the room so she could sleep in the nude, which was her habit.

As she made her way to her bed, the rich girl said, "Try to keep the noise down, roomies. I have a final first thing after lunch tomorrow, and I want to get at least four hours of sleep."

She was just about to crawl into bed when a pillow hit her in the back of the head. Turning quickly around in a rage to face A-ko, B-ko was flabbergasted to discover that it had been C-ko who had hit her in the back of the head with the pillow!

----------

The three girls had gotten the results of their test scores three days later. As usual, B-ko had pulled off her customary straight "A" average, not to mention the standard (for her) 4.0. A-ko and C-ko also did very well -- not as well as B-ko, of course -- but still well enough to make their parents very proud of them.

With the mundane problem of school grades out of the way, a far more important issue -- their road trip to Fort Lauderdale and how best to enjoy Spring Break -- came up for discussion.

"Why can't we take the corporate jet down to Florida, instead of driving all the way down in that smelly old van of yours?" B-ko complained.

"Because you promised -- for once in your life -- to stop solving your problems with your daddy's wallet," answered A-ko.

"But how will the fact that we'll be stuck in a cheap motel room -- as opposed to enjoying Spring Break in my family's winter cottage -- make me enjoy Spring Break more?"


"Only you, of all people, could call a thirty-four-room mansion on Florida's Gold Coast a cottage," the redhead complained.

C-ko made a face of disgust at A-ko, and then told B-ko, "What A-ko is trying to say -- in her own strange way -- is that we feel you would enjoy yourself more if you climbed off the mountain and tried living down in the valley."

"In other words, it's time to get off your high horse and try living with the rest of us peasants," explained A-ko.

"Well -- if you're going to put it that way --" said B-ko, "then I have only one question."

"And what would that be?" asked C-ko.

"When we do get down to the land of swamps and alligators and start having all this WONDERFUL fun you keep telling me about," asked a sarcastic B-ko, "what happens if one of us meets some interesting fellow, and invites him to spend the night? Where are the two of you going to be doing your sleeping?"

C-ko looked disgusted. "OH, ECCCCCCCHHHHHHH!"

Rolling her eyes, A-ko said, "Let me put it in terms disgusting enough so even you can understand. Whoever 'gets lucky', as you so colorfully put it, will pull down the shade and put a light into the window behind it. The other two will have to find their own accommodations that night, or sleep in the van. Does everybody agree with that?"


B-ko replied, "Then I suggest you two little girls pack your mattresses as well as your luggage, because the floor of that van is both very hard and very cold." C-ko just giggled as A-ko just walked away, shaking her head.

---------

The girls were busy packing for their trip for the rest of the day. A-ko was doubly busy because she was the one who kept arguing with B-ko on the amount of luggage she could take. It was during one of these never-ending discussions that one of A-ko's dorm mates yelled up the stairs, "HEY, RED! There is a Fed-Ex man here with a message for you."

There was a sudden lump in A-ko's throat as she dashed out the door and jumped the stair railing, landing in the lobby three floors below. She spied the Fed-Ex man from his uniform and walked up to him.

"Eiko Magami?" he asked.

"Yes, sir," She answered.

"Sign here, please."

As she was busily signing the messenger said, "Funny -- you don't look Japanese."

"That's because we all look alike - you baka," A-ko told the bigot as she snatched the two envelopes from his hand and disappeared up the stairs in a flash. As she re-entered her dorm room C-ko and B-ko both asked, "Is everything all right at home?"

"I'll know in a second," A-ko said as she sat down cross-legged on her bed and opened the envelopes with shaking hands. She opened the first letter and began to read. After a moment or two she announced, "It's from Mom."

"Since you have decided to spend Spring Break with your friends raising hell in Florida rather than spending your time off with the family who loves you, I wanted to drop you a quick line to remind you that you are your own woman now. You're fully grown and more than capable of making your way in the world. If you ever have any doubts, just follow your conscience and always remember to never do anything that would bring shame to your father. Even if I had no such experience in such matters, I can understand that a young woman wants to kick up her heels after all the hard work in school. Just be careful who you do that kicking with, and how. To make sure you have the means for all this fun I am enclosing a check for three hundred dollars. Love Mom.
PS: Don't tell your father about the money."


A-ko smiled sweetly as she placed her mother's letter under her sweater, close to her heart. She placed the check on top of the bed before she opened the letter from her father:

"Punkin', I want you to know we'll be missing you this Spring Break, but I don't want you to feel guilty about that. You worked very hard this year and your mother and I are both very proud of you. So, I want you to have fun in Florida. Just be careful with whom you have that fun. Both your mom and I want you to enjoy yourself, but not too much. I trust your judgment, but just in case - remember that if you do get in trouble we will always be there for you -- no matter what your mom says. To make sure you get off to a good start I am enclosing a check for five hundred dollars. Make sure you and C-ko have fun with it.

Love, Papa.

PS: Just don't tell your mother about the check."

A-ko had a sweet smile on her face as C-ko asked once again, "Is everything OK back home?"

"Everything is fine," A-ko answered. "Just Mom and Pop looking out for their baby girl as usual."

C-ko smiled and nodded her head knowingly. B-ko had a sad and faraway look in her eyes as she thought of her own father and the mother she never knew.

"Hey, Bubble Butt, don't you think it's time to cut the umbilical cord and tell Mommy and Daddy you're your own woman now?" asked B-ko.

"My father -- and most of all, my mother -- have already seen to that," answered A-ko.

B-ko replied, "I have known who your parents are ever since they saved my life the day I turned eighteen. But I never knew they were saints!"

"If you ever heard one of their arguments you wouldn't think so," A-ko said with a grin.

"Your parents fight?" asked B-ko with a triumphant smile.

"Doesn't everyone's?"

"Good thing they do -- at least that way A-ko got to see a lot of movies," said C-ko as she joined in the conversation. At that statement by the diminutive blonde, both A-ko and C-ko broke out in an attack of the schoolgirl giggles.

B-ko asked, "What is that supposed to mean?"

"Took me fourteen years to figure that out for myself," said A-ko.

"I was eighteen when A-ko finally explained it to me," said C-ko.

"Explain what?" B-ko demanded to know.

"It was the best way for two people in love to get their daughter out of the way whenever they ended an argument," A-ko answered. [N.B. For an explanation, check out The Gift of the Magami by Lady Tesser]

B-ko simply shook her head in bewilderment. "The both of you are still as annoying as ever!"
A bit jealous of A-ko's relationship with her parents, the rich girl told her, "And your parents are weird!"

A-ko, for once, didn't lose her temper. Instead, she smiled indulgently and told her, "If I ever get married, I should be so lucky."

----------

Sub-Admiral Aysheia Lisia Napolipolita and her ever-faithful aide D were standing at attention in their Queen's private chambers. "Stand at ease, Napolipolita; you too, D," ordered their Queen. "I called you here to talk to both of you in private, because I have a most important mission for the both of you."

Pausing to make sure she would be understood the queen went on, "As you already know, a civil war is about to erupt between my sister and myself over the secession of the Cygnan throne. I want you to take our fastest ship to Earth, find my daughter, and bring her home to her mother."

"Last time we tried seizing our queen's daughter from that miserable mudball, it cost us Your Majesty's flagship, and D and myself over five years of exile." It is truly a backward dung heap," Napolipolita pointed out.

Queen Zazen'lda poured chilled wine into cups of gold for her guests, and herself. As she handed them the cups, Sub-Admiral Napolipolita told her Queen, "No thank you, my Queen. I no longer imbibe."

"I'm sorry, Sub-Admiral! I forgot about your problem and how hard you worked to overcome it. This is but one of the reasons I have chosen you to retrieve my daughter. Only this time, you will be in our fastest scout ship. You can explain to her why she is needed back home. There will be no fighting and no kidnapping. Instead, you will deliver a personal message from me to my daughter," explained their Queen. "

"Leave immediately. I can't believe in my heart that my sister would do anything to hurt my child, but her allies might move against C-ko without asking permission or telling Shaska about it."

"If that is true, my Queen, many of the frontier outposts are much closer to Earth than we are. In fact, they could be on their way there already," Napolipolita pointed out.

"That's what I'm afraid of," replied Zazen'lda.

----------

The three college girls had loaded up the van and were all set to leave. The luggage was packed, and the three wild and crazy girls were now ready to go. "For the last time, does anyone have to visit the little girls' room?" A-ko asked, as she sat behind the steering wheel.

"No!" both B-ko and C-ko said in stereo.

"Tell me again -- why we have to start out at two in the morning?" asked C-ko.

"Because I want to beat rush-hour traffic." answered A-ko. With that said and done, A-ko started the engine and pulled on to the highway. Then -- as the terrible trio went down the road -- they sung the ancient Willy Nelson song, "On the Road Again."


It was all of two minutes before B-ko complained to the super-powered driver, "I know you don't need them -- but don't you think you should put the headlights on before some cop throws us in jail and we spend our vacation in the 'gray bar hotel'?"

"SORRY!" said A-ko as the girls sped down the road.

---------

Captain sighed as she and D left the Queen's chambers. "It's good to have another mission at last," she said. "I feel like I've been in Stir these past five years living on earth. I don't know what I would have done without my -- Terran friend."

D grinned. "Yes, my Captain. And my own - uh - friendship with Hideo Agama, the sumo wrestling champion of Osaka, hasn't exactly been a bed of nails, either." Her superior looked over the top of her shades at her, unfamiliar with the Earther analogy.

"Well, D," she said, shrugging. "All those years cruising the Sea of Stars certainly gives one an appreciation of good solid male companionship. Those refueling stops at the spaceports were so -- well, rushed. Ah, here we are -- "

They walked into the cargo bay of the Queen's Navy shipyard (or the Cygnan equivalent thereof) and located the scout ship. It was a snappy smaller model, completely state of the art, but with a capacity of only Warp 8. The Captain chuckled. "I guess Her Majesty doesn't want us to do any time-traveling." She recalled the time when her own girls had 'borrowed' one of her hop-ships and had ended up in Woodstock, Pearl Harbor, and the Cretaceous Period, respectively.

Two tall and ramrod-straight soldiers approached them and bowed low. "Your conveyance, Captain," said Master Sargent Buyabah. Although Napolipolita's title had indeed changed, she was still known to most by her former appellation of "Captain". Buyabah sported a short spiky Cygnan 'do; her hair was black at the roots and white at the tips (not an unusual state of affairs for a denizen of the Lepton Kingdom). Standing next to her was S/Sgt. Benedycina, a longhaired beauty with half-orange, half-red hair. Both were longstanding retainers of the Queen, and had known both the Captain and D for years.

The Captain saw that the little vessel was a lovely shade of deep metallic maroon -- sort of like the color of that sparkling wine the Her Majesty waved under my nose; Napolipolita thought --

------

After many hours of arduous driving down Interstate 95, the girls finally entered Florida and located their hotel.

"You have GOT to be KIDDING me," B-ko snorted. "What an expletive-deleted bovine rectal eluent HELL HOLE!"

C-ko's eyes widened -- but otherwise, she prudently said nothing.

A-ko (with her parents' seven hundred dollars in her pocket) was beginning to think she had made a mistake, but it was too late to admit it now. The coeds checked in and made their way to Room 236. "Welcome to the No-Tel Motel, ladies," she sighed. "Well, come on in, time's a wasting!" She began hoisting baggage from the heavily-laden van and flinging them onto the beds, in a super high-speed conveyor-belt style, while the other girls looked on. C-ko would rather play in the baby pool, and B-ko was above such manual labor.

"Oh come on, Beeks," A-ko panted. "Get your hands dirty. It won't kill you, you know."

"Forget it," the blue-headed heiress sniffed. "I'll let low-class lugs like you do the heavy lifting. You are SO much more SUITED to it, you know."

A-ko growled -- showing her teeth -- but thought better of it. It wouldn't do to start out Spring Break with another one of their famous A-girl, B-girl fights. C-ko wouldn't like it; that's for sure.

And that young lady was sitting in the little pool (the olympic-sized pool was too big and scary for her alone), splashing and squealing. A few passersby raised their eyebrows at this sight and hurried on. After all, C-ko was grown and watching her play patty-cake with the water's surface was a great deal too much for most folks to handle. The merry blonde hummed "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" (which, in her case, came out "Tinkle Tinkle Lirrel Stah") and continued her playing.

The little Princess had no idea -- sitting there in the sunshine in her swimsuit (with only the top ruffle remaining) -- that two of her countrywomen were making their way toward her on the silent and vast river of hyperspace.

The vacation was halfway over. For the past three days and nights [especially the nights] the three Graviton refugees were three wild and crazy girls, even C-ko started to enjoy herself. The three friends spent their days on the beach soaking up the sunshine and playing in the surf. B-ko, for the most part, shunned the surf and instead concentrated on parading up and down the sand dunes, drawing boys as honey draws flies.

But it was their nights that the girls reserved for cutting loose. They had attended five different rave parties over the first three nights. It was on the second night that C-ko met Edward. A-ko and C-ko had been sitting alone at a corner booth while B-ko had been busy tearing up the dance floor with an exchange student from American Samoa.

A-ko had just managed to get C-ko to switch from Shirley Temples to pitchers of ice cold beer. Even then, A-ko was on her second pitcher while C-ko was just finishing her second glass. Just as C-ko finished, B-ko came running back to the table and -- taking A-ko by her hand -- yelled over all the noise and music, "Come on, Red; we're going to make some money!"

As B-ko dragged A-ko off to one of her latest money making scams, C-ko found herself sitting all alone in the corner booth. She wasn't alone long, for soon a dark-haired young man, with soft brown eyes hidden behind a pair of tortoiseshell glasses and an unruly cowlick, came over and introduced himself.

"Hi, my name is Edward Templer, Harvard Pre-Med. May I sit down?"

C-ko couldn't stop herself from smiling up at her sudden visitor. With a warm and inviting smile she told him, "The name is Shiiko Kotobuki. I'm studying Social Sciences at Metro U."

Taking the introduction as an invitation, Ed returned the smile and sat down across from C-ko. Soon the two shy college students were lost in each other's company.

Meanwhile, B-ko was dragging A-ko across the dance floor to where a large crowd was gathered. It was B-ko who spoke first. "We gotta stop off at the ladies' room first."

"Why do we have to stop at the ladies' room first and where are you taking me?" A-ko returned.

"So you can take off your bra."

"WHAAAT??"

"They're having a wet T-shirt contest. It'll be an easy win for you and an easy two hundred bucks for me."

"You must be out of your mind," screamed A-ko. "If I ever did something like that, I couldn't look my father in the face! As for my mother, do you have any idea what she would do to me if she ever found out?" The redhead turned around and started back toward their booth and toward C-ko as B-ko yelled in her ear, "It's just for laughs and of couse money."

"Then YOU do it," answered A-ko.

"They're looking for quantity over quality," she answered right back as she followed behind A-ko.

A-ko saw her small friend talking with a boy and pulled up short. She stopped so suddenly that B-ko almost walked up her back. Looking over her friend's shoulder, B-ko exclaimed, "C-ko -- with a man??"

"Quiet!" whispered A-ko. "She might hear you."

"This I got to hear," said B-ko as she started forward. "I wonder if she's telling him about her little sea snail Tea Party."

Just as she started forward, A-ko grabbed her by the collar and told her, "Oh, no you don't! C-ko has every right to live her own life and none of this is any of our business." She was just about to hustle her sometimes-friend B-ko out of the nightclub when she saw that C-ko was waving them both over. After they sat down, C-ko made the introductions all around the table. The three girls and Edward were soon joined by two of his fraternity brothers from different universities an offensive tackle from the University of Miami and a third-year bio major from Stanford.

For the rest of the week the six students were almost always to be found together. To A-ko and B-ko and their male friends, it was simply a enjoyable way to pass the time. But to C-ko and Edward, something far more important and meaningful passed between them. They took every opportunity to slip away from the group so they could be alone together.

It was on Saturday night that B-ko and her date from Stanford had slipped away to listen to the live band and to also try the jello shooters down at Sloppy Joes. A-ko and her all-American tackle from Miami walked the beach hand-in-hand. C-ko and Edward, however, had slipped away hours earlier and were nowhere to be found.

It was one o'clock in the morning when A-ko was making her way back to the motel room. She had just dumped her date two hours earlier. She was in a very bad mood; some men just needed to be taught that when a girl says no she means NO! The Miami college boy had to be taught just that, and A-ko had proved to be an excellent teacher.

Tired and hungry, she was standing in front of the motel door and was just about to insert her key, when she noticed the pulled-down shade and the dim glow from the lamp behind it.

"Damn B-ko!" A-ko said to herself as she turned around and made her way back to the van to sleep.

She was tossing and turning and trying to fall asleep on her lumpy college mattress when she heard a whisper from outside the van -- "Psst, Psst! C-ko, are you in there?"

A-ko slid the door open and saw a slightly buzzed B-ko standing before her.

Both young women said almost at the same time, "I thought you were the one in the room!"

It was B-ko who exclaimed, "C-ko?????? I just GOTTA make sure!" Suddenly, a hand grabbed her by the back of her jeans and lifted her, pulling her inside the van. As she was doing this A-ko told her friend, "Ohhhh, no you don't."

"Don't you want to make sure?" asked B-ko.

"NO!" was A-ko's answer.

"Aw come on," B-ko pleaded. "You can do that trick your father does with his eyes and take a peek through the walls!"

"Don't even GO there," said A-ko. "It's no one's business but C-ko's."

As they settled into the van B-ko asked, "What happened to your all-American?"

"He wouldn't take no for an answer," said A-ko.

"What happened?"

"When he got too grabby without first asking permission, I decided he needed cooling off. So I tossed him into the Atlantic to cool off."

"How far?" asked B-ko.

"About two hundred yards offshore. I skipped him like you would a stone across a lake. He bounced sixteen times before he stopped."

"Did he drown?"

"Of course not; don't be silly. I waited around until he made it back to shore," answered the giggling redhead.

As B-ko settled down on her own mattress she asked, "Did you have a talk with C-ko about 'certain things'?"

A-ko replied, "She went to the same sex education class you and I did in high school." A moment or two passed before she added, "And the answer is yes." With that, A-ko turned her back to B-ko and tried to go to sleep. Soon the rich girl disturbed her once again.

"A-ko?"

"What?"

"Have you ever done -- well you know, what C-ko is doing?"

"The mattress mambo?"

"Yeah."

"The horizontal hoochie?"

"Yeah."

"No," admitted A-ko. "You?"

"Well, of course -- at LEAST a dozen times," B-ko fibbed.

All was silent for a while.

"A-ko?"

"Yep?"

'Did your mother ever sit you down and talk to you about this sort of thing?"

"When I was thirteen," answered A-ko. "And it wasn't just my mother; both my parents talked to me together."

"Weren't you embarrassed?" asked B-ko.

"Not as embarrassed as my father was," she answered with a knowing smile. "But they felt that such an important part of a young girl's life should be explained by both parents."

"I didn't have a mother," said B-ko. "In fact, I have no memory of her."

"Did your father talk to you about such things?" asked A-ko.

"No, he ordered one of his secretaries to talk to me."

"I'm sorry to hear that," said A-ko.

"Why? The way my father did it was better; more efficient, and less emotional. Besides, she was well paid for her trouble."

"If you say so," said A-ko as she shook her head sadly.

"Did your mother and you ever just talk woman to woman?" asked B-ko.

"Yes, but it was different in my case," answered A-ko.

Intrigued, the heiress asked, "In what way?"

"My mother had never even seen her first man until she was past twenty-one. In fact, she didn't do what were talking about until she was sixty-five years old."

Surprised, B-ko said, "I never knew that."

"When my mother came out into the world and met my father for the first time, she fell in love with him and he was attracted to her. But his great love was a woman named Lois Lane. My mother told me their love was some thing truly special -- almost divine."

B-ko asked, "Why did she put up with that? She had --"

"The power," A-ko said as she finished B-ko's sentence. "She knew that she had no right to try and take by force what has to be given freely. My mother told me that Lois was a wonderful wife to my father, and a friend to her. In fact, she was responsible for my parents getting married."

