Book: BOB's Bar



BOB's Bar

Contents


Bob's Bar

Dedication

Legal

Bar Stories From The Multiverse

The Accidental War

Interlude

The Vampire Vigilante

Interlude

Conspiracy

Interlude

Terry Henry Walton Tells a No-Shitter

Interlude

The Cheese God of Baa-Daa-Doosh

Interlude

Making Merit

Interlude

How I Stopped a Pirate Attack With a Nymphomaniac

Closing Time

About the Authors and Their Other Tales

M.D. Cooper

Richard Fox

Barry J. Hutchison

Craig Martelle

Andrew Dobell

Michael Anderle

Jonathan Brazee

BOB’S BAR

Tales From The Multiverse

Volume I


Michael Anderle

Jonathan P. Brazee

M.D. Cooper

Craig Martelle

Barry J. Hutchison

Andrew Dobell

Richard Fox






BOB's Bar





BOB’S BAR

Tales From The Multiverse

Volume I

Thank you to the following JIT Readers 


Joshua Ahles

James Caplan

Sarah Weir

John Ashmore

Kelly O’Donnell

Kimberly Boyer

Peter Manis

Larry Omans


If we missed anyone, please let us know!


Editor Lynne Stiegler

BOB’S BAR, Tales From the Multiverse Volume One (this book) is a work of fiction.


All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Sometimes both.


Copyright © 2018 M.D. Cooper, Jonathan P. Brazee, Andrew Dobell, Richard Fox, Craig Martelle, Barry J. Hutchison, Michael Anderle and LMBPN Publishing

Cover by Andrew Dobell, www.creativeedgestudios.co.uk

Cover copyright © LMBPN Publishing


LMBPN Publishing supports the right to free expression and the value of copyright. The purpose of copyright is to encourage writers and artists to produce the creative works that enrich our culture.


The distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like permission to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), please contact [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.


LMBPN Publishing

PMB 196, 2540 South Maryland Pkwy

Las Vegas, NV 89109


First US edition, February 2018





BAR STORIES FROM THE MULTIVERSE


BOB cleaned the glass, slowly wiping the rim with its towel as it waited. It held the glass up to look for any imperfections. Finding none, it placed the glass back in the rack and picked up the next one. BOB had cleaned each of the hundred and forty-four glasses behind the bar thirty-one times now, and it was prepared to clean them another thirty-one times if it had to until the patrons arrived.

The bar was something new to BOB, and if it had possessed something other than electrons bouncing back and forth inside the circuits that made up its brain, it might have wondered about a place where organisms gathered to consume poisons and lose their faculties. The bar construct was very different from any other place created by the Collector. The patrons, too, were different from any others BOB had yet encountered.

BOB might be a construct itself—a Binary Operated Being—but it was not a mindless automaton. It had its own brand of curiosity, and it was programmed to interact with both the setting and the patrons—all the better to gather the data the Collector desired. Every time BOB recorded a patron’s story, its circuits received electronic rewards that, if they didn’t give pleasure, created a reasonable facsimile.

BOB had stopped cleaning the glass and was putting it back in its place when an ultraviolet light glowed over the entrance into the bar. The door opened, and a large, well-muscled human with dark hair came in. He looked around, eyebrows scrunched, and saw BOB. His eyes relaxed as recognition set in, then with a firm step, he walked up to it.

Once again, the Collector knew how to create a construct that put the patrons at ease, no matter what type of being it was. BOB did not understand why these humans would consume poison, but the thought that the Collector might have made a mistake never crossed its electronic mind.

“May I get you something to drink, Colonel?” BOB asked.

Colonel Terry Henry Walton put a foot up on the rail and asked, “What do you have?”

“Everything, sir.”

A thought looked to cross his mind, as if he was trying to grasp at something that managed to remain just out of reach. He shook his head and said, “How about a Guinness?”

“Certainly, sir,” BOB said, reaching under the bar and pulling out a stein of the dark stout.

Colonel Walton frowned slightly, but he took a sip and immediately relaxed. “Kind of empty here tonight.”

“More are coming, sir.”

As if on cue, the entrance lit up again, and a tall blonde woman BOB identified as Admiral Tanis Richards strode into the bar. She wore a long red and black tunic with the simple logo “ISF” emblazoned on the left side of her chest.

BOB sensed something different about her. It was as though her presence was split—almost as though part of her was not in the bar. At the same time, however, her presence seemed more, as if there were two of her. She bore watching.

Her brow lowered and her lips drew into a thin line as she surveyed the room, and her eyes paused on the man at the bar for a moment before sliding to BOB. She nodded to him and strode toward the polished counter, leaning an elbow on the wood as she addressed the construct.

“Servitor, what’s the name of this fine establishment? It looks . . . familiar, though nothing at all like the officer’s mess I expected to walk into.”

“Thank you, ma’am, I strive to present a comforting atmosphere,” BOB replied. “You may call me ‘BOB,’ and this is the Multiverse Bar. What would you like to drink?”

Tanis Richards gave a short laugh. “‘BOB?’ Well, BOB, today I need your strongest coffee. We’ll see what shakes loose after that. Nice name, by the way. Not sure if the bar suits you, though.”

BOB set to work, and the woman turned to Colonel Walton.

“Tanis Richards,” she said, offering her hand to the man, who gave it a single shake.

“Terry Henry Walton, but my friends call me ‘TH,’” he replied, and took a sip of his drink.

Tanis settled onto a barstool a few down from Terry and ran a hand through her hair as she looked around. “It’s weird. There’s something about this place, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Feels like I’ve been here before, too,” Terry replied.

“So, you’re not behind whatever,” Tanis paused and waved a hand, gesturing at their surroundings, “this is?”

“Nope, just got here myself.”

BOB set a cup of coffee prepared just the way she liked in front of Tanis, and she took a sip and sighed. “Ok, BOB, I don’t care where I am. You keep serving java like this and I’ll stick around for ‘just one more cup’ till the stars burn out.”

“Glad you like it,” BOB said with a single nod before it returned to polishing the glasses.

Before either human had taken another sip of their drinks, the entrance flared once more and another human female walked in. This one was a nearly a foot shorter than Tanis and had deep red hair that didn’t look quite natural. She looked around the bar, confused for a moment. There was something about the exotic energy signature of this woman that surprised BOB—the Collector hadn’t briefed him that Amanda-Jane Page would be any different than the other humans. She had abilities the first two didn’t—that much was clear—but BOB trusted the Collector and his judgment. It watched to see what would happen.

“Ur-huh, erm . . . well, that was unexpected,” she said, looking at the door she’d just stepped through.

BOB was equipped with a multitude of broad-spectrum sensors, energy levels spiked as she looked around the room in slight confusion. Those levels dropped again when Amanda shrugged and seemed to accept where she was.

Amanda spotted the other two humans at the bar, and she nodded to them with a friendly smile as they glanced at her. She walked over to the bar, stopping just to the left of Tanis and Terry.

Those strange energy readings could affect others. BOB was programmed to keep the situation calm, so it immediately placed itself in front of her and asked, “Good evening, Amanda. May I get you a drink?”

“To be sure,” she answered in an accent BOB codified as Irish. “How about a large red wine? Something fruity.”

“Certainly, Amanda. I will have it for you in a moment,” BOB answered, opening a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape grenache.

“Hi, I’m Amanda. Nice to meet you,” Amanda said to the other two. “So…um, what’s the craic? Anyone know where we are? Because this isn’t my ship, it isn’t the Aetheric Realm, and it’s certainly not Earth. In fact, it kind of feels like nowhere—or between places. Strange!”

“Sorry, I’ve got no idea, but the beer’s good. I’m Terry Henry Walton,” the colonel said.

“Guinness! Good choice. Gotta love the black stuff,” she said before picking up the glass of wine BOB set before her and taking a sip.

“It’s a good one, too. You should have one,” Terry declared.

“I will, later. The wine’s good too though, don’t yeh know.”

“I hear some Irish in your voice,” Terry said.

“Yeah, I grew up there. Traveled around a lot since, mind.” Amanda leaned against the counter, facing the man. “You?”

“I’m from a few different places, but I’m currently stationed on the War Axe.

“The who in the what, now?” Amanda blinked.

“Our ship. We’re on the edge of Federation space.”

“Oh. Are you from the same place?” Amanda asked, turning to Tanis.

“No, I’ve only met Terry for the first time a moment ago,” Tanis said. “I was headed to the officers’ mess for a BLT . . . and then I was here. I’m not sure what happened, but the servitor seems friendly enough. Makes a damn good coffee, too.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” Amanda said, offering Tanis her hand.

The tall blonde shook it with a smile. “Admiral Tanis Richards.”

“An admiral... Wow, impressive! You’ve come here from a spaceship too?”

“The I2, yes.”

“So, you’re from a spaceship and you’re wearing a red shirt . . .” Amanda said, raising an eyebrow.

Terry snorted, but there was a smile on his face. Tanis just looked confused.

“Sorry. Don’t worry about it.” Amanda smiled, touching Tanis’s on the arm in a gesture of friendship. “It was just a stupid sci-fi reference.”

“What’s ‘sci-fi?’” Tanis asked before taking another sip of her coffee.

BOB stayed silent, but it heard every word. It understood each word as well, but it didn’t believe it understood the intended meanings. Why a red shirt should have significance was beyond it.

The entrance light flared again. None of the humans could see it, but it was a beacon for BOB.

***

General Ryck Lysander entered the bar and stopped dead, frowning. BOB didn’t know if this was his regular expression or if he suspected something wasn’t normal. The general turned back to look at the entrance, and BOB thought he might try to leave.

Not that walking back out would work. The general was stuck here in the bar until the Collector decided to release the patrons.

The other three humans were engaged with each other, so BOB left them at the bar and approached the Marine.

“General Lysander, I’m glad you decided to come after all. May I get you a drink?” BOB asked as if it had expected him.

BOB had in fact expected the man since he was on the Collector’s list, but it attempted to infer that the Marine had already known about the bar and decided to come on his own. BOB could almost see the thought process going on behind the general’s eyes as he tried to make sense of what was happening.

“I’m sorry,” the general said. “I don’t recall your name.”

“I’m BOB, sir.” it said, as if merely reminding him.

“OK, BOB. If I can get a cider—Hell’s Orchard if you have it—that would be great.”

“Certainly, sir. If you would like to join the others?”

The general looked up and noticed the others for the first time. BOB watched the man’s pupils dilate slightly as he took in the two female humans. BOB had noted the significance of that in its briefing, but the general didn’t react further. He did react when his eyes swiveled to Colonel Walton, though. The wariness he’d maintained since arriving disappeared, and a smile broke out on his face.

“Good to see another Marine,” he said, striding up to the others. “Ryck Lysander, United Federation Marines.”

Colonel Walton noted the stars on Lysander’s uniform and said, “Welcome, General. Colonel Terry Henry Walton, but my friends call me ‘TH.’”

They shook hands, and the general looked at Tanis. “And you are?”

“Admiral Tanis Richards.” She extended her hand and shook his firmly.

BOB knew the general had passed the nexus point, and he seemed susceptible to gentle manipulation, something it filed away for future reference. It placed the cider in front of him while the humans continued their introductions.

The figure that stumbled in next was notable less for his disheveled appearance than for the slimy green blob balancing on one of his leather-jacketed shoulders like some obese snot-covered parrot.

“What the—?” the guy exclaimed, spinning to look back at the entrance just as it grew dark once more. “This isn’t the bathroom.”

Leaning back, the newcomer addressed the ceiling. “Kevin, was this you? Did you move the bathroom?”

He waited for an answer that didn’t come, then shrugged and crossed to the bar.

“Greetings, Cal Carver. Welcome to the Multiverse Bar,” BOB said.

“Uh . . . thanks, I guess.”

Cal looked around him again, but seemed to relax a little when he spotted the other humans. He tapped a finger to his forehead in salute and flashed them the third-finest of his practiced grins.

“What may I offer you to drink?” BOB asked.

Cal turned back to the robot and puffed out his cheeks. “Well, I was headed for the bathroom, but since I’m here . . . guess it’d be rude not to. Right, buddy?”

The green blob on his shoulder trembled, rippling its gelatinous surface but didn’t otherwise reply. There were two perfectly round eyeballs buried inside the goo, both of which were fixed firmly on BOB.

It was quite disconcerting, if BOB were being honest.

Cal studied the array of bottles behind the bar. “OK, BOB, how about you surprise me?”

BOB hesitated. This had never been asked of it before, and it had to access a decision tree to determine how to respond.

It banged its hand on the bartop, making Cal jump.

“Jesus!” Cal yelped. “What was that for?”

“I was trying to surprise you,” BOB said. “Did it work?”

“No, that’s not . . . I meant . . . Forget it,” said Cal. He gestured to some blue stuff in a chunky bottle. “I’ll have one of those.”

Cal stole a glance around the bar again, sizing the others up while he waited for his drink to arrive. He didn’t have to wait long, and reached for it as soon as he heard the glass clunk down.

Raising the glass to the room in general, Cal mumbled, “Cheers,” then downed the liquid in one swift gulp.

His legs buckled immediately, forcing him to grab the bar to stay upright. He grimaced, snorted, coughed, and gagged all at the same time.

“I’m on fire. Oh, God. Everything’s on fire,” he sobbed, then he slapped a hand to his forehead. “My face. I can’t feel my face!”

Heaving himself up with his elbows, he wiped his eyes on his sleeve, spoke briefly in tongues, then nodded his approval.

“Perfect,” he said in a dry, rasping wheeze. “Give me another of those, and this time make it a double.”

BOB knew that the amount of poison in the shot of D’Shalah Tusteron was at toxic levels, and it had watched Cal with electronic curiosity as he had downed the glass. Now he wanted another? It began to realize why the Collector had brought the construct to this node between universes. Humans were not normal.

***

The patrons turned another time as the door into the bar opened, curious to see who was coming in this time.

It was a human female in black leather pants and a black long-sleeved Under Armour shirt, and she had black hair and not-quite-alabaster skin. She blinked once at the group who was staring at her, then glanced behind her. “Fucking hell,” she mused as she turned back around. “I don’t think I’m in Kansas anymore.”

BOB noted that Bethany Anne had a link to the same exotic energy Amanda did, but hers was different. It hadn’t flared or increased when she stepped into the bar.

She strode over to the group at the bar. “Hey, TH!” She smiled and stepped around the crew to give the man a hug. “Where the fuck are we?”

“No idea, Bethany Anne,” Terry Henry answered, indicating those around them with his stein of Guinness. “We have Bob the Bartender, that is not known for its ability to decipher more obtuse sayings as evidenced by poor Cal here with the green blob who looks like he’s just lost his ability to stand.”

He pointed to another. “The blonde is Tanis, the short redhead is Amanda, the Marine-looking guy is actually a Marine named Ryck, and none of us have a clue where the hell we are.”

“Or why,” Ryck added.

“The drinks are bang-on, though,” Amanda said.

“Huh,” Bethany Anne murmured and slid a bit sideways to stare around Terry Henry. “Open bar?” she asked no one in particular.

“Good question,” Cal answered, trying to breathe again. “Hope so!”

BOB nodded. “Yes, the bar is open for you to peruse.”

Bethany Anne shook her head. “No, I mean ‘open’ as in ‘free drinks,’” she clarified, and turned to Terry Henry. “How the fuck did you get here, and I see what you mean,” she said as she jerked a thumb at BOB. “Not a clue.”

War Axe, throwing some iron around, then poof . . . here. So, nope,” Terry Henry agreed, but kept his mouth shut on the first question.

She turned to everyone else and smiled. “Bethany Anne, lately of the Fuck-all-I-haven’t-a-clue System because we had just gated and I was heading to the ship’s bridge to ask a question or two. The hatch I strode through deposited me here.” She pursed her lips and looked around. “It’s going to piss John Grimes off when he can’t find me . . . again.” She sighed and muttered to herself, “And this time it isn’t even my fault.”

She pointed to the disheveled guy with the green blob. “Cal?” she asked and he grinned, so she turned back to the bartender. “I’ll take one of whatever he had.”

“Not the best of ideas,” Terry Henry warned her.

Bethany Anne nodded to BOB and grabbed the offered drink, downing it and squeezing her eyes shut for a moment before yelling, “WOOP!” with her hand and glass in the air. She smiled, then wiped a tear from her eye before placing the glass reverently back on the bar. “Oh my god, that felt good!”

She banged the bar twice, shut her eyes again, and shook her head before opening her eyes. She looked at BOB and wheezed as she put up two fingers, “Give me two more, please!”

Those around watched as BOB poured two more.

Bethany Anne accepted the first drink and looked at everyone. “What?” She sipped the blue liquid this time. “I’ve got so much alien technology coursing through my body that almost no alcohol affects me.” She lifted the glass. “But this does!” She smiled in triumph, swirling the liquid, and asked BOB, “Can I get a bottle of this to go?” She thought a moment, “Or a case? And what’s the name of the liquor?” she finally asked, looking at the strange markings on the bottle itself in BOB’s hand.

“I believe it would translate as ‘Swine Sweat’ in your language,” BOB answered, cataloging the humans’ reactions.

Bethany Anne took a long look at her drink and stuck her tongue out. “Ewww!” she said, and shrugged. “It works.” She took another sip.

Her eyes flitted from woman to woman. “Anyone here like shoes?”

Tanis only shrugged. “They keep my feet clean on a floor like this, so yeah, I guess I like them.”

Amanda smirked at Tanis’ response and looked at Bethany Anne. “Hi, I see you have the whole pale-and-interesting thing going on. It’s a good look. So, are those Louboutins I see?”

***

A man in a bespoke suit stepped through the door. His salt-and-pepper hair was immaculately cut in a style that some in a powerful Earth country would call “presidential.” He stopped suddenly, arms thrust out to the side like he had almost slipped, then touched his palms to his sleeves, cupped the side of his face, and stomped the floor with leather shoes that looked like they cost more than a car. He smiled at BOB.

BOB slid over to the last empty space and draped a bar towel over one arm. The new arrival took a few tentative steps, then sauntered over and took the stool.

“Greetings, Mr. Ibarra,” BOB said. “What’ll it be?”

“Is this . . . Is this something Jimmy’s cooked up for me?” Marc Ibarra asked.

“I’m afraid not, sir. What can I get for you? The rest are finishing up their first round, and I’d hate to have you falling to the back of the line.”

“I am a bit thirsty. Ha! Haven’t had that problem for a while. Wonder how much tolerance I’ve got right now . . . but let’s shoot for the moon. Macallan 64?”

“Coming right up.” BOB reached under the bar.

“And put it in a Norlan—” Ibarra’s brows shot up as a double-walled shot glass was set down in front of him. “Not bad. Not bad at all. I don’t recognize your model. Do I own this place?”

“No, sir.” BOB lifted an intricately-carved frosted-glass whisky bottle onto the bar and poured a shot. “You most definitely do not.”

Ibarra swirled the drink just under his nose and closed his eyes, downed the drink and a smile spread across his face.

“Now that’s . . . that’s special. Been awhile.” He set his empty glass down and ran his fingertips across the bar, savoring the sensation. “If I don’t own this place, then I guess I’m running a tab.”

“Drinks are on the house.” BOB reached for the whisky bottle, but Ibarra clutched it to himself before the android could retrieve it.

“Well, then.” Ibarra plucked the stopper off. “Guess I’ve some quality time on my hands. Last time I ever heard of a Macallan was when some entrepreneurial looter made off with the last stash on Earth. Tremendous business acumen, that one. I wasn’t even mad that he stole it.”

“As you like, Mr. Ibarra.”

***

With Ibarra’s arrival, the entire group for this first human session was present. Each of them seemed to be at ease, but there was an undercurrent of tension running through the group. The bar setting had been meant to relax them and open them to relating their stories, and the Collector only gathered the most impressive specimens possible, alphas within their species.

It would be no different with the humans, BOB knew. They had been drawn from their dimensions to the collection point. No matter what had been done to their minds, each knew something was off, something was not right. Their warrior mentalities would be screaming for an explanation.

And this was what BOB had been created to handle.

In other gathering expeditions, sometimes the patrons had avoided each other, and other times they had banded together for mutual protection from a threat. The humans, however, seemed to congregate by choice, and not for mutual support. They were socializing. Despite the incongruence of the situation, they seemed to be enjoying each other’s company.

BOB’s primary duties entailed ensuring calm and prodding the patrons to start producing. BOB ran through its decision trees, and it surmised that the humans would only need a nudge to begin producing. They might begin as they stood around the bar, but its programming indicated they would produce a better product if they were focused on the task.

It was time for it to be proactive. Not all of the humans had finished their drinks, but it prepared another round for each of them, then placed the drinks on the large round table nearest the bar, one in front of each seat.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your drinks,” BOB said one hand in a sweeping gesture to indicate the table.

This was a nexus point in its programming. If the humans objected, that would result in BOB taking any one of a hundred different actions. If they acquiesced, then that would open up only seven more action branches.

Amanda and Tanis furrowed their brows and BOB picked up a rise in their tension levels, but the rest readily moved to the table and a moment later the two women joined them.

BOB did not know if it could actually feel relief, but the thrumming through its circuits was an approximation, at least. The Collector would be pleased. Soon, the collection could begin as the humans had a chance to settle down.

BOB scanned the group. Amanda retained her slightly higher exotic energy levels, while Bethany Anne’s remained constant. The rest relaxed into an easy calm as they spoke. None seemed to realize that the construct was not normal; that they had been yanked out of their existence and brought here at the Collector’s whim.

After a few more minutes it was time for another intervention. This could derail the collection process, but BOB assigned a high probability that even if it did, other actions would bring it back in line.

BOB noted which drinks were low. It poured glasses of the grenache, Guinness, and Swine Sweat, as well as making Tanis another cup of coffee.

“Here are your drinks,” the robot told Tanis, Amanda, and Cal after it had brought them to the table.

It reached across Ryck to hand Tanis her coffee and made sure to bump his half-empty cider, knocking it over. Ryck and Tanis jumped back, and Terry shouted, “Alcohol abuse!” BOB made a show of cleaning up the small spill, noting that the focus was on it for the moment, not on whatever conversations had been going on a moment before.

BOB had selected the target for its intervention. General Lysander had already proven to be willing to accept its cues, but Amanda, Tanis, and to an extent Bethany Anne seemed to have erected barriers.

“Let me get you another drink, General Lysander. I’m so sorry to have interrupted your story,” it said.

“My story?” Ryck said.

“Yes, I believe you were about to start what you call a ‘sea story.’ I interrupted you.  Please, continue.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess I was,” Ryck said, his eyebrows furrowed together as he tried to clear the cobwebs out.  “OK, where was I?”

“Hang on, what’s a ‘sea story?’” Amanda asked Ryck.

BOB froze. It didn’t want any interruptions to the production process. This was a critical juncture.

“A sea story? Well, it’s kind of like a regular story,” Ryck said, looking at Terry first, then Tanis, “but maybe a little more outlandish.  More unusual.”

“You mean bullshit?” Bethany Anne said.

Ryck shrugged, then said, “Maybe. Usually. But it should have at least a basis in truth.”

“And you know what they say about the difference between a fairytale and a sea story . . . ” Terry started.

“A fairy tale starts with, ‘Once upon a time,’ and a sea story starts with ‘This is a no-shitter,’” the Marines said in unison, to general laughter around the table.

BOB walked back to the bar to get more drinks, but it was focused on Ryck as he started his story. Pulses tickled its circuits in pseudo-pleasure.




The Accidental War

by Jonathan Brazee


Six sets of eyes were locked on Ryck, waiting for him to start talking. The problem was that he’d lost his train of thought. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember what sea story he’d been telling.

Just retreat a step and start again. They probably won’t even notice.

He racked his mind. As the leader of the Evolution that had brought down the corrupt government, Ryck had changed the course of the Federation—hell, all of human space—just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had more stories than he could shake a stick at, but he wasn’t sure how interested some of the others would be in them. Then, as if dredged up by a search program in his brain, he knew what story to tell.

“Have you ever started a war?” he asked.

Colonel Walton looked down, the humor gone from his face. “A worldwide war. It had to be fought, and we had to win it.” The man tipped his imported beer—but they were all imports this far out. He finished it and slammed the empty stein on the table.

“A few,” Tanis replied. “Depends on how you tally them.”

“No, I mean as a snuffie, as a junior grunt,” Ryck said.

Ryck wasn’t even sure why he was bringing it up. Only six people knew what had really happened and three were guarding heaven’s gates now.  Something about the six people sitting around the table, though, something about this bar in the who-knows-where, seemed to make him want to talk.

Or maybe it was the cider.

 “I was never a ‘grunt,’ but I can’t say I’ve ever started a war either, so no,” Amanda answered, sipping her drink.

“Well, I have.”

Ryck looked around. This was stupid. He knew all about the statute of limitations, but he was still General Ryck Lysander, with all the politics that came along with him being him. His life had been well documented—both the facts and the myths—but this was one thing he'd managed to have kept hidden.

Am I about to undo that now? he wondered.

