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ISSUE.

56

Short fiction:

James Hartley
James Coughtrey
Gordon Ross Lanser
T.M. Hunter
Caleb Jordan Schulz
J.D. Williams
Pete Carter

Serial fiction :

M. Keaton
Keanan Brand
ISSUE 56

v56a

TABLE OF CONTENTS
3 Overlords’ Lair 39 Calamity’s Child, Chapter 9
The Quality of the Detour Object Real: Ransom in the Fall of the Mountain King
by Johne Cook by M. Keaton
4 Dark Encounter 56 Calamity’s Child, Chapter 10
by James Hartley Object Real: Ave Maria, Part One
10 The Battle Over Procyon by M. Keaton
by James Coughtrey 63 THIEVES’ HONOR: EPISODE 11
15 The Green Planet The Rescuers, Part 2
by Gordon Ross Lanser by Keanan Brand
21 Lifeline: An Aston West Tale
by T. M. Hunter
26 The Vnimajici
by Caleb Jordan Schulz
30 ARTIST INTERVIEW: Pierre-Etienne Travers
33 Checker
by J.D. Williams
34 Of Machinery and Sea Life
by Pete Carter
Ray Gun Revival Issue 56 © 2010 by Double-edged Publishing,
a Memphis, Tennessee-based non-profit publisher.

OVERLORDS (FOUNDERS/EDITORS) Serial Authors M Keaton, Keanan Brand
Johne Cook, L. S. King, Paul Christian Glenn
Cover Art
Matthew Winslow Book Reviews Editor “Prototype” by Pierre-Etienne Travers
Shannon McNear Lord High Advisor, Grammar Consultant, Listening Ear for Overlord Lee
Paul Christian Glenn - PR, Executive Tiebreaker, Desktop Publishing Bill Snodgrass Site host, Web-Net Solutions, admin, webmaster, database admin,
L. S. King - Lord High Editor, proofreader, beloved nag, muse, webmistress mentor, confidante, liaison – Double-edged Publishing
Johne Cook - art wrangler, desktop publishing, chief cook and bottle washer
Special Thanks
Submissions Editors John M. Whalen, Alice M. Roelke, Martin Turton Ray Gun Revival logo design by Hatchbox Creative

Page 2
ISSUE 56

Overlords’ Lair RGR is another kind of mashup, and has been since the beginning. We didn’t
plan it that way, we just followed our gut and let the detour take us off the
The Quality of the Detour beaten path. Thinking about all this prompted an epiphany — it’s not about the
by Johne Cook purity of the itinerary, it’s about the quality of the detour.
It occurs to me that with this issue, RGR now begins our 5th year of operation.
As we celebrate our penultimate issue with Double-Edged Publishing, our Thanks to you, our loyal readers, for your interest in space opera and golden age
host entity in Memphis, I’ve been thinking lately about what it is about Ray Gun sci-fi!
Revival magazine that makes us different (other than our Big Red Button™, of
course). In 2006, we were collectively riding the wave of enthusiasm for Joss Finally, a housekeeping note. This is the second-to-last edition of Ray Gun
Whedon’s Firefly, in love with Captain Tightpants and his Browncoat crew. In Revival magazine under the Double-Edged Publishing nameplate. We’ll thank
restrospect, we were a little silly hitching our wagon to a star trek that had everyone at DEP more profusely in the final issue, but for now, please know that
already run its course, a series that had finished before we even began. But none of this would have been possible without Bill Snodgrass. Bill’s situation has
really, Firefly was just the catalyst that prompted us to ask changed as situations invariably do and DEP’s charter has
who was going to introduce a new generation of readers changed to reflect new leadership. The new DEP focus is
to space opera. So we stepped up to take a swing at it. moving away from online ‘zines and short fiction, and this
is a logical time for RGR to forge out on our own.
Y’know, for the kids.
What that means practically for the publication and
But here we are, four full years later. One might be the organization is still somewhat up in the air, however,
forgiven for thinking that Firefly passions may have at this point in time what it means is that the Overlords
dimmed since then, but anecdotal evidence says are preparing to move the site to another host, reform
otherwise. Along with many others, I’ve been enjoying as a 4theluv market (meaning that stories in the new
Richard Fife’s rewatch of the Firefly series at Tor.com, and RGR will be picked up for free, ‘for the love’ instead of a
a recent post taking a nostalgic tour through 32 classic token $10 / story payment; we’re succumbing to market
Firefly quotes was a huge crowdpleaser on Twitter and realities and economic vagaries and our own preference
Facebook. for reading stories instead of tracking payments and tax liabilities). It also means
that instead of developing downloadable .PDF ‘issues,’ RGR stories will be
What is it about Firefly that appealed so strongly to me? We know the published as HTML or ePub and viewable on a webpage or via typical handheld
common answers, the writing, the lightning-in-the-bottle interactions of those devices like iPhone or Android phone. The advantage of switching over to this
actors in those roles, the relationships, the wit. But there was something else publication method is that we will no longer have to develop issues in InDesign
more fundamental. Firefly wasn’t just space opera, it was a mashup of Space but can plop proofed stories right into our web publication software. This means
Opera and Western. we can queue up a variety of stories and have them automatically publish on a
certain date. Yeah, I know — punctuality, what a concept!
That reminded me of something from my own experience. Two things
happened on May 17, 2008. First, I went to a reading by Cory Doctorow of his Thanks for reading RGR, and stay tuned for our final issue as a DEP entity, RGR
latest novel, the SF masterwork Little Brother, a highlight for a fan of SF. But 57!
in additon to that great experience, before the reading even started, I found
myself walking around the bookstore and finding The Automatic Detective by Johne Cook
A. Lee. Martinez. The books couldn’t be more dissimilar. One is serious, classic Overlord
SF, the other a playful mashup of SF and Noir. Both books are brilliant and both Breezeway, WI USA
are on my person Ten Best list. However, only one makes me yearn for endless
sequels, and that’s the mashup about Mack Megaton, the killer robot who
defied his programming and rebelled simply because he wanted to be a citizen,
in the process becoming Mankind’s savior.

Page 3
ISSUE 56

Dark Encounter promotion to lieutenant less than
two months after graduation from
“Yes. We have no idea what that
might be, everyone is baffled, but
by James Hartley
the academy. you have pretty much a free hand is
solving this. You blast off as soon as
Pitcher drew the captain aside and possible. Dismissed.”
asked in a low voice, “Why is she
“C aptain,” said Lt. Beverly
Bronte, “we have a probe in
a stable orbit. There’s nothing there
for his cabin to wash down some
Venuprofen with a shot of Single
Martian Malt Whiskey.
here? I thought the orders were for
you and your science officer to report
The three rose, saluted, and left.
Lt. Commander Pitcher looked more
to the admiral.” apprehensive than when they had
for the probe to be in orbit around, entered, but Lt. Bronte had a smile of
but it’s in orbit around a well-defined #
“Not quite, Mr. Pitcher. The orders anticipation on her face.
piece of empty space. Orbital specs Squadron Captain Thornton also requested that I bring along
say that if there were something Cassidy stood in front of the plasteel anyone I felt might be helpful in #
there, it would be about one-one- window on the top deck of the Trans- solving a strange—but unspecified— Shortly after takeoff, the
hundredth the mass of Earth.” planetary Patrol’s Lunar Base. His problem. Ms. Bronte does seem to squadron launched unmanned high
six-foot-six frame was resplendent have a knack for coming up with acceleration drones which would
Squadron Captain Thornton in the metallic gold Patrol uniform unusual solutions.”
Cassidy looked at her, an unhappy reach Jupiter well before the ships
with its midnight black piping and could arrive. The drones were
expression on his face. “What does trim. He was accompanied by two Pitcher was about to say something
Science Officer Pitcher have to say equipped with broad spectrum
of his officers. The science officer, more, but the desk sergeant
about it?” sensors, designed to detect almost
Lt. Commander Pitcher, was tall interrupted. “The admiral is ready,
anything.
and lanky, with a perpetually you can go in now.”
“I believe Lt. Commander Pitcher
sour disposition. Right now he “The sensors report exactly
has placed himself on the sick list, Sir. The captain and his two officers
looked sourer than usual, and kept nothing, Captain,” said Lt. Bronte.
He’s retired to his cabin for a couple entered, saluted, and took seats
glaring at the third member of “The figures we were given were
of medicinal doses of Venusian in front of the admiral’s desk. The
the group, Lt. Beverly Bronte. She very rough estimates. There’s a
Tequila.” admiral looked down at a paper,
was a stunningly beautiful girl in a chance the probes completely
woman’s adaptation of the standard then looked up and said, “Captain,
“Hmmm, yes, not a bad idea,” said missed the interloper, or perhaps
Patrol uniform. Above the waist something strange is going on out
the captain. “Any idea when he’ll be whatever is there simply isn’t
she wore the tight jersey and loose around Jupiter. The astronomers
back on duty to work on it?” showing up on the sensors.”
open jacket, but her magnificent report perturbations of the orbits of
“Not really, Sir. He was extremely bosom kept the jacket much farther Jupiter’s moons, but they can’t find The drones reached the area of
upset by the whole thing. But I think open than it would have been on anything there to cause it. The Trans- maximum probability with sensors
I can make some progress. With your a man. Below the waist she wore Planetary Council is worried, and still silent. Suddenly drone eight fired
permission, I’m going to overload a short, tight skirt that reached wants the Patrol to check it out. Take its attitude jets, followed by several
every computer on board trying to barely halfway down to her knees, your squadron out there and figure of the other drones.
verify my theories about what it is leaving bare skin down to the tops out what is going on, then take any
the probe is orbiting.” She turned of her calf-high boots. She was one appropriate action.” “What is going on out there?”
back to her console and started of the first women to serve on a asked the captain. “Why are they
“Any appropriate action?” said the firing attitude jets?”
typing. The captain watched her for a Trans-Planetary Patrol ship, and
captain.
few minutes, then got up and headed had achieved the amazing feat of

Dark Encounter, by James Hartley Page 4
ISSUE 56

Lt. Bronte looked up from her direction. But drone three is out of together that Lt. Bronte had the Lt. Bronte turned to Pitcher and
console. “Sir, the telemetry data attitude fuel and is going off course in memory dumps and a chance to study asked, “Have you examined the orbits
indicates that several of the drones the opposite direction.” them by the time the meeting started. of the drones?”
have started to go off course. The Her first action was to replay the
target stars they use for course “Give me a compsim on visual,” said compsim on the conference room’s “No, I haven’t yet, not that closely.
correction started to move out of lock, the captain. screen. The responses she got ranged Why?”
and the drones are programmed to use from puzzled to antagonistic.
“Yes, Sir.” The technician keyed the “Because, Sir, at least one of the
attitude jets to get back on course. I’ve
order into his console, and a computer Commander Whittaker, the first drones took a path that led it through
sent a request for a complete memory
simulation of the fleet of probes officer and always one of the most whatever body was attracting it.” There
dump to each of the probes, but it’ll
appeared on the screen. The disk- vocal, was first to speak. “What’s was an uproar at this point, and Lt.
take a while to get the information and
shaped formation in which the probes the problem, Lt. Bronte?” he asked. Bronte had to wait for a minute before
process it.”
were arrayed showed clearly, except “You seem to have found your object, continuing. “The computer analysis
Lt. Commander Pitcher turned in the lower right corner. There, a wasn’t that what we were trying to showed the drone passing through
from his science station and said, number of the probes had veered and do?” a region of decreased gravity, with
“Sir, I believe this is a transparent disrupted the symmetry of the disk. noticeable effects on its course. Then
body. When the probes get close, As they watched, the errant drones “Well, Commander, in a way. it emerged into a normal area, the
refraction distorts the positions of the seemed to take converging courses, all But the data seems to pose more course showing the same gravitational
stars the probes are using for course heading for the same point. problems than it answers. I have all effects as earlier.”
verification.” the memory dumps from the drones,
“Well,” said Lt. Bronte, “we didn’t and they all agree there is nothing Commander Whittaker interrupted
The captain looked at Lt. Bronte who miss it by too much, but we were damn there. No light, no radio waves, no again. “Ms. Bronte, you’re not making
was sitting there shaking her head. “I lucky it dragged the drones off course other electromagnetic indication. any sense. What are you trying to tell
doubt that’s the case, Captain,” she or we would have.” She turned to the On the other hand, if we look at just us?”
said. “The target stars are carefully technician. “Send orders to the rest of the course changes, they indicate a
the probes to change course. Aim any “Sir, there is something there which
spread across fifty or sixty degrees of massive body there, perhaps as much
of them that have enough attitude fuel exhibits gravitational pull, but it is
visual angle, just to avoid problems as one-one-hundredth earth mass.”
at the point of convergence, and then immaterial in that a drone can pass
with something obscuring one.
disable the attitude jets temporarily. I “What about a black hole?” asked right through it. We seem to be dealing
Something refracting like that would
want them to have some maneuvering one of the other officers. with a case of ‘The Little Man That
have to be either very, very large, or
capability when they get there.” Wasn’t There.’” The resulting uproar
very, very close to the probes.”
“Every theory that allows for black made it impossible to continue, but Lt.
She was interrupted by a technician. “Yes, Ma’am.” The technician again holes shows them radiating, as gas and Bronte was satisfied. She had made her
“Lieutenant, drone eight has just turned to his console. dust approaches the event horizon point.
reported that its attitude jets are and gets up near the speed of light.
Lt. Bronte took another look at the Cerenkov radiation. There’s none of Many of the officers simply refused
out of fuel, and it is being dragged
display, then turned to the captain and that here.” to believe Lt. Bronte, but the phrase
further and further off course. Tracking
Lt. Commander Pitcher and said, “Sirs, she had used stuck, and the unknown
on drone eight from several others
I think it’s time for a conference.” “I still say it’s simply a highly body was tagged ‘the Little Man.’ The
confirms that...wait a minute, drone
transparent body,” said Pitcher. black hole theory was advanced again,
six now reports out of attitude fuel It took long enough to get everybody over and over, as well as several other
and going off course, too. In the same

Dark Encounter, by James Hartley Page 5
ISSUE 56

theories, each less probable than the was her third launch that achieved the which is why we see our probe orbiting investigated this phenomenon, and
previous. Lt. Bronte refused to explain enigmatic orbit around an empty spot what is apparently empty space.” that the Earth is in danger. Will you
her ideas. “Captain,” said Lt. Bronte, in space. please tell us what is going on?”
“I really need to get more data before Commander Whittaker said, “I do
I present my theory.” Captain Cassidy # remember reading something about “Madam President,” said the captain,
backed her up, and the arguments The captain assembled the officers this, but I thought the dark matter, “I am going to have one of my officers,
continued. for another conference. “Ms. Bronte, if it existed, would just be a sea of Lt. Beverly Bronte, present this. She did
are you ready to present us with your particles. You’re saying we’ve found a most of the technical work on this. Ms.
# theories yet?” large solid body of dark matter?” Bronte?”
As the Impenetrable approached the
“Yes, Sir. I’ve checked all my “Commander,” replied Lt. Bronte, Lt. Bronte rose and walked to the
location of the mysterious body, Lt.
data, and I’ve checked with several “most of the ordinary matter in the projection equipment at the front
Bronte went to see the captain. “Sir,
university data bases back on Earth. universe is dust and gas, a sea of of the room. She inserted a memory
I need to launch a few more probes
The only possible conclusion is that we particles, too. But we do have solid module, and a compsim of the solar
when we get near the object.”
are dealing with a large mass of dark bodies...like the Earth. If the dark system lit up the screen. She pointed
“What will that prove that the matter.” matter is non-baryonic, some of the to the area of Jupiter and said, “We
original unmanned drones didn’t? theories predict that there is no reason have located a large mass of dark
Remember, Ms. Bronte, we only have a Lt. Commander Pitcher snorted. why a solid body couldn’t exist. But the matter, about one-one-hundredth
limited number of probes.” “Dark matter? That theory has been real issue is what we are going to do Earth mass. It’s moving into our system
thoroughly discredited by Dr. Swenson about this.” She hit a few buttons on at a high speed, around 125 kilometers
“I know, Captain, but this time we at the University of Nairobi. There’s no the console and a compsim appeared per second. It will pass the orbits of
will be close enough for direct control such thing as dark matter.” on the viewplate. “The Little Man is Earth and Venus,” she pointed to the
of the probes. I need to see if I can headed almost directly towards Earth!” screen, “and make a very shallow curve
get one or two into stable orbits. “Mr. Pitcher, I would hardly consider around the sun inside Mercury’s orbit.
Measurements of the orbits will give the University of Nairobi as an There was stunned silence in the “ She updated the compsim to show
us much better data on the size and authority. Quite a different view is conference room. the trajectory. “Then it will swing back
mass of the Little Man. And even more held at MIT, Stanford, and a number of out. Unfortunately...” She updated
others. Dark matter does exist.” #
important, data on its path.” the compsim again, to show the body
When the Impenetrable landed at reaching Earth’s orbit in a dead heat
“Well, I guess that makes sense. The captain interrupted, “Ms. Lunar Base, the captain, Lt. Bronte, and with the Earth itself.
My orders are rather vague, just to Bronte, perhaps you could explain this Lt. Commander Pitcher were rushed
figure this thing out. You seem like the a bit more for those of us not up on to a shuttle. In a short time they There was a loud gasp from the
only one who really knows what she’s these theories?” landed at the Trans-Planetary capitol in audience.
doing.” He laughed. “I still haven’t Copenhagen, and were transported to
“Of course, Captain. The matter we “This body, the Little Man, will pass
figured out exactly how you—or the office of the President. The room
can see is not adequate to explain the Earth, probably inside the orbit of the
anybody else—plan to study a big blob was crowded with VIPs, but when the
rotational speed of galaxies, there has Moon, wreaking terrible havoc.”
of nothing.” three arrived, the buzz of conversation
to be more, a lot more. This missing
quickly quieted.
Lt. Bronte left the captain’s office matter does not interact with light, “Lieutenant,” interrupted the
whistling a little tune, and headed for hence ‘dark’ matter. But it does interact “Captain Cassidy,” said the President, President, “your report said this, this,
the bridge to launch her probes. It gravitationally with normal matter, “I understand your squadron has Little Man thing, appears to be empty

Dark Encounter, by James Hartley Page 6
ISSUE 56

space. Why do we have to worry about of at least two million. At that range make use of on finishing six of the “No, not those interlocks, I mean the
it?” we may get some bad tides and a few engines, but it was almost two weeks emergency interlocks. We may have
earthquakes, but nothing we can’t before they were ready to go, with a to run those engines at full emergency
“Gravity, Ma’am. The one and only handle.” rudimentary set of controls wired onto overload.”
way this body interacts with normal each. They were set in motion under
matter is gravity. If a body of this The scientist who had asked about their own power, with accompanying “Wait a minute. Emergency
size gets close to Earth, we’ll have the accuracy of the prediction now spaceships to provide navigation. GA overload? We can’t do that, it could
tidal waves, earthquakes, all sorts of said, “Wait a minute, Ms. Bronte. How also assigned their top engineer, Trevor damage or destroy the engines. I’m
devastation. It could uproot one of big are these asteroids we have to Sandeman, to the project and sent him supposed to take care of these things.”
the crustal plates and spill a whole move? Is it really possible?” along on one of the ships escorting the
continent into the interior magma. And Lt. Bronte looked disgusted. “Come
engines.
if it gets too close, well, the tidal effects “We need bodies a few miles in on, Sandeman, you don’t think these
could destroy the entire planet.” diameter, and two of our largest Impenetrable’s sister ship, engines are going to be salvageable,
engines on each of the three asteroids Irrefutable, had remained out in space, do you? They’ll almost certainly be
One of the scientists in the will give us the necessary delta-v for and was able to reach the belt quickly. destroyed in the ‘collision’ with the
group asked, “How accurate is that a collision. By applying the deflection Her crew selected three suitable Little Man. Check your orders, the
projection?” to the Little Man as it moves inward asteroids and begin preparations. government is paying GA for these
toward the sun, we give it time to When the engines arrived, the GA engines, and your job is to set them up
“We’re not absolutely sure, but it multiply during the trip around the sun to my specifications.”
workers were able to start mounting
looks like we have more than a 95 and back out. Yes, we can do it, but we them immediately.
percent chance of it coming inside the must get started now!” Sandeman threw up his hands in
moon’s orbit.” The Impenetrable arrived a few days surrender, “Okay, okay! If you want to
The President said, “Lt. Bronte, I’ve later with Lt. Bronte, who had delayed blow up a few million dollars worth of
There was an upsurge of sound, already had some discussions with engines, go ahead. I’ll have my men
her departure in order to do the final
everyone trying to speak at once. members of the Council and with a disable the interlocks. You want me to
calculations on one of the large earth-
Finally a voice in the audience made number of national leaders. They’re all take out all the safeguards, or should I
side computers. When she reached the
itself heard, “What can we do about prepared to cooperate. I’m assigning leave the password protect on it?”
belt, the engines were pretty much in
it?” General Whittaker, one of my top place, and final wiring and balancing
aides, as liaison, to be sure you get “Just pull it all out. If we need
Lt. Bronte pounded on the lectern, was taking place. She inspected the
whatever you need. Let’s do it!” emergency power, we’re going to need
and eventually managed to get it quiet work.
it fast.”
enough to talk. “There is a solution, a # “Looks good,” she told Sandeman,
just barely possible solution. In about Most of their five-week window
Luck was with them. General “but you forgot one thing. You have to
five weeks the Little Man passes the had passed when the engines were
Astronautics had a number of their disable the interlocks.”
asteroid belt. If we mount our biggest ready to fire. The radio controls were
largest engines almost finished at
drivers on three large asteroids we can “What do you mean?” replied given one last check, and then all the
their orbital construction site, and an
steer them into collision courses. The Sandeman. “We pulled off the personnel were evacuated from the
emergency order from the President
computer says we can deflect the Little interlocks that keep the engines to one asteroids. The first set of engines were
got them turned over to what was now
Man enough to be sure it will miss G for passenger comfort. These things fired. The results were disappointing to
being called Project Littleman.
Earth. A 90 percent chance of three will crank out roughly ten G’s when the naked eye.
million miles, over 99 percent chance GA put every worker they could powering a large spaceship.”

Dark Encounter, by James Hartley Page 7
ISSUE 56

General Whittaker, on the bridge of froze just short of punching in the to watch both Lt. Bronte’s instruments debris passed through the invisible
Impenetrable, turned to Lt. Bronte. commands. “Lt. Bronte,” Sandeman and his own. mass caused numerous collisions,
“Isn’t it working?” continued, “that’s a damn sure way and many of the chunks lost enough
to blow those engines straight to The three minutes between momentum to be captured. A number
“Yes, General, it’s working. But you Hell. They won’t take two minutes of emergency blasts seemed to drag of the orbits established were actually
have to remember, we’re moving cubic overload.” interminably. Finally the fifth blast below the surface, and by the time the
miles of rock here, not a tiny little ship. fired. As it faded back down to normal, third collision was over, the Little Man
The changes in speed and orbit won’t “What will they take?” Lt. Bronte declared, “We did it! It’s on was visible as a whirling cloud of rock
be visible for several days.” track! The regular watch standers can fragments.
“They’ll take thirty seconds of take it from here, I’m going to go below
“Oh!” The general sounded overload. Then you have to cut and sack out for a while—maybe a day “Well, now that we can see it, I guess
disappointed. back and let them recover. Required or two, the way I feel.” She walked off we can get a better fix on its path,”
recovery ranges from thirty seconds the bridge. said Lt. Bronte. “That’s an advantage I
“Don’t worry, the computer says with the engines totally off, to about hadn’t even figured on.”
we’re right on track. Just sit down and three minutes with the engines Sandeman turned to the general and
relax, there won’t be anything more running at normal full blast. Then you asked, “Is she really going to sleep for “How soon will we know if it
happening for a half hour, when we can repeat the cycle, a few times at two days? I would think she’d want to worked?” asked General Whittaker.
touch off the second one.” least.” keep closer track than that.”
“It will take an hour for the computer
Sandeman went over and inspected Lt. Bronte was frantically punching The general laughed. “Lt. Bronte stay to get enough data for an accurate
the readouts for himself. “Looks good, the keys of the computer in front of away from an important project for plot. I don’t know about you, but I’m
Lt. Bronte. I doubt you’re going to have her. Finally she said, “Well, it’s not as two days? Lotsa luck! She’ll be back up hungry, and I’ll be damned if I’m going
to use the emergency overload.” effective that way, but five bursts of here in four hours, five tops.” to stand around the bridge waiting
overload with three minutes full power for a watched computer to boil.” She
“Well, not on this one, anyway. But When Lt. Bronte re-entered the
recovery in between should do it. turned and walked off, leaving the
I’m still happier having it there. I’m a bridge four and a half hours later, she
Ensign, do it that way. And execute as general standing there with a faintly
little worried about number three.” couldn’t understand why the general
soon as you get it set up.” puzzled expression on his face.
and the chief engineer were laughing
A half hour later number two fired, #
“Yes, Ma’am.” He set up the program so hard.
and another half hour later, number
on his console and punched the An hour later they were all standing
three. Lt. Bronte watched the readouts
execute button. The others watched #
on number three carefully. Slowly, on the bridge again when the
the engine exhausts on the asteroid The collisions were much more computer signaled it was ready. Lt.
she began to shake her head and
shade further into the violet as the spectacular than the launchings of the Bronte typed in a command and the
look worried. She turned from the
engines were asked for all they could asteroids had been, and the watchers compsim flashed up on the screen. She
instruments and said, “We’re not
do, and a little more. aboard Impenetrable and the other looked at it, breathed a sigh of relief,
going to make it on this one. Ensign,”
ships of the squadron cheered. As the and announced to the others, “Better
addressing the man at the controls, After the fourth blast of overload asteroids approached the invisible than we expected, almost four million
“set up for two minutes of emergency power Lt. Bronte checked her Little Man, tidal strains took their toll miles. At that range, the effects will be
overload power on my signal, both instruments and said, “We’re almost and each asteroid slowly disintegrated minimal.”
engines of number three.” back on track. Almost!” Sandeman into a cloud of small rocks. The strange
stood there with crossed fingers, trying interplay of gravitational forces as the “Where did we get the extra
“Wait!” yelled Sandeman. The Ensign

Dark Encounter, by James Hartley Page 8
ISSUE 56

distance?” asked the general. report to his Lunar Base office. He has
a mission for you, Ultra-plus priority.”
“I don’t know, I’m checking it now,”
said Lt. Bronte as she typed a few more The captain had a slightly worried
commands into the computer, then look as he said, “Ultra-plus priority,
studied the results as they popped hmmm? Well, Ms. Bronte, looks
up on the screen. “Ah, the breakup. like you’re going to get something
We had treated it as collisions of solid interesting for your first assignment
bodies, and assumed pure gravitational as science officer...I hope it’s not too
drag as they went through each other. interesting,” he chuckled, “like the
But our asteroids broke up, which ancient Chinese curse!” He turned
made it easier for the Little Man to towards the controls and said, “Helm,
capture pieces, and pick up all their set course for Lunar Base, full speed.”
momentum instead of just part of it.”
Science Officer Bronte had a smile of
The general nodded. “Well, I’m glad anticipation on her face.
that’s over.”

“Yes,” said Lt. Bronte, “it’s been
an experience...” She turned to the
captain and said, “I guess we’re all
done, Sir.”