"How so?" asked B-ko.

"She knew that she would die someday, and she also knew how my mother felt about my father. She made my mother promise that she would take care of him after she was gone. So you can see, if it wasn't for Lois, I might never even be here."

"Well that's one reason I have to hate her," said B-ko with a comical grin.


A-ko laughed once, then turned over and tried to go to sleep.

After a few moments of silence B-ko told her, "I'm sorry, A-ko."

"For what?" she asked.

"For all of those times I tried to kill you."

With her back to B-ko, A-ko smiled and told her, "Lucky for me your heart wasn't really in it."

"Lucky for you is right," said a defiant B-ko.

"Good night bitch," said A-ko with a giggle. "May you learn to drink from the Cygnans."

"Same to you, Bubble Butt," replied B-ko with even a bigger giggle and an only slightly smaller beer burp.

With a final good night, they were both fast asleep.

------

Hours later, A-ko was awakened by B-ko frantically shaking her shoulder. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, A-ko willed herself awake and saw B-ko peeking out of the side window of the van. Joining her, A-ko saw their friend C-ko in a warm and loving embrace with Edward. As they kissed, A-ko remarked, "Without the glasses and that goofy hairdo, this guy is a regular hunk." She then added, "Way to go, C-ko!"

Ed kissed the little blonde's hand as a last good-bye and -- with a final wave -- ran into the street and hailed a cab. As he pulled away, their friend waved goodbye to him with a sweet smile on her face. Then she went back inside.

"Let's go," said B-ko.

"No, not until she pulls up the shade. And remember -- no questions," A-ko reminded her.

"What are we going to tell her when she asks us where we've been all night?" asked B-ko.

"Well, I'm going to tell her I got drunk, passed out, and slept on the beach," said A-ko.

"Well, can I tell her I met a cute boy from Yale and shacked up in the best hotel room in Fort Lauderdale?" asked B-ko.

"You would," said A-ko.

After an hour, the shade came up and the two girls made their way back to their motel room. As they entered the room, C-ko began to scold them both.

"Just where have the two of YOU been all night?"

"I got drunk, passed out, and fell asleep on the beach," said B-ko.

A-ko turned her head and glared at her for stealing her excuse. She then said, "I shacked up at the Ft. Lauderdale Hilton with a rich kid from Yale."

"Well the both of you should be ashamed of yourselves. Now remember - we're entered in the beach volleyball tournament, and tap-off is in two hours -- just enough time for a shower and breakfast."

"I'll do the cooking," said A-ko.

"And it's the shower for me," said B-ko.

"What should I do?" asked C-ko.

"The Power Puff Girls are on in one minute," said A-ko.

"Whoopeeee!" screamed C-ko as she made a dash to the TV set against the wall.

---------

Her Majesty's scout vessel Britomartis was on the edge of the Solar System when the ever-faithful D said,"We have trouble, Captain."

"How so D?" asked Napolipolita, still sorry she had to leave her daughters and return to the Sea of Stars and to her responsibilities.

"Long-range sensors have detected a Ka-gor-class battle cruiser in stationary orbit in the Earth moon's shadow."

"Damn! They've beaten us here!" exclaimed her Captain. She thought for a moment, and then asked D, "Can they have detected us yet?"

"No," said D. "We're too small and too far away. Plus, the sun's chromosphere is more likely than not interfering with their own sensors."

Napolipolita thought for a moment. "Enter the system in a ellipse. I want you to keep the Earth between us and its moon. At least that way, we'll have the one advantage over Shaska's forces -- they won't know we're here."

D raised her thin eyebrows. "I don't think that is one of our Queen's sister's ships. The closest frontier planet that uses Ka-gor battle cruisers is the Planet Ivo-4. Governor Retan-ar rules that sector."

"That vicious bitch should have been drummed out of the service years ago," said Napolipolita.

"She was heading for a court martial when she joined Shaska's forces and the rebellion, more likely than not to avoid it," D pointed out. Just then, a loud buzz was heard. D noted the relay and told her Captain, "The navicomputer says we'll add an extra two hours entering the Sol System if we make an elliptical entrance. "

Captain took off her Cygnan shades and wiped them thoughtfully. "So -- instead of arriving in fifteen hours, we will arrive in seventeen. It will be worth the time if we can keep the element of surprise."

The Captain's musings were interrupted by a loud beep from what the Cygnans only semi-seriously called the TerraCom. D answered it.

Napolipolita watched her face. Not much finesse there, she thought; but a heart as big as an Egota and a loyal supporter. Suddenly, D gasped and slapped her hand over her large lipsticked mouth.

"Great Mother, what now?" the Captain thought. "Has Akana been arrested again for violating the United Nations Test Ban Treaty?"

By this time, D's eyes were crossed and her face was a vivid shade of deep purple. Silently, she held the instrument toward her superior. Both amused and a bit frightened, Captain answered.

"Heyyyyy YA-ho, Captain!" said C-ko.

"Princess! What an honor!" the soldier returned. If she had been alone, she would have saluted, just to make herself feel more official.

"We're havin' a reeeeeal good time here in Florida when that electronic thingamagig you left with me started beeping," the little blonde chirped.

Captain only raised an eyebrow. "And what has Our Majesty been doing to amuse herself down there?" she said cheerfully.

"Welllll ya know, Captain ---"

Within half a minute Napolipolita turned bright red and bit her fist in an effort to stuff at least fifteen minutes' worth of gut-busting laughter.

"Ummm - eeep - ahaha -- well, My Princess.." she said, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with D, who was now rolling on the floor of the bridge. "You take care of yourself now, and --- " The two aliens made eye contact.

"Don't do anything I wouldn't do!"

She knew it was disrespectful to literally hang up on Her Majesty, but figured the conversation had reached its logical conclusion anyway. And just in time. Within three seconds of her terminating the com call, the Captain was doubled over, shrieking with laughter. D joined her. Their hysterics bounced off the hull walls and doubled the deep-voiced cacophony.

"WAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! DON'T DO ANYTHING YOU WOULDN'T DO? OH THAT IS A GOOD ONE MY CAPTAIN!" D screamed, pounding the floor with both fists.

"Oh, our poor little Princess!" Captain hooted.

The two laughed raucously for another thirty seconds or so. Then -- as suddenly as their laughter began -- it was replaced by wide eyes and serious faces.

"Oh Great Mother, D. I hope the Queen doesn't find out."

D remarked, "Should we meet with the Princess in person before or after we see our loved ones, Captain?" When Napolipolita didn't answer right away, D asked once again. "Captain, is everything all right?"

"No, D -- we will have no time for any type of family reunion. We shouldn't have let the princess contacted us over the comlink! The rebels might be able to track the Princess's transmission back to the source."

Disappointed, D sat at attention, but silent. She hadn't seen her mother in quite a long time, and worried about her. The old woman -- a retired starfreighter engineer -- now lived by herself the equivalent of three hundred miles from CygniCity, the Queen's capital city. D sighed, and thought hard. Back home, I'm just Deesha Dakina and my mother is so proud of everything I do. Here -- I just seem to disappoint you, Captain. What do you care, anyway? You have Daitokuji, you have your girls. There's no need for you to return to the Homeworld. I only have my mother left, and she needs me --

Snapping out of her morose head-monologue, D asked, "What are your orders, my Captain?"

"Track that transmission back to its source and set our course accordingly. I fear we now find ourselves in a race, old friend -- a race we must win."

-------

B-ko couldn't understand what was wrong with A-ko. They should have won their volleyball match much more easily than they had. B-ko knew that with A-ko's physical abilities, they should have wiped the sand with any team they faced. In fact, they would have lost the last match if C-ko hadn't made a spectacular save on their opponent's last spike.

They were resting on the beach between matches when B-ko asked A-ko, "You're playing like crap; what's wrong with you?"

It was a worried-looking redhead who answered, "I shouldn't be playing at all."

"Why the hell not?"

"It's not fair, either to the people we compete against or to you and C-ko."

"What are you talking about?" asked B-ko.

"Experience. At the age of sixteen, my father gave up competing in the sports he loved so much because he knew of the unfair advantage he had over others. Yet here I am, a twenty-year-old woman, still playing kids' games."

"We're all but guaranteed an easy win with you on our team," said B-ko.

"Win? Win what?" asked A-ko. "What's a victory worth, if a super-powered meta-human hands it to you?" She then added, "I'm ashamed of myself. I now know what my father felt like all those decades ago -- only it took me until I was twenty to discover what he'd learned when he was a boy of sixteen."

Before B-ko could reply, one of the game officials came over and addressed the trio of young women. He told the three friends. "You're up next!" As she glared at A-ko, B-ko told the volleyball tournament official, "Forget it -- we forfeit." With that, the lavender-haired heiress leaped to her feet and stormed down the beach in a huff.

C-ko looked up at her best friend and told her, "I think you should go after her. You know how she gets when ever she thinks someone is trying to take something away from her -- even if deep down she knows you're right."

A-ko smiled at her diminutive friend and told her, "In some ways. you're the one of us who has changed most of all, C-ko."

"Some of us mature later in life," C-ko pointed out with a grin.

A-ko returned the smile as she said, "Thank you for being my friend, C-ko -- for being our friend."

"That works both ways," said C-ko. A-ko smiled, nodded her head, then quickly dashed off to catch up with B-ko. As she left, C-ko lay back down in the sand and looked up at the blue sky. She mused about her date with Edward for that evening, and how she was going to tell her two best friends in the world about it.

A-ko had just caught up with B-ko. She slowed to match the longer-legged woman stride for stride; they walked in silence for about a hundred yards until A-ko asked, "Are you going to talk to me, or not?"

"Why should I?"

"Because you're my friend," A-ko answered.

"You have a funny way of showing it," said B-ko.

"I have a responsibility to my family," explained A-ko. "I can't do anything that might bring shame to them."

B-ko pulled up short and quickly turned to face her. "Your friendship with C-ko wasn't the only thing I was jealous of you know. It wasn't the only reason for all the trouble between us."

"What else was there?" asked A-ko.

"I was also always jealous of the relationship you have with your parents. Most of all -- I envied the relationship you had with your father. It only got worse when I found out who they really were."

"Why?" asked A-ko.

"Because, even with who they are and what they had to do for the world, they always made time for you." B-ko turned to stare out to sea. "I never knew my mother. And as for my father, he only showed an interest in me when he could steal one of my mecha designs or keep my name out of the news media after one of our fights."

"By doing that, he also kept me out of the limelight," A-ko pointed out.

"That was never his intention!"

"It still was the result," A-ko replied.

"He never really cared about me," the girl said, her shoulders sagging. "Now it's that damn Captain and her pack of whelps. I got left in the backwash, as usual."

They began to walk down the beach arm-in-arm. After a strained silence (the redhead sympathized, but had gotten tired of B-ko's rants about the Cygnan interlopers a long time ago), A-ko asked a question to which she'd always wanted to know the answer. "When you first discovered who my parents really were, why didn't you use that knowledge against me?"

"That would have been the height of bad manners on my part. After all, I only found out when they both had to reveal who they really were to me during the graduation party. It was the only way they could save both C-ko and me from those eco-terrorists - you remember. The ones who had a grudge against my father for chopping down one more rainforest."

"With our background together and with our past troubles, my parents were already making plans to move after you found out.

It was only after you had your little talk with my father that they changed their minds. In fact -- it was only after that the two of us started getting along better." A-ko then asked, "You ever going to get around to sharing with me just what the two of you talked about?"

"Maybe someday," said B-ko. A moment later she added, "Then again -- perhaps not, Bubble Butt."

A slow grin crawled across A-ko's face as she stopped short. A moment later, the one-time rivals were hugging each other close in mutual friendship.

Suddenly, a number of sonic booms vibrated over the Florida beach. As if by magic, a number of strange crafts appeared overhead.

"What are they?" asked A-Ko.

"Cygnans!"
answered B-ko.

"Oh my God -- C-KO!" cried A-ko as she dashed back towards where she had left the little blonde. She had almost gone halfway to her side when one of the strange alien shuttlecrafts swooped down and blasted the beach right in front of her, knocking her into the ocean. A-ko managed to reach the surface, but she was stunned and all to soon discovered that she was having a very difficult time staying afloat.

Already she had gone down twice, only to fight her way back to the surface. She was on her way down for a third time when she felt an arm around her throat, holding her up. "Hang on, Bubble Butt, I've got you."


"B-KO?" asked A-ko.

"No da. Who else?" Just as B-ko was getting A-ko back to shore, one of the Cygnan shuttlecraft landed. A moment later, two companies of female warriors came rushing down the ramps. They spread out in standard covering formation.

As the panicked people on the beach scattered in all directions, a score of the rebel warriors broke off from the group and set up a defensive line between the struggling C-ko and her would-be rescuers. These soldiers -- whose uniforms did not resemble those worn by the troops on Napolipolita's late-great Egota Pallas Athena -- spotted A-ko as she came rushing ahead to save her friend.

At one hundred yards, the Cygnan rifle squads opened up on the advancing redhead in an attempt to hold her off. Luckily for her, A-ko's vision and reflexes were a lot quicker than the trajectory of the alien projectiles; she managed to deflect the laser bolts on her ancient bracelets in a futuristic version of the ancient Amazon game of bullets and bracelets. The captain in charge -- seeing the failure of her best troops' rifle fire -- ordered a charge in an attempt to buy enough time to get the now-crying Princess aboard the scout ship, and then up to the Mother Ship.

As C-ko was being dragged up the ramp, the captain in charge looked at A-ko and told her second-in-command, "She is the one we were warned about. You and your troops hold her off as long as you can, while I escape with the hostage!"

"To hear is to obey, my Captain," said the lieutenant as she rushed forward at the head of her warriors to confront A-ko in hand-to-hand combat.

The Cygnans used their rifle butts and swords in an attempt to stop, or at least slow down, the redheaded terror who was at that very moment tearing her way through their ranks. One glance and Captain Ro-gen Pashina knew her troops wouldn't be able to stop the super-powered Earther. Two of her best troopers had pinned the screaming C-ko's arms behind her back and were dragging her up the ramp.

The captain stopped them and addressed their captive. "I'm sorry, Princess, but what we do, we do for the good of the Empire." Turning to the officer in charge she told her, "Take off immediately and deliver the Princess. Don't wait for us; the rest of us are to be considered expendable." With that, she drew her sidearm and went forward to join in the battle with A-ko. As she moved forward, she was also half-wishing to meet the fate she believed she deserved for having a hand in the kidnapping of the Royal Princess.

As the hatch closed behind the Lepton leader, A-ko was laying out the last of her troops. Captain Ro-gen Pashina strode forward, blasting away as she hoped to at least delay A-ko long enough for her crew to safely escape with the Princess.

Torn between her perceived loyalty to the Cygnan Empire and the shame she felt for going against her Queen (not to mention the moral ambiguity that arises whenever kidnapping is involved), she found herself longing for a quick and honorable death in battle. Only the belief that the capture of the Princess might somehow prevent the civil war she so feared allowed her to go on with this whole terrible farce. It was this belief that compelled her to move forward to do battle with the redheaded alien. She managed to get off two quick shots, which A-ko deflected with her bracers.

She never did get off the third shot as A-ko seized her by her throat and by her gun hand. Staring into her heavily-shadowed cerulean eyes, A-ko growled, "Release my friend."

Feeling the ground shake and realizing what that meant, Captain Ro-gen Pashina stared bravely into the face of the strange Earther and told her, "You're too late." A moment later, the ship was streaking upward. For the briefest of moments A-Ko was very tempted to close her hand tight around the offending throat she now had in her grasp. But in the end, she proved to be her parents' daughter after all, and proved it when she threw the captain down onto the beach.

Just then, B-ko arrived with one of the Cygnans' weapons in her hands. A-ko turned to her and said, "Keep and eye on them." With that, A-ko took one step back and took to the sky.

A-ko had first managed to fly when she turned eighteen. For the two years since, she had practiced as much as she could. But in all that time she never tried pushing herself so high or as fast as she did now. At fifty thousand feet, she caught up to the shuttlecraft and even managed to get a hand on the hatch. Suddenly, a blast from one of the craft's self-defense guns knocked her away and left her tumbling out of the sky.

A-Ko fell over thirty thousand feet before she regained control of her own flight ability. Even then, she barely was able to make it back to where B-ko was guarding the prisoners. As soon as she landed next to B-ko, A-ko collapsed to her knees from exhaustion.

Without taking her eyes off the prisoners B-ko asked her friend, "You all right?"

"I'm ok; just winded." she answered back.

From low out of the west came a different style of spacecraft. One glance and both young Earthers recognized it as another -- and much more familiar -- Cygnan design. It hovered over the beach above the group of prisoners, then slowly moved a little way further down the beach. It then slowly settled down onto the sand.

As both D and Napolipolita stood before the ramp as it slowly opened, D turned to her green-haired captain. "I fear we are too late, my Captain."

"I'm afraid you're right, D. The best we can hope for now is to get as much information as possible."

D had just turned to face front when a strong hand reached into the partially-opened hatch, seized her by the front of her uniform, and tossed her at least a hundred yards out to sea. A moment later Captain Napolipolita felt those same strong hands around her own throat as she was dragged out of her scout ship. She found herself staring eyeball-to-eyeball with A-ko's amber eyes.

"Up to your old tricks again, Captain? You have some sort of nerve to show up here after your girls snatched C-ko!"

"You have me all wrong," pleaded Napolipolita. "We came here to protect C-ko from a kidnapping plot and to deliver a message from her mother! The Queen wants her to return home where she is needed, nothing more! Those women weren't my troops. They are traitors to the Queen and the Empire. My soldiers and I would die for Our Princess; you know that very well!"

"Do you think we should trust her?" asked B-ko, happy for the opportunity to make the Cygnan suffer. For once, Daddy wasn't around to stop her.

"As Pop once said about Artemis when I was all of ten -- 'I wouldn't believe her if she was to tell me water was wet!' " B-ko grinned.

After having swum to shore, D got back to her feet and rushed to her Captain's aid, only to be met by A-ko's fist as it smashed into her face.

"I swear by the Mother," swore Napolipolita as she hung helplessly in the air, "we would never -- "

A-ko -- still unbelieving -- shook with rage as she fought to control herself. With a supreme effort at restraint, she tossed the alien captain down into the damp sand.

There, Napolipolita lay on her back, coughing and spitting. Clutching her throat with her gloved hands, the Cygnan did her best to try to catch her breath and to regain her strength. Instead, she curled into a fetal knot and shuddered. A moment later, D was at her side where she lay. As the ever-faithful D held her in her arms, Captain quickly explained to both Terrans why they were there, and -- most important of all -- what had been going on back in the Cygnan Empire.

Turning her attention back to Captain Ro-gen Pashina -- still held captive by B-ko's weapon -- A-ko asked her, "Where did your crew take my friend?"

"Go to hell," was the officer's only response.

Suddenly, an alarm went off on D's wristband. She quickly looked down on her computer screen and announced that the rebel battle cruiser had just warped out of Luna Orbit. Continuing to point her weapon at the shuttle captain, B-ko asked her, "Where are the rest of your crew going to take our friend?"

Captain Ro-gen kept silent and refused to speak.

After helping her own captain to her feet, D said, "Let me have her. I'll get her to talk!"

"You know better than that D," said Ro-gen. "We served in the Fleet together long enough for you to know better than anyone that I will never be forced to talk against my will."

Captain Napolipolita gave a harsh laugh, which turned into a series of coughs. "You always were what these Terrans call a 'wuss', Pashina. I beat your butt every time we competed at the CygniCity Space Academy, and you know it."

"The only reason you were ever admitted to the Academy in the first place was because your mother had been the Commander before she was killed." Ro-gen smirked, tossing her shaggy navy-blue and citrine-colored hair. "What a disappointment you turned out to be. What a miserable, crazy, drunken failure you are! Everyone knows it. Your mother would be ashamed!"