“I was a lance coolie back with Fox 2/9. I’d already seen combat on Atacama and I’d gotten fucked up taking the Robin back from the SOG pirates, so I thought I could handle about anything the bad guys could throw at me. You know how it is—I was a certified combat grunt and figured I had the universe by the balls.”

Three of the others at the table nodded. They knew exactly what he was talking about.

“So anyway, the battalion’s on Saint Hollis, this Class-1 world only certified for about ten years at the time. The Sea of Kansas Corporation did the terraforming and they’re out the big credits for it.  Only some of the settlers, they don’t think they need to pay Sea of Kansas back. They form up, calling themselves the League of Justice, and they essentially tell Sea of Kansas to go pound sand, they aren’t going to pay.

 “Now I don’t know how it is in your-all’s neck of the woods, but the big corporations, they’ve got the government in their power. My own United Federation of States isn’t any grubbing different, especially back then. So, Sea of Kansas complains to the Council and the Council says, ‘Send in the Marines.’”

Ryck had said “back then,” but he had to admit it was still the case. He just didn’t like being a hired gun for those in power, even if the League of Justice had been trying to pull a fast one in this case. “Fuck them all” had been the Marines’ motto on missions like this.

“The problem is that with everyone’s eyes on the planet, the Federation doesn’t want to look like the bad guys, so we’re just there as a show of force. Even with just a battalion, we could go in there to the League’s so-called capital and show them the error of their ways.  The problem is that our ROE is pretty tight. We can fire only if we’re fired upon first, and the League isn’t grubbing stupid. They had maybe a thousand in their militia. Heck, even a fuckdick company could have crushed them.”

“Fuckdick? You’re a general now—not supposed to talk like that. Me, I’m just a colonel. I can say ‘nut-licking monkey ass’ and no one calls me out. So, what is a ‘fuckdick company?’” Terry didn’t look up from his beer. He studied it as if it held the secret to the universe.

“I rather like both ‘fuckdick company’ and ‘nut-licking monkey ass.’” Bethany Anne smirked, raising her glass of Swine Sweat. “Both are a unique variation on cussing.”

“A fonkdonche?” Cal cut in.

They all turned to him, and he pointed to a spot behind his right ear. “You guys have these translator chips, right? The ones that censor swear words?”

A few looks were exchanged, and there was a general consensus that no, no one else had one of those.

“Shizz. Just me, then,” Cal muttered. “Sorry. Continue.”

“What the bleedin’ hell’s a ‘fuckdick’ anyway?” Amanda asked.

“Oh, sorry. The FCDC—the Federal Civil Development Corps. They’re like an army, doing public works and controlling civil disturbances. They should have been given the mission, but even the civilians think they’re worthless, so we got sent in. Like I said, it’s supposed to be just for show.

“The thing is, this was a Second Ministry show. The Marines and the Navy are under the First Ministry, but the diplomats and the like are under the Second, and the Second Ministry won’t let us just do our jobs.  So, we’re sitting on our collective asses, bored out of our gourds.”

Ryck understood now that a strong diplomatic corps was a Marine’s best friend, but he had been young and full of cum at the time, and he hadn’t had much time for diplomatic pukes.

“Bored Marines.  Well, that’s an ‘Oh shit’ waiting to happen.” Bethany Anne smiled. “Sorry, please continue.”

Ryck knew she was screwing with him and no disrespect had been intended, so he continued.

“Still, we’re Marines, and we aren’t going to let even a limp-dick militia get the jump on us should they be suicidal, so we patrol the crap out of the area surrounding the league’s claimed territory. And that’s what we were doing the day we started the war.

“My fire team—that’s Sams, T-Rex, Corporal Sparta, and me are in a fuckdick Mayfly. That’s a little three-fan carrier that can seat four pax and the pilot. They’re barely armed, but they can fly forever and have decent sensors. We didn’t have them in the Corps—we used drones for that kind of thing.  But drones don’t carry pax, so it was good to get out as extra eyes on the Mayfly. It kept us sharper, at least more combat-ready.

“So, we’re flying the border, just being seen, number one, but also to spot anything. These guys aren’t the SOG pirates, who think suicide is a sure route to heaven, but you never know when someone might get a hair up their butt.

“We’re flying along the border about sixty klicks from our base camp when Sams yells, ‘Hey, there’s a Venus!’

“Wait! Sorry, I was only half-listening,” said Cal. “Did you just say, ‘Hey, there’s a penis’?”

Everyone chose to ignore him.

“We called the Justice League flag a ‘Venus.’ Their militia might have been a joke, but they must have had some great artists. The blue flag was bordered in gold, and in the middle was an image of a Greek-goddess-looking woman, left hand holding a set of scales, right hand a sword, and the left breast exposed—and to our gutter minds she was smoking hot. I had looked up ‘Lady Justice’ on the net and her real Greek name is ‘Themis,’ but with us Marines ‘Venus’ stuck and she became an object of collective lust. If we do invade, laws about trophy-taking are going to be roundly ignored.”

Bethany Anne snorted into her drink at that one and Amanda rolled her eyes.

Score one for me, Ryck told himself with satisfaction.

“I think the little Mayfly tilts to one side as all of us shift to spot it. Sure enough, along the border below us, the flag rose above the trees, fluttering in the light wind. She is beautiful.

“Hosef banks the little Mayfly and angles us over for a better look. Hosef was a warrant officer, technically senior to all of us, but he’s younger than Corporal Sparta and he insisted we call him by his first name. Marines didn’t use warrant officers for pilots, but the FCDC did and a little Mayfly only rated the most junior of them.

“‘Is that in government territory?’” Corporal Sparta asks hopefully.

“‘Wait one,’” Hosef said, then, “’No, it’s five fucking meters on their side.’

“You have to remember that there weren’t really any formal borders, but the Second Ministry gave us a No Fire Line that we couldn’t cross and the League knew exactly where it was. They were flying the grubbing flag just to taunt us,” Ryck said, looking at the others to make sure they understood the situation.

“‘I could reach that flag if you got us closer,’ Sams says.

“‘Five meters is five meters,’” Sparta says, but he doesn’t sound very convinced to me.

“And then Hosef, to my surprise, asks, ‘What say we go try and snag that thing?’

“‘You said it was five meters to their side,’ my corporal says.

“‘Shit, you jarheads are so by-the-fucking-book,’” Hosef says. “‘We Dog Soldiers take the initiative when we see the need.”

“We Marines sometimes used the historic nickname for ourselves, but when Hosef said ‘jarhead,’ he made it sound like an insult—sort of like when we called them fuckdicks or doggies.

“He reaches under his control box and flips something, then says, ‘OK. We’re now twenty meters farther into our side of the line.’

“’I’m looking at the corporal as the smile breaks over his face and he says, ‘Oh, hell yeah. If you’re sure about that, let’s do it.’

“‘I’m sure,’” Hosef says as he swoops lower and closer, slowing to a stop about twenty meters away then crabbing closer.

“The downdraft from the fans whips the flag about, the gold catching the light of the late afternoon sun. She is beautiful. The distance closes and Sams leans out, one hand holding the edge of his seat, the other reaching to grab the prize. He touches it, but the flapping keeps it out of his grasp.

“‘Come on, Sams, grab the damned thing,” T-Rex shouts.

“And then the flag started to lower. Sams shouts and lunges . . .and disappears over the side as T-Rex tries and fails to grab him.

“‘Land this thing!” Corporal Sparta yells.

“‘I can’t, not here in the trees!’”

“‘We’re going down,’ Sparta says, pulling a mono out of his cargo pocket.

“He gives it a twist around the Mayfly’s side strut, then drops the line, shouting ‘Gloves!’ before he grabs it and descends. T-Rex is next, right on his ass.

“‘What am I supposed to do?’ Hosef asks as I whip on my gloves and grab the line.

“‘Just stay on our side of the line. We’ll let you know,’ I shout as I go over.

“Mono lines are great pieces of gear, but they are not good for fast-roping. They are too thin, so despite my gloves my hands are screaming as I drop through the trees and catch up to T-Rex. I try to slow down but I can’t get a good enough grip, and I hit his helmet with my feet, knocking him off the line. He falls the last three meters, hitting Corporal Sparta who’s just reached the ground. I reach the ground right after, the only one of us on his feet.

“To my right, Sams is groaning and trying to stand. Under him is a very still militiaman. Then I see a second militiaman standing just to my left, his TK-15 at the half-ready, his mouth open in shock. I take three steps and swing my M-99 in a vicious butt-stroke, smashing his TK-15 out of his hands and connecting with his shoulder. He staggers back, hands in the air as my finger starts to squeeze the trigger to send a dozen hypervelocity darts into his chest.

“‘I surrender,” he shouts and somehow that registers, and I hold back.

“‘Get down on your face and let me see your hands,’” I shout before asking over my shoulder, ‘You OK, Sams?’

“‘I think so. This guy broke my fall. The bastard was trying to lower the flag,’ he says, nudging the unmoving militiaman.

“T-Rex is on his feet by this time, and he says, ‘Nice move, Ryck. Lucky you didn’t kill me,’ before he steps over to Sams and the militiaman. ‘Hell, Sams, I think you killed him.’

“When I hear that I keep the other guy covered, but I step over to where I can see the man. His neck is at an angle necks aren’t designed to make. Under him, the edge of the flag peeks out. He’d tried to save Venus, but it had cost him his life.”

Ryck paused for a moment and looked at the others. He’d just told them that they’d killed a man and he wondered how they’d taken it, but there was nothing. They were just waiting for him to continue. Evidently this group of reprobates had taken a life or two of their own.

He continued with, “I look at the other three Marines.  I mean, we are in deep, deep shit. We’re on the ground in League territory. We’ve just killed a league militiaman. We’re going to the brig for a long time, that’s a certainty. I look at Corporal Sparta hoping he has an answer, and I can tell he’s communicating with someone. I just don’t know if it’s with the lieutenant back at camp or with Hosef.

“‘Hosef can’t land here and he can’t hang or battalion’ll know something’s up, so I told him to continue his track, then come back for us,’ Sparta says.

“I look at him in surprise. Does he really think we can somehow get out of this with our asses intact?

“‘Uh…Corporal Sparta, we’re in League territory, and Sams just killed one of their militia,’ I start to say.

“‘Not my fault,’ Sams protests. ‘He was just under me when I fell.’

“‘Just listen to me. Hosef’s got an idea, and it might work. When he comes back, he’s going to say that he’s taking fire. We’re taking fire, since as far as anyone knows, we’re still in the Mayfly with him. He’s going to say he’s hit, and he’s got to land at an open area about five hundred meters from here to check the damage. We’ve got twenty minutes to get to there.’

“I listen for a moment, mouth open and ready to argue, ready to tell him we just had to come clean, but nothing comes out. I don’t want to get court-martialed, and that plan, as stupid as it sounds, could work.

“‘Grubbing hell, let’s do it,’ I say. I mean, we’re already in deep shit, right?  So, how much worse can this make it?”

Bethany Anne put her head into her hands and was shaking it. He really wasn’t sure what she was mumbling, but it probably had to do with Marines. Ryck had to admit it really was a fucked-up story.

He pressed on. “We’re going to need to take one of their weapons. To put a hole in the Mayfly, you know.’

“T-Rex bends over and picks up the dead militiaman’s TK-15, turns it over, and then says, ‘Won’t work. It’s bio-locked.’

“All four of us swivel toward our prisoner. He’s prone and staring at his dead compatriot.

“‘What’s your name?’ I ask, stepping over to him.

“‘Giddeon. Giddeon McManus, sir,’ he says, his voice wavering.

“No rank, just his name. It was obvious that he isn’t aware of the Harbin Accords. He’s nervous as all get-out, and I can see him trembling. I look at Corporal Sparta and tilt my head toward the man. Sparta hesitates, then nods.

“‘Well, Gideon, do you want to live?’ I ask him.

“‘Yes, sir,’ he squeaks out.

“‘OK, it’s like this. You come with us. When we reach the LZ, you fire your fifteen where we tell you. If you do that, we’ll let you go. Understand?’ I ask.

“Yes, sir, I’ll do that. No problem.’

“I look at him in surprise. I thought he’d offer some resistance and I’d have to threaten him, maybe rough him up. But he just capitulates like that without even trying to negotiate or ask for assurances? I didn’t want to beat on him, but he gave in too easily.”

“‘Just like that?’ I ask. “What about your buddy there?’

“He shrugs his shoulders, and says, ‘He was an asshole. I just want to go home, and if you’ll let me do that I’ll do whatever you want.’ “

“He’s OK with us killing his buddy because the guy was an asshole? Either he’s playing us, or the guy has no loyalty to his cause. I’m guessing the former, but there are four Marines and one him, so there isn’t much he can do. I look at the other three, and as one, they shrug their assent. I pick up Giddeon’s TK-15, sling it over my shoulder, and tell him to get up. T-Rex steps forward to search him for other weapons, then gives us the thumbs-up.

“‘You’re going to walk in front of me. If you even twitch sideways, you’re a dead man,’ I tell him.

“‘Don’t worry, I’ll do what you want,’ he says as he tentatively stands up, his eyes locked on the muzzle of my M99.

“‘What about him?’ Sams asks, pointing at the dead man.

“‘We have to take him. We can’t leave anything to focus attention here. T-Rex, you’ve got him,’ Sparta says.

“T-Rex is a heavy-worlder, so the dead man’s weight is nothing to him. He hoists the body onto his shoulder as Sams takes the point, and we head out. We have five hundred meters to cover, and not that much time. Luckily, we’re not in enemy-held territory, so we can move quickly through the trees back to our side of the border.

“I watch our prisoner closely, but as he follows Corporal Sparta, he doesn’t have the look of someone who’s going to try something. His head is down and his shoulders slump as if he accepts his situation.”

“Which is a look that someone who’s going to attempt something would try to portray, I know.”

“‘Hosef’s on his way in, so pick it up,’ Corporal Sparta tells us when we’re still three hundred meters out.”

“I take a quick look behind me at T-Rex, and the broad-shouldered Marine gives me a thumbs-up. We have to do something with the dead militiaman, and I don’t know what Sparta plans for that.”

“‘Fuck!’ Sparta shouts. ‘Hosef reported getting shot at, and battalion wants to know from where. They want a call for fire.’

“We all stop. None of us thought the CO would want a fire mission. Since there haven’t been any real rounds fired, Navy surveillance wouldn’t have picked anything up, which wouldn’t be that odd. But now it looks as if battalion is itching to get involved.”

“If you remember what I told you, our ROE was that we could only fire if we were fired upon first. No one in the League had fired at all, but we had just said they had. We had given the battalion CO his excuse.”

“Corporal Sparta pulls up his display, then pushes a position on ours. We had been moving diagonally away from the NFL, which is now about a hundred and twenty meters to our left. Just over the NFL is a slight rise, and that’s where the corporal highlights.”

“‘T-Rex, Ryck, haul ass. Drop our dead friend there and then boogie back to the LZ. Give me that fifteen,’ Sparta says.

“‘Wait,’ Gideon says, the first time he’s opened his mouth since we started. “Take this,’ he says, taking off his helmet. ‘The visor is ceroline so it’ll stand up to whatever you use to hit the place.  And you can take the TK too.’”

“‘Can’t take the fifteen,’ I tell him as I grab the helmet. ‘We need it to shoot the Mayfly.’ “

“‘No, you don’t,’ he says, holding his hands out for us to see. ‘I’m not trying anything, so don’t forging shoot me.’ “

“He slowly reaches down to his boot, then uses his thumb and forefinger to pull out a wicked-looking handgun. I drop my M99 on him as he lays the handgun on the ground.

“‘It uses the same round. I can still shoot your ride, and you can leave my TK at the site. I want it to look like I was there when you hit it.’

“‘You want to disappear,’ I say as it hits me. ‘You don’t want anyone to know you’re alive.’

“He shrugs, then says, ‘It seems like a good idea. I’ve been thinking about the recruiters for Rio Tinto 2, but I’m still under contract.’

“Officially we didn’t have indentured workers at the time, but in reality, if you were recruited by a company, you were stuck for the length of the contract. Penalties were just too high for anyone to buy out their contracts. So, if Gideon was “dead,” then he’d be free. And hiring a dead man wouldn’t give any competent recruiter pause.”

“Now that,” Bethany Anne said as she took a drink, “is all sorts of fucked up.”

Ryck just nodded his agreement.

“Take the fifteen,’ Corporal Sparta tells me. “Leave it on the hill. And you,’ he says, turning to Gideon, ‘pick your handgun up and follow me.’

“I’m surprised that Sparta tells Gideon to pick up the weapon, but I don’t have time to worry about it. T-Rex and I bolt through the trees, racing to the high ground that Sparta selected. T-Rex is strong as hell, but he doesn’t have the same stamina and I pull ahead, crossing back over the NFL and climbing the low hill. I drop Gideon’s helmet and the TK-15, then head back down to meet T-Rex, who’s huffing as he climbs.

“‘Back down,’ I tell him, taking the dead militiaman’s body and running to the bottom of the hill.

“I run another thirty meters and put the body face down, his head against the bole of a tree.

“‘You don’t want him up there?’ T-Rex asks as he joins me.

“I know what he means. If we leave the body up there, it will be destroyed and the man’s weapon and helmet will give more credence to the fact that he’s been firing at us.  But the guy hadn’t fired on us. He’d just tried to protect his flag before Sams landed on him. I didn’t know how good the resurrection process was on this planet, but with just a broken neck the man should be a reasonable candidate. If he had any chance of coming back, I can’t take that away from him. I don’t execute the enemy, and that’s what it will be if I leave him on the hill.

“‘This is good enough,’ I say, not wanting to get into an argument.

“‘Your call,’ T-Rex says.

“‘Now, let’s haul ass,’ I tell him.

“I tell Sparta that we’re clear as we run through the forest toward the LZ. I keep expecting to hear incoming, but there’s nothing as we burst into the LZ. The Mayfly is already there. Gideon raises his handgun and fires two shots into the rear assembly, then tries to hand his weapon to Sparta, who waves him off.

“There’s a crack of ionizing air behind us, and I spin around to see the distortion in the air that tracks the path of an orbital energy beam as it reaches down from a Navy ship and hits the hill.

“‘Oh, wow, get some!’ T-Rex says with awe in his voice.

“We join the other four at the Mayfly, then climb on top among the fans to better watch as beam after beam hits. Hosef pulls up a cooler, and we all pop some beers and cheer at each strike.

“‘We’ve got more incoming,’ Sparta says. ‘Battalion told us to keep our heads down.’

“That brings a round of laughter, and we toast our battle. A minute later, a missile streaks right over our head to crash into the hilltop. The meson beams pack more energy, but there’s something about explosives that makes Marines hard. We jump up, hooting and hollering as smoke billows up.”

“Hah! Boys will be boys,” Amanda said with a grin on her face.

“That’s it,’ Corporal Sparta says. ‘Battalion is ordering all of the patrols back.’

“‘Well, I officially declare the damage to the Hothead is minimal,’ Hosef says, poking his finger into one of the bullet holes in the Mayfly.

“‘Shit,’ Sams says. ‘All that for nothing. We didn’t even get the Venus.’

“‘Yes, we did,” I say, opening my utility blouse to show a flash of blue.

“‘You picked it up?’ Corporal Sparta asks, reaching over to touch the flag.

“‘I sure the grubbing hell wasn’t going to leave it there, but for now it stays hidden,’ I say, buttoning my blouse back up. ‘I don’t want to have to explain anything to anyone.”

“And that, my new friends, was how I started a war. Well, the six of us started a war. When we got back, the battalion was getting ready to cross the NFL and take the League’s capital. We rejoined the company, nervous that the truth was going to get out, but the skipper just asked if we were OK and left it at that.”

“Well?” the colonel asked, raising one eyebrow as he looked up from his beer. “Did you invade?”

“No. Between the bombardment of the hill and the battalion moving out, the League folded. They surrendered. We never even got to the NFL, and a week later, we were on the ship going back to Alexander.”

“You should have started your story with ‘This is a no-shitter.’ Then we would have known it was bullshit from the outset. But you spin a good yarn, General. I’ll give you that.” Terry locked eyes with him.

Tanis shrugged. “Seems reasonable to me.”

Ryck hesitated. He could have left it at that. He could have left it as just one more sea story, but a long, long time had passed and he’d been holding it all in, sharing it with no one. Not even Hannah, his wife, knew the story.

He pulled out his PA and followed three encrypted paths to the target folder. He held the PA to his eye for a retinal scan and the folder opened, revealing the file. Ryck turned the PA so the others could see the image from the past. Six men stood in front of a Mayfly in a small LZ: Four Marines, an FCDC trooper, and an ex-militiaman. All six had huge smiles, and they held a gold-trimmed blue flag with the image of Lady Justice in the center.

“Sometimes, my friends, sea stories are true.”


Interlude


“Semper fi, Devil Dog,” Colonel Walton said to General Lysander, raising his beer in a toast.

“Semper fi back at you. Your hair is so grubbing long, though, that no one would know you’re a Marine,” the general said. “Get it cut.”

“Nut-licking monkey-assed bureaucrat.” Colonel Walton shook his head.

For an instant BOB thought the two were going to fight—and that would break process—but Bethany Anne spewed blue D’Shalah Tusteron from her nose and Admiral Richards held back a laugh. The two men shook hands, and BOB realized that they were not angry. Somehow words that should have been taken as insults were endearments.

It made no sense to BOB, but hopefully it would to the Collector.

Turning away from the confusing humans, BOB checked the uplink. The first product had reached the Collector, so even if this project ended now it would still be considered a success. But there were six more humans, six more humans with stories to tell.

It looked around the table, ready to nudge one of them to continue the process, but realized that wouldn’t be necessary. Bethany Anne was going to tell her tale.

BOB didn’t continue the pretense of cleaning the already spotless glasses. It settled in to listen.


The Vampire Vigilante

By Michael Anderle


“I still think that was all bullshit. You could have faked that pic, but it was a good story. Now, I’ve got a fucking decent story, if you’re all ready?” Bethany Anne asked as she looked around. “I can’t claim it’s as good as starting a war, but I did get a movie out of it.” She scrunched her face. “Sort of…” She shook her head. “Nope, I probably can’t claim that either.”

“Let’s have it.” Tanis set her coffee down and leaned back in her chair.

“Go for it,” Amanda said.

Bethany Anne raised her drink in a toast, took a sip, and started talking. “So, I’m in New York City visiting my shopping therapist—” She looked at Terry Henry and Ryck. “That’s Christian Louboutin, for you Neanderthals—and there were some issues in the news about some gangs having too much fun with tourists. At that time I had been modified for less than a year, and for half that year I was asleep while my body was upgrading.

 “So after watching the six o’clock news that night, I decide to have a little fun and stretch my legs. Later that evening I grab a pair of black pants, put my black Under Armour long-sleeved shirt on for some protection under my chest armor, which I also put on, and tie my hair back. I left my weapons in the room, thinking my body mods would protect me or, worst case, I’d take a weapon from a gang member if I needed one.”

“Body mods?” the Marine General Ryck Lysander asked, clearly confused by the term.

 “She’s a vampire,” Amanda said, winking at Bethany Anne.

 Bethany Anne decided to ignore the incorrect assumptions about her being a vampire. She had gotten this shit all the time back on Earth a dozen decades before. It was easier to roll with it than correct everyone’s mythology, so she just nodded. “That's right, although in my dimension vampires and Weres were a byproduct of modification by a race of aliens called ‘Kurtherians.’ Seven bad clans, five good ones. Suffice it to say I was modified by a member of a good clan, but he wasn’t the be-all and end-all of information and knowledge at that point in my life.”

“I could unmodify you if you want,” Tanis offered. “Lots of people turn themselves into vampires or werewolves...or dolphin-octopuses—whatever. Can easily be undone.”

Bethany Anne nodded. “Um, appreciate it, but it gives me some terribly cool abilities if I connect to the Etheric correctly. For example,” Bethany Anne cupped her right hand and a red plasma ball formed, “this could melt somebody.” She looked up and tossed it toward the ceiling, and it grew larger and turned white. “Or just be a pretty white light.”

Tanis shuddered. “Plasma... Stars, I hate that stuff.”

Bethany Anne shrugged in response. Interestingly enough she didn’t hear TOM—the alien resident in her nervous system and able to speak with her—bitch about that comment, so she continued.



“I left the hotel about half past ten that night to walk the thirteen blocks to Central Park.” She looked around, but most seemed to be following her story about a city they might not have a clue about. She mentally shrugged, figuring, Why the hell wouldn’t they?

 It wasn’t like they weren’t in some interdimensional bar.

She put her finger and thumb near each other. “I was about this far away from my own building when I overheard a couple street people talking about vampires in Brooklyn. I loitered for a moment and realized it was a story about a vigilante who went around wearing a red cape and was often mistaken for a vampire since the inside was lined with red satin.” She smiled, thinking back. It hadn’t been her the first time, but she could hum the tune and play a few bars.