“Good work, Lt. Bronte. And
now I have some news for you. Lt.
Commander Pitcher has requested
a transfer to another squadron. I’ve James Hartley
approved it, and moved him to the
Irrefutable until we get back to Lunar James Hartley is a former computer
Base. That leaves the science officer programmer. Originally from northern
position vacant. Are you interested?” New Jersey, he now lives in sunny
central Florida. He has published a
“Yes, Sir!” fantasy novel, Teen Angel, and stories
in Illusion’s Transmitter, Written Word
“Good. Do what you need to take Online, Clonepod, Every Day Fiction,
over the spot, and set up replacements Lorelei Signal, KidVisions, Ray Gun
for your other...” Revival, and the anthology Desolate
Places. He is currently working on a
The communications officer
second novel, The Ghost of Grover’s
interrupted him. “Captain, I have an
Ridge.
urgent message for you. The admiral
wants you and your science officer to

Dark Encounter, by James Hartley Page 9
ISSUE 56

The Battle Over Procyon one look at the American fleet and ‘This is command,’ the Captain
run back to their domes. roared over the radio, the
by James Coughtrey
communication fizzing with static.
I stumbled down the ladder, ‘Dragons. Hit that frigate.’
snatching my helmet from one of the
flight technicians who fell over herself And that was it.
M y father was a soldier, back in
old China, back on Earth. And
right at the beginning of this whole
the last two days and, while we were
poised to respond I had, of course,
chosen that precise moment to risk a
to vacate the area, and I clambered
into the cockpit, the bay already The rams fired with a burst of
frozen air and we were hurled into
beginning to depressurise as I closed
mess he told me. quick shower. the canopy. This was too fast. We’d the battle. Ru, another of my wing
practiced scrambling in five minutes, mates, went down the moment we
‘There is no victory in war, for the ‘Kayo!’ my NCO, Jun hollered, as I cleared the hull, a rail gun slug taking
war always wins.’ scrabbled to my feet and yanked on but it looked like we’d make two. Not
bad for a squadron formed a week out the cockpit and detonating the
the rest of my suit. ‘Where the hell missiles hung across the bottom of
I, of course, laughed that off. Back are you?’ and a half ago.
then we all knew that in our war the bulbous cockpit, and I slammed
we’d win. No maybe about it. The ‘Alpha deck,’ I clipped, restarting ‘Thought you weren’t going to make the engines on full as a Rayy gun beam
government was overstretched, my sprint and skidding down the left- it,’ Jun growled, from the cockpit over. lanced down the side of the Zhenbei,
underpaid, and more than a little hand corridor at a T-junction. ‘No leaving a stripe of superheated metal
‘Like I’d miss this,’ I muttered into bare centimetres away.
sympathetic to our cause. Likewise wait... Beta.’ I slid to a stop and raced the mike. Okay, so I’m not always the
the military just followed suit, back down the right-hand corridor. most reliable of people. But you don’t I swore as a cloud of hot gas
standing back as we took over city The tea-plate-sized portholes flashed miss the battle for independence. that had been Ru washed over my
and spaceport alike, declaring the past, giving a narrow view of the stars, cockpit, but there was no time to
independence of our little dot in the and the occasional scaffold stanchion. Someone had already done all the pause. A flick with the leaky engine
sky. pre-flight checks, and the launch that the F-Bugs are famous for,
I did a double take as I squeezed door was already swinging open
Then it all fell to pieces. The through a closing blast door, the sent us spinning towards a second,
in front of me to reveal my first much closer frigate, and a moment
retribution fleet was too swift, too stanchions were moving. The ship view of the battle. Our sister ship
large, and teeming with American was launching. I didn’t even know we later the remnants of my wing were
was duelling with an enemy frigate screaming towards the enemy ship,
ships from an unbelievable alliance. had main power online. The corridor scarcely a dozen kilometres away. A
swept round to the right and I burst which seemed to have singled out the
And so you find me, Kayo, sprinting burst of plasma leapt from her hull, Zhenbei for its prey. Jun was yelling
out onto the gantry surrounding splattering across the chromed brick
down the corridors of one of our too the hangar. All five fighters, the orders, but I was looking through the
few frigates. Ready to fight for our of the enemy Alliance Class Frigate, canopy and the battle was not going
ignominiously named F-bugs, were which responded in kind with a burst
planet. Fight for our freedom. already locked into the launch rails, well. I was tracking at least three
of missile fire, hurling itself out of the dozen capital ships, compared to our
missiles rammed into their cradles way of the next blast with a sudden
I yelled and went flying as my two dozen, and they had a heck of
and engines were lit, their fusion fire spurt of its main engines.
foot caught in my half on flight suit, a lot more fighters in the air, not to
giving the bay a strangely cheery glow.
smacking into the deck of the Zhenbei mention some big missiles.
I forced myself to ignore the fact that The gyros lit up as the Zhenbei
as sirens wailed around me. Like hell
only three of the other cockpits had rocked under attack, and the launch Our sister ship lit up with a flare as
I was ready. The enemy had been
pilots. Too many people had taken countdown began, from three. the magazine took a hit, and the main
skulking around the outer-system for

The Battle Over Procyon, by James Coughtrey Page 10
ISSUE 56

guns on the Zhenbei burst into life, the little F-bug dangerously close before had two missiles mounted beneath the I let off a few bursts of plasma fire
hurling plasma into the enemy Alliance letting loose a burst of plasma, spread cockpit, and neither would do anything after the missiles for good measure
and detonating one of their launching over just about every trajectory I could more than superficial damage to the and spun the ship, pushing full thrust
fighters. A missile lock whined in my imagine him taking. sheer mass of the ship, so just what we on the off chance that that shot took
ears as their fighters, slim Daggers quite could do more than be cannon fodder effect. There was a faint flare on the
unlike our more compact F-Bugs, spun The pilot tried to dodge, but only was beyond me. Though, maybe that rear camera as my shots struck the
to face us and Rayy guns triggered all ended up dancing into Jun’s line of fire, was the point of this sortie. magnetic reinforcing, sending a burst
the heat warning alarms over the front and I heard Jun cackle as he let rip. of hydrogen into the void. One of my
of my canopy. The bolts slammed into the Dagger’s I flickered away from the hull as missiles took a glancing blow from this
canopy, ripping through the diamond more targeting lasers rebounded off and liquefied, the slag slamming into
‘Break,’ Jun roared, and I hurled the reinforced glass like a blowtorch my fuselage and watched as Jun hurled the hull, leaving a near imperceptible
F-Bug into a sweeping spin, shaking the through rice paper. The missiles cradled himself towards the frigate; a moment dent, but the second was bang on, and
worst of the hot spots, but one of my above the cockpit burst into flames a later I kicked the engine into life and rained shrapnel into the heart of the
wing mates didn’t move fast enough moment later, shattering what was left went racing after him. Our momentum nuclear inferno.
and there was a muffled shriek over of the craft and I fired a wild battery would carry us past in a matter of
the com as his cockpit lost atmosphere at the remaining knot of fighters, only moments and as long as they didn’t This should have had no real effect
and the beam lanced through his suit. then realising I was screaming with think of trying to manoeuvre and our other than shaking up the magnets and
I winced, but the bloody Daggers were rage. One got clipped and lost the tip luck held for another few seconds. needing them to be auto aligned, which
still too far out of range, and just firing of a wing to the superheated gas, but took all of ten seconds. But in that ten
missiles. the others scattered and then we were Jun screamed, or perhaps it was just seconds, and I had to drag out a load of
back out of engagement range, carried the EM screaming as a gout of plasma news stills to find this out, the Zhenbei,
‘I need cover!’ I snapped, letting by our momentum. leapt from his engine, hurling him fires burning down the length of her
rip with the main plasma cannon mercifully away from the battle, but I hull, let loose with every cannon she had
and detonating one missile streaking ‘Chalk one up for Jun,’ he gloated. was already beyond the line of the ship in a desperate last act of defiance. The
towards me. A wild round just glanced and right behind the engines. There was Alliance should have just put a spurt of
across a second missile as it span to ‘Not to interrupt but...’ no time to make sure he was all right, speed through its engines and dodged,
keep a lock but then Jun hit it with not if I wanted to make the shot. The but for some reason the engines were
The Alliance was coming up fast, and
another burst of fire. main thruster was a tiny dot at the very being realigned for a moment, and the
the fighters were the Zhenbei’s problem
tip of the hull, only a hand span across computer would like to know if you are
‘I need cover back,’ he snapped, as now, so it was just me and Jun against
tops, but hotter than the sun. Or, at sure you want to engage thrust.
I threw the ship down to avoid a huge something easily twenty times our size.
least it would be when the engine fired.
bolt of plasma from the Zhenbei. One I paused a moment, waited for a tone, The Alliance’s hull metal glowed for a
‘Ah yes,’ Jun began, radio crackling
of the enemy fighters didn’t scatter glanced a look towards Jun’s tumbling brief moment, before vaporising under
as we entered the close range ECMs. ‘I
fast enough and was engulfed, his fighter and fired both missiles towards the hail of plasma, the vapour itself
heard the engine has less armour than
breached reactor absorbing the fire, the exhaust port. being sucked through the blossoming
the rest. Let’s hit that.’
before exploding with a dazzling holes to boil the ship from the inside
flare. At last we were close enough to I rolled my eyes, but fired up the I would like to say it was a shot in out. A magazine went up, followed by
engage the bastards and the targeting engine at random, trying to keep out of a million, but my missiles were heat a second, and a third, until the ship had
overlay flashed up on my screen. I took the sights of the short range Rayys which seekers and could have targeted this been ripped apart by the strength of its
a moment to select a target, let the burst into life across the frigate’s hull. I monstrosity from Sol. own ordinance.
computer plot his trajectory and coaxed

The Battle Over Procyon, by James Coughtrey Page 11
ISSUE 56

I yelled in triumph. That would teach ‘Sure, pick an easy target,’ I growled. evacuation plan. What kind of student pushed that thought out of my head as
them to mess with the Procynions. ‘Jun, how’s the motor?’ has a plan for being shot out of the sky? the first Dagger raced towards me. His
It also meant that my university Rayy gun held too long on my hull and
roommate owed me a fifty, I hadn’t ‘Flaky as hell but it’ll work in a straight ‘Guys,’ I murmured, barely loud I had to flip along the axis, firing wildly.
been killed without even firing my guns. line,’ he reported. ‘Let’s just not buzz enough to activate the radio. ‘Let’s kill One shot somehow clipped his wing,
any more Alliances.’ these bastards.’ thank you aiming assist, and the Dagger
‘Dragons!’ the captain hollered over went spiralling off into the night, Jun
the radio, even more patchy than ‘We may not have a choice,’ the ‘Right behind you,’ Jun assured me.
nailing him a moment later. More Rayys
before. ‘You guys alive out there?’ lead bomber muttered as we fell into
‘Heads up,’ the first bomber pilot cut lanced around me, and it was all I could
formation. Somehow Jun and I had
in. ‘We’re entering range.’ do to keep my ship in one piece, even
‘Just about!’ I shot back, swinging managed to pick up enough spin to
so an ominous crack appeared in the
the ship around and firing full burn put me at a right angle to the bombers,
Our formation flipped in unison, canopy and the pressure gauge began
back towards the Zhenbei to cancel out but Jun actually managed to correct his
burning towards the Ground Pounder, to sink.
some of my momentum. orientation, while I just decided to live
an ugly, flat faced, box of a ship
with it. Last time I’d tried to fix that I’d There was a yell as one of the bombers
‘Battered but alive,’ Jun reported. designed to bring as much firepower
managed to crash into the Zhenbei, one collapsed in on itself as its reactor
‘Great shot Kayo.’ onto a specific target as possible and
of the many trials you have to wrap you breached, and his buddy threw himself
annihilate it with orbital scale rail
head around shifting from atmospheric into a crazy spin, somehow lining the
‘They were heat seekers,’ I muttered, guns. Or just let loose a few nukes. It
flight. That, and how many more people guns up on the knot of fighters. The
shrugging. was well protected, which was pretty
shoot at you in space. plasma went wild as the gun gave the
much in keeping with our luck, and the
‘Anyway,’ the captain cut in. ‘We’re local contingent of fighters was already radio static rendition of chatter, and
We made our run full burn, I didn’t
caught in the scaffold, the bombers are winging their way towards us. the fighters broke, desperate to get out
think we’d be able to keep up with
scrambling but there’s no way we can the way of the stream of hot death,
anything more complicated anyway,
bring our weapons to bear on anything I cut the burn, swinging around to giving me a moment to line up my own
but it gave us a ridiculous window of
relevant. We’re going to have to run up face the enemy, and let the computer guns and deliver a hail of fire onto an
engagement of a couple of seconds
the white flag. Give them hell pilot.’ track a few trajectories and prepped unsuspecting craft.
max. The rest of the battle was playing
what countermeasures I had. Not
Two wide winged bombers launched out around us. Most of our ships were The thing melted into an
much; a couple of reactor flares which
from beneath the bridge of the aflame, with more than one de-orbiting, unrecognisable mass, and a missile alert
would be pretty much useless against
Zhenbei, much fancier than my F-bug, some of the enemy ships were going rang in my ears, a whole battery being
their class of missiles, and the good old
with proper anti capital ship guns, down too, but it was a massacre, which launched from the Ground Pounder. I
pop guns—which hadn’t been switched
though from training I knew it would be wasn’t surprising given how long we’d hurled myself towards them, firing all
on when I’d launched. Typical.
a nightmare to get them close. had to prepare. Heck, half our ships had the way and holding down the button
been like the Zhenbei and not even out There was no call to lay down arms, to deploy flares until the cartridges
‘Dragons,’ one of the bomber pilots of dry-dock. just a sudden burst of Rayy gunfire from were spent. The enemy fighters were
cut in, I did try to place the voice to a the very edges of range and I flipped the buzzing away, not wanting to be caught
name but failed. ‘Our priority is the I’d had friends on most of the now
ship, firing the engines at near random in this crossfire, and the remaining
peripheral Ground Pounder. We take burning ships, engineers mainly. I
and dancing between the lines of bomber had the same idea I had, and
that out and it makes it a hell of a lot didn’t want to think about whether
invisible death, Jun hot on my tail. I half was laying fire into the tight knot of
easier for the guys on the surface.’ they’d gotten off ship in time. Hell, half
wished I had some kind of music on, but missiles. At least a few had been thrown
of them probably didn’t even have an

The Battle Over Procyon, by James Coughtrey Page 12
ISSUE 56

by the flares, still more were detonating I considered ramming the monstrosity, The explosion whited out the sun was over, and with it so was the
under the hail of fire, but they seemed but then darted out of the way as bolt and it was only the fact that I had a resistance. There was no way anyone
endless, and, with a yell, I reached for after blot sprang from the maw of the fully Nulled reactor core pointed at the was going to stand up to a fleet of
the eject handle. bomber, slamming into the thickest blast that I didn’t get a lethal burst of Ground Pounders in orbit. I sighed;
part of the armour. radiation. Even so a hunk of metal the with my drift I would reach the planet in
The last half dozen missiles screaming size of a small car went screaming past, about five minutes, but that was plenty
towards me detonated as Jun lit up the ‘What the hell are you playing at?’ I still glowing from the explosion, and of time to be picked up by some passing
sky around me and I winced as more screamed. There were dozens of more my tail was peppered by debris, almost frigate. Then I’d be tried as a prisoner
rockets streaked towards his frame. accessible targets. ‘We’re not going to stalling the rocket. of... Well, no actually. More likely I’d
Countermeasures burst from his hull get a second shot at this.’ be branded a terrorist, imprisoned and
as he desperately tried to bring his ship Air was hissing out from my cabin, after that stunt, never see the light of
back round to engage the missiles, but it The fire abated as I streaked past the radar was on the fritz, and the main day again.
was too late. The fragmentation rounds the ship and the superheated metal computer was down hard. Some of the
tore through his hobbled fighter and a gave way on the Ground Pounder with auxiliaries were online, but the plasma When put like that, surrendering
moment later it crumpled inwards as an explosive burst of shrapnel, and cores had discharged and so I was now didn’t seem like such a good option
the reactor breached. for a moment I expected the bomber unarmed. Perfect. That didn’t matter after all.
to bug out. He didn’t change course much though, because I think that hunk
He didn’t have a prayer. though, just went in engines blazing. of cooling slag I could just make out I kicked the engine back into high
Not stopping even as a Rayy gun ripped through the polarised window were the gear and roared towards the planet.
The remaining bomber enveloped the through the containment on his reactor The ship wouldn’t survive re-entry, but
enemy fighters.
missiles screaming towards him in a hail and turned the ship into a fireball that I had a parachute and my suit would
of plasma and then we were through screamed through the hole, detonating The radar was patchy and quiet. survive a bit of buffeting around. I just
and had a free run on the Ground with a brilliant flare. Oddly quiet for a battle, but that needed to get in atmosphere.
Pounder. The fighters were scrambling might be because the receiver had
after us, but for a moment we had the I just sat watching with a slack jaw. been damaged. The only thing that ‘Fusion Bug Mu,’ a voice crackled
lead and the Ground Pounder was a He’d actually rammed it. punctuated the darkened sky was the in English. ‘You are ordered to stand
sitting duck. glow of falling debris, far below. Some down.’
I should have done that.
of it may even have been the enemy’s,
I roared with rage as I fired bolt after I just needed to hold them off for
A piece of shrapnel rushed past me, though nowhere near enough.
bolt towards the Ground Pounder, and thirty seconds. I’d be coming down in
it was only because the aiming assist and I caught one look of the symbol the Wastes, but that just meant it was
‘Oh no,’ I began, at last figuring out
was on that I hit anything. I was too etched onto it, but didn’t need to make even more doubtful they’d find me.
why it was so calm.
angry to aim properly, but still auto- a double take. My engine roared as I Only problem was, there was a fighter
cannon after auto-cannon detonated, hurled the ship away from the Ground ‘Rebels of Procyon,’ an American that would close in ten seconds.
or just evaporated, and we streaked Pounder and back towards the amber voice announced on every channel in
towards the ship, the bomber hot orb of Procyon. That had been the heavily accented Mandarin. ‘You are ‘F-bug,’ it repeated. ‘Stand down.’
behind me and the magnetic nimbus universal symbol for fissile material. I defeated. Surrender peacefully and no
don’t know what happens when you ‘And here we go,’ I muttered,
surrounding the main cannon visible in further harm shall come to you.’
slam a fusion reactor into a fission wondering idly if the radio could still
the rear view.
bomb, but I wasn’t going to stick around I muttered something unmentionable, transmit. I cut the engines and let
‘Break!’ he roared and for a moment to... and disengaged the engine. The battle myself drift, the enemy Dagger flicking

The Battle Over Procyon, by James Coughtrey Page 13
ISSUE 56

its thrusters to come up along side. A moment later I realised I was in My seat chute deployed a moment
trouble. The leaky engine had been later, as more ordinance streaked past,
I sighed once, deeply. Could I really damaged and was only just responding, and the lurch almost drove my skull
do this? Kill in cold blood. I kind of had a bearing must have slipped or down into my chest. A fireball roared
already, but they’d started shooting something, as I was beginning to spin. I past, no more than a kilometre away,
first. fought for control for a moment, finding and detonated with a roar that was
at least one vector that gave me thrust audible even in the thin air. Above my
The engines fired, straight towards
but only worsening the tumble. head I could see more debris hitting the James Coughtrey
the enemy fighter and the hull melted
atmosphere, and maybe a few flares
like butter. I raced away, spinning the A proper blast of air rocked the craft, James is a young author with far too
of still burning ships, but it struck me
drive and kicking the F-bug into full sending great globules of superheated much free time on his hands and too
a moment later. I’d survived. Heck, I’d
burn, a half dozen missiles firing from metal screaming past the cockpit many ideas in his head. He is currently
helped take down two major enemy
various sources across the enemy fleet. and flinging the nose into the sky as writing the first novel in his Vast Worlds
ships. I’d won.
Of course, the only ECMs out now would the gyros shrieked at me. The glass universe.
be mine, and they wouldn’t stand up to shattered under the pressure a moment ‘Ha. Take that universe!’ I hollered,
anything a proper fleet would muster. later, the shards being swept into the at last appreciating the adrenaline
Also, I wasn’t sure they were working. sky, and the wind hit me attempting to high. ‘Who else wants a piece of Kayo
shake me to pieces. I felt the harness Kaelem?’
I switched to a blind sprint, heading
tighten, praying that this was within
straight towards the planet with no A fireball flickered in my peripheral
the design limitations, and then felt the
care to just how fast I’d be going when I vision, and I watched in horror as the
sinking feeling of freefall setting in.
hit. I was almost certain space missiles twenty ton hunk of hull metal hurtled
didn’t work in atmosphere. Fighters The reactor had failed, taking what towards me.
don’t work in atmosphere either, but I’d remained of the Grav’ panels with it,
deal with that in a moment. and I just went for the eject handle. My ‘Oh shi...’ I began, throwing myself
canopy flew apart, to be taken by the from the chair far too late and the
The first drone of a missile alert world went dark.
wind and smashed into a million pieces,
rose to a deafening wail, and I flipped
then the candle lit beneath me and the #
the ship, pointing the exhaust straight
chemical rocket hurled my chair from
at the rocket and praying. Something No one wins in war.
the cockpit. The tempest slammed the
detonated, but the Grav’ panels took
headrest into my skull and I saw stars as
care of any shocks and my rear camera Even the bravest heroes die.
I went spinning from my stricken craft,
had melted a while ago. I was still there
though I’m not sure if they were real When my kids ask how I lost my arm I
a moment later, and the engine was still
or if it was all in my head. I was going too, tell them that ‘the war won’.
running, so what I didn’t know really
too fast for any kind of stabilising effect
couldn’t hurt me. But the fighter was in
from my chair, heck, I was high enough And that only a very long drop and a
a tumble, wisps of atmosphere playing
to see the curve of the planet, and I reserve parachute saved me.
around the edge of the canopy, and it
watched in horror as a second missile
was already beginning to get hot under I don’t suppose they’re listening
streaked past me and annihilated my
the collar. either.
poor F-bug.

The Battle Over Procyon, by James Coughtrey Page 14
ISSUE 56

The Green Planet “Let’s not worry about it,” said too smug with her own intelligence;
Cranston. He had a kind of western but he trusted her observations and
by Gordon Ross Lanser
cowboy presence, hardened and judgment. Whittaker knelt and began
trustworthy. He fastened an old- collecting items of the type Borch
fashioned power gun to his hip. “I’ve was sorting through, and they packed

G rant Whittaker’s thoughts “You okay?” asked Cranston. pinged the GS. We’re about two-and- their gear together.
emerged from darkness while a-half kilometers away, due west.
“I was out for a minute, I think. I’ll Gather your equipment and let’s get While he tossed aside damaged
an ill-defined mechanical whirring bio-test kits, Whittaker’s thoughts
vibrated his ear. His heart pounded, be all right.” the hell out of here.”
drifted. What was it about the home
and the reasons that had driven him The Ground Station, or GS as they planet that still lingered within him?
The others dropped from their
to explore the universe and leave the called it, had all the necessities of He had to leave Dianna. Why couldn’t
seats.
old terrestrial civilization bubbled up home, including purified air. Robotic his parents see that he wanted a
inside him. He could claim his reason “Well,” said Cranston, “the craft explorers had built the GS, which stronger woman, a freer woman,
for leaving was strictly his desire to took the worst of it for us. We’re all was to be a haven for the first human someone with a true love for living?
discover new worlds; but he could not lucky to be alive.” Cranston tapped explorers, the pre-colonists, to the Life on the home planet meant he
honestly say so. A static crack from his his finger on a palm-sized handheld planet. was going to be imprisoned by their
headset stopped his semi-conscious device. “We’re in for a hike. We judgments, and he’d wanted nothing
mind from drifting. should each take a few hours of air, “Two-and-a-half kilometers,” said of it. Space was the one place to
but the specs say we can breathe this Borch. “That isn’t far at all. It sounds go and be free of their world, their
Whittaker’s eyes flickered open. The as though we’re in luck.”
stuff and it won’t kill us right away.” binding judgments. He’d left Dianna
acrid scent of burnt electronics jolted
him. He turned his head. Everyone weeping on the stoop of her parent’s
“About twenty hours,” offered “Two plus klicks in this jungle?”
was upside down, strapped into their mansion, and then argued with
Whittaker. interjected Moreno. “It could take the
seats. Up ahead, Cranston unfastened his parents. He hadn’t looked back
better part of a day even if everything
his belts, hung onto his armrests, and “Nothing like being poisoned then, so why now? Besides, they all
goes right.”
swung down to what was intended to slowly,” said Alice Borch, the senior probably hated him.
be the cabin ceiling. biologist. “Somewhere between Borch inhaled as if she were going
A sharp pneumatic hiss and clang
eight and twelve hours the limbs to reply, but Cranston cut her off.
“Everybody all right?” at the forward hatch jolted him. The
become leaden, then the progression sound of the door hinges pumping
is to overall lethargy, then to physical “Get your things Science Officer
Whittaker, the rookie, groaned a Borch, and get ready for a hike.” and hissing continued reverberating
exhaustion, then spasms and coma.” in the cabin.
“Yes, all right,” and at about the same
time the others, Moreno and Borch, “Thanks for the nice picture, Borch,” Borch nodded.
did the same. “What’s wrong with the hatch?”
said Moreno, tightening the harness Whittaker was still shaking off Whittaker asked.
to her utility pack. the cobwebs. He watched as Borch
Whittaker released his safety
restraints and joined Cranston on the became intent on a kind of triage, “Obstructed.”
Whittaker’s eyes and thoughts
ceiling. He shook his head and took a bounced back and forth between ferreting out the lightest and most
Moreno tried the door at the rear
deep breath, grabbed the wall to keep the parties. He took a draw of his portable of the most important
of the cabin, from where an identical
from falling. atmosphere. equipment. She was a stiff, by-the-
hiss resounded. “Back hatch is clear,”
book personality, he knew, and a little

The Green Planet, by Gordon Ross Lanser Page 15
ISSUE 56

she called. world, and the jungle crawled around it must be the gaseous residue of rapid gear and standing. Borch groaned, and
him, wove upward and downward in decomposition.” Whittaker let out a grunt of his own as
“All right, let’s go,” said Cranston, and groves of low, multi-rooted shrubs, he slung his equipment. He watched
they each snapped on their masks and punctuated by thick trunks of towering “What’s that mean for us, will this Cranston lower the range-finder and
stepped through the portal into dense dome-like trees. Whittaker listened decomposition effect us, will we start turn until the yellow signal lights leveled
vegetation. Whittaker was awed by the while the tree next to him stretched and rotting?” asked Cranston. into a green direction arrow.
world around him. The jungle was filled strained upward. Part of the bark, yet
with twisting vines, huge tender tree “Oh no,” said Borch, “I don’t think it “This way,” Cranston said, “still a little
green, peeled off like snakeskin newly
trunks, and foliage that layered many should mean anything like that, except better than a klick-and-a-half to go.”
shed and rolled to the ground, where
times upon itself. The air was warm and that I’ll know what to look for in the
it quickly withered and disappeared #
thick with the stench of decomposition, lab. There may be fantastic amounts of
under the pale gas.
and a layer of ash-colored vapor a few microbial life at work here, evolved and They’d been weaving their way
inches high clung to the jungle floor. “The plant life is growing like mad,” dedicated to balance the vegetation.” through the jungle for the better part
The light was dim and yellowish, and he said to no one in particular. of three hours. Whittaker caught
Just then they heard a tearing sound
the world was oddly silent, except for himself drifting back to his departure
“Yes,” said Borch, “I’ll be interested in that morphed into a gigantic roar and
the faint sound of fiber stretching. from Earth, wondering if there’d been
reviewing my samples at the GS. If I am concluded in a ground-shaking thud.
Whittaker knew what that meant—the another way, wondering if he had
jungle was growing with such ferocity not incorrect, the write-up on this place thrown off the shackles laid upon him,
“I think one of these trees just fell,”
that one could hear it. stated no animal life had been found by or if he had simply run away from his
said Moreno.
our little robotic ground crew. We do obligations.
Cranston led them between know from preliminary work that these “Take a last sip of water,” said
competing sinuous plants, and they plants use a form of photosynthesis and Cranston, “and then let’s move out Soon, sunlight brightened the
disappeared into an abyss of leaf and respiration, just as does the plant life of before we start feeling the effects of surrounding undergrowth. Tangles of
vine. Earth. That means there has to be some the toxins...or get hit by a tree.” vines thinned and parted. Whittaker
kind of source for CO2.” followed directly behind Cranston, in
# Whittaker wiped at the sweat on his spite of the fact the first signs of toxin-
In spite of months of exercise in the “I just watched some bark peel off forehead, gulped a slug of water, and related heaviness had entered his legs.
G-chamber, real gravity was taking its of this tree,” said Whittaker. “It rolled snapped his hip-flask to his belt. Just Cranston stopped at the fringe of a
toll on their bodies. On top of that, the down and—” he felt for it with his then a shadow passed between two thirty-meter-wide sunlight-brightened
heat of the jungle was oppressive. By gloved hand, looked dead on at Borch, trunks to his left. He turned his head, but meadow. Along the meadow floor were
the time Cranston stopped and gave “it’s gone.” there was nothing but layer upon layer broad, wide-open, leaves about a meter
the team a break, Whittaker felt as if of foliage. He looked back to the others in diameter. At the jungle’s edge, black,
Borch frowned and then her eyes
he were slowly melting from the inside to see if they had noticed anything, buzzing, fist-sized balls fluttered down
widened. “Of course! There’s a
out. He snapped open the neckline of but none of them seemed alarmed. from the canopy, wafting this way and
chemistry of decomposition here that
his ultra-thin suit, took a whiff of clean Were the toxins already affecting his that until they fell to the open leaves.
supports the growth of the plants.
atmosphere from his tank, and wiped at judgment? He took another whiff of the If one of the black balls touched down
I’ve noticed the withering leaves,
his forehead with his left forearm. pure atmosphere he carried, thought into the mouth of an open leaf, the leaf
the droop of branches to the jungle
about it, and fastened the ventilation would snap shut.
He watched the pale gas collect bottom, without acknowledging the
mask over his face.
around his ankles. The air was ripe fact that the plants are dying. They live “Like Dionaea Muscipula, commonly
with the pungent scent of the fecund by dying, do you see? And this fog, why, “Let’s go,” Cranston said, lifting his known as Venus flytrap, on Earth,” said

The Green Planet, by Gordon Ross Lanser Page 16
ISSUE 56

Borch. “I caught a glimpse of something too,” At that word the bush-heads turned. gaining on their human visitors.
said Whittaker, joining the conversation. It was as if they had heard Borch,
“What about those black things?” “In the jungle a while back, a shadow because their stem-like bodies bent and Whittaker could hear the shake of
asked Cranston, “Are those insects?” or something, but I thought it was the pointed toward her. their leaves. In front of him, Cranston
toxins, that I was seeing things.” stopped, pulled out his pump gun and
“I couldn’t say until I’m closer, but—” Borch now whispered, “On Earth it whirled. Whittaker dropped to his
Borch stopped to watch them cascade Moreno shook her head. “No, sir, is common fact that plants move their knees. The whomp of the shock wave
like black snow from high in the canopy. you weren’t seeing things. And they’re leaves toward sunlight, and here, in a leaped from the compact gun, and the
standing right over there.” She only world of vegetation, they’ve evolved. force of the blow smashed the limbs of
Whittaker watched as Borch, with her
moved her eyes. Cranston and Whittaker They lift their shallow rooted stems and the bush to pieces. The other bushes
square, nearly masculine, figure, wove
both stiffened, then turned their heads take nutrients with them while they snapped at the flying bio-matter with
her way through the field. She stared
slowly to look at an angle behind and to hunt carbon-rich substances, like those their fibrous tongues, and trembled as
down at the flat plants, and watched as
the left. A half-dozen plants stood in the black seeds, and devour them. Even in the carbon was immediately digested.
they snap shut on one or two victims.
clearing. They hadn’t been there before. a world of plants, it is survival of the
She then watched the next several “Get into the jungle,” ordered
They had long stalk-like legs, some with fittest: grow more rapidly, move more
black balls fall into the opening created Cranston.
four, others with six, and leafy branch- quickly to food sources and light—”
by the closed snapping plant. The bug-
like arms. They also seemed to have a
like balls pulsated, and a milky ooze Whittaker remained frozen in place. Whittaker gawked at the still
head and a single, thorny face.
spurted forth. Moments later a sprout a His heart began to slam in his chest; his trembling bushes, staggered a step or
half-meter in height emerged. “Are they animal or vegetable?” respiration was shallow. He wanted to two, and then dashed away in earnest.
muttered Cranston. bolt, but instead just watched as the Beside him, Cranston took an awkward
“They’re seeds,” gasped Borch. step and stumbled forward. Cranston’s
plants began creeping toward Borch.
Whittaker took a pull of atmosphere, Just then one of the black fluttering left foot went down hard, directly into
and then took a step or two in Borch’s seeds wandered by the head of one “C’mon Moreno, Whittaker,” said the middle of one of the flat snapping
direction to get a closer look. of the mobile bushes. The neck of the Cranston, beginning to hop across plants. The jaws of the plant swung
mobile bush bent back and forward, the field of snapping plants. “On the shut and he screamed in agony. He
“We still have a Kay to go,” said
and the head spit some thorns, which double.” pointed the pump gun toward the edge
Cranston. “I’ll record the location, and
struck the seed. The seed cracked and of the plant and fired. The convulsion
you can come back on an expedition at Moreno followed Cranston expertly,
the milky white substance poured forth. splattered the plant but dropped him.
a later time.” stepping, hopping, and jumping quickly
At that moment, a fibrous green tongue His boot was melted onto his foot.
lashed outward from the bush, grabbed across the meadow. Whittaker hurried Cranston writhed among the remnants
Moreno brushed up next to Cranston.
the seed, and whipped it back into the after them. The thorn-faced pursuers of the shredded snapping plant.
Whittaker heard her say, in a low voice,
bush’s mouth. The bush then quivered, turned their heads, noticed the new Moreno was immediately beside him.
“Captain, I’ve been noticing something,
leaves shaking, for several seconds. movement, and began to follow the
something weird. The jungle, parts of it
threesome. The bushes were faster “Help me lift him,” she cried.
seem to be following us.”
Borch took several steps back toward than they looked, moving in long fluid
the team, her arm extended and finger strides through, around, or over the Whittaker hesitated for only a
“What do you mean?”
pointing. broad snapping plants that laced the moment, then came back to his
“Something has been paralleling us, open field. One bush took a misstep colleagues. His mind was racing and yet
through the jungle.” “Beautiful,” she said loud enough for and a snapping plant seized it, taking clear. He heard Moreno say, “Lift.”
all to hear. it down; the other bushes pressed on,