Captain gave a cry of outrage, and struggled to right herself. Taking over, D pulled her dagger and was advancing on the stubborn Captain Ro-gen to test her claim when A-ko told her, "I don't know how much of this I should believe. But I know one person who can get to the bottom of all this."

In a few moments, the prisoners were stripped of their weapons and communicators and were secured in the cargo-hold of the scout ship. Taking the two captains with them and leaving the rest of the Cygnans stranded on the beach, they made a quick stop at their motel room for a change of clothes and to pick up one of B-ko's traveling cases. Soon, the small scout ship was streaking westward and northward into the heart of the American nation.

-------

A few minutes later Captain Ro-gen found herself sitting in a half-painted kitchen in a newly-built farmhouse located in the midwestern heartland. When her blindfold was removed, she came face-to-face with a tall and very handsome woman with jet black hair and a very imposing build. Ro-gen initially thought she was facing another Cygnan by the way the woman carried herself.

The strange woman held a golden rope in her hand as she stood in front of the rebel captain. Looking at the rope in her hand, Captain Ro-gen Pashina asked this new woman in a contemptuous voice, "What do you think you're going to get from me with that piece of string?"

"Everything!" was the only reply she received in return.

A moment later the loop was tight around her, and the other end was handed over to A-ko -- apparently this woman's daughter.

The redhead asked, "Now, let's try this again. Where did your companions take my friend?"

Captain Ro-gen tried her best to resist, but as hard as she tried, in the end she failed. "The planet Shar-renar in the Tregis System."

Turning to Napolipolita, A-ko asked her, "You know the place?" In response, she nodded her head yes.

A deep male voice then came from the corner of the room. "Ask her if any more of her forces are coming into our star system."

A moment later the good Captain Ro-gen informed all of those gathered in that country kitchen that not only would a large portion of the rebel fleet be in Sol's system in four days' time, but also that their own intelligence reported that a sizable portion of the fleet still loyal to C-ko's mother would be here to confront it.

"See how easy that was?" A-ko grinned.

After a few more minutes of questioning, A-ko removed her mother's golden lasso from around Ro-gen and handed it back to its owner. She then turned to her father, "What are we going to do, Papa?"

The gathered Cygnans -- all military women believing that males belonged safe at home and not out mixing in women's affairs -- raised their eyebrows. They weren't used to seeing a male given this type of respectful treatment. They were even more surprised and shocked when the male said, "Whatever your mother and I have to do. An to make sure that comes about, the first thing I'm going to do is call the JLA together and do whatever we can to prevent C-ko's people from turning Earth in to a battleground for their own private civil war."

A-ko thought for a moment and said, "Then, that leaves me free to travel with Napolipolita and D to wher ever C-ko has been taken, to perform a rescue."

Her father's face suddenly turned red with anger as he snapped his head around to confront his daughter. "Oh no you're not," he told her. "It's too dangerous, and you're much too young to go skipping across the Galaxy on some half-baked rescue mission."

"I'm only two years younger than you were when you started your life's work," protested A-ko. "And only one year younger than Mama when she became Wonder Woman."


Napolipolita opened her eyes wide. Her own daughters read Wonder Woman comic books like there was no tomorrow. She remembered Akana once running to her, pointing to a picture of Wonder Tot and laughing. "She looks like I did when I was little," the green-haired child had said. "You're still that way, my little baby," her mother had returned.

Wonder Woman. Wonder -- Woman -- could it be? A-ko's mother is that Terran Amazon in the comic books? No wonder the best friend of my Princess is so strong, the Captain thought. It had been the ancient Cygnans who had given the Terran Minoans of Ancient Crete their own warrior skills, their goddess religion, and their holy double-axe. A thousand years later, the Greek warrior women called the Amazons had adopted these extraterrestrial gifts as their own.

"Enough, " A-ko's father yelled. "I will hear no more foolish talk about how old your mother and I were when we started in this crazy life we live. We never wanted you to go into this life and If I have any thing to say about it, you never will!"

"Then tell me who is going to help C-ko!" A-ko yelled back at her father.

"I will be the one who will be going with C-ko's loyal subjects," said Mr. Magami.

"You can't! You have to stay behind with Mama and the rest of the JLA to make sure that the two Cygnan battle fleets don't turn the Earth into so much space mulch!"

"I don't want to hear any more on the subject; it's settled. I'm still your father and you will obey me in this."

A-ko stood tall and defiant as she screamed back at her father, "I'm over twenty years old, Father, and a grown woman. I'm just not your little girl any more."

The legendary Man of Steel stared into his daughter's face and told her in a deep and emotion-filled voice, "As long as I live, don't you ever dare say that ever again to me."

Mrs. Magami was suddenly worried. Unlike mother and daughter, A-ko and her father almost never had words. Not that arguing and fighting were unknown in the Magami and now newly-named "Clark" home. Two strong, independent, and spirited people who loved each other as much as Diana and Clark did couldn't share their love and their life together without the occasional disagreement and shouting match.

At an early age A-ko had learned that her parents' arguments didn't mean they loved each other -- or, more important still -- her any less. This also included all the times mother and daughter had gone nose-to-nose with each other since A-Ko turned eighteen and fought for her independence like any other teenage girl. This was a fact of life -- no matter how much mother and daughter loved each other.

But this was different; this was her father with whom A-ko fought now. Diana knew this was not normal -- not for these two. It was because of this that the one-time Amazon princess took her husband by his elbow.

As she led him out to the front porch, she told her daughter, "A-ko; take care of your guests. I have to talk to your father in private."

She knew full well that even with all her legendary strength she could never be able to budge him against his will. But she was equally sure that a simple, sad look from her -- accompanied by a gentle tug on his elbow -- would cause the Man of Steel to meekly follow her out to the front porch.

So the wife, mother, and hero known as Wonder Woman was not all that surprised when she found herself and the man she had always loved alone on the front porch of their new farmhouse. Alone at last, the both of them were at first content to stand there in each other's arms. It was only after a short a time for her that A-ko's mother spoke.

"If there is one thing you taught me, my love, is that a good parent does his or her best to become obsolete to their child -- to raise them in a way so they will no longer be needed. We both knew this day would come. We knew the day would finally arrive that our baby would decide to begin to follow in our footsteps."

She paused for a moment to nod her head in the direction of her daughter by going on, "No matter how hard we fought against it and tried to discourage her, we both knew deep down inside that this day would come. I can only thank my own Gods that at least the concern for the friend she loves was the catalyst, and not vain glory or a young girl's search for adventure -- or, worst of all, a cheap thrill."

He placed his head on her own broad shoulder both for comfort and a means to borrow some of her own emotional strength. He told her, "Even with all the trouble our daughter managed to get herself into back in Graviton City, I had always hoped that A-ko would live a normal life and not get mixed up in our lifestyle."

Diana smiled sweetly and told her husband, "She has too much of her papa in her. She simply cares too much, and -- if that wasn't bad enough - there's some of me in her too."

"Just the best parts," he told his wife as he hugged her even tighter.

"Like the temper?" she asked.

"I always loved your temper, among other things," he said as he placed his hands on her bottom and picked her up into his arms.

A few minutes later A-ko's mother went back inside the half-finished farmhouse and called her daughter to come into the living room. When A-ko stood before her, she said, "I want you to go outside and apologize to your father."

"Why should I be the one forced to apologize?" asked A-ko.

"Because he is your father, and everything he said to you was because he loves you. You will also feel a whole lot better after you do it. Besides," she added. "Never leave to go on a mission feeling guilty -- most of all when it concerns family."

Realizing what her mother's last statement meant, A-ko shared a quick hug with her before going outside to be with her father. She found him sitting on top of the porch steps, looking out at the newly-plowed fields. She sat down on his lap as she had done a thousand times before and -- as she held him tight -- said, "I'm sorry, Papa, for arguing with you."

He stroked her red hair as he told her, "Sometimes I do forget that you are in fact a young woman. Leave it to your mother to remind me! Just promise me that you won't take any unnecessary chances. Once you have C-ko, promise me that both of you will come straight back home to us."

"Can you promise me that we'll have a home to come back to, Papa?"

"Have you ever known me to break a promise?" he asked in return.

The smile on his oldest child's face was the only answer he needed.

As A-ko and her father was outside being a family, her mother was playing host to the Cygnans in the kitchen. Diana was in the corner talking to Napolipolita about the history of the labrys, an ancient butterfly symbol which transmuted into a double-axe shape.

Captain Ro-gen interrupted their conversation. "Why are you and the rest of your family interfering in Cygnan affairs?"

Napolipolita snarled and began cursing the traitor with her choicest Leptonian imprecations, when the former Wonder Woman said, "You are the reason we're involved in this whole mess." Diana then turned to face Napolipolita and told her, "And you are the other reason."

Napolipolita -- more or less convinced that Diana understood she was on the Great Mother's side, so to speak -- gasped in embarrassment as A-ko's mother continued her answer. "Both of your factions are posing a threat to this world, and that has always been reason enough for either my husband or myself to become involved."

Turning back to Ro-gen, Diana told her, "If that isn't reason enough for you, you had a hand in stealing a young girl that all but grew up in my home. If I had a dollar bill for every time she slept under our roof, I could pay off this house. I washed her face, dried her tears, and watched her grow up. In return, she made us laugh and kept our secrets. The one you call your Princess is family in all but name, and you stole her."

Suddenly A-ko's mother was in a rage and across the room as she lifted Captain Ro-gen -- chair and all -- off the floor with one hand. Holding her nose-to-nose, the Amazon snarled, "And you dare accuse me of interfering!"

Neither D nor her Captain had ever seen anyone move as fast as A-ko's mother had in crossing that kitchen floor. Truth be told neither of them actually saw her move. The only reason they knew she had was that their sister Cygnan was now hanging in the air.

Even if she was an enemy, the Amazon's rage directed at her frightened them both. What they had just witnessed was the

power of a warrior in its purest form.

"Awesome," whispered Napolipolita to herself, wishing desperately that her daughters were here to see this remarkable display of female strength.

"Kick-ass," D whispered back. "Are we sure we're not related to her? Could we have been descended from her people, right here on this planet?"


"Don't be ridiculous, D," her Captain shot back, grinning. "Where do you think the Terran Amazons came from in the first place?"

It was a trio of relieved Cygnan warriors who watched A-ko's mother lower the rebel captain back down to the floor. Reaching behind her, Diana snapped the Cygnan security restraint like a paper chain. "That's still no excuse for you to be tied up like some animal waiting for slaughter."

"You treat me like a woman of dignity and honor," Ro-gen returned, blinking hard.

"Forget the 'honor' part, you kakamatandula," growled Napolipolita. D wanted to make a fist and shake it, but didn't dare.

As she sat on the counter B-ko now remarked, "If something happens to C-ko, this bitch won't have long to wait to be slaughtered -- because I will see to it myself." Napolipolita shot her an admiring glance. You've got a bit of the old man's tough stuff in you as well, you spoiled Terran brat, she thought.

A-ko's mother turned to look at her daughter's old rival. "Don't let your anger tempt you to fall back into your old ways, B-ko. You have gone from a spoiled, obsessive little rich bitch into a woman that my daughter both likes and -- most important of all -- trusts. See to it that you don't betray that trust."

The Captain rolled her eyes. You got that obsessive little rich bitch part right, she thought but did not say.

"Yes, Mrs. Magami," answered B-ko.

"The name is Clark now, and you are old enough to start calling me Diana."

"I'm not so sure about that, Mrs. Clark," B-ko answered with a smile.

"Then that only leaves what to do about the Princess," said Napolipolita.

"The first thing I suggest is that we all settle down to a hot meal. People don't think straight on an empty stomach. That's one thing my mother taught me at a young age," said A-ko's father as he stood in the kitchen doorway with his daughter.

"That would be your job," his wife pointed out.

The Cygnans snickered.

"Especially the way you cook," her husband teased her right back.

The Cygnans gasped; however, A-ko and her parents began to laugh together, and were soon joined by B-ko. The three Cygnans, not privy to the family joke, just sat there in polite if confused silence.

"Perhaps bad cooking is hereditary; a trait passed down from us to them and then back up to Our Princess," D chortled.

"Watch your tongue, Spy," Ro-gen snapped.

"Watch yours before I rip it out of your gullet," Napolipolita returned. "At least we aren't traitors to Queen and Crown. You always were a jerk, Pashina. But really, now, What possessed you?"

Diana shushed the warring aliens into silence, and began to prepare the meal with the help of her husband and daughter.

Napolipolita, D, and even Ro-gen were impressed with the meal. Ro-gen told A-ko's mother, "A most excellent meal. Your lifemate is an excellent cook; plus, you have him well-trained." At this, the other Cygnans tittered.

"His skill in the kitchen is one of the reasons I keep him around," explained Diana with a smile. "As for the training, I pray every day to the soul of his first wife, thanking her for all the fine work she did in that regard."

Clark smiled, The loss of his great love no longer pained him as it once did. Diana had seen to that, not by trying to replace her but by encouraging her husband to always hold her memory and most of all her love always near. She was able to do this because she believed there was room in his heart for the both of them, and she was right.

"Beef Bourguignon is a secret family tradition," A-ko interrupted. "Passed down from mother, to son and then to daughter."

Captain Ro-gen -- totally unfamiliar with Terran relationships -- told A-ko's mother, "You should tell your lifemate he is a wonderful cook."

"First of all, we call such lifemates 'husbands' here," said A-ko's mother. "And if you like his cooking so much, tell him yourself."

The three Cygnans looked at one another in silence.

A-ko's father was standing before the stove when a sudden thought crossed his mind. Turning around to face his guests, Mr. Magami said, "I just realized that our houseguests -- for as long as they have been here -- have yet to address me directly."

Ro-gen took the opportunity to tell their hosts, "Males are scarce in our society. When a warrior is mated with one, it is considered bad manners for other Leptonians to talk to a warrior's male without her permission. In fact, it is considered a mortaspuk -- an insult that is answered with bloodshed in the form of a duel."

"Yes," Napolipolita continued. "It is traditional back in the homeworld for 'taken' males to be tattooed on their right earlobe so that they are marked off-limits to others of our race." She thought of how Daitokuji had complained that his own tattoo had hurt, and smirked to herself.

Seeing that smug little smirk and connecting it with the rubbing alcohol her father had started dumping down his right sideburn, B-ko thought up a zinger and thought it up quick. "I think they're trying to tell you that not only do they consider you equal to a Cygnan, Mrs. Maga -- I mean, Mrs. Clark, but they're afraid of you besides."

"B-KO!" A-ko admonished her friend.

"Sorry," B-ko responded, though she was nothing of the kind.

"I am not going to challenge you to a duel if you talk to my husband," said Diana. "There are no bosses in our marriage; we live together as equals."

"Ooooh," said D.

"Ahhhh," said Captain Napolipolita.

"Oh, and when did this start?" asked her husband as he moved and stood by her side. The one-time Amazon princess reached up and dragged her husband's face down to her own so she could kiss him. The three Cygnans nodded their heads knowingly and with a bit of envy.

--------

But that was far from their minds some twelve hours later, as D was reporting their ship's readiness for flight to her Captain. "All systems are in prime order, but I'm worried about our fuel reserve. The rate at which we are using our antimatter for sub-light travel on the surface -- or until we leave this solar system -- could well be excessive. We might find ourselves short if we have to do a lot of traveling or fighting when we get to the hostage planet."

"We'll just have to risk it," said Napolipolita.

A-ko's father then spoke up. "What if you were to blast off from our world and clear our solar system, without using your engines, until just before you make the jump to hyperspace? Would you then have enough fuel then?"

"More than enough," said D.

"But how?" interrupted Napolipolita (whose daughters hadn't brought any Superman comics into the house).

A-ko's father smiled and told both the guests," That's my worry. Yours is to get your ship ready."

"A-ffirmative," Napolipolita replied, grabbing the rebellion leader by the upper arm and dragging her out of the farmhouse. "Come on, you kakamatandula. I'll use you for ballast. You can give us the exact location of where our Princess is being held captive. If you don't cooperate, I'll drop you off at the iridium mines at Gonidesh where you can scrape ore for the Republic for the rest of your sorry life."

----------

B-ko and A-ko were in A-ko's room in the new house. The traveling case lay on the bed, where B-ko was just starting to open it. "I thought this might come in handy," said B-ko as she started putting the various parts of her newest Biosuit first on the bed and then on her self.

"Where do you think you're going with that?" asked A-ko as she watched her friend dressing.

"With you, and don't try pulling any of that 'it's tooooo daaaaaaaaangerous for me to come' bullshit."

A-ko didn't try. Instead, she asked, "That's a new design, isn't it?"

"It is. The Akagiyama-25," answered B-ko.

"What was wrong with the Akagiyama-23?" asked A-ko.

"Nothing, but when we both turned eighteen and I saw you truly fly for the first time, I thought I might need an upgrade. Then sadly-- when I finally talked things over with your father -- I no longer had the need of any powersuit, at least were you were concerned."

"Lucky me," said A-ko.

"You can say that again," said B-ko.

-------

An hour later, everyone gathered outside to say their goodbyes. The double barn doors were opened, allowing easy exit for the Cygnan scout craft. Captain Ro-gen was locked in a holding cell on board. Napolipolita and D were on the flight deck, prepping the vessel. B-ko had just said the last of her goodbyes to A-ko's parents and was climbing aboard to let the family wish each other farewell in private.

A-ko hugged and kissed her father and mixed her tears with his. He held her close and whispered into her ear, "Remember -- no heroics. Get in, get C-ko, and get out. Then come straight back here."

"Yes, Papa," A-ko answered tearfully.

"A-KO!" She turned at the sound of her mother's voice and raised her hands above her head.

Mother and daughter first touched bracelets, then interlocked their fingers in the Amazon greeting and farewell ritual. They hugged, and as they did so Diana told A-ko, "Remember that you are an Amazon -- the granddaughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and the daughter of this planet's greatest hero. Keep true to his moral code and you will make all of us proud."

From under her mother's sweater A-ko saw her pull her most treasured possession -- her golden lasso of Gaea.

She slowly handed it to her daughter and told her, "A warrior should always go into battle well-armed." A-ko looked at the golden rope in her hands and recognized it as the rite of passage that it was. She placed it on her hip, and it hung there without hook or fastener -- but there it would remain because of its magic, until she herself removed it.

With a last embrace of both her parents, A-ko rushed aboard the alien craft, doing her best to hold back her tears. When everyone was settled, Napolipolita asked A-ko how her father planned on helping them to conserve their dwindling fuel reserves.

In answer A-ko told her to put an underside view of the ship on the monitor. There stood A-ko's father, but gone were the flannel shirt and the denim pants. They had been replaced by the all-too-famous red and blue costume.

Almost at once, his shoulder was supporting the multi-ton Cygnan spacecraft on his back. Then slowly at first -- then faster and faster -- the ship rose and accelerated until it had reached Earth's escape velocity and had gone well past the moon's orbit.

Faster and faster the ship went, until it was well past the orbit of Pluto and past .75 the speed of light. Then and only then did A-ko's father release the craft with a final shove. Delighted, D fired up the engines to push the craft into high warp, heading for the Tregis system and C-ko.

"WOOOOOOOOOOO-HOOOOOOOOOO!" D and her Captain screamed, punching the air in delight at the Man of Steel's assistance.

"Dear Friend-of-Our-Princess, we did not know that your father was from Krypton!" Napolipolita said.

A-ko facefaulted. "You know about that?"

"Sure we do," D replied. "What a terrible tragedy. If they had appealed to us instead of squabbling amongst themselves, we could have arranged a rescue. After all, one Egota-class ship holds up to 12,000 people comfortably and safely, and we got thousands of 'em."

"Anyway, thank him for us when you see him next," Napolipolita smiled. "Your mother is a role model for us all. I must arrange for my girls to meet her sometime."

"Why?" B-ko snapped. "A-ko's mom is about courage and skill and sheer physical strength. All your daughters know how to do is run around with blasters. Take those away, and they're as useless as teats on a boar hog."