“I didn’t have a red-lined cape with me, but I did have these.” She indicated her eyes and willed them to glow red, and her fangs announced themselves when she smiled. “And these.” She pointed to her fangs.

 “You have fangs?” Cal asked. “Awesome!”

“Like I said, pale and interesting,” Amanda remarked.

Her fangs retracted and her eyes went back to normal, and she continued, “After a couple moments, I decided that the Vampire Vigilante would return to New York City.”

She waggled her eyebrows. “But this time I was going to make sure she had badass footwear and a bit more class.

“I continued walking, taking every dark and scary alley I ran across, only to find the fuckers weren’t hiding in alleys. However, I came out of one just as a pimp was about to bitch-slap a woman. It pissed me off so fast I didn’t realize my eyes had started glowing and my fangs had descended until the woman looked over his shoulder at me, scared shitless. He turned around with his slapping hand still raised, then reached down to grab a Glock .40 he had in his waistband. His hands were shaking so badly he ended up shooting himself as he tried to draw the pistol.”

“Bloody pimps,” Amanda said. “I encountered a few of those during my early years on the streets of New York. Nothing but fucking idiots preying on the weak, if you ask me.”

She smiled. “I’ve no idea whether he shot his prick off, but I like to think so. He went down screaming, so I kicked him in the head and knocked him out as I walked by.”

“Good on ya,” Amanda said, and Bethany Anne winked at her. “When I was half a block away I realized I might have fucked up my new Louboutins, so I stopped right there in the middle of the sidewalk and took off my pump to look. Sure as shit, that fucker’s head had scuffed the side of my shoe.”

She reached forward and grabbed her drink to take another sip. Everyone at the table was laser-focused on her story.

 “I was pissed and I considered going back to Dickless and kicking him a couple more times in frustration, but there were police sirens a few blocks away. It was New York so they weren’t going to be there in seconds, but I kept walking anyway. I went another four blocks before I found an all-night store that had a decent pair of black hiking boots. I switched shoes and jogged back to my hotel, where I left my Louboutins behind the counter for safekeeping.”

 Bethany Anne shrugged. “Apparently the Vampire Vigilante wasn’t going to have fabulous footwear,” she mumbled as she took a sip, “but she was going to continue to be badass, or so I hoped.”

“Aaah, the conundrum of the female superhero.” Amanda smiled.

Bethany Anne nodded in agreement and continued, “This time.”

“I decided to just head straight to Central Park. I had heard that the southern end was busier, so I went that way. I wasn’t there twenty minutes when I got my first chance to have a little fun. There were two punks harassing a little old lady. Now, I can move blazingly fast when I want. This time I thought I would be a scary dark bat, so I shinnied up a fire ladder and settled down in a dark corner. I willed my eyes to blaze red and my teeth to grow, and whispered a demand for them to stop into the wind.” She paused a moment.

“And?” came from Tanis—the prompt she wanted.

 “Nothing fucking happened,” Bethany Anne admitted. “I had to practically yell at the sumbitches to get them to look up at me.”

There were chuckles around the table.

“I apparently didn’t scare them much even with red eyes—which did freak them out a bit—and long pointy teeth, which they couldn’t see because my ass was in a dark corner at night. They were turning back around to continue their bullshit with the old lady when I jumped down right beside them. I had been fifteen feet up, and they were about thirty feet away. Now, I was still getting used to my strength then. I grabbed Thug Number One’s collar and pulled.

“I ripped his shirt right off and the fucker barely moved, so I backhanded him into a wall. I didn’t waste any time with Numnuts Number Two, just cracked his skull with a punch. Unfortunately,” she said with a loud sigh, “the old lady was out cold—apparently I had scared her senseless. I had to carry her to a safer location and leave her on a bench.”

Bethany Anne shook her head at the memory. “It was fucking embarrassing.”

The people around the table laughed. “But,” she said, holding up a finger, “that was only strike two for my vigilante work that night. It was the bottom of the seventh with three men on base, and I was just getting warmed up. Fifteen minutes later I overheard a beat cop listening to a call for backup some seven streets away. There was a gang fight going on, cops were down, and the police had surrounded the building. It was five stories tall, and they needed more people and SWAT before they could go in.”

“So off you flew?” Ibarra asked.

She shrugged. “Well, it was more like ‘Off I boogied.’ I could have gone through the Etheric, but I didn’t know where the fuck I was going. Instead I ran like the wind, which was an exercise in frustration. When I got there I stepped into the Etheric—moved into that dimension and exited elsewhere—and came out about ten feet above the roof of the building the cops had surrounded. Letting gravity take over, I dropped and landed without making any noise this time. Which surprised the hell out of me—not because I wasn’t that good, but that night had been one mistake after another. I searched for and found the door and a ladder that led down into the top floor of the building.”

 Bethany Anne pointed again to her eyes. “I turned on the red peepers and the long white teeth again. By God, I was going to scare the shit out of someone that night.” She smiled, remembering the fun.

 “I made it down the ladder into the building and came out of the stairway door four feet from two toughs. I had heard them laughing, so I knew they were there when I opened it. Everyone in the building was looking out the windows and thinking about the cops or other gang members, so no one was expecting me to come in from above. Dipshit Number One said something belittling, so I used him to open a nearby apartment door by kicking him hard enough to break it down when he hit it.”

 She shrugged again. “Unfortunately the gang members inside were a little trigger-happy, so they shot him seven times before they realized he was a friend. I sent the second guy in after the first, but they didn’t shoot his ass.” Bethany Anne sighed. “I kinda wish they’d had the presence of mind to catch him, though. I threw him into the apartment hard enough that he stumbled twice and crashed through a window, falling five stories and yelling the entire way down.

 “Now, those inside the apartment started firing randomly, so I bolted down the hallway since I only had on chest protection. The reason for that is another story I’d rather not get into now.”

“Why not?” Ryck asked, looking at her chest.

She looked down and motioned to her breasts. “The sweater puppies are a bit of a pain to protect but I like having massive holes to heal even less, so I take precautions. ’Never leave home without chest protection’ is my motto.”

Ryck blushed at her answer, something Bethany Anne noted with more than a little pleasure.

She looked at him and smiled, letting him off the hook for pointing out the obvious. Bethany Anne was not that hung-up on anatomy and waved away his embarrassment.

She decided to skip any more explanations regarding why she liked chest protection and continued.

 “I was running down the hall when I smelled popcorn and realized I was fucking famished. Who the hell was making popcorn when the cops were about to storm the building? I realized it was probably an old couple who didn’t give a shit about what was going on around them and were just waiting it out, so I left them alone. The Man Above knows I didn’t want to send two old people to Saint Peter early.

“By the time I had made that decision, I turned a corner to a landing with two elevators plus a stairway. I was about to go down the steps when the elevator dinged and three thugs got off carrying a fourth, who was tied up and struggling.

“I stepped back onto the landing and crushed one of the gang member’s kneecaps. He let go of the trussed-up person, and the other two dropped him as well. The guy screamed in pain as he hit the ground. I tossed one into the wall, then turned to the second as he pulled out a massive hand-cannon—a Remington .44 Magnum. He saw my face and made the sign of the cross, then started speaking to me in Spanish, which I don’t understand. I just walked toward him, red eyes blazing and teeth glistening. The guy was about ready to shit his pants, so I put out my hand and the piece of shit dropped the .44 into my palm. I opened my mouth to ask him a question, but he turned in fright and slammed right into the edge of the doorframe, creasing his forehead and busting his nose. Blood sprayed everywhere as he flopped to the ground.”

 “And through all of this you didn’t get a scratch?” Ryck asked.

“Well,” she started, as blood rushed to her face, “the fuckers had a teacup dog—you know, the kind grannies have?—and this little piece of fluff ran out of the elevator and bit the back of my calf while I was taking care of business. I was so surprised by the thing I involuntarily kicked it away from me. I didn’t mean to hurt it, but it went flying over the side of the staircase and I could hear it chirping its little barks as it bounced down the steps.” She rolled her finger like a Slinky going down steps. “Chirp, chirp, chirp, chirp, splat!” Bethany Anne shrugged. “I really didn’t mean to hurt the dog. I went down the steps after that little debacle and found it walking around on the mid-landing, but it kept bonking its head into the wall so I left it there.”

“Seriously?” Tanis asked. “You didn’t even check it over?”

She looked at the speaker. “Hell, no! It bit me, so why should I have? The little fucker could have fallen down the next set of steps too for all I cared, so I left it behind.

“I didn’t want the .44 nor did I want to carry it, so I took out the rounds and ditched it down a garbage chute. I made a quick run through the fourth floor to confirm it was clear, then knocked out a hall light so I wouldn’t be backlit and looked out a window as a SWAT van pulled up. My chance to be a legit vigilante was getting smaller and smaller, so I raced down the next set of stairs, listening to make sure I wasn’t going to walk into a group getting pumped to come up. I shouldn’t have bothered with super-hearing. The asspricks were in the apartment underneath the one where the first group was holding court, only two floors lower. They were pretty pissed about their kidnapped member, and were trying to decide what to do.”

She took another drink; telling stories could be exhausting. “So, I turned back around, and found that the guy I came to grab was slowly being lifted back up by the jackalope gangalang I’d thrown into the wall, while Busted-Face was trying to help the one whose kneecap I’d crunched. I lashed out at gangalang’s knee and grabbed the dropped body this time when gangalang screamed. I then hissed at Busted-Face, who dropped his friend—who screamed in pain, I might add—and turned, hitting the same damned edge again. This time he knocked his ass out. I left my two screaming friends with busted knees behind when I heard pistol shots in the hallway and carried my trussed-up friend downstairs two floors.

“On the third floor I ripped his gag off, and before I could say anything he was screaming, ‘Vampire, vampire!’”

“By now I was wondering why the hell I hadn’t just carried my pistols or kept the one I’d taken. I could have just shot them all, which would have been painless. I decided then I would go armed all the time.”

“Did you tell anyone on your team this story?” Terry Henry asked. “John or any of those guys?”

“Hell no!” she replied. “Are you fucking kidding me? I’m embarrassed to tell this story to all of you. As far as I can tell you folks are from different dimensions, so there is no fucking way you can repeat it anyone who knows me—except for Terry Henry.” She shook her head. “And if this story does come out, I swear I’ll figure out a way to get to your dimension just so I can spread lies that will make your sea stories here seem tame.”

 Not that she had a fucking clue how she’d accomplish that. She just hoped they didn’t have an idea how to get this story back to her people.

 Bethany Anne shook her head. “There would be absolutely no redeeming value in admitting this shit to John, Eric, Stephen, Darryl, Gabrielle, or any of the others.” She shivered. “Saint Payback would be a bitch and bite me on the ass for decades should that happen.”

“What happened with the trussed-up whiny bitch?” Terry asked.

“Well, after getting his attention—”

“How?” Cal asked. He smiled over his glass at her. “Sorry, felt I should ask something. I get antsy if I stay quiet too long.”

Bethany Anne winked at Cal. “If you would use your lips for drinking instead of asking, I’d finish and you would know.”

She continued, “I slapped him and yelled, ‘Snap out of it!’ a substantial number of times.” She pursed her lips. “It worked a hell of a lot better for Cher than for me.”

“What happened next?” Ryck asked, his cider forgotten as he listened.

“Well, SWAT did me a solid and shut off the power to the building, and once that happened it was all over but the screaming. I ran through the building with my eyes glowing red, beat the shit out of everyone, and disarmed anyone with a gun. I tossed the guns out the windows; even tried to make sure I didn’t hit anyone below. I swear my efforts at being a badass up to that time were much more effective. To this day, I still wonder how I did so poorly that night.”

“What about the vigilante legend you wanted to build on?” Amanda asked.

“Well, that actually went well. The gang members all talked about the red-eyed bloodsucker or poltergeist; no one could agree exactly what I was. By the time SWAT swept through I had all the gangalangs down. I had been able to jump to another building, so I watched it all go down from there. I got home at about two in the morning and decided that I wasn’t cut out to be a vampire vigilante.”

 She put her finger up. “However, you know that trussed-up guy? He later became a big-time Indie movie director and made a famous vampire film called… Wait for it…”

She smiled at everyone as she laid out the solid truth.

“The Vampire Vigilante,” she finished, winking at Ryck and TH, “and that ain’t no shit!”


Interlude


BOB was programmed for a purpose, and while extremely capable in the pursuit of its mission, it was not omniscient. The fact that Bethany Anne was not completely human surprised it.   As BOB looked over the rest of them, it wondered who else held surprises.

Could the Collector be surprised?

BOB didn’t know how that thought had intruded into its circuits. The Collector was . . . well, the Collector. BOB was merely a tool; something to gather the product.

“Who knew,” Amanda said, leaning toward Tanis and Ryck, “that we had a movie star sitting at the table with us? No wonder you have a taste for Louboutins,” she teased.

“Moovee?” Tanis asked. “I take it from context that’s like a sim?”

“Yeh, but flat . . . 2D.”

“How ancient are you?” Tanis asked Bethany Anne, who only winked and didn’t reply.

“Oooh, did I ever tell you about the time I met Tobey Maguire?” Cal asked. “You know, the actor? Cries a lot? Well, I say ‘met’. He’s actually dead now, and it was more sort of . . . You know what? Never mind.”

“Oooo-kay. My turn, I think,” Amanda said, raising her eyebrows at Cal’s comment.

BOB was not able to scan all five spectrums; that was not its purpose.  Its Zeta-B band sensor, however (uploaded for the mission in the Frostokera Universe and never removed), lit up well into the black range. Nothing in the construct should have created such a reading. Nor should the humans, for that matter, but they were the ones introduced into the construct, so the probability was that one of them was the cause.

BOB took several steps to its right, and by the primitive method of triangulation centered on Amanda. BOB didn’t know how the human was broadcasting, but it was sure she was the source.


Conspiracy

By Andrew Dobell




Amanda sat back and smiled. She was enjoying the stories from these strange new people she found herself sitting with, and she couldn’t help but shift her senses into the Magical spectrum to get a better look at them all. Most of them had some kind of inorganic parts within their bodies, from the implant in Cal’s head to the nanomachines inside Bethany Anne and Terry. The blonde, Tanis, was only about forty percent organic from what she could tell. She even had something like a T-1000 living metal arm. Too cool, Amanda thought.

Some of them had been enhanced physically as well. They would be formidable opponents, that was for sure. That said, none of them made use of Magic the way she did.

Bethany Anne drew power or energy from an alternate dimension Amanda wasn’t familiar with, but it seemed to have the same fundamental properties Essentia did. She could see the energy feeding into her at the base of her neck and the base of her spine. She’d noticed that although Bethany Anne had certain traits that would classify her as a vampire— the fangs, red eyes, and enhanced physique—that wasn’t what she was, not in the true mythological sense of the word. She wasn’t like the vampires of Amanda’s world, either. She was something else. Something alien, maybe? Her manipulation of plasma energy only confirmed that there was more to her than that. Still, calling her a vampire was the easy thing to do—for now, at least.

“Well, you might have started a war, soldier, and ‘Selene’ here might have inspired a film,” Amanda said to the table, “but how about a whole conspiracy theory?”

“Marine, not soldier. But conspiracy?”

“You’re not a soldier? How come?”

“Historically we fell under the naval service, not the army,” Ryck said. “Also, we weren’t a separate military command—didn’t have a Chief of Staff.”

“Aaah, the Navy…I see. So you’re a sailor then,” Amanda said. “Well, helloooo, sailor,” she said in a suggestive tone, smiling. She noticed the frowns from Ryck and Terry—though Tanis chuckled—and decided to continue her story before they could get into too much of a debate about it. “A while back I was off visiting a friend of mine, so I was. Her name was Rane. We’d been mates—and sometimes more—for the last six hundred years or so.”

Tanis cocked an eyebrow. “You don’t look a day over two hundred. I don’t see any signs of rejuv in your skin, either.”

“Heh, thanks! What can I say…that’s Magic, baby!” Amanda told her, waving her hands in the air. “Anyway, she was part of one of the family dynasties that were spread throughout my galaxy. I don’t wander too far from Sol typically, and Rane was part of the Ormond family that’s based at Sol Prime—a huge space station on the edge of the solar system. I was taking a break from Earth, having been involved in a war there that had taken its toll on me, to be sure. It sounds like you guys can relate to that.”

There were nods and general murmurs of agreement from around the table.

“I feel like I’ve been in an endless fucking war,” Bethany Anne commented.

“No rest for the weary and all that,” Tanis said as she raised her cup in salute.

“Rest is important,” said Cal. “I rest, like, nine to twelve hours a day.” He considered his statement. “Actually, do we even have days in space? Like, you know, space days? Is that a thing?”

“Depends if you mean stellar or sidereal,” Tanis replied with a wink.

Cal shook his head. “Whatever. I sleep a lot, that’s my point.” He smiled at Amanda. “Now, uh, what were you saying again?”

 Amanda looked at Cal with one eyebrow raised for half a second. He was a curious one, but his humor was growing on her. “As I was saying, we were off enjoying ourselves—having a good time and generally relaxing a bit. Appreciating what the Sol Prime station had to offer, when Rane got a message from a friend in one of the crafting guilds. He wanted to show her his latest invention. To be sure we’re intrigued, so we ‘ported on over.”

“’Ported?” Ibarra asked.

“Oh, sorry,” Amanda said. “I forgot that you might not be familiar with everything. I mean ‘teleport,’ like this.” With a quick pull on the Essentia around her, Amanda suddenly disappeared from her seat and reappeared sitting on the edge of a table a few feet behind her. She looked at the stunned faces of most of the people around the first table and waved at them.

“Grubbing hell,” Ryck muttered, leaning back in his seat.

“You can walk the Etheric too?” Bethany Anne asked.

“Kind of.” Amanda smiled before working her Magic once more and reappearing in her original seat. “That’s what I mean by ‘porting, anyway. And by the way, who wants a top-up, hmm? Tell you what, I’ll get the next round,” she said, raising her hands toward the table. Following a small flare of pyrotechnics, a new and perfectly built drink appeared before each of them. She was showing off a bit with the light show, but she thought, What the hell? The best part of it was that each drink was that person’s favorite, having plucked that small piece of information from each of their minds in the seconds before she conjured the drinks.

She didn’t hunt through their heads for anything else—that would have been rude—but it had been fascinating to catch a glimpse at their thought processes, especially Tanis’. It appeared she was sharing their head with another intelligence and conversing with it. An AI, perhaps? There were others in her universe who did this so it wasn’t totally new to her, but it was still interesting. She wondered if she’d get to talk to these hidden guests at the table.

“That was one of, like, the top five most awesome things I’ve ever seen,” said Cal, indicating the glass before him. “And I’ve seen The Muppets Christmas Carol, so I do not say that lightly.”

Amanda laughed. “I like you, Cal, and I don’t say that lightly either.”

Each person at the table thanked her in their own way, although looks of surprise came from several of them.

“Anyway,” she continued, taking a sip of the fruity, full-bodied red she was now drinking, “we headed over to see Rane’s friend—his name was Xalus, and we’d both known him for a while. He was little eccentric, but harmless, and he was all excited about his latest and greatest invention.

“I walk up. ‘What’s the craic?’ I ask. ‘Oh, hi, girls’ he said to us as we walked into his place, which was huge and filled with various Aetheric Craft-related items. He ushered us over to another part of his lab, where he gestured to a small one-man ship. It was sleek; mean looking, and very shiny. ‘Wow, that’s grand, that is,’ I said. ‘Looks like it’s made from tinfoil, though.’

“‘Tin foil?’ Xalus asked. I smiled and shook my head. I often forgot that people like Xalus who had lived their entire lives out here might not understand some of my Earth references. I tried to keep them to a minimum, but they often slipped out. I told him not to worry about it. The ship was awful gorgeous to look at, with its mirror-like sheen. ‘I call it the Silver Fox,’ he said with a smile, looking incredibly proud of himself. Xalus told us that we could get a better look, so we walked over and pressed on the paper-thin metal it was made from. It was rock-hard—as tough as any deck plating I’d ever come across—but then I wasn’t too surprised by that. The ship designers of the Crafting Guilds often created what looked like impossible spaceships from glass or crystal or wood; whatever the client wanted. When Magic is involved, anything is possible,” she said with a twinkle in her eyes.

“Xalus smiled at our fascination. ‘You want to try it out?’ he asked. Rane glanced at me, looking a touch unsure, but I have to admit I liked the look of the little ship, so I agreed. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘That would be grand.’ Xalus looked thrilled, and proceeded to tell me that he’d created more than just the ship. ‘I also created this flight suit to go with it,’ he said. I walked over to the table he was now standing beside and had a look at the white fitted catsuit that lay on top of it. It was gleaming white, and smooth to the touch. I fell in love with it right away. He had, however, also made a huge helmet to go with it that I was less enthused about, but Xalus went on about how it interfaced with the ship and was a vital part of the whole experience. I didn’t want to ruin the guy’s day by refusing to wear it when I’d been so excited by everything else, so I agreed to it.”

Tanis snorted. “I have a few friends who would fall in love with a shipsuit like that too.”

“Awesome. Catsuits are great, aren’t they?” Amanda said, smiling back at Tanis. “Hey, check this out. It looked like this,” Amanda said, and worked her Magic once more. After a bright flare, Amanda was clad in a skintight futuristic-looking catsuit with subtle grey detailing and a few glowing lights, but without the helmet she’d mentioned. Amanda stood up and posed in it for a moment with a grin.

“Okay, that’s another top five right there,” Cal said, obviously enjoying the view.

“You got a camera function in all that tech you’ve got built in to you?” she asked Tanis.

“Only a few thousand. I’ve got a nanocloud filling this place. Stand back there… Yes, got it. I’ll have to show Sera and Jessica. They’ll be glad to know that their favorite fashions pervade the multiverse.” Tanis held up her hand and a holographic image of Amanda in her catsuit appeared in the air. “Got a full scan.”

“Awesome,” Amanda said, looking down at herself. “Mmm, it’s really very comfy. I’ll keep this on for a bit, I think,” she said, taking her seat again.

Bethany Anne sipped her drink and smiled. “You remind me of someone I know named ‘Tabitha.’”

“I know a Tabitha too. Awesome! So anyway, Rane thought the whole thing was hilarious, and after I put the flight suit on Xalus encouraged me to try the helmet on as well. The thing was large, and white like the suit, with dark lenses for me to look out of. I tied my hair up so the suit and helmet could create the airtight seal it required around my neck, and put it on. Rane made sure she stood behind Xalus as she sniggered at me. I didn’t mind, though, since Xalus was clearly thrilled and nearly bouncing off the walls with excitement.

“’You look great,’ Rane said, getting her mirth under control.

“Xalus guided me to the Silver Fox and helped me get in, pointing out the various controls. I know how to fly Aetheric craft and this was no different really, once I knew where everything was. I soon powered it up and then, with a quick working of Magic, ‘ported the whole thing from his lab into the vacuum of space a few thousand meters from the nearest edge of the station.

“Xalus’ and Rane’s voices came through loud and clear, and I felt like I was in some kind of Iron Man suit with all the readouts and holographic displays inside the helmet. ‘How’s it handle?’ Xalus asked. ‘Great,’ I answered as I fired up the Pulse Drive and peeled away from the station, putting it through its paces as Xalus guided me through a few maneuvers. It was a nice ship and very quick, so I wanted to really test it. ‘Xalus, are the Displacement and Flux Drives operational?’ I asked. He said they were and that I could take it for a spin around the Sol system if I wanted to. I angled the Silver Fox towards Sol, fired up the Displacement Drive, and I shot forward as it came online. Sol Prime receded away to nothing in less than a second, and I was alone in deep space. The Silver Fox sailed smoothly and worked beautifully. I plotted a course to take the ship through an elliptical orbit of the solar system, passing some of my favorite sights. At the speed I was going it was only going to take me a few minutes to circumnavigate the sun, but I’d be slowing down a few times at least to take in some of the views. Saturn came up quickly so I powered down the Displacement Drive and coasted in, passing around the dark side of the planet and enjoying the stunning view of the planet’s rings backlit by the sun.

“Have you ever been to Saturn?’ Amanda asked the others around the table.

“A few times,” Tanis replied, her tone wistful. “I was stationed on Iapetus, one of its moons, for a year. It’s got a really inclined orbit—best view of the rings from any of the moons.”

“I spent more time than I’d have wished on Earth and I’ve been to Mars, of course, but not Saturn. I don’t like the home system much,” Ryck said.

“You know everyone on Earth is dead now, right?” said Cal.

The table fell silent for a moment, leaving Cal’s comment to hang in the air as everyone looked at each other. They wondered if Cal knew something they didn’t.

“Unless this is an alternate universe thing,” Cal reasoned. He snapped his fingers in BOB’s direction. “Hey robot guy, is this an alternate universe thing?”

When BOB didn’t answer, Cal shrugged and turned back to the others. “It probably is an alternate universe thing, in which case everyone on Earth—your Earth, I mean—might not be dead. Probably shouldn’t have said anything, actually. My bad.” He sipped his drink. “Still… Yay, I guess.”