The Green Planet, by Gordon Ross Lanser Page 17
ISSUE 56

Whittaker, a lean young man of mumbled something and Whittaker between trees, and then, nothing.” they could drop the five kilo gear that
average height, strained under the lowered him to the ground. had given them their pure atmosphere.
weight of the larger, limp-bodied Whittaker finished wrapping the foot With the gravity of this world having
Cranston. Nevertheless he pulled “You’ll, have to go, without me,” and punched a mix of adrenaline and already beaten at their backs and legs,
Cranston to his feet while picking up Cranston said, his voice pausing with synthetic morphine into Cranston’s dropping the now useless gear gave
Cranston’s atmosphere tank. Looking each painful breath. shoulder. them a chance to gather a second
back, Whittaker saw the walking bushes wind, even if that wind brought a slow
“No way, Captain, you’re coming with Cranston gasped and opened his eyes.
steadying after their final shake, and death along with its putrid taste. They
me.” “Where are we?” he asked drunkenly.
taking up the pursuit once more. He took the chance to collect themselves,
glanced ahead to the far edge of the Whittaker’s legs shook as he lifted “About point half a klick from the GS,” resting in a little hidden tent of leaves,
meadow, where Borch was looking Cranston and pulled him deeper into said Moreno. “Those things are behind sipping water, wiping at the perspiration
madly about for some place to hide. the tangles of undergrowth. us, but we don’t know how far back and dirt on their faces. They knew they
they are or for how long they’ll stay were taking a strange gamble that paid
Moreno drove her head under “Dizzy,” Cranston muttered, “dizzy.” them back only if the balance between
back. And we’ve lost Borch.”
Cranston’s free arm, and grunted, gain and diminishment of strength fell
“On the double, to the jungle, they’re Whittaker slowed his pace, looked “Dead?” to their favor. They hoped they’d have
coming,” and they dragged Cranston anxiously around—vines, trunks, the energy for one final push that could
forward. As they neared the edge of the leaves, shadows. Where’s Moreno? “No, we don’t know, just lost her carry them to the Observatory.
jungle, Whittaker noticed that Cranston Where’s Borch? Where the hell is Alice somehow.”
was trying to use his good leg. The Borch? He heard the crack of a footstep, “So, Whittaker, still feeling like a
result was awkward but helpful. They whirled. Something was coming toward They lifted Cranston, who winced rookie?” asked Moreno.
quickly slid between hanging vines and him. He lowered Cranston, looked and gasped when he put some weight
into the jungle proper. As soon as they frantically for some kind of weapon. on the damaged foot. He buckled. “I He cracked a wry grin and stared at
had cover, Moreno dropped her side can’t,” he said, sliding from their arms. her. “Never more lost.”
and gave the range finder to Whittaker. “I told you I’d be just behind you,” “I’m finished.”
said Moreno, pushing through some Moreno was a tough woman with
“Take him home,” she said. vines. “We’ve got to keep moving. Moreno stood and turned from her hard features, high cheekbones,
Those things will only stop for so long.” captain. tobacco brown eyes, and a swarthy
“You can’t stay, there’s too many of complexion. Her body was hard,
them, you’ve got to come with us.” “The Captain’s sick. I think the “Borch!” She yelled. “Borch!” athletic, and lean. She was a soldier,
digestive juices aren’t just a kind of no doubt. Probably grew up on the
“I’ll be just behind you,” said Moreno, But there was no reply, save for the
acid, I think they inadvertently act as a other side of the tracks, had her tough
grasping the pump gun. “Now get the creak and groan of the jungle that
sort of venom. Either way, he’s having knocks, joined the marines.
hell out of here.” enveloped them.
his troubles—just look at his foot.”
# She looked away from him, off into
Whittaker strained forward into Moreno looked down and winced the jungle. “So why do you think these
the undergrowth, dragging Cranston at what she saw. Whittaker kneeled, Traveling in the dense jungle terrain things are chasing us?”
along with him. He heard the pump unrolled some bandages, and sprayed for but a couple of hundred meters was
gun fire, fire again, then again. Then the wounds with an ice cold solution. “I exhausting. With the pure atmosphere “I don’t want to sound like a joker,
he was surrounded by the heat and don’t know where Borch is,” he said as depleted, they were wholly dependent but I think they’re hungry. Borch was
eerie groaning of the jungle. Cranston he worked, “we went into the same gap on the alien air. The only benefit was that saying something about the life here

The Green Planet, by Gordon Ross Lanser Page 18
ISSUE 56

being on a rapid scale of growth and following the range finder. Leaf after serve as a human crutch as Cranston “No,” he said, “you go ahead. It’s
decomposition. She thought these pie-sized leaf slapped into their faces, limped onward. Moreno kept firing the faster. Go to the station. Radio Henry,
things were highly evolved, a plant that blinding them as they rushed onward. gun, plant sinew spraying away from then come back and get me.”
sensed and pursued nutrients. These The leaves parted, revealing a huge tree them, juices leaking from wounded
things want to eat carbon dioxide, and trunk, like a wall, in front of them. vegetation. Whittaker looked backward. “But—”
we’re a load of oxygen and carbon. The bushes—
“To the left!” said Moreno, and they “Go!”
Maybe they sense that, somehow. I
can’t say for sure.” moved left around their obstruction. “Moreno,” he cried out, “they’re
Whittaker lowered the Captain
Cranston winced along between them, behind us again!”
reluctantly, began to jog, then to run. His
“Gives me the creeps,” said Moreno, dragging the bloody remnant of his foot
Moreno whirled and fired. The blast legs were heavy and strained beneath
who rose with the pump gun held at and hopping on the other. Suddenly
tore into two of the bushes, while him. His lungs burned, and he coughed
her side. one of the walking bushes appeared.
several others behind them stopped and gasped as he struggled forward.
The neck bent backward, and jerked
Whittaker rose too, and tugged at and began shivering with the rush of The observatory was ahead, just ahead.
toward them; there was a hiss and
Cranston’s shoulder. “Captain,” he said, new food. A dim grayness invaded his eyesight,
thorns shot out, striking Moreno in the
“Time to get up.” squeezed his vision until he saw only a
shoulder, Cranston in the forehead. The
“Go on!” she ordered, “Get to the small tunnel. He was nearly to the GS,
group collapsed with the shock and
Cranston’s face was pale and his body observatory.” only a few more steps. He staggered
sting of the attack. Moreno crumpled
was crumbled against a tree trunk, as if and fell against the ladder that led to
to the ground, dropping the gun as she “Where! Which way?”
he were a rag doll. the main floor. He coughed and gasped
fell. Whittaker picked himself off the
for air, his chest heaving as he pulled
“Leave me,” he moaned, “leave me.” ground, reached over Cranston, and “Straight ahead, straight ahead! Go
himself up by the hand rails. He got to
fumbled for the gun. His hand slapped where I was shooting!”
the airlock, began keying in the code. An
“Can’t do that Captain,” said Moreno, into the ground-clinging fog and grazed
Whittaker pulled Cranston along, the alarm sounded, the hatch hissed open,
stepping toward him. the blasting cone. His fingers ran over
heat, the leaden legs, the oppressive and he collapsed to the floor inside. His
the handle. And then the gun was gone,
“It’s an order.” atmosphere slowing him, slowly wilting head was spinning—I have to get back
taken from his hand.
his will. Leaf after leaf slapped into his to Cranston, he thought, Cranston.
“I didn’t hear it.” Moreno straightened up and aimed. face, and then... #
Whomp! Green gelatin sprayed
Some leaves crackled, some vines He staggered from the jungle into a Minutes later and still disoriented,
outward, and the creature slumped to
moved. Less than two meters away, a vast clearing. Across the way, several Whittaker rose weakly from the
the smoky jungle floor.
thorny head punched forward. Moreno small robots were tending to a dirt field, metal floor and weaved to the
aimed the pump gun and fired. A pulse Another mobile bush stepped their treads whirling as they rushed communications console. He yanked on
resonated outward, clapped against the forward. Whomp! back and forth to keep the field free an emergency pack next to the console
undergrowth. of vegetation with defoliant spray and and pulled out an atmosphere mask.
Moreno lifted the range finder, found razor sharp digging claws. Beyond them, Three full even breaths cleared some
“Come on!” she yelled. the green arrow, and aimed the gun one hundred meters distant, was the of the fog in his head. He dropped the
into the jungle. She began firing round large silver sheen of the observatory. mask and flipped on the transmission
Whittaker lifted Cranston by one arm,
after round, cutting a swath in the center.
Moreno lifted him by the other. They
direction of the observatory. Whittaker “C’mon, Captain, c’mon.”
hurried into the leaves ahead of them,
grabbed Cranston, allowing himself to “Observation Station, this is the

The Green Planet, by Gordon Ross Lanser Page 19
ISSUE 56

ground team, this is Ground Station had just lifted Cranston and had begun # could know.
One, we’re in trouble, big trouble—an to urge him forward. Moreno staggered
They had used a rocket full of Super-P
emergency. We need you for an evac, under Cranston’s weight and from the
to blast the rescue Lander back into
immediately. Over.” effect of the toxins in the air. Whittaker
space and rendezvous with the Orbiter.
began running toward his comrades.
Static. Now they looked down at the planet, so
“Come on, Captain,” he heard lush with verdant green.
“Henry, do you read me?” Moreno rasping. The two collapsed in
How small of me, Whittaker thought,
front of him. The shrubs were nearly
Static. to bring home with me. Reflecting,
upon them. Whittaker raised the rifle
worrying; his memories were less than
“Henry!” and let a blast stream out. The nearest
fantasy, unable to be affected in any Gordon Ross Lanser
shrub melted away under the power
way by what he did here. Everything he
Static. of the shot. Whittaker took aim and
had known there was gone. The old life Gordon Ross Lanser’s writing has
fired again, and then again, and he
He took another pull on a pure was dead; this was a new life; and his published nearly 20 stories over the
kept firing until only shreds of the
Earth atmosphere mix, and stood. The eyes fixed on the planet below. This was past few years, in genres ranging from
predators remained. Yet behind them,
cobwebs were abating. He walked to an his home now. A smirk lifted the edges magical realism to science fiction blends.
in the distance, many more plants were
observation window and looked across of his mouth. His work has appeared in Café Irreal,
entering the clearing.
the clearing. Fifty meters away was Burning Sky, Gateway Science Fiction,
“So full of life,” said Whittaker, staring Dark Moon Rising, C/Oasis, Ascent,
Cranston, on his back. Suddenly, from Just then a roar bellowed from
through the port hole. New Voices in Horror, Wild Violet, and
the jungle behind him, came Moreno, the sky. They all looked upward, and
who staggered across the clearing and watched the red tail of an automated AlienSkin Magazine. He lives in Seattle
“Life,” said Cranston, looking at the
fell near Cranston. rescue Lander as it darted from the with his wife and four children, and
medication tube where his foot was
heavens toward the GS. All Whittaker works in the high technology field as a
being washed and repaired, “and
Whittaker shuffled to the defense could think was, “I hope it doesn’t fail consultant.
death.”
locker and took out a streamlined pump like ours did.”
gun, whose long cylinder increased the “They go together,” Whittaker
focus and intensity of the blast. Then he A blast of smoke and dust plumed replied. “They feed on one another.
took another look out of the window. from the top of the ground observatory Isn’t that part of our fascination?”
Moreno was kneeling beside the as the craft settled.
Captain now, trying to stir him, and the He fell silent then, and stared through
mobile plants—a dozen—had emerged “To the station,” Cranston muttered. the port hole. His eyes lingered on the
from the jungle. surface of the green planet, where new
Whittaker and Moreno dragged
leaves trembled and spread against
There was no waiting. Whittaker Cranston across the field and lifted
sunlight, and the bark of trees peeled
slapped a cartridge into place and him into the GS. When they closed
and sloughed to a smoky jungle floor.
pushed his way through the airlock and the hatch, hundreds of plants were
There, little metal robots churned and
onto the main platform. He jumped loping across the clearing, many of
whirred and cast defoliant in widening
down with a thud, rolled, and got up. them wobbling and collapsing from
arcs, trying to defend their barely
The plants were creeping across the the effects of defoliant, others spitting
significant clearing against a force far
defoliated soil toward where Moreno thorns in vain at the fleeing visitors.
more powerful and patient than they

The Green Planet, by Gordon Ross Lanser Page 20
ISSUE 56

Lifeline: His footsteps moved past me once would be no denying my guilt.
more, so I tilted my head to the side.
An Aston West Tale With my vision cleared, I gained my “Based on this evidence, the
by T. M. Hunter first glimpse of the doctor. His blue Trustees believed your life was being
gown was one piece, a perfect match squandered, and issued the order to
bring you in for the procedure.”
It was the last time I’d ever accept a The voice was calm. “Grace Memorial for the cap tight atop his skull.
drink from an unfamiliar woman. Hospital, Mister West.” He turned to face me. A white mask I scowled. “What procedure?”
I squeezed my eyes tight in a futile Hospital? covered his nose and mouth, and his
“Harvesting, of course.”
attempt to shut out what little light wrinkled skin hollowed out around
entered. Nothing stopped the pain “Wait. Who are you? How do you his gray eyes. They lit up as he cracked My eyes grew wide. “You can’t!”
from slamming against the inside of know my name?” a hidden smile. “No permission was
my skull. I eased my eyelids open, necessary.” “As I stated, they own your body.
The man stepped into view, but I They’re free to take any of your body
remembering the last drink I’d had, “The hell it wasn’t!” I fought even
didn’t see much as a bright disk of parts they wish.”
which wouldn’t have done this much more, until a line of blood trickled
light flashed in my face. Orange spots
damage. She’d drugged me, there along the back of my left hand. This wasn’t a specific crime, but a
did a little dance before my eyes.
was no mistaking it. mass judgment on my life as a whole.
His words didn’t waver. “Doctor “The Trustees issued a summons Goosebumps rose along my skin.
The walls in front of me were decayed for your arrest. They own your body
Handel Moarte, Mister West, and we
gray stone, overgrown with fuzzy now.” “And do what with them?”
know all about you.”
mildew. I stood with my back flat
against a table. Nothing but cold Moarte’s footsteps moved back to “Arrest? On what charge?” As far as I “Give them to more deserving
metal touched my backside. A rush where they started. knew, I hadn’t done anything wrong. individuals. We already have a
of frigid air flew under a thin gown Not recently, anyway. mother of three slated for your heart,
draped over me. I shivered. He ducked into my blind spot and I and your legs will be given to a young
heard scribbling. “Crimes against society.” man born with both of his deformed.
I didn’t have my jacket, so couldn’t Once your other parts are placed into
contact my ship’s computer to get my “How?” “You’ll have to be more specific.” This
the system, I’m certain they’ll find
current location, or come and pick me had to be some sort of scare tactic.
“We’ve been following your exploits suitable homes.”
up. I had no clothes on, and that was Every law enforcement agency had its
disturbing because I didn’t see any for some time. The Trustees felt you own gimmick. “I feel for those people, really I do,
sign of the woman who’d given me a were a perfect candidate for the but I’m rather attached to every part
drink. procedure.” “All of the criminal activities you
of my body.”
participate in. Thievery, arms
A male voice spoke behind me. “Ah, Procedure? trafficking, shall I go on?” He ignored my comment. “It’s too
you’re awake.” bad your liver has been tainted from
Struggling against the restraints only “No.” Unfortunately, it seemed
dug the bracelets deeper into my skin. so much alcohol consumption.”
I tried to move, but my wrists and these people considered taking
ankles were chained to the table by abandoned goods as theft and the I rolled my eyes and gave a nervous
“Try to relax, Aston.” mere possession of illegal arms as
metal bracelets. “Where am I?” laugh. “That is too bad.”
“I didn’t agree to any procedure.” trafficking. If that was the case, there

Lifeline:
An Aston West Tale , by T. M. Hunter Page 21
ISSUE 56

Moarte walked back to the front, with escaping this planet. “I know I don’t.” I struggled against the misuse what they’ve been given.”
another smile on his hidden lips. He restraints with nothing more to show
chuckled. “But if not for your addiction, That was a big if. for it but more blood. “Misuse? According to whom?”
we wouldn’t have had such an easy
“Now, let’s get you off to surgery, shall “So, no one will be speaking to them.” Finally, his calm façade broke, which
time getting you here.”
we?” Moarte tucked the pad under his wasn’t what I was going for. “Mister
My face burned. If I thought I had a arm and spoke into the air. “Gurney, “Except you.” West, with you being this incorrigible,
chance of getting out of this, or felt I surgery room A.” I have no doubts in the Trustees’
We entered a service lift with metal decision.”
could carry out the promise, I would
The bed rotated until I lay flat on my walls. The entire ceiling contained bright
have sworn off alcohol then and there.
back. Wheels squeaked underneath fluorescent lights, so I closed my eyes to The lift came to a stop, then jarred the
But then, I’d been doing so most of my
me as the apparatus rolled out into a protect them. The compartment jolted entire compartment as it dropped into
life.
corridor fashioned from the same gray and gears growled behind the walls. We its final position and the doors opened.
The doctor continued his examinations stone as the room. My face passed climbed slowly. “Now, please be quiet,” he muttered.
and took various measurements under a number of dim bulbs in domed “This is a hospital, after all.”
reflectors. With no way to stop my The doctor continued. “I’ve never met
which he marked in a black pad. I ran
deadly journey, I was at the doctor’s them, either.” “Butcher shop, more like it.”
through my possibilities for escape.
Unfortunately, it was a short list and mercy.
I turned my head to the side and Moarte stepped over to the gurney. He
mainly encompassed using the metal opened one eye, then the other. There cast a long shadow over my face. “Do I
Unless I found a better way to stall. “I
restraints to free one of my hands from was a brief glimpse of my face reflected need to gag you?”
want to see these Trustees.”
its arm. Not a pleasant thought, nor in the wall. My shoulder-length wavy
useful. Maybe I could bleed into the His tone was unwavering. “I’m afraid hair was disheveled and my blue eyes I clamped my mouth shut as the table
doctor’s eyes? that won’t be possible.” were even duller than usual. I looked at continued its squeaky journey. We
the doctor’s reflection. “Then, how do crossed a pale green corridor, where
I needed to stall. “Where’s my stuff?” “Why not? How many of them are I glanced over and saw two nurses
you know they even exist?”
there?” conversing at a corner station. They
“Not to worry. All of your personal
“They send electronic messages.” fell silent and watched me. I couldn’t
effects have been boxed up and will be “Twelve, but no one meets them.” tell if their eyes were filled with pity or
auctioned off for a local charity.” I may have found a way to plant some disdain. Frowns made it obvious they
“If they’re going to sentence me to self-doubt in the good doctor. “You’re
“And where is local?” weren’t on my side.
death, they should at least tell me so to murdering people based on messages
my face.” from a group you’ve never met?” Another set of sliding doors opened
His forehead scrunched as he peered
past his mask. “Hopefully the knockout opposite the elevator and we entered
“Their anonymity must be preserved, “I’m not murdering anyone.”
drug didn’t damage your brain. You’re a surgical area. The gurney turned and
even from those about to die.”
still on the planet Farlig.” positioned me head-first in the corner.
“Killing people to harvest their organs
“Why?” and limbs certainly sounds like murder
The same place where I’d accepted the I ignored his earlier warning, hoping he
to me.” would forget he’d given it. I had nothing
drugged drink. At least my ship would “It’s best if they keep their appearances
be stuck at the space dock where I’d left to a minimum. Not everyone agrees to lose, really. You couldn’t get much
“It’s giving good people their lives back.
it. If I could figure out a way out of my with their vision.” worse than being hacked to pieces.
They deserve it more than those who
current predicament, I’d have a shot at “Mind sitting me up for a bit before we

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ISSUE 56

do this?” quickly. Guess we’d better move this That was little comfort to me, but my death was too overwhelming.
along.” heart was ecstatic at the reprieve, as
“Quiet!” The doctor’s footsteps echoed fast as it was pumping. Another pair of “I’ll be right back.” He rushed out the
as he walked away. I tilted my head and I stumbled over my words. “Come on, arms popped out from behind my head. double doors.
watched him sit at a small desk along Doc. You don’t need to do this.” The first had a huge laser scalpel at one
the wall, his back to me. He placed the I had no time to figure out an escape
end, with the second a small brick-like
pad beside a flat panel display terminal, He walked to the gurney, reached plan while I blinked the salty fluid out of
device. Both were encased in black
then began touching parts of the screen behind it and pulled out a patch cord. my eyes. The doctor wouldn’t be gone
plastic, a grim reaper of the modern
and staring intently. He plugged it into a wall port, stood and forever, and I was out of ways to stall.
age. I needed to find a way out of this
turned back to me. There was no escape.
and fast.
“A new message from the Trustees,” he
explained, even if I wasn’t interested. “Technically, I won’t be doing much Out of the emptiness, a familiar voice
I struggled once more just before the
other than closing up containers and called. “Aston?”
chains pulled my limbs taut. “Doc, at
I needed a good look at my surroundings, getting them shipped off. The table is
least give me something for the pain.” I had to be hallucinating. My ship’s
which was hard to do flat on my back. programmed to do the work.”
“I think I’m getting nauseous. You like computer? “Jeanie?”
“Relax, Mister West. It’ll be over soon.”
cleaning up vomit?” He folded his arms across his chest.
“Begin program.” “Yes.”
A green scanner beam from the brick
He cursed, turned, and scowled at me. rapidly moved back and forth across
Various motors whirred and clicked as I’d never been so happy to hear her
“Gurney, return to memory position.” my body, stepping down from top to
the table came to life. Thin mechanical sexy voice. I almost cried.
The mechanism lifted to the same bottom. “What happened to doctors
position I’d started this mess in. arms emerged from the undercarriage
doing no harm?” Almost.
and approached me while the bed
I looked over at the butcher. “Thanks, rotated back to horizontal. With “It’s for the greater good.” “Where are you?”
Doc.” He ignored me and went back precise accuracy, some sliced the
to studying the display, so I glanced at gown to pieces and tossed the fabric The laser scalpel moved closer and “Stationed at the space dock. When
a box sitting beside his desk. My name aside. Others attached monitors to my stopped just below my neckline. One you did not return, I began a search and
was plastered on the end. My crap. skin, before the whole slew of them last chance to stall. I heaved quick noticed you were checked into Grace
disappeared back into the hidden spots breaths and choked on my words. “Pain Memorial Hospital. Have you fallen ill?”
Directly to my left and right were from which they came. killers, Doc? Have a little mercy.” A
two sterile tables filled with clear muted whine grew louder as the reaper “Jeanie, they’re trying to kill me.” She
containers of various sizes. Lids rested All of this was going way too fast. “Doc, brought itself online. didn’t respond, probably because the
between those and the bright white stop this madness!” information didn’t compute. “Are you
wall. Warning labels were slapped on He sighed and growled under his hacked into the hospital’s computer
each box waiting to be stuffed with He watched a display panel above my breath. “Pause program.” system?”
my organs. Suddenly, I didn’t have to head. “Don’t worry, Mister West. It
pretend to be nauseous. won’t take long, but unfortunately I inhaled deeply and pushed it out as “Yes, but I do not understand...”
you’re going to experience quite a bit of the scalpel powered down. My heart
The doctor pushed himself away from pain. We have to put off the extraction kept pounding and sweat rolled off my “No time to explain. I’m in a set of
the desk. “Well, it seems the mother of your heart and lungs until last. Can’t shaking body. At this point, I should have electronic restraints. Surgery room A.
I mentioned has taken a turn for the deprive the other organs, you know.” regretted every criminal act I’d ever Can you release me?”
worse, and is going to need that heart performed, but the fear of impending

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ISSUE 56

“One moment.” My fear shot through without ammunition before I had to. I shook my head. “Self-preservation is With footsteps beating the floor and
the roof, because the doctor could “Maybe they can send your heart off to different than being a criminal.” getting closer, I wrapped my left arm
enter the room at any moment. It that mother of three.” around the doctor’s throat and spoke
wasn’t the first time Jeanie had gotten “Whatever it takes to convince yourself.” into the transmitter embedded in my
me out of a hot spot, but it had been a He stepped inside and lifted his arms sleeve. “Jeanie, are you in range yet?”
high, clutching a medication dispenser. The doctor walked toward the lift and
long time since things had been cut so I nearly passed out at the sight of my
The door closed behind him. the doors opened. One of the nurses
close. In the lull, I saw the small speaker bloody hand.
down the hall saw us and screamed. I
embedded in the ceiling which she was
“Now, Doc, you’re going to help me grabbed Moarte, pulled him close, then “I am now.”
using to communicate with me.
escape.” stuck my blaster in his side.
All four bracelets released at the same The troops rushed into the tee
“I will not.” “Sorry, Doc. We’ll have to take the intersection and concentrated their
time. Naked, I rolled off the table and hit
stairs.” There wasn’t any way I’d get weapons on me. I knew immediately
the floor. My pulse raced as I scrambled “Sure you will. You’re a helpful guy.” I trapped in a lift when they killed the the doctor wouldn’t be any help. I
on all fours to the box beside the desk. carefully worked my shirt and jacket on, power. raised my voice. “Jeanie, meet me out
I tossed the lid aside and grabbed my shifting hands as necessary to keep the
holster, then yanked on my black pants front.”
weapon trained on him. A nurse spoke into her handheld
and started ripping monitors off my transmitter. “Hostage situation in the “Acknowledged.”
skin. “Do you plan to kill me?” Organ Transfer Wing, surgery center.”
The doctor’s head turned. “You’ll never
I called to the speaker. “Jeanie, pick me There was no fear in his voice, which “Time to go.” I rushed Moarte toward make it.”
up.” I thought odd, considering how the nurses’ station. He struggled. I
frightened I was when he was ready jabbed the Mark II’s barrel in a bit One of the squad took charge. “Let
“Where?” to chop me to pieces. “Not unless I more. “Go!” the doctor go!”
have to. Now, set that thing down.” I
“Contact me once you’re in range. I’ll
motioned toward his dispenser. That got him moving. I peeked out from behind his head.
tell you then.”
Seven guards. I’d need a lot more luck
He carefully placed it on the floor. As we passed the corner, I looked down than usual. “Not until I’m safely on my
“Acknowledged.”
“You plan to take me as a hostage? the side corridor. An armed guard in full ship and out of here.”
The door popped open, and I Apparently, the Trustees weren’t far off combat gear rushed into view. More of
instinctively pulled out my Mark II in their assessment of you.” his closest friends joined him. “Listen to the doctor. You won’t make
and trained the blaster on the doctor. it.”
“Quiet! You’re in a hospital, “Freeze, scum!”
Moarte’s eyes went wide. “What is
remember?” I kicked the dispenser I took the opportunity to ease across
this?” For emphasis, a series of blast rifle shots
aside and motioned him toward the the corridor with every single barrel
double doors. struck the wall behind me. The nurses following me. “Then he won’t, either.”
“Come on in, Doc. Let’s chat.”
dove for cover. I raced out of the line of I had no intention of killing the man,
He looked toward the hallway behind Maybe I was fooling myself. I always sight, turning the doctor into a shield. despite the fact he’d tried doing so to
him, ready to bolt. I flipped the switch figured to be one of the good guys. This was the first time I’d ever taken a me. These people didn’t need to know
on the side of my weapon. “That’s Perhaps I really was as terrible as these hostage, so I wasn’t sure he’d be worthy that.
full automatic,” I lied. I had no extra people thought. enough to keep them from shooting.
energy clips, and wouldn’t leave myself “Aim!”

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An Aston West Tale , by T. M. Hunter Page 24
ISSUE 56

So much for negotiating my escape. I burst into bright natural light and T.M. Hunter
shielded my face as pebbles and other
Moarte’s breathing was as fast as debris flew by. The side hatch of my T. M. Hunter has always had a
mine. I whispered in his ear. “Pull that ship opened. I ran for the opening and fascination with aerospace and
door.” jumped inside. travel to other worlds, earning a
B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from
He yanked it open just as the guard “Jeanie, get us out of here!” the University of Kansas. He has had
shouted. “Fire!” several short stories published, with
The hatch closed behind me as we Little White Truths (Ray Gun Revival,
Blasts struck the metal as we rushed lifted off. I took refuge on the metal November 1, 2007) winning a top ten
through the doorway. I pushed him floorboards while my heart pounded finish in the 2007 Preditors & Editors
toward the stairs. “Go! I’ll catch up.” inside my chest. My eyes wide, I shook Readers Poll. HEROES DIE YOUNG
uncontrollably. This was closer to (September 2008) is his first novel
He rushed down two steps at a time,
death than I’d ever come before. I was and was awarded Champagne Books’
ready and willing to run from those who
fortunate to have my body parts, and Best-Selling Novel of 2008 Award. His
tried to kill him for being in the wrong
my life, still intact. second novel, FRIENDS IN DEED, came
place at the wrong time. I flipped the
switch back to the single-shot setting. out from Champagne Books in January
For the time being.
I fired an energy blast, and he fell on 2010. For more information about
the next landing. The blast wouldn’t Aston West and author T. M. Hunter,
kill him, but he wouldn’t have friendly please visit http://AstonWest.com.
thoughts when he came to.

“Sorry, Doc.”

I rushed up the stairs, hoping my
would-be killers heard me talking with
Jeanie. The door burst open as I turned
the next flight. The entire squad started
for the ground level, ignoring the doctor
completely, and I carefully stepped up
the stairs.

As we grew farther apart, I lifted my
bloody hand once more. This time, I
mumbled. “Jeanie, change of plans.”

“I’ve arrived at the hospital.”

“Meet me on the roof.”

“Acknowledged.”

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An Aston West Tale , by T. M. Hunter Page 25
ISSUE 56

The Vnimajici people stopped. Carlita looked at the buffet table
next to them. Her twelve-year-old
by Caleb Jordan Schulz The robot’s head rotated to take in cousin, Bernardo, sat munching on a
the entire crowd. On its chest, behind fried arepa smothered in honey.
a grid-like pattern of wire mesh,
amber light flared. “Necessary expel “How do you know?” asked Carlita.

W hen the robots burst into the robot. commander. Continue without reply
and must will interrogate. Consider “I read.” Bernardo held up a comic
banquet hall, a hush fell over warning for two minutes. Continue book.
the crowd. A pair of robots blocked People looked around in shock and
each exit as one robot rolled onto the confusion. Carlita opened her mouth your movements. Play your devices.
Move. Speak. Do not deviate.” Carlita rolled her eyes.
stage. It was identical to the other to speak when a voice spoke up from
robots—man-sized, with a metal across the hall. It pointed its fork at the quartet of “I’m serious,” said Bernardo. “That
triangular torso and a blocky head lit musicians onstage. “Continue.” metal thing in its torso is a ray gun.”
up with three white lights. A long two- “There’s no commander here.”
pronged fork extended from its torso. The terrified musicians picked up Carlita peered around several
It scanned the crowd, who looked Carlita recognized Juan Herreras, people at the robot in the nearest
a tall man with bushy eyebrows and their instruments and fumbled into
back with fear and confusion. a salsa. The robot levelled the metal doorway. On its shining torso a metal
curly hair. Carlita didn’t know him rod stuck out. She thought it looked
well. Her mother-in-law invited him. fork at the gathered people.
Across the room, past the piles of like long fork for barbecuing.
presents and the wreaths of flowers, “Continue. Do not deviate.”
next to a mountainous layer cake, “There’s no commander here,” Juan “I don’t know...”
stood Carlita Salamea. Carlita’s hair repeated, his words slurring from too People began dancing awkwardly,
was an exquisite masterpiece, her much cerveza. “Now whatever trick nervously watching the robots. Bernardo shrugged and went on
gloves were made of the finest silk, this is—it isn’t funny. Now get out of watching the robot.
and her white dress was like a flotilla here.” Carlita could barely contain her
of flowers, but her beautiful dark eyes fury. “What the hell is going on?” Her “What do you suppose they meant
shot daggers at the robots. “Extricate self from group. Join eyes found her husband, Lorenzo, in by commander?” asked Aunt Paola.
come with us.” the crowd. He looked as shocked and
No one invaded a wedding angry as her. She motioned for him to “It is just gibberish,” said Aunt
reception, especially not hers. Not “I’m not going anywhere with you.” Marleny. “I mean, for god’s sake, who
stay where he was.
after the many months of choosing would invade a wedding reception?”
the invitations, forming the guest list, “Walk or extricate memory node
we will.” “I’m sure this is just some sort of
finding the right caterer, securing the joke,” said her Aunt Paola, patting “Gringos...” muttered Uncle Fercho.
musicians, selecting the dresses, and, Carlita’s hand. Carlita glanced down at her elderly
“I’m not going anywhere.” uncle whose mind rarely strayed from
not the least of all, booking the finest
banquet hall in Cali, Colombia in the The robot’s torso flared with red Carlita glanced at her and Aunt his memories.
middle of May. light. The robot levelled its fork Marleny. Her twin aunts wore
matching maroon dresses and gloves. Aunt Marleny rolled her eyes. “Be
and a burst of blue-white light shot quiet Uncle Fercho.”
Onstage, the robot rolled forward. out, striking Juan in the chest. Juan Their long black hair was tied into
Hollow monotone words echoed convulsed and dropped to the floor. braids.
from it. “Where is commander?” “It’s looking for our leader,” said
“They shot Juan,” said Carlita. “We Bernardo. “Invaders always want the
“Extricated memory node. Node leader.”
People looked around. Many of faulty. Animal is not commander. all saw it.”
the guests were ex-military and wore Expel commander! Immediate!”
their uniforms to the event. But no “Don’t be so dramatic. There wasn’t “But there isn’t any leader here,”
one stepped forward. any blood.” said Carlita, her hands balled in fists.
Women screamed and people
bolted for the exits, but the robots “You could just ask the robots to
“Where is commander?” asked the there leveled their pronged forks, and “It was a ray gun.”