Captain hesitated, then enabled her Terran language translator. Once she understood what B-ko meant, she snarled at her with her big teeth. "You leave my girls alone, young lady," she replied. "They would be your friends if you let them. Instead, you torment and mock them, and they mean you no harm."

"Okay, okay, break it up, you two," A-ko responded. The thought of a catfight between the Captain and B-ko made her nervous. "How much longer, D?"

"Another couple of hours. It's a short hop, really. In fact, I'm quite sure that Our Princess has landed already."

---------

"WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA," the Princess wailed. "I don' wanna be put in jaaaaaail!!! BAAAWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!"

"It is not a jail, Your Majesty," replied the sergeant assigned to guard her.

"Well, if this isn't a jail, what is it? A Coney Island hot dog stand?" the girl replied in her C-ko Kotobuki All-Purpose Annoying Whine, patent pending.

The Cygnan just stared, having no idea what a hot dog or a Coney Island was, and having no ready access to a Terran language translator. "Please relax and be comfortable, Princess. We are only holding you here temporarily."

C-ko shrieked, "I miss my snuggy-buggy Edward!"

The sergeant raised an eyebrow, squinted through her shades, and ran her hair through her mauve-and-purple shag haircut. "You have a lifemate, Your Majesty?" she asked hesitantly.

"Wellllll, not exactly. But who knows? He's SO CUUUUUUUTE...." The next twenty minutes (as measured in Terran time) were spent in C-ko's rapturous description of her new beau. Soon, the sergeant was sound asleep. The little blonde didn't even notice as she continued ti drone on.

---------

A-ko was in the rear of the the scout ship nervously pacing back and forth, only occasionally stopping long enough to stare out the porthole at the Sea of Stars that were part of her heritage.

Napolipolita whispered to B-ko, "What is wrong with your friend?"

"She's afraid," answered B-ko.

"Is your friend a coward?" asked D.

B-ko told her, "No more than the rest of us." She then added, "And I would watch my mouth if I were you."

"Then what is your friend afraid of?"

"Herself, mostly," B-ko replied. "She's afraid that in rescuing C-ko she might be forced to take a life to accomplish it and -- in doing so -- dishonor what her father stands for."

"But with a mother like hers--"

"In some ways, that's the problem. A-ko may be daddy's little girl, but she knows better then anyone that she has her mother in her, too. And you saw for yourself back in Kansas just how much of a pure warrior her mother really is, deep down."

Pausing for a moment to glance at her friend, B-ko went on with her explanation. "That same warrior's blood flows in her veins. What she fears is that the call of the warrior will be too strong for her to ignore, let alone control."

"Part of a warrior's craft is self-restraint," Napolipolita commented. "Impulsiveness practically guarantees that your career as a soldier will be a short one."

"So why should that upset her so?" asked D.

"My friend's mother is a gentle, warm and compassionate woman. But push the right button and watch out. My friend's mother may have come out into the world originally as her people's ambassador of peace, but she is a master of warfare."

"But a warrior must slay the enemies of her people," the Captain said. "After all, it's part of the job, as you Terrans are fond of saying." She looked at D, mystified at the concept of being ashamed of what you were. The lavender-haired woman saw the look of confusion of her companions' faces, so decided to clarify the situation with a story.

"Once A-ko told me a story about her mother and father that shows her other side. It took place about thirty-five years ago, when her father was still married to his first wife. A-ko's father had to go into space to confront a menace who was threatening Earth. He met with the then-Wonder Woman so she could prepare herself as the world's next line of defense in case he should fail. But most of all, he wanted to talk things over with her that he couldn't even bring himself to discuss with his wife."

The Cygnans settled in for a long story.

"While they talked, a mystic spell suddenly transported both of them to Valhalla, the banquet-hall in the Norse gods' city of Asgard. No sooner had they arrived than my friend's mother killed a demon with her bare hands. You understand that she had to because she was honor-bound to do so as a daughter of Themyscira, an Amazon of royal blood. It was that same honor that demanded that she stay to defend Asgard. As for A-ko's future father, he wouldn't think of abandoning her. It was soon after that they found out that the god who transported them there no longer had the power to send them home anyway."

"How long were they there?" asked Napolipolita.

"A thousand years," answered B-ko.

"What?" said D in disbelief.

"For a thousand years, they fought side by side and back to back, and in all that time A-ko's father kept his oath never to kill -- not even a Vgrtsmyth demon -- and to always remain faithful to the wife whom he loved. Even after the passing centuries made him forget the way she smiled or even the way she looked, he would remain faithful to her memory and his oath never to kill.

The Cygnans looked at one another again. "What an amazing story."

"There's more," B-ko responded, and continued. "On the other hand, A-ko's future mother was bound by no such oath. Instead, she listened to her warrior's heart as she used all of her strength and skill at hand to cut a bloody path through the evil creatures which had infested a once-glorious paradise."

"How could she stand living and fighting with the very man she loved, and not do anything about it?" asked D.

"Don't ask me how she did it," said B-ko. "I only know I would have no such restraint."

The Cygnans looked at one another, both raising arched eyebrows.

"What I do remember is the story of their last night together. They both knew that the next day they would be either victorious and transported back in time to home and family, or dead. As my friend's father was in bed having his wounds tended by the other woman that he loved, she in turn hovered above him tending to his needs as he was the man she loved and wanted. "

"How could she stand it?" the Captain asked, scratching her shaggy green head.

"He also wanted her. No -- a more accurate statement would be he needed her in that moment. A-ko told me that their eyes met, and as he reached out and touched her cheek, her eyes and her body said yes. However, she still couldn't bring himself to betray the great love of his life -- even if she was a thousand years and another world away."

"What did Wonder Woman think about that?" asked Napolipolita.

"Even as she longed for his touch, she thought it was perfect and right. Even when he cried on her shoulder and clung to her for support, she loved him even more so for it."

She is some sort of a woman to have that much restraint. Great Mother!" said Napolipolita.

"Some kinda MAN!" D added.

"Uh huh," the Captain whispered to her. The two aliens broke into low-pitched suppressed giggles.

Rolling her eyes, B-ko went on with her story. "The next day, with a broadsword in each hand, A-ko's future mother cut a bloody path of destruction thru the demon horde as she led the warriors of Valhalla to victory. At the same time, Superman himself defeated their leader and drove the contemptible moon-calf out of Valhalla and back into the foul pit from which he came."

"I wonder what a moon-calf is," Captain whispered to D as she tried to punch it up on her Terran language translator.

"I dunno, Cap'n. But don't stop her now; she's on a roll."

"As a reward, the re-awakened Norse Gods granted them a wish to return home to their loved ones. So, the passing of a millennium seemed like only three days to the world at large, even if it was a thousand years for them. But can you imagine what effect a thousand years of risking their lives together had on them, and how close such an ordeal brought them together?"

"Did your friend's mother finally grow tired being denied what was her due and challenge this Lois-person to personal combat?" asked D. Their own Cygnan Way mandated that their race continue, no matter what the circumstances, and D saw no rational reason for such shilly-shallying.

B-ko snapped her head around to make sure A-ko had not heard what D had just said. Napolipolita jabbed D in the ribs while she did so and hissed, "Can't you hold your tongue? We're just getting to the good part!"

B-ko turned back to D and Napolipolita and told them, "Don't ever let A-ko hear you say that. Lois is a beloved memory in the Magami home."

"Woaahhhhh," Napolipolita said. "Accept our apologies. I just know that I would personally kick the butt of any woman who got within a hundred klicks of my sweet Hikaru."

"Yeah, we Cygnans are real territorial," D added.

B-ko remembered the remark about the Leptonian custom of tattooing 'taken' males and shuddered. "Can I continue with my story now?"

"Be my guest," the Captain invited, putting her booted feet up on the console and lacing her hands behind her head, soothed by thoughts of the billionaire Terran.

"Let's see. Where was I?" B-ko said. "Oh, yes. Diana soon had the opportunity to save Lois from a crazy meta-human called Maxima who was after her. Then -- if that wasn't enough -- the both of them fought a demon from the Seventh Circle of Hell itself. Even then, Lois knew how much Diana loved her husband. But so sure was she in his love for her, she felt more pity then jealously. In fact, Lois loved her husband so much and, knowing how slowly both he and Wonder Woman aged, she made Diana promise to love her husband when she was gone."

"Incredible," D commented.

"Her desire was that Diana ease his loneliness after her own death. But most of all, Lois wanted to let him love Diana in return. She did this just so she could make sure they would be happy together even when she was gone."

Captain Napolipolita shook her head in wonder as she said, "This Lois must have been one hell of an incredible woman."

"You can say that again," agreed D.

"What other way could you describe a woman that was the wife of Superman," added B-ko.

"And so -- to bring us up to date -- A-ko waits and worries that her heart will only hear the song of the warrior, that she will lose control, and that she will perhaps dishonor her father and Lois's memory by taking a life."

"I can see where that could be a heavy burden to live with," Said Captain Napolipolita. "She can relax, however. D and I will do the fighting. It's my ship and my mission." Just then, a warning klaxon rang out, shattering the alien's reflective mood.

"What's that?" asked A-ko from the rear of the scout craft.

"Navigation computer," answered Napolipolita. "We're entering the Tregis System."

"How should we handle this, Captain?" asked D.

"We could try landing away from the Spaceport, then sneaking in from outside of the city," answered Napolipolita.

"Don't bother," said B-ko. "Just call for permission to land and ask for instructions."

"And when they ask us for our reasons?" asked D.

B-ko told her, "Simply tell them you have two high- priority prisoners for interrogation and incarceration."

"They're going to want the security code or a password, and -- more likely than not -- both," explained Napolipolita.

"Already on it," said A-ko as she came from the Security Section with Captain Ro-gen wrapped tightly in a golden package. D and her Captain looked at each other; the latter said," Damn clever, these Terrans. At least the females -- but that's no surprise."

"Sneaky too," added an amused D.

Captain Ro-gen did not find these remarks so funny and let fly with a string of her best Cygnan curses, aimed at the young redheaded woman holding her helpless.

"Oh, just suck it up. If you weren't a traitor you wouldn't be in this position," Napolipolita snapped.

"I'd rather be a traitor than a useless drunk," she fired back.

"I've been sober for a while now," the Captain responded. "And useless I'm not. In fact, I'm useful enough to save Our Princess and see that you spend the rest of your natural life in Stir."

--------

With the good Captain Ro-gen's password and security code having been obtained with the help of the golden lasso, the imperial scout ship was soon cleared to land. Using Ro-gen's authority, a land transport vehicle was waiting for the ship as soon as it landed. Now under duress by A-ko's threats of mayhem and her mother's lasso Ro-gen marched down the scout ship's ramp with her "prisoners" ahead of her.

With their hands securely fastened behind their backs, A-ko and B-ko paused for a moment on top of the ship's ramp. Then as soon as the welcoming committee arrived, D kicked a trussed-up A-ko down the entire length of the ramp. With the words, "Get a move on, Earth scum" ringing in her ears, A-ko didn't stop rolling until she hit the bottom of the ramp. Even the rebel troopers waiting at the bottom winced at her rough treatment at the hands of the big Cygnan.

B-ko was allowed to walk down the ramp under her own power, but not without the occasional kick in her backside from Ro-gen, who frankly was more than happy to deliver it. With an exchange of imperial tiger-claw salutes, Napolipolita told the officer in charge of the detail that her prisoners must be taken immediately to the most secure prison facility on the planet. The officer in charge had wondered exactly how Ro-gen had convinced Napolipolita to abandon her devotion to the Queen, but shrugged and led the way.

There was solid reasoning behind the rescuers' plan. Just before they had landed, B-ko had explained the Trojan horse strategy to D and the Captain. Instead of trying to fight their way into prison or even sneaking into a secure area to perform a rescue, they should be taken to the prison themselves as prisoners.

Reasoning that C-ko would be kept in the most secure facility, B-ko and Napolipolita got the idea that if she and A-ko were also portrayed as dangerous enough, they too would be imprisoned in the same place in which C-ko now found herself.

After a drive in a Wompmay-class short-hop shuttle, the small group found themselves in front of the imperial prison. As the group marched down the twisting corridors, none of the rebel troopers seem to notice that the redheaded prisoner kept swinging her head from side to side, staring intently at every closed door she passed. Soon the little group found themselves at the highest and most secure floor of the prison, in a corridor guarded by four heavily-armed women.

The redheaded Earther said, "This is one hell of a long walk," and suddenly stopped short before a solid steel door. As arranged beforehand, D stepp forward and delivered a blow to the back of A-ko's head as she said, "Move it, you Terran pig." All this time, A-ko had been examining every door she passed with the X-ray vision she had inherited from her sire.

As soon as she had found the door behind which C-Ko was imprisoned, she had stopped and made the announcement about the long walk. This cue told the other members of the rescue team not only where C-ko was, but which door they had to defend.

As soon as A-ko stumbled forward with the force of D's not inconsiderable blow, she snapped the Cygnan restraints and rushed forward, taking two of the guards and slamming them right into the far wall of the corridor. B-ko took out one guard with a ten-thousand volt taser attached to her gauntlet.

Napolipolita took out the remaining guard with a wonderfully-timed left hook that landed on the right side of a second-year rebel lieutenant's face.

"By Cybele, I love to fight!" the Captain laughed. "Take that, you kakamatandula traitor." Even as this was going on, D stood protectively before the door to C-ko's cell with her weapon at the ready.

With the corridor secured, Napolipolita searched their victims for keys but found none. She shouldn't have bothered, since A-ko had already driven her fingers into the armored door of the cell and was pulling the door off the sliding rail.

As the door hit the floor with a noisy bang, a happy little twenty-year-old blonde girl greeted her best friend with a huge smile and the greeting, "What kept you?"

"Thank God you're OK, C-ko!" A-ko said, grabbing the girl's forearm and pulling her out of the cell.

"Thank the Goddess," said Captain and D archly.

"They said this isn't really a jail, but then they just left me here and I was sooooo lonely and scared and -- "

"No time for chatting," said B-ko, scooping up C-ko's other arm and propelling her down the corridor, with the two Cygnans doing recon duty. "Let's make like a tree and leave."

C-ko giggled at this awful pun, but ran along with her friends.

Although the rebel captain was still under restraint at D's capable hands, no one thought of gagging her. As the group raced past a now-deserted security station, she let out a scream to end all screams.

"Shut her up, D!" shrieked the Captain.

When poor D tried to do so, however, Captain Ro-gen bit her hand with her large white teeth (the Cygnans were universally known for their lovely choppers). Now D's shrieks rivaled those of the prisoner's.

"CODE ORANGE! CODE ORANGE!" Ro-gen screamed, like a runaway freight train.

"SHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTUP!!!" A-ko hissed.

"Give that mouthy broad a clop on the side of the head," B-ko growled.

"Glad to," responded Captain Napolipolita, who fell on the woman and held her wrists.

"TRAITOROUS COW!" she hollered.

"DRUNKEN SKANK!" Ro-gen responded.

"OH YOU THINK?" shouted Napolipolita, putting pressure on the prisoner's carotid arteries.

"ECCCCHHHHH," said Ro-gen.

"Hey, quit fooling around. I hear someone coming!" A-ko panted.

Napolipolita sighed, hoisted the half-unconscious captain onto her shoulder, and ran along with the rest of the rescue team. Suddenly, at the end of the corridor a large group of armed warriors appeared, making their way towards them.

"It's the Shock Troops," D whispered.

"What's that?" C-ko squeaked, shaking in her Mary-Jane shoes.

"Your worst nightmare," Ro-gen croaked, rubbing her sore throat and giving them her most sinister smile.

----------

"Well, there goes the neighborhood," complained B-ko as she and

the rest of their party watched as the Shakanar Storm troopers came storming down the corridor. The smallest of each of these female shocktroops had to be at least six-foot, six-inches tall and each was covered in an armor-powered exosuit.

As the small rescue party slowly started its retreat, A-ko took the time to ask Napolipolita, "What can you tell us about our new friends?"

"Mostly that we're dead," she answered.

"Are they that good?" asked A-ko.

"No -- they're that bad," said Napolipolita.

She then went on to offer an explanation. "Every year the Empire tests every eight-year-old girl in the Lepton Kingdom of Alpha Cygni. If she is vicious enough, cruel enough, totally antisocial, and -- above all else a bit of what you Terrans call a psychopath, she is taken from her mother, given specialized steroids, growth hormones, and training. Ten years later, the result is what you see before you."

"And you call yourself an enlightened society," said A-ko, shaking her head in disbelief. "Breeding sociopaths for fun and profit."

"There is a method to our madness, Friend-of-Our-Princess. On your world, such creatures become career criminals -- the psychopaths who prey on the innocent -- and the very ones that you and your parents dedicate your very lives to keep from destroying your society. The result is that they end up dead -- if they're lucky -- or if they're not, they live the rest of their lives in a jail cell or in a madhouse. On our world, such sad creatures are discovered at an early age and given a place in society where their dark natures can be used to protect society, instead of destroying it."

"It's still hideous, just look at them," said A-ko.

The Captain sighed. "You need to remember that the Empire has many enemies. The Kirlians and the Xram have been trying to destroy us for thousands of years. Although we have our close allies -- primarily the Thessalonikans, the Bwanseach, the Terra Betans, and the Anatolians -- there are many other patriarchal societies in this galaxy which would love to dominate us."

"I'll bet they would," A-ko concluded.

"Therefore, we must use every weapon in our command -- and if our citizens without conscience can aid us in our protection, why not take advantage of it? In this way, they can be a positive influence and find an honorable career for themselves."

Ro-gen screamed gleefully. "Well I'm positive you're all going to be dead in the next five minutes."

"Well, don't kill us; we'll kill you," said B-ko as she turned to face the stormtroopers who were now advancing on them, blasting away as they came. As the elite force opened up with their weapons on the little band of rescuers, B-ko raised her arm and -- touching a control knob on her gauntlet --shouted out the familiar cry, "AKAGIYAMA MISSILES!" She then unleashed a full fusillade of mini-missiles at their attackers.

The missile impacts and the explosions that followed were successful in knocking down a score of the elite warriors, as well as collapsing the corridor in front of them, cutting off the rescue party from their pursuers.

A-ko looked at the destruction her friend had caused and remarked, "It's nice not being on the wrong end of those things for a change."

B-ko asked, "Are you sure you don't miss our little innocent sparring sessions, Bubble Butt?"

"Hell no," cried A-ko as she took up her position at the head of the little rescue group.

"What the Avernus do you HAVE in those things?" the Captain said, clutching Ro-gen in a headlock and twisting her nose.

"Daitokuji family secret," B-ko replied.

"We'll just see about that. Maybe an exchange of technological secrets is in order here. I'll just have to -- chat -- with your father about that."

"Only if you get out of here alive, you grassheaded dypsomaniac drag-queen head case!"

"Ohhhhhhh BEEEEEE-ko, you're so MEEEEEAN!" the Princess chided.

"Sorry, C-ko."

While moving down the corridor and heading for the roof, A-ko suddenly stopped and held up her hand. With D acting as a rear guard, B-ko moved up to stand next to her friend.

As the redhead stared through the wall with her inherited x-ray vision, A-ko whispered, "There's a reception committee on the other side waiting for us, right as we turn the corner." To make her point, A-ko ran her extended thumb under her own throat from ear to ear.

B-ko nodded her head at the direction of the wall and told A-ko, "Why don't you drop in and introduce yourself?"

From the far end of the corridor D shouted, "We've got company!"

"Why not?" answered A-ko. She then nodded in the direction of Captain Ro-gen -- who was by this time turning a nice shade of cerulean blue (to match her eyeshadow)-- and smiled slyly.

B-ko turned to Napolipolita and told her, "Get rid of the excess baggage; we don't need any dead weight!"

At the mention of the term 'dead weight', Captain Ro-gen's eyes grew wide with fear. But she was still as defiant as ever as she told Napolipolita, "I demand the right to die as a warrior with weapon in hand, you drunken skank."