 “If you’re right, that’d make my job a lot easier,” Tanis muttered. “So long as they got the Hegemon.”

Bethany Anne spoke up. “In my dimension, we set up three concentric rings of death in case anyone tried to attack the planet.” She smiled. “I doubt it’s dead, since I left it just a couple years ago in one piece.”

“They’re all dead in your universe, Cal? Shite, that’s banjaxed! Sorry to hear that. Well anyway, Saturn is perhaps my favorite of the Sol planets. There’s just something magical about it, so there is. I’ve seen more impressive views out there in the cosmos to be sure, but to me nothing quite beats Saturn.

“So anyway, I made sure to pass Enceladus, home of the Magi Council. I couldn’t see the castle since I was too far out, but it was down there somewhere.”

“With Saturn behind me, I fired up the Displacement Drive once more and shot off through space toward the farthest part of my ellipse before I banked around and started to make my way back toward Sol Prime, but not before a brief flyby of Jupiter, that other jewel of the Solar system. As I approached the Jovian system, though, the HUD in my helmet picked up something for just a moment. It was some kind of distress signal, but it only broadcasted for a moment. I was curious though, and adjusted my course before dropping out of Displacement. Jupiter suddenly rose into view from the darkness, and a short distance ahead I spotted two ships hanging side by side in space.”

“One was a sleek, white and gold beauty. I recognized its design—it was an Ormond-family ship, specifically the Zephyr. It didn’t belong to any one family member, but like most ships in family fleets it was the favored ship of a few people within that dynasty.”

“The other ship was much smaller—more of a single person fighter and not unlike the one I was in, except this one was a mix of matte and gloss black. As I looked at the ships a signal came through to me. I opened the link and a face I recognized appeared. It was Dasha Ormond. I didn’t really know him well, but his reputation as a typically entitled family fop was well known. Most family members acted like royalty, because they had all the power. They had been in space for millennia, controlled huge areas of the cosmos, ran stations like Sol Prime, and ruled hundreds of colonies throughout the galaxy and beyond. This often led to family members acting like they owned space itself. I’m sure you know the type,” Amanda said to the table.

“Damn fucking right I do,” Bethany Anne said. “The fuckers.”

“I’m pretty sure I’ve blown up some dynasties like that.” Tanis gave a predatory grin, then glanced around the table and coughed. “Purely out of necessity. They were very, very bad.”

“Tell me about it. Some were better than others, though, with the Ormonds being one of the most open, cosmopolitan and down-to-earth families around. But for every relatively approachable person in the family, there was also a Dasha. Rane herself bucked the trend entirely, which was why I liked her so much.

“Anyway, I digress. So, this Dasha appears in the HUD shouting, ‘Oh, thank goodness you’re here. You must help us! We’re being attacked by a Nomad, and we don’t have a Magus on board. Please, help quickly,’ he yelled, nearly crying. I muted him, having gotten the gist of the issue and not really wanting to engage with him. Although most families were run by Magi, the majority of families like the Ormonds’ were made up of Riven—people who couldn’t use Magic, or normal humans, in other words. As I watch, there’s a flicker of Magic around the small ship and it suddenly pulls away from the Ormond vessel, but not before bloody firing at it a couple of times.

“I unmute the channel and Dasha is still going. ‘Oh, oh she’s gone, she’s, aaah, she fired at us. I think we’re okay, can you go after her? Who am I talking to? Who’s on that ship? It registers as a Solus Guild craft. Can you help?’ he said, going on and on. I muted him again and sent a simple text message back. ‘Sit tight, I’ll follow her.’ At the time, I thought something about him and the way he was acting was strange, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. As it turned out there was more to this than a simple hijacking, but that’s another story. Anyway, the Nomad ship Displaced and shoots off toward Sol itself, and I fired up my own Displacement Drive and gave chase.”

“A nomad, like a wanderer?” Terry asked.

“Feck, sorry. Okay, so I’m a Magi, and yes, we do pronounce it ‘Mah-Guy’ when it relates to someone like me. Within the Magi, there are two main groups: the Arcadians such as me, and the Nomads, who are the bad guys essentially. Of course it’s not always that black and white, but that will do for this story.

“Anyway, I shoot off after this Nomad. She was way ahead of me; well out of range of anything, really, but I had her on my scanners. She’s making for Earth itself, no doubt hoping I’d break off my pursuit before we made this too public, but I wasn’t going to let her out of my sights. She dropped out of Displacement close to Earth’s upper atmosphere and I did the same, but exit a tiny fraction of a second after her. Suddenly she was right there before me—I could see the ship right in front of me before it suddenly dived into the nighttime side of Earth.”

“After a quick look around I found the weapons controls of the Silver Fox and boosted after this Nomad girl, whoever she was. Part of me wondered if she was even a Nomad, because I wasn’t sure if I believed Dasha, and I only had his word to go on. I was wondering if I could disable her ship and get to the bottom of this when she fired at me.”

“I jinked the ship left and right, dodging the pulse cannons’ energy bolts before I decided I’d had enough and fired back. We played this game for a few more seconds before I ran out of space and three bolts slammed into me. Needless to say, I felt like messing about in a dogfight was getting me nowhere fast, so I ‘ported from the Silver Fox to her ship’s hull, using my Magic to anchor myself there. Just as I get there she attempted to fire up the Displacement Drive, and I could feel the Temporal Magic swelling inside the ship beneath me. I canceled it with a working of my own, but not without a slight jump forward in time of a couple of hours or so.”

“Using more of my Magic I ripped her ship in two, revealing the pilot. I knew her—it was a Nomad I’d encountered briefly before called Aevengel, a nasty piece of work who was living on borrowed time. She was a member of a group of Nomads called ‘the Dark Knights,’ who were run by their founder Yasmin. Anyway, I was not in a happy mood by that point and ripped into her with more of my Magic, tearing her Aegis down and ending her.”

“An Aegis?” Bethany Anne asked. “Like a shield?”

“A Magical shield all Magi can create, and the main line of defense we have against Magical attacks. Without one, there’d be little you could do to stop me ‘porting you into deep space or the middle of the sun.”

“Good to know,” Bethany Anne said. She looked at Terry, who widened his eyes at her.

“So, while I’m floating there as her body and ship fall away, I worked my Magic once again, disintegrating her and the wreckage of her ship so it wouldn’t crash and hurt anyone else.”

“I looked around me, and using the still-active HUD in my helmet I located the crash site of my ship in the American desert below. I ‘ported down there, appearing in the early hours in a dry and dusty nighttime landscape. There was some grass about and some low bushes, but it was fairly desolate. Some of the thin metal that made up the hull of the Silver Fox lay on the ground beside me, and I could see more debris scattered around over a pretty large area. There was a ridge up ahead where I could see the main bulk of the ship, so I wandered over to the top and looked down at the scene before me.”

When it crashed, the ship had gouged a thirty-foot trench in the earth to the base of the ridge I was standing on, where it had finally come to a rest. More of the tinfoil-like hull was strewn over the area, and was being picked over by maybe ten or fifteen men. Some of them looked like locals but others wore black suits, and there was a US army truck approaching in the distance. Several of the people down there spotted me and shouted, pointing toward me. I must have looked a fright with my huge bulbous white helmet with its large slanted black lenses atop my thin white-clad frame. There was nothing I could do at that point, so I ducked out of sight and ‘ported away. I got word to the right people in the Magi community on Earth to initiate a cover-up, which they did, but it only worked for a bit. It left too many gaps in the narrative, so a version of the truth did eventually make its way out.

“If you haven’t guessed already, this happened in the year 1947 and I crashed in Roswell, New Mexico,” Amanda said with a smile. “Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”

“Where’s New Mexico?” Tanis asked.

“Oh, um, America? You’re from the future, right? Maybe look up the Roswell Incident in a history book or something.” Amanda shrugged.

“Heh. Well, it probably was aliens in my universe, if what happened to me is anything to go by,” Bethany Anne mused.

“So I was fine of course, but I had no idea that a whole conspiracy theory would spring from that little incident,” Amanda said. She worked her Magic once more and reverted to the jeans and camisole she’d arrived in.

Tanis laughed and leaned over to Amanda, whispering in her ear, “Ok, if you ever make it to my neck of the multiverse you have to wear that other thing. Trust me.”

Amanda winked. “Deal.”


Interlude


BOB scanned the rest of the humans. Bethany Anne and Amanda clearly were different. Cal had an organism on his shoulder. Admiral Tanis Richards was more machine than human, and strangely different at the subatomic level than anything he’d seen before.

There was also the issue of the nanobots Tanis had sent into the air. There were millions of them, but so far they hadn’t attempted to breach his body or any of the humans’. They appeared to just be watching, and so he would just monitor them.

At least the rest were within normal parameters as downloaded by the Collector, which he hoped would remain the case.

The drinks were getting low, so BOB prepared another round.

“That one was complete bullshit,” General Lysander said quietly to Colonel Walton.

“Maybe.” Amanda winked. “But that’s up to you to decide, and I’ll never say one way or the other.”

BOB had excellent hearing—and the table was replete with pickups.

“And yours wasn’t?” Terry Henry asked Ryck.

The general shrugged and said louder, so the entire table could hear, “So what’s your claim to fame, Colonel?”


Terry Henry Walton Tells a No-Shitter

By Craig Martelle


“She didn’t kill me.” The tall, dark-haired man ventured, saluting Bethany Anne with his beer. Colonel Terry Henry Walton owed Bethany Anne his life, but that was in a different dimension.

It didn’t matter. His loyalty and dedication weren’t limited by time or space.

The general toasted her. “Mighty considerate of you.”

“You don’t want to piss off the Empress,” Terry said in a stage whisper.

“Empress?”

 “I heard that!” Bethany Anne glared, and Ryck and Terry did double-takes when her eyes flashed red. “Take your ‘Empress’ bullshit and shove it up your ass sideways. Fucking boys’ clubs!”

“Goddammit, show some respect to someone and get your head taken off. Hold a door and get your hand slapped.” Terry was trying to make a point, and he thought the general appreciated it.

Bethany Anne gave the men the finger while wearing a thousand-dollar smirk on her face.

He shot back, “Get your own damn Coke next time!”

This time she chuckled.

Terry signaled to BOB to bring everyone another round.

BOB arrived and passed out the drinks, and Terry Henry remarked, “You look familiar.”

“No, sir. I just have one of those faces. I’m really nobody,” BOB told him.

“Bullshit! I know you from somewhere.” Terry Henry pointed a finger at him.

“I get that all the time, oddly enough,” BOB said

“You told us about starting a war. Did you ever kill someone for money, General?” Terry asked.

The general’s expression turned cold.

“Even if someone paid you to do what you’d do for free—bring justice to the universe? People like us, we have to do it. If you have the ability to act, you have the responsibility.” Terry looked at his beer, which was great. He’d spent a hundred and fifty years of trying to make his own beer and had all the recipes in his head, the benefit of an eidetic memory.

But brewing it was different. Terry sucked at it, so it was nice to finally enjoy a cold one made by professionals.

Everyone had their specialties. Terry looked from face to face trying to assess what the others were good at—besides making war. Terry’s wasn’t good at making beer, so he figured he should probably stick to war.

“My wife is a werewolf. I know, I know—you’re all jealous.” Terry snickered. “Charumati has that effect on me too. She was by my side, or maybe I was by hers. We never know. It didn’t matter who was in charge, only mattered that we won. Whatever we did we had to win, because we didn’t have the choice of anything but life or death. It seemed to follow us.”

“You’re married to a fuzzy? Cool. I’ve known a few in my time. Called a few of them friends, too,” Amanda said.

Terry took a long drink and looked at BOB.

“You were about to tell a story, Colonel,” BOB prompted.

“I used to like you.” Terry locked eyes with BOB before looking back at the others. “There we were…no shit,” Terry started in his most ominous voice.

The smirks around the table suggested that he continue before he got his ass beat.

“Nathan Lowell had a side job for us, but he only wanted Char and me to go, which seemed odd. We couldn’t bring any of the others—the pack, our family, none of them. I had to know why.

“‘Come on, Nathan! Come clean or we’re not doing it,’ I demanded.

“Nathan rubbed his chin as he looked from me to Char and back to me. I swiveled the monitor around so he could see that we were alone in our quarters on the War Axe, and he nodded.

“‘It’s a hit, and I don’t want the others to know because I don’t want anyone second-guessing the op.’ Nathan didn’t blink, just watched for our reaction.

“I was confused. ‘I don’t get it. Why do you think they would question this more than I’m going to? We’re beyond assassinations, aren’t we, Nathan?’ I shook my head and looked at Charumati, who seemed as confused as I was.

“‘We need Dex in the Federation. Their Cabinet of Ministers requires a unanimous vote, and there is one holdout. Their parliamentary procedures dictate that if someone dies in office pending votes will be taken with the remaining members only, so we need him out of the way and it has to look like an accident. I want you to join a Federation group that’s already on the planet providing technical support to the cabinet and answering their questions about Federation membership.’

“‘What are his reservations?’ I asked.

“‘Does that matter?’

“‘Abso-fucking-lutely that matters, Nathan. I’m not doing it! BA supported us being able to pick our jobs, and we’re not taking this one.’” I remember I had the monitor in both hands, ready to rip it from the desktop.

“‘Just go out there and take a look. I’m forwarding the video of the proceedings so you can see this minister’s objections. Judge for yourself,’ Nathan told me.

“I didn’t want to do it, but Nathan was giving us the choice. The decision to pull the trigger would rest with me and Char.

“Okay, we’ll go. Send us the files. Walton out.” My wife glared at me. “If we don’t go he’ll send someone else. I’d rather we go…change the parameters of the job to make it so we aren’t assassinating people for not wanting to join the Federation. Who wants to belong to that kind of fucked-up organization?

“Char said, ‘No one. Nathan isn’t telling us the whole story, so I guess it’s up to us.’”

“Wait a minute!” Bethany Anne declared. “My Nathan did that to you?”

Terry smiled at her and held his hands out in the universal don’t-kill-anyone gesture. “There’s more to the story.”

“Who don’t you control in your universe?” Ryck asked.

“All of them. None of them. And fuck-all else.” Bethany Anne smiled devilishly.

Tanis chuckled. “Universal control is overrated.”

Ryck shrugged. “You were saying, Colonel?”

“So we land on this planet where the main cities are pretty sweet. It would have been a great liberty port for my folks, but I didn’t have them with me. We could have torn that place up. In my mind it needed a little life injected into it…

“Looks like a decent place,” Char says as we prepare to meet the Federation contingent, but I wasn’t sure. The place was too clean, so I figured they were hiding something.

“This group of fucking cheesedick needle-nosed pencil-pushing pantywaists shows up and starts whining and Char fires them all on the spot!”

“Fuck no!” BA exclaimed. “Where is she, by the way?”

“Shopping for shoes, I think, with Cordelia.”

Bethany Anne sighed. “Like mother, like daughter. I should probably join them.”

“Wait, I’m almost done with my story.” Terry didn’t know why it stung that BA would leave in the middle of his no-shitter, but it did. He must have been growing soft in his old age.

“So Char fires them all, then heads straight for the cabinet chambers, throws a couple guards out of the way, and bursts in. I’m not sure what the cabinet expected, but that wasn’t it. I’ve still got my Jean Dukes Special strapped to my leg and I’m fidgeting with the dial, rolling it from one to eleven and back again.”

“It goes to eleven?” Ryck asked, raising one eyebrow.

“It does!” Terry said proudly.

“It does,” Bethany Anne echoed, but there was a bit of pain in her eyes as she thought back to a few events. “Does it ever!”

“Char leans over the table and smiles graciously at each of the cabinet members, male and female alike, her purple eyes sparkling like they do. She stops when she gets to the lone dissenting voice and stares him down. ‘Tell us the truth’, she says in her softest voice. ‘Why don’t you want to join the Federation?’

“The Dexters have a thing for purple, we found out. That ball-slapping knucklehead looks her in the eye and says, ‘Because if we vote to join I’ll be out of a job.’ Can you believe that?”

Terry’s beer had gotten warm, which irked him something fierce. “Anyone need a refill?” Everyone tapped their drinks.

He grabbed the best beer in the house, a classic Guinness, and loaded up a stein for his fellow Marine. BOB returned to the table with refills for the others.

“The remaining ministers launch two full broadsides into the guy, and Char jumps onto the table and yells at them all to shut up. I haven’t ever seen anything like it. I actually back up a little. I don’t want to find myself in the impact crater she is creating.

“Then she screams at them, ‘You will be busier than you’ve ever been before, and you’ll not only have your job but I promise you’ll get a twenty percent pay raise. What other issues are preventing you from voting yes?’

“’Twenty percent?’ the Minister asks. ‘Twenty-five, and you have a deal!’ HOLY FUCK! I think Char’s head is going to explode. She jumps down and grabs him by the throat and says, ‘If I kill you it’ll be zero, and Dex will be in the Federation regardless. The offer is now fifteen percent.’ She still has this meathead by the throat when he starts nodding, and he almost chokes himself on Char’s hand. She lets go and says, ‘I can’t hear you.’ ‘YES!’ he screams. The head cabinet minister calls for a vote, and it’s formalized right there.

“Char leans close to the guy’s ear. ‘Don’t be such a douchebag,’ she tells him. Next time do your homework before you act the fool. And I hope you understand that I’m going to pay that fifteen percent out of my own pocket because I didn’t want to kill you. I’m paying that because it suits me, not because of you, fuckstick.”

Terry took a sip of his dark beer. Guinness—the perfect beverage across all galaxies.

“We get back to the ship and call Nathan, and he’s not surprised to hear we didn’t kill that minister. ‘What the fuck, Nathan? I’m not happy.’ Let me tell you what he says.”

Terry stopped to take another drink. BA had her elbows on the table.

“He says, “Life is full of tests. When people we trust ask us to do something that goes against our soul, the very best of us will find a way out; accomplish the mission while staying true to ourselves. I knew you wouldn’t kill him. I knew it, but I needed all of us to know it. My daughter’s life is in your hands. If she can’t be here, then you are the one I want her to work with.’

“I am flattered, but I still think the test was a jagoff move. Not Char. She leans close to the screen and says, ‘You’re going to pay the fifteen percent to that guy, and the extra five comes to me because I talked him down from twenty.’”

Terry leaned back, and everyone looked at him.

“That’s a load of crap,” Ibarra said.

“Of course, it is. I’m in a bar drinking beer, and I’m a Marine. What the hell else did you expect? And I don’t care what you say—I like Metallica and Willie Nelson.”

“I’m a fan of the Cranberries, myself. I like a bit of heavy metal too, though,” Amanda said, smiling.

Bethany Anne checked a pad on the table before her. Dex had joined the Federation after a board vote turned unanimous after weeks of dissent.

She smirked.

No shit . . .


Interlude


“Good shit,” the general told the colonel as the two clinked glasses.

The programming was working well. The patrons seemed to have accepted this construct as their reality.

As soon as BOB thought that, the universe’s perversity revealed itself.

“So, are we just going to ignore that thing on his shoulder?” General Lysander quietly asked Colonel Walton, pointing at Cal.

“I think he’s cute,” Amanda said.

“It’s only a mild biological threat.” Tanis hid a smile behind her hand. “I’m sure if we all wash good and long afterward no one will catch what it has.”

BOB had noted the luminescent green being on Cal’s shoulder, but its programming was only keyed to humans, not other beings, and the green organism was no more extraordinary than anything else BOB had observed during its many missions. Now that the humans had noted it, though, it fell within BOB’s purview.

What was it?


The Cheese God of Baa-Daa-Doosh

By Barry J. Hutchison




Cal swirled the last dregs of blue liquid around inside his glass. He didn’t know what this stuff was, exactly, but it was pretty pleasant. Or pretty pleasant once you got past the paralysis, facial numbness, and the feeling you were being consumed by fire from the inside out, at least.

No matter how far he tipped his head back, that last viscous coating of the stuff refused to dribble into his mouth. He wasn’t about to let a little thing like that beat him, though. After all, if the mountain wouldn’t come to Muhammad…

He had just finished tonguing out the inside of the glass when he became aware that everyone around the table was watching him in silence.

“Thanks for the heads-up there, buddy,” he whispered, shooting the blob on his shoulder an accusing glare. His face split into another of his well-rehearsed grins, and he set the licked-clean glass upside-down on the table.

“Is it my turn?” he asked.

“Sure, go ahead,” Amanda told him.

Cal drummed his hands on his knees a few times and considered which story to tell. When they’d first gotten started he’d been sure he was going to tell them about being chased by Ozzy Osbourne that one time, but now that he’d heard some of the other tales he didn’t think that one was going to cut the mustard.

It wasn’t like he was short of stories, of course. Since the whole mistaken-identity/abducted by aliens/accidentally saving the galaxy thing, he’d had his fair share of adventure. He’d battled assassins, been to parallel worlds, and even died for a while.

He’d also seen a fifty-foot-tall Dorothy out of The Golden Girls fighting a pack of Space Bears, but he reckoned most of this audience was unlikely to really understand the reference. The Dorothy reference, that was. They’d probably be familiar with Space Bears.

“We don’t have all day.” Bethany Anne rolled her finger in a ‘get going’ gesture. “Wouldn’t want to suddenly disappear and miss this story,” she added.

“OK, OK. Here’s one,” Cal said. “This is… Well, it’s going to blow your socks off. I don’t want to oversell it, but—”

“Get on with it!”

“Right. Right, gotcha.” Cal leaned back in his chair and spread his arms as if he were about to deliver a sermon. “Let me tell you the story of the Cheese God of… I don’t know. Cheesy-Weesy.”

Tanis raised an eyebrow. “Cheesy-Weesy?”

“Well, obviously that’s not its real name,” Cal said. “I don’t really do ‘names’. That’s Mech’s job. He stands in front of the screen and reads stuff out. You know, like planets we’re about to land on or whatever?”

Cal leaned forward again and dropped his voice, as if he were letting them in on some great secret. “We could just read it ourselves—it’d be easier, to be honest—but it gives him something to do. Keeps him happy and out of mischief. You know what I mean?”

His chair creaked as he leaned back again. A frown troubled his brow. “What was I saying again?”

“The Cheese God of Cheesy-Weesy,” sighed Ryck.

“Right!” said Cal. “Wait, no. Baa-daa-doosh. That’s what it was called. I remember, because it sounded like drums.” He mimed striking two invisible drums and a cymbal. “Baa-daa-doosh. Ever heard of it?”

There was a general murmur indicating that no, no-one had heard of it.

Cal shrugged. “Can’t say I’m surprised. It’s not great. If there was a PlanetAdvisor website it’d be a two-star. I mean tops.”

There was another general murmuring, this time indicating that Cal should probably get on with it.

“OK, so this was a while back, when I was still pretty new to this whole space thing. Me and the team – Space Team we call ourselves, what with us being in space and all – me and Space Team, we were helping deal with some… I don’t know, leech-things,” Cal said. He held his hands a foot or so apart. “They’re like yay-big, purple, and spit venom out of their eyelids which, I don’t know, kind of seems like a design flaw if you ask me.

“Anyway, they had pretty much overrun this little town, and we’d been hired to get rid of them,” he continued. “Not exactly our usual remit—we’re much more a kind of zooming-around-the-galaxy-getting-into-scrapes-and-escaping-by-the-skin-of-our-teeth sort of outfit, but the money was good, and we were broke.

“And it was all going fine. Mech and the others, they were dealing with the leech-things, and I was taking more of a supervisory role some distance away behind a big rock, when BAM!”

He banged his fist on the table, trying to make the rest of the group jump. None of them did.

“One of the suckers pounces on me,” Cal said. “Did I mention they can jump? Well, they can. Don’t ask me how, since they don’t have legs, so your guess is as good as mine. But the point is, one of them jumps on me and starts fluttering its eyelids until I’ve got a face full of leech venom.”

“Nasty,” said Amanda. “What happened?”

“Did you kill it?” asked Bethany Anne. “And if so, with what?”

“Not exactly,” Cal admitted.

“Then what did you do?” she asked, curious.

“I explosively soiled myself and passed out.”

Someone snorted—Cal didn’t see who.

“But, you know, in a really heroic way,” he added, waving his hand dismissively. “Anyway, that’s not the point. The point isn’t what happened to me before I got the faceful of leech gunk, it’s what happened to me after.”

Several chairs creaked as the others, despite themselves, began to look interested. Cal raised a hand and snapped his fingers. “BOB. Any chance of another…?”

A drink was deposited on the table before he finished speaking. BOB nodded politely, then retreated as silently as he’d arrived. Cal raised the glass briefly, then, having learned from his previous mistakes, took a sip.

“I woke up falling,” he continued. “I had no idea where I was, but I could see there was a wooden roof coming up beneath me, and it was coming up fast. I knew I had five, maybe six seconds to come up with a plan.”

“And did you?” Terry Henry asked.

Cal shook his head. “I had six seconds. What was I supposed to do, grow wings? No, I went straight through it head-first.”

“Ouch.”