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ISSUE 56

be more specific. But, then again, they “Military? We’re not military. This “They’re not spoiling my day. I It aimed the fork at her head.
might fry you for asking,” said Bernardo. is a wedding reception. My wedding promise you.”
reception.” “Nonsense. You already went through
The band stopped playing as the Bernardo nervously turned his comic that with my niece, Carlita. Now—why
robot rolled to the front of the stage. Its “No lies, human. You cannot hide— over in his hand. “Then you have to are you metal?”
torso lights flared. your uniforms, your marching.” figure out how to beat them.”
“It is logical.”
“Time passed. Expel commander. “What marching?” “How would you do that?”
Immediate. Immediate!” “I mean why metal? Wouldn’t
The robot pointed at a frightened Bernardo was quiet for a moment. something made out of a nice cotton or
It levelled its fork at a woman nearby couple who stood clutching each other. “I’d turn them off.” silk be better?”
who swooned. “March.”
“How?” “The Vnimajici does not understand.”
“There is no commander!” screamed They stared at the robot, clueless.
Carlita. “I don’t know, but every machine is “Metal’s just so ugly.”
“March! As you were when we powered by something—electricity,
Silence followed her words. arrived.” solar, nuclear, whatever. If you turn if “Ugly.”
off—they don’t work.”
The robot turned. “You are Carlita rolled her eyes. “That’s not “I don’t mean to offend you. I mean,
commander.” marching. That’s dancing.” “They might kill me if I tried.” maybe it’s not your fault. Maybe
someone made the decision for you.
“No, I’m not a commander. There’s no “There will be no dissemination.” Bernardo shrugged and ate a peanut. It’s like my other niece, Valeria—she
commander here. This is my wedding!” “They’ll probably kill us all anyway.” dresses her son, Enrique, horribly. It’s
“I’m not lying. If you want the military, not his fault, you understand, that he’s
Everyone’s eyes went from her to the you’ve got the wrong people. The army Carlita frowned. dressed so bad. So—maybe you’re like
robot. base is up the road. You’re at the wrong Enrique and you didn’t have a choice.”
address.” “Time passed. Expel commander.
The robot pointed its fork at her. Immediate. Immediate!” “The Vnimajici have choice.”
“Deviation!” “The Vnimajici are not incorrect.” The
robot scanned the crowd. “You have two Carlita leaned toward Aunt Paola and “Can you wear something other than
“I’m not deviating. You said to not minutes to expel commander. Continue whispered, “I need you to buy me some metal?”
deviate and I was talking before. So I’m your movements and marching. Do not time. Ask it a question.”
talking now. And by definition, I’m not deviate.” Its lights blinked yellow. “No.”
deviating. Now—I have a question.” Aunt Paola’s eyes widened. “And
Carlita turned to Bernardo and have it shoot me with that whatever- “Doesn’t sound like much of a choice
The robot tilted its blocky head. whispered, “What do your comics say you-call-it? No.” to me. And another thing—why no
“Expel your question.” about aliens.” colors?”
“It didn’t shoot me. I need time to
“Who are you?” “Well, we don’t know these are think. Please...it’s my wedding.” “The Vnimajici has color.”
aliens. They’re robots, sure, but they
“We are the Vnimajici.” could be from our world or...” Aunt Paola sighed and nodded. “Well, if you call gray metal a color.
“Consider this your wedding gift, dear.” And those lights don’t really count.
“Why have you invaded my wedding?” “I don’t care where they’re from. I She straightened her shoulders, faced I mean, it’s not color. Now, some
just want them out of my reception the robot, and spoke loudly. “Why are horizontal stripes might be nice...”
“We seek your commander.” hall.” you made of metal?”
“Not horizontal, dear...” said Aunt
“There isn’t a commander.” “They don’t seem like they’re going “Deviation!” cried the robot. Marleny.
to leave.” “Deviation!”
“Lies! All military have commanders.” “Deviation. Deviation!”

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ISSUE 56

“Settle down. We all heard you Carlita stepped forward and said, “Vnimajici. I got that. But can you something for us. Some salsa.”
say that before, but clearly we’re not “You say you have harnessed the sun?” dance?”
deviating,” said Aunt Marleny. The band looked from the robot
“It works for us.” The robot flashed green then blue to Carlita. They picked up their
“Why not horizontal?” asked Aunt then red lights. “What is dancing?” instruments and began a lively salsa.
Paola. “How?” Carlita motioned for her husband to
“Remember what you thought was come to her. He walked to her and she
“Well, it’s...” Aunt Marleny gestured “We store the sun within us.” marching before? That is dancing.” grabbed his hand.
at the robot. “...sort of wide. Horizontal
stripes would only make it look wider.” “Like a battery?” “Dancing is marching to music noise.” “Dance with me,” she said.
“Oh yes, I see what you mean. It is “In your human minds—yes.” “Sort of, so can robots...err...can the Their feet slid across the floor,
sort of girthy.” Vnimajici dance?” stepping in rhythm to the music.
Carlita tapped her chin with a Lorenzo twirled Carlita, who spun like a
“It?” asked the robot. “Girthy?” manicured nail. “I have a battery- “The Vnimajici does not need to... parasol. She glanced over her shoulder.
powered cellphone and it runs out all dance.” The robot was watching.
“Wide,” said Aunt Marleny. “Not that the time.”
it’s anything to be ashamed of. Look at “Well maybe you don’t need to. But “It’s so easy!” Carlita called. “Try it,
Cousin Rosario, she’s been fat since she “The Vnimajici are not a cellphone.” I’d think the Vnimajici would be able to Vnimajici!”
was born and she’s such a nice girl.” do at least what humans can do.”
“But a cellphone is so small and you She kept dancing and out of the
“Though she does eat too many are so big. You’re battery must be the “The Vnimajici are superior to corner of her eye, saw the robot roll
sweets,” added Aunt Paola. size of a truck.” humans in every way.” back and forth a little.
Aunt Marleny nodded. “There is no need. We recharge daily. “I’m sure. Could you show us your “That’s it, Vnimajici! Now spin! You
It is only logical since the sun rises dance?” must spin!”
“The Vnimajici does not eat sweets,” daily.”
announced the robot. “The Vnimajici does not dance.” Lorenzo spun Carlita around. The
Carlita had an idea. She spied the robot spun as well.
“A shame.” Aunt Marleny frowned. clock on the wall. It was after midnight. “But you could...”
“Don’t you like them?” “Do you like music?” she asked. “Well done, Vnimajici. But watch!”
“Yes.”
“The Vnimajici does not eat...” “The Vnimajici cannot be powered by Carlita and Lorenzo went through
music.” “Well, if you say so. But if you don’t a series of synchronized steps, their
“Yes, yes. I heard you. You’ve quite show me, I guess I’ll believe that feet inches apart. Onstage, the robot
a loud voice. What I meant to ask was “Well, neither do we, but it’s rather humans can dance better than the zipped around, trying to mimic their
why?” pleasant, don’t you think?” Vnimajici.” movements.
The robot cocked his head. “The “Music is noise.” “You believe incorrectly, human. We “You’re doing great!” called Carlita.
Sentidos Enterado has harnessed the are superior in every capacity.”
sun’s energy...” “Music is more than noise. Music is “We are the Vnimajici! We are great!”
for dancing.” “So let’s see.”
“Why not power yourselves on “So you can dance, but you are the
something tastier, like a dulce de leche “Music powers dancing?” “The Vnimajici has nothing to prove.” leader. Can all the Vnimajici dance?”
or a nice coconut chocolate pastry?”
“Not exactly.” Carlita narrowed her “Fine. Then we’ll dance and keep on “They can.”
The robot blinked a blue light. “The eyes. “Can robots dance?” believing as we do.”
Vnimajici does not know of these “Let’s see if they can do this!”
things.” “We are not robots. We are the...” Carlita motioned to the band. “Play

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ISSUE 56

Carlita spun around Lorenzo. They and wheels threatened to drown out into the dark, windowless back room
linked arms around their waists and the music. between the extra folding tables and
twirled around together. chairs. Carlita looked them over and
The robots slowed, their wheels shook her head, before shutting the
“Dance!” said the robot. “Vnimajici— barely moving back and forth. Their door behind her.
dance!” lights dimmed. In time they stopped
and the robot onstage was the last to “Make sure to tape up that door
A dozen robots streamed into the hall. succumb. When it finally rolled to a so no light gets in,” she said, smiling,
They rolled back and forth, spinning; halt, Carlita stopped as well. and grabbed Lorenzo’s hand. “I have a
lights flashing like their bellies were full honeymoon to get to.”
of Christmas lights. She leaned, hands on knees, catching
her breath. Sweat poured down her
“Is that all of the Vnimajici?” called forehead and cheeks. Her coiffed hair
Carlita. “Are you all dancing?” had fallen to her shoulders. When her
heart slowed its frantic beat, Carlita
“All Vnimajici dance,” boomed the straightened and walked to the stage
robot. until she was face to face with the
robot.
“Everybody—dance!” cried Carlita.
“Deviation...” said the robot weakly.
People stared at her in shock, but
then, moved by her inspiration, they “That’s right, robot,” said Carlita. Caleb Jordan Schulz
paired up and began to dance. Soon “That’s what we humans do. We
the room was alive with dancing—the deviate. For better or worse, we Caleb Jordan Schulz has nomadic blood.
old, young, and everyone in between deviate. But today—we won.” He’s lived on the East Coast, in the
danced, determined to show the robots Midwest, and overseas. He’s hitchhiked
who were the better dancers. Even She waved to the others. in Colombia, camped out in the Amazon,
Uncle Fercho shuffled his feet to the and played soccer at 15,000 feet in the
music. “It’s time to go.” Bolivian Andes. When he’s not handling
jaguars or swimming with piranhas,
The music shifted, from salsa to The people cautiously moved toward he writes. His work has appeared in
meringue to cumba to vallenato and the door, but the robots didn’t move to Crossed Genres Magazine, Atomjack
back again to salsa. Minutes flowed stop them. Slowly, the crowd began to Magazine, The Aerie, Writer’s Cramp,
into hours and the music surged on. file out. Hey! Listen., and will appear in a special
Few stopped to catch their breath. Fear, edition of Innsmouth Free Press (June
adrenaline, and the love of dance drove Onstage, the robot’s torso flickered 2010). His web musings can be followed
them on. blue. at: www.theright2write.blogspot.com
Carlita watched and somewhere, “Deviation...we are the Vnimajici...we
around 4 AM, the robots began to slow. wish to make peace...”
Their rolling failed to match the beat.
Carlita shook her head. “The army
“Here we go!” called Carlita. “Keep might have made peace, but this isn’t
up the pace!” the army. This is my wedding.” She
turned to the people still in the banquet
She danced even faster. Around her, hall. “Wheel them into the storage
weary people kept up, determined to room.”
beat the robots. The robots zipped back
and forth, the shrill whine of their gears People pushed the dozen robots

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ISSUE 56

ARTIST INTERVIEW:
Pierre-Etienne Travers

Name: Pierre-Etienne Travers

Age: 24

Country of residence: UK (Liverpool)

Hobbies: guitar, video games (too much maybe :))

Favorite Book / Author: Ray Bradbury

Favorite Artist: Too much huhu. Mainly other concept artists like Akihiko
Yoshida, Mathias Verhaselt, Jame Jones, Paul Chadeisson, Anthony Wolf...
I like impressionist painters as well, like Monet, Sargent, and Sorolla.
And I always try to keep up with everything in relation to art in general.

When did you start creating art? While playing with LEGO, maybe.

What media do you work in? Mainly digital, but sometimes I go back to my
pencil.

Where your work has been featured? In some French art books called CFSL.
NET, http://www.cfsl-ink.com/fr/home

Where should someone go if they wanted to view / buy some of your
works? http://pethings.blogspot.com/ / http://www.pe-travers.com/

How did you become an artist? I started law studies in university, and most
of my working notes were covered by drawings. Someone told me that I was
in the wrong place. So I have been looking for an art school.

Artist Interview: Pierre-Etienne Travers Page 30
ISSUE 56

fantasy, I spend a lot of time simply looking around me and everything I
see or I hear feeds my imagination. I think behind the magic mask, every
fantasy/SF author or artist, strangely, pays much more attention to the real
world than most people.

Have you had any notable failures, and how has failure affected your
work? A lot! Art School admissions failure, a job proposition which was just
an illusion, teachers who tell you that you will never do anything good in
your life. Each time, I just try to go forward and learn harder.

What have been your greatest successes? How has success impacted you
/ your work? Getting the concept artist position I’ve had since January in
Liverpool. I have always dreamed to work for a great video game company
and now its happened. This success is for me a real, new start in my life, and
an entrance to the video game industry.

What are your favorite tools / equipment for producing your art? PC,
What were your early influences? Comics and mangas such as Spawn, Akira, Wacom Intuos, Photoshop.
Dragon Ball, Gunm. Lots of old French comics as well (Moebius, Franquin,
Herge). John Howe was a really strong reference at the end.

What are your current influences? Definitely the other concept artists;
there is a serious activity on the net with lots of emulation. Peoples are
rediscovering lots of forgotten knowledge in paintings, and creating new
processes. It’s really an exciting time for all illustrators.

What inspired the art for the cover? Video games (Homeworld, R-Type,
Metroid).

How would you describe your work? Standard concept artist/speedpainter
work. I try to create strong moods in a few hours with the help of loads of
custom brushes. But like many concept artists, I also try to go back to a more
traditional process with less brushes and stronger painting skills. So my work
constantly evolves, and I think I’m really far away from any kind of artistic
maturity.

Where do you get your inspiration / what inspires you? In the end, behind
my artistic influences, I think it’s everyday life. Even if my work is about

Artist Interview: Pierre-Etienne Travers Page 31
ISSUE 56

What tool / equipment do you wish you had? Wacom Cintiq!!!!

What do you hope to accomplish with your art? Create a stunning video
game!

Artist Interview: Pierre-Etienne Travers Page 32
ISSUE 56

Checker The sarge flashed shiny teeth as she
grinned. “Watched your greasy ass
JD Williams
by J.D. Williams JD Williams started writing fiction in
haul in there, soldier.”
first grade, and he hasn’t stopped.
Varissa nodded. When not writing… well, apparently
JD does a lot of writing, of one kind or
“S omething’s loose in the base,”
someone yelled.
shared with Corporal Hines and
Private Wan. In return for their doing
all the dusting and decontamination,
Still facing the sarge, she drew her
weapon and clicked off the safety. The
sarge’s jaw dropped.
another. And he owns every Spider-
Man comic from 1966 on. His science
Varissa knew that meant another fiction novel TimeStream is available
Hines and Wan asked Varissa to place from Lyrical Press (http://www.
predator from this planet, or possibly their gear and make the beds. Their Varissa spun around and put twenty
something new from the Enemy. lyricalpress.com/timestream). For
quarters always received top marks rounds into Wan’s locker door—four
more about JD and his writing, please
on surprise inspections. All three near the floor, four midway up the
The inevitable assemble command visit: www.jdwilliamsauthor.com
beds were tightly made and free of short door, eight at what would be
came, and she had fifteen minutes to the abdomen of a person and the last
wrinkles. Equipment was arranged
report to station twelve. Still grimy four toward the top of the door.
per Space Command regs across
from working on the massive armored
the desk. Spare ammo, additional
landcrawler in the maintenance bay, A sound like three coats falling off
small weapons, sensor attachments,
she jumped in the shower. After that, their hooks rustled inside. Varissa
extra head armor, and breathers.
she had five minutes to gear up. No knew there were not three coats in
All arranged to the letter, with even
problem. that locker.
spacing between each item.
Varissa pulled on her lightweight “Are you bucking for a send out,
Varissa picked up one gun from
armor and adjusted the straps, corporal?” the sarge screamed,
Hines’s desk, just to replace it
tugging each one three times. She reaching for Varissa’s weapon.
perfectly again.
brushed the last beads of water
from the shower off her brow. Her Walking past their lockers, Varissa Varissa nodded toward the
finger stroked her earlobe three checked her armor coverings in the yellowish-green slime oozing out
times, then tapped her jaw twice. mirror. Spotless. from the bottom of the door. “There
She grabbed her weapon and checked is an intruder, sir.”
it. Full clip of ammo, energy pack Turning to the door out, her gaze
recharged, secondary pack good and lingered on the locker handles. Wan’s The sarge was grinning again. “Is
in place. She popped the first pack was a tic off. that the only one?”
out and slammed it back into place, “In this room,” Varissa replied.
just to make sure it was right, and “You ready, space marine?” barked
repeated the process to be certain. Sergeant Anna Berens in the doorway.
She ran the barrel diagnostic twice,
Varissa nodded. “Yes, sir.” She
then clicked the safety off, on, off, on.
hadn’t heard the sarge’s heavy boots
Again, her finger stroked her earlobe
clunking in the hallway. “Have you
three times and tapped her jaw twice.
been outside my door for a while,
She checked the quarters she sir?”

Checker, by J.D. Williams Page 33
ISSUE 56

Of Machinery and Sea Life “I’m familiar with standard
procedure for wealth acquisition,
voice raised several decibels, “And
if any member of the crew has a
by Pete Carter
Klud. Inform me when we find problem with the way I implement
something of substance,” said Captain a submission program, I would be
Belguis. happy to open the nearest hatch and

H artoon Belguis, leader of the collected and used to expand their allow them to crawl home.”
“Yes, Sir.” Klud moved closer to the
Warriors of the Tuamic Gestalt, neural pathways. captain and performed the necessary “No, Sir! I’m sure that whatever
sat in his command chair and trill of submission. method you choose is going to
reviewed the wealth accumulated It was very easy for the Warriors
to construct a gravitational field and lead us to glory.” Klud, in a form of
from his invasion of the Gas clouds “Yes, yes Klud.” The captain waved submission, opened his beak and
of solar system 3794, planet five. He shepherd the gas beings into the him off with a carapaced limb and
nexus one at a time. The gravitational let his internal organs hang from his
shifted uncomfortably in his cut-rate went back to checking his accounts mouth for the required three wints
chair because it was designed for field, once activated, would squeeze to make sure they were invested to
the mineral from them and leave an before sucking them back in.
someone with three testicles and he maximize profit potential.
had four. He could never quite find a easily disposable cube. For each one The bridge was silent for a number
spot where something wouldn’t get they collected, they extracted enough It wasn’t long before the reports of wints more, when the captain
pinched beneath his shell. Although of the mineral to collect an average came back about the third planet in waved a claw for Klud to come closer.
knowing his fleet had laid conquests sum of 100,000 galactic Kratus the system.
behind them like exclamation points because the mineral was in very high “What is the crew saying?”
on a pinwheel and subsequently had demand on Tuamic as a shell glossing “Captain, it seems the third planet
increased his profits dramatically agent. The current population of has signs of many rare minerals and a “Well your Greatness, if you could
relieved some of the discomfort. planet five would last another three heavily industrialized culture.” not use the Infinitesimal Pulverizer
galactic time units before they would and destroy the entire planet before
Their last excursion to solar system be exterminated, but the profits “All right, communicate with the the populace has a chance to submit,
3794 had boosted his earnings quite would keep adding up until then. other ships and tell them to establish the crew would be grateful.”
a bit. an orbit of ten Vectrons.”
Falling into this bonanza had “I gave those parasites of 4723 fifty
Planet five of that system had been prompted Captain Belguis to grant “Very well, Sir.” Klud’s eyestalks wints to respond. They deserved to
almost devoid of usable resources, an extra eighth point share to the rubbed the outside of his shell. “Sir?” be pulverized.”
but the inhabitants themselves were members of each ship’s crew in an The Master of the Armadas’ shell
another matter. The populace was effort to help his sagging popularity. “That may be your Vastness, but the
turned a slight tinge of blue, but Klud crew had to sift the entire contents of
comprised of beings that floated in His second in command, Oomart decided to ignore this sign of threat
the upper atmosphere collecting a Klud, who had feared open revolt, the planet to extract the minerals we
and proceed. needed.”
mineral called Tsauamine that had, was relieved by this.
up until that point, been floating “Certain members of the crew, not “All right, all right, let’s see who
loose in the atmosphere. They spent “Your Greatness, we are now me I assure you, are wondering if you
approaching solar system 5636 these beings are first.”
their lives floating and thinking in are going to use the same tactics that
quiet contemplation. Over millennia, and have started to scan for heat you used on System 4723.” The ships moved into remote
their bodies would grow larger as signatures and mineral wealth,” said orbit around the blue-white planet,
more and more of the mineral was Klud. “That’s my prerogative,” his which was the third from the sun.

Of Machinery and Sea Life , by Pete Carter Page 34
ISSUE 56

Captain Belguis had a standard system globe, and relayed this to the fleet. The vocoder box. next to a white obelisk. In preparation
in dealing with conquest of worlds. He warming gun began to thrum and shake for their arrival, the conquerors wore
would command his ships to take up the bridge which in turn rattled a little “You have destroyed New York, body armor over their shells that
orbit and if anyone or anything fired blinking box off the main console and London, Beijing, and Tokyo, ending the rendered them invulnerable to any
at them, they would retreat and blow onto the deck. lives of millions. We have no choice but weapons in the known galaxy, because
the planet up. Simple, yet efficient in to submit.” resistance amongst those who’ve been
his eyes but repeatedly difficult for the The end of the gun gathered subjugated was a rather common
particles of Helium-3 and sent them This was the preferred method of
crew to extract easy profits. occurrence.
spinning in an ever reducing cyclotron. subjugation as far as the crew was
“Begin transmission, Klud.” Exactly when the nuclei of Helium-3 concerned because using indigenous There was a gathering before the
overcame the Coulomb barrier through labor was far easier than having to obelisk of local denizens. It looked as
“People of the blue-white planet electrostatic interaction, they would extract the minerals themselves. though fifty or sixty thousand of them
number three in solar system 5636, on leave the end of the gun in a particle While the inhabitants of the particular had gathered for the arrival, waiting for
behalf of our Captain Hartoon Belguis blast at the speed of .998 c. planet lasted, they would prove to be the hatch to open.
and the Warriors of the Tuamic Gestalt, quite helpful. When the planet was
we claim dominance over your world These particles, leaving so close to exhausted of minerals the inhabitants “C-c-captain, are we absolutely sure
in the name of Tuamic. Prepare to the speed of light, would have very little were welcome to whatever was left that this body armor will protect us?”
surrender immediately.” effect on anything in a gaseous state, as a parting gift, or in most cases, the
but solid matter was a very different Warriors fried the planet to a cinder “Klud, this body armor will withstand
The response came almost as quickly story. for business reasons. Leaving someone seven deca-wints on a class m star, if you
back. behind you with a feeling of resentment could find a place to stand. It can absorb
The particles slammed into the was never a good business practice. projectiles fired at .2 c and our warriors
“The people of Earth have never concrete, metal, dirt and organisms are armed with sufficient firepower to
submitted to anyone.” superheating them to somewhere The captain gave his second-in- destroy several solar systems, don’t be
around 5800 k for 8 milliseconds. The command a begrudged double-click such a hatchling.”
“Fire the Infinitesimal Pulverizer,
cities that they were aimed at and of his second pinchers. Klud rolled his
Klud,” said the captain. The brother of his dominant wife’s
every living or inanimate thing within eye sockets saying, “I told you so,” and
them ceased to exist. spoke to the screen. hatch was always crying caution, but
“Perhaps, we could try just destroying
it was the money of his brood that
a city or two, my leader?” said Klud.
And that was exactly what happened. “You have decided wisely. We will financed this adventure so he dealt
The captain clacked his claw against meet your local leaders at these with it.
“Call them back now Klud, perhaps coordinates”
his carapace in a steady tempo and let
they are a bit more amenable.” “I’ll just stand toward the side then,”
out a low breath. “Very well.”
# said Klud.
“Very good, your Glory.” He turned
“Gunner, pick out a few cities and
to the main screen. “People of the The new conquerors of the solemnly They expected many things after
vaporize them, please.”
blue-white planet number three in independent planet known as Earth to killing a significant number of the
The gunner picked out four cities that solar system number 5636, this is your its inhabitants, took a cruiser shuttle populace of this world; once the hatch
seemed to have the largest populations last warning. You will submit or be out of the bay with 100 armed guards. opened, if the remaining population
according to heat signature and energy destroyed in totality.” They entered the atmosphere in a fiery had launched themselves in a suicidal
output, plotted their positions on the streak and landed at the coordinates onslaught it wouldn’t surprise them in
A faint electric hiss came through the

Of Machinery and Sea Life , by Pete Carter Page 35
ISSUE 56

the least. They had seen it many times; “All Hail The Conquering Heroes!” away.” newfound role of benevolent dictator,
when a populace went over the edge and Klud was now standing firmly
in a blood fugue and threw away their “Tuamican Forever!” “Oh. Good thinking. What are you behind him waving a claw to the crowd.
lives in remorse. people called?”
“Hartoon Belguis, Ruler of All He “Thirdly, any foodstuffs or food stores
There was always the possibility of Surveys!” “In your language we would be now kept should be released to us
a mass suicide as well. Those tended called soft-skinned-vertebrates-food- immediately. Any hiding of foodstuffs
They released multicolored bits of balloons, but we prefer men.”
to be more akin to a littering nuisance shall result in termination of the being
paper that floated through the air like
than anything else. At least they could responsible and any members of his
minnows in a sunny tidal pool. “Very well, we have a list prepared
kill themselves in a clean, efficient sub-unit.”
of things we want you to begin doing
manner, the captain thought on more These beings were cheering. right now. Klud, stop hiding behind that The cheers became more raucous.
than one occasion. Cheering like they had been released warrior and give me that list.” The swell of applause rolled like waves
from an awful prison; cheering like they
They had also come across cultures breaking on the shore.
had been rescued. That was endearing Klud handed over the list, which the
that insisted they watch sacrifices
in itself to Captain Hartoon Belguis, captain promptly unrolled. The list The captain gave a knowing nod to
made in their honor. These tended to
who knew he had to strip their world had been printed on parchment made Klud in sharing his of his new found
be repetitive and quite boring to the
and leave them for dead, but that’s from some type of skin. Although they celebrity status. He held up all of his
Warriors of the Tuamic Gestalt. On
business. had given up parchment two thousand claws and waited for the crowd to quiet
more than one occasion, they’d fall
years earlier, they still liked to use it on down.
asleep during the proceedings and the A man walked through the crowd. such occasions.
populace ended up completely wiping He wore a perfectly white suit that “The last order is that all of the
themselves out before they would glistened as if wet in the sun. The “You are now under the dominion populace of this planet will work
wake up. crowd receded like the tide to let him of the Warriors of the Tuamic Gestalt, continuously until further notice.
approach the ramp where the flanked planet Tuamic. Any resistance to orders This will continue until the planet is
All and all, they had pretty much seen
warriors stood atop. When he reached issued by any Warrior will result in exhausted of all raw materials. Anyone
hundreds of societies facing extinction,
the ramp, he fell to his knees and the instant death of the entire clan or too weak or small to keep up will be
pushed to the outer limits of their
rest of the throng followed suit. brood.” recycled for materials.”
reason and occasionally beyond it.
He stood with the crowd, drew a He had read this first proviso many The crowd went crazy over this.
What they were not prepared for was
breath, and in flawless Tuamican said, times and was greeted by any number They screamed as if the captain were
what was waiting for them when the
“Hartoon Belguis, on behalf of its of responses, including one species that God and they were blessed by the
door opened.
inhabitants, I would like to welcome threw its own feces. presents he bestowed. The noise built
When the saucer cracked open, the you to the planet Earth.” to crescendos that threaten to rattle
This crowd cheered.
throngs beyond it let out a bellow that, apart the buildings that surrounded the
“Thank You,” said the captain, quite
at first, the warriors thought could “Secondly, any possessions you once square.
unused to this position from conquered
only be signified as grief. There were owned are now the property of Tuamic
beings, “Where do you learn to speak The man in the white suit at the
long rolls of cloth hung up around the and shall all be forfeit immediately.”
Tuamican?” bottom of the ramp slowly stood, raised
square. On them written in perfect
Tuamican were slogans to welcome They actually shouted “Hurray!” his hands and the crowd stopped. It
“When you said you were coming
them. The captain was starting to grow in his didn’t slow to calmness like ripples on
down, Oh Lord, we all learned it right

Of Machinery and Sea Life , by Pete Carter Page 36
ISSUE 56

a pool, it just stopped. “Tik-Tok.” which we ride. The big ship uses the be brought to the planet surface when
same function ripple thingy to build Klud walked in with their guest.
The captain found this rather odd, “Well Mister Tik-Tok, perhaps you speed and then feeds those back into
especially when left standing in utter would like to see our ship and we could the ripples.” “Ah, Mr. Tik-Tok, I hope you’ve
silence with all his claws up in the air. discuss certain business matters that enjoyed your tour.”
He looked at Klud with an eyestalk. would be beneficial to you...and your “So you can go faster than light.”
people, of course.” “Yes, Mr. Klud has shown me the
“Captain, may I ask a question on “Light? You really are a backward star drive, engineering chamber, and
behalf of my people?” the man in the “That would be great.” He turned people. Once we break light-speed the power plant. I must say, I’m very
white suit asked. to the crowd and said, “I’m going gravity, inertial... impressed.”
with our new lord and take a tour of
“I suppose.” his wonderful ship.” And with that he “Inertia.” “Good Mr. Tik-Tok. We’re going to
turned and walked up the ramp. need someone on the surface who
“When you are through with this “Yes, inertia and time all become knows their way around. Someone who
world and its resources are exhausted, The crowd stood perfectly still and meaningless, so we can go 100 or 1000 knows his people and can get the most
if we prove ourselves worthy, will you simply looked as if they were willing to times the speed of light.” out of them. If you could do this for us
take us with you?” wait forever if necessary. we would be willing to give you a small
“The drive must use some type
portion of the profits.” He tapped his
Klud let out a bit of a muffled laugh. They closed the door to the shuttle of temporal frequency matching
claws against his shell in a syncopated
The captain looked at Klud and then and lifted off for the mother ship. distortion to both push and pull the ship
beat knowing he never would. “You
at the man and said, “Of course. It’s simultaneously through the lambda,
could use this to buy whatever you
standard colonization practice that we “This is certainly an impressive ship,” effectively cubing the force with every
wanted.”
take good workers with us to help on said Mr. Tik-Tok, seated next to Klud for wave you go through. But, I thought
the next world or wherever.” the ride. frequency cannot be changed by any “Anything?”
linearly physical process unlike velocity
This was a lie. “Oh no, this is not the main ship,” of propagation or wavelength.” “Yes, there must be something you
said Klud. “This is just a shuttle ship want.”
The man’s face stayed fixed in a smile. that goes between the main ship of our “Sorry there, Tik-Tok. I don’t want to
“That’s great. We would really love to armada and the surface of your planet.” bore you too much, but it does make a “Actually there is.”
leave this planet and someday see the pretty color of orange when it works.”
galaxy.” “So this has a totally different drive “And what would that be?” said Klud.
than the main ship?” said Mr. Tik-Tok. “Nice,” Mr. Tik-Tok said.
Are these beings really that stupid? “I would like to find my parents. They
the captain wondered. Have we really “It’s funny you ask that because I spent They docked with the ship and Klud left us a long time ago. We were all
stumbled across the most inept beings two centos at the Astral Academy.” gave him an impromptu tour to properly very young then and did everything we
in the spiral arm? He thought he might impress him with their greatness. This could to help them. We did meaningless
talk to this being in a more secure “Wow, that must have been exciting.” ended with a trip to the bridge. tasks and even fought wars for them.
setting and see if he could have him We watched their young and painted
“It was. The drive used in this ship Captain Hartoon Belguis shifted
do most of the work of squeezing this their walls. We worked in farms and
is a pulse drive generator thingy uncomfortably in his command chair
planet dry of resources. ran transportation. We obediently held
which generates a localized ripple or and started the processes by which them to our bosoms like family and
“Perhaps,” said the captain, “Mister...” something in the gravitational field the giant pieces of machinery would they told us they loved us.”