Napolipolita pointed the barrel of her blaster under the rebel's chin. "For the last time, you disgrace to the CygniCity Space Academy, I am an alcoholic. I admitted that to myself over two years ago back on Earth. It's one of the things I learned from the Terrans, it is also just one of the many things we can learn from them. It's also the first step to becoming sober -- admitting that you are powerless over alcohol. I always will be a drunk. I can't help that. But I can help my behavior. Therefore, I just don't drink, a day at a time. So you can take your insults and shove them, you traitorous cow."

Ro-gen looked into the face of her captor. "We were classmates, Nappy, and once friends. Here at the end, at least grant me the death of a warrior, for old times' sake, old friend."

The Captain scrutinized her face, and saw the hard glitter in her eyes. "No!" shouted Napolipolita as she brought her knee up into Ro-gen's stomach. As she bent over in pain, the good Captain brought the butt of her blaster down on the back of her head, laying Ro-gen out semi-conscious.

Bending over to make sure she was all right, Napolipolita murmured, "You're too good an officer to kill like some helpless animal, Ro-gen. Besides, we did have a hell of a good time serving in the fleet those first few years out of the Academy. Why you chose to do what you have done is beyond my comprehension. You and your compatriots are as dangerous to the well-being of the Empire as the Kirlians or the Xram."

"Finished saying goodbye?" asked A-ko.

"Don't wait for me," said Napolipolita. "Whatever you're going to do, do it fast."

A-ko turned back to the wall and, as she used her x-ray vision to get a bead, shouted, "It's Showtime!" She drove her fists through the reinforced walls, then followed the fleeing rescuers through the wall that collapsed in front of her. Before them stood the rebel troops on the other side.

A-ko was, of course, the first through the breach and was closely followed by B-ko, who took out two officers with a taser. As for the rest of the soldiers, A-ko proved to be a walking nightmare who laid them all out in a frenzy of punches and cuffs. Next came Napolipolita, who hovered protectively close to her Princess as the ever-faithful D began blasting away at their pursuers to slow them down.

--------

The first of the Shakanar Brigade to recover from B-ko's assault was a shaggy-headed misfit by the name of Tarim Chitai. She stood nearly seven feet tall and weighed well over three hundred Terran pounds.

She had been selected for training in the Shakanar after being reprimanded for tormenting a fellow cadet at the Space Academy years earler. And so now, looking around her, she grinned with pleasure at the memory as she reached for her AK-88 pulse rifle.

The new cadet had been a skinny little thing who had been the only survivor of the worst massacre in the history of the Lepton Kingdom. Her mother, the Commander of Her Majesty's Space Navy, had been brutally slain along with all three hundred members of her guard.

When the attack commenced, the child had been urged by her mother to hide; she had done so and had waited it out, listening to the screams and to the whine of small arms fire which had seemed to go on for hours.

When she had emerged from her hiding place in the second-class Egota's air vents, she had found herself the only one left alive. She had picked her way through the mass of bodies to find her mother lying on the floor of the bridge, run through by a Kirlian broadsword.

Since the girl had been born and raised on the ship, she had been able to program the navicomputer with the proper coordinates in order to send the heavily-damaged vessel in the direction of the homeworld. She had then enabled the emergency beacon to transmit a distress signal to anyone who might listen. Then she had lain down next to her mother, wrapped her long black cape of command around herself, and waited for rescue.

After about six months of medical care and observation, the child had been placed into the current class of cadets. She had eaten little and had said even less, and had suffered from frequent nightmares that broke the sleep of the other girls in her company. Tarim Chitai -- whose antisocial tendencies had been suppressed up to this point -- had grown annoyed at having her sleep interrupted on such a regular basis, and had decided to do something about it.

After the cadets had received their nightly head-count and had gone to sleep, Tarim had crept next to the girl's cot. When her fitful moans had begun, Tarim had poured a sashit poultice over her face. This gluey substance was part of every Cygnan medical kit, which is exactly where Tarim had pilfered it. Its utility lay in its ability to go on as a thick sterile liquid and to harden within seconds, creating an airtight barrier, preventing the contamination of an open wound until medical help could be obtained.

Awakened by her inability to breathe, the girl's eyes had bulged wildly as her hands scrabbled at her throat. Tarim only reaction was to giggle. Five girls tried and failed to pull her away from the cot, where she had made sure no one came close enough to remove the clinging obstruction.

In fact it took a big farm girl cadet from one of the out lying plantes to drive her off.

Tarim had been sent to the Shakanar facility the next day. She came to like it well enough, that is true; but she had bitterly resented being removed from her family and friends. Since she had no conscience and no personal sense of responsibility in her psychological makeup, she had blamed it all on that green-headed brat who had disturbed her sleep.

"And there she is, right in front of me at last," Tarim chuckled.

She leveled her weapon and fired right into Captain Napolipolita.

--------

Tarim Chitai hadn't enjoyed herself so much since she had cut up that Kirlian captain into six equal pieces. She remembered how that harmless little joke she played on the green-haired little freak had cost her her family and all the good times she used to have tormenting the younger girls at the Academy. Then again, since joining the Shakanar, Tarim had been enjoying herself even more. She had really found herself a home and a new family among this group of anti-social misfits -- a family who appreciated her talent for mayhem. In fact, she was laughing so hard and enjoying herself so much that she almost missed her shot.

She had aimed at the center of Napolipolita's chest but took her down low. The blast from the pulse rifle caught Napolipolita in the stomach, knocking her across the room. As D let out a scream and rushed to her Captain's side, Tarim lowered her sights on her next target -- a sweet baby-faced blonde, now also screaming -- who had one of those innocent smiles she found so annoying.

She pulled the trigger, fully expecting to watch the girl's head explode. But instead, a blur seemed to impose itself between Tarim Chitai and her intended target. Even as she pulled the trigger twice, the only result was two new holes in the far wall of the prison instead of in the head she had targeted.

Once again the blur moved, this time the blur came charging into the faces of the advancing Shakanar troops. This in itself was a new experience to the gathered Shakanar, because none of the Cygnans' many enemies would dare charge directly into one of their ilk, let alone into a whole squad.

A-ko's blood was up, up as only the daughter of Diana and the granddaughter of Hippolyta could get. With a roar, she seized the hand holding the blaster that shot Napolipolita, and squeezed until she heard the plasticine armor pop beneath her grip. She also heard the scream of pain that followed as the bones broke even more easily than the armor.

As the rest of the Shakanar rushed forward to save their leader, Tarim Chitai found herself six feet up in the air, being driven into the wall of the corridor. She had been tossed so hard that she left an imprint of her armor in the wall.

Diana's golden lasso snaked out in the capable hands of her daughter, enveloping the lead trooper. At once, her arms were pinned to her side as she felt herself being propelled forward into the far wall. She was then jerked back down the length of the corridor, only to be smashed into her fellow Shakanar troops. Already, A-ko was among them once again. She punched and kicked and broke bones with her bare hands. Twin beams of radiant heat erupted from her eyes, that sliced through armor and melted weapons into so much slag.

The armor -- designed to protect the wearer in the hardest of combat situations and against the strongest Kirlian attack -- shattered in A-ko's hands or under her powerful blows. The servo-motors designed to increase the wearer's own incredible strength tenfold simply squealed in protest, smoked, and failed totally as their Shakanar mistresses tried matching their artificially- enhanced chemical and mechanical muscles against the natural strength possessed by this remarkable Kryptonian/Amazon hybrid.

This wasn't all A-ko had inherited from both her parents. The speed and her extra-dense bodily matter protected her from the attacking Shakanar, at least to some extent. The wounds they did manage to inflict on her healed almost instantly. Since her attackers couldn't bring their main weapons into the fight from fear of shooting themselves and each other, A-ko never found out whether she could take the punishment her legendary father could.

As suddenly as it had begun, the fight was over and the corridor was quiet once again. The Shakanar troopers -- with both their armor and weapons smashed -- lay scattered throughout the length and the breadth of the corridor.

A-ko once again moved to where Tarim lay in a heap and -- seizing her by the front of her armor -- lifted her off the floor with one hand. The psychopathic soldier watched in horror as the redhead's fingers embedded themselves into the front of her armor. She turned to stare at A-ko's other fist as if it was death itself. It was now held above her head. She knew that A-ko was about to bring it down and pulp her skull under it.

A-ko heard D scream, "Kill her! Kill the bitch! Just make sure you make her suffer while you do it!"

The Terran shook with emotion as she fought against her Amazon nature and the call of the warrior that sang in her heart. But she remembered what her mother had said to her when she was all of ten, when she had battled with her soon-to-be good friend and cousin Zoey -- "Mercy is one of the highest of human emotions, and is one an Amazon always respects and holds dear." But in the end, the power that stayed A-ko's hand was the respect she had for her father's ideals and her own belief in them.

Tarim Chitai begged, "Please! Mercy! I was only doing my duty! I was only following orders! I was only..."

"Oh shut the hell up, you sadistic bitch," snarled A-ko with a look of pure disgust. She let her go, to slide down the length of the wall as if she was something that had crawled from beneath a rock. She even instinctively wiped her hands on her clothing. Turning her back on the carnage she wrought, A-ko moved to where D was doing her best to stem the bleeding from her Captain's belly wound.

As she worked on her Captain, D had tears in her eyes as she told her friend, "Don't you die on me, you hear? If you die, who will keep them from putting me back in the Shakanar? If you don't rescue me from them, who will?"

In a voice filled with pity and concern A-ko said, "So -- that's why you're so loyal to her. You were once among those creatures, and somehow she got you out."

"Yes," answered D solemnly. "She could have made Commander long ago if it wasn't for me. She stepped on the toes of all of those big shots. She did all that because she believed that I didn't belong with the rest of the psychopaths and misfits -- the ones our society believes should be thrown away on the altar of Athena the War Goddess like so much cannon fodder. My Captain saw more in me and fought for me. Even before the drinking got really bad, it cost her plenty -- I cost her plenty."

Captain Napolipolita gasped in pain as she whispered to her friend, "Quiet, D! Consider yourself on report. I warned you before about your tendency for sentimentality. Keep your thoughts on your mission."

Along with D, A-ko too had tears in her eyes. C-ko buried her face in the armored breast of B-ko as she clung to her for comfort. Even B-ko was misty-eyed, in spite of her dislike of the Leptonian, but she hid it better than anyone else.

A-ko sniffed and wiped her tears. "Come on, you're not dead yet," she said as she bent over and gently lifted the Captain in her strong arms. Then, as A-ko stood up with Captain Napolipolita cradled in her arms, she announced, "It's time to get out of here and get some help for our friend."

Suddenly, D -- who was still on one knee -- pulled her sidearm and, taking aim with both hands, blasted away at Tarim Chitai as she was about to bring her rifle level up to shoot A-ko in the back. Over and over D pulled the trigger, as she sent bolt after bolt of energy into the shocktrooper's belly, chest, and shaggy head.

The big spy moved with righteous vengeance against the human beast who had shot her Captain and friend, and who had tried to finish off A-ko with a shot in the back. "Damn coward," D snarled.

Looking up from where she now lay on her back, mortally wounded, Tarim Chitai looked up at D as she stood over her. "D, how could you?" she said with a sneer. You know it is forbiden for Shakanar ever to kill Shakanar?"

"Well, consider this my final resignation," snarled D as she brought her booted foot down on the face of her Captain's would-be murderer and crushed it beneath her heel. With that, the malevolent voices that had spoken in the soldier's twisted mind all her life grew silent forever.

---------

"Now what?" whispered Napolipolita, her face dead white with pain.

"Just as before," said B-ko. "First, up to the roof, and then back to the ship." Leading the way, B-ko kept C-ko -- still crying hard -- close to her as the small party finally reached the roof of the citadel. When all of them had arrived, D asked, "NOW what?"

"Now it's back to the Spaceport before they think about cutting us off," said A-ko. Turning to B-ko she asked, "Can you take C-ko?"

B-ko nodded and said, "No problem."

Switching the injured Captain to a one-arm grip and taking hold of D under her arms with the other, A-ko and her lavender-haired friend took off from the top of the roof and made their way to the Spaceport, flying just high enough to avoid detection from the ground below.

When they landed, a large security force was waiting for them. Hiding behind one of the outbuildings, A-ko handed the wounded Captain to D and told the other rescuers, "Stay here until the trouble starts, make your way to the ship, and take off. Don't wait for me -- I'll catch up to you."

"Trouble? What trouble?" asked D.

"Wait for it!" B-ko answered for A-ko.

With a deep breath, A-ko took off running across the Spaceport tarmac. A sonic boom preceded her as she raced between warships and cargo vessels. Her shockwaves -- known to shatter roadways back in Graviton City -- knocked star cruisers off their moorings and cargo vessels onto their sides.

Rebel troops were knocked to the ground as surely as their vehicles. Storage buildings caught fire as twin eye-beams of radiant heat erupted painfully from her eyes and started fire wherever she stared.

As more and more troops arrived to deal with the Terran terror, the guards surrounding the scout ship left to join their comrades in trying to stop A-ko and put out the fires. With D carrying her Captain, B-ko was the first one up the ramp and into the ship.

Just as she thought, B-ko found the traitorous Cygnan guards, which she quickly dispatched using the enhanced speed and strength of her own new biosuit. Soon, two beaten Cygnan warriors came flying down the ramp, unconscious.

Rushing up the ramp, D placed her Captain on a couch and -- as C-ko looked after her -- turned on the engines. The vessel quickly lifting off from the space port. Leaving the rear ramp open for A-ko, D piloted the ship away from the Spaceport.

Soon, it rocked as A-ko landed on the ramp and fought her way into the safety of the scout ship. As soon as she was inside, the ramp closed behind her.

As the vessel gained altitude, D asked her, "What's the course?"

"How does it look?" asked A-ko.

"Clear all the way to Earth," D answered. "But it's five hours, and my Captain will be dead long before we can get back. Besides, I doubt if the state of your medicine is advanced enough to save her."

"And the Homeworld?" asked B-ko.

"Only one hour at high-warp, which will destroy these engines. If we head in that direction, the rebel forces will close in behind us and cut us off from the safety of Earth."

As she lay bleeding on the couch, Captain Napolipolita overheard this conversation and whispered, "We did all this to ensure the Princess's safety. Like any warrior, I am expendable. I vote for Earth."

"And I vote for the Homeworld and a qualified doctor," said D, her deep voice shaking.

B-ko raised her head. "Sorry, D. but your Captain is right. The whole reason for all of this was to rescue C-ko. That being the case, I vote for Earth also." D glared at her in hate, but B-ko understood why and didn't seem to mind.

A-ko sighed in resignation. "I have no other choice here. A life can be saved, and I will always have to go with that." She then turned to her best friend and said, "I guess that leaves it all up to you, C-ko. Your vote will break the tie."

C-ko, as frightened as ever, looked at her rescuers and took a deep breath. "As afraid as I am, I know full well that all of you -- including the Captain -- put your lives on the line for me. I wouldn't do any less for any one of you." The little blonde raised her chin. "I vote that we burn these engines and get the Captain to Alpha Cygni and medical treatment as soon as possible."

"YOUR wish is my command, my Princess," shouted D as she gratefully set the course into the navicomputer. "We're going home, my Captain."

--------

As the little ship raced through the Sea of Stars cradled in the no-where of hyperspace, Captain Napolipolita weakened further and slipped into the dream state between consciousness and unconsciousness. Resurrected by D's reference to her placement with the Shakanar Shocktroops, old memories floated into her mind as she lay on the couch.

It had all been a terrible mistake, of course. Deesha Dakina -- later known as Spy D -- had also been dispatched to the Shakanar training colony the day after Tarim's assault on young Aysheia Lisia Napolipolita. This decision had seemed quite reasonable to her superiors at the CygniCity Space Academy at the time.

After the five cadets had pulled Tarim away from the cot, Deesha -- a big country girl with more strength than intelligence -- had knocked her to the ground and had begun to choke her with all her might. While some of the cadets had succeeded in pulling the bandage from Aysheia's face, some of the others had not been as successful in pulling D from Tarim.

Both cadets had been equally matched in size and strength. Tarim had rallied and a vicious fight had ensued, which no one present would ever forget. It took more than ten minutes after the senior cadets and their superiors had flooded the room to finally break up the melee, taking both fighters into custody. The Napolipolita girl had been taken to Sick Bay, where she had remained for the rest of the night and for most of the next day.

Captain's thoughts continued to wander. D had always been her guardian angel, and this is where it had all started.

Several weeks before the incident which had condemned her to the Shakanar colony, Deesha had tried to befriend the silent and withdrawn child. The late Commander's daughter had looked at her with her distant gray eyes and with the beginnings of a tremulous smile, but had said nothing in return.

That hadn't been enough to discourage Deesha's native friendliness and concern, however. The next night, she had smuggled a cache of food to the girl and had urged her to eat for the sake of her strength.

"It's Intuvasa," Deesha had whispered. "It's good for you. Have some."

The green-headed girl had shaken her head without looking up.

"I know it's just a shipboard synthetic, but it will make you feel better. Don't you want to feel better?"

Aysheia had returned her gaze with an expression so sad that it pained Deesha's heart. "No," she had murmured.

Both had been silent for a while. Deesha was not the brightest of cadets, but she knew human emotions well enough. "Why don't you want to get better?" she had asked again, knowing full well what the girl's honest answer would be.

Aysheia had hesitated, and then had spoken in her whispery voice, "Because I never should have survived. Because I can't get those screams out of my head. Because my life is over. Because I want to be with my mother again."

With that, her pent-up emotions had burst forth, and she had cried with great tearing sobs as Deesha had held her thin shoulders.

"Your mama wanted you to live to carry on her work -- to protect the Royal Family," the big girl had said. "Don't you know that? You'll be okay, don't you know that too?"

The child had continued to weep. "No. I won't be okay. I saw too much."

By this time Deesha had begun to cry as well. "You're real smart," she had said. "You're a lot smarter than me. You belong here with us."

"I belong with my mother. I want to die. Can't you get that through your head?"

"Let our doctors help you. Let them help you get your will to live back. It's what your mama would want."

The two cadets had remained quiet for a while. Deesha had then peered into the girl's thin face and asked, "What about your father? Can he help you?"

Aysheia had looked up into Deesha's face, her eyes streaming. Her raspy voice filled with bitterness, she said, "My father left me after the funeral. No one in Command Structure has been able to find him since. Apparently, he left the Anatolian Space Navy without leave and disappeared." She had shuddered, her tears beginning anew. "I'm all alone."

"No, you're not," Deesha had urged. "I'm here. And I'm here to get this Intuvasa down your throat. So you'd better stop fighting with me and open up."

And so that night, she had fed the heartbroken girl, restoring a little of her hope as well as her strength, with simple kindness. It had been that same kindness which had triggered her rage against Tarim's cowardly attack. And it was also for this kindness that she had been sent to the Psycho Squad, as the Shakanar was colloquially called by the Academy cadets.

---------

Yanked back to the present by a fresh stab of pain, the Captain blinked hard. There was no way that D deserved that. Relaxing slightly, she eased back into semi-consciousness and the comfort of memories.

The years had passed. Napolipolita's native intelligence and command skills -- learned at her mother's knee -- had been recognized, and with her new power she had fought hard for Deesha Dakina's release from the Shakanar Colony. Ultimately, she had been successful. By the time D had been released, however, she had already been subjected to the steroid and hormonal treatments and had become a giant of a woman.

It had been quite remarkable that the hardness and cruelty taught there hadn't extinguished her human spark. The two had drifted apart over the years that followed. Purely by coincidence, both had been assigned to the rescue mission ordered by the desperate Queen to find and save her infant daughter.

The Goddess brought you back in my life,
the Captain mused, slipping into and out of waking consciousness. The Goddess brought you back to save my life yet once again --

"D-ko?" she whispered, using the Japanese diminutive.

"Yes, my Captain?"