“Then through a wardrobe, then the floor below it, then I smashed into this sort of metal oven thing. Then I blacked out for what I believe was quite some time,” he continued. “When I woke up that second time, I was lying on a rug looking up at a hole in the ceiling with this little guy sitting on my chest.”

Terry pointed to the blob on Cal’s shoulder. “That little guy?”

“Hmm? Oh, no. This is Splurt,” said Cal, as if that explained everything. “A bigger little guy. Like a, I don’t know, maybe a tall dwarf.”

Concern flashed across his features. “Can we say ‘dwarf?’ Is that the one that’s allowed? I forget. Let’s just say like a fat eight-year-old, only orange.”

“Orange?” said Ibarra.

“Yeah. Really orange, like… Well, like an orange, I guess.” Cal looked around the table at the others. “Ever wake up with a fat orange eight-year-old on your chest?”

The others were quick to confirm that they hadn’t.

“Yeah, well, I don’t recommend it. It kind of takes your breath away,” Cal told them. “Literally, I mean. For a little guy, that dude was heavy. Big thighs.”

He sipped his drink again. “Anyway, I tried to throw him off, but turns out the guy has tied my hair to the floor. I know…crazy, right? He’s actually tied the individual strands of my hair to hundreds of these little hooks he’s screwed into the floor beside my head. I mean, who does that?”

“Fat orange eight-year-olds?” Amanda guessed.

“Yeah, well this one did,” Cal agreed. “I started shouting and warning him he’d better get off me or there was going to be trouble, and that’s when I saw the rest of them.”

Bethany Anne’s right eyebrow raised. “The rest of who?”

“The rest of his family. They’re all roughly his size, only different colors. There’s a blue one, a green one, and two who are different shades of purple. They’re hiding over in the corner, and they look scared. I mean, these little dudes are terrified. And they’re looking at me like I’m somehow the bad guy!”

“You did fall through their house,” Tanis pointed out.

Cal blinked. “Huh. Yeah, good point. That hadn’t actually occurred to me.” He shrugged. “Anyway, Orange Dude starts slapping me around. He’s whacking me across the face with his little fat hands and he’s shouting, only I can’t really hear him because my ears are still ringing from where I hit my head multiple times.”

Cal motioned toward the corner of the bar, like the scene was playing out before him. “And his wife over there—I mean, I assume it was his wife, it could’ve been his brother for all I know—she starts egging him on. So she—or he, gender isn’t easy to guess with those little guys, since they all kind of look the same—she’s hollering at him to finish me off, and he’s slapping me across the face like there’s no tomorrow, and that’s when I realize.”

“Realize what?” Bethany Anne asked.

“They tied up my hair. They didn’t tie up my hands,” Cal said. “I know, pretty major oversight, right? If it was me, I’d have started with the hands, then moved on to the feet, and only done the hair if I’d had a lot of time left over. Like, a lot of time.”

He shrugged. “Not that I’m complaining. Having my hands free turned out to be pretty useful. I grabbed the guy by the throat and started choking the life out of him. Just squeezed his neck until it looked like his head was going to pop.”

This seemed to satisfy the Marines. “Finally, some backbone,” Ryck grunted.

“Hey, thank you, uh, space-army guy,” Cal said.

“He’s a soldier,” Amanda commented, winking at Ryck.

“Marine!” Ryck corrected her.

“Soldier of the sea, yes,” Amanda said, smiling.

“Ugh.” Ryck sighed in dismay. “So, you were saying you grew a pair,” he said, turning back to Cal.

“Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I was crying, and screaming, ‘Why are you making me do this? Why are you making me do this?’ over and over, but know what? I’ll take the compliment.”

He took another sip of his drink, gave it a few laps of his mouth, then swallowed with a grimace. “Anyway, that’s when everything started to get weird.”

Bethany Anne snorted. “When it started to get weird?” she asked, taking a sip of her own drink. “I thought this shit was already weird.”

Tanis shrugged. “I was in a place not unlike that on Cruithne once.”

“There was a sound from outside, like a bell. But not an old-fashioned bell, I mean like a modern brrrrrr sort of school bell. The others—the ones I wasn’t currently strangling with my bare hands—they all looked worried for a second or two, then they piled on and started laying into me. They pulled the orange guy free, then they all scurried to the door and ran outside.”

Cal gazed down at the tabletop, lost in thought. Splurt rippled gently, then rubbed itself against Cal’s cheek.

“Was there a problem? I thought you’d just broken free?” Ryck asked.

“The alarm had stopped. That was the problem. I’d held onto the guy too long, see? They didn’t make it in time.”

The others had picked up on Cal’s hushed tone. Silence descended on the table.

“See, it turns out the… I don’t know, Baa-daa-dooshians, they’re a religious lot. And not like, ‘Hands up if you love Jesus’ religious, I mean crazy religious,” Cal continued. “Like, they think there’s a different god for everything. There’s a god of tables. A god of toilets. A god of…” He frowned, then pointed to Terry. “Name a thing. I’ve run out.”

“War,” said Terry.

Cal rolled his eyes. “Well, obviously they’ve got a god of war. I meant name something stupid.”

Terry resisted the urge to say, “You,” or “This story.”

“Small dogs,” said Bethany Anne.

“Yes! Thank you. A god of small dogs,” said Cal. “Technically ‘small space dogs,’ but good suggestion.”

He nodded graciously, which made Splurt fall off and splat onto the table. Everyone watched with varying degrees of horror and amazement as the little green blob pulled itself back together and returned to Cal’s shoulder.

“Oo-shite, are you okay, little fella?” Amanda said, reaching out to pat the little snot-ball affectionately.

Despite having no other features but its two bulbous eyes, Splurt somehow managed to look embarrassed.

“They’re sort of hedging their bets, I guess,” Cal explained. “With the gods, I mean. There might be a god of breakfast cereal, or sidewalks, or buttons, so they don’t want to risk incurring their wrath by not worshipping them. They see religion as kind of like an insurance policy, and in order to stay covered by all those different gods they have to stick to a very strict worshipping timetable.”

Cal winced, just a little. “And I’d made them miss their two o’clock.”

He exhaled slowly, shook his head a fraction, then pressed on.

“Anyway, so I manage to unhook my hair from the floor. Mostly by forgetting it was tied up and sitting up suddenly, which isn’t something I’d recommend. I go to the window to look out, and there’s this little town square outside. It’s pretty cute. Everything’s small. Dwarf-sized. Or child-sized, or whatever we decided on.

“In the middle of the square are hundreds of the chubby little multi-colored guys, all bowing and dancing and chanting and whatever. It looked like someone brought a pack of jelly beans to life and dressed them all in little pants.”

“Yeah, this is just like that place on Cruithne,” Tanis commented

Cal smiled wistfully. “I could’ve watched that all day.”

The smile didn’t last, and it wasn’t long before his face grew more serious. “But then, just as they seem to be reaching the big finale—it happens.”

Bethany Anne put her hand to her forehead, wondering if it were possible for her body to have a headache due to a story. “What happens?” she asked, not having a clue what the answer might be.

“Cheese.”

Yup, Bethany Anne thought, not a selection on my list of top one thousand possibilities.

Everyone around the table shot everyone else around the table a sideways look.

“Cheese?”

“That’s right. Cheese. It starts falling from the sky. Boosh. Splat. Thoom. I’ve never seen anything like it. It just comes raining down. Huge dollops off the stuff, like three or four buckets-worth at a time, splattering all over the square,” Cal said. “I see four of five of the jelly beans go down under man-sized globules of it. Some of the others start running and screaming. A few keep dancing and bowing, putting more effort into it now, like they can somehow make up for whatever they’ve done wrong. They get taken out a few seconds later by a downpour. Spoosh.”

Cal made a gesture designed to represent a large amount of cheese falling onto a small person, but it wasn’t particularly effective and went completely over the heads of pretty much everyone present.

“See, it turns out that because my guys—by which I mean the guys whose house I’d fallen into and gotten into a fight with—because they were late, they’d angered one of the gods. And not just any god.”

“A cheese god?” guessed Amanda.

Cal blinked. “Right. How did you know that?”

“Well, one, it’s raining cheese, so there’s that,” Amanda explained. “And two, you called the story The Cheese God of Cheesy-Weesy. Either of those were a pretty big clue.”

“Baa-daa-doosh,” Cal corrected. “Cheesy-Weesy would be ridiculous.”

There was a general murmuring again. This time the consensus was that the whole story was pretty ridiculous, and the name of the planet wouldn’t really have made it any more so.

“Anyway, I’m looking out the window and I see my guys are in trouble. I don’t know all the details of what’s going on yet. I mean, I’ve got my suspicions…”

“You’ve got your suspicions that because they were late to the worship bell, an angry cheese god is demonstrating its wrath?” asked Ibarra.

“Exactly,” said Cal.

“How could you possibly have suspected that?”

Cal shrugged. “I don’t know. Call it women’s intuition. That’s not the point. The point is, my guys were in trouble. One of the little purple ones is, like, plastered to the ground by Brie, or whatever. The others are trying to pull him—or her—free, but they’re not having much luck. I have this nagging feeling that I might be in some way at least partly responsible for what was going on, so I go out to help,” he said. “At which point, they all immediately begin hitting me with sticks.”

“Where did they get the sticks?” asked Tanis.

“Doesn’t matter. Again, not really the point of the story. The point is, I bravely shrugged them off like a champ, then I pulled that little purple fella out from under the cheese. You know, all heroic-like? I slung him over my shoulder and ran him right back inside the house.”

Cal sighed. “Turns out it wasn’t his house. I’d got the wrong guy. They all look pretty much the same, so it was an easy mistake that anyone could’ve made.” He looked around the table. “It wasn’t racist. That’s what I want to be clear about. They genuinely do all look the same. Apart from the colors, I mean.” He hesitated. “And their faces are different, and they vary in size, but other than that they’re identical.”

Splurt rippled.

“And their voices, yes. Their voices are all unique. But other than those few details…” He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter, because everyone who was out in the square all came piling into the house behind me. They shut the door and barricaded it, and suddenly everyone is crying or screaming or shouting questions at me and… Well, know what? I’m going to skip on through this next part to hurry this up.” He looked around the table. “Unless anyone really wants the fine detail?”

“God, no!” spluttered Bethany Anne, and there was another general murmur of agreement.

Cal looked briefly offended, but quickly buried it beneath a lopsided grin. “OK, so blah, blah, blah, town council, blah, blah, blah, hand me the death sentence, blah, blah, blah, gods and worshipping and all that stuff,” he said. “They tell me they’ve angered the cheese god, and that it’s somehow my fault.”

“It was your fault,” Tanis pointed out.

Cal made a weighing motion with his hands. “Well, that’s a matter of… No, you’re right, it was totally my fault,” he admitted. “But while they were talking, I could only think of one thing.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Star Trek.”

He was met by a few blank looks from the others, although not as many as he had been expecting. “It’s a TV show. It deals with this sort of thing all the time. Primitive race, vengeful god. Yadda yadda. They come across this stuff every week, and so I think – if this were Star Trek, what would really be going on. You know? Like what would be the twist?”

“Similar to ‘movies’ and ‘sci-fi,’ then?” Tanis asked.

Cal drummed his hands on the table. “Yeah, exactly. Anyway, that’s when I crack the case. That’s when everything slots into place. There is no cheese god. Of course there isn’t. I mean, that’s crazy. Obviously, what we’re dealing with is an evil sentient computer that’s using the townsfolk as slaves. Got to be, right?”

Nobody leaped to agree with him.

“Right. So I explain my theory to them. It takes a while, because they’d never heard of Star Trek. I thought if I sang them the theme tune they might recognize it. You know—doo doooo do-do-do-do-doooo—but nope. Not a clue. Just blank faces all round. They also had no idea what a computer was, or any understanding of the concept of evil, so that didn’t exactly help matters, either.

“Eventually, though, I managed to persuade them that what they thought was an angry cheese god was merely a malevolent intelligent machine that was making them do its bidding. Possibly from the future, I hadn’t yet established that.”

“And was it, Captain Kirk?” asked Amanda.

Cal raised his eyebrows. “Hmm? Oh. No. No, turns out there really was a cheese god. What are the chances, right? Big guy, too. Real mean. I was right in the middle of explaining my plan to find the evil computer and force it to define love, when he tore the wall off. Just tore that sucker right off. Boy, did I have egg on my face,” Cal said. “And cheese. Mostly cheese, actually.”

With a sharp jerk of his head, Cal drained the last of his drink. “He must’ve been twelve feet tall, and maybe half that across the shoulders. Other than that, he was pretty much what you might expect. By which I mean he was made entirely out of cheese. And not even nice cheese—that crusty stuff with the blue veins in it. You know, French or whatever? The guy—and I can’t stress this enough—he stank.

“And so he’s just standing there with half the wall of this little orange dudes house in one hand, glaring in at me. He’s not the only one, either. I can feel all the jelly beans giving me the stink-eye, too. Someone mutters something about Star Trek, but I ignore it. I rise above it. Now isn’t the time. There’s a cheese god on the doorstep, and he’s baying for blood.”

“What did you do?” asked Tanis, barely containing her laughter.

“What do you do when faced with any angry god?” asked Cal. “I kicked him square in the balls. Just a straight-on, full-force toe punt to the danglies. I mean, that’s just standard operating procedure, right? It’s textbook.”

He winced. “Sadly, it turns out cheese gods don’t actually have balls, so it kind of backfired. And with him being so soft, my foot got stuck somewhere around his lower abdomen, which meant I had to hop around while I tried to pull it free. It wasn’t my finest moment.”

Cal was sitting upright in his seat now. The others suspected—and quietly hoped—that he was closing on the end of his story.

“So, the jelly beans, they’re all bowing and scraping and doing their worshipping thing, and I’m hopping around with my foot in the cheese god’s guts. I’ll be honest, I didn’t fancy my chances. The cheese god, he’s bunching his big Gorgonzola hands into fists and spitting curses at me, or whatever, and I’m thinking, ‘Yep, this is how I die. In a tiny little house, ankle-deep in a god made of Camembert.’”

He shrugged. “Guess there are worse ways to go, but I had my crew to think about, you know? And this little guy.” Cal reached up and gave Splurt a pat. “I had to get out of there. I had to beat this thing.”

Cal leaned forward and lowered his voice. “That’s when I remembered the oven.”

A few confused expressions looked back at him. “What oven?”

The oven. The oven I crashed into on the way down. Were you even listening?” said Cal. He tutted. “Anyway, it’s right behind me, so I manage to hop toward it, pulling Big Cheesy with me. I put my hand on the door and—yes! It’s warm. Hot, even.”

“So, you cooked it?” guessed Tanis, chuckling constantly now.

Cal deflated a little. “Well… I mean… Yes. It was a little more dramatic than that, but yes, that’s the gist of it. Me and the cheese god wrestled for a while, then I shoved him into the oven, butt-first. You know, like that fairy tale?”

Tanis choked down her laughter. “There’s a fairy tale called ‘Butt First?’”

“What? No! I mean like in the fairy tale where they put the witch in the oven. Cinderella, or whatever.”

“’Hansel and Gretel?’” Amanda offered.

“Gesundheit. But yeah, it was just like that, except this time it wasn’t a witch.” His voice became a dramatic whisper. “It was a cheese god!”

“I think we’ve already established that,” said Ibarra.

Cal held up his hands. “Just making sure we were all on the same page,” he said. “Anyway, to cut a long story short…”

“This is the short version?” gasped Ryck.

“To cut a long story short,” Cal said again. “After I’d taken care of the cheese god, the jelly beans started worshipping me. Crazy, right? They said I was their new cheese god. They made me a crown and everything. I mean, crowns are usually for kings, I know, but I didn’t really have the heart to tell them. They all seemed so excited.”

He leaned back in his chair again. “They were halfway through the coronation ceremony when I woke up.”

A silence fell around the table. It was quite a heavy, oppressive sort of silence filled with potential danger.

“You woke up?” Tanis abruptly stopped laughing. “What do you mean, you woke up?”

“Turns out the leech-thing’s venom? Brings about vivid hallucinations. Really weird stuff. It seems that while I thought I was helping save the village of jelly bean people, I was actually naked on a clock tower shouting ‘I’m Cheeses of Nazareth!’ at the top of my voice. In the end, Loren had to shoot me in the tits with a tranquilizer dart to get me down.”

Amanda snorted with laughter.

He began lifting his shirt. “You can still see the scar.”

“Wait, so… What are you saying? None of that happened?” Terry demanded.

Cal paused, one nipple uncovered. “Hmm? No, it… Wait.” He looked around the table. “Were these supposed to be true stories?”

“Yes!”

“Kinda.”

“Oh.” Cal lowered his shirt again, then quietly cleared his throat. He smiled, a little less confidently than before. “OK. So, this one time, me and the singer, Ozzy Osbourne…”

Terry banged his fist on the table, making Cal jump and all the glasses rattle. “Next!”


Interlude


BOB listened to Cal speak, then ran a diagnostic on its translation programming. It had understood each word Cal had spoken, but it wasn’t sure it understood what exactly had been said. Much of it defied a logical explanation, given the human baseline the Collector had downloaded into it.

“I still don’t know what that grubbing thing is on his shoulder,” the general muttered to the colonel.

“So, ask.”

“Eh. Doesn’t matter, I guess.”

“That’s Splurt,” Amanda said. “I don’t think we need to know anything else beyond that, really. He’s a cute slimeball. Does he, er . . .  she . . . or it, I suppose, speak at all, Cal?”

“Not in the traditional sense,” Cal said. “By which I mean not at all.”

BOB knew that the same effect that made them simply accept that they’d walked into an interdimensional bar was also affecting their overall curiosity. Back in their home universes, each of them would have challenged Cal about his companion, but in the bar, no matter how extraordinary the being was, they would be hesitant to challenge its existence.

Which meant BOB wouldn’t find out either. That wasn’t part of its programming. Curiosity, was, however, that which made it better able to serve the Collector’s needs. That curiosity was not going to be satisfied in this case.

Ibarra signaled for BOB’s attention by tapping his glass to indicate he needed another. He had a full bottle in front of him so BOB didn’t understand why he wanted a new glass, but humans didn’t seem wedded to logic so it brought him a new glass.


Making Merit

By Richard Fox


Marc Ibarra knocked back another shot of Macallan, and his cheeks flushed with warmth as the potent potable hit his system. He looked down the table at Bethany Anne and Amanda. He got BOB’s attention, then tapped a fingernail against his shot glass. The android produced a twin and set it in front of Ibarra.

Ibarra poured most of a shot into the new glass and slid it toward Bethany Anne, who wasn’t looking in his direction.

BOB and Ibarra traded a glance as the shot slid straight for the edge of the table, but the woman made a deft catch without looking. She downed the shot in a smooth motion, then looked over her shoulder at Ibarra. At his bottle, to be precise.

She excused herself from her conversation and stood up, then made her way around the table to Ibarra.

“Think I’ve got a chance?” Ibarra mumbled to BOB.

“No.” The android left and went behind the bar.

Bethany Anne slammed the shot glass down next to Ibarra.

“You are an idiot,” she declared.

“You sound like my first ex-wife.” Ibarra lifted the carved glass bottle slightly off the table. “Another?”

“Yes, another. Can’t have you risking something so exquisite on a stupid bar stunt,” she said.

“That’s where you’re wrong, my dear.” Ibarra poured shots for them both. “No risk was involved—I knew you’d catch it. And my sliding skills improve after the first few rounds. I also become a better dancer and singer as bottles get empty. Scientists are baffled.”

“They’re not the only ones.” Amanda smirked.

Bethany Anne raised an eyebrow at him and downed the next shot.

“I’m trying to decide what the bigger lie is.”

“Just be glad this isn’t a karaoke bar—you should hear me sing Total Eclipse of the Heart in a duet. But I knew you’d catch the glass, since you remind me of an old employee,” Ibarra said.

“Bonnie Tyler!” Cal exclaimed, jumping to his feet. He jabbed a thumb toward the blob on his shoulder. “Splurt does a fonking incredible Bonnie Tyler. Watch this.”

He gave Splurt a little dunt with the side of his head. “Go on, buddy. Show them your Bonnie.”

Splurt’s round eyes flitted across the faces of the others around the table and he shuddered gently.

“He’s shy,” Cal said, and sat down again. “But trust me—it’s incredible.”

Bethany Anne looked baffled for a moment, then returned her attention to Ibarra.

“You mention an ex-wife, karaoke, and a presumably female employee… If this is leading to a pass at me, you’re off to a very bad start. Your booze is your only redeeming quality at this point.” She placed her glass on the table and got another refill.

“Being the richest man on Earth tends to break the ice most days,” Ibarra said. When Bethany Anne frowned at him and shrugged, he pulled back slightly. “What? The Marc Ibarra? Ibarra Industries? Stadiums? Nobel prizes?”

She looked up slightly, then shook her head again.

“I’ve got my own line of deodorant, for God’s sake. If my publicist wasn’t dead I’d fire him. Bah!” Ibarra swished the whisky bottle. “Now, Shannon…she knew who I was.”

Amanda leaned forward and whispered in a loud voice that carried clearly across the table, mimicking a certain yellow cartoon father. “I think he likes you.”

Tanis snorted and signaled to BOB for another cup of java.

“This employee of yours…what’s the similarity? And if you get all ‘creepy old dude’ on me I’m taking that bottle—and I’ll break a few of your fingers as an object lesson.”

“You’re both killers,” Ibarra said.

Bethany Anne paused for a moment, then sat down in the chair next to Ibarra’s.

Amanda said, “I think that applies to most people around this table, but like Tanis mentioned earlier, they were all very, very bad people,” she added earnestly. “So let’s hear about this killer, then.”

“I’ve known plenty in my time,” Ibarra said. “Your run-of-the-mill street thugs. Military types. The corporate espionage guys, and more than one cartel sicario. Had to hire security after my first IPO made me a billionaire at twenty-five. Couldn’t get by with hefty bald dudes with goatees. You upset a number of legacy industries, you make enemies. But the true artists in their chosen medium…” He wagged a finger at the table. “They don’t work for silver. They work for ideals.”

“You’ve got me so wrong. So very wrong,” Bethany Anne said.

“I’m still breaking this liver in.” Ibarra swayed slightly on his stool. “My tolerance is low, and there’s plenty more time for poor judgments.”

She took the bottle from him gently and pushed it toward BOB, who poured them both another shot and replenished a few other drinks around the table.

“You’ve got until I finish this to get interesting,” Bethany Anne said. “Although most of the time when I’ve been in drinking challenges the other person can actually hold their liquor.”

“You carry yourself like Shannon,” Ibarra said. “Rather, how she carried herself when she could take her mask off. First time I saw her was in Las Vegas. You see a looker like that at one of the big casino bars and you can make assumptions… Well, it was Vegas, after all.”

“You made that assumption?” Bethany Anne looked around the table and raised her glass to her lips.

Amanda leaned toward Tanis. “I’m making the assumption that he likes her better than me or you.” She winked.

“Good,” Tanis replied.

“No, no, I knew she was there to kill me,” Ibarra said, ignoring the byplay.

Bethany Anne set the glass back down.

“But she wasn’t armed—no electronics on her at all. Big room with dozens of witnesses,” Ibarra said. “She wasn’t subtle. I don’t know how you women do it, but when you want a man to notice you walk you can just flip a switch. Suffice it to say she made an entrance the whole room noticed, myself included. You think death will be a dude in black robes with a scythe, not a looker in something red and sheer. Granted, I didn’t know how she was going to pull off my untimely end at that moment. Figured it out later.”

“You were in a room with someone you knew was there to kill you? I can’t tell if you’re brave or you love your drinks way too much.” She kicked her shot back and signaled to BOB to pour another. “This whisky is phenomenal.”

“Whisky is whisky,” Ryck muttered. “Just something to get you drunk.”

“Pretentious small batches. The Chinese loved it,” Ibarra said. “But Shannon was definitely there to see to my demise. I had my…sources, let’s say, in the government, and Uncle Sam’s attempts to remove me from the public consciousness with tax issues, public slander, and more than one ‘faulty engine’ on my private jet must have annoyed them, so they sent a professional.”

“What made you so annoying?”

“Not being controllable.” Ibarra shrugged. “The world’s first trillionaire. Monopolies in robotics, energy solutions, and space exploration. I buy a summer house in the Nevada plains, and land prices go through the roof on speculation I’m building another factory. Realtors hated me. None of this rings any bells for you? Ibarra. Marc Ibarra.” He shifted to a corporate headshot pose.

“Still nothing,” Bethany Anne said.

“The powers-that-be knew a war with the Chinese was on the horizon, and I’d remained somewhat aloof about just how willing I’d be to support such a conflict. Can’t have that! Imagine if Ford had said ‘Yeah, nah’ to building tanks during WWII? My first daughter had just been born.” Ibarra looked down at his glass and was silent for a moment. “And my revised will was in the county record books, so they knew what would happen if I met an untimely demise: control of Ibarra Industries would go to my trusted friend—who was a complete son of a bitch and in the government’s pocket—until my little girl reached eighteen.”