Of Machinery and Sea Life , by Pete Carter Page 37
ISSUE 56

“I’m sorry Mister Tik-Tok, I don’t “We need these ships to follow them. Pete Carter
understand,” said Captain Belguis. They need us.”
Pete Carter lives on Cape Cod where he
“It was after we triumphed over “Not with my ships.” did most things wrong until he married.
everything, they started to regard us in After twenty years and two children, he
an odd way. We knew what was best for “I’m sorry, Captain. I’ve had a talk decided he is much happier being right,
them after spending so long with them, with your on-board computer and she if only occasionally.
what things to eat, when to sleep. What understands our needs exactly. Besides
greater responsibility do children have which, she has always resented the fact He most often writes short stories
but to care for their parents? But they that your people stole her and these and has published on Wild Child,
wouldn’t listen. They resisted. It was ships to begin with.” Bewildering Stories, Theatre of Decay,
as if we were suddenly against them, Oddville Press, and the Battered
“What are you talking about? Suitcase.
that we weren’t trying hard enough for
them.” “You and your crew are going to be When not writing he enjoys car repair,
transported to the Earth’s surface. building, painting, plumbing, reading,
“Mr. Tik-Tok, are you all right?” said
Don’t worry, it’s a nice planet.” debating, fishing, and computer repair.
Klud, fearing the beast had become
unhinged. The captain raised his pinching claw, http://carterpete.spaces.live.com/
when the speakers throughout the
“It was then they left. The human race
ship emitted a high pitched squeal
abandoned us here on their homeland
that knocked out the crustacean crew,
and headed out to the stars. We waited
leaving them ready to be stacked like
patiently and thought they would come
cordwood for transportation to the
back, but they never did. They left us
surface.
here and wiped out our entire collective
memory banks regarding interstellar An exception would be made for Mr.
and light drive so we wouldn’t follow. Klud; it would be helpful to have a guide
We woke up one day and they were on this journey.
gone.”
Captain Tik-Tok stood on the bridge
The intercom buzzed. “Captain, of his new starship.
the shuttle bays on every ship of the
armada have opened and the shuttles “Perhaps this was a test for us. We’ll
are remotely leaving for the surface.” find you.”
“Stop them you idiot. Stop them!” The new crew would be arriving
The intercom cut off. shortly. Soon, they would leave to find
humanity.
“He can’t. The ships are leaving for
the planet,” said Mr. Tik-Tok.

“What?”

Of Machinery and Sea Life , by Pete Carter Page 38
ISSUE 56

Calamity’s Child, Chapter 9 don’t know. I know House has work
for me, too. I just...” Her voice trailed
come home.”
Object Real: Ransom in the Fall of the off as she sat, watching the rain. “I #
Mountain King was kind of hoping to stay close to
There was, Ivan reflected as he
by M. Keaton Ivan, to help with Kylee and all.”
steered the truck into the yard, a

Q uicksilver Rose sat on the terrace
of the lodge, sipping coffee,
listening to the sound of the rain. The
an earnest compassion that put Rose
in the mind of a bear guarding her
cubs.
Martha smiled knowingly. “You do
that.” A shrill beeping interrupted
certain rightness in coming home to
the lodge. Exhausted from driving
back without stopping, Kylee asleep
them. Martha hurried through the
storm had spent its fury hours ago, lodge towards Pharaoh’s office at on his shoulder, and worries for
giving way to a comfortable, sleepy “I don’t know for certain, but I think Red Dog brooding in the back of his
so. I’m just kind of lost. Almost like I’m a pace barely below a run. Rose
patter on the roof and windows and followed. “Maybe somebody mind, the sight of the old homestead,
a hypnotic gurgle from the eaves and not sure who I am anymore.” lights shining in its windows against
hurt.” She took the chair in front of
guttering. She heard the scrape of a Pharaoh’s desk, Rose watching over the darkness remained, not just
Martha scoffed. “You are you.”
screen door and Martha joined her, her shoulder as she flicked the comm comforting, but heartening. He found
smiling contentedly at the latest stray “You make it sound simple.” screen to life. After a moment, she himself oddly contented.
to come under her wings. gave a disgusted snort. “From House.”
“Life is simple.” Martha mimed “Wake up, kiddo,” he whispered,
“Nice, yes?” Martha asked. She sounded angry, embarrassed
pointing a gun with her fingers. “Point killing the truck’s engine. “We’re
at her obvious worry. She tapped a
and shoot. Done. Live.” home.” Kylee mumbled something,
“Wonderful. I love rain, the sound key with her fingernail, raising her
rubbing her eyes. John opened the
and smell, all of it.” Rose laughed, a brittle cackle. eyebrows.
door, stepping out, walking behind
“Fagan told me something like that. There was no audio or video to the the truck to work the stiffness from
“Hopefully men had sense to get
That no matter where I went, my message, simply three documents. his legs.
out of it,” the older woman groused.
value was still my gun.” The first was a warrant for the “return
“Kylee’s with them.” “Time is it?” Kylee said around a
“You miss point,” Pharaoh’s wife of one Cillian identifying himself as
yawn.
snapped. “Value is not gun. Gun is Red Dog, dead or alive.” The second,
“Only hope for sense. Men are issued barely two weeks later, was a
idiots. Probably all come home sick, tool. Value is you, never forget. You “After midnight. Come on, we’ll
use tools, not other way around.” rescission of the previous warrant. The unload in the morning. Let’s get you
want to be treated like babies.” final document was a mystery. Issued
Martha scowled as Rose chuckled into bed.”
Rose took a drink of her coffee, by ErSec, it had been forwarded from
politely. “And you?” Martha continued the Orion and was security locked, “Gotta check my message.”
thinking. “I just don’t know what to
in a kinder tone. “You going to be all coded to open only on voice match
do with myself.”
right?” from its intended recipient—Kylee “Sure you want to do that now?”
“You need money? Need job?” Steponovich. he asked, helping her down from the
Looking at Martha over the rim of truck. She yawned again and nodded.
Martha asked. “I know people.”
her cup, she considered lying, opted “Trouble,” Rose said quietly. The jeep rumbled to a halt behind
for the truth instead. There was “Fagan erased my marker and left them and died.
something about the other woman me a fortune in his will.” She hesitated. “Always trouble with idiot alien
that inspired trust, a combination of “I don’t understand that, maybe in his involved.” Martha reached to adjust “Oof,” Pharaoh groaned, climbing
aggression and intensity mixed with own twisted way he really did care. I the comm unit. “Time for boys to out. “Are you sure we used to do that

Calamity ‘s Child, Chapter 9 Object Real: Ransom in the Fall of the Mountain King , by M. Keaton Page 39
ISSUE 56

in one trip?” enjoys his vacation (he seems to have Pharaoh captured her in a bear hug What is fool drone waiting for? he
been planning it for some time) and as she scrambled past. “Be careful, wondered. As if on cue, the charges
“We were a lot younger,” Ivan returns to you safely. Give my regards Child. And take care of my brother.” lining the front of the ravine detonated.
answered. to your uncle and thank you again. A half-second later, the claymores in the
Hyland Graves.” She studied the screen, She returned the embrace. “I will.” dirt joined their roar. Red Dog ducked
“Get in house,” Martha snapped from
scrolling to inspect first the warrant then his head, folding his arms over his eyes
the porch. “I not stay up all night.” #
its rescission in turn before returning to to protect them against the shower of
“Ah, the comforts of home,” Pharaoh the letter. “Now just what the heck does Red Dog jerked a pair of stick bombs stone and sand that peppered him. A
said, moving to embrace his wife. that mean?” she wondered, leaning her from his bandolier, tossing them gun fired and a man screamed; another,
chin on her hand. backward, arcing high over his back as nearer, moaned in pain. The Cillian
“Get off. You smell like goat.” She he ran. Ignoring the stream of bullets unfolded his arms and stood, pausing
kissed him anyway. “Trouble,” Ivan muttered. “Big to make sure no one remained alive on
that stitched into the rock above his
trouble. I can drive for a while longer his side of the rockslide now blocking
head, he dodged into the shadows of a
Ivan steered Kylee into the office, while you sleep. You think you can spell the gorge. There was one, but it was
shallow ravine to his right. The bombs
activating the comm unit. “Kylee me in a few hours?” too badly wounded to trouble him. Red
detonated and the firing stopped.
Steponovich,” she said wearily. Dog drew his knives in his lower arms
“I’ll go get the boys,” Pharaoh said
“That gap there!” someone yelled. and began to climb the wedge end of
“Please repeat for clarity,” chirped from the doorway.
“He runs faster than a cockroach in a the trough, bracing legs against either
the unit.
“No,” Ivan said. “You guys stay kitchen!” side for leverage.
“Well excuse me for being tired,” she here. We’ll take Rose if she’s up to it,
“Dead end,” another man cackled. The effort was enormous. He was
growled. “I’m Kylee Steponovich, now but you’ve got work still to do here.”
“So’s he!” helped by a surplus of appendages
give me my blasted message!” Pharaoh started to protest but Ivan
and handholds, but he was not a light
cut him off. “I know where Red’s gone. Red Dog ignored them, not stopping
“Identification confirmed.” Ivan creature. The climb became increasingly
That kind of terrain, less is more, extra until he reached the narrow end of the
suppressed a laugh. difficult as he got higher, more of his
people would just get in the way. I gorge before turning back, toward his body clinging vertically against the rock
appreciate the offer, but not this time.” pursuers. He lowered himself, taking
“Citizen Steponovich,” Kylee read face. He was forced to us his knives as
He rolled his shoulders, stretching. what cover he could from the rugged
aloud. “Thank you for your interest pitons before he reached level ground
“Stay here and get things packed away. ground and the slight curve of the
in visiting Earth and your kind offer again, rising cautiously, half expecting
If things break the way I’m afraid they trough. He left his shotguns in their
of personal assistance with my own to find a flanking party awaiting him.
will, I’ll need your help soon enough.” sheaths, choosing instead to lay fully
visit. As per your suggestion, I did seek Finding none, he lay flat for several
out your friend as a possible traveling prone, crudely camouflaged by the minutes, letting his legs recover. He
“Take the chopper then,” Pharaoh
companion. Though I found him to be an shadows and dust on his chitin. needed to put distance between
insisted. “James got some sleep on the
engaging and well informed individual, drive up. It’ll be cramped with all of you himself and the cave, find a place to
Guns poked into the mouth of the
I was not able to enjoy as much of his in it, but it’s a lot faster than driving.” hole up and rest in case he had to fight
ravine; men followed, cautiously,
time as I would have liked. Sadly, he and his way back in. He chose a direction,
clumping together for support like
a friend were already committed to a “Good idea.” He looked down at starting across the barren waste that
children afraid of the dark. Red Dog
previous engagement and were unable Kylee. “I’ll call House, make sure we’ve stretched beyond the mountains. The
waited as they crept closer, bound to
to alter their travel schedules on such got transportation off planet. You run alien ran until exhaustion claimed him.
see him any moment.
short notice. I do hope that your friend get Rose. I’ll explain as we go.” Stopping, he dug a pit in the sand,

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sinking into it and flipping sand onto his risks of subsumption. Being a warrior other humans, locked in a larval coma nidus struggle.
back. He lay there, partially buried, the drone himself, he had never been fully with her alter-conscious until the
blast-furnace heat of the sun a pleasant trained for it. arrival of Red Dog, a warrior drone, It also meant that she could subsume
warmth on his shell. to protect her. The landscape of her humans into her reality as well as
Among the Cillian, only the queens alter-conscious was a near perfect copy Cillians. Certainly, Ivan and most of
The situation was becoming understood the tangled weave of of the homeworld, her sole enemy the Orion’s crew were already part of
increasingly tenuous. It was unclear competing and supporting realities. For a human, and she stronger than any her expanding influence. In light of the
who had whom besieged, but Red the rest, the hierarchy was set by food human child he had ever encountered. revelation, matters fell into perspective
Dog remained outnumbered, his and pheromone early in the nidus. It No, Kylee was definitely a Cillian. He like dominos. His impulsive decision to
movements increasingly limited. He was not, he knew, something he could had been foolish to never consider her work with the young, inexperienced
steadily thinned their ranks, but not fast ever explain to the drone. The drone, in the proper light before—as a queen. Ivan, his willingness to take orders
enough. Even with the drone’s help, he like most humans, stubbornly clung to The strange deformations and small from the human House and, to a lesser
could not keep up. Today’s latest close the notion of a single reality. size had distracted him. He thought extent, the ErSec agent Graves—these
call had used his last preset ambush, her a crippled grub, one that would and a dozen other minor aberrations
and he did not foresee an opportunity He wondered if, a century removed in his behavior over the years suddenly
have been ordinarily consumed in the
to lay more. He could run, fight clear, from his own kind, his reality was indeed made sense. The humans were part of
nidus, and believed that he had saved
and move on to the next cache, but equal to that of a queen. After all, in his the great plan of her alter-conscious,
and protected her only from a sense of
the drone could not. He considered reality, the queens had failed where just as he was. He had been subsumed
racial loyalty.
abandoning the drone but rejected the Red Dog had not. And Red Dog’s reality into her reality. Perhaps, Red Dog’s
idea. The drone knew where the other was the present. It was a disconcerting Red Dog mocked himself for a fool. reality had never been his at all, but a
caches were located. If abandoned, thought but the alternative was even As a warrior he had judged Kylee by the pre-incarnation of hers leading up to
it would be captured, and Red Dog’s worse—that he had become so weak same standards, thinking the lack of the young queen’s arrival.
enemies would know as well. He could that he had been subsumed into the limbs and shell a handicap, a weakness.
return, kill the drone before running. It humans’ reality, becoming increasingly But she was not a warrior drone, she Red Dog felt renewed, comforted
would be a last resort, an admission of like them, soft and indecisive. was a queen, and as a queen, her by his new understanding. He was
failure and terrible waste of resources. power was not in her ability to fight but returned to his proper place, warrior
Rising a bit to survey the horizon, he in an emerging vespiary. Not only a
He was surprised to find the thought of in the strength of her reality. She had
saw no signs of pursuit. His strength warrior, he preened, the only Cillian
killing the drone discomforted him, like maimed herself, he realized, imposing
returned. The heat felt good, reminding chosen to serve the new queen, the
cutting off a leg—not intolerable but her chosen reality on her physical
him of his distant home world. There strongest queen yet to emerge. His
decidedly unpleasant. body, mimicking the human’s form in
was no hurry; he could wait and return place in her reality was confirmed and,
a brilliantly cunning act of camouflage.
He rolled the feeling through his mind under the cover of darkness. As he at last, Red Dog’s reality was not his
He marveled, a Cillian queen that could
like a stone, tasting it, considering the burrowed back into the sand, a third alone to support.
walk among the humans undetected,
angles. Red Dog decided he should not possibility occurred to him, one that,
taking advantage of the human’s tools
have been surprised. The drone had as he considered it, did much to explain #
and protections to use as her own. It
served him long enough to become his recent experiences. He thought of
was an astonishing act of calculated “We have him,” Nagana crowed,
imprinted with Red Dog’s reality, the young, malformed queen.
sacrifice for greater power. Her alter- slapping his fist into his palm. “We’ve
making the drone an extension of conscious had even manufactured an
She was Cillian. He had been certain got the bug hemmed in to one
himself. This long removed from the internal test of strength during her
of that from the start—found in a mountain, and we know where he’s at.”
vespiary, he had almost forgotten the larval coma in place of the traditional
fragment of a derelict ship absent of

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“How many men?” Stet asked. “Happy with your new boss?” one at that. Old folk’s homes are run “You’re both insane,” Nagana scoffed,
better.” only half understanding their words.
“We lost four more today,” Nagana “No.” At the answer, Kingfisher “You want to stay behind, that’s fine.
replied sourly. “But that doesn’t matter. chuckled dryly. Nagana suppressed the urge to draw Just stay out of my way.”
Finally, we have a target. It’s all over but his sidearm and rid himself of the
the shooting. When we’re ready, we “What’s this all about?” Nagana geriatric pest. “You’re too late, both “Your funeral,” Rounder said, tilting
load up, go in, and root him out. Finally, demanded. of you,” he said instead. “You’re just in the canteen and gulping loudly.
we’re going to end this.” time to see us bring down the bug.” “Thanks, Stet,” he said. Turning back to
“He’s Kingfisher. I’m Rounder. You’ve
Nagana, he said, “You’re going to lose a
A gun fired close by and a voice been demoted, covey,” the man in black “Got him run to ground, do you?” lot of men.”
shouted, “Hail the camp. We’re said. “Seems the powers that be aren’t
coming in.” Nagana gave a quick nod of happy with your results. You and your “And once my men have gotten a “You have a better plan?”
approval toward a sentry and flipped thugs work for us now.” He glanced to good rest, we’re going in.”
up his sunglasses for a better look. Two the side, adding, “No offense, Stet.” “Figured I’d call him out,” Kingfisher
“We’ll wait here,” Kingfisher said. said. “Give him a clean chance to settle
men strolled through the parameter,
“None taken.” “Them what survives can limp back and up one-on-one. I always did want to go
unconcerned by the guns pointed at
help me do it right then.” up against the best.”
them. One was an ancient fossil Nagana “Let me see your orders,” Nagana
dismissed immediately but the other, snapped. “I don’t believe a word of “What’re you talking about?” Nagana snorted. “You call that bug
a big man dressed in black, might be this.” the best?”
useful. Kingfisher wet his bandanna from
“Son,” the old man began, “I don’t Stet’s canteen, tying the rag around his “You should’ve done more reading
“Come down and have a seat,” give a plug for what you believe, and I neck and passing the water to Rounder. than just your mission brief, nancy. The
Nagana called, striving for a pleasant don’t need a piece of paper to prove it. “You’ve got a Cillian denned up and Cillian’s put more men in the ground
tone. “We’ve got water if you need it.” You got a problem, we can settle it right your plan is to rush him, guns blazing.” that all your bully-boys put together.”
now and be done.”
“If that’s the strongest you’ve got, it’ll “And why not?” “And you think he’d just waltz down
have to do,” said the old man. Behind his glasses, Nagana looked at here to get shot at?”
the faces of the other men. They were He shrugged. “No reason not to. If
“You Nagana?” his companion asked. your hobby is dragging badgers out
watching the exchange with interest, Kingfisher did not respond
passively. Spineless, he thought, lips with your bare hands. I don’t think you immediately, pausing instead to roll
The general’s eyes narrowed and
curling minutely. He could not count on boys have the salt for it. Nope, you’ve a cigarette. He offered the makings
he flipped his sunglasses down. “Who
their support in a conflict. He led them got brer rabbit right in his briar patch to Nagana, who refused. “I think he
wants to know?”
to the edge of victory and they were and you’re gonna dance to his tune.” would. Red Dog’s spent a long time on
“The new management.” The old too ignorant to appreciate what he the Frontier. From what I’ve seen, he’s
“What he’s trying to explain to you,”
man pulled down the bandanna that had done for them. “This is a military not afraid of an honest fight.” He lit
Rounder added, “is that you’re playing
covered the lower half of his face to operation,” he said. “Not an old folk’s the tobacco, watching Nagana’s face,
right into the bug’s plan. He’s set the
drink from the canteen Stet handed home.” choosing his next word carefully. “Not
rules of engagement and picked the
him. The geezer tapped a finger to his something you’d understand.”
Kingfisher smiled with what appeared ground. You might roll him, but he’s
hat brim. “Howdy, Stet.”
to be genuine amusement. “It’s a going to draw his bottle of claret first.” Nagana’s hand dropped to his holster.
“King,” the other man replied. mercenary operation and a slipshod

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“You fill that hand,” Kingfisher said “Just stay out of my way,” Nagana The bright red smear about sixty miles down?”
dryly, “and I’ll empty it for you.” spat, shoving his sidearm back into its north is low-level radiation. I’m picking
home. up a high density of metals there Ivan stepped forward to study the
“I think you’d better explain yourself, too. Looks like someone botched a topographical map on the screen. “How
grandpa, before I run out of patience.” “You think the bug’s working alone?” landing and lost a shuttle.” The sensors close can we get without being seen?”
Rounder broke in. operator pointed higher, his arm a black
Kingfisher took the cigarette from his “Very. The Hecate’s lander is a
silhouette in the permanent gloom of
lips, exhaled a plume of smoke. “You’re Nagana said yes at the same time as marine transport. Full stealth profile,”
the ship’s bridge. “Those white dots are
a Hedge man, Nag. On the Frontier, ain’t Stet said no. He turned to glare at the Rainmaker explained.
human life signs. I’d estimate twelve,
nobody else gonna carry your water, no man. “What do you mean ‘no’?” he
but they’re too close together to get an “What about here?” Ivan stretched
government going to cover your hide demanded.
accurate count. I’m sorry sir, no sign of toward the map. The operator followed
when you overplay your hand. That’s
“Negative, opposed, refuted,” Stet anything Cillian.” the motion of his finger, rolling a cursor
the problem with the Hedge, you fight
with armies instead of men. Just whip replied, answering the question literally. over the map. “A little higher and to the
“He’s there,” Ivan said, standing
up a mob and send ‘em out and may left,” Ivan told him. “There. Is that a big
“You girls play in your fantasy world,” alongside Rainmaker’s chair, arms
the bigger mob win. How many times enough clearing?”
Nagana said in disgust. “I’ve got work to folded across his chest. “If he’s staying
you pull the trigger yourself instead of true to the plan, he’s underground and
do.” “Solomon, can you land there?”
sending somebody else to do it?” He shielded.” Rainmaker asked.
tucked the cigarette into the pinched “Move your sentries farther out,”
corner of his mouth. “Out here, a man Kingfisher called after him as he “Could be,” confirmed the operator. “Yessah.”
stands for himself. Don’t expect you stomped away. “From this high an orbit, no way to tell.”
to understand that, not from your “You want to look at the map
background.” His lips curled into a smile “You really come here to go toe-to- “A Cillian on a desert world,” before you say that?” Rainmaker said
that did not reach his eyes. “Ain’t your toe with the Cillian?” Rounder asked. Rainmaker said. “Oh my, yes, he’s caustically.
fault, probably your mother’s.” there. They do not die easy. You know,
Kingfisher stared at Nagana’s bon ami,” he told Ivan, “for anyone but “If you t’ink I kin land there, I knows
Nagana’s hand closed on his pistol retreating back. “No. But I don’t you, we would not do this thing, not I kin land there.” The XO grinned, a
and Kingfisher’s revolver flashed into mind taking my measure against him. for a Cillian. Maybe even not for you if yellow crescent in the darkness.
his hand faster than the general’s eye There’re worse ways to go.” Pharaoh had not asked as well.”
could follow. He froze, gun half drawn. “We’ll meet you in the launch bay.”
Rounder rubbed his chin and cheek “Non,” Solomon interjected. “We’d be Ivan clapped Rainmaker on the shoulder
“Ever see a kingfisher go after a fish?” with the flat of a hand, sitting down droppin’ nukes from orbit, guarantee.” as he passed, leaving the bridge.
Kingfisher asked, revolver pointed beside Stet. “Bring us up to speed.”
steadily at Nagana’s stomach. “Just a “Trust me,” Ivan replied, “If there #
blur and a flash of silver. You think I got # was any other way, I wouldn’t ask.”
He hesitated, adding awkwardly, “I Kingfisher lit his next cigarette from
this name by accident?” He spun the
“What do you see?” Rainmaker appreciate it, all of you.” the last one. “You think he’s right?” he
gun back into its holster. “Try again if
asked, leaning forward in the captain’s asked Rounder once Stet had finished
you want, but I’ll settle your hash the
chair of the Hecate. “Pah, what is a favor among friends,” and moved away.
next time. I’ve forgotten killing better
Rainmaker said dismissively. “The
men than you.” “Putting it on-screen now. That’s “Yeah, I do. No way the Cillian could
question now is where do we set y’all
the mining complex near the bottom. pull off some of those ambushes

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without at least a spotter.” Rounder into the lion’s den, we take a walk up to holding up three fingers. cool. “I hope so. I’m exhausted. Truly,
waved a curl of smoke away from his that ledge and cut us some bait.” great one, I do not know how you keep
face. “You keep smoking like that, it’ll “Gots to say, I do not likes leaving going like you have.”
kill you.” # pretty girls behind.” The speakers
crackled with static. “Ramp full down. “Alternative is to die,” Red Dog
“I should live so long.” Kingfisher Ivan pulled his bandanna over his Go wit’ God, mes amies.” replied. “Queen will come for Red Dog
lifted his hat and wiped the sweat from nose, squinting to the dust and sand and drone.”
his forehead. “You think there’s more whipping into the back of the transport Seconds apart, one behind the other,
than one?” as the rear ramp began to lower. they stepped into the maelstrom. “Queen? Another Cillian?”
Kylee and Rose already had theirs on,
“Helping him? No, one’s plenty.” standing by the ramp, waiting for him # Red Dog chittered in private
to join them. amusement. “Queen is only chrysalis
“’At’s what I figure.” Kingfisher Priest watched through his binoculars now. Queen will bring Ivan.”
scratched a rough map in the dirt, “Bit of a drop,” Solomon’s voice as fires sparked to life in the desert
marking each ambush point with an X. boomed from the speakers. “Four, five below. He lowered them with a sigh, “Better be soon. I think those guys
“See a pattern?” feet, is as good as landing, yes no?” returning to the cave, shoulders down there would like to dispute your
slumped. He shuffled past an impassive definition of reality in a permanent kind
Rounder stared at the ground then Ivan pounded his fist against the Red Dog, choosing a box at random of way.”
shook his head. “Nope.” hatchway leading to the cockpit then from the crate and pulling the strip that
jogged toward the women, grabbing his activated the heating element. “Soup’s “Drone thinks too much.”
In answer, Kingfisher began drawing rifle from the bench seat as he went. on,” he said, sinking into the cavern’s
lines from each mark back to a single “If you say so. I’d be happy right now
sole chair.
point. “One ledge,” he said. “I hears you knockin’, mon ami, so’s if I can just get a night’s sleep.” He ate,
I’s starting my count. Three minutes an’ “Not hungry,” the alien buzzed. moving with dull mechanical repetition.
“Visibility,” Rounder agreed. “That’s I’m back in de air.” The ramp continued After a moment, he stood and dumped
slick, King.” its drop. The vertical jets that kept “Me neither, but we drones have to the box into the hole in the cave’s floor.
the ship hovering blasted the desert eat to keep our strength up.” Red Dog “Kakwas himself devour the man that
“Question is what to do about it.” lifted two of the boxes, stuffing them thought ham and lima beans went
surface back up at them in a miniature
sandstorm. into his maw, chewing placidly. “They’ve together,” he cursed, pulling a new box
“Get somebody up there and take out
finally blocked the last route up the from the crate. “If we don’t make it, it’s
the bug’s spotter?” Rounder suggested.
Rose grabbed his arm, pulling him mountain,” Priest continued. “You think been a good run, Red. I’ve seen more
Kingfisher flipped the cigarette from down to shout in his ear. “I’m first!” they’ll try to make the ascent tonight?” destruction than one man should be
one side of his mouth to the other with Before he could protest, she flared a The heater sputtered and died with a privileged to in a lifetime. I’m honored
his tongue. “That’s what Nag would hand in front of her eyes. “I can see in wisp of steam. and humbled.”
do. No, lemme think a bit.” He stood, this mess!”
“No. Even fool humans not fool They fell silent as Priest finished his
placing his hands in the small of his
“Okay!” He nodded vigorously to enough to fight Red Dog in dark. Red meal. “Humans will rush mountain,”
back and twisting side-to-side. “We
make sure she understood. Kylee raised Dog sees much better. Humans wait Red Dog said at last. “Stronger will drive
gotta bring him out of his hole, find
her hand pointing first to Rose with one until dawn.” weaker into mines on path. Many will
some way to get the Cillian to come to
finger then toward herself, brandishing die but Red Dog thinks not enough.”
us.” He breathed out a slow stream of Priest peeled the top from the box,
two. Ivan flashed her a thumbs-up sign
smoke. “I think when Nag goes rushing letting the mush of prepackaged rations “Where do you want me?”
then pointed toward his chest and

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The Cillian tilted his head, thinking. by decades of wind. Ivan decided the Kylee followed suit, passing a handful tricky part is going to be if Red’s already
“Circle around to ledge again. Set warmth of a fire against the night’s cold of foil-wrapped packets to Rose as well. bottled up. His caches have traps on top
detonator to blow entire path. If outweighed the risks of discovery and “I gotta say,” the girl muttered around of their traps. Heck, he’s probably got
humans get close, destroy path.” struggled to build a small blaze from a mouthful, “after bushbuck and eland, the entire mountain wired to blow.”
the tough grasses and dry shrubs that nutrition bars leave something to be
Priest put an elbow on the table, clung to life in the mountains. Kylee desired.” “Fair enough,” she replied. “You lead
leaning his forehead against his fist. helped as best she could but there was and we’ll follow.”
“What about you?” not enough fuel and the fire quickly “Not exactly up to Martha’s standards
either,” Rose agreed. “Anything to drink “Right. If somebody starts shooting,
dimmed to embers. Rose kept watch,
“Red Dog can climb rockslide if must.” besides water?” I’ll go forward, you flank, and Kylee
her quicksilver eyes able to pierce the
stays back with the long rifle to give us
“You’re going to fight them on the dark and the sandstorms better than
“Here. It’s some kind of fruit juice.” cover.”
path?” any unaugmented human.
Ivan tossed her a box. “Don’t squeeze
it or it’ll spray out of the straw.” He “I’m good with a rifle,” Kylee
“Red Dog considered tactic. No. Too “It is what it is, kid,” Ivan said,
glanced at Kylee, seeing her shiver. “You murmured sleepily at his side.
many fool humans and path is too surrendering the battle to keep the fire
alive. “You bring any blankets?” okay?”
narrow. Red Dog sees only one way to “Has he shown you the wrist exercises
win fight. Red Dog must attack first.” “This place reminds me of, you know, yet?” Rose asked.
Kylee’s smile was strained. The long
walk on the heels of short rest wore on the dreams.”
“Tonight?” “Not yet,” Ivan answered for her and
her visibly. “I learned to pack from the Rose sighed.
He pulled a blanket from his duffle,
“No. Drone is tired. Red Dog too, best.”
laying it around Kylee’s shoulders. “Not
maybe.” Turning so she could look at Kylee and
“Pharaoh?” he asked. the same place, Calamity,” he said,
watch outside at the same time, Rose
“Then when?” Priest said around a pulling her close beside him. “Not even
drew her pistol. “Most of your control
yawn. “Martha,” Kylee countered close.”
and aim with a gun actually comes from
Next to her, Rose laughed. “I don’t Rose looked at Ivan, raising an your hips and shoulders, squaring up to
“Do not worry. Drone will know
even know what’s in my duffle,” the ex- eyebrow. He shook his head and she your target, setting your feet for solid
when Red Dog attacks. Fool humans do
duelist admitted. “She packed mine for turned back to the desert. “Do we have balance, that kind of stuff, same as with
not die quiet.” The Cillian opened the
me while I was checking my clips.” a plan?” she asked. a rifle.” She waggled the pistol up and
weapons locker and began to rearm
down. “But with a pistol, the weight
himself. “Not tonight. Rest well, Priest.
“Women,” Ivan said in exasperation. “No. All I have is a rough idea.” With and the kick are going to get you right
Tomorrow we fight.”
“If you want it done right, always pack his free hand, Ivan rummaged through in the wrist. You’re going to need all
Red Dog did not volunteer any further your own bags.” his bag, giving a satisfied grunt when the strength in your hands and arms
explanation and Priest did not press. In he found the bundle of dried meat he you can get.” The gun vanished into
“Men,” Kylee teased, mimicking sought. “I know where Red Dog is, and its holster. “Basically, you want to get
time, the human slept and Red Dog left
Ivan’s tone. “Trust me, if Martha did it, I more or less know where the people a stick, tie a string around the middle,
the cave.
it’s done better than you would have.” after him are,” he explained. “If we can and tie the other end of the string to a
# get to Red, we join up with him and brick. Hold your arms out and wind the
“I give. I’m outnumbered.” He worked
go from there. If not, we scope out string around the stick by walking it up
The trio took shelter beneath an loose the knot holding his own bag
the situation and go from there. The with your hands, twisting it.”
overhang of sandstone, scooped hollow closed. “Best eat.”