"If I don't make it, look after my girls, won't you?"

"You'll make it. Don't worry. So you'd better stop fighting with me."

Napolipolita smiled faintly, and then closed her eyes.

---------

As A-ko and her allies were about to make the jump to the safety of hyperspace, her parents were meeting on the top of Mt. Everest. Each of these icons of the superhero community had criss-crossed the globe, visiting every super-powered individual on the planet they could find, in case the Cygnans decided to fight their civil war in their front yard. A-ko's father had been waiting for his wife for about five minutes before she arrived.

As soon as she landed she asked her love, "How did you do?"

"Almost everyone on my list is on board and ready at a moment's notice, to keep any fighting as far away as possible from Earth."

She sat down beside him on a frozen ledge of rock as she added, "All of mine are ready, also."

He put her arm around her and said, "It's times like this that I miss Bruce the most -- his wits, his cunning, his ability to formulate a plan. Even when he passed a hundred, that wonderful mind of his still made him dangerous."

"He would have enjoyed hearing you say that. But I think our daughter misses her godfather even more than you do, my love," added his wife.

He smiled and held her hand as he asked, "Is there any particular reason you wanted to meet here, of all places?"

"It's in a central location, easy to find, and it's still isolated enough here in the middle of Twenty-first Century to ensure we won't be disturbed," she answered.

He smiled sweetly at her and asked, "The fact that this is the place where our daughter was conceived had no effect on your choice?"

She let free with a most an un-Amazon-like giggle and said, "With all this talk about war and death, I thought a life-affirming trip down memory lane would be nice."

In turn, he asked, "You know what the most life-affirming memory I have about our baby? And when I first though of myself as a father?"

"I would think it might have been when you were in the delivery room with me and I was cussing you out with a few colorful ancient Greek curses."

"No," he smiled. "It was when we came home with the baby and you were resting in the living room, nursing our daughter for the first time in our own home. I'd never seen anything so beautiful or so pure. It was then that I felt like a father for the first time and -- just like any other normal father -- because of it was finally content to let go of the memories and ghosts of my past."

He leaned his head on her broad shoulder and, as she held him, he said, "And now that same little baby girl is gone somewhere on the other side of the galaxy, and I'm almost too terrified to think because I can't be there to protect her."

As she stroked his cheek, the recently-reinstated Amazon princess smiled sadly and told her husband, her love, "As an Amazon, I know I shouldn't be having these fears or at least not admitting to having them. But what makes you think that I am not just as afraid as you are for our daughter?"

He took her into his arms and kissed her with passion. As their lips parted, he told her, "Come on. Let's go home. I have to start the second coat in the kitchen."

"Speaking about starts, the last time we started something here twenty years ago, she turned out all right. Perhaps we can have some more luck a second time," A-ko's mother said as she pushed her husband down on his back.

---------

The object of their discussion was at that moment halfway across the galaxy. She was helping D attend to her Captain when B-ko called from the flight bridge, "D, get up here. There's trouble behind us."

D hesitated, reluctant to leave her Captain, yet knowing duty called. It was A-ko who told her, "Go. C-ko and I will look after her." She got up and made her way to the bridge. She took one look at the control panel and quickly took a seat next to B-ko. As she studied the sensors before her, D asked, "Can you tell me how you were able to pick up how to fly this craft so quickly?

B-ko responded, "What do you think I've been doing since we left Earth? I've been watching you and Napolipolita pilot this thing." She then added, "Besides -- I've always have had this affinity for machinery and computers."

"Well, that's not going to be of much help when what is following us catches up to us," D said.

"What do you mean?" asked A-ko, just arriving to join the conversation.

D looked up and asked, "The Captain?"

"C-ko is looking after her," A-ko answered.

D went back to studying her instruments and explained, "The Queen's sister Shaska is also the Admiral of the Fleet. Her flagship is the Glry-ana, the fastest and most powerful battleship we've ever made. And in two minutes she's going to be in tractor range and catch us like a fly on flypaper -- either that, or simply smash us like a bug on a windshield back on Earth."

"If we can't outrun her, can we give her the slip in hyperspace?" asked B-ko.

"I need five minutes," answered D. "She'll be on us in a little more than two!"

A-ko stood up and told B-ko, "Give me a hand with the airlock."

"For what reason?" asked B-ko as she took hold of A-ko's arm and followed her to the back of the ship.

As she stood before the airlock door A-ko told her friend, "What else can I do? I'm going to get you those five minutes."

"How long can you hold your breath?" asked B-ko.

"About an hour."

"And how much time have you spent unprotected in space?" asked her friend.

"Pop has taken me on a couple of sub-orbital flights."

"You're out of your mind," said B-ko.

The redhead got close to her friend and told her, "This is not just about C-ko any longer. This war could kill millions and not just Cygnans, either. If fighting does break out, I'm sure our own world will be caught in the crossfire."

B-ko tried to speak. Her mouth moved but she couldn't find the words. A-ko instead spoke for her. "If something does happen and I'm -- delayed, tell my mother that I met my fate as an Amazon. But tell both my parents that I kept faith with what Papa taught me."

She paused for a moment, then added, "Most of all, get my father alone and tell him -- and this is the most important thing of all -- tell my father not to let Mama set out to take herself down the road of revenge for me."

"Tell them yourself, because I'm going with you," said B-ko.

"You can't. You have to make sure C-ko gets to her mother and do everything you can to stop this war, or at least to prevent our home from getting involved."

They gave each other a quick hug and A-ko entered the portal. She hyperventilated until she couldn't take in any more air, then signaled B-ko to cycle the airlock.

Soon, the outside door slid open. Even A-ko felt the numbing cold through her super-dense skin as she rocketed from the Britomartis and set her course for the Glry-ana.

--------

Aboard the Glry-ana the helmsman reported, "They fired a torpedo at us, Admiral."

Shaska -- sister of Queen Zazn'elda, the Fifth Queen of the Lepton Kingdom of Alpha Cygni -- ordered the screens to be raised. A moment later, the flagship of the Cygnan space fleet was rocked as A-ko slammed into the forward main battery of the Glry-ana.

"That was no torpedo," said the Queen's sister. "Just what was it?"

"Sensors indicate a biogenic trace, my leader."

"Specify!"

Kryptonian and Terran and one unknown," answered the helmsman.

"Nonsense," said Shaska. "The race is extinct. They couldn't even leave the surface of their world with out dying instantly. Only one managed to have the genetic flaw eliminated, and then when he was only a baby who landed on EARTHHH -- !" Suddenly the huge ship was rocked again as A-ko slammed into it over and over.

The redhead was becoming numb with cold and fatigue. Already she had taken two blasts from the Glry-ana's secondary armament, which used up the oxygen supply stored in her lungs. A-ko, becoming starved for air, broke off the attack and stopped trying to punch her way through the armored hull of the flagship. Taking off, she dashed in front of it, made a wide loop, and came streaking straight ahead at it.

A-ko used her own body to smash into the hull of the Cygnan ship -- shaking it to its very core -- just as B-ko, D, C-ko, and the injured Napolipolita made the jump to hyperspace and to safety.

--------

"I'm sorry to report that the fugitives have made good their escape, Admiral," the helmsman reported.

"What of the hybrid?" Shaska asked.

"Alive, but unconscious and floating helpless outside the ship."

"Bring her aboard," ordered Shaska.

"Is that wise, Admiral, seeing what she can do?" her second-in-command pointed out.

"It's worth the risk. Put her in a level-ten force field. That should be strong enough to hold even her long enough for me to question her."

--------

Less than one hour later, the scout ship came out of warp less than one million miles from the homeworld. As soon as they were within communications range, the CygniCity Spaceport reported, "Greetings, Britomartis, and welcome home. How did your mission go?"

"Inform the Queen that the mission was a success and that her daughter is safely aboard," D reported.

A few moments of silence passed, followed by a urgent order for D to land on the Queen's private landing pad next to the Palace.

Without hesitation, D reported, "Negative. We have a serious casualty onboard and will be landing directly at the medical facility."

"Negative. You are hereby ordered by Imperial command to la...."

D shut off the communicator even before whoever was on the other end of the line finished her sentence. She didn't care if it was the Queen herself; she only knew that her Captain came first. Even if it meant spending the rest of her life mining ore on the Prison Colony at Gonidesh, she would see to it that Napolipolita got the help she so desperately needed.

Mere moments later, D and B-ko set the Britomartis down directly in front of the emergency entrance of the best trauma center on the homeworld. As the emergency crew rushed aboard for Napolipolita, C-ko clung desperately to B-ko as they moved down the ramp together and followed D as she escorted her Captain inside.

---------

In charge of the Cygnan equivalent of the ER was Dr. Almah Stellamaris, formerly Chief Physician of Her Majesty's Egota Pallas Athena, the rescue ship that had crashed to Earth some years ago. Fortunately for all concerned, she had come back temporarily to the homeworld for training, accompanied by her immediate staff.

Usually soft-spoken, the gentle Doctor was now highly agitated, not only because of the importance of her new patient but also because of her long and mostly rocky acquaintance with her. "Quick, get her monitored!" Stellamaris shouted, her confederate-gray hair swinging around her face as she raced for the necessary equipment.

Instantly, MedAssist Eeyanna Chiranthus -- usually sunny-tempered, in a ditzy sort of way -- slapped the straps around the unconscious Captain's arms and legs and rolled the gurney under the viro-scan and another machine that D could not place. The nurse began at once to cut away her patient's blood-soaked uniform.

As she worked, Eeyanna recalled that her boss and the Captain had butted heads for years; the Doctor's repeated entreaties to her former leader to stop partying had been to no avail. All of that seemed nonsense now; ridiculous; trifling. The thought that their world could be without their troublesome Captain Napolipolita was beyond her comprehension.

"What does the AutoDoc say, Dr. Stellamaris?" Eeyanna said, her voice trembling.

"It's not good. I need an Xb1 transfusion, now."

"Is she going to die?" the distraught D wept.

"Unknown. We'll just have to wait and see. Now, please excuse me. You brought her this far; let us take care of her now. Pray to the All-Highest One -- or, to your Great Mother, if you prefer -- while you wait right outside. You have my promise that I will keep you posted."

"But -- "

"Please, Spy D! Eeyanna! I need that transfusion, now!"

--------

D walked slowly to the vestibule outside, sat down, and buried her face in her hands. Her entire body vibrated with anxiety.

It had been a desperate journey. Her Captain's breathing had stopped twice, and both times D had blown it back into her. The Princess wouldn't stop crying. That annoying Mr. Daitokuji was on the monitor constantly, screaming orders for them to turn around and bring the Captain to his medical center in Graviton City immediately.

Several Egota captains who knew Napolipolita entered the room and approached D hesitantly, inquiring about her status in their low voices.

"She's gut-shot," D replied, without looking up.

Shocked and saddened, they left her alone.

Looking down at her own bloodstained uniform, D now gave in to her worst fears. She began to pray to the Great Mother, very hard indeed.

---------

"Her levels are way down, Doctor," said Chirianthus.

"Is the transfusion holding?"

"We'll know in a few minutes." The Beneshandran nurse looked into her patient's white face. "Just hold on. You're going to be all right."

Her patient didn't hear her. The Captain had been drifting in some unknown place for some time now. If you were a Terran, your doctors would say that you were in a coma.

--------

"Aki, wake up. Ma is hurt."

"Wha- ?"

"Alia just commed. She's sending a shuttle over for us in about fifteen minutes. The ENDY won't cut it; no cloaking device. Get packing, kid. Bring your AK-47."

-------

D was snapped out of her misery by the sounding of a gong. She knew its significance, and reacted immediately. The big woman got out of her chair, faced the outside door, and drew a deep breath. Within a few moments, Master Sergeant Buyabah, Commander of the Royal Cavalry Guard, entered the room solemnly, nodding briefly at D. "Rule and reign, old friend. I am so sorry."

"Rule and reign," D replied, echoing their old Academy motto. "It doesn't look good."

Buyabah made a face of sympathy. "Her Majesty is on her way."

"Understood."

Within a minute Queen Zazen'lda entered the room, her pretty face drawn and stressed.

"Ra - ga - ni," both Buyabah and D chanted. Both extended their arms toward the Queen, then pulled them away. Both then knelt before their Sovereign. "Ra - ga - ni Zazen'lda."

"Eengtae kophya," the Queen responded. "I have come to thank you for rescuing my precious daughter. May I see her please?"

D turned to Buyabah. "I think she's still getting something to eat."

"I'll go fetch her," the Master Sergeant responded, snapped her heels together smartly, and gave the tiger-claw salute. She left the room.

"What is the Captain's condition?" the Queen inquired. "I understand that she was guarding my daughter when she was shot."

"She was, Your Majesty. I'm awaiting further news." D stood silent, worried to distraction because only she and Stellamaris had known the terrible beating alcohol had given Napolipolita's system. "Nothing yet."

The Queen was what the Cygnans called a Pathfollower. The temple on the Captain's Egota had been used by both the Goddess worshippers and by the devotees of the Shotosarikan, the All-Highest One; nearly all Leptonians belonged to one faith or the other. "May the All-Highest Shotosarikan preserve her to perform a long lifetime of good deeds," the Queen sighed, brushing a lock of silver-white hair from her unlined forehead. Although devoted to the Great Mother herself, D bowed her head in respect.

Both suddenly turned to face the commotion at the outside door. In burst C-ko, followed by B-ko and Buyabah. A-ko was nowhere to be seen. Sobbing, the little Princess left B-ko's side and flung herself into her mother's arms. "It -- was -- horrible -- " she sobbed. "I was so scared. They put me in jail!"

The Queen's expression was solemn but not surprised. "And I see one of your Terran rescuers here. B-ko, is it?"

The heiress kneeled. "Yes, Your Majesty. B-ko Daitokuji from Graviton City in Japan."

"Awwww," C-ko giggled. "It's okay, B-ko; it's just Mommy."

"And wasn't your friend A-ko the one who decimated the Shakanar? The reports we received were absolutely unbelievable."

"Yes, Mommy."

"Well, where is she?"

B-ko stepped forward as C-ko began to snuffle. "I'm afraid that she's been captured by your sister and her troops."

Zazen'lda snapped alert, and summoned Buyabah to her side. "I want that young woman rescued and brought back here immediately. I can't repay her enough for saving my little girl's life, but I can do at least this much for her."

Buyabah gave Her Majesty the tiger-claw salute and left on her mission.

--------

"Dammit, dammit, dammit all to hell!"
Hikaru Daitokuji shrieked, running both hands through his lavender hair. "Why the hell aren't they here?"

Dr. Agama, his personal physician and head of the Daitokuji Medical Complex, stood quietly by. "They couldn't have made it here in time. Alpha Cygni was much closer. I'm sure Stellamaris is doing everything she can to save her."

"Dammit!" Hikaru continued to rant. "Why did she have to leave on this goose-chase anyway? Any one of a couple thousand soldiers could have done it for her. Why the hell didn't she stay here at home where she was safe?"

"I don't know. I expect it was her sense of duty. She's been a soldier since she was thirteen years old."

"Damn her duty to hell!"
the billionaire continued, pacing around the room. With a growl of frustration he slapped the button on his desk which instantly summoned his top executives. They entered the vast brass and cherrywood-decorated office, hesitantly and with great trepidation.

"You goddamn people better make goddamn sure that we have a direct patch into the CygniCity Medical -- whatever the hell they call it." He went behind his desk and turned his back to them, facing the floor-to-ceiling window. "I want to hear every goddamn word they say, right the hell down here in my office. And if any of you screw up, I will personally disembowel you. Am I understood, gentlemen?"

"Yes, sir," they said.

"Sir," the Director of Finance ventured. "How is your daughter? I understand that she was with the rescue party under attack."

"I don't give a good goddamn about my daughter. She's got her goddamn biosuit and she went without my goddamn permission in the first place."

Agama went silent, his face growing hot. The executives surreptitiously looked at one another, shocked.

Several moments of silence passed. They turned and walked out, embarrassed; they were almost certain that their boss was crying.

-------

"Madere misua -- !"
Captain said to the vision in her dreams.

Before her once again was her dearest mother, for that is what the Captain's words had meant. Commander Alia Napolipolita stood tall and straight, her uniform impeccable. The dream Captain began that helpless sobbing that one can't stop when one's joy is too overwhelming to be contained.

"Madere -- !"

She reached out her hands, wanting her mother's strong arms around her again. "Oh dear Great Goddess, Mama, hold me. I'm in such trouble."

"I can't, my sweet baby," she responded in her low and soothing voice, which sounded very far away. "I can't hold you now. I'm sorry."

The Captain's sobs of joy became desperate wails of heartbreak and abandonment. She clenched her fists in front of her. "Oh Mama don't leave me please don't leave me alone I'll be a good girl no no NO NO MAMA MAMA MADERE PLEASE DON'T LEAVE ME AGAIN -- "

------

At the same moment, MedAssist Chiranthus observed the increase in her patient's blood pressure and heartbeat, and noted it on the record. "She's spiking, Doctor," she commented.

Stellamaris wiped her hands against her jacket and approached the Captain. "Let me see what I can do, MedAssist. Why don't you take a break?" Grateful, Chiranthus left.

Waiting a few moments, Dr. Stellamaris leaned close to Napolipolita and stroked her hair. "Easy," she whispered. "Easy, now. You and I have seen much in our association together. I've pulled you through the horrors of alcohol withdrawal, helped deliver your babies, and tended your wounds. I want you to listen closely to me now." She paused for a moment and listened to the woman's faint breathing, and held her cool limp hands in her own warm ones.

"You must try to come back from where you drift now. Perhaps you don't want to; perhaps you don't know how. But please know that you are loved by your friends and your family, and that they need you badly. You became lost when your mother died; you must make sure that your own girls don't suffer in the same way. Your little Akana would be destroyed if you died."

Releasing Napolipolita's hands and smoothing her cheek, Stellamaris lay her hands on her patient's temples. She lifted her pretty face and closed her eyes, sending all her healing energy from her soul through her fingertips. "May the love I feel for the All-Highest One give you the strength to find your way back."

The Queen had silently entered behind Stellamaris, and placed her hands on the Doctor's shoulders. Their eyes met, and both bowed their heads. The prayer they chanted for the Captain's life was an ancient one, and their voices were like sighs.

"Praised be the Everlasting One,
Whose brightness dims the countless suns.
No lie shall stand, nor foe prevail,
Schemes of iniquity shall fail.
And swarms of Shadow Terrors flee
Before that blazing Majesty
So worthy to rule heart and hand,
Eenae Shotosarikan!

After Queen Zazen'lda finished with her prayers, she left the doctor and went outside to sit and wait with D and her Terran friend. Trying to take D's mind off her Captain for at least a short time, Zazen'lda asked, "D -- how was it that someone powerful enough to defeat a whole squad of Shakanar was able to be captured?"

She answered, "My Queen, the first time I met A-ko, she was only a girl of sixteen summers. I can honestly say that I am no longer ashamed to admit that she was able to -- even at that young age -- as the Terrans say, 'kick my ass.'" She then went on to tell her Queen, "Your sister's ship was almost on us. We needed five minutes to make good our escape into hyperspace. Our friend got us those five minutes."

"But how?"

D explained, "Leaving by the air lock, A-ko took on Your Majesty's sister's flagship by herself, to buy us the time we needed."

"The Glry-ana, by herself?" asked the Queen in shock.

B-ko nodded her head in the affirmative.

"What weapon did she use?"

"Her fists and her own body, my Queen," answered D.

"Such a warrior must be saved!" Turning to one of her aides she told her, "Tell the Sergeant-at-Arms to make the rescue mission of this Terran top priority!" With her best tiger-claw salute, the aide rushed off to carry out her orders.

----------

The object of all this concern was at the moment trying to muscle her way out of a level-ten force field. A-ko had tried burning her way out, but instead had almost incinerated herself. So for the last two hours -- ever since she had come to -- she had been either punching, kicking or ramming her shoulder into the invisible barrier that kept her prisoner.