“Maybe the will was a mistake,” Ryck suggested.

“The will was bait. Like I said, I had my sources. So there I was in the bar, watching Shannon across the room. Had my team of well-armed former SEAL and Delta and Secret Service types around me. Honestly, if she could get through all that and off me I deserved to die. Jimmy was not happy that I’d gone out to tempt fate.”

“Your Jimmy sounds smart,” Terry Henry chimed in.

“He had his moments.”

“You really certain this Shannon was there to kill you? This still sounds like a very bad pass at me,” Bethany Anne said.

“It certainly does,” Amanda said to Bethany Anne, before looking at Marc. “You know she’s a vampire, right? Or did that pass you by?”

“I’ve been incorporeal as of late, so her being a vampire is not beyond what I can accept right now. As for Shannon, nothing got by Jimmy,” Ibarra said. “Anything electronic—I’ve said too much. Damn this is strong!” He pushed his shot glass away. “The big boys in Shannon’s didn’t-exist organization sent her on orders of the most V of VIPs. Saw the kill order myself.”

“And you just let your ass flap out there where she could find it?” Terry asked.

“Love your metaphor. That’s the thing about sources—if you act a certain way when you learn something, the other side might realize someone’s got their ear to the door or there’s a leak. I was so new to the game that I didn’t believe the threat was real. Ah, to be that young and stupid again! Mostly young. Anyway, I kept to my normal schedule but did up my security quotient a bit.”

“And? Why weren’t you terrified when you saw her?”

“I didn’t know she’d show up. I was in my private booth speaking with an Indonesian industrialist about rare-earth mineral deposits when she walked in—which was shocking, since I was certain she was on a plane over the Atlantic at that moment. I was more confused than anything, because she wasn’t the suicide-bomber type. She also wasn’t the mass-murder type…at least not by that point. She was an artful assassin.”

Tanis shook her head. “Seems like some caution would have served you well.”

“So you panicked?” Ryck asked.

“A little, yes. There was panic, but there was also a poker face!” Ibarra shook a finger next to his head. “If I tucked tail and ran soon as I saw her she’d opt for a messier attempt the next time. I was a bit squeamish about collateral damage back then. I had a half-hour allotted with the Indonesian, and those were thirty long minutes.”

As Bethany Anne smirked, she looked at BOB. “Got Coke?” She turned back to Ibarra. “I’m going to go out on a limb and guess she didn’t kill you.”

“She got close,” Ibarra said. “Damn close. Previous attempts on my life had all failed miserably. Again, Jimmy was a top-notch guy. You left a clue online to your plans, Jimmy’d know about it before you hit send on that text message. For that whole half-hour she just sat at the bar in this little red number with gold trim, ignoring every guy that came sniffing. I never caught her looking at me. Such a pro!”

“And then?” Tanis asked.

“And then I left. Three bodyguards in front of me, three behind. Made our way through the side exit the classy places in Vegas have for high rollers who don’t want to deal with walking the floor. I got three steps into the hallway when I heard a hiss and felt mist on my face.”

“Not a spritz of cologne, I take it.”

“A neurotoxin derived from sea-snake venom. Remarkable stuff; would look like the resulting tear in my aorta was from undiagnosed Marfan syndrome, which was exactly what the state-appointed coroner would have put on my death certificate.” Ibarra touched his chest and smiled as he felt his heart beating.

“You’re here talking to us, so something didn’t work out at planned,” Ryck said.

“I didn’t die that day,” Ibarra

“Yeah, there’s a ‘but’ coming,” Amanda said.

“But human beings are creatures of habit. My habits almost got me killed, and her habits kept me from dying. My habit—and my near-fatal mistake—was that I was on a schedule, and I always moved the same way with my security detail. I was in the middle. Always. The route I’d take from the bar to my helicopter was known, and the flight plan was on file. My Indonesian business partner wasn’t as security-conscious as I was, and blabbed when and where we were going to meet. Shannon got wind of this, so she knew where to set her trap.”

“But this Jimmy of yours and anything electronic…” Ryck said.

“She had gotten into the access hallway days before.” Ibarra nodded slowly. “Set up the poison aerosol in a sprinkler head on a timer. A manual timer. Smart cookie, that Shannon. She figured the reason that all previous hits on me had failed was because I had someone like Jimmy helping me out on the electronic warfare side, so she set an analog trap. My security never detected anything.”

“Why poison and not explosives on a timer?” Terry asked.

“A bomb is so obvious. Has to be murder. Out-of-the-blue heart attack from undiagnosed Marfan syndrome? Too bad, so sad.” He rubbed a knuckle against the side of an eye. “No one suspects a thing.”

“Just like the Spanish Inquisition,” Cal intoned.

“Wait, she set a manual timer—like on a machine or something—and nailed you? She must’ve had that planned to the second. Don’t buy it,” Bethany Anne said, and looked around.

“That was why she showed up,” Ibarra said. “She knew—stay with me—she knew I knew about her. I’d have had to, if her commo was compromised. She also knew—don’t roll your eyes like that, it’s unattractive—that I knew I couldn’t freak out at the first sign of her or I’d admit I knew about her. Conclusions follow.”

“I hate spies.” Bethany Anne sighed heavily. “And could give a shit if you think something is unattractive.”

“Almost there. But me leaving right at the end of my scheduled time with the Indonesian wasn’t unusual. I could leave right then without any suspicion. I could’ve hung around a bit longer if I’d wanted to, but seeing her had freaked me out.”

“You left as soon as was explainable, and she had your route timed perfectly to hit you with the poison.” She tilted her hand side to side. “Not bad.”

“I knew you two were alike.” Ibarra pulled the bottle away from BOB when she went for another drink.

“I told you she and I were both creatures of habit, and her habits bit her in the ass. Jimmy—that glorious bastard—was aware of her previous hits and use of that particular poison, so he had my bodyguards carry an antidote. I had a few rough seconds where I felt like my ticker was going to explode before Ramses—I poached him from the Secret Service—saved my bacon with a hypodermic needle to the chest. Hurt like a son of a bitch.”

“Why didn’t—” Ryck started to say.

“Because Jimmy was also a son of a bitch, and he wanted to teach me a lesson. I was so sure I could go out and about and Shannon wouldn’t touch me that I tempted fate against Jimmy’s advice. Bad idea. So I got to think I was dying for a few seconds—and I was—before Jimmy’s antidote kicked in.”

Tanis chuckled. “Rough lesson. I approve.”

“No kidding. After that I curtailed my public appearances, and put plans in motion to get Shannon off my case.”

“She scared you shitless,” Amanda said.

“Seems like she would be a hard person to shake,” Tanis added.

“Shannon was state-sponsored, and the nice thing about the muckity-mucks in government is that you can distract them easily enough. The individual who ordered my death was…removed. Shannon was involved in that removal, and World War III followed.”

“You started World War III to distract Shannon?” Ryck asked.

He shook his head, “I wasn’t that desperate. The war was inevitable. Happy coincidence. The Chinese economy was imploding before the kill order. I knew the banks weren’t going to bail them out, and lots of other people saw the war coming, too. That asswipe in the government got scared and decided to take out some people he thought would be a threat to the war. One person he had killed was Shannon’s mentor.”

“Not a smart move,” Terry said.

“Trying to burn Shannon and her coterie of spy-types was the bigger mistake. They—out of some misplaced notion of honor and duty—turned on the bigwig and killed him. I didn’t have to get directly involved.” Ibarra smiled. “But when you kill someone like that—no matter the reasons—there are consequences. Shannon and the last survivor of her team went underground. Vanished off the face of the Earth. Jimmy helped.”

“Helped?” Bethany Anne asked.

“You’re in the business world long enough, you get a nose for talent. Shannon was a rare bird indeed. She was a professional—not the type to keep after me just because she took a shot and missed. It was just business. The higher-ups who burned her? That was personal. So we kept tabs on her and Ritter, that pal of hers, for years, and then I had need of someone with her talents since the war had gone a bit sideways from my projections.”

“What were you doing in this war, other than making money selling things?” Ryck asked.

“I’m with the general. What were you doing in this war?” Terry Henry wondered.

“War is always good for business, but my concerns were never so base as mere dollars. Jimmy and I needed a status quo. A new Cold War between East and West that would keep budgets high, technology advancing in the right direction, and above all, no nukes, or at least no more nukes.”

“Seems like that’s a decent alternative to young men and women killing each other for wearing a different uniform,” Amanda said.

“I knew I’d find a reason to like you,” Ibarra said.

“You mean to say you haven’t fallen for my charms already?” Amanda said, grabbing her boobs and wobbling them suggestively while giving him an exaggerated wink. Tanis swatted her arm and Amanda sat back with a chuckle. “Sorry. Do carry on.”

Marc shook his head and smiled before returning to his story. “Plenty of people out there thought that way. But there were a few, a group of high ranking Chinese admirals and generals—we called them ‘the New Mongols’—who had gotten a taste of conquest and decided they wanted more. They were strong enough that the armistice on the horizon almost turned into a full-scale invasion of Alaska and Hawaii.” He swirled his shot and took a small sip.

“So I contacted Shannon. The two of them were in some Mexican fishing village, and not even a nice one. Spies on the run are such skittish creatures—a stranger takes an interest in them and they bolt. Then you’ve got to find them again, and it’s just work, work, work.”

“You went yourself,” Bethany Anne said.

“Pulled up to the mariscos stand they ran and ordered a fish taco. Not sure how close I came to getting shot in the face, but they were amenable to talking after they were certain I’d come alone. I laid it all out: that I knew who they were. What they’d done. Everything they’d done. And that I needed them for a task to save the planet from all-out nuclear war.

“Did she fall for your charms harder than we have?” Amanda asked.

“Well, Ritter was a soldier who got roped into Shannon’s world early in his career but never really lost that edge. He’d sat out World War III thus far and it was gnawing at him, so he was interested. Shannon seemed to like the settled life even though her tacos were shit, but I could tell her ears were up. I offered them work, and promised they’d only be used to keep the balance. As edgy as the American-Soviet Cold War was, no cities vanished in a bright flash of light. And spies…they saw themselves as the guardians of that balance.”

Bethany Anne nodded to BOB and another Coke appeared, bottlecap already removed. “And you were lying?”

“Yes and no, which means yes. Did I need them to end that war? Yes. Did I have other things down the road that would be a bit…fuzzier? Also yes. They probably picked up on some of that, but my offer was pretty strong. Besides, running a taco stand versus being in the game wasn’t much of a choice. They fed their tacos to the alley cats and away we went.”

“So you actually got to know her in person?” Tanis asked.

“Shannon was…difficult. There was a sadness to her from a mistake she had made many years before all this. Poor girl never forgave herself, and to keep it all away she needed a target; something to focus on. From the tequila odor she brought into my car that day I could tell she’d been dealing with that demon the wrong way.”

“How’d her first assignment go?” Terry asked interestedly.

Ibarra looked up and shook his head quickly.

“Mess. Dead bodies everywhere. One got away, and Jimmy had to take care of that in an ugly manner. Had to cycle through three Chinese Communist Party chairmen using bribery, embarrassing photos, and some seemingly genuine graft before we got the armistice, but the job got done. Shannon and Ritter came to Phoenix afterwards and worked for me behind the scenes.”

Ibarra pushed his half-empty shot toward BOB, who ignored it.

“Decades of irregular work,” he said. “I kept them both in rejuvenation treatments, plastic surgery—whole nine yards—but toward the end I realized I had to kill her.”

Bethany Anne spit out her drink. This wasn’t how she would support someone in her group. “Come again?” she asked, eyes narrowed.

“Well, we’ve all been there,” said Cal. “You know…metaphorically.”

“Not in the ‘she knew too much’ vein of killing someone. It was all a consequence of the plan—a plan Jimmy and I spent decades on.”

“Jimmy was ok with this? Seems like he’d have come to respect her after all that time,” Terry asked.

“They never met, and I never told her or Ritter about Jimmy. His rules, not mine. Jimmy had his mission, I had mine. Has it worked? Not for billions of dead people, but at least there are still some around to curse my name. I knew how it would end for Shannon…which was where I screwed up.”

“Do tell,” Ryck urged.

“I got greedy. Lazy. Became a creature of habit. See, you fine folk…” Ibarra motioned to the others around the table, “are all perfectly unique and fascinating people. Shannon was no different, but she had a skill set and I could trust her, so I decided I needed her—even after she was dead. I worked brain scans into her physicals. Had body cams on her during missions that were so discreet even she couldn’t find them.” He tapped next to an eye.

“You were going to clone her or something?” Tanis said.

“Not clone…copy. Losing her would have been like King Arthur losing Excalibur. Thor losing Mjolnir. You get the idea. Part of Jimmy’s and my plan to save humanity involved changing the human reproductive cycle.”

“You don’t enjoy getting laid?” Amanda asked, an incredulous expression on her face.

“Now,” Bethany Anne eyed him, “you’re just getting creepy.”

“Not like that. In vitro humans grown quickly, and then procedurally generated minds are inserted into the bodies. Amazing achievement in genetics and biology. But I decided I’d use all the data I’d collected on Shannon and…make a copy. Mold the new body that would become Shannon to match her memories.”

“How’d that work out?”

Ibarra took back his glass.

“Who’s to say? I mentioned habits before, right? The plan was about to enter a critical phase, and I became trapped in my habits. I always kept either Ritter or Shannon near me and sent the other on a mission if needed. I needed Ritter to watch over my granddaughter, so Shannon had to stay with me.

“Then Ritter and said granddaughter vanished—part of the plan, mind you—and I…cut Shannon off. Locked myself in a vault and died there, along with everyone else on Earth. I could’ve told her the plan. Admitted it all to her. Unburdened decades of lies…but in the end I lacked that courage.”

“You…died?” Ryck said.

“And got to watch my corpse rot. Lousy planning, but by the grace of God the plan worked and I was rescued.”

“Still dead.”

“Very, but those details aren’t important. Shannon had died on Earth just like everyone else. The Xaros were thorough in that regard. But once Earth was back in human hands, the procedural program got off the ground and I had Shannon again.”

“The clone,” said Tanis.

Copy, and I put her to the same use. Taking care of a dissident here, a little not-quite-a-suicide there. Delicate times…and I killed Shannon again. Completely necessary, because her mind was unraveling…but I just ordered up another copy.”

“Hah! You could start a mail-order bride business,” Amanda joked.

“You didn’t do this with anyone else?” Bethany Anne said.

“No. Well, you could say Jimmy did that with me.” He ran a hand down his sleeve and pinched the flesh between his fingers. “Just not all the way. After a time, I had some second thoughts about Shannon.”

BOB set some peanuts down on the table, and several people reached forward to take a few. “You don’t strike me as the type.”

“Doubt makes cowards of us all. Shannon carried this guilt, which I tried to edit out when I copied her, but the person we got was all wrong. No drive. No passion. No finesse. That element of her character was inseparable from her effectiveness. And every time I brought her back from the dead—so to speak—I felt like I was resurrecting this sorrow. That I was taking her away from any peace she might have found in the afterlife.”

Bethany Anne nodded, apparently understanding, but then said aloud, “Holy shit, buddy! I’m a vampire, not a priest.”

“But you’re her type, so let me ask you something. How do I apologize to her?”

Bethany Anne took the bottle from Ibarra, eyed him and then the bottle, and drank straight from it.

She examined the bottle further and said, “I don’t think there’s enough in here to find the right answer. Saying sorry is not your issue. You want some absolution of your own. Why else are you spilling your guts to complete strangers in the galaxy’s weirdest bar?”

“I will blame strong drink if pressed, but you’re not wrong.”

“This guilt of hers—can you fix it with a copy of another person?” Ryck asked.

“Not in any way she’d accept.”

“And her life in espionage was the source of this guilt?” Ryck pressed.

“Roundabout way, yes.”

“Then her life is the problem,” Bethany Anne said. “As long as she’s got the chance to be Spy Shannon, she’ll have the guilt. She needs a clean break. Away from you and from any chance she’ll be called back to the spy game.”

“Huh.” He clasped his hands in his lap. “Any of you ever go to Thailand? You could buy fish that were trapped in a rice paddy and release them. Locals called it ‘making merit.’ Maybe I could do that with Shannon.”

“Don’t bullshit a bullshitter,” Bethany Anne said. “You let one Shannon go and you’ll just make another.”

“Which is exactly what happens in Thailand with those fish. They’re released and caught downstream just to be let go again. It feels good, but accomplishes nothing. Still…maybe I can find an out for her. If there is judgment for souls in the great beyond, at least I could point to one shining example in the grand total of it all.”

“I’m not a priest. Do I strike you as a priest?”

“A scary one, maybe,” Amanda commented to no one in particular.

“No, but you do strike me as thirsty. BOB! You have any Chez Azul tequila? None of that Reposado swill!”


Interlude


BOB reached under the bar and pulled out the first bottle it touched. It knew that it would be the Chez Azul, just as anything one of them asked for would materialize. Its curiosity had been programmed, but how the construct worked was accepted as normal. It just worked.

There was one human left: Admiral Tanis Richards. She had remained quieter than most while the stories were being told. BOB didn’t know if that was because she was more resistant to the compulsion it was still broadcasting throughout the construct, if she didn’t have a story to tell, or if she thought she was saving the best tale for last.

BOB hoped it was the latter of the three reasons.

“So, I think it’s your turn, Tanis,” Amanda said. “Hold on, let me get a refill. I’ll get one for you too while you think about what story to tell,’ she said, rising from her seat.


How I Stopped a Pirate Attack With a Nymphomaniac

By M. D. Cooper


Tanis looked around the table, examining the faces of these new friends. Well, ‘friends’ may have been jumping the gun, but certainly compatriots.

<’Drinking buddies’, Tanis. The phrase you’re searching for is ‘drinking buddies’,> Angela, the AI with whom Tanis shared her mind, supplied.

Tanis sent Angela a feeling of acknowledgment, and decided that perhaps it was her turn to launch into a tale. A decision aided by being last.

<OK, Ang, what should I tell these new ‘drinking buddies’ about? Everyone knows most of my good stories.>

Tanis got the distinct sensation that Angela was tapping a finger to her chin. It went on for a few seconds, then the AI spoke. <What about Toro?> 

<I want them to like me, not think I’m a monster.>

<What about when you drew the ‘things’ out of the dark layer and they consumed a hundred thousand ships? That’s a fantastic story.>

Tanis gave a mental snort. <We don’t talk about the things in the dark layer. Next?>

<I’m starting to think that you’re going for something small and innocuous.>

<Bingo. You’re sharp as a tack tonight, Angela>

<I’m pretty sure no one says that.>

<I do.>

Angela made a sound in Tanis’s mind that was a combination of a sigh and a raspberry. <Fine. Tell them about what you did on the PetSil mining platform while we were waiting for Sabrina to get its upgrades.>

Tanis thought about it for a moment. It was a bit racy, but she didn’t think it would be a problem with this crowd. <Yeah, that should do nicely.>

Amanda returned to the table and sat down beside Tanis, sliding a drink over as she settled into her chair.

“What is it this time?” Tanis asked, eyeing the dark beverage.

“A little favorite from back home called ‘Guinness,’ same as Terry’s drinking. Not my personal favorite to be sure, but I think you’ll like it.”

Tanis shrugged. “Well, I’ll try anything once.”

A new voice came from Tanis, sounding as though it was coming from her chest. “Or twice, or—”

“Quiet, Angela, you’re scaring the locals,” Tanis interrupted.

“Who the fuck was that?” Bethany Anne asked.

“Hey, everyone, I’m Angela. I live in here with Tanis.”

“Hi Angela, what’s the craic?” Amanda asked. “Are you living in all those nano machines I see running around inside Tanis? ‘Cos that’s grand.”

“A person inside a person?” Cal asked. “Like Splurt inside your head?”

Tanis shuddered at the thought.

“How’s this, then?” Angela’s voice now came from the center of the table above a half-empty pitcher of beer.

“Oh, I get it. You’re her AI, right?" General Lysander said.

Angela laughed. “Not a chance…it’s the other way around. I’m the real brains of the operation. She’s my meat-suit transportation system.”

“I’ll have you know that I’m less than half real meat.” Tanis grinned. “Not good at all for eating.”

Angela laughed. “I think we’ve gotten off track. We came up with a story to tell.”

“Right. So we have,” Tanis nodded and took another sip from the drink Amanda had given her. It was thick, but surprisingly smooth and creamy while not overbearing. She raised her glass to the colonel—who raised his in turn—before continuing, “It took a bit to come up with something I haven’t told before, but I think I have one—”

“And by ‘she has one’, she means I thought of it,” Angela interjected.

“Yeah, well, it’s not like there’s much difference between us anymore,” Tanis said, and noted a few raised eyebrows around the table. “Anyway, this is about how I used a nymphomaniac to take out a ship full of pirates. It was way back in…one sec, looking up the Gregorian date…July fifteenth, 8927.”

“Not too long after we got shot forward in time, five thousand years, via a handy-dandy, supermassive stream of dark matter,” Angela added.

“Shite,” Amanda commented. “We’re only just into the twenty-first century where I’m from!”

Tanis nodded. “Yeah, so that’s kinda important. I come from the forty-first century, back in humanity’s golden age. Things in the ninetieth century…well, they’ve fallen back a lot. Suffice to say, the tech we had was a lot like—” Tanis paused and winked at Amanda “—magic.”

She set both her hands on the table and rolled her shoulders, sending a passel of the latest bots that Earnest and Finaeus had devised into the table. For a second, the surface of the table seemed to waver before them, then it turned from wood to steel.

“Hah! Awesome,” Amanda said, a huge grin on her face as she watched the table.

Cal rapped a knuckle against the surface, and a metallic thunk came back.

“Space Magic!” he announced, nodding as if he were the universe’s foremost expert. “Right?”

Tanis winked. “No trick, no magic. Science.”

“Yep, there’s no Magic happening here. I’d know,” Amanda confirmed.

The table turned back into wood, and Tanis withdrew the bots from between its atoms.

<Show-off,> Angela commented privately.

<Hey, this shit’s cool. And who are these people going to tell?>

<Good point.>

“OK, so I was on a ship named Sabrina, and we’d stopped off at a system named Silstrand. It’s the capital of a pretty small alliance of systems; only thirteen at the time, if I recall. Anyway, I’d just recently become un-kidnapped and was trying to get to Bollam’s World—58 Eridani, if you use the old names—to meet up with the Intrepid, my ship.

“It should have been a nice quick trip, but the captain of Sabrina got captured when she saved my bacon, so I felt a bit indebted to her and her crew to help her out. Was a good thing, too. Sera—the captain—turned out to be the key to everything.”

BOB approached and set a plate down before Tanis. She drew in a deep breath, savoring the smell of the BLT before her.

“Stars, that smells perfect. Real bacon, too, unless I miss my guess.”

Tanis took a bite of the BLT and closed her eyes while she chewed. When she opened them, everyone was staring at her.

“Seriously?” Bethany Anne groaned and covered her eyes. It was like being with the guys. “Tell the story or eat, but not simultaneously, please.”

“OK, OK, I couldn’t resist. Life’s not worth living without a good BLT every now and then.” She set the sandwich down, making a mental promise to the meal that she wouldn’t tarry long. “Now, where was I?”

“Sera was the key to everything,” Amanda offered.

Tanis nodded. “Right. So we needed to rescue Sera. I had limited resources back then, having just been recently kidnapped and all. To get the weapons we needed for our ship, I traded some of my tech to a local arms dealer—the legal kind of arms dealer…mostly.

“S&H Armaments was their name, and my salesperson was this wizened little prune of a man named Smithers. I pushed him as much as I could, but in the end, two days was the best he could do on the upgrades for our ship.

“I was perfectly content to spend my time on the ship reviewing their databases—a lot had changed over five thousand years, and I had some catching up to do. Cheeky, however, wasn’t going to have any of that.”

“ ‘Cheeky?’ Seriously?” Amanda commented.

“Yeah. She was the pilot on Sabrina. Spunky little nymphomaniac who hated clothing. If she had to wear more than a bikini, she would whine incessantly. It wasn’t uncommon for her to just walk around naked—mind you, that made for a lot of fights when it came to the internal temperature in the ship. Thompson, the supercargo, liked to turn it down so that Cheeky’s—er…nevermind. Not the point of the story.

“Sounds pretty pointy to me.” Amanda giggled.

“What? Sounds like you were finally getting to the good part!” Ibarra turned up his hands in dismay.

Angela snorted, a rather strange sound to hear coming from a pitcher of beer. “Don’t worry, you’ll get your fill.”

“So I’m in my cabin, reviewing this little series of events called ‘the FTL Wars’, when Cheeky raps on my door. I open it to see her wearing a sheer shawl, bikini bottom, and a pair of spike heels. My first thought was that she had amorous intent, but it turned out she just wanted someone to head on-station with her. I can still remember the smell of her augmented pheromones. My nanotech could filter them out no problem, but that was a woman who smelled like one thing, and one thing only.”