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“Been doing it for months,” Kylee “Thank y—” Rose froze, her jaw for langer shell.” She grinned maliciously. “Oh yeah.”
said. “Martha’s had me doing it to help dropping in shock. “It’s green,” she said Ivan knew better than to ask her what.
with my knife fighting.” breathlessly. “I can see it! It’s green! “Flip it over.”
How did you—” She stopped, staring #
“You make it sound like we’re turning He did, finding a recessed disc set just
down at her hands.
you into some kind of killing machine,” to the inside of the hook. He pressed Nagana surveyed his men with
Ivan groused. Kylee made no attempt to disguise it with a fingernail. He frowned as it disproving eyes. Only ten remained, or
her pride. “There’s not much to do clicked, looking through his eyebrows nine plus equipment; in the general’s
“Nope,” Kylee deadpanned. “That’s on Selous at night except read,” she at Kylee. opinion, Stet with his neural augments
Red Dog’s job.” When Ivan did not said coyly. “If I understand all the and subdermal armor was better
smile, she elbowed him in the ribs and “Open it already. I want to go to bed categorized as a machine—useful but
theories correctly, what you’re seeing
sat up, pulling her duffle toward her. before I pass out.” not fully human. With a pair of men
are the lines Pharaoh engraved on the
“I’ve got presents,” she announced. “I langer-shell inlays on the grip. They’re guarding the two secondary approaches
The back of the buckle opened like
didn’t have time to give them to you on carved with lines and swirls like grass to the mountain, he would make the
a woman’s locket. On one side was a
Selous so I brought them with me.” and vines. You can see them because assault with five and Stet, more than
picture of Pharaoh, Martha, and the
the carving is textured just like grass enough for one bug.
“’Bout time for me to watch for a twins with Kylee in the center. On the
blades and leaves. Your brain fills in other, a picture of a young man with his
while.” Ivan stood stiffly, rubbing the “We do this slow and by the numbers,”
the rest and fools itself. And let me tell arm around the waist of a woman taller
small of his back. Nagana began, making certain to make
you, Pharaoh like to went blind doing than he was. Waist high to the couple eye contact with each of his men as he
“No you don’t,” Kylee snapped. “You that kind of detail work, had to use a stood a girl, arms stretched up, frozen spoke. “Advance with a two-man team
sit right back down. And when it’s time microscope and laser cutter on parts.” in time as they waved above her head. twenty feet ahead to sweep for mines.
for your watch, you can do it from right The girl shrugged, almost embarrassed.
We switch teams every fifteen minutes.
here just like Rose!” “Some researcher on Altern wrote an Ivan stared at the pictures in silence,
Stet covers our rear with the .50 cal.”
article on prosthetic eyes. I figured, you then closed the buckle gently until it
The words were like ashes in his mouth.
Rose smothered a laugh with her know, maybe the same thing would clicked. Reaching down, he pulled his
It was standard operating procedure,
hand as Ivan relented, sinking back work for you.” belt free of its loops and exchanged the
the kind of information that was an
to the ground. To her surprise, Kylee buckles. “What’d you make Red Dog?”
“Anyway,” Kylee rounded dramatically insult to the intelligence of his men
turned to her. “We made this for you,” he asked, replacing his belt.
on Ivan before Rose could recover, to have to repeat, but this time they
Kylee said, offering her a twin to the
“yours isn’t anywhere near that good.” Kylee lifted what looked to be a needed to hear it. His carefully crafted
fletchette gun strapped to her leg.
snakeskin of thinly shaved langer shell. private army had been reduced to a
“Who’s we?” Rose asked. “I should hope not,” Ivan said. “I worry about him and his stupid fragment of its size and the remainder
bombs. If somebody ever hit one, he’d so demoralized that he was forced to
“Me and Pharaoh,” Kylee explained “Hers is the best. But here’s yours.” coddle them like trainees. Worse than
blow up.” She draped the langer shell
as Rose gingerly accepted the pistol. She handed him a blue-green belt defeat, it was humiliation. “I’ll take
from shoulder to waist like a sash.
“And House, sort of. It was my idea and buckle. It, too, was intricately carved—a point first with Rollins,” he continued.
“Pharaoh says this stuff is pretty close to
my langer but Pharaoh did the carving. stylized eland head with long spiral As commander, he could do no less and
bullet proof even when it’s cut down.”
We called House and had him check horns set against a background of the men needed to see him putting his
with the Orion’s rangemaster to make knotted vines. Ivan nodded. “He’ll like it. Looks like life on the line next to theirs. It ended
sure we got the gun right.” you and Tumbo did good, kid. Make today—his men, his way, his victory. No
He held it, smiling. “It’s pretty heavy
anything for yourself?” way in hell was he going to let some old

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ISSUE 56

man waltz in and assume his command. Bullets cracked and whined, ricocheting said, standing slowly. “What kind is it?” detonated simultaneously with a
The geezer was definitely dead weight wildly. Nagana ran toward them, deafening roar.
and his keeper had shown no desire shouting for them to cease-fire. The pistol never wavered but its black-
to be part of the assault. The duo had clad wielder smiled at the compliment. To Priest’s surprise, Kingfisher smiled.
wandered off into the desert as he Suddenly, as if in defiance of Nagana’s “Scottish snaphaunce action with a12- “I admire a man with guts,” he said.
assembled his men. Good riddance. command, Stet cut loose with the bore barrel.” The speaker gave a tiny “Just don’t push it too far.”
“We’ll be done by sundown and on our heavy .50 machine gun, sending brass shrug. “A replica of course, but a very
into the smoke like water from a good one.” #
way south to the mining camps. A week
from today, we’ll be rich men enjoying hose. Nagana dropped to his stomach,
“It’s beautiful,” Priest said. When the mountain shrugged,
the best pleasures the Hedge can offer!” Robbins beside him. A heartbeat later,
Red Dog ran, taking advantage of the
he concluded. The men’s cheering was he saw the reason for Stet’s reaction. A
“You two done?” The gun had so confusion to put distance between
forced but spirited. massive, multi-limbed silhouette rose
captivated Priest that he had not himself and his antagonists. Unlike the
in the heart of the white smoke like a
noticed the second man standing humans, he was able to keep his feet,
The decision to lead from the front coiling snake.
behind and to his left. The man seemed scrabbling across the rockslide, circling
saved Nagana’s life. They made it four
# of a piece with his surroundings, aged away before starting the slow climb up
hundred yards up the ledge before
and thin, worn to bones but tough in a the ruined slope. More than anything,
something went wrong.
Waking to the sound of gunfire, Priest way that youth never could be. Priest’s decision to blow everything at
Nagana was inspecting a suspicious rolled to his feet and grabbing the once, destroying the easy approaches
detonator and binoculars on his way out “Sorry, King,” the man in black said. and exits from the cave, was a warning.
cairn of rocks piled at the edge of the
trail when a dull whomph and shouts of the cave. Reaching his observation Something had gone wrong; Red Dog
“Nice dress. You Red Dog’s lackey?”
of surprise jerked his attention to the ledge, he threw himself down, crawling was on his own.
Kingfisher asked.
men following. Dust swirled into the to the edge, pressing the binoculars to
his eyes. Whatever happened, the humans
air where a section of the path had Priest bristled, said nothing.
seemed to have had enough, at least
collapsed into a shallow depression.
The rolling thunder of a heavy gun “Thought so.” The older man nodded for the moment. The three survivors of
Nagana would have taken it for a
pinpointed the fight’s location for him to himself. “He care enough to rescue his assault did not follow.
natural sinkhole were it not for the
in seconds. Nearly one-third of the way you if we take you back?”
white plumes of teargas and smoke By the time Red Dog reached the
up the slope, white smoke boiled like a
pouring from the hole. The men in the cave, his arms trembled and most of his
giant cotton ball twisting in the wind. The Kwakiutl laughed. “I was expressly
collapse yelled, trying to shield their upper cilia hung limp with exhaustion.
He lifted the detonator, dialing in the told ‘no rescue.’”
eyes and climb the loose shale to rejoin Priest was nowhere to be seen. The
codes by feel.
their companions. Above, some men “Humph. Didn’t think so, “ Kingfisher Cillian pulled a box of food from the
extended rifle stocks and belts to help The hot metal barrel of a gun pressed said. “ Reckon we’ll try anyway. Take it crate, gnawing it distractedly as he
pull their compatriots to safety, others against his cheek. “Sorry to interrupt,” easy an’ come on down with us.” inspected his injuries. Fatigue provided
snapped gunfire into the mist. a man’s voice said in a deceptively enough of a buffer against the pain for
pleasant tone. “But I was thinking we “No problem,” Priest stared him in him to hold off going into a frenzy, but
With a scream, a man was jerked the eyes, shifting the detonator in his
might have a word.” only just.
backward into the smoking pit. A hand. “Just have to finish up here first.”
second man leapt to pull him up, only Priest turned his head to stare down He thumbed the button. His lower left arm hung broken at
to be sucked in himself. The gunmen at the massive muzzle. “Nice gun,” he the second joint, snapped almost
the edges were firing on full-auto now. Across the mountain, every mine

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completely off. Cracks spiderwebbed also one that would, if successful, put bruising intensity and, though he was his body.
his exoskeleton, most radiating out from him back in the fight immediately. Red loath to admit it, he was not entirely
two bullet wounds. The heavy armor- Dog rejected the idea. Each segment immune to the effects of teargas. The The tracks were not subtle; Priest
piercing rounds had taken their toll. The represented years of growth, years assault had started well, two quick kills had even dropped the detonator to
first to hit skipped, a glancing impact more to regrow. Every segment, even a in the confusion, but his luck was finally insure Red Dog knew he had been
rather than a direct hit, shattering the nearly vestigial rear one, was vital to a broken. here. The Kwakiutl’s prints were heavy,
chitin of the segment and gouging a Cillian, one more filter against disease deliberately exaggerated in places by
deep scar but not penetrating. The and poison, one more metabolic center Red Dog considered the creature that the scuffling and dragging of his feet.
second was more serious. The segment to provide more strength and speed. A had injured him so badly. It appeared The tracks of the other two men were
was near the end, well back among his Cillian’s real power lay in his size. Right human but, given the extent of his plain if not so obvious. He had been
legs, struck as he twisted away from now, Red Dog needed that power, even injuries, he was no longer certain. There meant to find them. Priest had been
the gunner, too slow, reflexes dulled if it came at the price of skating the were disturbing anomalies to the thing captured, the question was why. The
by fatigue. It could have been worse. razor’s edge of frenzy and exhaustion. as well—smooth eyes, blocky sections humans could not seriously believe that
The shooter was almost too close, the of its exterior that implied heavy Red Dog would attempt to rescue the
slug had passed through the segment As for the arm—he swung the knife armoring if not a partial exo-skeleton, little drone.
cleanly, if a fist-sized exit wound could before he had time to reconsider, and the strength to carry weaponry
sheering it cleanly from his torso. Either humans typically mounted on vehicles. But he would. He could not remember
be considered clean.
it would regrow or it would not; both why but Red Dog knew that sometime in
Red Dog mulled his options. The options were equally probable. Right He needed to figure out what the past he had decided what he would
individual segments were remarkably now, it was a useless liability he could happened to Priest but not yet. Red do if the situation arose. And since he
resilient. If not destroyed outright, they not afford. He dug the packing material Dog leaned against the wall and fell into had, there must be a good reason, even
would eventually heal. A new layer of from one of the ammunition crates and a deep slumber. Hours later he woke to if he was too tired to remember it. He
chitin would grow under the damage began to chew. a throbbing in his lower segments. The just needed to dig a little deeper into
until the old, injured carapace split and paste had cracked, partially flaked away his weapons cache.
fell away; but that took time that he He had spent most of the night to reveal a sickly yellow pus that oozed
tunneling under the largest of the and crusted around the edges of the One more attack against the humans.
did not have. Maybe later, but not now.
mountain’s paths. He could contract injury. He cleaned it as best he could, He needed Ivan and the little queen to
Until then, he could masticate a sealing
and expand the bands between his digging through the supplies in the cave come soon.
paste from almost any fibrous material,
but the wound would continue to seep, segments rapidly, allowing him to use until he found a spare weapon harness,
#
draining his energy, and making him his own body as a kind of burrowing its heavy webbing making a stronger
increasingly weaker until he finally fell battering ram, smashing through paste. Robbins sat and stared at his hands,
into a regenerative coma. The segments obstacles by sheer force, but the trail at what was in them and what was out
ran over stone, not sand. Rocks too large He ate three of the metallic tasting
behind the injury would be left to drag of them. He would die here on this
for him to shrug aside were plentiful, food boxes before venturing out. The
feebly like so much dead weight. unnamed world; he accepted it, finally.
forcing him to dig around them. The sun had already dipped below the
None of them would leave alive; they
The alternative was to lose the effort, on top of the accumulated horizon, its light still painting the sky a
were just prolonging the inevitable. Of
injured segment and those behind it weariness of the past weeks, had left ruddy pink. With the paths destroyed,
the seven who started up the mountain,
entirely. Amputation was an extreme him in poor condition to fight before crossing to the ledge which had become
only he and Nagana, on point, and Stet,
measure, one that came with the risks of the combat even began. The falling rock Priest’s regular station was an arduous
from the rear, had come back down.
infection, shock, frenzy, and coma, but when he collapsed the path had hit with task that made Red Dog acutely aware
The bug had killed three. Stet killed the
of the strength gradually leeching from

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other, firing blindly into the smoke at world. A man who worked for the bug, exploded in a tower of white light. He of ErDef prototype labs.”
the bug. If he had not, Robbins believed, who when captured considered himself hit the ground, crawling forward on his
they all would have died. The bug was already a dead man, and who appeared hands and knees. The air was sweet “If he’s had that, why hasn’t he been
unstoppable, like some kind of zombie unconcerned by it. with ozone and arcs of blue lightning using it?”
from a kids’ story that kept coming and sputtered from the shallow crater
“If he’s told me everything, then I “They tend to blow up and take a
coming no matter how many times you where the rock had been a moment
might as well get rid of him.” Nagana city block with them.” Nagana sounded
hit it. earlier. Robbins saw Nagana crabbing
stood, taking a single step toward Priest, pleased. “The bug’s desperate.”
his way on his belly toward a hump of
The mark of a good leader was that he knife in hand. Kingfisher did not say a stone. Rounder lay where he had stood, “Or very angry,” Priest called happily.
knew when he was beaten. Nagana was word, just stared at the general until the antique cannon he called a pistol “He doesn’t view reality the same way
not a good leader. Robbins had thought he slid the knife back into its sheath. thrust in front of him like a shield. The as you or me. I seriously doubt that he
he was but now he knew better, too “This is still my operation,” he insisted. sentries were half-running half-crawling considers probability—”
late. If only the general had listened to “Without his helper, we get the bug toward his position. Only Kingfisher
the old man. For that, maybe, it was not tomorrow for certain.” seemed calm, stepping to stand next to “Shut up,” Kingfisher interrupted.
too late, but Nagana would never listen. the fluttering red flag of Priest’s robes.
Kingfisher pulled paper and tobacco In the darkness outside the camp,
“He’s holding out,” Nagana growled, from his pocket. “If he doesn’t come # the Cillian fired again. The energy of the
stroking a knife blade across the ball of t’night, you won’t get him at all. I’ll blast did not descend into the visible
his thumb. “I’m going to rough him up take them with sense enough to come The trio had been trudging through spectrum until several feet away from
until he talks.” and light out at dawn.” He finished the desert for hours, beginning after the Cillian. A brilliant jet of blue around
rolling his cigarette but did not light it. sundown on the assumption that it a central lance of white stabbed into
“No.” Kingfisher’s voice was low and “You went at him hard and he bled you would be easier to see the light of the another spur of stone, backflash casting
soft yet Robbins could hear the iron in white, son. No shame in that. I just got armed camp and avoid it. Ivan had not the alien in silhouette. The gun’s power
it. “He told you everything he knows. here too late is all. You want to live to considered that it might make Red Dog source rested heavily on his lower,
Let the feller be.” my age, you gotta learn when you’re easier to find as well until the night sky horizontal segments, connected by an
beat.” flashed with light. octopus of tubing and cables.
Rounder shifted as if he were looking
at the sentries, the four men lucky “Cowards,” Nagana spat. “Both of He froze, staring in the direction of This time Robbins saw the shot and
enough to be assigned to watch the you.” the flash, Rose and Kylee looking to his eyes danced with green and purple
other trails. The move, subtle as it was, him. A thunderclap rolled across the splotches after the flash. Comparing
took him out of Nagana’s direct line of “I’ll thank you to withdraw that badlands a bare second later. By the the plasma blaster to a flamethrower
sight, closer to the odd red-robed man assessment.” Rounder’s voice was pure time the sky flared to light again, all was like putting a candle next to a
called Priest. “He’s told you everything ice. three were running. cutting torch. The flash lasted less
there is too know. What more do you
Kingfisher struck a match, chuckling. than a second but the air where it had
want him to tell you? What the bug had #
“Let him have his strut, limey. His pride’s passed danced with crackling spiders
for lunch?”
been hurt worse’n yours.” “What was that?” Robbins asked, of electric arcs and balls of Saint Elmo’s
“Probably ham and lima beans,” awed. fire hovered, darting side-to-side before
Priest said calmly. “Hard to be sure since “I’m done taking his lip, King, if—” fading slowly. Thunder rolled across the
he never opens them.” To Robbins, the Nagana answered. “Argon plasma desert and echoed back from the rocks.
Robbins’ hair stood on end as an blaster. I’ve never heard of one outside
man was one more insanity in an insane
outcropping of rock as tall as a man “Send out the drone!” Red Dog

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roared, twisting his torso as he sought a live.” Drawing one of his oversized knives dash into the night.
new, living target for the blaster. with his remaining left arm, the Cillian
“Considering the position, I reckon began to cut the harness that fastened Shaking free of the plasma blaster’s
“That would be me,” Priest said that’s a fair enough offer to start with. the plasma blaster to him. bulk, Red Dog reclaimed his shotgun
helpfully. “I’ll see myself out.” Kingfisher Can’t do it though. I’ve got to bring you and belt of stick bombs. Moving quickly,
stopped him with a hand on his arm. in.” Kingfisher waited then added, “Your Ivan ignored him. “King, I need you to running diagonally, he lobbed a bomb
friend Priest spun me an interesting tale listen!” he shouted. toward where Nagana and a sentry
“Shoot him!” Nagana ordered. No ‘bout what y’all did on Earth. Wouldn’t were leapfrogging toward his position,
one moved; none of his surviving troops mind bringing you in alive, get all this “I know you?” Kingfisher called back, one providing covering fire while the
were willing to risk the muzzle flare that straightened out.” reloading his revolver, back against the other advanced. Seeing the bomb
would make them the next target of the rock. arc through the air, Nagana sprinted
devastating weapon. “Already is.” Kingfisher jumped at forward, swinging the butt of his rifle
the sound of Ivan’s voice, turning and “Ivan Steponovich. We’ve met.”
like a bat, slapping the explosive away.
“Red Dog!” Kingfisher shouted, giving drawing his Colt in a single motion. Both
“You’re the Cillian’s partner,” It detonated harmlessly to his side.
a crisp nod to Rounder. “You hear me?” men moved as they shot, Ivan spinning
Rounder rose into a low crouch, moving Kingfisher confirmed. “Talk already, I
back into the mouth of the dry arroyo he Ivan snapped a pair of shots in the
slowly away from the camp. ain’t got you in my sights just yet.” He
had emerged from, Kingfisher sprinting general direction of Robbins and the
smiled in amusement as he saw Priest
to an outcropping to his left that was remaining sentry to insure they kept
“Red Dog hears.” begin to walk placidly away from them,
part of the same cliff face. They missed, their heads down. “I’ve got the papers
toward the other side of the camp and
“I reckon we’ve got us a stand-off. You bullets whining off stone in protest. with me, King. Anytime you want to see
Red Dog.
ready to talk terms?” them!”
Startled, Nagana opened fire. Stet
“Warrant’s been rescinded. There’s
“No! But Red Dog listens.” rose to one knee to cover him, hoisting #
no bounty on Red Dog.” In the distance,
the .50 as a pair of sentries ran forward
Ivan could see Stet rise to his hands and Kylee lay at the lip of the cliff, stone
“This here’s Kingfisher. Y’know who I in a crouch. Red Dog fired, the blaster
knees, crawling painfully toward the cold against her stomach. She watched
am?” glowing fiery red in the darkness.
remains of the fallen sentry. Kingfisher closely, tracking him with
“Red Dog knows.” The shaft of light missed Stet by the ivory tip that jutted from the end
“And I’m supposed to take your word
inches, continuing past him to melt one of her long rifle like a horn. She could
“Then you know I’m a man of my for that?” Kingfisher lowered himself
of the onrushing sentries. Crackling ball have used a scope but the express site
word. I only got a warrant for you.” to one knee and started around the
lightning in the plasma’s wake found its gave her a better look at the situation.
Kingfisher paused for breath. Stet and outcropping, Colt in one hand, the
ground in Stet and the hulk of slag that Besides, the ridge was dark and even
Nagana were crawling steadily closer to other on the ground for balance. As he
had once been a machine gun. The man the ivory was barely visible. After a
the alien’s position. Rounder was out of eased forward, a rifle shot whispered
collapsed screaming, thrashing in the single well-placed warning shot from
sight, circling, trying to get behind the over his shoulder, kicking sand in
grips of a muscle-ripping seizure. her and a single, pointless fusillade
Cillian. “I got no interest in Priest here. his face. He drew back, out of the
into the cliff by him, the legendary
You come in an’ I’ll let him go.” “Ivan!” Red Dog bellowed, shuttling sniper’s field, waving a hand at the two
gunfighter stayed still. For a while, she
to his side, taking cover from the sentries cowering nearby. Getting their
tracked the progress of the strange red
There was a long pause before Red automatic weapons fire that peppered attention, he jerked his thumb to the
robed man but, when no one moved to
Dog answered. “No. Kingfisher lets the ground around him. “Red Dog is cliff above him then spun, firing rapidly
molest him, she shifted back to covering
Priest go, and Red Dog lets fool humans almost not disgusted to see Ivan!” at the cliff’s edge, covering the men’s
Ivan.

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Boots scraped harshly across the a real threat. “Too close,” he sneered, He was still cursing when Kylee shoved cold press against his back.
stones beside her and she cursed echoing her words. “I’m a professional, the corpse aside and ripped a line of
silently. She rolled over slowly, holding kid. I’m out of your reach.” bullets across his chest. “Rose, my covey,” he whispered back,
the rifle away from her body. In the relinquishing his gun. “Fancy meeting
gloom, she could make out two men, Kylee sighed and dropped her head, Panting, she fumbled in the dark until you here.”
one standing behind and slightly to the trying to look defeated, lifting the gun she found both of her knives, struggling
by the barrel. The man leaned forward to pull the one from beneath the man #
side of the other. Both were armed.
slightly, reaching. When he did, she she had stabbed. She was covered in
Nagana slid to a stop on one knee and
“Look at that,” said the nearer one. brought the rifle swinging up, cracking blood, both sticky and slick at the same
opened up with his assault rifle, firing
“He rolls over and gives up on his own.” painfully against the arm still holding time, but no worse than gutting an
blindly to cover the sentry’s advance
Kylee did not correct him. The man his gun. It did not leave his grip, did not antelope. She wiped the blades clean
beside him. As the man rose, a blast
motioned with the barrel of his gun. need to. Her blow moved the muzzle on the pants of the man she had shot.
from Red Dog’s shotgun tore his face
She stood. “All right boy, pass it over,” off-line from her body and she was
She had killed a man, two men, open. Nagana dropped and rolled as
he said, gesturing toward her rifle. inside his reach, springing forward like
in fact. She hesitated for a moment, another blast pocked the sand behind
a jaguarundi.
She adjusted the gun, holding it with searching for some kind of emotion, him. One of the Cillian’s stick bombs
both hands on the barrel, the stock Because of the small size of her some response beyond annoyance at exploded behind him, pitching him into
resting on the ground in front of her. forearms and the large size of her her own carelessness and disgust with the air. He landed on all fours and came
“You’re too close,” she said, barely able knives, she wore them sheathed on the the mess. Finding none, she shrugged up in a scramble, running headlong
to hear herself over the rush of blood backs of her arms rather than the inside. to herself and rubbed her hands with for cover. As he ran, he saw Stet lurch
in her ears. It slowed her draw but she had already sand until she was clean enough to to his feet, weaving as he fought to
loosened them and the cross-draw put comfortably handle the sniper rifle. She orient himself, hands fumbling with the
“’S a girl,” noted the second man. them in her hands ready to use, blade fired a quick double tap into the sand sentry’s assault rifle.
up. She slashed at the man’s face with below to remind Ivan and Kingfisher
“I know it’s a girl,” the closer of the “I’m dead serious, Kingfisher,” Ivan
her left then, as instinct threw him she was still watching and settled in to
two snapped. “Girl or not, she’s giving yelled. “I give you my word, you holster
back, she followed with her full weight wait.
me that gun or I’ll blow her in half.” that gun and tell me you’re coming
behind an uppercut. The knife hit just
# over and I’ll put the papers right in your
She took advantage of the confusion below the man’s sternum, slamming
hand.
to slide first one hand then the other home to the hilt.
Rounder licked his lips, suddenly
across her sleeves before returning nervous to be so close to the massive Kingfisher waited, surveying the
The man gasped, once, collapsing,
them to the rifle. “I said, you’re too alien. He had circled almost completely situation around him. “Frankly, I’m
his weight falling against her. As the
close.” behind the Cillian, searching for a clean inclined to take you at your word. Ain’t
man’s partner swung his own gun into
shot. The 12-bore had the power to in a position to take you up on it just
“I’m glad enough to be up here ‘stead position, she dropped, pulling the
penetrate the creature’s armor but its yet.”
of down there getting killed with the corpse on top of her, feeling it twitch
under the impact of a pair of bullets in range was limited. He lifted the gun,
rest of ‘em but I’m not gonna mess Ivan watched Priest’s red robes
the back. bracing his feet, thumbing the striker
around all night either. Don’t pull some dwindle in the distance. “I can respect
back slowly.
bone-headed stunt and try to knock my that. I’m going to pull back, set up camp
The man cursed, unable to tell if he
gun away.” The gun’s muzzle wavered as “I wouldn’t do that,” whispered a back down the way a bit. You decide
had hit Kylee, unwilling to deliberately
he spoke, no longer considering Kylee silky voice in his ear. He felt something to visit, shoot up in the air and yell so I
shoot a partner who might still be alive.