With every blow A-Ko unleashed, the Glry-ana shook down to its very keel. She might not have been able to get through the barrier, but that didn't stop the redhead from causing so much damage to the imperial flagship that her captain went to see Admiral Shaska.

In the meantime, Zazen'lda's sister Shaska was keeping the rampaging A-ko under observation on the monitor in her cabin. When she heard the knock of her cabin door, she gave the ship's captain permission to enter. No sooner had the soldier entered, than once again the battleship was rocked from stem to stern.

Shaska asked, "What is the trouble, Captain?"

Captain Taloin nearly gasped. How could her Admiral not know what was going on literally under her own feet? Biting her tongue, however, she pointed to A-ko on the monitor and said, "That's the trouble, Admiral."

"What's wrong? Force field not holding?" asked Shaska.

"It's holding, all right; but it's costing us more and more power to contain her. If that wasn't bad enough, she is threatening to shake the ship apart every time she goes on one of her rampages." As if to prove the point, A-ko unleashed another furious assault on the barrier, that once again rocked the Glry-ana.

When things settled down once again, C-ko's aunt asked the captain, "That rope hanging there at her waist. Why is it still there?"

"We tried removing it, Admiral. There is no attachment that we can see, nor hook, nor even a miniature force field. But there it sits, unmoveable."

"Were any tests done on it?" asked Shaska.

"Every test was done, or perhaps what I should say -- what could be done. We tried to take a sample for analysis, but our hardest metal, hottest laser, or most powerful particle beam proved useless. The Tech Crew thinks it is of mystical origin."

Shaska thought quietly for a moment until once again, there was another violent shaking of the starship because of one more of A-ko's onslaughts.

The ship's captain pleaded, "Admiral, please. She is shaking the ship apart. Tell me -- what can we do?"

Admiral Shaska -- mother, sister to the Queen of the Lepton Kingdom of Alpha Cygni, and C-ko's aunt -- looked up at Captain Taloin and told her in her best command voice, "What else can I do, but invite her to dinner and a little girl talk?"

Captain Taloin was not a coward, far from it. No one who attained the rank of captain in the fleet could do so if she was a coward. Especially some one like Taloin, who had worked her way up during the last twenty years from a common space farer up through the ranks to captain. She had shed more blood and killed more foes of the Cygnan people than she cared to remember.

But at this moment, Taloin knew fear. She stood in front and below a rampaging A-ko, who kept trying to punch her way through the force field to get at the ship's captain standing in front of her. Already the stories of what this alien had done to a whole squad of the dreaded Shakanar had rippled through the flagship like a rumor of shore leave.

Putting on her most official mask, Captain Taloin took out the official invitation and ordered the force field to be dropped. She then began reading the invitation to dinner from Shaska: "From Admiral of the fleet Shaska to the Terran female known as A-k -- "

Taloin never finished A-ko's name because, faster than fear itself, A-ko was upon her. The Cygnan never saw her move, but still, suddenly there she was, just there holding the good captain off the floor.

Swallowing hard, Taloin handed the formal invitation to A-ko. Then even as she dangled off the floor, she still managed to say in the most formal of manners, "If you would be so kind to follow me, I will escort you to your cabin, where you can shower and change."

A-ko could feel her hands tremble and -- by that simple gesture -- knew how afraid the captain was of her. It was a new experience for A-ko to have some one this terrified of her, and she was not sure she liked it. She lowered the captain to the deck and instantly knew she didn't like this look of fear and and most of all, she didn't care for the smell.

It was than she smelled for the first time the smell of fear on a person. Her father had warned her about this. The new talent she had just discovered was the ability to sense odors better than the finest Terran bloodhound. In this case, it was the smell of adrenalin and copper that assaulted A-ko's nostrils like a physical assault. It was the raw, undiluted smell of fear that she smelled for the first time this day; sadly, in the coming years, it would not be the last time.

"I could do with a nice hot shower," said A-ko as she freed the brave captain from her crushing grip.

"Then follow me, please," said Taloin with a sigh of relief.

---------

A-ko enjoyed the shower. She was always one who liked being clean almost as much as she enjoyed getting dirty. When she was dry, she found a uniform in her size on the bunk in her room. She wore her own boots and made sure to proudly wear one of her mother's spare girdles over the whole outfit. As always, her mother's precious lasso hung at her side.

She was escorted to Shaska's private quarters. The captain made a single knock on the door. This was followed by a simple, "Come in."

A-ko entered, and the cabin door closed behind her. Standing up from a short dinner table stood a imposing woman over six feet tall, past forty, with a scar that ran down her cheek. She gestured with her hand towards a chair across from her and told A-ko, "Please be seated."

Doing as she was told, A-Ko sat down and began to study the room around her. It was Spartan in appearance, as would befit a military person. The walls were bare except for a few ancient weapons, the most striking of which was a labrys, a heavy double-headed Minoan axe. What most struck A-ko's attention, however, was the large dollhouse and tiny miniatures standing up in the far corner of the room.

Two young aides entered and, after placing a dinner service and goblet in front of A-ko and her host, quickly left. Another young girl entered and left even more quickly, after leaving a large pitcher of wine in front of Shaska. As soon as the cadet left, Shaska lifted the pitcher and reached over to fill A-ko's goblet.

Instead, A-ko held her hand over her cup and told the Admiral, "I promised my father I would not drink alcohol for the first time until I am twenty-one and then, only with him."

"That would be the Kryptonian, right?"

A-ko fought with herself not to show any emotion, lest she betray both friend and family. But she found it more and more difficult as Shaska continued to speak.

"When you attacked my ship, our sensors picked up a bio reading. Much to my surprise, it was a mixture of Kryptonian, Terran, and a unknown bloodline we have yet to get a handle on."

Wishing to change the subject lest she betray anything, A-ko asked her host, "What do you want from me?"

"Already there have been clashes between my forces and those loyal to my sister. These have been relatively minor, but already over nine hundred thousand casualties have been reported on both sides, with more than a third of those being fatalities."

A-ko blinked in horror. If this was a "minor" body count, she would hate to hear the figures for a major one.

"What I want from you, A-ko, is help in ending this war as quickly as possible."

A-ko smiled and told her host, "The best and quickest way to end this war is for me to lean across this table and break your neck!"

"As if you could," said Shaska calmly.

"You think I couldn't do it?" asked A-ko.

"Not could you -- but would you? Already the story of what you did to a whole squad of Shakanar has traveled throughout the Fleet. Twelve of the toughest, fiercest, most fearsome warriors our science could create, and you went through them like they were children, sick children."

She shifted in her chair and continued, staring fixedly at the redhead. "You broke their bones, shattered their armor, and put every one of them in Sick Bay. Yet, you did not kill a single one of them. You didn't even kill that sick piece-of-work who gut-shot Napolipolita, and tried doing the same to you in the back. You still couldn't bring yourself to take even her life!"

A-ko sat motionless, betraying no expression as Shaska continued. "I also believe that your sire is one of the most powerful creatures in this galaxy. Not only that, but his reputation for not taking lives has preceded him even to our empire. If you are his daughter -- and I believe that to be true -- I am gambling my life that you have his sensibilities."

"Too bad you didn't have the same sensibilities about kidnapping your niece," sneered A-ko.

"I had nothing to do with that," Shaska pleaded.

"BULL!"

Shaska pressed a button on her uniform and said, "Send her in." A moment later the door slid open. and -- much to A-ko's surprise -- Captain Ro-gen entered the room.

"Ro-gen!" exclaimed A-ko.

"I see you know each other," said Shaska.

"Yes, we shared a wonderful meal in the home of A-ko's parents." She then added, "Your father is a wonderful cook, by the way."

"Among other things," said the Admiral. She then went on. "Now to get to the point. Who ordered you to kidnap my niece, Ro-gen?"

"Governor Retan-ar of Ivo-4," answered Ro-gen.

"Why did Retan-ar give you these orders?" asked Shaska.

"To get as much power over both you and your sister as possible."

A-ko asked her, "Why did you go along with it?"

"I had to obey orders," said Ro-gen. "But I also thought if I could have gotten C-ko to her aunt, the war could have been avoided. I was wrong in both cases."

"Thank you Ro-gen. Wait outside. I might have a mission for you."

The woman gave the tiger-claw salute and left the room.

"What do you want from me?" asked A-ko.

"Before I tell you, I have to inform you that two opposing forces have already met in the System of Sol. They were just the advance parties, but they clashed."

Now suddenly afraid, A-ko asked, "What happened?"

"There have been reports of A creature of great power who not only disabled all the ships' weapons, but their engines as well. I take it that he is your father?" A-ko shrugged her shoulders and smiled slighly. Shaska's face grew sad as she continued. "A group of Governor's Retan-ar's Shakanar landed on your planet and tried to seize the princess' foster parents."

"Oh God," A-ko cried out. "Were they injured?"

"No -- not even found, but four of their neighbors were killed; two of them children." said Shaska in a voice filled with shame.

"What about the Shakanar?" asked A-ko.

"Seems that a tall and very well-built woman in a colorful stars and stripes costume stopped them."

"What do you mean, stopped them?" asked A-ko.

"According to reports, she had no joice but to kill five of the Shakanar and crippled four others. The rest were found hiding in a sewer. I take it that she is your mother."

A-ko wouldn't confirm that, but asked, "How is the woman?"

"Injured, but already recovered."

A-ko let out an audible sigh that betrayed everything she had attempted to hide. Regaining her composure, the redhead said, "It seems I have to ask this yet another time. Just what do you want from me?"

-----------

A day later, the Queen was holding a meeting with both D and B-ko, when she was informed that a small scout ship had just come out of warp and was asking permission to land. Informed that the ship was one of her sister's fleet, C-ko's mother asked that it be escorted to a remote landing field.

It was then that the voice coming over the communicator informed them that she was A-Ko Magami.

B-ko's eyes lit up and she asked the Queen permission to talk with her. After a few personal questions and even more insults (making the Queen's eyes grow quite wide), B-ko finally asked, "Who is the last person you slept with?"

"The voice on the communicator answered, "You in the back of my smelly old van, and you snore!"

B-ko smiled broadly and said, "That's our Bubble Butt, all right."

----------

One hour later, A-ko and Captain Ro-gen entered the great hall of the Cygnan Empire. Both marched straight and tall. They stopped in front of the throne. Ro-gen kneeled and bowed her head.

"Your Majesty, your sister sent Ro-gen to you with a gift and a proposition." A-ko explained.

"What is it? asked Zazen'lda.

"I rather not say," A-ko added. "In fact, I want nothing more to do with it."

Intrigued, the Queen asked Ro-gen, "What is my sister's offer?"

"She proposes that you and she settle this trouble between the both of you alone.,One-on-one. Her sword against your sword. The survivor becomes queen, and her daughter, the heir. The dead queen's daughter, exiled to Earth."

Buyabah bristled. "Ridiculous. We were winning this war."

"Winning what?" asked the Queen. "Over three hundred thousand Cygnans have already died in this civil war."

"But only a hundred thousand were our people," another aide said.

C-ko's mother exploded as she screamed, "THEY WERE ALL MY PEOPLE!"

It was D who pointed out, "How can you trust anyone who tried to kidnap your daughter, my Queen?"

It was A-ko who told everyone there, "Your sister had nothing to do with the kidnapping. Ask Ro-gen."

Ro-gen said, "It's true, Your Highness. I was under Governor Retan-ar's orders to kidnap the Royal Princess; I did this with no pleasure. In fact, she also ordered an attack on the Princess's foster parents by her own private Shakanar."

C-ko turned white and screamed, "My mommy and daddy?"

A-ko reassured her by saying, "They're safe. Mom was there to make sure they were safe."

Captain Ro-gen stepped forward and -- as she reached into a sack -- said, "Your sister is disgusted that someone who claimed to be her ally would dare do something like this. So, to make amends, she sends you this small token of her respect." Ro -gen reached into the sack and her gloved hand pulled out a human head by its hair. With a underhand throw, she tossed the it to the Queen's feet.

As the head stopped rolling, she smiled grimly. "With compliments from Shaska."

D looked down and turned the head face-up with the toe of her boot. She gasped. "That's Governor Retan-ar, all right. I'd recognize that ugly face anywhere!"

White-faced, Zazen'lda asked, "What reassurances does Shaska need?"

A-ko looked up at the Queen and said, "Your sister asked me to tell you that your word had always been good enough for her!"

---------

In another part of CygniCity, chaos reigned in the infirmary where Captain Napolipolita was being treated. Five green-headed Cygnan females had raced through the treatment room, inadvertently pushing Eeyanna Chiranthus into a very expensive viro-scan.

"Sorry, there," Alana panted. "Where's Ma?"

The hapless Beneshandran weighed the consequences of telling the girls that their visit might disturb their mother, against being strung up by the ears and left dangling from the ceiling fixture. "That way," she said, pointing to a doorway.

The girls took pains to enter quietly. The MedAssist presently medicating her looked up. "How bad is she?" Atina said, starting to cry.

Young Akana had already crawled onto the bed so that she could look into her mother's face. "Careful, Aki," Arisa whispered.

"I know, you idiot," the child hissed. "Do you think I would hurt Ma?"

"She looks terrible," Alana said, tears rolling from her slanted green eyes. "Oh dear Great Goddess. Oh Mama."

All four girls circled the bed and did the best they could to hug the unconscious woman.

--------

There was still more commotion in the infirmary's vestibule. Eeyanna -- who ordinarily wouldn't say boo to a goose -- was visibly annoyed. "Will you stop it? Be quiet!"

She had just spoken to a self-important middle-aged Terran male who had barreled his way into the room as if he owned it. Well -- it was one of the few things Hikaru Daitokuji didn't own -- but it didn't seem to make any difference. Ignoring the pink-haired MedAssist, he entered the room. The girls looked up.

Akana ran to him, sobbing. He knelt and caught the child by the shoulders. "Easy now, Aki. You must stay quiet and calm for your mother." Looking up, he rose and saw Napolipolita lying so still that she might have been a waxwork, or dead.

"Oh God," he said, and went to her side.

Alana motioned her younger sisters to step out into the hall for a minute or two.

------

The Cygnettes were speaking with Dr. Stellamaris when B-ko -- having been dismissed by the Queen from the Royal Audience -- now entered with her friend and stepsister Commander Alia Makita Napolipolita.

Captain's oldest girl and the heiress had for some inexplicable reason become close; perhaps it was their love of mechas and B-ko's curiosity about alien technology that had brought them together. Alia was young, but had already established a reputation of excellence for her command of the Cygnan Space Navy.

On the way up to this level, the young women had been joking about that Terran male on the Ft. Lauderdale beach; that now seemed so long ago. So much for sun and fun. Things were so much more serious these days.

"Through here?" Alia gestured, pointing to the door.

Chiranthus nodded and blew her nose.

"Oh Ma," Alia sighed, and squeezed B-ko's hand.

They entered the room.

----------

A few minutes later, B-ko stormed out of the sickroom in angry tears, her father hot on her trail.

"Biko!!" he shouted in his authoritarian manner. This was exactly what the situation did not need, but he had never been taken for a sensitive man. "I was about to ask about you too!"

The lavender-haired woman rounded. "Oh shove it, Father. You came to see your alky drag queen. God! All your taste is in your mouth!"

"Honestly, I -- "

"Honestly, again you've shown me just how little I matter to you, Father. You knew I was here, yet didn't even bother to ask for me. You are as big a jerk as ever. Why don't you go steal some of the alien technology while you're here -- seems to me that's right up your alley!"

She turned to leave but stopped and told her father, "I know father, I know why your so indiffrent to me. A-ko's father explained it all."

"Explain what?" demanded her father.

"My mother died giving me life, and you could never forgive me for it!"

With that she spun around and stormed out of the room.

Daitokuji was stunned into silence. Red-faced, he turned and reentered the sickroom, where he sat next to the Captain's bed.

She hadn't responded to his presence at all the entire time he'd been there with her. For once in his life, the billionaire wished that he was a religious man.

----------

Napolipolita had been drifting for what felt like an eternity, for eternity is exactly where she was. Her mother's shade had faded, and she had begun to wander about, sobbing out old grief not well-mourned.

I'm lost,
she thought. I'm so lost. Nobody can help me because nobody knows where I am.

Something amorphous formed beside her; she whirled about. Suddenly, she felt as if she had been yanked backward and slammed through a wall; she screamed in fright and pain.

"Something's happening!"
Daitokuji shouted, sending MedAssist Chiranthus, Dr. Stellamaris, and all five Cygnettes on the run. Their hearts thudding in their chests, the girls stepped back to let the Doctor pass; Akana was weeping and clinging to Alia's black cape of command.

The Captain opened her eyes, and blinked. A wan smile appeared on her gaunt face. "My sweet Hikaru-sama," she whispered.

---------

Without warning, another figure entered the sickroom where the Captain lay. She was the same height as C-ko, with the same face, the same blonde hair with flower jewelry, only dressed in military uniform.

She was Princess E-ko, commander of the Kollya Straegesh, the "Crazy Division", as equally feared as the Shakanar Brigade but more widely respected. She had been able to keep the Division from having to fight for either side during the war. She had stayed in the Palace, fuming over her inability to fight the Xram while the civil war raged.

She barged in and found Stellamaris now hovering over the now-conscious Captain. "Well?" she barked, the Doctor recognizing her voice.

"She'll pull through. She's lost a lot of blood, though. She'll be weak for some time."

"That ol' dumb cluck," E-ko growled. "Hate to see that goofball buy the farm before her time. Does she need a blood transfusion? I'll volunteer if she does."

"That's gracious of you, My Princess."

"Well, living on that lunatic asylum called Earth, she needs all the help she can get. You her lifemate?"

She pointed to Daitokuji, who nodded.

"Stick with that kid, mister. You got a tough bird in her, so don't screw up."

She turned back to face the Doctor. "If you need me for that transfusion, I'll be with Ma. The Cygnettes rose from their bows as the Princess E-ko exited the room.

"Actually," Dr. Stellamaris said in a whisper, surveying the girls. "I think I'll take blood from one of you."

All stepped forward.

"No, me," said little Akana, now lying in her mother's arms, being hugged as tightly as the Captain could endure. "I am a warrior. I've spilt blood in battle before, you know." The other girls looked at each other and smiled, knowing that Aki was referring to a scratch she once received against a bedpost when they were re-enacting the Battle of Hourglass Nebula in Arisa's bedroom one night.

"Are you sure?" said the Doctor, smiling.

"I love my Ma and I want her to get well and never go away again."

Napolipolita stroked the child's poker-straight green hair and kissed her head. "I seem to remember a little girl who lost her mother too soon. Her pain was so great that it ruined her life."

A tear ran down her thin face; concerned, Akana wiped it away with her finger. "I won't leave my little baby; I promise." The girl buried her face in the curve of her mother's neck and sobbed.

Daitokuji turned and rubbed his eye.

"Awwww are you gonna cry too, Mister?" chirped Eeyanna Chiranthus, beaming and shaking her index finger in his face.

"Hell, no. Can't you keep the damn air in here clean? I've gotten dust in my eyes."

Captain chuckled, then cringed. "Oooowooch. I'm even too sore to laugh, it seems. So don't make me laugh, girls; all right?"

"But when you're better, we're all gonna jump on ya and tickle ya," Atina promised, grinning and wiggling the fingers of both hands at her.

Captain chuckled again, and winced again. "Will you STOP it," she whispered, grinning.
"Aki, it's all right. Calm down; I'm not going anywhere." The child relaxed and hummed to herself, content in her mother's strong arms.

B-ko had entered the room a minute earlier, and had been standing behind the Cygnettes. Like father, like daughter; she too was trying to hide her tears. It wasn't the touching family scene that moved her, but her father's declaration before everyone -- even Princess E-ko -- that he was Napolipolita's lifemate. Now he would never pay attention to her.

Why did that drunken sot of an alien have to crash-land on my city anyway, she thought distractedly.

Alana looked into her face, as if she could read the Terran's mind. "Hey. It's all right, you know?"