Tanis couldn’t help but grin at the memory. It had taken Cheeky a few tries to convince her to go onto the station, but eventually she’d succumbed. In the end it had been Cheeky’s insistence—and not the pheromones—that had made Tanis give in.

“I grabbed a jacket—I tend to go the opposite direction when it comes to clothing; layers are your friend—and a pulse pistol. Not sure if you folks have them, but a pulse weapon fires a non-lethal concussive wave through the air. Well, it’s non-lethal at range. Point-blank, you can turn a person’s brain to soup, or crush their heart.

“Once I was dressed and ready to roll, I joined Cheeky, and she led me off the ship and onto the station’s docking ring. ‘It’s not far, just half a klick away,’ Cheeky said in her bubbly voice. I swear, she was the happiest person I ever met. Life had dealt her a tough hand, but she never let it get her down. Mind you, she had more sex than some civilizations, so that might have been part of it, too.”

“Sounds like someone I’d like to meet.” Amanda winked.

“If you ever do, and feel the need for an impartial observer…” Cal held his arms out, presenting himself. “Just saying.”

“Damn, I think even Tabitha would be in awe.” Bethany Anne shook her head. “And I’ve got to totally steal that line… ‘More sex than some civilizations.’”

Tanis laughed, enjoying the comradery around the table. “Right, well, Silstrand was a great place for her to have a good time. Most folk there were law-abiding and honest. Really, though, I don’t know why I went out with her. I knew what she wanted to get up to, and I was happily married. Well over a hundred years, in fact, so I wasn’t planning to catch any tail. Granted, I’d been cooped up on ships for months at that point, so that was probably the bulk of my reasoning for going out.

“Half a klick was pretty close—the PetSil platform was over seventy klicks across, if memory serves. Rather than catch a dockcar or a maglev train, we walked down the docking ring. Cheeky kept up a steady stream of banter the whole way, ‘I can barely keep these stations straight anymore,’ she’d said. ‘Used to work a tug on one like this, though. Similar build. Anyway, there’s a spoke connecting to the main hub up ahead. It’s the third one in the section, so you know what that means.’

“Now, I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t even know why they bothered with hub-and-spoke stations in the ninetieth century, what with their fancy artificial gravity—the only tech better than what we had in the forty-second century, when I was from.

“So I asked, ‘The best burger joint?’ I could have used a burger. A BLT would have been better, but I always find that the lettuce and tomato are harder to get right than the meat. The PetSil mining platform was a long way from a planet, so that meant any meat had been frozen, or they were vat-growing it on-station. Burgers are best in a situation like that.

“Cheeky gave me this meaningful wink. ‘Well, it depends on your definition of burger. We’re definitely going to find some meat there.’ Like I said, I wasn’t really looking for that kind of entertainment, but she was so jazzed for it that I didn’t want to suggest we go somewhere more sedate.

“A few minutes later, we get to the junction where the spoke connecting to the station hub met the ring. And what did we find? A clothing store.

“Let me tell you, Cheeky was pissed. I think having anything other than a club or bordello there broke some sort of unwritten station-layout law. ‘What the core-damned stars is this?’ Cheeky was yelling and waving her arms while swearing at the store from the middle of the concourse. I said something like, ‘You know, the station has a directory. I bet there’s a whole listing of strip clubs, or wherever we’re going.’

“Cheeky turned on me and raised her tiny little finger. I had to hide a smile. She was barely over one hundred and sixty centimeters, even in her heels. Back then, I was one hundred eighty-seven, so she could barely reach up to my face.”

“Somehow I think her arms were long enough to still lay a smack upside your head,” Angela countered.

Tanis shrugged. “Probably. She got taller later after she died. It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember properly. Anyway, we had to—stars forbid—ask for directions to the best night spot. Granted, it was still first shift on the station, so the best night spot wasn’t open yet. Neither was the second best, or the third…you get the picture.

“ ‘Well,’ Cheeky had said an hour later, while we sat on a pair of mostly clean stools in a bar halfway around the docking ring from Sabrina. ‘At least we’ll get to try a bit of the local booze.’

“I remember looking around at the locals—nothing you’d want to touch for too long, let alone get between the sheets with—and saying, ‘Well, we got some exercise, and we’ll see what their brews are.’

“Cheeky sucked on her lower lip and made eyes at me for a minute—”

“Seriously, Tanis,” Angela interrupted. “She wasn’t coming onto you that much.”

“Ang, I love you like myself—because you pretty much are myself—but trust me, you have no idea what pheromones like hers can do. She was sending them at me full force, and she could pump out enough to flatten an army.”

Angela didn’t respond, and Tanis continued. “We ordered a local beer, one the bartender recommended for a warm up, then some whiskey, then wine, then vodka, more whiskey…I forget the exact order. Cheeky was pretty sloshed, but I was just buzzed. I could have cleared the booze out with my nano if I’d wanted to, but it was nice to cut loose for a bit. I’d had a pretty rough few weeks, and despite our surroundings I was glad Cheeky had convinced me to come out with her.

“I learned later that Cheeky had a phobia of getting too far from the ship. A previous captain had left her high and dry on a station where she’d had to work for a year before Sera rescued her.

“Anyway, it had turned into a pretty nice girls’ night out. We were gossiping about the people on our ship; Cheeky confided in me that she’d never managed to get into Flaherty’s pants, which didn’t really surprise me. The guy was like some sort of combination of an ancient, kilt-wearing Scot and a ninja.”

“Why would that combination make someone a grubbing monk? One of my fellow recruits was Scottish and a planetary MMA champion. The bastard broke my arm when we were sergeants. He rarely wore a kilt, but managed to get everyone into his pants.” General Lysander nodded. “And I mean everyone.”

“Yeah. Flaherty was just like that.” Tanis shrugged. “But completely different. The guy was like a sneaky stealthy Scot that never spoke. Your guy sounds more like Thompson—who Cheeky had taken around the course more than a few times. ‘Rode him like a boar in heat,’ was what she said, if I remember it right.”

“I think she said that was how he rode her,” Angela corrected.

Tanis took another drink of her Guinness—that was something she had to get more of. <Angela, can you note its molecular composition? We have to make more of this.>

<You say that like I haven’t already anticipated this request.>

<That’s why you’re my better half, Ang.>

Angela laughed. <Well, that and the fact that I’ve been stuck in your mind for most of your life.>

<Yeah, that too.>

Tanis resumed her story. “So Cheeky continued to regale me with tales of her sexual exploits, which really were quite impressive. She’d done things I’d never even heard of, and I was just over two-hundred-years-old back then so I’d heard of a lot. While she was telling me about something she’d done with Sera once, I spotted these four guys enter the bar and watched them make a beeline for a table in the rear.

“They sat down with this guy who’d been back there when we came in. He hadn’t spoken a word or moved, other than the odd shift here and there. I’d started to wonder if he was an automaton, but when his friends showed up, he seemed normal enough.”

“She’s exaggerating,” Angela interrupted. “She’d already filled the bar with nanoprobes and knew that guy was fully human.”

“Ang! Seriously, you’re ruining the story.”

“Just get to the good part. Everyone gets it; Cheeky is sexy and she’ll screw anything that’s screwable, plus half the stuff that’s not.”

Tanis couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s very uncharitable, Angela. Cheeky was discerning in who and what she screwed. Her scale of discernment was different than most people’s, but it was there.

“So, the four new guys sit with their quiet—until now—friend. They dropped a dampening field so that no one could hear what they were saying, but I already had probes on their table, so listening in was no problem. Not that their poor excuse for a dampener would have worked, anyway.

“ ‘Well, if we hit it today, we can get a sweet load. They’re outfitting some ship with serious beams and shields. Fuck, the batts alone could put us all up for a year.’ That was from one of the guys who had just arrived. He was dark-haired, and it was more than a little greasy. He also spoke with a weird lisp.

“ ‘Today’s too soon,’ said the guy who’d been there waiting. ‘Besides, we’re not after just those upgrades. We want to take their entire operation and the main warehouse.’

“It was pretty obvious these guys were planning to hit S&H Defensive Armaments, the outfit that was upgrading our ship. They weren’t the only company selling arms on the PetSil platform, but the other companies were tiny, and none possessed what could be termed a ‘warehouse’.

“Normally I wouldn’t worry too much about something like this—”

Angela laughed. “Liar.”

“OK, fine,” Tanis corrected herself. “I probably would, but given the general circumstances, I wouldn’t have—if not for the fact that these guys were going to mess up my plans.”

“That’s more like it.” Angela’s tone was smug, but she didn’t speak further.

“Earlier in the day, I had put the screws to S&H, forcing them to cut some corners on the permits for the work they were doing for me. I was worried that if I alerted S&H, or the authorities about these men, it would set back the timetable for my ship’s upgrades.

“It had already been a week since Sera was captured, and we were on borrowed time. I could have killed all five of those men where they sat. Their nanotech was all but nonexistent, and their Link connectivity was so full of protocol holes that I could have walked right into their minds and burned them to a crisp.

“But I was trying to keep a low profile. No one for a thousand light years had tech like mine, and the local cops would have questioned everyone in the place. Not to mention scrubbing someone’s mind is a wee bit on the unethical side of things.

“So I opted for good ol’ Plan A: beat the shit out of them.”

Angela made a throat-clearing sound. “This is where I feel obligated to let you all know there were a lot of other ways we could have stopped them without physical violence. Tanis just wanted to get into a fight.”

Tanis opened her mouth to object, then closed it again and nodded. “OK, fair enough. I had recently undergone a month of torture, and had almost lost the baby I was carrying—don’t worry, the baby was in a stasis pocket inside my body, so I wasn’t getting drunk while pregnant. Well, I was, but you get what I mean. My little Cary was born without any defects.”

“This future tech of yours is making my head spin,” Amanda said.

“Yeah,” Bethany Anne agreed, “And thank God for nanocytes keeping poisons away from babies.”

Tanis shook her head and touched her chest. “This was nothing. You should have seen what happened a week later; I got my heart shot right out of my chest. That was heart number three, too.”

“Four,” Angela corrected.

Amanda closed her eyes and shook her head in wonderment. “And all this without Magic, amazing.”

Tanis winked at Amanda. “That’s because magic isn’t real. It’s just more tech.”

<Except that we can’t see any tech in her body,> Angela replied privately.

“And you won’t find any, Angela, but yeah, I mean, ‘any sufficiently advanced tech...’” Amanda began as her body split into thousands of flying insects, and then collapsed into about a hundred talking birds. “ ‘…is indistinguishable…’” Those birds whipped around the tabled and then slammed together, changing into a green gelatinous figure shaped roughly like Amanda with two floating eyeballs inside it, which somehow smiled at Splurt. “ ‘…from Magic,” the gooey figure gurgled.

“Splurt’s got a girlfriend, Splurt’s got a girlfriend,” Cal sang in a low, somewhat slurred whisper. The little blob on his shoulder squelched as he grew a nub of an arm, then used it to elbow Cal on the cheek, shutting him up.

With a final thwip, Amanda’s body transformed back into its usual self. “So who’s to say, hmmm?”

<OK, she can read our minds. That alone would have convinced me,> Angela said to Tanis.

Everyone around the table was slackjawed at what they’d just seen, and Tanis nodded silently for a half-minute. “Orrrr...maybe magic is real.”

Space magic,” Cal corrected.

Bethany Anne tapped her lip, her eyes narrowed having watched Amanda’s display. “I’ve got to figure that shit out!”

Amanda just smiled and winked, and Tanis decided the best course of action was to soldier on. “Right, well, either way. I needed to get these guys somewhere other than a crowded bar. Lucky for me, I had a secret weapon: Cheeky. Well, not exactly secret—those guys had been ogling her every chance they got.

“I reached out to her over the Link. <Cheeky, we need to get those five guys out of the bar and somewhere where we can have our way with them.> 

“I’d kinda omitted some crucial information, and her response was not so charitable. <Tanis, I dragged you out in hopes of a little party time between you and me. I get that you’re not into what I have to offer—well, I don’t really get it, but I guess I can accept it—but I’m not going to dive into those sloppy seconds over there.>

<No, that’s not what I mean—well, it sort of is.> The look Cheeky gave me at that point was priceless. One of her eyes was almost entirely closed while the other was wide, so I filled her in. <They’re planning a hit on S&H. Specifically, on the hardware we bought. I don’t want to delay our installation, but I’d also like to take them out nice and quiet.> 

<You can take out five of them on your own?> Cheeky asked at that point. She’d never seen me fight, so she had no idea. Five wasn’t a problem; five quietly was a bit more difficult.

<Yeah,> I told her. <I can do five. But we need to get them somewhere else.>

“Cheeky gave me a solid wink and downed her whiskey before sliding off her stool. I was impressed as she sauntered over to the group’s table without even the smallest wobble. For a woman who probably came in at under fifty kilos, she could really hold her alcohol. Granted, she was a pilot—she had mods to help her function under g-forces that would make most people blackout.”

Tanis laughed at the memory. “It did not, however, help with her speech. She was slurring all over as she tried to pick the guys up. Granted, it wasn’t like Cheeky faced a real challenge. She’d cranked her pheromones up all the way, and I think even the fish in the tank above the bar were salivating.

Bethany Anne covered her mouth as she laughed, glancing up to see if this place had any fish.

“The four newcomers were ready to postpone all their plans for a chance in the sack with Cheeky, but the guy who had been waiting for them wasn’t having any of it. Through the course of their conversation, he’d come around to doing the job that day, and seemed to have his heart set on getting the goods and taking them to a nearby system named Gedri.

“It looked like he was going to win his pals over and send Cheeky packing, so I made a few deductions—wild-assed guesses, really—and walked over to their table. I circled around and bent over next to him.”

“You stuck your ass right in one of the other guy’s faces, too,” Angela added. “Don’t forget about that.”

Tanis laughed. “Yeah, I did, didn’t I? Like I said, I was keeping a good buzz going, too.” She looked around the table, her gaze lingering on each of the men in BOB’s bar. “You guys really do make it pretty easy. I’m usually the staid one in a group, but even I like to mess with the boys sometimes.”

“Only sometimes? When it’s just so much fun?” Amanda said.

“Yeah, well, I’ve been married for a couple of centuries now. I’m out of practice,” Tanis replied with a self-deprecating laugh. “Either way, I’d guessed the right thing to say to the holdout. It was something like, ‘I bet you like things a bit rougher than you think she can handle—or maybe dish out, if that’s your thing. If you’re not black and blue after a run with me, then we’re not done yet.’

Bethany Anne burst out laughing. “Oh my God! That’s priceless!”

Tanis smiled. “Needless to say, that piqued his interest.”

“Wasn’t all it ‘peaked’.” Angela chortled.

Tanis let out a commiserating sigh. “Guy had a real douche name, too, ‘Maverick’. Hard to forget—especially because he became the president of a star system later. I really should have killed him when I had the chance.” Tanis shook her head. “Luckily he eventually got what was coming to him. I had a hand in it too, so that was nice.

“I feel like I should mention at this point, that Cheeky wasn’t much of a fighter. The old ‘lover not a fighter adage’ fit her to a ‘T.’ From what I’d heard, she’d been in a few dock-side shootouts, but her job was usually to provide suppressive fire. So keep that in mind, and don’t judge her too harshly.”

Tanis took another swig of her Guinness before continuing. “Right, so that little spiel got Maverick excited, and he informed his crew that there was no reason they couldn’t get a bit of entertainment in before their work later. Turns out Maverick ran a sex slave…I don’t know what you’d call it…empire, maybe.”

“A harem?” Amanda suggested.

“No, thousands and thousands of women. Makes a harem look like a kids’ club. He was in the Silstrand System orchestrating some kidnappings. Hitting S&H was just a fortuitous opportunity that had cropped up.

“One of the guys looked like he was ready to take his pants off right there, and I knew we had to get them moving. ‘You have somewhere a bit less public—’ I began, and Cheeky interjected, ‘And less sticky.’

“ ‘I have a ship.’ Maverick wore one of those grins that was supposed to look enticing, but was one hundred percent leer. ‘You’ll like her. She’s called the Penultimate.’

“At this point, it took all the willpower I possessed not to groan. Luckily Cheeky covered for me; she giggled and said something about how that would be amazing. A minute later, we’d settled up and were heading out of the bar.

“Cheeky was able to somehow divide her attention between four of the men in a way that had them all entirely captivated. It was amazing, it was like watching an artist paint a masterpiece. Unfortunately for me, Maverick had decided I was to be his company that night.

“I hit Cheeky up over the Link. <This ship of theirs better not be far. I don’t know how much more grabbing my ass can take.> She only laughed in response, then told me, <Well stop jerking it away, and he’ll stop grabbing at it.>

“I knew how that game went, though, and said, <No thanks, then he’ll move on to grabbing other things.>

“It didn’t take too long to make it to their ship, which was on an external berth—meaning it was big. I pulled up the registries once I figured out which one we were headed to, and sure enough, it was a five-hundred-meter modified freighter.

“I’m not sure how things go where you folks are from, but in my experience, there are two types of interstellar freighters—well, three, but it’s a small distinction—freighters that haul stuff, and freighters that pretend to haul stuff, but really shoot other freighters and steal the stuff they were hauling. That second group consists of pirates, and freighters with letters of marque. I’m sure you know how it is. Whether they’re a pirate or not just depends on what star system they’re in.”

“I've retaken more than a few ships from pirates. Hate them, and I don't give a shit if they're supposedly legit from some government. A pirate's a pirate, and they're all scum.” General Lysander said, almost under his breath. “Sorry, didn't mean to interrupt. Go on.”

Tanis nodded in agreement. “I’m with you there, General. I’ve had more than a few run-ins with pirates. Though I gladly took a letter of marque to let me hunt them a few days later for my rescue op.

“Either way, the ship was big enough that it had a fifty-meter umbilical. Umbilicals on most stations like that are zero-g, and this one was no different. Cheeky let her shawl loose the moment she was floating through, and with that, she had the undivided attention of those pirates.

“I remember grabbing her shawl, but I honestly have no idea what happened to it later. I have to admit, I’m not into girls, but the way Cheeky moved in zero-g had me thinking a few thoughts….”

Tanis’s voice trailed off and Angela took the opportunity to clarify the point. “And by ‘a few’, she means many, many thoughts. Stars, if I had a body, even I would have considered hooking up with Cheeky at that point. I have never—before or after—seen a human bend like that.”

Tanis nodded emphatically. “Yeah, it was quite the sight. Granted, she was pumping out a lot of pheromones too, so the feelings at the time were…intense. I think some bled over to you, Ang.”

“Probably. I’ll go with that.”

Tanis cleared her throat and polished off her Guinness before continuing. “OK, so the reason why the ship size concerned me was because it was big enough for a crew in the hundreds. A legitimate freighter that size would have a crew of ten or fewer, but I was under no illusions that this was a legitimate freighter.

“Once we got through the umbilical, Maverick took the lead, grabbing my wrist and pulling me to the front with him. I was pretty sure at that point that the other four men were not from his ship. Though from their banter, I had picked up that they worked on another ship of his. I didn’t find out until years later that Maverick actually ran a huge fleet of pirates and traders—which I completely decimated.”

Tanis looked at the faces around the table and winked. “That was more fun, but it’s a much longer tale for another time. So, we followed Maverick through the ship, and it was looking like a regular freighter. Crates, holds, the usual stuff. Then he took us up a lift, and we got to what he called his ‘personal deck’.

“This was an entirely different story. Wood paneling, polished granite floors, the works. At the end of the corridor were a pair of double doors, and he threw them wide like he was some sort of galactic superstar.

“Inside was a big room, easily forty meters across. The far side was a wall-to-wall window looking out across the Silstrand System. SS Prime was glowing in the distance, it was really quite beautiful.

“Of course, it was ruined by the three naked people on the floor in the center of the room, two women and one man. They were huddled together, maybe for warmth, maybe safety, it was hard to say. It was a bit cool in the room, but they were shivering more than the temperature warranted.

“I didn’t spot the chains at first, but I did see the collars. Then they moved and the telltale clinking sound gave it away. Cheeky was pissed; she’d had more than one run-in with people who wanted to possess her. She always said that love should be free, and given freely.” Tanis laughed at the memory. “She also always said that she had more than enough love to go around for everybody, so no one needed to hoard it.

<Tanis,> Cheeky said to me over the Link. <We have to free these people. I’m not going to leave them here.> That was all fine and good, but the ship could have a hundred crew on it. We hadn’t seen anyone else yet, but it was half a kilometer long, large enough to just not have bumped into anyone during our short trip.

“I remember looking at the Maverick guy—he was strutting over to the bar with a smarmy grin on his face—and thinking that we didn’t have to take out the whole ship, just lop the head off the snake.”

“ ‘Snake’ was right,” Angela interjected. “I wish we’d actually killed him then and there. Would have saved a lot of people a lot of pain.”

Tanis shrugged. “Maverick was worse than most, but still better than some. So long as Silstrand let people like him operate in the fringe, things weren’t going to change no matter who we killed—not that I disagree with you, Ang. I’m just not going to get torn up about it.

“OK, so, Cheeky was getting her bikini in a twist over the sex slaves, and I wasn’t keen on them either, so I replied, <OK, we subdue these five, then we free those folks and get them out of here. Angela has found a shelter for down-and-out folks on the station, so we can take them there.> 

<What’s your plan, Tanis?> she asked at that point. Now, my plan was really just to beat the shit out of these guys, but I needed to make sure they didn’t cause problems before our ship was refitted and disembarked. Which meant I needed to get them, and their ship, undocked and out of there.

“The room we were in was a big oval, more or less. There were a lot of couches in various arrangements around its edge, most clustered around rings in the floor where other slaves probably found themselves from time-to-time. Cheeky was leading the four guys to one of the seating areas close to the bar, and Maverick had poured two drinks and was offering one to me.

<I want to make sure there aren’t any autoturrets in this room before I take Maverick out,> I told her.”

“Which was my job,” Angela added. “Tanis is lazy as all get-out when it comes to managing her own nano.”

Tanis shrugged. “It’s your nano, too. OK, while Angela was flooding the room with nano—we have what’s called ‘nanocloud tech’, where we can direct nanoscopic probes through the air. I can also make more on demand, so dropping a million probes into the air isn’t a big deal. They move slow, though, so it takes a bit to scour a whole room.

“I took the drink Maverick offered—bourbon, if I recall, and not bad, either—and listened to him tell me all about how awesome he was. He kept trying to get me to take off my jacket, but I did my best to distract him. I didn’t want him to see the pulse pistol I had in a holster under my left arm. By then, Cheeky and the four guys were completely naked. They started out sitting around her while she danced for them—someone had turned on some music when we came in and she was moving to it like a panther in heat. I have to admit, she was totally mesmerizing. Even Maverick was watching her as he talked to me about all the ships he had under his command.

“I have to admit, if Maverick hadn’t been a slave-owning pirate scumbag, I would have been impressed; he’d done well for himself.

“By the time Angela had found the four autoturrets and disabled them, we were on our second drink, and Cheeky was half buried in the men. I would have felt bad for her, but she seemed to be having the time of her life. Normally, watching a bunch of people group-fuck their brains out is either gross or downright hilarious, but somehow Cheeky made the whole thing look like a beautiful dance. The girl really had a skill unlike any I’ve ever seen.

“Maverick was almost salivating. ‘She’s going to make a great addition to my collection back on Jericho,’ he told me with a predatory glint in his eyes. I could tell he was challenging me to do something about his proclamation.

“That was the moment. I said something lame, like ‘over my dead body, asshole’. Then I took my glass and slammed it into his face.”

Tanis looked down at her hand and clenched it into a fist. “Don’t let the package I come in fool you, I can pack a pretty good punch. The glass shattered and broke his upper jaw, and sliced most of his nose off, too. It would have cut my hand to ribbons, but I’d secreted a film of flowmetal over my skin, so I only got a small cut on my palm.”

Tanis held out her hand to those around the table, and showed her palm turning silver, then back to flesh-color.

“So after I nailed him in the face, Maverick hit the deck like the sack of shit he was, and I pulled out my pulse pistol and turned to the mini-orgy that was going on. <Cheeky!> I called to her over the Link. <Get clear, time for these guys to get what’s coming.>

“She was a riot, I can still remember the pout she had on her face when she said, <Really, Tanis? I was just getting into it. Give me five more minutes.> 

“I don’t know how she could stand having sex with those guys. They were not the most attractive—or kempt—people you’d ever seen. Cheeky always maintained that there was something beautiful in everyone. She never lost that innocence—which, given what she went through in life, was a miracle.

“I stood there tapping my foot, and she finally managed to pull away from three of the four guys—at that point, no one was being too discriminate as to what they were doing with who. I stepped up and fired my pulse pistol into the backs of two heads before the third guy noticed that the other two had gone limp. He turned to me, but got a pulse blast in the face.

“’Cheeky!’ I yelled. At that point, she was doing some sort of scissor thing with the fourth guy, and there was a lot of passionate toe-sucking in the mix. I was a bit stunned, and said something like, ‘You don’t know where those toes have been!’