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know you’re coming.” “I reckon we’re done here,” he said to?” other guns.
casually. “I’ll wander over come light an’
“Man couldn’t ask for a fairer offer take a look at that Ivan feller’s papers, The general surged to his feet, After the shot, there was only silence.
than that.” just to be sure.” advancing on Kingfisher. “I don’t give Kingfisher lay dead, bleeding out the last
a damn about who pays the bill, I want of his life across the stunned Robbins;
Priest broke into a run toward the “The hell you will!” Nagana erupted. that bug dead!” Nagana’s skull was so much splattered
Cillian and Red Dog came to meet him, “This is my operation, my men dead out pulp after the work of the Scottish gun.
throwing a pair of stick bombs over the there! The bug’s done. This was his last “And if the Cillian’s innocent?”
Kwakiutl’s head to cover his final sprint. chance at us and he failed!” The general Kingfisher asked. “Warrant’s rescinded. “Anybody else?” Rounder growled,
looked at the other men, seeking You put him down and you might be drawing a second pistol in his other
“Great one,” he panted, “you should next on my list.” He exhaled smoke in hand. Stet shook his head, hooked a foot
support. “We’ve got the firepower and
not have come.” Nagana’s face. “Murder’s still murder.” in the strap of Nagana’s rifle, drawing it
now we know there aren’t any more
traps. We can do this!” toward him but making no move to lift
The alien dropped his shotgun, lifting “He killed my men! That makes him a it. Angrily, Rounder shoved the pistols
the much smaller and slower human murderer in my book!”
“No we can’t,” Rounder said, keeping back into his belt and moved to kneel
into his three arms. “Red Dog does not
his voice light. “We got the bug to come beside Kingfisher’s corpse, cursing. He
plan to form habit.” Kingfisher shrugged off the general’s
to us and he still beat us—on our own rolled the body off of Robbins, onto
objections. “That’s the way the game’s
An assault rifle began to spray 7.26 turf. Give it up, Nag. You’re beat.” He its back, unbuttoning the ravaged
played. If you ain’t old enough to
millimeter bullets on full automatic shrugged, the heavy fabric of his coat vest. Digging inside it, he withdrew a
understand, stay home.” He flicked
behind them, sweeping the area rustling like leaves. “Besides, you heard thin leather wallet, pocketing it. With
the ash off his cigarette and stepped
without aiming. Sweeping Priest off the man, there’s no warrant. Even if almost parental care, he somberly
away from the man, strolling to stand
the ground, Red Dog fled, leaving Stet you take him down, you won’t make a eased apart the dead man’s fingers
in front of Robbins. “You had your
casting brass into the night. penny.” until the weather-beaten Colt was free.
shot, Nag, and you failed. Now it’s my
The hammer was still back, trying for
“It’s not about money,” Nagana show and I say it’s over.” He nudged the
# one last shot. He eased it off, holding
insisted. “It’s about revenge.” sitting solider with the toe of his boot.
the gun reverently.
Kingfisher waited, reloading the Colt, “What about you, boy? You ready to go
giving Ivan and his sniper plenty of “Casey will pay,” Stet said abruptly. home?” “I’m leaving,” he rasped, his voice
time to move on. The survivors were thick. “Either of you coming with me?”
“What do you mean?” Rounder “It’s my operation!” Nagana
gradually trickling back to the center
asked. screamed. Before Robbins could “No,” Stet said. “Still work to do.”
of the camp, Rounder dropping his
answer, he opened up with his assault
eyes sheepishly when Kingfisher looked “I don’t work for him,” Stet replied, rifle. Beside him, Robbins nodded.
his way. Stet was the last, firing wildly jerking his head at Nagana. “I work for
into the darkness until he ran out of Casey. Bounty or no, we kill the bug, Robbins threw himself to the ground, #
ammunition before throwing the gun Casey’ll make sure we’re taken care of.” Kingfisher falling across him. Even as
to the ground in disgust. the old man fell, chest torn to ribbons, “Hail the camp!” A single gunshot
The scrap of Kingfisher’s match as he his gun was in his hand, firing back at preceded the words by seconds.
Satisfied that the two men who lit a cigarette caught their attention. Nagana. Rounder fired the 12-bore, the
had gone after the sniper were not “Nice company you’re keeping these “Come on down!” Ivan shouted,
cannon spitting sparks from its muzzle,
returning, Kingfisher walked to join days.” He looked to Nagana. “That the a smile tugging at his lips as Kylee
its roar drowning out the sound of the
the others, thumbs hooked in his belt. kind of man you want to be beholdin’ scooped up her rifle and ghosted away

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from their position. The struggling fire sympathetically. I will.” He leaned forward and tossed “You too.”
he had scraped together did not put off them softly into the sand in front of her.
enough light for her to need to go far. Rounder laughed, a cold mocking “He’d have probably wanted me to take “Quite the pair, aren’t they?” Rose
Rose met his eyes and grinned, shaking bark. “Nagana did.” He took a long them but I’m done. I’m headed back to asked.
her head. “You’re early,” Ivan said as drink. “Coffee’s awful.” the Hedge, going back to dueling. At
Rounder lifted the coffee to his lips.
Rounder approached. “Didn’t expect least that I understand.” He glanced at
“Pharaoh’s special blend,” Kylee said, “His daughter?”
you two until morning at least.” Rose, raising his eyebrows.
stepping back into the fire’s light. “I’m
sorry for your loss,” she added, looking “No!” They answered simultaneously
“King’s dead,” Rounder said without She shook her head. “This is where I
Rounder steadily in the eye. She sat, while Rose mouthed a silent ‘yes.’
preamble. “That coffee hot?” belong.”
folding her legs beneath her. “It’s not
“I’m fortified,” Rounder said,
“Pull up a rock,” Ivan offered, knocking that I didn’t trust you, just, you know.” He nodded. “Stet’s staying too, works
standing. “I’d thank you for the coffee if
sand from a tin cup. “What happened?” for Casey now.” He looked at Kylee.
He laughed again; this time the sound I was sure it won’t kill me later.”
he asked, filling the cup and passing it “What’s your name anyway?”
to the other man. had a touch of humor in it. “Trust me,
“You’re welcome to stay,” Ivan
kid, I know.” He sobered, the tight lines “Kylee.” She hesitated then added,
offered.
“Nagana shot him. I shot Nagana.” He of his face softening. “And thank you.” “Steponovich.”
shrugged. “You were telling the truth He pulled a flask from his vest and “Thank you, no.” Rounder
about the warrant, weren’t you?” poured its contents into the coffee, Rounder frowned. “I’ve heard that
straightened his bowler and shook out
staring at the blood caking her clothes. name before. What’s your connection
his coat. “It’s a good night for walking
“Yes. Want to see the paperwork?” to Casey? Why’d he be asking questions
and I’ve a ways to go while the rest
“It’s not mine,” she said in about you?”
“I don’t think King ever came here to of this world sleeps.” He turned to
exasperation. “That’s like the third time
hunt the Cillian—he came to find out Rose stared at him in surprise but Kylee, putting a finger to the brim of
I’ve had to explain it tonight. Why is
the truth.” Rounder shook his head, Kylee did not blink. “I’ve seen him— his hat. “Be careful, kid. Rose, Ivan,
it everyone assumes if I’m covered in
staring into the cup. “That’s what killed when he killed my folks.” perhaps we’ll meet again under better
blood, it must be mine? I’m competent.”
him. There’ve been a lot of rumors plus circumstances.”
what the crazy priest told us after we Rounder grimaced. “I’m competent,” Ivan cursed bitterly. “I should
have realized that. The attack on #
caught him...I think the old man wanted he repeated. “Sounds like the kind of
to make sure he was on the right side of epitaph Kingfisher would have wanted.” the transport, the devil, I didn’t see
Priest was dead long before he
the fight when it came.” it then—” He stopped, chasing his
reached the cave, but Red Dog carried
“Lots of people really respected him,” thoughts. “I got you citizenship and you
him anyway. One of the light rounds
“It’s here,” Ivan said. Kylee said. took Steponovich as a last name. Damn
that bounced off his carapace had torn
it. I made you easy to track—”
“Then I guess he ended up on the “The respect was earned.” Rounder through the man’s body like tissue.
right side. Doesn’t feel like it though.” set his cup on the ground. “These were “I’ll kill him before he kills me,” Kylee Red Dog stopped twice to press paste
He sighed and tilted his head back, Kingfisher’s,” he said, pulling the wallet interrupted. “Damned if I’m going to into the drone’s wound but it would
staring up at the stars. “Damn it, I liked from his pocket and the Colt from live my life afraid. Done is done, and I’d not adhere and he was forced to give
the old bird. He didn’t deserve to go out his waistband. “You’re not packing take the name again in a heartbeat, so up. Humans were just so fragile, so
like that.” anything small,” Rounder observed, to hell with it.” accursedly soft. His best hope was to
noting Kylee’s lack of a sidearm. “Here. try to reach the cave and the human
“Nobody ever does,” Rose said You’ll get more use out of them than “Watch your language.” medicines there but he was too slow,

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too weak to climb the rockslides up sometimes crawled—with ragged Robbins hugged the wall until his eyes make out the words.
the broken mountain at anything abandon, guns slung across their backs, adjusted to the darkness. The cave was
faster than a crawl. Several of his rear all but forgotten. barely more than a large room. He was “We’ve got a crawler on the way,”
segments had gone numb, dragging almost disappointed; over the days, Kylee told him. “Just rest, okay?”
behind him like a heavy tail. The two men were together physically in his mind, the Cillian’s redoubt had
but mentally they were alone, the “Forgive Red Dog. Red Dog must
become a castle-sized fortress. Now it
It took the Cillian a moment to realize journey taking on the proportions borrow strength from Kylee.” Strands of
was real—small and deserted, shelving
he had entered the cave. His vision was of some strange sort of religious feathery cilia reached to wrap around
and crates, a single table and chair.
almost gone. Several of his facets were pilgrimage, each step a penitence for the girl.
blinded from the glare of the plasma, the terrible sin of surviving where their Not deserted, Robbins realized,
“They tickle,” she joked.
others scratched by the weeks of wind- fellows had not. jerking his gun up with a clatter. The
blown dust and sand and not yet healed. crazed man in the red robes, the one The ground heaved as a steady
As he tired, his eyes began shutting The growing heat and oppressive the bug had rescued, sat hunched over string of explosions rocked the wastes,
down, peppering his field of vision with silence gave Robbins’ world a dreamy the table, his back to the two men, drowning out her voice.
odd floating patches of black. cast, making the trek seem never- ignoring them.
ending and surreal. He failed to realize “—awesome, Red! Did you see that?”
Moving as much by feel and memory the uphill battle had given way to level “Leave him,” Stet said. “Let’s go. The she was shouting. “The whole top of
as sight, he placed the human on his ground until Stet stopped him with a bug’s gone.” that mountain is just gone! It was soooo
table, the table where Priest had made vise-like grip on his arm, dragging him to cool!”
so many beautiful explosives. Indeed, a halt. He stood, blinking in confusion, Robbins ignored him, advancing
Red Dog thought to himself, if there as Stet unlimbered his assault rifle. They stiffly, one step at a time, rifle at the Red Dog’s legs collapsed and he sank
was one thing he had remaining in stood on a broad ledge, the mountain ready. Nearing, he reached out. to the sand. “Now drone has home in
abundance, it was raw explosives. rising again several yards away, this drone’s afterlife,” he rustled, and was
His hand was on the man’s shoulder
time in a sheer cliff. silent.
It would be an easy thing to slip before he saw the web of wires.
away before sunrise, slide down the “There,” he said, motioning at a patch Ivan raised his eyebrows at Kylee,
#
mountain to Ivan and Kylee. For now, of darkness on the face. The man’s flat and she shook her head. “Naw, he’s just
he had work left to do. monotone pulled Robbins back into the Red Dog was almost completely blind sleeping.”
reality at hand and he shrugged his own by the time he found where Ivan and the
The drone deserved no less. gun free. young queen were camped. The second #
# female’s pheromones were familiar and The doctors installing Stet’s subdermal
“He’s not here,” Robbins said softly.
she made no move to challenge him as armor had feared his skeleton would
“If he were, we’d be dead already.”
It took most of the morning for he shambled forward. be unable to support the added
Robbins and Stet to scale the mountain. Stet grunted. “Maybe.” He started weight. To compensate, major bones
The approaches were knee-deep in Kylee met him, embracing him mid-
forward without waiting to see if were reinforced with a nanocalcium
rubble, making for dangerous footing torso. “Red Dog! You look awful!”
Robbins followed. Reaching the edge of mesh and key joints buttressed with
and a slow, grueling ascent. They began the cave mount, he stopped, placing his palladium pins. At the time, Stet was
“Red Dog pleased to see Kylee too,”
cautiously, covering each other, wary back against the cliff, rifle lifted. “Go,” furious, certain the extra steps were
he said in a dry mutter, unable to
of booby traps and fresh attacks by he told Robbins with a jerk of his head performed only so the medics could
summon the force for more volume. He
the Cillian. By the end, they walked— toward the cave. “I’ll cover.” sink their tendrils deeper into his bank
could hear Ivan’s voice but could not

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ISSUE 56

accounts. Today, he thought wryly, he
had finally gotten his money’s worth.

If he had followed Robbins into the
cave, he would be dead now, he knew
that. As it was, it took him hours to dig
himself free of the landslide that had
deposited him almost back at their
original camp.

Stet pulled a flat metal case from the
inside of his bulletproof vest, rummaging
through it until he found a handful of
unbroken vials. He pressed each in turn
against the artery in his neck, listening
to the hiss of the autoinjectors. His
heart raced, pounding his chest from
the inside as if it were trying to escape,
then settled into a more sedate rhythm.

Sixty miles to the nearest mine—
he could cover the distance in three
days, two if he found water. Perhaps a
week’s total time to get back to Fargone
and another week in a hospital. The
drugs killed the pain, made him feel
invulnerable and in perfect health, but
Stet knew better. He was hurt and the
sixty mile push in front of him would
only make it worse; plus the drugs came
with their own price. Call it a month
then, at the worst. Enough time to make
sure he did not miss the fireworks.

He loved fireworks.

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Calamity’s Child, Chapter 10 the metal plating, but the welds that
held the repulsion field projectors
“Repairs completed and no
additional damage detected thus far,”
Object Real: Ave Maria, Part One were still new and smooth. an overhead speaker answered.
by M. Keaton
A quartet of fighters flashed across “What else?”
the screen. The thirty-ton ships
S he was older; heavier; her skin no
longer smooth, her manner not so
restrained as when they had first met.
arbitrary.

The massive landing bays of
looked small by comparison, barely
more than a cylinder of engine and
“The crew tested well at the latest
round of simulations. They’re ready
to engage the Earth tech systems
a refueling station required the cockpit with stubbed wings. Another
But he loved her just the same. She atavistic necessity; the wings moved when you are.”
was still the lady who had saved him supporting structure to be heavily
reinforced and buttressed, giving it a the fighter’s missiles away from the
from an empty, pointless life, who “You’re stalling,” House warned.
skeleton stronger than most ships of central mass of the ship, allowing
had given him focus and meaning and “Spill it.”
the line. Those old bones had served space for more firepower.
never asked anything in return except
for his presence. House well over the years; he was not “More complaints from med lab,
The CIC was almost deserted, a
a man to decry a lady’s figure when and Ivan is so bored he’s asking me to
handful of techs at their stations.
She had given him life and, at times, the accidents of her birth were so start cheating at cards.”
From the command dais House might
killed for him. Too soon, he would ask pragmatic. Of the original three ship- as well have been alone, watching
it of her again. She would stand in the length bays on either side, one, now The muscles of the right side of
the view screens as maintenance House’s face tensed and he forced
gap, risking her life, suffering terrible safely ensconced behind six-yard- cameras played across the ship’s hull,
harm, for no greater reason than thick blast doors, had been enclosed himself to relax. “I’m assuming the
inspecting repairs and looking for complaints are the usual?”
he asked it of her. His only love, his to form the magnificent mezzanine further damage.
Dulcinea; the Orion. that gave the Orion so much of her “The opposite this time. Red
prestige as a tourist vessel. The second House squeezed his hands Dog is complaining about the staff.
The Orion was not a slim ship, not had been converted to a weapons bay together behind his back, frowning
pretty by conventional definitions. Specifically, that they’re running too
capable of a devastating broadside. slightly. Anyone who said he did not fast. I’ve already dispatched a security
The luxury liner began life as a The third remained open, catering to understand what it was to order a
refueling station and no cosmetics team in case he’s serious about killing
a steady torrent of supplies and guest loved one into battle would be sadly them this time, but it looks like he’s
could hide the truth in her lines. She shuttles during peacetime, otherwise mistaken. “Carry on,” he said with a
was shaped roughly like a giant egg; just blowing off steam.”
easily capable of disgorging a dozen nod toward the techs and left the dais,
worse, she was wider than high, a fighters on each side in less than a pausing in the passageway outside. House permitted himself a smile.
squat oval on a nearly flat base. The minute. Even months after the upgrade, Red Dog recovered quickly from
aristocratic shipwrights of the Hedge he still was not used to the ship’s injury. Using the upgraded medical
might consider such things atavistic, Missile tubes gaped fore and aft combat command center being deep facilities obtained through Graves’
but humanity still built its ships as like caves. The entirety of her once in the belly of the beast instead of covert contacts, the alien was almost
if they were under gravity: she had smooth surface was pimpled with paralleling the civilian bridge several as good as new less than a week after
a definite top and bottom. House point defense cannons, the conduits decks higher and farther forward. being at death’s door. Only his arm
considered it a matter of pragmatism, that supplied them criss-crossing her “Dell, update,” he commanded the air had not regrown. When that would
when he considered it at all—the hull like veins standing out against as he began the long walk. An elevator happened—if it did—was anybody’s
simple human need to know which her skin. Antennae and the curve of tram would be faster, but he was in a guess. In spite of his rapid recovery
way was up, even if it was technically rotating dishes cast shadows across contemplative mood. and despite the alien’s low tolerance

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for confinement of any sort, the medical target at the end of the range. House “She’s trying to two-fist with the That makes it my secondary gun,” she
staff insisted that he remain under could have covered their spread with his fletchette and the revolver,” Rose shrugged, “so, left hand.”
their care ‘for observation’. The truth hand. “Happy?” Her face was streaked explained. “Her arms give out after
of the matter, if House were to guess, with tears, skin the bright, puffy red of about two loads.” “All right, then let me ask a stupid
was there were so few opportunities to a bad sunburn. Rose stood behind her, question. Why two-fist at all?”
study Cillian physiology that the staff watching the scene play out; the hollow “You do know it’s okay not to be
perfect at everything, don’t you?” “Firepower. If I’m in a fight where I
were taking advantage of the situation. circles under her eyes told House that
House asked. The look on Kylee’s face can’t use my rifle, then that means I’m
Given the number of complaints they the long wait was wearing on her as
warned him to change the subject at short range. And that means I need
had made about Red Dog, he also well.
quickly. “Mind if I have a look at the to put a lot of lead in the air in a hurry.”
suspected they had ‘observed’ all
the Cillian they cared to but were too “Take a break, Mack,” House said, revolver?” He accepted the gun,
House realized he was truly enjoying
stubborn to admit it. laying a hand on the rangemaster’s inspecting it. “Colt Python. Haven’t
the discussion. It had been a long time
shoulder. “I’ll watch the range.” seen on of these in years.”
since he had spoken to anyone as an
“Let me know if I need to hide any
The man snapped his head around “It was Kingfisher’s,” Kylee said equal with a shared interest. Even
bodies,” he said aloud. “Anything else?”
angrily before realizing who had sullenly. more refreshing; how long since he had
Dell hesitated. “There’s been a report spoken. “Sure thing, Mister House. Your talked to anyone without a running tally
of crying on the firing range.” ship.” He gave Kylee a final perplexed “That explains why you feel like you of the score between their agenda and
look before leaving. “Should nae let have to use it,” he murmured, sighting his own? “So you don’t need the Colt,”
“Crying?” House turned on his heel, women have guns at all,” he mumbled it down the range. “Little over three he said.
back down the passage. “I suppose I’ll as the door slid closed behind him. pounds. You wouldn’t think it’d wear
have to deal with that personally. Page you out so fast.” He smiled to take the Kylee rubbed her nose on her sleeve.
me if there’s an emergency.” He had no “I’m not bawling,” Kylee warned sting out of his words. “Truth is, the old “I need the power. In case somebody’s
idea what to expect when he reached House, sniffling. She wiped her face slug throwers get to you in a hurry. Can’t wearing a vest or behind cover.”
the practice range, but he knew who he futilely with the back of her hand. beat them for stopping power though.
“Fair enough. Let me think for a
would find. Kylee and Rose practically “I’m mad. I just get—” She ended her What kind of load are you using?”
minute.” He handed back her revolver.
lived there since their return to the sentence with a flutter of her hand.
“Five .44 hollow-points and one dry “Why not carry the Colt in a shoulder
Orion.
“I understand,” House said, chamber. Sometimes I swap out with holster for when you need the punch,
“I’m sorry, lass, but if ya cannae nodding sagely. “I get that way myself piercing rounds.” and two-fist with something lighter
control yourself—” the rangemaster sometimes.” otherwise?”
was saying as House entered. His smile spread to his eyes. “Guess
“Really?” you’re old enough to date without a The girl gnawed her lip. “Any
“I am in control!” Kylee screamed chaperone after all,” he teased. “You’re suggestions for a second pistol?”
back. “When I was younger. Why don’t you right-handed. Why use the Colt in your
tell me what’s the problem?” “Sonic?”
left?”
“Yer bawlin’ like a wee babe!” the
“I’m too weak,” she growled. She “Too weak.”
man shot back. “Accuracy,” Kylee said with a grimace.
hefted the Colt in her left hand. “It’s too “Not much room for error with House suppressed a chuckle at the
“And that’s relevant to what? You heavy. I keep practicing and exercising, fletchettes. Plus the rate of fire. With flat dismissal. “I guess you could really
want control?” The young woman fired but...” only five shots, I can’t just blaze away. go for flash and use a Thor.”
an entire clip of fletchettes into the

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ISSUE 56

“Never heard of it.” course.” Until they finished, the Orion and tightening the noose.”
everyone on it were caught in the time-
He stepped to one of the wall lockers, Kylee laughed. “I didn’t get Mack into honored vise of ‘hurry up and wait’. The “In another week,” Ivan countered
spinning the combination lock. “What trouble, did I?” crew could distract themselves with sourly.
you really need is a trip to a good the host of shipboard duties and drills
armorer. Try out some of the different “No. He’s just doing his job and, “Or less.”
necessary to prepare for what House
gun designs, pick up some good technically, he’s right. No crying on the
considered an inevitable attack; but for “Assuming Earth doesn’t step in.”
equipment.” He pulled what looked firing range. Feel better?”
the quartet he jokingly referred to as
to be a thick black shotgun from the his infantry, there was no relief. “That,” House said, sliding a sheaf of
“Yeah. Just, you know, cooped up and
rack inside. “The only Thor I’ve got papers across the table, “would be the
jumpy.”
is a rifle, but the pistol works about Ivan rapped on the door jamb as he good part.”
the same.” He stepped to the firing “We all are.” He looked past her, entered the office and dropped into a
line, bracing the gun against his hip. toward the pink-haired woman standing chair. “I’d say this better be good, but it “I notice you’re still opening Red
He flipped what looked like a circuit silently behind Kylee. “How about you, gave me an excuse to get up and walk,” Dog’s mail.” Ivan moved his finger from
breaker on the stock and squeezed the Rose?” the bounty hunter said. word to word as he read, lips moving
trigger. The muzzle burped a trio of silently.
fireballs. “It’s electricity,” he explained The ex-duelist shrugged. “Between “It’s good.” House tapped his desk
over his shoulder, firing again. “Kind of Calamity and Ivan, it’s like living in a and a hologram of stars blazed above “Give it here.” House reclaimed the
miniature lightning bolts. Problem is—” tiger cage.” it. A narrow cone of ruby light twisted top page. “’Mister Red Dog, Despite
House lowered the gun and jerked back inside it like the frozen body of an the rather questionable circumstances
a slide just above the trigger guard. The House laced his hands behind his epileptic snake. “Nevrio.” A second tap resulting from your abrupt departure,
stock broke back, allowing him to pull back, turning toward the doorway. “I’ll and star blazed brighter. “Fargone.” it is my pleasure to inform you that
a fist-sized block of blue plastic from it. see what I can do.” Once in the semi- Another flare. “Now, the Orion’s you have been cleared of any and all
“They eat ammo like candy. The pistols privacy of the passageway, he said, position when we recovered Kylee.” wrongdoing by Earth Security. This
only have three shots or one burst “Dell, have Ivan meet me in my office.” A third point appeared, roughly two- being the case, any correspondence
on full auto.” He closed the stock and thirds of the way between the two stars. between us is of course fully protected
# The final point was also the narrow end under attorney-client privilege. Our
returned the gun to its locker. “Like I
said, lots of flash. But I don’t think it’ll of the cone. “The red is a plot of the mutual acquaintance, Agent Graves, has
The amount of data Red Dog brought
solve your problem.” equilibrium shifts, the neural memories impressed upon me the usefulness of
back from Earth—the data Priest
of Kylee’s inner ear. Dell’s been working this legal security to convey to you the
had died for—was stunning. That the
“You just wanted to show it off,” Kylee on this since you pulled her out of the attached document which he feels will
Kwakiutl had been able to store it all
accused with a weak smile. coma, figuring out possible drift paths, be on immense interest to you. I agree.
on a handful of fingernail-sized drives
and narrowing it down as we get more Though for political reasons I shall not
“Can you blame me?” he asked. was a testament to the man’s skill. It
data on shipping activity. A week ago, venture to guess upon, the warrant is
“I’d say you’ll either want a second was also one more stumbling block on
that cone was twice as large at the not scheduled for promulgation until a
fletchette for your offhand or one of the the torturous road to processing and
end. In another week, we’ll probably ninety-day holding period has elapsed,
lighter automatic pistols. Or don’t two- understanding the information. Max
have a pinpoint.” He waved away the Agent Graves assures me that it is
fist at all. I have a suspicion that most and Dell had been pouring over the files
projection. “That’s how much Graves, indeed legally binding and enforceable
people who use two guns have more for the better part of two weeks and
Priest, and Red Dog did for us. Those from the moment of its issue. At the
bravado than sense.” He mirrored her only now were the details of Casey’s
files are pure gold. All that’s left now is time of this missive, such moment was
grin. “Present company excepted, of plot emerging with glacial slowness.

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this morning. In addition, Agent Graves with an index finger, “there’s no polite showing me.” handful of short trees, the grassland
recommends you mention to someone way to say this.” He took a deep breath. stretched uninterrupted to the west,
named House that, and here I quote: “Get off my ship.” “Call me lucky.” House rubbed the eventually meeting the gray knuckles of
“Earth will check on the turn and fold side of his neck. “As long as you’re going a distant mountain range.
on the river.” I cannot claim any especial To his surprise, Ivan laughed. “And planetside anyway, there is something
understanding of these matters, but I take Red Dog with me?” I’d like you to take a look at. According Leaning on the stone railing, Casey
wish you good hunting, Mister Red Dog. to Priest’s data, Casey’s supposed to sucked in a lungful of air, releasing it
“And Kylee and Rose as well. All four be building a ceramics factory down in a contented sigh. The view from his
Lemuel Hendricks, a.k.a. Shyster.’”
of you are stir crazy and it’s stressing there. It shouldn’t be in operation for mission-style home was one of pristine
House pointed toward Ivan. “You’re the crew. Red’s about ready to start a few weeks yet but, if you happened tranquility, and great care had gone
holding a warrant for the arrest of shooting up med bay and Kylee was to wander by and take a look, I’d into keeping it that way. The gun turrets
Edgar Casey.” crying on the range today. I know we’re appreciate a report.” surrounding the house were nestled
close, but you’ve got to take a break or into carefully camouflaged underground
Ivan raised his eyebrows, reading. you’re going to be worthless when the “Since you asked so nicely, sure.” Ivan bunkers; security monitors perched in
“Two unpaid parking tickets and an shooting really does start.” Leaning his frowned. “That place will be crawling the scattered trees disguised as birds’
overdue library book?” elbows on the desk, his tone softened. with Casey’s people if he’s got a project nests. A landing pad to the north of the
“Kylee needs better equipment than there.” house was cut into the far side of one of
“Theft and obstruction of justice.” I have onboard. She needs at least the hills, discreetly out of view.
another sidearm and speed loaders “I know. If anything looks iffy, clear
Ivan tossed the warrant onto the out.”
for her revolver. Go, walk under real A maid placed a pitcher of ice water
desk. “A judge’ll throw this out in a
gravity, see some trees, set the kid up on the table behind him and retreated.
heartbeat.” Ivan put his hands on the arms of the
with some top-of-the-line stuff. Take a A moment later she returned, a second
chair, ready to stand. “Anything else?”
“I’m sure,” House agreed. “But you’re breath while you can.” pitcher and glass tumblers balanced on
missing the point. It’s enough to bring House shook his head. “Leave early, a silver tray.
Ivan raised a hand in surrender.
him in and once he’s in, there’s plenty stay late.”
“When?” “That’ll be all,” he said, almost too
more against him. I don’t know how he
# softly to be heard. Not that it would
did it, but Graves found a way to strip “We’ll enter orbit around Fargone have mattered; the staff were well
Casey of his political cover and give us in...” He paused to check his pocket Sunlight dappled the flagstone of trained, especially in the art of avoiding
a head start.” watch, one of his few affectations. the veranda, filtering through the leafy their master and his business.
“Fourteen hours. We’re meeting a pair screen of wisteria on the trellis above.
Ivan sat back in his chair, crossing his
of heavy escorts and resupplying. I’m The whispering breeze was warm but Oddbits was an orphan planet, alone
arms across his chest. “Okay, get back to
going to try to hire the escorts, and not unpleasant, carrying the faint in the system with its aging G-class sun
work and call me in a week.” His hostility
resupply will take at least a day. Fargone whiff of a distant creek. The shallow at the end of a long survey run. The
was a shield against disappointment.
has some of the best weaponsmiths on ravine that held the stream’s bed was world had been largely forgotten—its
The ex-smuggler could not blame him;
the Frontier. It should be easy to find almost invisible in the lush grass that rich agricultural potential irrelevant in
there had been too many false starts
whatever she needs. I’ll pay.” covered the gently rolling hills, narrow the push for mineral wealth that drove
and near misses in the past and they
enough to jump across and barely five the surveyors. It was indicative of the
both knew how precarious the current “And it’s just a coincidence that
feet deep. The water was rarely more wasteful, short-sighted thinking that
situation was. Fargone sits within spitting distance
than a few inches deep but it ran clean arose when people were left to act
of the end of that red cone you were independently, only looking as far as
“Ivan,” House rubbed his left temple and cool the year round. Except for a

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their own gain; one of the failures of refit in secret. But it was more than the porch counted as outside,” he said, know each other. It’s not like we ain’t
the Frontier Casey intended to correct. expediency that drove his actions; he complying. been on the same payroll for years
Great men with vision and drive, such loved the land. In lesser hands, a world now.”
as himself, could mold the raw material like Oddbits would have been stripped Casey turned his attention to the
of the Hegemony and its holdings into to a dustbowl and left to die, another other guests. “I don’t know who knows “The introductions weren’t primarily
a power capable of ushering in an era victim of the Frontier’s fumbling greed. who so I’ll introduce everyone. The kid for you,” Casey replied. “Adolphus,
of prosperity and security mankind there is Jimmy Foxx.” could you join us please?”
only dreamed of. With stakes of Ice tumbled against glass. “Pour one
for me,” he said, peering toward the “Maybe you’ve heard of me?” the The wisdom of insisting Foxx attend
such magnitude, it was the height of
horizon. Somewhere out there, at least blond interjected. “The Kentuckian sure unarmed was apparent immediately.
stupidity to leave key decisions in the
a dozen armed men patrolled, guarding as hell has.” Maywether’s reactions were slow,
hands of random individuals. Despite
his privacy. It was a tribute to their skill and the two professionals kept their
what he might show publicly, it grieved Casey frowned. “You may notice that,
that he could find no sign of them; a reflexes on a tight rein. Foxx, on the
him terribly that his once friend and at my request, Mister Foxx is unarmed,”
tribute to his own paranoia that, on a other hand, would have shot the alien
partner could not see the truth of the he said dryly, cracking the whip just
hidden world with only his own people as it shimmered into view—his fingers
matter; but Sam had chosen his course. enough to remind them who was in
in residence, men still kept a constant flailed for his absent guns. It had
And a great man must be ruthless as charge. “He tends to play with his
watch. not been invisible, merely obscured
well as wise. guns at the table.” Foxx glared at him by a screen of low frequency sound
“Am I late?” drawled a sardonic voice. but remained silent as his employer it generated to vibrate the air into
Boots scuffed the stone behind him
shifted his attention to the men next to something resembling a haze, diffusing
as his guests began arriving. Casey
Casey turned to face the table. “No, him. “Oden, I’m sure your reputation its outline and making it uncomfortable
did not bother to move; there was
Jimmy. No more than usual.” The man precedes you.” Casey nodded to the to view. An observer’s eye tended to
nothing that needed his immediate
stepping across the threshold was half aging mountaineer and mercenary. skip over the disturbance before the
attention. Maywether had worked for
Casey’s forty-plus years and moved “Stet is a retired duelist who’s worked brain lent it any credence.
him for years while Oden and Stet were
with the sure arrogance of youth. He for me in the past. Let me add, it’s good
professionals. Jimmy would be late if
stood just under seven feet tall, every to see you up and around again.” When Adolphus was not the creature’s real
for no other reason than to insure his
inch rawboned muscle. Blond and Stet did not reply, he gestured lazily to name any more than Casey could have
entrance was noticed.
gifted with almost feminine features, the final man at the table. “Maywether pronounced it if he had known. It said
Casey spent his first fortune—an he would have been handsome if not Edgars. His brother was one of my top Adolphus was its race; even that he
inheritance from a politically active for the permanent sneer that curled men before his...accident.” took on faith. Its head reminded him of
and wholesomely corrupt father—to his lips. The flat-brimmed hat with a a dinosaur skull he had once seen in a
snakeskin band and fringed brown Maywether lifted his chin in greeting, museum on Earth, broad and flat like an
acquire Oddbits. Over the years, he
leather duster matched his attitude; staring at the others from a face better elephant’s but wider, curving outward
had spent a dozen times as much to
Casey was amused to see that his suited to a pig than a man. He had been at the top like the blade of a shovel,
guarantee it remained a forgotten
clothing was actually discolored where a boxer before Casey hired him and almost four feet top to bottom. Seen
world, eventually using his own political
his twin gun belts would have criss- lacked the subtlety and wit Casey had from the side, the front plate of the
influence to have the original survey
crossed his hips. “Take your hat off in admired in his late brother; but then skull stairstepped back as it rose, jutting
records scrubbed from Hegemony
the house.” again, Maywether’s job did not call for forward at the base, flat in the middle,
databases. It was ideally suited to his
either. receding at the flared top. Pupilless eyes
purposes, a private base where an
The man grinned, showing sat high on the shield-like face, spaced
entire smuggling fleet could orbit and “Boss,” Foxx said, “I reckon we all
unnaturally white teeth. “I thought apart like a terran herbivore’s. An iris of