For a few heartbeats, there was silence. "My mother didn't get to hold me like that," B-ko said, her voice shaking with emotion. "She died."

"Well, our Ma didn't die," said Commander Alia Napolipolita, who had come in just behind B-ko. "And who knows? She has a lot of hugs in her, and not just for us." With this, Alia wrapped her arms around the heiress's waist and lifted her off the ground. "She could hug you like THIS," Alia laughed, giving B-ko such a squeeze that the young woman gasped, then too began to laugh. All the girls joined her, clapping their hands.

Putting B-ko down after she had swung her around the room a few times, the Commander said, "This was nothing. When she gets better, you'd best watch your rib cage. Ma's upper body strength is pretty good."

The two friends smiled at one another as B-ko wiped her streaming eyes.

--------

Three days -- as Terrans reckon time -- had passed, and the hour of the Mortaspuk Regnia was at hand. This was the Duel to the Death, only to be fought among members of the Leptonian Royal Family, and only to avenge the worst of insults to honor and loyalty.

Along with her retainers and kuroi -- designated seconds -- Zazen'lda had been preparing with prayer and meditation day and night for the past several days. Whether they had been Pathfollower or Goddess worshipper hadn't mattered. All women had been united in their desire to preserve the Monarchy and the Empire.

To be a kuroi was considered by the Leptonian people to be one of the highest honors the Queen could bestow on a common soldier. Each combatant was entitled to four. The Queen had chosen the Terrans A-ko and B-ko; A-ko for obvious reasons, and B-ko because of her love and loyalty to C-ko and her family.

She had also designated the two guardians of her daughter's life on Earth -- D and Captain. D had always been well-known for her lethal efficiency at the Cygnan broadsword. Napolipolita had risen from her sickbed to serve her Queen, despite Daitokuji's outraged protests. The transfusion from her youngest child had given her strength in soul as well as body. She was weak, but her ire was up and she was ready. She stood now, tall and whip-thin, checking and rechecking her equipment, making sure her broadsword was sharpened to a lethal edge.

Shaksa's four kuroi were all from the ranks of the Shakanar. These big and brutal women - Makisa Tiritakumar, Riit Makim, Shori Enhasalita, and Aina Vo -- now stood on the ancestral plain of battle, a patch of desert some forty miles from CygniCity and the Palace. All combatants wore the traditional uniforms the Terrans had jokingly labeled "battle bikinis", although there was nothing funny about either these women or their ancient garb. Shaksa's daughter Zelda stood by, lost in troubled thought, occasionally glancing at her cousin C-ko.

The Queen's daughters -- D-ko, E-ko, F-ko, and of course C-ko -- stared steadily back at Zelda. The latter daughter -- dressed in a white and gold veil and krendemnon and her Princess crown -- sobbed unceasingly, filled with dread not only for her friends but also for her mother. Their Kingdom, as well as their Family, could well be literally ripped to pieces this day.

Ready too were the members of Zazen'lda's kuroi. C-ko hugged and kissed all of them repeatedly. "You be safe," she admonished them all, patting their faces with great affection.

Daitokuji glowered at both his daughter and his lover. Both women had more or less told him to mind his own business.

The Cygnettes couldn't get enough of their mother before her duty began, but well understood that one did not refuse a request to stand as kuroi to a Queen. Even little Akana -- proud of the giddiness caused by her donation of lifeblood -- understood. She fought the impulse to suck her thumb for comfort as she stood there holding her older sisters' hands.

---------

"Ayshalita, this is insane! You can barely walk!" Daitokuji shouted. In his desperation, he blocked the Captain's path in order to get her to listen. This had been the wrong thing to do.

She growled deep in her throat and extended her sword, fighting the urge to put its point at his throat just to make this male understand the depth of her feminine honor. "This is the Way of the Warrior. As dearly as I love you, Terran, my love for my duty and my Kingdom runs deeper, as it always will."

Blinking hard, he backed off.

Now sorry for her harshness, she reached up under her shades to rub her eye; her lip trembled. "I wish I could make you understand," she said.

"What else is it?" he said.

"Someone pushed me so that I could find my way back here -- when I was away in my mind.

I had thought it was my mother, but I had asked her to help me earlier and she couldn't.

I think it was because she was dead."

"Yes?"

"Until now, I thought it had been her, coming back to save me from death when she shoved me through the Portal." She looked at the ground between her booted feet. "But now I think it was you."

Hikaru hugged the slender woman, being careful not to press against her injured belly, which was still wrapped in protective healing bandages, and spoke quietly to her. "How someone like you could love such a nasty-tempered old bastard is beyond me."

"You're a very handsome nasty-tempered old bastard."

"In addition to being nasty-tempered -- "

"And manipulative. Don't forget manipulative."

"All right then. In addition to being nasty-tempered and manipulative, I'm -- "

"You forgot bastard."

Hikaru chuckled quietly, making sure the others couldn't hear him. "The point is, my dear, I'm alive and well -- no shade or spirit. I'll always be there to help you when you're in trouble and can't find your way back -- even if you find yourself lost in the bottom of a bottle."

She closed her eyes and hugged him tight, her feelings beyond the words to express them.

"And don't you dare die on me," he whispered in her ear. "I want to marry you and give you half my fortune. And, just to rub everyone's face in it, I'll even buy you a diamond bigger than the iceberg that sank the damned Titanic."

She ran her thumbs over each side of his moustache and smiled into his blue eyes, shaking her head. "Earth boy, now I know why your competitors call you the biggest liar in the Eastern Rim."

---------

C-ko clung to A-ko and B-ko. The three friends embraced one another repeatedly, their arms interlaced.

"Don't end up as Bantha fodder," A-ko joked.

"Always remember this, Bubble Butt. I'm great and you stink."

"Is that your face or something the cat sicced up?"

"Is that smell coming from you?"

"If you bathed more than once a month, you might be entitled to that remark, Rich Bitch."

"Want to take that outside, flame brain?"

In spite of these valiant attempts at levity, the little Princess wept.

---------

D and her Captain then turned to give one another the blessing of the Goddess. "D," Napolipolita said, "may the loving spirits who brought me back here make your aim sure and straight."

D stood with tears running down her big face. She had nearly lost her idol and mentor just a few days before, and the prospect of another Cygnan weapon finishing the job was enough to shake her deeply. "Aysha Lisia -- sad little girl with whom I once shared a few morsels of food -- you've always considered me your protector," Deesha Dakina whispered in their native tongue, her deep voice shaking. "Didn't you know that all this time it was exactly the opposite?"

-------

B-ko embraced her father, but with no real feeling. It felt perfunctory to her as always; she turned away, her heart sore from the lack of love it required for healthy functioning. No matter, she was used to this. As she turned, she found Napolipolita standing in her path, and so B-ko moved to walk around her. The Cygnan put her arms around the lavender-haired girl and held her tight, rocking her back and forth and smoothing her hair like she was a little kid.

B-ko's knees shook. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been held like this by anyone, and her impulse was to shove this sharp-featured scarecrow away as hard as she could. Instead, something turned over in her heart and she allowed herself to be embraced. Hot embarrassed tears flowed, quite against her will. Ashamed of them, she buried her face in Napolipolita's shoulder.

"Go ahead and cry, my love's baby and mine as well. You're right to cry. I know what it's like to have your mother torn away from you. It leaves a hole in your soul big enough to fall through." She cupped B-ko's face and kissed her forehead. "Pretend I'm her, just for this moment, and receive my mother love and strength in return." B-ko clutched her and let the healing sobs come as the Captain rocked her back and forth.

Daitokuji watched, blessing the impulse that had caused him to befriend this complicated yet elegant creature, rather than to plot her destruction to further his own dreams of vainglory. The Cygnettes walked over and stood next to him. Akana took his hand with one of her own and sucked her opposite thumb, careful to let her long green hair cover her arm and face.

--------

The Queen then appeared on the field, dressed for battle with a royal blue and gold buckler and shield. All stopped what they had been doing and stood at solemn attention. The dull gray blade of the royal broadsword winked in the light of the early light cast by the binary suns of the Tauka Banesh System. C-ko and her other daughters clutched her, but not for too long. She raised her noble head and the sight she saw -- her own sister, armed and ready to extinguish her life, striding toward her -- almost unnerved her. Her impulse was to rush to her older sister and hug her, saying like they did as children, "Oh, don't be mad! Play with me!"
But this was not childhood, and this was not play. This was the Mortaspuk Regnia -- the Imperial Fight to the Death.

She lifted her chin and strode forth to meet her.

--------

Standing next to B-ko, A-ko whispered to her friend, "I wish my parents were here."

"Do you think that even they could prevent this -- tragedy?"

"Perhaps an Amazon princess and a alien adopted son together could find the right words to prevent all this," explained A-ko.

--------

As the two sisters finally came face to face, Zazen'lda saw she was not the only one who had been weeping this day. Shaska looked into the face of her younger sister and -- using her childhood name -- told her, "I love you, Zaza; I never thought this day would come. But what I do now, I do because I can do no less for the Empire and her people whom we've both sworn to serve."

"I love you no less, Shakky," said Zazen'lda, similarly using the name for her older sister that she'd used as a young child. "But you're right. Better that one of us lies dead at the other's feet than any more of our people die by their Sisters' hands." The Queen gazed steadily into her sister's eyes. "Before we begin, I ask only one thing more. Whichever mother survives this day, let her swear to watch over and protect the other's daughter or daughters, even in their exile."

"You have my word, baby sister," said Shaska as she nodded her head.

"And you have mine," swore Zazen'lda.

Then each proud warrior raised her broadsword in a final salute. Then -- taking one step back and raising her weapons into an attack position -- each sister prepared to launch herself into a frenzy of whirling steel that would not end until one of them lay dead and bleeding at the other's feet.

--------

"HOLD!" a voice came from the gathered witnesses and retainers.

Automatically, Captain Napolipolita reached for her sword with a weak and shaky hand. Shaska's Shakanar also reached for their weapons, as did the rest of the Queen's daughters. Both A-ko and B-ko feared a bloody free-for-all was about to erupt, with them and C-ko caught in the middle.

Everyone looked around, trying to discover who would dare to disrupt this most sacred of occasions. They didn't have long to wait.

Shaska's daughter Zelda stept forward and stood in front of the assembly. "As laid down by ancient Leptonian law and custom, I demand to know the reason why the Mortaspuk Regnia has been invoked!" Zelda proudly asked.

"Zelda, mind your place!" Shaska admonished her only child.

"I am, Mother -- but can you and my aunt say the same?"

"What do you mean?" said both.

"The Mortaspuk Regnia may only be invoked against a queen if she has committed some terrible crime against the people she rules. It has only happened a handful of times, and then only against the worst of queens," Zelda explained. She then turned to her mother and asked her, "Is my aunt a bad queen, Mother?"

Shaska smiled. "No, she is a great queen -- a queen whose only weakness is the love she bears for her long-lost child -- a love that will not permit her to see the fact that her daughter, as sweet and as kind as she is, would make a very poor queen."

Zazen'lda interrupted them both. "This duel has been agreed to by your mother and myself, so that no more Cygnans will forced to live with the blood of their Sisters on their hands."

"In other words, to bring an end to a civil war that was begun to decide the succession of the Leptonian Throne," Zelda explained.

"If you want to put it that way," said her aunt.

"Then neither of you have the right to invoke the Challenge. Only the two claimants to the succession may do so. So with that in mind, I, Zelda -- daughter of Shaska, Admiral of the Fleet -- hereby challenge C-ko -- daughter of Queen Zazen'lda and also known as Shiiko Kotobuki -- to a duel to the death to prove her fitness to become the next ruler of the Cygnan Empire."

-------

"BULLSHIT!" screamed B-ko from where she stood.

Even Shaska asked, "Have you lost your mind, my daughter?"

"No," she answered. "This is the only way to ensure a peaceful succession."

A-ko stepped forward and announced, "I want to take C-ko's place, as her Champion!"

Shaska looked over at her and asked, "You do know this is a fight to the death, don't you?" When A-ko couldn't bring herself to answer right away, the Queen's sister added, "Just what I thought on the Glry-anna."

Captain Napolipolita came forward and asked, "May I have the honor of being the Princess' sword arm?"

Zazen'lda told her, "Sit down, Napolipolita, before you fall down. You have enough trouble standing, let alone holding a sword."

The green-headed Cygnan burned with shame and her daughters gasped audibly. Hikaru Daitokuji offered a very silent prayer of thanks.

It was B-ko's turn to announce, "I have no trouble standing up or holding a sword. And -- I wouldn't think twice about offing that sneaky little bitch." Her crystal blue eyes locked on C-ko's cousin. Zelda looked over at her, nodded her head, and smiled in her direction.

Suddenly -- before anyone else could speak -- C-ko stepped forward and, removing her veil, shouted, "NO MORE! No more war because of me, no more of my friends putting their lives on the line for me! Most of all, I don't want anyone to kill in my name any more!"

She walked to where Zelda stood and, with every step she took she trembled in outright terror and fear. But even as the smell of her terror assaulted her best friend's senses, the baby-faced blonde forced herself forward until she stood trembling in front of her cousin.

"Will someone please give my cousin a sword?" Zelda asked.

C-ko looked to her mother, but she only shook her head, saying, "A Leptonian queen's sword may only be given to her daughter upon her deathbed, my brave child."

Napolipolita drew her broadsword and handed it over to her Princess, saying, "I would consider it a great honor if someone as brave as my dear Little Princess would go into battle holding my mother's and grandmother's sword." C-ko gave her a shy little smile as she took the weapon in both of her small hands. The point fell to the floor with a bang before C-ko could summon the strength to hold it up.

As Zelda removed her scabbard and took out her sword, A-ko whispered to B-ko, "Are you sure you can fly their ships?"

"Positive," said B-ko. "What do you have in mind?"

"As soon as the riot starts, you grab C-ko and snatch one of their ships."

"What riot?" asked B-ko.

"The one I'm about to start," said A-ko. She then added, "Then it's Cygnans for the Cygnans, and hearth and home for us. Then -- if that sneaky Zelda is still looking for a fight to the death -- let her follow us back home. I'll be happy to introduce her to my mother."

B-ko smiled and said, "I'd like to see that. On second thought -- knowing your mother -- when she finds out what that bitch tried to do to her little C-ko, you're going to have your hands full stopping her from coming here and looking her up."

The two cousins now stood less than three feet apart. C-ko did her best to hold up the point of the antique sword as she faced her cousin. Zelda, with her sword in one hand, stood before her and asked, "You've never held a sword in your life, have you?"

C-ko shook her head no.

With her free hand, Zelda ripped open her own tunic, then -- after throwing down her own sword at her cousin's feet -- guided the point of C-ko's blade until it pressed against her own left breast. Stunned, C-ko saw the trickle of blood. Zelda told C-ko, "Now cousin! Strike hard, strike swift, and do the honor of helping me reunite with the Great Mother!"

"ZELDA!" screamed her mother.

"NO, DON'T!" shouted her aunt.

Zelda looked over at both of them. "No, Mother. This is the only way to be sure to end this madness. No more will I live with the blood of my Sisters on my hands. You've always taught me that the people come first over everything -- that includes fame, honor, and our very lives. This is the only way I can ensure peace for our people. I only regret I don't have enough blood to wash away all the tears shed in my name."

C-ko stepped back, dropping the point of her sword as she turned and addressed her mother, "Mama, can't you see who the next queen should be now? I can't even speak my native language without a translator device, and here is your very own niece, the daughter of the sister you love! Zelda is more than willing to sacrifice her own life for the service of the people you both love."

"Can you think of a better recommendation for the next queen?"

"I love you, Mama, but I have parents on Earth who love me and whom I love in turn."

"What is their love, compared to the love of your real mother?" asked the Queen, her anguish rising in her throat.

It was A-ko who stepped forward and said, "I know better than any person here how much adoptive parents can love and be loved by an orphan. Most important of all, I also know what effect such people have on their child."

C-ko turned back to her mother. "I know nothing about ruling or being a leader, let alone a queen. In school, I'm studying to be a social worker so I can learn to help forgotten children find the same happiness I found with my adoptive parents."

Zazen'lda's face was twisted with doubt and heartbreak as she silently debated with herself. With a sad and resigned shake of her head, she slowly walked over to where her niece stood.
There was a hush over those assembled. Would the Queen strike her down like a dog, and denounce her?

Instead, Zazen'lda took the girl into her arms announced, "From this moment on, because of her courage and because most of all the love she has for my people, Zelda is now my adopted daughter and the designated heir to the Throne of the Cygnan Empire."

Hearing the gasps -- including those from her own daughters -- the Queen lifted her chin and stiffened her spine. "Furthermore, there will be no reprisals or punishments on either side of the late unpleasantness, no matter which side our citizens were on. Let all prisoners be released and let no one seek vengeance, even if it be for a dead mother, child, or sister."

The Fifth Queen of the Lepton Kingdom of Alpha Cygni, standing ramrod straight and raising her clenched fist toward the twin suns of the Tauka Banesh system, shouted, "THIS WAR IS OVER!"

-------

Shaska smiled. "Once again, Sister, you prove how wise our mother was in choosing you over me to be her successor. But too much Cygnan blood has been shed, and someone has to answer for that." This woman, too, raised her chin and looked around the assembled multitude defiantly. "And that someone must be me." With that, Shaska spun her broad sword around and prepared to drive its point into her own breast. Even as she strove to drive it home, a gust of wind and a familiar blur had already stopped the point from entering its intended target. The Queen's sister fought to finish the job she had started, but soon realized that she couldn't overcome the Terran A-ko Magami's overwhelming strength.

Soon Zazen'lda held her older sister in her arms. "Too many of us have already died because of the mistakes we both made. I will not lose you, too. Bad enough I am now forced to condemn you to exile, but even in that, I charge you to be of service to your Queen by looking out for and protecting my daughter, your niece."

Shaska fell to one knee and kissed her sister's hand in gratitude, not only for sparing her life but also in trusting her with C-ko's life and giving her the opportunity to remain of service to the Empire.

Moving to where A-ko stood, Zazen'lda took the redhead by her hands. "Thank you not only for my daughter, A-Ko -- but for preserving the life of my sister as well!"

---------

As the Assembly was breaking up, A-ko went over to Shaska and said, "When you get to Earth, I know of this great house that's right on C-ko's block. It's for rent, and -- if you change your name is Magami -- I can get you a great rate on the rent."

Shaska smiled.

---------

The Queen had rewarded the Terrans for their valor by making them honorary officials in the Cygnan Space Navy. Napolipolita also received a citation for bravery, as well as the best wishes of everyone (including the recalcitant B-ko, and only after the Cygnettes had jokingly pounced on her and rubbed her face in the carpet for a while) upon her upcoming wedding to Hikaru. And so, after a week of feasting and sad goodbyes, the three friends found themselves on that same beach upon which they had played on the first days of Spring Break. Unfortunately, they would have to start back for college the very next day. This, of course, was a disappointment to the three friends.

A bigger one yet had been in store for C-ko, when she learned that her former "snuggy buggy" had waited for her to return for only ten days before taking up with a French exchange student by the name of Clio. It was Shaska, of course, who offered to challenge the [as she put it] 'thieving whore' to a mortaspuk in C-ko's name. It had taken two days and a lecture by A-ko's mother to convince the one-time Cygnan admiral that things were not done that way here on Earth -- whether in Japan or America. Diana had softened the blow of letting the alien know how things were by cooking the most wonderful meals the woman had ever tasted. Shaska had told her laughingly that she felt the food tasted even better when it was a male -- the Man of Steel himself -- who prepared it.

--------

As the girls walked the beach on this -- their last night of Spring Break -- it was C-ko who said, "It wasn't the vacation we planned, but it was interesting." The little blonde then added, "What do you think we can do to top it, three months from now when summer vacation starts?"

B-ko and A-ko looked at each other -- nodded -- and, picking up their little friend, threw her screaming into the Atlantic Ocean.

THE END

 
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