“Cheeky just smiled with half the guy’s foot in her mouth, but didn’t stop what she was doing. It had never occurred to me that she got intoxicated by her own pheromones, but around then, I realized she was as far gone as the guys were—maybe more.

“I was about to pull her free, when I heard a sound behind me and turned to see Maverick duck behind the bar. He—”

“Hold up, Tanis,” Angela interrupted again. “I think it’s worth noting at this point that I’d been trying to get your attention for seven-point-three very long seconds. You were too busy thinking about getting Cheeky to show you how to do that move with Joe.”

Tanis felt a flush rise in her cheeks. “Yeah, well, if it wasn’t with some slimy pirate, I would have been all for it. OK, where was I?

“Maverick came to,” Amanda supplied.

“Right, got it. Maverick dove behind the bar. I heard some sort of strange snorting sound that I realized was laugher. Honestly, I was impressed that he could breathe with the ruin I’d made of his face, let alone put up a fight. He must have had some sort of pain suppression mods.

“He stood up wearing this really revolting half-smile—especially gross, because his upper lip was torn half off and stuck over on his cheek—and then ignites a plasma sword. A fucking plasma sword! Who uses something like that? Those things are nearly as dangerous for the person holding them as anyone else.

“Just one droplet of plasma will burn right through your torso in seconds. Sure, they have mag fields to hold it all in place, but it doesn’t take much for one of those to fail. Then everyone burns to ash…or whatever.

“I yelled something at him about putting it down, and he just continued to give that disgusting smile. I fired my pulse pistol at him, but the mag fields on the sword disrupted the pulse wave enough that it didn’t hit him with anything stronger than a mild slap.

“I started dropping nano on him,” Angela added. “Or trying to, at least. He was waving the sword around like a lunatic, and it was frying any nano in the air around him. What few I did manage to land on him were destroyed by his internal defenses.”

“Right,” Tanis said with a nod. “I had to do it the old-fashioned way. Cheeky was still fucking her brains out, and I didn’t want any plasma to splatter around her, so I backed away in the other direction. I grabbed everything I could and threw it at Maverick; a few vases, a bottle of wine. For a guy missing half his face, he did pretty well at avoiding it all. Then I got behind an armchair that I could get a good grip on, and tossed it at him. He managed to slice it in half, but one side hit him and knocked him back.

“I figured it was my best opening and rushed him. I leapt off a sofa and slammed a boot into his face. It sent him stumbling backward, but he managed to hold onto the sword. I grabbed another wine bottle as I closed with him. When he swung at me with the sword, I ducked low and slammed the bottle into his wrist, knocking it up and out of the way. Then I swung the bottle around and into the side of his right knee.

“It was enough to finally drop him, and I planted my knee on the wrist of his sword-hand, pinning it down. I tell you, I was certain he was going to cut my leg off with that thing, but somehow, I managed to get off two pulse shots into his face before he could swing it around.

“He was finally out, his face a complete ruin. His eyeballs were popped, so even if he did come to, he wasn’t attacking again. Still, I kicked the sword out of his hand before turning back to Cheeky—who was in a new and exciting position with the last guy. As far as I could tell, they were completely oblivious to what had just gone on.

“I pulled her off him and shot him in the face. I might have done it a few times more than necessary—I was a bit jacked on adrenaline at that point.”

“You think?” Angela’s tone was more than a little sardonic.

“Yeah, well, seeing his face turn into pudding snapped Cheeky out of it, and that’s what I needed most right then. She was too stunned to say anything at first, but then she rushed over to the three people who were chained up—none of whom had said anything yet—and tried to get their collars off.

“The collars were locked on, so I sent her off to find clothes for them—there were some anterooms off the main room we were in—and deposited some nano on the collars, breaking the locks and freeing them.”

“This is when we realized that Maverick had triggered a general alert on the shipnet,” Angela said. “I had avoided hacking their network until then—I didn’t want to trip any alarms—but at that point, I figured why not breach the thing?”

Tanis had taken a bite of her BLT while Angela spoke and quickly swallowed to add, “So she was hacking, and I was freeing the slaves, when Cheeky comes out of a side room with four more slaves—these ones clothed.

“ ‘Uh, Tanis, I think we’ve got a full-on harem in here.’ Which was just what we needed. Cheeky had come down off her high enough to be stubborn, and insisted that we free them all. She was pretty insistent about the whole thing, too, stomping her feet and all. I really didn’t need the push. I wasn’t going to leave them there, but needless to say, getting what turned out to be twenty-two people off the ship was going to be tricky—especially given what Angela discovered.”

A rueful laugh came from above the beer pitcher in the center of the table. “Yup, bad news was that there was a crew compliment of sixty-four, and fifty-five of them were aboard at the time. Good news was that the ship didn’t have an AI. I was able to get control of its main systems and lock down about half of them down in short order.

“We found clothes for all the slaves, but there weren’t any other weapons in the room. I wasn’t touching that plasma sword with a ten-meter pole. So, it was me with just a pulse pistol, Cheeky—who was still leaking pheromones like mad—and twenty-two slaves who were a quarter-terrified, a quarter-grateful, and half-ready to jump Cheeky’s bones.

“Cheeky, of course, hadn’t bothered to find clothes for herself, but had put her shoes back on at some point.”

“I can support her shoe thing. Not sure about the running around naked, but if it’s a look she works then she is a girl after my own heart,” Bethany Anne said with a grin.

Tanis nodded. “We exited the room and didn’t see anyone. There were too many of us to take the lift and I didn’t want to split the group up, so we found a ladder shaft and worked our way down. I tell you, I’ve been in a lot of hairy situations in my life, but that one really rattled me. Cheeky had made me swear that we’d get them all out, and I’d internalized that promise.

“One deck above where the umbilical connected, two pirates—women this time—caught up with us at the ladder shaft. I was already on the next deck down, but Cheeky somehow managed to seduce them in five seconds flat. After that, the former sex slaves beat the shit out of them.

“Two minutes later, we were just about at the umbilical, when Angela alerted me to a group of fifteen well-armed enemies guarding the exit. Our sad little convoy of souls was bottled up in a long corridor that dumped out into the chamber the enemy occupied, and behind us was an intersection. The internal sensors showed enemies approaching from back there as well.”

“And we were loooow on nano,” Angela added. “I’d used a lot scouting the ship and taking control of its drive systems—we had to get the thing to undock and leave the station after we were off.”

Tanis let out a rueful laugh. “Yeah, so that was a pretty serious ‘oh shit’ moment. Like I’d said before, I can do five or six people without trouble—provided there’s some cover. But fifteen is a different story entirely. I remember looking over at Cheeky and seeing her kissing one of the women we’d rescued. I was about to cuff her upside the head when I had an idea: from the ship’s cameras that Angela had finally hacked—”

“Hey!” Angela spoke up again. “I was doing a lot of stuff. Turns out there was a nasty non-sentient AI aboard, and it was fighting back—the thing kept trying to depressurize the part of the ship you were in. All you had to do was walk through a passageway.”

Tanis snorted. “Yeah, and not get my head shot off. You wouldn’t do well fighting against the ship’s NSAI if that happened.” Angela didn’t reply, and Tanis continued her story. “With the camera access, we could see that the pirates had armored up. Well, not all of them, but nearly all. It was powered armor too, which meant if we could hack it, we could lock it up, and they’d be about as threatening as angry statues.

“Problem was, we didn’t have enough nano to get it out to all of them fast enough. But then I looked at Cheeky: the perfect delivery system. Angela sent most of our nano back in a cloud to deal with the enemy approaching our rear, and I grabbed Cheeky’s shoulder, dumping half my remaining nano on her.

“ ‘Cheeks,’ I said to her. ‘I need you to take the show on the road. Take your new friend if it helps, but you have to get out there and dance around every one of those pirates. Make sure you touch each and every one of them.

“The look in her eyes was priceless. I still don’t know to this day if it was fear or excitement, but she gave one short nod, and then pulled the clothes off the girl she’d been kissing. It didn’t take long, they were already almost all off.

“I touched her partner too and deposited the last of my nano on her, and off they went. Cheeky had the presence of mind to wave the woman’s shirt around the corner before they stepped out. I breathed a sigh of relief when the enemy lowered their guns a bit before the pair walked out.

“It was one hell of a show they put on. Cheeky had picked the right partner, and the two of them spun and danced through all those pirates like they were leaves floating on the wind. I don’t save all the visuals of what I’ve witnessed in my life, but I’ve kept that one for sure. I replayed it for Joe once, and we had a fantastic time afterward.”

Tanis hadn’t meant to say that last part, and felt her cheeks redden.

“Do you still have it?” Amanda asked with a wry grin. “I mean, you know, for research purposes….”

A laugh escaped Tanis’s lips and she placed a hand on Amanda’s forearm. “You and Cheeky would get on famously. Right, on with the tale, the pirates didn’t see them as a threat, due to both women being stark naked. Within thirty seconds, Cheeky and her friend dosed the pirates with enough nano to hack their armor.

“Problem was, I couldn’t get Cheeky to stop. She’d gravitated toward three pirates who weren’t wearing armor, but I needed her to clear out so I could rush them.

<Cheeks,> I told her. <Get away from those unarmored ones, I need to get in there.> Her response was half in moans, but I was able to make out something about them being more fun. I think it took a solid minute to convince her to move on, and then another thirty seconds for Cheeky to pull her friend along with her.”

“That’s when I locked the armored ones down,” Angela said from above the beer pitcher as General Lysander refilled his glass.

“And I rushed the others. They were totally fixated on Cheeky at that point—even more than the others, since the unarmored ones didn’t have any protection against her pheromones. Taking them down was a breeze. Then I signaled the other rescue-ees to come into the room, and they all started to pile up around Cheeky. She’d released so many pheromones to bypass the armored pirates’ air filters, that even my head was swimming at that point. I finally managed to convince her that they could all have a big orgy on the gantry, and shoved her into the umbilical and back to the the station. It was like watching a herd of goats follow the leader. Once she floated on down, the others all dove into the umbilical after her.

“There were still a dozen pirates roaming the ship, but I liberated some weapons from the frozen guards and took them out. It was quick work, since they were all advancing on our position.”

Tanis paused and laughed. “Plus, I was able to use their armor-locked pals for cover. Anyway, about fifteen minutes later, I sealed up the exit and floated back down the umbilical to the station, only to find the orgy still in full swing. Angela had gotten the pirate ship into the station’s departure queue, and once I cleared the station-side airlock, the umbilical folded up and the Penultimate detached from its mooring.

“I won’t lie, it took every fiber of my being not to join in with Cheeky and the people we’d saved. I might have kissed a few of them, I don’t really remember—”

Angela chuckled. “I remember, she did a good bit of kissing, and—”

“Annnnyway, what I do remember is that I only just barely managed to get Cheeky out of there before station security showed up.

“We made it back to our ship, Sabrina, an hour later. A few eyebrows were raised to see me and Cheeky come back with her stark naked, but no one said anything. I later learned that a crewmember bringing a naked Cheeky back onto the ship wasn’t entirely uncommon.

“On the way, Cheeky had confided in me that she’d never let her pheromone augmentations run at that level, or for that long. She was a bit ashamed over how she’d lost control of herself. I promised I wouldn’t talk if she didn’t, and neither of us told a soul about what really happened.”

Tanis leaned back in her chair and grinned at the group. “There you have it. That’s how I once used a nymphomaniac to stop a ship full of pirates.”

"I'll say this," General Lysander said. "I usually call bullshit when a sea story goes too far, but I want to believe every grubbing word of this one, so I'm just going to shut up and drink my cider."

He raised his glass in a toast to Tanis.

“Amen to that, army dude,” Cal agreed.

“A truly no-shit experience. I’m not sure how one could even make that up,” Bethany Anne added.

“No, seriously, when do I get to meet Cheeky?” Amanda asked. “She sounds like a woman I could know and love.”

Tanis grabbed the pitcher of beer and refilled her glass, taking a drink before making a sweeping gesture to indicate that the floor was once again open for anyone else to speak.


Closing Time


BOB uplinked the last story. It didn’t always know how valuable the product was and whether the Collector would be pleased or not. The Collector had pulled the last mission (one to an unnamed gaseous dimension) despite what BOB had thought of the unique beings that inhabited it.

The humans were just as unique in their own way. The product had revealed a rich diversity that BOB had found fascinating—but it wasn’t up to BOB. The decision, as always, was the Collector’s.

And now the first session had concluded, and whether there was to be another session or not, it was time to return the patrons to their own dimensions. BOB gave the command, and each person’s glass or cup unobtrusively emptied until there was only a swallow or two left. It gave the compulsion command a slight tweak, and instead of encouraging them to talk, they were left with a feeling of fatigue and a desire to go home.

“Well, this has been a good evening, but I’m a little tired and Hannah’s waiting up for me. I think I’m going to pull chocks,” General Lysander said, standing up and draining the last of his cider. “It was great to meet you all.”

“Lightweight,” Colonel Walton said.

“I’ll have you all know . . .” Ibarra slurred from his seat. His face was ruddy and his eyes swam with the effects of the alcohol. “That I’m well . . . well aware that you’re just figments of Jimmy’s imagination—if he has one. Which he does, because all of you are looking at me.”

Ibarra worked his way out of his chair with little grace and wobbled upright.

“But I’m not falling for it, Jimmy! You think letting me get drunk will make being inside your head any easier? Ha! Six decades of payback coming for you.” Ibarra knocked over a chair as he stumbled toward the door.

“Drinks . . . on me!” Ibarra ricocheted off the doorframe and left the bar.

“Sure, I’m feeling a little tired,” Amanda said, winking at BOB.

She turned to Ryck. “I’m with you,” she said, standing as well. “It’s been great to meet you all.” Amanda moved around the table shaking people’s hands. “Tanis, it was a pleasure. We’ll have to do this again. Bethany Anne, let’s go shoe shopping sometime. Terry, Ryck, my favorite soldiers—I mean, Marines—stay cool. Cal, look after this little guy, yeah?” she said, patting Splurt on the head.

“If you can do what you say you can, I expect to see you again someday,” Tanis said as she wrapped an arm around Amanda for a brief embrace. “OK, I don’t normally do that. No putting the whammy on me, Magic Woman.”

“Gotcha.  No whammy.” Amanda winked. “If I can find a way, I’ll come and see you soon.”

“Let me escort you to the door, M’Lady,” the general said, holding out his arm. Amanda took it with a smile, and the pair walked toward the exit.

“Catch you all next time, maybe,” Cal said as the two headed for the door. Splurt rippled gently on his shoulder but said nothing, as always.

Will there be a next time? BOB wondered. It hadn’t received any feedback yet.

“Looking forward to brewing some Guinness back on the I2,” Tanis said, then nodded to the others. “Until next time.”

She walked out of the bar, but not before calling over her shoulder, “See you back on the ship, BOB . . . if that’s really your name.”

One by one, each of the remaining humans made his or her goodbye. Admiral Richards was followed by Cal, leaving only Colonel Walton and Bethany Anne.  They stood as well, saying nothing for a moment.  Walton shrugged, and the two headed for the door.

BOB was sorry to see them go. The session had been enjoyable, fulfilling, its programming, and BOB wanted to gather more from this universe.

A wave of data hit BOB, tickling its circuits—the nearest thing BOB had to pleasure centers. The Collector had reviewed the product, and the Collector was pleased. There would be more sessions, more time to explore the creatures called ‘human beings’.

If it could have, BOB would have smiled as the last humans opened the door and left the Multiverse Bar.


About the Authors and Their Other Tales


BOB's Bar

Left to Right: Jonathan Brazee, Andrew Dobell, Michael Cooper, Michael Anderle, Craig Martelle, Barry J. Hutchison.


BOB's Bar

M. D. Cooper


Begin the Orion War series with Destiny Lost, and find out how Tanis, Cheeky, and the starship Sabrina ended up on the PetSil mining platform, and what came next.

A combination of space opera, hard science fiction, and military science fiction, The Orion War is a gripping tale about real people in an incredible future.

Tanis Richards only wants to find a safe haven for her people, while Sera Tomlinson finds herself responsible for humanity’s future. Both will have to sacrifice everything they believed was most important for a friendship that will transcend time and space.

With myriad enemies seeking to control the million human star systems, these two women must ignite The Orion War.


Other Series by M. D. Cooper in the Aeon 14 Universe

The Sentience Wars: Origins

The Intrepid Saga

Perilous Alliance

Rika’s Marauders

Perseus Gate: Orion Space

Perseus Gate: Inner Stars

The Warlord

Machete System Bounty Hunter


Richard Fox


Interested in more of Marc Ibarra’s story and the war against the Xaros? Sign up for my spam free mailing list and receive a free copy of THE EMBER WAR! (http://eepurl.com/czYmxH)


BOB's Bar

The Earth is doomed. Humanity has a chance. Read where the saga began!

In the near future, an alien probe arrives on Earth with a pivotal mission—determine if humanity has what it takes to survive the impending invasion by a merciless armada.

The probe discovers Marc Ibarra, a young inventor, who holds the key to a daring gambit that could save a fraction of Earth's population. Humanity's only chance lies with Ibarra's ability to keep a terrible secret and engineer the planet down the narrow path to survival.

Earth will need a fleet. One with a hidden purpose. One strong enough to fight a battle against annihilation.

The Ember War is the first installment in an epic military sci-fi series. If you like A Hymn Before Battle by John Ringo and The Last Starship by Vaughn Heppner, then you'll love this explosive adventure with constant thrills and high stakes from cover to cover.

Sign up for my spam-free mailing list and read it for FREE: (http://eepurl.com/czYmxH)


Barry J. Hutchison


Barry J. Hutchison is a multi-award-winning author from the Highlands of Scotland. After writing over eighty books for children and teens, Barry turned his gaze to the stars in 2016 when he launched his first book for adult readers, Space Team.

Seven books and two spin-offs later, the Space Team Universe continues to grow, thanks to Barry’s unique blend of humor, seat-of-the-pants action, and making things up as he goes along. He writes from a cramped little home office at the foot of Scotland’s highest mountain, where he lives with his wife, two children, and extremely annoying dog. He spends his days writing, drinking tea, and talking about himself in third person.

Find out more about Barry at barryjhutchison.com

Download a free short story collection at barryjhutchison.com/freebooks


Books by Barry J. Hutchison

The Space Team Series

Space Team

Space Team: The Wrath of Vajazzle

Space Team: The Search for Splurt

Space Team: Song of the Space Siren

Space Team: The Guns of Nana Joan

Space Team: Return of the Dead Guy

Space Team: Planet of the Japes

Space Team: The Time Titan of Tomorrow


The Dan Deadman Space Detective Series

“Dial D for Deadman”

“Dead Inside”


Craig Martelle


I live about a hundred and fifty miles from the Arctic Circle in the Alaskan interior. I’m a retired Marine, retired lawyer, and business consultant, but still young enough to enjoy life. I don’t do the outdoorsy stuff, but there’s a lot to appreciate about Alaska without that. It tends to get cold during the six months of winter and it’s dark a lot, but that means more writing time. What an honor to be a part of this small collection of bar stories. I’ve found a kindred spirit in Jonathan Brazee, a Marine who loves science fiction. Jamming this was like being back in the Corps.

I write science fiction and my favorite is Space Opera. I have a few series that if you like what you see here, you could honor me by giving them a look. All are in Kindle Unlimited.

End Times Alaska (4 books) - one family’s survival after the fall.

The Free Trader (6 books, soon to be 9) - a space adventure in the Andre Norton style

Cygnus Space Opera (3 books) - a follow-on series to the Free Trader

Terry Henry Walton Chronicles (11 books) - Set in the Kurtherian Gambit Universe, a man and his werewolf partner try to drag civilization back to humanity

The Bad Company (3 books and growing), starts with Gateway to the Universe

People Raged - my one thriller, a pseudo-autobiography

If you liked this story, you might like some of my other books. You can join my mailing list by dropping by my website www.craigmartelle.com or if you have any comments, shoot me a note at [email protected] I am always happy to hear from people who’ve read my work. I try to answer every email I receive.

Amazon – www.amazon.com/author/craigmartelle

Facebook – www.facebook.com/authorcraigmartelle

My web page – www.craigmartelle.com


BOB's Bar

Andrew Dobell


Andrew is an author and artist living in the UK with his wife and children. He writes in a diverse range of Sci-Fi and Fantasy worlds, including a Cyberpunk series and a Post-Apocalyptic series.

Amanda, the character in this book, is the main character in his Magi Saga series, which has recently been revised and is being re-released during February 2018. The Magi Saga starts as an Urban Fantasy Series, but soon grows in scope into something much bigger, spanning this galaxy and beyond, and will incorporate several separate series. The events in this book take place sometime after book five of the Magi Saga.

In addition to his writing, Andrew is also a prolific book cover artist who not only created the cover for this book, and all his own, but has contributed covers to Michael Anderle’s Kurtherian Gambit Universe, M. D. Cooper’s Aeon 14 Universe, as well as working with many other Indie Authors.

Being included in this book has been a huge honor. Thank you.


BOOKS BY ANDREW DOBELL

Book 1 of the Magi Saga: Magi Dawn (Urban Fantasy/Space Magic)

http://mybook.to/MagiDawn

Book 1 of The New Prometheus (Cyberpunk)

http://mybook.to/thenewprometheus

Book 1 of Wasteland Road Knights: Liberation (Post-Apocalyptic)

http://mybook.to/RoadKnights1

LINKS

If you would like to learn more about Andrew’s books, you can find his website here:

http://www.andrewdobellauthor.co.uk/

Or, to interact directly, you can join his Facebook Group here:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1700893393268961/


Michael Anderle


So, Colonel Jonathan Brazee and I were talking at 20Booksto50k Las Vegas (2017), and he told a small group around him about “I shit you not…” Sea Stories. Now, I had been wondering how to do something FUN that would help us market each other’s books, and I think I saw the twist.

The book would comprise sea stories that the OTHER characters in the book would interact with and so Jonathan’s question back to me was “where would these characters meet?” How would we get our characters from disparate universes together to chat?

What was the hook?

I told him I loved the memory of Baen’s Bar and the whole idea of a watering hole that these characters might get to come and just talk shop and then leave, probably never remembering their time in the bar…

And these stories were born out of that beginning.

I’m honored to have our stories together, and to be a part of something I hope you, the fans, really love!

Michael Anderle


Yada yada yada a bit about me:


I’m a Bestselling Top 100 Amazon Author predominantly in Sci-Fi and Urban Fantasy / Paranormal. I have a Universe (The Kurtherian Gambit) with over a hundred and five books in it right now (and twenty-eight Audiobooks) and another Urban Fantasy / Fantasy Universe with Martha Carr called Oriceran (Or-eh-SAIR-en.)

Bethany Anne is the character who launched my career, and is a fan favorite. Check out anything you want of our products by just typing in LMBPN Publishing on Amazon!

Check out Bethany Anne’s story Book01 Death Becomes Her HERE: 

books2read.com/BarStoriesDeathBecomesHer


Jonathan Brazee


Jonathan Brazee is a retired Marine infantry colonel, now a full-time writer living in Las Vegas. He is a lifetime member of the Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the US. Naval Academy Alumni Association, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Jonathan is a Nebula Award-nominated author who writes in science fiction, military fiction, military paranormal, and historical fiction, but he is best known for his military sci-fi. His best-selling series take place in his United Federation Marine Corps universe. The main character in “The Accidental War” is Ryck Lysander, first introduced in Recruit.


Jonathan’s website is http://www.jonathanbrazee.com.

To join his mailing list for promotions and release news, please sign up at:

http://eepurl.com/bnFSHH

Books by Jonathan Brazee


The United Federation Marine Corps

Recruit

Sergeant

Lieutenant

Captain

Major

Lieutenant Colonel

Colonel

Commandant


Coda


Rebel

(Set in the UFMC universe)


Behind Enemy Lines

(A UFMC Prequel)




The United Federation Marine Corps’ Lysander Twins

Legacy Marines

Esther’s Story: Recon Marine

Noah’s Story: Marine Tanker

Esther’s Story: Special Duty

Blood United


Women of the United Federation Marine Corps

Gladiator

Sniper

Corpsman


High Value Target (A Gracie Medicine Crow Short Story)

BOLO Mission (A Gracie Medicine Crow Short Story)


Weaponized Math (A Gracie Medicine Crow Short Story Available in the Expanding Universe Anthology 3)


The United Federation Marine Corps’ Grub Wars

Alliance

The Price of Honor

Division of Power


The Return of the Marines Trilogy

The Few

The Proud

The Marines


The Al Anbar Chronicles: First Marine Expeditionary Force—Iraq

Prisoner of Fallujah

Combat Corpsman

Sniper


Werewolf of Marines

Werewolf of Marines: Semper Lycanus

Werewolf of Marines: Patria Lycanus

Werewolf of Marines: Pax Lycanus


To The Shores of Tripoli


Wererat


Darwin’s Quest: The Search for the Ultimate Survivor


Venus: A Paleolithic Short Story


Secession


Duty


Non-Fiction


Exercise for a Longer Life


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