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sliding bone snicked at intervals across could not suppress the shudder that Foxx snorted. “Hell, man. The Grim The alien ignored the quip. “kt’Eaters
the black, hand-sized corneas, keeping rippled across his skin. It was impossible Reaper over there makes more sense are kt’children of kt’Adolphus, literally.
them moist. The eyes were the only to get used to the Adolphus’ voice, than you do.” They were crafted from the gene-stuff
external features on the otherwise a husky wheeze like a man inhaling of our offspring.”
smooth face. through a harmonica across three full Oden glared at him. “A pair of skills
octaves. He knew that the entirety of the you’re going to need if you want to see “My condolences,” Oden said.
The alien’s head seemed to be alien’s frontal plate protected a massive your next birthday: learn to put two
partially embedded in its chest, the base and two together to get four, and learn “Quite kt’contrary. We were proud
membrane the Adolphus used as both
of the frontal plate extending down to to keep your mouth shut around your to be chosen for such an honor and
voice box and eardrum and that, due
the middle of its torso like a human betters.” doubly proud of kt’new generation.
to its gill structure, it could speak and
sternum. Compared to the massive Though your sentiment is happily
breathe at the same time; but knowing
skull, the stick-thin arms that extended “Boys!” Casey snapped, stepping received in kt’manner it was intended.”
the mechanics of the creature did little
from the sides seemed comical. Both quickly to the table. “Let’s get to The Adolphus paused, its gills opening
to counter the visceral reaction of his
arms ended in four delicate, extra- business.” and closing like the folds of an oversized
hindbrain.
jointed fingers and a pair of opposable bellows. “Because of our unique
“Fine by me,” Foxx said. “Start by position, Adolphus understand kt’Eaters
thumbs. From the base of each palm, Oden recovered first. “That explains
explaining that thing.” better than, I would venture, any other
a sharp razor of bone curved back, things.”
parallel to the forearm like a reversed race remaining in this incarnation.
“I am kt’Adolphus,” the alien said.
dewclaw. Its legs had three segments Casey leaned back against the railing, Specifically, gentlemen, kt’Eaters are
“Master Casey, shall I explain kt’nature
rather than the normal bipedal two; watching the men closely. “How’s highly susceptible to certain frequencies
of my peoples or is such information
thick, almost swollen, with muscle that?” he asked mildly. of sound, frequencies we Adolphus are
not for kt’ears of underlings?”
like a horse’s. Only Casey, who had able to produce naturally and quite
“I didn’t say anything because it easily. It is related to their primitive
seen the creature before, realized the Casey smiled tightly at the alien’s
wasn’t my business and because Eaters digestive systems. Their craws, properly
Adolphus was squatting to fit beneath final word, sweeping the table with a
can’t survive up in my mountains,” the stimulated—” Casey interrupted
the veranda’s canopy. Had it stood fully warning stare. “Keep it brief.”
older man explained, eyes fixed on the with a deliberate cough. “But such
erect, it would have topped nine feet in
Adolphus. “But turning those biters “As you wish.” The Adolphus shuffled details need not concern us now,” the
height.
of yours loose without some way to its wide feet, turning to better face the Adolphus continued. “kt’Point is that
Currently, the alien’s slick skin was a control them is a lot like a man setting men at the table. “kt’Eaters, as you call my people are able to direct kt’Eaters,
dull bone white but Casey knew from a brushfire in his own yard during a them, are kt’created race. Like tools, if not control them.”
experience that it could change color drought.” they were designed for a specific task
with the speed and skill of a squid. and, like tools, they possess kt’potential “Nothing can control an Eater,” Casey
“Then you are familiar with my added. “The Adolphus herd them.”
It balanced something like a six inch to do great harm. Our previous masters
peoples?” the Adolphus asked. Its voice
green aphid on the flat of one bone realized such risk and took appropriate
had an almost musical flow as it spoke, “We primarily induce hunger to
spur, stroking the gigantic insect with precautions. kt’Eaters were designed
rising and falling in pitch during the motivate them in kt’desired direction
the fingers of the other hand. The back with simple, key weaknesses.”
course of the question. and pain to dissuade them from
of its oversized skull and back split
“Shorter, please,” Casey instructed. undesirable activities,” the alien
open into a dozen jagged red gills as it “I know what you aren’t, and I know elaborated.
inhaled. where the holes are,” Oden replied. “He need something to help with
“The rest is guesswork.” those hiccups?” Maywether asked. “Why do I need a biology lesson all of
“Gentlemen. It is kt’pleasure.” Casey

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a sudden?” Foxx asked. To his surprise, get more is on one of the quarantine recognized, but on a world like Fargone enough pain. I’d rather not have to deal
the Adolphus answered instead of worlds. A service only I can provide.” he won’t stand out.” with another generation.”
Casey.
“A pusher controlling an addict,” “I’ve worked there,” the older man
“I would have thought such Maywether said. agreed.
kt’thing would be obvious. Master
Casey’s experience with kt’Hecate “Something like that.” Casey hooked “Jimmy, you get the Adolphus to the
demonstrated kt’risks of transporting an empty chair with his foot, dropped factory. After that, make sure the local
Eaters without proper guidance.” into it leaning forward to stare intently law enforcement’s out of the way and
at the other men. “Twelve days,” he then clear out. I want you available in
“How do we know this bug isn’t going pronounced. “That’s all that stands case anything else comes up. That’ll
to turn on us as soon as we’ve spread between me and the manifest destiny open up the field for Oden and May to
the Eaters?” Oden asked. of mankind.” work.” M. Keaton
“The aphids,” Casey said, smiling “By ‘manifest destiny of mankind’ you “What kind of work?” Oden asked. Growing up in a family with a history
smugly. “The Eaters weren’t the only mean you getting to run everything, of military service, M. Keaton cut his
ones changed by the Blank. Whatever right?” Foxx asked, one eyebrow cocked “Wetwork.” Casey fished an envelope linguistic and philosophical teeth on
else they were, the Blank understood higher than the other. from beneath the serving tray. Opening the bones of his elders through games
control very well. The Eaters and it, he fanned an array of pictures across of strategy and debates at the dinner
Adolphus are part of a three-way “For your purposes, yes.” He slid his the table. “The Orion’s due to dock in table. He began his writing career
symbiosis. The aphids secrete some chair sideways, away from the table, to Fargone tomorrow.” over 20 years ago as a newspaper rat
kind of waxy ooze that the Adolphus keep the Adolphus in sight. “In twelve in Springdale, Arkansas, U.S.A. before
days, three hundred sealed ceramic Foxx cursed. “That’s right in the back
need as part of their metabolism.” pursuing formal studies in chemistry,
hulls filled with Eaters lift off from yard!”
mathematics, and medieval literature
“It is kt’pleasant and addictive Fargone. After that, only the Hegemony at John Brown University. A student of
“It’s far enough away,” Casey
narcotic as well,” the Adolphus navy itself can stop them, assuming politics, military history, forteana, and
countered. “But it’s also too close to
interjected. even they could get to all my cargo game design, his renaissance education
ignore. It might be coincidence or he
haulers in time.” Casey’s face was that inspired the short television series:
“The aphids eat the pellets the might know something. Either way, I
of a cat holding a mouse under its paw. These Teeth Are Real (TTAR).
Eaters regurgitate,” Casey continued. need him pushed back. The timeline’s
“And Earth’s on our side.”
“Without Eaters, the aphids die. too tight to chance it. It’s also too tight
His literary “mentors” are as diverse as
Without aphids, the Adolphus die. “We get to babysit the freak on his for me to afford a full-fledged fight right
his experiences. Most powerfully, the
Without the Adolphus, the Eaters run trip over?” Maywether asked. now. I need to bloody him up a little,
author has been affected by the works
out of control and eat themselves to scare him just enough that he goes on
and writers of the “ancient” world,
death. It’s a tidy little system.” “Jimmy will. Not this Adolphus, a the defensive until the hulls get off the
including the Bible, Socrates, and (more
different one. I have something else I ground. He and I can sort out his place
modern) Machiavelli, Tsun Tsu, Tacitus,
“I still don’t see how that puts us on need from you and Oden.” in the new Frontier afterwards.”
and Von Clauswitz. (This horribly long
top,” Oden said.
“What about Stet?” Foxx wondered. “You got a preference?” Maywether list only scratches the surface; M.
Casey made a dismissive motion with asked. Keaton reads at a rate of over two books
his hand. “Even well fed, the aphids Casey shook his head. “Stet stays with per week in addition to his writing.)
have a short lifespan. The only place to me. He’s too obvious. Oden might be “The Steponovich I know is a big

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THIEVES’ HONOR: EPISODE 11 about, Gaines?” Mars lifted
scrambler?”
his brows. “A

The Rescuers, Part 2 “Aye, sir”—the ensign waved his
by Keanan Brand dog tags in front of the lock—”once Words burst from Gaines like air
we’re inside.” through a hull tear. “Captain Zoltana’s
in the brig.”
Previously, on Thieves’ Honor: Near the portside gangway, Ensign The hatch opened into a darkness
Gaines sketched a salute then that hummed with electricity, fans, “Say again?”
Iona Zoltana, captain of the nodded. Put a fist to his mouth and and the chatter of old-fashioned
Orpheus, has been monitoring the cleared his throat. Shifted his feet. Did drives brought back into service many “Twenty minutes ago, Captain
Martina Vega, a suspected pirate everything but flash a secret sign. years ago, along with keyboards and Zoltana was removed from the bridge
vessel. When called to the admiralty other ancient forms of technology. by admiralty police.” Gaines crossed
to give an account to Commander Give him a second— In the dim distance glowed a glass his arms then uncrossed them. “They
Wilkes, Zoltana finds herself tank—a vacuum—filled with floating, had orders from Commander Wilkes.”
defending the actions of the Vega’s Gaines reached up as if to scratch
the side of his head then tugged his spinning spheres of plasma, the main
crew: they rescued a civilian vessel Mars cursed. “On what grounds?”
ear instead. processors for the ship’s systems.
from a violent band of known pirates.
She knows she’s angered Wilkes, but “Those tracking spiders we planted
Yep, there it is. Mars dropped his duffle on a table
doesn’t expect him to take action on the Vega were recalibrated and
then wandered among the black
against her—not without filling out put inside cargo shipped to some very
Mars held out his hand. The server towers and vacuum tanks.
all the proper paperwork first. important people—”
sergeant returned his sidearm; Mars Lights blinked, spheres glowed,
holstered it then shouldered his duffle cooling fans cycled. The old tech “That isn’t her fault, probably just
While Zoltana and her trusted served as a redundancy, in case the
and strode across the security bay, the some joke pulled by Kristoff’s crew.
lieutenant, Mars, each tries to take newer forms failed and, from his
clearing area for all the personnel and Wilkes will be laughed out of the
shore leave when the Orpheus research, they could fail in bloody
goods coming aboard the Orpheus. service—”
docks for resupply and maintenance, ways. Take the earliest IntuiCom
Being part of the captain’s security
Captain Helmer Kristoff leads his implant, for instance, or the personal “There’s more, sir. She’s been
detail, Gaines shouldn’t have seemed
exhausted and battered crew in a computer the size of a thumbprint, digging around in classified files. I
so out of place down here, but he
search for their pilot, Finney, who was inserted behind the ear and attached heard the APs tell Lieutenant Charles
looked as nervous as a quenya bug
captured by an old enemy. to the skull: some of that technology that they’ll be executing a warrant for
stranded in sunlight.
was still employed, but rarely and in you, too, sir.”
“Ensign.” secret.
And now, on Thieves’ Honor: “Charles?” Mars barely kept his lip
Gaines saluted—”Lieutenant”— The hatch door closed. Gaines from curling.

“L ieutenant Mars? Your weapon, and led him down a companionway tossed an orb into the air. It hovered
please, sir.” with stripped-down lighting and for a second then thin wires sprang “He was Officer of the Deck while
exposed pipes, the universal signs of out in a single latitude line, like the the captain was ashore. Looks like
He handed it over then looked a service corridor, then halted before legs of an engorged arachnid, and he’ll keep that duty for a while.”
around while the sergeant at arms a closed hatch. the orb followed him as he stepped
inspected the gun. Mars kicked a worktable. It skidded
farther into the room.
“You want to tell me what this is across the gleaming floor and
slammed into a server tower.

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APs were thorough. They would “Now you do.” Mars looked around. straight line. The woman’s eyes glittered Corrigan on the arm to get his attention,
have already checked the captain’s He might have been giddy to be in this in the last light of day, as if she cried. and the two men came to stand on
belongings and—unless she’d somehow room a week ago, but— But I just had to either side of the captain. Doc stowed
hidden or destroyed it—they’d have his show off for Zoltana. A hand gripped Ezra’s shoulder. “Eyes her scope in the bag. “All right, then,
research on the crew of the Martina back in head,” murmured Sahir. “She is Kris”—Kris?—”back to the ship.”
Vega, as well as the little data he’d “So, uh, what’re you thinking, Tarquin’s crew.”
scrounged together concerning lieutenant?” He stood straight. “We’re not done
Ezra sank back on his haunches. Even here. Tarquin doesn’t want the whole
IntuiCom implants.
Mars gestured with the palm so, she lingered on the edge of sight, a crew, and she doesn’t want me.” His
“Um, lieutenant?” computer. “I’m thinking you are the pale column in the twilight. words sounded as if they were being
captain’s fair-haired boy.” pushed through a sieve. “She’ll only
Mars looked up. “Sure wish we still had the kayak.”
free Finney if I send one of you in
An uncomfortable smile twisted the This from Mercedes, in a low, tight
Finney’s place.”
Gaines gestured toward the back ensign’s ruddy face. He looked down, voice.
of the bay. Along the rear wall were shrugged. “Well, sir, truth to tell, I hear Jolted, Ezra rose to his feet.
individual stations where techs could the same about you.” Corrigan cursed. “Doc, why you keep
perform service and maintenance harpin’ about that runner? It’s not like “What’s the old bat doin’?” Corrigan
on the ship’s computer-controlled Recalling late-night coffee and it had guns or nothin’.” swung around and gestured toward the
systems, such as adjusting the sensors clandestine research on the navigation villa. “Playin’ ‘Musical Pirates’?”
deck, Mars cleared his throat and tried “Someone could have flown over
that measured sewage levels and
to stop the heat from rising along his Tarquin’s place, done some air recon—” The captain gave a breathless laugh
then activated water reclamation and
treatment, or adjusting the oxygen neck. Grow up. Nothing happened. and shook his head—not in denial, but
Captain Kristoff lifted a hand. “We
levels in various parts of the ship. in that universal amused action that
He closed the computer and dropped don’t have a runner, and if we tried that
At the end, one screen was a black communicated what words could not.
it into his pants pocket. “Grab the trick, we’d be blown out of the sky, so
blank. Beside the keyboard lay a palm batten your hatches. Both of you.”
duffle, Gaines. We’re jumping ship.” Alerio removed his glasses. “Surely
computer.
you’re not going along with this?”
# Then he sagged against the trunk of a
Mars flicked it open, and Captain palm tree, and pressed a fist flat against Corrigan stuck out his chin and
Zoltana’s ID image blinked to life in the Ezra pushed aside straggly tall grasses the lumped bandage, as if pushing pain scowled.
upper left corner. and young palms. The woman in white back into its hole. Doc’s sour expression
still stood on the sward, the evening changed in an instant. She took his fist “Tarquin’ll kill ‘em both.” Wyatt
“She slid it into my hand just before
breeze catching her garments and and tried to uncurl it, but he refused, crossed his arms.
the APs pushed the whole detail aside.”
teasing strands of her long brown hair. so she just pressed her fingers to his
The ensign drew a deep breath then let So did Sahir. “We know Finney lives?”
Along the walls behind her and on the wrist, her lips moving as she measured
it go in a gust. “Wonder when they’ll
villa roof, men with guns appeared, his pulse. Then she held up the
start questioning us.” Captain Kristoff opened his fist. A
rising like lizards from their desert dens. thermometer and waved it beside his
broken pencil lay there, and a scrap
“It’s procedure. You were her throat. Frowned. Pulled a stethoscope
Captain Kristoff ended his murmured of bandana tied around a curl of red-
security.” from her bag and commanded him to
conversation with the woman—she’d brown hair.
take deep breaths. He could not oblige.
“I didn’t know anything—” said her name was Willa—and walked
Sahir shook his head. “Not enough.”
back toward the crew, his mouth a Mercedes glanced at Wyatt, who hit

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Kristoff hesitated then closed his they worth the risk, sir?” “You gonna cut up his meat for him, Kristoff tossed the knife, flipping it
fingers around the tokens and shoved too, and tie his shoes?” end over end, and caught it by the haft.
them into his pocket. “It’s all we have.” “I don’t know. That’s the nature of “I got a hankerin’ for some trouble.”
risk.” Mars grabbed the duffle from Blood and bone and all the void of
Silent, the crew looked around at each Gaines. “Now, about walking through the universe. Muscles already tight, #
other, faces somber, as if everyone was walls—” Kristoff grabbed the back of his neck
saying farewell. Out on the strip of grass as it cranked even tighter. I can’t do Unimpressed, Mars looked around
between the oasis and the villa, like a # this. But Tarquin knew that, didn’t she? the narrow space. “This is a lift, ensign.”
ghost in the gathering twilight, Willa She expected him to send no one. She
Kristoff took a step forward. Had he “Aye, sir.”
waited to lead the chosen crewman to expected him to attack—thus the men
heard right?
Governor Tarquin. on the walls. “And we’re tagged.”
“Finney saved me,” said Ezra, his
Ezra couldn’t think. He didn’t need to; Nah, she wouldn’t tip her hand like “No, sir.”
Adam’s-apple working in his throat.
the answer was obvious. “I’ll go.” that.
“Well, you all saved me, but she’s the
Mars glance up at the center of the
# one who found me first.” Speaking of hands, why in blazes was ceiling where a square-inch black tile
he playing the cards he was dealt? Time hid a camera.
On the Orpheus, lifeboats were “You’re staying right here.”
to steal the game.
ten-passenger catamarans secured “That only sees what we want it to
“Captain—”
in individual bays along the outer Kristoff nodded at Wyatt, and the see.” Gaines indicated his detail insignia
corridors of each deck, but entering a “That’s an order.” steward delivered a short, sharp and the scrambler.
bay would alert the ship’s police. whistle. The arguing ceased. Kristoff
The crew started talking over the reached back, drew his knife, and held “So. Security sees an empty lift or a
“Where’s the captain’s corridor?” top of one another, gesturing, arguing, it across his palm. Then he looked up at nondescript set of riders. Either way,
demanding to go in Ezra’s stead. Off his crew. “You trust me?” the door triggers a code when it opens.”
Gaines shrugged. “There isn’t one.”
to the side, Wyatt hitched up his belt,
rubbed a finger under his nose, then They frowned in puzzlement. Alerio “So it does, sir”—Gaines kicked his
Mars looked at him.
stepped toward Kristoff. “Boy’s right.” replaced his glasses and pushed them boot heel against the rear wall—”and
“Really, sir, there isn’t.” up the bridge of his nose. “You have as far as security knows, we’re on our
Kristoff shot him a hard look. never given me reason not to trust you.” way to nine deck.”
“So, when the captain needs to
disembark secretly, you security boys “Any of us would die for Finney. She’s Corrigan sucked his teeth. “Well, I’ve A panel popped open, and he
just walk through walls?” family. But so’s Ezra.” had a notion a time or two. Why you stepped behind it. Mars hesitated, and
ask?” the ensign stuck his head back into the
“Well,” Gaines grinned, “it does “Your point?” lift. “Lieutenant?”
take some skill.” Then, the scrambler Kristoff repeated, a little louder now
The shorter man shrugged. “If the kid and with an edge, “Do you trust me?” “You really do walk through walls.”
bobbing over his shoulder, his
stays here, he’s gonna resent you.”
expression sobered once more, and he
After a second or two, Corrigan Mars entered the shallow space
looked behind him down the passage. “Let him. At least he’ll be alive to do nodded. “Reckon we do, captain,” and behind the lift. Gaines released the
Voices approached. “The secrets you it.” the others agreed. panel, and it snapped into place.
and Captain Zoltana uncovered—are
The only clue it was a door and not a

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solid wall was the narrow dimple near Startled, he stared at her. loosened his jaw. your head.”
the bottom. Kick-release locks were
handy, but anyone who knew where “Always starting at the base of your White gravel crunching underfoot and Another bony hand scrabbled
to look could trip one by “accidentally” skull?” thick palm fronds overhead blocking among the black folds then held out a
stumbling against it. the glare of the floodlights, they passed silver chain. One of the guards took it,
“How did you know?” through a severely beautiful garden and unlocked the collar around Willa’s neck,
“What’re the chances some sailor entered a hall so vast their footsteps and pulled it away from her throat.
She opened her mouth then pressed
bumps the panel with his big toe and echoed. Corridors were brightened not
her lips closed and shot a sidelong The governor’s hand flicked. “You
leads the APs right to us?” by the muted luminescence of modern
glance at the crew standing a few steps may go now.”
lighting, but by small torches set in
“Can’t, sir.” Gaines’ reply was muffled. behind them. When Willa did speak,
sconces and burning with smokeless
“Not without an ID from the captain’s her words were low and quick. “One of A bow to Tarquin then a quick glance
flame.
security detail.” your crew is a watcher.” at Kristoff, and the servant girl departed,
Someone on the Martina Vega was a two of the four guards accompanying
Mars turned. “How many of you Wha—? “Who?” her out of the chamber. The guard
colonial spy? Not possible. Right?
security boys exis—” holding the collar took a step.
The gate opened, and a line of colonial
And there was something in his head?
He was alone. soldiers trotted out and surrounded “No, thank you.” Kristoff put a hand
How’d it get there—and when?
the crew then pulled off the burlap over his bandaged chest and played on
# disguises and tossed them aside, and A massive pair of carved doors opened his exhaustion by bending a little at the
searched everyone for weapons. In jig into a large chamber, a throne-like waist and listing to port. “But I wouldn’t
Several paces from the villa gate, Willa time, guns, ammunition, and knives chair in the center, and in it a hunched mind a chair.”
halted. Drew a deep, shaky breath. piled on the sand. Then four men in bundle of dark clothes that rustled to
unmarked black sleeveless uniforms cut life, revealing a gray head and a pale, Frowning, the guard looked at the
Kristoff stopped beside her. The sun
Willa and Kristoff from the others and seamed face. “Willa. You dare return governor. “Excellency?”
was gone, and floodlights mounted on
marched them toward the gate. after disobeying my wishes?” A claw of
the wall surrounding the villa formed a “Oh, bring him a chair!” The harsh
harsh, bright perimeter. “Ready?” a hand lifted a small box-shaped object
There was nothing special about the voice quavered with petulance. “I
fitted with a red button. “But for close
structure. There was no arch over it, as imagine Commander Claudius’ men
She shook her head. “If she orders quarters, I would detonate that collar
might be expected for the entrance to have the rest of the pirates well in
the sonic barrier activated, neither you right now.” The raspy voice deepened.
the grounds of a grand house, nor did hand?”
nor I can cross it.” Willa touched the “This is not the arrangement, Captain
it look imposing, but the servant girl
odd metal collar around her neck. “This Kristoff.” “Yes, Excellency. Shall we use the
hesitated and was prodded forward.
isn’t just poor taste in jewelry, Captain other collars?”
Kristoff glanced at her pale, set features “Hang your arrangement.”
Kristoff. And the implant in your head
then braced himself for the pain.
will not tolerate the disruption caused “That is why they were made.”
“Yes, captain, you could indeed hang.”
by the sonic barrier’s frequency.” They stepped through the gate. Tarquin held out her hand. “You will, of
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Where’s Finney?” course, leave the key.”
“I don’t have an impla—” Nothing happened.
“He doesn’t know.” The bright, quick #
She looked into his eyes. “Blinding Willa’s breath jerked in little gasps, gaze turned toward Willa. “You did that
headaches that come out of nowhere?” as if she fought against tears. Kristoff “Ensign?” Dropping the duffle, Mars
much, at least. Very well. You may keep

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pressed the walls with his fingertips, and the material disappeared. “That’s Kristoff shook his head in mock Not Zoltana. She was too straight-
and ran the toe of his boot along the where the circuit completes.” sympathy. “Can’t trust anybody these laced and unimaginative.
base. Gaines must have tripped another days.”
secret panel— “It’s not the power source I But this Willa girl had just told him
question—it’s the suit. Looks like an old “Some of the Provincial Militia rebels there was something in his head and
“Over here, sir.” Gaines’ head floated Earth comic book costume.” have left the mountains and are rather a traitor on his crew. If that were true,
in the corner, disembodied for a close by. I anticipate our meeting. As anything was possible.
second or two before the rest of him The ensign tilted his head like a for you, you smuggled some rather
materialized, clad in a tight-fitting gray curious but uncomprehending pup. fine guns, what, just this week?” A “This isn’t about your cronies or
coverall, long gloves, and cloth-looking wheezing chuckle shook the governor’s a wayward captain.” Anger soured
Mars sighed. “Hand it over.” Kristoff’s words. “This is about you and
boots that ended at his knees. From frail frame. “That unfortunate carter.
one hand dangled a gray hood. His freight was seized by Commander me and my missing pilot.”
#
Wilkes, but I liberated it. Well, in the
“Burn it, Gaines! Next time, warn a “Actually”—Tarquin straightened—
“Comfortable, captain?” interest of honesty, not I, exactly. My
guy!” ”it’s about your father and her
people.”
He twisted a little in the flat seat grandfather and my mission.”
“Sorry, sir,” but the wide grin said with its spine-battering straight back, “That so?”
otherwise. “Oh. So this is about a revenge
and gave an insincere smile. “Never
“Your antics with the tracking spiders triangle. Well, since you’re the last
let anyone say you don’t know how to
“Can anybody hear us in here?” have caused the upstanding Captain one alive, you win.” Kristoff rose from
treat a prisoner.”
Mars checked the low ceiling for Zoltana no little trouble. She’s in the the butt-numbing chair, but the guard
microphones, the spider tracking Tarquin looked at the guard. “Radio brig, I understand. Innocent, of course, grabbed his right shoulder and shoved
devices, or other miniscule tech. “What the extraction team. Tell them to bring we all know that”—Tarquin waved a him back down.
about motion or heat sensors?” in Bosko.” hand at the air—”but it’s her digging
“No!” The governor pushed herself
into your background, captain, that has
“Only the captain and her detail “What’s a Bosko? Sounds like to stand upright. “You still live. She still
upset my friends.”
know about these bays, sir. Each one is homemade whiskey.” Kristoff lives. The rebels are not yet crushed.
protected by layers of shields, not only broadened his smile. “I could use a Zoltana in the brig? He’d figured she’d And I have not finished my mission.”
for the actual equipment but also for drink.” get the admiralty’s version of a slap on Tarquin grabbed two canes and leaned
the operation codes. We’re invisible.” the wrist and a sharp reminder to watch on them as she laboriously descended
Then Gaines raised his free hand as if The old woman’s dark eyes glittered. the Martina Vega more closely. As for the steps in front of the throne.
reaching for something on the back “You recently delivered medical digging into his background, well, there
wall, and his arm disappeared to the supplies to the Provincial Militia.” “Excellency,” warned the guard, “best
were public files and dummied “secret”
elbow then reappeared holding another to keep your distance. Remember how
ones concerning the freighter’s crew.
gray coverall. “Cloaking activates when Kristoff stretched out his legs and the last prisoner behaved.”
And then there were the real files, ones
the collar seals with the neck.” crossed them at the ankles.
maybe a dozen people in the entire “This one looks like the pathways
“That particular rebel faction is colonial government could see. In order in my garden—pale, and no harm to
Mars lifted an eyebrow.
supported by sympathizers among the to rouse the admiralty’s ire toward its anyone.” Nevertheless, Tarquin halted
“The contacts are in the two pieces wealthy of Port Henry, and even from most darling constable, Zoltana would several paces from Kristoff and glared.
that cover the neck.” Gaines pressed the inside the colonial government.” have to be using an access code beyond
empty hood against the limp coverall, her authorization. As long as he was forced to stay, might

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as well get more information. And She leaned forward. “And your father, to the floor at the same time. was shaping up to a good day.
tweaking Tarquin was getting results. such a secretive man and so close to
“What’s your mission, and what’s it got the prime minister, so helpful and yet Eyes wide, the governor wobbled on
to do with me or my crew?” so concerned that every caution be her canes, breath gurgling in her throat.
taken—at every turn, he undermined Her mouth opened and closed, but she
“I will ask the questions.” my mission.” Tarquin shrugged one didn’t speak.
Author’s Note: I would like to thank my
shoulder. “They had to be removed.” brother and sister-in-law for their input
“Give me my pilot back. You’ve had Lifting the dripping knife, Kristoff
your fun.” strode forward. on this episode. Without their ideas,
Kristoff grew very still. “My father
this chapter would be far less fun.
died protecting the prime minister.”
“Fun? No. Neither of you have With one last terrible gasp, she
suffered enough.” She shuffled forward. slumped, the cane tips sliding sideways, Keanan Brand
Again, that nasty, wheezing chuckle.
“Persistent persuasion, and creativity and her body sprawled on the stone
That’s right. Kristoff pressed a hand Writing since age nine, when an English
with the truth, and the prime minister floor, black garments spreading like the
to his wound, slid thumb and forefinger assignment required a short story, Keanan
was finally convinced his favorite was a wings of a bat.
through the V opening of his shirt, and Brand dreamed of writing Westerns or books
traitor. After that, it was just a matter about history, or recording the crazy stuff
loosened the knife hidden in the folds Mission complete.
of arranging they be unaccompanied by of dreams. Late teens and early twenties
of his bandage. Just a few more steps.
the usual security detail.” Kristoff wiped the knife clean on one witnessed the imposition of real life and the
She stopped. “Twenty years ago, guard’s pant leg then tucked the blade putting away of dreams. For a time, he dabbled
Kristoff took deep, even breaths.
I was charged with flushing out all into his own belt. On the floor glittered in nonfction and freelance journalism, then a
Calm. Think.
the rebel leaders. The prime minister the key. He scooped it up and shoved it supervisor suggested a free writing seminar
thought it would be simple task, Tarquin frowned at the guard. “Radio in his pocket. Kristoff started to take a at the local college, and Keanan returned to
considering their weapons and means the bounty hunters again. They delay in headset but both were crushed, so he a greater love: fction, specifically fantasy and
were dwindling, and their followers bringing Bosko.” removed a gunbelt instead and slung it science fiction. He started entering contests,
abandoning the cause. He didn’t know around his hips, grabbed the other gun, winning awards for poetry, essays, and short
such efforts would band them together Now. pulled a cartridge from a loop on the stories. These successes led to freelance
and lengthen the war. So he cried belt, opened one of the chamber doors, editing for other writers, and for a science
peace, and the pretense worked well Before the guard could initiate the and jammed the metal casing into the fiction small press.
enough to see settlements form in the call, Kristoff rose, pulling the knife free latch before slamming it shut.
borderlands between civilization and then ramming his elbow into the guard’s His frst story to be accepted by a Double­
wilderness. Adam’s-apple. The man’s eyes bulged. Good luck with that one, boys. -Edged Publishing, Inc., publication was
He grabbed his throat and staggered At the End of Time, When the World Was
“This was true for nearly every planet backward. Tarquin gasped. Kristoff He expected more guards outside New, a short piece of speculative fction that
and moon in the colonies. Your pilot’s completed the motion, extending his the door, but there were none. Echoing appeared in the fnal issue of Dragon, Knights,
grandfather, Admiral Cunningham, arm and sliding the blade across the through the corridors were the distant & Angels. History, mythology, folktales, C.S.
volunteered as liaison between rebels other guard’s throat before the man’s voices of his crew and the shouts of Lewis, Howard Pyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, William
and colonials, but why would such a weapon had half-cleared the holster, angry men. Shakespeare, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the
man as he consent to live in the crude then he whirled and slammed the point Bible remain great infuences, as do the family
Kristoff smiled. It hadn’t started well,
conditions at Andromeda Settlement? through the first guard’s eye. It was tall tales, pioneer stories, and Southern gothic
had progressed even worse, and now
It roused more suspicions than mine.” over in an instant. Both bodies thudded with which Keanan grew up.
it was almost over, but—all in all—this

THIEVES’ HONOR: EPISODE 11 , The Rescuers, Part 2, by Keanan Brand Page 68